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6.16 - Alienation
by ThomasMalthus

Chapter One

When Quinn Mallory was twelve, he and his parents visited his Uncle Roy in Nebraska. It was a truly beautiful place, with a wide variety of things for a boy who had rarely been out of San Francisco to do that he had never done before. He climbed the tallest trees he had ever seen without hesitation and learned how things were done on a farm. He attempted everything from shucking corn to baling hay and if the smiles and nods of approval from his aunt and cousins were any indication, he had gotten the hang of country life. All and all, an enjoyable time.

But the strongest memory of that trip, the thing that stuck with him the most through the years, had never been any of those pleasant recollections. One night he had gone swimming in a small lake he had found not far from one of the barns on the outskirts of his uncle's property. Although it was small and inviting, it was unexpectedly deep. Quinn had never been in any body of water other than a public swimming pool before, and even then he had always been around other people. It was a new and frighteningly unfamiliar experience not to be able to touch the bottom, but a sudden stomach cramp was what actually caused the near catastrophe. The pain in his gut was nothing next to the panic and fear he felt as he began to drown. Trying his best to stay afloat and looking desperately in the dim moonlight for something or someone to save him, he was finally rescued by one of Uncle Roy's neighbors, who had heard his dogs barking from when this strange young intruder first walked on to the property. Nobody had known about it but him and the mildly miffed yet helpful neighbor. Quinn always came up with an excuse not to go to Uncle Roy's after that.

It was a moment that Quinn rarely thought about, and quite frankly would have liked to put behind him. But at the moment that wasn't an option. At the moment, he was being forced to relive that moment. He felt complete despair, as the abject terror that had been so real to him when contemplating being dead and forgotten at the bottom of some pond that he should have never gone in in the first place came rushing back to his mind. He was overwhelmed by the panic that came from not being able to control his breathing. But he was never allowed to experience the relief of being rescued, the simple joy he had felt when he was once again on dry land and there was no water in his lungs. It was nothing but the pain. Over and over again.

The moment stopped replaying itself abruptly, but Quinn knew there wouldn't be a respite from the assault. This was his third round with his mysterious torturer, and he was already beginning to notice the patterns of how this inhuman mind operated. It would start with a disorienting memory to instill a sense of helplessness in the victim. Then he would go straight for the extremes. Sure enough, as soon as the drowning memory faded, every part of his body that had ever felt a burn felt it again now. Quinn screamed in agony as the heat, as it were, was turned up.

But it was all in his mind. Quinn was alone in this room that had been his cell for days now. Well, that wasn't entirely accurate. He was physically alone. Mentally, he had an unwanted visitor. One who seemed to enjoy feeling the pain that Quinn felt, and certainly had no qualms about inflicting it. At first, Quinn believed the thing had genuinely wanted answers. An old-fashioned interrogation with torture only one avenue used to extract information. But now the thing was just out for a good time. It would have made Quinn sick if he even had the mental energy to spend thinking about it.

The being who was causing him all this anguish, who could just as well be halfway across the planet as in the next room, was a Cerellian. In point of fact, this was a Cerellian world. At one time, thousands of years ago from what Quinn had been told, humans had ruled the planet uncontested. Quinn could tell the first time he had looked a person from this world in the eyes that this was no longer the case. Cerellians, unlike Kromaggs and Mekkans, were truly from another world. But they had made this world their own.

Quinn tried desperately to concentrate on something else, anything else. He had been rendered blind not long after being stuck in this hole, and Quinn reasoned it was to keep him from looking at something to try to block out the pain. Judging from what the Cerellian's power seemed to be, he didn't think he had really gone blind; it was more likely that the cruel alien mind was just stopping his brain from receiving the signals his eyes were sending him. Still, the effect was the same and it made it a lot harder to resist the constant flow of torture.

He finally settled on something else to try to think about, turning his thoughts to their slide in here. How very different the world had seemed at first. If any of them had known what was in store for them, they probably would have advanced the timer, longterm consequences be damned. It hadn't happened that way, though.

Rembrandt Brown came hurdling out of the vortex first, and so he was the one who first crashed into the large tree that stood in front of it. His back took the brunt of the hit, but his head got knocked around a bit as well. He was going to have a hell of a headache. As he lay there on the ground, contemplating whether or not he even wanted to get up, he watched Arturo hit his knee on the large oak. "Ow!" the Professor exclaimed as he fell underneath the wormhole, clutching his knee to his chest. Wade came through next, but she managed to push herself back from the tree with her hands and land beside it on her own two feet. The last one out, Quinn went into the tree face first. Professor Arturo barely had time to move out of the way before the most inexperienced of the sliders landed on his back on the ground.

"You OK, Q-Ball?" Rembrandt asked. His back was sore, but he assessed that any damage that might have been done was minimal. Quinn, however, had not moved since getting hit and hadn't responded to Rembrandt's question. Remmy moved closer to look at him. He started to put his hand in front of Quinn's face to see if he got a look of recognition when Wade stopped him.

"Maybe we should just leave him alone for a minute," Wade advised. "He'll come to."

The Professor looked up at her. "You seem to have avoided injury quite well, Miss Welles. It appears that your athleticism increases with each world we visit."

A half-grin broke out on Wade's face. "Well, I was a varsity gymnast in high school. And you never know what you're going to need to do on any given world. Sometimes you get a chance to sharpen skills you barely remember you have."

"And some you'd rather forget you have," Rembrandt concurred. However, the attention of the other sliders was soon drawn to Quinn, who now emitted a slow groan.

"Are you alright, Mr. Mallory?" Professor Arturo asked as he pushed himself up from the ground.

"I think so," Quinn said in a groggy voice as he too began to rise. As he started to do so, his hand rushed to his forehead. "Ugh. Dizzy, though." The hand then proceeded down to the bridge between his nose and his mouth. "My nose is bleeding, too. Great." Rembrandt gave him his handkerchief and Quinn quickly placed it to his nose. "Any idea where we are?"

"I'd say the middle of nowhere," Wade declared. "Look at this place."

"Green as far as the eye can see," Rembrandt agreed. "Not a bad place to go camping. But I need some food. A whole week of sushi is a little hard to take."

"Yes," Arturo said, drawing out the vowel in the word for effect. "And I don't fancy sleeping on the ground without cover, either. Let's see if we can find some semblance of civilization, shall we?"

Quinn looked over at the man who might have been his mentor. He had picked up a fallen tree branch to use as a walking stick. "Are you sure you're up for this wilderness hike, Professor?"

Arturo shook off his concerns. "I'm not exactly at my best, Mr. Mallory, but I'll be better off if we can find a place to stay than if we take our chances staying in this overgrown jungle." The Professor was only taking a few liberties with the truth; the sliders had never seen an area that looked like it had seen less of the hand of man at work. Twice Rembrandt thought he saw some animals that he could have sworn weren't native to California. They kept moving for a few more hours, until the Professor's knee couldn't hold out any longer. The four of them found an open area close to a stream to spend the night. They still had just under a week on this world, so they could afford to take their time, but they couldn't simply wait for the next slide.

As night fell, Wade and Quinn lie awake while Rembrandt and the Professor slumbered peacefully, exhausted from their daylong trek. "If the window were shorter, I wouldn't mind staying out here," Wade said, looking up at the stars.

"Oh, come on," Quinn said dismissively. "You'd be dying for a shower and a hot meal by the end of tomorrow and you know it."

Wade decided not to reply, mostly because she knew he was right. "You can't tell me you wouldn't like to go through an entire slide where we didn't have to deal with the ramifications of what somebody did 150 years ago and how it changed the art of pancake making. Or where we don't have to lie to people every time we say the wrong thing. Or whenever somebody wants to know where we're from."

"That does have a certain amount of appeal to it," Quinn conceded. "But I can't make myself relax until I know exactly what's going on on this world. We'll never find that out out here."

Wade mulled that over for a moment, and then dispensed with the notion. "Maybe there's nothing going on here. Maybe there aren't even any people on this world. We'll just be walking to nowhere for the entire duration of the slide."

Quinn considered that silently as he drifted off to sleep.

The next morning they found a winding dirt road and decided to follow it. Six hours later they were starting to feel sorry they had. "Man, I thought we'd get to somewhere by now," Rembrandt complained.

"Perhaps we could rest a moment," Professor Arturo requested, although it was more like an order. More words had been spoken between them before they had first made contact with the locals, but Quinn honestly couldn't remember what they were. All he remembered were those enormous trucks coming rumbling through. The sliders mistakenly believed the vehicles might be their salvation. That all changed when the people driving them came out bearing weapons.

Professor Arturo was captured first. His knee just wouldn't allow him to run that quickly. A few moments later, Rembrandt too felt the sting of their stun blasters as he went down. Quinn and Wade managed to outrun them, though not by much. They found a refuge of sorts on a hilltop a few hundred yards from the road.

Their pursuers were human, although their appearance was strange. None of them had any hair, and around their chests were metal straps and shoulder pads. Wade looked him in the eye. "What are we going to do now?"

Quinn gave a small shrug. "Lay low for a while. Figure out a way to get an advantage over these guys."

Wade's determination was set firmly in her face. "I'm not abandoning them."

"That's not what I'm suggesting!" Quinn exclaimed in his defense. "But we can't just attack them blindly..."

That was when he blacked out. The next thing he knew the four of them were all aboard the truck. Once they reached their destination, they would be stripped of all their belongings, put in clothing resembling those of their captors and, in that same vein, they all had their hair shaved off. But none of that qualified as the worst thing that happened as they began their life in Cerellian captivity. The worst was when Rembrandt got his memory back.

Chapter Two

Night had fallen and the four of them gathered in a long but narrow tin-covered building that had been built as a shelter for a group of people dressed in similar attire to what the sliders reluctantly wore. They were apparently all prisoners here. The four of them had already seen some of their fellow captives laboring in the large plantation fields that were spread out before them, even though it had been nearly sundown when they had arrived. None of them liked the odds that they'd be doing anything different come morning, nor did any of them think they would have a choice in the matter.

"The hair I can live with," Rembrandt said, indicating his now bald pate. "But did they have to shave the 'stache, too?"

"Apparently so," Professor Arturo grumbled, feeling the smooth edges of his now shorn face with distinct displeasure. "Believe me, Mister Brown, my mortification is equal to your own."

"Did anybody see what they did with all our stuff?" Quinn asked. Negative nodding all around. "Then our first priority has to be getting the timer back."

"Agreed," the Professor stated.

"The question is how," Wade pointed out, as if anyone needed to. "I overheard the people in charge talking. They think of us as cattle. We're their slaves. I don't exactly think we're going to be able to say 'I quit' and walk out."

"Why not suggest violence, Miss Welles?" the Professor asked sourly. "It always seems to be your first course of action."

Wade ignored the quip, but decided to address his main point anyway. "There's too few of us to too many of them. And we're outgunned."

Quinn looked around them. Families huddled close together for warmth, while others lie alone, staring hopelessly off into the night. "What about them? If we could lead them in some sort of revolt, it'd put the odds in our favor a little bit."

Remmy shook his head. "I don't like it. The last time you tried to play Spartacus it didn't go so well. Or don't you...remember?" He hesitated a moment, but after a few seconds appeared fine.

After that, nobody else seemed to have any suggestions. "These people don't speak English, do they?" Quinn asked, all too willing to change the subject. "But we can still understand what they're saying."

Arturo attempted to stroke his beard, despite the fact it wasn't there. "I noticed that, too. Remember our stay on the Mekkan homeworld? We were made to put translator chips in our heads. We've never had to use them before, but now they seem to be functioning splendidly."

Rembrandt was now sitting on the ground, looking despondent. "Oh, great. Now we can understand our masters perfectly when they give us our marching orders."

"They don't seem much like masters, do they?" Wade said. When the others looked at her, she registered slight surprise. She had apparently been thinking aloud. "I'm sorry, it's just, I've seen...people....who have absolute control over others. They're usually haughty, domineering. These guys..."

"Seem like they are just as much under someone else's thumb as we are," Professor Arturo finished for her. "Unseen masters who manipulate the population without lifting a finger. It's the most dangerous aspect of this world that we've yet encountered."

"You people really don't have a clue, do you?" came a voice from behind them. It originated from a small dark-skinned man sitting on the ground not far from them. "You sound like me when I just came here. All full of questions, disbelief and outrage. Well you better get it all out of your system. There's no room for any of that on this world."

"I'm sorry," Quinn said with confusion on his face. "Who are you again?"

"You can call me Rajiv," he answered disinterestedly. "It's not my name, but it works as well as anything else."

"Is your pessimism based on experience?" the Professor asked. "Or are you just naturally dyspeptic?"

"There's no hope of getting out of here, I can tell you that much for sure." He stood and faced the much more complex set of buildings that housed their guards. "You can outrun their running dogs, but you can never get away from them."

"Who's 'them'?" Wade asked.

Rajiv looked at them with exasperation in his eyes. "The Cerellians. Didn't you know anything about this world when you came here?"

"Cerellians," Quinn repeated, turning the term over in his mind and once again ignoring the man's question. "Didn't the Sorceror tell us something about them?"

"I vaguely recall their names being mentioned," the Professor. "If I remember correctly, they were extra-terrestrial genetic engineers of some sort. Are you telling us that they rule this Earth?"

Rajiv scoffed haughtily. "These guys aren't past tense. They're here. They've been here for millenia now. And they don't like humans much." He leaned in towards them, so that nobody else could hear what he was saying. "You try to escape, you even seriously think about it, that's when they'll get you. The Cerellians are all brain. They've got mental tortures you can't imagine, and wouldn't want to either."

The sliders took this information in silently. Finally, it was Rembrandt who spoke up. "No," he said simply. He suddenly had the attention of all of his companions. "I'm not going to go through this. Not again. I didn't come all this way to die some slave in a world run by freaks!" He started to spring away from the little shelter, but then fell to his knees. He clutched his head in pain.

"They're working him over!" Rajiv exclaimed. "Damn. I hoped all of you would at least last the week."

"Shut up," Wade told him. "Rembrandt!" she called out to him.

"It's too late," the other man said smugly. "The guards will come and take him and then..." But he was wrong.

Rembrandt stood, turned around and looked his fellow sliders in the eye. "I don't know you," he declared with pain in his voice. He then kept running. Rembrandt had no way of knowing what happened next, or that Quinn had went looking for him the next morning over the protests of the others or that Q-Ball would end up receiving the torture that had been meant for him. He just knew he had to run.

The grey sky was but one more inauspicious sign for Rembrandt Brown. The sunlight was sparse as it was, but then again what could anyone realistically expect from a cave? It was the best shelter he could find in this vast wasteland he had fled to. But he had to flee. There was no question about that.

His memory had returned in its entirety. As the memories flooded back, he felt everything his mind had been desperately repressing for the last few months. He felt the pain of every loss, the frustration of constant setbacks in getting home and the little bits of joy that he was able to experience whenever any headway was made in that journey. But most of all, he remembered his last slide before arriving on the world where he had met his friends. That memory wouldn't be leaving him for a while. Brooding silently, trying to make himself as comfortable as possible in an environment that was not intended for human luxury, Rembrandt could do nothing but remember.

The little red vortex spit out Rembrandt Brown with its last gasp before closing quickly behind him. It had been one of the rougher slides of Rembrandt's 'career', if that's what it could be called. But he was rather unconcerned with that after emerging from the wormhole. Right now he was worried about the fact that he had arrived on this world about a hundred feet off of the ground.

He didn't really even have time to panic before he saw a building roughly twenty feet below him. He plummeted towards it like a cartoon anvil, hitting the glass ceiling with a tremendous thud. He faded in and out of consciousness for a few moments after the initial impact and was tempted to merely rest there a while before making his next move. But the cracking sounds kept him from relaxing for too long. The glass in the ceiling was starting to break.

Not knowing what else to do, Rembrandt bolted upright quickly and started frantically looking for a way out of this perilous situation. He considered finding a safer area of the roof to stand on, but then realized that there was no more roof. This small patch of glass was all that remained to cover the building, which had obviously been long abandoned. He then looked over the side and realized that it was too far to jump. It was then that his salvation came into view. He spotted a ladder running down the side of the wall. It wasn't the sturdiest Rembrandt had ever seen, but right now he was willing to take what he could get.

As the glass began to give way under his feet, Rembrandt jumped onto the ladder. It wobbled horribly, but thankfully it held. During the climb down, Remmy said a silent prayer of thanks as he heard the glass shatter and fall to the ground below. He made it a point not to look down and made it to the bottom much faster than he had anticipated. But where in blazes was he?

The first place Rembrandt looked while surveying his surroundings was the building he had nearly landed inside. It looked like a chamber of horrors; torture devices were strewn about everywhere and the entire place was still filled with smells that he could have gone the rest of his life without experiencing again. But before he left, he wanted to see where the glass had landed (and where he would have ended up had it not been for some quick thinking on his part). He found the broken ceiling on a bed of sharp spikes, one of the many charming toys this building had lying around it. 'Maybe that's what would have happened to us if we'd all slid,' Rembrandt mused soberly, thinking of his three friends he'd left behind. His mood then changed swiftly and a smile broke out on his face. 'Or maybe the Seer's just full of crap.'

His first instinct on what to do now was to sit down somewhere and catch his breath, maybe even get some sleep. But he didn't know how safe he was here. There were several other buildings littering the horizon, but they all seemed as abandoned as the building that had nearly killed him. "Hello!" he called out. "Anybody home?" It may not have been the smartest thing to do in this situation, but if there was going to be trouble here he wanted to find out about it sooner rather than later. It was then that he saw some writing on the side of a building. It was in Kromagg.

At first, he felt anger and some fear. After thinking about the situation for a moment, however, he realized it could be a good thing. 'If this was a Kromagg area, and this is all that's left of it, maybe we found some way to beat them.' Rembrandt continued exploring this place, now with a more pleasant disposition.

Chapter Three

Rembrandt Brown woke up suddenly with a start. He was disoriented for only a moment, adjusting slowly as he took in his new surroundings. He was lying on the floor of what looked like some sort of Kromagg infirmary, or as if it had been more than a few years ago. For Rembrandt's purposes, however, the place had still been quite useful, as it contained some old bandages and had a sink with running water. He had used the place to get himself cleaned up and to bandage some of the nastier gashes he had received from his rough landing.

As Remmy stumbled his way to a standing position, he turned his attention to what had woken him up. He could have sworn he had heard a car pulling in. That wouldn't have been so strange if the place hadn't been quiet as a tomb up until now. Rembrandt mentally prepared himself for what he might be forced to confront. As he walked down the otherwise empty street, he saw a Jeep parked next to the building he had unceremoniously been deposited on. 'There's one mystery solved,' Remmy thought to himself. A short distance away from where he stood, Rembrandt saw a man with a small electronic device in his hand looking up at the building's roof. "Excuse me," he said, trying to get the attention of the man in question.

"Aah!" the man called out in surprise, stepping back a few feet as he turned around to look at Rembrandt. After getting a clear look at his face, he relaxed a bit. "Sorry, you startled me. I... didn't expect to find anybody out here."

"Well, I really didn't expect to be here either," Rembrandt said matter-of-factly. "So it looks like we both got a little surprise."

"What do you mean by that?" the other man asked. As his brow furrowed, Remmy tried to get a measure of what kind of person this man was. He was a tall African-American in his early forties with a very professional air about him.

Rembrandt tried to be a little cautious. There was no way to know whether or not he could trust this guy. "Let's just say that this place isn't where I'd be if I had a choice in the matter." He looked around the horizon for effect. He wanted to get some idea of where he was, but he didn't want to create the impression he'd fallen from the sky, despite the fact that he had. "How far am I from San Francisco?"

"I'm headed back downtown after I finish up here," the man stated, confirming that Remmy was not far from there. "I can give you a lift if you want." He grabbed some more equipment from his Jeep and went back to work. "You want to tell me exactly how you got out here?"

"I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you," Rembrandt answered earnestly with humor in his voice.

"Try me," he answered with one eyebrow raised. His attention, however, was focused on setting up his equipment not far from the bottom rung of the ladder he had climbed to safety on.

Rembrandt sighed. Honesty was still the best policy and he was getting a little tired of beating around the bush. "I came here through a vortex from a parallel dimension. I left my friends behind on a world where we were treated like celebrities to try to find my homeworld. The wormhole would only support one of us, you see. Now I've got to find out if this is really home."

A tool thats potential use was lost on Rembrandt fell from the man's hand. His jaw dropped. He stopped and stared for only a moment and then moved to pack his equipment back up. "I guess I won't be spending the afternoon here after all."

"Why's that?" Rembrandt asked.

He grinned. "Well, I was supposed to ascertain the cause of a mysterious interdimensional portal opening. I'm guessing you're it." As he closed the trunk of his Jeep, he stuck his hand out. "Since we haven't been properly introduced, I'm Dr. Henry Watkins."

Remmy returned the handshake. "Rembrandt Brown." He then looked Dr. Watkins in the eye with determination. "Look, I don't want to be pushy or anything, but I really need to find out if this is the end of the line for me. If you knew half of what I went through to get this far..."

Dr. Watkins interrupted him. "Maybe I can help you with that. I'm no historian, but I can answer some basic questions for you."

"Great," Rembrandt responded. "First off, is this a Kromagg world?" He pointed back to some of the Kromagg writing he had seen when he'd first arrived.

"It has Kromaggs on it, if that's what you mean," Watkins answered in an uncertain tone of voice.

A little confused about this man's confusion, Rembrandt decided to ask another question in the same vein. "What do you mean? Did the Maggs get their tails kicked or something? Did we take the planet back?"

"The Kromaggs never 'had' the planet," he answered, and Rembrandt's hopes sunk. It had likely been an error on Diana's part. Rembrandt guessed his scientist friend must have made a mistake when inputting the coordinates. 'Now there's a shocker,' he thought bitterly. He then turned his attention back to Dr. Watkins. "They never came close to conquering us. The Kromagg War was a stalemate. Everybody knows that." He quickly amended his statement. "Unless of course they're from a parallel earth."

Rembrandt swore. What was he going to do now? What could he do, other than wait for the others to do something or consider his options on this world. He couldn't very well do that here. "Well, that's it then. I'm not home." Neither of them said another word as both entered Dr. Watkins' jeep. As they drove off, Rembrandt looked around at the Kromagg ghost town one last time. "What the hell did the Kromaggs have here anyway?"

"This place?" Watkins asked, as if he had been asked a simple question about ancient history. "I think it was a breeder camp." Rembrandt didn't look at the place again. He was now very glad he was leaving.

An invisible hand threw Quinn Mallory across the room and slammed his back into a metallic wall. It pressed against him hard, making his flesh feel every inch of the cold steel that was his physical prison. Mentally, of course, he was nowhere near there.

"Hey, brainboy!" a young and vindictive voice cried out. "You gonna swing a bat at us again? Ooh, I'm so scared." Quinn felt the punch he had felt so many years ago hit him again, seemingly with much greater strength this time. The pain lingered in his stomach for a long time afterward.

"You're weak," came another voice, which he eventually recognized as his own. He had been on the island a few months, and it wasn't at one of his emotional high points. "You're weak and pathetic and better off dead."

"Stop," Quinn managed to get out. It was the first time he had been allowed to speak in over a day. Quinn could see again and he was no longer being forced to re-enact the more painful memories of his life. In other words, his lot had suddenly improved considerably. Naturally, he was suspicious as to why and he had reason to be.

"I can make it stop," a voice that was much more soothing than it should have been cooed. It was the voice of someone Quinn barely recognized, somebody who his mother had been friends with when he was a boy perhaps. "All you have to do is obey."

"I'll do it," he told the thing. It had given him no name; it didn't seem like it respected him enough to do so. "I'll do whatever you want, just let me go."

"You lie," came a much harsher, angrier voice. His father had been disappointed and angry at Quinn a few times and it was that tone that the creature was using. "But you have the fear in you. That is all that interests me." Quinn slipped down abruptly from the wall. "You may go." Quinn saw the door slam open. He didn't have to be told twice.

Wade didn't like this. For one thing, manual labor was not what she was best at. For another, Rembrandt and Quinn were still long gone, and she and the Professor had no idea what had happened to either one of them. "I still say we should do something," she stated.

"And what would you suggest that we do, Miss Welles?" Professor Arturo asked irritably. His back wasn't holding up well against the strain of farming and he had few outlets to vent his frustration. Wade unfortunately happened to be one of the few. "Perhaps we should declare a hunger strike, hm? Using Gandhian tactics against our merciless extraterrestrial captors may not be effective in easing our plight, but it would at least spare them the trouble of torturing us for our disobedience."

"I'm just tired of being helpless," Wade snapped back. "We need to do something to get Rembrandt back. Or at least find out what's happened to Quinn."

"I can tell you what happened to Quinn," a familiar yet hoarse voice told her. As the two of them looked up, they saw it was Quinn. The exposed portion of his chest and back were covered in bruises and the look on his face said more about the hell he had been through than words ever could. "But I'm not sure you really want to know."

"So, I suppose you must be quite the physicist," Dr. Watkins said with a smile. Rembrandt gave him a strange look that the other man misinterpreted. "No need to be modest. Humanity on our world has yet to develop anything like... 'sliding', did you call it?"

"Yeah," Rembrandt answered with an awkwardness in his voice. "But I didn't invent it. I'm not a scientist."

"Oh," he said, turning his attention back to the road. But then he got another idea. "Of course. How silly of me! Sliding must be commonplace on your world, almost like air travel is on ours."

"Er, no," Rembrandt said, trying unsuccessfully to slink down in his seat. "We were the first ones to do it. But my being there, it was sort of an accident."

"Wait," he said, trying to get a grasp on the situation. "So you don't know anything about sliding? How it works, what formulas to use?" Rembrandt shook his head. "Do you have any proof at all that you're from another world?"

Remmy withdrew the broken pieces of the timer that he had stuck in his pocket on the last world. "This is it. It's all that's left of our sliding device."

Dr. Watkins grimaced. "I see." There was a slight pause of awkward silence for just a moment. Then the scientist turned on the radio. It was tuned to NPR. "...more news on the Willamette Valley Conference from Lisa Miller. Lisa? Thanks, Dave. President Newman is once again stressing free trade as foremost among the issues on his agenda and the key to getting things accomplished with the Kromaggs. General Krarg has repeatedly stated that he plans to keep the border zone sealed, despite repeated instances of the line being crossed illegally. As you might expect, the Humagg Youth Council reaction to this has led to several planned protests in Northern California. Council co-chair Krylus Taylor had this to say..."

Rembrandt was already bored. "Don't you get any other stations? I've been dying to hear some R & B for the last five worlds now."

Dr. Watkins gave him another funny look. "What's R & B?" Rembrandt's jaw nearly fell to the floor, but he said nothing. Watkins spoke again, however. "I don't know quite how to say this, but...don't spread your story around. About being from a parallel universe. People might not believe you."

"Hey, I know how to be discreet," Rembrandt assured him.

Chapter Four

Rembrandt coughed violently, trying to keep himself warm against the freezing cold wind that the night brought with it. This cave was the best shelter he could find, but it was largely inadequate in protecting him from the elements. His small stockpile of food and water was in constant danger of being blown away and there was precious little he could do to get more until morning. At this point, he had no long-term plans for what he was going to do here. But he knew he couldn't be anywhere near them.

He reached for some of the bitter yet edible berries that were the only ready-to-eat source of food he could find nearby. While shoveling them down and spitting out the seeds, he couldn't help but think about how different his situation was now than it had been then. After careful consideration, he decided perhaps the circumstances weren't so different after all. But at least he had been happy for a while.

The driver of a new shiny bright red Cadillac sped through San Francisco's streets without a care. He had only bought it today and already it was starting to feel comfortable and familiar. There was a certain illogic to buying a car like this, especially when a part of him expected his sliding companions to show up any moment and want him to leave this world within the hour. But then again, why not enjoy himself while he was here? He certainly had the money to throw around. Only a few weeks on this world, and his first hit was already tearing up the charts. Rembrandt chuckled to himself. 'If you can't have home, you might as well have fame.'

Thinking of home made him think of the friends he left behind. Who would have thought he would be the last one standing of the original group that left Earth Prime? He'd experienced so much loss and had his heart broken so many times along the way. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad just to stay on this world for a while, to put down some roots, as it were. Maggie, Mallory and Diana were undoubtedly working on some way to follow his sliding trail, but they weren't here yet and he had no idea when or if they would be. Nonetheless, he didn't fear much for their safety. Although far from the most capable of the sliding teams he'd been with, they were both resourceful and extremely lucky. He only hoped that their luck wouldn't run out now that he was no longer with them.

He tried to drown out those thoughts by turning up the radio. "Oh, yeah! They're playin' my song!" He had made a demo tape for some record producers a few days after hitching a ride back to town with Dr. Watkins. Of all the songs they'd liked, "I Pawned My Gold Crown for You", a song that he would have never even thought of had he not spent the last few years travelling between worlds, was the one they picked as a sure-fire hit. It looked like they were right. It was already up to number seven on the Billboard charts and it was climbing rapidly.

As Remmy took in the sights of this world's San Francisco, he heard his latest tune coming from another radio on the street. He was more than a little surprised as he discovered the source. Rembrandt couldn't help gawking a little bit at a Humagg with green hair sporting a blue jean jacket and carrying a boombox, jamming to his music. He shook his head. Dr. Watkins had told him about the Humaggs' role in how this world's social situation had come about, but he still wasn't sure he believed it. The image of peace-loving Humaggs standing in front of Kromagg tanks to stop them from killing humans was too surreal for Rembrandt. Nonetheless, it all seemed to be true.

Rembrandt pulled into one of the cleaner-looking service stations. He had just about resurrected his old image, but the package was incomplete. He went to the rack and picked the cheapest pair of sunglasses they had. After he tried them on, he found a reflective surface and grinned widely at himself. "Yeah, the Cryin' Man' is back!" He casually moved himself into the check-out line behind a tightly bundled man shivering in front of him. He didn't smell that great either. 'Homeless guy,' Rembrandt thought.

The group of female tweens at the front of the line finally finished checking out their stack of magazines and the man in front of Rembrandt deposited his items on the counter. The clerk started to punch in the prices on the cash register, until he got a good look at the face of the man. His eyes grew wide. "I...I'm sorry, sir. New policy. We don't serve Kromaggs."

Rembrandt was a little startled; he had never seen Kromaggs in human clothing before. But the growl that eminated from the figure in front of him was distinctly inhuman, although the voice was shaky. "Do not be so insolent, human. We know that you have poisoned our race. We just cannot prove it yet. I have your filthy human currency." The clerk said nothing. He was clearly out of his depth. The Kromagg seized him by his shirt collar and lifted him into the air. "You will take it and give me what I want!"

Remmy wasn't about to watch this guy get clocked by a Magg. As he shoved the antagonistic Kromagg back to make his point, he watched in confusion as he fell frailly to the ground. He looked Rembrandt in the eyes, knowing he was beaten. "I needed it," he grumbled pathetically as he picked himself up and walked off.

The terrified man in the clerk's smock was suddenly filled with courage now that the danger was gone. "And don't come back!" he called out towards the closing door. Rembrandt put his sunglasses on the counter and the clerk rang them up. "Damn Kromaggs. Ever since that virus hit, they've all been wigging out like that." He then looked at Rembrandt. "Nothing I can't handle, of course."

Rembrandt smiled at him as he tore the tag off and slipped the shades on. "Of course." He walked out the door and climbed suavely into his Caddy. The virus that had been tearing its way through the Kromagg population of this world hadn't gone unnoticed by Rembrandt, but up until now he had never seen it up close and personal. To be honest, he found it kind of disturbing. Especially since he was fairly certain he was the cause of it. Oh sure, he hadn't exactly gone around bleeding on Kromaggs since arriving in this dimension, but there must have been dozens of ways the disease he had imported could have spread from his system to theirs. To be honest, however, he wasn't overly sympathetic. 'No use crying over dead Maggs.'

He had some time before he had to meet a representative from his record label for lunch downtown, so he decided to swing by his apartment. It was nice enough for his purposes, and it was certainly larger than the hotel rooms that he was used to. The decor still needed some work, although he still hadn't figured out whether it was because the rooms were too pastel or if the pastels just weren't gaudy enough, but Rembrandt had gotten pretty used to hanging his head there. Just as he walked inside, he heard the telephone ring.

"Can you hear me now?" came the crackling voice from the other end of the sliders' communication devices. The guards had been going through their duffel bags and discovered the contraptions, and among all the items they possessed that their captors were clueless about it, these were the ones they wanted to experiment with.

Quinn let out a frustrated grunt. He guessed he should have been happier that they hadn't decided to play around with the timer, but this was getting really old. "Yes," he answered sharply. He could swear he heard the guard giggling on the other end. "Don't they ever get tired of this?" Quinn complained aloud to his companions. The three of them were a few hundred yards from the plantation fields, near a stream that was evidently one of the primary water supplies for this area.

"They've obviously never seen technology at this level, or at least not human technology," Professor Arturo pointed out. "Besides, this is preferable to the pointlessly rigorous manual labor we were being subjected to."

"I think I could argue that point," Quinn huffed.

"Will you just relax?" Wade said, a little fed up herself. "The more we find out about how these guys operate, the better our chances of getting out of here."

"Yes," Arturo concurred. "If they're so fascinated by our electronics, perhaps we could get them to bring us the timer. We should still have a few days left before the slide..."

"These guys aren't in charge," Quinn reminded them sternly. "Those telepathic sadists are. Don't forget that. The guards that do the grunt work are little more than overgrown children."

"You're downright cheery," Wade teased sarcastically.

Quinn looked at her grimly. "You would be too if you'd been on the business end of their methods of torture. Trust me, we're wasting our time looking for weaknesses in the enemy."

The Professor's face looked all the more sour without his beard. "What should we be looking for then, eh, Mr. Mallory? Some sort of magical deus ex machina?"

"Hidden assets," Quinn answered cryptically. The other two sliders shared a puzzled look. They were interrupted by another chirp from the communicator. "Can you hear me now?"

"Doc!" Rembrandt exclaimed as he recognized the voice on the other end of the receiver. "What's up?"

Doctor Henry Watkins' voice was uncharacteristically excited. "I just wanted to say thank you. The timer you gave me, even in the, uh, diminished state I found it in, was extremely helpful in my research."

"Research?" Rembrandt queried, confusion evident in his voice. "What research?"

The doctor's tone of voice changed to become apologetic. "Well, I wasn't entirely honest with you before. Quite frankly, I didn't want to get your hopes up. I've been working on travel between dimensions for several years now. It would have been several more years until we could have even thought about completion, but the timer, combined with your appearance on this world confirming that humans could even develop such technology, was a sort of quantum leap for our project."

"That's...great!" Rembrandt managed to exclaim half-heartedly. His lack of enthusiasm surprised even himself. "Good luck with that."

"I didn't just call to congratulate myself," Dr. Watkins went on. "I wanted to make you an offer. Assuming the pace we've set for ourselves in recent days continues unabated, I'd like to start assembling a team to be the first humans through the vortex. I was wondering if you'd be interested in tagging along. We could always use a 'sliding' veteran like yourself."

"I'm sure you could," Rembrandt answered without thinking. He then decided to back up a little bit. "What I mean is..."

"I understand your reluctance," Henry said, patient optimism seemingly his modus operandi. "You hardly know me, or anything much at all about this world. Just promise me you'll swing by and take a look at what we've done."

"Of course I will," Remmy assured him. "I'll see you then, Doc."

"One more thing," the scientist stated before Rembrandt could hang up on him. "If you don't mind, I'd like to do some bloodwork on you."

"Why in the world would you need to do that?" the slider asked, playing dumb as well as he could.

The other man cut to the chase. "I'm sure you're familiar with different cultures having different immunities. That's a condition certain to be exacerbated when you factor in parallel worlds." He paused for only a moment. "You may have unwittingly become the Patient Zero for the Kromagg virus. If that's the case, then your blood may be the only thing that can help us stop it."

Chapter Five

Rembrandt Brown didn't believe he'd worked this hard before in his life. Although the particular high expectations of entertainers on this world combined with the fact that he wasn't getting any younger most likely made this performance more exhausting than the ones he remembered, he had forgotten how completely taxing touring was. But he still enjoyed himself out there. He rested his head on the towel wrapped around his shoulders. He had already done the first set, which had taken him a little over an hour. In accordance with the rules of concert etiquette on this world, a middle act would be introduced, perform for roughly half an hour, and then Rembrandt would finish the show with another hour-long performance. He looked over at his manager, Johnny, with fatigue on his face. "Why did I agree to do this again?"

The younger man in the white jacket and tiger-striped shirt grinned. "Because you're making millions of dollars."

"Oh yeah," he chuckled hardily. "I knew there had to be a good reason." He then quickly closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He was sitting in front of the mirror because his make-up would have to be touched up before he went back on. But there was no sense in worrying about that now, not when he could get some well-deserved rest before going back to his adoring fans. Rembrandt was on his way to getting forty winks when his sleep was rudely interrupted by a knock.

Remmy didn't recognize the voice, but it sounded panicked. "We've got a problem."

"What is it?" Johnny asked, immediately stepping in to act so Rembrandt wouldn't have to.

"Humaggs," the other man said in a stage whisper. "They're outside and they want in to see the show."

"Do they have tickets?" Rembrandt's neophyte agent asked. The other man must have nodded. "Well then let 'em in for God's sake! We don't need any bad press."

"You didn't hear the CDC's announcement?" the man at the door demanded. "The Kromagg virus is spreading to Humaggs now. We're not supposed to let 'em anywhere near here, or in any other public place."

Johnny harshly whispered a curse. This was bound to hurt ticket sales. "Disperse them. Call the authorities. Do whatever you want."

Rembrandt could have sworn he heard the guy sweating. "But that's just it. The police won't even come close to them and neither will anybody else. Everybody's afraid of that damn virus."

His agent took a peek outside. "Let them shout until they're hoarse and let the news cameras come if they want. No publicity is bad publicity, right?" The rhetorical question directly contradicted what he had said earlier, but nobody really had a good solution.

Well, Rembrandt had one idea. "Is there a phone back here?" he asked. "I've got a very important call to make."

"Run!" came the barely familiar and heavily accented voice of a man they hardly knew. Given the circumstances, however, the sliders obeyed without question. What choice did they have? Alarms blared and Klaxons honked freely. There was also a rather unpleasant screechy noise eminating from the fortress behind them. To say that all of this didn't instill confidence in their abilities to achieve their escape would be an understatement.

"Not that I doubt...the brilliance...of your strategem...sir," Arturo managed to say between heavy breaths, "but are we actually running to somewhere?"

"Just a few meters up ahead," the man they knew only as Rajiv answered him. "There we'll find our ticket out of here."

"What exactly would that be?" Wade asked. She was well in the lead, and had turned her head to look at their unexpected savior. As she did so, she seemingly disappeared down a hole. A concerned Quinn and an equally worried yet further back Professor Arturo hustled to see what had happened. The Professor wasn't comforted by the look on Quinn's face. When he arrived, he saw that a gray wormhole had formed at ground level. Wade must have fallen into it.

"I guess she found it," Rajiv stated with a smile. "Not the best entrance by a vortex ever, but I guess it'll have to do." None of the other sliders did anything other than try to catch their breath. "What are we waiting for?"

"Are you sure it's safe?" Quinn asked. He was no coward, and he certainly wanted to leave this place, but he had never seen a vortex form through the ground before.

Professor Arturo looked back over their shoulder. The scrambler devices Rajiv had given them would override Cerellian attempts to control their minds temporarily, but not for long. Some of the simple-minded guards they had met earlier were charging at them, wielding primitive yet deadly weapons. "I don't believe we have much choice in this matter, Mr. Mallory." He then jumped through the wormhole himself. Quinn didn't hesitate long before joining him.

As Quinn landed next to Wade and the Professor, he looked around in bewilderment at his new location. Glancing at the instrument panel, Quinn reasoned that they might have landed inside something akin to a nuclear submarine, but the view out of the windows immediately negated that theory. The increased brightness in the stars was amazing in and of itself, but to see the Earth from such a distant vantagepoint was truly breathtaking. As Rajiv came tumbling through the vortex, Wade turned to ask him a question. "Just where the hell are we?"

"In space," Quinn answered, still a little dumbstruck.

"I know that," Wade said in mild exasperation. "What I want to know is: are we still in this dimension?"

"Yes," the man who had seemingly saved their lives answered testily. "The Earth you see out there is the exact one we just left. Now if you don't mind I'd like to change into something a lot more comfortable."

"A moment, if you please," Professor Arturo said in a voice as authoritative as he could muster. "We cannot leave this dimension without our timer."

Rajiv pressed three buttons on a nearby console. Three doors opened not far away. "I had your stuff sent to your rooms. Your sliding mechanism was in one of those artificial fabric satchels those goons had confiscated, no?"

The sliders' mood improved rapidly after they heard that news. The four of them hastened quickly to their rooms to change clothes. The old ones were completely odious, as Cerellians felt humans deserved precious little in that department. Professor Arturo was pleased to note that the timer, as well as the device he picked up when they were almost home that he had been using to store noteworthy worlds' interdimensional co-ordinates, were both successfully recovered. In roughly fifteen minutes, the quartet had reassembled.

"Our post-rescue confusion clouded our manners, Mr., erm, Rajiv, was it?" Arturo asked. The man in front of him nodded curtly. "We owe you a great deal for delivering us from that place."

"Yeah," Wade said with a large grin on her face. "Now all we have to do is get Rembrandt out of there, too."

"You're referring to your half-crazed companion?" Rajiv asked to a nod of agreement from Quinn and the others. "We can't go back for him. It's out of the question." As might be expected, the sliders' gratitude waned quite a bit after that.

"I can't believe you held this information back from me!" Doctor Henry Watkins exclaimed. "Didn't you see all the death it was causing?"

"Kromagg death," Rembrandt answered a little coldly. "Trust me, if you'd seen what they did to my world, you'd understand why it doesn't bother me much to see it."

"And what about Humaggs?" he demanded, disgust showing itself in the tone of his voice. "Where do they fit in your little vengeance scenario?"

"Hey, I didn't know what it would do!" Remmy exclaimed, already tired of being blamed for this. "I wasn't even supposed to be on this world! I should have been home by now!"

"And this was how you were going to take back your world?" Watkins asked, trying to fit all of the pieces together in his mind. "Mass murder by way of germ warfare? Exterminate an entire race?!"

"They're not a race," Rembrandt answered him, the pain of Kromagg captivity flooding back into his mind slowly. "They're monsters."

"Good Lord!" the doctor cried out. "That's exactly what the likes of a Josef Mengele would have said. Who would have expected it from somebody like you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rembrandt wanted to know.

"You know exactly what it means," Dr. Watkins told him forcefully. "Are you going to tell me that you've never been devalued because of your race? I bet you've had a pretty tough time of it, if you've been to as many parallel worlds as you claim."

"I don't need to be lectured about this," Rembrandt said, rising from his seat. He unfastened the rubber strap from around his arm and threw it down on a nearby medical tray. "You've got a sample of the original virus from my blood. If it can help you come up with a cure, good. If not, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."

The scientist's eyes flared. "Some of my brightest, most promising students are terminal because of this thing. They've got days, maybe even only hours to live. How dare you act like it doesn't mean anything!" He got no reaction from Rembrandt. "And to think that I might have helped spread it. If I'd have just left you there..."

"You'd have really abandoned me, maybe to die, to spare some Maggots' lives?" Rembrandt queried with disgust of his own evident in his voice. The doctor's non-response was good enough to qualify as a 'yes' in Rembrandt's mind. "Well then, don't you worry about that anymore. I'm pretty sure the whole thing got started when some of my blood went down a sink in that old breeder camp, which happened before you even got there." He walked out of the room as Henry Watkins said nothing in response. He turned around to take a parting shot. "Wouldn't want your conscience nagging at you while you work to save Kromagg lives."

Chapter Six

Rembrandt walked out of the registered nurse's office feeling like a pin cushion. He was otherwise none the worse for wear; for all of the poking and prodding, he had gotten a clean bill of health from a recognized medical authority and he had received a little green stamp on his CDC HealthWatch card, seemingly frivolous as it was. He wouldn't have to go for another check up for three days. The whole process was a bit of a hassle, (the long lines alone would test the patience of Job) but if he was going to keep up the appearance of being a normal citizen on this world he had to obey the new rules and regulations that were seemingly coming about every day here.

His next gig wouldn't be for a few more hours and he didn't relish killing what free time he had before then in downtown Oakland. Rembrandt effortlessly hopped into his Caddy and pulled out of there as quickly as he possibly could. He didn't know where he was going exactly, but he was going to get there fast. He turned on the radio, hoping to find some appropriate road music. The attempt failed rather miserably.

"...further reports from the CDC since it issued the controversial statement that the mysterious Kromagg virus may be mutating rapidly enough to be able to infect humans within a few weeks. The widespread panic this statement has caused has not died down since the announcement was made. President Newman made this statement today to address the public's fears." Rembrandt didn't hesitate to turn the dial. He really wasn't interested in Paul Newman's opinion on much of anything, especially on a world where he was the president. Besides, there was no truth to any of what they were saying. If the virus could detrimentally affect humans, why wasn't he dead already? Wouldn't it have killed him shortly after he had injected himself with it?

'Not if it's mutating,' came a somber voice from the back of Rembrandt's mind. 'Viruses are tricky things. They do whatever it takes to survive, no matter what the cost. They rival people in that department.' Remmy sighed heavily. He couldn't do a show feeling like this. There had to be someplace around here to take his mind off of things. He was bound and determined to find it.

'It' turned out to be a small dive just outside of town that looked like it had seen better, and cleaner, days. Still... 'No chance of getting overly introspective in here,' Rembrandt chuckled to himself. 'The music's too loud for one thing.' Still, there were serious issues in his life that needed addressing.

For one thing, where was he going to go from here? Touring and making money was something to pass the time, but did he really want to spend the rest of his days on a parallel world just to do that? And if he didn't, what was he going to do about it? He'd already more or less broken ties with the one man he knew of on this world that was developing sliding technology, he certainly didn't have the scientific knowledge to build a timer by himself, much less an entire sliding system. Using leftover Kromagg technology was also a less-than-desirable option, considering what that was how he was in this mess in the first place. And then, of course, there was the matter of his friends. If they were coming for him, they were sure taking their time about it. How much longer could he reasonably expect to wait for them?

Rembrandt stepped through the bar room door and let his problems melt away. Worry really didn't suit him that well. As helpless as he was in this situation, perhaps things could still turn out for the best. After all, he'd been extraordinarily lucky up to this point. Who was to say that luck wouldn't hold out?

A dozen worlds, a few months and about twenty thousand miles away, the extent of Rembrandt Brown's luck was being tested. "What are you talking about? 'Out of the question'? Excuse me, did you or did you not just pull the three of us out of there?" Wade demanded angrily.

"Yes, and your undying gratitude is heartwarming." Before the girl or either of the two men could retaliate for that snide remark, Rajiv continued. "Look, you think I liked shutting down my operation prematurely? That I was just a Cerellian slave when I could have left at any time because I enjoyed the vistas?" None of the sliders could say anything to that. "I was supposed to be gathering information. Bringing the operation down from the inside. Instead, I had to call in the big guns and endanger my own life just to get you three out of there. And that, my dear, is why we can't go back for your friend. It's entirely too dangerous."

Wade continued to fume. Professor Arturo felt it was his obligation to step in at this point. "I'm sorry, we're still a little in the dark about our situation here. What exactly is going to happen now that you've called in 'the big guns', as you call them?"

"You ever heard of the Grand Alliance?" he asked. None of them had. Rajiv smirked. "Well, they've heard of you. You have friends in high places there. The GA are an interdimensional organization that was formed to combat a group called Lesion." A knowing look passed between the three of them. "I take it you have heard of them."

"Molaudian," Quinn stated knowingly. He then turned to look Rajiv in the eyes. "I knew there was more to your story."

He shrugged. "What can I say? I'm not the best liar in the world. I normally only have to be duplicitous around non-humans, you know." The looks on the older guy's and the woman's faces told him he had strayed perilously off-topic. "At any rate, an army from the Grand Alliance is going to storm the place, take out the Cerellians in charge of the province we were in, and generally make that stretch of territory resemble a pock mark on the Earth's surface. If we go down there while all that's going on, we might as well just dig our own graves."

"You found a way to get our stuff here," Wade reminded him. "You must have some kind of transporter...beam... or something. You could use that to get Rembrandt."

Rajiv bit his lip. "It's matter transplacement tech. It's pretty sensitive stuff, designed strictly for nonorganic matter. If I knew approximately where he was, I might be able to get him out. But we would be risking his life. As well as ours, if the transport were detected while the Cerellians still had the ability to strike at us. Hell, we're lucky they didn't trace our location from that vortex I opened."

Quinn crossed his arms in thought. "Why don't we form a search party and go down there before those alliance guys come in? If we can stay clear of the guards and use the scramblers to keep the Cerellians out of our heads, we should be OK."

"Scramblers work for a few minutes, tops," Rajiv told them with growing irritation in his voice. "Look, I don't like leaving a man behind any more than the marines do, but my...our...hands are tied. There's nothing we can do."

"So you're saying you won't go down there after him?" Wade asked, her grim determination firmly set in the expression her face bore. "Well, I won't leave without him." He voice suddenly turned to a much lighter, carefree tone. "I don't see a problem there," she said with a shrug. "I'll just go rescue him myself."

Professor Arturo put his hand on her shoulder. "Miss Welles, I think it would profit us to be a bit more realistic."

"And leaving Rembrandt to die is a 'realistic' proposition?!" Wade asked furiously, turning the full weight of her wrath on her friend. "What is wrong with you?"

"Mr. Brown may already be dead," the Professor stated in a low voice. "I'm not ready to give up on him either, but we must prepare ourselves for this possibility."

"If you want to go ahead and write his eulogy, be my guest," Wade responded a little coldly. "What I'm more worried about is what will happen to a very much alive Rembrandt when we leave him on a hostile world in an environment that's about to be blown to pieces."

"Believe me, Miss Welles, if anyone knows the horror of being abandoned on a parallel world by his comrades, it is I," Arturo countered. "I would by no means advocate doing so in the case of Mr. Brown. I merely wish to consider all of the possiblities before blindly charging to my death like the bloody Light Brigade!"

"Guys, would you please just stop arguing?" Quinn requested earnestly. "I'm getting a headache listening to this."

"Mr. Mallory," Professor Arturo replied in a forcibly calm voice, "you cannot expect me to believe that you endorse Miss Welles' insane plan to rescue Mr. Brown from these Cerellians, who you claim are practically invincible, by herself!"

"You're right," Quinn answered him. Wade turned around to give him an earful, but Quinn cut her off. "Going alone is a bad plan. That's why I'm going with her." The Professor glared at him with a look that said 'Et tu, Mr. Mallory?'. "Hey, I didn't bring the three of you back together only to watch one of you get lost again. I do have my end of the bargain to keep up."

Arturo gave a dissatisfied grunt. "Your loyalty is as ill-timed as it is uncharacteristic, Mr. Mallory. Or is this merely a more elaborate than usual scheme you've engineered to stay behind?" The other two sliders were too stunned to say anything for a moment. "You certainly didn't give us much hope for escape when we were still in captivity."

Wade and Quinn began indignantly retorting at the same time. "Do you honestly think I'd want to stay there..." and "How dare you do this to him at a time like..." was how they started out, until Rajiv interrupted them loudly, trying to straighten things out. "Wait a minute. We are talking about the same guy who couldn't run away from you fast enough a few days ago, right? I don't get the feeling he was jogging for his health down there. I'm thinking maybe there was some bad blood between you and him. Now you want to get yourselves killed over the guy?"

Wade and Quinn shared a guilty look, while the Professor struggled to explain. "There were...untruths involved. But I'm certain we could resolve whatever issues divide us, given time."

"Time which we won't have if we leave Rembrandt down there while we slide out," Quinn reminded him.

Professor Arturo's conviction was growing more and more tenuous by the moment. "We could come back for him. We have a device that can store this Earth's co-ordinates. If we can reach a world that's technologically advanced enough, we can upgrade our timer so that it can take us back here."

"Now who's being unrealistic?" Wade scoffed. "That could take years, Professor. And how would the situation have changed by then? We'd still be the plucky yet outgunned humans fighting against all-powerful alien beings."

The Professor sighed heavily. For all his pride, he knew when he was beaten. "I suppose if you're determined to lead this Quixotic charge, Miss Welles, the least I can do is follow."

"You're all insane!" Rajiv exclaimed, reaching a whole new level of irritation. "Do you know what I just gave up to bring you here? Do you know what I saved you from?"

A half-smile crossed Wade's face. "Yeah, we know. That's why we can't stand the thought of Rembrandt going through that alone."

"Congratulations, then," Rajiv told them spitefully. "You get to go down there and give his misery some company." The three of them immediately began talking amonst themselves as he walked away. "Assuming he even wants any," he muttered bitterly.

Chapter Seven

"Be sure to reset the scramblers every two or three minutes," Rajiv said as he handed out the tools he thought they would need for their foolhardy mission. "With any luck, that should keep the greys off your back for about fifteen minutes. Which is likely all you'll get anyway, before the device starts to fry your brain." The three of them shared a skeptical look. "Hey, I told you this mission wouldn't be safe."

Wade was more than happy to change the subject. "What's this for?" she asked, holding another electronic device up for his scrutiny.

"That's a heat/motion sensor. It was designed for military use, but it should do nicely to find your friend." He looked at them with an earnest look on his face. "Are you sure he's worth all this?"

"Positive," Quinn answered for the group.

Rajiv exhaled deeply. "Well then, I suppose I've done all I can..."

"What about weapons?" Professor Arturo wondered aloud.

The agent of the Grand Alliance scoffed. "They'd be useless against Cerellians and you'd be unlikely to outfight any guards that might find you. You're better off without them weighing you down."

Arturo shook his head. "I doubt we'd agree with you when facing a coyote or a poisonous snake. The place we're going isn't exactly Golden Gate Park."

Rajiv conceded the point with a slight nod of his head. "I've got some basic defensive weapons," he replied, hefting an overly futuristic-looking storage bin onto the table. "Be careful with them, they're part of a private collection."

He passed the box around to Wade. She drew a mace out of it which was covered with razor-sharp spikes. "Nice hobby," she told him. "But I don't think I can kill a snake with this."

"Of course not," a frowning Rajiv scolded her mildly as he pulled another, much more familiar, object out of the box. "That's what the .22 is for."

Rembrandt felt his hand scrape painfully against the slab of stone surrounding him as he struggled to move through the narrow passageway that led into the outside world. He watched numbly as blood started to rise from the wound. It was only one of several things hampering his prompt departure from this cave. The rain sprayed itself lightly throughout and water was pooling up at his feet. Remmy was shivering constantly and he was pretty sure the cough he had picked up a day or so ago was getting worse. All and all, this wasn't the best time to be walking around in Rembrandt Brown's shoes. Especially since he wasn't wearing any.

He plopped himself down on the smoothest stone in the shallowest pool of water he could find. Remmy was exhausted, both mentally and physically. His motivation for continuing was scant; as far as he knew, no better protection against the elements waited for him outside the place where he had uncomfortably hung his head for the last several days. He still wasn't sure whether or not finding his friends was achievable or even desirable. Certainly there was little hope that they would come and save him.

Rembrandt started to laugh, but it ended up as a coughing fit. 'They do say history repeats itself,' he thought. His motivation was perhaps less clear now than it had been. Although, in the back of his mind, Remmy never could shake the thought that he was given this opportunity, the chance to see things that no other person on his Earth had likely ever seen, for a reason. Just because he didn't understand it, that didn't mean it didn't exist. That was the nature of faith, after all. But there was no reason to dwell on that. Rembrandt repressed a wince as he used his cut hand to push himself up from the cave filled with rainwater. It was time to try again.

As Rembrandt stepped slowly from his red Cadillac, he took one last look at the piece of paper with the address he had needed written on it and crumpled it in his hand. It had taken him hours to find the place, what with how crazy things were on the streets nowadays. Stumbling his way into the building, he felt no sense of satisfaction that he had finally made it here. There were several good reasons for that. Partly, it was because this world was slowly dying. Mostly, it was because Rembrandt was, too.

The virus, now just known simply as the Plague, had already killed millions of people and would likely kill millions, possibly even billions, more. Some would survive, of course. Statistically speaking, a few here and there would live on, thanks to immunities and other such incidental miracles. However, it looked like Remmy wasn't going to be one of them.

It was fitting, Rembrandt supposed, that he be among the dead here. Not long before the Professor died, he had forced Remmy to go see an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan called "The Mikado". There was a line that went something like "let the punishment fit the crime". He dozed off at one point, so he wasn't exactly sure. Whatever the case, it was a judiciary sentiment that Rembrandt was living at the moment and he found it exceedingly unpleasant.

After taking a moment to cover his mouth with a handkerchief (he felt like something was going to come out of it, although he had no idea exactly what it would be), he opened the door to the office of Dr. Henry Watkins. Rembrandt really had no idea what to expect. The words that had been exchanged between them hadn't been too friendly the last time they'd seen each other; still, the world situation had changed quite a bit since then. Maybe he could say what he needed to and move on, without any collateral damage being incurred.

"Hello?" Remmy called out hoarsely. He had barely moved away from the door when he heard a gunshot shatter the glass portion of it. Rembrandt's eyes were instantly drawn to the corner, where the shot had originated from. The shooter was Dr. Watkins, who looked considerably worse than the former slider himself did. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Rembrandt demanded.

A perverse little smile formed on the physicist's face. "What's wrong with all of us? You should know if anybody does." His face turned back into a mask of stone in an instant. "Leave me be. You've done enough here." He stared blankly at the gun in his hand as he turned it back to face himself.

"Don't be stupid," Rembrandt told him. Watkins didn't respond. Rembrandt became more forceful. "I came here to make things right, not to watch you destroy yourself before the virus gets a chance to. Now put the gun down!"

"Are you going to stop me?" the doctor asked with one eyebrow arched. Rembrandt froze. The other man smirked. "I thought not. Not your style. I'm guessing you weren't the hero of your group."

"That's not fair," Rembrandt rasped in his defense.

"You want to know what's not fair?" he rhetorically asked in a surprisingly high-pitched voice. "Your sick vengeance crusade dooms an innocent populace and you get to walk away from it unscathed."

"What are you talking about?" Rembrandt demanded. "I've got the friggin' Plague now, too."

Dr. Watkins laughed mirthlessly. "That's what's so damn infuriating. Your immune system has built-in defenses against the virus." Rembrandt gave him a puzzled look. "We tested your blood thoroughly. If we could get access to enough of your anti-bodies, we'd have a good shot at making a vaccine. But it would have to be present in the body before the virus hits. Since there's nobody around who hasn't already been infected with it, you're the only one who gets to live to tell the tale. And the rest of us get to suffer and die. How's that for fair?"

"So I get to live out the rest of my life in a land of the dead with a bunch of other survivors who'll probably end up hating my guts," Rembrandt retorted more than a little angrily. "You think I'm thrilled about that?"

"The sliding machine's functional," he whispered with a cough. "Consider it a gift from my last will and testament. Use it to get the hell out of here." Rembrandt got a suspicious look on his face. Rolling his eyes, watkins pulled a small remote control-like device from a drawer and activated a vortex. Now the look in Rembrandt's eyes was questioning. Why was he doing this? "Hey, I won't stop you. That's not my style. I'm still interested in saving lives. Even yours."

Rembrandt hesitated for a brief moment as various thoughts raced around his mind. Was it really worth it? Stepping into that vortex again, only to gain and lose another half dozen friends in the bargain? Seeing more danger than any man ought to see in a lifetime and watching one loved one after another get left behind or killed in the most pointless fashion possible? The question had been building in his mind for quite a while on this world: was he truly destined to forever live the life of a slider, a nomad wandering across a thousand different universes?

Then, of course, there was the matter of what he had done here. He had only come to free his own world, and ended up nearly causing the destruction of humanity on another. Despite Watkins' and some of the other local humans' position, Rembrandt still didn't think he had been wrong to want to kill Kromaggs with the virus. Still, he had come to this Earth with murder in his heart. As a Christian, Rembrandt found himself distressed over this fact more than any other. He remembered a time not long after he had started sliding when he and his friends had been willing to miss the slide to prevent other worlds from catching a disease they had picked up there. He had come a long way from that time, and it hadn't been a pleasant road to travel.

But there was something compelling about the vortex. It always offered a way out, a new start, a chance to do something completely different. In the end, there was only one choice to be made. Rembrandt tossed himself into the wormhole. With the world-killing virus still in his blood, it could have been a bad decision had things not turned out differently. As it was, he had been quickly hospitalized for his illness and taken out of the world he'd landed on by three other individuals, who had been passing themselves off as his friends.

As Rembrandt exited the cave, he now saw those same three people lying on the ground in front of him. They were clutching their heads in what seemed like tremendous pain, most likely having become vulnerable to Cerellian attack at the last possible moment before finding their lost companion. While he took in the situation at hand, a vortex formed not far from him. He was faced with a choice, and once again it wasn't much of one. Rembrandt wasn't completely sure he could trust these people, but his fear of facing the multiverse alone was far greater than his doubts. One at a time, he carefully (but in the case of the Professor, not too gingerly) tossed them into the gaping maw of the wormhole. He looked at the vortex for scarcely a moment. Remmy wasn't sure where it would take him, but then again he never was. He then proceeded to follow them through without thinking about it any further.

Silence reigned as the three sliders recently rescued by Rembrandt sat at what might have passed for a dinner table on a world that favored utility over familiarity. "I can't believe we're just sitting here," Quinn said. He took a sip from a hot drink of indefinite origin that Rajiv had given him. "We're so helpless. I feel like we should be leading a revolution or something."

"There's an army down there doing more good than we could hope to," Wade reminded him. "Besides, we were lucky to have escaped ourselves. If Rembrandt hadn't pulled us out of there..." She shuddered to think of the possibilites.

"We owe Mr. Brown our lives," Professor Arturo stated with a pensive look on his face. "It's a rather humbling thought." As he spoke, Rembrandt entered the room. He was clothed in an ornately designed oriental-style orange silk bathrobe. Not one of the sliders even considered making a derogatory remark.

Wade moved closer, eventually sitting down in the seat next to him. She barely even noticed as the chair she chose conformed to her body type. "Are you OK?" she asked Rembrandt. He nodded, but said nothing. "I could get you something to eat," Wade offered. "Or something that kind of looks like it was meant to be eaten, which is about the best I can do around here."

Rembrandt averted his eyes, but he couldn't help but smile. "I appreciate the offer, but I don't need you to be my nursemaid, Wade. I'll be fine." His eyes got a far away look in them. "I just need some time to sort things out."

Quinn cleared his throat. "Maybe I'm out of line here, but I think what we all want to know is: will any amount of time be enough?"

Rembrandt's face, as odd-looking as it was without his hair and mustache, conceded some confusion. "Well, I'll be honest with you. I'm still not sure I know who you guys are, or if I can trust you. But...right now, I'm not sure if I can trust myself either." None of the others knew quite what to say in response to that. Rembrandt decided to end the overwhelming silence. "I could use a few things explained to me, though." He looked straight at the Professor. "Like weren't you supposed to be dead?"

"That," said the Professor as he rose from his seat, "is a situation easily explained." He motioned to Rembrandt and they stood to go to another room to talk. "Do you remember the world where Miss Welles serialized her diary?"

Quinn was about to say something to Wade when Rajiv entered the room. He had a sour look on his face, even for him. "Interdimensional conference call didn't go so well?"

The man whose space vessel they were staying on grimaced slightly. "After they finished berating me for letting you go back down to the surface, they gave me clearance to send you down again tomorrow to slide out. You'll be guarded by the Grand Alliance's finest this time, naturally."

"You're sure they're not too busy taking over the planet to babysit us?" Quinn asked with sarcasm heavy in his voice.

Rajiv chuckled slightly. "I'm sure they'll make do. But don't overestimate them. They don't have a large enough army to take over the planet."

"Isn't that kind of dangerous?" Wade asked with a puzzled look on her face. "Sending an outnumbered army in to take out a world full of Cerellians?"

"They're not getting rid of all of the Cerellians," Rajiv responded with an amused confusion. "Just the ones in the province you were in." Quinn and Wade shared a surprised look. "Those greys in particular were preparing to betray the Alliance. Many of the others here are on our side. We have no reason to end Cerellian rule of this world."

"You mean besides the fact that they practice human slavery?" Quinn questioned, some anger understandably slipping into his surprise.

"It's an evil, granted," Rajiv said with a small shrug. "But at the moment, it's one of the lesser among many. Cerellian domestic practices may be horrendous by our standards, but they're not looking to expand like Lesion is. If Grand Alliance member worlds started taking issue with every ethical violation that divided us, we'd be alienated in no time." He took a sip from his own nondescript hot drink. "And we simply cannot afford that."

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