6.22 - Stand and Wait
It had been an ordinary day in San Francisco, as such things go. The sun was beginning to set, and within a few minutes would beautifully illuminate San Francisco Bay to the delight of everyone who hadn't seen it a thousand times before. The city's streets were already starting to bustle with pleasure seekers; some tourists, others simply bored residents. Six o'clock traffic moved lazily across the highways and byways of the city, filled with people hoping to make it home in time to eat a barely warm meal, watch some mediocre television and go to sleep too late to be well rested the next morning. The American way of life, abridged.
The date was March 6, 2001. There was nothing special about it, just another Tuesday evening in an uneventful week in the United States. Well, this version of the United States anyway. Somewhere, some U.S. was bound to be going through social upheaval, societal conflict and/or political revolution. None of the people here really knew or cared about those other worlds out there, nor what they were doing. Except for four people who visit these realities every day. But since they were from another world themselves, perhaps they wouldn't count anyway.
Professor Maximilian Arturo, Rembrandt Brown, Quinn Mallory and Wade Welles walked out into the evening air, breathing it in deeply. They had seldom appreciated a slide so much as they did this one. After depositing their alternates on their home world, they still had more than a week to relax, enjoy everything this world that was so similar to what they remembered about their own had to offer, and process the notion that they themselves were homeward bound. It was a nice break from the standard problems and concerns that usually consumed their time on each world.
Still, not all was well. “I can't believe you talked us into it, Q-Ball,” Rembrandt complained.
“Oh, come on, the movie wasn't that bad,” Quinn replied defensively.
“Jackie Chan?” the Professor asked irritably.
“As Charlie Chan?” Remmy threw in incredulously.
“In 'Catch Me if You Chan'?!” Wade finished for the group.
“Hey, cut me some slack,” Quinn retorted. “I'm the one who's not going home the next slide, remember?” That seemed to bring everyone back down to the Earth they were on for a moment. Quinn noticed as all of their faces grew seemingly longer. “I didn't mean to depress anybody. You do still want to go home, right? Because we've still got time to punch my home Earth's co-ordinates in.”
“Of course,” Professor Arturo answered with diminished enthusiasm. “I suppose it's simply a matter of what home we're going to. It's possible that the world we're returning to is roughly as we remember it, similar to this one in all ways but one. Namely, the fact that our doubles already exist here.”
“Or we could be headed back to a Kromagg ravaged war zone where we'll be fighting for our lives from the moment we slide in,” Wade pointed out.
“That's one hell of a coin toss,” Rembrandt said with a note of dread in his voice. “How do we know for sure which home is which?”
Professor Arturo went into exposition mode as they walked along the street. “The sliding signature method should be foolproof. I'm to understand the last means you used of determining whether or not you were home was decidedly less than scientific. In this instance, however, nothing shall be left to guesswork. The only way this could fail is if the signature became distorted somehow in one of our misadventures...but I'm almost certain that wouldn't be the case.”
“Also, couldn't there be multiple Earth Primes out there, each one having split off from the world you left nearly seven years ago?” Quinn asked. Arturo looked at him with displeasure. “Just a thought.”
“I actually discussed this before with Miss Welles,” the Professor begrudgingly admitted. “It is possible. But the world we're headed to will in all likelihood resemble our own in every respect, with everything as we remember it prior to our departure. Whether there are more of them out there only matters if another derivation of our group have beaten us to it, as on this world.”
“This is thrilling me less and less,” Rembrandt complained. “Just exactly how sure are you that this next world is our last stop?”
Arturo scratched his beard. “Given all potential probabilities and considering our damned bad luck, I'm about ninety percent sure.”
“Guys,” Wade interrupted softly. “Would you mind if we slid from the park? I know it's kind of far from here, but it would make me feel more like we were actually going home, instead of just talking about it.”
“Of course, Miss Welles,” Professor Arturo agreed heartily. “A change of scenery would likely make this easier for all of us.”
“It's just strange,” Wade told Remmy as the two of them walked closely together in Golden Gate Park, mere minutes before the slide. “I never thought I'd be nervous about being home.”
“Worried about the Maggs?” Rembrandt asked her. Wade nodded. “I thought you said we could take 'em.”
“Would you believe I was lying?” Wade asked him sincerely. “I've fought them before, but I had an army then. Now we just have...us.”
“Yeah,” Rembrandt agreed. “There's no super weapon. Quinn and Maggie both got lost along the way. I don't even have the mustache anymore. I guess life sometimes doesn't work out the way you plan it.”
“If that was supposed to cheer me up, it didn't work,” Wade told him chidingly.
“Sorry,” Remmy said with an apologetic smile. “Well how's this for cheery? It's possible the Professor's right. Maybe we didn't have the right home world last time. I mean, who's to say?”
As if 'the Professor's right' were some kind of Arturo call, the British gentleman in question sauntered over to where they were standing. “We have only a few seconds. Are we ready to go?”
“The three of us going home,” Rembrandt said with a sigh of relief. He shared a look with Wade and the Professor, and then the three of them looked over at Quinn. A little of their newfound optimism faded. “Damn. This isn't going to be easy, is it?”
Professor Arturo looked at him with more remorse than the others. “I cannot tell you how happy I was that we parted company with our doubles before they had to break the news of Quinn's death to their world's Mrs. Mallory.”
“Um,” Wade interjected. “What are we going to tell our world's Mrs. Mallory?”
“Actually, we don't need to worry about it,” Remmy started to explain. “You see, the version of Quinn's mom we met, she wasn't really...” He stopped. How to explain to his companions about Quinn Mallory not really being from their Earth, about Kromagg Prime and the home of his real parents, or the search for Quinn and Colin's home world? “But it doesn't matter much, because we won't find her there. We saw her on...” For that matter, how could he explain the world where they met the Seer in a matter of moments? Was it even worth the trouble? Wade and Arturo gave him a strange look as he stood there speechless. “We'll write her a letter.”
Quinn opened the vortex without a word and then moved aside, turning to look at his fellow sliders as he gestured towards the wormhole. “This is it, guys. Professor, you want to be the first one home?”
“And have Rembrandt land on me one last time?” Arturo griped without very much bitterness in his voice. “Oh, what the hell.” He catapulted himself through effortlessly.
Rembrandt was next in line. He took a quarter out of his pocket with Chester Arthur's profile on it and flipped it in the air. “Here's hoping for no Maggs instead of Kromaggs.” A determined look on his face, he jumped into the void.
Wade and Quinn looked at each other. She started towards the vortex, and then stopped. “I won't go back to the camps, Quinn,” she said in a flat voice. “I just can't.”
“You're not going back to a breeder camp, Wade,” Quinn promised her. “I won't let it happen.”
“How can you stop it?” Wade wondered with a sad small laugh in her voice. “Look, the last time I went home, it was just me and Rembrandt. Quinn pushed us in, and then didn't follow us through. I don't want that to happen again. I want to watch you go through first.”
“Not if you're not going to be behind me,” Quinn said suspiciously. “I don't want you doing anything stupid that you'll regret later.”
“This is pointless! The vortex is going to close, just go-o-o...” Her voice registered surprise as Quinn grabbed Wade and pulled them both through the void. Moments later, it closed behind them. A slight wind blew through the park in its wake, as though it were erasing any proof that they were ever there at all.
Professor Maximilian Arturo hit the pavement with a dull thud. He lie there for a moment, groaning softly. There was no point in attempting to get up if Rembrandt was just going to knock him back down. Instead, when his fellow slider emerged, he avoided him by a good three inches. “Ha! You missed!” Arturo cried out victoriously.
“I did it all for you, Professor,” Rembrandt replied, stretching his neck and arms as he stood. He waited a few seconds for Quinn and Wade to follow. They didn't. “You don't think anything happened back there, do you?”
“Nonsense. What could possibly have happened to them in such a short time?” When about half a dozen scenarios popped into both of their minds, Arturo quickly reversed himself. “Patience, Mr. Brown. Mr. Mallory and Miss Welles will arrive safely in good time. I'm sure they're doing something...” He was interrupted as Quinn and Wade tumbled out of the wormhole arm in arm and, after rolling a few feet, came to a complete stop with Wade squarely on top of Quinn. “...important.”
“Wow,” Quinn told her breathlessly. “This is incredibly...uncomfortable. If you could get off of my shins I would appreciate it. Thanks.” The two of them stood, brushed themselves off and took a look around. There was nothing but a long stretch of pavement visible around them. In one direction lie a horizon they couldn't see clearly through a darkening sky; in the other there were flashing bright lights that kept them from focusing on anything that lie out that way.
“Where are we?” Wade asked, as if anyone would know.
“I know I got the co-ordinates right,” Quinn assured them. As if to verify that information, he looked down at the timer in his hand. The next portal wouldn't open for well over a week. If everything went well, he would be the only slider going through it. “This is your home world. But I take it you were expecting something different than this.”
“Burning trash cans or Chaney Street,” Rembrandt said with a chuckle. “This isn't either one.”
“I suggest finding our way to civilization. Home or no, we don't want to be in the middle of nowhere when night falls.” Professor Arturo led the way in the direction of the lights. The others followed him silently, until his eye caught something. “What in the name of heaven is that monstrosity?” The four sliders moved gradually closer to it until they could see it clearly. When they did, it didn't fill their hearts with glee.
“Tell me that's not what I think it is,” Rembrandt instructed the others. No one was willing to do so.
“A commercial airliner designed to look like a manta ship,” Wade sized up numbly. “I heard they were working on these.”
“Damn,” Arturo swore. “I was so sure that...”
“Guys, I hate to interrupt, but it looks to me like we're on a runway,” Quinn said a little frantically. “How long do you think we'll be out here before we start drawing unwanted attention to ourselves?”
As it turned out, no time at all. Within seconds, alarms went off. Claxons began to blare. The running was pure instinct; there was no place to go. It was irrelevant in any event, as their pursuers had vehicular transportation. They were soon surrounded by Kromagg troops pointing blasters at them. Moments afterward, they were unceremoniously herded into a heavily armored truck. “Welcome home,” Quinn told them unhappily.
None of them could find anything much to say to each other. Kromagg captivity was a depressing prospect, all the more so for Rembrandt Brown and Wade Welles, who had lived through this particular version of hell before. If they went back to that life, they did not intend to go quietly. The trio of Kromagg guards watching the group seemed to be focusing on them specifically, so it was a poor time to make a move. Still, an opportunity might present itself. If it did, they had to be ready for...
A noise captivated everyone's attention suddenly. It was the sound of the truck being pelted by rocks. “What's going on?” Wade asked aloud.
“It is not your concern,” one of the Kromaggs answered her. Just then, they heard an explosion go off in front of them. The armored vehicle screeched to a halt.
“How about now?” Rembrandt threw out angrily.
Another one of the Kromaggs growled low and snorted. “Human resistance fighters are blocking the road. They do this regularly. Do not get any ideas about escaping. Since you've been seen with us, they will as likely kill you as take you in.”
“I am certain they would believe we were taken against our will,” Professor Arturo countered. “Particularly since it is the truth.”
“They would not, as the Kromagg Dynasty no longer captures human prisoners,” another guard responded huffily.
“Then what the hell do you call this?!” Wade demanded angrily.
“An escort,” another one grumbled. “For your own protection.”
Rembrandt laughed loudly. “That's the biggest line of Kromagg bull I've ever been fed. I think I might choke.” He chuckled heartily as the Maggs became less and less amused. “So what's with the weapons? Are we getting a 21-gun salute?”
“I am sure you would have come with us even if we had not pointed our blasters your way. Your trusting nature would have shone through.” Now it was the Kromaggs' turn to laugh.
“We wouldn't trust you as far as we could throw you,” Wade spat icily. “Whatever that means.”
“Have you heard of the Treaty of Outpost Earth 519?” one Magg (honestly it was hard to distinguish between them, and not really worth the effort) asked casually. The blank looks on the sliders faces were easy even for another species to read. “No? Strange, you were there when it was drafted. It was created by one Jermaches Molaudian.” The sliders shared looks of recognition. “Ah, now it seems familiar, doesn't it? I'm afraid I don't have a copy of the document with me, but it declares Kromaggs and humans to be at peace with one another. It really does make for some good reading.”
Quinn spoke for the first time to offer sarcastic commentary. “You've been following the treaty to the letter, I'm sure.”
“We have,” he responded with a hard edge to his voice. “The human population by and large has not. In fact, they have taken advantage of this peace treaty to attack us whenever it strokes their fancy.”
The sliders ignored the gaffe, but not the statement itself. “Wow,” Rembrandt mocked. “You guys really have it rough. All these humans fighting you for no good reason. I mean, if you can't trust people who you conquered and enslaved, who can you?”
The Kromagg who appeared to be in charge barely restrained himself from striking Rembrandt. “Consider this a warning, human. We have orders not to harm you. But those orders can be disregarded if we so choose.”
“Unlike the orders promoting peace with humans, of course,” Professor Arturo added with a wry smile.
“We fire if fired upon,” another Kromagg guard said succinctly. “No reasonable individual could expect us to do differently.” The engine of their transport vehicle roared to life and began moving slowly. “We are now past the worst of it. It should not be long before we reach our intended destination.”
“Which would be...?” Quinn asked interestedly.
There was no answer. The Kromaggs and humans said nothing to each other as a few more painstakingly long minutes passed. The truck stopped abruptly, and the sliders were none too gingerly escorted into what all appearances indicated was a large fortress. There was a collective gulp as the four of them looked up at it. The blasters being pointed their way didn't give them much choice as to whether they were going to go in or not. They walked through the sliding doors with trepidation, wondering just exactly what other surprises Earth Prime had in store for them.
None of them had ever seen so large an army in their life. Rows of armored vehicles seemed to litter the horizon, all of them bearing different symbols, and designed and built in different sizes with wildly varied levels of technology. Filling in the chinks in the armor, as it were, were a group of equally hodgepodge but all heavily armored infantry bearing large laser cannon-style weapons. In the air were a mix of Cerellian boxships, Kromagg manta vessels and a mix of human and Mekkan vessels that were moving too quickly to be identified by anything so specific as name or serial number.
Quinn Mallory reclined in his chair as he watched it all unfold on the big screen long after the others had lost interest. Kromagg news programming wasn't the most exciting thing he'd seen since he started this journey, but it would do for now. “I think the quality of picture on television has improved since you guys left. Not that I would know, of course, but this is just really intense.” The other sliders looked at him like he was nuts. “What?”
“This is serious!” Wade told him with exasperation and more than a little panic in her voice. The inside of the fortress resembled an airport lounge more than a prison, but still there were Kromaggs (and, to a lesser extent, Humaggs) everywhere. Their situation didn't look good. “We've been wasting time for hours. We have to do something!”
“We are,” Quinn argued from his slouched position. “We're learning how the Kromaggs operate...from the inside.”
“We'll be finding out how they operate from inside a prison cell if we keep on doing just what the Maggs tell us,” Rembrandt assessed with certainty. “We need to start doing things our way.”
“Maybe I could help you with that,” a voice said from behind them. Quinn and the Professor had no idea who the tall dark-haired man in uniform was, but Rembrandt and Wade seemed to recognize him.
“I know you!” Wade exclaimed with some small measure of excitement. “You're... that guy!”
“So I've been told,” he replied with amusement. “I also answer to Rey.”
“Rey, right,” Wade said to herself as much as to the man in front of her. “I knew that.”
Professor Arturo extended his hand. “We've never met before, sir, but any friend of Rembrandt and Wade's is a friend of mine. Maximilian Arturo.”
“Actually, we've never met before either,” Rembrandt said as he tried to size up the man in front of them. “We only know of him by reputation.” The Professor sat awkwardly as the conversation turned to the nature of that reputation. “Rey Marin. Last I heard, you were on the East Coast, giving the Maggots a nasty taste of their own medicine at Rhinecliff.”
“Yeah,” Rey recalled whimsically. “The munitions factory. That was fun.” He shook off the memory after a moment and looked at the four of them. “But I'm getting off topic. I bet you're wondering why I'm here.”
“Not really,” said Quinn. Wade considered hitting him in the arm, but thought better of it. “No offense intended, but we don't really know you that well and we have bigger problems to deal with right now.”
“The Kromaggs, right,” Rey told him knowingly. “That's what I think I can help with.”
“Wait,” Wade interjected. “If you're here, and the Maggs aren't killing you...”
“You're working with them now,” Rembrandt finished, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“I sure am. Every bit as much as you are,” he replied defensively. “Don't get me wrong. There was a time that my crew and I killed Kromaggs with glee. But that was before we got hit by Lesion near Saratoga. A whole battalion slid in, probably by accident. It didn't matter much though; they destroyed everything they could take aim at until Alliance troops showed up and stopped them. We've been told to expect a full scale invasion for months now. Nothing so far, thank God.” He looked out the window warily, as if expecting Lesion troops to show up at any moment. “Long story short, now I work for the Grand Alliance. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Kromaggs are a part of it. No matter how much we hate them, we need to band together for the greater good.”
“With all due respect, sir,” Arturo told him matter-of-factly, “we agreed to work with Jermaches Molaudian, not the Kromagg Dynasty.”
“As it stands now, you can't have one without the other,” Marin explained patiently. “After Lesion is destroyed, it may be a different story. Or did you forget what they're capable of?” None of the sliders said anything. “Then again, how could you? I heard you were on the Mekkan home world when Tarkalan came to power. That must have been a sight to see.”
“Yeah, not so much fun as you might think,” Quinn answered him with a shrug.
He continued to pursue the point. “They devastated three worlds yesterday just like this one. All rendered uninhabitable.” Rey looked around to make sure he had all of the sliders' attention. “You think about that happening to this world, and it makes Kromagg rule look appealing by comparison. We can stop it from happening. But not without the Maggs' help.” He exhaled quickly. “So are you in?”
The four sliders looked at each other, trying to decide exactly what they should do here. Before they could huddle to have an in depth discussion on the subject, a cadre of Kromagg officers surrounded our heroes. “Come with us,” one of them ordered.
“What's going on?” Rey asked before the sliders had a chance.
“Standard DDI,” the lead Magg explained. “Detainment, debriefing, interrogation. This will go more smoothly if you cooperate.”
“Forget it,” Wade protested as one of the Kromaggs put his hand on her wrist. It found its way off of her arm quickly. “We're not going anywhere. We didn't even want to come here.”
“Do not fight this, human,” another Kromagg grumbled. “We have to ascertain whether or not you are Lesion spies. If you will not submit, we have ways of making you wish that you had.”
“We've been through this before,” Rembrandt reminded them defiantly. “I'm not saying we want to go through it again, but unless you can tell us exactly what you plan to do in this DDT thing, I don't think any of us are going to be 'cooperative'.”
“You will do what we say or nothing at all,” the lead Kromagg said menacingly. “You have no choice. We are in charge here.”
“Actually, you're not,” Rey interrupted. He had the attention of human and Kromagg alike. “'By order of Grand Alliance Grand Consul Jermaches Molaudian, Maximilian Arturo, Rembrandt Brown, Quinn Mallory and Wade Welles are promoted to the honorary position of SubConsul.'”
“What does that mean, exactly?” Quinn asked, as the Kromagg in charge snatched the document away from him.
Rey smiled. “It means that now the four of you outrank everyone else here.”
“Read through it again,” an especially irritated Kromagg officer demanded of his subordinate. The high ranking Kromagg leaders had been forced to relocate to the lobby by their new human overlords. “There has to be something in there that gives us a way out of this.”
“There's nothing,” the junior officer insisted as his eyes pored over every word in the document appointing the four humans to the position of SubConsul. “Molaudian makes his intentions perfectly clear.”
His superior growled loudly. “The little yellow meddler! If only we hadn't tried to assassinate him, he never would have tricked us into making him the leader of the Grand Alliance. Or perhaps if only we had succeeded...”
“It does little good for us to think like that now,” another of the members of the Kromagg officer corps weighed in. “We must deal with the situation in front of us, and not waste time focusing on what might have been.”
“I do not see the problem,” the former Commander of the Kromagg facility said dismissively. “They are but four humans. What possible damage could they do?”
Rembrandt, Wade, Quinn and the Professor sat at the table that dominated what used to be the offices of the Kromagg high command. It was now their War Room. “Well, guys, where should we begin?” Remmy asked.
Wade stood, took one look at the Magg trappings that the room still possessed and started tearing things down. Eventually the room was bare of everything except the table and the chairs they sat in. “That's a good start, don't you think?”
Maximilian Arturo wasn't much impressed with Wade's theatrics, but he understood her need for the gesture nonetheless. “We need to contact Molaudian. I don't feel right about taking orders from someone we've never met, no matter how legitimate his credentials seem.”
“Yeah, I don't know about this,” Quinn agreed. “Running a Kromagg army base? Is this something we should really be concerning ourselves with? I thought you'd be home with your families by now.”
“It doesn't seem like that's going to happen any time soon,” Rembrandt reported somberly. “Well, Arturo and I never had any family ties here in the first place. But Wade's folks seem to have relocated since the Kromaggs invaded. The city's under lockdown, so I don't think anybody's going to be leaving anytime soon..”
Wade decided to elaborate on that last point. “Apparently, the Maggs weren't exaggerating about the human resistance. They've gotten bolder since the treaty. Rumor has it that they're planning a major offensive and soon.” She paused for a moment for effect. “And I for one think it's about damn time.”
Rembrandt didn't want to be the bad guy in this situation, but he had little choice. “Wade, we've been over this. We're not going to be able to beat Lesion without the Kromaggs.”
“And how exactly is one worse than the other?” Wade demanded. “We've been dancing around this for a while, but nobody's had the courage to come out and say it. The Kromaggs took our home from us, Remmy. Are you telling me we're just going to forget about that and ally ourselves with them for some supposed greater good?”
Rembrandt raised his eyebrows and considered the point. It was hard for him to dispute Wade on this. So Professor Arturo stepped in instead. “Look at us, Miss Welles. Who are we? Four weary travelers who were unprepared for the journey of a lifetime. We've done some good, to be sure, but there were always elements of luck, ingenuity and superior knowledge that contributed to our successes. Now we have returned home and find the situation here not to our liking, so we are tempted to fall back on old habits. Right the wrong. Stand up to the big threat. Only now we have no advantage; nor do we have a ticket out if things go wrong. We are but four ordinary people among many. If we have one small contribution to give to the war against Lesion, then we have played our part. But we cannot hope to best both Lesion and the Kromaggs in one fell swoop. We must pick and choose our battles as best we can, because they will decide our lives.” He exhaled deeply. “This is our home, like it or not. It's time to settle in.”
“Wow,” a clearly impressed Quinn remarked. “I was just going to say maybe we should contact these human resistance guys and have some kind of a conference, but I think the Professor's rousing speech might have made it a moot point.”
“No, I think you have something there,” Rembrandt said encouragingly. “I can probably arrange a meeting between myself and the leader of these freedom fighters. That's assuming they even want to talk.”
“And that they won't just reject any proposal coming from a Kromagg mouthpiece outright,” Wade grumbled.
“We have an opportunity here, people,” Rembrandt said with sudden enthusiasm. “The Maggs are taking orders from us now. We don't know how long this situation is gonna last, so we've got to make what we do count.”
“'If this be treason, make the most of it',” Arturo mused.
“What do you want us to do?” Wade asked, casually acknowledging Rembrandt's role as temporary leader of the group.
Wade Welles leaned back smoothly in a swivel chair that was entirely too big for her petite frame. She took great pleasure at looking down her nose at her latest victim. Wade smiled wickedly as she leaned over her desk to address him. “So...you used to be in charge here, huh?”
The Kromagg commander, whose name was Kraznok (not that Wade cared), squirmed visibly. He gestured to the holographic pictures of him and his family that still adorned his old office which Wade had commandeered. “I would think that should be painfully obvious.”
“Right,” Wade replied as though humoring him. “But as you can see that position's been filled.” Remmy had given her the job of making personnel assignments. It was supposed to keep the Kromaggs off balance and lessen the chance of betrayal or subversion. Wade also found it a fun way to pass the time. “So the question is: what else can you do? What other role can you play in the Grand Alliance war effort?”
The elder Kromagg in front of her was growing increasingly antsy. He was only stopped from flying into a murderous rage by the desk separating them and the knowledge that he could be punished if he did so, unfair as that was. He glared at her menacingly. Wade smiled back at him entirely too nicely. “I notice you've been ogling my eyes. It's not that I mind, of course. I was in a Kromagg breeder camp for over a year, I'm used to it. But it does give me an idea.”
Kraznok wiped sweat from his brow. “And what would that be, exactly?”
“I'm just thinking, a gourmet eye eye like yours is going to waste in a military uniform,” Wade said slyly. “Have you ever thought about becoming a chef?”
“A...a chef?” he stammered incredulously. “That is not fitting duty for a veteran soldier of my standing.”
“Yeah, I read your war record,” she told him coolly. “Gathering up women and children in pens and shooting them? There's not much glory in that.” She pushed the file across the desk in his direction. “Your hat and apron should be outside your door by the end of the day.” He rose quickly and made himself scarce without saying a word. However it didn't take a mind reader to figure out what he was thinking.
Wade took the items from his desk and threw them into a drawer. A satisfied smile crossed her face for the first time in ages. “I love this job.”
Quinn was a little dubious as to what exactly he was supposed to say to the Mekkan diplomat to whom the sliders had entrusted their friendship and their lives. He had never really gotten much of a chance to speak with him, so he didn't know him that well. And what he did know confused him a little. “Should I address him as Consul or Mr. Molaudian?” Quinn wondered aloud to himself, as none of the Kromaggs he was ordering around were about to give him an appropriate response. Actually, most of them were scrambling to get the device he was going to use to contact their non-human benefactor up and running. “What's the hold up? Are we having technical difficulties?”
“This device is the pinnacle of Kromagg communications technology,” one of the engineers snapped at him. “Or it was a few years ago. Sir,” he added, remembering his rank. “It should be ready for transmission right about... now.”
Quinn didn't really understand what was going on in front of him but the large screen flickered to life with a glow that seemed otherworldly. Eventually a small yellow-brownish creature took form in front of his eyes. “Yep. The picture is definitely better,” Quinn noted with enthusiasm.
“This is Trimala Arkalesh. State your business with First Consul Molaudian.”
Quinn had been told not to deal with any more middlemen. He assumed that applied to other species as well. “Tell the First Consul that Quinn Mallory wants to speak with him.”
Arkalesh inhaled sharply. “The Quinn Mallory of Kromagg folklore? Destroyer of worlds, champion of humanity?”
The Maggs around him gave him uncomfortably hostile looks. “Yes, that one. Just tell him I want to talk, OK?” The Larnani gave one last chagrined look to Quinn, then turned away from the screen for a moment. When he returned, he did not look happy.
“Molaudian wishes to inform you that he is rather busy right now, and will return your call as soon as possible,” Arkalesh reported woodenly. “Do you wish to leave him a message?”
“Yeah,” Quinn answered honestly. “I don't like talking to secretaries.” Quinn closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose in frustration. He wasn't sure how mixed up in this Grand Alliance/Lesion War thing he wanted to get, but it seemed important to the others. If they couldn't get in touch with Molaudian soon, they'd be on their own here. And they certainly needed all the friends they could get.
Rembrandt paced impatiently as he waited for this rebel commander to show himself. He had asked Rey to set up the tête-à-tête, but now regretted it somewhat; he would have liked to have known who he was going to be talking to before meeting them in person. He was going to have a hard enough time selling them on his position without the anonymity factor in play. Nonetheless, what was done was done. Remmy would simply have to make do with the situation at hand. He continued to pace as he went over the points of discussion in his head. It was going to be hard to convince this human freedom fighter to work with the Kromaggs.
Mostly because it was hard to convince himself. Remmy was nervous. He hadn't been able to ease Wade's fears about working with the Maggs, because he had them so strongly himself. Still, it was what he had to do; what all of them had to do. Whoever he was meeting today would have to be made to understand that.
The door to the little shanty that was their pre-arranged meeting place swung open and armed members of the resistance burst through, searching for traps and hidden weapons. He had been prepared for a good measure of distrust, but it was still unsettling to have his fellow human beings suspicious of his motives. After the guards were satisfied that there was no obvious threat, most of them cleared out. Some stayed to protect their commander. It wasn't long before said leader walked into the room.
A stunned Rembrandt could only gawk. The woman in charge stood before him, equally surprised. It was Maggie Beckett.
Maximilian Arturo's fingers drummed the desk in front of him idly as he stared at the blank computer screen. He was not often struck with writer's block; once the ideas were there, giving them form was mere child's play. But this was not a physics paper he was preparing; it was a letter to his family, or whatever remained of it at any rate. It would be addressed to his son Douglas, but put in care of some of his cousins in England, as he had no earthly idea where to send a letter to his own son. That was but one of the barriers between the two Arturos that Maximilian was attempting to tear down.
“Dear Douglas...” he started to type and then stopped himself. Should he begin by recounting his tales of adventure? Stories of equal parts woe and heroism that might thrill the heart and captivate the mind? Building the atomic bomb, curing a plague, becoming the first man candidate for Mayor on a matriarchal world, or simply having truly seen a live dinosaur? Would that impress the young man whom he had never really known? Perhaps it was worth a shot. Maybe it would allow him to understand why he had been gone and give him a small glimpse of the man his father was.
“Dear Douglas...” he typed, for he had erased his previous effort. But then he halted again, and once again hit the backspace button fifteen times to undo what he had done. For once he was glad he wasn't doing this on a typewriter. Shouldn't he start with an apology? He hadn't seen his son in years. At first, of course, he had the typical widower's excuse. Douglas reminded him too much of Christina, and it was too painful to be around him. It was a cowardly reaction to a devastating loss, Arturo knew, but it was what he had felt was necessary at the time. Afterwards it became gradually easier to ignore him, to leave his education as well as his future in someone else's hands. Once this went on for years, the rift between them seemed formidable. Yes, he should start with an apology.
“Dear Douglas, I am sorry...” Once again, his creativity stonewalled. For what? For never being there? For foisting you off on relatives I was never particularly close to in the first place? For sliding without giving you or anyone else I knew a second thought? Again, Arturo cursed the impersonal nature of the communication. Nonetheless, courtesy of the security situation brought about by the Kromaggs, a letter was the only option open to him. He was hesitant to take it, although his conscience would not allow him to ignore his son with his death imminent.
The truth was that he had never been good at expressing his feelings, in letters or at any other time. But now was not the time to keep up old habits. He had to make amends for the things he had most regretted doing in his life. Leaving his son across the ocean from him was at the top of the list. He paused a moment to think about his former life in Great Britain. Arturo longed not only to visit Douglas but to return to his boyhood home in Wales one last time. As he looked back down at the monitor, inspiration struck him. Perhaps he did have a letter in him after all. “Dear Rembrandt, Wade and Quinn...” it began.
“Stand down,” Maggie ordered after some of her guards interpreted the long stunned silence between them as some sort of possible double cross. She then gave Rembrandt a long hard look. “Remmy, is that really you?”
“I guess I could ask you the same question,” Rembrandt replied. “I mean, we never really checked to see if our world had a Maggie Beckett.” As he looked at her, their adventures together came flooding back to his memory. He shook the cobwebs from his head and then turned his full attention to her. “So, are you native or...”
Maggie shook her head. “No, I'm a slider. My world was destroyed by pulsars. But then you'd already know that if you were the Rembrandt who I...” She stopped herself and chuckled lightly. “Do you know how many times the Maggs have sent some double of somebody I knew to our camp? A Quinn, a Rembrandt? If this is another damn trick, I am not going to be pleased.” She shot him a sly look. “So prove it. Prove that you're Rembrandt.”
After casually wondering whether he was once again going to be put on trial in a computer program designed by Elvis Presley, Psychiatrist, the wheels in Remmy's mind started turning. “On the last world we visited together there was a TV show based on our adventures. And although neither of us said so at the time, the guy they had playing the Professor looked nothing like him.” Maggie nodded as a smile grew on her face. Rembrandt had to dampen her good mood a little bit. “Your turn.”
Maggie was hurt at first, but finally decided that his cautiousness was still further proof that this was her Rembrandt. “One world we went to, there was a civil war going on. California was trying to secede from the union...or something. Anyway, Quinn got hurt and was in a coma for almost the entire next slide. While we were there, you fell for somebody who turned out to be a Kromagg sympathizer.” Hey eyebrows shot up. “That wouldn't have happened again here, would it?”
“Don't be like that, Maggie,” Rembrandt said in a conciliatory tone. “There are a lot of things in play here that you don't...” He stopped. This wasn't the time. “But we can talk about that later. Come on, you should come back with me and see the others.”
“'Others'?” Maggie questioned. “Did you pick up some more strays on your way here?”
“You could say that,” Rembrandt answered her with a wide grin. “But in a way, you've met them before. Quinn, Wade, the Professor... they're all with me again.”
“OK, now I know something's wrong,” Maggie retorted suspiciously. “The Professor died on my world, and we saw Wade as a head in a jar. Quinn's the only one who could possibly still be alive, and he's stuck in Mallory.”
“Actually, he's dead,” Remmy told her solemnly. “That's another long story. As for the Professor and Wade, well the ones we saw those times weren't the right ones.”
Maggie would have been more upset about Quinn's death if she was sure Rembrandt knew what he was talking about. “And these people are?”
“Of course,” Rembrandt assured her. “Do you really think I could be fooled by a set of doubles? I always had my doubts about the Professor we took on that world where the Golden Gate Bridge was blue. And Wade? I know her better than anybody. She's the real deal.”
“I've got some people with me who'd like to see you, too,” Maggie told him as a little jealousy slipped into her voice. “Diana and Mallory. We've all been waiting here for you for a while. We followed you through as soon as we could get away from Claire and her goons.”
Remmy nodded his head negatively. “You didn't follow me if you landed here. Diana got the co-ordinates wrong.” He sat down and looked her over. She seemed older than he remembered, more so than what he would have expected. “So you decided to lead the anti-Kromagg resistance force just to pass the time?” Rembrandt asked her inquisitively.
Maggie got defensive quickly. “We didn't really have much of a choice. It was that or enslavement. Not surprisingly, we went with the former.” She crossed her arms and remained standing, despite the fact that there was an empty seat next to Rembrandt. “I became leader by default. Everyone else who took the job got executed.”
“The way I hear it,” Remmy said with a frown, “Kromaggs don't kill humans anymore.”
“Obviously you didn't hear the shots fired at Vista Sierra then,” Maggie said coldly. “And that's just one of the massacres we've dealt with. The worst one, granted but... don't believe everything you hear. Especially not from the Kromaggs.”
“There's a treaty that was signed,” Rembrandt stated authoritatively, “by some friends of ours. Representatives of dozens of human-run worlds signed it, too, and it states that the Kromagg Dynasty is at peace with humanity. Now I'm guessing at the very least you've seen a drop off in attacks. I mean, haven't you wondered why you weren't assassinated?” Maggie said nothing. “Doesn't any of this mean something to you?”
“Yeah,” she replied with a smirk. “It means there are a few billion more collaborators than I'd like. But I already knew that. I just didn't know you were going to turn out to be one of them.” Maggie massaged her forehead. “Correct me if I'm wrong here, but you want me to believe that you and Wade, the Wade who spent some quality time in a breeder camp, are now working for the Kromaggs? Is that what you're telling me?”
“We're not working for them, we're working with them,” Remmy corrected. “We're their superiors, in fact.”
Maggie began to laugh a little. “Oh, that's even better. And none of this seems suspicious to you? You and the Kromaggs being on the same side after reuniting with your long lost friends?”
“It's not exactly like that,” Rembrandt started to explain. “You see, there's this Grand Alliance...”
“Are you hearing yourself speak?” Maggie asked, now starting to get a little angry. “Don't you see what this is? The Maggs are playing games with your head, Rem. I just can't believe you're falling for it.”
“I'm not,” Rembrandt insisted. “I still hate the Maggs as much as anybody. After this whole Lesion War is over, I'll be right there in the trenches with you, fighting them until they're gone or I am.”
“Then I guess until then,” Maggie paused poignantly, “we don't have anything else to say to each other.” She began to walk out the door.
“Wait, Maggie,” Remmy called after her. She stopped. “There was something I was supposed to discuss with you. A...a cease fire. Just until we can determine how likely it is that Lesion will attack us.”
“A cease fire?” she replied disbelievingly. “Right. Just think about what I said, OK?”
As Maggie Beckett departed, Rembrandt Brown was left with his own thoughts. Was he the one in the wrong here? He had seen so much in his travels...had it all been lies? Illusions engineered by the Kromagg Dynasty to get him to this point? Remmy shook his head and started making his way back to base. He couldn't afford to think that way. Not with the others depending on him. And after all, it had been a long time since the Kromaggs had been in a position to control him.
Quinn's knuckles softly rapped the door to Wade's office. “I don't have another appointment for fifteen minutes,” her weary voice declared from inside.
“I'm not a Kromagg,” Quinn told her with a smile as he entered the room. “I bet that's the first time you've heard that today.”
“Surprisingly, you'd lose that bet,” Wade said with her head resting lazily on one hand.
“Rough day?” he asked, although the answer was obvious.
She nodded her head slightly. “The last Magg I met with was within days of retirement, so I decided to give him a dangerous field mission. I actually felt kind of sorry for him. Not sorry enough to change the assignment, but...” Wade slumped in her seat. “This isn't as fun as I thought it would be.”
“You should try dialing up random Mekkans with me,” Quinn advised jokingly. “It's funny when you catch them in the shower. See, they exfoliate so rapidly that...” He stopped when he noticed Wade had fallen asleep. He took her jacket from the coat rack (or at least he hoped it was supposed to be a coat rack, because honestly who knew with the Kromaggs?) and covered her with it. “Rest easy, Wade. I'm not going to leave you so soon this time.”
“This has got to be some kind of a joke,” Rembrandt said as he stared at the piece of paper in his hand. “Tell me you're not serious.”
Maximilian Arturo shook his head a little sadly. He then looked up at Rembrandt with a winsome half-smile on his face. “I implore you to understand, Mr. Brown, that I do not have long left to live. I have not seen my home for many years, and I wish to return there before I go. I would think all of you would appreciate what that feels like.”
“To me, it feels like abandonment,” Rembrandt came back perhaps a bit more harshly than he should have. “You have what, maybe a few months left? And you're going to spend it all away from us?” He sighed, and eased into a nearby chair. “We need you.”
“There's no need to coddle me, Rembrandt,” the elder Englishman said in a near whisper. “I am aware of how useless I am in this situation. The circumstances of interdimensional war do not require my particular talents. It was kind of you to lie to me, though.”
“I wasn't,” Rembrandt confessed with a heavy sadness in his eyes. “Do you have to go now?”
“This journey will be an arduous one,” Arturo said revealingly. “I'm not sure how long it will be before I become physically unable to endure it.” He cast his eyes downward as he folded his hands in front of him. “Apparently the British Isles were hit hard by Kromagg invasion. It will likely take me weeks to sort through the mess they've made.” He looked back up at Remmy. “Time is always a precious commodity. No one knows that better than we do.”
It was then that Wade Welles and Quinn Mallory walked into Rembrandt's quarters. “Are we interrupting something?” Wade asked curiously.
“Yeah,” Rembrandt told her with a half-smile. “The Professor was just telling me that he's thinking about leaving us. Maybe you could help me talk him out of it.”
“Actually,” Wade started out with only a small note of hesitation in her voice, “I was thinking of joining him.”
“That's sweet of you, Miss Welles,” Maximilian Arturo said to her with a small smile. “However, this is a sojourn I must make alone.”
“I'm not talking about going to England,” Wade corrected. “I want to go look for my family, too.”
“What...?” was all Rembrandt could manage to make out before being forced to sit down once more.
“This isn't home, Remmy,” Wade said sorrowfully. “It doesn't...feel like home. Not to me, anyway.” Rembrandt turned away from her. “I won't feel safe until I know my parents and my sister are OK. I have to know they're safe.” She sighed. “It's bad enough I have to be separated from my daughter.”
Quinn cleared his throat as an interjection. “I think I might be willing to help you with that.” The three of them quickly turned their attention Quinn's way as he held up the slide signature detector. “We saved the co-ordinates to Girl Scout Camp world, so I can import them to our timer. Wade and I can go there, pick up Callie and then come back here. Assuming you think it's safe enough to raise her here.”
“One Kromagg war zone is as good as another, I suppose,” Wade concluded. “But wouldn't that delay your trip home?”
“Only by a slide or two,” Quinn answered with a shrug. “I've been away for five years. A few more days won't matter.”
The four of them looked at each other, speechless. “So...I guess this is goodbye,” Rembrandt declared a little numbly.
“Don't be so melodramatic, Mr. Brown,” Arturo chided him lightly. “There are still arrangements to be made, precise destinations to be chosen. I don't believe any of us are exactly packing our bags.” He looked down at his watch. “It's getting late. Perhaps we should start planning our respective voyages in the morning, hm?” The rest of the sliders agreed with silent nods and Arturo left them with a softly spoken 'good night'.
“I'm sorry,” Wade told Rembrandt with hesitation in her voice. “I didn't really want to spring this on you the way I did. I should have talked about it with you first.”
“There was no reason to,” Remmy told her with a very forced smile. “It's your life, Wade. I can't tell you how to live it. I wouldn't even want to if I could.”
“You sure you don't want to look for your folks?” Wade asked in a concerned tone of voice. “We could search together, if you want.”
“No,” Rembrandt said dismissively. “Somebody should stay here. Molaudian gave us this task for a reason. It had to be for something important.”
“I guess so,” Wade replied with a marked lack of enthusiasm. “It's just...all these things, these interdimensional political deals, they don't seem to matter so much anymore. We're home, Remmy.” She exhaled sharply. “I guess I should probably get some sleep, too.” Wade turned to Quinn. “Thank you. For everything.” She then followed the Professor's lead and left the room.
“'Thanks for everything?'” Rembrandt asked Quinn with one eyebrow raised. “What's that about?”
“Maybe it's because I'm going back with her to get her estranged infant daughter,” Quinn speculated. “What, did you have an alternate theory on the subject?”
“I'll steer clear of that emotional mine field, thank you,” Remmy retorted with a genuine grin. “Speaking of those two words, I'm thinking I should thank you, too. We gave you a lot of grief, but you did a hell of a job.” He walked over to a cabinet that lie next to his desk, opened it and pulled out a bottle of scotch whiskey. The Kromaggs had their own brands of liquor, but apparently even they appreciated the classics. Remmy poured himself a shot. “Here's to you, Q-Ball.”
Quinn wasn't in a drinking mood, but he appreciated the gesture nonetheless. He then asked the question that neither the Professor nor Wade could bring themselves to. “So, what are you going to do?” he asked as nonchalantly as possible.
Remmy shrugged and then took a hard swig from his glass. “Whatever Molaudian tells me to, I guess. Damn. Never thought I'd be taking orders from some three-foot-tall yellow guy.” His mind ventured further on the subject. “Or I could link up with Maggie and the others in the resistance forces. I bet they're not going anywhere.”
“Maggie?” Quinn asked confusedly. “Maggie Beckett?” Rembrandt nodded. “The Maggie Beckett?” He nodded again. Quinn's voice grew quieter. “She didn't try to breed with you, did she?”
A half-smile formed on Remmy's face. “Not this time.” He looked down at his empty glass and decided to pour another. “I'm just sorry I didn't get a chance to tell Wade about our little encounter. When she finds out Maggie's OK, I'm sure she'll be...slightly relieved.”
“Not a lot of love lost there, huh?” Quinn asked with amusement. They were interrupted when something started ringing on Rembrandt's desk. Both sliders headed towards it, trying to determine the source. Remmy was thoroughly perplexed, but Quinn had become familiar enough with Kromagg communications to find the proper button to push. Once he had done so, he hooked a small audio device to his ear. “State your business,” he answered gruffly. He had learned that this was the standard Magg greeting. After a few moments, he handed the device to a hapless Rembrandt. “It's for you. They're going to patch you into Molaudian.”
“Finally,” Remmy said with relief. Quinn started towards the exit. “Wait, where are you going?”
“To get some sleep,” Quinn answered honestly. “See you in the morning.”
Rembrandt was about to call after Quinn but then a familiar Mekkan voice came on the line. “Greetings, SubConsul Brown. What might I be able to make happen for you today?”
“Um, well, Molaudian, Consul Molaudian,” the former Mekkan diplomat tried not to take offense at his mispronunciations, “I, uh, just wanted to know what exactly it was that you wanted me to accomplish. I've got a new rank and a fancy office and a whole army of Kromaggs to lead. But I'm a little lost on what I'm supposed to do here.”
“I am glad you called me so late to ask me this,” Jermaches Molaudian said with vigor. “As you may know, the midriff of the night is the time that Mekkans have the most difficult time sleeping.”
“Was that sarcasm?” Rembrandt wondered aloud. “I can't tell with you.”
“Certainly not,” Jermaches Molaudian scolded him, as he was now all-business. “My first recommendation would be for you to update the personnel files. You would not believe how incompetent your predeceasor was about getting those to us.”
“Personnel files?” Remmy repeated, disbelief filling his voice.
Molaudian didn't pick up on the tone change. “Yes. Also, there are some intelligence equipment upgrades that need to be done. Kromaggs usually resist these mandated improvements, but I believe you will have no problem complying.” Molaudian made a noise with his mouth Rembrandt didn't recognize, and wasn't sure he wanted to. “Is that enough advice for tonight? My eartubes are growing stiff.”
“Sure,” Remmy told him slowly. “Good-bye.” He let the device fall from his ear as he stared down at his desk. Was this what he was going to be spending the rest of his life doing? Filing Kromagg paperwork and installing Mekkan electronics?
As Rembrandt stood to pour himself another drink, he began thinking about his life as a slider. He had been given a chance to do things, see things that few others in the short history of human existence had experienced. It had also given him a new lease on life. Seven years ago, as much as he might try to deny it, he was just a washed-up singer with little to no chance of making it big again. As a slider, he had been someone; a leader, an adventurer. Now, back on his home world with no good reason to leave it again, who was he?
Maybe he could persuade Wade to let him join her. The nomadic lifestyle had always suited him. Quinn was already going with her, and while the others seemed all too eager to break up their group, he wasn't. Rembrandt was contemplating how he could frame the request when the hand of God seemingly struck the Earth, throwing him off of his feet and sending him flying onto his desk, which was now on its side. At first, he surmised it was an earthquake, but there were no further seismic disturbances. Just something that sounded like thunder coming from the outside.
A large airborne vessel loomed darkly over the night sky, lighting it up with weapons fire. The people (and Kromaggs) below were completely unprepared for the attack. Lesion was here, and they had found a fitting way to announce their presence.
Death rained down from the heavens like a storm of hailstones rippling waters that were once still. The only advantage the hapless bystanders on the ground had was numerical superiority; there was but one ship, and many of them. However, in the 'battle' that was to come this proved no benefit at all. It was difficult to describe the discontinuity between this massive instrument of destruction and its intended target, other than to use an historical analogy. This Lesion ship landing on this world at this time was as if the Allied convoy of transport ships that landed on Normandy's beaches in 1944 instead did so in the era of its greatest lord, William the Conqueror. A bad time to be a Norman leader, to be sure.
Grand Alliance Central Command was finding this out first hand. "What the hell just happened?!" one of the senior Kromagg officers, whose only military experience lie in janitorial duties but who had been recently promoted by Wade Welles, asked snappishly to one of his subordinates, formerly a two-bar general.
"I...I do not know," he stammered, entirely unaccustomed to the situation in front of him. "It came out of nowhere." Of course it didn't really, as sliding was never instantaneous materialization, but the exaggeration was understandable.
Although not wholly acceptable to the new Magg in charge. "Track its point of origin. A sudden assault on its home world might force the vessel to withdraw."
Grand Alliance senior officer Rey Marin, who was still bound to this Earth by Kromagg protocol and Grand Alliance thriftiness, swaggered his way into the room. "Who's in charge here? Why haven't we already launched a counterattack?"
"I was...just getting ready to do that," explained the flummoxed new officer. "But I was awaiting further instructions."
"Do it without them," Rey ordered, a seeming contradiction that nevertheless functioned well in execution. Grand Alliance troops were preparing to enter the field of battle in force. But still something was missing. "We need our senior officers up here. They'll know what to do. They're experienced at this sort of thing." He tapped a nearby Magg on the shoulder. "Soldier, get me...those four people that just came in recently from another dimension and that Molaudian gave control of this base to. You know the people I'm talking about."
Maximilian Arturo snored soundly as the night sky lit up with laser fire outside his window. He remained oblivious to the assault, as well as to the three visitors who waited, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar-like, at Arturo's door. Eventually their buzzing of the rather unpleasant-sounding doorbell roused the Professor from his slumber. "Yes, what is it?" he growled in a daze.
"Finally," Wade complained as she barged in. Quinn and Rembrandt followed close behind. "We've got a problem."
"Is it insomnia?" Professor Arturo asked irritably. "Because I'm afraid you're making it contagious."
"No," Rembrandt said grimly. "There's a ...uh, I'll wait 'til you're ready, Q-Ball."
"Don't mind me, Remmy," Quinn replied casually. He had removed his ill-fitting bathrobe and was buttoning up a shirt he had grabbed from his closet before scrambling out the door. For some reason none of them quite understood, attention seemed to focus on that activity for a few seconds.
The Professor was more than a bit on the impatient side. "Would someone please explain to me what the devil is going on?" Arturo demanded.
"See for yourself," Wade said and adjusted the view from his window. The Lesion mothership, or so it seemed to those familiar with UFO terminology, hovered over San Francisco ominously.
"Good heavens," Arturo said with wonder. "What is that monstrosity?"
As another deadly blast slammed into a Kromagg military target, Command Central surveyed the specs of the craft. "It exceeds all known parameters for military vessels. There is no record of anything like it on file. We have reports that it could likely level this settlement at will." The highest ranking Kromagg in the room turned to the top-level human officer. "I suggest we evacuate the city. Possibly the continent."
Rey rolled his eyes. "You would." He then returned to the serious task at hand. "We're not giving up yet. Keep on them. Maybe we'll get lucky."
"Sir?" another Kromagg underling spoke up. "I believe we just did." As all eyes turned to the view screen and said screen began to focus tightly on the now immobile ship, they watched in fascination. It had stopped firing.
There to witness this seemingly miraculous event were the four sliders, in on the action at last now that there was none to speak of. Remmy turned to Rey. "Does this mean we win?"
"I doubt it," Wade answered for him. "What are we doing now that it's inactive?"
Rey Marin turned to her with a suave smile. "What would you suggest?"
"Something... like that," Wade answered with surprise as she watched the monitor. A throng of irregular troops descended (or perhaps ascended) on the vessel mere moments after it began doing its possum impression. Whether it was playing or not remained to be seen. These people seemed hell-bent on finding out.
"Maggie," Rembrandt said as he recognized the leader of the group. His voice displayed a mix of disappointment and pride that was difficult to convey. To the others, it sounded like he was having trouble swallowing.
"Maggie?" Wade questioned. "Maggie Beckett? Our Maggie Beckett?" Remmy nodded almost as an afterthought.
“We need to get in there,” Rembrandt declared softly.
“You heard the man,” Rey called out to the Kromaggs. “Send out the troops and tell them to fire at will!”
“No,” Remmy corrected. “I mean I need to get in there. I've been sitting here doing nothing for too long, and I'm not about to let any more KroMaggots do my dirty work.” 'Not with Maggie out there,' he thought to himself but didn't say aloud. He turned to the aforementioned Maggots. It was time to start throwing his weight around. “Get me some weapons.”
“I'm coming with you,” Wade told Rembrandt. He didn't argue.
“Me, too,” Quinn chimed in. This time, he started to. Quinn cut him off. “I know I'm not much of a fighter, but I can help. That game of vortex chicken with Krah'aea isn't the only trick up my sleeve.”
“That settles it then,” Arturo proclaimed with gusto. “We'll all be going into the field of battle.”
As they all prepared to enter the fray, Quinn turned to Wade. “Are you ready for this?”
Wade did some impressive stunt with the weapon in her hand and then looked back up at him. “As I'll ever be. You?”
Quinn gulped. “Sure. Um, what end does the clip go in again?”
Wade considered a sigh, but smiled instead. “Just stick with me and try not to point at things you don't want to shoot. Like me, for instance.”
Maximilian Arturo stood to one side, seemingly lost in thought. “I don't like this, Professor,” Rembrandt whispered to him. “It's too dangerous. I don't want you to get hurt before you get a chance to...”
“Die?” Arturo retorted candidly. “Don't worry about me, Mr. Brown. I have no desire to do anything foolhardy. But I do plan to see this adventure out to its conclusion.” He turned and looked at the door that was the only thing separating them from the killing fields outside. “Lead the way.”
Rembrandt did so with a look of resolve on his face. There was going to have to be some serious damage done here. He tried not to think of this world as his home. For some reason, it was too easy. “Just another damn war zone.”
Unfortunately, it was proving to be a little bit more than that. After a few moments of taking heavy fire from the vessel's various armaments, those left standing were sent flying a few feet in the air courtesy of a brand new energy field that formed between the would-be attackers and the ship, which seemed even larger from out here. “This thing is kicking our tails,” Rembrandt assessed glumly. “We need to regroup.”
Maggie's face was dirty and her hair, most recently dyed red, was now blackened with dirt. However, her voice was still distinctive. “That shield thing looks like it's localized. I think we can go around it.” She looked off into a corner alley. “Follow me.” Rembrandt made sure that all seven of them were alive, kicking and high-tailing it out of there and then did so himself with little hesitation.
The seven of them included two different groups of sliders, some of whom had never met each other. Once they reached a safe house, they conversed a tad awkwardly, trying to get to know one another. Quinn took a long look at Mallory. “You're supposed to be my double, right? So why is it that you don't look like me?”
“Beats me,” Mallory answered with a casual shrug. “Guess I'm a sci-fi original.”
Diana shyly turned to Wade. “Nice look.” Wade stared back at her. “You know, since last time. You look... better.”
“You were there when I...” She couldn't bring herself to finish that sentence. Diana shook her head quickly. Wade frowned in concentration. “I don't remember you.”
“I can't say I'm surprised,” Diana muttered.
“We should get moving,” Rembrandt declared with authority. “I don't care how safe this place is, it's not going to be for long if we don't do something about that ship.” The rest of his crew rose to leave, but Maggie didn't move. Neither did Mallory or Diana. “What are we waiting for?”
“Re-enforcements,” Maggie answered simply. Her eyes were focused on something behind them. The quartet of sliders turned around and saw what she was looking at. There were a dozen Lesion troops pointing deadly weapons at them. It didn't take long for our heroes to drop theirs in response.
A vaguely familiar-looking Larnani stepped out of the shadows and addressed them. “It is my duty to inform you that you are now prisoners of the Court of Mekalech.”
Rheanno Brala turned a crank that elevated a chained-up Quinn Mallory to the same level as the other three sliders. All four of them were bound to a device that looked down on a large stone slab below. “I've been meaning to thank you for attempting to kill me. I never would have had a chance at this position if I hadn't been hospitalized during a crucial personnel purge.” His half-sucker swirled into a half-smile. “I tried to think of a way to repay you, and now I think I have it.”
“You're going to kill me?” Quinn asked, quiet bitterness filling his voice.
“Hardly,” Brala replied with a chuckle. “You misunderstand our intentions here, Mallory. I only want to show you who you truly are.”
“Spare me the double speak,” Quinn came back, his frustration showing itself in his voice.
“An interesting choice of words,” Brala mused. “But on to the matter at hand. You might recognize the big hunk of rock below you as soulstone. Then again, you might not. In my experience, humans are notoriously stupid.” He strutted around the platform that held him aloft, just a few feet below the sliders, over the large rock. “We have enough here to power a weapon of unimaginable destruction. Naturally, we plan to destroy things with it. The Kromagg forces and their human running dogs would be an adequate beginning, I think.”
Maggie looked up at them. “We've got our anti-Kromagg weapon, Rem.”
“Now,” Brala chirped, quickly cutting Rembrandt off before he could hurl invectives at Maggie for her naiveté. And for calling him 'Rem'. “Let's have a demonstration of what soulstone can really do, shall we?” Instead of pulling a lever like some mad scientist in a B movie he simply pressed a button to activate the device. It whirred to life and a strange glowing accompanied by a burning sensation seemed to emanate from our heroes.
Rheanno Brala descended the ladder to the floor below. He stood next to the three sliders who were not chained up. “I don't want to get overly technical, but the machine feeds off of certain energies that have traditionally been untapped as a power source. Call it 'the soul', 'the strength of the human spirit' or 'amplified energy from the unused portions of the brain' if you will, but whatever it is, it makes for one nerka of a light show.”
Turned face down so that they could get a good look at the stone, the sliders could only see the glow in front of them. A few buttons pushed by Brala changed the situation. The foursome now looked each other over. “Do you see a recurring pattern? The scientists among you should have already guessed the nature of it. It is similar to the quantum signature effect, in that a distinct configuration occurs on all individuals from the same dimension. As you'll note, all four of you possess that same marking.”
All eyes were now on Quinn Mallory. “It is a humorous twist of fate. To be twice forced to share a body with another version of you. I believe a comment about your human concept of karma might be appropriate.”
“I...” Quinn stammered. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“No, of course not,” Brala smirked. “Only the essence of the Quinn of this world has been preserved. Not his mind or his memories. But his spirit, you might say, lives on in you.” There would have been more inquiries on the subject, but a sudden painful shock jolted all four sliders. “And that would be the weapon charging up. I anticipate that we will be able to utilize it in approximately...soon.”
“What's going to happen to them?” Diana asked, concerned for a reason even she barely understood.
Rheanno Brala looked up at her for an instant, then turned his attention back to adjusting dials and the like. “The traitors Brown and Welles will be jailed. I believe an exception can be made in the case of Mr. Arturo, seeing as he is quite ill. As for the fate of Mr. Mallory...” His voice trailed off and one of his eyes, more mobile than those of a human, turned up to glance at him. “I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you. You see...” He was interrupted by a rather large explosion behind him. It didn't take long for their hypersensitive intelligence equipment to figure out that Kromagg forces were counterattacking from the rear. “Trag it! How close are they?”
“Closing in from 500 meters, sir,” a nervous minion reported. Brala hissed. They could not allow this weapon to fall into Kromaggs hands.
“Very well,” the lead Larnani said, as if conceding the world. “Station a granikala crew to guard the device and order everyone else to see to the defense of this facility.”
“What about them?” the guard asked of the sliders, who were trying their best not to cry out in pain.
“The device would likely incapacitate them in a few moments,” Brala pointed out. “But deactivate it and take them down anyway. I don't like the idea of leaving these meddlers unsupervised. Get some of the other humans to watch them.”
As Wade Welles became fully awake, the first thing she realized was that there was an arm on hers. It roughly steered her down a brightly lit hallway, forcing her onwards despite her own strong desire for rest. She didn't remember everything she'd been through, but apparently it had been enough to thoroughly exhaust her.
It didn't take Wade long to learn that the arm belonged to Maggie Beckett. Seemingly unaccompanied, she was taking Wade somewhere she most likely didn't want to be. There was no time to be diplomatic. Taking advantage of the element of surprise, Wade elbowed Maggie in the stomach, sending her sprawling backwards. Wade's mind wasn't sharp enough to take full advantage of the situation, however, as she had to take a few moments to get her bearings. The standoff began as they both reached for the gun that had formerly been in Maggie's hand.
Neither of them quite made it. Maggie clutched Wade's forearm and then managed to shove her back away from the weapon. But not before Wade landed a flailing kick in Maggie's face. After taking a brief moment to catch their breath and looking back at the weapon to make sure that the other one didn't go for it, Wade and Maggie looked each other in the eye. “Damn. When Brala told me you were the one to watch out for, I wasn't sure I believed him. Where'd you learn to fight like that?”
“Girl scout camp,” Wade answered smugly. “Why are you doing this?”
“To get this world back from the Kromaggs,” Maggie replied angrily. “It's what the real Wade and Rembrandt would have wanted.”
“We're not doubles,” Wade said emphatically.
“No,” Maggie said sadly. “God, how I wish you were. You've become traitors to your own people; slaves to the Dynasty. I knew you were a Kromagg whore, but I had no idea that you could turn Remmy into one, too.”
Understandably, this insult didn't sit too well with Wade. Dazed and beaten though she was, she sprang quickly into action, lunging towards Maggie with serious intent to do bodily harm. Unfortunately for Wade, Maggie anticipated the move and blocked it. Then, with a sweeping kick, she knocked Wade off of her feet. This put Wade in great position to kick Maggie with both legs, again aiming for her stomach. She struck hard enough to knock Maggie into the wall, her head and neck taking the brunt of the blow. She didn't move for a few seconds afterwards.
That was enough time for Wade to seize the weapon and hold it on her. When Maggie stirred to life, she groaned heavily. This was not going well. “I don't really give a damn what you think about me, the choices I've made or what I had to go through just to stay alive. But I'll be damned before I let your self-righteous attitude get my friends killed. Now where are they?!”
Rembrandt leaned over to Quinn and the Professor conspiratorially. “Do you realize that we're being guarded by Mallory and Diana? That's gotta be a new low for my ego.”
“I wish they were the only ones we had to worry about,” Quinn replied, nodding quickly to the Larnani Lesion guards flanking the device that they had nearly caused to be activated.
“You say these are your former comrades, Mr. Brown?” Professor Arturo inquired curiously. Remmy nodded. “Why not talk to them? See if you can explain our situation. They could be potential allies.” Rembrandt must have agreed, as he walked over to converse with his former fellow sliders.
“I'm Quinn,” Quinn said a little strangely. “Your Quinn. How could... how could I not know?”
“This is Lesion we're talking about, Mr. Mallory,” Professor Arturo cautioned. “Don't believe everything they tell you.” There was a moment of silence between them that was soon interrupted by a loud, obnoxious voice from where Remmy stood.
“Hey, I'm not going to turn my back on these guys,” Mallory insisted to Rembrandt, with more anger and frustration in his voice than seemed warranted. “I wouldn't even be alive if it weren't for them. That anti-Kromagg virus started playing havoc with our immune systems, and I got it the worst. Thank God they fixed me.”
Rembrandt was immediately suspicious. “What did they do to you?”
Wade continued to train a small blaster weapon on Maggie. “Look, if I can prove that Lesion are the bad guys, will you come with me willingly?”
“How exactly are you going to do that?” Maggie sneered.
“You're just going to have to trust me,” Wade told her.
“Any particular reason I should?” she asked, contempt still clear as day in her tone of voice.
“Aside from this,” she said, referring to the weapon in her hand, “none.” Maggie got up and followed her without argument.
“Why should it matter what treatments they used?” Diana asked Rembrandt. “It worked, didn't it?”
Rembrandt quickly reminded them of an incident from their brief history together. “How can you ask me that after that world with the weird nanotech cult? Sometimes the cure's worse than the affliction.”
“Rembrandt, just leave me alone. I'm fine, OK?” Mallory practically shrieked at him.
“You don't look fine,” Remmy assessed. Arturo and Quinn, too, moved closer to investigate his sudden agitation. “You're starting to look...kind of yellow.”
Rembrandt wasn't just whistling Dixie, not that he would. Mallory's skin was starting to get a yellowish tint and his demeanor, not exactly pleasant over the last few seconds, grew ever more hostile. He tossed a large console aside with a bellow. “Is it jaundice?” Diana wondered aloud. Everybody else in the room, including some of the Lesion guards, gave her a 'get real' look. “Just asking.”
Wade and Maggie had a pretty good bird's eye view of the situation when the carnage started. Per Wade's insistence, they had snuck up on the quintet of interdimensional voyagers from a catwalk above. Mallory, in a berserker rage, had started flinging equipment and stray doodads across the room. When Lesion guards attempted to stop him, they were killed; one by Mallory's gun, the other by having his neck snapped. “Is this proof enough?”
“It doesn't mean anything,” Maggie retorted stubbornly. “The Maggs could have done that to him as well as...oh, hell, it doesn't matter. He needs to be stopped. Give me the gun.”
Wade was less than pleased with the request. “What? No. Get your own gun.”
“That one is mine!” Maggie insisted. As both women childishly grasped for the weapon, they both fell over the railing, knocking the wind out of themselves but doing no permanent damage.
It was enough, however, to distract Mallory. “His eyes are completely red, do you see that?” Professor Arturo pointed to the fiery glint in Mallory's eye. “He's become a NECRO.”
“Oh no,” Diana said sheepishly. “Mallory's a little strange, but with dead people? Never.”
“A NECRO assassin,” Arturo corrected harshly. “I've never seen one this powerful before. He's extremely dangerous.” As if to prove that point, Mallory started firing the weapon in his hand wildly, incinerating much of the debris that the sliders had been using to hide behind. They no longer had any cover at all.
“Let me take care of this,” Rembrandt insisted. “The rest of you get back. Get yourself someplace safe.”
“There's no time,” Arturo insisted. As if to prove him right, Mallory blasted something near where they stood to bits.
“It's now or never, I guess,” Rembrandt called out, and damn it if the Elvis song of that same name didn't pop into his head. A distraction was the last thing he needed as he lumbered towards Mallory, trying to find an Achilles heel to pounce on. The other sliders fanned out instinctively, not allowing him to have a compact human target to hit. Having several individuals to choose from, Mallory turned his blaster weapon in Diana's direction. Caught like a deer in headlights, she could do nothing to stop him as he fired. Remmy rushed towards her, knocking them both to the ground with a solid tackle. The shot came in just over both of their heads.
Fleeing Lesion troops from outside distracted Mallory for a moment, but then he took aim at Professor Arturo, approaching him slowly to attempt something heroic. His line of fire was disrupted quickly by a figure cutting in from the side. It was Quinn. Just as Arturo was being pushed to the ground, he was blasted in the back. Quinn got the worse end of the deal, though. He had taken three shots to the chest by the time he got to Mallory, and by then all he had the ability to do was collapse on him.
That tactic, accidental as it was, was the last thing Mallory expected. As everything seemed to slow down, Mallory managed to push Quinn's limp body off of himself just as Maggie regained her composure. Standing to face the threat before her, the former marine captain shot Mallory twice, but her aim wasn't exactly accurate. There was a struggle for the weapon that ended with Mallory shot a few more times and Maggie once. Both of them lie eerily still after the assault.
From that point on, everything seemed a blur. More fleeing Lesion troops filtered in, but our heroes paid them no mind. Four sliders were on the ground, immobile. Rembrandt moved to Arturo's side. A slight smile crossed his face. “He's breathing. I think he's going to be OK. He needs a doctor, but...everything's going to be OK, Professor.”
“No, it's not,” Wade reported, her voice oddly calm. “Quinn's dead, Remmy. My God, he's really dead.” She stood over him, her fingers pressed against his neck, and wept bitterly.
Grand Alliance Command Central wondered whether or not to break out in cries of jubilation. Without warning or ostensible cause, the Lesion megaship had abandoned their skies. After a few moments of silence, most of the officers reasoned that some form of celebration was necessary. The Kromaggs among them sang familiar songs while the humans just looked at each other, stunned.
“Why did they leave, sir?” one of the greener among them asked Rey Marin as if he would know.
He shrugged. “I guess Lesion got what it came for.”
To be continued in "Regenesis..."
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