Quinn looked in the mirror and didn't recognize himself. He had started to avoid mirrors everywhere because he couldn't stand the sight of Mallory's face. He'd thought that he would get used to it, but getting used to having someone else's face wasn't an easy thing to do.
Let alone normal.
"Quinn, we're about to leave!" a voice yelled. "Hurry up in there!"
But Quinn didn't hear anything. He just stared at the image in the mirror. After going so long avoiding his face and ignoring his voice, he had had enough. He only had one goal in mind, and for the first time, it wasn't getting home.
The bathroom door opened, and Rembrandt entered. "You're not going to miss the slide because you're on the can, are you?"
Rembrandt noticed that Quinn was just staring at himself, oblivious even to his friend's presence. He wanted to ask what was wrong, but there was no time. He heard the vortex open in the living room and grabbed Quinn.
The vortex opened, and the first two sliders fell out into a large bushy area. Rembrandt, who had woken Quinn up, came out next. Quinn was the last to come out, and he was still daydreaming about his old appearance. As he exited the vortex, there was an energy surge that sent the lead slider far into the air. He didn't scream, and the other sliders didn't notice.
"Where's Quinn?" Wade asked. "Did you get him out of the bathroom?"
Wade wanted to laugh at her own joke, but it didn't seem like the time to laugh. Quinn had been acting strange for the last couple weeks, but he had been through a lot before that. So many revelations about himself and what could've been. That could make anyone go crazy.
"He jumped in with me, but I came out of the void before him," Rembrandt said. "He should've come out already."
"I'm sure he's fine," Arturo said. Suddenly, the group heard a loud noise, sounding like a large animal. "However, I think we need to worry about ourselves right now."
"But isn't he in more danger than we are, all alone?" Wade asked, looking very worried.
"If he didn't come out of the vortex, Ms. Welles, then there's nothing we can do until the slide," Arturo answered. "I'm sure he's in a better place then we are either way. Now, let's go."
Arturo didn't mean to invoke the language of death, but that's how it came out. He hoped no one noticed.
Quinn looked around. He was still angry, but he had to focus now. He had pouted long enough, and he needed to get serious or he was going to get himself killed.
He looked around. He had seen a place like this before. It looked like one of those giant mazes made of bushes that he had seen in amusement parks. But the screams, both animal and human, told him this was no amusement park.
He was pretty good at mazes as a child, and he knew this would be to his advantage. He ripped a section of his shirt and left it on the grass. He knew it was cheesy, but he didn't want to keep walking in circles.
"What direction do you want to go, Professor?" Wade asked, just as another horrible scream sounded.
"I vote for 'anywhere but here,'" Rembrandt said, and he darted in a direction.
"Mr. Brown!" Arturo yelled, as Wade and he followed the Cryin' Man.
Quinn sensed that he was making good progress. He hadn't passed by his shirt, and he hadn't seen one of those animals he was hearing.
In a minute, he saw what appeared to be an opening. He stayed close to the edge of the bush, just in case there was something defending the end of the maze. Fortunately, there was not.
On the other side of the opening was a palace of enormous size. There was a small moat-like pool surrounding the palace, and Quinn saw a variety of people standing on the other side.
Every one of them was staring at Quinn, looking astounded.
Professor Max Arturo had done a lot of running in the last few years, but he was not in good shape. The younger, stronger couple were able to make much better time than him.
Rembrandt was running on pure adrenaline. He was terrified of this maze and he wanted to get out as fast as he could. He knew it was not the safest or the most reasonable thing to do in the world, but he couldn't stop.
"Wait up, Remmy!" Wade screamed, but suddenly, Rembrandt couldn't be seen. He had turned a corner and he was now out of sight.
Quinn stood on the edge of the pool. He assumed that this was the final stage of the maze, and the water was probably very dangerous. However, part of the pool had evaporated, and he wandered to that portion of the pool.
Shadowy images under the water indicated extreme danger, but the water was so shallow that Quinn could almost run all the way across. He sprinted across the sand, not allowing the marsh to slow him down. As he approached the water, he made a huge lunge toward the shore.
Arturo was now very far behind Rembrandt and Wade, and he was slowing down. He was reluctant to scream ahead, since the loud animal noises appeared to be getting nearer.
He was about to stop at a corner and catch his breath when he saw it. The cat appeared to be a hybrid of a lion and a tiger, and it was growling angrily.
The Professor started sprinting in the opposite direction of the cat, and he saw the cat sit still, taunting him with a head start. Arturo ran feverishly, never looking back. In front of him, he saw an opening, and began to slow down out of pure exhaustion. With his last gasp of air and last ounce of energy, he leapt toward the opening, and rolled as far as his inertia would take him.
Quinn heard the sea creatures coming closer. While he had been an athlete in college, he was not a very fast swimmer. He had far less to swim, but the creatures were gaining.
He moved his arms and legs as fast as he could, but tried to stay calm. He knew panicking would mean a swift and brutal death. Fortunately for him, he scraped the sand below him as he approached the shore.
He sprinted from the water, leaving the creatures under the waves. On the other side, he looked out, noticing that the moat appeared much larger from the other side. "Must be an optical illusion of some kind," Quinn thought.
Taking off his jacket, Quinn moved toward the palace. The people around the palace continued to stare at Quinn as if he were some kind of an alien.
"Who is in charge here?" Quinn asked one of the workers, but the man just stared at him with a blank face. It wasn't as if he didn't understand Quinn's question; it was as if he didn't believe Quinn was there at all.
He didn't understand, but he was going to find some answers.
The next time Maximillian Arturo opened his eyes, he assumed he would be facing his creator. He was never an overly religious man, but at this moment he wished that he had been.
"Too scared, huh?" spoke the voice of a woman.
"How strange," Arturo thought. He had never thought of God as a woman, and he certainly didn't think that God would speak in such a condescending tone.
"Open your eyes, fat boy," the woman screamed as the Professor opened his eyes, no longer convinced he was dead.
"I've been telling them for years to stop allowing fat people to do this," the woman said. "All it does is slow down the beasts."
Arturo now looked on in disbelief as the woman stared him.
"Now, go back with the others," she said, sounding almost disappointed.
The Professor walked, covered in sweat, towards a hut in the middle of a town. There didn't appear to be much technology on this Earth, so he was relieved when he realized that he still had the timer, and that it was still in working order.
When he reached the hut, he saw that the other two sliders were there. Now his only concern lay with his protégé.
Quinn entered the palace through its enormous wooden doors. Upon entering, he saw a group of well dressed people approach him.
"Is it true?" the lead man said, as another man grabbed Quinn's arm. Quinn had been through enough of these situations to know that he should allow the men to do their work as long as he wasn't harmed. That way, he would get some answers.
The second man placed Quinn's arm on an electric plate, as the results were analyzed.
"It appears so, sir," the man said to the leader. "He's not registered here at the palace. He has to be from the outside, and people did see a man of his description come out of the maze."
"Then this is him," the leader said. "This is the man from the prophecies. The man who is destined to lead us, and the recipient of three wishes."
Quinn looked around the palace and smiled. Things were looking up for him.
"Professor!" Wade screamed, as she saw Arturo walk inside the hut.
"Mr. Brown, Ms. Welles," Arturo said sternly. "Next time you intend on running off into the middle of a human buffet, would you kindly slow down and wait for the larger, slower sliders?"
"Sorry, Professor," Rembrandt said. "My instincts took over."
As Arturo and the others in the hut relaxed, more people drifted in. Some came with tourniquets, while others had only depressed looks. After a few minutes, the sliders heard a trumpet call, apparently signifying that there were no longer any humans in the maze.
At least, no living humans.
"Three wishes," Quinn thought. Well, he knew what one of his wishes would be. He would get he and his friends home.
"Right this way," one of the men said as he led Quinn towards an illustrious bedroom. As he laid on his bed, he realized that he did not know where his friends were.
He approached the door to his bedroom, only to notice that it was locked. He started to bang on the doors, demanding to be let out.
"If I'm your God or your prince or your chosen one, I should be able to go where I please!" Quinn screamed. As he finished, the door opened and a man was at the door.
"Hello, sir," the man said. "I am Prince Typhoy. I am to show you around the palace, and I am to give you the rules of your wishes."
"Why was I locked in there?" Quinn asked, sounding both annoyed and angry.
"For your protection," the prince said. "You have no idea how many people would do anything to be in your shoes. And here, anything is possible."
As the hut cleared, the sliders looked for a place to stay.
"I don't think we're going to find a Hilton out here, Professor," Rembrandt said. "I think we need to find a friendly group of people to stay with."
Arturo approached a smiling, friendly looking old woman.
"Madam," Arturo said to her. "I was wondering if you might have-"
Before the Professor finished his sentence, the woman quickly turned around, looking ashamed to have even looked at him. Seconds later, the woman's son spit right in Arturo's face.
Wiping off his face, Arturo looked back at the other sliders.
"Was it something I said?" he asked.
"No," a voice called. Rembrandt felt that he recognized the voice, but he couldn't place it. "She is repulsed by your presence. Because you failed in the maze, you're a fifth class citizen to her."
Turning around, Rembrandt looked straight at the source of the voice. It was Diana Davis.
Quinn saw what appeared to be Native Americans in an extravagant palace. But he never would have imagined the technology he saw inside. It looked like the command center of NASA in 2270.
There were all kinds of panels on the wall, streaming all kinds of information. People were on a kind of cell phone talking to each other. But the big surprise was at the center. There was a large laser on the ceiling, pointed to a hole in the floor.
"And this is the prize of our palace," the prince said. "I cannot honestly say that I know how it works or why it works, but all I know is that it does work. Our scientists are so experienced that they can do whatever you want with it."
Quinn stared in amazement as he looked ahead at the gigantic machine.
"What does it do?" he asked, as the laser started to warm up and begin to start.
"It makes wishes come true," the prince answered. "Any world you want to see, it will create it for you."
Something about the word "world" made Quinn smile in amazement. The laser activated, pointed to the ground, and energy filled the hole in the ground.
Energy in the form of an interdimensional vortex.
Rembrandt assumed that she was one of Diana's doubles. The Diana that he knew had left for her home world almost a full year before.
"So, you all are sliders?" Diana said, and that turned Rembrandt's head. He knew that Diana's doubles were smart, but there were very few sliders among them.
"Yes we are, madam," Arturo said. "And may I ask how you know of sliding?"
"I used to be one too," she said. "I thought you were going to be a group that I used to know, but I guess the odds of that are exponential. You're missing two people that were with them."
"Diana?" Rembrandt said, squinting at her, as if to see if she were real.
"It can't be," she said.
"You're looking for Quinn and Maggie," Wade said, making her presence known.
"It's us," Rembrandt said.
Diana suddenly lit up and ran towards Remmy's arms. "I knew you'd find me eventually," she cried. "How did you track me?"
"Dumb luck," Rembrandt said. "Just like everything that's happened on this crazy trip. How the Devil did you get here?"
"Its a long story," Diana said. "Where are Quinn and Maggie."
"That's an even longer story," Rembrandt said.
Quinn couldn't believe his luck. Not only had he stumbled upon a world where he was seen as a deity and granted three wishes, but there was also a perfected sliding system.
"You say that you can do anything with this?" Quinn asked.
"Just about," the prince answered. "Like I said, I don't have any idea how this works, but I can introduce you to our head scientist if you'd like."
"You're damn right I'd like to talk to him," Quinn said. "And you know it works. You've seen it work?"
"I've used it myself," the prince said with a smile. "Its a wonderful device."
Quinn was smiling with all his energy, but the prince quickly got to 'more important business."
"Let's discuss the terms of your wishes," the prince said. Quinn thought it was strange to have terms for wishes, but he knew he could accommodate them.
"When you make your wish, it must be made to me," the prince said. "You get whatever you wish for. Exactly, and nothing less. And finally, you cannot leave the palace for any reason, unless you want to use one of your wishes for it. After you are done with all three wishes, you will be allowed to stay in this palace as its ruler. But if you leave after your third wish, you can never return. And if we catch you here again after that, you will be killed on sight."
Quinn thought that the rules were strange, but he knew that he could follow them. He was only leaving the palace one time, and after he left, he wouldn't come back. He'd be home.
Rembrandt went first, as he told Diana the tale of Maggie's last days: the scientist, the shockwaves, the seizures, the Kromaggs. It was tearful, but Rembrandt made it as painless as possible. Then, he explained that they didn't know where Quinn was. And since the maze had been cleared out by the animals, he was probably dead. But Diana gave an alternate explanation of where Quinn might be.
"He might've made it," she said. "You never know."
"Made what?" Wade said.
"To the end of the maze. Folklore says that every generation, a chosen one will make it to the hidden palace at the end of the maze, and that person will be blessed with power, wealth, and three wishes."
"That's why people are willing to risk their lives to try and get to the end," Wade said.
"Not just their lives," Diana answered. "Because even if they escape with their lives, if they fail, they become outcasts. They aren't respected by their friends, family, or anyone. And anyone who shows them the time of day will be treated the same. Maze or not."
"So, it is possible?" Arturo said.
"Sure, it's possible," Diana said. "At least, according to folklore. But even if it's impossible physically, you say that you exited the void inside the maze. He could've very easily been thrown to the exit."
"If he made it out at all," Arturo said, he thought under his breath.
"Yes," Diana said. "Well, that's a completely different problem altogether."
"Your turn, Diana," Rembrandt said, trying to lighten the mood. "You tell us how you got here."
"Like I said, it's a long story," Diana said. "But I'll try to make it interesting."
After his talk with the prince, Quinn was introduced to the head scientist of the palaces, Oldo Mellon. He wanted to know all he could about the sliding device to see if the prince's claims were legit. However, he couldn't let on that he knew anything about sliding, especially if he was claiming to be from this world.
"So, how does it work?" Quinn asked, trying to be as curious as possible.
"Well, I can't expect a native like you to understand theoretical physics," Oldo said, causing Quinn to smile. He had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. If only he knew.
"Imagine that the universe is a tree," Oldo continued, trying to make it as easy as possible. "When something big happens, the tree shakes and its seeds fall to the ground. Soon, there are more trees. And soon, something else happens that causes the new trees to lose their seeds. One tree has become twenty. Twenty becomes four hundred. Four hundred becomes ten thousand. And so on and so on."
"Interesting," Quinn said. That being the only thing he could think of to say.
"Now, the first tree is what we believe to be the universe at the beginning of time," Oldo continued. "Every time a significant event happens, say the discovery of fire, a new world is created. One where humans didn't discover fire at that time. Then, as that world discovers fire, another world without fire is created. And then those worlds branch off."
"I think I understand," Quinn said, trying to move the conversation along to something that would be more beneficial to him.
"Okay," Oldo said, looking a bit surprised. "Well, this device can take you to any of those worlds. Each world has a special set of coordinates or a code and if we input those coordinates, we can go to any of those worlds."
Oldo took Quinn over to a massive computer, where he pressed the screen and came up with a list of worlds.
"We've established a database of worlds we've visited. We've come across worlds that have branched off this world during the last ten years, and we've found worlds so foreign that you wouldn't believe it. This database has a description of every world that we know of, and if we had to, we could find the coordinates of any world. Just as long as we had a sample of that world's material. I don't think I can get into things like "signatures" but they exist. They're just rather complicated."
"Try me," Quinn said, trying to make Oldo say as much about the sliding device as possible.
Oldo explained the idea of sliding signatures and quantum signatures that could track someone to their home world if they were ever lost.
After a couple hours, Quinn had all the information he would ever need. He knew that he had his ticket home, and he would only need one of his three wishes to get there. That meant he had two to use before he left.
"I guess it all started when I got home," Diana said, starting her story.
"So, your device worked?" Arturo asked, looking relieved, since he had checked it.
"Yes," Diana said. "I made it home, and I returned to my lab to 'check back in' with everyone there. But as soon as I reached them, they started asking questions about Doctor Geiger. They saw that Doctor Geiger was missing, and that all of his equipment was offline. And, of course, Dr. Geiger and I were missing. And with all of the activity caused by the Combine, the world was looking for a scapegoat."
"And they all looked at you," Rembrandt asked.
"Yes," Diana said. "Since both Dr. Geiger and I were gone, they assumed that we had worked on the Combine together, planned to destroy the world and then escape with my timer. Part of which, the working on the Combine part, was true. And since very few people understood Dr. Geiger's condition, they thought I had killed him also. It all fit together, but none of it was true."
Rembrandt felt awful. If she had just stayed on her own Earth, she could've explained all of that away.
"Well," Diana continued. "They held a trial, and they had a very convincing case. I thought I did too, but they had cleared away all the lab equipment where Dr. Geiger and I worked. They said it was all dismantled and taken away. I couldn't use any of it as evidence. And all of my former colleagues testified for my defense, but it was all twisted in favor of the prosecution. They said I knew too much not to be involved. And if I wasn't involved, I should've stopped it."
"What did you do?" Wade asked.
"Well," Diana answered. "I wasn't sure what to do. The jury came back with a guilty verdict, and I was going to spend time for murder and espionage. I saw the timer on the table near me, and when I was able to, I reached for it, activated it, and was about to jump inside when they fired at me. I got so scared that I dropped the timer and it broke on the floor. I jumped inside and landed over the maze. I made my way out, but when I got out, I found that I was an outcast. It was awful."
Diana started to cry, and Rembrandt walked over to console her.
"Don't worry," he said. "You're coming home with us."
During the night, Quinn was allowed access around the palace. Locking his door was a precaution, and now that he understood the rules, he wouldn't leave the compound. He found his way to the sliding device, where he was allowed access to the database.
A few minutes later, Quinn found a device that he assumed read the signatures that would track his home world. Because of all the Kromagg trickery, it would be extremely difficult to get through (despite Colin's help), but Quinn felt that this would do the work.
He spotted a
The coordinates he obtained were described in a pages-long formula that was much more unwieldy than, say, Prototronics or Kromagg Prime had used. It would take hours just to transcribe them, let alone convert them to something his timer could read. Thankfully, his hosts were more than willing to allow him use of their own machine, within the rules.
He hit the link into the encyclopedia system. To his surprise, Earth Prime was one of the few worlds (few meaning thousands) that these scientists had carefully detailed.
The database had all kinds of information. Presidents, maps, history books, newspaper clippings. Even sports scores were logged.
Quinn looked up the history of his beloved home Earth, and was astonished at what he found.
"O.J." he said under his breath, at the listing of his murder trial as a major recent historical event. Tapping into the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle, he saw the Oakland Raiders listed. Searching hard, he found the participants in the 1995 World Series: the Cleveland Indians.
Suddenly, flashbacks filled his head. The Sorcerer, the newspaper, the gate.
"We were home," Quinn said, putting his hands on his face. "We were home and we couldn't even believe it."
Diana finally finished her story late into the night. She explained that having failed the maze, she was the lowest class possible. She was only able to speak with people who had failed themselves.
Fortunately, a very old man was among them. He had failed the maze over thirty years before, and he became the leader of those who did. He taught Diana the history of the world, and he kept her alive during a very troublesome time.
"If he were ten years younger," Diana said. "I would've asked to take him with us. But he's on his feet again. He's level and he's happy. It just wouldn't work."
Diana realized that she was no longer talking to anyone. The other sliders had fallen asleep, and Diana quickly followed.
Before going to sleep, Quinn saw if he could access the sliding machine without wasting one of his wishes. He saw that it required an authorization code to access the controls. It would take a wish to get in.
Before turning off the database, he noticed a section called "population." Inside, he saw a photo and the "caste level" of everyone in the community outside the maze and the palace.
"Its a long shot," Quinn thought. "If they survived the maze, they would've had to come out the beginning. Maybe they take a picture of everyone that fails."
He searched under "Arturo", "Brown", "Welles" and all of their first names and came up with nothing. He saw a section under a word he didn't recognize. He assumed that it was the people who failed the maze. After thirty minutes, he had run through almost all of the pictures, and he had not found his friends.
"Maybe they're dead after all," Quinn said, remembering the shocked faces on the workers outside the palace. They wouldn't be shocked if people survived the maze every day. And they certainly wouldn't give three wishes if they did.
He had one page left, but he was exhausted. He kept his eyes open, just long enough to see his friends' faces. They were alive, and his next job would be to get them back and home.
The next morning, the small community was excited about the news that someone had successfully finished the maze. Many were cheering, and others were extremely disappointed at the fact that they weren't the chosen one.
All over town, pictures of the winner were posted. On her morning walk, Wade walked over and saw all the excitement.
Minutes later, Wade ran into Diana's hut with a picture.
"He's alive and he's safe," Wade said. "He survived the maze and he has three wishes!"
The whole group passed around the picture of Quinn. They now knew where he was and that he was safe. But, now they had to get to him. And very fast.
Quinn rushed into the prince's room as soon as he was allowed in. He had found his first wish, and he knew what it was going to be.
"I want my friends to be brought here safe and sound," Quinn told the prince, who had just moved out of his bed.
"Well," the prince said. "That's not exactly possible."
"What do you mean it's not possible?" Quinn asked, sounding annoyed. The way this world worked made absolutely no sense.
"The only way to get your friends here," the prince explained, "and I assume that they are outside the maze, would be to send someone through the maze to get them."
"That's right," Quinn said.
"But we cannot do that," he said. "The only way that people are allowed in this side of the maze is if they successfully navigate it."
"But they could die," Quinn said.
"That's true," the prince replied. "And there's also not another maze-cross in this century. Your successful crossing ends them for the next 100 years."
"We can't arrange another one?" Quinn asked.
"Not unless you wish it," the prince said.
"So that's all it takes. Fine, I can wish to get all of my friends here safe and sound without all those creatures in the maze to kill them."
"If you wish," the prince said with a smile.
"Okay," Quinn said. "I wish that my friends be allowed to successfully navigate the maze...today."
"And it is done," the prince said. He clapped his hands and three men ran to him. Soon, announcements were being made to get his friends back.
"Now, I have one wish to spend," Quinn thought. "Let's make sure it's a good one."
After the excitement of finding a winner, there was a bigger excitement at the fact that another maze winner was sought at the request of the current one.
This time, everyone was excited. Even the former failures would be given a second chance. This made some of the first-timers angry, but they were glad that they would get their chance.
"Do you think this is one of Quinn's wishes?" Wade said.
"We'll have just an hour left," Rembrandt said. "Do we want to risk it?"
"I'm going to be the voice of reason here," Arturo said. "But maybe we should leave him. He seems to be in a good position now. Why not just let him live his life in luxury?"
"Is that what you would want us to do, Professor?" Rembrandt asked. "Quinn has risked his life for us time and time again. And it seems that every time Quinn's in trouble, we go on without him. Well, I'm taking a chance for him."
"Me too," Diana said. "I'm new to this, but I don't think we should leave him behind either."
"Me three," Wade said, as Rembrandt handed Arturo the timer.
"You all are going to get me killed," Arturo said, as he handed the timer back to Rembrandt.
Quinn knocked on the prince's room late in the morning to see about a couple things on his mind.
"Hello, sir," the prince said, now a little uneasy about using the title.
"I want to know a couple things," Quinn said.
"Go ahead," the prince said.
"How is the maze-run going?" Quinn asked.
"Great," the prince answered. "It's set to run in the next couple hours."
"Excellent," Quinn said. "Now, my next question."
"You're ready to make your second wish?" he asked Quinn.
"Not yet," Quinn said. "But that is what I wanted to talk to you about. What exactly can I wish for? I don't care for money. I don't need to find true love now. What can you do for me here?"
"What is your foremost wish?" the prince said. "Just say it and we'll make it happen. And if we cannot find a way to do it, we can take you to a world where it can."
"I like the sound of that," Quinn thought. His first wish would've been to go home, but he was saving that wish for the others. They had an easy road through the maze and then they'd be home. After that, he knew exactly what he wanted.
"You see, I have this identity crisis," Quinn said.
"I do not understand," the prince said with a slight accent.
"I don't like the way my face looks," Quinn said. He certainly couldn't say why. He didn't think that they had human mergers in the village.
"Is that all?" the prince said. "I was expecting something extraordinary like a third arm or wings or something. Oh yes, that can be easily done right here in the palace."
"Really?" Quinn said with a smile.
"Certainly," the prince said. "I have seen the medical facilities myself and they are a wonder. I've seen people go in looking one way and coming out a completely different way. Oh yes, that can be done and relatively quickly."
"How quickly?" Quinn asked. He wanted to be out of surgery before his friends got there. He wanted to be there when they arrived to greet them. And to explain.
"Well, that is a problem," the prince said. "The cosmetic surgery section is one of our slowest sections. It may take almost an hour to get perfect results. That does, however, include recovery time. That's the only fast thing about it.
"Where do I sign?" Quinn said, trying to keep from laughing hysterically. This could've been his best slide ever.
"Just say the words and it's done," the prince said.
The four sliders prepared to enter the maze. Even thought they all had technically failed in the maze, this was really their first time to enter. But Diana was prepared.
"My old friend knows that maze in and out," Diana said. "And when he was taking care of me, he told me everything about it."
Diana carefully drew a picture of what the maze was supposed to look like, and where the animals were usually kept.
"If this man knew so much," Rembrandt said, as he asked the question that everyone wanted to ask. "Why didn't he make it himself?"
"It all came down to nerves," Diana said. "He knew that maze inside and out. Information was spread from people who dared to ask the failures that was given to them by people about to die. Generations and generations of people passed it down for years. I trust him, and together, we'll finally put all that info to good use."
Rembrandt looked at the other two sliders. He trusted Diana with everything he had inside him. She was going to safely guide them through the maze. He knew she would.
Quinn entered the medical facility, ready to get his old face back. He hadn't been this excited since one of the many times he thought he was going to get home in the first two years of his journey. Maybe not since his first successful test of the machine.
He was going home, he was going to get his friends home, and he was going to get his old face back. There would be no looking back after this. Things were finally going to go his way.
Selecting his face was a lot like the forensic artists for the police. He would say what kind of eyes he wanted, the kind of face, and all of the details that made up his face.
But since Quinn had seen his old face over and over again in his head, he knew exactly what he wanted. The man overseeing the design was fascinated at how well Quinn knew what he wanted. He said that most people who knew what they wanted only changed a couple parts of their face. The people who wanted an
After a few minutes, Quinn had what he wanted. A
It was time for the maze-run. There were about a hundred people lined up in the hut. People were taken to the maze in groups of five, and they would have as long as they needed to either die or make it to the end.
The sliders were in the fifth group, and they were all luckily grouped together. Some families were broken up, and the separated members were crying in opposite sides of the room. But the sliders were fortunate to get put in the same group, thanks to a compassionate man in charge of grouping.
Wade had never seen a crowd as excited about entering a dangerous place in her life. She had been to the Bull Run in Pamplona before, but there wasn't nearly as much mortal danger involved in that.
She began to get nervous as their time approached. She remembered the horrific screams of the people and the creatures in the maze. She had been terrified then, and she was terrified now. And she was about to go back into the belly of the beast.
But they were in this together. That calmed her spirit. They would fail as one or succeed as one. But they were going to do it. They owed it to Quinn, who would've done the same for them.
Just as the maze-run began, Quinn walked out of surgery with his own face. For the first time, he looked in a mirror without wincing. It wasn't that he hated Mallory's face. It just reminded him of what a failure he was. And it reminded him of the painful year he spent alone, locked behind someone else's mind.
But that was all over. Not only did he get his old face back, but the surgeon offered a quick extra procedure: his original voice was restored.
So, he walked out of the medical facility a whole new (and yet old) man. He was so excited.
Before seeing the prince again about the maze-run, he stopped by the sliding facility to make sure that everything was going all right. Everything looked in order, and Earth Prime was still on the database, ready to take them back home.
The fourth group went into the maze, taking the sliders to the front of the line. Diana was very nervous now, but she knew that she had to stay strong. The others were depending on her to keep them alive through the maze. She didn't want to tell anyone but she was having second thoughts about the whole thing.
She had never been a big fan of excitement. She was very low-key and until the sliding adventures, hadn't done too many crazy things. But now she had a minor pain in her stomach, just like the time she was in the front of the line to ride the roller coaster at Crazy Cavern Amusement Park in Los Angeles.
She slowly counted down the seconds, hoping for some miracle that would keep her from making a fool of herself. Or worse, making a corpse of herself.
A large man entered the hut and looked at the sliders and their fifth "teammate." It was time for them to go.
At first, the prince didn't recognize Quinn and for good reason. But when he realized who he was talking to, he seemed disappointed.
"What's wrong with it?" Quinn asked.
"Nothing," he said. "It's just that I thought you would go for darker skin and try to look a little more like us. I know that you're not from around here, but still, I thought you would want to fit in."
"This is the face I've wanted for two years," Quinn said.
"That's understandable," the prince replied. "It's just not what I would have done."
With that, Quinn altered the conversation to ask how the maze-run was progressing.
"Very well," the prince answered. "In fact, I was just coming to look for you. The three people you were looking for are about to enter."
"Great!" Quinn said, thinking things couldn't possibly get better. He was afraid that they would have already taken the slide. "When will we know if they made it?"
"As soon as you like," the prince said with a smile. "We can watch their progress on the television. There are cameras all over the maze, naturally."
The sliders tried to take it slow as they entered the maze. For two reasons: first, it would give Diana time to adjust herself to the maze and to organize her thoughts. Second, they wanted to get rid of the other combatant. Thankfully, it worked on both counts, as the man ran into the maze alone.
"Okay, I think I see it from the right perspective," Diana said. "Let's get going."
The other three sliders followed Diana through the maze. She knew that it would take a while to navigate through it considering its sheer size.
Watching the sliders journey through the maze, Quinn couldn't help but notice the fourth member of their group.
"Do they always go in groups of four?" he asked.
"Five actually," the prince said. "But I guess the fifth man ran off by himself. Poor fool."
After a minute, the prince grimaced.
"What?" Quinn asked, suddenly alarmed.
"I just wouldn't have done that. It will be very hard for them to avoid the creatures now."
"Creatures?" Quinn thought and then said out loud. "I thought the creatures would be removed!"
"No," the prince said.
"But that's what I wished for!" Quinn said, noticeably angry. Angry enough that the prince's guards came running to the room.
"No it's not," the prince said. "You wished for the failures to be given another chance. Not that they would be given a free ride."
Quinn thought back, and he was sure that the prince was right. They had caught him on a technicality and it was going to cost his friends' lives. He had to save them.
"You have to do something!" Quinn demanded.
"You want to waste your final wish on something as trivial as a group of contestants?" the prince said.
Quinn knew he would have to. These people wouldn't lift a finger unless Quinn wished it. Now, he was going to miss going home because of that technicality.
The sliders were walking, feeling good, when Diana suddenly stopped.
"Wait," she said. "This isn't right. There shouldn't be a curve here."
"Just relax," Arturo said. "Think back to the old man's teachings. See if you're remembering incorrectly."
Diana concentrated as hard as she could, but she knew she was right. There was supposed to be a longer stretch of straight road and then a curve in the opposite direction. Something was wrong.
"No," Diana said. A large call came from a creature. It was very close.
"That came from right where we were going," Rembrandt said.
"I don't understand," Diana said. "I trusted that old man so much."
"It's probably not his fault," Arturo said. "How much time is left until the slide?"
Rembrandt checked it out. "Five minutes," he said.
"Is that enough time?" Arturo asked of Diana.
"If the old man wasn't right then we may not find the exit to this maze in five years," she said. "But luckily the creatures won't let us last that long."
The creature's call was getting closer.
"We need to turn around," Rembrandt said. "Now!"
"We gave it our best shot," Wade said. "Quinn wouldn't want us to die trying to save him."
"Could we climb over the walls?" Arturo asked.
"No," Diana said. "There are poison tipped thorns on the top. No one has ever successfully climbed over."
"Then we have to turn around," Rembrandt said. "Wade's right."
And with that, the sliders turned around and headed in the opposite direction. They kept reassuring themselves that they were doing the right thing.
Suddenly, they heard another call.
"Was that the same one?" Wade asked, frightened.
"I don't think so," Diana said. "And it's in the direction that we're going."
On cue, the creature showed its face. It was snarling and it approached slowly.
"Time, Mr. Brown?" Arturo asked.
"Two minutes," Rembrandt said in a high pitched voice.
"That's not enough time," Arturo said, stating the obvious.
They started to move away, when the other creature showed its face. They were surrounded. They were going to die seconds before it was time to slide.
"I'm so sorry," Diana said.
The larger creature saw the other one, and he began to call out. He began to trot and came to a full run, straight at the sliders. Rembrandt and the Professor stood in front of the women to try and shield them somehow.
Wade closed her eyes and prepared to die. She heard a loud noise and assumed that it was the men's bones cracking.
"Thank God," Rembrandt said, as Wade opened her eyes. The large creature lay dead on the ground for some reason.
This prompted the smaller but equally dangerous creature to lunge at the sliders. But, he, too, fell inexplicably to the ground.
"What the Devil?" Arturo said.
"I thought you guys could be in need of some help," a voice called. It was Quinn, standing with some kind of a weapon. Well, Quinn's double.
"Thank you, sir," Arturo said, trying to be nice to the man who saved his life. "It seems we owe you our lives."
"Professor, it's me," Quinn said, suddenly remembering his "new" face and voice. "Oh," he said.
"Q-Ball?" Rembrandt said. "How?"
"It's a long story, Cryin' Man," Quinn said with a smile. But as the timer started to beep and Rembrandt activated it, it turned to a look of concern.
"They have it here!" Quinn screamed over the loud noise of the vortex. He didn't even realize how loud he was shouting.
"What?" Arturo said.
"Earth Prime's coordinates. The real Earth Prime!" Quinn screamed. "It's heavily guarded though. If we just had some time!"
"There's no time," Rembrandt said, looking at the vortex. "Its not worth the risk, Q-Ball. We'll find home, but not at the risk of our lives."
Quinn knew he was right, and he signaled them to jump in the vortex. He knew breaking back into the palace would've been near-impossible. There were hundreds of guards and the place itself was a fortress.
The vortex closed with all five sliders inside.
What Quinn thought would be a blessing turned out to be a curse in disguise. He couldn't stand Mallory's face on his body because it symbolized his own personal failure. What he couldn't do for himself.
With his old face, now all he saw was his failure to get his friends home. If he hadn't been so vain, he would have had a wish left. They could've missed the slide, and they could've gone back to the palace.
But now, they were back to square one. They had no coordinates, and they were still randomly sliding. But now Quinn was on a quest. He couldn't let anything get in his way. He wouldn't put himself first anymore. He would make any personal sacrifice, but he was going to get the group home. Every one of them.