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6.20 - Serpent's Tooth
by ThomasMalthus

Chapter One

To say that visitors were unexpected was a bit of an understatement. Nobody had set foot in the place for over twenty years, not since the last attempt to unload it on foreign investors failed. San Francisco was home to an uncommonly great amount of illegal activity, but the old warehouse was even useless to the criminal element. Why deal in drugs or prostitution in a dilapidated place like this, when you could do so in style? Not even the most antisocial felons could find a reason. And so the place had remained empty. Until today.

Dust stirred on empty crates and the usual unpleasant small animals you'd expect to find in a place like this scurried back to their hiding places as the old delivery doors came creaking open. Drips of blood marked a trail leading back to the outside world, although none of them would be going out that way again. Voices echoed throughout and exacerbated a general mood of panic. These people were clearly not here because they wanted to be.

"You have to keep your end up, Mr. Brown!" an angry British voice exclaimed. Another man's voice let out an absent-minded 'OK' as he struggled to carry the body, which was dead weight at this point, to someplace safe. If there was such a thing here.

The Old West is often romanticized. Heroic gunslingers, showdowns at high noon, and the code of the West have all thrilled audiences for over a hundred years. All lies, of course. When lawlessness and having to live by the gun is real, when it is visceral and inescapable, it is not nearly as sought-after. Nonetheless, it is the way of life here. People seldom leave the house without an automatic weapon. All cars are armored, and most that aren't fresh from the showroom have been shot up more than a few times. Murder is not necessarily a crime, not if you can prove you had a 'legitimate' reason, of which there are many.

Given these circumstances, four travelers from another dimension did fairly well here for the day they were allotted. There were a few close calls of course, but weren't there always? No, what happened to them here could have happened on any world. But it didn't happen on any world. It happened on this one, and that made things decidedly worse.

Wade followed closely behind them and closed the large doors behind her. "I don't think he followed us," she reported with optimism. Of course, after the beating she gave him, she had a right to it. "How's Quinn?" The look Arturo gave her didn't fill her with confidence.

The sliders always preferred to leave worlds in obscurity, most times from an otherwise empty alleyway. On this world, that decision was a bit of a mistake. Illegal activity was often bred in such places, but in this city only criminals who couldn't operate in public in the light of day found it necessary to do so there. In this case a haggard man possessing a look of desperation, who apparently was one of the very few people who didn't own a gun in this society, was making his living mugging what looked like easy targets. Who easier than three unarmed men and a young woman?

It had been easy, at first. The sliders were more than willing to part with the cash they had, their duffel bags and their clothes rather than risk their lives by not doing so. But there was one item they couldn't afford to let go. The timer, stashed away in Quinn's jacket pocket, was of interest to the knife-wielding thief. Quinn tried to play the part of the hero. Things went downhill from there. Quinn Mallory now lie on a large crate with his coat tied tightly around his stomach and soaked blood red.

"He's lost a lot of blood," the Professor reported solemnly. "We probably shouldn't move him again for a while. However, we leave this world in less in only a few minutes. From there, we can get him to a hospital."

Rembrandt looked Quinn over as he slowly removed the coat from his stomach. The cut was deep. There had been no time to retrieve the timer had the mugger taken off with it, and now there was no time to get to a doctor. Remmy supposed they should have been used to running out of time on each world they landed on, but they never really did.

"What if there aren't any hospitals on the next world? Or doctors?" Wade asked with a strange evenness to her voice. "What if we let Quinn die because we didn't want to miss the slide? Could we live with ourselves?" Clearly the challenge was made to the Professor, whose eyes she now met with fiery determination.

"Miss Welles, Mr. Mallory is in his current condition because he didn't want us to miss the slide, even at the cost of his own life," Arturo retorted. "Now we can respect his choice, or we can act on impulse and regret it for the next 29.7 years."

"Wade," Rembrandt called out, "hand me something out of one of the bags to wrap up Quinn's wound. That old sweater I have would do."

Wade was distracted by the request long enough for Arturo to speak again. "I don't have to remind you that this world was very much less than pleasant to stay on for the space of a day. Do you really think you could spend a good part of your life here?"

"I can handle myself," Wade answered with more confidence in her voice than she really felt. Then an idea struck her. "You can leave us here. Me and Quinn. You've been working on a way to control our slides anyway. Save the co-ordinates for this earth on your doohickey and then input them into the timer when you're able to and you can come back for us."

Rembrandt's hands were red already from applying pressure with the bloody jacket. "Wade, come on. I need some help here."

"I can't even begin to tell you what could go wrong with that plan," Professor Arturo growled. "You're being irrational."

"Of course I am!" Wade exclaimed in response. "Quinn could die!" Her panicked tone drew concerned looks from both Rembrandt and the Professor. She deliberately calmed herself down, forcing herself to adopt a more casual tone. "And I don't want him to."

"Obviously, none of us do," Arturo countered softly. "But we have to face some unfortunate realities here."

"Actually, we'll have to face them on the next world," Rembrandt stated loudly and a little irritably. He then indicated the beeping timer and pressed the button that activated the vortex. Professor Arturo and Wade were both more than a little surprised that they almost missed the window. Remmy took the timer to Wade. "Take our stuff and go through." It was an order, but the gentleness with which it was said disguised that fact.

"But..." Wade started.

Rembrandt smiled reassuringly. "Trust me. We'll be right behind you." He watched as Wade disappeared in the void. "Help me with Quinn," Remmy told the Professor. As he did so, he removed the sweater he was wearing to bandage Quinn, while zipping his jacket up over his t-shirt. "I hope it's warmer on the next world." The two unhurt male sliders hefted the injured one through the wormhole, with Rembrandt falling backwards through it, so as to absorb the impact for both of them upon landing.

It was dark on the other side. Faint light from an unknown source was all the illumination they received. As Professor Arturo landed (and missed Quinn and Rembrandt by a few inches) the former musician began to struggle to his feet, keeping Quinn steady as he rose. They all started to take a look around. "This certainly isn't the worst place where we could have landed. At least there appears to be no immediate danger."

Wade started to get her bearings here, looking for potential problems to come up any minute. "Don't count your zarnans." Rembrandt and the Professor looked at her strangely. "Sorry. Too much time spent with the Mekkans, I suppose. All I meant was that we don't even know where we are yet."

Rembrandt's eyes squinted as he took in the large room surrounding them through the dim. "Maybe I'm crazy, but does this place seem familiar to you?"

Arturo nodded, although in the dimness it was hard to see it. "I'll admit I didn't get too close of a look at our immediate surroundings on the last world, but this seems like the same structure we departed from. At any rate, the two buildings possess the same dimensions, only across different dimensions."

"It doesn't look like there's anybody here," Wade assessed. "We're probably going to have to take Quinn somewhere else."

Rembrandt took a look at their unconscious friend. As much as he wanted to help him, he didn't relish the task ahead. "Great. I hate doing this."

Professor Arturo started to take his now practically customary position at Quinn's feet. "Relax, Mr. Brown. With any luck, we won't run into a homicidal version of Quinn's brother here."

"Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't run into any trouble at all?" Wade mused. As if this were a cue, (which wasn't it, really?) bright lights began to shine from overhead, temporarily blinding our sliders. When their blinking eyes could focus once again, they saw several dozen elderly people wearing what looked like a combination of a tunic and a kilt whose pattern swirled in shades of gray and blue. They sat on the floor on large mats, meditating with all four limbs behind their back and touching the ground while the rest of their body rose as high as humanly possible. It looked a bit like a game of Twister that you played by yourself. The position didn't look very comfortable, which might explain why they didn't seem like the friendliest people in the world. Of course, here maybe they were.

Professor Arturo took on the role of ambassador for the group, as he often did. "I do hope you'll pardon the intrusion. We certainly didn't mean to interrupt your, er, activities." The older ladies and gentlemen, in response, said nothing.

Wade frowned as she examined the figures sitting in front of them. Surely they would have made some sound that revealed their presence, or they would have been seen earlier by the light of the vortex, if they had been here when the sliders arrived. "I don't like this," she confided to Rembrandt.

"I don't know," Remmy replied reassuringly. "Landing in an old folks' home isn't so bad. They might even be able to treat Quinn."

"We're able to do a great deal more than that," a voice said seemingly from nowhere. All three conscious sliders needed a second look to realize that there was an exotic-looking young woman standing in front of them who looked like she was competing for Miss Congeniality. "If you'll follow me I can get all of your testing out of the way as quickly as possible."

"What tests?" Wade asked. "What's going on?"

"Test?" Rembrandt repeated. "Wait. This isn't some kind of school for old people, is it? Because I'm only thirty-five." Wade shot Remmy an incredulous look.

"I'm afraid you're going to have explain a little more of the situation to us, madam," Professor Arturo told her, his graciousness wearing a little thin. "Where exactly are we?"

She didn't seem to be reacting to them any longer. "If you'll follow me please, the testing rooms are this way," she walked briskly from the room, seemingly not touching the ground as she walked away.

Rembrandt and the Professor began to carry Quinn as Wade tried to keep pace with their new tour guide of sorts. Remmy cast a worried look at Arturo. "Can I cheat off of you?"

Chapter Two

Rembrandt and Wade sat nervously on short, gray mini-couches, waiting for something to happen. They wanted to be waiting for a more specific 'thing', but nobody seemed to want to tell them much around here, so they decided to settle for something, anything. News about Quinn or further details about this 'test' preferably.

They had already discovered it was something akin to a medical examination; the forms they had to fill out attested to that fact if nothing else did. Quinn had already been floated away on some device none of them recognized. They were told he would be taken care of. If that turn of phrase didn't end up being a good thing, they had around a week and a half to make other arrangements, whatever that would entail on this world.

Rembrandt, who had been somewhat relieved by the nonacademic nature of the testing that was performed here, still looked worried. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked Wade.

She considered making a 'Pinky and the Brain' reference but the mood wasn't light enough. "Probably," she answered with a slight smile. "We tend to be on the same wavelength a lot of the time."

"Well, if you were thinking about the garden variety of pain that can be inflicted on you in the name of health and medicine, then we're reading each other's minds," Rembrandt remarked sourly. "Not that that would be anything new." Wade looked down and he instantly realized he'd hit the wrong note. "I mean, who even knows what this world considers normal? Maybe we'll all get diagnosed with too few toes, or something."

"I guess we don't have any choice," Wade replied quietly. "As long as they have Quinn, they call the shots."

"Yeah, well I say if they start grafting on or chopping up, we grab Q-ball and split, so to speak." Rembrandt went on. "We don't want him waking up with two brains or anything."

"Or without the one he has," Wade threw in without amusement. She looked around the overly sanitized environment and shivered. "I don't know, I just can't seem to stop myself from freaking out about this place. I keep thinking I'm going to get dissected and have my body parts shipped off to a thousand different worlds. I know I shouldn't, it's just..."

Remmy put his arm around her supportively. "It's OK, Wade. All of us will make it out of here intact. We'll make a daring escape and end up working to pay our hospital bill for the rest of the slide if we have to."

Wade seemed to cheer up a bit after that. They once again sat in silence, pondering what might happen to a gravely injured Quinn and themselves before the slide was up. Any chance that they might feel at ease vanished as the scenarios played out in their minds. Pretty soon, however, Professor Arturo showed up to distract them and they slid their potential problems under the mental rug, as it were. "Any luck?" Wade asked.

"Some," Arturo said with a sense of satisfaction. "Inquiries to live humans, or beings who seem human at any rate, produced less than stellar results. However," he said as he reached in his back pocket. "I did find a brochure."

"What does it say?" Rembrandt asked.

The Professor looked down at his fellow sliders with an imperiousness that few could match. "I instructed young minds in ontology and cosmology for many years, Mr. Brown, and in all that time I never once tolerated students who didn't do the reading." He thrust two copies of the piece of folded, glossy paper to his companions. "Besides, it helps to cure the boredom."

Wade and Rembrandt both started scanning their brochures as soon as the words written on it began shimmering into English. "Please come and enjoy our 'world' as your vacation spot?" Wade questioned. "Who was this written for?"

"Interdimensional travelers such as us, I would assume," Arturo answered. "Unless Cerellian tourism is bustling here, it would seem the most logical conclusion, and it would explain why these people aren't curious about how we arrived here."

"They don't seem like the curious type," Rembrandt said, his eyes still reading over the pamphlet. "'We offer peace and tranquility 26 hours a day for your relaxation pleasures.' Doesn't sound like any vacation I'd want to be on."

"There would certainly be those who would disagree with you," Professor Arturo countered with seriousness. "Read on."

Wade's eyes first found the passage that Arturo referred to. "...we are most renowned for our medicinal practices, which have been known to cure 95% of all fatal diseases." She then squinted. "There's some fine print here..."

"Don't strain your eyes, Miss Welles," Professor Arturo told her gently. "It merely qualifies its guarantee by saying it only works on those with a young body and a healthy immune system. Those over forty or so need not apply." Arturo smirked thoughtfully. "Youth is so often wasted on the young."

"At least we know Quinn's in good hands," Rembrandt said on a positive note. He then added a negative one. "If we can believe their propaganda."

"Yes," Arturo agreed with a hesitant ring to his voice. "But it seems that they do have the technology to back up their outrageous claims. Come take a look outside."

The three of them walked down the hallway that Professor Arturo had emerged from earlier. The sliders couldn't help but gawk at the impassiveness of the people they saw walking around them. Other than the woman that had spoken to them at the beginning of the slide, everyone else here looked to be at least in their seventies and all of them looked like their faces had been drained of emotion. Wade worried for an instant that their expressionless faces would be the first thing Quinn saw when he awoke, and their bedside manner was bound to be atrocious. After a few moments, they arrived at a large 'picture window', you might call it. It was a window that sat in a frame, hung from the wall and offered a clear look at the outside, regardless of where you moved it. Arturo adjusted it slightly to give them a better view of the city.

"Neat feature," Wade noted. "Unless you're being stalked by a Peeping Tom." Wade and Rembrandt took a good look at the row of tall buildings outside. It was slightly different than most generic future cityscapes; upon close inspection the structures were less than uniform and flaws presented themselves quickly (there were several broken house plants on patios and horrible, clashing red-and-yellow banners of some sort hung out of clear blue windows, for instance). Small flying vehicles moved through opaque tubes that lined all the buildings they could see. Differently colored lights which were visible even through a heavy gray fog moved quickly across the evening sky, giving the entire place a sense of vibrancy.

"Here, mankind has developed wonders that our world likely won't see for generations," Arturo narrated as his two companions took it all in. "All of this could very well be in our future."

"It's almost like we've traveled into the future," Rembrandt pointed out with wonder.

"Nonsense, Mr. Brown," the Professor dismissed, taking his comment a bit more seriously than he should have. "Sliding is never time travel. Advancements and levels of development may differ, but time remains the same...generally speaking." Not wanting to say any more in that vein, Arturo turned his attention to what he planned to speak to them about. "As you may know, Mr. Mallory and I had been working on renovating the timer in an attempt to get us home. We've faced setbacks, mostly due to inadequate equipment and facilities."

"What equipment and facilities do you need?" Rembrandt asked curiously. "Don't most of you physics geniuses do OK with just some random gizmos and a basement?"

Arturo gave him a slightly exasperated look. "Given time, that would likely be adequate. However time is a precious commodity, and we possess little of it. We will need more to work with than we've had in the past." He walked away from the window and steered Wade and Rembrandt back to their seats. "This world clearly has the technology we've been looking for all along," the Professor asserted. "Assuming we can meet the right people..." He paused as a monovator whirred along above him. Of course, none of them knew what a monovator was, but they were impressed nonetheless. "...and not the wrong ones, as tends to be our luck, we should be in good shape."

"What about Quinn?" Wade pointed out. "Won't you need him for this?"

"Ideally, we'd do the work together. Unfortunately, we don't know how long it will take for him to recover." Arturo did not consider the possibility that Quinn might not recover at all. None of them did. "I shall have to go it alone."

Rembrandt nodded, not really knowing what else to do. "I'm for it. Whatever you can do that gets us home."

"Yeah," Wade agreed absent-mindedly. "Wait. Why are you telling us this? You knew we would agree to let you do research, so..." She shot him a look that said she was on to him. "You want us to get jobs here, don't you?"

"Just to fund my research, shall we say," Professor Arturo countered defensively. "We don't have a lot of cash, and for that matter we don't know what type of currency this world will accept. It would most likely be best to stick with the local variety."

Rembrandt nodded his acceptance. "I'm game. There are usually some gigs I can latch onto. I don't know how the musical tastes run on this world, but I'm willing to be flexible."

"Right, of course," Wade said, trying to reach similar levels of confidence and failing. "And I'm sure I can do...something."

Professor Arturo appreciated their acceptance, but didn't want to show it. "We should start looking for lodging as soon as we can. However, that would involve us being able to leave this hospital. And that, in turn, seems rather dependant on how soon we can get this blasted 'testing' over with."

Before anyone could say anything else, the overly cheerful woman re-emerged from somewhere the sliders didn't see and walked over to them briskly. "I apologize for the delay," she said with a bubbly inflection that was already annoying to the sliders. "Here are your test results."

"'Results'?" Rembrandt asked with confusion. "Aren't we supposed to get tested first?"

"You have been tested," she said, as if explaining things to a toddler. "These are your results." The three of them looked at the small electronic pads they were handed. "A point-by-point evaluation of your internal organs is at the top, followed by a look at the flaws in your genetic structure. There is also an option to see how long that we anticipate you will live..."

"I'll pass on that one," Wade muttered. "I've had too many close calls to..." She stopped and stared at something on her screen. Rembrandt, who had been trying to figure out if the results for his spleen were normal or not, now realized that Wade could be finding out that she never had her head removed. He moved closer to her, peering at her results over her shoulder. Instead of neck abrasion results, what she was looking at was some kind of mysterious insignia at the corner of her screen. Remmy looked back at the one in his hand, and saw that there was no such insignia.

"What does this mean?" Wade asked their odd 'physician'.

"It means you're our guest here, if you so desire," she explained. "You're eligible for the deluxe package, as is your injured friend. As for you two..." She looked at the Professor and Rembrandt with something that might have passed for regret among the shallow. "I'm afraid you're going to have to leave us."

"Where exactly will we be going, madam?" Professor Arturo asked suspiciously.

"You're ineligible for treatment," she continued. "You'll be sent to the surface, and I'm afraid you will be unable to return."

"Wait a minute," Rembrandt interjected with concern. "You're telling us we can't come back here? I don't think..." He reached to put his hand on her arm, but his hand went right through her.

"Hologram," Wade noted, as if she weren't terribly surprised.

The holographic image was nonplussed. "Please don't do that," she requested. "I understand you came a long way only to be rejected, but you will be monetarily reimbursed for your troubles. I'm sure we could agree on a reasonable amount."

Professor Arturo looked over at Wade. "I can stay here with Quinn," Wade volunteered. Rembrandt looked at her with concern. "I'll be OK. You just worry about where you're going to be staying for the next few days."

"Yes," Arturo agreed heartily as he turned his attention to their artificial companion. "Let's talk accommodations."

Chapter Three

Scantily clad young women practically danced around him, trying to draw his attention to them and them alone. They had gone to great lengths to enhance their beauty, although most of the population of the multiverse would say they didn't need it. In any other place on any other world, any one of them would have been virtually irresistible.

But resist the object of their desire would, and did. He ignored them successfully for hours, as he indifferently continued playing music in his role as the entertainment in this little establishment. This was the Grogamesh, a pub of sorts that served a large clientele because of its reputation for exclusivity. The man was Kisher Havrim, short, balding, a little stout, and sixty-eight years of age. He was used to the attention, but he never really appreciated it.

He had just finished up a set and was heading for his first break. He knew this would be all the opportunity one particularly determined young harlot needed to make her move. "Can I buy you a drink?" she asked, following his every step to the bar.

Kisher gave her a harsh look. "I work here. The drinks are free."

If she felt deterred, she didn't let it show. "I can take you some place where the drinks are too good to be free. Chisrixau's, down by Long Avenue. The owner is my great uncle."

"How nice for you," he said, barely giving her the time of day. "Why don't you go there now?"

"I would," she cooed, her determination never wavering. "But you have another set. And you play the uzba so beautifully, it's captured my heart."

"Listen to me," he told her in a voice that was as cold and hard as steel. You know, when steel is cold. "I have a wife at home who's eighty-five. Now why would I want a cheap little smoothie like you, when I have that?!"

The bartender, one Bebla Trikan, took pity on the young woman. "Why don't you take the table in the corner, doll. On the house." Finally admitting defeat, she made her way to the table he indicated. "You might not want to run all of 'em off, Kish. Just because you don't want any kids, doesn't mean the rest of us don't. Some come here for just that reason."

"That's what they say anyway," Kisher commented with a slight chuckle. "In actuality, they're hoping to find somebody over forty for a one-nighter."

Bebla stared down at a glass he was cleaning, and watched as the thick blue solution he poured in it evaporated quickly. He wouldn't live to be forty. An unusual disease of the liver would kill him before then, or so he was told. Like most of the people down here, he made the best of a bad situation. Still, his circumstances struck him as being unusually lousy. "I don't see how you do it," he said with a mix of awe and disgust. "You must go through ten rejections a night. Why not just waste this gag and go find work someplace else?"

"I've considered it," he confessed wearily. "I do enjoy playing the uzba, as challenging as it is, and there's not much call for it in the elder clubs." Kisher exhaled deeply. "Perhaps you're right, though. This is becoming tiresome. Do you really think you could find a replacement on short notice?"

It was then that Rembrandt Brown and Professor Maximilian Arturo walked through the door.

A few moments before that happened, the young woman who had hit on Kisher Havrim without success took her seat at a booth. She closed her eyes, trying to block out the world around her, but couldn't. Instead, she started unwittingly eavesdropping.

"I've heard the swordfish and halibut mixer is tasty. What do you think?"

"She was only 428. Isn't it a damn shame?"

"I swear, honey. I wasn't looking at her that way!"

Her name was Skelli Chutren, and her story wasn't much different from a hundred others in this city. She had come here to Crucimen to be a star, of course, but apparently the fates were against her. This was a polite way of saying that her genes betrayed the dream. In her case, it was a heart defect, one that would kill her by age fifty. It wasn't anything unusual; nobody on the surface would live much past seventy-five. Still, she had wanted to be a star. Stars didn't die at seventy-five. Stars lived forever. Or, more accurately, about six hundred years on average, which sure seemed like forever down here.

Skelli looked down at herself and got angry. She cursed her youthful body, the biggest barrier there was to becoming successful and powerful. She would have enough money from doing odd jobs to get her first otox shots in a few weeks, but even they would take time to take effect. Everything took time, and she just didn't have that much to give.

She was lost in her own problems when behind her a young couple began loudly fighting. "I thought you loved me!"

"I do, it's just...I've found someone else."

"What?! How could you...? Wait an hour. She's older than me, isn't she?"

"She's old enough to be your grandmother."

"Oh, gods."

"Wait, don't leave. I...I still want to have children. You're taking this too hard. Can't we talk this over?"

Skelli watched distantly as the two of them scurried out of the restaurant. As they walked out, she saw two other people walk in. Two older gentlemen, one with a beard! These were her kind of people. She walked over to them as seductively as she could manage. "There you are! I've been waiting for you." At Bebla's suspicious glance, she waved him off. "It's OK. They're with me."

As she led them over to her table, Rembrandt tried to get the Professor's attention. "Do you think she knows our doubles?"

Arturo shrugged. "I suppose anything's possible."

As they took their seats, Rembrandt decided to delve into the subject. "I'm sorry if this sounds rude, but do I know you?"

She laughed gently as she looked first at Rembrandt and then at Arturo. "Not yet." Somehow that response didn't really relieve either one of them. "I just thought you might enjoy some company. You look like you're new here."

"We're tourists," the Professor explained. "We've, uh, received temporary employment at a hospital here."

"That's...strange, isn't it?" she asked with confusion written all over her face. "I mean... I guess I don't know from personal experience, but..." She shook her head as if to clear it. "Never mind. What do I know anyway? I'm only twenty-six."

The Professor and Rembrandt shared a look of incomprehension. The latter decided to change the subject. "It actually didn't pan out for me. I'm looking for work as a musician. I don't suppose you know of any good places to pull off a gig or two, huh?"

"A gig?" she asked. "What's a...? Oh, you mean a gag. Right. Well, between you and me, the musician here is very rude to the customers. I think he's on his way out." She placed her hands beneath her chin and focused her attention on Rembrandt. "Do you know how to play the uzba?"

"Well, I'm no expert, but..." A swift kick in the shin from Professor Arturo rendered him silent on that topic. "You know, maybe we should order something to eat. I'm famished."

"You should try the opabinia," she advised. "It's very... crunchy." Her eyes grew wide in embarrassment. "I'm sorry, I haven't introduced myself. My name's Skelli."

"I'm Rembrandt," Remmy told her. "And this is Arturo."

She considered commenting on their odd names, but eventually decided against it. "So, what brings you to the Grogamesh?"

"We're staying at the inn across the street," the Professor began to explain.

Her eyebrows jumped up. "Is that an invitation?"

"No," Arturo replied quickly. "The man at the front, um, screen, told us that we could get a discount here if we showed our waiter the last nine digits of our room passcode."

"Is that the only reason you're here?" she asked, a little surprised. "For the food?" The two sliders nodded. "Well, then I've got just the place for you. The food's way better than here. Chisrixau's, down by Long Avenue. They've got the best conodont in the city."

"As appealing as eating prehistoric worm sounds, I think we'll pass," the Professor answered perhaps less tactfully than he might have. "A place with a discount is about all we can afford anyway."

"Oh, you wouldn't have to pay," Skelli told them reassuringly. "My grandfather owns the place and when he sees that I've got guests, I'm sure he'd be more than happy to..."

Rembrandt took the job of letting her down gently upon himself. "Look, lady, it's not that we're not enjoying your company now, but I don't think either one of us are willing to keep it through the night. Sorry."

"Oh, I...uh, heh," she replied awkwardly. "I didn't mean...I should go." She rose from the table and walked out the door quickly. "Zero for three," she remarked sadly. All in all, she hadn't had a terrible time, though. And at least she got out before the rowdy crowd came in.

Rembrandt got up out of the booth and moved to the seat their attempted hostess formerly occupied, so that he could face Arturo. "That was a little odd, huh?"

He nodded. "Yes. Flattering, but strange. I've yet to put my finger on what exactly it is that unnerves me about this world, but I know I'll find it soon."

Remmy drank from his glass of something that he hadn't identified yet. "Yeah, well I wouldn't mind if some more beautiful women hit on us, I just wish they weren't so unusually desperate."

"You too, eh?" an elderly gentleman said as he approached them. "I tell you, young people just aren't as demure as they used to be. And it's just going to get worse as you get older."

"I don't follow," the Professor stated.

"You know the expression, the grayer the mane..." he went on. "It's like a punishment. You play it safe your whole life, try to let nature take its course, and what do you get? Young kids looking for a good time at your expense." He shook his head. "You're going to get a lot of attention around here. My advice is to go someplace where you're with your own. You know, the forty-five and over crowd. You won't get so many smoothies. I know it's probably bad business to recommend another establishment, but I thought you should know."

Arturo put his drink down with a grimace. "I believe I've put my finger on it."

"Yeah, I don't feel so flattered anymore," Rembrandt muttered. He decided not to make the meeting a total loss. "Hey, I heard this place might be looking for a new musician. I think I might fit the bill. Could we arrange an audition or something?"

Kisher Havrim smiled devilishly. "I'd be more than happy to discuss it with the management."

Chapter Four

Wade Welles stood at the precipice of paradise. A high mountain held her aloft, her line of sight nearly level with the clouds, as she looked down on the most picturesque image of creation that she could imagine. Wade knew this for certain, because she was conjuring it from her own mind. Still, it was not without its charms, illusory as they were. The air was clean, the day was bright, but not blindingly so, and the weather was clear. She had to admit that relaxation was easy here.

Wade walked down a few paces to a stream where she sat and let the silence wash over her. She stuck her hand in the moving water. It was cool, not cold, and it glided rather than rushed along its path. She continued sitting there, her legs folded in a lotus position, taking calming breaths and remembering some of the things Lyssandra taught her about isometric exercise.

She was experiencing a taste of the 'deluxe package', an offer that was supposed to be so alluring that people came from other dimensions to experience it. The piece de resistance was the offer of a much extended lifespan; the average person here, she was told, lived to 590. Wade had to admit that it was a tempting deal, even if you would have to spend time indentured on this world to pay off your debt. They said she could spend as much time as she wanted to in here, making her decision. After a few moments of sitting alone, absolutely still, monitoring her breathing carefully, she was bored out of her mind. "OK, this is getting old," she announced, rather fittingly. After a few more glances around at the 'pretty scenery' (as she recalled Quinn's words from Lottery World) she exited the room and the images faded away into nothingness.

Back in the isolated corner of the hospital that she was now calling home, Wade paced the empty hallway outside her room, aimlessly waiting for the latest report on Quinn's health. She wished she had some way to contact the Professor and Rembrandt, to keep them up to date on what was happening. Unfortunately, she had been told that it was impossible for regular contact to be made with the surface. So here she was, alone in a mile-high tower, with her only companions an unconscious body under intensive care, a bunch of satisfied deluxe package customers and a holographic caretaker who she didn't trust at all.

Speaking of said hologram, she soon arrived to tell Wade that there had been no change in Quinn's condition. He was still stable, but had yet to revive. This didn't improve Wade's restless mood much. She walked into her room and flopped down on her bed. She lay back and turned something that somewhat resembled a television on. After a few moments, Wade switched it off. There were only so many shows you could watch about the love lives of people who were over three hundred years old before the camp value turned to tedium.

Wade closed her eyes, stretched her neck out on her pillow and decided to try to get some sleep. She hadn't been resting well since arriving here; either she was too worried about Quinn or it was the fact that the bed constantly 'adjusted' beneath her during the night. Either way, she had been crankier than usual as a result. Judging from her behavior the last few months, that would have to make her pretty damn crabby. She was almost glad that the others weren't around to see it.

As usual when she desperately wanted to sleep but couldn't, thoughts raced around her mind. Why had she been so easily irritated in this most recent leg of the journey? Was it still the fact that she had been home, found it ravaged by Kromaggs, and then got pretty much the same treatment herself? Or the fact that her daughter remained on another world, and that her ability to return to her depended entirely on sliding technology, which incidentally had gotten her into this mess in the first place? In fact, hadn't traveling from world to world become so integrated into her existence that she could barely imagine life without it?

That train of thought was getting a little heavy, and she obviously wasn't getting any sleep. Wade rose quickly, stretching as she stood, and headed to her room's only window. She watched the flying car traffic whiz by with a passing fascination. Yawning out of boredom as much as exhaustion, she sat down on her bed once more and tried to think of something to do. After a few moments, she decided she might as well head down to a room she'd found not far from her own that was apparently designed for physical therapy. Wade felt like she needed some.

After changing into an outfit more appropriate for exercise, Wade walked down the hall, her bare feet stinging a little bit from the cold floor. As she entered the room, she saw a device similar to a treadmill that she had noticed earlier. She stepped on quickly after activating the machine, and soon noticed that her feet were leaving red impressions in the moving track. After a few moments, she saw that it was taking heat scans of her body. It then reported any serious change in body temperature, a little more loudly than any person with healthy hearing would like. Presumably this was for the benefit of the patients here. Wade found it very annoying nonetheless. After walking a few miles on it, she hopped off, deactivated it and made her way to what looked like a punching bag. She had grown to like those in recent months.

As Wade threw her first warm-up punches and kicks at the thing, she noticed that it also produced noise, making appropriate remarks when she hit it. "Ouch!" "That hurt!" or "Ooh, that feels good!" if it didn't think you hit it hard enough. That wouldn't be Wade's problem. She immediately started giving the inanimate object a good beating. Pretty soon it consumed her concentration, and Wade started feeling better. There was nothing like exercise for relieving stress and anxiety, and she had that aplenty.

The problems in Wade's life weren't just related to her distant infant daughter, or her experiences with the Kromaggs, which were in the past, after all. It was also a matter of what she was going to do when she got home, assuming the Professor and/or Quinn could pull it off. Somehow, Wade didn't see herself going back to work for Hurley at Doppler Computers. Former breeder military commandos were probably in short demand, too.

Of course, if their home truly did prove to be that Hell that Rembrandt and she discovered shortly after leaving that ridiculous world with the human/animal hybrids, then her Kromagg issues wouldn't be in the past, they'd be right in front of her. Wade couldn't take being subjected to the horrors of the breeder camp again, much less what they would do to her friends. She couldn't let anything to happen to them.

But yet...hadn't she allowed Quinn to get hurt? Wade certainly hadn't been protecting the group then. Why had Quinn felt the need to play hero anyway? Didn't he know that was what she was here for? What good was it to have the fighting prowess of a Green Beret if you couldn't use it when it counted? Wade's last well-placed punch knocked the bag off of its flimsy tether. From the floor, it muttered meekly. "Medic."

Wade looked down a little shamefully at the piece of exercise equipment that her most recent burst of aggressiveness had rendered useless. She laughed out loud at herself. Wade had gotten adept at keeping her body in fine fighting shape, but now there was nobody left to fight. Using deadly force against a punching bag likely designed for arthritic hands to hit struck her as rather ridiculous.

Doing a quick cartwheel to complete her normal exercise regimen (a practice from high school that she had taken a new liking to), she strode out of the door to the room with a surprising spring to her step. Forget about training, she thought, there had to be something else she could do here to make herself useful. Meandering slowly through the corridor surrounding her, she saw the rather unpleasant hologram again, heading towards her at a rapid pace. Rather than simply exchanging meaningless pleasantries as they usually did, Wade considered offering her some help, as a solid body if nothing else. But the thing paid her no mind, passing through her as if she weren't there.

Wade couldn't manage to capture the attention of any of the other hired help here (actually, apparently they were all indentured workers), so she watched a bunch of elderly folk do the same thing they had been doing when the group slid in. Meditating in the darkness and devoid of vibrancy, they seemed like an odd rendition of the third act of "Our Town". Wade had been in the play as a girl, and had been one of the dead in the graveyard. The only thing she remembered was how hard it was to sit still.

These people were most likely experiencing their own version of paradise, as provided by weird contact lenses that apparently could produce life-like images in the brain. Although they were no good outside the meditation rooms, Wade suddenly became concerned that she hadn't taken hers out before now. After carefully removing them from her eyes, she looked closely at the little image-creating devices. They seemed harmless enough. But...wasn't there something a little off here?

Wade supposed it was possible that those who were running this place offered people extended life in order to boost tourism, gain cheap labor or even out of the goodness of their hearts. But given the sliders' past history with cultures who offered some form of utopia to the masses, she kind of doubted it. There was usually something else, something decidedly sinister, at work. Perhaps it was part of a mass suicide plot to reduce the population. Or maybe it involved the ingestion of a great amount of worm excrement. Wade wasn't really sure at this point. But finding out what these chips did was a good place to start looking.

Given that she couldn't leave this place, a fact that boded as ominously as anything else did, Wade would have to find her information from the inside. That always made things more complicated. She supposed she could just hang around and eavesdrop on someone, waiting for them to stupidly slip up and blab top secret information for everyone else within earshot to hear. But that didn't always work. That left her with pretty much one option.

Wade found a computer terminal near a series of public bathrooms that she had unfortunately discovered were the only plumbing the collection of rooms she was allowed to frequent possessed. After quickly getting past some security software, she began scanning the system for information related to the chips. Well, that was an oversimplification. Actually, it took over an hour to get past the security measures, and once she got past them, she really had no idea what she was looking at.

For that matter, once she started snooping, everything seemed to disappear the second she clicked on it. "'Adventurer has caused an error,'" Wade read aloud. "That's weird." After about another hour spent fruitlessly searching for anything suspicious, Wade gave up on finding anything on the computer. Instead she returned to her room, hoping she had made it back in time to receive the latest report on Quinn. Apparently she hadn't, as nobody real or holographic showed up within the next few minutes. So Wade decided to pay Quinn a visit herself.

Technically non-medical personnel weren't allowed to visit patients, but Wade didn't think it likely that anyone would stop her. Everyone seemed to go about their own business here, an attitude that she wished more worlds encouraged. Sure enough, she snuck into Quinn's room without incident. Once there, she took a long look at her fellow slider. Wade had never known quite what to make of her ersatz husband, the double of the man she'd loved. Whatever his role in her life, he was invaluable to their sliding team. Hopefully, he was the one who was going to get them home.

Her eyes became drawn to some ugly flowers sitting on a gray dresser next to his bed. Making a face, Wade switched them with some prettier ones adorning the table next to Quinn's comatose roommate. She guessed he would never miss them. Wade sat down next to Quinn, adjusted his blankets, fluffed his pillow, and otherwise tried to make him more comfortable. Eventually she tired of that as well and turned the small monitor in front of his bed on. Perhaps watching elderly soap operas wasn't as boring as she originally thought. Although it was still a little disturbing. "Gah! Halter tops." She fumbled with the switches on it and quickly changed the channel.

Chapter Five

"You're doing it wrong," Kisher Havrim told Rembrandt sternly as he sat behind him, watching him carefully as his hands moved along the uzba.

"I'm doing it like you told me," Remmy countered. "Just exactly like you told me."

"That doesn't matter," he replied casually. "It's still wrong." Kisher had done nothing but disapprove of his moves ever since they started training together. "Your uzba-playing is technically correct...most of the time. But it has no spirit, no life, no joie de vivre." Rembrandt didn't really want to hear it. He was dead tired. The more experienced uzba-player looked him up and down. "Try it again with the fez."

"Forget the fez," Rembrandt answered dismissively. "I need a break, and a drink." He got up and headed towards the bar, wiping sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.

"Hey, we don't pay you to sit around and soak up the free drinks," the barkeep, a taller, surlier man than the one Remmy had seen when he'd first arrived, proclaimed in his deep baritone voice. "You've got a crowd out there to entertain."

"I think they're entertained enough without me," Rembrandt answered snidely. He looked out at the scraggly-haired, leather-clad set that had wandered in a few hours before. It was close to midnight, but a bunch of 'trikers' and their favorite game were still going strong. Men stood on different sides of the room and threw knives at each other's throats. The pastime had a long, unpronounceable name that Rembrandt (with his Mekkan-installed chip working overtime) heard as "Catch me or you'll bleed a lot". He thought it must have lost something in the translation.

The place didn't smell too good either, not only because these people seemingly bathed infrequently, but because another favored activity around these parts was eating a meal while it was on fire. Singed mouth flesh didn't exactly produce a pleasing aroma. He waited to order a drink until one of the trikers finished getting his request for brews that smelled suspiciously like drain cleaners from the bartender. After watching him walk away, Remmy turned to the man behind the bar. "Do you have anything that isn't toxic?"

The man sniffed derisively. "One Virgin Loiaza for the musician." He shook his head as he poured it and slid it down to him. It was quite possibly the worst thing Rembrandt had ever tasted outside of chocolate-covered eyeballs. He drank it anyway. "I really don't understand you. I never got the obsession with barroom uzbas anyway, but why would anyone want to make a living out of playing it badly?"

"I'm just passing through, trying to earn a little coin for me and my friends," Rembrandt answered confidently. "If my public humiliation in front of a bunch of suicidal trikers is what makes that happen, then so be it."

Kisher Havrim finally came to the bar after going through a rigorous process of sheet folding over the uzba. "What's wrong with you? The first thing I taught you is to always keep your uzba clean. You can't do that if you don't cover it up during sets."

Remmy frowned. "I thought the first thing you taught me was string, key and pedal co-ordination."

"They're equally important," he huffed. "Anyway, you should be more careful. Uzba parts fetch a hefty price on the green market."

Rembrandt didn't much care. He wanted to keep to himself for a while, and so he lost himself in his thoughts, his eyes cast down into his drink. Truth be told, the little things were starting to grate on him. 'The green market', 'gags' rather than 'gigs'. He couldn't even carry on a conversation with the average joe on the street without a local dictionary. Hell, if it hadn't been for the particular piece of electronic equipment that resided somewhere in the recesses of his skull, he wouldn't even be able to tell what these people were saying. Maybe it would have been better that way.

Speaking of language, Rembrandt took a good look at an advertisement on the coaster he was about to sit his drink down on. "If You Ever Think Life Here Is Bad" it said on one side. He flipped it over and read "Remember That the Afterlife is Worse – Learn All About It at the Shrarkim Temple". So this world had an unusual, difficult to comprehend religion, too. Was there anything that wasn't strange about this dimension? He contemplated the point as he watched a young girl with pink feathers glued to her hair run her tongue along the sharp end of a long, curving knife.

"I just don't see how they do it," Rembrandt said, marveling at the actions of the young people around him. "What are they thinking?"

"Life has no meaning to them," Kisher answered solemnly. "They live hard and fast and dangerous, and they don't much care what happens to them once they stop. These young people don't see the value of staying alive for very long." The older man put his hand on Rembrandt's shoulder. "They're not like us."

Rembrandt didn't respond. "I think I'm ready to go back," he said. He looked down at his sore fingers. "But I'm done with the uzba for tonight. You can head on home if you'd like."

Kisher looked confused. "What are you going to do?"

Rembrandt smiled. "What I do best. Sing."

Kisher snickered slightly. "Yeah. That'll go over well."

As Rembrandt was walking back up to the platform, across the room of toughs slugging each other, Professor Maximilian Arturo strolled into the bar. He had been recording some of this world's history for his notes, but had eventually given it up. There was too much to see here for him to stay cloistered in a library the entire slide. Besides, you could only record the important deeds of so many Sumerian kings before you start to nod off a little. And the night was still young.

The Grogamesh was warm, close to their lodging, and he might be able to see how well Rembrandt was faring with this 'uzba' instrument. Either fortunately or unfortunately, Arturo realized he was singing instead. The crowd seemed indifferent. The Professor sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. As the barkeep poured a steaming gray liquid into a glass, he watched Rembrandt on the stage. His stifled yawn wasn't a commentary on the vocals; he hadn't slept well the night before. "What time does he get off?" Arturo asked the bartender.

"Another hour or so, depending on how many people die before then," the large man answered frankly. "But I don't think you should bother. I heard him talking about some woman he'd met a while ago, in rather graphic detail. He's straight."

"Oh, no, I wasn't...," the Professor stammered. "What I mean is...we're roommates and... Oh, never mind." On second thought, perhaps the yawn was a bit in response to Rembrandt's choice of songs, as Arturo's attention was easily diverted to the daredevil activities of his fellow patrons. "They really are something, aren't they? The people here, I mean. They truly live life to the fullest."

"I wouldn't know," he answered. "I'm more the staid, quiet type myself. I find it's more agreeable to the temperament if you don't allow sharp objects near the base of your..." He then promptly collapsed.

Arturo reached quickly over to him to feel his pulse. "Good Lord. He's dead," the Professor declared, a little startled.

Kisher Havrim scooted down next to him. "It happens every few weeks or so. They'll bring somebody new in tomorrow." Arturo looked up at him in surprise. "What? Don't bartenders have short lives where you come from?" He took a shot from his own glass and then moved behind the counter to temporarily take on the role himself. "It's the chemicals in the drinks. The fume inhalation alone shortens life by as many as five years, so they tend to hire people who don't have long to live."

Professor Arturo pushed his drink slowly away from him. "I admit I'm unfamiliar with the way things are here. I thank you for the warning."

Kisher raised an eyebrow. "You'll be sorry, though. The water's almost as bad, and not half as tasty."

Professor Maximilian Arturo mulled that over silently as he watched the rest of Rembrandt's act, such as it was. Eventually the raucous noises of the crowd overpowered even his most high-pitched vocals and he decided to end the set early. He slinked over to where the Professor was seated, visibly exhausted.

"Good show, Mr. Brown," Arturo complimented with an enthusiasm he didn't truly feel. "In a few more days, we'll have more than enough for spending money the rest of the slide."

"I sure hope so," Rembrandt sighed, trying his best to relax in this boisterous atmosphere. "Is our room ready yet?"

"They say it will be within the hour," Arturo answered. Apparently it was common practice on this world to switch rooms every night, no matter how long you were staying. Both sliders found it infuriating, but there was little they could do to change their circumstances.

From behind the bar, Kisher cleared his throat. It got Rembrandt's attention. The old man was staring at his shoes, which happened to be placed on another stool along the row. "We run a clean establishment here. The medical crew will be here any moment, and I don't want them to doubt that for a moment."

Rembrandt removed them quickly, but took the opportunity to grouse anyway. "Those people over there have set their table on fire...and I'm in trouble because I have my feet up?" Kisher said nothing in response, but Rembrandt frowned as he noticed the oddity of his uzba teacher as the bartender. "Wait a minute. Medical crew? Did something happen to that other bartender, what's-his-name, Rotten?"

"His name was Ratine, and yes," Kisher answered matter-of-factly. "Don't worry, they'll be carting his body away soon."

"It doesn't seem like you're very concerned," Rembrandt chided, perhaps more angrily than he should have.

"What's to be concerned about?" he shrugged. "We average three deaths per night here. Today's been slow."

Before Rembrandt could say more, Arturo stopped him. "Let it go, Mr. Brown. It's just the way things are here. Besides, there are other matters we need to discuss. I spoke with Wade..."

"You talked to Wade?" Rembrandt interrupted, his concentration now focused solely on the Professor. "I thought that was impossible."

Arturo did his best to explain. "Apparently she worked something out with a sort of low frequency transmitter over a computer. At any rate, I was in the bathroom, when..."

"I don't think I want to hear the rest of this story," Remmy told him in all seriousness. "What did she say?"

Professor Arturo wasted no further time beating around the bush. "Quinn's awake."

Chapter Six

Quinn couldn't focus well upon opening his eyes, but he got the feeling he was in a hospital. There was a certain smell you could pretty much always associate with staying there (some combination of disinfectant and urine), and people with very strange names were being paged over the intercom. It made a certain amount of sense, as he was having trouble remembering where he'd last been and his midsection was aching something fierce. Undoubtedly he had been inspired to do something stupid or brave or both. He would have to remind himself not to do so again, at least for a little while.

Unlike most of the people Quinn knew, he liked hospitals. They filled him with a sense of security, the feeling that no matter what bad things happened out in the world, there was a way to mend the damage and move on with life. He had watched his father recover from a car accident in a place like this, steadily getting better as nurses worked with him on his physical therapy (he later ran off with one of the nurses, but that was neither here nor there). After injuring his elbow playing football, he'd met Melissa (who had broken her wrist while swimming) in the emergency room.

He thought he saw his aforementioned wife standing over him, but shook off the notion as foolish. It must have been Wade. Quinn groggily spoke her name. A decidedly female voice cooed back at him. "I am not your female companion, but she is on her way. Would you like some decaffeinated water?"

Quinn gladly declined the offer. "Good. Because I'm noncorporeal and couldn't get you one anyway." She then walked off, presumably to tease other patients in a similar manner. Quinn was a little relieved. He didn't want to see anyone else until Wade and the others got here. Even though he normally didn't fear hospitals, parallel worlds could have any kind of weird ideas about them. He was looking around to make sure there weren't any leeches on him when Wade walked into the room.

"Hey! Look who's awake," Wade said cheerfully. Quinn just gave her a confused look in response. Wade crossed her arms. "It's you. How are you feeling?"

"Still a little woozy from whatever medicine they gave me, although you could never tell to look at me," Quinn joked, his eyes drooping heavily so that he could barely keep them open. "These people aren't trying to kill me, are they?"

"What?" Wade asked with surprise in her voice.

Quinn's speech slowed down gradually. "I may nod off in the next few seconds, and I just want to know if I'm going to have to worry about anybody killing me before I wake up."

"No, it's exactly the opposite," Wade replied, a little amused. "They want to make us live forever."

"That's different, new, interesting, still not enough to keep me awake," Quinn mumbled. "Where are the others?"

"They were sent away. Apparently people who are too old to be eligible for eternal life just get kicked out to the curb," Wade noted grimly.

Quinn's eyes closed and he shifted in his bed. "Age discrimination world, eh? That's something we haven't seen before."

"Actually..." Wade started, and then thought better of it. If what Arturo told her about the world below wasn't just an exaggeration, it was the first time they had seen this particular kind of age-based prejudice. "Yeah, that's true. Hey, are you up for a..." Her voice was silenced in Quinn's head as he once again drifted off to sleep.

When he stirred to life again, after hours had clearly passed (these people must be fanatical about clocks, as there were likely at least a dozen of them in this room alone), Wade was still there, sitting in a chair next to his bed. "Have you been here the whole time?" Quinn wondered aloud.

"Yeah," Wade admitted sheepishly. "But don't feel too flattered. Turns out there's really nothing else to do in this place. Trust me on that one."

"I do," Quinn said with a smile. "Hey, remember the last time I said that?" Wade gave him a cross look, but said nothing. "So, what have you been up to while I've been down? I assume watching me breathe got boring after an hour or two."

Wade sat back in her chair and gestured towards the screen sitting directly across from Quinn. "Actually, I've been watching daytime television. At first I thought it was going to be horrid, but then I really got into the stories. For instance, this one character, Xylakarn, accidentally slept with her ancestor. She blamed it on the fact that she left her electronic family tree at home. I think it was supposed to be a cautionary tale."

"And that's not horrid?" Quinn asked, a little repulsed.

"Actually, it is," Wade conceded. "But I was so bored at the time it actually seemed interesting."

"Well, I think I might have a remedy for that," Quinn said helpfully. "It feels like I've been in this bed for weeks. I need to get up and take a walk."

"Fine with me," Wade piped up with forced enthusiasm. "Now I can give you the grand tour of Dullsville."

"Help me up," Quinn requested with a grunt. "I wouldn't want to pop any stitches."

"We don't use stitches," that overly cheerful voice that both Quinn and Wade had come to hate hearing declared. "What's holding the skin on your stomach together is actually a very strong form of what your civilization refers to as duct tape. It's completely biodegradable, so we don't even need to remove them." She looked at Quinn as he rose. "I'm afraid I cannot allow you to walk on your own power. You're still too weak."

"Here," Wade offered, and Quinn rose with one arm around her shoulder. She put her other arm around him, and they began walking through the place. After a few moments, neither looked impressed. "Not much to see, like I told you. The people aren't very friendly, either. Not that that's such a bad thing, when you consider the alternative is that chirpy hologram. Still, you might have been better off staying in your bed."

"No, I like this," Quinn responded. Wade looked at him a little oddly. "It's not overly comfortable, or awe-inspiring, but at least I'm off my back for a while. And that's something."

"Strangely, I understand that," Wade said agreeably. "OK, we're going to have to rest now. I'm getting a neck spasm." Quinn eventually slid off of Wade's shoulder and onto a nearby chair. Wade sat down soon afterwards, and both were a little winded from the mutual effort. "Weren't you taller before?" Now it was Quinn's turn to give her a confused glance. "That came out wrong. What I mean is that I don't think I could have pulled that little stunt off with the Quinn I knew. Could you be shorter than him?"

"I wouldn't know," Quinn answered with a shrug. "I never met the guy. Are you asking me if doubles can be taller?"

"I guess it's silly," Wade said dismissively. "If doubles can be of the opposite gender, anything's possible."

"I could have done something to stunt my growth, I suppose," Quinn mused, his mind racing for something that would have caused it. "Great. Now you're going to have me second-guessing my childhood for the rest of this slide."

"Sorry," Wade replied with a grimace. "Hey, I just remembered something. The Professor wanted you to take a look at some of the technology that's available up here. See if you could make a go at your plan for getting us home. We've still got a few days here, so if you feel up to it..."

"Of course," Quinn interrupted. "I'll do what I can. But aren't the people here supposed to be overwhelmingly unhelpful?"

"I think I can change that," Wade assured him. After a few moments of watching the help pass by, she stuck her foot out in front of one of them. As she did her best not to fall, Wade gave her their request. "Excuse me. This patient is interested in a sample of the deluxe package. Only his version of paradise involves a lot of gizmos and gadgets." She nodded her acceptance and told the sliders they would prepare a room for him. Wade looked over at Quinn with a smug look in her eyes.

"'Gizmos and gadgets'?" Quinn repeated sarcastically. "Great. I'll either be able to work on the timer, or build a Rube Goldberg-esque drinking fountain."

"I'm sure they'll give you everything they can," Wade said in her own defense. "I just hope the tech on this world isn't too advanced for you to handle."

"Ha," Quinn retorted with confidence. He then deflated a little. "How advanced are we talking?"

"They have flying cars, super tall buildings, the usual," a blasé Wade told him.

An impressed expression managed to cross Quinn's face. "That could be helpful information, actually," he pointed out as much to himself as to Wade. "They could have made huge advances in anti-gravity technology. It's worth looking into."

"What do you Quinns have against gravity anyway?" Wade asked jokingly.

"It's the only thing holding us back," Quinn grinned.

"Be glad of it, for your ego's sake if nothing else," Wade replied with a roll of her eyes. She watched as pain registered on Quinn's face. "Come on, I didn't mean it like that."

"No, it's this chair," Quinn complained. "It's not giving my back enough support. It feels like it was designed for a Mekkan." A few moments passed and Wade returned with another chair. Quinn eased into it slowly. "Thanks. A guy could get used to this sort of treatment."

"Well, don't," Wade advised sternly. "This is just because you're injured. And don't think that when I decide to get into a knife fight with a mugger I won't expect the same from you."

"So that's what happened," Quinn said musingly. "Just as I thought. Brave and stupid."

"Or maybe just stupid," Wade grumbled. "I think they're ready for you in the next room. I doubt they have everything you need yet, but I can go ahead and take you down there if you'd like." Quinn nodded, and instead of repeating their little three-legged race act from before, Wade rolled him down the hall in his new chair (which conveniently had wheels). Ah, space age technology!

They arrived at the door and Wade looked at Quinn. "I can't go in with you, but if you need anything, send a surly elderly person my way. Good luck."

"Thanks." There was a moment of silence where they did nothing but look at each other. "I guess this is my stop," Quinn said, and managed to wheel himself inside the room.

Wade watched the door as it closed behind him. "Yeah, I guess so."

Chapter Seven

"I have to say, Mr. Brown, that this newfound generosity of yours is most welcome," Professor Arturo proclaimed heartily, as Rembrandt shoveled out money to everyone at the bar.

"Well, it'll be nice to be able to leave this place without anybody trying to kill each other tonight," Rembrandt reasoned. "I figure Q-Ball's going to be a little shy about knives, too. Besides, it's going to be pretty hard to lug around this much gold bullion." Word had spread quickly about Rembrandt's knives for gold program, and several sacks sat at his feet filled with a gradually dwindling supply of coin. A box beside it was filled with various types of knives the patrons had been greedily depositing. Also, if you used a knife inside the Grogamesh that night, you would forfeit your gold.

"However small and self-serving the gesture was, Mr. Brown, it was still in the best interest of this culture," Arturo said warmly. "It reminds me of the sort of thing we would have done in the early days of our adventure."

Rembrandt chuckled. "Yeah, before we found out we couldn't save every world we landed on."

Maximilian Arturo turned back to face the bar. "Yes. Perhaps we shouldn't have."

Rembrandt wanted to reply to that statement, but he soon had to turn his attention back to the bar patrons. "Hey, no swords!" he called out to one large man. The man then gave Rembrandt a close look at the sword. "Well, when you put it that way... have some gold."

"I don't know what's more amazing," Bebla Triklan said from behind the counter. "That these people are giving up their weapons so readily for coin, or that you got so lucky at three-handed wykringol."

"What can I say?" Rembrandt replied. "Card games, even holographic ones, come easy for me." He then did a double take over his shoulder. "Oh, for Pete's sake, that's a butter knife!"

As Rembrandt and the latest knife donor got in a minor tiff over the specifics of the deal, Arturo turned to Bebla. "Give me a Serpent's Tooth," he requested.

If the bartender's eyes could have bored holes in the back of the Professor's skull, well they probably would have at that moment. "Are you sure?" Arturo indicated that he was. The hapless man behind the counter poured him the drink and washed his hands of the act. Literally. Who knew what kind of deadly toxins you could pick up from handling that stuff?

After Rembrandt had it pointed out to him, with the emphasis on point, that the butter knife in question also contained a switch blade, he had to take issue with the smell coming from the glass in front of the Professor. "Good Lord, what is that thing?"

"A local drink called a Serpent's Tooth," Arturo explained. "I don't believe it actually contains any alcohol, but it is likely the hardest drink known to man. According to the folklore, one glass will take ten years off of your life."

"Why would you drink that?" Rembrandt wondered in disgust and more than a little fear.

"That's the fascinating thing about this world, Rembrandt," he said, pronouncing the name rihm-brunt. "These people on the surface have been given what they consider death sentences, and many are willing to do almost anything for some small thrill. On our own world, their lifespan would be considered natural. On theirs, it is as though they have all been told they won't live past their teenage years. Perhaps that's why so many of them behave like adolescents." He paused to look at two grown men, struggling over the last two pieces of gold in a bag. "And yet, they are so captivated by the idea of growing old, so enchanted by it, that those who live for hundreds of years easily become celebrities and people who manage to live to old age on the surface become sex symbols. That's part of the reason I gave up on doing historical research on this world, because I found the sociological implications much more intriguing."

Rembrandt shook his head. "No, I meant why would you drink it?"

"I'm dying," Professor Arturo answered soberly. Both sat silently for a while, the revelation sinking in slowly for both of them. Background noise seemingly faded away and Rembrandt leaned in closer to his longtime sliding companion to better speak in whispers.

"How long have you known?" he asked, his voice slightly broken.

"Ever since we received our test results back in the hospital, not long after we arrived," Arturo confessed. "But...I've suspected ever since I learned of my double's illness. There was a genetic condition in my family that was degenerative, fatal and rather incurable. I was almost certain that the two maladies were one and the same."

"Is it?" Rembrandt asked. The Professor looked at him for elaboration. "Incurable? I mean this Earth specializes in curing people of otherworldly diseases, I'm sure this is nothing they haven't seen before."

"They have seen it before, and they have no cure," Arturo answered somberly. "The medical term for it is in one of their disclaimers. It wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility to suppose that someone else in this bar is similarly afflicted."

Rembrandt sat silently and looked at his hands. They were older, more worn than he remembered them looking. But then again, when was the last time he had taken a good look at his hands? "What are you going to do?" he asked, to end the quiet if nothing else.

"The plan doesn't change," the Professor declared. "If the timetable Mr. Mallory and I have set forth comes to fruition, we should be home in a matter of months. In all likelihood, that should be an adequate amount of time for me to be there before...it happens."

"Of course," Remmy answered a little dumbly. "We'll do everything we can to make it easier for you. I mean, as easy as we can. You know what I mean."

"The others won't be told," he said unequivocally. "You shouldn't have been told. Damn. This drink has a powerful effect on people, and I haven't even..." He stopped himself, blinked his eyes quickly, and stared down at the bar. "I only ordered it to try to remember what it felt like to have ten years of your life to throw away."

"Wade deserves to know," Rembrandt argued, and then realized that this was the second time within a month he'd said it. "They both do. You can't just keep a secret this big from them. If they aren't expecting it, it'll be worse. For all of us."

"Will it?" Professor Arturo snapped, his first flash of anger showing through in this discussion for the first time. "I didn't think so. I've had plenty of opportunities to go to a physician these past few months, possibly to receive a clean bill of health, yet I never did. I wouldn't have known now if it hadn't been for this blasted world and its regulations!" His sense of calm returned quickly. "In matters of life and death, Mr. Brown, ignorance is bliss. On this or any other world."

"That's something I never thought I'd hear from you," Rembrandt admitted with a cold resolution to his voice. "I can't believe the scientist in you would ever prefer ignorance to knowing the truth." The Professor said nothing. "Have you even thought about...God? We've never talked about your faith, but there's no time like the present."

"I'm going to have to decline that offer," Arturo started and then continued quickly to cut off further commentary from Remmy. "Mr. Mallory and Miss Welles are here."

Sure enough, Rembrandt spotted Wade and Quinn walking through the door to the Grogamesh. After exchanging greetings, the four of them headed to a booth in the corner. "So, Mr. Mallory, how are you feeling?"

"Much better," Quinn answered with an enthusiastic nodding of his head. "Much better than what I don't know, but..." He looked at the Professor and Rembrandt's humorless expressions and winced. "Ouch. I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was that bad. You're looking at me like I killed somebody." His eyes grew wide. "I didn't kill anybody, did I?" He turned to Wade. "You know, you never did tell me what happened to that mugger. That's it, isn't it? I killed the mugger. How could I possibly..."

"That's not it," Rembrandt interrupted gravely. "There's a reason for the long faces, and I think that you should know what it is." Arturo was kicking his leg hard under the table, but Rembrandt paid no heed. He made eye contact first with Wade, then with Quinn. "I gave away all the money I made here."

"What?!" Wade exclaimed in surprise, but with a bit of amusement in her voice. "Why would you do that?"

"In Mr. Brown's defense, it was for a good cause," Professor Arturo soon spoke up and the discussion became more light-hearted. Rembrandt was able to forget, for a time, the sadness of the impending loss of a friend and the bitter taste of keeping another secret from someone he trusted with his life. They all ordered food and drink and were determined to have a good time for the few remaining moments they had on this world.

Eventually, conversation lulled. "Enough chitchat," Arturo said while rubbing his hands together. "Mr. Mallory, tell us what progress you've made with translating signatures into timer-readable co-ordinates."

"Not as much as I'd hoped," Quinn admitted. "I think I've got the slide signature detector to the point where it could send its stored information to a foreign source, but that's pretty much it. I quickly discovered that I would have to take the timer apart just to see how I could make the co-ordinate input system go in. And I'm really not willing to do that without knowing that it can be built."

"Of course it can," Rembrandt said emphatically. "I used a timer with one for two and a half years. So what's the hold up?"

"Hey, if you've got the specs I'd love to take a look at them," Quinn answered defensively. "But neither the Professor nor I have ever designed one."

"Not on this small a scale for certain," Professor Arturo agreed. "But you two do have something to contribute here. Anything would be helpful, how the system was used, what you did when something went wrong with it, that sort of thing."

"We'll work on it," Wade answered for both of them and a slight nod from Rembrandt said he concurred. Neither of them truly believed they could help, but both were compelled to do whatever they could to find home. "So, Quinn, if you didn't have any luck with that, what was that big success you kept talking about on the way over?"

"I wanted to save it for later as a surprise, but..." Quinn flashed a big smile. "...while I was looking at the timer, I saw a design flaw. Maybe it's been there since the beginning, maybe it happened while I was stranded all those years on the island, I don't know. I didn't notice it before because it isn't integral to the inner workings of the core components, but it's definitely what threw the Sorcerer's ability to auto-set the thing off kilter."

"So...what are you saying?" Rembrandt questioned, his eyes narrowing.

Quinn was practically jumping with enthusiasm. "I'm saying I can go home whenever I want!"

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