The librarian had fainted dead away, which was probably for the best, as falling down made him less of a target.
Bandit crouched, snarling, almost every hair on his body standing on end.
Max stood his ground, laser sword drawn, trying to focus on the foul machine’s wooden aim, so far having managed to deflect all of its shots.
“This is not happening…” Kato muttered as she crouched behind the cart, hoping for a chance to return fire, but unsure if she could face this nightmare creature again.
Justin immediately concluded that she had the right idea, and crowded in next to her behind its limited cover as he started firing wildly.
Kato continued hoping that perhaps this time her friends would show up, Chase hammering the thing with some new toy from his arsenal— hell, she would even settle for George reprogramming the bastard by remote or something. “This is not happening…”
“YES IT IS HAPPENING, INTRUDER!” NK-525 declared, in a voice they would later decide was sounding less and less robotic with every word. “THERE IS NO ESCAPE! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE! ADMINISTERING DIRECTIVE EIGHTY-SIX! DIE! DIE! DIE!”
Then it brought its fully charged super-laser to bear, and just from the looks of it, without even having seen it in action, even Max wasn’t sure if his energy blade could handle that.
“Max!!” Justin screamed, firing furiously at his seemingly unstoppable nemesis. To no avail.
It wasn’t until it was already upon them that anyone, even the Enforcer, heard the rapid series of crashing noises that seemed to be getting louder every second, coming closer. Max, who had just thought of turning his energy blade on the shelves themselves to cut out an escape route if the Enforcer would actually give him an opening to do so, instinctively hit the deck, and Justin pressed in behind the cart still more, further crowding Kato. For its part, NK looked to the right in just time to detect the very large bookshelf falling toward it.
The Enforcer started to roll back, but was too slow, and it found itself sandwiched between the fallen shelves, which had toppled like dominoes. The combined weight of over half a dozen shelves of books was more than its cybernetic strength could move. Its super-laser now pinned down at an odd angle, and instead of firing its powered-up beam, it emitted only a shower of sparks.
“IT’S JAMMED!” the Enforcer screeched, its voice now digitally contorted in what sounded unnervingly like rage as it tried to gain some kind of leverage with which to free itself.
Max, seeing what might be their only chance, sprang to his feet and charged.
Firing up his energy blade, he hacked the malevolent machine’s laser arms off before it could readjust its aim. He jumped out of the way of its claw arms, then jumped back in with another slash of green light. The same armor that had shrugged off Justin’s power pistols was no match for a laser blade as Max sliced and diced, unleashing his wrath upon this monster that had tried to kill his friend, and Justin just watched.
“SYSTEM ERROR! DESTROY… ALL… IN… TRU… DERS…” NK-525’s voice now distorted to the point that they could barely understand it. “—OFF… LINE… BZZZT… UNIT… N… BZZZT… K… 5… 2— BZZZT— HATE… YOU… BZZZT… SYN… TAX… ERR… RORRR…”
Was the last thing ever heard out of NK-525.
In the silence at the end of Max’s counter-attack, the only sound they heard was a voice cry out triumphantly, “Hot damn!”
“Shades?...” Max looked up from his fallen foe, seeing his friend climbing over the mess of toppled shelves. “You did that...”
“I told ya,” Shades replied: “The pen is mightier than the sword!”
Then they both started laughing.
“Good one!” Max patted Bandit on the head, relieved that his friend had stayed low and thus come through that whole firestorm unscathed. He could tell that, whatever doubts his friend had been grappling with before, when the time came, Shades delivered. Still had his touch. Max had seen him in action, and strongly believed he had the makings of a warrior if he kept pushing himself beyond whatever limits previously bound him. His friends were still alive, he had found Justin again, the evil robot thing was dead, now was the time to celebrate their escape, and their victory.
“Is it over yet?” Kato asked, peering over the top of the smoking, carbon-scored cart, power pistol drawn, just in case it wasn’t. At first she thought that perhaps her friends had found her, but she saw no sign of Chase or George anywhere.
“Don’t worry, Kato, it’s safe to come out now,” Justin told her mockingly, seeing her exasperated scowl. But as he watched Shades making his way over, what he really wanted to know was, “Who the hell are—”
Then the wreckage of NK-525 made a noise, that put Shades in mind of a radio-controlled truck stripping its gears trying to climb over something that was too big for it.
Taking his cue from Max, Justin whipped out his laser staff, tearing into the mangled machine with a torrent of his choicest words.
“DIE!” Justin just kept hacking and slashing, taking out all of his rage, all of his horror for every second of his ordeal, on the twitching pile of spare parts half buried under ruined shelves and books. Scraps of metal and paper flew in all directions. Even after the thing had ceased to make a move, or a sound, still he went on, those two dead wanderers in the fore of his thoughts. “Fuckin’ DIE this time you piece of shit!...”
After a minute or so, he finally stopped, panting for breath, having run out of coherent words that could even begin to convey the depth of his fury.
Surrounded by lacerated plates and servos and severed circuitry, all that remained of the dreaded Enforcer Unit.
“Dude, chill,” Shades told him.
And after catching his breath, Justin again demanded, “Who the hell are you?”
“The guy who just saved your ass,” Shades told him. “By the way, you’re wel—”
“This is my friend,” Max cut in, smelling an argument as he had often smelled a storm on the way back in Paradise.
“I think we should go talk someplace else,” the librarian muttered as crossly as he could manage as he staggered to his feet. He had regained consciousness during Justin’s outburst, but was still pretty shaky. “If this hadn’t saved our lives, I’d be trying to figure out who’s going to clean up this mess, and replace all those books.”
Though grateful for his life, he still couldn’t help being angry and saddened over the loss of any of those books. He supposed that was probably what made him a librarian. Already he could see a mountain of paperwork before him, as well as administrators demanding explanations, and he knew he would end up doing all of the reshelving himself, as well. It seemed to be his lot in life.
“He’s right. Let’s save the introductions for another floor,” Shades said, sticking one earphone back in. “I’ll explain on the way.”
And so the others filled Justin and Kato in about the dimensional rift as they made their way to the stairs. Both Shades and the librarian suspected that the anomaly didn’t exist all the time, but none of them felt like pressing their luck. After everything any of them just survived, none of them would be surprised if they had just used it all up of late.
On the way, they happened to pass by the room with the warpgate, and they all paused for a long moment in spite of themselves. The doorway still opened into the empty room Max had come through when he first opened it. Yet just a few feet away from it was a window offering a thirteenth-story view of the buildings on the other side of the street.
Right where the corner of that harshly sterile room should be, a perfectly tangible optical illusion hanging suspended above the street.
Shades knew that if he peered out the window, he would see no room out there, and trying to picture it gave him a mental kind of vertigo. Seeing that Bandit wanted nothing to do with the place made him want to tell Max that curiosity killed the cat, but even in this short time he had come to know his friend’s philosophy on that: he still believed satisfaction would bring him back. He looked through that open door, knowing what he was seeing couldn’t possibly exist, at least by the rules he had been taught in science class, yet it was still real. A portal to another dimension.
Like all things Unknown, that room called out to him.
Yet the voice that beckoned him from this surreal entrance, seemingly stepping out into nothingness outside, also gave him the creeps. Inviting in its apparent blankness, yet also alien and forbidding in its eerie silence. As well as the knowledge that that killer robot had also come through the doorway, as well as Max and Justin. He lingered there for a moment before that spooky door, trying to resist the urge to go in and take a look around.
Twilight Zone, indeed…
Kato and Justin reflecting upon their recent narrow escape, both of them simultaneously swearing that if they were to ever return to that twisted realm, it would be all too soon. Justin looked at that impossible entrance and shuddered, resisting the mad impulse to whip out both guns and start blasting. Whatever else was in there, he decided, it was best not to provoke it. As far as he was concerned, that door could remain shut for another ten thousand years. He could see that even Max looked upon that door with some trepidation, now that he had seen NK-525 for himself.
Instead, he settled for spitting through the door and summing up both his opinion of the place, and his experience there, with just one finger.
Max, knowing full well the dangers his friend had faced in there, still felt a lingering curiosity. And a touch of homesickness; after all, he had left his long-time home in Paradise somewhere back there what seemed like a disproportionately long time ago, from a direction that still hurt his mind to think of as somehow “above” them.
In the end, though, it was seeing Bandit’s reaction that made up his mind.
First Kato and Justin, then Max, and finally Shades turned away last. Not that this unreal vista didn’t tantalize him with similar thoughts as Max, but he couldn’t help thinking about this place’s disturbing implications. Almost a premonition.
Once some doors are opened, they can never be closed again… For better or worse, Tranz-D had just been added to that list.
They stopped just long enough to pick up the bags of stuff for Justin and their search that they had dropped earlier, then continued on their way, wasting no more time. Once they were safely down the stairs and on another level, they stood, ranged around the librarian. A few introductions were clearly in order.
After a moment of hesitation, Max took the initiative, saying, “I’ll start. I’m Max, just Max. Shades, this is my friend, Justin Black.”
“Um… hi.” After everything he had been through, in both the last few days and the last few years, he wasn’t really sure what to say.
“And Justin, my newest friend, Shades MacLean.”
“And this is Conan the librarian…”
“Please don’t call me that.”
Shades laughed in spite of himself, and Justin and Kato laughed too, though she was still too winded to laugh very hard. Yet neither of them seemed to quite understand what they were laughing about really, just trying not to look left out of the punchline. Max wasn’t really sure what to make of it, so he simply concluded his end of the conversation.
“And this is my friend, Bandit.” There was only one person in this party Max was not familiar with, and the one thing he noticed about her was starting to make him edgy, reminding him of things he wished to forget. That, and he noticed that Bandit seemed to be keeping Max between himself and this young woman. “Now it’s your turn, Justin. Who’s the Cyexian?”
Shades also turned to her. Max had told him a little about the things he had seen and heard of, and now he was seeing one of these things for himself. Lavender eyes. He had never heard of such a thing before, and part of his mind kept insisting that they had to be contacts or something. Had to be.
“Whoa, Max. I know what you’re thinkin’, but let’s hear her out. Her name—” Justin began.
“Hey! You talk to me!” Kato snapped indignantly, drawing herself up to her full height. She knew the eyes, the indelible mark of her Cyexian bloodline, were always a dead giveaway. And she didn’t particularly care for the way this Max person’s eyes regarded her. But she cooled off after a second, saying, “I’m Kato. I was searching this place when I got lost in Tranz-D.”
“That’s where I met her,” Justin filled in. He knew Max was originally from the Islands, but he never expected such animosity from him. The Cyexians of those waters may have had a reputation as pirates and scavengers, but he had to wonder if his friend didn’t have a little personal experience of some kind, to be so harsh to a total stranger. “We just managed to escape from that fucked-up place, but that damn NK-525 followed us. Anyway, the important thing is that I found you.”
“Same here,” Max told him. “Shades and I had just come looking for you.”
“Really? What the hell took you so long? Never mind. As I was about to say, you know that weird necklace of yours? She’s got one just like it, and she says—”
“Shhh!” Kato hissed. She glared at him for a moment, wondering if anyone had ever told him he had a big mouth. She knew they would have to let Max in the secret, and she feared she would end up letting this “Shades” fellow in on it, as well. Otherwise, the fewer who knew about the treasure, the better. “We can talk about that later.” She turned to the librarian, saying, “Sorry about the mess, but now that that thing is dead, we’ve gotta be going.”
“Not yet,” Max replied. “It’s true that we saved his life, but that battle still ruined part of his library. We should at least help him clean up the mess.”
Shades was both amused and dismayed by Justin and Kato’s twin looks of consternation. He wasn’t too enthused about it himself— the cleanup, or going back to that level— but he knew his friend was right.
Before either Kato or Justin could formulate a word of protest, the librarian told them, “I appreciate the offer, but what really concerns me is the loss of all those books.”
“I see…” Max had no idea what to do about that.
“I understand.” Fortunately, Shades did know what to do. “As long as they weren’t one-of-a-kind or something, I might be able to pay for some of the damage.”
He whipped out the Card.
“Oh yeah…” Seeing the Card reminded Max of something else. He dug in his pocket, fishing out the cards he had brought with him out of Tranz-D. He had hung on to them for his search for Justin, just in case. He reached out and handed the librarian the cards, saying, “Here. I’ve found Justin. I don’t know what all they do, but I nave no more use for them. They might come in handy for you, though, because it’s dangerous in there.”
“You said it!” Justin added.
“Yes. I did.”
Shades rolled his eyes
“Thank you, both of you,” the librarian said. “If you think you can pay for it, I can give you an estimate.” He took the cards from Max, the Enforcer’s damage all but forgotten now that he had this mysterious new piece of the puzzle that was Tranz-D.
“Damn! That new friend of yours is loaded!” Justin remarked, eying the Card as Shades slipped it back in his coat pocket. “How much money does he have?”
“Even he doesn’t know,” Max answered simply.
They talked for a minute or so before noticing that Kato was just standing there tapping her foot with both arms folded across her chest.
“Let’s go to my office,” the librarian suggested, looking more and more distracted by the moment with those cards in hand. Administrators and paperwork already largely forgotten. “We can work out the details there.”