Shades found himself ascending another escalator through another atrium, having satisfied (for now) his fascination with Club Positronic. He had milled around for a couple hours, until he felt like his eyes were nearly burnt-out, probably bloodshot under his shades, and his feet were just about killing him. What finally prompted him to leave was looking at his watch, and realizing that he had been staring at a fighting game called The Crossfire Gang 2: Tomcat’s Revenge for over an hour in and of itself.
It was almost four o’clock by his watch.
In spite of all the hard-to-believe things that had happened to him in the last hour, hardest of all to own up to was that, in the midst of all this, he had somehow spaced out enough to stand around watching video games for over two hours. In spite of his fatigue, what got his feet moving again was thinking about where John might have gone to, what he might have gone through. He wasn’t sure what he was more ashamed of, being distracted so easily in the middle of an emergency, or not noticing for so long.
When he stepped outside, he stopped at a drinking fountain because he was parched, and discovered that one of his shoelaces had broken somewhere in the course of his evening’s misadventures, had stopped and bought a new one at a shoe store, also stopped and grabbed a hot dog because he was famished. It was somehow becoming harder and harder to think about hitchhikers, black vans and space-time anomalies in the midst of such normalcy.
Time was slipping through his fingers, but his exhausted mind was no longer keeping track. Part of him couldn’t believe he was wasting time like this, yet the rest of his mind was getting too tired to think up a plan. That, and there was a sense of impending danger building in the back of his mind, but couldn’t figure out what that danger could possibly be. How much of it was because he hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours, and how much was just this place and recent events messing with his mind in some elusive way? Earlier, he had been so confident that John would turn up around here somewhere, but now he wasn’t so sure.
It had made sense. At the time. Now the thought crossed his mind that the experiment may have opened passages to other worlds besides this one. In light of this possibility, he resolved to go to the nearest customer service booth to see if he couldn’t summon John over the intercom.
If he couldn’t, then he would go back outside and explore some more.
As Shades neared the top level of the atrium, he noticed a man standing next to him, slung in a safety harness hanging outside the railing to fix some of the neon tubing. The repairman turned back to the task at hand, but appeared to be having trouble concentrating. To Shades, the man seemed nervous in spite of the safety harness. On one hand, Shades figured he’d also be pretty edgy hanging out like that, but on the other, there was something about this man’s anxiety that seemed to resonate with his own in some way he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Even as Shades wondered what precisely had drawn his attention to this old man in the first place, he got an answer.
“Oh…” the repairman muttered, “I can’t do this anymore…” then turned to Shades even as he was about to snap back to his own business, looking at Shades as if he expected something nasty to happen at any second. His next words were quiet and shaky, so he could barely hear them. “Psst!… Come here, young man.”
“Yes…” Shades took a step toward him, and he felt like he just left his real self standing at the top of the escalator.
“There’s no time to explain, but you have to get out of here,” the repairman told him, looking resigned and desperate and crazy all at once. “Right now. It’s too late for me, and it might already be too late for you.”
“What are you saying?”
Something had been nagging at the back of Shades’ mind since he left Club Positronic, and the desperation in this man’s eyes gave him the disturbing impression that this guy somehow knew what it was.
“This place!” the man hissed. “This mall! If you don’t get out of here soon, you’ll be trapped here forever. Trust me, you don’t want that. Look at me!” and his fearful whisper held Shades’ eyes riveted. “I’ve been here for over ten years!”
“You’re seriously serious, aren’t you?” Not that Shades had to ask. At first glance, the repairman would have pegged the repairman for late thirties, perhaps pushing forty, but on closer inspection, the lines, the slump of his shoulders, especially the hollow, long-accepted terror in his eyes, made him look aged beyond his years. Increasingly certain his real self had long since stepped off the escalator and resumed his exploration, Shades reflexively checked his watch, though paying no heed at all to the time. “But how can that be?”
He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand on-end as he watched the seconds climb.
“If I take the time to explain, it might be too late,” the repairman warned him hoarsely. Seeing Shades still rooted to the spot, he said, “Fine. Have you—”
In that seemingly endless moment, Shades watched as the repairman was cut off in mid question as thick sparks arced out from the power cables that were supposed to be shut off while he was fixing them. As Shades jumped back from the burst of pyrotechnics, the old man lost his grip, all in an eerie sort of slow-motion. In that split-second, Shades’ mind was just catching up with the fact that the man was wearing a safety harness in time for his relief to transmute into pure horror when, at the end of its reach, his very lifeline snapped. Petrified, Shades could not avert his eyes from the poor man as he teetered on his heels, looking almost like he was going to recover before he fell.
His delayed move to grab the repairman left Shades peering down as he descended through space in a windmill of arms and legs.
“Ruunnn… boooyyyy… rruuunnnnn!!”
The repairman’s words floated up to him as if in a dream, so certain was he that his real self had already found a customer service booth and John’s name would be coming up over the intercom any minute. It was those last words sinking in that jolted him back into himself, and he was able to jerk away from the railing at the last second. Before the man— whom he felt had somehow, in some way he didn’t fully understand, sacrificed his own life to warn him— hit the bottom with a sickening crunch.
Run, boy!… Those last words echoed ominously between his ears, even after that gut-wrenching impact as he looked blankly around. Saw curious, startled, shocked people peering down from all levels of the atrium. Most were pale, some looked faint, still others were making a valiant effort not to be sick. A few had clearly failed at this last.
“Hey you!” a voice shouted from behind him.
Farther down the hall, Shades spotted a man in a black Security uniform gazing through crowd that was gathering around the atrium. Another guard was coming up on the first at a fast clip. Under other circumstances, Shades would have stuck around to give his statement to the authorities, but the same inner voice that told him time was tickin’ away was also telling him that those guards were bad news.
Still, for one dangerous moment, he nearly froze up.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Tomcat” was one of the main characters from The Crossfire Gang— a vigilante crimefighter, and another inside joke.