earth 30858
Episode 6.20
Cries from the Heart
by Slidemania
Disclaimer: The Sliders television series' characters and storylines are property of Universal and St. Clare Entertainment, series creator Tracy Tormé and Fox Broadcasting Network and The Sci-Fi Channel. No copyright infringement is intended and no monetary profit is being made off of this work. All other characters who are not found on the Sliders television series were created by me, and should only be used with my prior permission. Posting to archives is encouraged as long as my name and title stay with the story.

Author's Note: Beware of spoilers. This story is part of my Season 6 Sliders series, picking up where the episode "The Seer" leaves off. You should be familiar with most, if not all, of the original Sliders series, as well as the preceding episodes of my fanfiction, before reading this story.

* * *

"My shoes are ruined!" Maggie loudly huffed, her designer pumps receiving a bath of muddy sludge as she sloshed through the swampy marsh.

"You can buy new ones on the next world," Quinn reassured her, slapping his hand against his neck to squash a buzzing mosquito.

The dectet of sliders treaded carefully across the marshy California terrain, cautiously looking over their shoulders. A four-day layover on this parallel Earth had taught them not to trust the wildlife.

Arturo whirled around at the ensuing movement of bright pink feathers. "Good heavens! Here come those annoying, idiosynchric birds again!"

A flock of majestic pink flamingos fluttered after the sliders, squawking and chirping at the humans' motion.

"Time to take down some birdies!" proclaimed Mallory, whipping a small pistol out of the pocket of his leather jacket.

"Mallory, no!!" Diana slapped her male friend's gun-toting hand away, blocking his view of the flamingos. "Remember, the ranger told us how these flamingos secrete that nutritious fluid from their throats, which biochemists have discovered can treat cerebral palsy on this world. As long as we don't rile the birds, I'm positive they'll leave us alone."

"You sure about that, Diana?" quivered Rembrandt, his eyes growing wide as the excited, aroused flamingos headed straight toward the humans. "I'm all for protecting endangered species, but one peck at my skin and those birdies' asses are mine!" He grabbed the gun away from Mallory.

"Remmy!" Wade scolded her friend, putting her hands on her hips. "I can't believe you just said that!"

"Believe it, Wade!" Maggie defended Remmy's rather aggressive actions. "Those birds ruined my new pumps!"

"Quit whining about your stupid shoes, Maggie!"

"Quit opening your mouth, Wade!"

Wade suddenly shoved Maggie backward, causing the former marine to plunge down into the muddy swamp muck.

"Wade!" Quinn reprimanded.

Colin reached over and helped Maggie, who was directing a murderous glare at Wade, up out of the swamp water. "That wasn't very nice, Wade," he said.

Rolling her eyes, Wade responded, "Yeah, and we all know how Maggie is the ‘Queen of Nice', don't we?"

"We've still got a flamingo crisis," Janine interrupted them, pointing upward toward the sky. A V-formation of energized flamingos was closing in on them.

Malcolm extended his arm, activating the timer. "Here we go!" he announced, as the glistening pink vortex opened a couple of feet above the ground.

The interdimensional explorers proceeded to enter the gateway and allow the ERP Bridge to carry them across its windy, pink quantum interior, twisting and turning faster and more frequently than a roller coaster ride.

* * *

Piping hot water rigorously sprayed from the overhead faucet spouts of the numerous, open-room group showers, pelting the adolescent guys' naked bodies with its warm moisture. Misty steam arose from the dense concentration accumulated by the group showers, soothing the teenagers' aching muscles after their intense, competitive game of High School Phy Ed basketball.

Unexpectedly, a flash of blinding pink light filled the shower room. Amid shouts and yells of disruption and embarrassment from the showering dudes, the ten interdimensional spelunkers tumbled out of the vortex onto the sopping wet, slippery floor. The sliders scrambled to their feet, the shower water still raining down on them as they stood in puddles on the linoleum tiled floor.

"Yikes!" Wade's eyes bugged out and quickly darted to the floor shyly, at the split-second glimpse of the nude young men.

"Oh my God!" Diana slapped one hand over her eyes, covering them as she blushed furiously. "Sorry! We're sorry!" she hastily apologized to the guys, who were desperately using their bare hands to try to cover the most sensitive and revealing areas of their fully-exposed bodies.

Maggie, on the other hand, indulgently took in the sight of all the buff - and not-so-buff - bodies of well-developed adolescents whom she wasn't all that much older than. "Well, well! What a place to land!"

Quinn elbowed Maggie, annoyed. "Oh, so I'm not good enough for you anymore?!"

Diana grabbed Maggie's hand and tugged her out of the shower room. "Come on!" she prodded, as the four female sliders ran past a row of lockers and benches, past several more embarrassed semi-nude guys, toward the exit.

"Aw, Diana!" complained Maggie, disappointed at their abrupt exit. "Do we have to leave so soon?"

"Damn, couldn't we have slid into the girls' locker room?!" Janine whined, the four of them almost tripping over their feet as they stumbled out into the nearest hallway.

That left the six male sliders to emerge from the shower room, dampened by sprinkles of water. The undressed high school guys felt less humiliated now that the women had left, but still gazed at the male sliders with curiosity and wonderment. These people had seemed to jump out from thin air.

"Man, this takes me back to my days on my high school's football team," Mallory reminisced, as one adolescent jokester playfully proceeded to lash out and snap a wet white towel at Mallory. Grinning with nostalgic camaraderie, Mallory grabbed a clean folded white towel from a nearby towel rack and skillfully snapped it back at the teenager.

Rembrandt turned to Quinn. "Q-Ball, I thought the timer was supposed to have a fail-safe mechanism to prevent us from sliding into water?"

"That's LARGE bodies of water, Cryin' Man," Quinn corrected him. "Locker room showers are fair game for sliding into."

Aroused by their provocative setting and the array of bare flesh, Malcolm couldn't help but sneak longing peeks at the nude and semi-nude guys who were basically around his own age. Many of them were clad in only their boxers, while others were completely naked. Fighting temptation, Malcolm was having a difficult time repressing his natural urge to strip down and join them. One dude, standing there in nothing but his bare skin, stared back at Malcolm, crossing his eyes.

"What're you looking at?! Are you gay or something?!" the adolescent sneered at Malcolm.

Malcolm's eyes dropped to the floor.

Footsteps clacked against the floor tiles, created by a big beefy man with a whistle draped around his neck. He was storming over to them, obviously the boys' gym teacher.

"WHO are you bozos?!" the thirtysomething coach boomed at the male sliders. "How did you get in here?!" He intrusively poked Quinn in the belly using his firm index finger.

Quinn glanced around at the others. "Now I remember why I always hated gym class in high school," he muttered to them.

"Pardon me, my good fellow," Professor Arturo stepped forth to address the coach, "but we seem to have lost our way. Could you please kindly tell us where we are?"

"This is Norman Schwartzkopf Memorial Senior High," he informed them, "in Fort Pacifica, California. And this," he indicated the inside of the locker room, "is MY 6th period Gym class you're interrupting!"

"Well in all fairness," Mallory contradicted, "it's the END of your class . . . your guys are just taking showers, and trust me, we've seen it all before . . ."

Arturo snaked his arm around the back of Mallory's neck, ambushing him by clamping his palm over Mallory's mouth. "We'll just be on our way now, sir," he assured the Phys Ed teacher.

The coach folded his arms and glared at the sextet as they found their way out.

"Sorry for bothering you!" Colin apologized to the students.

Malcolm took one last gaze of indulgence at the room full of gorgeous guys. Suddenly, one of the students shouted out, "Eastman?!"

The Phy Ed instructor did a double take at Malcolm, the image of Malcolm cognitively registering in his mind. "Malcolm Eastman, is that you?!" he blurted out with shocked recognition.

"It IS him!!" confirmed one of the other guys, identifying Malcolm with certainty.

Rembrandt nudged a startled and dumbstricken Malcolm, helping to guide his young friend out of the boys' locker room before they got into anymore trouble.

As the male sliders piled out of the locker room, they saw their female companions huddled in a mini-circle. Wade and Maggie were immersed in ecstatic giggles like schoolgirls; Diana's face was sheepishly flustered, while Janine's face was apathetically expressionless.

"That's one for our sliding scrapbook!" Maggie guffawed. She saw Quinn's angry facial expression. "Aw, come on, Quinn! You know I love YOU best!"

Quinn relented, placing his arm around Maggie and giving her a little squeeze.

Arturo took the timer from Malcolm, who was still a bit short of breath. "32 hours until our next window, my friends," the Professor reported, pocketing the timer in his double-breasted suit pocket. "Plenty of time for us to get ourselves a bite to eat."

"Do you always think about food?" Mallory teased him.

Arturo bristled. "Mr. Mallory! . . ." he began to lambast.

"Yes?" Quinn, Colin, and Mallory all purposely responded in unison.

The others broke out into laughter as Arturo grumpily steamed.

"Let's find our way out of this school first," Wade suggested.

Wandering through the hallways of Norman Schwartzkopf Memorial High School, the sliders were unexpectedly shaken by the abrupt clamor of the dismissal bell which signaled the end of that class period. Students poured out into the hallway from their classrooms, gabbing, yelling, joking, gossiping, rushing to their lockers in preparation for their next class period.

"Disrespectful misfits!" growled the Professor, grunting in annoyance as two sophomore girls jetted past him down the hall, nearly ramming into the Englishman.

Remmy snickered. "You never were one who liked kids, were you, Professor?"

"Bah!" Arturo scoffed. "I loathe adolescents! . . . the obnoxious juvenile delinquents! . . . no offense, Mr. Eastman."

Malcolm was so preoccupied that he didn't hear the Professor's apology. The teen slugged down the hallway in a trance, wedged between Rembrandt and Colin. They all stopped in their tracks at the sight of a teacher who appeared to be in her late-twenties, long black hair flowing past her hips and a tanned Latina facial complexion. She was staring directly at Malcolm, trying her best to choke out words.

"Malcolm?" she finally gasped.

* * *

"Great! Just great!" Rembrandt griped, slouched in an armchair next to Malcolm. "We're on this Earth for less than 10 minutes and we already get sent to the principal's office!"

The sliders were seated in the pragmatically-furnished main office of Norman Schwartzkopf Memorial Senior High School, in the center of a bustling commotion. When they'd arrived in the office, four of the eight available chairs had already been filled by detained high school students. Malcolm, Rembrandt, Arturo, and Diana had taken the remaining four vacant seats, while the others either stood against the wall or sat on the floor. At the secretaries' desks, several faculty members were whispering in low voices, shooting sideways glances of disbelief in Malcolm's direction.

"Looks like you're pretty popular around here, bud," Mallory said to Malcolm.

Malcolm was disturbed and perturbed. "How do all these people know me?"

Wade looked up from where she sat cross-legged on the floor, and gave Malcolm the most obvious explanation. "It's gotta be one of your doubles, Malcolm. He probably attends this school."

"I've never even met one of my doubles in person," Malcolm realized, grasping the likelihood of his situation.

"Well now you may get your chance," Maggie told him.

Professor Arturo shot a vicious side glare at the young female adolescent Goth who was slouched in the armchair next to his, her legs crossed, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

"Put that out, you degenerate little wench!" he lectured her, grabbing the cigarette away from the girl. Dropping it on the floor, Arturo stomped on the cigarette, squashing it to uselessness.

The Goth simply popped a wad of bubble gum into her mouth and blew a bubble from between her lips with the bubble gum she was chewing on, letting it pop and explode against her face. She sucked the flattened pink bubble back into her mouth and began to smack it again.

"Hey," Janine called to the rest of them, having swiped a local phone book off one of the receptionists' desks, "there's a Dominion Hotel here in Fort Pacifica. Actually, a whole chain of them in this area."

"The Dominion must have expanded into a statewide or national hotel chain on this world," Quinn concluded.

"We should try to get a suite there after we find our way out of this pickle," suggested Diana, pushing some buttons on her beloved PDL. "Hmmm, according to my readings we've undergone a noticeable quantum fluctuation from the previous world."

A few minutes later, the brunette teacher who'd brought them to the principal's office emerged from one of the inner offices. She knelt down in front of Malcolm.

"You look and sound like Malcolm Eastman," she spoke, matter-of-factly. "You resemble him in every possible way. Yet, you can't possibly BE Malcolm . . . I should know, because I attended his funeral."

Malcolm's lungs nearly collapsed. It looked like he wouldn't get to meet his double after all.

"So if you're not Malcolm," she continued, sternly, "then who are you? Is this your idea of some kind of a sick joke?!"

Malcolm closed his eyes tight, unsure what to say. He just wanted this whole nightmare to be over with . . . maybe if he kept his eyes shut for long enough, this would all end?

Remmy spoke up in Malcolm's defense. "Look lady, this is OUR friend," he put his arm around Malcolm in a brotherly manner, "and you're harassing him! Who are YOU, anyway?!"

The teacher reared back, flinching, then confronted Rembrandt's question. "I'm Angela Vasquez . . . I am - I was - Malcolm Eastman's guidance counselor. I saw Malcolm buried with my own eyes." She gestured with a swoop of her hand around the room. "So did this entire school's faculty and most of the student body. We stared into his casket, at his lifeless body, wishing we could turn back time and prevent that travesty from ever occurring." Ms. Vasquez flung another glare at Malcolm. "If you're trying to play some kind of prank on us, we are NOT amused, young man!"

"I'm not playing no ‘prank'!" Malcolm angrily spat out, scowling at Ms. Vasquez with contempt. "I've never even met you! I've never even been on this world before! Just leave me the hell alone!" He was now crying, and buried his face in Rembrandt's chest.

"Why don't you back off, lady?!" Rembrandt shot his irritated words at Ms. Vasquez, while cuddling his arms protectively around Malcolm. "I don't know who you think you are, but you're causing my friend more grief than he deserves to endure."

"I've called Malcolm's parents," Ms. Vasquez went on, ignoring Rembrandt and addressing Malcolm. "Don't be surprised if they end up taking legal action against you for emotional harassment, since you've obviously surfaced to cause the Eastman family further pain. They may file a civil suit. Now, we may be able to find a more conducive solution to this if you cooperate. WHO are you, really?"

Malcolm locked eyes with Ms. Vasquez, and stated adamantly, "I'm Malcolm Eastman."

"Don't lie to me!" She refused to believe it.

"He's telling you the truth," insisted Colin.

"I knew Malcolm personally," protested Ms. Vasquez, flaring at Malcolm, "and you are NOT him. Now I'll ask you again, who are you?"

"I'm Malcolm Eastman," he stated again.

"Stop saying that!" Ms. Vasquez was quickly losing her temper.

"Malcolm?" a familiar voice called out, all of a sudden.

Standing in the office doorway was a beautiful woman with dark, ebony skin, her kinky hair tied back in a frizzy pony-tail. Malcolm recognized her immediately.

"Mom?" he gaped.

Through tears, Malcolm recognized the dignified man who had walked up behind the alternate version of his mother. The man was adorned in a stately Marine uniform, decorated with gleaming medals and handsome stripes. His skin was a slightly lighter shade of brown than his wife's; both Mr. and Mrs. Eastman's eyes were welling up, tearfully.

"Dad?" Malcolm gasped.

* * *

"Corporal and Mrs. Eastman," said Ms. Vasquez, "this is the little prankster who's been impersonating your son."

The distraught mother met Ms. Vasquez's gaze. "May we have a few moments alone with him?"

Ms. Vasquez blinked, genuinely surprised and baffled by the request. "I suppose . . ."

Corporal Eastman put his hand on his wife's shoulder. "Vanessa, are you sure you want to do this?"

"I have to, Thaddeus. WE have to." Vanessa Eastman stared at Malcolm, longingly studying the physical appearance of her son's alternate.

Still puzzled, Ms. Vasquez shrugged. "You can use my office. I'll be right out here if you need me."

The nine adult sliders all piled into Ms. Vasquez's guidance office after Malcolm. None of them were about to let the youngest member of their team out of their sight - especially not Rembrandt. Malcolm and his parents' alternates took some available seats; Rembrandt grabbed a chair next to Malcolm. Everyone else remained standing.

"Well," Vanessa started, uncomfortably, "you sure have a lot of friends who seem to care about you." She managed an awkward smile.

Corporal Thaddeus Eastman shifted in his seat, his stern facade melting with gooey love as he sat face-to-face with his dead son's image. "I never would have believed it . . ." He trailed off, then found his words again. "You look so much like him! Who are you, son? And why do you remind me so much of the son I once knew?"

Malcolm sniffled. "Because I AM him, dad. I AM your son. You just never knew me."

Corporal Eastman frowned. "My son is lying in a cemetery, guarded by the angels. That doesn't explain who you are?"

"Oh, Thad!" wailed Vanessa, reaching for a handkerchief. Her vision was a teary blur.

Malcolm took a deep breath. "I know what I'm about to tell you is unbelievable . . ."

"Malcolm, no!" Quinn dissuaded him.

"They deserve to know the truth!" Malcolm faced his parents' doubles. "I'm an alternate version of your son . . . from a parallel universe. On my Earth, both of my parents - YOUR alternates - died when pulsars collided with the planet."

Thaddeus and Vanessa were both frozen solid. Her lips moving but the rest of her face motionless, Vanessa encouraged him, "Go on."

"This is Remmy." Malcolm took Rembrandt's hand. "He helped me escape from my Earth before the pulsars hit . . . through a form of travel called ‘sliding'."

"Sliding?" Corporal Eastman squinted in confusion.

The Professor stepped forward. "Sir, perhaps I can offer some clarification?" He showed the Eastmans the timer. "This device opens a transdimensional vortex . . . a ‘tunnel', if you will, which transports us to alternate realities. Other versions of how Earth may have evolved under different historical timelines caused by divergent events in history."

"So, for instance, you've . . . traveled to versions of our Earth where America lost the Revolutionary War? . . . or the Civil War? . . . or World War II?" Thaddeus could barely fathom the notion.

"Been there, done that, got the T-shirt," Quinn recited, non-chalantly.

"And the coffee mug," added Maggie.

"And the visor," chimed in Wade.

"And the bumper sticker," Mallory finished off.

"And a hell of a lot of postcards!" Janine inserted for good measure.

Vanessa reached out and clasped Rembrandt's hand. "Thank you," she whispered to the R&B singer. "Thank you for saving our son's life . . . even though he isn't the son who we raised."

Rembrandt smiled at Vanessa. "I care about Malcolm very much. And I can tell that you loved your son too." He switched his gaze to the corporal. "Both of you."

Beyond simple explanation, Vanessa and Thaddeus somehow could sense that this duplicate version of their son had indeed been telling the truth.

Thaddeus scanned the room, his eyes bouncing from Mallory to Rembrandt to Quinn to Wade to Arturo to Maggie to Colin to Mallory to Diana to Janine and back again to Malcolm. "So how did all of you end up . . . ‘sliding' together? What objective are you attempting to accomplish?"

"Many things," Colin answered. "Some of us are trying to find parents, family, and friends . . ."

"Some of us are out for revenge," put in Maggie.

"Some of us need to ensure retribution," Diana murmured.

"And some of us are just trying to find our way home," Janine finished off, very quietly.

A bleak silence enveloped the room following Janine's lingering statement.

Professor Arturo broke the silence. "We have approximately 30 hours until our next sliding window opens, during which we'll have a slim opportunity to catch a vortex to the next random dimension."

Vanessa's eyes were still glued to Malcolm. "Come home with us," she whispered, pleading to him hopefully.

Malcolm exchanged gazes with Remmy. He didn't need to verbally speak; Rembrandt could read the silent words in his eyes.

"We'll meet you at the Dominion," Rembrandt said to their other eight traveling companions, "in 30 hours."

Without any further discussion, Malcolm and Rembrandt followed the Eastmans out of Ms. Vasquez's guidance office, down the hallway and out of the school. Once they were outside past the building's main entrance, the four of them passed a silver-tinted drinking fountain, underneath a silver engraved plaque that read: MALCOLM EASTMAN MEMORIAL FOUNTAIN. Below the heading it was written: In loving memory of Malcolm Clifton Eastman - 1985 to 2001.

Heading for the parking lot, they passed a bronze statue of General Norman Schwartzkopf, situated proudly in the front lawn of the school.

* * *

Malcolm took in the complete visual view of the Eastmans' spacious California beachhouse . . . the home that was his, but had never been his.

The bungalow-style beachhouse had ornate, fanciful French doors on all sides, its outer walls lined with potted palm trees and exotic plants growing from colorful terra cotta pottery. One side of the house looked outward toward a calm, serene beach facing the Pacific Ocean; the other half of the Eastman residence was built further up on-shore. An octagon shaped California vegetable garden was neatly positioned in the center of a cobblestone patio, complete with a birdbath and an automatic sprinkler system. Off to the side of the patio was a sizable chlorine blue swimming pool accompanied by a poolside grill and patio furniture.

Malcolm closed his eyes and imagined all the happy moments which his alternate self must surely have shared with his parents.

Inside the beachhouse was a trendy family room. Its decor featured a stylish mix of warm and cool colors, hosting an array of cushy sofas, recliners, and loveseats encircling a wide, centered mahogany coffee table.

As they advanced further into the carefree living room, Corporal Eastman paused to show his son's alternate some framed photographs atop an oak rolltop desk. One photo captured the image of Alternate Malcolm as a young child, not older than 5 or 6, gripping onto a handful of helium balloons and grinning ecstatically while having his picture taken with Donald Duck at Disneyland. Another portrait was a professionally-done snapshot of Corporal Eastman adorned in his military stripes, shaking hands with Colin Powell while receiving a formal commendation. Yet another framed photograph showed Thaddeus, Vanessa, and Alternate Malcolm bunched together, kneeling on the floor of a sunny, sandy beach, smiling as the ocean waves gently crashed behind them.

"Oh, where are my manners?" exclaimed Vanessa, as they took their seats in the newly-furnished living room. "Let me get us some refreshments." She disappeared into the kitchen.

Thaddeus knelt down and opened an entable, removing several photo albums which had been stacked inside the cozy niche. "I want to show you our photo collection, Malcolm," he said. "Maybe this will enable you to feel a better connection with our son?"

He'd only gotten through the first couple of pages of Alternate Malcolm's baby pictures when Mrs. Eastman returned from the kitchen with a tray of food. Her tray contained a plate of cookies, a bowl of tortilla chips with some kind of side dip, and four tall glasses of lemonade with chipped ice.

"These were our son's favorite," she told Malcolm, indicating the cookies. "Peanut butter cookies . . . my own special recipe."

Biting into the soft, chewy cookie, a warm tingle of nostalgia rippled throughout Malcolm's skin. "My mom always used to make me peanut butter cookies too," he said. "They were the best." These cookies tasted almost exactly like his own mom's. Almost.

Vanessa beamed warmly as Malcolm savored the homey goodness of her cookies. She watched him take a sip of lemonade, and then passed him the bowl of tortilla chips. "Have you ever tasted guacamole?" she inquired, gesturing to the dish of side dip. "Our Malcolm loved it . . . he was a really healthy eater."

"I've never tried guacamole," Malcolm admitted.

"It's made from avocados, peppers, and other California vegetables . . . makes an excellent dip for taco chips. Have some," she offered.

Malcolm stared at the thick dishes of red and green guacamole. He reluctantly dipped a crispy, round tortilla chip into the bowl of red guacamole, loading up most of the circular diameter of his chip with the Mexican sidedish. Popping it into his mouth, Malcolm could feel the spicy, tangy guacamole saucily tantalize his taste buds.

"This is awesome!" he blurted out, grabbing another tortilla chip to give it a respectable dip into the guacamole sauce. "I've always had an attraction to hot stuff. Loved sampling the salsa while my family lived in Texas."

The Eastman parents grinned at each other. "We transferred to Fort Pacifica from Houston when Malcolm was 9," explained Corporal Eastman. He shot a fatherly wink at Malcolm. "Bet you were pretty popular with all those beautiful Texas babes, huh?"

His stomach buckling, Malcolm's eyes dropped to the floor. He took another guzzle of lemonade, so he wouldn't have to address the inaccurate implication from Thaddeus.

"Uh, you have a very lovely home, Corporal and Mrs. Eastman," Rembrandt said to Thaddeus and Vanessa, changing the subject as he detected Malcolm's discomfort.

"Why thank you, Rembrandt," gushed Vanessa, offering the Cryin' Man a cookie from her platter. "And please, call us Vanessa and Thad."

Thaddeus reopened the photo album. He began proudly leading Malcolm through a visual tour of Alternate Malcolm's life. There were snapshots of school pageants, sleepovers with his cousins, more family vacations, and even a photo of Alternate Malcolm winning his school's Astronomy Bee in 5th Grade.

"Wow," was all Malcolm could manage to utter, learning virtually every detail of his double's life in Fort Pacifica.

Rembrandt glanced out the window. The afternoon was closing out, and evening was approaching. "It's getting dark."

"Malcolm," whispered Vanessa Eastman, reaching out to clutch the familiar hand of her son's alternate, "I feel like we finally have our son back. Please . . . stay the night." She looked as though she would cry if he refused.

Exchanging gazes with Malcolm, one look told Rembrandt that his little buddy had made up his mind.

They would not be joining their friends at the Dominion that night.

* * *

"Well, Rem and Malcolm are staying with Malcolm's parents tonight," Diana relayed to the rest of the group, hanging up the phone in their hotel suite. "Or I should say, his parents' doubles."

"I can only imagine how Malcolm must be feeling," Colin sympathized, spreading himself out alongside Quinn across one of the double beds.

Maggie unfolded the room service menu, trying to occupy herself with something. "I sure know how he feels," she asserted, not really mustering up the attention to actually read through the menu. "I've encountered alternates of both Steven and my father . . . it's like staring a ghost straight in the face."

"Young Mr. Eastman certainly has much to learn about sliding," Arturo agreed. "I'll never forget having met the duplicate version of my late wife Christina." The Professor trailed off; he and Maggie were each remembering having confronted those alternate demons from their pasts.

Wade moped. "The poor kid," she said, referring to Malcolm. "He lost both of his parents on his homeworld."

"It was my homeworld too," Maggie reminded Wade. "I lost everyone in my life . . . we all did . . . all of us who were on Rickman's list to be transported to our new world." She fumed in ire. "Some salvation that turned out to be! Instead of colonizing that world, our people ended up being picked off by dinosaurs and Kromaggs." Maggie's voice was drenched in bitterness.

Quinn reached over and lightly touched Maggie's arm. "You've got a new family now," he comforted her. "And we'll never let you go."

Maggie smiled weakly back at Quinn.

"I never even knew my birth parents," spoke up Mallory, somberly. "They were killed in a car accident before I even learned how to talk. I was shuffled around from one foster home to another until I finally found parents who thought I was worth keeping." He took a deep sigh. "Even then, I didn't appreciate what I did have. I was the classic troublemaker, always out to pull a fast prank, looking for a good time." Mallory spoke with a tone of regret, nearly on the verge of tears.

Wade leaned over to give Mallory a supportive hug while all of them recalled their own personal family struggles.

"I may never see my parents again," Diana realized, her eyes widening. "They'll never remember me as anything other than the family's ‘rebel with a cause', the girl who always had to prove she was the best and the brightest at everything. The daughter who rejected the lavish spoils her parents had worked so hard to provide for me."

"And I'll always be the ‘disturbed' lesbian daughter with a big mouth and a sharp tongue," Janine gave a slight hint of ironic laughter. "The little Asian girl who never allowed herself to be submissive, who never gave into authority or tradition, who never did what was expected of her." Shaking away the pain and regret, Janine shifted gears. "Malcolm has a chance to start a new life with parents he once knew, parents who've lost their only son - him. I wonder if he'll decide to stay here for good?"

The rest of them were all wondering the same thing.

* * *

"I can't believe this!" Malcolm cuddled in his arms a giant shaggy stuffed puppy with long droopy ears. "It's Roscoe, the stuffed dog my dad won for me at the county fair when I was 8." Malcolm grinned at Rembrandt. "You should have seen it, Remmy. He knocked over all 10 of the stacked bottles with one single throw!"

Rembrandt grinned back. "Looks like your double received the same puppy on this Earth."

Malcolm plopped down on his alternate's soft, colorfully-patterned bed. The Eastmans had left their deceased son's bedroom mostly intact, not removing the clothes from his dresser, the toys and books from his shelves, or the art supplies from their cluttered piles scattered around in the corners of his bedroom. "A lot of these things are the exact same stuff I owned while growing up." He pointed to an easel supporting an unfinished canvas painting. "See that, Remmy? I had an easel exactly like that on my homeworld." Malcolm got up off of his bed and strolled over to Alternate Malcolm's bookshelf. "I owned a lot of these same books too . . . Gulliver's Travels, Charlotte's Web, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series . . ." The excitement on his face was wildly evident.

"What do you say we get some shut-eye, partner?" Rembrandt suggested, yawning and slipping off his shirt to prepare for bed. "We can do some more exploring through your double's life in the morning."

Remmy and Malcolm both stripped down to their boxers for slumber, and climbed into Alternate Malcolm's roomy bed. The bed had plenty of space for them both, and soon the two friends had contentfully drifted off to sleep.

At breakfast the next morning, Thaddeus and Vanessa Eastman sat at their dining room table across from their two houseguests, Malcolm and Rembrandt. Vanessa had made egg omelets busting with ham and melting cheddar cheese . . . one of Malcolm's favorite breakfasts. The image of her late teenager hungrily gobbling up her home cooking made Vanessa want to melt into a puddle of heartfelt warmth.

"These are delicious . . . mom," Malcolm said, having swallowed another bite of his egg. He made visual contact with Vanessa.

Vanessa's heart thudded against her chest, thinking nonstop of the little boy she thought she'd lost forever. Now, she finally had him back.

Thaddeus dabbed the edge of his chin with a cloth napkin. "Malcolm, have some fruit, son." He extended a fruit plate toward Malcolm, offering the boy some sliced peaches.

"Uh, no thanks, dad," Malcolm politely declined. "I'm allergic to peaches."

Letting a couple of seconds pass, Vanessa Eastman nervously laughed out loud. "Oh Malcolm, be serious. You love peaches . . . they're your favorite fruit."

"No, they aren't." Malcolm's voice had gone flat. "I'm really allergic to them, mom. You should know that."

"That's silly," Vanessa protested, belligerently spitting out her words. "Have some peaches, dear. Please!"

"I can't . . ."

"Malcolm, eat your peaches and make your mother happy!" commanded Corporal Eastman in a stern, no-nonsense tone of voice.

Staring back at the corporal, Malcolm glared. This man looked, sounded, and acted like the father he' once knew - but yet, something was different. Ever so cautiously, Malcolm backed away from the table, scraping his chair against the floor as he reared back. In his eyes flickered a deep-rooted sense of dread. Wordlessly, Malcolm stood up and awkwardly scurried out of the room.

Thaddeus and Vanessa had been rendered silent.

Rembrandt also rose from his seat. "You guys need to remember that he may be ‘your' Malcolm's alternate, but that still doesn't make him ‘your' son."

"I'll talk to him . . ." declared Thaddeus.

"No," Rembrandt interjected, staunchly. "I don't think that would be appropriate right now. Malcolm needs some time to himself . . . I'LL talk to him when HE'S ready."

Rembrandt exited the room, leaving Corporal Thaddeus Eastman with sickly trepidation in the pit of his stomach, and tears flowing down Vanessa's face as she wept.

* * *

Horrified at what he'd just read, Malcolm dropped his double's diary to the floor and buried his distressed face in his bed pillow.

A soft knock rapped against Alternate Malcolm's bedroom door. "Malcolm?" Rembrandt's caring voice called out. "Can I come in?"

After Malcolm failed to answer, Rembrandt tentatively creaked open the door and made his way over to the bed where Malcolm stressfully laid face-down. "You okay, partner?"

"No, Remmy. I'm not!" Malcolm exhumed his face from the pillow's fluffy depths, pounding his fists against the mattress.

Noticing the diary sprawled out on the floor, Rembrandt reached down and picked it up. "Is this your alternate's diary?"

"Yeah. I read it," Malcolm needlessly explained. "Remmy, you don't know what he went through! His emotions, his experiences . . . a lot of the same stuff I went through after elementary school. HIS parents only showed us the good stuff . . . the stuff they WANTED to remember . . . the stuff they know about." He began selectively reading certain passages from Alternate Malcolm's diary to Rembrandt.

As Rembrandt Brown listened to Malcolm read aloud the teenager's depressing written account, he vicariously felt and experienced all the pain which Malcolm's alternate must have endured throughout the past four years. Stories of verbal harassment, physical torture, and social persecution spilled from Malcolm's mouth, depicting a life during which Alternate Malcolm had wallowed in misery and self-loathing. The anger, guilt, and sadness that Alternate Malcolm had conveyed into words shot through Rembrandt's skin, each account like a bullet piercing into his chest, as he listened to Malcolm read from the diary.

Finally, when Malcolm could bear to read no more, he collapsed into Remmy's arms, choking out heavy sobs of remorse for the extinguished life of his alternate self whom he'd never known. Rembrandt hugged Malcolm tightly, softly stroking the back of the boy's nicely buzzed hair. An instinct that was both paternal and fraternal took over in Remmy as he projected his love and sympathy upon this young man who needed him so greatly right now.

A soft fist knocked against the bedroom door. The door creaked open and Vanessa Eastman tentatively poked her head inside.

"Malcolm?!" she cried out, seeing her son's alternate immersed in a blubbering state of tears. She hurried in, approaching Rembrandt and Malcolm who were huddled on the bed, the corporal right behind her. "What's the matter, baby?!"

Furiously, Malcolm broke away from Rembrandt and flared at Vanessa, infuriated. "I'm not your baby!!" he practically screamed at her.

"Don't talk to your mother like that!" barked Corporal Eastman, addressing his son's alternate with an authoritarian disciplinary yell.

"She's not my mother!!" Malcolm shot back, the tears gushing down his young, delicate brown face. "And you're not my father!! You're just doubles of the parents who I've lost forever!!"

"That's not true . . ." Vanessa meekly protested.

"How did it happen?" Malcolm's voice was suddenly eerily low and monotonous. "You have to tell me. How did my double - your Malcolm - die?"

Thaddeus looked at his wife, who refused to meet her husband's questioning gaze. "He overdosed . . . on his prescription of Prozac," Corporal Eastman quietly replied. "Last spring, right before he would've finished his sophomore year of high school."

"He committed suicide," Rembrandt realized.

Malcolm's lower lip trembled. "So that's why he wrote about his life ending in his final diary entry."

"Diary?" Vanessa hesitantly inquired.

Malcolm nodded. "Your son kept a diary. I read it." He held up the leather-bound journal and displayed it for them to see. "Do you even realize what hell he went through?!"

Vanessa sighed. "That's the part of our Malcolm's life we didn't tell you about," she answered guiltily, her frail voice shaking. "Malcolm changed all of a sudden, once he started the 6th Grade. He'd always been a rather shy, studious kid, with very few friends. He had a difficult time socializing with his peers, usually kept to himself, isolated from the other students in his class. When Malcolm began middle school, his grades started to slip, he became surly and moody, he came home bruised up from fights he'd gotten into at school, wouldn't tell us what was going on . . ."

"The other kids bullied him!" Malcolm interrupted her. "He wrote about it every night in his diary. They picked on him because he was good at art and because he didn't have a girlfriend . . . they beat him up because he was gay!"

Vanessa and Thaddeus were silenced by that emotional revelation.

"My son was NOT a homosexual!" declared Thaddeus, obstinately, with macho matter-of-factness.

"Yes he was!" Malcolm told him. "I should know . . . because so am I! All the things that happened to your Malcolm in school . . . similar things happened to me on my world. He wrote about his sexual feelings in his diary . . . and I also kept a diary when I was his age where I wrote about almost the exact same thoughts. If you don't believe me, you can read it for yourself!"

"That's ridiculous!" Corporal Eastman grasped at the straws. "We raised him right . . . we didn't teach him to be some queer!"

"It wasn't your fault," Malcolm reasoned. "It wasn't anyone's fault. He always was that way, from a very early age, maybe even from birth. And he couldn't change it."

The cat had snatched Vanessa's tongue. "But . . . but . . . HOW could Malcolm possibly have known he was gay? He'd never ‘been with' anyone . . . he spent all of his time locked in his room, alone."

"He liked looking at other boys," Malcolm explained. "He was aroused by the other guys in the shower at school. If that happens to a guy, it probably means he's either gay or bisexual. When some of the other guys noticed his erections, they freaked out, and later they took it out on him by giving him a good poundin'!" Sighing, he continued, "Those same types of things happened to me in middle school . . . except I was able to defend myself, because my stepmom, Teri, taught me tai-kwan-do."

"Your parents were divorced?" Thaddeus queried.

Nodding, Malcolm confirmed it. "They shared custody of me . . . my mom stayed in Texas, but my dad and Teri took me out to San Francisco to live with them during the school year. The pulsars destroyed our world while I was on winter break during my 7th Grade year." He fell mum.

Thaddeus was now crying. "I pushed him too hard. I tried to make Malcolm interested in sports, because I thought that was how a boy should be raised. But he was artistic, not athletic. And I never appreciated the precious gift that God gave him. My son was an artist, but I rejected him for it."

Malcolm shook his head. "It wasn't you, dad. Or mom. I know you both loved me. But it was the kids at school. If you're a queer in middle school or in high school, you get harassed and ostracized. That's a fact."

Vanessa sniffed, trying her best to dry her tears. "Well, gay or not, you're still my son, and I'll love you no matter what." She traded consensual glances with her husband. "Stay with us, Malcolm. Please. We need you . . . and you need us."

But Malcolm solemnly shook his head. "No. I'm sorry, mom. I can't. I have friends who need me." He looked up and gave Rembrandt a half-smile, which Remmy returned. "I have a special friend who's lost out there, who I need to find." He winced, envisioning Gretchen in Kromagg captivity. "Besides, I'd be a constant reminder of the son you've lost . . . and you'd be a constant reminder of the parents I've lost."

"We slide tomorrow," Rembrandt added.

Malcolm stared at Thaddeus and Vanessa - his parents. "I've got to go. It's already hard enough, being here with you." He volleyed them a sincere pout of vulnerability. "I think it would be best if we said goodbye." He uttered that last sentence virtually in a whisper.

"Oh, Malcolm!" wailed Vanessa, emotionally, and she and Thaddeus tenderly embraced their son's body for what they knew would be the very last time.

* * *

Another day had passed. Rembrandt and Malcolm had rejoined their friends at the Dominion Hotel. While the others spent the day out and about, shopping or site-seeing in Fort Pacifica, Malcolm and Remmy spent time alone just being their for each other within the sanctity of their luxurious hotel suite.

"I felt like I was under a microscope," Malcolm was telling Rembrandt, just as the others returned from a mid-day shopping spree. "They were smothering me . . . like I was supposed to be exactly like ‘their' Malcolm."

Rembrandt put his arm around Malcolm. "Yeah, but you have to remember, partner, you were their only hope of regaining their son they'd lost. They were desperate to resurrect him from heaven."

Mallory joined the two of them. "You okay, buddy?" he asked Malcolm, slapping the teen on the knee in a brotherly way.

"I think so," Malcolm sighed, as the other sliders discarded their frivolous, meaningless purchases. "Maggie," he addressed the tough marine, "on our homeworld, did you ever know my dad - my real dad? You worked on the same base as him."

Maggie dropped her overloaded shopping bags on the bed and pondered that for a moment. "I don't remember, Malcolm. I worked with so many different people . . . maybe your father and I met at one point or another, but even if we did, I can't say I knew him real well." She apologetically regarded him with a sympathetic smile. Malcolm looked disappointed, but appreciated her honesty.

"All right, gang. It's time," Wade signaled, pointing the timer forward and activating it in the middle of their hotel room.

Wade jumped toward the wormhole, and its suction vacuumed her up into thin air. Quinn and Colin followed, tailed by Diana and Mallory. Maggie kissed her bulging shopping bag goodbye and leaped into the vortex after them.

"Come on, Professor, it's my turn to use you as a cushion," Janine prodded Arturo, shoving him toward their pink portal. Despite his objections, Arturo found himself involuntary being hurtled across the ERP Bridge, Janine opportunistically soaring behind him.

"Ready?" Rembrandt offered his hand to Malcolm.

"Ready as I'll ever be." Malcolm accepted Rembrandt's grip, and the two of them plummeted through the gateway into the tunnel of quantum energy.

* * *

The sojourning dectet lounged around on a sunny beach, surrounded by palm trees, ocean waves spread out in front of them.

"Jackpot!" Maggie excitedly hollered, emerging barefoot from the ocean. She hauled an armload of shelled oysters, and promptly dumped them out onto the sandy floor of the beach. "Help me pry these babies open!"

"What for?" inquired Diana, proceeding to use her fingernail to help Maggie break into the closed oyster shells.

Maggie had already cracked an oyster open, revealing a shiny pearl embedded within the fishy insides of the oyster's shell. "Pearls . . . a girl's best friend when she can't find diamonds. I've been craving some nice jewelry of this quality ever since Living Gem World."

Quinn grinned. "You know, oysters are supposed to be an aphrodisiac," he informed Maggie, smirking expectantly.

Giddily, Maggie elapsed into Quinn's lap, deviously dropping some of the shelled oysters down Quinn's shirt. "You wish, Mallory!"

Malcolm laid next to Mallory and Colin beneath the shade of a palm tree, Rembrandt relaxing on Malcolm's other side.

"Thinking of your parents?" Remmy asked, observing the sad, faraway look on the teenager's face.

"Yeah," Malcolm murmured, in a choked whisper. He gazed up at the clouds, and the sight he saw nearly took his breath away.

Malcolm visualized an image of his mother and father, smiling down upon him, a ghostly presence etched upon the clear blue sky.

A solitary tear trickled down Malcolm's cheek as he laid in the sand, staring up at his parents.

He fondly gazed at them, finally able to say goodbye.


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