The Ring of Fire
“Well, Max,” Shades told his friend not long after the party began to die down, “I think it’s time to hit the sack.” He shoved the Twylight CD he bought at the end of the show in his jacket pocket, looking forward to adding these new songs to his Cam-Jam later. As he had suspected, Rod and Company played a full set, and what few of the tapes and CDs they had with them had mostly sold out. And he and Max had helped. Now he was tired but wired, wanting to get some shuteye in spite of his growing desire to try their first real attempt at escape. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a busy day!”
“Yeah, I know.” Max had had an awesome evening, the best he could remember having in years. Though he was also eager to try Shades’ new plan. “I just wish we could stay a little longer.”
“Same here,” DJ added, “but I don’t blame you. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do, mon.”
“And all that jazz.” Shades knew what this man, who he was already starting to think of as an old friend, was getting at. He knew he was witnessing the end of another era, here and now, and in spite of wanting out so bad, knowing it was coming to an end this time and having a chance to say goodbye before turning the page and starting the next chapter of his life still somehow didn’t make it any better. “I think we’ll be taking our leave now. If you ever get out, look us up. I have no idea what we’ll be doing, but I’m sure it’ll be something interesting.”
“We’ll keep an eye out for you.” Anymore, Max didn’t like to believe he was leaving anyone behind forever. In the quiet between events, his anxiety about Justin had grown almost daily, but he got the peculiar feeling that he would definitely cross paths with DJ again some time. “If we ever find a way to help you out…”
“Goodbye, my friends.” DJ put a hand on each of their shoulders.
“We’d love to stay and chat, but…” Shades walked away, pulling Max behind him.
“Live long and prospa!” DJ gave them the Vulcan hand sign as they went, nearly flooring Shades with the thought that anyone in the Sixth Dimension knew what it meant.
“And may the Force be with you!” Rod called out as he came up to the counter. The drummer, a redhead with long, slightly curly tresses, rolled her eyes, knowing how Rod loved to annoy Trekkies. And trendies, among other things. Rod just gave her that innocent look, like What? and laughed it off.
“And you just remember where your towel is!” Shades laughed as they walked away, Rod scratching his head, the reference apparently lost on him, the redhead laughing and swiping one hand over her head in a gesture of agreement.
This was how Shades wanted to remember da Boss DJ, laughing and having a good time among friends. In case they never saw him again.
“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” Max asked as they left Bankshot for what might well be the last time and started down the hall.
“Who knows, Max?” Shades laughed. Though he also believed they hadn’t seen the last of each other. “Who knows?”
The Twylight concert had gone on well after the hours of other places in this sector, and the corridor was dark and empty as they walked.
“I kinda wish we could take this place with us,” Max told him. “DJ shouldn’t have to be locked up in here…”
“Yeah.” Shades knew what he meant. What made it tough was having to remind himself that it was DJ and Bankshot he was saying farewell to, not the Mall itself. “I’ll second that—”
“You’re one hard son of a bitch to find…”
Neither of them recognized the voice, but they both knew trouble when they heard it, and there was apparently someone else they had not seen the last of. Again, neither of them knew the security guard who just stepped out of the shadows under a nearby escalator, but both of them remembered Fat and Fatter, and that one guard whose arm was still in a sling from his first meeting with Max, and the guy from the boat incident, his nose still taped. Not even Shades knew all of the twenty or so guards the once-vacant atrium was now crawling with. Caught in the middle, the two of them were surrounded as the guards maneuvered to encircle them.
“But now that we’ve finally caught up with you,” resumed the first guard, who appeared to be the leader, “you’re coming with us. One way or the other.”
“Ya know, we were thinkin’ about leaving,” Shades conceded. For the last week or so, likely because of the very rumors DJ had passed on to them, the ones that inspired Shades’ new plan, things had been too quiet. Much too quiet. He had sensed things were building up, and he had been hoping to exit stage left before they got to this scene. In a way, though, he was strangely relieved that whatever was going to happen finally had; he was never fond of long waits. “Seriously, guys. We’ll be gone by tomorrow…”
“It’s too late for that,” the leader told them, “as I’m sure you already know. Have you ever heard of the Ring of Fire?”
Shades had. Though he had no idea if Max had heard of it. He knew from a hundred action flicks that this was the scene where the main characters get pummeled, that what was coming next was not going to be pretty. In fact, downright ugly, yet even in spite of the prospect of getting the crap beat out of him by almost a dozen guards (apiece)— or perhaps because of it— he just couldn’t lose the unreal notion that he could somehow talk his way out of this.
“The only way you’re leaving,” the head guard informed them, a vicious grin crossing his face at the thought of the beatdown to come, “is through us. So what’ll it be?”
“Get out of our way.”
No one expected Max to say that. Not even Shades.
The leader cocked an eyebrow. “What was that?”
“You didn’t bring enough guards.” Max knew their last fight had led up to this. As Dad always told him, Violence only leads to more violence. Yet these guys gave them no choice but to fight, and he wondered why Shades, who was ordinarily so sharp, couldn’t see it.
“We got you outnumbered, punk!” one guard added for good measure, several others agreeing with him rather vocally.
“I don’t care what you try to do to me, but I won’t let you hurt my friends,” Max said quietly. He was now on fire— to his eyes, all of them looked like Slash’s crew, and he was determined to do a better job standing up for Shades than he had for Ron all those years ago. I’m much stronger now, and I won’t fail this time… “I won’t back down. I’ll fight you all if I have to…”
No response. From anyone.
Shades could only listen as Max took the words he wanted to say right out of his mouth. And spoke them with a power and a force he couldn’t have managed. He had no idea if Max was bluffing, but he looked like he was sure as hell gonna try to take them. And he found that his friend’s fire was catching; as those words echoed in his mind, he felt his own fear receding.
“Give up, boy. Resistance is useless.”
“Step aside or fight.”
Even the guards were taken aback for a moment before the shit hit the fan.
Then it came, all at once. Leaving Shades no more time for trepidation, which was fine with him since he was tired of feeling it. He knew there was a slim chance of surviving this, but only if he and Max could keep each other’s back. Back-to-back and side-by-side, this was the kind of melee combat Master Al— Robert, as well— had spoken of, the kind where your enemies can really get in each other’s way. It was the only thing they had going for them against so many.
The fact that most of them brandished nightsticks made this the most dangerous fight Shades had ever fought. Max, meanwhile, seemed to fight as if being ridiculously outnumbered was nothing new to him. But it didn’t take Shades long to lose himself in the chaos of combat.
Even so, it was a struggle not to be distracted thinking about how long he had held out so far. As the first wave was driven back, he risked reaching down, for one of them had dropped a nightstick, wielding it like a tonfa as Master Al had taught him. With the bo staff as a close second, it was his best weapon, and he flipped and twirled it a couple times to get the feel of this one, deciding that he needed to be more assertive. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Max crack two guards’ heads together, shoving them aside as the next wave hit.
Later, Shades wouldn’t remember much of the next part of the battle, just a violent blur of punching and kicking and blocking, and a desperate hunt for an opening to break free of this Ring of Fire to make a much-needed retreat. Given what they were up against, they weren’t doing all that bad at first. Though there couldn’t have been more than a dozen opponents for either of them, to Shades, the parade of attackers seemed almost endless. At first, they were able to hold their own, neither of them giving more than a foot or so in any direction, but it didn’t take long to lose home ground, finally losing their whole “back-to-back” formation altogether. Somewhere in there, Shades had picked up a second nightstick, giving him enhanced blocking, as well as extending his reach, with a swift kick here and there for good measure. One of the few things he clearly remembered about that brutal minute or so was seeing another of Max’s mighty roundhouse kicks, this one sending its mark spinning several times before he hit the ground.
The next thing Shades remembered was staggering after an awkward block, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer, when things got worse.
“That’s quite enough out of you…” the leader declared, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth. He had envisioned his posse having some fun with these two before showing them the door, but this was fast becoming humiliating. Enough was enough. “First you, then your friend…”
It wasn’t so much the leader’s words that froze him in place as it was the big, high-caliber-looking gun he was pointing at him. Shades didn’t so much drop both nightsticks, as he simply lost his grip on them altogether.
Staring down that barrel, just a sliver of finality, Shades felt the icy stab of fear, real mortal fear, on a whole new level, exceeding all of the horrors before this. He had been in dangerous situations before, but somehow he had always known, just known, he would make it, yet that little voice was now ominously silent. The bottom of that hollow, phony reality that had been slowly crowding out every facet of his life since he first set foot in this place dropped out from under him, and time seemed to slow almost to a halt. He had survived the hitchhikers, the Black Van, the Experiment, even the curse, only to be killed by something so mundane as a handgun. And none of the voices from the back of his mind spoke up to object to this fate in any way, or express even the slightest word of disbelief…
Max, meanwhile, was beginning to realize that the odds were even worse then he wanted to believe. He sensed his friend was buckling under this onslaught, and their window for escape was shrinking faster than he had feared. Even he wouldn’t be able to hold out too much longer at this rate, and he knew it. And once Shades fell, all of them would gang up on him. Not to mention that he will have totally failed to protect his friend.
The only thing he could come up with was to use his secret weapon, his last resort.
Shades had warned him not to carry weapons in public here, but he had gotten to where he could hide his laser sword even from Shades. Had refrained from carrying his power pistol, but after that chase at the pool, he concluded that this place could throw more enemies at him than he could possibly beat with his bare hands. So now the time had come, and Max unleashed his most powerful attack, jumping into the midst of his foes, that bright green energy blade lighting the dim chamber with arcing flashes and strobes as he swept one guard after another with his stun blade. The only tactic left to him was to make sure each opponent he knocked down stayed down.
Process of Elimination. Little knowing how much both Robert and Master Al would agree on that strategy in this situation.
Shades, though, was missing out on Max’s radical display of swordsmanship, as the head guard’s gun held his undivided attention.
“Now,” the leader sneered, “this ends here—”
His words were cut off in the same half-second as the barrel of his gun in a lightning flash of green. Max had seen his friend’s plight, working his way over in a whirling flurry of slashes. He struck the leader with a high kick, knocking him flat on his ass.
He finished by pointing the blade right at him.
“Don’t touch him!” Max snarled, bringing his burning gaze as fully to bear on him as his energy blade. Every second reliving that fateful night, fiercely determined not to repeat it. No matter the cost. “I’ll kill you!”
Both he and Shades fearing that he might really have meant that last.
The leader simply gaped at Max as if he had never seen him before, words having deserted him. On the subject of desertion, he briefly broke his eyes away from that fiery gaze to see that the rest of his men were either out of commission, or had fled in terror at Max’s unleashed fury. This only added to his own panic.
Holy shit! Shades slowly crawled to his feet, trying to keep his balance. Trying to catch up with this total turn of events. Wondering just how much Max had been holding back before. Who’s the herd now, smarty-pants?
“No more!” Max screamed, and the leader flinched. “Go…” he hissed. “Now.”
The leader’s movements were jerky, almost wooden, as he let what was left of his gun slip from his grasp and crawled away from Max. Shades noted, with that shimmering green blade hovering in his face, that the big bad security guard had pissed himself. As the leader stumbled away, whimpering, Max extinguished his energy blade.
Asking, “Are you okay, Shades?”
“I… think so…” It took him a moment to find his words. “Let’s go.”
Max helped him to his feet, and the two of them beat a hasty retreat up the stilled escalator at the far end of the atrium. Wanting to keep to another level until they reached the hotel area. Neither of them knew how many more guards this place held, but they didn’t want to find out the hard way.
“What do we do now?” Max asked.
“I don’t know.” Shades paused for a long time before he answered. “Now we get our act together. For real. We also stay fully armed from now on.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Max was glad to see that Shades was pulling himself back together as quickly as he was.
“We have to assume Bankshot isn’t safe anymore, based on where they ambushed us.” Shades wanted out more than ever, and was making a conscious effort to put some distance behind that strange freeze-up. (Only to be killed, if Max hadn’t kept his back, by the one man in the crowd with a gun…) So Bankshot was no longer a safe place, and he didn’t want to endanger DJ. “We also have to be ready for trouble when we try to leave. Come to think of it, we should assume that they know where our room is…”
As they planned their approach, they worried about everything they left back there. Their other disguises. Their other weapons. And, most of all, Bandit. Max had never been so afraid for his friend since they nearly got separated in Tranz-D.
They quietly hoped their luck would change with the scenery.