6.18 - Veritas
Quinn Mallory nervously took in the glares of the audience. The spotlight was on him after all, and he had specifically been told not to stall once he got out here. That was easier suggested than done, however. Right now, Quinn had to overcome a minor case of stage fright before he could do anything else.
Swallowing hard, he walked up to the microphone. "Is this thing on?" he offered meekly as he tapped the device a few times. Screechy reverberations filled the room, and several people started complaining. "Hey! That's annoying!" came one exclamation. "My eardrums are sensitive," a burly man cried out. "I wish it were time for someone else's story," someone else said.
Such comments were commonplace on this world, and Quinn was getting used to them, slowly but surely. The short of the story was that nobody on this world could lie. As for the longer explanation, that was still up for debate. Discussion about what caused the phenomenon never progressed beyond pure speculation, but the two most likely theories were that the air mixture on this world contained something that had a sort of truth serum effect on the populace ("a tenuous hypothesis at best," the Professor had said) or that there was some kind of societal conditioning going on that was most likely exacerbated by mob psychology. At any rate, within a day of their arrival, the sliders were as incapable of telling falsehoods as the rest of the populace.
Which naturally presented a problem when keeping their 'secret identity', as it were, from the populace. The four of them tried their best with some truly creative non-lies, but eventually everything came out. Not long afterwards they were told about this place, a theater going by the name of Veritas, where the public were regaled with the best stories from those people with the most interesting lives. Well, truth be known (and was there any other choice here?) they weren't so much 'told about' as they were 'instructed to go there'. The sliders were understandably reluctant, but it wasn't like they had anything else to do on this world. Quinn drew the short straw to go first, and was now regretting that fact quite a lot.
But there was no point in prolonging the inevitable. Quinn nearly dropped his notecards as he looked up to face the audience. "I guess it all started in a little out-of-the-way diner..."
"Here you go, Tiffany," Quinn said, his voice belying his exhaustion. He handed over the glossy photograph that he had just put his barely scrawled out his signature on.
"Um, I'm Stephanie," she corrected shyly. Quinn grimaced slightly and appeared to be holding his breath. He cast a helpless look the Professor's way.
"I'm very sorry to disappoint you young ladies, but we do have some actual business to discuss," Arturo stated authoritatively. "That's all for today." A collective groan came from the crowd gathered around, but eventually they did disperse.
"Thank God," Quinn exclaimed with relief once they were all out of earshot. "I've needed to go to the men's room for the last half hour. I don't think I could have held out much longer." Rembrandt casually slipped out of their booth to let Quinn out.
Once he sat back down, the Crying Man cast a longing eye at the kitchen. "Where the devil is our food?"
"I think the entire kitchen staff deserted their posts to hound Mr. Mallory," the Professor mused. "Or it seemed so at any rate."
"So..." Wade started, trying to act as disinterested as possible, "why do you think Quinn's famous on this world? I'd suggest the obvious, except teenage girls don't usually squeal over brainiacs."
"Don't know," Remmy replied disinterestedly, never taking his eyes off their waitress. When she disappeared back into the kitchen, he turned his full attention to Wade, a half-smile breaking out on his face. "I just hope he's not a singer. I've heard that guy belt out a tune in the shower. Smokey Robinson he's not." He chuckled to himself.
"Let's not be too hard on the boy, eh?" Arturo requested. "We've all enjoyed some measure of fame on another world, although some have enjoyed it more than others," he said as he sent a knowing look Rembrandt's way. "Besides, his adoring fans accepted the fact that I was in charge of the group. A welcome sign indeed."
"And just why is that?" Wade wanted to know. "Would it have been so terrible if they'd thought it was me or..." She stopped when she saw the look on the Professor's face. "What is it?"
"That noise," Arturo replied. "Do you hear it?"
Quinn Mallory heard a tremendous crash from outside, the impact of which made him lose his balance and threw him backwards into an open stall just as he was washing his hands. In retrospect, he probably should have investigated immediately, but everything happened far too quickly for him to react in time. Taking the time to dry his hands out of dread as much as anything else, he threw the paper towel in the trash can and exited cautiously to view the scene.
It was pure bedlam, as it looked like something had crash landed inside the place and smashed up the entire front of the diner. Quinn surveyed the room full of broken glass, overturned tables and chairs and terrified patrons. 'Great,' Quinn thought. 'This is why I hate going to public bathrooms.'
He noticed that his eyes were bleary and then saw that the reason for that was that the room was filling up with smoke. There was a fire near the entrance and Quinn moved towards it to put it out, although he had no plan on how to do so. The diner's owner beat him to it, spraying the small blaze down into nothingness with a fire extinguisher. Quinn moved next to him to offer him assistance as he nearly doubled over with a coughing spell. "What happened here?" Quinn wanted to know.
"I couldn't see," the man responded sadly. "It all happened so fast, there's so much damage..." His narration stopped as he became awestruck by what had happened to his livelihood.
Quinn moved quickly to get him thinking about something else. "Did they take anything? The cash register? Valuables of some kind?"
"I don't keep much here," the man shook his head. "I'm sorry, but they grabbed... they only wanted..." His voice trailed off into nothingness.
The geniusy slider got the message anyway. He'd been wondering what had happened to his fellow sliders in the middle of this madness; now he knew. "They kidnapped my friends," Quinn noted gloomily.
Now the man seemingly regained his voice and looked Quinn in the eye. "Why didn't you stop them?"
Quinn looked at the man with fearful expectation. "What makes you think I would have been able to?"
"Are you kidding me?" he responded with a sarcastic chuckle. "You're Quinn Mallory, Secret Agent! Head of Quinn Mallory Investigations! You can stop anything, anywhere. That's your motto anyway." He once again surveyed the damage with a heavy heart. "But I guess not even you could stop the bad guys this time. These perps were determined." Without saying another word, Quinn headed out the door, looking for further clues and any help he could get. "Hey, am I going to get reimbursed for this?" the man called out just as Quinn left.
Quinn Mallory wasn't exactly thin skinned, but he had never liked people laughing in his face. This chucklehead construction worker wasn't an exception. "It's a simple question," Quinn said, clearly peeved. "Do you know who I am?"
"Does the President know who's Governor of Maryland?" the heavyset man retorted. Quinn had no idea what that meant, but for his own sake he decided to take it as a yes.
"Fine," Quinn told him, an impatient anxiety clearly exuding from him. "Then tell me where to go to get help. I'm supposed to be the head of this Quinn Mallory Intelligence Agency, right?"
"Quinn Mallory Investigations," he corrected with a suspicious frown. "Wait a minute. Is this a practical joke or sumthin'? Am I on 'Frank Footage'?"
"If you're not going to help me," Quinn huffed as he started to walk off.
The large man called out to stop him. "Hey! Never let it be said that I'm not a patriotic citizen. I mean maybe you got amnesia or somethin', like when you was in the clutches of Dr. Zed. If you need help, just push the big red button on your comm belt. That'll cue in J that you're in trouble, and he'll send Tara runnin' after you."
"Tara?" Quinn asked skeptically.
"You know!" he said to the man he presumed to be a spy. "Your sidekick? Tara Firma?" Quinn's blank stare was as much a response as anything he could have said would have been. "Man, you must really have it bad to forget that little number. What I wouldn't give to have..."
Quinn wasn't about to let him finish that sentence. "Thanks for your help." Although the man seemed to know what he was talking about, the belt tip wasn't much help at all, seeing as how he wasn't in possession of one. But there had to be somebody who would tell him how to get to where he was going. After all, he was famous.
After a few passersby were questioned, he realized that was the problem. Too many people knew of him for it to make sense that he would need directions to his own headquarters. One elderly woman nearly sicced the police on him, claiming he was Quinn Mallory's robotic doppelganger, Qwerty. That was when the plan began to hatch in his mind. Walking up to a police officer with as much authority in his manner and voice as he could fake, he started barking orders. "Get on the horn and get me a half dozen squad cars pronto. I need a full police escort back to Quinn Mallory Investigations HQ. It's an emergency."
The woman in blue was silent for a moment and Quinn at first took that as a bad sign. She spoke quickly enough, however, after swallowing the lump in her throat. "Yes sir, Mr. Mallory."
After clearing nearly a dozen heat and motion detectors, retinal scans and voice print identifiers, not to mention metal detectors and security checks manned by humorless guards, Quinn Mallory entered the headquarters of his double's eponymous spy agency. Quinn wondered idly what this world's version of him was like and what it would take to get his help in this matter. Since he was such a big hero, he guessed not much, but you could never tell what someone's first reaction to seeing their duplicate from a parallel world would be. However, he really wasn't expecting a punch in the gut.
Although on the ground and moaning in pain, Quinn's blurry eyes tried to make out the identity of his assailant. An attractive blonde woman dressed in a simple gray business suit stood over him with a smug yet somehow still dissatisfied look on her face. "You've got bigger cajones than I figured, Mallory. I didn't expect to see your sorry behind back here without one of our internal security teams doing one of their famous babysitting jobs. With you kicking and screaming all the way, of course." She moved her hand along her side and raised her voice. "J. Come take a look at this. The cat dragged himself in."
Quinn managed to put himself into a seated position on the floor. "I take it you're Ms. Firma."
The woman smiled humorlessly. She didn't hurt him again, but if looks could injure... "Only for the cameras, Q-boy. Certainly not for you."
"Cameras?" Quinn asked aloud, to himself almost as much as to his double's 'sidekick'. He supposed the exploits of this agency must be filmed and that was why this Quinn was so famous. Still, it didn't explain why this Tara Firma character would attack him.
"Relax," she assured him without really assuring him of anything. "They're not around. Nobody saw me put you in your place. Your precious image is still intact."
A few moments later, an elderly Caucasian gentleman who vaguely resembled Malcolm McDowell and an African-American man that looked to be in his mid-40s entered the room. The older man spoke, revealing an upper class British accent. "Mr. Mallory. So good of you to join us."
"Spare us the false pleasantries, J," Tara stated impatiently. "Get with the reprimanding. What's his punishment this time?"
"Shouldn't we at least give him a chance to defend himself?" the as-yet unidentified man who walked in with 'J' said.
"What's the point?" she asked rhetorically. "It's always the same old story. I still don't know why we put up with his..."
"You know good and well why we do," J interrupted. "There are many unpleasant necessities that must be dealt with in our work. This is merely one of them."
"Question," Quinn interjected. "Does anybody care that I'm not your Quinn?"
The conversation ground to a halt quickly. "Come again?" the man who wasn't J asked.
"My name is Quinn Mallory, but I'm from a parallel universe. A completely different world," Quinn told them.
"I stand corrected," Tara said, nonplussed. "That's a new pathetic excuse."
"Hold on," J instructed. "Do you have any proof?"
Tara started to say something, but Quinn cut her off. "If your goons will give me back my timer, that should suffice."
However, he didn't cut her off for long. "I can't believe you're buying into this."
"He's been AWOL for three weeks," J countered. "That fact has not only hampered our espionage efforts, but it'll put our show in reruns for the first time ever if we don't do some live shooting soon. Do you honestly think even Quinn, the Quinn we know at any rate, would be stupid enough to just waltz in here after all that?!"
"Probably," Tara came back sourly.
"Look," Quinn exclaimed, trying to seize the conversation back from his double's business cohorts. "I came here because somebody grabbed my friends and I think it might be one of your Quinn's enemies. But if you're not going to help me, I suppose I could just go to the police." He turned around and began to walk away.
"Well, I suppose that settles it," J replied. With a nod of his head, the man standing beside him drew a gun from his inside jacket pocket, pointed it at Quinn, and fired. A tranquilizer dart shot out and knocked Quinn cold. "We cannot have him going to the police; it would appear too suspicious. Mason," he said, addressing the other man by his name for the first time, "get Quinn, or whoever he is, to our lab boys. I'm sure they can think up some kind of tests to run on him to see if his story is true."
"Any particular reason you think it is?" Mason questioned, although he was not nearly as skeptical as Tara.
J looked him directly in the eyes. "Velvetface has been inactive for far too long. And I think he just made a move."
Wade Welles, Professor Maximilian Arturo and Rembrandt Brown sat behind bars unhappily. Oh, sure, they'd seen enough prison time to disqualify them from ever running for public office when they got home, but they weren't used to being held hostage by a maniac. Or at least not such a tacky maniac; the guy was dressed in head-to-toe velvet and had a horrible color sense. "You'll never get away with this," Rembrandt said half-heartedly, speaking to the aforementioned fashion victim as he came within earshot of their cell.
"So," he said in an overly exaggerated 'creepy' voice that made him sound like nothing so much as an aging clown on a poorly rated morning show for kids. "You must think that Quinn Mallory is going to come along and save you all. Whisk you away and never abandon you again."
"Well, when you put it that way, it does sound a little hopeless," Wade remarked.
"I wouldn't bet on him being the big hero, though," he said as he began to slowly peel his mask off. "Oh no. I think you're in for a little surprise..." However, it was his own eyes that grew wide as he took in the identity of his captives. "Hey, you're not J, Tara and Mason!"
"Brilliant observation, Mr., uh, Velvetface, was it?" Arturo asked with rhetorical sarcasm. "Are you just realizing this now or do you simply have a penchant for surprisedly stating the obvious?"
Velvetface shrugged and pointed towards his mask. "It's hard to see out of this thing, and I think I've lost some of my ability to hear out of it, too. I've been thinking about installing..." He then realized who he was talking to and resumed his attempts at being sinister. "I mean, curses! Where could they possibly be?"
At the same time, the three in question plus an alternate Quinn Mallory were gathered around a conference table, looking up at an image from a century ago on an otherwise blank screen. Quinn didn't know how much money this agency went through, but he thought they should be able to afford something more high tech than a slide projector. J had mumbled something about 'budget cuts' when he asked about it though. Speaking of the elderly British gentleman with the single-letter name, it was he who now spoke. "Espionage has been a national taboo since the late nineteenth century, when a spy ring in the pay of an Austrian duke by the name of Franz Friedrich brought about the assassination of many of the world's leaders. The resulting global war motivated all countries to outlaw such clandestine activities. But they have nonetheless continued, unabated and in many different forms, into this century."
Quinn stifled a yawn. "That's great and everything, but what does it have to do with me?"
J sighed. "Your doppelganger, as it were, was our cover story. Nothing more than a pretty boy actor whose career was on the skids and who had a 'cool' name that we could hide behind. An entertainer who could sell our cause to the public, while we disguised the real agents behind your mystique."
"Huh," Quinn remarked unimpressively. "It's just like on that TV show, Remington Steele." The other three glared at him with hostility. Quinn quickly looked down at his hands. "I guess you didn't have that show here."
"No, we did," Tara said snidely. "We just can't believe you'd be idiotic enough to compare a multi-million dollar spy agency to a crappy short-lived 1980s TV show."
"That's enough, Ms. Lieczyzinski," J instructed harshly. "We hardly have time for petty sniping."
"Then what are we wasting time here for?" she demanded to know. "We've got a lead on the whereabouts of our most dastardly foe! We've been discussing contingency plans for months in case something like this happened. And now that Velvetface has given us a clear trail to follow, we're wasting time with slide shows? This doesn't make sense!"
"We'll be moving out in good time," J said defensively. "But the situation is different now. There are hostages involved. Not only the companions of this Mr. Mallory, but perhaps our own Quinn as well." Tara balked. "We know he disappeared on a mission against Velvetface. He hasn't returned. If our old enemy is capturing civilians for no good reason, then..."
"I think I know the reason," Quinn interrupted, drawing the attention of practically everyone in the room, including those labcoats and military uniforms that were buzzing around the room. "He mistook my friends for you three."
J shook his head dismissively. "He isn't that stupid."
"No," Mason agreed. "But his minions might be." The agent paused in thought. "If it's true...if he has Quinn and tried to kidnap us..."
The elder British man gave in. "Then we should move quickly. We'll discuss tactics on the way."
"OK," Quinn said with uncertainty. "Um, where exactly are we going?"
Tara 'Firma''s eyes gleamed. "To meet the enemy on his own turf."
"So we're headed to Washington?" Quinn asked, trying to exude casual when he was more nervous than he had been in a dozen slides. This mission had the feel of black ops and the comparitively young physicist didn't even feel he was up to the common variety. "We're not taking on the Feds, are we? Because, honestly, I'm not sure..."
Quinn gawked as the three normally stead individuals flanking him broke out in gales of laughter. J recovered first to explain. "The Federal government has not troubled our fair state since the early part of last century. And if it were a matter of our agents versus theirs..." He trailed off, unable to finish his sentence and keep his composure.
"Let's just say it wouldn't be a very fair fight," Mason said for him.
"So when you're talking about Washington, you're talking about the state, then?" Quinn asked. The man in charge nodded curtly. "So what's the plan? Infiltrate the seedy underbelly of Seattle? Impersonate a grunge band?"
J stroked his chin. "Not altogther bad suggestions considering your origins and ignorance of this world, Mr. Mallory. But we have something much more simple in mind. We're sending you in, alone and unarmed."
"That's a plan?!" Quinn and Tara exclaimed simultaneously.
The man from England flashed an uncharacteristic smile. "It'll be the last thing Velvetface will expect."
"With some due respect, sir," Tara spoke up, "this is Quinn we're talking about. He's not trained to handle situations like this."
"Ms. Lieczyzinski, I'm afraid you're mistaking our Quinn for this one," J admonished mildly. "This man travels between worlds on a regular basis. He's bound to have handled trickier situations than this one."
Quinn gulped. "Yeah, about that..."
"Besides," Mason stated as he looked over his computer equipment. "He won't exactly be alone. We'll be watching from nearby, waiting until we spot a weakness to move in."
Quinn closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on something other than the fear. Tara leaned forward, whispering directly into J's ear. "I can't believe you bought that parallel universe story just because there were a few physical differences. Ever heard of plastic surgery?"
J looked at her gravely. "Believe me, if Mr. Mallory wished to conceal his identity, he would not have chosen..." He searched for a way to be tactful. He chose nondescript. "That. He's far too vain."
"Gee, thanks," Quinn told them uneasily. "I've been trying to get 'that' removed. But you wouldn't believe what passes for legitimate medical procedures on some parallel worlds." Deciding he had defended his honor enough for one day, he turned his attention to figuring out what the heck he was going to do once he came face to mask with this Velvetface character. One thing was for sure, it would have to be singularly cunning and daring, something that Quinn's archnemesis would have never expected from this Quinn Mallory.
At Velvetface's dockside fortress of evil, Tara Firma lie disabled by a large metallic device that regularly sent electrical shocks through her body and pinned her to the floor. J and Mason were trapped in their helicopter, which had been crushed like an egg by a mechanical claw. Quinn himself hung by his leg from a hook over a pool of water that VF threatened was filled with snapping piranha. "I would have expected better, Mr. Mallory. Even from you."
"Stop tape," J said loudly, trying to get the cameraman hovering outside to stop filming. "Stop it!"
"You don't want the folks at home to miss the series finale of QMI, do you?" Velvetface asked playfully. "Come on now, let's give them something to tune in for." He watched smugly with crossed arms as...our heroes did little, other than struggle and try mightily to hide their fear. "Very well. If you're not willing to showboat for a ratings grab, I will. I always was the only one who understood the concept of sweeps." He began to tug at his mask, only to feel it hold tighter to his face. "Oh, for the love of Pete! Can somebody help me with this?"
"Here, let me," a female voice came unexpectedly from in front of him. He felt the velvet mask tugged from his face violently as he was kicked forcefully into the side of the vat that Quinn was dangling over. Well, our Quinn anyway. Or our adopted Quinn, however you want to think of him. The mental differentiation was necessary, because the man behind the mask was a double of Quinn Mallory.
Rembrandt and the Professor moved to free the government agents plus Quinn and eventually the seven of them surrounded the other Quinn, who looked quite worse for wear. His hands felt the raw skin of his face in distress. "What did you do to me?"
"Superglue," Rembrandt said with a malevolent smile. "Don't leave your home dimension without it."
"It could have been worse," the Quinn with the tux on noted. "They could have pulled a Baron Zemo." That earned him strange looks from the others. "What? I'm practically a super hero, and I don't get to make comic book references?"
"No way!" Tara exclaimed. "No frickin' way! We were almost beaten by Quinn?" She looked to J and Mason, whose faces mirrored the horror in her own. "We better hope this never makes it to air, otherwise we'll never live it down."
"Very well, I'll go peacefully," Quinn stated majestically, although technically nobody had thought his capture and imprisonment was very negotiable at this point. "But I must know this: How was I beaten? What was the Achilles Heel of my plan?"
"You forgot to lock the door to our cell," the Professor told him with a grin. He then looked at his fellow Englishman. "Can you arrange for our transport back to San Francisco? It's imperative that we return there immediately."
J nodded curtly in Arturo's direction. "Given that you've saved our lives, it would be extremely impolite for me to refuse."
Professor Arturo got an overwhelmingly smug look on his face. "You see, Miss Welles? The, er, more experienced British man calls the shots on this team as well." Wade grumbled, but said or did little else.
Quinn turned and looked at Rembrandt. "The weird thing about Baron Zemo is that the same freak accident happens to both the father and the son. I mean the Nazi guy I can understand, but..."
"Let it go, Q-Ball," Remmy told him wearily. "I've had enough talk about cornball villains to last me a few slides." The four of them exited through a large hole in the wall as armed guards escorted them to the airport. "You can tell me all about it the next time we run into a double of the Professor's son, though." Before the Professor could protest, the sound of a buzzer seemingly wiped them from existence.
Quinn stopped speaking abruptly as the red light blinked irritatingly into his eyes. His time on stage was up. Not knowing quite how to leave gracefully, he simply concluded with, "I guess that's it then." Fumbling over the stool he had been sitting on as he made his way backstage, he heard one last cry from the audience. "Your story lacked explosions! I want explosions!"
Wade hurried on stage as quickly as she could after Quinn made his 'suave' exit. She sat and began to tell her story. Actually, it wasn't that simple. A few moments after she sat down on the stool, she discovered the microphone was aimed too high for her to speak into. Several moments of unsuccessfully trying to adjust the device later, she finally pushed her seat backwards and declared that she would stand. Weathering catcalls the likes of "Sing!" and "Take your top off!" during the unexpected delay, Wade eventually captivated the audience with her story. Or at least she kept them quiet long enough for her to get started. "As Quinn mentioned, we do spend a lot of time in jail..."
Wade awoke sharply, forcing herself to breathe deeply when she really had no reason to. The distinctly unpleasant tang of metal filled her nostrils and that increased her sense of panic. She had been asleep in an extremely uncomfortable position and her immediate surroundings upon waking reminded her of her time in Kromagg confinement. These were by no means happy memories. She sensed as much as saw someone in the room with her and that heightened her fear. "Who's there?" she called out.
"I'm not here," came a voice filled with more terror than hers even hinted at. "Don't look at me. Don't come over here. Please god, I'll be good."
"Is there something here?" Wade asked him with concern. "Something scary?"
"Don't talk to me, please," he begged Wade, casting his panic-filled eyes in her direction for the first time. "I'm not like you, I swear."
Confusion was written all over Wade's face. If this person was an average citizen of this world, Wade would guess that the Earth was populated with cowardly misogynists. However, given that the two of them appeared to be trapped in some freaky, futuristic prison cell she kind of doubted he was representative of the general public. There seemed to be some sort of barrier keeping her from walking out of her designated space, but she was unsure what it was exactly that it was supposed to do to contain her. Not really wanting to get fried, she took her shoe off and tossed it at the invisible wall. In reply, the wall allowed the shoe to pass a few inches through the field... and then threw it violently back at Wade. 'This just gets weirder all the time,' she thought to herself.
"What is this place?" Wade asked the man next to him as soothingly as she could. The man said nothing, and he still shook to see her. "Look, I know you're afraid of me. I don't exactly know why, but I do need to know where I am. So if you could just tell me..."
He interrupted her abruptly. "We're in min...minim..."
"Minimum security prison?" Wade guessed. The man nodded as perspiration began to build on his forehead. "Piece of cake. I've been in worse joints than this."
This seemed to set the man huddling in a corner across from her off even more violently than before. "Ohgodohgodohgodohgod..."
"Well, I was being a little sarcastic," Wade admitted. She once again looked around the room, this time searching for alternate methods of escape. None were apparent. "I wonder what I'm in for."
"Incarceration inquiry acknowledged," came an entirely too cheerful voice from...her wrist?! Wade hadn't noticed before, but there was a small metallic band around her arm. "You have been incarcerated for... vandalism, public property. This is a processable offense. If you have not been processed, please report to your local authorities."
"Neat," Wade observed casually. "Although it'll probably get pretty annoying after it comes on accidentally for the umpteenth time."
"How can you be so calm?" the man next to her demanded incredulously. "You destroyed an awning!! Have you no shame at all?!"
"Well, in my defense, I probably didn't do it on purpose," Wade told him. "I can't be 100% sure, because frankly I don't remember anything about it, but I'm normally not the vandalism type." As he shied back away from her, something clicked in Wade's head. "Hey, how do you know what I did?"
"Y-you're kidding, right?" he stammered nervously. "Big news. All over the broadband. Only four lifers in this city in over twenty years. The System nearly had a meltdown."
"Wait, lifers?" Wade asked, dumbfounded. "The four of us got life for crashing into an awning? That's insane!"
Her wrist band sparked to life once again. "The insanity defense was commonly used in ancient judiciary hearings but has not been applicable since the advent of the TELEJUST System. Most legal experts strongly advise against its use."
Wade tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for the device to cease its spiel. "So where are they? Since different sex prisoners can obviously share cells here, why aren't they in here with me?"
She half-expected the little device to answer her again, but it remained dormant. Instead, her squirrely fellow prisoner reluctantly began to speak again. "They all went through fine. Got issued their PCPs without a fuss, just like they were meant to. But you, you had to go and be a no-process. Only no-process in this city in over thirty years." He huddled in his corner, rocking himself gently. "Could have requested you get tossed in solitary, but no. Had to do the noble thing. Get stuck with a no-process high crimer."
Too much of what he was saying meant nothing to her, but Wade latched on to what she did recognize. "PCP?" she asked him. "They got hooked on drugs?"
"Gah!" the gentleman exclaimed frantically. "Don't even say that word! Not if you want to even be considered for anything other than hard labor! I could get extra time just for hearing it!"
"What? Drugs?" The jumpy felon shrieked again, covering his hands with his ears and turning his head away from Wade as quickly as he could. The tormentor in question merely smirked. She knew she shouldn't be taking too much pleasure from this guy's discomfort, but it was a somewhat amusing distraction.
A loud buzzing from behind her abruptly derailed her train of thought. Wade spun herself around in time to see a group of unimpressive-looking guards (each toting some sort of laser weapon, which was much more impressive) unlocking her cell. "Your lawyer's here to see you," one said in a monotone.
The wide-eyed men with distant looks on their faces escorted Wade down a very long hallway. They didn't seem like the type for casual conversation, but she couldn't resist one question. "What's my cellmate in for?"
"Attempted jaywalking," another one, different from the one who had spoken before (or so Wade presumed, they spoke in the same monotonous voice), told her with a face that showed no expression whatsoever. After a few more moments, she was whisked into a room where a man sat with a serious look on his face. He was on the short side, was graying at the temples and had a seeming affinity for strange-looking vests. He wore two of them.
"It would be better if my client and I could speak alone," he told the personality-free drones. They hesitated. "I realize there's little precedence for this, but it does seem the most proper thing, given the ancient methods. You may stand outside the door if you like, however." The four men in red-and-blue lumbered out, leaving Wade with the only person she'd met on this world who wasn't either deathly afraid of her or more of an automaton than a human being. "Now, where should we begin?"
Wade's eyebrows raised. "You're asking me? You brought me here, remember?"
"I'll level with you," he told her earnestly. "I haven't dealt with a no-process before. Usually the only thing coming out of my client's mouth during our sessions together is bland platitudes. 'Yes, sir. No, sir. Of course not, sir.' Plus occasional drool, depending on how well they held up under processing."
"I don't get this," Wade told him with frustration. "Process, no-process, what the hell does it all mean?"
"What, were you born on another planet or something?" he asked with a chuckle. When Wade didn't laugh, he quickly went on. "Processing's done by the System. After the perpetrator is arrested, tried and convicted, they all go through it."
"I don't remember any trial," Wade informed him suspiciously.
"You wouldn't," he responded, an amused twinkle never leaving his eye. "It only takes a matter of seconds. Now if you're done playing dumb..."
"Let's say I'm not," she told him firmly. "What happens after someone goes through this 'process'? And what does it mean that I'm a 'no-process'?"
The man waved his arm and a panel sprang forth from the table. He pressed a button. "Guard," he spoke simply. At first Wade thought she had done something wrong, but her lawyer didn't seem to be agitated. When one of the dullards made his way in, the attorney instructed him to turn around. There was a small gray box attached to his neck. "You see that? It's a PCP; a Personal Cell-free Prison. After you're processed, the System takes over the mind using it. Putting prisoners to work in government posts: prison guards, custodians, doing some light clerical work....even most policeman are convicts."
"Wait," Wade interjected. "These people throw you in jail for having a hangnail and then they let the convicted walk around enforcing those laws? I've heard of inmates running the prison, but this seems pretty ridiculous!"
"They're not the same people, not really," he explained. "Officer," he said, addressing the man in uniform in front of him. "What day were you born?" He was met with only silence. "What's your favorite color?" Again the man said nothing. "You see? Their personalities are completely submerged within the System." He turned to the guard again. "You can go now."
"So my friends..." Wade started. "Were they...?"
"Processed," he informed her glumly. She started to say something, but he stopped her. "Which is what I'm here to talk to you about. Appeals are allowed, to a degree, and we lawyers fight the hardest in the first few months after processing, but after that...there's little hope of reversing the procedure."
"And you're planning to do what exactly? File some paperwork and make impressive speeches?" Wade asked sardonically.
"Look, the System doesn't know exactly what to do with no-processes," he told her softly. "There are cracks in it for just that purpose." He handed her a card. "I can't officially condone anything, but here's someone you can talk to. A prisoner here, kept in solitary. She knows more about being a no-process than I could ever tell you. My information's on the other side, if you need to contact me."
Wade looked it over. "There's no number on the front. And you never told me your name."
"You noticed that, huh?" he smiled. "Good luck. You're going to need it."
Wade found a small, uncomfortable metallic bench to sit on outside the conspicuously nondescript door she had been instructed to go to. "Hello?" Wade called out softly. There was no response. "I was told that you could help me."
"You've been told a lot of things," came the voice of an elderly woman echoing from inside the prison door. "Most of them lies. But that doesn't stop you, does it? Your quest goes on."
Wade rolled her eyes. She really wasn't in the mood for ramblings from cryptic advice lady. She was just about to say something about this being a waste of her time when the other woman interrupted her. "You've been abused mercilessly. Beaten, raped, beheaded, crimes that have brought death on men's heads for centuries. Yet those who have sinned against you remain free. Your mind reminds you of it often. You try to shelter your burden from others, but it weighs on you nonetheless."
"OK, I get it," Wade said with less sarcasm than you might expect. "You're legit. But I didn't come here to talk about my past."
"You've grown unaccustomed to the truth. Your skin is calloused from too many lies. I understand." Wade could have sworn she saw smoke coming out from above the door, but it faded away quickly. "There are objects you must have to leave here. I can tell you how to obtain them."
Wade let out a deep breath. "Then please do."
"Not so fast," she responded in a voice seemingly harsher than the one she spoke with before. "I understand you have a gift for me." Wade withdrew the small piece of wax from her pocket and placed it on the floor. The candle just barely fit under the door. "We both have the gift. We see things without having to use our eyes."
"What are you talking about?" Wade asked with more than a little hostility in her voice. "I'm not psychic, I'm just..."
"Different," she finished, as more smoke started pouring out of the room. "No-processes always are. Their minds aren't like other people's."
Wade looked down. She'd been wondering why she hadn't gone through the system. Now she knew. "I don't have time for this. Just tell me what I need to do."
"There's a cuckoo clock behind the walls," she responded in a stage whisper. "They don't see it, so it'll be easy for you to steal. But you should steal away quickly." There was a minor commotion behind the door as she stopped talking for a moment. "You'll need this."
Wade saw an object come out from under the door and picked it up. "Scotch tape?"
"Shhh," the elderly woman exclaimed. "Don't say the name out loud. The possesson of it is forbidden." Wade's incredulity showed on her face, but the lady was talking again before she could say anything. "Place it over the black metallic strip on your wrist when you're ready to leave. It'll fool the sensors, but not for long."
Wade was already mentally putting herself through her paces, taking in what she knew of this place and her own abilities. "What then?" she asked matter-of-factly. No response came readily back. "I don't have anywhere to go on this world. If I'm going to live the life of a fugitive, I have to know more."
"I've been in here a long time," her pained voice finally answered. "I used to have friends on the outside. The librarians. Not sure if they're still around, but..." She stopped herself, and much of the emotion left her voice as she continued. "They should help you."
Wade wasn't entirely thrilled with that plan. "What about my friends?" she asked with concern. "How do I get to them?"
"I can tell you," she told Wade. "Everything about them. More than you'd ever want to know. But first I have to hear about Callie."
Wade froze. After staring at the large metal door separating her from the woman who presumably knew everything for a few moments, she forced to herself to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat. "I can't. I'm sorry."
"I know," her voice came back soothingly. "Go now. Men both with and without hats will be coming soon. No way to tell if they'll be blinded by sunlight."
Wade had found the timer easily enough, procuring it from an otherwise fairly empty room and only having to render one guard unconscious in the process (no pun intended). She hadn't been sure what would happen when she used her metallic bracelet to damage the similar piece of electronic equipment on the back of those who had been "processed", but she figured the experience would at the very least be educational. It seemed to work fine, except the guard would probably wake up with brain damage and the annoying voice coming from her wrist was so frazzled it was currently rattling off the rules of cribbage. One disguise and a hastily applied piece of scotch tape later, Wade was out on the street.
The place was rather pristine (then again, she hated to think about what the penalty for littering had to be here) and had elements that she would consider "futuristic": very tall buildings, weird overly bright clothing, vehicles that moved through the sky with no visible means of propulsion, that sort of thing. Wade wasn't much interested in taking in the sights. She had to find these librarians and quickly, before the authorities noticed she was gone. Her library search had led her through twelve blocks already with no luck when someone standing in a side alleyway grabbed her.
Acting on instinct as much as anything else, Wade elbowed her attacker in the stomach, grabbed an arm and flipped the man (his gender was confirmed mid-toss by a quick glance at the beard on his face) onto the pavement as hard as she could. It knocked the wind out of him, and Wade used that opportunity to go for the weapon she had taken off the guard and point it in his direction. "I don't know exactly what this thing does, and if I use it, it may hurt me as much as it does you. Don't make me..." Wade cooled off from threatening mode enough to take a good look at the man. He was spindly, he probably didn't weigh as much as Wade did, and pale and seemed to have poor grooming skills. "You're one of those librarian guys, aren't you?"
"Unfortunately so," he confirmed in a hoarse voice. "Sorry I couldn't give you much of a fight."
"No, it's me," Wade told him as she offered him her hand. "Who should be sorry. About that. Are you OK?"
"I've been better," he told her gruffly. "I'm sure I'll be fine as soon as we get off the street and back to my safehouse."
"Of course," Wade agreed, embarassment transparent on her face. "Which way?"
Wade took one drink of the hot substance in a teacup that she had just been handed and made a face. "Vanilla-flavored water," he explained. "The only drink other than plain water that hasn't been banned. Sorry."
Wade placed the cup down and really had no intention of ever picking it up again. "I was under the impression you don't exactly follow the straight and narrow."
The man twisted his mouth to one side, trying to craft his answer as delicately as possible. "True, most of what we do isn't officially sanctioned by TELEJUST. Which is all the more reason to adhere to every regulation we can."
Wade stood slowly. "I don't want to endanger our acquaintanceship, but I'm guessing you didn't grab me off the street to chat about beverages. What exactly is it that you want from me?"
"You're very direct and I respect that," he said with a slight smile. "We've received word of your plight. I believe we can help each other. I have access to certain...illegal objects that will make it much easier to deprogram your friends."
"And I have...?" Wade wanted to know.
"The ability to do things on the outside without a great deal of risk." Wade frowned. "When you first saw me, after you pounced on me that is, you mentioned 'the librarians'. That was a bit of a misnomer. At present, I am the only 'librarian' who has not been incarcerated and processed."
"And you want me to spring the others?" Wade said with a knowing smirk. "Say no more. Just tell me what I need to do."
One journey to a parallel world and a few weeks later, Wade nonchalantly walked through a series of doors into a hospital. She had an oddly inappropriate smile on her face. Quinn and Rembrandt were there to greet her as she came in. Well, perhaps 'greet' wasn't the best word for it. "Where the hell have you been?" Rembrandt demanded to know.
The indignant attitudes of her friends didn't affect Wade that much. "Hey, somebody had to get a job on this world. Because trust me, it wasn't cheap to get you in here. The Nancy Reagan Clinic is one of the most exclusive in the country."
"It's only fair," Quinn grumbled. "We wouldn't have had to be hospitalized if it weren't for you."
"You don't have to be so dramatic about it," Wade teased them mildly. "I had to do it to snap you out of your collective stupors, which were induced by an all-powerful computer that had enslaved humanity." Remmy and Quinn turned away from her with disbelieving looks. "What? You don't believe me?"
"Well, it was a tad convenient that we had to slide out of there before we could find out what in blazes was going on," Rembrandt assessed. "And do I remember a guy with a really long beard laughing a lot? It's hard for me to tell, given my state of mind at the time." As the two men glared at Wade, she grinned sheepishly. There had been a reason that narcotics were so feared on the last world. They were the only things that were able to disconnect convicts from the 'system' that held them prisoner.
"I remember him, too," Quinn told Remmy supportively. "Well, him and his very blurry friends. They were yellow and red at once, which was very wrong." Quinn held his head for a moment. "Sorry, flashback."
"Well, if it means anything, I am sorry," Wade told them sincerely. "We still have a few days here. If it helps, you guys can do or have anything you want until the slide. My treat." That seemed to appease them, and the trio began to walk out the door. "Hey, wait. Where's the Professor?"
"He's not exactly clean yet," Rembrandt told her. "He hasn't been able to stop downing brownies since you gave him those 'special'..." Remmy's words trailed off into nothingness as a harsh sound interrupted Wade's story. She shot a confused look backstage and then departed as swiftly as she could.
"I don't want to waste the time of our story tellers here," a nervous-looking, oily man in a loud suit proclaimed, "but I do want to remind you that this event is sponsored by Ford Motor Company. If you're looking for a car that'll run fairly well for a few years, conk out and force you to buy a new one, mostly due to the changes in the consumer market over the last few years that have made almost anything easily dispensable, then our company is certainly willing to meet that particular want. And for the socially conscious, we've not been run by an anti-Semite since 1951. And now back to our featured, uh, whatchamacallit."
Rembrandt entered calmly, picking the microphone up from its stand and taking control of the situation with the ease of a pro. "How's everybody doing tonight?" There were some scattered "woo"s, others started complaining loudly about back problems and some got a little too graphic about their love lives for anyone's taste. Remmy attempted to silence them all as quickly as he could. "My story starts on a ranch, in a universe far far away..."
"That's the last of it, Captain," an exhausted Corporal named Bogen reported as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
"Stand down, you're relieved," the man in front of him said with a smile. "And you don't have to call me Captain. Ain't no military here, not yet anyway. Just call me George."
Bogen smiled nervously. "Don't think I could ever do that, sir." Captain George Bergstrom had become the unofficial leader of their people over the years; he refused any new titles of authority, but that didn't mean they couldn't call him by his old one. "What are we going to do now that the sour corn is so low, sir?" he asked, trying to change the subject quickly.
"Do some more trading to the south, I suppose," Bergstrom responded with forced enthusiasm. "We've still got the best quality furs this side of the continent. Hate to part with 'em this close to winter, but we gotta keep these beasts fed." As he mentioned the creatures next to him, he saw something that immediately distressed him. "Teddy, get down from there! You're gonna tear up my new fence!"
"No I'm not," the boy retorted. He was walking the non-uniformly shaped wooden beams as if they came together and made a tight rope. Since they didn't, he fell quickly into the pen that contained the large, tamed beasts that made do for transportation around these parts.
George muttered something in one of the Native languages he had learned and ran towards the part of the fence that was broken. His first concern was that there wouldn't be an escape or stampede; the dinosaurs he kept weren't meat-eaters, and they were pretty tame, making the odds of his being trampled extremely small. Still, once he was satisfied that their ability to flee was sufficiently hampered, he grabbed his son and pulled him out of the pen. "You got your clothes all dusty. You know it'll be two more weeks before we can head down to the South Fork to get 'em washed."
"I know, I know," Teddy grumbled unhappily.
"You're lucky you didn't get hurt, what with the Doc in Cuaxltaca," his stern voice trailed off as he started to hear the hipposaurs make agitated noises behind him. At first he thought it might have been a delayed reaction from his son's actions, but then he saw that something over the hillside seemed to be spooking them. Leaving his mischievous offspring for a moment, he departed to investigate. As he peered over his own little mountain, his mouth dropped. "Holy Jensen River! It's the Sliders!"
George Bergstrom carefully bounded down the hill, and after landing firmly on his feet, started speedily making his way towards the travelers. "Hello!" he called out. "Welcome back! Sorry I couldn't come up with a better welcoming committee on such short not..." He stopped in his tracks as he took in who all was there. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
"No problem," Rembrandt replied with a chuckle. "We're not used to much of a welcome anyway."
Professor Arturo looked at the man with curiousity. "I apologize, sir, for my potential rudeness in asking, but do we know you?"
"Actually, considering you're still with the group, probably not," the man who once was called Captain Bergstrom told them. "The sliders I knew had a Captain Beckett with them, and their Professor was, well, how should I put this..."
"It's a long story," Wade interrupted. "But we did used to have a Maggie with us, and we thought our Professor had died, but it turned out he really didn't and then we found him, or rather he found us, and did I mention it was a long story?"
"Wait," Remmy interjected. "What world is this?"
"We're colonists," Bergstrom answered. "Saved by a group of sliders similar to yourselves. With their help, we migrated here when pulsars were going to destroy our Earth."
"Oh," Wade responded with knowing enthusiasm. "It's the second dino one."
"Two worlds where the dinosaurs never died out?" Arturo asked in surprise. "That seems rather implausible, doesn't it?"
"Not really," Wade pointed out. "Statistically, we should probably run into at least as many worlds with dinosaurs as without. In fact, we probably should have found a few dimensions with no people at all by now..."
Rembrandt wasn't listening and wouldn't have cared if he had been. "Malcolm," he stated, a smile crossing his face. He turned to face their one-man welcome wagon. "Is he here? Can I see him?"
"Uh...sure," George Bergstrom answered with hesitation in his voice. "Of course. I mean, I'm sure everyone will want to see you. Anybody new would be great, but you...you're practically heroes around here." A child of about nine started to run up to the man standing in front of the sliders. "Teddy, you remember the Sliders, don't you? From the tales I've told you?"
"You didn't bring us anything," Teddy pouted sullenly.
"That's not what they're here for, son," George scolded with a forced laugh. He then turned to face the four interdimensional travelers. "What are you here for?"
"To make up for lost time," Rembrandt answered for the group, although most of them wouldn't agree.
Quinn had had only one question weighing on his mind. "Who's Captain Beckett?"
The sliding quartet had barely had time to take in the sights of the colony before they were whisked away to a large log cabin where their weekly meetings took place. It turned out this George Bergstrom character was a leader of sorts here, and he never missed one of these community gatherings. Wade sat down next to the Professor after helping herself to a canteen of spring water. "Do I want to know what this is made of?" Wade asked rhetorically after wrinkling her nose at the container, made from the skin of a presumably anonymous animal.
"Probably not," Professor Arturo conceded with a chuckle. "I'm afraid I'm rather in the dark as to why this Malcolm fellow is so important to Mr. Brown."
"They formed some sort of bond on that world. Remmy became his mentor or something to that effect. Maybe it had something to do with the world ending, I don't know." She looked at the Professor with a half-smile on her face. "I never much understood it either."
"We only have two days here," Arturo stated. "Do you think that will be enough time?" Wade nodded, although she herself was a little unsure. The Professor looked thoughtful. "Their relationship I can almost understand, but if this Malcolm and Rembrandt were so close, why hasn't he mentioned him before? He could have at least thrown his name out on occasion."
Wade shrugged casually. "How often do any of us talk about our families anymore, or people we knew back home? Unless we run into their doubles, there's no reason to. It just reminds us of how far away we are from home."
After a moment or two, Rembrandt and Quinn entered and took a seat next to their companions. "Remmy's been telling me tall tales about 'Maggie'. I couldn't take it any more."
"Hey, it's all true," Rembrandt protested.
"Oh come on," Quinn retorted skeptically. "A creature that possesses women and forces them to breed? How likely is that?"
"You'd be surprised," Wade noted under her breath. At that moment, Captain Bergstrom strode up to the podium to begin the meeting.
"It's about time to come to order," he announced. "But first I'd like to direct your attention to some distinguished guests who arrived at our colony today. I'm sure you're familiar with them, so I don't think any formal introduction's necessary. Come on up here, you four!"
Quinn and the Professor seemed reluctant, but after a little prodding from Wade, all of them made their way up to the front. Rembrandt was at the head of the line, so he rose to the podium to speak first. "I just want to say it's good to be back, and it's good to see you all again. But there's still one person I haven't seen. Malcolm? Are you here?"
Bergstrom grimaced. The gathered crowd started quietly buzzing. "He's not, Rembrandt. I'm afraid there's a subject I've been avoiding with regard to Malcolm."
"What happened?" Wade asked with concern. "Is he alright?"
"He's fine," George assured him. "It's just..."
"Not everybody feels the same way about you guys that we do," a slight balding man in the first row that Rembrandt vaguely remembered being introduced as Doctor Arnold started to explain. "Some of us want to believe something about why we're here and how we got to the colony that's not quite..."
"Out with it," Rembrandt demanded. "Where is Malcolm?"
George Bergstrom looked Remmy in the eyes. "He's been taken by a group called the Rickmanites."
"We'll need weapons," Rembrandt declared, looking at his fellow sliders, as though giving them their marching orders. "Everything we can get our hands on. We don't want to be outgunned out there."
"Of course," Wade agreed helpfully. "But, uh, where exactly is 'out there'?"
"Good thinking," Remmy told her. "We'll need a guide. Somebody who knows where these freaks are. Captain Bergstrom, could you..."
One look at the former military man was all he needed to know what the answer was. "Rembrandt, don't do this."
"Don't do what?" he demanded. "You expect me to sit idly by while Malcolm's in danger? Uh huh. I'm going after him, by myself if I have to."
"But Malcolm's not in danger," a woman who Wade and Rembrandt both slowly recognized as Gretchen stood up and said. "The Rickmanites take him this time every month, on the full moon. He's like some kind of good luck charm for them, or something. They even let Malcolm pack a bag before they take him."
"And you just let this happen?" Remmy asked angrily. "What the hell is wrong with you people?"
"The Rickmanites are very misguided, but they're hardly a threat," Bergstrom stated defensively. "They do their share of the farming, and aren't bad trappers either. Hell, they'd be in this meeting today if it weren't that time of the month."
"If they're as peaceful as you say, couldn't we go visit Malcolm while he's in their custody?" Quinn wondered aloud.
George Bergstrom grimaced. "I don't think that's such a good idea." Before Rembrandt could protest, he explained himself. "To these people, the four of you are, well, you're their 'evil spirits', I guess you'd say. They wouldn't take kindly to you being here at all, much less interrupting their religious festival."
"Yeah?" Rembrandt replied defiantly. "Well, I got an interruption for them. One they won't soon forget." He looked first at Bergstrom, then at Gretchen, then at the rest of them. "Now which one of you is going to tell me where these Rickmanites hang out?"
"That went rather poorly," Professor Arturo assessed as the four of them walked out of the meeting house empty-handed.
"Anybody who'd revere Rickman has got to be crazy," Wade grumbled. "I can't believe nobody would give them up. There must be something going on here that we're missing. Bribery, maybe?"
"It's possible," Rembrandt conceded thoughtfully. "They can't be too far from here, not if they come into town regularly. And they've got to stand out in a crowd."
"Wait," Quinn said with a confused look on his face. "Those guys told us Malcolm isn't in trouble, and that the only way he could be endangered is if we come barging in there with guns a-blazin'. And you guys still want to go through with this?"
"Nobody said you had to come along," Rembrandt snapped. "Hell, you weren't even with us when we were here the first time, so who cares what you think about any of this?"
"Neither was I," Professor Arturo reminded them quickly, "and I second Mr. Mallory. I may not be familiar with Malcolm, Rickman, Maggie or any of the other cast of characters you seem to have become intimately familiar with in my absence, but I see no reason to risk this young man's life or our own on a quest with only marginal merit."
Rembrandt turned to the only slider who hadn't yet given an opinion on the subject. "What about you, Wade? You gonna hang me out to dry, too?"
"Never", Wade told him with assurance. "I'll back you up, come what may."
"Very well," Arturo grumbled mildly. "Mr. Mallory and I will see what passes for a hotel on this world and the two of you may do whatever you wish. I trust we'll see you in time for the slide?"
Remmy and Wade watched the two of them walk away. "I feel better with it being just the two of us anyway," Rembrandt remarked, and it was not a complete untruth. "We're the only ones who know what to expect from these guys. Now if only we knew where we could find them." At that moment, a short, wiry man walked by and dropped something near their feet.
"Clumsy me," he said sheepishly, falling to his knees to pick up the objects on the ground. Neither of the sliders could make out what was down there, but it looked like... "Cigarettes. They're a bad habit and you've pretty much gotta roll your own around these parts, but what are you gonna do?" As he rose to his feet again, he said something in a soft voice. "I can take you to them. Be at my ranch at dawn. That direction," he said pointing to a path that the two of them had not yet traveled, "about two and a half miles. I have the third biggest hipposaur ranch in the valley. You can't miss it." He then walked off, only pausing to light his cigarette on a torch illuminating the dirt streets.
Rembrandt looked at Wade for guidance. She shrugged. "What choice do we have?"
Wade started to regret the decision after five hours of riding on the back of a hipposaur (she was past thinking the name came from the fact that it basically played the role of a horse on this world, and now believed it originated from the state your hips were in after a day's ride on one). She tugged on the reins, and allowed her numb legs to stop gripping the animal's hide, trying her best to control her inevitable fall once she let go. She wouldn't have scored a '10' on the dismount, but there wasn't any permanent damage. Wade considered that a victory in and of itself.
The female slider took a look at the strange beast that the population of this world used as its primary transportation. Its skin was green with black stripes, its tail was long, but didn't move much and its long head was capped with a mouth similar to a duck bill. It started grazing hungrily on grass as soon as Wade flopped off. She examined their guide for a moment in the same fashion. He was odd-looking, but had a quirky sort of charm about him. Apparently he had his own grudge against the Rickmanites. "How did you guys domesticate these things so quickly?" she asked their guide, a man who called himself Ford.
"They're not domesticated, they're tamed," Ford answered her with a smug smile.
"What's the difference?" Wade wondered aloud, not really caring, but what else was she going to talk to this guy about?
"Well, tamed animals are ones born out in the wild that man's able to bring down to his level a little bit. Domesticated animals can breed in captivity." He smiled big. "Then again, I wouldn't expect a pretty lady like yourself to know anything about that."
Wade twisted half of her mouth into a grimace unhappily. "You'd be surprised."
Rembrandt rode back to within earshot and called out to them. "Come on. We're almost there."
Wade grumblingly complied. "Not taking the subtle approach, I see." Ford chuckled slightly and the three of them were off to save Malcolm.
Wade and Rembrandt rode back from the Rickmanites' camp as slowly as possible. In part that was because they were in no hurry to get back; defeat was worse when facing the people who told you you'd fail in the first place. But mostly it was because Remmy was riding side saddle, and it was difficult to do so on these hipposaurs while going any speed above five miles an hour. So they trotted at a snail's pace.
"It's not your fault, you know," Wade told him sagely. "You couldn't have known what would happen."
"Probably not," Rembrandt conceded. "But I feared it. All the way here. And now..."
"Now we know," Wade finished for him. "He's made himself pretty clear. Malcolm feels abandoned; he's lost his parents, then he felt like he lost you too. He's a teenager. They all have issues."
Rembrandt leaned over as much as possible, looking Wade in the eye. "Maybe he's got a point, though. I mean, even when we did have the ability to go back to worlds we'd visited, we didn't do it often enough. How many times do you think, total? Five? And even then it was just because we wanted something. Oh sure, we like being the heroes for a little while. Change the world and then ride off into the sunset. But we don't think about the people we leave behind, in the darkness. The people who have to live with those changes everyday. They're the real heroes." Remmy's eyes moved to the horizon. "He definitely had a point."
"Maybe," Wade agreed hesitantly. "But he didn't have to kick you in the groin."
"Wade, don't remind me," Rembrandt moaned. "It's bad enough I have to ride this freakin' lizard back to town. If I didn't learn something from this, I just got injured and humiliated for nothing."
"How about those Rickmanites, huh?" Wade asked, quickly changing the subject per his request. "Not quite what you expected, were they?"
"Hell no," the singer replied with a small laugh in his voice. "I guess I wanted crazy guys in paramilitary uniforms, maybe with little syringes hanging from chains around their necks. How was I supposed to know that..."
"That's it," came a voice from offstage. "Next story teller, you're up."
Rembrandt looked up at his audience. He was a little disoriented. It was as though he had been possessed, but now had been unexpectedly released. He wasn't so lost that he forgot his manners, however. "Thank you," he told the people staring up at him. "You've been a great crowd."
Professor Maximilian Arturo nearly knocked down the emcee, planted himself firmly in front of the microphone and started telling his tale. He didn't waste time with pleasantries, either. "Mine is about a kingdom I once visited, in which I was the king."
The scene was set at a restaurant named Benedicto's. An odd turn of socio-political events had brought him here. Maximilian Arturo sat on a beautiful gilded throne, surrounded by fawning subjects and other frantic gawkers. Needless to say, he was enjoying the attention. "Now, now. Don't shove. All may bask in my magnificence in good time." He then laughed heartily.
From a dozen or so feet away, Wade rolled her eyes. She turned to look at Quinn. "Who is he kidding? He'll probably end up deposed before we slide out of here." Quinn was clearly trying hard to suppress his feelings on the matter, and not really doing that well.
Rembrandt joined them with a puzzled look on his face. "They crowned Arturo king? I wasn't in the bathroom that long, was I?"
"Apparently they've been looking for a monarch with his exact specifications for a while. Sort of a King Arthur with Excalibur situation." Quinn explained to Rembrandt. "Something about a birth line, having the exact genetic structure. Doesn't make much sense to me, but what are you gonna do? It's a parallel world."
Remmy caught sight of a gentleman being carried to the door by his ankles. "What did he do?" he wondered idly.
"Insulted the king," Wade answered, her eyebrows raised. "They must take this stuff pretty seriously on this world."
"I knew this world was filled with a bunch of monarchist nuts, but damn," Rembrandt exclaimed, upon seeing the man literally tossed on his behind out in the street. "I'm glad they didn't hear me make that whale remark after the Professor took my salad fork. They probably would've tarred and feathered me."
"They still might," Wade reminded him with concern in her voice. Then she turned her attention to a creepy-looking man in a red sash watching them.
Quinn clearly saw him, too. "I don't trust this Grand Vizier guy. He looks shady to me." He turned to Wade and Remmy, making sure that only they could hear him. "I think he's got his own agenda. We should keep an eye on him. See if he's the one who sets the rules on this world. Because the last thing we want is..."
The scene was set at a restaurant called Benny's. An odd turn of ergonomical events had brought him here. Maximilian Arturo was rather unexpectedly wedged between the booth and his seat, surrounded by employees feigning helpfulness and other giggling onlookers. "Yes, do gather round. All may laugh at my distinct misfortune. But I will be free in good time and then we'll see who laughs last!"
From a dozen or so feet away, Wade rolled her eyes. "Who is he kidding? He'll probably be stuck until we slide out of here." Quinn was clearly trying hard to suppress his feelings on the matter, and not really doing that well.
Rembrandt joined them with a puzzled look on his face. "Arturo's in trouble on this world already? I wasn't in the bathroom that long, was I?"
"Apparently this restaurant hasn't had someone of his exact...specifications for a while. He's done nothing but mutter insults since you left. I believe the last one had something to do with Bea Arthur and Ex-Lax," Quinn told Rembrandt with a smile. "They keep quoting some laws about a girth line, and the Professor's not having much luck with the 'it's just genetics' argument. Doesn't make a great deal of sense to me, but what are we going to do? It's a parallel world."
Remmy caught sight of a man being shoved out by two of the more muscular employees. "What did he do?"
"Ate too much chicken a la king," Wade answered. "They take this stuff pretty seriously on this world."
"I knew this world was filled with a bunch of fitness nuts, but damn," Rembrandt exclaimed upon seeing the man plop down pathetically on the corner of the street. "I'm glad I started dieting on the last world. Can't eat anything that I can't lift with a salad fork now. But at least I avoided getting tarred and feathered."
"You still might," Wade pointed out. "I saw you sneak that brownie onto your plate."
As Rembrandt looked sheepish, Quinn's attention was focused on a man in a tux with a red sash over it standing over Arturo. "I don't think that Head Waiter guy has much room to talk. He doesn't look too slim to me." He turned to Wade and Remmy, making sure that only they could hear him. "I think he's had liposuction. We should keep an eye on him, maybe see if we can get him to talk. We still have a few days here, and if that's how things are done on this world..."
"Veritas!!!" about three dozen people in the audience screamed, interrupting Arturo's story rather loudly, and giving him little hope of being able to continue. Not that he would have wanted to anyway, but it still felt a little rude to him. Of course, the Professor was never very good at accepting defeat.
His own sour attitude was contrasted with the jubilance of the crowd. People cheered, clapped, hooted, took their party hats off and blew into noisemakers that were hidden in them (as was the custom on this world) and danced as some kind of festive instrumental number played in the background. Arturo guessed that it must have been something equivalent to "Auld Lang Syne", but it sounded more like "Tequila". The Professor slunk back to the designated table for story tellers, taking a seat next to his three companions. "No wonder they have to recruit people from parallel worlds to participate in this ritual," he groused. "Who else but someone completely ignorant of this culture and its traditions would agree to be utterly humiliated in front of hundreds of people?"
The other three sliders said nothing, but Arturo wasn't through ranting. "Oh, I concede that they could likely find a few deluded individuals here and there who would be willing to torture themselves thusly, but to build an entire ceremony around such pure degradation defies simple logic and the basic laws of human decency!"
That diatribe still merited no reactions from the other three. "There's no need to be shy, I'm sure you're all dying to make comments. Mr. Brown, where's your joke about my being a 'sore loser'? Or Miss Welles' spirited defense of this earth's most cherished tradition? And isn't it about time for Mr. Mallory to smugly point out that if we had simply lain low on this world, as he had suggested..."
Quinn extended his palm in a defensive gesture. "Could you please stop, Professor? It's loud enough in here as it is." He slumped in his chair, looking thoroughly exhausted. "I feel like I have a hangover."
Rembrandt scoffed. "I went on a binge, Mardi Gras '89, that would've knocked out David Crosby for a week. The hangover from that didn't even come close to this."
Professor Arturo was a bit taken aback by their discomfort. "That is rather odd. I did warn you to stay away from the local alcohol, however."
Wade weighed in with her own assessment of their malady. "I didn't drink anything but water, and I still feel horrible." She held her stomach as tightly as she could. "I think it's the aftermath of the story telling."
Quinn and Rembrandt sluggishly nodded their agreement with that sentiment. "Oh, come now. I was up there, and I've experienced no adverse side effects." He paused in thought. "Well, other than a headache. And slight nausea."
"That's how it starts out," Quinn told him gloomily. Professor Arturo visibly swallowed hard.
Rembrandt took a look around at the others and lowered his voice. "When you were up there, did anybody else get sort of... possessed?"
"What?!" Arturo exclaimed in shock. Wade and Quinn's reactions were much more amenable to Remmy's theory. "It's like I couldn't control what was I saying up there," she explained. "I mean I had this whole story written out where I was an undercover bikini model, trying to break up a mob ring on a world where waxing was illegal, and then I end up with..."
"That Philip K. Dick reject thing we heard?" Quinn threw out. Wade gave him a look, but it didn't deter him much. "Yeah, I wasn't exactly planning on being the bargain basement version of James Bond either."
"Same with me and the Dinowestern," Remmy grumbled. He grabbed his stomach. "Excuse me." He then ran off to make use of the facilities.
"I don't understand it," Arturo declared with a baffled expression on his face. "I had no such problem up there, I don't see why you three should have..." He trailed off as he earned the stares of Quinn and Wade.
"You mean you planned that story where you ended up as king?" Wade questioned. "What an egomaniac!"
"Well I was going to give it up for the betterment of humanity at the stirring conclusion," he explained unconvincingly. "But of course it all ended before I could get to that part."
Quinn and Wade resisted the urge to comment further. They became lost in thought, wondering what in the world had gone wrong. It was supposed to be a simple exercise in telling tale tales, performed yearly by this culture on New Year's Eve, where all the urges to tell falsehoods were exorcised in one night. Sometime around midnight, however, the chemical given to the contestants would wear off and the person speaking would end up with egg on their face. It was rather like a combination of an old-fashioned liar's contest and the children's game "Hot Potato".
"Do you think there could be a reason that we told those stories, instead of the ones we wanted to?" Wade asked Quinn.
"It's possible," the not-as-young-as-he-used-to-be physicist answered. "Maybe something in our subconscious dictated the choice. Who knows?" He looked up at the glitzy decorations that adorned the room. "I still can't believe it's 2001."
"Oh yeah, I almost forgot," Wade said with as much enthusiasm as she possibly could. "Happy New Year, Quinn."
He smiled at her. "Happy New Year, Wade."
"The one thing I can't understand," Professor Arturo interjected, "is why your stories seemed to be missing a key..."
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