And so three days passed fairly quickly, helping out with the rebuilding, and though it rained heavily the night before, the fourth day dawned bright and sunny.
Promising a pleasant tour of the Kona Islands now that the repairs were complete. The view from their room spanned most of the harbor and the Ocean beyond, a day too glorious to waste doing work anyway. Even Justin didn’t seem to mind waking up early.
Though the Kalona Hotel’s breakfast menu was an enthusiastically embraced change from ship’s stock, it was still hastily eaten this morning so they could get underway.
It was a short trip to the nearby island of Miribar, and there was little conversation as they took in the picturesque island scenery. Most of the surrounding waters near both islands dotted with fishing boats, even a few specks on the horizon near Kon Aru and Kimbar, that were also, most likely. A few other vessels also drifted between the islands at a leisurely pace. A tropical scene straight out of some travel guide.
For Justin, it was as if the Triangle State had lost its Authority— and its patrol cruisers, checkpoints and garrisons; islands left in peace. Though the buildings themselves bore no real resemblance to Max’s former home, the overall atmosphere of the Kona Chain put him in mind of the Layoshan Islands, leaving him in a semi-nostalgic haze of vague childhood memories. Shades tried to remain focused on the helm, telling himself there was no need for daydreams since he was sailing through one.
As they disembarked, Shades noticed how much less modern the harbor here looked compared to Kalona. Most of the buildings here looked older, having stood at least a generation or two longer. Docked all around the Maximum were a variety of fishing boats, some of newer and older design, as well as a few other vessels.
The marketplace was only a few minutes’ walk from the harbor, the main street here lined with shops and even booths that surprised all three of them with the broad variety of merchandise they had to offer.
“I think maybe we should split up,” Justin suggested. Like his friends, he had brought along a little spending money, in case he found anything that struck his fancy.
“Yeah, we’ve all been pretty cooped-up lately,” Shades agreed. “I also think a little ‘me’ time is in order.”
“Sure.” Much as Max enjoyed the company of other human beings after years of solitude, he also figured a little time to themselves was probably a good thing.
So the three of them split up.
On a whim, Max decided to let Bandit lead the way, and before long, he found himself standing in front of a booth advertising cooked fish. Max shrugged, figuring he should’ve known. Still, he was pleased to see his feline friend was as readily accepted here as he was at the port of Kalona.
Though not allowed to set one paw in the Kalona Hotel, Bandit was welcome around most of the rest of the island. Figuring that the worst that could happen would be getting sent back to the ship, he decided to see how they would react here. Much as on Kalona, the people of Kon Miribar, by and large, stared at Bandit more out of curiosity than fear, much to his relief.
“I’ve never seen a cat that big, but I’m glad he has such good taste,” said the man running the fish booth. Short, as most of the Kona tended to be, with a friendly face framed by straight black hair, he wore the same casual blend of outland attire they seemed to favor in this realm. “Why don’t you try a free sample? You won’t find better fish— or better deals— anywhere else on the island!”
“Sure, thanks,” Max replied, and the man grabbed a long fork, removing a short strip of fish meat from the small grill next to the booth. When Max took a bite of it, his smile said it all.
“And if that ain’t the best fish you’ve ever tasted, then my name’s not Shan!” the fisherman boasted. Seeing Bandit licking his chops, he added, “And I’ll bet your friend would like some, too.”
When Max asked how much, he found the price quite agreeable. So, too, did Bandit find the fish itself, quickly gobbling it up. Then looking up at him as if to say, That was a good appetizer, now where’s the food?
Max was about to give him some of his own fish, but Shan handed him another strip, saying, “One more for the road. I wouldn’t dream of charging such a magnificent cat another credit! You’re obviously a newcomer— I haven’t seen you around here.”
“My name’s Max,” he told Shan, chagrined to realize that he had completely forgotten to introduce himself, “and this is Bandit.”
“Bandit. It seems to suit him. So, Max, have you heard of the Kona Festival?”
“Yeah,” Max replied, “Mr Corrick told me about it, and we’re going to be helping out with it.”
“Corrick?” Shan remarked. “Why didn’t you say so? We go back a long way, me and Corrick. Stick with him, Max, he’ll treat you good!”
“We are,” Max replied, “and he’s helped us out a lot.”
“Oh yeah, Corrick can hook you up with almost anything in these islands. You said you were staying for the Festival, right?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Great!” Shan crowed. “I’ll have a booth over on Kalona during the Festival. You should stop by then!”
“We will,” Max promised him.
As he turned to continue on his way, fearing that Bandit would eat every credit of his pocket money if he lingered in front of that fish grill, Shan asked him, “By the way, my friend, has Corrick heard any word about Larson? Is he still missing?”
“Well…” Max thought for a moment, trying to recall where he’d heard that name, finally remembering that first morning, in Corrick’s office. Their conversation about the Seeker job was briefly interrupted by a call on that radio in the corner, in which he now remembered Toma telling Corrick that it would be a while before he could spare any men for a search party. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything since the other day.”
“I see,” Shan nodded. “I hope the old man’s alright. All alone out there… Well, thanks for the news. I guess I’ll see you at the Festival.”
“You too.” Max waved to him as he set out again, spotting Justin in the crowd at another booth while he continued on his way.
While Max fed his cat, Justin tried to figure out what to do in this place. So much, yet so little that actually interested him. To say nothing of how this place reminded him so much of his former hometown of Benton that it left him with mixed feelings about it.
He was beginning to consider going back to the ship and waiting when he found a booth that sold weapons. Under TSA regulations, this would have been completely unheard of, their prohibition of private weapons tightly enforced. Shunning years of experience telling him to disappear before this place got busted, he decided to see what they had.
Though stocked with a hodgepodge of equipment culled from a variety of realms, at least half of it consisted of an odd blend of the archaic and the cutting edge of martial technology. What caught his eye right off the bat was a strange-looking gun, that appeared to be folded up, but whose exact form he could not discern. He reached over to examine it a bit more closely.
“Please be careful with that,” the booth merchant admonished him, picking up the weapon. “That crossbow is very expensive.”
“Crossbow?” Clearly unfamiliar with the word.
“Here, I’ll show you…” The weapons merchant popped a latch somewhere on the stock, and the two folded pieces snapped out, forming a bow. “Not the best I’ve ever seen, but the best in my current selection.”
“What’s it do?” Justin could see a shaft for a bolt, but there were also two more offset barrels, one to each side of the shaft.
“The main line can fire most conventional crossbow bolts,” the merchant explained, “and it can also launch a harpoon grappling hook with a mono-fiber wire rope and power wench built into the stock.”
“And the others?”
“One is a disrupter, and the other one fires specialized mini-bolts. All I’ve got are ‘flash’ and ‘smoke’ rounds, but there are others.”
“Like what?” Justin had all but made up his mind, but in true bargaining fashion, kept a casual tone.
“More than I can remember,” the merchant informed him going into what he could: “Some have explosives, tranquilizers, signals, gases… Every time I think I know ’em all, I hear about a new one. And then there are even more advanced ones, with even more weapons built in.”
“You got that right!”
“So, how much?” One of the big questions of Justin’s existence.
“Sorry. ’Fraid I can’t spare that much. Could have for two, but not three.”
“Twenty-five hundred, that’s my final offer. You won’t find one in such excellent condition any cheaper no matter where you go.”
“Fine. Twenty-five.” Justin knew he would have to go back to the ship to get enough money for something like this, so he told the merchant, “I’ll be back shortly. And remember, you agreed. Twenty-five.”
Justin refused to grin until he turned around. He would have to go back to the ship for more money, but he didn’t doubt that last about the price. Though more money than he wanted to spend today, a rare find like that wouldn’t come any cheaper no matter how much he shopped around. He could already think of instances where a weapon like this would have been handy in the past, so he figured it was a very sound investment in the future.
As Justin made his way back to the harbor, Shades saw him out of the corner of his eye. He had seen the weapons booth, and was glad his friend found something of interest in this place where he must surely be bored to tears. He just hoped Justin didn’t blow too much money while he was at it.
Shades, on the other hand, was anything but bored. He had ambled around a bit, talking with people about everything from the storm to the Island Festival, and especially the topic du jour, the Seeker Project. Though he was obviously a newcomer, and likely just passing through, he found he hardly felt like a tourist.
One of the merchants even told him that the Kona Festival was going to be especially great this time around, because a couple of merchants managed to get ahold of some fireworks from a passing trade ship, and he had made a point of picking some up, since, at least according to his increasingly meaningless watch date, he had already missed Independence Day back on Earth, so some pyrotechnics were definitely in order. Just picturing the looks on Max and Justin’s faces when he showed them.
Then again, the more he wandered around, the more he began to notice a general absence of tourist junk everywhere. Part of the reason why he felt so casual here was because no one was shoving “Kona Islands” t-shirts and coffee mugs in his face. Most of these places were real shops, with only a hint of “tourist” appeal. None of it was just for show; real people, just going about their lives.
Totally unlike the tourist-traps most small towns in Montana had been reduced to. Where the Cowboys were just a memory and most Indians lived on reservations, “the Old West” flattened into hollow Hollywood set pieces with a few refurbished antiques and artifacts. Some of it there for informative purposes, a lot of it just for out-of-stater photo-ops.
Looking around these islands, he was pleasantly surprised to see things had taken a different course here, detouring from his homeland’s history. This whole place made him feel as if he had wandered into any of a number of documentaries he had seen as a kid. That atmosphere of mystery now returned, only this time he didn’t have to settle for just imagining it.
Even so, his time here wasn’t all sightseeing. In addition to talking about local events in the marketplace, he also paid a visit to the Kon Miribar Hotel, which Mr Corrick had recommended. Making much the same inquiries here as he had made during his stay at the Kalona.
In his wallet he carried a laminated picture of his friend, John Doe, hanging out with their friend Sandy and the band, along with giving a description of Amy O’Connor. At times like this, it burned him that, on his last day on Earth, the two of them walked right past a photo booth, and he kept regretting not even suggesting taking a picture with her because he was too embarrassed; such a photo would surely come in handy now, and perhaps might even help her, wherever she was. For he had reason to believe that same stormy night, his friends also ended up in the Sixth Dimension. Admittedly, he hadn’t expected to learn much, but now that he was free to explore this world, it was maddening not to at least try.
After all, his bad dreams about John mostly involved a mansion in the mountains, sometimes involving a snowstorm. Amy, on the other hand, spent most of her time being chased through a twisted, ever-shifting dreamscape by some unseen hunter. But his waking mind sometimes pictured a highway, running though a desert of mesas, tumbleweeds and ghost towns, with the occasional road sign whose words were never clear to him.
That, and a constant sense of impending danger threatening either of them. Wherever they were. In spite of this, though, he still refused to leave any possible stone unturned, and would again ask the same questions on Kon Aru, as well.
To that end, he was pretty sure it was time to return to the ship and wait for the others. As he neared the docks, he spotted four strangers confronting a lone fisherman. Cornering him, it looked more like, as none of them struck him as seeming terribly friendly. It quickly became apparent that they were indeed holding him against his will as he drew near enough to overheard them.
“…was told you’d give us a good price on fish!” snapped the first stranger, who appeared to be the leader of the group. Though dressed in nondescript street clothes, there was a definite air of men-ace about him. “What do you call this bullshit, huh!? Huh?”
He then smacked the basket the fisherman was carrying out of his hands, shoving him at one of his accomplices. The four of them proceeded to push the terrified fisherman back-and-forth among themselves, refusing to let him leave. Shades only watched this for a moment before he started looking around. There was hardly anyone about, and most of them also seemed to be looking for someone else to help; failing to spot any of the local constabulary around, he concluded that if no one else would help, he would have to do what he could.
Meanwhile, the ringleader was taking the fisherman by the shirt, hauling him up face-to-face as he said, “Now, if you don’t—”
“Take your hands off him. Now.”
“Why don’t…” At first the ringleader’s demand started out sounding bold and belligerent, but then he turned and actually looked at his challenger, his voice trailing off in uncertainty. “you… make…”
Then again, Shades reflected, he wouldn’t be too enthused about having to fight Max, either. Especially when he took that tone of voice. He wasn’t sure exactly which way his friend just came from, but Shades was still relieved he showed up all the same.
“Who the hell are you?” the ringleader finally demanded.
“If you have a problem with Shan,” Max answered him, returning the man’s glare with an intense stare the other couldn’t quite match, “we can talk things out. But I won’t let you hurt him.”
“This is none of your business,” the ringleader shot back. “Now get outta here.”
“Yeah!” one of the others shouted, pulling a knife. “You can’t take all four of us!”
“Oh yes we can!” Shades piped up, standing by his friend. It was a relief not to have to face them four-on-one, and though he was confident that Max could take them by himself, he had no interest in seeing his friend needlessly hurt. That, and as far as he was concerned, the fact that they were ganging up on people to begin with gave him no need of reservation for joining the fight himself.
The odds now lessened to two-against-one, it was starting to look as if Max had won this staring match as one of the others blurted, “But the Commander said we weren’t supposed to draw attention to ourselves…”
“Shut up!” the ringleader told him. Though these guys didn’t look like locals, he wasn’t about to go back empty-handed on account of nobodies. “Quit talking out of turn. We ain’t goin’ back without procuring our damn food!”
With that, he rushed Max, while the others moved to surround them. Max caught the leader’s fist, grabbing his arm and swinging him around into another of his crew. Shades, meanwhile, side-stepped the one with the knife as he slashed at him, grabbing his wrist and raising his knee, breaking the man’s grip on his weapon as Shades shoved him down.
The fourth man tried to attack Shades while his back was turned, but Shades saw it out of the corner of his eye, sliding aside and tripping him. And Max, who had just floored the ringleader with a mean right, simply reached around and clotheslined Shades’ attacker, flipping him over onto the ground. And Shades saw one of the others try to draw a power pistol, but kicked it out of his hand before he could bring it to bear on Max behind his back.
Having apparently had enough, the four of them staggered to their feet and started running, the leader cursing them and swearing vengeance if they ever met again.
“Who the hell were those guys anyway?” Shades wondered aloud. If nothing else, wondering about their identity gave him something to dwell on other than the knife one of them abandoned in the street, which he had very nearly been stabbed with only moments ago. About how out-of-place this whole incident felt; based on everyone else’s shock, this couldn’t be a common occurrence here. Combined with how vicious Striker’s crew likely were during their recent visit, he had no trouble seeing why most folks here were holding out for the authorities.
Even as he thought about how scary that must have been for Shan, he and Max both noticed that the fisherman had fled the scene during their altercation, finally both shrugging and figuring they could hardly blame him. After all, everyone else seemed to have vacated as well, once the fighting started.
“Hey Max! Shades! Check this shit out!” Justin called as he ran up to them with his new cross-bow. He stopped short as he looked at them, then at the stunned expressions of the crowd now gathering around the scene. “Um, did I miss something?”