7.3 - Strange Bedfellas
Rembrandt Brown’s eyes had trouble focusing on the newspaper in front of him. He supposed he was only imagining that the sun was brighter in this universe than on any other he’d been to in recent memory, but it certainly seemed like it. That impression was reinforced by the fact that the weather was hotter than on most worlds the sliders had visited recently, and sweat freely rolled down his face. In addition to the solar problems, not only did he not care about how one cheated in professional foosball or why Keanu Reeves played the Terminator in the latest sequel on this world, but the newspaper was really only a prop anyway. “How’s it looking down there?” he asked Diana without making eye contact with her.
“They’re moving in,” she answered in her ‘professional’ voice. Then dropping to a more personal tone, she asked, “Any idea why they’d talk to Wade and Quinn, but not us?”
Rembrandt’s voice was somehow grimmer when he was being himself. “I can think of a reason.” He felt no need to elaborate.
Whatever the motivation behind the cadre’s unwillingness to deal with the non-Caucasian (and, Wade suspected, older) members of the group, Wade Welles regretted it quite a bit. She and Rembrandt were of necessity adept at improvisation. The others, on the other hand... Her eyes fell on Quinn, who was decked out in a business suit and had a particularly oily gel in his hair that was apparently the latest style here. For all that Wade knew and trusted ‘Quinn’, she wasn’t overly familiar with this one, or not as much as she would have liked at any rate. In some ways, that made it worse than working with a stranger.
Wade’s eyes radiated a self-confidence that she didn’t feel. Her own outfit conveyed an image of complete professionalism, at least as much as an ensemble that included a low-cut miniskirt could. The fancy clothing was all part of the package that they were selling to the gentlemen that stood before them. However, neither of them really knew what the deal was about. Arturo said the details of it would simply confuse them and Wade honestly hadn’t been too curious. The less you knew, the less likely it was that the enemy could torture it from you. Not that that would have stopped some of the ones she’d encountered before.
The man who extended his hand to them exuded charm, his eyes bright, his smile wide and his accent a pleasant mix of suave French with an exotic flavor that was difficult to place. Quinn guessed Monaco as his country of origin. Embarrassingly, he was wrong. “Pleasantries are nice, but they are nicer when they are kept short, don’t you think? Let’s get down to business.”
“Of course,” Wade agreed with a tight, forced smile. “Let’s start with your offer.”
His polite laugh was insincere, but it gave the two sliders the urge to smile in earnest anyway. They did so. “How very sneaky. No, I’m afraid you’re going to have to prove the authenticity of your ‘wares’ first. As you should already know, we possess the first five digits of the numerical sequence we seek. Therefore, you will not be giving us anything new by reciting those digits for us right now.” His tone implied heavily that their lives would be in danger if they didn’t comply.
“Of course,” Quinn answered with a scoff. His bravado became awkward, however, as he waited for Wade to make her move. His smile quickly turned to a nervous grimace.
“Unfortunately, I grow no younger and my guards’ trigger fingers are very itchy,” he explained with a smooth hand gesture towards his cronies.
Wade suddenly brightened and looked the man who had just politely threatened them in the eye. “X352N.” Wade and Quinn held their breath as they waited for a reaction, hopefully of the non-fatal variety.
“Very good,” the man answered with a smile that was positively feral. “I believe we can talk deal. But I would very much like to have the pot sweetened. Your ‘motivated seller’ has been stalling for quite some time, then chose the hottest day of the summer to meet and with a third party representing them to boot. I am suspicious and just a little irritated.” Although he was about the same height as Wade, he seemingly glowered down at them. “In addition to the deal previously agreed upon, my party will require the backdoor codes of all the facilities in question.”
Without looking to Wade, Quinn stepped up. “I’m sorry. We haven’t been given the authority to change the conditions of the deal.”
“Oh,” the other man answered, drawing the vowel sound out for melodramatic purposes. “That is a shame. Whatever am I to do?” As he turned from them, his guards drew their guns and held them on the sliders.
‘I’m starting to really hate this gig,’ Quinn thought to himself, cursing everyone involved in making his new life as he did so. “I don’t think you know who you’re dealing with. We were selected for this mission for a reason. We’re professionals. If you want to get violent, I think you should know that at least one of us is trained in seven forms of deadly combat. And if you’re really nice to me, I’ll tell you which one.” The attitude was seemingly working. Nobody said anything and nobody fired. “So what’s it going to be? Are we going to reach a gentleman’s agreement here or is somebody going to have to get killed for doing something stupid?”
Before Quinn could fully get out the last word, one of the guards interrupted him. “Hey wait, I know you.”
Quinn’s brow furrowed in confusion, then his eyes widened in horror. “No, no you don’t,” he stammered.
“Yeah,” he said while nodding his head. “You’re that jackass who swiped the girl I was hitting on in Nulty’s Bar two nights ago. Said you were some hotshot actor, filming a movie called ‘Launching to Venus’.”
“That wasn’t me,” Quinn countered weakly. “That was my twin, uh, Bob,” he squeaked. “That Bob. Always a kidder.” The natives were starting to get restless.
“Run,” Wade whispered harshly to him.
Quinn didn’t take the hint. He pointed frantically at his accuser. “And this guy was so drunk that he wouldn’t have known if his own mother was there. Or... so Bob tells me.”
“Run,” Wade practically snarled at him.
Quinn still stood there, motionless as a statue. Their rendezvous man barked harsh orders in a language Quinn didn’t recognize, which would pretty much be most of them. Finally, Wade couldn’t take it anymore. “Run!” she cried out, kicking a gun out of one of their attempted assailant’s hands and pushing Quinn out of harm’s way.
They darted erratically through the courtyard of their guest’s home, hoping to avoid the escalating cascade of gunfire. Arturo’s voice directed them to a place not far from the villa, where a small grove of trees could hopefully conceal their slide out. Wade cursed as a bullet came far too close to going through her head. This was going to be tight. Where the hell was Remmy?
As if that was his cue, Rembrandt appeared in front of them as they turned a corner, nearly knocking Quinn down in the process. To Wade’s disinterest, Diana was with him. “What happened?” Remmy wanted to know.
Wade didn’t realize she was out of breath until she began to speak. “Everything was going, well, badly...but it got worse when one of his goons remembered seeing Quinn at a bar a few days ago. Sort of gave the lie to our ‘we just slid in to make this deal’ story.”
Rembrandt cast a disdainful stare on Quinn. “Wonderful.”
Quinn got defensive fast. “How exactly is this my fault? It’s not like I knew we were going to have to pull off this undercover crap! Besides, if you really want to throw blame around, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you.”
Wade stopped for a fleeting moment to consider the irony of that statement and then shook the feeling off. “We really don’t need this right now.” As if to accentuate her point, bullets flew perilously close to their location. “Let’s go! Move!”
Diana gestured to a patch of trees within a few hundred feet of them. “There’s where the retrieval vortex is going to open.” Everybody already knew that, but it somehow felt comforting to have Diana say it aloud.
Just as the four of them moved to the designated departure point, they were confronted by two men in guards’ uniforms, toting rifles. “Hold it!” one of them called out menacingly. The four sliders turned their heads as one to face the threat that was almost in front of them. Some small amount of tree cover, the short but not exactly short-range distance between them and the prospect that they might not be good shots were dubious comforts. This wasn’t going to be pretty.
“We could sure use that vortex about now,” Quinn muttered. As soon as he’d said it, he caught the bright swirling blue light of the wormhole out of the corner of his eye. “There it is!” he exclaimed aloud to the others. “About fifteen feet off the mark, either that or the calculations were wrong, but...” He swallowed hard as he watched the two men approach with their weapons drawn.
Wade sized up the situation quickly. “Go!” she instructed her fellow sliders. “All of you! Now!”
Rembrandt frowned. “Wade, I’m not so sure that’s...” But the scientists of the group were already running towards the wormhole. Remmy cursed under his breath. “I’m not leaving you.”
“No,” Wade agreed. “You’re not. You’re just leading the way, like you always do. Now go.” Rembrandt didn’t argue any further, but slowly ambled his way to the portal.
The two men with guns ventured swiftly to where their would-be captives stood once it became clear that they were successfully escaping. They focused their attention on Rembrandt, practically ignoring Wade’s presence. Suffice it to say, that was a tactical error. Wade kicked the gun from the grasp of one guard and then shoved his head none too gently in the direction of a tree. He was knocked cold.
The other one quickly changed his mind about Remmy and turned his malicious intentions on Wade. It was just a little bit too late by then, as Wade slammed her elbow into his face. That put him down, but not out. The first flunky’s rifle in hand, Wade began to use the blunt end of the weapon to render him unconscious.
But then she froze. She couldn’t deliver the finishing blow. It would cost her. A solid kick made contact with the middle of her torso and sent her flailing to the ground. The man rose more quickly than she had expected and aimed his own firearm at Wade’s head.
Too fast for there to be anything but reactions, Rembrandt tossed a stone at the man who was about to shoot Wade, watched in frustration as it only glanced off his arm, and then saw the goon aim at him. A shot went off. Wade’s cry of his name was the last thing he heard before the bullet hit him.
“Rembrandt!” Wade shrieked in pure panic. Rendering her attacker immobile with one well-placed kick to his nether regions, Wade rushed to her friend’s side. Blood was already coming out of his arm and his back, but, to her untrained eye at least, the shot did not appear to be fatal. That was if he didn’t die of blood loss before he could get treatment. “Can you move?” she asked frantically. If he couldn’t, his chances would be slim to none. Wade watched as the portal in front of them began to shrink. At last, Rembrandt nodded his head and the two of them managed to hobble the short distance that remained and make the slide with absolutely no time to spare.
The next time Rembrandt opened his eyes he was lying flat on his back, looking up at some very bright lights and Wade’s bravely smiling face, with his arm and back feeling like two different kinds of hell. He was awake for exactly two minutes, long enough to be assured that he would be fine, told that he was under a very heavy dosage of a particularly strong brand of pain killers and to tell Wade (in a very slurred and indistinct voice) not to worry about him. He then returned to unconsciousness as quickly as he had come out of it.
Wade Welles awoke with a violent start, cold sweat clinging to her clammy skin. She gasped for breath, desperately inhaling and exhaling as if this was the last time she would be able to do so. She ran to the bathroom and thrust her head over the toilet bowl as if she might vomit. By extreme force of will, she didn’t.
Wade had told Rembrandt a few days earlier that she’d been having trouble sleeping. That was an understatement. She had found little rest ever since Quinn had died and it was taking a considerable toll on her mental health. Wade told herself that it was because of her new position, or her inability to adjust to the time skip, or even that she was uncomfortable living on a world she knew wasn’t her home earth. But none of it was exactly true.
In actuality, she’d been having the nightmares again. The ones she’d managed to “cure” herself of at her former breeder camp. The one tonight was a particularly vivid and horrific memory, perhaps triggered by the trauma of Rembrandt’s shooting. Wade didn’t know exactly what brought them on, only that they made sleeping close to impossible.
The first time around, Lyssandra had been able to treat her. Frankly, she wasn’t interested in seeing if something like that would work with a real shrink. But she could use someone to talk to. Normally she would have confided in Rembrandt, but that was now practically impossible. Besides, she wouldn’t want to burden him even if she could get in to see him, not now. Maybe the Professor could make a decent substitute confidante, though. It was just as well, she had been meaning to speak with him anyway. Rembrandt had nearly been killed on that last world. She wasn’t sure what Arturo could do, but she would make damn sure it wouldn’t happen again.
“Do you think that it could happen again?” Quinn asked Diana with a forced casual tone to his voice. He hung a rather large portrait of Albert Einstein as he spoke. “I mean, obviously anything’s possible so it could happen again, but do you think it’s likely?” Her fellow scientist had been fretting over this very subject for quite some time and she’d begun to tune him out. She picked the wrong time to do so. “I’m thinking about quitting,” Quinn announced suddenly.
Dr. Diana Davis turned and looked at him in surprise. “What?! Why?”
“Why?” Quinn repeated incredulously. “I don’t know. Getting shot at seems like a pretty compelling reason.”
“Oh, that,” Diana said knowingly. “Yes, that happens, but...”
“I have seen and done some crazy things in my time but nobody ever shot at me before.” Quinn paced the length of the room, running his fingers through his longish brown hair. “OK, one time my boss shot somebody he thought was me because he wanted to go back in time and assassinate Hitler, but that was kind of a special case. I guess what I’m trying to say is... I’m not very good at these dangerous situations.”
“I don’t think anybody is,” Diana muttered half-sympathetically. “Look Quinn, none of us signed up to take a bullet, but sometimes our job can be a little risky.”
“And that’s the frustrating part,” Quinn interrupted forcefully. “Our job shouldn’t be risky. We’re scientists, Diana. We shouldn’t be traipsing around in the middle of a war zone just so we can pull timer repair duty. We’re better than that. We should be sitting behind desks, reading and filing reports, solving mathematical formulas and, most importantly, finding a way to get ourselves home.”
Diana looked him over, and saw nothing but irrational panic, disguising itself as a legitimate complaint. Now it was time to bring him down to Earth. “We’re not just out there to fix the timer, Quinn. They need us. Being a scientist doesn’t just mean having an insatiable curiosity and the math skills to back it up. It means inserting logic into a situation, finding rational solutions to problems and analyzing everything that comes at you before you jump to conclusions. Which would be a pretty good thing for you to start doing now, come to think of it.” She stopped and looked him over. “You may not feel like we’re needed, but... personally, I think without us, the team would fall apart.”
“And personally I don’t think we have much of a team,” Quinn groused. “Not with this Rembrandt guy down for the count, at any rate.” Diana said nothing as he started stashing her clothes in all of the wrong drawers as she grimaced in frustration. “I say this sliding gig’s gotten to be more trouble than it’s worth.” Quinn scratched his chin. “Or maybe I should just ask for a raise. Hazard pay or something like that.” He was more than a little flabbergasted when Dr. Davis quickly and fumingly escorted him from her room.
Hundreds of angry words sprang to Wade Welles’ mind as she walked through the door leading to the private quarters of one Maximilian Arturo. For some reason, as she looked at her former sliding companion, the man who she had once grieved, she couldn’t vocalize any of them. The Professor sat studiously examining a set of tediously similar files, bound to his wheelchair, staid and alone. And she lost it.
Stupid. She was an idiot for crying now, in front of the Professor, for no obvious reason. It didn’t stop her from doing it. “I’m sorry,” she told him simply. “I let you down. And Rembrandt. I...”
“Miss Welles,” Arturo interrupted with authority. “Whatever you’re blaming yourself for, I doubt it’s worth any great amount of self-flagellation. Perhaps we should simply discuss the matter causing you grief, hm?”
Wade nodded and sat on his bed. She looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time since arriving here. He’d changed; he looked wiser, but he had an air of sadness about him that he didn’t before. She thought maybe the absence of Rembrandt and herself had taken a greater toll on him than she knew. “I couldn’t do it. I was fighting these guards who were going to kill us, capture us... hell, whatever they do to the enemy for kicks on that world. I had the gun in hand. I wasn’t going to shoot him, just knock him out. But I couldn’t follow through. At the last minute, I just froze.”
“An understandable reaction, Miss Welles, given what you’ve been through these last few weeks,” Arturo said soothingly. “It seems to me that you’ve been running on nothing but adrenaline. Your sleep patterns have been erratic. I would recommend medication or perhaps some therapy...” Wade started to interrupt, but the Professor wouldn’t let her. “But ultimately I knew that you would reject those remedies. So I propose an alternate solution: a vacation.”
“A vacation?” Wade repeated numbly.
“Mr. Brown is obviously going to be in no condition to return to active duty anytime soon, and to be honest I think Mr. Mallory and Ms. Davis are starting to show some wear from the grind. At any rate, you’ve been sliding almost nonstop for nearly three weeks now. Anyone would need a break, assuming they could take one.” The Professor folded his hands in front of him. “You might take some time to familiarize yourself with the facility. You could decorate your quarters, as Dr. Davis has done. Create a home away from home.”
Wade scowled. Arturo sighed and moved on. “Or you might go to San Francisco. Visit some familiar locations, or maybe even familiar people. I took the liberty of tracking down your parents’ doubles, they’re living with your sister not far from what used to be downtown Oakland.”
Wade’s eyes found the floor quickly. “No more doubles.” Professor Arturo looked at her strangely. “Look, Professor, I’m not going to spend my time here pretending like I’m home. Getting to go home is my only motivation for doing this. If I get comfortable here...”
“It will be that much more difficult to leave,” Arturo finished. “Believe me, I understand.”
“Still, a vacation isn’t the worst idea I’ve heard,” Wade mused. “Somewhere isolated, peaceful. Nevada away from the casinos maybe, or someplace in Mexico.” Wade returned her gaze to Professor Arturo. “So what would you do without us running errands for the Grand Alliance? Shut the place down for a week or two?”
The Professor chuckled mirthlessly. “We do have functions other than gathering intelligence for your missions, you know. There’s more than enough here to keep my staff busy, particularly since their numbers are dwindling so rapidly. Blasted budget cuts.” He turned away from her quickly. “In any event, it’s a moot point. In your absence, a replacement team will complete the assignment that you did not.”
“A replacement team?!” Wade questioned aloud. Her eyes narrowed. “Who?”
Arturo sighed heavily. “You’re not going to like this.”
The man could only see the monster who was tormenting him through the reflection in the knife’s blade. “Believe me, I won’t ask again,” the hissing voice of his captor huskily whispered into his ear. “What is the location of your home earth?”
The man’s eyes frantically searched the room, looking for something to give him an advantage over his captors. Unfortunately, they seemed to be thorough; there was nothing in the room but the chair he was strapped to and his own tormentors. Swallowing hard, sweat pouring from his face, he tried to present a brave, outward front for the beings who threatened his life. He didn’t quite manage it. “I... I can’t. I won’t. You’ve taken everything from me but you can’t have my home.”
“That is unfortunate,” the larger of the two creatures intoned. “We have some rather painful ways that you might die. Perhaps I can introduce you to a method I prefer to call ‘Stripes and Solids’...”
“Just kill him,” a female voice commanded from behind her two male counterparts. She had obviously been on the ‘horn’ (which, with the anatomical parts that were put to practical use here, might not have been a figure of speech) with their superiors. “We’re wanted elsewhere. There’s no need to get creative.”
“That’s what I hate about this job,” the taller one said grumblingly. As he spoke, the shorter Kromagg cut the man’s throat with his knife. “There’s just no place for artistry.”
“Kromaggs?!” Wade exclaimed with outraged emphasis in her voice. Arturo had managed to delay the argument until they could have a ‘discussion’ over breakfast the next morning, but he knew it was coming nonetheless. “You’re actually going to recast a bunch of scab Kromaggs to pinch hit for us?!”
Professor Arturo had a little trouble keeping up with the metaphors in her statement. “It may surprise you a great deal, Miss Welles, to learn that I had very little to do with the decision. I have orders to follow and many of them are rather unpleasant.”
“‘Unpleasant’? Try monstrous. Kromaggs are killers, Professor. The things they do to people...it’s inhumane.” Wade’s lips formed a wry smirk. “And yes I know they’re not actually human, so that goes without saying. Still... how can you trust them?”
“Put simply, I don’t,” Arturo answered her. “However, this polyglot Grand Alliance is filled with their kind. Given that they are enemies of our enemies, this probably isn’t the last time we’ll be called upon to work together.”
“Oh, I know who my enemies are,” Wade declared with an appropriate amount of righteous anger in her voice. “Their picture’s crystal clear in my head. They have ape-like faces, pony tails, high foreheads, sharp teeth...OK, so they don’t all look the same, but the point is they’re all Kromaggs. I can’t let this happen.”
The Professor sighed heavily. “I tire of making the same ‘we must work with them to defeat Lesion’ speech every time we tread upon this subject, Miss Welles, which I must remind you we have discussed before.”
“Yeah, but I never did get to like it,” Wade grumbled. “Tell me you’re going to send at least one actual person along.”
A half-smile crossed Arturo’s face. “If you’d like to volunteer...”
“So, you volunteered us to go on a mission with a bunch of Kromaggs,” Rembrandt repeated warily. “That’s just a little strange, don’t you think?”
“You don’t have to go,” Wade assured him a little nervously. “I only volunteered myself. I wouldn’t want to put you through anything like that, particularly not with you being, um...”
“Injured?” Rembrandt finished for her. She nodded. “Well, nothing’s broken. Too bad everything feels like it is.” He managed to flash a smile in her direction. “I’m getting to be an old man, Wade. This gig’s wearing me down. I don’t know how the Professor stood the life as long as he did. And to think I used to use him as landing gear.”
“Just get some rest, OK?” Wade softly requested. “I’ll be sure to get in a Maggot insult or two just for you.”
Rembrandt tried to sit up a little in bed but was painfully jarred back to reality by the firewall of pain that seemed to exist on one side. “What? You thought my little mid-life crisis speech meant I wasn’t going with you?” Wade stared at him. “Sign me up, girl. I’m not letting you face the KroMaggots alone, that’s for damn sure.” ‘Not again,’ he added only in his mind.
“Remmy, I’ll be fine,” Wade said with more self-confidence in her voice than she actually felt. “Let chivalry die. You’re in no condition to be anywhere but here.”
“The doc said he’d bring the release papers by tomorrow,” Rembrandt fibbed. “I’ll see if I can’t get him to speed the process up a bit. I’m not just going to sit around my quarters worrying whether or not you still have eyes.”
“It’s not my eyes I’m worried about,” she muttered under her breath. Then realizing that wasn’t helping, Wade changed the subject. “You’re crazy. You know that, right?”
“Occupational requirement,” Rembrandt said nonchalantly with an of-necessity half-shrug. “If I start to go sane, how am I going to react the next time we run across a dragon or a vampire?”
Wade smirked. “Funny how we haven’t met too many of those lately.”
Rembrandt’s eyes brightened. “You haven’t heard me complaining about that, either.”
“No,” Wade replied coyly. “Not about that. About other things...” Her voice trailed off suggestively.
Rembrandt made eye contact with Wade. Earlier in their journey, remarks about his complaining might have been legitimate bickering. Now it was more like light teasing, the kind of thing two old friends who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses did to reinforce the bond between them. “Speaking of, who do I complain to about our partners on this mission?” Rembrandt asked Wade. “Because I really doubt this is something the Professor dreamed up. When do I get to file my grievance with the higher-ups?”
Wade shrugged. “The debriefing’s tomorrow. Arturo said there would be some Grand Alliance brass there.” She met Rembrandt’s gaze with a determined one of her own. “Believe me, if the person in charge of making this decision shows, they’re getting a piece of my mind.”
‘Not the best choice of words,’ Wade thought. The individual presiding over this particular meeting was a person, technically, but his mind was occupied by a Cerellian general. The vacuous-looking man in the gray military uniform had been droning on for a few minutes about all the mistakes made by the sliders on their most recent mission. Wade was bordering on total exhaustion and likely would have completely dozed off had it not been for the knot of nervous energy currently residing in her stomach. Rembrandt’s arm and back were hurting more than he was letting on. Quinn and Diana had difficulty paying attention and had taken to sliding paper clips across the table to each other. Professor Arturo could sometimes be seen grinding his teeth slowly in irritation. A good time was had by none.
“And now that I have concluded the topic concerning the gross incompetence of these four humans,” the scary-looking man with glazed-over eyes declared to the relief of his captive audience, “let me start in on the poor state of reconnaissance that prefaced this debacle.”
Finally, Wade could take no more. But before she could speak up in protest, another voice interrupted. “Excuse me, General Xichyxan, that is how it is pronounced, is it not?, but I fail to see what this has to do with the details of our assignment.”
The Cerellian’s host turned his haughty, empty gaze to the defiant Kromagg who had spoken up. “I merely believed a review of the failures of the past might help inspire us to success in the future.”
“How very, erm, thoughtful of you,” she smirked, “but we have all read the report of what happened.”
“The shoddy report-making associated with this incident was going to be my fourth point of discussion,” the man who wasn’t all there informed her.
A shorter, decidedly more male Kromagg at the female one’s side stage whispered a growl. “We are wasting time.”
The Kromagg of the fairer sex, who was apparently the highest ranking of the three, stood authoritatively. “Agreed. We should take whatever intel is available and leave immediately.” In response to the verbose squawking from the Cerellian’s human host, she made a dismissive gesture. Which means she decked him. “We are finished here. There is no reason to tarry longer than we initially expected.”
“Actually, there is,” Wade interrupted. “The four of us are coming with you.” She indicated herself, Rembrandt, Quinn and Diana.
The lanky Kromagg female took a long, haughty look at Wade and sniffed. “I find that highly unlikely.” Wade took an aggressive stance. Her Magg counterpart wasn’t impressed. “You are weary. Your eyes are bloodshot, and the skin below them is loose. They wouldn’t even fetch a decent price at a Beggar’s Market.”
“That’s... oddly comforting,” Wade retorted with mild revulsion. She managed to make herself look more alert, although she felt like sleeping for a few weeks. “I’ll be fine.”
Pacing around the table, the Kromagg female found herself behind Rembrandt’s chair. “This one has fresh wounds. Both in the arm,” her nostrils breathed in deeply for a moment, “and in the back. He will be functionally useless. We might as well take the one in the wheeled chair.”
Arturo looked indignant, but Rembrandt kept his cool. “I can still handle a weapon,” he reported with a menacing look in his eye, “and I’ve probably been to more parallel worlds than you have. Plus Wade and I know each other’s moves. We’re a team.”
“And what of these two?” she asked with a hint of amusement in her voice. “Are they part of your team, too? They could barely keep this small metal wire in their grasp.” The Kromagg officer held up one of the paper clips they had been playing with.
“They’re physicists,” Wade responded. “Both are exceptionally bright. They go where we go.” Quinn frowned at that statement, but said nothing.
“Are you quite through belittling us or can we continue with the outline of the plan?” Professor Arturo asked with aggravation clearly coming out in his voice.
“There is no plan,” the shorter male Kromagg growled. “We go in alone, clean up your mess, and get out.”
“I am afraid that is not correct,” came an unexpected voice. It was the human host of the Cerellian, who had picked himself up from the floor and looked haughtier than ever. “Kromagg sub consuls Krahlna, Kitnus and Klavar will indeed be in charge of this mission. However, these four humans will return to the world with you, in order to redeem themselves for their earlier failure.”
Our sliders didn’t feel much like they needed redemption, and the Maggs named above weren’t exactly thrilled, either. The taller Kromagg, Kitnus, decided to look on the bright side. “Perhaps this is not such an ill-conceived notion. We were planning on posing as human tourists. Possessing actual humans will likely aid us in our deception.”
“Here’s a tip,” Rembrandt said with mocking anger. “Real human tourists don’t call themselves ‘human’ tourists.”
Before Kitnus could ask him why, the Kromagg female, Krahlna, interrupted. “We have little time to spare, and much to lose. I say we get on with this.”
“Wait,” Wade called out. “Before we risk our lives again, I need to know what this mission is all about. Rembrandt nearly got killed last time, so I’ll be damned if I’m going in blind again.” The Kromaggs were visibly annoyed.
Standing side by side, the three Kromagg officers looked like nothing so much as three Russian nesting dolls: Kitnus towered over the other two, while Krahlna was not much taller than Rembrandt and Klavar was slightly shorter than Wade. Not that either slider would have appreciated any comparisons with the Kromaggs. “Can we get this over with?” Remmy complained.
“It was your party who demanded this debriefing,” Krahlna snapped back at him. “The least you could do is be quiet as we speak.” Remmy didn’t particularly feel like obeying, but he didn’t have anything else to say, either. He settled for a subtly conveyed pout and settled in in his chair.
The Kromagg commanding officer strode over to a table that contained dozens of information files. “I suppose we should start with an introduction to the history of this world. I will attempt to make it brief. Imagine a world where Europeans dominated the globe for many centuries, heavily impacting its culture, language and beliefs. Yes, the denizens of this tiny subcontinent actually grew to great prominence on this world, founding colonies on several other continents and converting them to their religion...” Quinn’s hand shot up. Krahlna reacted irritably to the interruption. “Yes, what is it?!” she demanded.
“I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this describes all of our homeworlds. Or homes world. I don’t actually know what the proper term is, but my point stands.” Quinn then shifted in his chair listlessly.
“Ah, yes, I had forgotten about that,” Krahlna lied. “Very well, I shall skip the lists of explorers and their discoveries. Suffice it to say that many of the devastating setbacks that European culture experienced in your histories did not occur on this one. The American Revolution. The Anglo-Russian War. And, of course, Great War I.” The female Kromagg took a moment to clear her throat. “We also think they might have gotten an earlier start than in your cultures, but it is difficult to determine, as most of their historians are arrogant and pompous beyond belief.”
“Look, I don’t care about the history!” Wade interjected. Professor Arturo seemed to glare at her after that remark, but she didn’t notice. “I’m not planning on going native and taking current events classes at Berkeley, I just want to know what you’re after here.”
Krahlna fought back a sneer. “What we want from this world, Commander Welles, is something we left behind years ago when our military forces were withdrawn.”
“Give me a break,” Rembrandt groused. “The Kromaggs destroy a world and now we’re their lost and found service. Un-freakin’-believable.”
Krahlna finally stepped back from the table in disgust. A decidedly more upbeat Kitnus stepped into her place. “It was an energy generation system prototype that was being used in the war. It could generate a defensive shield large enough to cover whatever Earth it was on, among numerous other things. We departed in great haste and were unable to retrieve everything we would have liked. Understandably, we want this back.”
Diana scrunched her nose out of curiosity. “Why would an invading army need a planetary defense system?”
Kitnus looked sheepish. “The system does have additional offensive capabilities.”
“Naturally,” Wade groaned. “So why should we help you get it, instead of just leaving it where it is? At least now it’s in the hands of human beings.”
“Not for long,” Krahlna replied, once again stepping into the fray. She opened a folder which contained photographs of a grainy-looking human handing something to a fuzzy-looking Mekkan. “This intel came in two weeks ago. These humans seen here are attempting to sell the system and the facilities which contain it to Lesion. The only reason they failed was that they do not possess the codes that would allow them to gain access to these facilities. Lesion’s monetary interest waned upon discovering this.”
Quinn, who previously had not shown a great interest in the information being conveyed by their Kromagg accomplices, suddenly became livid. “Then why the hell were we trying to hand the codes over to these guys?! They would have gone straight to Lesion!” Wade and Rembrandt looked at his display of anger with surprise. “And I’m told that they’re the bad guys, so that wouldn’t have been good.”
“They would not have given them to Lesion without authenticating the codes themselves,” Kitnus explained. “Once they gained access to the facilities, we were planning on stepping in and taking the prototype. Unfortunately, that did not work as planned.”
“You don’t have to remind us of that,” Diana muttered.
“Is this explanation satisfactory?” Krahlna asked haughtily. “Are we now all determined to ensure that this mission is a success?”
Everyone in the room seemingly had turned their gaze to Wade. “Alright. Let’s do this.” A small amount of hesitation appeared in her voice as she asked, “What’s the plan?”
“We are wandering tourists from the Canadian region of this continent,” Krahlna explained. Her illusory ‘human’ face was more pleasant to look at than her real one, but she wasn’t going to qualify for any beauty contests. Kitnus looked a little goofy, particularly with his ball cap turned backwards and his flannel shirt buttoned the wrong way. It was probably best not to describe Klavar’s looks. The three of them, along with the four sliders, cruised slowly along on a dirt road not far from their intended destination. “We have become lost. We seek directions and you,” she pointed to Quinn, “seek scatological relief. When we are informed that this is a restricted area, Klavar will say ‘Restrict this!’ and render one of the guards immobile. There should be few enough of them for us to disable everyone else.”
“Did you have to plot out what I was going to say as well?” Klavar complained. “I’m perfectly capable of...” His sentence stopped abruptly as the van they were in did the same. “What the...?”
“Roadblock,” Kitnus responded a little frantically. “It looks as though they are inspecting every vehicle going up the mountain.”
Krahlna’s cold, reptilian eyes glanced out the window. “There are too many of them for us to take alone. And they’ll be searching for contraband.”
“Do we have any...?” Diana began to ask as Krahlan and Klavar took out some very high-tech looking blasters and slowly assembled them. “Stupid question, I guess.”
“Wait a minute,” Wade exclaimed. “I am not going to just sit here and watch you kill people.”
“Of course not,” Krahlna attempted to assure her. “As I said, there are too many of them for us. These weapons are strictly for defense purposes. To continue our mission, we will need additional forces.”
“I don’t think that’s what she’s talking about,” Quinn said, suddenly brimming with bravado. “I don’t have any problem with taking something that might end up in Lesion’s hands, but I don’t really feel comfortable watching aliens kill people while I do nothing.”
“We are not aliens,” Klavar growled.
“We know what you are,” Wade informed her in no uncertain terms, “and what you’re capable of. Even now, you conceal and lie out of habit more than anything else. How the hell are we supposed to even believe you about what we’re doing here?”
Kitnus started to respond. Krahlna stopped him. “You mistrust us. I certainly understand that.” Her illusion-created brow furrowed in thought. “I think there is something I should show you. No lies, no tricks. Just something about this world, these people, that you need to know.”
It was night, and Wade and Krahlna approached the large, well-lit building alone. Both were dressed in lab coats and had odd-looking hats on. Krahlna was still in human guise, but had a different face: thinner, with a more ruddy complexion and sandy brown hair. She was still ugly as sin, though. The Magg turned to Wade with a serious look in her eyes. “We need to be quiet and careful. Capture is not an option. We get in and out as quickly as possible.”
“Of course,” Wade managed to say without indignation. She sighed slightly. “I still don’t know how I let you talk me into this.”
Krahlna didn’t respond. In truth, she didn’t know how to. The two of them approached a large metal door that required a pass card for entry. To Wade’s surprise, Krahlna withdrew one. “Do I want to know how you got that?”
“Probably not,” Krahlna answered honestly. “Come. We need to establish our cover story.”
The unlikely duo strode confidently through the halls of what appeared to Wade to be a hospital. Krahlna approached the heavyset, blonde bearded man behind a large window that looked to be a check-in station. That conclusion was helped by the fact that the words “check-in station” were written above the window. “Good evening, Dr. Radyansky. Checking in?” Krahlna nodded. Doubts quickly sprang to the surface of Wade’s mind, but didn’t let it show. As she signed some forms, the man made small talk. “Rough shift last night, huh?” The Kromagg managed to mumble a reply. As the man passed her a key, he continued yakking. “Inc-Unit Three’s down again. They say they’ll have it fixed by the end of the night, but we’ve all heard that one before.”
“Indeed,” Krahlna answered distractedly. “Have a nice night.” He returned the pleasantry and the two women walked in the direction Krahlna indicated.
‘‘Dr. Radyansky’?!” Wade inquired irritably. “Do they know you here?”
“Of course not,” Krahlna informed her harshly. “Simple mind tricks. If he thinks hard about what just happened in a few minutes, he will alert security to our presence. That is why we must work quickly.” The female Kromagg withdrew the key the man had given her and used it to open a door labeled, wouldn’t you know it?, ‘Authorized Personnel Only’. The two decidedly not authorized intruders entered without hesitation.
Krahlna fixed her gaze on a trio of male nurses that were standing too close to the door for her purposes. “You three,” she commanded, “that patient is having a bad reaction to her medication. Are you just going to stand there as it happens?” They rushed to attend to the woman exactly as she said, despite the obvious fact that there was nothing wrong with her.
Wade surveyed the room. “OK, I give. What am I supposed to see here?”
Krahlna’s hand seized Wade’s shoulder. “This, Commander Welles, is a breeding camp. Run by humans.”
Krahlna’s hand quickly left Wade’s shoulder and covered her mouth before she could protest angrily. Once it seemed as though she had calmed down, Krahlna let it drop. “Are you out of your mind?!” Wade asked in an incredulous stage whisper. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that...that...”
Krahlna quickly shook her head no. “I did not expect you to believe me. That is why I brought you here: to see for yourself.” She pointed to the rows of young hospitalized women. “Read their information, look at the technology that monitors their vital statistics. You liberated a breeding camp, you must have seen all of this before.”
“It’s Kromagg,” she said a little numbly as she flipped through the charts of two nearby ‘patients’. “The terminology they use, the equipment...it’s all just like the camps.” Anger flashed in her eyes. “They must still be working for the Maggots. No actual human beings could do this.”
“I wish I could tell you that this was the case,” Krahlna answered. “Actually, for my own purposes, I do not. Nonetheless, the truth is what it is. The Kromagg Dynasty has not maintained a presence on this world for nearly four years. Yet the breeding camps remain.”
Wade looked long and hard at the numerous unconscious impregnated women assembled in this room, as the rest of her senses took in the small details. Everything reminded her of her own horrific experiences of being repeatedly raped by Kromaggs, right down to the smells of the place. Her tone of voice hinted at despair as she looked up at Krahlna expectantly. “Why?”
“I cannot begin to explain why some humans do things that other humans find to be repugnant,” Krahlna said with as much sympathy in her voice as she could convey in English, which wasn’t much. “As I understand it, neither can most people. The Nazi Germans of your world, for instance, have stood as a measure of moral degeneracy for generations. Those we fight here are of a similar stripe. They want to build a ‘perfect’ version of the human race.” Wade suddenly looked ashen. Krahlna gestured to a different part of the building. “If you would like further evidence, I have access to the, erm, fertilization facilities as well.”
She really wanted to say no. But she also didn’t want to just take this Kromagg at her word. “Yeah,” she gulped, “and if what you’re saying is true then the next thing I want to do is meet the bastards that built this place.”
“Technically, the Kromaggs built it. These people just maintain it.” Wade glared at her. “I probably shouldn’t have pointed that out.”
Wade and Krahlna had been silent as they exited the building that indeed turned out to be a eugenics lab run by a decidedly human government. Once the two of them were back in the van that was on loan to them from the Arturo Center, Wade launched into a stream of expletive-laced invective against what she had seen. “It went that well, huh?” Quinn asked. He and Kitnus were in the passenger and driver seats, respectively. The van was otherwise empty.
“I haven’t even warmed up yet,” Wade said angrily, but realized further insults weren’t really necessary. However, the fact that only the four of them were there brought a frown to her face. “Where’s Rembrandt?”
“With the female scientist and Klavar at a rented house,” Kitnus explained. “It is no prefect’s palace, but it will suit our purposes, at least for one night.”
“We’re staying the night?” Wade asked with surprise in her voice. “What about going back for re-enforcements?”
“That’s a no go,” Quinn declared. “Arturo told us before we left that there wouldn’t be any more emergency exit portals like the one that got us out of this world before. Something about budgetary constraints, I think. You were, um, resting your eyes at the time.”
Understandably, Wade looked puzzled. “So where is our back-up coming from, exactly?”
Krahlna, once again au natural, looked chagrined. “You are not going to like this.”
“Man, I hate it when we have to deal with the mob,” Rembrandt complained. A light overcoat was draped over his shoulders to hide the fact that his arm was in a sling. Despite the gentle breeze coming off of the bay, the jacket made him feel overly warm. Or maybe it was the fear. “Can’t we just work with the police instead?”
“They’re usually just as bad,” Wade pointed out. She turned to face Krahlna. “So you actually know this kid?”
“We have met before,” she said with a small amount of hesitancy in her voice. “Make no mistake, however. The ‘boy’ in ‘Blind Boy’ is only a nickname. We are not actually meeting with an infant.”
“Duh,” Wade muttered under her breath. Only the three of them (plus the usually silent Klavar) waited for the mob boss in this darkened alley early in the morning. An inauspicious place for a meeting, but it was what was insisted upon. Kitnus was preparing Quinn and Diana for what they would do once they gained access to the military storage facilities. With any good luck at all, ‘Blind Boy’ Lazzeri’s muscle would be able to get them that access.
Good luck never was in abundance for our sliders, however, and after a few uneventful moments, men with guns drawn and angry looks on their faces emerged as though from nowhere. Krahlna turned to the other three. “Allow me to handle this.”
Krahlna stretched her back out in the luxurious easy chair provided her. She allowed herself to close her eyes and enjoy the cool air a moment before addressing Mafia boss Antonio ‘Blind Boy’ Lazzeri. As she did so, she gave little thought to her compatriots, who remained outside in the blistering heat. After a few silent seconds, she decided to get down to business. “I appreciate the courtesy of this face-to-face meeting.” She cleared her throat and waited for Lazzeri to actually turn around in his chair and face her. He did not. “As you might have guessed, I would like to make you an offer.”
“I’m listening,” the man who had yet to show his face to Krahlna replied. “But then again, that is all I can do now, no?”
Despite the plush accommodations, Krahlna suddenly looked uncomfortable. “I understand we have somewhat of a... history together.”
“A history?” Lazzeri finally turned around to face the Kromagg with a wry smirk on his face. The face itself was boyish enough, an image helped by the thin sunglasses he wore, but wide streaks of gray ran through his dark brown hair. “We had a working relationship. When you weren’t interested in keeping up your end, you had my eyes scooped out and left next to me in my bed.”
“I was hoping we could put that ugly incident behind us,” Krahlna said with a painfully forced smile. “Much has changed since that time.”
“It was a decent threat, actually,” Lazzeri mused. “I respect the assertiveness of it. Of course, it would have been a lot more effective warning if I could have actually seen the eyes...” His attention suddenly started to focus on the task at hand. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”
“So he’ll do it?” Quinn asked Krahlna skeptically. The four sliders and three Kromaggs were back in the van, speeding along with a sizable escort of illegally obtained vehicles. “Even after the, uh, eye thing?”
“He has his reasons,” Krahlna stated simply.
Kitnus looked nonplussed. “Do we have the money to pay him?” His boss nodded and opened a suitcase full of locally-minted cash.
Diana looked down at all of the green and gulped. “I guess that more or less covers all of the reasons.”
The next hour or so was a blur of familiar scenery for our sliders. All of them, Quinn and Diana in particular, were nervous about the plan, which consisted of a sustained gunfight their side hoped to win. It seemed they had nothing to worry about, however, as when it all went down no blood was shed. The guards standing over the place saw that they weren’t going to win this one and decided not to go out with guns blazing. The perimeter was completely secured within minutes. “That was easy,” Krahlna remarked.
“We have not yet accomplished our mission,” Klavar reminded the others with a grumble. Not that they needed reminding. Wade and Rembrandt dawdled slightly out of weariness as the seven of them approached the main access door. Their mafia muscle kept a watchful eye on the facility’s appointed protectors as Krahlna entered the digits that were designed to get them in. She allowed herself a tiny smile of success as the large door groaned open.
The Blind Boy’s goons went in first, but an enthusiastic Kitnus and a decidedly less so Diana and Quinn followed closely behind. The three of them made a bee-line for an unusually large computer access terminal. Quinn and Diana looked at each other nervously to see who would navigate their way around the system. To their surprise, Kitnus settled the debate by sitting in the chair himself and typing furiously. The two human scientists were a little perturbed. “What the hell was all of that ‘training us how to get into the system’ crap about?” Quinn demanded to know.
“Oh, that,” Kitnus responded nonchalantly. “I had to have a failsafe in case I was incapacitated. You don’t mind, do you?”
Quinn and Diana did their level best to restrain themselves as Wade, Rembrandt, Krahlna and Klavar watched from afar. Wade frowned as she took in the situation. She turned to face Remmy. “Does something about this situation strike you as odd?”
Rembrandt had the same uneasy feeling. “Yeah, just about everything. Why were we able to get past the guards so easily, without a struggle? They obviously increased security here after we didn’t sell them the codes, so why didn’t they add some more fancy gizmo locks, ones the Kromaggs don’t know how to get into?”
“You’re right,” Wade said with a quick nod. She then turned to face Krahlna. “Something’s wrong here.”
“Typical human paranoia,” Krahlna sniffed. “Suspecting malicious intentions when none...” Suddenly the weapons wielded by their Mafia bodyguards turned on the three Kromaggs and four sliders.
A man with a decided air of authority stepped seemingly out of nowhere. Wade recognized him as the man they had attempted to make a deal with before. “I know you have weapons. Lose them.” With reluctance, they complied.
Krahlna looked spitefully at ‘Blind Boy’ Lazzeri as he entered the room. “We have been betrayed,” she spat.
“Yeah,” Wade acknowledged with a suspicious glance towards Krahlna. “Maybe we have.”
“No,” Professor Arturo calmly assured a frantic combination of Wade and Rembrandt. “Trust me, your counterparts among the Kromagg have as little to gain from this capture as do you. They are not the cause of this unfortunate debacle.”
“Now why do I doubt that?” Wade questioned in a mutter. The four human and three Kromagg sliders were being forcibly transported elsewhere in a large armored vehicle. Both veteran sliders spoke aloud as softly as they could to avoid detection but continued to communicate with the Professor through their translation chips. “Krahlna and her gang look like they’re about to drink tea with the Queen.” She took a long look at the Kromaggs in chains not far from where she crouched uncomfortably. Kitnus looked positively serene, Krahlna was asleep and Klavar had an odd-looking grin on his face. “The favored Kromagg brand of tea. Hallucinogenic orange.”
“They are specifically trained for this sort of situation,” Arturo explained with contained exasperation. “Or perhaps the Kromagg simply do not convey fear as well as people.”
“Look, I could care less about these Kromaggs,” Rembrandt said with ice in his voice. “Isn’t there anything you can do to get us out of here?”
“I’m afraid not,” Arturo’s voice rumbled inside their skulls. “Our resources are extremely limited. A retrieval team or an emergency portal is unfortunately out of the question.”
“You mean Quinn was serious about that?!” Wade exclaimed with muted incredulity. “Wow. Just how much does it cost to open a vortex anyway?”
“More than you think,” the Professor grumbled. “The overhead alone for maintaining the number of sliding units we have is preposterous. It makes me long for the days when we only had to worry about keeping the timer in good repair.” Professor Arturo realized he was now only talking to himself, as the seven prisoners had now arrived.
Where they were was not yet apparent. Wade had seen bleaker places, but not many. No guns were pointed their way, which likely meant their prospects of escape were even slimmer than she might have guessed. A wild-haired man with bulging eyes and rumpled camouflage clothing inspected the seven of them with derision in his eyes. His French accent was as thick as it was obnoxious. “I thoroughly appreciate your cooperation thus far; however, as you know, we now only possess part of what we want from you. The whole would be all of the codes that give us access to your wonderful energy generation system. I am not going to mince words here. I will torture all of you until I know who knows what and I will generously reward the first person,” he smiled unconvincingly with his bared teeth clenched menacingly, “or Kro-Magg, who gives us this information.”
“That seems to be a reasonable offer,” Krahlna piped up swiftly. “The only individuals here who have the information you seek are Commander Welles,” a quick gesture indicated a visibly livid Wade, “and myself.”
Before Wade could register a whole lot of protest, the man who appeared to be the leader of their captors sneered a response to the female Kromagg. “I see. And so I assume that either one of you would be more than happy to give us this information, no?” He suddenly cast his eyes upon Wade, expecting her to answer.
“No,” Wade answered quickly. “I mean, yes. But the thing is, see...we each have only half of the codes memorized. You wouldn’t even be able to get one full sequence out of either one of us.”
The man glowered at Wade, then at Krahlna. “You are lying.”
“What she says is true,” Krahlna attested smugly. “I am certain you have captured Kromaggs before. There is a reason that a sub consul goes on a dangerous mission with a consul. No one officer is entrusted with that much important information.”
“And why, exactly, would a Kromagg trust a human, even one of your human lapdog collaborators, with this vital information?” Their French interrogator somehow managed to look haughtier.
Krahlna took only a moment to craft a response. “On some worlds, there has been a greater trust built between the Kromagg Dynasty and humankind. I do not seek to defend our actions in this dimension, but simply to say that some humans do not hate quite so instinctively as your people do.”
In the dark of the pit they had been unceremoniously thrown into, Krahlna could only guess that it was Wade’s elbow pressed very firmly against her neck. It was a pretty safe bet, though. “You Maggot liar. I’ve tortured, maimed and killed your kind before, and some of that was for less than what you’ve done to me. Now I want to know why in the hell you told these people I have the codes that they want and if you were the one behind our capture, and I would really prefer that you did it quickly.” She waited a few moments expectantly, until she realized that her arm was still pressed violently against the Kromagg’s windpipe. Grudgingly, she returned it to her side.
“To answer your questions ‘quickly’,” Krahlna replied after a harsh gasp, “for two reasons and no. The ‘Blind Boy’ sold us out. It was my mistake to employ him, but not my intent to end up in this hole. Believe me, they treat Kromagg prisoners a lot less gingerly here than they do humans.”
“Sensible policy,” Wade thought aloud. She then shook her head to clear it of that thought. “Fine. Say I believe you about that. What possible ‘reasons’ could there be for lying to these people when they’ll eventually figure out that we don’t know anything anyway?”
Krahlna swallowed slowly. “They are only going to keep us alive as long as they think we have these cursed codes. And if they think only the two of us have them, then they won’t do anything overly harmful to our companions.”
“Are you sure about that?” Wade said with a suspicious frown that Krahlna couldn’t see.
Krahlna again made a noise of discomfort with her throat. “Make no mistake, when they no longer need us, they will kill us slowly and painfully. Until that time...” Her voice trailed off into a veritable whisper, her thoughts apparently going to a place she didn’t much care for. “I would not have put Kitnus and Klavar in mortal danger. We have been through much together. I assume you feel the same way about your people.” She paused a moment, then amended that statement. “Or at least the one you call ‘Remmy’.”
Wade’s voice seemed to soften a little. “I look out for my team. Especially Rembrandt. It’s the least I can do for him after...” She stopped herself suddenly. Her accusatory tone returned as she remembered who she was talking to. “You said there were two reasons?”
Wade could have sworn that Krahlna started violently coughing deliberately before she spoke. “I selected the two of us because I felt as though we could withstand whatever torture they could devise. After all, each of us has gone through so much worse.”
Wade’s barely repressed anger came fully to the surface, but she managed somehow not to inflict bodily harm this time. “Spare me your sob story. I was systematically raped by your species, tortured, beaten... What the hell could have happened to you that could compare to that? Did some people who got tired of seeing you Maggs murder and pillage catch up to you and give you a taste of your own poison?!”
“No,” Krahlna answered with a soft sort of melancholy. “Do not be dismissive of how my situation ‘compares’ to yours. I am very familiar with Kromagg breeding camps.”
“What?” Wade was now a strange mix of angry and curious. For some reason, she could sense a familiar pain in this woman. “Were you in charge of...?” Suddenly, she intuitively felt it. Her jaw dropped. “No.”
“Yes,” the Kromagg female who sat across from Wade in a dark hole answered. “I too was a breeder.”
Rembrandt leaned in with his good side and began speaking conspiratorially with Quinn and Diana. The three sliders plus two Kromaggs were in a large cell in another wing of what appeared to be a large barracks. “Alright. So we have a scuffle. I fake an aggravation of my injury. They take me to the infirmary. Then what?”
Diana shook her head. “Sorry, Remmy. They’ll spot a fake a mile away. We’re going to have to really hurt you.” Rembrandt didn’t look thrilled, but didn’t argue either. “Once you’re in there and lucid, look for a bottle of something small that has a toxic warning label on it. Odds are we can use that for something. Also, surgical tools, needles, anything that might look threatening...”
“Woah,” said Rembrandt. “I’ve only got one good arm. How the devil am I supposed to carry all of this junk?”
“Get creative,” Quinn suggested. “Meanwhile, I’ll be back here working with Kitnus. He has the blueprints of this facility memorized and I think we might be able to work out an escape route through the filtration system. You OK with that, Kitnus?” The humans turned to look at the Kromaggs for the first time.
“I... suppose,” Kitnus hedged. “Did your human superiors not inform you that there was a planned limited military strike on this Earth and that if we were captured we would be quickly retrieved?”
All three sliders did nothing but stare. “I guess not,” Klavar noted with a chuckle.
“Why the hell didn’t you say anything while all of this planning was going on?” Rembrandt demanded of his Kromagg counterpart.
“You did not appear to want to include Klavar and myself in your scheming,” Kitnus pointed out smugly. “Besides, it seemed to keep you busy. Humans can be so utterly tiresome when they are listless.”
Quinn and Rembrandt fumed. Diana managed to ask, “So, when do the bombs start falling?”
“You’re a breeder,” Wade repeated, dumbstruck. “A Kromagg breeder. You. Her.” She shook her head again. “I don’t understand. For some strange reason I do believe you, but...”
“Surely you know the reason the breeder camps were created,” Krahlna told her, icy pain seeping from her firm, authoritative voice. “The virus that affected Kromagg females. But there were those with natural immunities. Did you really think the Dynasty would give the unafflicted a choice in the matter?” Wade didn’t really have an answer that she liked. “For over a dozen years, I was a key part of the Kromagg breeding programs. There was no rape, not for one of their own kind, however.... How many of your children were taken from you? Shipped off to another Earth, never to be seen again?”
“I had a daughter...in the camps,” Wade replied in a reluctant voice that said she never thought she’d be telling this to a Kromagg. “We escaped that life together.”
“That is nice,” Krahlna answered banally. “I had seventeen children. I know where none of them are, nor do I even know their names. Two of the females would be of breeding age themselves. I fear the worst.” Krahlna stopped speaking for a moment and Wade wondered if perhaps she was weeping. She was also surprised to find that she cared, just a little, about this Kromagg. But not enough to stop her curiosity.
“If you were a part of this,” Wade began to ask, “how did you...?” It was then that the roof caved in on them.
There had been little damage done to the part of the building where three of our sliders and their two Kromagg ‘compatriots’ had been held, but the guards watching them ran like hell the minute they figured out what was going on, giving the quintet ample opportunity to escape. It was but a short distance to the facility where Wade and Krahlna were being held. The attack must have taken them by complete surprise, as the entire building was now little more than a mass of flaming ruin and rubble. What the sliders presumed to be Grand Alliance troops (although they didn’t wear the standard blue and purple uniforms) had rounded up most of the people in charge. At the moment, Rembrandt wasn’t really concerned about that. “I need to get back in there,” he declared to nobody in particular.
“We can’t,” Quinn informed him. “It’s too dangerous. I heard the guy in charge say...”
“Man, don’t tell me what ‘we’ can’t do,” Remmy exclaimed angrily. “I am not leaving Wade in there to die. I don’t particularly care if I have to go in by myself.”
“Nobody’s going alone,” Diana told them both sternly. “We go where you go, remember? That works both ways.” The scientist took a deep breath and then continued. “There are search and rescue teams sorting through the debris right now, and doing a better job of it than we ever could. If Wade’s there, they’ll find her.”
“We slide in eight hours,” Quinn declared. It was the first time any of them had discussed the slide window. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter much to Rembrandt. He continued to look at what was left of their most recent prison and say silent prayers of hope.
Wade Welles arose to find she couldn’t stop coughing and that tears were streaming down her eyes. “Smoke,” she stated obviously. “And where there’s smoke there’s...” She looked to see a fire blazing barely twenty feet from where she lie. The ‘hole’, now that she had a good look at it, was much larger than she had imagined.
After doing a quick self-evaluation (a few cuts and bruises but no permanent damage), she saw a way she could potentially get around the fire. Pulling her shirt up around her nose and mouth, she began to make her way out of the room. Then she remembered that she hadn’t been the only one here. “Krahlna,” she said aloud. Turning back slightly, she managed to find the Kromagg officer unconscious and under quite a bit of rubble.
Wade took a few moments to try to revive Krahlna, but to no avail. ‘Great,’ she thought. ‘The one Kromagg I would mind leaving to burn to death, and she’s the one I’m stuck with.’ With some great amount of effort on Wade’s part, she hoisted the female Kromagg into a somewhat upright position. At that moment, Krahlna did stir a little. After a few precious seconds, she became semi-conscious.
Wade draped one of Krahlna’s arms over her shoulder and managed to stand and walk with the Kromagg staggering next to her. Slowly but surely, the two of them made it out of the room and safely away from the blaze. After a few minutes of gradual progress, Wade could make out the faces of both her own and Krahlna’s companions in the distance.
“Wade?” Krahlna managed to mutter weakly.
“Yeah,” Wade grunted as they slowly made their way to their own sets of sliders.
Kitnus managed to arrive just in time to catch Krahlna as she collapsed onto Wade. As the four sliders slowly wandered into each other’s presence, Rembrandt took a long look at Wade. Her complete exhaustion was overwhelmingly apparent on her face, her clothes were disheveled, torn and sooty and this wasn’t her best hair day ever. Remmy saw no purpose in pointing any of that out, however. “You OK?” he asked simply.
“Peachy,” Wade managed to answer with only mild sarcasm. “Any idea why we were blown to hell in there?”
“Grand Alliance air strikes,” Quinn answered simply. “We still don’t know much of how or why it happened...”
Wade didn’t particularly care. “Do we have the bastard who’s in charge of the camps?”
“As near as we can figure, yes,” Diana answered with a confused gesture towards some nefarious-looking characters with armed guards covering them. “Why do you...?”
The next few moments were a blur of inflicted pain. The only thing Wade was certain of was that they deserved it. That, and she was very close to passing out.
The first thing she saw when she came to was Rembrandt sitting next to her, half-asleep himself. As she sat up in bed, he became fully alert. “Have you been watching me all this time?” she inquired in a slow croak.
“Not really,” Rembrandt admitted with a self-deprecating smile. “You’ve been asleep for nearly two days. I do have a life, you know.”
“Two days?!” Wade exclaimed. Her first thought was that she had missed the slide, but that was quickly dashed by the fact that she had been sleeping in her quarters. “And you have a life now? Why do I always miss the good stuff?”
Rembrandt stood to offer her a glass of water. She gratefully accepted. “Actually, you didn’t miss much of anything. We slid back here. Apparently, the Professor and the Alliance muckety-mucks got what they were looking for on that world. Don’t ask me what it was because I still don’t understand the whole thing.”
“And Krahlna?” Wade asked a bit too curiously. “I mean, the Kromaggs?”
“Gone,” Rembrandt assured her. “Can’t say I mind that too much. Sliding with Kromaggs is a bit like getting operated on by vultures. They might do a good job, but you can’t help the feeling that they’re in it for all the wrong reasons.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Wade muttered noncommittally. “I don’t know though. I got the feeling that maybe there was something different about these Kromaggs. Especially Krahlna.”
“Yeah, I got the feeling you got that feeling,” Rembrandt said with a chuckle. “What I don’t know is why. I mean, if anybody should be turned off by all things Kromagg, I would think it would be you.”
“There was a connection there,” Wade stated with confusion. “Maybe it was because we were both breeders, I don’t know...”
Rembrandt looked incredulous. “She told you she was a breeder?”
Wade’s eyes met Rembrandt’s solidly. “Krahlna was a breeder. Trust me. I can explain everything. Just give me some time. And some extra strength aspirin.” Wade was soon returning her gaze to the sparsely carpeted floor of her room. “Nothing makes sense anymore.”
“Our situation can make it seem that way,” Rembrandt sympathized vaguely.
“We used to come across bad guys one world at a time. If there was a confrontation, there was always luck, speed or time on our side. But we can’t count on those things anymore. Now we end up working with Kromaggs and mob bosses without giving it much thought,” Wade groused as if she hadn’t heard him. “People run breeding camps and Kromaggs are breeders. It’s all topsy-turvy.”
“Damn. Human breeder camps. I knew the people there were brutal, but it’s still a little hard to grasp...” Rembrandt’s voice trailed off. “Makes me wish I’d joined you in your little outburst of violence against those guys.”
“Violence doesn’t feel as good as it used to.” As Remmy moved closer to her side, Wade turned away from him slowly. “For years all that I’ve wanted is to stop being a victim of what happened to me. So much has changed since I was in the camps and I’m starting to think it’s finally time to put it all behind me. But I just keep running back to the pain. It’s a lot simpler to wallow in your victimhood than to try to move past it. I guess some part of me was willing to let what I went through there define who I am.” Now she did face Rembrandt. “If I’m not a breeder, if I’m not the woman who suffered at the...hands...of the Kromaggs and lived to tell about it, if I’m not the commander who led the women of the camps in an uprising against our rapists, then who the hell am I?”
“You’re Wade,” Rembrandt answered simply. “You’re the woman who always saw the good in what we did on other worlds. The one who always found the adventure in sliding. You were the conscience of the group, the moral one. Now maybe after everything we’ve seen some of that morality’s taken a different form. But I think deep down you’re still the same Wade I knew before you were captured by the KroMaggots. The same one that I loved.”
“Yeah?” Wade wondered aloud, emotion clouding her voice. “I’m not so sure.”
“Well, I am,” Rembrandt assured her with confidence in his voice. “Your allies may change, but your friends don’t. As long as you and me and the Professor are still around, we’ll always know who we are and who to trust.”
Krahlna normally enjoyed herself at this bar. The drinks, while sometimes vile, were stronger than most other beverages she’d tasted. This dimension in general was a fun place for Kromagg tourists, as humans had no reason for negative feelings towards them and were generally curious about extradimensional travelers, rather than openly hostile. Plus this world’s movie industry featured films about ridiculously elderly humans, which suited Krahlna’s sense of whimsy. But none of that really mattered to her today.
In general, she hated doing jobs where she ended up losing money on the deal. Occasionally, however, Kitnus and Klavar would allow her to indulge herself and take a job for her own personal satisfaction, rather than monetary gain. That had been part of the reason they had gone freelance, after all.
But this gig was supposed to give her the best of both worlds: a tidy profit and the feeling of moral superiority she always enjoyed when she got to inflict a world of pain on the rapists and torturers who typically ran breeder camps. Instead, she got neither. The ‘Blind Boy’ had to be paid a lot of coin to fake a Grand Alliance attack and her skinflint employer wasn’t willing to reimburse her for the extra expense involved. The three Kromaggs actually ended up losing credits in the deal, a fact of which Klavar never seemed to tire of reminding her.
As for beating up on the bad guys, she had gotten some pleasure out of the descriptions of her human counterpart, Wade, beating the living hell out of that area’s cadre of masochists. But being unable to do the deed herself was patently unsatisfying. Although she had long ago been deemed a fugitive by the Kromagg Dynasty and tried her best to avoid worlds where she might run into someone from her former life, she didn’t mind breaking that rule for a good cause. Shutting down breeding facilities and killing the people who operate them was just about the best cause she could think of. Losing out on that because her Mafia subordinate’s bomber crew had incredibly poor aim was frustrating, to say the least.
Attempting to tune out Klavar’s howling laughter as he nearly nailed Kitnus in the forehead with his knife, Krahlna ordered a warthog’s broth and seethed silently. Since leaving the Dynasty, her life had become decidedly more complex. She could no longer fake being who she once was. ‘I was a fool to pretend I was still a part of that life,’ Krahlna mused mentally. Although the Kromagg government was now a part of some sort of alliance to take down what was supposedly a greater threat, Krahlna would have nothing more to do with the Dynasty. Evil was still evil, regardless of how it was aligned. Perhaps she would remind Maximilian Arturo of that the next time he attempted to recruit her for a job.
[ Earth 2013 Episode Guide | The Otherworlds ]