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Tradewinds 16: "Castaways"

Discussion in 'Reader's Corner' started by neko-sennin, Dec 7, 2011.

  1. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    Thank you for your patience, everyone. It took me far longer to get to this point than I ever imagined, but I finally made it.

    MY DIRECTORY PAGE, THE SPOOKY DOOR:

    MY DEVIANTART (and backup amp downloads) :

    MY TWITTER: @shadesmaclean


    TABLE OF CONTENTS:


    TRADEWINDS 01 - "THE ISLANDS"

    TRADEWINDS 02 - "PARADISE"

    TRADEWINDS 03 - "SHIPWRECKED"

    TRADEWINDS 04 - "TRANZ-D"

    TRADEWINDS 05 - "THE FLATHEAD EXPERIMENT"

    TRADEWINDS 06 - "FALLING"

    TRADEWINDS 07 - "AWAY FROM HOME"

    TRADEWINDS 08 - "CENTRALICT"

    TRADEWINDS 09 - "THE BUILDING IS HUNGRY!"

    TRADEWINDS 10 - "REFLECTION"

    TRADEWINDS 11 - "HONOR AMONG THIEVES"

    TRADEWINDS 12 - "KEEP ONE EYE OPEN"

    TRADEWINDS 13 - "DERELICT"

    TRADEWINDS 14 - "NO WAY OUT"

    TRADEWINDS 15 - "AGAINST THE ODDS"

    TRADEWINDS 16 - "CASTAWAYS" (YOU ARE HERE)
    TRADEWINDS 17 - "UNDERNEATH"



    OTHER WORKS:
    "THE ROAD TRIP" & OTHER SPOOKY STORIES:

    THE BOOK OF HONDO:

    THE STUFF OF DREAMS... AND THEN SOME:

    MY NARUTO/ANIME AMPS (& REQUESTS):

    MY NARU-HINA "CAPTIONS" DOUJINSHI:

    MY NARUTO FANFIC:

    SPOOKY DOOR '11 PODCAST:

    SPOOKY DOOR '08 PODCAST:



    Now that I've "caught up with" myself, I will be posting chapters on a weekly basis, to reduce the wait between installments.
     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2012
  2. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    “CASTAWAYS”
    The morning sun shone upon the deck of the Maximum, angling toward noon. The sky leaning toward the sunny side of see-sawing cloudiness that had shifted over the past few days in almost hourly waves. The wind holding fairly steady, if slight, barely keeping the ship moving at any measurable speed against the choppy seas, with no indication of changing any time today.

    Shades held the upper helm, enjoying the breeze and fresh sea air. The many weeks’ worth of voyaging since he and his friends first acquired the Maximum had done nothing to diminish his sense of wonder as he scanned the horizon. A horizon that seemed to him at least as boundless as the sky, as his eyes were often drawn to that hazy place where the two met.

    As he sat there, mostly holding the wheel steady against the restless waters, he found himself overhearing Max and Ma’Quiver, their new passenger of recent acquaintance, training behind him on the deck below.

    “…Think of it as one continuous movement, without any conscious thought to trip you up…” the young warrior lectured. Borrowing, Shades presumed, from the words of his own his own elusive master. “See where you’re going, and let your body move with the speed of thought…”

    Since he was a kid, Shades had noticed he possessed a mysterious knack for just going from zero to sixty, taking both himself and his opponents by surprise with both the fluidity and spontaneity of his own moves, but was always at a total loss for how he did it. Perhaps not to the same radical extremes as in his dreams, but easily enough to turn the tide in fights he probably shouldn’t have been able to win at his level. Looking back, he was sure, on some unconscious level, a question he had hoped to find an answer to when he first started studying martial arts with Master Al in the fifth grade. Yet six going on seven years of training later, he was still as mystified by it as ever.

    Still couldn’t shift gears at will, only pulling it off either in the midst of a crisis, or, according to his companions, if he totally lost himself in his training. Yet something that only worked out of desperation, or in a controlled environment, was useless on the battlefield. Relied too much on luck rather than skill.

    It was only in the last three weeks, with their bargain with Ma’Quiver turning the Maximum into a floating dojo, that it finally started to sink in. Admittedly, it was still very hit and miss, but he was starting to reach a point where he could piece together what made it tick, as the venerable sage Abu-Sharrah once recommended. Perhaps it was that combination of a controlled environment, and Ma’Quiver constantly putting him on the spot, with a fighting style he couldn’t help thinking of as “the Good-Natured Brawl” that was forcing him to internalize it, to make it his own. He just wished he could explain it to Max; that sense of seeing a line flowing through the midst of things, that he need only follow to arrive at places he never realized he could go.

    Still, compared to Justin, Max was at least starting to get it, though he had to admit that Justin was taking his own martial arts training more seriously than he used to, and Shades was now quite certain the staff was indeed his weapon, winning more and more of their staff sparring matches despite Shades having years’ more experience at it. That, and Ma’Quiver’s tutelage had done wonders for his rather sketchy basics. Listening to them talk, Shades wished he could turn around and watch Max and Ma’Quiver’s sword training, as it was always a sight to behold.

    “…You’re still trying to read me word for word, instead of reading between the lines,” Ma’Quiver told Max as they finished another round of swordplay. “I can show you some useful moves, but you have to use this experience to make them your own.”

    “I know,” Max replied, taking the opportunity to give his stun blade a rest, as well. Sweating from head to foot, and still more winded than Ma’Quiver after trading blades for several furious minutes. “You’re at least as hard to read as Erix.”

    “You’re beginning to see the difference between knowing one book, and understanding an entire language.” Even so, Ma’Quiver had to admit that he had heard of this Erix, and he found Max’s survival against the likes of him more impressive than what he had seen of Max’s fighting at Nikopolas Arena. “The only thing you’re going to get good at with that method is fighting me. It won’t help you that much against other experienced warriors, though. The greatest strength you can wield with a weapon is not just mastery of technique, but being spontaneous and unpredictable in using it.”

    “I still feel like I’m making up for lost time.” Five years in Paradise, where all he could do was rehearse form and technique as best he could, but it wasn’t until he started sparring with Shades, who had years’ more formal training than he, that Max had anything to compare his skills to. His battles since then consisting of a series of grueling wake-up calls, this being the only one that offered him a chance to take his training in a challenging new direction. “If I hadn’t started getting more experience sparring with Justin and Shades before those fights, I don’t think I’d even be here right now.”

    “Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Ma’Quiver told him, impressed after his own fashion by anyone who would pursue such rigorous training in such isolated solitude. Though he initially had his doubts about stepping into the role of teacher, they were largely dispelled by the company of people who shared his enthusiasm for the martial arts. Even Justin, who was standoffish at first, started getting into it once he noticed how much his skills were improving. To say nothing of simply enjoying his new friends’ more musical training methods. “From what I’ve seen, you’ve come a long way in a very short time.”

    Though none of them had shown a hint of aptitude for the time-bending aspect of Shanshou-kan, he hadn’t really expected any of them to. Even his master, in all his travels, had only found one other person besides himself who possessed the gift. Not that he regarded any of this as a waste of time, for all of his fellow travelers were making impressive progress refining their own respective fighting skills.

    Max looked up for a moment, spotting Bandit sitting on the upper helm, behind Shades. Both of whose sake he had fought for before, a thought that rekindled his resolve. Firing up his stun blade again, he and Ma’Quiver stepped back into their fighting stances to resume their sparring session once more.
     
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2011
  3. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    While the two of them continued to sharpen their blades against each other, Justin stood in the door to the storage room below. The very narrow doorway. A fact that the accumulated knot of bruises on both of his elbows gave stern testament to as he ran through a series of punches and blocks while standing right on the threshold, his arms sore and stiff.

    Sweat pouring down his face and back, focusing hard on staying inside what Shades called his body line. The reason, Shades told him, why your punches don’t connect most of the time is because you telegraph too much. Your elbows give you away too easily. Told him about how he used to stand in a similarly narrow doorway in the basement of Master Al’s old shop, which also doubled as a dojo, back when he was still a blue belt novice, that it helped him improve his form a great deal. Of course, like a lot of Shades’ training methods, results were not always immediate, but they were very noticeable once he started getting them.

    After nearly two weeks of this punishing routine, he was starting to get to a point where he could string together several moves without banging his elbows against the doorframe. More importantly, during their more recent sparring sessions, he was landing a lot more punches against Shades, who, one-on-one, seemed to have the most uncanny defensive reflexes. Still couldn’t put a dent in Ma’Quiver, but he took some consolation in the fact that neither Max nor Shades, whose tight guard was complimented by a similar knack for spotting openings and timing counters, couldn’t do much better against the guy, either.

    What he was most proud of, though, was that he could hold his own against Shades on staff sparring, winning the lion’s share of their last few matches.

    Attempting to speed up his next flurry of punches to a rate that would be more useful in combat, he struck his left elbow against the frame, hard enough to make his arm go numb for a moment, he stumbled back into the storage room, cursing profusely, and kicking the door while clutching his poor tenderized elbow. As he stood there for a moment, fuming and catching his breath, he happened to glance around, noting with a daily mounting dismay how many empty shelves now marked where their food supply used to be. The emptiness a visual representation to go with the growl of his stomach.

    Deciding that training was over for today, he stepped into the bathroom to splash his face a few times before heading up topside to rest in the refreshing breeze of the upper deck before taking his turn at the helm. Passing through the ship’s compact, but well-equipped, galley, he poured himself a cup of water, chugging it all down in a few seconds before leaving the cabin. Skirting around Max and Ma’Quiver’s intense match, he climbed up the ladder, patting Bandit on the head as he took a seat next to Shades.

    “Those two are still goin’ at it?” Shades remarked, leaning back in his seat. “Are either of them even going to have the energy to train with me this evening?”

    “Not with the lame-ass portions you dish out,” Justin muttered. “Half the time, I’m still hungry after I’m done eating. How do you put up with it?”

    “I’m hungry, too,” Shades replied. “I’m just trying to make the food supply last. We’ve been out here for twenty days now, and still no sign of land…”

    “Yeah, well you sure do take an awful lot of taste tests when you cook.”

    “And you don’t?” Shades snorted. “Last I checked, that was one of the privileges of cooking duty.”

    Of course, he knew Justin was usually cranky after training, but their escalating food situation wasn’t helping any. Still, he had to admit, hunger or no hunger, that was the longest he had seen Justin go in one training session, which made him wonder if that was good sign or bad one for crew morale. Distraction, coping mechanism, perhaps? Or release valve for frustration? Then again, Bandit seemed to be taking it the hardest, alternately lounging and moping, increasingly disappointed in their more progressively limited menu selection, edging into lethargic lately, despite Max sharing some of his own portions with his feline friend.

    In the midst of their conversation, Max and Ma’Quiver came up, apparently having reached their own limit for the day.

    “I’m sorry about that, guys,” Ma’Quiver apologized for what had to be thousandth time on this voyage. “For what it’s worth, I’m grateful you took me with you.”

    “Really, there’s no need to apologize,” Shades assured him once again. “If it wasn’t for your help, who knows what would have happened? You know what I say: any friend of Max’s is a friend of mine, man.”

    After their narrow escape from the island of Sarna, he had found himself with nearly three weeks to contemplate the complications of adding even one more person to this modest ship’s roster. Food being merely the most blatant and persistent. Fortunately, the lounge table was designed to fold down into another bed, so at least Ma’Quiver didn’t have to sleep on the deck. As well as the whole issue of the ship feeling a lot more crowded, privacy already being at something of a premium before.

    And still only one bathroom onboard.

    Making it quite obvious to him that even though this was originally a smuggling ship, with ferrying tourists being only a cover, those passengers surely never stayed the night aboard.

    “By the way,” Max asked him, “what are you making for lunch today?”

    “Haven’t gotten that far yet,” Shades answered. “I’ll have to see what’s left.”

    “How much do we have left anyway?” Ma’Quiver brought up.

    “Hard to say, exactly,” Shades tried to answer, “but even if we cut back on portions again, I doubt it’ll last more than another week, at most.”

    “Cutting back?” Justin moaned. “Again?”

    “We have no choice,” Max sighed.

    As Justin took his turn at the helm, Shades got up to go prepare lunch, stopping to gaze out on that vast horizon, feeling his usual sense of inspiration begin to sink into stark dread. The impression of searching for an oasis of land in a desert of salt water.
     
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2011
  4. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    II
    And so the days passed, and still the Ocean appeared as endless as ever.

    Eight days after Shades? grim estimate, Max held the helm, keeping their general direction steady while gunning the Maximum?s engines for all they were worth, riding the whitecaps with a desperate abandon. Somewhere at the intersection of speed, direction and fuel economy, having put aside the sails for now. Their harrowing chase back in Bodeen having still left them with a mostly full tank, now the only fuel left for any of them to run on.

    Having eaten what little was left of their food for breakfast yesterday.

    While Max scanned the horizon up ahead, Shades and Justin watched to port and starboard, respectively, from the upper deck?s rear lounge seat. Three sets of eyes peeled for any sign of anything out there. In the bucket seat next to Max, Ma?Quiver sat resting, awaiting his next turn. Bandit lay sprawled out on the port side of the L-shaped lounge seat, more lethargic than ever.

    By now, none of them had had the energy to train in the last three days. Over the last two weeks alone, they had attempted to supplement their dwindling food supply by setting up the fishing nets and equipment they originally found onboard when they first acquired the ship, but to no avail; the fish-finder always came up negative, and as far as the depthfinder was concerned, the seas they sailed may as well be bottomless. Though they still had functioning water filtration, they wondered how long that would hold out, drinking more and more water just to fill their bellies with something. But whether due to lack of fish or lack of skill, the only catch they ever made was when Shades helped Justin reel in what turned out to be a waterlogged bag of plastic bottles.

    Unfortunately, none of them contained anything, drinkable or otherwise.

    They had spent the last few days discussing a very short, very bleak, list of options, most of which amounted to elaborate forms of suicide, leaving themselves to the mercy of chance out here. Ransacked each other?s private food stashes to find they had already exhausted their own reserves of anything edible days ago. With the horrifying specter of cannibalism looming over their collective shoulder, a foul name just daring to be spoken, they decided on one last desperate course of action, the only one that entailed them taking some aspect of their fate into their own hands. Firing up the engines, they decided to gamble their lives on picking a direction and going full speed as long as their fuel supply held out.

    Yet as the hours dragged on past noon, their fuel gauge began to dwindle, and with it, their hopes.

    ?Did we really just eat our last meal yesterday??? Shades mumbled, the first to speak in at least a couple hours. That horizon taunted him with a thousand and one possible destinations out there. Somewhere. ?Or are we going to be hosting a Donner Party by next week???

    Ma?Quiver shook his head, as if reading between the lines of Shades? other-dimensional reference.

    ?What?s that?? Justin demanded. ?Do they got anything good to eat??

    ?Justin, it?s not the kind of party I would want any of us to ever have to attend,? Shades replied with a grin grim enough for the gallows, silently cursing his own morbid sense of humor. Though he ordinarily had no trouble with seasickness anymore, the combination of gnawing hunger and rough seas was giving him trouble, and the thought of any of them eating each other to survive wasn?t helping. ?Would we really do that??

    ?I thought I was used to going hungry all the time?? Justin groaned, thinking back to his years as a streetrat back in the Triangle State.

    ?I haven?t been this hungry since that flood back in Paradise?? Even as he spoke, Max refused to take his eyes off the skyline like a hawk.

    ?When I was trapped in those ruins underneath Alta, the only thing worse than not being able to walk was that I didn?t get to eat or drink anything for over three days,? Ma?Quiver mused. ?If felt like such a long time down there, with no way to tell time. Then I slept for four days, and when I woke up, I was so hungry I ate everything the relief workers could scrape together for me.?

    ?It?s like when I first wound up in that damn mall?? For Shades, all that was missing was the tantalizing aroma of the food court to taunt him with its All You Can?t Afford To Eat Buffet. ?Surrounded by food, and not a dime to my name??

    ?And now,? Justin muttered, remembering their ?winnings? from Nikopolas Arena, bitter irony drooling from every syllable, ?I?ve got enough money to buy out a restaurant, and not a scrap of food anywhere.?

    ?True,? Shades nodded, ?you can?t eat money.?

    ?You can?t eat platitudes, either,? Justin retorted.

    ?Point taken,? Shades conceded, ?but I?d still take food over money right about now.?

    ?Better than having neither,? Justin shot back.

    ?How so?? Shades intoned.

    ?Because when we finally do find food,? Justin told him, ?we?ll be able to have as much as we want!?

    ?That?s if we find anything?? Shades reminded him.

    ?Will you two please?? Max wondered where either of them found the energy to even run their mouths at this point.

    ?Hey guys!? Ma?Quiver cut in, pointing off about two o?clock, ?Do you see anything over there??

    All three of them turned in the direction he was pointing, seeing an almost indistinguishable speck out there on the horizon, even Bandit snapping out of his despondent napping. Thinking quickly, Shades snatched up the binoculars for a closer look. Seeing that his friends were on to something, Max veered in that direction.
     
  5. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    “It’s gotta be an island,” Shades breathed, contrasting its size versus apparent distance, and hoping that wishful thinking wasn’t too much of a bias.

    “We’re saved!” Justin crowed. “Keep it up, Max!”

    Just about then, the Maximum finally ran out of gas.

    Even as the ship’s momentum fell off, they all looked amongst themselves in abject horror as their last lingering hope hung just out of reach, Bandit glancing back and forth between his human companions in feline consternation.

    “You gotta be shittin’ me…” Justin lowered his binoculars in desperation and disgust. “You fu.ckin’ gotta be shittin’ me…”

    “We’re not dead in the water yet,” Ma’Quiver declared, hopping up and moving toward the mast. “We still have sails, and we still have strength. Max, keep us steady, Justin, help me set the sails.”

    “Right,” Max nodded, quickly embracing his new friend’s determination in a rush of adrenaline.

    As Justin dragged himself up to help Ma’Quiver, Shades resumed his observation. In the short distance they had gained, he could see that the object was indeed too massive to be a ship, even at this range resolving itself into some sort of land mass. Unfortunately, they were still too far away to hazard a guess at its approximate size, let alone distinguish any of its features.

    Try as they might, though, they quickly discovered that the winds had shifted against them, and much to their dismay, they found themselves being pushed backwards. Thinking fast frantically, they decided to try tacking, beating back and forth in an attempt to build up upwind momentum. Unfortunately, Ma’Quiver, in his travels with other ships’ crews, was the only one with much prior experience plying such maneuvers, making for another desperate gamble, this time on skills they were trying to learn even as they used them. All the while, Shades watched that distant dot, determined not to let it out of his sight for even a second as he guided the others to stay on course.

    At first it seemed to be working, and they managed to draw a little closer, close enough for Shades to spot patches of green, enough to get their hopes up, but after a little while they reached a point where they could make no further headway, what little wind they had to work with falling off, and when Shades began to lose what few details he could pick out thus far, it became abundantly clear they were losing ground in spite of themselves.

    “I think we might be up against the tide, or some strong current,” Ma’Quiver remarked, sharing his companions’ growing dismay. “Unless the wind changes soon…”

    “We’re screwed,” Shades finished, his somber tone matched by his stern expression.

    Bandit almost seemed to fall in his seat than sit.

    “What now?” Justin pounded his fist against the cabin wall. “Do we jump ship and swim for it?”

    “Maybe we should use the life raft…” Max thought aloud. “Paddling together would make us move more against it.”

    “And taking turns would let us rest, unlike the risk of drowning if we swim,” Shades cautioned, “as none of us are at a hundred percent right now.” Then quickly added, “But wouldn’t that mean losing the ship?”

    “You’ve got a point,” Ma’Quiver admitted. “Odds are, the ship’s just gonna keep drifting away, and the water’s still too deep for us to anchor here.”

    “We’re running out of time,” Justin noted, for the sun was leaning toward late afternoon. Looking around, he could tell his objection to ditching their hard-won ship was quite mutual.

    “And once it’s dark out,” Shades pointed out, “we won’t be able to see the island anymore. Not unless somebody left the light on for us.”

    “Maybe we could signal them,” Max proposed.

    If there’s anybody there,” Justin conditioned.

    “Only one way to find out…” Ma’Quiver mused.

    “Say Justin,” Shades asked, “you picked up some more flash bolts back in Bodeen, right?”

    “Why don’t we use the flares?” Justin demanded, trying not to dwell on how much those crooked Bodeen weapons merchants charged for every bolt.

    “It’s broad daylight,” Shades explained, “and we need range. We’re not getting any closer to that island, so we should probably save the flares for passing ships, or for after dark, just in case.”

    “The bolts, or the ship…” Justin stood there for a long moment in indecision before scrambling down to the cabin, returning a moment later with his crossbow.

    “We should probably fire them about ten minutes apart,” Ma’Quiver suggested, wanting to strike a balance between the need to give anyone over there time to respond, and the time slipping through their fingers. “Aim as high and far as you can.”

    And so Justin did. He already knew from terrestrial target practice that his shots wouldn’t reach anywhere near the island itself, and Shades hadn’t spotted any ships nearby, he just hoped he could get it close enough for anyone on that side of the island to see it. Seeing as how the wind was against them, he settled for as much height as he thought he could get away with without it blowing back at them, then fired.

    He was as disappointed as everyone else his shot fell short of even their most conservative estimates, but at least stalling on the wind kept it airborne long enough to go off at a reasonable height.

    From there, it became a waiting game. Shades continued to keep an eye on the island, while Max and Ma’Quiver did their best to keep from losing any further ground against the current. On Shades’ advice, Justin tuned the ship’s radio while he waited to take his next shot, scanning up and down the dial for any sign of communications activity, yet the airwaves remained silent, the static a counterpoint to the waves lapping against the hull and the wind in their ears.

    At last, ten tense minutes finally passed, and Justin again took aim at the island, timing this one against the gusts of wind and managing to make the flash go a little higher and farther than the first.

    And again with the waiting game, another ten minutes of time stretching out like taffy, each of them feeling that the island was slowly creeping away from them in spite of their efforts.

    At ten minutes in, Justin fired another shot, this one not making it quite as high, the sun setting behind them like sand in an hourglass.

    As Shades struggled to keep the shrinking island in sight, he spotted a flicker of light out there.

    “Justin! Quick! The signal mirror!” he snapped, realizing, even as he spoke, that he was the first to break their stern silence in all this time. “I saw a light! I think somebody’s over there!”

    A moment later, quick to latch on to anything more productive than tuning radio silence, Justin was attempting to figure out how to reflect the light of a sun that was almost behind them, hoping something would get across.
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  6. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    Yet by the fourth time Justin fired, Shades still hadn?t verified any response, so he went back and forth between the radio, increasingly certain it was pointless, and the mirror, worrying that any flicker of light he managed to produce would not even show against the sun behind them.

    After nearly an hour of this, Justin was down to his last flash bolt.

    ?This is it?? he muttered, taking aim.

    ?Ship?s compass?? Shades inquired, still grasping for ideas, mentally taking stock of everything onboard, and how it might be used as a distress signal.

    ?No good,? Max told him, for the needle was drifting, as it was wont to in most regions here.

    ?If only we had something that made a lot of smoke?? Ma?Quiver thought aloud.

    ?Or road flares?? Shades scratched another item they didn?t have off his list, then Ma?Quiver?s words sank in. ?Wait a minute! Justin, do you have any smoke bolts left??

    ?Three,? he informed him. ?Shall I waste those, as well??

    ?If it gets us rescued,? Max told him, ?it would hardly be a waste.?

    ?Fine.? Justin aimed at the lower deck, firing into a corner, letting one finish smoking before firing the next in a desperate bid to keep it going as long as possible.

    And once again, the wind worked against them, blowing the smoke away from the island, dragging the thin, ragged plume out lower than it might otherwise have risen.

    ?Once it gets dark,? Shades warned them, ?we won?t be able to see the island anymore. We may have no choice but to abandon the Maximum in exchange for our lives.?

    ?Dammit!? Justin pounded the radio unit. Tuning up and down the dial, he started shouting, ?Come in! Somebody! Anybody! We need help out here!?

    Finally slumping in his seat in abject disgust.

    ?Guys!? Shades told them, ?We?re not completely out of luck just yet. I can see lights on the island!?

    ?Surely that means there?re people.? Ma?Quiver sounded more hopeful.

    ?Then why the hell aren?t they helping us!?? Justin demanded, again twiddling with the radio knob for emphasis. ?Nobody?s listening!?

    ?Well maybe they don?t?? Shades began.

    ?have any radios? he finished in his head as they all went silent, certain they just heard a voice for a second. Even Justin stopped, slowly dialing back until, sure enough:

    ??come in! Please respond!? an old man?s voice broke on the speaker. ?Unknown vessel, this is the Castaway Fisher Monkey Business. We are coming to investigate a distress signal. If yer radio is still working, please respond!

    ??Dammit, I told ?em I?m retired, so why?d I get picked for this shit???


    ?This is the Maximum,? Justin responded. ?We?ve been stranded out here all day. We?re out of fuel, out of food, and the wind?s against us. You gotta help us!?

    ?Maximum, copy,? the voice replied. ?So there is someone out there? Hold on, I?ve spotted yer ship, and I?m on my way.?

    ?It?s true!? Shades crowed, spotting a shape approaching that was quickly resolving itself into another vessel. ?There?s a ship coming!?

    ?We?re over here!? Justin cried, firing one of his double-barrel power pistols into the air.

    ?Damn!? that voice replied, ?You people are way out! I can?t believe I?m doing this??

    By now, the other ship was drawing close enough to be seen readily without binoculars, and Justin started jumping and waving his arms frantically. Though the others doubted it was necessary at this range, Max and Ma?Quiver started waving, too, the latter firing up his laser sword for greater visibility. Once the ship got close, they settled down, except for Justin.

    Now they could see that it was indeed a modest fishing boat, sails folded, motor chugging as it slowed to a stop alongside the Maximum, and a figure stepped out of the cabin.

    ?Oy! Do ya know how close y?are to the edge!?? demanded an old man dressed in Bermuda shorts and a Hawai?ian shirt, most of his deeply tanned and lined skin adorned with a patchwork of many faded tattoos. Wiry limbs, and that juxtaposition of round belly and relief ribcage that only old men seemed to develop. Gold earring, missing teeth, cracking a reckless grin that, accompanied by the gleam in his remaining eye (the other covered by an eye patch even Shades didn?t doubt the authenticity of), could make almost anyone question their rescuer?s sanity for a moment. ?If we stay in these currents, I?ll be joinin? ya on yer way to the bottom!?

    ?Then would it be too much to ask for you tow us over to yonder island?? Ma?Quiver requested.

    ?We would be in your debt,? Max added.

    ?Damn skippy, ya will!? the old man laughed. ?Ya know what fuel is worth our here??

    ?We have money,? Justin informed him tersely. ?It?s fuel we?re out of! And food.?

    ?We?d be more than happy to discuss payment once we?re safely ashore,? Shades negotiated.

    ?And who might ya be, that I should trust ya like that?? he countered. Downwind, his breath smelled faintly of rum.

    ?Just passing travelers,? Max assured him. After they took a moment to hastily introduce themselves, he asked, ?And what might your name be??

    ?In these parts, they call me Rude Bones,? he replied. ?But if ya really want to save yer ship, we gotta move it. I don?t even know if me ship can handle somethin? this big.?

    ?We?d rather not abandon her,? Shades told him, ?so let?s at least try.?
     
  7. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    III
    And so, while Shades kept land keenly in sight in his binoculars, the rest scrambled to bind the two vessels together for towing, lowering the sails to reduce wind drag, acutely aware of time running out every step of the way.

    Once they were ready, Monkey Business got underway, the Maximum in tow. It was slow going, as the Maximum was the larger of the two, but it was still almost daylight as they worked their way closer to the island. Relief washing over them visibly once they were close enough that Shades no longer needed binoculars, for, now that the adrenaline rush was over, the hunger had not only gone to his legs, but his arms, as well. As they approached, they could see that this side of the island was mostly beach, but as they gradually rounded the shore, they soon spotted more buildings, followed by rows of docks that marked the harbor of what appeared to be a modest seaside community, to their further relief.

    Up close, they could tell that the place consisted of a rather eclectic collection of building styles, as if each one was an outward expression of its builder?s personality. It made for quite a sight as they tried to keep an eye on the docks looming ahead. Just as encouraging as the sight of buildings that didn?t look abandoned was the sight of a proportionate population out and about.

    Stopping near an outer pier that could support a ship the Maximum?s size, they could see that the vessels that plied these waters were every bit as diverse as the they had seen at larger ports. As the Maximum could no longer move under her own power, several people on shore helped haul the ship into position as Monkey Business nudged from the other side. Once securely moored, they staggered over to the dock on shaky, famished legs.

    ?You people like to cut it close, don?t ya?? Rude Bones remarked as they disembarked, the same crew helping him secure his own ship in the next slot.

    ?Yeah, I suppose we do!? Shades laughed, scratching the back of his head at getting pegged so quickly.

    ?Welcome to Para-Para,? the old man informed him. ?The Isle of Castaways.?

    Bandit taking one whiff of the old man up close, and very openly moving upwind.

    ?Para-Para?? Max mused, seeing that Justin also recognized that name, recalling the first from his parents? travels, but not the other.

    ?Isle of Castaways??? Justin had heard of the former, but not in connection with the latter.

    ?Least that?s the oldest name anyone knows,? Rude Bones explained, ?but in my time here, they be callin? it the Isle of Castaways. Anywise, I brought ya here, a?spite the risk, so let?s see the color of yer money.?

    ?Why don?t we discuss payment over dinner?? Shades suggested. ?As we haven?t had a decent meal in days. I?ll even buy you a drink.?

    ?It?ll take more?n a couple drinks to get me drunk enough to forget me money,? he warned them.

    ?I assure you, we meant nothing so devious,? Ma?Quiver told him. ?So, know any good place to eat around here??

    ?Well?? Rude Bones thought it over for a moment, then agreed, rattling off his own list: ?The Hang Ten?s got the best seafood and drink around, and this new place, Bankshot?s got some good grub, and I guess Caf? La??

    ?Bankshot!?? Shades lit up at that name, and Max caught it a moment later.

    ?You?ve heard of it?? the old man cocked his head. ?But it just opened a few weeks ago, run by some newcomer named DJ??

    ?Deej?? Shades pondered. ?Could it really be???

    ?Ya know him??

    ?Yes, but not from here,? Shades replied.

    ?Could you take us there?? Max requested.

    ?Sure thing!? Rude Bones said as he led the way. ?Wanna make a little wager on whether or not it?s the same man??

    ?Not really,? Shades replied, in spite of both names turning up in the same place striking him as entirely too convenient to be coincidence.

    ?You?re no fun,? Rude Bones muttered.

    ?So,? Justin asked, wanting to get a jump on the local authorities before any aspect of their visit could possibly go sideways, ?who?s in charge around here??

    ?Nobody,? Rude Bones answered.

    ?What do you mean, nobody?? Justin?s eyebrow raising right along with the tail end of his question.

    ?Just what I said,? he replied. ?This place was founded by generations of castaways. Built this place from the ground up, they did. The one thing they all seemed to agree on was that they didn?t want a bunch of laws like where they came from.?

    ?A real anarchy?? Shades thought aloud, already deciding he would look into this a bit more before they left.

    ?No laws?? Justin?s incredulity more than obvious. ?How does that work??

    ?It works because everybody here would rather talk things out amongst themselves than havin? somebody makin? laws against everything left an? right.?

    ?I see.? In his travels, Ma?Quiver had seen these sort of arrangements on ship crews, and even some very small communities, but never on quite this scale.

    All the while, they made their way down a broad, unpaved road weaving through the center of the seaport, which was about the size of a small town, finally arriving at a large island lodge built of dark wood beams.

    ?This is it!? Rude Bones told them, pushing open a pair of double doors underneath a hand-painted sign that read Bankshot, a gust of bass and ambient rhythm pushing past them as they entered.
     
  8. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    The interior was better lit than any of them would have expected, in spite of the dark wood walls. Most of the floor was occupied with tables, with a bar off to the side, and several pool tables near the back, and a massive jukebox prominently displayed near the entrance. There was a young woman behind the bar, but Rude Bones led them past her, on to an open door on the opposite side of the bar.

    Leading out into an open space next to the building, with additional tables and an open dance floor. Against the outer wall was a stage, configured for both karaoke and live performance, currently set up for the latter, with enough outdoor PA to match the sound system inside. Framed by towering palm trees on either side was a sweeping view of a stretch of beach below, and a tropical island sunset beyond.

    Max spotted him first, moving among the scattering of guests seated at the tables, lighting torches on poles now that it was getting dark enough for effect.

    ?DJ!? he called out, waving to him. Bandit also perked up in recognition.

    ?Oy! DJ!? Rude Bones shouted, pointing to the others, ?These guys say they know you!?

    ?Deej!? Shades laughed, elated to see his first friend and ally in this dimension alive and well, and clearly liberated from his former confines.

    The same deep ebony skin. The same burly black dreads. The same warm, welcoming eyes and smile as he turned to greet them. Gone was the cheesy uniform from the old Bankshot, replaced by more casual attire, though the name Boss DJ was still embroidered on one side of his shirt.

    ?Max?? DJ tilted his head slightly, but the sight of Bandit made it unmistakable. ?Shades, you too, mon??

    ?Dude!? Shades slapped hands with him. ?What are you doing here??

    ?What can I say?? DJ shrugged. ?Your escape plan worked.?

    ?That?s great!? Max told him. ?We were afraid you wouldn?t make it in time.?

    ?Oh, it wasn?t that easy,? DJ assured them, ?but we were running out of time. So, what brings you to the Isle of Castaways??

    ?You know, going off to see the world and all that jazz,? Shades answered. ?I told ya we?d be doing something interesting once we got out.?

    ?If ya call bein? dead in the water interesting,? Rude Bones snorted mockingly.

    ?Yeah!? Justin shot back, ?well we were doin? just fine before that!?

    ?And who are your friends?? DJ inquired.

    ?This is Justin Black,? said Max. ?You remember how I was looking for somebody before I ended up in that weird place? Well, this is him.?

    ?I?m so glad you made it, mon,? DJ told Justin. ?Max was really worried about you. It is an honor to finally meet you.?

    ?And this,? Shades said as the two shook hands, ?is DJ Rachid, owner and proprietor of Bankshot. And this is our newest passenger??

    ?Dominik Ma?Quiver,? he introduced himself. ?I was just along for the ride.?

    ?And what of your friends?? DJ asked Shades. ?Have you found John or Amy??

    ?No. Actually, I was kinda hopin? maybe you?d seen either of them.?

    ?I see.? DJ shook his head. ?I?m sorry, Shades. I?ve been here for several months, but I?ve not seen or heard of anyone like either of them passing through lately.?

    ?So the search is still on,? Shades said, more to himself than anybody else.

    ?Well I?ll be damned!? Rude Bones crowed. ?You guys really do know each other, don?t you! Guess I should be glad I didn?t make that bet! Anyhoo, while ya?ll be catchin? up, I?ll just be headin? over to the bar to collect on that drink. Don?t forget, it?s on your tab!?

    ?While you?re at it, order us some food!? Justin more fell than sat down at one of the empty tables. ?If I don?t eat something soon, I?m gonna fall on my face!?

    ?I?m sorry to impose,? Max explained, borrowing a page from Shades? diplomatic playbook, ?but we haven?t eaten in all day, and even before that??

    ?Say no more!? DJ turned to Rude Bones, saying, ?Tell Jill this order?s on da house! Think of this is my way of thanking you for helping us escape from the curse. Tonight will be all-you-can-eat!?

    ?Don?t mind if we do!? Shades laughed as he and the others sat down as well, and Rude Bones ran off with all the enthusiasm free food could inspire. ?So tell me, Deej, how?d you score a swank joint like this one??

    ?The previous owner retired not long after we came here,? DJ told them, ?and he was looking for somebody to take over the place. But anybody who might already had their own shop, so when I explained about Bankshot??

    ?He saw a kindred spirit,? Ma?Quiver filled in.

    ?Right,? DJ nodded, ?and having live entertainment on a regular basis sealed the deal.?

    ?Retired?? Max cocked his head quizzically.

    ?Yes,? DJ elaborated, ?Lester had saved up a good amount of money over the years because he always wanted to go see the world, it was his other dream besides owning a club, so when he had enough money, he bought himself a ship. Before he left, he told me that he didn?t believe in waiting until you?re an old man to live your dreams.?

    ?Damn straight!? Shades agreed, wondering if his friend hadn?t just distilled his entire experience in the Sixth Dimension into a single sentence. Looking over at the instruments on stage, he asked, ?By the way, you keep saying ?we?? does that mean it?s safe to assume that Rod and the band made it, too??

    ?Of course!? DJ laughed. ?I would not abandon them in such a terrible place. But it was a close call.?

    ?Glad to hear it,? Max replied.

    At that moment, a young woman, the same one they had seen tending bar earlier, came bearing a tray of appetizers and glasses of water, setting them down on their table, saying, ?I was wondering what that old scoundrel was up to when he said it was on the house? It really is you guys, isn?t it??

    ?Um, yes?? Shades was pretty sure he had seen her working in the back of the original Bankshot, washing dishes and occasionally waiting tables, but as she bent over to set out his and Max?s drinks, he couldn?t believe he never noticed how generously endowed she was for someone so petite. Thankful for his sunglasses, keeping the conversation from turning awkward as she turned to serve the rest of the group. She was short, though not quite as much as Justin, and slight of build, with short, wavy black hair framing a face that probably looked younger than her years, and eyes that definitely looked older. ?I think I saw you around back at the mall??

    ?As you probably guessed,? DJ told them, ?Jillian Kincaid was also a victim of the curse, but, unlike you, she wasn?t wanted by Security, so I could offer her a job there.?

    ?I?m glad to see you?re alright,? she told them, holding her tray up against her, almost up to her chin, though whether shy or self-conscious, it was hard to tell from such a brief conversation. ?Thanks to you, we were able to escape. The least we can do is give you and your friends the best meal I?ve ever made. And I?m so glad to see your kitty?s doing so well, too, Max.?

    Bandit also perked up as she patted him on the head and offered the big cat a cracker.

    ?Don?t let her modesty fool you,? DJ said as she bowed slightly and took her leave, ?she?s one of the best cooks this side of Centralict, and now that we have a real kitchen, I assure you, you ain?t tasted nothin? like it!?

    ?Guess we?ll see how it stacks up against Justin?s cooking,? Shades remarked as they all dug into the modest assortment of appetizers, asking through a mouthful of crackers, ?So how did you manage to escape? I thought the bookstore was closing down behind us.?

    ?We almost didn?t make it that far,? DJ told them, his ordinarily jovial tone taking a somber turn. ?You see, after the show??
     
  9. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    …Bankshot after closing time. The lights dim, the speakers silent. Twylight “backstage” in their makeshift backroom studio, Jillian cleaning the kitchen. The crowds all gone as DJ mopped the floor behind the bar to the tune of some old lounge piano softly tinkling on a small stereo on the counter. More work than usual, but also Bankshot’s best night in a long time thanks to the Twylight live show.

    It was the sound of footsteps approaching the counter that first told him something wasn’t right.

    He looked up to see three Mall Security guards walking up to him, having apparently let themselves in. At this hour, he already knew this could only be trouble.

    “You are the proprietor of this establishment, correct?” one of them asked as they lined up across the counter from him in an openly imposing display.

    “I am,” DJ replied, keeping his tone as level as he could manage while being taken by surprise. “So what brings you here at such a late hour?”

    “We’re looking for a pair of criminals who’ve been causing trouble around here,” the guard said, brushing past all pretense of formality. Whipping out a pair of surveillance photos of Shades and Max, he asked, “Have you seen either of these two men, or a black-and-white panther? They are both armed and dangerous, and one of them is wanted for the murder of a maintenance worker not too long ago.”

    “I see many people come and go here,” DJ told them while pretending to scrutinize the pictures. “I see a lot of faces, but I’m pretty sure I’d remember if anybody brought a panther in here…”

    “Don’t play games with us,” the guard warned him. “They’ve both been seen hanging around this establishment. We know they’re hiding out somewhere in this neighborhood, and it’s only a matter of time before we catch them.”

    Fearing the worst, DJ reached into his apron pocket, tossing out the crumpled napkin on which Shades had scribbled down his risky new escape plan. Which he was originally planning to take a look at after closing the club. Now all he could do was hope it would still be there to retrieve when this harrowing confrontation was over.

    “We’ll leave these with you,” the guard resumed, “to refresh your memory. You keep an eye out for them.”

    “Of course,” DJ replied. “If I see either of them,” silently hoping all the while that their escape would work so it would never come to that, “I’ll be sure to let you know.”

    “You better,” the guard said as the three of them turned and walked away, “because if
    we catch them here, you will lose your permit.”

    As they took their leave, DJ resisted the urge to even look at the trashcan until after he was done closing up, then fished out the napkin to show it to the others…


    “…I was so afraid they would come back before we could make a plan of our own,” DJ told them, “and when we didn’t hear back from you guys, we had no idea what to make of it. Did your plan work, or did they get you? After talking it over, we decided to take the risk.”

    “These guards sound a lot like Nikopolas,” Ma’Quiver remarked, though he had already heard some of this from Shades and Max.

    “Yeah, they’re a real’ great bunch of guys once you get to know ’em.” Shades nodded.

    “Speaking of which…” DJ looked over at the door.

    Despite being on the edge of his seat listening to DJ’s riveting account, or perhaps because of it, Shades’ eyes were drawn to a figure stepping out the door and striding toward the dining area. The fact that he wore a black t-shirt probably didn’t help, as it completed the look from his mind’s eye. Even the expression on Max’s face as he looked up to see what his friend was so alarmed about only served to confirm his own recognition. Justin simply glanced back and forth between them, trying to figure out who this newcomer was, and why those two looked like they were expecting a fight. Even Ma’Quiver slid his chair back, tensing up.

    “Look out!” Max shouted, even as Bandit bounded back to his feet with a wary snarl, “It’s the guards!”
     
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2011
  10. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    What followed was a very long, intense moment, as the man in the black shirt ground to a halt halfway to their table.

    Stocky and barrel-chested, his brown hair starting to vanish around the edges, staring in perplexity at the two young men who just stood up as if to challenge him, shifting to apprehension at the feline fury that accompanied them. Whom both of them recognized as Fat of the Mall Security duo of Fat and Fatter.

    “Guards!?” Justin gasped, fumbling with both power pistols, and that feeling of it being too little, too late, of being caught flat-footed. “What the fu.ck are you talking about!?”

    “Wait a minute!” Shades muttered, too loudly to rightly be called such, “How the hell would they even be able to find us here?”

    “Stop! Wait, my friends!” DJ cried out, throwing up his arms in a frantic gesture of placation. “Dis is all a misunderstanding! Let me explain!”

    “DJ,” the man asked, his apparent confusion quickly adding to Max and Shades’, let alone Justin’s, “who are these guys?”

    “They are also people who were victims of the curse,” DJ told him, “just like us.”

    “You don’t mean…” the man gasped.

    “Deej!” a voice called out from the door. “Are these people giving you any trouble?”

    Shades and Max were almost too overwhelmed by this pile-up of familiar faces to recognize Rod, and the redhead from the Twylight, their bandmates bottlenecked in the doorway.

    “No, no trouble,” DJ called back. “They just haven’t heard de whole story, that’s all.”

    “So let me get this straight,” Shades interjected, putting away his stun-sticks, and gesturing at the other guy, “this dude was a…”

    “Yes,” the man replied, sounding a trifle chagrined, “I was a Security guard at that evil mall.”

    “You…” Rod remarked, looking back and forth between Shades and Max and Bandit. “You’re the guys from our concert back there…”

    “Took ya long enough,” Redhead remarked.

    “Excuse me,” Justin blurted, pounding the table in growing frustration, “but would somebody please tell me who the hell all these people are?”

    “I’ve got an idea,” Redhead declared, herding the others over and gesturing for them to move a couple tables together. “Why don’t we take it from the top, starting with some introductions?”

    “This is Shades, and Max and Bandit,” DJ told them as they started rearranging tables and chairs, “the ones who figured out a way to escape from that sinister mall.”

    “And that’s J R Serling the Twylight,” Shades told Justin, “the band we met before we escaped to Centralict.”

    “Please, call me Rod,” he said, “it’s what my friends call me.” He then proceeded to run through the other band members: “Twyla McGill plays the sax, Brian Feehan on trombone, Dusk Winslow on bass, Vaughn Darden on keyboard, and Dan Zanotto on drums.”

    “And this is my friend, Justin Black,” Max added, “the person I was searching for back then.”

    “And is this the one you were searching for?” Twyla asked Shades, thumbing to Ma’Quiver, for she recalled DJ mentioning something about that.

    “Um… no…” Shades fumbled the question.

    “Dominik Ma’Quiver,” he introduced himself, “a fellow traveler.”

    “And who’s that guy?” Justin demanded again, pointing at the first guy who entered.

    “My name’s Bruno,” he told him, joining them as they began seating themselves in this new arrangement. “I’m sorry if I scared you earlier.”

    “So why is a Security guard just hangin’ out here?” Shades figured there had to be a story behind this.

    “Well… Where was I?…” DJ thought for a moment, then picked up where he left off before Bruno’s entrance caused such a stir: “As I was saying, we discussed our options, and decided to risk trying out your escape plan.”

    “Hell,” Rod laughed grimly, “it looked like Bankshot’s days were numbered anyway!”

    “I’m sorry about that,” Shades told them, remembering his and Max’s desperate struggle with the guards that night.

    “Don’t be,” DJ replied. “We’re just glad you’re safe. If it wasn’t for your plan, I fear things would have been a lot worse for us…”
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  11. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?The debate that night turned out to be a short one, DJ discovered, much to his surprise. Not only were Rod and the band unanimous on the matter, gung-ho to get on with both their tour and their lives, but Jillian also spoke passionately in favor, showing a decisive conviction he had not seen on her often shell-shocked face in all her time in that curs?d place.

    Thus the subject quickly turned from whether to how.

    Time, they quickly concluded, was of the essence. Just Rod and Dusk?s short excursion for last-minute items showed them Security out in full force, yet none of their activities shed any light on whether or not Max and Shades? escape was a success. The very rumor that inspired their desperate plan meant they would need to take a very different approach to their own attempt. Much as DJ expected, the bookstore through which Max and Bandit originally entered the Mall from the Centralict Library was indeed closed down, not just for the day, but indefinitely.

    It was already a harrowing trek through the dim, after-hours corridors of that sector, but to find out that they were already up against their own worst case scenario only made them feel even more desperate. Schlepping instrument cases, having to leave their amps behind, as the only cart they had mostly contained pieces of Dan?s drum set. DJ, Jillian, and Brian carrying what little else of their earthly possessions they thought they could keep.

    All the while going out of their way to evade Security, as none of them held any delusions of having a satisfactory
    explanation for their covert convoy.

    The last portion proved particularly nerve-wracking, switching to the back ways, which DJ was inclined to warn curse victims to avoid at all cost. Though he had no implement that was any match for the heavy barrier blocking the front entrance, Twyla?s father was a locksmith, and DJ had her practicing on Bankshot?s back door all day while that hall was quiet. Now she was forced to use what she had learned against that lock type by flashlight.

    After about five anxious minutes of tinkering they were in, quickly crowding in out of the shadowy hall, then slowing down to make their way through the darkness of the storage room and into the store proper. Once there, Jillian, Dusk and Vaughn put on the earphones of their new radios and began to fumble their way around the sales floor while DJ and the others tried to stand watch. All of their eyes flicking to the slatted bars across the front of the store, the hall beyond only slightly brighter, quietly wishing it was already concealed behind a ?Coming Soon!? fa?ade or something.

    Long past the point of no return, they sweated out the long minutes of their search, all too aware they had only hours left until the sector was open again, leaving them exposed.

    ?I?m getting something!? Jill barely remembered to whisper, she was so stunned at the bizarre sounds bombarding her ears.

    As they tensed up, waiting, a light pierced the gloom of the bookstore, the heavy flashlight?s beam hitting her square in the face.

    ?I knew it!? shouted the Security guard as he ran up to the bars, fumbling with his keys. ?I
    knew I?d find a lead if we kept an eye on this place!?

    ?Jill!? Twyla shouted.

    As the guard started working on the gate, the intruders moved toward Jillian?s position.

    ?No? no yet?? Jillian could tell
    something was going on, yet had the unmistakable impression that it wasn?t complete yet. ?We need more time??

    ?Security!? the guard called into his hand radio, which was also making strange noises, though not as much as Jillian?s, ?All available patrols, intruders at Point Alpha! Repeat, intruders at the fugitives? last known location!??

    ?Quickly!? Jillian gasped, increasingly certain that the escalating cacophony crescendo meant
    something was about to happen, beckoning her companions closer. ?I think it?s about to open!?

    ?Halt!? shouted the guard as he finished fumbling with the heavy locks and started lifting the gate. ?You won?t get away from us this time!?

    As the rest of them scrambled to Jillian?s position, having switched on their flashlights and abandoned any pretense of stealth now that they were busted, the shouting and footfalls out in the corridor, converging on their location, served as a measure of how little time they had left.

    In a stroke of inspiration, Twyla flashed her light in the guard?s face as he ran up to them, turning the tables on him.

    ?You?re not getting away!? he shouted, shoving Twyla aside and grabbing Jillian?s arm.

    Rod and DJ quickly grabbed her other arm, turning their confrontation into a game of Tug-O-War, trying to move in the direction she had indicated.

    By now, they could see glimpses of flashlight closing in on the store.

    ?Let her go!? Twyla screamed, keeping her light trained on the guard?s face so he couldn?t see.

    Before Jillian could say anything, the noise peaked out and the room started shimmering?
     
  12. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ??The next thing we knew,? Twyla told them, ?we were stumbling around the Centralict Library.?

    ?Kind of a funny story, that,? Rod remarked. ?Seems it was after closing time there, too!?

    ?Yeah,? Dusk added, ?but at least some of the lights were still on!?

    ?It was rather awkward,? Rod continued, ?but luckily, we ran into a guy named Conan??

    ?The librarian?? Max asked, even though he was already fairly certain.

    ?The same,? Rod answered. ?I didn?t know you knew him. He just told us the library had had a lot of trouble with ?walk-ins? lately, and shooed us toward the exit before their own guards knew we were there. Seemed to be really preoccupied with something??

    ?Probably the warpgate,? Shades concluded, ?but while we?re on the subject of guards, let me guess, you tagged along through the rift with them??

    ?Yeah,? Bruno replied, ?I guess I was chasing them. It?s kinda strange. It?s like, one minute I knew what I was doin?, the next I was totally blank. There I was, grabbin? this poor girl?s arm, hard enough to hurt her, and I couldn?t quite remember why??

    ?You don?t remember anything about that mall?? Ma?Quiver asked, for Max and Shades had told him a bit about it during their long voyage.

    ?Not much, and most of it is hard to describe,? Bruno confessed, his mind dredging up only murky glimpses into what he could only think of as a ?manly? environment, a Guys Only Zone that seemed to cultivate only the worst facets of masculinity. Of Jock Culture, the locker room, of Good Ol? Boys. How it shaped them so insidiously into what they were. ?It was like living in some cop show, but all about crooked cops who were covering up some dirty secret? When we left that place, I couldn?t remember why I was even wearing that uniform. It was like waking up from a nightmare you didn?t even know you were having.?

    ?Wasn?t it for all of us!? Rod laughed.

    ?So, the curse can be lifted?? Shades mused, dwelling for a moment on DJ?s account of the curse victim who blew his brains out, or the repairman who died warning him that fateful night. How no one there acted like they knew, just conveniently forgotten and back to Business As Usual. ?All those shadow-people used to be real??

    ?I think so, but I remember even less about my life before the mall than I do about being a guard there. I don?t even know if ?Bruno? is my real name. That?s just what the other guards called me, but we all had names like that. Bruno, Butch, Louie, Royce?? He looked at both Max and Shades, saying, ?After everything we did to people, it just doesn?t seem fair to you guys I don?t remember any of it??

    ?It was what it was,? Shades told him. ?These guys hold no grudge against you, so I won?t, either.?

    ?Sounds like you were as much a victim of the curse as we were,? Max commented, trying to wrap his head around Shades? theory of how the full curse seemed to overwrite a person?s identity and somehow re-brand them as empty shells of their former selves. ?I just wish there was a way to break the curse once and for all and free everybody.?

    ?So do I,? Twyla agreed, ?but I get the feeling that place is controlled by forces we don?t fully understand. Even if we went back and tried, I think we?d just end up in over our heads.?

    ?The smartest thing you can do is just try to stay free, and not stick your nose into other people?s problems,? was Justin?s two cents on the matter.

    ?So now that you are free,? Shades asked, ?what do you plan to do??

    ?For now,? Bruno told them, ?I?m gonna stick around and help out DJ. If it wasn?t for these guys, I?d still be in that place, living a life that wasn?t even mine, so I owe them for that.?

    ?And what about you guys?? Max asked.

    ?Us?? Rod looked to his bandmates for a moment before he answered. ?Well, we?ve really got nowhere to go right now, so we figured we?d help out DJ like he helped us. It was slow goin?, puttin? the band back together. We took what we could, but we had to leave a lot of our gear behind??

    ?I can imagine,? Shades remarked, recalling the handful of times someone in his old friend Sandy?s band, Nowheresville, forgot something, how much inconvenience one missing cord, or a broken guitar string, could cause.

    ?DJ?s been helping us put it back together since we got here,? Twyla added. ?It?s taken us a while, since few ships carry any music supplies.?

    ?And that?s not even mentioning compatibility,? Dusk pointed out. ?There?s no telling where most of this crap even comes from in this world, or if it?ll even work with your gear.?

    ?But in the long run?? Shades intoned, for as pleasant as this place seemed, he could no more imagine spending the rest of his days here than anywhere else he?d visited.

    ?Well, for the time being, we plan to stay here and try to get back on our feet, just like we?re helping DJ get back on his. But once Bankshot?s fully established, we plant to save up some money and tour the Sixth Dimension.?

    ?Sounds like fun,? Max smiled.

    ?So, how did you guys get here anyway?? Shades asked, figuring that if their journey was even half as eventful as their own, it would be a tale fit for a meal.
     
  13. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?Well, at first we didn?t know what to do,? Twyla told them, ?so we ended up spending the night in a park in Centralict. The next day, we went back to the library again.?

    ?We tried to ask about you guys, but we couldn?t find that Conan guy again,? Dusk elaborated. ?We just got this jerk who told us the place was closed. When we asked why, all he would say was something about a terrorist incident??

    ?So that?s what they?re callin? it,? Shades mused.

    ?Terrorists?? Justin blinked.

    ?What the hell happened there anyway?? Rod demanded.

    ?NK-525 happened,? Justin told him flatly.

    ?You see, there?s a gateway to another dimension on the thirteenth floor,? Shades explained, ?and apparently it?s breaking down, which is why there are dimensional anomalies all around it. Justin managed to escape??

    ?And that bastard came after me!? Justin jumped back in. ?If these guys hadn?t escaped when they did, I?da been shit outta luck!?

    ?I imagine the library management doesn?t like the idea of that thing being there to begin with,? Twyla thought aloud, ?so that?s probably why they?re covering it up. But why is something like that even there in the first place??

    As Shades and Justin went back and forth explaining about the warpgate, Jillian returned with more food, and Rude Bones in tow, tray in one hand, a bottle of something not-so-cheap looking to drink straight from the other.

    ?The food?s here!? the old man announced between swigs.

    ?You really are going to take advantage of DJ?s generosity for all it?s worth, aren?t you?? Twyla scolded.

    ?Little missy,? he informed her with a sly smirk and a wink, ?were I twenty years younger, that ain?t all I?d take advantage of around here.?

    ?Once a pirate, always a pirate.? She rolled her eyes. ?Even retired, you?re just a drunken lech.?

    ?Can you blame a man?? the old pirate?s tone taking a turn for the defensive as he took another pull. ?I was a handsome devil, once upon a time??

    ?I?ll be going back to finish the next course!? Jillian squeaked, edging out of Rude Bones? reach as if from past experience.

    ?Ah,? Shades sighed, ?the taste that doth provoke the desire, but taketh away the performance??

    They all had a good laugh, Rod looking blank for a moment, and Twyla rolling her eyes at him now.

    ?Ya know,? the old man told Shades with a gleam in his eye that completely undermined his jovial tone, ?I ain?t raised a hand ?gainst anyone since I first came here eight years ago??

    In the meantime, Shades had partially drawn one of his stun-sticks.

    ?Hmph,? Rude Bones snorted, ?not like I was actually gonna do anything, I ain?t drank that much, but DJ, I can?t believe you?re serving folks who are carryin?.?

    ?What?s he talkin? about?? Justin demanded, his eyebrow rising sharply.

    ?Sounds like you forgot to tell ?em,? Dusk remarked.

    ?You see, the merchants here don?t like weapons,? DJ explained, seeing an opportunity to change the subject and cool the old pirate off before he drank any more of Bankshot?s most expensive stuff.

    ?But I thought you said there were no rules here.?

    ?There aren?t,? Rod assured them. ?It?s pretty cool, like real anarchy. On this island, there are no rules, just agreements and understandings.?

    ?One of the things the merchants all agree on is that having weapons in their shops is a bad idea,? DJ elaborated, ?so they all agreed not to support weapons. There may be no actual law, but most stores here won?t do business with you if you come in armed.?

    ? ?Cept for the Jolly Roger, a?course,? Rude Bones reminded him. ?Then again, they also sell weapons, so I guess it stands to reason.?

    ?All the same, it was something important for you to know during your stay,? DJ resumed, ?but since I know you, I?m already sure you?re not gonna cause any trouble??

    ?And since there aren?t any ?rules? to ?break? in the first place,? Shades grinned, ?I take it we?re okay??

    ?Right,? DJ nodded, ?so dig in!?

    ?You don?t have to tell me twice!? Justin laughed as he did just that.
     
  14. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    V
    A short while later, Jillian returned with more food, and the subject turned to comparing notes on their time in Centralict.

    ??But there was this old man, Abu-Sharrah there, and he let us ride with him,? Max told them about their falling out with the Triad.

    ?And the bitch still got away!? Justin laughed, ?But we caught up with her later, and took ?em back!?.

    ?Wow!? Rod remarked, ?So that?s what that was all about! All we heard was something about carjacking, a high-speed chase, and somebody hijacking a ship.?

    ?Warpgates, never-ending buildings, and treasure hunts,? Dusk sighed. ?Sounds like Centralict?s a much more eventful place than we gave it credit for.?

    ?I?ll say!? Twyla added. ?We just ended up pawning off some of our stuff for passage on some ship. We played for the crew, and we did a couple bare-bones shows at a few ports along the way.?

    ?And yet you didn?t stop at any of those places,? Ma?Quiver observed, speaking up for the first time in a while. ?Of course, I have no trouble understanding why you chose to stay here, but what was it about the other places that made you keep looking??

    ?Well, how can I put this??? Rod mused, ?I guess you could say there was no scene for us to work with at any of those places??

    ?Yeah,? Dusk piped up, ?by the time the ship was ready to set out again, the novelty?d worn off, and nobody seemed to care anymore.?

    ?It?s totally different here,? Twyla added. ?They love live music here, and people have been really supportive. DJ hit it off with Lester? the previous owner of this club? and when he decided to leave, he left the place to Deej, so that pretty much sealed the deal.?

    ?It?s pretty cool,? Rod reflected, ?here, music is sacred.?

    ?As the locals are fond of saying,? Twyla winked: ?Sharing is caring.?

    ?The important part is, we can take our time here,? said Rod, ?and get our act back together before we figure out where to go from here.?

    ?Of course,? DJ pointed out, ?several of the other shop owners fronted the money to set the place up, so I?m glad you?re here to drum up business until Bankshot?s fully established. I say you can stay as long as you want, but you have my blessing when you?re ready to go.?

    ?So, what kind of crazy adventures have you guys had in the meantime?? Twyla asked their new guests, resting her chin on propped elbows and folded palms.

    ?Aye!? crowed Rude Bones, ?Y?all look like you?ve seen some action out there!?

    ?You can say that again!? Shades laughed, ?We?ve survived pirates, thugs, storms, and even the dreaded ghost ship Twylight!?

    That name raised a few eyebrows at the table, for more than one reason.

    ?There?s a ghost ship called Twylight?? Rod leaned forward in rapt attention.

    ?That?s? kinda creepy,? Dusk remarked.

    ?I almost sank aboard that thing!? Max told them.

    And so they took some time explaining about their grim encounter with the haunted derelict.

    ?I can?t believe ya actually set foot on her deck!? Rude Bones gasped, ?Let alone came back. I know one man who saw that ship. Said they lost half their crew when they tried to search the damn thing??

    ?So it just sinks over and over?? Twyla shivered. ?A ghost ship that damns anyone still onboard??

    ?I don?t think I?d have the balls to go anywhere near that thing,? Dusk confessed. ?Who knew this dimension was so dangerous??

    ?But at least you made it,? DJ commented, wanting to change the subject. ?I guess some cautionary tales have more basis in experience than I thought.?

    ?Yeah, I?m kinda surprised we even did it,? Shades mused. ?Sometimes, I think I left my common sense back on Earth, but I find I just can?t bring myself to regret it. I guess there are some things you just have to experience for yourself.?

    Despite all their troubles, Shades found that he was actually starting to feel at home in the Sixth Dimension in spite of himself. Looking back, his old life had always felt like a dress-rehearsal for a curtain that never quite came up. Now the stage was set, the curtain raised? all that was left was for him to play his part. His favorite thing about it: no script. Sure, he?d have to do most of his own stunts, but somehow that just didn?t bother him as much as it would have once upon a time. Had come to realize how much he had come to despise the restrictions and regulations that governed his old life.

    ??Oh, you mean like being held hostage?? Justin winked.

    ?You were a hostage?? Jillian nearly fumbled her tray as she brought the next course.

    ?Seriously?? Rod and Dusk blurted in almost perfect unison, staring at Shades as he snapped back to the here and now.

    ?It?s true!? Justin insisted. ?We were fighting these marauders who attacked a treasure ship they were bringing up, when this crazy bastard named Erix jumped in and tried to steal the ship. Max was already fighting him, and Shades tried to help??

    All eyes on Shades.

    ?It?s true,? Shades admitted. Though hardly his proudest moment. ?I thought I had the drop on him??

    ?So I had no choice but to fight him again,? Max told them, for all intents and purposes confirming Justin?s account. ?I?m still not sure which fight was tougher, Erix on Kon Kimbar, or you at Nikopolas Arena.?

    ?Someday I?d like to see for myself just how strong he really is,? Ma?Quiver commented.

    ?At least you saved him?? Jillian looked back and forth among them as she set down the trays, narrowly dodging Rude Bones? shameless reach.

    ?Keep it comin?, Jugs!? the old man cackled, and Shades was no longer sure if that was his fourth or fifth bottle he just snatched off her tray.

    ?Well at least you?re training me, instead of trying to kill me.? Still, Max did not feel at all comfortable relying on luck to save him, much less his friends, after seeing for himself just how dangerous enemies like Erix or Striker could be. ?That match was at least as tough as fighting Erix.?

    ?Wait a minute!? Twyla snapped, more than a little incredulously. ?Arena? As in a gladiator arena??

    ?I guess you could call it that,? Shades quipped.

    ?I got stuck there,? Ma?Quiver explained. ?Ran out of money, and thought I could just win a few matches??.

    ?But the guy who ran the place was a total asshole!? Justin added. ?They took Bandit!?

    ?And I had to fight to save him,? Max elaborated.

    ?That was where I met these guys,? Ma?Quiver told them. ?Berto was already cheating me on my arena winnings, and his thugs were threatening anyone who might have given me passage out of Bodeen, because he was trying to get me to train his Nikopolas henchmen, so I knew he couldn?t be trusted to keep his word with Max, either. After fighting a match those folks won?t soon forget, we teamed up and busted outta there.?

    ?We had a ship,? Max said simply, ?so Ma?Quiver helped us rescue Bandit, in exchange for a way to leave Sarna and continue his search.?

    ?Search?? Dusk asked. ?For what??
     
  15. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?For my master,? Ma?Quiver replied. ?We got separated a couple years ago, and I?ve been searching for him ever since. By any chance, you haven?t heard of a man named Lazlo, have you??

    A quick exchange around the table revealed they had not.

    ?Then I guess the search continues.?

    ?Since Max made a bargain with him,? Shades continued, ?we spent most of our last voyage training with him, but none of us could use Shanshou-kan.?

    ?Don?t feel too bad. In all his travels,? Ma?Quiver told them, ?Master Lazlo only met one other person with the gift.?

    ?Speakin? o? familiar faces,? Rude Bones piped up, ?ya mentioned ye?ve fought some pirates along the way. Ya meet anybody I?d know??

    ?You ever heard of a pirate captain named Striker?? Justin intoned, watching the old pirate nearly spit-take in mid swig.

    ?Ya mean that Striker?? Rude Bones blurted.

    ?Yes, that Striker,? Max affirmed.

    ?We didn?t want to fight her,? Justin explained, ?but you remember the Triad? The guys who ripped us off? Well, Striker?s crew had captured ?em, and the Tri-Medals were about to fall into their hands??

    ?You didn?t!? Rod gasped.

    ?It was a long shot,? Max admitted, ?but somehow we managed to free the Triad, and get our stuff back.?

    ?Ya know, Striker?s crew did pass through these parts a few months ago,? the old man told them, ?before DJ and these folks arrived. It was a pretty tense situation.?

    ?I could imagine,? Ma?Quiver commented.

    ?I mean, the Isle of Castaways is neutral territory, but that ship, In Brazen Defiance, was so heavily armed, it had everyone on-edge their whole visit!?

    ?The Brazen,? Shades sighed. ?That?s good. If it was the other ship, things might?ve gotten ugly.?

    ?Why is that?? DJ asked.

    ?Because we sank the Brazen!? Justin laughed.

    ?No way!? Twyla and Dusk shouted, the former, especially, sounding almost certain that this time one of them would surely say they were pulling everybody?s leg about that one.

    ?Well, it?s more like some crazy pirate blew something up shooting at us with a plasma rifle,? Max clarified as best he could. ?Even so, it turned the fight back in our favor, and it definitely saved my life. And Bandit?s.?

    ?They were talking about selling his fir,? Shades filled them in, ?even eating him.?

    ?You poor kitty!? Jillian gasped, giving him another helping of fish. ?People like Striker are horrible!?

    ?So, what?s so important about these things anyway?? Rod demanded, ?That everybody keeps fighting over them??

    ?Well, they?re supposed to be the keys to some ancient treasure,? Shades told them, ?at least that?s what Kato claimed, but??

    ?We?re still not really sure of much beyond that,? Max confessed as he took his off its chain and joined Shades in passing it around the table. ?Though it is clear that they?re all of the same make, and are surely from the same place.?

    ?Some treasure hunt it?s turned out to be so far,? Justin muttered, recalling how much it once bugged him to let Kato keep hers. ?We still have no clue where to even start looking for it??

    ?That?s assuming somebody else didn?t find it in the meantime,? Dusk warned him. ?I mean, just because it was hidden, doesn?t mean other people couldn?t stumble across it by accident, while doing something else.?

    ?Ha! Wouldn?t that be a pisser!? Rude Bones snorted.

    ?You?re probably better off trying to find your friends instead, Shades,? Twyla suggested, ?though you sound like you?re already leaning that way anyway.?

    ?But still, even if you do find them,? Rod cautioned, ?that still leaves the question of how you?d get back home. You don?t suppose any of those? warpgate things in Tranz-D lead to Earth, do you??

    ?Wouldn?t know,? Shades shrugged, ?but based on all I?ve see and heard about the place, I kinda hope not. I?m not so sure I like the idea of something like that even being connected to our world??

    ?Even if it means having to find another way back?? Dusk pressed.

    ?A safer way, yes,? Shades conceded, ?though at times I wonder if I really want to go back. John and Amy, on the other hand, I don?t know what they want, but if they?re looking for a way back to Earth, I would help them any way I could.?

    ?Trust me, guys,? Justin?s stern voice holding all of their undivided attention, ?you don?t wanna mess with that place. Goin? in there is suicide.?

    ?He?s right,? Max seconded. ?It?s way too dangerous.?

    ?That, and I think, during our time in St Lucy, I may have found a lead on alternatives,? Shades told them. ?Keep an eye out for Camcron Industries. They?re doing ?research? into weird space-time stuff, and may even be back-engineering technology from Tranz-D. Though I?m not sure I want to know where they?re getting it from??

    ?I guess you?re right,? Rod relented. ?Still, it?s kinda sad to think of all that knowledge being locked up like that.?

    ?Maybe it?s for the best,? DJ sighed. ?If even the ones who created all that couldn?t control it, then perhaps the world is better off without it.?

    ?All the same,? Shades confided, ?I?m still not sure what?s scarier, being a hostage, being trapped in some haunted place that?s trying to kill you, or being stranded out at sea for days with no more food, surrounded by unknown miles of ocean??

    ?By the way,? Justin piped up through a mouthful of seafood, ?I?ve been meaning to ask ever since we got rescued. What is a Donner Party??

    Twyla gagged. Rod spit his drink. Jillian gasped, and Dusk and DJ simply gaped at him.

    ?I?m trying to eat right now,? Shades muttered. ?But if you really wanna know, I?ll tell you about it in the morning, okay??

    ?What?? Justin looked around the table at them. ?What?d I say??
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2012
  16. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    VI
    Naturally, the subject quickly turned to less morbid matters, mostly Max & Company?s adventures since they left Centralict.

    The food kept coming, the laughter became more and more frequent, and DJ and Jillian popped in and out of the conversation as Bankshot?s evening business picked up. A couple of the other band members dropped in, livening up the conversation. By the time the place closed, even DJ looked relieved that he wasn?t keeping track of their tab, the tables covered from end to end with empty plates and trays.

    ?Well,? the proprietor laughed as they made their way over to a gate leading out of the outdoor dining area, ?I hope you now know our gratitude for showing us how to escape from that terrible place!?

    ?We do,? Max assured him, Bandit grinning in total agreement with him.

    ?I?ll say!? Shades added. ?I don?t think I could possibly eat another bite!?

    ?That was great!? Justin remarked.

    ?But, um?? Jillian tapped DJ?s shoulder hesitantly, ?What about him??

    For Rude Bones was still splayed out at his seat, face down and snoring surrounded by more than half a dozen bottles.

    ?Oh, don?t worry about that booze-hound,? said DJ. ?Bruno and I?ll move him outside.?

    ?Yeah,? Ma?Quiver concurred, ?he just needs to sleep it off.?

    ?Looks like he forgot about the fuel, in spite of what he said,? Shades mused, ?but I bet he?ll be back to collect after he?s sobered up.?

    ?See ya around!? Rod called out as they passed the gate.

    ?Be sure to drop by again!? Twyla invited.

    ?Count on it,? Max replied as they made their way back down the broad path to the docks.

    Justin burping loudly. ?Good stuff!?

    ?I?ll second that opinion!? Shades laughed, loosening his belt, quite certain he had never eaten so much in his life. ?Wouldn?t it suck if we woke up tomorrow, and this all turned out to be just a dream??

    ?Not one more word,? Justin muttered. ?If we wake up out there again, I?ll kill you.?

    ?Ah,? Shades sighed as they approached the Maximum, ?so I get to be the first guest of honor at this Donner Party??

    ?Please don?t bring that up again?? Max groaned.

    ?So,? Ma?Quiver asked, wanting to change the subject, ?what do you think of the Isle of Castaways??

    ?Too soon to tell for sure,? Shades replied as they boarded the ship, ?but I like what I see so far.?

    The fact that the ship remained untouched, unlike their worrisome experience in Bodeen, also did much to raise of all their appraisals of this place.

    ?And how long do you think we?ll be staying this time?? Justin wondered aloud.

    ?Hmm? Given that there?s no docking fee here, we should take our time,? Shades contemplated, ?rest up for at least a few days, and find out if there?s anything interesting to do while we?re here. I plan to go out and make my usual inquiries, but based on what Rod and Deej told me, I?m not really holding out for anything.?

    ?And definitely stock up on more food,? Max added. ?We?ll clearly need more than we left Sarna with.?

    ?And fuel,? Justin threw in, ?and I suppose we?ll still have to pay that old pirate??

    ?Well, he did save our lives,? Shades reminded him.

    ?And as long as the prices are more forgiving than Bodeen, we should definitely eat at Bankshot again,? Ma?Quiver remarked. ?That Jillian can really cook! Someday, some lucky guy is gonna get to eat like that every day!?

    ?Until he?s so fat he can hardly waddle, if he ain?t careful!? Shades laughed, then lamented, ?Pity next time won?t be on the house.?

    ?Of course, Rod was saying that if we needed more money, they?d play a benefit show for us,? Max told them, ?but I?m hoping it doesn?t come to that. It sounds like they really need the money for themselves right now.?

    ?I don?t know about you guys,? Ma?Quiver told them, ?but I can?t keep my eyes open anymore.?

    ?Same here,? Max and Bandit, yawning and stretching almost in unison. ?I?m turning in for the night.?

    ?Good idea.? Shades plunked down on the lounge couch and stretched out while Ma?Quiver lowered the table to convert it into a bed. ?I think we?re safe enough here that we shouldn?t have to keep watch shifts.?

    ?You?re probably right,? Justin agreed, ?but I don?t think any of us can stay awake long enough anyway.?

    ?Yeah, and I?m sure DJ would have warned us if there was anything to watch out for,? said Max as he went below. ?Good night, guys!?

    And so they went to sleep, wondering what the rest of the island was like, and, after their last couple destinations, silently hoping for a little peace and quiet.
     
  17. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    VII
    The next morning, they all slept in.

    When any of them woke up, around noon, all of them were overjoyed to wake up on the same ship they fell asleep in, to say nothing of being able to look out the window and see the Isle of Castaways in the midst of its midday bustle. That last night?s feast, or their welcome party with DJ and the others, wasn?t just a delusion fueled by hunger and a desperate need to see some friendly faces. Or, in Shades? case especially, that this island community wasn?t just a phantom fa?ade for something more sinister, as meeting Bruno again was a grim reminder of just how insidious that creepy mall really was.

    Of course, something else that served to attest that last night was no dream was a certain old man standing out on the dock, waiting.

    ?I suppose we should probably go pay him,? Ma?Quiver sighed, ?before he starts thinking we meant to cheat him.?

    ?At least he looks sobered up,? Shades commented as he fetched some money. ?I?d be a little worried about a crazy bastard like him showing up to collect while plastered.?

    As he stepped out on deck, Rude Bones stepped forward, striding up to the ship.

    ?Ya better be comin? out to pay what ya owe me,? the old pirate declared sternly. ?I don?t take kindly to bein? swindled.?

    ?I assure you,? Shades replied, ?that was never our intention. You passed out before we even got to talk about it.?

    Though he doubted the old man was going to start a fight at this point, he still took some relief that Ma?Quiver had joined him out on the deck. Recalling something Master Al had warned him once: Don?t pick a fight with an old man. If he?s too old to fight, he?ll just kill you. Though originally talking about old soldiers, he had a sneaking suspicion that adage applied equally to pirates.

    ?Aye, and a fine meal it was,? Rude Bones grinned as he saw Shades whip out some bills. ?Now let?s see the color of yer money.?

    ?Of course,? Shades said, then asked, ?By the way, do know any good places for breakfast??

    ?I was headin? down to the Hang Ten for my morning nip,? he said, ?but you folks would prob?ly find Caf? la Mer more to yer liking. It?s down the way, past Bankshot and the Jolly Roger, but Marie don?t like me none too much, so you?re on yer own there.?

    And so, having no more food onboard than they did last night, the others got ready to go out to eat while Shades ironed out the details of Rude Bones? fee.
    After that, it was off to Caf? la Mer.

    Rude Bones? directions were close enough, leading them around the bend, to a two-story light pink clapboard house, with fancy trim and scrolling, and a large rear patio of tables overlooking the beach beyond. A porch swing swayed gently on the breeze to the right of the broad front steps. Caf? la Mer painted on the wall above the porch in a delicate fuchsia cursive lettering.

    As they walked in, a bell tinkled quietly, though it still made Justin jump in spite of himself. Inside, they found a dining room packed with ornate wooden chairs and tables. Although of several distinct designs, they were arranged such that they didn?t clash with each other, almost to the point that a less observant visitor might not even notice. Behind the counter on the other side of the room, they caught a glimpse of a kitchen, and, Shades suspected, stairs to the second floor, where the proprietor?s own living quarters must surely be.

    A moment later, a petite figure emerged from the back, bustling across the floor to meet them. Barely taller than Justin, but of stocky build and a little on the plump side, billowing apron flowing with her every movement. Her round face framed by light brown hair salted with a few strands of grey, bound in the back in a tight bun.

    ?Welcome! Welcome!? she chirped, her voice straddling the line between middle age and elderly. ?Oh my! New visitors! Welcome to Caf? la Mer! I?m Marie St Claire, proprietor. You just missed the breakfast crowd, but I could still whip something up for you. What would you boys like??

    ?Something from the breakfast menu,? Ma?Quiver requested, ?if it?s not too much trouble.?

    ?And such fine manners you young men have,? she remarked. ?I was just cleaning up for lunch, but there?s still plenty from breakfast to work with. Have a seat, and I?ll tell you the menu.?

    She paused for a moment, tilting her head at their feline companion, then smiled.

    ?What a fine feline you keep company with! I?ll be sure to bring something out for him, too.?

    At first, Shades was somewhat taken aback by not having a written menu to look at, but then it caught up with him that they were on a remote island; aside from seafood, and whatever grew on the island itself, her ingredient stock was entirely at the mercy of occasional outland trading ships.

    She led them to a fresh table and began telling them what she had on hand. Shades was surprised they had eggs until Marie explained that a few of the locals raised chickens. She was also keen on storing up grains and flours from trading ships, confirming what Rude Bones said about her having the best breads and pastries on the island. She also kept an eclectic pantry of canned and dried goods, as well as herbs and other ingredients, making for a broader menu than her modest approach implied.

    After taking their orders, she returned a short while later with a full breakfast platter. Though at first surprised at how hungry they were after pigging out last night, they quickly concluded that a couple weeks of escalating deprivation had taken its toll. Marie?s impressive cooking also tipped the scales in her favor.

    They also enjoyed her tea, though she was well known for her selection of coffees, as well.

    As they ate, other guests passed in and out for lunch, but no one any of them recognized.
     
  18. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    When Marie strolled back over to their table to ask if they needed anything, Ma?Quiver piped up, ?Miss St Claire, do you mind if I ask you something??

    ?Of course, dear,? she replied, ?but please, call me Marie. I?m not used to folks acting so formal around here.?

    ?Sure thing, Marie,? he continued. ?I was just wondering, what kind of fruit was that on the side? I?ve never tasted anything like it.?

    ?Did you like it?? she asked. ?That was fresh guavidu.?

    ?Guavidu?? Max?s face quizzical. ?Mind if I try some??

    ?Why of course,? she smiled. ?I?ll be right back.?

    Shades was fairly sure he heard her go all the way out the back door, as he didn?t hear any footsteps on the stairs, coming back a moment later with a piece of fruit that made his jaw drop.

    It looked like a triple gourd, light yellow, with pink and orange wavy horizontal stripes across the thick parts. Like no other fruit any of them had ever seen before.

    ?What?? Marie looked at Shades? face. ?What?s wrong??

    ?Could it really be??? Shades wondered aloud. Then, seeing the concerned look on her face, he asked Max and Justin, ?Guys, you remember that one story I told you, about that unearthly fruit that simply showed up one day at a hotel back on Earth??

    ?Yeah, so?? Justin paused for a moment. ?You don?t think it?s the same fruit, do you??

    ?Really?? Max asked.

    ?Well, nobody took any photos, and the descriptions were all hearsay?? Shades conceded, recalling what he could of the Breakfast Exchange Program. Yet, though he didn?t know how, he knew, just knew, it was the same. ?Still, I just have this feeling.?

    ?Interesting,? Ma?Quiver commented, slicing up the fruit and giving his companions several slices of its pulpy orange insides. ?Try it. It?s really sweet!?

    Even the aroma reminded Shades of oranges, but with a hint of something else he couldn?t place, and suspected he never would. Max, and even Justin lit up at the taste, and much to Max?s surprise, Bandit liked it, too.

    ?Given that you went outside for this,? Ma?Quiver observed, ?does that mean they grow on this island??

    ?Oh yes,? Marie quipped, ?I don?t know if they?re native to this place, but they grow all over the island. I tend a couple trees in my back yard? they?re very popular around here. Of course, I?ve met a few travelers who?ve seen them elsewhere, so it?s hard to say where they come from.?

    ?I imagine,? Shades mused. ?I suppose if someone took seeds and planted them in a suitable environment??

    ?They must be popular,? Justin remarked, ?if you already ran out today and had to go pick more!?

    ?Oh, good heavens, no! Actually, I suppose you wouldn?t know,? Marie explained, ?but I only serve guavidu fresh from the tree. Once it comes off the branch, it decomposes quickly, often within a day or two??

    She stopped short at Shades? stunned expression.

    ?Just like in the story?? he mumbled. Then, more firmly, ?The one thing all versions from my dimension have in common was that it rotted in less than a day.?

    ?Eerie,? Max agreed.

    ?I once met a man who refused to eat this fruit,? Marie told them. ?He called it ?withewa? and said that in his country, it was bad luck for the living to partake of it, that there it is reserved as an offering to the dead.? Then she lightened up. ?But in all my years, I?ve never seen such a thing, and most people here love guavidu.?

    ?Kind of a pity,? Ma?Quiver lamented. ?If these things didn?t rot so fast, you could probably make a brisk trade with travelers.?

    ?I suppose you?re right,? Marie said, giggling slightly, ?but you just reminded me of a really funny story. Back when that pirate Rude Bones first showed up here, years ago, he went and bought some barrels and buckets off some trading ship. Then that old booze-hound went around the island, picking every guavidu that wasn?t growing on someone else?s place. At first, no one really knew what he was up to, until the next day, when he was seen cussing and dumping a couple barrels of rotten guavidu out behind his shack.?

    Shades snorted, then started laughing out loud. ?I see. Thought he?d skip the middleman with his own homebrew.?

    ?I see,? Ma?Quiver snickered. ?Probably thought he?d make a tidy credit or two selling, too, assuming he didn?t drink up all his own merchandise!?

    ?I wonder if that old fool even knows anything about brewing,? Marie laughed, ?or if it was just another fool notion he got after a night at the Hang Ten? Either way, he upset a lot people wasting half a season?s guavidu like that.?

    ?Probably,? Justin nodded, after seeing how screwy the old pirate was acting after the fourth or fifth bottle.

    They all had a good laugh.

    ?I see you?ve met him?? Marie shook her head.

    ?Yeah,? Shades informed her, ?actually, he was the one who recommended this place for breakfast.?

    ?You don?t say?? Marie raised an eyebrow. ?Mayhap the old scoundrel isn?t all bad after all.?

    After thanking her for the meal and paying their bill, she took them outside to see the guavidu tree.

    Much to their surprise, it didn?t look too much different from any of the other deciduous trees intermingled with the rest of the island?s mostly tropical foliage. The only thing that struck them as at all out of place was the occasional dangling vine with one of those mysterious fruits hanging from it. Shades especially found it hard to reconcile how normal the rest of the tree looked compared to its fruit.

    Then they moved on, to continue their tour of this island community.
     
  19. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    VIII

    VIII
    After breakfast, they headed over to Lamar?s Bazaar.

    The place turned out to be a small warehouse in the harbor section, its many shelves stacked with items from any of a number of realms, loosely categorized into aisles containing certain types of goods. Though Lamar himself was out bargaining with another local merchant, three or four assistants continued to run the store in his absence. Just as they were told, it was the single biggest outfit on the island, with a wider selection than any other three stores put together.

    Their first order of business was restocking the ship?s food stores. Fortunately, Lamar?s did a brisk trade with travelers, so they made a point of keeping bulk supplies of canned, dried and salted goods on hand. Bandit?s nose led them straight to the food section, and they got right down to business.

    ?So,? Justin asked Shades, ?now that you?ve seen more of the prices here, how long do you think we can afford to stay??

    ?Probably a couple weeks or more, if we really wanted to,? he answered. That answer might have been more than a month, but after compensating Rude Bones, and learning how much it would cost to refuel the Maximum in a place where fuel was a scare commodity, he wanted to err on the side of prudence.

    ?I?d really rather not stay more than a week,? Ma?Quiver told them, ?but it is your ship. It?s just that after I?ve searched a place, I want to move on.?

    ?I know what you mean,? Shades conceded. ?Now that I know John and Amy aren?t here, the only things holding me back are the need to rest and recover, and the tug new places put on my feet to explore.?

    ?Aside from getting mixed up with Nikopol back in Bodeen, the longest I?ve ever been delayed in any one place was my starting point, Alta,? Ma?Quiver told them. ?And that was only because I fractured my leg.?

    ?That must?ve been rough,? Justin remarked. ?I used to live in some old ruins, but at least I never had to fumble around in the dark.?

    ?You?re tellin? me. My flashlight only worked for the first several hours I was down there,? Ma?Quiver recounted, ?after that I lost all sense of time. Though the city of Alta is said to have been built on successive layers of past ruins, I was still surprised at how much was really down there. A pity I didn?t actually get to see more of it??

    ?But didn?t you say the earthquake opened up entrances to the ruins?? Max asked.

    ?And that was how I got back out,? Ma?Quiver reminded him, ?but the city elders decided to forbid access to the Ruins after the quake. Said it was too risky down there, with the rest of the city sitting on top of it. Later, I heard talk of an expedition, but I didn?t stick around to see how that turned out. Once I could walk again, I set out.?

    ?Then again, you were sightseeing when it happened,? Shades pointed out.

    ?Yes, but that was back when I was still with Master Lazlo,? Ma?Quiver explained. ?We were traveling and training. Even before the disaster, we were hearing rumors that someone had found a passage leading down to the lower levels, places no one had seen in centuries. Of course, there were tales for years of thieves and smugglers using secret tunnels, but this was different. Given how ancient everything is down there, if somebody was digging or something, that would probably have been enough to trigger a collapse. After all, I kept hearing people saying that earthquakes were unheard of in those parts.?

    ?Could be,? Shades mused. ?Back in my world, I?m told some thieves in my mom?s home town broke into some local shops after stumbling across forgotten tunnels beneath the streets, something left over from the Nineteenth Century. At first, the police were stumped, but they got too greedy, and kept hitting the same place, so they got caught. Last I heard, they were planning to turn it into some kind of tourist attraction.?

    ?Tourists, huh?? Ma?Quiver sighed. ?From what I saw of the Ruins, I?m with the city elders about it being too dangerous. Whatever fell apart down there, it demolished entire sections of town up on the surface. I saw the devastation for myself later, and have no trouble seeing why Lazlo would think I was dead. Though I don?t remember much from when I was found, I spent the first few days in a hospital tent. Much to my surprise, I was taken in by a fairly wealthy man, who was funding the relief effort, and whose son kinda reminds me of Max, now that I think about it??

    He looked like he was about to say something more, when Justin came rushing up, waving a comic book, saying, ?Hey Shades! Check this out!?

    ?I see?? Shades looked that the cover. The CrossFire Gang, and #86 ?Extreeeme Jaake!!? One of his favorites. ?And in surprisingly good condition without a dust jacket, all things considered? Where?d you find this??

    ?Over there. Somebody just left it on the wrong shelf, I guess.? He flipped a few pages in, to a splash page of somebody fighting the crazed, gun-toting commando type depicted on the cover. ?This ?Tomcat? guy? denim jacket, sunglasses, all those pockets? You really do like to dress like this guy, don?t you??

    ?You think?? Shades scratched the back of his head, somewhat chagrined at crunching the numbers on how many years that vision had dominated his wardrobe. ?Well, Tomcat was my hero when I was in middle school.?

    ?You?re joking, right??

    ?Nope!? Shades laughed. ?After all, when I grow up, I want to be a ninja.?

    They all had a good laugh at that one.

    ?Ya know, just seeing that again is inspiring,? Shades decided. ?I think we?ve regained enough of our strength to resume training again tomorrow, don?t you think??

    ?Yes,? Max agreed.

    ?Then we continue tomorrow,? Ma?Quiver made it final. ?Bright and early.?

    After that, they finished gathering supplies, Shades and Justin passing the comic back and forth. For a little while, Shades seriously considered buying it; it was a rare and nostalgic piece of his past, but he was increasingly seeing for himself how fast excess baggage could become a burden when traveling as often as he did. Instead, he picked up a grey cap with a peculiar bill, having no cardboard or plastic support inside, which reminded him vaguely of one he saw in a store when he was a kid.

    They then went back to the ship to drop everything off before continuing their tour of the town.

     
  20. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    IX
    Next on their itinerary was a weapon shop Rude Bones mentioned, Jolly Roger Arms. Apparently the only store on the island that ordinarily bought or sold weapons, and the only one where the general ?agreement? about not doing business with armed folks didn?t seem to apply. A fairly small, dimly-lit shop, they found, with a severe shortage of windows, what few there were secured with steel bars.

    Though adequately armed, both Justin and Shades wished they had landed here before Sarna. Despite driving tougher bargains than most of the other shops on the island, the prices were still more reasonable than any they had encountered with the ruthless Bodeen arms merchants. While their own weapons themselves were sufficient for self-defense purposes, there was something Shades wanted to look into.

    That, and one thing they had come to notice about one another was that none of them turned down an opportunity to check out any new weapons that came their way.

    The proprietor turned out to be a frumpy, middle-aged man with a shaggy mop of curly dark hair and a hang-dog face whose eyes were anything but trusting. His gaze flicking back and forth between a yellowing newspaper from some other realm, and watching his sales floor like a hawk now that he had visitors, between swigs from a beer can sitting openly on the counter. As if to remind anyone who entered that there were no laws here, no cops, no courts.

    No hospitals, either.

    A point Shades took to heart, for Rude Bones warned them this Gloomy Gus kept a sawed-off disrupter rifle under the counter. And was known to have used it on several occasions against would-be robbers and unruly customers. Fair play, he figured, as the whole weapon-carrying thing cut both ways.

    ?Since this place does business with pirates,? Justin speculated as they walked down the center aisle, having heard of ?neutral ground? shops, ?do you think they?ll have??

    He trailed off as Bandit stopped short, sniffing the air as a low, menacing snarl issued from under the front counter, the sound bringing all of them to a halt.

    ?Hey, why?re you bringin? that thing in here?? Gloomy Gus demanded, glaring at the big cat from over the top of his paper. ?Just ?cause there?re no laws around here don?t mean there?re no consequences, either.?

    From around the counter strode a pudgy pit-bull wearing a spiked collar, growling low and threatening, Bandit slowly edging in front of Max in a defensive posture.

    ?Butch ain?t too fond of other animals,? he warned them, ?and once he snaps, even I can?t stop him.?

    ?I see?? Max was fast concluding that, even in a land with no laws, it was probably unrealistic to expect his feline friend to be welcome everywhere they went. Turning to Bandit, he said, ?Let?s go. This is his territory.?

    ?I think I?ll be taking my leave, as well,? Ma?Quiver seconded. ?An after-breakfast stroll sounds refreshing.?

    ?You do that,? Shades said absently, relieved to resolve things peacefully, since he still had unfinished business here. ?I?ve got something I want to look into while I?m here.?

    ?Same here,? Justin added as Max and Ma?Quiver eased Bandit back out the door. ?See ya later.?

    Once the big cat was out, Butch settled down, grumbling as he crawled back onto a lumpy old pillow near his master?s chair.

    Though Shades didn?t particularly like to ditch his friends after that, he was also curious about that newspaper, in addition to his original business. Among all the events abroad, he wondered what could have happened in another realm that a Gloomy Gus like him would find so fascinating. Casually edging closer to the counter, glancing at various pieces of merchandise, he caught a glimpse of the headline.

    ELYRIA VANISHED! ENTIRE ISLAND GONE! in enormous bolded print, most of the front page splashed with a photo of what appeared to be an empty expanse of water.

    ?If you don?t mind me asking,? Shades brought up, ?might you tell me where that paper?s from??

    ?What business is it of yours?? he demanded.

    ?Just simple curiosity,? Shades replied. ?I?ve always had an interest in the bizarre and mysterious, and I?d like to know how an entire island disappears.?

    ?Camcron made it disappear, that?s how,? Gloomy Gus muttered, folding the paper. ?This is from Eelya. For all I know, anymore it might be the last copy outside of there, the only record of what happened to Elyria.?

    ?Camcron?? Shades gasped, not expecting to hear that name again so soon. ?That would explain a few things, all by itself.?

    ?What did those bastards do this time?? Justin muttered, recalling their fun stay in St Lucy all too well.

    ?Wait a minute!? He simply looked back and forth between them. ?Just what do you know about Camcron??
     
  21. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?I know they like to toy with small towns with faltering economies,? Shades informed him. ?Only weeks ago, we got stuck in the Isle of St Lucy, where one of their ?Research Institute?s? little science projects kept the same day on repeat loop, over and over.?

    ?There was this underground lab, and all these computers and shit,? Justin added, ?and every time we tried to leave, we had to start all over.?

    ?Hey, you?re not just pullin? my leg here, are you?? His eyes narrowed. ?That old pirate didn?t put you up to this, did he? Just ?cause he thinks I?m paranoid??

    ?No, I?m serious,? Shades assured him. ?The only thing Rude Bones said about you was that you were packin?. I wish I had some kind of proof, but tell me, what did they do in Elyria anyway??

    He seemed to look inward for a moment before he answered.

    ?I suppose, but I want to hear about your experience in? St Lucy, was it, first. By the way, the name?s Wilkins. Russell Wilkins.?

    And so Shades and Justin introduced themselves. They spent an hour or so telling him about Project Pythagoras and its aftermath. The more they explained about Adnan?s Academy and Sheriff Boggs, the more Mr Wilkins started taking them seriously, his knowing nods and scowls suggested that he was no stranger to Camcron?s ways himself. Shades especially was increasingly certain that his account would also be from personal experience.

    As they talked, Shades examined Jolly Roger?s selection of holsters, finding several shoulder and sling holsters that would be well suited to concealed carry underneath his denim jacket. Though he had every intention of honoring the local accord on weapons during his stay, at least as long as things remained peaceful, it was their dislike of open carry that inspired his decision to try concealed in the first place. Reflecting on events in St Lucy, Bodeen and Centralict, as well as future destinations, he wondered why he hadn?t seriously considered it sooner, back at the Tradewinds Mercantile District, if not the market of Kon Miribar.

    Justin too, apparently, from the look on his face.

    Along with dropping off their supplies, the other thing they went back to the ship for was to retrieve his power pistol. Now he handed over his power clip to Wilkins as he tried on different holsters and tested out his draw with his own gun, and his jacket on. Even when his own curiosity wasn?t getting the best of him, even when Justin kept his sticky fingers in check, even when Max?s socially awkward misunderstandings weren?t drawing hostility, hell, even when the locals had no beef with Bandit, the four of them still seemed to function as some kind of trouble magnet. He no longer needed to be sold on the value of having more than one ace up his sleeve.

    Shades had narrowed it down to two choices by the time Wilkins began his recounting of the last days of Elyria.

    ?You see, back then,? he explained, ?Sheridan was an old fishing town, but for a time they had a prosperous trade in outside goods as well. But you know how it goes, when business gets slow, greedy merchant bastards take the money and run. Then somebody got the bright idea to try tourism.? He snorted. ?Don?t know whose brilliant plan that was. The only place I can think of that any tourists would actually want to see wasn?t even on Eelya. It was on Elyria, a clifftop called Land?s End, that I used to hike to as a boy, but I doubt too many folks would go out of their way to see it.?

    ?So that?s why you?ve hung on to that newspaper all this time,? Shades observed: ?You used to live there, didn?t you??

    ?Yeah, I grew up there. For over twenty years, Elyria was my home,? Wilkins told them. ?The place was so small, it only had one town, Sinclair, but most of the island was scattered settlements. I watched the place go downhill since I was a kid, finally got to where I had to work over in Sheridan just to make a living. By that time, it was becoming obvious to even the densest fool around that the tourist thing was doomed from the start. That?s about when Camcron showed up, promising to ?revitalize? Sheridan.?

    ?And let me guess,? Justin speculated, ?they set up a research lab on Elyria, didn?t they??

    ?You bet your ass they did,? Wilkins muttered. ?They ran my grandmother right out of her home. Some shady realtor sold the place right out from under her, somehow tricked her into signing something. Built the ugliest excuse for a building on five generations of my family, to say nothing of Grandma?s gardening. It was simple, but she took good care of it?

    ?Anyway, the point is that for all their talk, they never did jack shit for most of us. Sure, they poured a small fortune into local coffers, but the only ones who even saw any of it were corrupt officials and businessmen who were all in Camcron?s pocket. It was really more like hush money than any real contribution to the community, and before long, they just seemed to own the place. And there were always weird rumors about that ?research facility? of theirs, especially near the end of the whole mess, but if they were just rumors, then why was the Institute so determined to shut people up, huh??

    ?I think I?m beginning to see a pattern here,? Shades commented. ?That?s exactly how they leveraged everyone back in St Lucy.?
     
  22. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?And that was when it happened,? Wilkins explained. ?I was working over in Sheridan, over in the harbor, when I heard the commotion. Elyria disappeared. An entire island, disappeared. Not sank, not exploded, not flooded, just gone, empty ocean, as if it never existed. My home, my shop, my family, my girlfriend, my entire life, all vanished in the blink of an eye??

    ?Damn?? Justin breathed. Once upon a time, he would have thought this guy was yanking his chain, but after the Institute demonstrated that it could make an entire day repeat itself again and again, he found that photo on the front page frighteningly believable.

    ?And let me guess,? Shades intoned, ?Elyria was never seen again??

    ?Not as far as I know,? Wilkins answered. ?Not many travelers through here been to Eelya, and none of ?em have ever seen Elyria. Apparently, they don?t talk much about it with outsiders, but back then it was the talk of the town. It?s almost a sick joke, how that could have made a tourist story? Still, I did hear a lot of fishermen stay away from the area where Elyria used to be, and I can?t say I blame them.?

    ?I wonder what they were trying to do there?? Shades mused.

    ?Project Parabola?.? Wilkins hissed. ?That was what they called it. They had an office in Sheridan, but the night after Elyria disappeared, there was a fire. The whole place burned, every scrap of every document, and their ?Representative? was found dead the following morning.?

    ?Just like that head researcher? Grady, I think his name was,? Shades thought aloud. ?His corpse was still fresh, barely a day old, as if his killer set Project Pythagoras in motion and skipped town in a hurry. Now I wonder if their experiments are really ?successes? or just sabotaged. It looked like there was some kind of internal power struggle there??

    ?And this whole Geist business,? Justin muttered. ?What the hell was that all about??

    ?Geist?? Wilkins looked over at Butch out of the corner of his eye. ?I?ve heard the name a couple times, always in spooked whispering, but I?ve never heard of anybody who?s ever seen him, or actually knows anything.?

    ?Yeah, only the people who called on Grady?s phone to warn or threaten him ever mentioned Geist by name,? Shades recalled, ?and they both made a pretty big deal out of him, like he was some kind of enforcer or something. Though I?m glad he never showed up while we were there, I still can?t help but wonder??

    ?Yeah, same here,? Wilkins concurred before continuing his tale. ?With nothing left for me in Elyria, I decided to ship out. Back then, I was going to make my way to New Cali, give those Camcron bastards a piece of my mind, but along the way, it bothered me more and more that I had no evidence, and word was that Camcron was in the business of covering up these sort of shenanigans, so I went looking.

    ?I found out that their ?Projects? are spread way apart, in far-flung realms, and often years in between. There was Elyria, I?ve heard talk of one in a place called Sinovia, and now you tell me about St Lucy. I only found one other place some years ago, Parker Pines, a small town where they were just starting up one of their ?research facilities? so I decided to stick around, see what happened.

    ?Of course, I told some folks about what happened to Elyria, but nobody listened to me. The local police threatened to run me out of town, the mayor?s secretary called me a crackpot. And the only person who?d listen to me was an old man whose home Camcron bought right out from under him, the local government tripping over their own feet to get their hands on that ?development money? before the neighboring town. Another ?tinfoil hat? nobody?d listen to.?

    ?Hard to say which one makes a harder case for himself,? Shades remarked: ?the outsider, or the long-time resident who got the short end of the stick, and whose reputation, I?m guessing, didn?t exactly lean toward credibility??

    ?You got that right,? Wilkins snorted. ?Ended up living out of a truck with his dog, he camped near the construction site, as close as he could get without the cops runnin? him off anyhow. Snuck into the place a couple times while they were still building it, telling me about strange machines nobody in those parts had ever seen before. The second time, he brought a camera, but their private guards broke it when they caught him. After that, we were going to sneak in together, try an? find something that would convince the people just how dangerous their research was.?

    ?Were?? Shades raised an eyebrow.

    ?Well, that was the plan,? Wilkins admitted, ?but when I went to meet him that night, he didn?t show up. I looked around, and when I found him, out in the woods nearby, he was dead. Not a mark on him, but stiff? petrified? with the most awful tormented look frozen on his face! I ran all the way back to the truck, where I found his poor dog, just sitting there, whimpering and whining like I?d never seen a dog do before.

    ?Though the poor mutt looked unharmed, he acted as if he had been beaten within an inch of his life. After that, I took his truck and skipped town. Lived in it all the way back to the coast. After that, I was afraid to stop anywhere for more than a few hours, so certain they were looking for me, too. Looking back, I s?pose I just helped them cover up his murder, but I was too scared to stick around and find out. I took the first ship that would take a dog, and I?ve taken care of Butch ever since.?

    ?I see.? Shades had noted, over the course of that last account, that poor dog becoming increasingly stressed, as if his keeper wasn?t the only one digging up unpleasant memories.

    ?Kept him with me all these years,? Wilkins patted him on the head, reassuring him, ?but I?ve never heard a peep about what became of Parker Pines. I just keep an ear out for anything about Camcron, but most folks just say I?m paranoid. It?s nice every once in a while to hear you?re not crazy? hell, I might even give you a discount on that holster.?

    ?Cool,? Shades replied.

    ?Who knew that whole mess back there would actually turn out to be worth something?? Justin wondered aloud.
     
  23. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    X
    While they were finishing up Shades? purchase, a snug-fitting shoulder holster, and Justin started making inquiries about bolts, Rod breezed in, browsing Jolly Roger?s wares.

    ?Fancy meeting you guys here,? he remarked. ?Can?t say I was expecting you, but I guess I shouldn?t be surprised. In any case, this works out well, since I wanted to ask you for some advice. You know, practical advice, from somebody who?s been there.?

    ?What do you mean?? Shades asked.

    ?Fighting,? Rod elaborated. ?Even one of you has seen more action than all of us combined. After hearing about your crazy adventures, I think it?d be a good idea to arm ourselves, and start practicing, before we set out to tour the world.?

    ?Good thinking,? Justin chimed in. ?You can never be too well prepared out there!?

    ?There?s not a shooting range around here, but I suppose I could set something up.? Recalling their harrowing travel tales with every word. ?I was just wondering if you guys have any pointers.?

    ?Yeah,? Shades told him. ?First and foremost, always be sure you know what you?re shooting at before you shoot. The last thing you want to do is accidentally hit your friends.?

    ?I think that one?s pretty obvious, isn?t it?? Justin jumped in. ?I?ll tell you the most useful thing I was ever told about guns, and I?ll do it for free ?cause you?re his friend. You wanna practice your quick-draw every day. I always practice ten times before I go to sleep.?

    ?That?s a keeper,? Shades seconded. Back when they first met, he had his doubts based on his companion?s crude form at hand-to-hand, but after witnessing Justin?s gunplay for himself, he could see just how skilled he really was in that department. ?I?ve been doing that for a while, and it?s definitely helped.? Though not half as fast as Justin, at least he wasn?t fumbling it anymore. ?You want to get it down to where you can do it in your sleep. A weapon is no use if you can?t get to it fast enough. An ambush won?t give you time to think about technique.?

    ?I see,? Rod nodded. ?You guys weren?t kidding about all that shit, were you??

    ?Damn straight!? Justin laughed. ?Unless you can draw quick enough, and aim decently at the same time, your gun might as well be back on the ship for all the good it?ll do ya when you really need it.?

    ?I don?t know exactly how to say it,? Shades informed him, ?so I?ll be blunt: you can?t think in terms of your old life. Master Al was a combat veteran, whereas I grew up in a civilian society. These days, I think I?m finally starting to get what he was trying to teach me all those years. I?m just glad I started to ?get it? before it got me.?

    While they were talking, Rod was browsing the gun display, pausing at something that made him blink in spite of himself. At his request, Wilkins fetched it out of the case, allowing him to examine it. Both Justin and Shades trailed off as Rod turned over the peculiar piece in his hands, Shades especially, as something about it struck him as eerily familiar.

    ?Roulette??? Rod stammered, rotating the gun to examine all six of its gatling-gun barrels. Attached to an assault rifle stock, with a stabilizing hand-grip on top. Four slots for power clips lined the length of the buttstock, Justin noticed. ?My Zero Hunter weapon, just like in my dreams??

    Though not an exact likeness, Rod found the resemblance most uncanny.

    ?Roulette?? Shades also pondered that name, seeing Rod in a whole new light while holding that weapon. Certainly older now, but that was to be expected after seven years. ?You mean, from the Resistance??

    ?Wait a minute,? Justin blurted. ?What are you talking about? You know this guy from somewhere??

    ?Yeah?? Shades mumbled, his certainty building the more he thought about it. ?But only in my dreams. We used to fight together, as a team.?

    ?Shades?? Rod mulled over that name. Of course, he had wondered why the name ?Shades? sounded so familiar to him back at the Mall, but back then he had been too preoccupied with the curse, and their first live show, to give it much thought. Now, holding this weapon, he found himself remembering a lot of things he hadn?t thought much about until he wound up in the Sixth Dimension. ?It really is you, isn?t it??

    ?But? I thought you were just a dream?? Or at least assumed he was back then, as he had no analogue to anyone he knew in the waking world. Just another ?denizen? of the dream world, if an ally rather than an enemy.

    ?Yeah, but I?m the one who told you not to use your real name there, remember??

    ?Yes, the Resistance? the Zero Hunters?? Among them, a young man who called himself Roulette? a voice that was and wasn?t Carlos?, threatening them? It was starting to come back to him. All the crazy dreams he used to have when he was a kid. Especially that year. Things he had thought less and less about in the intervening years, while his thoughts were more focused on his more recent dreams these days. ?I remember, you and Quincy, and Amy, too??

    ?Amy??? Rod paused for a moment. ?You don?t mean??
     
  24. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?Tomboy?? they both blurted in unison.

    ?You mean she?s the one you?ve been looking for all this time?? Rod gasped.

    ?What the hell are you guys talking about?? Justin demanded, looking back and forth between them.

    ?I?m not even sure where to begin,? Shades told his friend. ?I used to think it was all just a dream?? Turning back to Rod. Roulette. ?But if you were real?? Back then, he kept telling himself it couldn?t really be her, just another dream figment tagging along for the ride? too afraid to ask her in the waking world, despite being right in the next row in class, so close, yet so very far away, for fear she might think he was some kind of freak? ?Then does that mean Amy?? Not so sure he liked where this was going, given the kind of dreams she starred in in this world, combined with the kind of dreams she used to turn up in back in his. ?This could take a while to explain, but I?ll tell you about it later, okay??

    Looking a trifle miffed, Justin turned back to negotiating replacement flash and smoke bolts from Jolly Roger?s rather limited selection.

    Turning back to Rod, Shades asked, ?So, if you were real, then does that mean Quincy was real, too??

    ?Yes,? Rod answered, his face turning somber. ?He lived in another town, so it was only hearing about it from a friend who lived there that I found out what happened. We only met once, on a field trip, because we recognized each other in the waking world. But you remember how he disappeared, right before those last couple battles before the Rift closed??

    ?Sort of.? Shades liked where this was going even less than thinking about the implications of Amy?s dreaming plight. Probably because it was another unwelcome factor in this equation.

    ?Well, he was found dead one morning,? Rod told him, his voice ashen sober. ?I had to do some digging to find out, but it turns out he died in his sleep. Parents found him dead when he wouldn?t wake up for school. Not a scratch on him, cause of death unknown.?

    ?The Zeroes got him?? Exactly as Shades feared. ?Will wake up dead (Trap)? Almost wishing he could forget Amy?s entry in the Book of Fate. Back when he was a kid, he sometimes feared that if he had taken even one wrong turn in some of those dreams, he would never wake up, but over the years had written it off as scaring himself needlessly. ?Those weren?t just normal dreams, were they??

    ?I think you?re right,? Rod agreed. ?I?m just flying by the seat of my pants here, but the best theory I can come up with is that there is more than one level, more than one layer, to the dream world. For instance, there?s just your own dreams, which are probably no more dangerous than, say, watching a movie??

    ?But go deeper down the rabbit hole?? Shades speculated, ?and you end up someplace other dreamers can wander into, as well. And if you die there??

    ?You don?t come back,? Rod nodded. ?Of course, I can?t help thinking that most pass through that level from time to time, but most don?t stick around long enough to take any serious risks, or maybe wake up before they?re in too deep? I used to warn Quincy not to wander off on his own, but he always insisted on scouting out that weird No Man?s Land on the border of Zero territory. He always had a bad habit of letting his curiosity get the best of him.?

    ?And sometimes you couldn?t wake up,? Shades recalled, that was especially true in No Man?s Land, that eerie place where the fabric of the dreamplane itself seemed to have been corrupted by the Zeroes? presence. ?I hope nothing like that happens to Amy.?

    ?If I were you,? Rod said, face and tone dead serious, ?I would try to catch up with her in there, even you can?t find her out here. I mean, I know she was a Zero Hunter like us, but it sounds like she?s forgotten how to fight in that world, and you might be able to remind her.?

    ?I see.? Shades nodded. ?I?ve been having some creepy dreams these days, but none of them are like those dreams? It?s like I?m just a spectator, rather than a player. I don?t think I remember how to go all the way down??

    ?You have to try,? Rod pleaded, ?for her sake, as well as ours. You have a stronger connection to her, so you?re more likely to find her in there. To tell you the truth, I?m also having trouble getting into it, but I?ve seen enough to convince me that the Zeroes are back, and you don?t want her to have to face them a??

    ?There you are!? Dusk poked his head in the door. ?Everybody else is ready to rehearse! Come on, man!?

    ?Just a minute!? Rod called back, then turned back to Shades. ?Just remember, it?s dangerous in there, so keep your wits about you. Don?t let the fog of dreams cloud your mind on that side. We?ll talk about this some more later, okay??

    ?Okay.? Shades half expected this to be some kind of prank, but Rod knew way too much. Even Amy?s old Zero Hunter codename, something he had never told a soul in the waking world.

    ?Yo, Russell,? Rod turned to the proprietor, handing him the peculiar piece, ?this thing?s an important memento from my childhood. I don?t suppose I could talk you into hanging onto this while I make payments??

    Leaving Shades to his own troubled thoughts as he wandered out the door with his new shoulder holster little more than an afterthought.
     
  25. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    XI
    Seeing that Justin had long since left Jolly Roger Arms, Shades wandered down the way a bit, eventually bumping into Max and Ma?Quiver, out stretching their legs along with Bandit.

    ?What?s up?? Ma?Quiver asked, noting the serious look on Shades? face. ?You look like you?ve got a lot on your mind.?

    More than he had at the Bazaar, at any rate.

    ?Well,? Shades wondered, much like with Justin, where to even begin, ?have you ever had a dream about somebody you never knew in real life, only to find out years later that they really did exist??

    That prompted a quizzical look from both of them.

    ?What do you mean?? Max cocked his head.

    ?It could take some time to explain,? Shades told them. ?I, uh, kinda feel like sitting down after that??

    ?Then let?s go eat,? Max recommended. ?I don?t know about you guys, but I?m starving!?

    ?How about the Hang Ten?? Ma?Quiver suggested. ?Rude Bones can keep his brew, and drink it too, but that one girl, Jillian, said Kalika makes the best seafood on the island.?

    ?Sounds good,? Shades replied.

    Turned out they hadn?t far to walk at all, as their meandering had brought them within a stone?s throw of the Hang Ten Bar & Grill already. A low, sprawling driftwood building down close to the beach, with a weathered collection of old surfboards leaning against the wall on either side of the entrance. Inside, they found even more surfing and sailing memorabilia lining the walls, adding color to the spaces between porthole style windows.

    Clusters of tables and chairs, of more uniform but of less decorative make than Caf? la Mer?s, with a broad bar on one side, the windows offering a tranquil view of the Ocean. Shades almost immediately noticed several arcade games off to the side, making a mental note to check them out later. It was still too early for the dinner crowd, so there were only a handful of people about.

    ?Well, at least we shouldn?t have to wait too long for our dinner,? Ma?Quiver quipped as they approached the bar. ?Excuse us, ma?am, but we?d like to order.?

    As she looked up from wiping glasses and dishes, Max was taken aback for a moment by the barkeep?s violet eyes. Then he relaxed, reminding himself where he was. He guessed from the looks on their faces that Justin and Shades had noticed, as well.

    ?What?s their problem?? the proprietor demanded. A middle-age woman of medium height and build, with mid-length sun-bleached hair, her sleeveless tunic exposing exotic glyphs tattooed on her deeply tanned shoulders. Her face a study in world-weary exasperation that struck them as well-suited to a bartender.

    ?I think they?ve had a few bad experiences with Cyexians before,? Ma?Quiver remarked.

    ?Oh really?? she raised an eyebrow, taking a no-nonsense tone that surely came in handy talking down folks who?d had a few too many. ?And just what kind of Cyexians were those??

    ?Pirates, mostly,? Shades answered sheepishly, wishing no one had even brought it up. Remembering Kato and the Triad, he tacked on, ?And the occasional swindler.?

    ?Always pirates,? she sighed, having clearly been over this more times than she cared to count, ?pirates and mercenaries and Pactra? When I first started, it was because that was the only way for us to make a living on the high seas where I came from, not because my goal in life was to be an outlaw.? Then her face softened somewhat. ?Still, it?s not like we?re welcome in every realm, so I guess it?s only fair to say that?s how I might?ve ended up myself if I hadn?t found my true passion in life.?

    ?And what might that be?? Ma?Quiver asked.

    ?Why, I thought it?d be obvious to you boys just by lookin? around!? she laughed, sounding younger than she had at any point in this entire conversation. ?Surfing, of course! Ever since I saw it on Moki Island, I knew that was what I wanted to do, even before I learned how. By the way, the name?s Dagmar, co-owner of the Hang Ten.?

    And so they introduced themselves.

    ?I first met my partner, Kalika, during my travels, seeking good places to catch a wave. On a good day, the waves here are some of the best I?ve ever ridden.?

    ?Kalika?? Max thought a moment. ?The one who makes great seafood??

    ?And great surfboards, too,? Dagmar added, gesturing over to one of the tables.

    Wiping down a table, he was a man of average height, and that lanky, sinewy physique of someone who swims a lot. Hair bleached almost white, with a tawny skin tone, and a weathered face that made it impossible to pin down his age. Decked out in the shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops that seemed to be common attire around the island.

    ?The best waves are in the morning, so we?re never open before noon. The perfect way to start the day, don?t you think??

    ?I see,? Shades nearly giggled, wondering if he hadn?t listened to too many Beach Boys songs on the radio as a kid, ?now if only people like Striker would just find a hobby.?

    ?Damn, no wonder you were so edgy!? Dagmar remarked. ?Lowlifes like her give all our sisters a bad name. In my youth, I used to run with Striker,? she winked, ?but not the one you?ve heard of.?

    ?What do you mean by that?? Max?s face puzzled.

    ?If you really want to know, go ask him.? Pointing to a table in the corner, where they saw Rude Bones sitting with another familiar face. ?He?ll talk your ear off about ?the good old days?? your other ear, too, if you buy him a drink. Me, I don?t like to dwell.?
     
  26. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?Rude Bones?? Ma?Quiver intoned.

    ?You know him?? Dagmar cocked her head.

    ?Sort of,? Shades clarified. ?He kinda saved our lives yesterday when we were stranded.?

    ?You don?t say?? Dagmar grinned. ?Maybe the old fart does have some redeeming qualities!?

    ?Well, he did charge us for fuel,? Ma?Quiver pointed out.

    ?There we go, that sounds more like the good-for-nothing scoundrel I know!? she laughed. ?And that would explain why he?s paying his tab up-front for a change??

    ?But what?s Justin doing hanging out with him?? Max wondered aloud.

    ?Don?t rightly know,? Dagmar sighed, ?but like most things he does, it bugs me. I mean, I know there aren?t any laws here? something I normally like about the place? but at times like this, I wouldn?t mind a drinking age to wave in his face??

    As she turned back to her work, they went over to see what was up at their table.

    ?Hey guys!? Justin called out, waving a beer bottle at them. ?What took ya so long??

    ?Oy kitty!? Rude Bones waved at Bandit.

    ?Um, Justin, are you okay?? Max asked, having never seen him like this before. Weird, like Rude Bones was last night. Only when Rude Bones was like that, he just seemed even more like himself, whereas Justin?

    ?You?ve been drinking, haven?t you?? Shades had his suspicions after hearing Dagmar?s remark, but it was still something else to actually see it for himself. Trying to shrug off the awkwardness of his own upbringing and customs, ?I mean, I know there aren?t any laws around here??

    ?Damn skippy!? Rude Bones interjected. ?We was just talkin? ?bout pirates!?

    ?Yeah, and one thing led to another,? Justin blurted. ?This stuff tastes pretty funky, but for some reason I don?t mind??

    ?Feel free to partake,? the old pirate invited with a lopsided grin. ?Yer money goes further with her than it does with that miser at the pumps!?

    ?No thanks,? Ma?Quiver declined. ?Shanshou-kan is an art that requires intense mental focus. As part of my training, I abstain from anything that dulls the mind.?

    ?What he said,? Max hastily added. Aside from entertaining the occasional Outlander, he couldn?t recall his parents drinking. That, and there was just something about Justin?s manner that bothered him, as if he wasn?t quite the same person.

    ?I?ll pass,? Shades said, but took a seat as Max and Ma?Quiver looked at him for a moment, then turned to each other and left, leaving him alone with them. This could be entertaining? ?But I?ll stick around for the conversation.?

    ?Party poopers? more for me, I guess,? Rude Bones sniffed, taking another sip. ?Suit yerself.?

    ?So,? Shades broke in, trying to keep things conversational, ?Dagmar says you used to know Striker.?

    Justin spit his brew at that one.

    ?That all depends,? Rude Bones smirked. ?Which ?Striker? ya talkin? about??

    ?How many can there be?? Justin demanded.

    ?Oh, there?ve been several, t?be sure,? the old pirate leaned back in his chair, ?even a couple imposters who were askin? for it.?

    ?I?d say!? Shades laughed. ?That sounds like a dangerous name to throw around out there. I?m surprised anyone would dare.?

    ?Ah, but the one she was talkin? about was one of her predecessors,? he went on. ?There?s been at least half a dozen Cyexian pirates named ?Striker? in the last few generations, ?s?almost more of a title than a name anymore.?

    ?I see.? Shades nodded.

    ?Seeing as how only you stuck around,? Kalika announced as he brought a tray of seafood over to their table, ?I took the liberty of making only one order. I hope it?s to your liking, young mariner.?

    ?Thank you,? Shades replied as Kalika walked away, shaking his head at Justin, who simply cocked his head back as if to say, What?

    ?Along with the name,? Rude Bones continued, ?t?other thing the ?real? Striker had was a pair of laser swords, a matching set. They were apparently passed down from one Striker to the next.?

    ?Say Justin,? Shades cut in, ?you should really try the crab!? Hoping he could make this little rite of passage a little less painful for him. ?It?s some of the best I?ve ever tasted!?

    ?Yeah, sure, whatever,? Justin replied, nibbling at a few bites, then turning back to Rude Bones. ?So if there?s supposed ta be two?ve ?em, why?d the Striker we met only got one??

    ?Ah, that?s where Dagmar?s Striker comes in,? the old pirate explained. ?She don?t talk about it no more, but back in the day she use?ta run with some pretty wild gals. Trust me, I can tell ya just how wild? heh, heh.?

    ?I?m sure you can,? Shades assured him, shoving some of the appetizers across the table, though Justin wasn?t paying any attention, ?but I believe you were talking about Striker??

    ?Yeah,? Rude Bones sighed, ?well, long story short, Striker lost one of ?em in a duel.? He cackled for a moment. ?And to a man, no less! From what I heard, she was pissed. She spent the rest of her days searching for that sword, and the man who took it. I think that?s when Dagmar left her crew. Striker was so obsessed with that sword, and with revenge, they say she lost her crew, her ship, and finally her life, without ever finding either the sword or the swordsman.?

    ?So there?s another exotic blade like that floating around out there,? Shades mused.

    ?Ya got that right,? the old pirate warned them, ?and every ?Striker? since her has been lookin? for it ever since. If yer friend actually beat her, ya can bet yer ass she?ll be lookin? for revenge!?

    ?Yeah,? Shades laughed to himself, though he didn?t much care for the idea of meeting her again, ?when we parted ways, she was mad enough to chew lumber and spit toothpicks. The fact that we sank her ship means she has it in for all of us, not just Max.?

    ?Hate to be in the same neighborhood when she catches up with ya!? Rude Bones laughed.
     
  27. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    ?Ha! We?re not scared?a that bitch!? Justin declared.

    ?Yeah,? Shades chuckled, ?it is easy to say that after the fact, isn?t it??

    ?Oh yeah!? Justin shot back, ?well, it was my EMP grenades got us there?n the first place!?

    ?You mean our EMP?s,? Shades amended.

    ?Damn straight! Was my money that bought ?em!?

    ?Oy! Dagmar!? Rude Bones called out. ?These lads sank that Striker?s ship, ya know that??

    ?And I should care, why?? Dagmar rolled her eyes.

    ?Fer old time?s sake!? the old man told her. ?This calls for somethin? special. Ya still got that mystery bottle ya picked up a while back??

    ?You?re not serious, are you?? Dagmar shook her head. ?Even I have no clue what?s in there.?

    ?A?course I am,? Rude Bones replied. ?There?s gotta be somethin? good in there, right, Dagger??

    ?I told you not to call me that.? Both her tone and her glare sharp enough to draw blood.

    Even Kalika?s already stern disapproval seemed to dial up a notch.

    ?Fine?? Dagmar muttered, digging around under the bar and coming up with an unmarked bottle of something dark pink and hazy, and a shot glass. ?But if you get trashed and make a scene when the evening customers are here, I?ll kick your ass no matter how drunk you are.?

    ?Spoken like a true pirate,? the old man grinned.

    ?And you?ll pay for it in advance.?

    ?Spoken like a true barkeep.? His face and voice pleasant enough, his payment flung across the table.

    ?What the hell is that?? Shades asked as Dagmar plunked the bottle down on the table. While no connoisseur himself, he had still never seen anything like it.

    ?Don?t rightly know,? Dagmar admitted. ?A former sister of the old Pactra traded me for it, but I still haven?t dared to crack it open, given that she?d drink damn near anything. Kinda like someone else we know.?

    ?So, it?s a mystery, huh?? Justin looked at it, noting the way it seemed to shift and shimmer, seemed to almost change color ever so slightly.

    ?Yep,? Rude Bones popped the cork, ?and she?s been hoardin? it all this time, chargin? more?n even her best. This better be worth it??

    He poured a shot, shoving it across the table to Justin, saying, ?First one?s on the young hero who made this possible!?

    ?Really?? Justin sounded flattered enough, but then he just stopped and stared at it for a moment in hesitation.

    ?I don?t know?? Shades took a long look at that glass himself. ?That stuff looks like trouble.?

    ?Ya gonna listen to a prude like ?im?? Rude Bones sniffed. ?I?m offerin? ya the first shot outta respect fer winnin? yer first fight with a Cyexian.?

    Another remark Dagmar spared him a sharp glare for.

    Shades shrugged in resignation.

    ?Not one word!? Justin took up the glass and downed it all in one gulp. ?You?re the one wanted a Donner Party!?

    Then fell over face-first, nearly tipping the table as he rolled off of it.

    ?Out of respect, eh?? Shades couldn?t help noting the childish glee on Rude Bones? wizened face.

    ?Now that?s what?s supposed to happen!? the old pirate cackled, pouring himself a shot and tossing it back, coughing for a moment. ?Now that?s some good shit there!?

    Then his eyes rolled up, and he fell over backward.

    Shades reached over for the bottle, sniffing it cautiously, nearly fumbling it at a powerful, eye-watering smell he had never encountered before.

    ?Dammit! I knew this was gonna be trouble?? Dagmar fumed, ?but he just wouldn?t shut up about it??

    ?I suppose I?ll have to drag him back to his shack,? Kalika muttered, ?but at least he won?t be troubling our guests tonight.?

    ?And I?ll take Justin back to the ship,? Shades volunteered, fearing it would come to something like this anyway. ?I?m pretty sure that was his first time, and I bet that bastard knew it, too.?

    ?And you?? Kalika raised an eyebrow.

    ?I?ve? sampled a couple things along the way,? Shades confessed, recalling a funny detail about living within driving distance of the Canadian border: the realization that at least half of his old classmates ?celebrated? their eighteenth birthdays up there, ?but much like coffee, alcohol?s an ?acquired taste? I just never acquired.?

    ?I see,? he nodded. ?Then take care of your friend. I don?t think moderation is his strong suit.?

    Shades nodded, then turned to his task, saying, ?For what?s it?s worth, your seafood?s to die for.?

    ?Glad you like it.?

    As the two of them set out, Dagmar took a sip from the bottle.

    ?As I thought,? she said after a moment, ?old girl still drinks like a fish.? Then she handed the bottle to Kalika. ?At least he paid his tab in full for once, he can have it if he wants it.?

    Then she went right back to work.
     
  28. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    XII
    Shades sat on the piling of one of the docks, staring out at the sunset.

    Despite his intention to take it easy so soon after their ordeal at sea, he was still sore and stiff from an afternoon of training, but satisfied none the less. A day of training and sightseeing had done him good, as he suspected it had for Max and Ma?Quiver. Justin, on the other hand, had spend most of the day in bed, and was still in a foul mood.

    That?s why they call it hangover, he had explained. And Justin tried to deck him. But he was too out of it to hit the broad side of battleship, and no nauseous, he couldn?t even sleep aboard the ship, complaining about its every movement.

    Mumbling and muttering at him every step of the way as he hauled his friend back from the Hang Ten to the docks. Wondering every step of the way why Justin had to pick a place with no taxis. Still, he was grateful it wasn?t someplace crawling with lowlifes like Bodeen. After Justin woke up just long enough to hurl over the side of the dock, Shades nearly regretted eating so much of Kalika?s delightful seafood.

    More than anything, he just hoped Justin learned something from that.

    Naturally, Max was concerned at first, but Ma?Quiver had served on his fair share of ships, with his share of sailors, and knew what to do. And set about making preparations, while reassuring Max that Justin would be just fine once he slept it off. Bandit, meanwhile, just sniffed at him for a moment, then sneezed at him.

    Between last night?s hassles, and today?s training, it just dawned on him that he?d been too busy to even get around to discussing his peculiar conversation with Rod yesterday. Then again, the last couple nights were the first time in ages that he had no worrisome dreams about John or Amy, though he still wasn?t completely certain if it was just relief after such a desperate week or so at sea, or if it was something about the island itself. Figured he would probably have a better answer after a few more days.

    To be sure, it was a relief, not to be burdened with such worries in his sleep, but his conversation with Rod, with Roulette, did little to allay his concerns while he was awake. Training had provided a few hours? distraction, but now that things had settled down, his mind just kept revolving back around to it. Especially the part about Quincy? not just that he turned out to be a real person, and not a figment of his imagination, but also that he died in his sleep.

    It was even less reassuring in light of Amy?s entry in the Book of Fate. (Will wake up dead.) Made him wonder just how many of the adversaries he faced in those dreams might have been real people. The monsters, he was quite certain, were native to that plane, some of them, he suspected, alien even to that world, yet Rod?s words called every human enemy into question, in a way he was not at all comfortable with.

    It was troubling enough at times, reflecting on the life-or-death battles he had participated in, both willingly and unwillingly, in the last few months. All the enemies he?d run into in passing. Wondering if perhaps he hadn?t already picked up a body count since he walked into this world. Guards, random shootouts, Striker?s crew, marauders in the Konas, Nikopol? Reminded himself that they did try to kill him first.

    For the hundred and eighth time, he wished he could talk to Master Al about it. Yet to think that he may have may already soiled his hands as a kid, without even realizing it, was a most unsettling thought. Akin to playing a video game, only to find out later that he was controlling real-world events. But even as he worried about what Amy would think of him, it dawned on him that she may well have been fighting alongside of him through whole swaths of it.

    Amy. Tomboy?
     
  29. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    XII 2-3

    ?A different evening, a different dock.

    This time on Flathead Lake, rather than the boundless Ocean of another dimension, though he often imagined it as such, with only the fact that he could see the other side to intrude on his fantasies. Paddling around about mid length along the dock, where the water was just starting to inch up over his head, and he could tread water to stay warm. For as the setting sun cast the mountains? shadows across the lakeshore, he could feel cold water from deeper in the lake shifting in around his feet, and even the surface waters were not as warm as they were an hour ago.

    Wearing dark goggles in place of his shades, staying out where simple buoyancy would keep his bare feet from pressing too hard against the sharp rocks along the bottom. After a year of so of training with Master Al, he actually ventured out this far without shoes; a couple more years of training would harden his feet to the point where he would no longer give it a second thought. His sandals, shirt, and towel sitting near the foot of the dock with the others? gear.

    Much like the shadows creeping across the lake, the final days of summer before his seventh grade year were slipping through his fingers just like the water he was treading. Though it was rare for him to receive invitations outside of his tight circle of friends, when told at the store that afternoon that there was a party down by the lake, he nearly declined before hearing that the water today was warmer than usual. Flathead Lake was not only the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, it was also one of the deepest, so most of the time it was too cold for his taste even in the summer. Unlike some of his rare excursions to Foy or other smaller lakes in the surrounding mountains.

    There were only two public docks in Lakeside. One of them was at the marina, right next to the boat ramp. Just down the road from his house, on the other side of the highway. Right next to the boat ramp, giving the water a shimmering, oily surface he never trusted for swimming. Fortunately, the party was being held at the other dock, which, despite also having a boat ramp, was in a less enclosed space than the marina, so the water stayed much clearer.

    Naturally, he came expecting to hang out at the fringes of his upper middle class neighbors? company. Though not in the habit of mooching off folks like them, he also felt no shame in partaking of their barbeque, scoring a couple free hot dogs and a soda from the cooler of people who drove mini-vans hitched to trailers hauling toys that cost more than his mother made in a year. Not like he wasn?t invited. Came expecting to get in some swimming without having to go all the way to Kalispell.

    What he didn?t come expecting was Amy.

    In hindsight, he really should have seen it coming, seeing how many of her friends were in attendance, swimming and sunbathing and hanging out on the dock and the shore. Still, he nearly turned around and went home, chiding himself for getting cold feet before he even dipped his toes in the water. Instead, he decided to stick it out and enjoy himself even though, much as he feared, he never did find any opportunity to talk to her without her friends around.

    He was about to take his leave, when he heard one of the partygoers call out that Amy?s beach ball had somehow gotten bounced past the edge of the dock, slowly drifting out into the lake.

    Having already glided out to the end of the dock by the time the older guy who first went after it just gave up. Looking back, Shades wasn?t really sure what got into him, maybe he was just looking for a way to ingratiate himself in her memories, even if it was only a cheesy act of chivalry. Kicking off the last piling, he went all out.

    Wanting to catch up with the ball before it could get any further out. Not that he lacked confidence in his swimming, but only now did he realize that any inner tubes or other floatation devices were all back on the shore, so he was on his own as he came against the colder water that likely prompted the other guy to turn back. Just beginning to dawn on him that the water out here was deeper than any pool he ever swam in, as several people called out for him to let it go, it wasn?t worth the trouble.

    Even Amy, standing up and nearly shrugging out of the green jacket draped over her shoulders, still wearing the bubble-gum pink one-piece she was swimming in earlier, with that breezy sort of modesty most valley girls were trying so hard to dispense with by her age, and a reminder that the wind coming down off Blacktail Mountain was warmer than the water he was now swimming in, yet he was almost there, so he resolved to go the distance.

    By the time he caught up with the beach ball, he was genuinely alarmed at how far out he was. The dock a daunting distance longer than any swimming pool, he was surprised he could still hear them. Getting behind the ball and pushing it forward as he swam, he tried not to dwell on the contrast between the brightly colored segments rolling before his eyes, and the looming shadow he swam back into.

    Reminded himself that he still had plenty of energy left, that the distance was all in his head, as Master Al always taught him, those onlookers? anxiety was exaggerated.

    All the same, when he made it back, he was a little disappointed to find himself handing off to the guy who turned back, who in turn gave it to Amy, acting triumphant as if he went out and retrieved it himself or something. Amy, in turn, acting more embarrassed than flattered, as Shades gave her the
    V. And giving Shades what he hoped was a meaningful look before handing the ball off to another one of her friends.

    And then, just like that, the party partied on?
     
  30. neko-sennin AKA shadesmaclean

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    …It was only later, sitting on a dock in another world, that he traced the exact moment he gave up on the notion of the Amy who appeared in his wildest dreams, and the Amy of the waking world, being one and the same. As if to confirm that it was too good to be true. It wasn’t as if he expected a medal or something, but it was only thinking about it years later that it occurred to him that all he’d really done that day was fetch a ball, like a dog.

    In retrospect, found he wouldn’t have minded if she patted him on the head, but given the company they were in, decided that he got off lucky since no one else had, either.

    Still, like most of his memories with Amy, it held a special place in his heart.

    Recalled that he would later take even more foolish risks feet-first, just this past summer at John’s bandmate, Becky Chandler’s place down on the lake. They were lucky enough to buy an older property, before they started subdividing the lakefront into narrower slices than a cafeteria pizza to keep up with demand. So preoccupied hanging out with his friends, he had forgotten what he was dealing with, jumping right in.

    And freezing solid, sinking nearly ten feet before he was able to force himself to move, lucky his lungs froze up, too, or he would have let out all of his air, putting himself in absurdly stupid danger, so at least fetching a ball for Amy wasn’t even the dumbest risk he had taken out there over the years.

    As he stared out at the Ocean, he realized that he had never really thought about it from her perspective before. After all, if his childhood adventures on the dreamplane really had involved real people, then that meant she had also had weird dreams about fighting monsters and stuff with him, and he wondered how she felt about that. Did she believe it herself? His mind chased its own tail trying to figure out what sort of conversation he might have had if he’d ever upped the nerve to actually talk about it back then.

    Now it made him wonder if that might have been where Amy was really trying to go with it at the mall when she asked him about paranormal stuff.

    It was about this point he finally noticed he wasn’t alone anymore. Hearing footfalls on the dock planks, he turned to see Twyla ambling along. Turning back to the sea, he waited for her to make her way over to see what she came for.

    “So there you are,” she remarked, making it clear she had come for the conversation rather than the view.

    “I thought you had a show tonight,” Shades answered, wanting to be alone with his thoughts.

    “Yeah, but not for a while yet,” she told him. Taking a seat on the next post, getting right down to the point: “You know, Rod doesn’t really talk much about his dreams, despite saying that he gets a lot of inspiration for songwriting from them. But today, he was a lot more talkative about it than he’s ever been.”

    “You don’t say.” Shades turned to face her, deciding that perhaps he was not as alone with his thoughts as he previously believed.

    “Usually, he doesn’t say, but something you said yesterday really got him talking. He said you used to fight together in his dreams. Zero Hunters, you called yourselves. What is a Zero?”

    “Well, it’s hard to describe,” but Shades attempted to anyway. “They could take a lot of different forms, and could manipulate the dream, sometimes just as much as we could. The only thing we were sure about was that they didn’t belong in our dreams, and they seemed to be ‘after’ something, though we never figured out what. Hell, even in this world, I was pretty sure it was all in my head, right along with having the girl of my dreams along for the ride. But after talking to Rod, now I’m not so sure.”

    “I see,” Twyla nodded. “You’ve seen how big this world is— from what I can tell, you’ve seen a lot more of it than we have. How long do you plan to keep searching for these friends of yours, and what will you do if you never find them?”

    “As long as it takes.” Shades surprised even himself with his own resolve, given how fruitless his search had proven thus far. “John’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m responsible for him being in this mess. And Amy, if it’s true about our dreams…”

    “So she’s that important to you, huh?”

    “Yes, she is,” Shades told her.

    “Then I wish you luck,” she said as she stood up, smiling. “You might just be her best hope, wherever she is. Anyway, it’s almost time for our show, so I gotta get going. Maybe we’ll talk about your dreams again later.”

    “Let’s,” Shades agreed, now glad she’d come along. “And see if you can get Rod in on it, too. There are still some things I’d like to talk to him about.”

    “Sure thing!”

    Then Shades faced back out to sea.

    “And whatever you do, don’t you dare give up.” Twyla turned around. “If your dreams really are connected, then your strength is also her strength. Don’t let her down.”

    “I won’t,” Shades assured her, and promised himself.

    As she turned and continued on her way, Shades realized that he truly meant it, more than he previously thought he had. Found a new sense of confidence in the possibility he had beaten monsters even as a child, that it held out hope for her. Especially since she had fought them, too.

    I’m stronger than I was back then. If I could do it before, I can do it again.

    This he thought as he watched the tide roll in.
     
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2012

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