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Author's Chapter Notes:
meanwhile, back at the ranch...
Aboard the Albatross, Roger Wilco sat in the rearmost modular seat, on the seaward side, power pistol in one hand, and his revolver on the seat next to him. Bandit slumped near the tail between a couple crates, trying to sleep in spite of himself.

By the fourth day, he had drained his last flask of liquid courage. Even his stash for celebrating shore leave after particularly lucrative hauls. So for the last two days, he had faced the Woods cold-turkey sober.

Found himself occasionally recalling a snatch of some old saying, something about staring into the Void, and the Void staring back at you, an all too apt description of his six spooky days out here.

Years ago, he had managed to finally quit smoking, only a matter of months before he wound up in the Sixth Dimension, and he usually thought of it as being for the best, if for no other reason than that cigarettes were hard to come by in most realms anyway. Back then, one of his pilot friends lost his license because of heart problems. It was a tough call, but Roger decided he preferred the pleasure of flying more, so he rode out the worst storms of withdrawal to kick the habit, topping his several years of fundraising to acquire his Albatross as the toughest thing he ever did.

Though he would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit he could use a good smoke right about now.

That first day, after their argument about the rescue plan, he nearly talked himself into dragging one of the modular seats out onto the beach as a makeshift lawn chair, because he didn’t want to buy into all this talk about Rannigan’s Wharf and the Woods. At the time, he talked himself out of it only because of Erix, figuring that it would amount to making a sitting duck out of himself against a marksman of his caliber. Much to his chagrin, though, it didn’t take long for the Woods themselves started getting to him in earnest.

Awakened that first night by a terrifying dream about the logging vehicles Shades mentioned all coming to life and tearing down Camp Stilton, before turning their wrath on his poor Albatross.

Shocked at how vividly he could imagine things someone only described to him, yet somehow he knew he was seeing the exact same machines they saw.

By the second day, Erix was fast fading to a secondary concern. After all, Erix could enter at will with those energy blades, so if he was still in the neighborhood, he surely would have by now. Mostly, he was just glad that hadn’t happened, that at least the hull and the rest of the airframe were still intact and presumably seaworthy, the damage mostly cosmetic.

Based on the others’ accounts, he marveled at how he managed to land on about the only section of the coast in these parts that wasn’t strewn with clumps of jagged rocks. A sweep of mostly sand and gravel in this small inlet. Probably why this site was chosen for setting up the lodge and docks in the first place.

The second night, he was awakened by the sounds of scratching outside. Certain it wasn’t anything he cared to meet, he held still and kept his weapons close at hand. Every time he started to doze off in spite of himself, it would start up again.

Later that morning, after sunrise, he stepped out to take a look, hoping against hope that it was all just a bad dream. And nearly wept at his poor paintjob. At streaks of long, gouging scrapes that even scratched the metal.

He tried to tell himself it was just the local wildlife, not that he’d actually seen any.

Unless the trees counted.

The third night, he miscalculated, pouring himself a little too much, and passed out. Worse off the next day, knowing that he could ill afford to be hung over out here, he cobbled together what remedy he could from his First Aid supplies, and tried not to deplete too much of his water supply. By noon, he was feeling little better, not sure he even wanted to see the aftermath of whatever he was sure he managed to sleep through, and even the thought of his own good fortune that nothing broke in while he was unconscious was less relief, and more the feeling that something unknown had surely danced a full Broadway musical on his grave, possibly with a side of Thriller, just to spite him for not waking up for any of the show.

By the fourth day, he swore the trees were moving behind his back. Seemed to be in slightly different positions every time he turned around. The fact that he had been drinking each night for three straight days did little to resolve the matter.

Sometimes he saw movements out in the Woods. Herky-jerky, like old stop-motion film. Stuttering and blurring in ways that hurt his eyes to look at.

Things outside, which his eyes refused to dwell on. Tangled tree-shapes that moved like stop-motion in fast-forward. At times they would rush toward the plane at jarring speeds, even as he fumbled for his weapons, only to stop just short of the water’s edge and vanish.

By late afternoon, he took to drawing the window shades, even during the daytime.

Of course, he still had to let Bandit out periodically to do his biz. Noted the big cat never stayed out for long, nor moved very far from the cargo door. Anymore, he was just glad there was so much sand out there for his feline charge to bury it in.

A game of cat-and-mouse, where he timed their moves by Bandit’s instincts, as there was clearly something out there he didn’t like the smell of, and which he did his best to cover the big cat against while he was vulnerable out there.

The fourth night, he no longer had enough booze to knock himself out like he had the night before. All he got out of it was a dream conversation with Erix on the radio. Talking about things he never wanted to talk about, and he considered it a mercy he couldn’t remember anything coherent about it after he woke up.

His radio could pick up a wide range of bands and frequencies, but he only tuned in intermittently, as he found he could not bear to listen for long to all the creepy noises it made. The ones that stuck with him most being the one where he heard only heavy breathing, hard footsteps, and the occasional snapping of twigs, or hearing the distorted croaking of frogs. At least that’s what it started off sounding like, before it started to sound like some form of bestial speech.

At which point, he turned it off, fearing he might start to understand it if he kept listening…

By the fifth day, he found those .38 Specials seeming to beckon to him in an unhealthy way, introducing thoughts he’d rather not finish. Didn’t want to believe Erix was encouraging him to do it last night, but one of the few things he at least thought he could remember was him saying, It did wonders for me! And then hysterical laughter.

Made a point of keeping both Erix’s power pistol, and his old revolver on his person at all times. While ammo for the latter was scarce, energy weapons tended to be back-engineered from the same handful of mostly bootleg schematics, which meant that most power clips would be compatible with most energy weapons. All the same, he still felt the revolver was more reliable.

It had seen him through some troublesome situations back on Earth, even before he had to deal with any troublesome situations in this world. Back then, he would sometimes be approached by some rather shady clients, most likely drug smugglers. Only occasionally threatened for his refusal to do business with them, once by some folks who claimed ties to one of the nastier cartels. Though nothing came of it, he still had every intention of defending himself if corned, in that world or this one.

Told himself that for most things that prescribed cold iron, hot lead would do the trick just as well, and now he hoped that would hold true.

That fifth night, he woke up from more nightmares. Of crashing noises, and huge, hoary, angry trees smashing Camp Stilton to splinters. Then turning to the Albatross

He never really made it back to sleep after that, just sort of hovered on the edge of dozing, slipping back up toward consciousness at every little sound out there.

By the sixth day, his leg was doing somewhat better, and he struggled with the temptation to just hop out and hoof it over to Rannigan’s Wharf. Still he could tell, just from how much trouble he still had getting around the cabin, that even with a crutch he would make piss-poor time on that gravelly, sandy shore. Would be all but guaranteed to get caught out there after dark. Not to mention that Bandit was still having trouble, and he had no clue how he would ever face Max, in this life or the next, if he just abandoned him.

That, and after each successive day out here, Shades’ dire warnings seemed more and more to have the right of it. The fact that he had neither seen nor heard from Roxy, and Erix’s only appearance was in a bad dream, was just another nail in that coffin. Though he had no way of knowing if either of them actually made it over there at any point, the things going on over here inspire little confidence about anyplace else around the peninsula.

Now, when he let Bandit out, he kept expecting to find one or the other of them— occasionally Max or the others— nailed-up or dangling from the porch beams of the lodge, and feared he would lose what little sanity he had left if he saw any such thing out there.

Over the intervening days, he had also kept an eye to the sea for any passing ships, having seen nothing of the sort, though sometimes he thought he caught glimpses of other things drifting out on the tide, but always too brief to confirm.

His original food rations were still holding, though his appetite was lacking, so at least he didn’t have to worry about resorting to the dubious canned goods the others retrieved from the lodge for at least another two or three days. Knew he wasn’t up to crabbing or fishing, even if he thought for one moment that it was safe out there, though he feared he might have to risk it if the food was no good. Unless his leg was healed enough to try hiking the peninsula coast by then, but he doubted it.

Rubbing his face, he noted for the thousandth time that his usual five o’clock shadow was getting downright furry. Not that he didn’t want to shave, but he needed to conserve water. Though he knew from the map that there was a river on the far side of Camp Stilton, he was loathe to set foot outside the plane anymore, despite the certainty that he was going stir-crazy in here.

After five nights with so little sleep, he was starting to fear he was losing his mind in this remote outpost. When he first heard the drone of a motor in the distance, he was half afraid he was hearing things. At least until he noticed that Bandit heard it, too, snapping the big cat out of his own fitful napping.

Slipping open the nearest window shade, he watched an unfamiliar ship anchor just offshore in front of him, and several people board a smaller craft to come ashore. But as they approached, they angled toward the rear of the plane, so he lost sight of them before they drew close enough to get a good look at any of them. A few minutes later, he could hear a boat being dragged ashore, and some muffled conversation just before things went silent.

For a long, horrible moment, Roger feared that potential rescuers might have just decided the wreck was a lost cause and turned back, so he snatched up the flare gun and limped over to the cargo door, certain that this would be his last chance to survive this mess.

As he reached for the door latch, though, someone knocked, and he nearly fumbled the flare gun as a familiar voice announced, “Take it to the Maximum.”

Unable to believe his ears, he slid the cargo door shade up a crack, just to be sure.