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by ThomasMalthus

Chapter One

The Anbaric Lamp was quiet for a Friday night. It suited the world, and the mood of our heroes, just fine.

Rembrandt had a little trouble gulping down the drink in front of him. "Man, I just can't get used to this stuff."

Arturo grinned chidingly. "Mr. Brown, a world where mead rather than beer became the fermented drink of choice is not as wretched as some we've visited. And I must say it's a nice change of pace from the last one."

Wade nodded in agreement, although she was drinking plain water from the springs outside, not fermented honey. "I could stay here forever." That statement, although meant to be a positive commentary on the serenity of what they had seen of this universe so far, made a wave of depression pass over the faces of the three travelers. They knew they couldn't stay for long, much less forever.

As if to darken the mood further, Quinn emerged from his room with the familiar device that took them to different parallel worlds in his hand. They could tell what he was going to say from the look on his face. "Guys, I'm sorry..."

"'A great danger has arisen'," Arturo quoted from memory.

"If there was anything I..." Quinn started, but Wade interrupted.

"We understand, Quinn. Get ready. We'll be right behind you." She smiled reassuringly and Quinn left not feeling quite so guilty as he might have.

Quinn walked out into an open field, not far enough from the Dominion for his friends to be unable to find him, but enough so that he could get the peace he needed to open the portal.

His daemon, a silver-coated mongoose named Morgana, moved reassuringly against his neck while maintaining its usual perch inside the large hood of Quinn's oversized green jacket. The two of them did not speak, as Morgana knew Quinn would need to muster all his concentration soon. Almost as soon as this thought went through her mind, Quinn withdrew the proteometer from his coat pocket and fell to his knees.

As soon as his eyes closed, Morgana withdrew completely into his hood. Quinn could take no notice of this, as his mind immediately connected with the proteometer. He and Arturo had tried to find a scientific explanation for the phenomenon, and had concluded none existed. The probabilities twisted and turned around his mind, as the device guided it to the place the calling had come from. Eventually, he mentally fixed on that place, and a string of coordinates passed through his mind. The portal opened a few
moments later and Quinn collapsed.

The others had hung back during the procedure, they'd done this dozens of times before, but now moved to pick up their friend and enter the vortex. They could not touch his sleeping daemon, such a thing was so taboo it was virtually unheard of, but the crafty Morgana had closed Quinn's hood tight just before he had passed out, so that she was firmly entrenched within. By now, she would have been out like a light, just like Quinn.

Rembrandt carried Quinn through the massive swirling hole that they called the vortex. As he entered, his grey fox daemon, Marie, was illuminated temporarily. This happened to each of their daemons every time they entered and exited the vortex, and, much like everything about this process, nobody had ascertained why yet. In turn, Maximilian Arturo, with his spotted snow owl daemon, Carlotta, and Wade with Phileas, her daemon which resembled a chestnut-haired squirrel, each went through as well.

Each of the group stumbled a little as they touched the ground on the other side. The earth was always a little different in shape when they stepped through to another world; from higher to lower, hilly to flat, dry to wet and so on. None of them, not even Rembrandt, who was carrying Quinn, had actually fallen and so they made their way to a thicket of trees to rest and wait for Quinn to awaken.

"No sign of danger yet," Rembrandt reported, trying to keep the mood light.

"Let’s not go looking for it yet, eh, Mr. Brown?" Arturo spoke in quick response.

"Particularly while Quinn is still unconscious," Carlotta’s soothingly sage voice cooed.

Silence reigned for a few moments. Rembrandt stared transfixed at Quinn’s face. "They’re usually stirring by now."

The Professor looked at his young pupil grimly. "It’s been taking longer and longer for him to wake up."

Phileas raced back and forth across Wade’s shoulders nervously. "You know, you could..."

"Here we go again," the Professor groaned. Professor Arturo was the only one other than Quinn who had ever managed to make the proteometer open a bridge between two worlds. However, while the period of Quinn’s unconsciousness never lasted more than a few minutes; when Arturo had done it before (in purely emergency situations) he had been comatose for several days afterwards. "I’m not even sure I could managed to open it with the regularity that Quinn does."

"It’s always worked before," Wade answered him.

"We cannot be certain..." Arturo started.

"Stop it!" Rembrandt exclaimed. "We all know that this thing is killing him."

Arturo stopped in thought for a moment. "It may yet kill us all."

Diana and Maggie ran as fast as they could through the woods with an unconscious Mallory slung over their shoulders. "Are we...far enough?" Maggie asked between heavy breaths. Diana nodded. The two of them stopped dead in their tracks and, perhaps not as gently as they might have, lie their male compatriot down by their feet.

Diana glanced at the timer. "About a minute," she reported, which was fairly close to their calculations. Maggie kept glancing back behind them, keeping an eye out for their pursuers.

"They can’t see us slide out," Maggie said firmly. "With what they do to humans on this world, if they were to even know about the existence of others..."

"Behind that grove," Diana indicated and the two of them took Mallory to where she pointed and crouched down as close to the ground as possible. Before they could get comfortable, Maggie spotted a lone Phasan on patrol. Not wanting to take chances, she hurled an energy grenade, given her by one of the braver resistance fighters, at him, hitting him dead in the chest. He promptly disintegrated.

"That was the last one," Maggie reported solemnly to her fellow slider.

"We shouldn’t need any more," Diana answered hopefully. "Ten seconds to the window." Mallory opened his eyes and began to groggily stand on his own. Maggie gestured for him to stay low. It took him a moment to find his balance, but he eventually did so.

"Can you slide through on your own?" Maggie asked him in a whisper. He nodded affirmatively. Diana pressed the button to active the vortex when the timer hit zero and watched the wormhole form...and promptly sputter out before one of them could jump in.

"What’s going on?" Maggie asked.

"I don’t know!" Diana responded in frustration. "It’s never done this before!" She pressed the button again and stood back to see what would happen. Again the vortex closed as fast as it formed.

Maggie’s sharp eyes caught some Phasan agents moving along the horizon. "Do it again! We can’t be stuck here!"

"If I do it many more times, it’ll fry the power chip," Diana explained. She popped the timer’s ‘hood’ (as Arturo had once called it, though they had no way of knowing that) and checked the electrical wiring. "Everything’s fine. Nothing shorted out. I have no idea what could be causing this."

"Give it one more shot," Maggie ordered in the calmest voice she could manage. "If it doesn’t work we’ll get out of this another way and buy you time to fix the timer."

Diana closed her eyes this time, afraid to look at what would happen if the vortex sputtered into nothingness again. They opened again when a large golden light glowed so brightly she could see it through her eyelids. It was a portal, although unlike any portal they’d seen before. It was as tall as the trees they stood in front of and sent sparkles of light out into the world around them. Diana seemed paralyzed in front of it, but Maggie urged her on, after practically pushing Mallory through.

They had jumped through, but soon realized the folly of that when they reached the other side. They fell hard on the other side, as the gateway touched the ground with its golden bottom edge. They all three rose, brushing the dust from their clothes.

"Thank God we’re free of that hell," Maggie said, which was not at all an idle remark.

Diana looked over at Mallory. "You’ve been awfully quiet these last few minutes."

Mallory gestured at his throat. At the other sliders’ comprehension, Mallory unceremoniously grabbed Diana’s knapsack, drew a notebook out of it and began to write. He then handed it to Diana.

"When the Phasans captured me, they took me to their biological warfare division and they used me to test a new strain of..." Diana had to hold back a guffaw, "laryngitis."

Maggie had no such qualms. She cracked a big smile. "I guess we should let you get kidnapped by aliens more often."

At that moment, several forms emerged from hidden places around them, bearing strange-looking weapons. They bore a striking resemblance to the Phasans of the last world, only strange-looking animals hovered around each one of them.

Diana sighed wearily. Why couldn’t both of them have gotten laryngitis?

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