M2 - The Fall
"Uh, so, where exactly is the timer?" Captain Brown asked after a semi-confusing briefing from John Fordham and the Mallory siblings, the ship's improvised engineering crew.
"Basically," said Ford, "anywhere in space."
"But probably somewhere close to the Earth's orbit," Mike threw in almost helpfully.
Malcolm Brown sighed heavily. Roberta Evans, from her seat at one of the navigation consoles, rolled her eyes. "With all due respect, 'Captain', I think this situation with the timer could have been handled better." Stephanie Beckett weighed in.
"There will be plenty of time for criticism after we get the timer back," Malcolm retorted rather angrily. "Does anyone have any suggestions on how that might be accomplished?"
"I believe I have one," the Navicomputer threw out. "Look! It couldn't have gotten too far. You tracked the blasted thing here, didn't you?"
"That would be easier if we had a fully functional viewscreen," Malcolm complained. When Ford began to take offense, Malcolm explained himself. "That wasn't a jab at you, Ford. I know the thing was a mess when you got your hands on it."
Chad Evans, the ship's impromptu communications officer, interrupted the conversation. "Radar's picking up a small object not far from the ship. No way to be sure it's the timer, but..."
"It's worth a look." Malcolm adjusted himself in his chair. This thing was not built for human bodies. "See if you can get some kind of picture on the viewscreen."
The picture that Amanda Mallory called up was little more than a faraway dot. "Can we do better than that?"
The female Mallory twin pushed some more buttons and managed to get a slightly bigger picture of the object. "That's all this ship can muster for now, Captain," Amanda admitted.
Orn, sitting in the chair on the other side of the Captain at his own insistence, remarked in his Norwegian accent that, "It does sort of look like the little gadget. If you squint."
"Commander Beckett, can you take us closer to it?" Malcolm requested. He somehow couldn't bring himself to give her orders.
"Yes, Captain," Stephanie replied, as she began to move the ship in that direction. Her own claim to be able to fly anything that was capable of doing so was proving more or less accurate. "But that still doesn't solve the problem of how we get it. We're not equipped for a spacewalk. And I don't think anybody's going to go out there without a good idea that they're going to be able to get back in the ship." While Stephanie was talking, Malcolm was keeping his eye on the viewscreen.
"What in blazes is that?!?" he exclaimed. A larger object was slowly appearing in the background. It appeared to be stationary, but it was something that immediately concerned this crew.
"You expect us to know?" Ford replied in exasperation.
"Well," Chad piped up, "the timer is moving in its direction. Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone. Find out what that thing is and the timer."
"Screw that," John Fordham exclaimed. "I've been itching to try out what passes for this thing's tractor beams for days now! Leaving it to chance just isn't an option."
"I'm afraid Mr. Scott here is right, Chad," Malcolm chuckled. "See what you can do, John. And then let's explore that big piece of space junk out there."
That "space junk" turned out to be some sort of space station. If the large hole in one of the sides was any indication, an abandoned space station. It even had a dock that the crew estimated could hold the ship. Ford successfully herded the timer inside it, so there was extra incentive to land inside it and look around.
The station turned out to be a godsend. It had some extra medical and food supplies, a good amount of extra fuel, and even a little bit of more modern weaponry, that the crew promptly confiscated. ('Stole' was such a nasty word when it came right down to it). They did indeed retrieve the timer, and learned that they had roughly a week in this universe.
But the best, most momentous discovery, was that of a ship, one much smaller than the Schrodinger, that Ford postulated could be attached to their own vessel without too much trouble. Christened the Gobetween, the little vessel was immediately a subject of speculation by the crew.
The speculation was cut short when Captain Malcolm Brown called a meeting of the crew in one of the larger rooms of the space station.
"I'm going to end the rumors here and now. I've decided to send a field team to Earth." The crew immediately was abuzz, and Malcolm had to raise his hands in a request for silence. "We can't risk losing the timer out in space again. We're going to need contacts with the surface on pretty much every slide anyway, to fulfill our mission. With the Gobetween, we can variate our crew as conditions on each individual earth necessitates." Malcolm paused with a mild sense of disgust. He was already starting to sound like a true authority figure. "But until we see how things work in practice, I'm going to send four people based solely on usefulness on the surface. Team leader will be Dirk Mackay." The graying man in his mid-50s looked astonished. "He's an experienced diplomat and linguist and I'm sure he'll do a fine job dealing with the locals. We'll need secure communications between the Schrodinger and our surface team and I'm sure our engineering crew can handle the equipment that's already on the ship, making communication from our end a piece of cake. Which means we'll need Chad Evans on the ground, making sure that our field radio works." Roberta Evans looked about ready to angrily protest, but stopped herself. "And we need somebody who has a good shot at fixing the Gobetween if some technical problem should arise on the surface, as well as somebody who can maintain the timer. Either one of the Mallory twins will do, but since Mike's spent every waking moment since we arrived at this base aboard the Gobetween, I think I'm going to appoint him. Of course, however, I wouldn't think of sending a team to Earth without adequate protection. I feel strongly there is nobody better qualified for field team security than Artakala." The woman smiled big and nodded in thanks.
Several groups of people engaged in intense conversation after the official announcement came. There would be even more separation for the new sliders now. Malcolm assured them that the team structure wouldn't be permanent, but that wasn't the main concern of those who cared for the members of the team soon to be going down to the surface. Anything could happen to them down there, and likely would. It was just dawning on them all now how dangerous their mission truly was. Perhaps recognizing the fear of the people around them, John Fordham decided to change the subject. "The "Gobetween" only holds four people. As much as Mike has been looking at that overgrown escape pod, I still don't think I'd say he could fly it. Artakala, Dirk and Chad aren't exactly flying aces either. Don't we need a pilot in that group, to make sure the blasted thing doesn't crash?"
Malcolm smirked at Ford. "I believe I have a solution to that problem. Commander Beckett will ferry three of the four of our crew down to Earth, most likely Artakala, Chad and Mike, since their skills are the most necessary if anything immediately goes wrong. Then she'll take the ship back up, pick up Dirk, take him down, then come back up. By then, Ford and Amanda should have our docks constructed so that the Gobetween can stay with the Schrodinger at all times."
The crew of the Schrodinger were efficient, if nothing else. The Gobetween was equipped and ready to go in a day and a half. The first four to go to the surface (as Malcolm predicted, they were Artakala, Chad Evans, Mike Mallory and Stephanie Beckett) were all decked out in their dinosaur-skin spacesuits. Ford offered to pilot the thing at the last minute, but Stephanie wouldn't hear of it.
"What do you think people? San Francisco Bay?" Stephanie laughed while she punched the coordinates into the Gobetween's own (alas, Arturo-personality-free) Navicomputer.
"Seems fitting to me," Mike replied enthusiastically.
Ford had found something close to a camera among the ship's assorted alien tech. He hadn't know what the darned thing was at first and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out exactly how it worked. The extreme closeup pictures of certain parts of Ford's face would be passed around for laughs for quite some time to come. Now, however, the camera was being used to take a picture of the crew in their suits. Dirk also suited up for the photo op. A few hours later, with a little bit of food, water and clothing in case the world was uninhabitable, the crew blasted off.
Earth 0002 in the Exploration of the Schrodinger
"We interrupt your regular programming for a KRSN Special News Bulletin," the television intoned in the living room of San Francsicans watching the popular drama "Homeland". "It seems that the object we reported as an irregularity in the night sky earlier today has been identified by the scientific community as a man-made craft of indeterminate origin. Curiosity-seekers across San Francisco have been watching the skies, gazing at the vessel in hopes that they might be the first to see what exactly is inside it. But it's official, folks, this is an honest-to-goodness alien spacecraft. We'll be filling you in with more details throughout the night. This is Lawrence Ginsburg, KRSN News."
The Gobetween splashed down on the San Francisco Bay only to be met by a swarm of jetcopters and armored jeeps. Mayor Cahill wanted to call out the army itself, but couldn't get permission from the UIC to do so. The four spacesuited sliders warily emerged from their vessel. "Now what?!?" Stephanie stage whispered to the others as she surveyed their surroundings. A uniformed man stood not far from where they were and armed guards flanked him.
"Say 'we come in peace'." Mike offered.
Stephanie cleared her throat. "We come in..." As she began to speak in a soft voice, the guards levelled their weapons at her. "Or not," she went on to her team.
"Who...are...you?" the uniformed authority figure spoke slowly. "Where...do...you...come...from?"
Stephanie removed her helmet, and soon the others did the same. They were shocked to see human faces under those unearthly costumes. "I'm Stephanie Beckett, this is Mike, Artakala and Chad. Where we're from...that'll take some explaining."
"What the hell do we do with these people?!?" Mayor William Cahill barked rhetorically to his unofficial team of advisers. He had called a late night meeting to discuss the 'situation'.
"We could treat them as tourist attractions. It could boost our revenues...by...35%" City Treasurer Linda Velasquez trailed off as she saw the looks of disdain around her.
"They could be anybody, you know that, don't you?" District Attorney Charlie McDonald practically shrieked. "Agents of a foreign government. Or worse, the constructionists."
"Our initial reports indicate otherwise," Anne Lee, whose official title was Director of Housing, but who unofficially was the braintrust behind the Cahill operation. "They seem to be completely naive about many things the people of this world would take for granted."
"What do you think they'd do if they were enemy agents?!? Tell us all about the Great Collapse?!" McDonald replied sarcastically.
Lee sighed. McDonald could get so paranoid, especially if there was a possibility of constructionist involvement. "You're missing an even bigger danger here. We've been strictly isolationist for nearly fifteen years now. If we can believe these people, they're travellers from another universe. If they are advance scouts...or even refugees from some larger conflict, we could be looking at..."
"Renewed contact." Mayor Cahill finished. "Blast it all!" The Mayor enthusiastically kicked his desk. The holonet image on it flickered for a moment, as if in protest. "Feed them through the Media machine, see what they make of them. If they fade away in a few weeks, maybe in a few months we can rig an "accident" for them. Trying to get back to their homeworld, you know..."
"There is one more complication, sir," Velasquez added as she listened to her earpiece for a moment. "We've just confirmed their full names. The young male's last name is Mallory."
"This 'hotel''s like a prison," Artakala complained bitterly. "They won't let us leave, won't let us even go out for a breath of fresh air."
"The artificial air is stifling," Chad threw in. "I don't know how these people can stand it."
"I wonder why they're questioning Mike the longest?" Stephanie wondered aloud.
"Everything's so strange. So many gadgets..." Artakala thought aloud. "I guess it's silly, but I thought most worlds would basically be like ours."
"I don't think sliding will ever be predictable, Artakala." Stephanie grimaced and thought of Mike's possible fate. She then quoted his father. "'It's the adventure of a lifetime, but it's also the most dangerous thing imaginable.' Turns out the old man was right. Damn him." Stephanie had no particular love for Quinn Mallory (other than the respect that all the colonists of that world did). She still saw him as the man who rejected her mother, the one who caused her death. At least, she had blamed him for it when she was young. She tried not to as she entered adulthood. She was often unsuccessful.
They were interrupted by another uniformed individual. "Alright, folks. We have a few more questions for Mr. Mallory but the rest of you are free to go. I think you'll find that the public will want to follow your every move, so be careful."
"When will Mike be able to join us?" Chad asked immediately.
"When can we get our ship back?" Stephanie wondered.
The man's face was set in stone. "I'm afraid that information is classified." When they began to speak up again he silenced them with a gesture. "If you wish to protest, take it to Mayor Cahill."
The three looked confused as they walked out of their hotel room. "Who's Mayor Cahill?" Artakala wondered aloud.
"Somebody important on this world, that's for sure," Chad stated obviously. "How are we going to get around this? We have to get Mike and the Gobetween back."
Stephanie's face showed determination. "What we need is to appeal to a higher power."
The set of the Tonight Show really hadn't changed much since David Letterman replaced Johnny Carson as host. Sure, some of the technology had changed, but the format was more or less the same. The fact that a sixty-plus Conan O'Brien now sat in the host's chair did make an impact on the zeitgeist of the show however. Which likely explained its ratings dive as of late.
But there would be no ratings dive tonight.
"Ladies and gentleman, I'm pleased to report that we are seeing a television, or, for our viewers in Upper Silicon Valley, holovision, first. We actually have three of the 'dimensionauts' that mysteriously crash-landed on our shores a few days ago. Let's bring them out here, shall we?" The crowd cheered like Conan hadn't heard in a decade. Maybe he could keep his show from falling into the clutches of David Daly for a few more seasons after all.
Stephanie, Artakala and Chad walked out on the stage and the crowd cheered. They sat down in the guest seats as Conan shook each of their hands. "Wow," said Conan. There was an awkward pause. "That's pretty much all I have to say is 'wow'." The audience laughed nervously.
"It's great to be here, Conan," Stephanie spoke for the group.
Conan fumbled through his notecards. This business was really getting to him. "I guess the first thing we'd like to know is where you came from."
The threesome took turns explaining about parallel worlds, but Conan seemed to want to rush them through that. Then they explained some differences between their world and this one that they already noticed. When they told Conan the clothing they were wearing was dinosaur-skin, the audience just about had a fit.
"Before we go to a break, Conan," Chad interrupted, "there's something serious we came here to talk about." Someone backstage made a cutting motion to Conan, but there was little he could do at this point.
"Yes," Artakala continued. "Right now one of our own is being held captive by your government. And they won't let us have the vessel that got us here back. We need it desperately."
"That's...awful." Conan replied. Just then, a group of officers came in and "escorted" the threesome away. A stunned Conan O'Brien told the audience they were going to a commercial. They never came back.
"You are not to show that episode of 'The Tonight Show'. Ever. Are we clear?" The leading officer ordered the producer of the show, R.T.
"S..sure thing. You have our word on it," R.T. replied in fearful reverance.
The CEO then turned his wrath on the sliders. "And as for the three of you...we can't hold you without raising a lot of people's suspicions, but rest assured that if you try anything that stupid again..."
"We'll be sharing Mike's fate?!?" Stephanie replied venomously. "Did you think we would just forget about him?"
It was clear the man was all business. "That's not any of your concern right now, Miss. You need to be worried about yourselves here, not your companion. You're the ones treading on very thin ice here."
"It's all part of the job description," Artakala retorted with a menacing gleam in her eye. "But if you want to make life difficult for us, I shall show you how..."
"Not now, Artakala," Stephanie ordered. The tall Yoruban turned her icy glare on the Schrodinger's commander. "I mean it. We don't need this here. If this fascist wants to give us more trouble down the line, then we might think about it." Unhappily, the hunter pulled back from her prey.
The man was unphased. "I'm just following orders. I suggest you do the same." With that, he and his officers filed out of the room.
"What now?" Chad asked with a sense of dread in his practicality.
Stephanie sighed. "It's about time we tried to get in contact with the Schrodinger. We may have to get them to land the ship. This whole situation is getting way out of hand."
The next morning, Chad was up early meticulously turning the dials of his radio to the previously agreed-upon frequency for communication between the Schrodinger and its field team. "I think we've got the signal locked in," Chad reported to the others. The three knew that those thugs would probably be listening in, but there was nothing they could do about that. "This is Chad Evans, Earth field team, attempting to contact the CSS Schrodinger and its crew, over." The three of them listened intently to the radio. Nothing but hisses and pops. "Blast! Must have turned something a little bit too far..." Chad went back to work on the radio. Artakala climbed back into bed. Stephanie went to change clothes.
A few painstaking minutes later, Chad called out, "OK, guys, I think I've got it now." He then transmitted the message exactly as it had been before. They waited...and heard something faint. Chad manipulated several of the dials slightly. At last they heard the voice of Amanda Mallory loud and clear. "It's about time!" she exclaimed. The three were more than slightly disheartened that it was Amanda they were talking to. She would not be pleased to hear the fate of her twin brother. "Uh, is Captain Brown available?" Chad asked hopefully.
"He's asleep," Amanda replied. "Why, is it something bad? Something's gone wrong, hasn't it? Is it Mike?" Those last three questions were said in a hurried panic and didn't translate too well over the radio that Chad and Ford had souped up.
"Look, Amanda, we really need to talk to Mal...Captain Brown," Stephanie spoke into the contraption. She marvelled at the differences in the lifestyle she was living now compared to the one that she had been living most of her life. "Do you think you could wake him up?"
"Fine," Amanda sulked and then there was silence. For about five seconds. Then Ford came on. "What in blazes is going on down there? We thought we'd hear from you days ago. I don't know who's gone crazier, Malcolm or Dirk, but I wouldn't want to be caught in a dinotrap with either one of them right now."
"There've...been some complications." Stephanie tried to disguise her foul mood and, as usual, failed. "Basically, the locals won't give us back our ship and they're holding Mike against his will for no reason."
Ford whistled. "And you want to call in the cavalry?"
"We're giving it some serious thought," Artakala threw in. "Of course, I wanted to fix things my way, but the 'Commander' here..."
Ford laughed. "Pulled rank on you, did she? Same old Stephanie."
"I believe I outrank you, too, Ford," Stephanie retorted icily. "With that in mind, I think that you had better..."
"What's going on?" came the crackly voice of concern on the other end that was obviously not Ford's anymore. "Is everything OK down there? Manda said..."
Stephanie interrupted him. "We're all still ticking, if that's what you're worried about, Captain. But the local government isn't very friendly. They've got Mike and the Gobetween under lock and key. I'd like further instructions on how to proceed."
Malcolm was slightly taken aback. Mere days on this mission and already talking like an officer. "You can gauge the situation better than I can, Commander. Of course I expected Dirk to be in charge of this mission by now, but as long as you're the ranking officer down there..."
Stephanie seethed. "I guess...I just wanted some advice."
"Oh. Well, I don't suppose there's any way you could just break in the place and take Mike and the ship by force." Malcolm's voice had a very wry sense to it in that sentence.
"Like that plan," Artakala said, mostly to herself.
Stephanie rolled her eyes. "It's not very feasible. There are just three of us, only two of whom are battle-ready, sorry Chad, and we don't have anywhere near their firepower. A full on attack would be suicide and we only have a little less than two days, so no time to plan some elaborate rescue and still hope to get back on our feet if something goes wrong."
Malcolm paused in thought. "What about other locals? You know, anti-government types. There's got to be some of them around, right?"
"You'd really want us associating with people like that?!?" Having grown up on a world where respecting the authority of the government was a sacred thing, Stephanie had little regard for people who would want to destroy that.
"Gotta side with Stephanie here," Chad spoke up for the first time in a while. "How would we know we could trust them?"
"You don't," Malcolm frankly retorted. "But it's a risk you're probably going to have to take."
"We don't even know where to find people like that," Stephanie argued. As she spoke, Artakala mouthed to Chad that she heard a noise outside and moved closer to the door. Moving outside, she did a patrol of the area and then came back. "...and even if we did, we really don't have a way to tell which one would be the most helpful to us..." She was stopped by the piece of paper in Artakala's hand. Stephanie read it intently, used her photographic memory to memorize its every word...and then used the hotel's lighter to set the thing on fire.
"Looks like we've got our solution," Stephanie announced. "People, be ready to move out of here in ten. That means get your stuff together and lets move."
"What's going on?" Malcolm queried in a voice that sounded almost like a squawk.
Chad spoke into the radio as he began to gather his things. "The game's been changed around a bit. In our favor, we hope."
Stephanie looked at the holovision monitor for a button that would turn the blasted thing on. She hoped maybe the local news would carry something about the kidnapping. "Holo on." Chad spoke and the thing instantaneously flickered to life. Stephanie managed to switch the station to an all-news one, but there was nothing they thought would be useful to them. No report of a bunch of yahoos kidnapping Mike Mallory. 'Government probably wants to keep it quiet.' Stephanie thought. 'But if they don't have a tail on us already they will soon. Which is why we need to move.'
Mike Mallory sat unhappily in his cell, attempting to eat what passed for food in this world. 'What I wouldn't give for a gopher leg right now,' Mike dreamed. Although some fresh-baked wheat bread would be nice to go with it, too.
The young Mallory heard a thump outside. "What's going on out there?" Mike wondered to his guard. He got no response, which was odd because he'd been watched constantly since his internment here. He actually ventured to step outside his cell and...
...was promptly grabbed from behind by someone. "Don't scream. You are Mike Mallory, right?" Mike nodded his head in the affirmative, his mouth still completely covered by the black gloved right hand of the man behind him. "Good. As a wise man once said, I hate saving the wrong guy." The man then stuck something under Mike's nose and...all was dark.
"So it's agreed, then," Malcolm wearily stated. "We don't land the ship until we get a more definitive description of exactly what the situation is down on this Earth." The meeting then officially broke up.
"Well," Roberta threw in snidely, "it's nice to know that the first crisis faced on this ship was dealt with by our fearless leader with an unwavering, decisive maybe."
"Keep complaining, Roberta," Ford crankily answered her. "Maybe someday we'll get tired enough of it to have a mutiny and make you captain, just to shut you up." The elderly inventor usually wasn't that harsh, but he had gone a while without sleep. Roberta walked off in a huff.
Everyone cleared out of the room except Louise Lewis and Malcolm Brown. "Having doubts about being captain?" she asked a little more frankly than even she expected. "I'm sorry, that didn't come out the way..."
"I've had doubts since day one." Malcolm replied to her. "But today I actually thought about acting on those doubts." He paused for whimsical second. "Wonder how Ford would do as Captain?"
Dr. Lewis grimaced. "That bad, huh?" Malcolm asked.
"For the ship, it'd be great. The guy would no sooner damage his baby as drink a vat of acid. For the crew..." The doctor shrugged. Malcolm turned to face one of the few windows the ship had. "Quinn made the right choice, you know. Ted or Stephanie would have driven us all insane by now."
Malcolm shook his head. "But Quinn...or Wade, surely they could have..."
Louise smiled. "You might not want to admit it, Malcolm, but this isn't a mission that's going to benefit a lot of us old folks. The environment on our world is harsh, and sliding from world to world isn't going to improve our lives much. For the next generation, though..."
"I assume you're talking about my generation?" Malcolm replied, quoting one of his favorite Rolling Who songs from before the Exodus.
Dr. Lewis chuckled. "That would be about right. That's why we need you for this mission. Don't lose hope yet, Malcolm."
Malcolm looked at Doctor Lewis carefully. She didn't look like she had yet seen her fiftieth birthday, though she had just recently. She had taken pretty good care of herself. She had become Stephanie's surrogate mother after Maggie's death and had been the biggest fan of the Malcolm-Stephanie relationship that the colony had. In a way, she had been like his own mother, not that he would have ever said it to her face.
"How's Spielberg?" he asked, always willing and eager to find out the condition of Dr. Lewis' only patient.
"He's still in and out," she replied. "He sometimes wakes up and says something but it's all Native to me."
Malcolm nodded. "I'm anxious to see what he'll think about all this when he wakes up." Malcolm then headed up to his quarters to get some much needed rest.
Doc Lewis prepared to do the same. But Spielberg waking up was one of her great fears right at the moment. Since they didn't know anything about his kind, anything could happen. "I sure hope curiosity about alien cultures is going to be the only problem we face when he comes to."
The sliders on the ground had been dodging, ducking and hiding for a day and a half now. The sporadic sleep and lack of nourishment had taken its toll on them. "Where did the note say to meet them again?" Chad complained.
"Under a bridge, a few blocks from here." Stephanie sternly reminded him. Chad had vocally regretted Stephanie's fiery disposal of the note for quite some time now and it had thoroughly gotten on the Commander's nerves.
"You colonists would make terrible big-game hunters in Africa," she said, using the strange name the colonists called her homeland. "You'd probably go home and cry if you broke a nail." It was an exaggeration, but not without merit. Artakala was far better at this than the others. "Present Commander excluded of course. Mostly."
"What do you think they want?" Chad asked for about the fifth time in a day and a half.
Stephanie held her temper, but not by much. "I don't know. The timer, probably. It's the only thing we have of any value."
Chad did tactless like few people in history. "How are we going to get the Gobetween back?"
Stephanie boiled. Artakala tried to help. "I was wrong before. A lion would have killed and eaten us by now if we were on the hunt. Just follow the big, flapping mouth."
Strangely, that comment did bring some relief. The next remark Stephanie made was virtually malice-free. "We may have to just leave it here. We've only got a few hours left until we slide out. Getting Mike back and sliding safely are our big concerns here." All three of them were silent now, in contemplation of Stephanie's words. It meant there would be no easy back and forth travel between the ship and Earth. It also meant Stephanie Beckett wasn't just temporary field commander, she was here for keeps.
Finally they saw the bridge. A motley group of individuals stood beside it. Mike Mallory was nowhere to be seen. "Smells like a trap." Artakala barely breathed to Stephanie, though she heard it well enough. None of them stopped moving towards the bridge, though. What choice did they have?
Some of the people standing around saw them at last. A man in sunglasses and a trenchcoat stepped forward. "Stephanie Beckett. Artakala. Chad Evans. Welcome. We're the Dawnees. Don't worry, Mike Mallory is safe. Certainly safer than he was with those jack-booted thugs."
Another woman escorted them to a tunnel not far from the bridge. There, they had a more primitive looking car that looked like it had seen some wear and tear. "Hop aboard."
"Woah," Stephanie said, taking charge as usual. "Where are we going here?"
The woman smiled. "To see your friend and to meet our Master."
"Your master?" Chad queried.
"The Prophet," the trenchcoated one retorted. The rest of the trip took place in silence.
Holoscreens flashed images of protesters in front of a government building. "You can't ignore the war. You can't ignore the war. You can't ignore the war." It was nearly intoxicating to the Prophet. He turned his chair around and let them all get a good look at his pleased face, which were soon mirrored with smiles of their own. Well, he supposed that was what followers were for. Only one face lacked that expression of bliss, and it was that of Michael Mallory.
"Relax, bro," the Prophet cooed. "Your friends'll be here soon enough. I just need them to do something for me and we'll get this show on the road." In the background, the news reports continued. "...have attributed the recent disappearance to a group called D.A.W.N., the followers of the Direct Action in the War Now movement. Its mysterious leader, the Prophet, or any information about him will of course be rewarded handsomely by Mayor Cahill and the United Interurban Council." The holoscreens were switched off.
A few minutes later, the sliders entered the Prophet's lair. "Greetings, people. Let's all get confortable here, now shall we?" None of the sliders moved. "Sorry, where are my manners? You live in a sewer surrounded by adoring fans so long you forget. I'm Conrad Bennish, Jr. But most people around these parts that want to live call me the Prophet."
Stephanie honestly didn't know what this old hippie wanted with them, but he did have Mike, so whatever he said they would have to go along with...for now.
Bennish grinned. "See here's the drill folks. I get these visions. I don't where they come from and to be honest they don't exactly do wonders for my mental health, but they do help me sorta sort out the big events of the universe. But for the last few weeks, I've been getting these wicked strange ones. About the end of the universe. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, wouldja?" He looked at them intently. "Because I got the feeling when you slid in. Call it a 'disturbance in the force' if you will, but you're all going to be big players in the game to come. Do you want your protective gear or not?"
"I...don't think I understand..." Artakala replied.
The Prophet chuckled. "Oh, you won't for a while. But there's a big war going on out there." The people standing around him responded to that with their standard "You can't ignore the war" chant until Bennish hushed them. "It's going to lead to big changes in the multiverse. And, unless you guys start making with the 'I'm a big hero' routine, one of those changes is going to be complete and utter destruction. So you can see why I'm concerned." The sliders still looked like they had no clue what he meant.
Bennish paced back and forth. "So I want you, all four of you, to swear an oath. That you won't back down when the time comes. That you'll make the sacrifices necessary to save life as we know it." The sliders did nothing. "Swear it now or you don't leave this world!"
Stephanie looked sincerely peeved. "Fine. I swear." Chad, Mike and, reluctantly, Artakala also took their turns in swearing.
Bennish grinned cheerily. "Alright then. I believe we're all in order here. Your friend's free to go and you can slide out of here with no further hindrances."
"Think again," came a voice from behind them. About a dozen federal agents drew their guns and surrounded them. "Nobody's going anywhere unless we say so."
Half the agents transported the sliders, Bennish and some of his followers down one of the tunnels while the other group took the other Dawnees. "How long til we slide?" Mike asked Stephanie.
She glanced casually down at the timer. "About two minutes now," she replied.
"Don't you think it's about time for..." was all Mike could manage before he was kicked in the ribs by one of the agents. "Keep quiet, boy."
Stephanie understood his meaning nonetheless. It was time for drastic measures. She sighed inwardly. And spoke one, deadly word. "Artakala." The fierceness of that word, and not the word itself, was the important thing.
In one fluid motion, the warrior of the Yoruba withdrew one of her many blades from her backpack. It was a matter of seconds between when the blade hit the first agent's neck til when it hit the last. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack. Deadly precision. It was what made Artakala so damned scary. Not to mention it got quite the lot of blood on your clothes. The one agent who Artakala didn't kill took one look at the situation and ran away like a frightened schoolboy. Stephanie didn't blame him one bit.
"Wow, that was...cool." Bennish responded. Stephanie merely grunted in response. She honestly preferred diplomacy over killing, but she recognized there were times when one was more necessary than the other.
"Too slow," Artakala complained. "But what do you want, it's the first time I've killed since some Gauls got a bright idea in their heads about raping our women on the last trip of the International Commerce Committee."
Wanting to break the tension, as Mike and Chad were not pleased with the display, Stephanie replied, "I don't believe they even saw the blade, did they?"
Artakala grinned in reply. "No. But those around them did. I hear that whole tribe became celebate. Dedicated themselves solely to their Celtic gods, each and every one."
Stephanie tossed Mike the timer. "You do the honors, kid." Mike pressed the button to open the vortex when the timer hit zero and all three of them followed him through. Within minutes, the Schrodinger also blasted through.
"You can't ignore the war," Bennish spoke after they slid out. "Not by a longshot."
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