6.19 - Girl Scout Camp
Her first reaction upon stirring to life was that the place was dark. It was one of those few moments in life when poor lighting really comes in handy, as Wade didn't really care to see what was in front of her. "Can you guys give it a rest already?"
Professor Maximilian Arturo and Rembrandt Brown paid her no heed, continuing to watch the young girls in front of them dance around in nothing or next to it. "Are you nuts, girl?" Remmy asked with rhetorical indignance. "We've only got a few more minutes until the slide. Gotta take in all we can, you know." Wade grumbled, but there wasn't much more she could do. After all, what they were enjoying was considered to be a very respectable form of entertainment on this world. She begrudgingly admitted to herself they had a right to enjoy it.
Wade, however, had had enough of the strip club set. "Quinn, are you ready to..." She caught sight of the youngest male slider fast asleep on their table. There was a crumpled ten-dollar bill showing through his fingers. She tapped him on the shoulder and he reluctantly stirred to life. "Getting up close and personal, were you?"
Quinn Mallory wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition so soon after waking, and was still quite groggy. "Wha?" he asked confusedly. Wade cast her eyes downward at the money in his hand. "Oh, this? I was going to tip our waitress." He pulled his head up and looked around the room. "Where'd she go?"
Wade pointed to where the other two men in the group were ogling, exasperated. She was definitely fed up with this place. "She's up there now. If you want to give her money, be my guest." She then walked out of the building briskly.
Quinn promptly followed her. "What's going on? Were we here all night?"
Wade stopped and turned to face her fellow slider. "Unfortunately, yes. The Professor and Rembrandt insisted on staying here, and neither of us were in much position to argue. But at least we got a good night's sleep."
Quinn took a hard look at her, deep-seated concern evident in his eyes. "Are you sure you're OK? You've been a little on edge lately."
"I'm fine," Wade assured him unconvincingly. "It's just the way this world treats women. It unnerves me a little, and Remmy and Arturo aren't helping. I'm sure I'll get over it as soon as we slide out."
"Good," Quinn responded, trying to sound relieved. They had seen some worlds where the lot of women was disproportionately poor, certainly, but this one was more misogynistic than they were used to. "I was afraid this was about the whole marriage thing."
A decided conversational misstep. "Let's not start this again," Wade requested irritably.
"I'm not starting anything," Quinn told her matter-of-factly. "You were the one who didn't want to get divorced on the last world."
"Do you have any idea how ridiculous I look in a unitard?" Wade asked rhetorically. Then, on the off chance he didn't take it as rhetorical, she continued, "Don't answer that."
"You've come up with nothing but excuses ever since I brought up this divorce issue," Quinn came back. "'I can't make my hair do that', 'I don't even like whipped cream'...each more convoluted than the last. And for Pete's sake, the unitard was optional!"
"Yeah, but it was expected," Wade reminded him. Before Quinn could go off on another tangent, Wade interrupted him. "I don't even see why this bothers you so much. It's not like we're planning to go back to that world anytime soon or anything. I don't even think we saved the co-ordinates. I also tend to doubt that anybody would consider it legally binding, so why not just drop the whole thing?"
"Because it matters to me," Quinn told her, all traces of humor gone from his voice. "I don't want to go back to my home world, crawl back to my wife who, if her double is any indication, has probably moved on without me, and try to rebuild my life with her, with this knowledge festering in the back of my head that I'm an interdimensional bigamist!"
"You are so selfish!" Wade declared. "All you ever think about is getting home."
Quinn nearly did a double take. "I'm sorry, what?! Isn't your goal getting home, too?"
"Well, yeah, but..." Wade trailed off, searching for a satisfactory reply. "You made a promise to Quinn, to our Quinn, to get us home. I'm not sure how all that worked exactly, but I know that if I were you, I wouldn't want to cross somebody with connections in the afterlife."
Quinn clearly wasn't happy, but he just as clearly wasn't going to win this argument. They had less than a minute until the slide anyway, so there was no point in bickering further. The only question that remained was how long the others were going to take inside. That question was answered soon enough, as the two of them emerged from the run-down building that the quartet had unexpectedly spent the night in, a wad of bills in each of their hands. Apparently Wade felt there was enough time for a little more arguing. "I can't believe you guys bought into this world's horrific exploitation of women," Wade scolded them. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"With all due respect to you and the feminist cause, Miss Welles," Professor Arturo explained, "we were only thinking of how much money we were making."
"Oh yeah," Rembrandt chuckled as he counted the bills in his hands. "They were givin' it out hand over...uh, fist."
"What?!" Quinn questioned. "I must have been asleep when the logic behind that was being explained."
"Apparently, normally seedy activities like stripping and prostitution are so common on this world, that they not only give first-time customers free samples, as it were, but money as well, in the hopes that they'll receive repeat business." Arturo pocketed the money once he had it all counted. "A little over three hundred dollars. Not a fortune, but enough to possibly pay our hotel bill on the next world, eh, Miss Welles?"
Wade was still noticeably displeased, but she said nothing else as Quinn opened the vortex and they all vaulted through it in turn, as usual. On the other side was an open field, populated with nothing but overgrown grass and a few more insects than they would have preferred. Quinn brushed himself off and took an appreciative look around. "Nobody saw us come in, that's a plus. Nice soft grass instead of pavement. All and all, I'd say not a bad entrance."
"Speak for yourself," Professor Arturo complained. Chucklingly, Wade and Rembrandt helped the eldest slider up from a small embankment that he had rolled over. He was covered with dirt, and had a dyspeptic expression on his face. "Worlds with no people around tend to be causes of distress rather than relaxation, Mr. Mallory. Kindly tell us how long we have to stay here."
"Around four days, give or take," Quinn reported. "And I wouldn't be too sure about the 'no people' thing. Take a look up there." He gestured towards the charred ruins of a small building a few meters away. They started moving towards it, perhaps more briskly than the scene warranted.
The four of them scanned over the remains of the small building, (it might have been a modest farmhouse or barn), looked at the limited amount of damage done to the trees nearby and pretty much came to the same conclusion. "Arson," Rembrandt said aloud.
"There's no way to be certain," Arturo assessed, playing the devil's advocate role as well as he always did. "But I doubt we want to be around if the person or persons who did this returns."
"I don't think there's any danger of that," Wade said, her voice sounding oddly detached. "This was done several years ago, at least."
"Since when did you become the expert on housefires?" Quinn wondered, an amused look etched on his face.
Wade kept looking around at the place, and seemingly didn't hear Quinn's remark at all. Rembrandt looked at her strangely. "Do you know something about this place that we don't, Wade?"
"Maybe," Wade answered, startling the other three. "Maybe not. But if I've been here before, then there should be further signs of life in that direction." She pointed in one direction and began walking that way. The others followed her example.
"Where is 'here', Miss Welles?" Professor Arturo asked curiously. "Where do you think we are?"
"I don't want to speculate until we know more," was all that she would say. The four of them walked for a few minutes more in complete silence. They stopped only when they discovered a large tent set up in a field similar to the one that they landed in.
"Someone must be nearby," Quinn noted, taking a look at how neat and orderly everything was around the camp. "This place looks well-maintained."
Professor Arturo poked his head inside quickly. Satisfied that there were no obvious dangers therein, he adventured inside. There were pillows, sleeping bags, some small amount of food and water, but no campers. "Well, they're not here now. I don't know about the rest of you, but I could use a little sleep." He let out a large yawn for emphasis.
Wade was less than impressed. "Not to ruin your beauty rest, Goldilocks, but what happens when the people who regularly bunk here come back?"
"Normally I'd agree with you, Wade," Rembrandt told her. "But these are not normal times. I haven't had a good night's rest in days."
"I don't like it," Quinn announced, tactfully agreeing with Wade. The warnings of the two younger sliders went unheeded, however, as the Professor and Rembrandt quickly curled up in sleeping bags and closed their eyes.
Arturo, despite his current state of impaired judgement, didn't want to dismiss Wade's fears out of hand. "Take a look around. See if you can either confirm or deny that this is a world you've visited before. If you find anything of great import, don't hesitate to..." His voice trailed off in slumber.
Rembrandt didn't nod off quite as fast. "Hey, snacks!" he exclaimed at the sight of spherical, chocolate-covered objects in a bowl. As he stuck his hand in and threw some in his mouth, Wade got a knowing look on her face.
"Wait," she said. "This is too familiar to be a coincidence." She looked at Quinn, the gravity of the situation apparent from the determined look on her face. "We've got to get out of here."
"Why?" Quinn asked a little stupidly. "What's..." At that moment, a large net began to fall on them. Wade managed to get herself and Quinn out of its path, but the two sliders who moments earlier had been attempting slumber were thoroughly blanketed by the netting.
Given that both of them were near sleep, they didn't exactly notice. "What's goin' on?" Rembrandt muttered. He then withdrew the food he was eating from his mouth and grew more alert. "What is this?" He turned the chewed objects over in his hand and his eyes grew as big as saucers. "Oh my God!" he exclaimed loudly.
"Calm down, Mr. Brown," Arturo requested drowsily.
"Calm down?!" Rembrandt questioned rhetorically. "I almost ate an eyeball!"
On the outside, to Quinn's surprise, Wade was smiling. "You don't have to worry, Rembrandt. If this is anything like the traps I used to rig..." She didn't have the chance to say anything else. A horde of figures in green descended upon their location, surrounding them too quickly for the sliders to do anything. "Then something like this never would have happened," Wade finished to herself. She then turned her face towards the ground. Quinn followed suit, not really knowing what else to do.
As the net was slowly removed from the tent enough for their newfound captors to get to the Professor and Rembrandt, the two sliders noticed that these people in paramilitary garb were all women. As they started to put shackles on the duo, Remmy turned to make an aside to Arturo. "Hey, if this is anything like the last world, this might not be so bad."
"Jeez, can't you guys think about anything else?!" Wade demanded. She then fell silent once more, keeping her head down.
"Take them back to MBC, see what the Commander wants to do...with..." The woman speaking then started looking at Wade strangely. "Wade? Is that you?" As she spoke, Wade stood and looked her in the eye. "It is you!" The soldiers all began buzzing as they got a good look at her.
"Um, hi," Wade responded awkwardly. The gals in green hovered around her, seemingly basking in her presence. "This is a nice moment and all, but could you possibly let my friends go before we reminisce?"
"Your friends?" a slight Hispanic woman, who had the air of a group leader, stammered in response. Immediately she gave orders to have them freed. "Come on," she said with a cheerful smile. "There are some people who've been waiting a long time to see you again."
As the other three sliders grouped around Wade, for protection mostly, Professor Arturo leaned over to speak into her ear. "An excellent stroke of good fortune, Miss Welles. It seems these people must know your double."
Wade looked back at him with a small smile. "No, Professor. They know me."
Valentina Xian crouched on the ground, which was blanketed with dead leaves that crunched entirely too loudly when you put any weight on them. Looking through the sight on her automatic rifle, she regretted leaving her usual weapon of choice, which had a pretty decent scope on it, at home. Regardless, the enemy wasn't visible. She expected nothing less. "This is stupid," she assessed in a hissing whisper. "There's nobody here."
"I swear, Val," a small Indonesian woman said with pleading in her voice. "There have been troop movements through this area. Didn't believe it myself 'til I saw it with my own eyes."
"Even if it's true, looks like they're long gone." Valentina looked over the hill once more, as if suddenly a large group of armed, uniformed Kromaggs might appear. "Might as well keep moving. We've still got four miles worth of ground to cover..." She would have said something about reporting the news back at base camp if she hadn't been interrupted by a powerful laser blast over their heads that turned some nearby trees into firewood.
She began operating on auto-pilot. Panic and instinct combined to put her in battle mode almost instantaneously. Then again, Valentina Xian was used to conflict. As the grandchild of people who'd been on the wrong side of the Chinese Civil War, she had grown up hated by her peers in the Asian quarter of Vladivostok. She finally found her calling fighting the Japanese during the Sakhalin War. She spent the better part of two years on the island before the Kromaggs hit. The rest was history of the very painful kind.
"Fan out," she yelled over the sudden roar of fire that threatened to wipe them all off the face of the planet in the next few moments. "Arone, get a message back to MBC. The enemy is active." She hesitated, and there wasn't time for that. "Go now!"
But there was no chance of it happening. The firing of enemy munitions, although sporadic and eerily quiet, was coming fast and thick now. There was no chance of anyone leaving here alive. But, Valentina rationalized, they could take as many of the Maggs as possible with them before they went. It was a hollow inspiration, but a motivating factor in her staying alive, for a few additional minutes anyway.
The blast that killed her burned most of her internal organs up from inside of her. Blood came out too fast for any of her field medical training to stop it. She let a smile escape her lips as death came for her. The jolting effect of the shot had carried her to a bank filled with snow, a place where constant shadow had kept it from melting. It rather reminded her of home.
"You know, this place isn't so bad," Quinn told Wade as he took in the scenery. She looked at him strangely. "I'm not saying I want to rent a condo here, but the weather's quite pleasant for winter. Lots of trees, room to develop..." He watched as a group of women trained not far from where they were walking. At the orders of their group leader, they fired at a set of thin wooden targets. "...friendly people. When I pictured where you had been holed up before we found you, I was expecting a death camp, not the Women's Liberation Army."
"It is pretty," Wade agreed with a winsome tone to her voice. "This entire part of the country used to be called New Austria. From what I hear, it was a wonderful place to live." The cheerfulness disappeared in a moment. "Until the Kromaggs came, and turned it into a place of ugly death and torture."
"Yeah, about that," Quinn said a little nervously. "Do you expect we'll run into any trouble from them on this world? Because I'm kind of attached to my eyeballs. Literally."
It took him a second to see that Wade wasn't really looking at him. She started walking quickly towards someone else. "Not if she has anything to say about it," she answered him. Quinn saw that the woman Wade referred to was East Asian, but he could never tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean people, so he stopped himself from identifying further. He watched as Wade and this other woman hugged each other.
"Wade!" she exclaimed. She then stopped hugging and took a look at her. "Where the hell have you been?"
Wade flashed a grin. "That could take some explaining. I'd rather find out what's been going on around here."
"Oh, you know," she replied. "Same old, same old."
Wade laughed aloud. "Oh no, you don't get off that easily. This whole area used to be a war zone. Now it looks like we could put in a park. I know there must be some good stories behind that little turn of events."
"That might take some explaining, too," she said with a smirk. She looked Wade over with joy. "God, it's so good to see you again."
Quinn, who had stood by aimlessly as this exchange went on, cleared his throat to get their attention. "Oh, I'm sorry. This is my, uh, friend, Quinn. Quinn, this is Chyna. And these are..." She turned around and looked for the Professor and Rembrandt. They were nowhere to be seen. "Where'd the others go?"
"Back here," called Remmy from quite a few feet back. Wade squinted but she could just barely make out their forms. "But please, don't stop on our account."
"You certainly haven't thus far," Arturo grumbled loudly.
"Wait a minute," Chyna said coldly, narrowing her eyes as she looked at Quinn. "This isn't that heartless bastard who didn't even look for you when he found your old friend Christina is it?"
"No, I'm actually a different Quinn," Quinn responded honestly. "Don't worry, I get that all the time." Quinn cleared his throat again, this time from nervousness. "So, Chyna. Guess you're Chinese then, huh?" It was so incredibly dumb, but he couldn't seem to stop himself from saying it.
"Of Japanese descent, actually," she answered with a small smile. "My parents had a wicked sense of humor." After that, Quinn felt too awkward to say anything. As Wade and Chyna continued to reminisce, he hung back and waited for the others to catch up with him. It took a few minutes, but finally they were in close proximity.
"Has anybody else noticed that there aren't any guys around?" Quinn asked them in all seriousness. "I mean we must have made contact with or seen nearly two dozen people by now, and they were all women. Is that strange to you?"
"Not really," Rembrandt explained. "This place is probably a breeder camp. Or it used to be. Don't think the Maggs'd have much use for the male sex here."
Quinn looked thoughtful. "I guess that makes sense. These Kromaggs seem like the singularity of purpose type. So no men at all?" Rembrandt shook his head dismissively. "Huh. You know, we could be pretty popular here."
"Or, considering what was done to them here, perhaps we'll be fairly unpopular," the Professor threw in.
"Being one of only a few men on an Earth filled with women may sound like a dream, Q-Ball," Rembrandt said. "But it's more like a nightmare. Besides, I think your ability to hook up on this world might be a little hampered, if you catch my drift." He indicated two women sitting not far from where they were walking, who were in the middle of a picnic and kissing each other very intentionally. For some reason, Professor Arturo didn't even see the large branch he tripped and fell over.
"Come on in," Chyna said with an inviting smile as the quartet entered the simple, squat building that very much appeared to be her home. The male sliders found it a little cramped for five people, but cozy enough. There was a little fire going in her fireplace that was a bit much considering the weather outside, but it was hardly unbearable. "Sit down," she said indicating some chairs and a lengthy dinner table (all clearly home-made). "Dinner's almost ready."
None of them had eaten anything for the better part of a day and would have likely eaten anything that she placed in front of them. However, there was a small part of their collective stomachs that turned when she said, "I hope you like pickled vegetables." In none of their experiences was anything pickled tasty, except of course for the cucumbers which bore the name 'pickle' on most worlds. Nonetheless, they all ate enough to satisfy their hunger.
"Chyna makes the best squash lasagna in GSC," Wade bragged. She then looked down at the food in front of her. "Of course it's not quite as good when it's pickled. Sorry."
Chyna got an apologetic look on her face. "Cans and jars have been scarce lately. We have to conserve what we can, and do without whenever possible. There are things we ended up pickling last harvest that were never meant to be pickled." Everyone who had eaten the pickled eggplant nodded in agreement.
"Speaking of the, em, GSC, as it were," Professor Arturo started to say. "I presume that it was Miss Welles' idea? Writing the name Girl Scout Camp on the sign outside it, over the name Breeder Camp, as a symbol of independence?"
"Of course," Chyna chuckled, as if it were a matter of public knowledge (which on this world, of course, it was). She then looked at Wade and her friends with a frown. "I take it Wade hasn't told you much about her life here."
"You can say that again," Rembrandt muttered in agreement.
"Why would I want to?" she asked, puzzled. Then the light dawned. "Ah, an American idiom. Quaint. Well, perhaps we should stick to safe subjects. Like what Wade's been doing these last few months that she's been away. I mean, you told me about how you escaped from the Maggs, implausible as that was, but I imagine you've had quite the adventure since then."
Wade said nothing, drinking her tea in happy silence. It was Arturo who spoke first. "Where to start? Shall we regale you with the tale of how Little Miss Freedom Fighter attempted to overthrow a world-ruling psychic tot, which turned out to be completely the wrong move?"
Quinn put his two cents in enthusiastically. "Or the time she crippled a mailman just because he worked for a diabolical double of the Professor's son?"
Rembrandt wasn't one to be left out of this conversation. "Or the world where there was this McCarthy Act, and Quinn and Wade had to..."
"So, Lyssandra seemed well," Wade interrupted quickly. "And everything's OK with her and Beatrix, right?"
"Why wouldn't it be?" Chyna wondered aloud. Lyssandra was the religious leader of the colony who Wade had had a similarly chummy reunion with earlier; Beatrix was the priestess' girlfriend. "Are you OK, Wade? You seem a little..." Chyna stopped in thought, thus precluding Wade from coming up with some convoluted excuse. "I'm an idiot! Why didn't I think of this sooner? Why didn't you remind me of this sooner? I know why you're so distracted!"
Wade at first seemed confused, but then the realization hit her in the face. "Of course, I mean I've been thinking about it, but that's not... You know, maybe we can go see her later."
"Are you afraid of what'll happen when she sees you?" Chyna asked with sympathy in her voice. "You've got nothing to worry about, Wade. And you know you want to." Wade clearly couldn't disagree with that, but she seemed antsy about it nonetheless.
"What is it, Miss Welles?" Professor Arturo inquired. "Who is it that she speaks of?"
"She really didn't tell you, did she?" Chyna asked incredulously. "I'm going to take you to meet the most important person ever to come into Wade's life."
It was a small hill, barely much more than a knoll, but given how much they had already walked that day, walking up it was enough to completely tucker Arturo and Rembrandt out. "Man, we don't usually walk around this much even when we can't afford cab fare," Remmy complained.
"It's just a little further," Chyna assured them. Wade and Quinn were at the top first and took some time to catch their breath.
"Who should we expect to see in here, Wade?" Quinn asked in all seriousness. He got no answer. As soon as all of them were assembled on the hilltop, Chyna knocked on the door and identified herself. A slight, elderly woman opened the door, embraced both Chyna and Wade, and looked suspiciously at the three men. After Wade vouched for them with the occupant (who was introduced as Katarina), they entered the cottage without incident.
The first thing they noticed was that it was larger than Chyna's place. The second thing was the screaming. There must have been more than two dozen children, from newborns to toddlers, gathered in her cottage. "It's a nursery," Quinn said, stating the obvious as plainly as he always did. Wade was transfixed, from the moment she entered the room, on one child in particular. She walked slowly to the crib and picked up the infant.
"Guys," Wade said, her eyes starting to water up. "This is my daughter, Callie."
Wade Welles was completely lost in thought when Professor Maximilian Arturo approached her from behind. When she finally caught sight of him, she jumped a little. "I'm sorry, Professor. I didn't see you there."
Arturo looked at Wade, who had barely been able to take her eyes from her infant daughter since they had arrived here around mid-afternoon. It was now well after nightfall. "No, I'd imagine not." He exhaled slowly. How was he going to broach this subject? "Miss Welles, I've been intending to have a word with you ever since we arrived here, but if this is a bad time..."
"No," Wade said softly. "I actually wouldn't mind a little conversation. What's on your mind?"
"When I first saw little, Callie did you say her name was?" When Wade shook her head in the affirmative, he continued. "I couldn't imagine what would possess you to keep the fact that you had a child from us all of this time. Of course I knew that you had your secrets and that your life during this period of time was less than idyllic, but when we spoke of what had transpired since my absence, you said nothing of this. It puzzled me."
"Look, Professor, before you criticize me, you should..." Wade started defensively.
"Let me finish, Miss Welles," Arturo requested. "But then I remembered my own son. The son that would have remained anonymous to the rest of you forever had it not been for a supposed fortune teller and a psychotic double who I fervently wish to forget." Wade looked at him. "What I'm trying to say is that I understand where you come from on this. If you ever need someone to talk to, I'm here."
"Thank you, Professor," Wade said with a smile. She was surprised when he rose from his chair quickly and departed. "Where are you going?"
"To bed," Arturo told her with a yawn. "Or, more accurately, to a sleeping bag on the floor. This has been an exhausting day." Wade watched as Professor Arturo lumbered off to the room he was temporarily sharing with Rembrandt. And just as soon as she thought of that particular member of their sliding team, he appeared before her.
"I thought you were already asleep," Wade said to him as he entered the room.
Remmy gave a little smile. "Yeah, the Professor's grand entrance woke me up. I think he must have tripped over everything in the room. The guy's sense of balance is just off today." He chuckled lightly. "Anyway, he snores like a buzzsaw for the first five or ten minutes that he's asleep. So we've got some time if you want to talk."
"It's funny," Wade said with a twinkle in her eye. "The Professor and I just had a bit of a conversation. He didn't let me get much of a word in edgewise, of course, but..."
"Yeah, I get that he wants to be supportive," Remmy interrupted, his voice now gravely serious. "But he can't really understand what you're going through. He never spent any time in a Kromaggot prison. Never got his brain violated by their damn mind games." His voice got quieter. "He never saw you as just a head in a jar. Now this, ending up with a Humagg child, a constant reminder of everything that you went through. I can't imagine what it's like."
"It's hard to talk about," Wade confessed sadly. "There was so much that they did to me. You wouldn't even believe some of the things..." Her voice trailed off.
"I know," Rembrandt told her soothingly, squeezing her shoulder in support. "It changes you, inside and out. From what your mind can trust to what kind of pain and heartbreak you can go through." Remmy let go of Wade's arm and she turned away from him. He didn't seem to notice. "It was a lot easier being an amnesiac. Hell, even after I got my memory back, it was easier just to act like I hadn't, forget about what suffering at the hands of the Kromaggs did to me. Just become who I was again, without..."
"Rembrandt," Wade said, reaching out to him. This time it was his turn to be startled. "Maybe you should get some sleep, huh?"
"Yeah, probably," he said, visibly shaken. "If you need to talk some more, you let me know, OK?" Wade watched him leave, then turned her attention back to her daughter. She was stirring slightly in her crib. Wade picked her up and held her in her arms. As she turned around to walk the floor with her, she saw Quinn standing behind her.
Wade yelped in surprise. "Doesn't anybody sleep around here?!" she demanded.
"Sorry," Quinn stage whispered with a tone could only barely be considered apologetic. "I always get insomnia when I sleep in a strange bed. Especially one that was designed for a six-year-old." He held his stiff neck as he thought about it. "May I?" he asked, indicating the child in Wade's arms.
Wade was hesitant. After a few awkward moments, she handed Callie over to Quinn. "She's cute," Quinn told her with a thoughtful smile. "Makes me a little homesick. Melissa and I had planned to have a family by now."
"I'm tired, Quinn," Wade explained. "And I wouldn't mind getting some sleep before the sun rises. So unless there's something really important you'd like to discuss..."
Quinn gently returned Callie to her crib. "Actually, there is." Wade ground to a halt and pivoted to face Quinn. "You reminded me this morning of my obligation to get the three of you home. But I can't help wondering if this world makes that a problem."
"What are you talking about?" Wade questioned indignantly.
Quinn looked her in the eye, unwavering. "You have a daughter here, Wade, and a whole population that sees you as a great military leader, as their hero. And then, of course, there's Chyna."
"What about her?!" Wade came back, staying on defense through her questions.
His eyebrows raised accusingly. "You two seem pretty tight. And I've seen how tightly some of the women on this world hold each other. Are you honestly going to tell me that you never..."
"No!!" Wade retorted. "How dare you suggest anything like....how dare you judge these people!!"
"I'm not judging," Quinn said with a casual gesture. "I understand. With no members of the opposite sex around, people get lonely. Especially people who've been abused like these women have. I just need to know if there's anyone here who you'd consider staying for, other than Callie. A romantic dalliance from your past that maybe got a little more serious than you expected?"
She sighed. "There were certainly offers," Wade told him, trying to salvage this conversation as best she could. Quinn's goofy grin wasn't helping. She didn't mind raining on his parade at all. "I didn't accept any of them."
"OK," Quinn acquiesced. "But I'll keep thinking about it." Wade gave him one of her trademark looks. "Whether or not you're likely to stay here, I mean. You should, too." He cast his eyes downwards with a smirk on his face. "Staying behind can be a lot more tempting than you'd think."
Wade continued to Katarina's room, where she was to sleep. She was already starting to nod off when Chyna entered the room. "Wade?" she stage whispered. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Can we make this quick?" Wade asked a little irritably as she rose from her bed.
"Of course," the other woman agreed. "It's just... there's something... I haven't been entirely honest with you."
"What about?" Wade questioned, her curiosity only mildly piqued.
Chyna had a serious look in her eye. "When you were taken from the camp, the first time, I took over for you as leader. The assumption was that I would be so again whenever you disappeared. But the truth is... I'm not."
The fiery expression on the face of a tall woman with auburn hair, prominent cheekbones and a Roman nose proved that as they reported back to the Camp the next day. "What the bleeding Hell were you thinking, Chyna?!" she demanded. "Not reporting in is a serious breach of protocol, I don't give half a shake who you or who you were with!!" She leaned in to Wade. "Nice to have you back, Commander," she said in a warm tone. "My team had to do an extra sweep to cover the ground your gang was supposed to. Good thing we did, though." If her eyes had been filled with fire before, they were now consumed with a raging inferno. "We were attacked, near Long Fork Bend. There were casualties."
"How can that be?" Chyna asked with astonishment. "The Kromaggs have been dormant for months. Why attack us now?"
"They've always had technological and logistical superiority, while our advantages have been our numbers and our constant supply line," Jeanette explained. "If they've learned that that supply line has been virtually severed... But that concern could be premature. They could just be attacking us because they're bored out of their misshapen skulls. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that we've been sitting on this powder keg for years now, and have made no serious attempt to drive the Maggots from this world. With our supplies newly diminished, we'll have little chance of winning if we don't take the offensive and soon." She now looked at Wade with a wry little smile on her face. "But that decision isn't really mine to make anymore, is it? I now gratefully turn my mantle of leadership over to you, Wade. Your wisdom and strength are an inspiration to us all. I'm glad to call you my friend."
Wade looked down in an unusual display of shyness. In actuality she was trying to whisper to Chyna. "Do I know her?"
Chyna tried to hide her amusement. "That's Jeanette."
Wade frowned slightly, but nobody could actually see it. "Wasn't she killed at Seven Pines?"
"No, that was her double, Jeannie," Chyna explained softly.
Wade could avoid the spotlight no longer. She now stood in front of the assembled female soldiers, as they waited for her to say something. She said nothing. Arturo, Quinn and Rembrandt watched from a distance. "This isn't going to go well," the Professor assessed.
Things weren't going well. Mekkan physiology didn't require regular bowel movements, but former Foreign Minister and current resistance leader Jermaches Molaudian was tempted to test his Kromagg hosts' anatomical knowledge by pulling the human 'going to the bathroom' trick just to break the monotony. He'd been sitting at this conference table for over nineteen hours. They looked to be going for twenty.
One of the more ape-like, older class Kromaggs sat at the head of the table telepathically sending one of his paler half-Magg officers instructions to read. "Further titles that will be attributed to the Kromagg Emperor in future communications between our two peoples will include Grand High Master of all that is Interdimensional, Lord of the Trees, Conqueror of the Inferior Peoples..."
Molaudian's nimble mind couldn't help but wander in reaction to the tedium. He would sooner be anywhere else, doing anything else, than what he was doing here. But he had prolonged the inevitable for as long as he could. If this war was to be won, the Alliance would have to work with the Kromaggs. But that didn't mean that he had to pay attention to them.
Just as Molaudian's swivel-turreted eyes had almost lost all ability to pretend to focus on the Kromagg speaker, he stopped droning on and addressed the Mekkan dignitary directly. "Now Premier Molaudian, we come to the final matter of discussion. We need to ask you a small favor."
He couldn't help it. Molaudian had to let a little of his anger show. "What is it now?" he asked, his eartubes drooping in frustration. "Must I dance the zerflooga with a pair of karsmimmenas about my head?"
"There is a hu-man army that remains the primary thorn in the side of the Dynasty. Since, under this accord, we are now to be allied with the humans," his voice became filled with distaste, "we thought you might negotiate a peace treaty with them."
Molaudian reviewed the information on the group that existed in vid form on the screen in front of him. "These women are obviously former breeders, who have fought very hard for their liberation from your particularly heinous form of captivity. Why would you think I might be willing to negotiate with them?"
"Allow me to amend our earlier statement," the Magg growled. "You must negotiate with them if you wish this treaty to be signed." Molaudian scraped the yellow skin on his face with his claws in frustration. "I do not believe you will find it difficult. Their leader is someone you should already be familiar with."
Jermaches Molaudian pulled up another vid from his screen that was flashing bright green to indicate it was the most recent one sent. As he did so, he saw a human who at first he didn't recognize. Then he remembered the humans he'd met during the time when Lesion took over. Didn't this one resemble the female? His eartubes hung so low that he could have tied them in a bow, had he known of the human children's song. "Trag," he cursed mentally.
Commander Krallitt was unhappily preparing his base for an unexpected visit from some Mekkan diplomat. This meant doing some cleaning out of the 'trophy room', reassigning the guards who could cause the most trouble and some other, even less pleasant, duties. "What should we do with these eye gougers, sir?" one officer asked harriedly.
"Storage room three," he snapped in response. "He's just going to be walking down the hallway, not conducting an inspection. I don't see why we have to...garotte wire goes out of the transport room, you imbecile!...make such an effort," he muttered. As none of his superiors were present, the complaint would do no good, but he likely wouldn't have spoken on the matter at all if they had been.
Looking for something else to focus his attention on, he turned to a series of maps that lie stretched out on a nearby table. After examining them for a moment, he found his irritation heightened, not eased. "Why have we withdrawn troops from the Schwarzberg Forest area?" he asked another put upon subordinate.
"Reliable intel came in this morning, says that's what they'd be expecting," he explained nervously. "We'll beef up our numbers there again just as soon as we can do so covertly. Sir."
Krallitt growled, but could do little else. He glowered at his vidscreen that contained the image of the Mekkan, Jermaches Molaudian, who was to visit this world. "He had better be worth the trouble. No telling what the accursed breeders will do while we are so distracted."
As the first rays of sunshine landed on the sign outside the community that had "Girl Scout Camp" written in Kromagg blood, most of the former breeders were already up and about. A small creek near Salzliede, the small settlement where the remaining populace of this part of what used to be New Austria made their home, was the hub of most morning activities. Meals were prepared by some while others bathed or washed their clothes and blankets. If the air had a bit of a chill to it, few noticed; the weather was better than it should have been this time of year. Better than they were used to, at any rate.
Wade was the subject of a great deal of attention, more than she'd prefer by a lot. She had not seen her sliding companions for the better part of a day, as there had been plans to go over and decisions to make. Things that were important to her leadership role here. But it was that which unnerved her the most. Wade was ill at ease giving these people orders when she felt most of them knew what was going on better than she did. A part of her felt she had been gone too long, another part screamed that she'd returned too soon. She kept those thoughts to herself as she ate her somewhat berry-flavored oatmeal.
As far from Salzliede as you can get and still be within the boundaries of the GSC, three others were stirring unhappily. It had been a rough night for all of them. "Do either of you recall the world where almost all the states were at war with each other, and there was extensive rationing?" The Professor asked without really expecting an answer. "All the basic necessities: food, clothing, soap, alcohol, were as hard to come by as a soft landing. For a week, we wore the same clothes, went without showering and had to endure the stink of those who'd been in that condition longer than we had. One night I had to share a bed roll with a man who'd used an entire alcohol ration in one night and woke up covered in vomit."
Quinn blearily looked at Arturo. "What's the point of bringing that miserable world up again, Professor?"
He now unsheathed his wrath. "My point is that I would have sooner spent last night back on that dimension than here. This stench is overpowering!"
Rembrandt's gag reflex reflected his concurrance. "Did that Jeanette lady say how long it's been since this place was a latrine?"
"Didn't think to ask," Quinn sleepily mumbled.
"I don't suppose there's any chance we could bunk in the nursery again, with that elderly German woman?" Arturo asked pleadingly to nobody in particular. "I'm sure we could find a way to make ourselves useful there."
"Apparently that's out of the question," Rembrandt told him bitterly. "Quinn says we're under orders to stay here. We can't sleep in the same place as any of the women, and our curfew is at sunset."
"She didn't leave a lot of room for doubt about that," Quinn agreed unhappily.
"Intolerable," grumbled the Professor. "They should have just slapped fetters on us and thrown us in a dungeon."
"Don't give them any ideas," Rembrandt groused.
"You guys can keep complaining if you'd like," Quinn told them matter-of-factly, "but I'm heading across camp to the river before all the good spots are taken. I'm not going to spend the entire slide in dirty clothes. If either of you want to join me..."
"You do that, Mr. Mallory," Arturo told him with a thoughtful expression on his face. "But return quickly. There's something I'd like to discuss with you." Quinn walked briskly out of their tent.
Rembrandt was almost right on his heels. "While you two do that, I've got my own errand to run. Hopefully it won't take too long." He had now walked out completely and was speaking only to himself. "I've just got a few questions I need answered."
Lyssandra wasn't technically familiar with the martial arts. Neither did she have formal training as any kind of spiritual leader. Under pressure, however, she had little difficulty teaching both. The morning would find her doing a specialized routine, an improvisation of breathing exercises that also required grace in movement, based on trial and error rather than ancient tradition or New Age theories. This morning was no different. Except for the presence of a certain visitor. "You're Rembrandt," she declared while the other slider was still a ways off.
He managed to huff the rest of the way up the hill. "How did you do that?" Rembrandt asked suspiciously.
The fair-skinned blone woman in white smiled. "Don't worry. It wasn't magic." She stopped her ritual and turned to face him. "I've been expecting you. You want to talk about Wade."
Rembrandt was taken aback, just a little, but he didn't let it show. He just flashed his trademark smile. "Didn't realize I was so obvious."
Lyssandra returned his grin. She apparently liked smiling. "Wade spoke often of your strong friendship. It's only natural to wonder about the nature of her life here. After all, since the two of you met, this is the one part of it that you weren't here for."
Rembrandt was impressed by her perception. "Wow. There's a lot of explaining myself out of the way." He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and got serious. "Look, I may be presuming a lot, but Wade said something to the effect that she'd have lost her head without you, and I don't think she was being figurative. So I'm guessing you must know a lot of what went on with her here. And I've got some questions I need answered."
"A reasonable request," Lyssandra replied agreeably. "But I'm afraid I can't help you."
"What?" Rembrandt questioned with confusion in his voice. "Why not?"
There was no smile on Lyssandra's face now. "Because this is something which you and Wade need to discuss. When she's ready. In the meantime, be patient. All good things come in time."
"We've waited long enough," Quinn announced upon re-entering the tent. "It's time to take the initiative. We need to work on getting you guys home and we need to do it now."
Professor Arturo's eyebrows raised. "A splendid idea, Mr. Mallory, if a little odd coming from you. I suppose your new motivation wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that Miss Welles might otherwise be convinced to stay here, would it?"
"Maybe. Does it really matter?" Quinn retorted defensively. He then softened a bit, and his tone turned apologetic. "Maybe it has something to do with these women. They'll probably never see their homeworlds again. Half of them probably wouldn't even want to, after what these Kromaggs likely did to them." He made eye contact with the Professor. "Like what they did to your world. What they could have done to mine, too."
The elder physicist nodded. The subject of what home life would be was still a tad uncomfortable. "I've actually been thinking quite a bit about the 'how' of reaching Earth Prime myself these last few days," Arturo told him. "We lack the technology to actualize it, but there's something with quantum signatures that I'd like to try. We could, of course, lay the theoretical groundwork for its design now. If you're up to it."
"Of course," Quinn replied enthusiastically. "But...wasn't there something you wanted to talk to me about?"
"A simple caveat, Mr. Mallory," he said gravely. "Wade trusts these women, possibly with her life. But that's no reason for us to. When it comes to the Kromaggs, the people here are motivated primarily by hate and fear. Now however appropriate these emotions may be given the circumstances, they make for a dangerous combination, one that generally procludes rational decision making. We must tread carefully, if we hope to maintain our safety until the slide." Rising from his cot, he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Now, what passes for a drawing board on this primitive world?"
It was now late in the afternoon and Wade Welles sat uncomfortably in a wooden chair on a small mound facing an audience of close to a thousand women. Not all of them had been breeders, nor were these all the residents of the Camp. Someone still had to be on patrol, after all. Wade's discomfort was fed by fear and nervousness; it had been a while since she had been called to preside over these people. As she looked at them, her road here, the brand of hell that she endured, was never far from her mind. But she couldn't let that fear paralyze her. There were things still to be done.
"I've met with all the platoon commanders and we're in agreement," Wade announced, dispensing quickly with formalities and getting straight to the point. "If we hope to survive here we must launch an offensive against the Kromaggs immediately. Drive them from this Earth. Kill them all if we have to." Emotion was strong in her voice. "We've suffered so much pain because of them. It's time to inflict some of our own." This was met with a chorus of cheers of approval.
"I believe that to be a decision of unwisdom," a strange voice said from behind her. Wade was stunned to see three Mekkans being led along at gunpoint.
"We found these little yellow things driving a Magg vehicle near the perimeter," a tall brunette related. "Should we kill 'em?"
"That would also be a foolish behavior," the same voice countered. "We mean you no harm. We asked you to take us to your leader. Now that you have done so, I would like to have a word with her in private."
"No way," Wade retorted harshly. "I don't have anything to say to you Lesion freaks. Take them out and..." She frowned, squinted and took a good look at the most vocal of the three. "Wait a minute. Molaudian?"
Jermaches Molaudian's arms folded all the way around his back, and he clicked his claws together in frustration. "I am not here for a friendly chat. I am only here to open peace talks." He withdrew a piece of electronic parchment and handed it to Wade. "The Kromaggs wish to discuss the possibility of a permanent peace treaty. They sent me in to negotiate such a thing, this is if your people are open to the possibility." Wade could hear a general roar of disapproval from behind her. She let a sigh escape her lips. This was going to be a problem.
The first angry voice to distinguish itself from a hundred others was unsurprisingly Jeanette's. "You can't be bleeding serious? We're talking about the Kromaggs! There can't be any peace with them. 'Peace' here means resting in it, and that's either going to be us or them." She towered over Molaudian menacingly. "You little yellow things can go tell your masters that..."
"Hey!" Wade interrupted forcefully. "Back off, I know him. He doesn't work for the Kromaggs and he wouldn't come here with a proposal this radical without good cause." She then turned to look Molaudian in his very active eye. "Right?"
Jermaches Molaudian was completely unprepared for just how much diplomacy wouldn't work in this situation. "This is correct. We have no love for the Kromagg, nor for what they've done here." Something that looked like sad disgust passed over his face as he took in the faces of the crowd, although no human present could read Mekkan emotions very well. "But there is a greater evil that must be dealt with, and the forces I represent will need the Kromagg Dynasty's assistance. It is unpleasant, but necessary." He then paused to wobble his sucker mouth noisily in an effort to clear his scrawny throat. "Also, we would appreciate it if you would cease referring to us as 'little yellow things'."
Jeannette's eyes narrowed. "These are lies." She turned to face the gathered former breeders. "Kromagg lies." Jeanette then turned to Wade. "You may know a version of him, but it is possible that the Maggs have brought you out a double to look at, isn't it?"
"Actually," Molaudian noted, "it's not possible. That's a rather interesting, if gruesome, tale. It seems that in the interest of interdimensional security..."
"Maybe we shouldn't hear about that right this minute, huh?" Wade said, interrupting the diplomat as quickly as she could.
"Are you protecting him now? Is that it?" Jeanette asked accusingly. "At least let him speak for himself."
"OK, I think we should all calm down a bit," Chyna advised as she rose from her seated position for the first time since the discussion began.
Wade wasn't about to back down. "He doesn't know a whole lot about humans. And he really doesn't make a very good first impression. Just let me talk to him for a while, I'm sure..."
"If this is for real, he's going to have to speak to all the platoon leaders, and I'd rather not have him coached first," she huffily retorted.
"I must protest," Jermaches Molaudian squawkingly interjected. "I am a virtual expert on humanity. I know the basic history of a dozen different worlds where humans have developed. Also, I will under no circumstances allow myself or any of my party to be poached, as you say."
Wade giggled and even Jeanette couldn't help but let a smirk through. "Perhaps I overreacted slightly," she confessed. "But of course they'll be under close watch at all times."
"Of course," Wade nodded. Jeannette apologetically shied back from the scene. Wade approached Chyna and whispered in her ear. "Get my friends here. They're also, uh, familiar with Molaudian. It'll increase his sense of security." She watched as Chyna followed her instructions. She hadn't told her friend the other reason she wanted her fellow sliders here; she wanted their opinions on what to do next.
"So, Melody-ian," Rembrandt started. "What you been up to?"
"Oh, the usual," Molaudian answered dryly. "Co-ordinating troop movements between human, Mekkan and Cerellian units. Attempting to covertly engineer the liberation of Mekkan Prime. Not to mention digesting my pride and agreeing to negotiate this tragste peace treaty, simply because we need Kromagg aid."
Professor Arturo's eyebrow rose in what looked like suspicion. "Circumstances must be dire, to warrant your agreement to work with the Kromagg."
"Believe me when I say that they are," the diplomat said with what might have been a sigh. "The enemy takes no prisoners. All the territory we have retaken from them has been, scorched is it that you say? And an Earth vital to our supply line was nearly completely obliterated last week, presumably by a Lesion superweapon. They've taken credit, but our spy network has been unable to confirm..."
"That's...depressing and all," Wade interjected. "But why this? Why now? Why here?"
Jermaches Molaudian's right eye turned to look at Wade. "It was one of the terms that will clinch the Treaty of Alliance with the Dynasty. They fear attack from your group, apparently not without reason. And, lastly, your group is not only a threat to the Kromaggs, it is an embarrassment. Word of your rebellion is accepted as gospel on most Earths where their contemptible breeding camps remain. It fills the prisoners' hearts with hope."
Quinn watched Wade's smile grow as Molaudian's last three sentences were spoken. "Wade, what's so important about this attack plan?" She looked her over completely. "Is there something you're not telling us?"
"No offense, Miss Welles, but you haven't told us much," Professor Arturo pounced before she could answer. "In addition, this plan to take the offensive you've developed seems overly risky. All of this is...unlike you."
"It's exactly like me," Wade snapped irritably. "Just not the me that you know." She put her head in her hands in frustration.
"Well, I can't speak for everyone," Quinn said, "but I'd like to get to know the Wade that we don't know. So to speak."
"Wade," Rembrandt said soothingly, "if you're not comfortable talking about this, I think all of us would understand."
"I appreciate that, Rembrandt," Wade said, squeezing his hand slightly. "But I think my discomfort has just about worn out its welcome around here. You deserve answers, and I'm going to give them to you."
It was a few moments later and not much had changed. Chyna had entered the tent, with Molaudian's guards in tow. Wade now held a ceramic mug with hot tea in it. And all eyes, ears and eartubes were turned in her direction. "I was taken. Rembrandt knows...all of you should know how that happened. The breeder camps were...indescribably horrible. All of us were just struggling...trying to get by as best we could. From one day to the next." Her voice began to break, and Rembrandt put his hand on her shoulder in support. "It's alright. Eventually we got fed up with it. Started to fight back, any way we could."
"OK, I just have to interrupt here," Chyna said. "Wade is being way too modest. We never would have had the courage to stand up to the Maggs if Wade hadn't...if she hadn't defied them by..." She hesitated. "Do you want to tell them or shall I?"
"I guess I don't have much choice," Wade said with a half-smile. "You've all met Callie. And you've all assumed she's Humagg. But she's not. She's human. 100% human." The other sliders all registered surprise and Wade waited a moment to let this information sink in. "Of course, being pregnant with a human made the Kromaggs rather royally pissed. It was the first time they tried to execute me. It wouldn't be the last."
"Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?" Chyna asked bemusedly.
"You started it," Wade countered mock accusingly. "But you're right. As soon as word got around about the baby, a handful of us got together and started thinking about a way to escape. In retrospect, it was foolhardy, but we were desperate. We decided to start our own little espionage ring inside the camp. Sort of like Hogan's Heroes, only without the humor." Wade paused. "Actually that's exactly like Hogan's Heroes. Anyway, we decided our best shot was to play the few human guards there were against the Maggs. That's when we formed the core of our group. That's when I met Chyna."
"We were the Flirty Dozen," Chyna remembered with a grin.
Wade smiled herself, then explained. "That's we called ourselves, after we decided that trying to get the guards interested in us was our greatest weapon. It was starting to work, too. Until the Maggs found out I was carrying a pure-bred human." Her eyes darted to the sliver of daylight visible outside the tent, as if her daughter might be outside, playing without a care. "They were going to kill me. That's when the uprising started."
"May I?" Chyna asked. Wade nodded. "We didn't have a chance in hell. All of us knew it. But we got lucky. We had the element of surprise, and the enemy had fewer numbers than we expected. But none of it would have mattered if the other attack hadn't happened first." Chyna looked heavenward. "Some other army from Lord knows where attacked first. Thrashed the Maggs something fierce. We ended up mostly dealing with the table scraps, yet it still wasn't easy. If that army hadn't been there..."
"Some said it was an act of divine providence," Wade interrupted. "When you consider our mysterious supply line on top of that, I was never inclined to disagree."
"I believe I may have an explanation for all of this," Jermaches Molaudian said to everyone's surprise. He was a bit taken aback now that he was the new center of attention. "The, erm, 49731 Reprisals. Once our Kromagg War began we attacked every installation on every world we could find. We then shipped supplies to places our intel told us our attacks had sparked rebellion. This must have been one of those worlds."
"Wait," Chyna started suspiciously. "If you were behind the supplies, why did they stop coming?"
"Lesion," Molaudian answered simply. "Tarkalan cares as little for humans as he does for xyfignodes." No one comprehended. "That's a very small amount."
"As long as we're explaining things, I have a question," Rembrandt said, a serious look on his face. "If you all won the war, how did Wade end up the way I saw her the next time after I...after she was taken?"
"You mean without a head?" Wade asked nonchalantly. "That had to do with the second time the Kromaggs tried to kill me. We won the battle that day, Rembrandt, but we still haven't won the war. Months of sporadic fighting passed without decisive result. But it didn't take long for the Maggs to gain the upper hand again. After a few major setbacks to our side, they made us a deal. They wouldn't destroy the camp if I got handed over to them on a silver platter."
The two-person narrative continued as Chyna chimed in. "We all hated the idea of course, but Wade was willing to go. To sacrifice herself for us. After that...she was lost to us for a while. We were on our own."
"They severed my head, turned it into a computer, and used my body for breeding experiments," Wade said, trying to get through that sentence as quickly as possible. "I'm sure, after you left, you had just about given me up for dead," she said to Rembrandt. "I had, too. But they saved me. Again. They came through. Took me back here, reattached me somehow. I've never had the courage to exactly ask..."
"But the Kromaggs had implanted her with a tracking device," Chyna said as Wade's voice faded slowly. "We found it, and removed it, but it was too late. They tracked her location, slid in and recaptured her. It was the last time we saw her before a few days ago."
"Which, if you're keeping score, was attempt to kill me number three," Wade related with a mirthless laugh. "They only had me a few hours, but those were excruciating enough. I think before they were playing with me a little, but they were deadly serious then. They likely would have tortured me to death. Instead I got sucked into a system of tunnels on a parallel world as part of a weird medical experiment. That's when I ran into Quinn and the Professor." Wade looked up at Chyna. "Would you mind getting Callie? I'd like to see her again before nightfall." The other woman nodded and exited the tent.
"I take it you're about to say something you don't want Chyna to hear," Quinn noted astutely. Wade merely nodded in response.
"Whatever decision you make, about this world, about attacking the Kromaggs, we will support it," Professor Arturo announced for the group. "You've certainly gone through enough to merit it."
Wade took a moment to look at her friends. She chose her words carefully. "If you'd have found me here, instead of on that tunnel world, I'm not sure I would have gone with you. I have a place here. A potential home. Hell, even the makings of a family. However, as things are now, there's no contest. I want to keep sliding." Relief was visible on each of the male sliders' faces. "But I have an obligation to these people, to finish the war that I helped start. If I can't do that before we leave...then I would feel like I failed them again. They've done so much for me and I..."
"We only have two more days here, Wade," Quinn reminded her. "I doubt you could do much in that amount of time."
"I know," Wade replied quietly. "But I feel like I should try anyway."
Now it was Molaudian's turn to speak softly. "I know my task here likely seems as odious to you as it does to me, if not more so. But a peace treaty is merely a piece of paper. Or, in this case, a screen of vidtext. Should hostilities resume in the coming weeks or months, I'm sure I could manage to get the Alliance to twist a blind eye. We may even be able to resupply your group before that time. But if the treaty dies, then any chance we have of stopping Lesion dies with it. And that is a victory for no one."
Rembrandt was impressed. "Your speech-making skills have improved."
Molaudian managed a small bow of humility. "Thank you."
Wade thought it over for a moment, then nodded her approval. "OK. I'll have to consult with Jeanette and the others, of course, but I'm behind it. That should be all it takes for this thing to be approved."
The ground was bitter cold and rough under Wade's knees as she was forcibly thrust down upon it. Around her were her fellow sliders and the three visiting Mekkans. She looked up at Jeanette with anger in her eyes. "What are you doing?! Are you insane?!!"
The other woman ignored her. "Let the assembled take note that Wade Welles, all the males in her group, in addition to these three yellow things, are charged with treason."
"I did not anticipate that the turn of events my interdimensional mission of peace would bring about would send me straight to a human prison cell," Jermaches Molaudian complained from behind bars. All seven of them were in one room, with a steel cage more than adequately separating them from the world outside. There were only three small cots in the room, so the cramped conditions probably weren't going to last long. At least all of them hoped not.
"Obviously you haven't been traveling between worlds long enough," Rembrandt pointed out with a chuckle.
Professor Arturo was more practical. "What are our options at this point, Miss Welles? Legally, I mean."
Wade's face twisted in frustration. "I couldn't really say. We never really had any criminal trials. When I was in charge, we dealt with crimes lightly, mostly through reassignment to less pleasant duties or being given additional chores. Those were minor offenses, though: petty theft, assault and the like. For major crimes like murder, the penalty was death. Nobody ever did anything like that, though. We never considered treason a possibility, not seriously. But if I recall correctly we imposed the death penalty for that, too. Of course Jeannette could have changed things..."
"Yeah, she seems like the lenient type," Quinn remarked snidely. "Face it, our best shot is escaping."
"No," Arturo and Wade exclaimed at the same time. Wade deferred to the Professor. "With this many of us, this much ground to cover and with how much we would stand out," there was a pointed look at his fellow men and the three Mekkans who sat on the cot across from him, "we'll be better off taking our chances with whatever passes itself off as a criminal justice system here."
Wade looked at the Mekkan seated in the middle. "I'm sorry for all of this, Molaudian. I know you must have more important things you could be doing."
"Erm, I'm Zarzuxan," the little Mekkan she'd been speaking to corrected.
"There is no want to apologize," Molaudian soothingly replied, taking little notice of her mistake. "This situation is as much my fault as yours. Besides, I believe the penalties will be much less dangerous for us Mekkans. It will likely take them several attempts before they find something that will actually kill us."
This comforted no one. "What about your friends on the outside, Wade?" Rembrandt offered helpfully. "Chyna? Or that Lyssandra woman, she seemed to have a lot of pull?"
"I'm sure they'll try their best," Wade declared somberly. "But it's a bit much to expect of them. Jeanette runs this place now, and she seems pretty determined that we're guilty. There's no telling what she'll do to us next."
"Forget about the prisoners," Jeanette ordered after a minor squabble broke out over the guard duty assignment. "They're not going anywhere. We'll leave that point as lightly guarded as possible." She let out a deep breath. "Now on to other matters. First there's the issue of what we'll do with the remnants of Valentina's batallion. Honestly, our left flank is so weak, I don't think we could justify moving them anywhere else..."
The discussion continued for a few more moments. Jeanette had been planning this in her head (and out loud when she could, with her most closely trusted adjutants of course) for months, and was more than a little excited. Perhaps overeager was the proper term. At any rate, as Chyna watched her obsess over every last detail of the plan her face contorted in disgust. She couldn't believe she'd trusted this woman for so long.
As Jeanette strode from the tent, Chyna followed her until most of her minions fell away to do one task or the other. She grabbed their leader's arm and yanked it, dragging her away from the last few bodyguards. "Excuse me," she said with forced politeness. "May I have a word with you?"
"Get your hands off of me!" Jeanette demanded. "Are you out of your skull?"
"Funny, I was just going to ask you the same thing. Only maybe with 'mind' in place of 'skull'," Chyna asserted. "You had no right to imprison Wade. She's done more for these people than you ever..."
Jeanette wasn't about to let her finish that statement. "The Wade we all knew was a hero. None of us knows what she's been up to the last few months, or if she's even our Wade. But I do know this. If she persists in pushing this Kromagg peace treaty, she's a threat to this camp and everyone in it."
"She's a threat to you, you mean," Chyna retorted icily. "She was going to take over your position of leadership, and consign you to the dustbin of camp lore. But you couldn't allow that, so you dreamed up these treason charges. As if anyone really believes that Wade..."
"That's enough!" The woman who held the political and military keys to this kingdom looked at Chyna with pure hatred. "You're relieved of duty, effective immediately. When the campaign is ended, we'll discuss possible punishments."
Chyna was hurt, but she wasn't about to show it. She turned to several of Jeannette's officers. "You're all going off to your deaths."
Jeanette smirked as the other woman walked off. Chyna was wrong. The Kromaggs would be caught completely by surprise.
Commander Krallitt went through a mental list of everything he was supposed to do before the attack would commence. After once again reviewing his subordinates' reports, he grunted his satisfaction with their readiness. He still would have preferred some air cover. "I do not suppose we should wait around for Supreme Commander Kahndidd's promised manta ships," he grumbled to his twitchy SubCommander, Krillban.
"Sir, I could not advise, directly or indirectly, waiting to make a move until such a tenuous issue was resolved, one way or the other," Krillban sputtered. Krallitt gestured impatiently. Why had they sent him such an incompetent for a second officer?
Luckily, the rest of his officer corps was fairly reliable. "I would not do so, sir. The ships which were earmarked for our offensive have been reassigned to Earth 5575." Krallitt's frustration was evident. The officer cleared his throat. "The Supreme Commander anticipated your unhappiness, and wishes to remind you that there is an interdimensional war on. Everything else must take inferior places."
"Someone should remind the Supreme Commander that there is also a war going on here," Krallitt groused. Activity from another officer brought his wrath further to the surface. "Do not transmit that message!" Now Krallitt was in a bind. He would have to make do with the supplies he had, which weren't adequate to thoroughly defeat the enemy. An inspection of troops would just waste valuable daylight. The time had come for the attack. The die had been cast. He would lose the element of surprise if he delayed any longer. "All units, move out!" he ordered authoritatively. He wasn't half as confident as he sounded, but if he couldn't defeat the breeder army, the plan would assuredly destroy their ability to continue the conflict and perhaps crush their fighting spirit as well. That was surely worth something, wasn't it?
Two armies crashed into each other in the early afternoon, each thinking they were on the offensive and that they possessed the element of surprise. In a way, both of them were right. Confusion reigned over the battlefield for a little while, but eventually the leaders of both armies re-organized and began the battle with some semblance of a plan. It now came down to who adapted best to the new, unanticipated, circumstances.
At first, that advantage was obtained by the Kromaggs. They gained a great deal of ground, driving the opposing army back with only sporadic difficulty. However, once within a short march of the Girl Scout Camp ground, the former breeders held their lines intact, sending wave after wave of Kromagg assaults back the way it came, or bleeding on the ground.
News of the battle came to the old Salzliede prison cell in bits and pieces, conveyed only through the whispered rumors of the few guards that surrounded it. After a short discussion between the sliders and the Mekkans, Wade attempted to seize this opportunity as their chance to get out of there. "Are you just going to leave seven able-bodied potential soldiers rotting in here, while we lose to the Kromaggs?"
"Able-bodied?" the young woman who wandered near their cell scoffed. "Oh, you, sure. Those two, maybe." She pointed to Quinn and Rembrandt. "But that guy with the beard looks like he's waiting on a coronary, and I don't even want to get into those three things." She leaned in closer to Wade, although still not close enough for anyone to try anything daring (aka stupid). "Wade, nobody likes what Jeanette's done, but we are under orders. I'd do more if I could, but I'd be risking my child's life and my own if I..." Her next words were caught in her throat. Blood poured from her mouth as she slumped to the ground.
There were laser blasts coming from outside, and nobody doubted they were of Kromagg origin. The handful of other guards convalesced to try to counter the attack, but it didn't do any good. The Maggs had killed the guards and made their way into the prison in no time. As they entered, malicious grins filled their faces. "Wade Welles. You're coming with us. The rest of you can die now for all we care." The speaker gave an order in Kromagg to one of his cronies and said minion discovered the keys after a quick search of the guards' corpses. As the same Kromagg unlocked their cell, he heard a shot from behind him. Their apparent leader had been shot through the head by a not-so-dead guard.
Wade took this opportunity to slam the prison door against the Kromagg standing in front of it, and then dove for the other one, turning his blaster so that it aimed at the ceiling and kicking him hard in the stomach. As Wade gained control of his weapon and killed him with it, one of Molaudian's guards, who had previously been identified (she thought) as Shakarax, withdrew a knife and gutted the one that Wade had rendered unconscious.
"I didn't know you had that!" Wade exclaimed as the Mekkan warrior withdrew his blade from the Kromagg's body. She didn't remember them having them when they arrived either. "Do I want to know where you kept those?"
"Most likely not," Shakarax responded.
Quinn rushed to attend the guard who had most likely saved their lives. There was little to attend; she was in her final moments of her life. He watched helplessly as her breathing stopped. "She's gone."
Rembrandt was more than ready to look to Wade for leadership. "What do we do now?"
Arturo wasn't so confident in her abilities. "I don't suppose you'd take a suggestion to stay out of sight to heart, hm? Wait out this torrent until the slide?"
"We'd be waiting for the Kromaggs to come and kill us," Wade remarked dismissively. "No. We have to join the battle. Otherwise, we'll end up Magg prisoners."
"You will anyway," came a menacing voice from behind her. Shock registered on Wade's face. It was Chyna, holding a gun to her head.
"Chyna?" Wade questioned with a softness in her voice born of astonishment. "What... why are you doing this?"
"Do you care?" Chyna asked, anger and pain clearly evident even though she tried to hide it behind her glibness.
"Look, whatever's between you two, we can work this out," Quinn said in an attempt at peace making. "Let's just sit down, with no guns, and we can resolve all the issues we want." Chyna promptly turned the weapon on Quinn. He gulped. "Also, I'd like to point out that Wade and I have a marriage of convenience, not love."
Wade's voice revealed amusement, sadness and frustration all at once. "Quinn, you're not helping."
Chyna looked a little bit amused herself. "Listen. I don't have a problem with any of you. Except Wade, but that's not the point. Which is that I do have a desire to get back to my homeworld. Delivering you to a certain group of interested buyers will make that possible."
"You're not that stupid, Chyna," Wade spat. "The Maggs aren't sending you home and you know it. Don't tell me there isn't some ulterior motive behind this. I know you too well to..."
"You don't know me at all," Chyna interrupted coldly. "That's your problem. You think you can get to know someone when you befriend them, that you know who they truly are. But when they abandon you it all goes out the window. Do I trust the Kromaggs, Wade? Hell, no. But I did trust you. Only to see you turn your back on us time and again." Through with speech-making she motioned for the sliders and Mekkans to go outside. "The only person who's going to do any talking from now on is me." She moved closer to Wade as they began to walk out of the building. She clearly thought she still had something to prove to her old friend. "The Kromaggs aren't calling the shots on this deal, Wade. There's someone very interested in one member of your group, someone who's not going to rest until..." At that moment, Chyna fell to the ground face first. There was a rather large knife in her back.
"I'm sorry," Zarzuxan said, as Wade examined her fallen body. "Was that inappropriate?"
"No," Jermaches Molaudian reassured his guard symapthetically as he watched the erratic breathing of their would-be captor slow gradually and finally cease. "I think you did exactly the right thing."
Bloody chaos reigned on the field of battle, as it often did, and the conflict began to grind to a standstill. Attempted minor offensives on both sides failed spectacularly. But things improved quickly for the human side after that. Molaudian's guards proved adept at combat, so much so that it was stunning to behold. The Mekkans, who apparently were trained warriors of an ancient sect, used only knives, which invited the army of former breeders to scoff...until they saw the "little yellow things" in action.
Putting their very dense, very sharp blades to good use, Shakarax and Zarzuxan held them out from their bodies as they spun like living tops into the rank and file of the enemy. Their sense of co-ordination, as well as their vision, must have been phenomenal to pull it off. An entire Kromagg division was decimated in minutes. After that, the other soldiers couldn't scoff. They were too busy providing covering fire for the two little creatures.
The Kromagg Army retreated safely, as there was little the women thus assembled and the three very powerful (whether in battle or in leadership) Mekkans could do to stop them from doing so. Still, the battle had been won. Utter ruin and destruction was stayed for another day. A dissatisfied stillness filled the air after the last shots faded away. The dead were carried off the field, soon to be buried. Life would continue as normal for those that remained standing.
Well, there were a few notable changes that took effect in the aftermath of this particular piece of violence. Jeanette was no longer the army's "general", instead the group would be ruled by committee, with each of the platoon commanders having equal say in their further exploits. Charges of treason were dropped against Wade and the others, but she resigned her military post anyway in protest. And a certain Mekkan diplomat had some cross words with the Kromagg High Command that dispatched him there.
"I... had no idea," the half-Magg translator for the full-blooded Kromagg administrator sputtered. "Of course, we had no knowledge of this plan of attack, or we would have issued orders preventing it."
"I am certain this is the case," Molaudian said sarcastically.
"Needless to say the officers responsible are being punished accordingly and will be replaced as soon as it can be arranged," the Kromagg continued with a rare balance of apology and arrogance.
"That will not be necessary," Jermaches Molaudian told the Kromagg authoritatively. "Because every Kromagg on this miserable ball of sod is going to evacuate it 'as soon as it can be arranged'. I have a treaty here that I thought you might sign, that cedes all of this territory to its human inhabitants in perpetuity."
All apologetic tones vanished from the Kromagg end of the discussion. "Why should we sign such a ridiculous treaty?!"
"Perhaps I should amend my statement," Jermaches Molaudian replied cheerfully. "If you do not sign this treaty, not only will our organizations not enter a military alliance with each other, but this little 'interdimensional incident', with a little bit of propaganda, could easily be turned into an act of war."
"This is intolerable!" the Kromagg translator exclaimed angrily. After a few mental exchanges, he calmed down a bit. "What I mean to say is that you are being overly harsh. Perhaps some other arrangement is possible. Let us transport you back to the discussion table and see if you change your mind."
There were too many things wrong with that offer for Molaudian to contemplate. "I think not. The offer stands as is. Further negotiation would be overly tiresome. As for your offer of transport, I'm sure the Alliance will be more than happy to take me off of this world, once they learn of what has transpired here. Perhaps they will leave a contingent of troops in my stead as well." Molaudian started to disconnect the transmission. He stopped. "One more item. If you attempt to assassinate me once more, make sure you are able to do so successfully."
"That was quite the diplomatic performance," Professor Maximilian Arturo commented from behind him. "I think you actually rendered them speechless."
"That is not difficult," Molaudian answered. "The full-blooded Kromagg do not use speech very much, and their half-Magg lapdogs are too krevlas to come up with anything meaningful to say."
"That wasn't...never mind," Arturo said dismissively.
"I do miss diplomatic work, however," Molaudian confessed. "I only wish I could return to it. But there are too many other tasks to be performed." He looked at Professor Arturo carefully with his right eye. "But I apologize. Was there something you wanted to discuss?"
"To put it bluntly, I was wondering if we could depart with you," the Professor said, asking permission as though he were putting forth an intriguing new theory to a classroom of students. "You may not have access to our home co-ordinates, but getting home would be much easier when working with your level of technology. But of course if you do have access to our home co-ordinates..."
Molaudian bobbed his head quickly in a Mekkan nod. "Of course, I would be delighted to enjoy your company. We will have about a week or so to wait on whatever the Alliance sends our way, but other than that I see no problem with this proposal." Arturo grimaced. He had not anticipated the delay. "I do apologize for the lie over, as you say, but we are spread dangerously thin. We simply cannot afford to send anything here other than what is absolutely necessary."
Now it was the Professor's turn to nod. "I understand. Unfortunately, myself and my fellow travelers cannot wait that long. We would miss our slide window, and that would rather defeat the point." As the two of them began to walk away from the quiet meadow, Arturo frowned. "So your claim to the Kromaggs that you could send troops here, was that...?"
"Oh, that," Molaudian replied bemusedly. "That was merely a cliff." Professor Arturo's amusement showed. "What?" the Mekkan resistance leader asked aloud, wrinkles of confusion all over his head.
Rembrandt Brown was once again approaching Lyssandra, this time at her home not far from the stream that ran through Salzliede. It had an appropos mix of old-style German architecture and new, more practical additions. He didn't get a chance to knock on her door. "Come in," she called from inside. Not one to argue with an invitation, Remmy stepped through the door and took a seat, in this case a stool.
Lyssandra was busy making a meal that she'd already prepared halfway palatable. She wasn't sure she was succeeding, so she gladly turned her full attention to her new guest. "I must apologize for Beatrix' non-presence, but this is the best time of the day to pick berries," Lyssandra said congenially.
"No problem. I didn't come to see her anyway," Rembrandt said, hoping he wasn't being impolite by saying so. "Care to guess why I'm here again?"
"Not Wade this time," she said after a moment's thought, surprising Rembrandt. "You're here for...you. You want guidance... of a spiritual variety?" She shook her head. "No, that doesn't seem quite right." Lyssandra paused an additional moment. "I give up. You've got me stumped."
"That's a shame," Rembrandt said earnestly, as he drank from the glass of fairly clean water she had poured him. "I was hoping you could tell me. Because I sure as hell don't know."
"Then there's no one reason," she said to herself reassuringly. "Must be a bunch of them." Her eyes closed, and her concentration was heightened. "Being on a Kromagg world makes you uneasy. You're sorry that there was an epic battle and you didn't get to kill one." She smiled. "That's the easy stuff. You...don't approve of my lifestyle, but you can't bring yourself to say so, because you're too decent a person. Your faith in God is strong, but not as strong as it used to be." She was now positively bubbly. "That was the spiritual angle. I knew I was onto something there. You love Wade, not in a romantic way, but...you've forgotten how to show her, other than giving her a shoulder to cry on. You told her before, when there was a world with a... dragon?" She shook her head. "No, I've messed that one up."
"Actually, you haven't," Rembrandt said wryly. "You're on a roll. How did you do all that?"
"We have a name for it on my world," Lyssandra answered him matter-of-factly. "It's called women's intuition. Maybe you've heard of it?" She patted him on the back. "There's nothing mysterious about you, Rembrandt. Not really. You're a pretty straight forward guy, and that's what makes you so likable. It's part of why Wade loves you. Again, not in a romantic way." She downed the last of her own glass of water and took it to her cup board (it was literally a board, not a cupboard in the traditional sense). "Most of the stuff I came up with was guesswork or things Wade told me when she was here. But there is something I can tell you that you want to know." Rembrandt leaned in closer. "But first I have to know how much you hate the Kromaggs?"
"With every fiber of my being," Rembrandt answered with intense simplicity. "Why?"
"You're going to have to be able to handle some additional emotional baggage, courtesy of the Kromagg brand of pain. It's about Wade, but you're going to have to bear it alone. I just want to make sure that you can take it." Remmy nodded swiftly. "You want to know how I put Wade back together, after you saw her without a body? The answer is I didn't. We found her in a Kromagg torture chamber not far from their compound here, with her entire body from her neck down rendered completely numb, but everything more or less intact." She met Rembrandt's gaze with her own. "Wade's head was never taken from her body. It was a Kromagg illusion, fed into her mind so that you both would believe it."
Rembrandt, a little stunned, sat and digested the information for a moment. "You can't expect me not to tell Wade. She deserves to know."
"No," Lyssandra reminded him sternly. "However strong Wade may appear, knowing that the suffering she went through was imagined will only weaken her. It will make her doubt herself. She doesn't need that. Neither does your team." She looked at him with eyes of wisdom. "But I think you did. You needed to know the nature of her pain, so that you could start to show her how you feel again."
"Thank you," Rembrandt said with genuine respect in his voice. "How much do I owe you?" he asked, half-jokingly.
"Oh, I'd say...all the money you made at that strip joint on the last world," she said with a knowing smirk.
Rembrandt was only a little surprised. "Women's intuition, huh?" He handed her a few bills and walked out the door a little poorer but a great deal happier than he was when he entered.
Wade held Callie tightly as she drifted off to sleep. It was a relief, as she'd been throwing a crying fit for about three hours now. A frazzled-looking Quinn rose from his seated position to offer to take the now peaceful infant off of her hands. She declined. "You must think I'm a horrible person, huh?" Wade asked Quinn in a whisper.
"What?" Quinn replied in a similar stage whisper. "Why would I think that?"
Wade's mouth curled in a half-smile. "I'm leaving my daughter behind on a world I may never see again, to be raised by people I hardly know. I don't know many people that wouldn't consider that horrible parenting."
Quinn shook his head. He wasn't buying it. "You can't take her with you and you don't want to stay here. I can't blame you for either thing. You're just making the best out of the crappy situation you're in. It seems that's what you're best at. You certainly did a bang-up job of it here." Wade averted her eyes, looking down at her young daughter. "I think we've all seen a side of you here that we didn't before."
Wade shook her head as she returned her attention to Quinn. "I almost wish you hadn't. I'd like to put most of this life behind me. Everything except..."
"I know," Quinn said supportively. "I can't imagine what happened here this slide produced very many happy memories, either. But you'll always have Callie."
"I'll miss her," Wade admitted, mixed emotions heavy in her voice. "Just like I did every day before I came back here."
"Only now you won't feel like you have to hold it in," Quinn reminded her.
Wade looked down at her daughter once more with a bittersweet smile. "I didn't even get to spend much time with her when I was here. I am a bad mother."
Quinn lifted her chin. "You're not. And you will get to spend time with her. We'll come back here. I promise."
"Don't," Wade requested, pulling away from Quinn and laying Callie in her crib. "Don't promise me that. I don't want that from you." Wade looked at him seriously, but not disapprovingly. "Do you think it's easy, leaving here? Leaving her? It's not. There's only one reason I'm doing this." She took his hand. "I want you to promise me, me, not some apparition of a double that you never knew, that you'll get us home."
"I will," Quinn said automatically with assurance in his voice. "I promise."
In this world of darkness, the streak of light generated by the herald's arrival stood out starkly, drawing the attention of everyone in the vicinity. The messenger wound its way quickly to the ear of its master. Mekalech sat on his throne impassively as the information was relayed. After a moment, he crushed the herald's head in. It served no real purpose other than to make him feel better. As to the news itself, there was really only one reaction to be had. "Well...drat."
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