“I wish I knew more about this anomaly,” Shades muttered as he and Max took what felt like their thousandth stroll around the book store in the last couple hours. For days since he first met Max, he had felt as if the key to getting out of the Mall had been dangling just out of his mind’s reach. A few days before the Twylight concert, DJ had told them he was hearing rumors of unexplained disappearances at this book store. The very same one through which Max had somehow entered this cursèd place. And he felt very stupid for having never made the connection. “I just wish I knew a better way to detect it…”
While he was at it, he hoped desperately that it was a two-way phenomenon, unlike the rest of the ways into here. He feared that if this “errand” took any longer, the store staff would start to get suspicious. Without Bankshot to fall back on, that only left their hotel room. Whose safety, though they had found Bandit and everything intact, came further into question with every passing moment, which meant that they were rapidly running out of options. He had feared something like this would happen sooner or later, the one contingency for which he had nothing even resembling a plan. He didn’t know how the situation could get much worse, but he knew he didn’t want to find out; the leader of the guards had surely sworn vengeance, so if there was any chance of escaping them once and for all, he knew they were looking at it right now.
It made him nervous, knowing that they might get busted for loitering or something, while trying to keep up the same routine: Max— who hardly looked like the literary type in spite of all the time he had spent in all of the book stores— browsing while Shades wore his headphones and tried to look bored out of his gourd. Bandit tagging along for the first time since the beginning of this ordeal, wearing a jury-rigged bag of equipment strapped to his back, with the words “Helper Cat” scrawled on it in the hopes that it might confound any questions about his presence. At least as long as he behaved himself. It was a risky move, bringing him out when he was the least disguisable, but there was no other way to do it without leaving him behind. After so many long days of being cooped up, Bandit seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
The hours after their battle with the guards had been hectic. They had to approach their hotel room with caution, and both of them were immensely relieved when Bandit was sound asleep, waiting for them. After finalizing their basic plans, they strategically packed everything they could, while still leaving a “residual presence” of sorts lying around the room; Shades even paid for several more days so it would look like they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The voice of Douglas MacLean guiding Shades like an uncharacteristically helpful drill sergeant on that front. Then, of course, they had had to take their sleep in three-hour shifts, with one of them covering the door at all times.
After all, If Security did have an eye on this room, all this flurried activity might trigger a surprise raid.
Shades had no idea how much money was on the Card, and he hated blowing so much of it on a room he hoped never to see again, but in addition to his tactical concerns, he also knew they might have to return if their first attempt failed. When they finally arrived, though, their heightened sense of suspense was raised still further by a sign at the door reading: THIS STORE CLOSING TOMORROW FOR REMODELING. Their window of opportunity was indeed closing fast.
If the store was shut down (presumably Management’s attempt to cover up the unexplained disappearances while they still could), Shades might just be forced to use the lock-picking kit he had been putting together since he first wound up here, an extension of his kit from Earth, though he had doubted it’d be much use in Tranz-D anyway. To say nothing of the near-impossible tactics of trying to hold this sales floor position if push came to shove, especially armed with just Max’s power pistol. Though he shuddered at the memory of that grim moment, the guard leader somehow had possession of a gun, and he had no idea if the guards had any more. All he knew for sure was that he had seen no place in this entire mall that sold firearms, though he wondered if perhaps pellet or paint guns might at least do enough damage to hold the guards at bay for a time.
Before coming to the store, not only did they pack all of their most important possessions, they also packed up extra gear for their search for Justin. A pair of boots, pants, shirts, jacket, backpack, belt, flashlight, anything they thought Max’s friend might need in a place like Tranz-D should they find him. In addition, they also brought along some food, a couple canteens, a first aid kit, extra batteries, and other items they might need in the long run. After all, Max told Shades how poorly equipped Justin was at the start of their adventure.
They had even figured out a simple way to carry it around without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Shopping bags. Best damn camouflage one could use, and it had been sitting under his nose all this time. As with the dimensional rift, the answer was ridiculously self-evident once he saw it. Was going about this the wrong way from the start, trying to conceal his backpack when there were other bags you could carry around here that no one gave a second glance at.
A lesson in conformity and complacence turned against itself that he would keep in mind.
While Shades listened for their signal, Max grazed all the books he didn’t ordinarily have time to check out during his brief excursions in public. The thought of vastly more books awaiting him on the other side in the Centralict Library was never far from his mind. It was getting harder to keep his guard up, even though Shades needed to devote most of his attention to the reception.
Still, he was impressed. He never would have dreamed of his friend’s plan. So, how are we going to find it? he had asked. Don’t worry, Shades told him in a tone that made him want to hit the deck, I’ve got it all worked out. If this thing’s anything like the dimensional rip back on Earth, it should crank out one wild FM signal! Max understood. A way to detect it. And somehow he knew it could work.
At last, Max’s long-delayed rescue attempt for Justin would begin.
Trusting Max to be his eyes and ears, Shades continued nodding to a non-existent beat and focused on the transmission as they continued their slow leisurely lap around the store. Things had become eerily quiet of late. In this ominous silence, he could feel the deathwatch ticking, faster than ever.
A race against a clock he couldn’t see.
He was about to suggest to Max that this section was too boring, when he was interrupted by the first radio signal of any kind that he had heard since he left Earth over a month ago. Alarmed at first, then elated, for the sounds in his headphones sounded a great deal like the otherworldly noises he had heard the night of the Flathead Experiment.
Max, seeming to sense Shades’ change of expression, turned to his friend. At that same moment, Bandit also seemed to pick up on something. Shades nodded to both of them in confirmation.
He definitely had something.
Max put away the book he was looking at—
“It hasn’t opened all the way yet,” Shades told him, barely remembering to keep his voice down in spite of the headphones in his ears. After all, the anomaly couldn’t exist all the time. Even the Management wouldn’t be able to cover that up for long. The one thing on their side was that the Management had started to move against it; it suggested that perhaps the hole had become larger of late. Yet it also meant they were running out of time. “The signal is faint, but getting stronger…”
Max nodded and continued scanning the shelves, albeit with considerably less interest than a moment ago. Now that escape was so close at hand, it was all he could do just to stand still.
“Stronger…” Shades could barely contain his excitement, kept telling himself that after a month and a half, he could wait just a couple more minutes. The key he had found before finally turned. Now he just hoped he knew how the lock worked. “Any second now…”
While the two of them were busy anticipating the opening of the dimensional rift, a store clerk silently approached him from behind. For the past couple hours, off and on between customers, he had watched these two young men and their exotic pet parading through the place as if they had nothing better to do. Something about that bothered him, but it wasn’t until a few minutes ago that he realized what: that cat looked just like the description of one accompanying two men Security had posted warnings about. The bulletin had recently been upgraded to “armed and dangerous” so he had hesitated at first about what to do. Finally, he decided to call Security first, then try to distract them for as long as he could before they could leave.
As the store clerk hesitantly approached the two, they turned, as if headed for another section, then stepped into thin air.
“Um, excuse me, sir, can I hel…”