Max sat near the edge of the food court, munching down more of that too-tantalizing food that the places here seemed to specialize at, occasionally tossing one of those salty golden things they called “fries” to Bandit, who snapped them out of mid air.
He and his companion had wandered for hours, had even tried to talk to a few more people. His results ranged from wary sidestepping to questions about whether or not wild animals were allowed in here, including one person telling his friend Just smile and try not to make eye contact. Still no answers to how he got here, how he could get back to the Centralict Library, or what was going on.
And worst of all, feeling farther and farther from the action back in Tranz-D, no clue if Justin was even still alive.
He had been waylaid for a time by this place’s charms, and still harbored a fascination for the exotic scene he now found himself exploring. Yet he was also becoming increasingly frustrated with his situation. The librarian warned him, of course, but he still couldn’t believe how easily he had been sidetracked from his quest. He was no longer even sure what dimension he was in.
That, and his supply of those papers he had found in Tranz-D, which just as he had been told, Outlanders called cash, were dwindling, so he was beginning to suspect that food would soon be a lot harder to—
“Damn! You keep feeding that poor kitty junk food, he’s gonna have a heart attack or somethin’!”
“Huh?” Max paused, French fry dangling from his fingertips, and even Bandit perked up, his attention swayed from his treat. His contemplations disrupted as this newcomer strode up to him. After a moment, he realized he had seen this one before. The young man still looked very much as he had when Max saw him moshing at Bankshot earlier. Only now, in addition to the heavy-looking jacket and reflective wraparound glasses, he had also donned light but rugged-looking black gloves that somehow all together gave him the impression of armor.
Girded from head to foot in a manner that made Max picture this guy fighting for some reason.
“Of course,” the stranger went on conversationally, “I’m not so sure those things are so good for people either, but hell, you only live once. Mind if I score a couple?”
“I guess…” Unsure what to make of this turn of events, Max decided to do the friendly thing and offer the young man some fries.
“Thanks. Don’t mind if I do…” he said as he grabbed a couple. All that fun during Mosh Hour had definitely worked up an appetite. And, in light of the friendly gesture, since Master Al had always told him, If you wish to know some else’s name, you should give your own first, he said, “Mind if I take a seat? All my friends call me Shades. And you are?”
“I’m Max.” Shared food, shared names, this guy was more friendly than anyone else he had met here so far. Not wanting to pass up a potential friend— and explanation— in this strange place, he was about to ask this Shades fellow if he knew anything about this dimension.
But before he could, Shades asked, “Max who?”
“It’s just Max. I have no other names.”
“Cool.” This made him the first person Shades had ever met with just one name. Simplicity.
“I saw you before,” Max told him, trying to remember the name, “at…”
“Bankshot?” Shades filled in the blank. “Yeah, I saw you, too.” Hard to miss with such strange garb and that big cat in tow. He knew he was pressing this conversation at a fast clip, but as much as it cramped his style, he hoped to plan first, get acquainted later. There was a distinct possibility here, and he could only conclude that it was sheer desperation that drove him to keep up this balancing act of talking out of character while his tone remained so natural.
He tried not to look at his watch, as he had done while talking to Amy in another mall. What felt entirely too long ago. Understanding instinctively this Max’s companion would be the deal-breaker, he then turned and asked, “Who’s your friend? Is it okay if I pet him?”
“His name is Bandit,” Max told him. So far, Bandit hadn’t hurt anyone, still he deferred, “Is it okay with you, Bandit?”
“Hey Bandit!” Shades chirped, reaching out casually, but not too quickly, and patting him on the head. The mere fact that this Bandit allowed him to touch him meant he had earned both their trust. Which was good for both of them in this place of perils he was fast concluding these newcomers were entirely unaware of. “Yeah… ’sa a good kitty…”
“He seems to like you.”
“I have kind a thing for cats,” Shades explained. And he was fast starting to believe he had found a new friend in Max, if not his kitty. “And they usually like me. Bandit, huh. Even on both sides…”
“Huh?” Max had no idea what he meant by that.
“Oh.” Then Shades realized that he was thinking of aloud. “That’s just something my mom used to say about a kitten we took care of years ago. His name was also Bandit.” …Coincidence? This creature looked a lot like the cat who so unexpectedly took ill and died years ago, reincarnated with more attitude. “Anyhoo, Max—”
And that was when he saw it. Earlier, he was going to ask Max about the strange sigil on his headband, as well as where he had picked up his weird clothes and exotic feline friend. Then he saw the symbol on the shoulder bag, and everything else he was about to say came to a crashing halt on the tip of his tongue.
“What?” Even with those dark lenses over his eyes, Max could see the rest of Shades’ face change visibly at something he couldn’t see.
“No way…” Shades had seen some weird shit here in the Sixth Dimension, but… “You’re not a… Nazi… are you?”
“A not… what?” Max had finally figured out what Shades was gaping at. When he first laid eyes on that mysterious insignia on the uniform and pack that washed up with him in Paradise years ago, he had had a bad feeling about it, and now that unease he felt back then returned full force. Back then, he had hidden what he could, for fear of being associated with unknown allies or enemies, and he realized now that in all the confusion of recent events, he had completely forgotten to flip his headband, even.
“Um…” On one hand, Shades felt an inward sense of relief. His friend Arthur had always been an impeccable judge of character, (sometimes he swore) almost a mind-reader. He might not possess Arthur’s ability in that department, but he found Max’s reaction so transparent even he could read him like a book. Yet on the other hand, he also felt a mix of awkwardness and shame for such an insinuation. After a moment, he said, “I’m sorry, dude. Here, let me fix that…”
While Max stood puzzling over what a Nazi was, and why it would upset his new companion so much, Shades reached into one of his many pockets, fishing out a permanent marker he kept for just such occasions and went to work. Perhaps the only marker to ever leave its mark on two different planes of existence, including the very restroom where he dried his clothes once upon a time. When he was finished, the swastika on Max’s pack was marked over with a circle and bar similar to the Bad Religion “cross-buster” logo on his own backpack.
“There. Much better.” Shades stepped back and admired his latest handiwork. Much to his relief he saw that Max was also relieved. “You go around with that thing, and even in this world, somebody’s gonna kick your ass sooner or later.”
“You know what that symbol is?” Max was sure of it, from Shades’ reaction to it. “I found it years ago, and I’ve always wondered…”
“Where I come from, that symbol is practically synonymous with evil.” Then he remembered the reason he wanted to talk to Max in the first place, that the clock was ticking. “I’ll tell you more about it later. Right now we have more important things to discuss than fascism. Tell me, Max. How long have you been here?”
“Here?...” Max paused. That was a good question. Since leaving the sun behind, in a place he still thought of as being somehow “up” from here, his usually reliable sense of direction had deserted him. “Where’s here? I keep asking, but no one will tell me.”
“I’m way ahead of you, Max.” Shades had guessed right; something about this guy’s bearing suggested his new friend no more belonged in this place than he himself did. For finding someone who might listen, this was going better than he could have hoped. “But before I tell you anything else, it’s really important that I know what you’ve been up to. How long have you been here? I know this probably seems weird, but please go with me on this.”
“Well…” Max could sense an urgency about this one that he found hard to ignore. Still, after all he had been through in the last day or so, he had no sense of time left to speak of. “A few hours, I guess… I’ve just been looking around.”
“I see.” Shades tried to conceal his anxiety, telling himself that if Max had no way of telling time, it wasn’t his fault and was beyond both of their control. “I wish you knew, but it can’t be helped. You’ve already eaten the food…” He leaned closer, not wanting to be overheard. “But our time is running out, if it hasn’t already. If we don’t get out of here soon, we’ll both be trapped here forever.”
“What do you mean?” Max found that last unexpected, as no one here seemed to be worried about anything of the sort. Yet there was also an urgency to Shades’ words, and his manner, that alarmed him.
“Please, just take my word for now. I would rather explain it outside if we get free. I’ve been trapped here for almost three weeks, and if you aren’t careful, so will you.”
“Come on. One way or the other, I’ll explain later.” Shades grabbed one last bunch of fries, for the road. “I’ll even treat you to dinner, but we’ve gotta get going now. We may still have a fighting chance if we hurry.”
Max wasn’t sure exactly what got him on his feet. There appeared to be no present danger, yet this Shades knew more about his place than he did. More than anything, though, this guy seemed to be afraid of something, and though he wanted some answers, he had decided that it might be better to act now and compare notes later.
“But if you’ve been trapped…” Max began, trying to puzzle this out as they strode down the hall.
“I don’t know,” Shades replied, picking up the pace, “but if you can still find an exit, maybe we can both get out of here. But we can’t waste a second.” Somehow he knew, instinctively, “The longer we wait, the harder it will be to find it!”
Shades just kept accelerating, from a hustle to a brisk stride to a fast jog, dragging Max behind him. After a short way, Max got swept up in the moment, and Shades had to break into an all-out dash to keep up with him. By now they just charged down the halls, customers simply staring at them as they breezed by, so psyched they hardly noticed.
Ordinarily, Shades wouldn’t dare risk drawing so much attention to himself in this place, but the chance at escape was easily worth the risk, as far as he was concerned.
Together, they raced down one hall after another. Shades had expected Bandit to take the lead, of course, but he also found he was impressed with Max’s speed, as he could barely keep up with his new friend. Still, he was glad this stranger took him seriously, for he wanted to see Max and Bandit trapped here about as much as he enjoyed being trapped here himself.
It was a fate he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.
“There it is!” Shades proclaimed as they came around the next corner. Ahead was a big block of exit doors, beyond which he could see daylight. Of course, he had seen a few skylights in some sectors, but all of them were placed completely out of reach. “You did it!”
In his rush of adrenaline— and hope— he even started to pull out ahead of Max, who genuinely seemed surprised Shades could keep up with him.
“Alright!” Max still wasn’t entirely sure what he was cheering for, but he was now certain an explanation awaited outside. He just hoped Justin could hang on until he could figure out how to get back to the library.
They were within about twenty yards of their goal when it happened.
Shades was going all-out, as he just couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen if they didn’t take this window of opportunity right now… Tunnel vision focused only on the exit door, so he didn’t even see it coming when someone burst out of a little-used side door with a huge hanging rack of clothes. All he heard was Max’s warning to look out, followed by the mover’s cry of alarm as he crashed into it, knocking he whole thing over and sprawling headlong across the floor tiles.
And Max, being unable to dodge in time, tripped over the rack, as well, crashing to the floor next to Shades.
Chapter notes: a friend in need