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 Sliders fanfiction 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.
I would like to credit David Peckinpah who wrote the script dialogue from the Sliders episode "Genesis" in Season 4 of the series. Actual character dialogue from Peckinpah's script is used during this episode.
* * *
Mallory tapped his fingers against the hospital reception desk. His fingernails clacked on the hard mahogany surface, and he began to jiggle his feet with growing impatience.
"How long does it take to fill a freakin' prescription?" he muttered, under his breath.
A chipper nurse reached across the counter, extending a bag to him. "Here you go, Mr. Mallory. This refill should last you another six weeks."
"Thanks." Mallory took the prescription bag from her, biting his lip to keep from laughing at the nurse's green kimono made from the same material as hospital scrubs. This was only his second time returning to his Earth for a refill of his Dapsone prescription, but Mallory could tell he wasn't going to easily tire of gawking at the native population's offbeat style of fashion.
"Oh, could I see your medical card again?" the kimono-clad nurse politely requested from him, her eyes trained on some data from the screen that she'd suddenly caught sight of. "I just need to double-check your ID number. It seems we just registered another 'Quinn Mallory' the other day, and I want to make sure I didn't enter it under his account, instead of yours."
Mallory sighed, handing over his Fujimori Allied Health medical card. Fortunately, this hospital had branches all over the U.S., including Honolulu, where he'd initially registered.
"Strangest thing," she continued, typing in Mallory's number. "The Quinn Mallory who was in earlier this week looked sort of like you . . . except he had lighter hair, and he wore glasses."
"Yeah. Strange." Mallory pocketed his card, after the nurse handed it back to him. He was itching to leave.
"Have a fortune cookie," she brightly offered him, from a small bowl.
Mallory looked over his shoulder, but unfortunately, no one was waiting in line behind him.
"Uh, sure . . ." Mallory snatched up a fortune cookie and broke it in half. He unfolded the slip of paper inside. It read:
"Potatoes may reduce the risk of heart disease. Try baking or broiling them, rather than frying your spuds."
Wade tapped Mallory on the shoulder. "We're leaving," she said, linking her fingers with his.
Colin was with Wade. "Quinn and Silas believe we are ready to try entering our homeworld."
"It's about time," said Mallory. He dug his hand into the prescription bag and removed one of the small bottles of Dapsone pills, which he pocketed for safekeeping.
"What about the Slidecage?" Wade asked Colin, as the three of them strolled through the hospital lobby.
"Quinn thinks he relocated the way around it," Colin revealed.
"Dr. Hong, please report to Examination Room 314, third floor," came the dry, nasal voice of Marcia Ketterman over the hospital loudspeaker.
"Glad to see Marcia is still gainfully employed," quipped Mallory, as he, Wade, and Colin walked through the sliding glass doors of Fujimori Allied Health.
Once outside, they met up with their nine other sliding counterparts, who had assembled by the sidewalk at the edge of the hospital's parking lot.
"6 minutes," Quinn told them, showing off the timer. He clutched Colin's shoulder. "Just think, Colin. It may be only 6 minutes until we're home."
"Home." Colin savored the comforting sound of the word, which had taken on a totally new meaning for him during the past few years.
"Check this out, guys." Rembrandt was reading a copy of the Long Beach Herald, this city's newspaper. "This is what we get for missing the morning news. It seems the 'Maggs tried to leave their mark here yesterday night."
He displayed a newspaper headline for everyone, that read, "Series of extraterrestrial aircrafts land in San Francisco, London, Hong Kong." It was accompanied by a prominent black-and-white photograph of a crashed manta ship.
"The bastards crashed and burned as soon as they entered this dimension," hooted Rembrandt, passing the newspaper over to Professor Arturo.
"The virus must be really getting to them," Maggie commented. "But if they're tracking us, why would they still be stupid enough to attack when they know there's something lethal being left behind wherever we go?"
"Either the apes are losing brain cells," Janine cracked, "or they think they can beat it somehow."
"Hmm." The Professor was rather intrigued by the news story below the photo. "According to this, President Matsunaka has ordered an immediate evacuation of the San Francisco crash site. He says that the world must use research from the ship's remains and autopsies of those aboard it to learn more in protecting themselves against further threats from outer space."
"More like interdimensional space." Diana bit her tongue. "If I was him, I'd be more concerned about the Dublians."
Emily Beecham approached Quinn, Colin, and Dr. Silas Larson. "So what happens if the Slidecage blocks our path?"
"We'll be bounced back to this world," predicted Quinn. "The Slidecage shouldn't let any new travelers in. But at least we'll know these are the right coordinates for Kromagg Prime."
Silas spoke up. "And if we get that far, our next step will be to bypass the Slidecage itself. Based on the encrypted data in Colin's microdot, combined with the readings from Diana's PDL, I've extrapolated a likely algorithm for navigating an accurate path around the Slidecage." He unfolded a slip of paper, on which he'd scribbled the following addendum to Kromagg Prime's coordinates:
405-134-101-118 37x 39x
A figurative light bulb appeared over Quinn's head. "Those look so familiar. Don't they, Colin?"
"Yes." Colin stared at the full coordinate set. "It is coming back to me. I think Silas may have deciphered the information we once had."
"I thought so too," said Silas. "Michael gave me a decryption algorithm when I first began this journey, but I'd only glanced at it once or twice - he'd encoded it within my timer. Obviously, that apparatus is still back on Persian World."
As the remaining minutes passed, Quinn double-checked the coordinates he'd entered.
Quinn extended the timer outward and shot a stream of quantum energy from it. "Homeward bound!" he shouted, watching the purple vortex materialize.
Quinn joined hands with Colin, and the Mallory brothers leapt into the interdimensional rift. Each of their friends gradually followed.* * *
Emily squealed as she emerged from the vortex. Maggie caught her by the shoulders, steadying Emily.
"I'm still getting used to that," Emily blushed, pushing her glasses up onto her nose.
Malcolm and Mallory tumbled to the ground. Janine and Rembrandt were the last ones out of the vortex, narrowly avoiding a collision with Malcolm and Mallory.
Arturo looked around at the hilly meadow they'd landed in. "We seem to have made the slide safely," the Professor observed.
Quinn's face fell immediately. "Uh, oh," he lamented. "We know what that means . . ."
His friends gave him expressionless stares, not understanding.
Glancing at Colin, Quinn sighed. "We didn't get bounced back. No Slidecage. This isn't our homeworld."
Colin looked as sad as a wounded puppy.
Diana had pulled out her PDL. "Let me double-check the coordinates, just to be sure."
"Obviously, they're the wrong coordinates." Quinn stared at Dr. Larson, critically. "Silas, are you positive you had your homeworld coordinates memorized correctly?"
"Absolutely," Silas stated, without a doubt. Then, he paused uncomfortably. "Although . . . who knows how Yashar's scientists might have messed with my mind while I was under hypnosis. They might have jumbled up the numbers in my memory."
Rembrandt had taken the timer from Quinn. "Well, wherever we are, we're here for a week."
Diana was scrutinizing the data readout on her PDL. "Quinn, this world definitely has the exact same coordinates as those Dr. Larson gave us. There's no mistake about that."
Janine made a face at Silas Larson. "Maybe he never had the coordinates to begin with? Maybe he just made himself believe that he had them, so he could catch a free ride with us?" Her voice was riddled with suspicion.
"That's impossible," said Silas, matter-of-factly.
Quinn hated to admit it to himself, but he'd been thinking the exact same thing Janine had.
"Everyone calm down," Professor Arturo provided a voice of reason. "We have plenty of time to figure it out."
Maggie wiped some sweat from her forehead. "Does it seem really hot out here, to anyone else?"
Indeed, all of the sliders could feel an extraordinary mugginess around them, even though the sun wasn't blazing at full force.
The duodectet had strolled along the knoll to the side of a dirt road. Wade was looking at the trees around them with great scrutiny.
"You guys, look at these trees." Wade pointed to all the bare branches with a noticeable lack of leaves. "It's early-summer, but the branches are practically naked."
Diana shrugged. "The seasons could follow a different cycle on this Earth."
"I just want to get to the nearest city, so we can find a Four Seasons," quipped Mallory, placing one foot on the road's gravel. "I say we try to hitch a ride."
"Good luck finding a car to hold all twelve of us," muttered Janine, peering down the country road.
In the distance, a futuristic vehicle came throttling toward them from afar, getting bigger and bigger as it approached.
"Ah, we're in luck," Arturo said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Here comes someone right now."
The car's edges were flat like a pancake, with windows on all sides, and it made mechanical sputtering noises as it eased across the ground, almost floating.
Before they knew it, the vehicle had stopped right in front of the large group. Its multiple doors robotically lifted open from all sides, in unison.
"Wow, some wheels you got there!" Rembrandt called to the vehicle's occupants, as they began to get out.
Six soldiers had popped out of the futuristic car, toting large, heavy weapons resembling machine guns.
Mallory muttered, with a side-glance at Remmy, "I'm guessing this isn't the Welcome Wagon."
"Nobody move!" barked one of the soldiers. He and his fellow officers had spread themselves out strategically, aiming their weapons at the sliders from different angles. "These babies fire twenty kilo bolts of electrical current. Just being stunned by it will make you wish you were in a SenDep tank."
"Hey, we're not here to hurt anyone," Malcolm protested, defiantly.
"Who's your leader?" the head officer further interrogated them.
Rembrandt was about to raise his hand, but Quinn couldn't allow the Cryin' Man to take the heat. "That would be me," Quinn quickly said, raising his hand.
"Who are you?! Where did you come from?!"
Quinn decided to go with the truth. "My friends and I are scientists . . ."
"All twelve of you?!" interrupted the commanding officer, not buying it.
". . . we're searching for two fellow scientists, Michael and Elizabeth Mallory," Quinn finished, ignoring the soldier's surliness.
Taking in Quinn's words, the commanding officer nodded to one of his subordinates. The lower-level soldier pulled out an oval-shaped gizmo from his pocket, and marched over to Quinn.
"Place your finger on the groove," instructed the subordinate soldier, from behind his protective helmet.
Quinn did as he was told.
"What is that thing?!" demanded Maggie.
"It's okay, Maggie." Quinn looked straight at the masked soldier, unafraid. "Do whatever you need to do."
The soldier pushed a button on the curvy handle of the device. A needle-like appendage penetrated the flesh of Quinn's thumb.
"Ow!" Quinn winced.
The needle remained in place, as the gizmo sputtered and beeped. Its operator then released the contraption from around Quinn's finger. Quinn sucked his bloody thumb.
"What was that all about?" Rembrandt demanded, his eyes narrowing.
From behind his heavy, dark helmet, the soldier was studying the digital screen on his apparatus.
"It's a biothermal heat imprint scanner," spoke the commanding officer. "It measures your quantum signature, your DNA, and your genetic makeup."
Within 30 seconds, a miniature digital photograph of Quinn Mallory appeared on the scanner's screen, accompanied by alphanumerical data.
"This can't be right," said the subordinate soldier, reading the data from his heat imprint scanner. "According to this, you're Quinn Mallory, the second son of Dr. Michael Mallory. But you've been declared dead by your parents and by our government."
Quinn was speechless. "I . . . I'm a double," he rationalized, "from another dimension . . ."
"Not according to this, you aren't," the soldier replied. "You have the exact same quantum signature as the Quinn Mallory from our world. An identical genetic composition, identical blood work . . ."
"Identical everything." Quinn, despite his overlying skepticism, had a gut feeling that he was somehow meant to be there. "I'm him. I'm Quinn Mallory."
The soldiers looked at each other through their helmets. Then they raised their stun guns, and the commanding officer pulled out a walkie-talkie.
"Command Center, this is Thurman. We have a 'situation' here. I'm going to need at least five squads of backup . . ."* * *
The sliders sat in the lobby of the Venice County Sheriff's Department, under close watch by uniformed police deputies. All of them were nursing pricked fingers, having been subjected to the same biothermal blood scan as Quinn.
General Thurman entered the waiting area, holding the biothermal heat scanner. He was accompanied by some of the local sheriffs.
"Quinn and Colin Mallory." He shook his head at the brothers. "Unbelievable. In fact, I'm still not so sure I believe it."
"Trust us. We're the sons who Michael and Elizabeth Mallory gave up for adoption almost thirty years ago," Quinn insisted, making direct, authentic eye contact with the general.
"We have been searching for our parents for a long time," Colin said.
"Mmm-hmm." Thurman stared at Silas. "Dr. Silas Larson. According to your profile, you were an interdimensional scout from the Post-Voraton Era."
"Only trying to serve my species, sir," Silas replied.
"And Miss Emily Beecham," he addressed the young spectacled lady. "Our files indicate that you were given clearance by the government to search for your brother offworld. Private Thomas Beecham, a soldier Missing-in-Action during The Manganese Conflict."
"That would be me," Emily quietly confirmed. "But my family never told me much about Thomas's disappearance. What exactly was The Manganese Conflict?"
Thurman didn't answer. He next turned to Maggie. "Margaret Alison Beckett," he read from the information on his miniature screen. "Reportedly killed in the San Bernardino Riots of '74. You were only two-years-old." He cocked his head at her. "My, how you've aged!"
"I can explain . . ." Maggie held up her fingers, indignantly.
"I know. You're a double," he cut her off, gruffly. "Your quantum signature doesn't match that of the Margaret Beckett from this Earth." General Thurman moved along to Diana. "Dr. Diana Davis, quantum propulsion specialist at NIDA in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Funny, I just talked with your double half an hour ago on the phone."
"Hope you had a nice chat," shot back Diana, gritting her teeth with a nervous flinch.
Thurman switched the digital photographic file from an image of Diana to one of the Professor. "And here we have Maximilian Arturo, professor of biology and evolutionary theory at Oakwood State University. I spoke with your double earlier, too . . . a rather pompous fellow."
"Sir, at much as we enjoy your coy repartee," Arturo facetiously scoffed, "one would hope there is some purpose to this garish display of knowledge." He harrumphed, rather impatiently.
"I'm getting there." General Thurman circulated over to Janine. "The illustrious Janine Chen. The infamous Berkeley city councilwoman who openly challenged The LARKS Act."
"What the hell is that?" Janine shook her head, in confusion. She'd never heard of the legislation before.
"I guess you really AREN'T from this world." With a tight smile, he addressed Maggie, Diana, Janine, and Professor Arturo, collectively. "None of you have the same quantum signature as those of us native to this dimension. So, we will accept the likelihood that you are interdimensional duplicates."
"Duh, I could have told you that, General Brainiac!" Janine rolled her eyes.
"However, none of the rest of you have genetic profiles on file," General Thurman said to Mallory, Rembrandt, Malcolm, and Wade. "So we will assume that either your doubles were somehow killed before their profiles could be recorded, or, more likely, your alternate selves were never born on our world. Whatever the case may be, you're definitely not Kromaggs. Your heat imprints are fully human. So we will regard you as law-abiding civilians . . . for now."
"But what about us?" Quinn eyed Thurman eagerly. "You believe us, don't you?"
"I don't know what to believe," Thurman stated, although from his voice it was obvious that he did. "What I do know is that your genetic profiles are identical to residents of this dimension. Until further evidence proves otherwise, you will be regarded by the identities that you possess." He swiveled around, turning his back to them. "Michael and Elizabeth Mallory want to meet you boys. Your friends, too."
Colin and Quinn gazed at each other, with great excitement.
"That means . . ." Colin's voice was overjoyed.
"Yeah, family reunion," mumbled Thurman, exiting the room.
Quinn and Colin hugged one another. Then Maggie hugged Quinn. Rembrandt hugged Colin. Quinn hugged Wade. Colin hugged Malcolm. Emily hugged Silas. Diana hugged Janine. Janine snorted and rolled her eyes again, yet she couldn't help but smile.
The sheriff cleared his throat. "We will be chaperoning you to Pasadena, where you will be escorted to Michael and Elizabeth Mallory's research compound."
As they were led outside, Quinn barely even noticed the stuffiness that wrapped itself around his skin.* * *
Five minutes later, a motorcade of the odd-shaped futuristic cars was barreling down the highway. The sliders had been separated into four separate vehicles along the procession. Quinn, Colin, and Maggie were riding in one together, along with their police escorts.
"So what kind of fuel is this baby powered by?" Quinn asked the driver, through the ventilation that separated them.
"Electric," replied a familiar, Russian-accented voice. "8,000 potentiometers per lithium-ion battery pack . . . a helluva improvement over those skimpy lead-ion battery packs." Despite his droll, disinterested tone, Alternate Pavel really seemed to know his information. "At 240-watts in charger, is fast as agile little bird on TV screen . . . gotta love that 'Energizer Penguin' . . . it keeps waddling and waddling and waddling . . ."
"They must have had to cut back on their emissions from vehicles after the Voraton device was launched," Maggie inferred.
"Voraton!" This alternate of Pavel Kurlienko sneered with contempt. "Mechanical beast! Destroyer of our world!"
"I guess the Voraton KR-17 is public knowledge," said Colin.
Quinn peered out the window. "It's definitely muggy outside, but the ecology seems to be holding up pretty well."
"Yeah, from what Vernon Larson had told us, I was expecting Kromagg Prime to be a barren wasteland," Maggie recalled. "This is a walk in the park, compared to his dreary description."
Quinn's gaze wandered out the window once again. He was still going back and forth: was this place really his and Colin's homeworld? Was it just a carbon copy? What happened to the Slidecage? How could it NOT be home for them when their quantum signatures apparently matched those belonging to the other people on this Earth?
His emotions continued to waffle, as the motorcade proceeded onward to Pasadena.* * *
Soon, the electric cars stopped and parked in front of a set of buildings. Quinn, Colin, and Maggie were escorted out of their "motor coach." Rembrandt, Mallory, and Silas got out of the second vehicle, and Wade, Diana, and Silas emerged from the third. Once Janine, Malcolm, and Professor Arturo had been released from their police car, General Thurman addressed the group.
"This is Epcot Center. It is the facility where the Mallorys continue their biospheric research. It's been the site of many ecological breakthroughs." Thurman waved his hand around, gesturing at the colossal, circular white dome that resembled a large golf ball.
Mallory slanted his lips, crookedly. "Where are Mickey and Minnie?" he joked.
"Wow, I've always wanted to come here!" Malcolm explained. "I mean, not 'here' . . . but my parents would never take me to Disneyland. They thought it was too juvenile."
"Aw, a couple of spinning teacups never hurt anyone." Mallory slapped Malcolm on the shoulder.
Rembrandt was still staring up at the Epcot Center. "General Thurman, we had one of these on my world . . . except it was part of an amusement park in Florida."
"Oh, the Mallorys built an Epcot branch in Orlando, too," Thurman confirmed. He turned very serious. "Enough chit-chat. Here's how things are going to work. Michael and Elizabeth live in a high-rise apartment. Nice place, too . . . I've been to a few Christmas parties there. The brothers, Dr. Larson, and Miss Beecham will be the only ones allowed contact with the Mallorys, initially. The rest of you will wait in the lobby outside their place."
"No way!" Maggie protested. She really wanted to meet Quinn and Colin's parents.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Beckett . . ."
"General, look . . . we stick together. Through everything. Good times and bad. Happy and painful. And this reunion might be a little of both." Rembrandt stared General Thurman straight in the eye, undaunted. "We want to be there for our friends. That's the way it's gotta be."
"We have security policies, Mr. Brown," argued Thurman. "I cannot make any exceptions."
"We're going with!" Maggie shouted, stubbornly.
"That isn't an option, Ms. Beckett . . ."
"It's okay, guys." Quinn put a kibosh on the quarrel. "Don't worry. You'll get to meet our parents soon enough . . . assuming they're the right ones."
Maggie pouted as Quinn put his arm around her. The group strolled through a garden where grass and occasional trees sprouting leaves grew. They walked in-between several greenhouses containing faint splashes of bright, lively colors through the illuminated paned glass windows. Soon, the duodectet was waived through a secure entrance into a clean, sterile building. The twelve of them crowded into an elevator, along with General Thurman and the police escorts.
The elevator ascended up ten flights of stairs. On their way up, the sliders were treated to recorded elevator music, the lyrics to "I Truly Adore You" by Olivia Newton-John.
They soon were watching the elevator doors slide open, leading onto the top floor of Mallory Tower. Revealed to them was a spacious penthouse with several hallways jutting out in different directions. A wishing fountain bubbled within the parameters of a circular pool, filled with shiny coins that had been tossed in by passers-by.
"The Mallorys' penthouse is straight down the hall, Apartment 1064," General Thurman gave them the directions. "I will escort the four of you while the rest of your friends wait here."
Quinn and Colin waved goodbye to their friends, following Emily and Silas down the blue-carpeted hallway. On their way to the Mallory penthouse, they passed by a number of aquariums built into the wall. Through the glass of these tanks, one could see murky yellowish-green water and bubbles being created.
Colin leaned over and whispered to Quinn, "Why do they not fill them with goldfish?" referring to the tanks in the wall.
Emily rapped on a set of French doors with a golden number 1064 embossed on them. Over her shoulder, she told the others, "It looks like they've remodeled since I was last here."
"Are our parents expecting us?" Quinn asked General Thurman.
"In a manner of speaking. We told them that we have guests to introduce them to. However," admitted Thurman, "I didn't reveal your identities. We felt it would be most objective to see if they recognized the two of you on their own, without any biased anticipation ahead of time."
The doors opened, and there stood a woman in her late-thirties with curly red hair flowing down her shoulders. She wore a sleek black pants suit with an emerald chain around her neck.
"May I help you?" she asked.
"Elizabeth! It's me! Emily!" A chipper squeal of excitement exited Emily Beecham's mouth as recognition instantly filled Elizabeth's eyes.
"Emily?!" Elizabeth warmly embraced her long-lost ally. Over Emily's shoulder, Elizabeth Mallory caught a glimpse of Quinn and Colin.
Both of the brothers had immediately recognized Elizabeth's face from the microdot.
"Oh . . . my . . . God?" Elizabeth's eyes had grown as large as golf balls. She stared at Quinn's face. "Quinn . . . ?" Turning to her other son, "Colin . . . ?"
"She recognizes us! She knows who we are!" Colin smiled at Quinn.
Elizabeth took both of her sons into her arms with a motherly hug. "Oh, my!" She yelled into the penthouse, "Michael, get out here!" in a frantic voice.
A tall, balding man with glasses came running into the foyer. Upon seeing Quinn's face through the doorway, Michael Mallory knew instantaneously that his long-shot dream had actually come true.
"Son . . . ?" Michael then looked over at Colin, and his tears fell harder at realizing that both of his long-lost sons were finally home.
"Dad . . . ?" Quinn whispered. His breath had been taken away completely.
Meanwhile, Maggie was getting restless. She could not stand being in the dark any longer about what was happening over at the Mallorys' penthouse.
Maggie Beckett took off down the hall.
"Hey!" one of the guards yelled after her.
"Maggie!" Diana strode after Maggie, concerned that the headstrong marine was about to get herself into a heap of trouble.
Once Diana had begun her march down the hall after Maggie, the others followed like magnets. Rembrandt, Wade, Mallory, Janine, Malcolm, and Professor Arturo hurried behind Maggie and Diana in a large cluster. The guards could only trail after the sliders, fruitlessly commanding them to stop.
Elizabeth was hugging Quinn, and Michael was hugging Colin, when the eight interdimensional allies approached.
Michael Mallory gave a confused laugh. "Well, what have we here?"
"These are our friends . . . Dad." Colin smiled warmly upon saying the word.
"I thought I told you to stay in the lobby!" General Thurman growled at the eight disobedient sliders.
"I'm sorry, sir. We couldn't stop them," one of the guards apologized.
Michael held up his hand. "Nonsense. Any friends of the boys are welcome in our home."
Before long, all fourteen of them were lounging around Michael and Elizabeth's nicely-furnished living room. Thurman and the other officers had stationed themselves outside.
"Mom, Dad . . ." Quinn breathed deeply, still not quite believing that he was finally with his biological parents. "How did you know it was me and Colin? The last time you saw us, I was a baby and Colin must barely have been walking."
"Intuition. A mother knows." A wise gleam shined in Elizabeth's pupils. "Plus we had your photographs digitally-enhanced to project what you would look like at your current ages. It's been an ongoing tradition every year - sort of to keep you boys alive in our hearts."
Michael looked at Quinn. "Your foster parents told us you had died in an automobile accident. They even showed us your death certificate."
"My mom told me how she and Dad - well, my 'other' dad - hid me from you guys when you came back for me." Quinn pondered Michael's revelation. "They must have faked my death, and doctored up a bogus death certificate to show you."
Elizabeth turned to Colin. "And when we returned for you, Colin, we were told your parents were dead. No one in the village of Westchester, where we'd left you, knew where you were."
"I was sent by our local pastor to live with a foster family in El Segundo," Colin explained. "My new adopted parents . . . they treated me like I was their own son. Which wasn't always the best experience. They were quite strict, and had very little tolerance or patience for my inquisitive mind."
"Boys, how long have you been searching for us?" Michael took a sip of his tea, wide-eyed.
Quinn and Colin traded glances. "Almost four years," Quinn answered. "Although we hit some bumps along the way. You see, I was 21 when this all started. I built a sliding machine by accident, and Wade and the Professor -" he gestured to each of them, "- came along for the ride."
Rembrandt coughed, pointedly.
"Oh, and Remmy too," Quinn sheepishly added. "Actually, I pulled Rembrandt into the vortex by accident when I turned the power up."
Smiling good-naturedly, Remmy shook his head. "Water under the bridge, Q-Ball." After a pause, the Cryin' Man added with a wink, "You're still buying me a new Deville when we get home, though."
As everyone laughed, Quinn continued. "We slid for three years until we arrived on Maggie's Earth. It was about to be destroyed by a cluster of pulsars from outer space."
"Oh, my!" gasped Elizabeth.
Maggie linked her hand with Quinn's. "Quinn saved my life - and the lives of hundreds of people from my homeworld. We found a new parallel Earth where there was plenty of room to relocate a colony of refugees before the pulsars hit." She sighed, longingly. "I lost everything, but gained so much."
Rembrandt picked up the account, since Maggie's eyes were beginning to well up. "You see, Maggie's husband, Dr. Steven Jensen, was killed by this insane colonel who was in command of Maggie's base. Rickman murdered Maggie's husband . . ."
". . . and my parents," Malcolm spoke up, bitterly.
". . . and a double of the Professor's, who'd swapped places with 'our' Professor," explained Remmy.
Professor Arturo snorted. "I've never let them live down that mix-up, either," he harrumphed, with a twinkle in his eye.
"So I went with Quinn and Rembrandt and Wade," said Maggie. "I had to avenge Steven's death."
"When we finally made it back to Earth Prime," Quinn told his parents, "we found out that the Kromaggs had invaded."
Rembrandt nodded, solemnly. "Wade and I had gone on ahead of Maggie and Q-Ball. The filthy 'Maggs overran our hotel and dragged me and Wade off. They stuck me in one of their 'Reeducation' Centers . . ."
". . . and put me in a breeder camp," Wade quietly added.
Michael and Elizabeth leaned forward in horror.
"As we were busting Remmy out of the 'Reeducation Center,' I was captured," Quinn said. "While I was being held in that facility, they reunited me with my mom . . . my 'other' mom, who you'd left the microdot with." He stared at Elizabeth, and proceeded to ask a question that had been nagging at him for a long time. "Why aren't you and my foster mother exact duplicates? I mean, you both gave birth to me on different worlds . . ."
Elizabeth Mallory failed to make eye contact with Quinn. Her gaze dropped to the floor, then skirted toward Michael. "Probably a genetic fluke," she suggested, rather hastily. "Maybe some differences in exact ancestry?"
Michael quickly jumped in. "So the Kromaggs intentionally reunited you with your foster mother?"
Quinn nodded. "My guess is that she'd revealed the existence of the microdot to the Kromaggs when they initially interrogated her. Later, we discovered that they had implanted a tracking device in me. In fact, once when they captured us, the Kromaggs even implied that they intentionally let us escape from Earth Prime so they could track us back here."
"I've always wondered," Remmy pondered out loud, on that note, "back when we first met the 'Maggs . . . they looked . . . different."
"Yes. Much darker in complexion . . . somehow more sinister," Arturo elaborated, comparing the Kromaggs from Earth 113 to those whom they'd run into more often.
"I can explain that." Michael got up from the sofa and walked over to a rolled-up map on the wall. Pulling it down from overhead, the map unraveling like a scroll, Michael revealed a full geographic map that showed Kromagg Prime's global atlas. "Since the beginning of intelligent life, the Kromaggs on this planet have generally inhabited Africanus," he pointed to the African continent, "which is where we believe their evolutionary genesis can be traced back to. They lived mainly in the jungles below the equator, while human beings roamed the deserts. Eventually, Kromaggs and humans encountered one another, and formed a bispecies nation."
"The differences in skin pigments amongst Kromaggs can be attributed to varying tribal geography," Elizabeth further clarified. "The Kromaggs who lived in Africanus generally had darker skin, but those who migrated to Eurasia with their human allies developed lighter pigmentation over time. Kromaggs on the Southasian continent acquired skin tones somewhere in-between those of their brethren from Africanus and Eurasia. Kromaggs also initially had a more limited vocabulary than humans did, despite the more multi-layered structure of the Kromagg brain. That could be one of the reasons why so many Kromagg names traditionally begin with the letter K . . . over time, humans actually taught Kromaggs our own linguistics, which the Kromagg species integrated into its preexisting vocabulary."
"Even from across the Ocean Atlanticus, humans and Kromaggs shared a mutual tolerance," said Michael Mallory, of his Earth's history. "From the first time a Kromagg seaship landed at the Plymouth Cliffs in 1562 - and then again, in 1607, when they were invited to share in the first Thanksgiving near Jamestown settlement . . . we had more than two centuries of interspecies peace."
Elizabeth frowned. "But all of that changed. Part of it was our fault, part of it theirs."
"Our civil war started around 1805," recounted Michael. "When hunters from the North American slave trade tried to shackle Kromaggs along with the black man, the Kromagg species naturally revolted. Humans on the continent of Africanus were either slaughtered, enslaved, or chased off the continent. Many Kromagg revolutionaries spread their hatred of humanity to the Eurasian and Southasian continents."
"But it didn't stop there," lamented Elizabeth, sadly. "The Kromagg species has always been highly intelligent. In the early-Eighteenth Century, they had created their first manta ships out of organic metal. Initially, those ships were used simply for transportation. But once the civil war began, the mantas were converted into warships."
"And the manta ships crossed the Atlantic, to retaliate," Quinn intuitively filled in the blanks.
"Fortunately, we had our own weaponry . . . short-range missiles to deflect and pulverize the manta ships," Michael Mallory explained. "But the Kromaggs still had a slight technological edge, so the fighting ensued for over a century. It wasn't until September of 1977 when we finally released the Voraton KR-17, slowly obliterating Kromagg DNA on our Earth." He sighed, with heavy regret. "That was a mistake. The Voraton resulted in a mass exodus of millions of Kromaggs, who fled offworld before they were infected. We couldn't solve our own problems peacefully, so we ended up dispersing our warfare across the multiverse." Michael took a quick gulp, and then regained his composure. "However, the Voraton also released toxins and other chemical byproducts into the atmosphere. These pathogens targeted chloroplasts and some proteins. Plants began to wither all over the world, and many animal species became extinct. We had to somehow rectify the effects of the Voraton."
"So we developed an antivirus," Elizabeth told them. "We hoped it would reverse the environmental deterioration that had taken place. Unfortunately, we also knew that, if successful, the antivirus would leave us vulnerable to reinvasion by the Kromaggs."
"So you built the Slidecage!" Remmy caught on.
"You guys would know." Michael had a knowing twinkle in his eyes.
"What . . . ?" It took a moment for Colin to figure out what his father meant.
"The Slidecage was disabled, apparently by some offworld visitors." Michael grinned at Quinn and Colin. "We went inside and learned about your intervention there from the two occupants living inside of it."
Maggie's eyes lit up. "Thomas and Jules?!"
Elizabeth nodded, smiling back at Maggie. "They're safe. They've been with us for years now."
Quinn tilted his head, slightly confused. "Dad, if you knew we were searching for you, why were you surprised to see us?"
"Even though we knew you boys were probably working on the decryption algorithm, your mother and I know what a dangerous job sliding can be," Michael wearily explained. "As days passed by, months turned into years, and with no sign of your group, we began to worry that something had happened to you." He shook his head, looking very ashamed of himself. "Quinn, Colin . . . we never should have doubted you."
Colin leaned forward to hug his father. "We understand, Dad. And we don't blame you for it. The Slidecage was a necessary evil."
Silas Larson looked thoughtful. "If I remember correctly, you were just getting ready to go online with the Slidecage before I slid out. It would have been around October of 1981."
Michael nodded, recalling that time period. "You made an honorable sacrifice for your species, Silas. Especially knowing there was a good chance you might never be able to return home."
Diana had finished taking a sip from her cup of tea. "What I want to know is why your Earth's climate is so unbelievably humid?"
"It was a side-effect of the antivirus," explained Elizabeth. "Erratic weather patterns developed as the biosphere began to slowly regenerate. In some areas, like California, we're inundated with extreme heat. But in other places, like South America, the ground is practically frozen solid. Well, south of the Pampas, at least. We did manage to save the Amazon."
Professor Arturo tightened his lips. "Geothermal climate extremities were the price you paid for the ecological self-correction from your antivirus."
"Exactly." Elizabeth took a bite out of her muffin. "It's a slow process, but we're gradually getting back our chloroplasts. In the meantime, we've isolated a variety of seeds, pollens, vegetation, and plant species in our enclosed biospheres all over the hemisphere. I'm sure you saw some of them when you first arrived here at Epcot."
"Elizabeth is our foremost authority on ecology and botanical restoration." Michael beamed with pride at his wife. "She heads our national Emergency Conservation Unit."
Slightly embarrassed by her husband's flattery, Elizabeth blushed. "The domed biospheres, our electric cars . . . they are necessary steps we've taken to salvage our surviving organic resources. The Voraton tragedy forced us to find creative environmental solutions while we wait for the planet's ecosystem to repair itself."
"Back to the Kromaggs." Wade steered he conversation on-track again. "So they could invade your world at any moment?"
"Yes . . . potentially," Michael carefully said. "However, our aeronautic technology has come a long way in the past twenty years. We've positioned satellites above our atmosphere, and they would send off warning signals if they were to detect Kromagg DNA entering our dimension from hyperspace. We wanted an extra safeguard, just in case the Kromaggs had managed to somehow bypass the Slidecage."
Elizabeth looked at her sons. "Honestly, we had given up all hope of ever seeing you boys ever again. Until we retrieved Thomas and Jules from the Slidecage, our government had considered you both dead. I believe your DNA files still acknowledge your presumed deaths, in fact. But once we found out you'd beat the Slidecage . . ." She shook her head, and was overcome with tears. "We didn't dare speak of the thought out loud . . . we were afraid it wouldn't come true if we did . . . but deep down, I think we both knew in our hearts that it would only be a matter of time before you found your way home."
The Mallory brothers took their mother in their arms.
"There's another thing that happened to us," Quinn spoke up. "Well, to me, actually. It's a long story, but basically, I was hit by an electric pulsation that caused me to receive . . . visions."
Elizabeth stared at her son. "What kinds of visions?" she asked, tentatively.
"It seems to depend on what I make physical contact with," Quinn explained. "I'll tend to randomly touch an object or person, and then I'll see a vision related to that thing or individual. It's either of the past, present, or future - there's no real pattern to whether I end up seeing forward or backward through time . . . but I don't know why it happened to me, but it did."
Michael looked at Elizabeth, who's face was rather pale at hearing this. "So it's completely random, Quinn?"
"I guess so. I haven't totally figured it out yet." Quinn's shoulders sagged.
Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth asked, "Have you had any of these . . . visions since you arrived here?"
"Well, if you start receiving them again, please let us know . . . so we can support you." Elizabeth added that last bit rather quickly and hastily.
"Quinn . . . Colin . . ." Michael addressed his two sons. He shared a side-glance with Elizabeth, and they seemed to communicate non-verbally. "We do have something else to tell you . . ."
Colin and Quinn both leaned in, attentively.
"When your foster parents told your mother and I that you had died . . ." Michael switched from Quinn to Colin. ". . . and when we learned you'd been sent to live with another foster family, and we couldn't track you down . . ." Michael clutched Elizabeth's hand, searching for the words to match his sadly nostalgic expression. "Once the Kromaggs were gone, and before we saw the repercussions of the Voraton, your mother and I decided to expand our family."
Both Quinn's and Colin's faces turned white with shock.
"You mean . . . ?" Colin had totally been thrown for a loop.
"We had another child," Elizabeth said. "You have a sister."
Now everyone else in the room was listening in shock, as well. The brothers' mouths were hanging open
"Her name is Hannah. She's 23-years-old," Michael proudly told them. "Right now, Hannah is resting in her bedroom. Since your arrival, we went in and told her that you're here now. She's very excited to meet you."
"We're . . . we're excited to meet her too," Quinn responded, breathless.
"But there's something you should know ahead of time, so it doesn't come to you boys as a shock." Elizabeth blushed, realizing how ironic that statement must have sounded. But she continued. "Hannah was born with metastatic vertebrae compression."
Although they had a basic idea, Colin and Quinn each looked confused, not fully certain what their mother meant by that.
But Mallory knew. "She's paraplegic," translated Quinn's fraternal double, for the benefit of all his friends.
Michael nodded. "You're familiar with it?" he asked Mallory.
"Intimately," Mallory replied, wryly grinning in spite of himself.
"Wow . . ." Quinn was still speechless, trying to comprehend the shock of discovering another long-lost sibling.
"A sister . . ." Colin trailed off, and he was suddenly overwhelmed with eagerness.
A softer, younger, more feminine voice wafted through the wall of the Mallorys' parlor.
"Mom . . . !" the voice called out.
"Hannah's awake." Elizabeth smiled at the brothers. "Are you ready to meet her?"
"I - I . . . oh, I mean, yeah. Sure. Definitely. Let's go!" Quinn was pretty much babbling in anxiety.
"A sister . . ." Colin repeated, absent-mindedly. He still had a faraway look in his eyes.
As Quinn and Colin arose from the sofa with their parents, Quinn locked eyes with Maggie. "Well, are you coming?"
Maggie was taken aback. "Quinn, are you sure . . . ?"
"Come on." Quinn took Maggie's hand and led her out of the room as they followed Michael and Elizabeth Mallory into Hannah's bedroom.
A young woman in her early-twenties was sitting up in bed. Her straight, thick, reddish-brown hair was slightly messy, falling down past her shoulders. She wore a pink nightgown and had ovular facial features, very much resembling those of Quinn and Colin. An empty wheelchair was stationed next to her floral-patterned bed.
"Hi!" She cheerfully greeted her brothers. In spite of her obvious handicap, Hannah Mallory seemed remarkably upbeat. She flashed them a huge, amicable grin. "You must be Quinn and Colin."
"Yeah . . ." Quinn smiled back. Something about this girl just made him feel reenergized and hopeful. "And you're Hannah?"
Hannah Mallory's grin only got wider. "Well, come here! You're my brothers, aren't ya?! Gimme a hug, guys!"
Colin and Quinn approached Hannah, and kneeled down by their sister's bedside so they could embrace her. Maggie looked on, warmly.* * *
"And this is Professor Maximilian Arturo. He was my college physics professor on the world where I grew up." Quinn had just finished up introducing Hannah to his eight friends.
"Pleased to meet you, Professor." Hannah cheerfully shook Arturo's hand, from where she sat upon the cushion of her mechanical wheelchair.
Professor Arturo returned Hannah's smile. "The pleasure is all mine, Miss Mallory," he said, with gentlemanly vigor.
Diana smiled at Hannah. "This must be quite an experience for you."
Hannah fondly looked up at her two older brothers. "No kidding! Ever since Mom and Dad first told me about Quinn and Colin when I was younger, I always dreamed about my brothers returning home." Her face was happily lit up. "And here they are!"
Elizabeth placed her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Hannah, don't you think Quinn and Colin might be interested in seeing your collections?" She was gently hoping to enable her daughter to get to spend some time alone with her two older brothers.
"Collections?" Colin looked at Hannah. "What do you collect?"
Hannah Mallory was grinning from ear-to-ear. "Sea urchins, hermit crabs, baby lobsters . . . Mom gave them to me from the ECU Millennial Conservation Project." Her expression became slightly sad. "They're some of the creatures that we're trying to prevent from becoming endangered species. Poor things!"
Quinn smiled down at his sister, warmly. "We'd love to see. Show us the way."
Hannah jiggled the electronic lever on her wheelchair, veering herself into one of the hallways inside the Mallorys' spacious penthouse apartment. Colin and Quinn followed closely behind her.
Turning to the remaining sliders, Elizabeth gestured to the living room. "Shall we sit?"
Everyone non-verbally agreed, and they all sat down again.
Michael scratched his balding forehead. "So how did the rest of you join up with our sons?"
Maggie shifted in her seat, uncomfortably. The very memory of it brought chills to her flesh. "Colin hadn't been with us for even a year when he and Quinn were involved with a terrible accident."
"Well, Colin's involvement was accidental," Diana clarified. She turned to Michael and Elizabeth. "You see, on my world I worked with a great scientist, Dr. Oberon Geiger. At least, I thought he was great - when I was his student. All I had in my life at the time was my work, and Dr. Geiger provided me with the validation I needed to continue in my career." She sighed, reflecting on all the deception and mistrust. "Little did I know Dr. Geiger's true ulterior motive. In 1996, while I was completing my graduate program, Geiger was . . . 'injured' when he and a few of his lab assistants were conducting some routine equipment maintenance." Diana's speech slowed, and she painfully recalled the tragic demise of her friends and colleagues. "One of our ionization reactors exploded, and their bodies were bombarded with photons." She paused again, as tears came to her eyes and she sniffed. "The lethal emissions tore their molecular structures apart. Most of them were vaporized almost immediately."
"Oh my God!" whispered Elizabeth Mallory, absolutely horrified. She grasped her husband's hand.
Diana continued, brushing away her tears with a cloth napkin that had been neatly folded on the coffee table. "Geiger was the only one who survived. But his atomic structure was badly altered. He kept phasing in and out of our dimension, constantly shifting realities. We were finally able to stabilize Dr. Geiger in a realignment chamber surrounded by a containment field. His labs at Geiger Applied Research became his permanent new home. But Dr. Geiger legally retained all controlling authority over laboratory operations."
"During that time, Geiger offered me a miracle," Mallory spoke up, recalling how he first met Diana and Geiger. "Here was this creepy old man inside some bubble, offering me the chance to walk again. I thought he was nuts, but I figured, 'What the hell!' So I agreed to the surgery, and they did it. They healed me." He turned to give Diana a long, genuine smile. "Geiger helped me to walk again. But it came with a price. His only 'request' was that I become a lab assistant for his division, and that I participate in some 'research' as a 'genetic donor.' Geiger claimed he only wanted to extract my DNA so he could compare it to other versions of me in parallel realities. So into the Combine I went . . ."
" . . . and into Mallory went Quinn," sighed Maggie. She still had a headache from the emotional recollection of that day when Quinn and Mallory had first been merged.
"So then we slid into that mess," Rembrandt said. "We took our two-Quinns-in-one with us when the next window opened. Diana came with us, to help unmerge the two of them."
"And I had a bunch of security guards pointing guns at me," Diana added, sheepishly, further elaborating why she chose to leave her world behind.
"Eight months later, we finally made it back home," said Mallory, referring to himself and Diana, "only to watch the Kromaggs invade our world."
"I'm sorry." Michael bowed his head, pain-stakenly pushing his glasses up onto his nose. "That's terrible."
"Watching all those people die . . . our world crumbling right before us . . ." Diana could no longer utter her sad sentences. As tears completely overtook Diana, Wade pulled her into a soft hug from where they sat next to one another on the sofa.
Malcolm spoke up, telling his own account in the hopes of cushioning Mallory and Diana's anger. "Maggie and I are from the same homeworld. My dad was stationed on Maggie's military base, until the colonel killed him." Malcolm was remembering all too well that devastating experience of finding his father unconscious from the probe of Rickman's syringe. "Remmy took care of me, and slid me off our world right before it was destroyed. I stuck it out for two years with the other refugees at our camp, until the Kromaggs came. By luck, Remmy randomly slid back onto that Earth a few days after the invasion, and he found me in hiding." He looked down, sadly. "The Kromaggs captured a good friend of mine. We've been searching for her for the past two years."
Elizabeth tried to muster a kind smile for Malcolm, although she was devastated hearing his story. "I hope you find her."
Michael Mallory turned to address Janine. "And you? How did you become a part of this extraordinary adventure?"
"Through an extraordinary mishap," replied Janine, lightly. She focused her gaze on the Mallorys' grapevine-patterned wallpaper. "I was an interdimensional scout on my world for the tourism branch of 'Slidetronics' . . . a high-tech company that manufactures sliding equipment. They basically had me make short visits to parallel Earths, ensuring that those dimensions were hospitable enough to recommend to tourists. Once a dimension had the Slidetronics 'seal-of-approval,' our tourists could access the company's recommended coordinates at their own risk." Janine reflected upon that fateful day. "A little over two years ago, Rembrandt, Maggie, Diana, and Mallory had made a random visit to my Earth. As they were leaving my world through their wormhole, I was reentering my Earth from my own vortex just a few feet away. I accidentally fell into their vortex. The world we ended up on was crawling with Kromaggs, who, in their infinite wisdom, thought it would be fun to erase my homeworld coordinates from the timer. And the rest is history."
"Didn't you have your home coordinates memorized?" Michael asked Janine, incredulously.
"Well . . . yeah, at one point I did." Janine snorted. "But that was way back when I first began my training. After professionally sliding for so many years, I would just set my timer to 'autoslide.' It got to the point where I didn't have to remember my Earth's coordinates anymore, because I could just access them at the push of a button." Sighing, she admitted, "I guess I probably should have kept my world's coordinates fresh in my brain. It would have saved me a hell of a lot of grief, that's for sure! But it's like trying to remember your locker combination from sophomore year . . . you don't think you're ever going to really need it again until something unexpected happens."
Elizabeth gave Janine a sympathetic gaze. "Unfortunately, Janine, I doubt we have your home coordinates in any of our surviving databases. I'm sure I would have remembered reading a dossier with a description of your Earth, based on what you've just told us about it."
"So," Wade looked slightly hopeful, "what about the coordinates for Earth Prime - our Earth? You both left Quinn there, specifically, so wouldn't you still have Earth Prime's coordinates on record?"
Michael shook his head, regrettably. "I'm sorry, Wade. Your home coordinates were lost in an explosion back in '79, when some terrorists bombed our old Malibu facility. Maggistas. We lost a lot of good people and about 40% of our computerized data, including past slides."
"It's okay," Wade said, flatly. She was now staring across the room at one of the bubbling greenish-tinted tanks.
"Wade?" Speaking softly, Malcolm got his friend's attention.
"I'm sorry." Wade shook herself out of her sub-trance and addressed Quinn and Colin's parents. "Um, Mr. And Mrs. Mallory . . . ?"
"Please, it's Michael and Elizabeth," Michael Mallory gently told her.
"I just can't seem to shake this queasy feeling I get, every time I look at one of your glass aquariums." Wade pointed out the bubbly tank for the Mallorys. "It's just so similar to the space I remember being trapped in, when I was a prisoner of the Kromaggs."
Elizabeth looked curious. "They had hydropods in the breeder camps?" The incredulousness echoed in her voice.
"No." Wade closed her eyes, and then steadily proceeded forward with a verbal explanation. "While I was in the breeder camps, they assigned me as the midwife to an impregnated prisoner, Christina. She and I became really close." Sighing, Wade tried to push Christina's subsequent tragedy out of her mind. "After I helped Christina and her Humagg son to escape, the Kromaggs sent me to a manta base where they . . . did something to me. I'm not sure what."
"The 'Maggs had Wade hooked up to electrodes in one of those creepy . . . 'hydropods.' She was almost completely sedated," Rembrandt said, explaining the relevance of the hydropods to Michael and Elizabeth.
"She detonated the entire manta base," Mallory stated, grinning proudly at Wade. "The Kromaggs would have deployed a superweapon to invade your Earth." He gestured all around him, indicating Kromagg Prime in its entirety, and then realized what an integral role he and his friends had played in preventing the destruction of Quinn and Colin's homeworld.
Twin expressions of horror spread across the Mallorys' faces.
"You mean . . . they would have reinvaded, if you hadn't sacrificed yourself?" Elizabeth gaped at Wade, close to speechless.
Wade nodded, solemnly.
"But how could they?" sputtered Michael. "The Dynasty must surely have been under the impression hat the Slidecage was still active?"
Diana cleared her throat. "As Colonel Kesh explained it to us, Wade and the other humans were being bioengineered as a virtual computer network. The cyberiads, as they were called, had been programmed to telekinetically open rifts in hyperspace. The Kromaggs were using the cyberiads' joint consciousness to create space folds between dimensions. That's how they would have gotten past the Slidecage."
"Unbelievable," Michael shook his head, in a combination of awe and revulsion. Although there was very little shock or surprise inherent in his reaction.
Elizabeth leaned over toward Wade, and clutched the redheaded slider's hand. "We owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude for saving our world."
"Thank you," replied Wade, in a whisper. Until that moment, she hadn't fully realized the impact of her actions two-and-a-half yeas earlier.
"Oh, we've been doing more than that," Rembrandt told the Mallorys. "Ever since we got ahold of an anti-Kromagg virus created by scientists on one world, we've released the virus on every world we've landed on since then. Each one of us now carries it in our bloodstream."
Michael and Elizabeth just stared at Rembrandt, wide-eyed. Their silence was thick and awkward.
"Well, you're welcome," Janine said to the Mallorys, pointedly and facetiously. She was rather peeved that Michael and Elizabeth weren't even commenting on the sliders' joint efforts or thanking them for it.
"Um . . . we admire your bravery . . ." Elizabeth struggled to find the right words. "But . . . um . . . are you sure that was a good idea? Didn't you consider what effect the foreign blood might have on your bodies?"
Sighing, Rembrandt recalled, "There was no time to think. It was all happening so fast . . ." He tried to push away that emotional, climactic moment when he had departed Seer World all by himself, in the hopes of returning to Earth Prime. "But none of us have gotten sick from it."
"And have you considered what biological effects this virus might have on the ecosystem, when you release it on other worlds?" Michael posed to them.
"No . . ." Maggie responded, somewhat irritated at the Mallorys' skepticism. "Christina's homeworld and the Seer's homeworld both used it to drive out the Kromaggs, and they were coping just fine after the virus entered their atmospheres."
"We don't mean to sound beligerant," Elizabeth apologized. "But, as scientists, we're both concerned that you might not have thought this all the way through."
"Your concerns have merit," Arturo acknowledged, nodding at the Mallorys, "but we really have a moral duty to spread this viral epidemic to as many parallel worlds as possible, rather than simply leaving these defenseless Earths behind to unknowingly fend for themselves. After all, if we attempted to verbally warn people in parallel societies about the Kromagg threat, they would most likely laugh us right off their planet. Yes, there are risks - but what we are doing is the lesser of two evils."
Michael and Elizabeth traded thoughtful glances, as both of them mutually considered the Professor's words.
Over in Hannah's bedroom, the three Mallory siblings had their eyes glued to the swimming creatures in Hannah's big glass aquarium. Flattened, exotic fish glided through the water, and about a dozen shelled hermit crabs lurked at the bottom of the aquarium. Lobsters and sea urchins also scampered across the bottom of the tank, scurrying over little multi-colored pebbles. The sea critters brushed up against plastic algae or decorative slabs of rock at the bottom of the tank, as they lapped up granules of fish food.
With her lips, Hannah playfully made exaggerated oval shapes with her lips. She had her cherubic face pressed up against the aquarium glass.
"God's creatures are extremely beautiful," commented Colin, as he watched the bright pigments floating around underwater.
"They were just too pretty to have let them die in those murky waters off the coast of Vanuatu," Hannah gushed, her eyes following the fishes' churning fins. "When the West-Pacific Mudslides hit, Mom rushed to save as many of these little guys as she could. Our marine biologists relocated so much of that sea life into shedaquariums all over the country. We regularly breed them to preserve their species, but Mom and Dad let me keep some of the extras." Hannah turned to stare at her older brothers, longingly. "What's it like sliding?"
"Excuse me?" Quinn hadn't been expecting that question.
Hannah looked down at her wheelchair-ridden legs. "I've always wanted to travel between dimensions. Even knowing that the Kromaggs are still a threat . . . I have always had the strangest desire to see what other worlds are like. What are their people like? What would I have turned out like, if . . . ?" She stopped, as though something had caught in her throat.
". . . if you had been able to walk," Colin finished for Hannah, giving her a compassionate gaze.
A small tear trickled down her cheek. "I've been this way ever since I was born. I hate it." Hannah's chin quivered slightly. "Do you know what it's like having absolutely no independence? Having to rely on other people just to get around?"
"Yes. Yes, I do," nodded Colin. "In a way." He kneeled down in front of Hannah. "I haven't lived my life without legs. But as a child, my parents . . . my foster parents . . ." he clarified. "They kept a watchful eye over me. Mother told me that I needn't look any further than home. But I always had this undying urge to see the rest of the world . . . to see all of the things out there that were so much bigger than myself."
"I know how that feels," Hannah admitted. "Ever since Dad explained quantum physics to me, I've had a tremendous desire to meet so many of my alternate selves who are scattered throughout the multiverse. I just want to reach across hyperspace and hug all of the other Hannah Mallorys out there."
Quinn merely gave Hannah a warm smile. He didn't have the heart to disappoint her, to tell his baby sister that she most likely didn't exist on a majority of the parallel worlds in the multiverse . . . at least, not on the ones he'd visited.
"I'm so glad you came." The delighted look on Hannah's face conveyed all of the affection she had for Colin and Quinn.
The feeling was mutual for both of them. Quinn and Colin greatly looked forward to the week ahead of them, getting to know Hannah - their sister.* * *
A day later, everyone had reassembled in Michael and Elizabeth Mallory's nicely-furnished penthouse living room. The Mallorys had plenty of spare guest rooms in their spacious apartment, and had invited all of the sliders to stay with them.
Silas and Emily, on the other hand, had elected to go and reunite with their respective families. Both the Larson and Beecham families now lived within 100 miles of Pasadena, so Silas and Emily were given police escorts and made it home for their own family reunions in no time flat.
"What's this all about?" Diana asked the Mallorys, as Michael handed her a glass goblet.
"Just a little celebration," answered Elizabeth, brightly. She approached Rembrandt, and began to pour what appeared to be a fine wine into Rembrandt's goblet.
"Uh, listen, thanks . . ." Rembrandt nodded at Elizabeth, thanking her in kind for the beverage, " . . . but, uh, Malcolm here isn't old enough to drink alcohol."
"Remmy!" Malcolm blushed furiously, in embarrassment.
"Relax, Rembrandt. It's sparkling cider," Elizabeth Mallory assured the Cryin' Man, with a chipper smile. "Michael and I picked it up during our last trip to Knott's Berry Vineyard. It's actually much better-tasting than the real stuff."
"Oh. Okay." Rembrandt blushed with his own embarrassment, throwing Malcolm an apologetic look of guilt. He raised his glass in a toast. "Well, then - cheers!"
Maggie echoed Rembrandt's enthusiasm. "To Quinn, Colin, and their new family!" As she raised her glass, Maggie twinkled fondly at Hannah. "Especially their new little sister!"
Hannah beamed back at Maggie. "To Maggie and the rest of my brothers' friends," she toasted, from where she sat in her wheelchair. "For taking good care of my brothers during all these years they've been sliding."
Wade made her own toast. "To the scientists of Kromagg Prime," she announced, "for taking responsibility for their world and actually caring about the well-being of its ecosystem."
"To those who've battled the Kromaggs, and stood up against them on behalf of the entire multiverse!" Michael Mallory elevated his goblet up in the air, gazing with particular reverence toward Wade, but then glancing around at all of the other sliders, as well.
"And to our sons . . . Quinn and Colin . . ." Blinking back tears, Elizabeth sniffed and her hand trembled, fingers clutched firmly around her champagne glass.
Michael put his arm around his wife, comforting Elizabeth, who was overcome with emotion.
The doorbell rang, startling everyone in the room.
Elizabeth Mallory went over to open the door, and Emily and Silas came bursting through it, excitedly entering the penthouse.
"Hey, guys!" Mallory greeted them, with a wave of his arm. "You're just in time for some fake wine."
Emily grinned coyly, surveying the sliders. "We have a surprise for you," was all she said.
"Whatever could it be?" Professor Arturo pondered out loud.
Silas could barely keep from bouncing around in upbeat anticipation. "Look who we found . . ."
Two additional people walked into the penthouse through the open doors. Quinn, Rembrandt, Maggie, and Colin immediately recognized the nerdy, spectacled brunette man and the skinny teenage boy trailing behind him.
"Thomas!" Maggie shouted, overjoyed to see him alive and well. She ran over and threw her arms around Thomas Beecham.
"Jules!" Rembrandt jubilantly smothered Jules Konig with a fatherly hug.
Jules smiled back, shyly. "Hi, Rembrandt."
"Good to see you too, Maggie." Thomas blushed from Maggie Beckett's tight embrace. He stepped back so Maggie could take a good look at him. "I still think you look like a 'Lola' . . ." chuckled Thomas, and Maggie playfully jabbed him in the ribs.
Introductions were made. Thomas shook the Professor's hand as Quinn introduced his mentor.
". . . and this is Maximilian Arturo, my college physics professor. He was with us at the beginning."
"A pleasure, Mr. Beecham," Arturo congenially said, with a gentlemanly handshake.
"Same here," replied Thomas. "What particular branch are you a professor of?"
"Cosmology and ontology . . ." Arturo began to explain.
"Ah. So which came first: the chicken or the egg?" Thomas joked, with a wink. "Are we really here, or are we just bags of bones?"
"Er - something like that," Professor Arturo politely replied, tightening his lips.
"And this is Diana Davis . . . she is a physicist, and has helped us through some tough times," Colin told Thomas.
Diana shook Thomas's hand. "Pleased to meet you, Thomas. Perhaps we can exchange some theories?"
"Oh, I only dabble in physics. After meshing paws with the Kromaggs, I try to stay away from wormholes as much as possible," he modestly said. Thomas adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "Philosophy is more my forte. Transspecies consciousness . . . animorphic sentience . . . all that good stuff. Ever read Clan of the Cave Bear?"
Diana blinked in confusion. "Um . . . I don't think they quite got around to publishing that one on my world."
"Oh, it's marvelous. You should skim through it some time. It's a 'must-read' for any mortal who's ever pondered what it's like to be a bear."
"I'll keep that in mind . . ." Diana bit her lip.
Rembrandt, meanwhile, was fielding introductions for Jules.
"Jules, this is Wade, one of my best friends," Remmy cheerfully said, putting his arm around Wade.
Wade leaned forward to greet the adolescent. "Good to meet you, Jules. We've heard a lot about you."
"And Janine Chen . . ." Rembrandt shifted his hand gesture over to Janine.
Janine gave Jules a half-salute. "Hey, kid."
"And this is Malcolm . . ." Rembrandt introduced Jules to the youngest member of their team.
Jules smiled shyly at him. "Hi, Malcolm."
"Hey, Jules." Malcolm lightly touched the arm of this pretty good-looking guy, and a slight tingle of excitement subtly rippled down Malcolm's spine.
Thomas was now peering intently at Mallory's face. Upon hearing that Mallory was Quinn's fraternal double, Thomas Beecham had felt compelled to examine this phenomenon up-close.
"So have you ever read Clan of the Cave Bear?" Thomas asked Mallory, inquisitively.
"Sorry. I'm more of a Goldilocks-kind-of-guy," Mallory quipped.
Thomas Beecham looked expressionless, not really getting Mallory's joke.
"Well, come now! Let's all sit down!" Elizabeth clapped her hands together, and headed into the kitchen to collect some refreshments.
Emily Beecham squeezed her older brother's hand as they plopped down on one of the sofas together. "I really missed this character," she affectionately told everyone, referring to Thomas. "When I was growing up, he always had something interesting to say."
"Yeah, but you were the only one who seemed to appreciate it." Thomas smiled back at his sister, and then addressed the entire group. "Man, that penal colony where they deployed us to . . . that was quite the bitch. Pardon my Parisian." He blushed momentarily, then continued. "My unit was assigned to Mangana, an offworld zone of exile for the most brutal criminals on our Earth . . . skin-chompers, trench-diggers, gold-snatchers . . . the worst our society had to offer. In that dimension, Mangana was a province of Brazil, with plenty of jungle-centric terrain and creepy-crawlies to keep our baby boys occupied." Thomas heaved a depressed sigh, in recollection. "Unfortunately, the Kromaggs found their way to that parallel universe where we were stationed. Manta ships tearing up the Amazon . . . who woulda thunk it? Our photon trials apparently led them straight to the Manganese colony - because within a week, it was 'whap, thwap, holy crap, Mary Anne!' The human corpses piled up faster than exfoliated skin during a pedicure."
Maggie gave Thomas a sensitive gaze of sympathy. "I can see why you nearly went crazy. If I'd had to witness all of that, I'd probably have slid out of that place too!"
"I might have thought twice about it, had I bothered to anticipate the Slidecage." Thomas shook his head. "I should have known better. Michael, here, and the government bigwigs . . . they warned us that it might be difficult for us to get back home when our assignment was finished."
"We did come back to get you," Michael told Thomas, thinking back to Kromagg Prime's retrieval mission from 1986. "But by the time we reached Mangana, you must have already wandered off - maybe you'd already slid out of there by that point, Thomas? All we found were the dead bodies of our brave soldiers . . . God bless them!"
"You both have endured much more than any human being should ever have to," Colin emphasized, looking from Thomas to Jules. He focused in on the younger guy. "I could not imagine being raised my entire life by a Kromagg father."
"Yes. 'Father' - I mean, Kolitar - treated me as though I was his own son," Jules admitted. "That must be why I believed it so easily."
"Having to grow up with a freakin' bag over your head - literally." With a grumble, Rembrandt shook his head, remembering how awfully Kolitar had abused Jules.
"How long was it before they rescued you guys?" Maggie asked, looking from Thomas to Jules.
"Er - not long." Thomas Beecham pressed his lips together. "We were barely done with our first game of checkers before Michael's S.W.A.T. team came bursting in."
Jules smiled faintly. "Thomas was winning," he said, shyly and softly.
Malcolm couldn't stop staring at Jules and the post-teen's cute, boyish smile. Jules caught Malcolm's stare, causing Malcolm to avert his eyes away, bashfully.
"Quinn, it seems that when you slid the humans and Kromaggs out of the Slidecage, you must have inadvertently disabled the entire system," Thomas speculated, theorizing why reinforcements from Kromagg Prime had swept through the Slidecage to rescue him and Jules so promptly.
Michael Mallory nodded, knowingly. "It wasn't meant to be tampered with from its nerve center. We'd programmed the Slidecage as a one-time-only operation. None of us wanted to risk the mainframe being damaged by any of the Maggistas within our own dimension."
Janine looked completely baffled. "Maggistas?"
"Terrorists," Hannah glumly answered, with one ominous utterance. "The Maggistas are human rebels . . . Kromagg sympathizers."
"They disagree with the violence created by the Kromaggs," Elizabeth explained, referring to the Maggistas, "but they simultaneously abhor any preemptive human conflict directed at the Dynasty. The Maggistas generally view us as being just as morally-corrupt as the Kromaggs. Once the world learned of the Voraton plague, the Maggistas instigated vigilante attacks on government facilities all across the country. The Maggistas' tempers flared even more hotly when they found out about the Slidecage."
"So they felt it needed to be destroyed, to 'even the playing field,' so to speak, out of principle?" the Professor confirmed.
"Exactly, Professor Arturo," said Michael. "Fortunately, we'd sealed the only point of access to the Slidecage inside the central nervous system. While our sensors monitored the Slidecage's ongoing containment over the years, not even we could access it. We didn't tell them this, of course. But it kept the Maggistas vainly hunting for some way to bring down the Slidecage."
"And in the end, they got their wish anyway . . . thanks to me." Quinn's eyes dropped to the floor in shame.
"Honey . . ." Elizabeth Mallory put her arms around her son. "Please don't blame yourself. As far as the Kromagg Dynasty knew, our world was doubly-protected by both the Voraton virus and the Slidecage. No commanding officer in the Dynasty would have dared to try reentering our world, once they realized that the Slidecage was trapping everyone who tried to cross over. They had no clue that you'd disabled the Slidecage completely."
"But you started to reverse the effects of the Voraton by eradicating the virus," Colin pointed out. "That would have left our world virtually defenseless."
"But the Kromaggs didn't know that," Hannah grinned slyly, winking at her two brothers.
"Under my direction of the ECU, we dispatched the antivirus in 1987," Elizabeth recalled. "Since then, we've been isolating organic species and breeding them in areas of quarantine all over the world." She softly placed her arm on Jules's shoulder. "Jules has been assisting me in our labs for the past several years."
"I was legally emancipated shortly after they brought us out of the Slidecage," Jules added.
Maggie shook her head, in disbelief of all she was hearing. "Your world has been through so much . . . hell."
A blanket of uneasy silence covered the room.
The clanging of plates and glasses could be heard coming from the kitchen area. One of the white-shirted caterers clad in black slacks poked his head out of the dining room, visually scanning the parlor for Michael and Elizabeth.
"It appears they've finished preparing our spread," Michael announced, breaking the silence.
Janine stood up and clapped her hands. "Let's eat!" she suggested, trying to shatter the awkward ambiance.
Everyone began grabbing plates, loading up with green salad and toppings, fresh fruit, and submarine sandwiches layered with meats and cheeses. The Mallorys' guests all separated off into small groups throughout the penthouse.
"So, Malcolm," asked Jules, coming over beside the sliding adolescent, "how long have you been sliding?"
"Two years." Malcolm nervously gulped down a mouthful of tortellini. "How about you? I mean . . ." He quickly scrambled for additional words, upon realizing that Jules wasn't a full-time slider. "How long have you been helping Elizabeth in the lab?" Malcolm blushed.
Jules smiled back at him. "It's been nearly three years. They've taught me so much about the natural world." He reached down to pick up a cloth napkin, and his fingers inadvertently brushed against Malcolm's hand.
They both felt tingles.
Elizabeth had come over to where Malcolm and Jules were standing. "Michael wants to spend a good part of the day tomorrow showing Quinn and Colin his little 'toy shop.' You know, Egghead Stuff." She chuckled a little bit, and then offered the two teenagers, "What do you say I take you boys to Knott's Berry Vineyard tomorrow? - I'm sure Jules would love to show you the breadth of his sylvan knowledge, Malcolm." Elizabeth gave Jules a knowing wink.
Jules lightly took Malcolm's hand. "It'll be fun, Malcolm. Please say yes."
"Uh, sure." Anxiously, Malcolm forced a smile at both Jules and Elizabeth. His heart was thumping with excitement.
Michael Mallory had wandered over to where Silas was chatting with Diana, Emily, and the Professor. He slapped his hand congenially on Dr. Silas Larson's shoulder. "Hey, Silas, tomorrow I'm giving Hannah and my boys a little 'scientific demonstration.' I thought you might be interested in seeing our developments since you were last with us. Care to come over again tomorrow, and maybe help out with some of the pesky technobabble?"
"Absolutely!" Silas understood immediately what Michael was referring to. "I've been dying to see how it's been coming along."
Colin looked utterly confused, as did Quinn, who spoke up, "Um, what's this Big Secret all about?" It slightly frustrated Quinn that he couldn't decipher the "code" that the two men seemed to be speaking in. Quinn visually looked at Hannah for help.
Hannah shrugged in response. "I wish I knew, Quinn. Dad has been keeping a tight lid on whatever it is. He won't even tell me about it."
Michael lovingly ruffled Hannah's hair with his fingers. "You'll see soon," he promised his three children. "And I guarantee you kids, your insightful Mallory minds will not be disappointed."* * *
Day Three at the Mallory penthouse opened amid a flurry of plans. Elizabeth, along with Emily Beecham, had committed to taking Malcolm and Jules on a leisurely excursion to Knott's Berry Vineyard in Buena Park. Wade and Mallory also left the apartment, heading out on their own for some quality time alone together out on the compound. Maggie, Rembrandt, and Diana decided to do a little pleasure shopping in downtown Pasadena, while Janine and Arturo each chose to stay in for the day.
That left Quinn and Colin to spend the day with their father, their sister, and Silas - to learn about this mysterious project Michael Mallory had spoken of during the previous day.
"Welcome to my dungeon!" quipped Michael Mallory, feigning a really bad Transylvanian accent. The physicist spun the combination on the handle of a door, unlocking it and pushing open the entrance to a laboratory that had been built within the Mallory penthouse.
"Whoa!" Hannah's eyes widened at the sight of all the miscellaneous gadgets and gizmos throughout her father's lab. "Dad, you've been doing some SERIOUS work since I was last in here!" She proceeded to wheel herself into the laboratory.
"Wow, it's . . . amazing." Colin was almost speechless.
Michael put his hand on Colin's shoulder. "There's plenty of good stuff for you to tinker with, son. And no one's going to stop you."
Quinn reached out to touch a spiral, multi-layered three-dimensional model of the Einstein-Rosen-Pudalski Bridge. "You constructed a prototype for the multiverse?"
A flash popped into Quinn's eyes, shaking him and throwing him backward. Quinn got a momentary glimpse of a much younger Michael Mallory, wearing a lab coat, attaching some wires within a raw prototype for a sliding timer.
"What is it, Quinn?" Michael tried to touch his younger son's arm, but Quinn uncharacteristically squirmed away.
"Quinn . . . ?" Colin came over to his brother. "Did you see something?"
Silas and Hannah were now also looking curiously at Quinn Mallory.
Michael stared directly at Quinn. "Was it one of your visions, son?"
"I had a flashback." Quinn looked straight at his father. "Of you." He began to pace around the laboratory. "It was the first one I've had since we arrived here. I guess I naively thought that maybe this family reunion would . . . maybe somehow 'cleanse' me of these psychic jolts. That maybe getting back to my roots might stabilize me. But I guess not. I guess I'm eternally destined to be a walking, breathing 'looking glass'!"
Quinn's voice rose in accordance with the flaring of his temper.
"Quinn . . ." Colin moved forward to console his brother, but Michael Mallory gently put his hand on Colin's shoulder, stopping him.
"Let me," Michael mouthed to Colin, in a whisper. The elder Mallory approached Quinn. "Son, I don't know a whole lot about your . . . ability. I don't know why you received it, or where it's meant to lead you in life. But here's what I do know: it's a gift, Quinn, not a curse. Otherwise, God wouldn't have allowed you to receive it."
A lone tear trickled from Quinn's eye duct, down his cheek. He realized how he'd yearned all these years for the absent support of his father, following Michael Mallory's tragic death on Earth Prime. Quinn's foster father - Michael's double - obviously hadn't been around to guide Quinn during Quinn's emotional, tumultuous adolescence.
Yet, here he was now - Quinn's biological father, ready to heal the heartache that had boiled deep within Quinn for nearly two decades.
As Quinn and his father hugged, a potent flash of light pierced through Quinn's eyeballs.
He saw a younger Michael Mallory standing with an older man in his laboratory . . . Michael stood back, watching the older gentleman's body blink in and out of the spot where the man was standing . . . disappearing, then reappearing . . . disappearing again . . . and reappearing once more . . . over and over again . . .
This flashback inexplicably accelerated forward several years, to a candlelit chapel where Michael and Elizabeth Mallory were exchanging their marital vows, obviously on their wedding day. A quick flash of Amanda Mallory - the mother whom Quinn had been raised by for his entire childhood - interceded the vision of Michael and Elizabeth's wedding. Amanda closed her eyes, and the air around her faded to black.
By now, Quinn was physically shaking. The blackness he saw turned into what Quinn could clearly feel to be a premonition. He saw a Kromagg coming up behind his own father and plunge a dagger through Michael Mallory's chest. The Kromagg wore an astronaut-like hazmat suit. This simian-like creature diabolically showed his pointy teeth, followed by a smirk, as Michael Mallory slumped to the floor, blood gushing from Michael's wound.
Next, Quinn saw a flashback: the temporal chills crawling up Quinn's spine indicated that he was glimpsing into the past. The image was one of Jules being swallowed whole by a sparkly blue mass of quantum energy.
Then, Quinn once again felt his body propelling forward into the future. He was gliding through a dark, purplish-blue tunnel, warm energy shimmering all around him. His entire being felt completely free - uninhibited, unshackled. It was as though Quinn was in total control of his direction and destiny - yet, at the same time, deep down he could sense that he actually wasn't.
After all, Quinn was merely an observer of what apparently could be his future.
But what did it mean?
Snapping out of his trance, Quinn broke away from Michael.
"A premonition?" Michael Mallory instinctively sensed his son's frustration.
"I think I need to lie down . . ." Quinn staggered toward the door, and proceeded to lose his balance.
He didn't even hear Colin and Hannah shouting his name as he hit the floor.* * *
"I can't believe they let us drink on this world!" Malcolm exclaimed, as he and Jules emerged from the Wine & Cheese Palace, a merchant's outlet shaped like a giant brick of Swiss cheese.
Jules grinned back at Malcolm. "Yeah. Elizabeth told me how they eliminated the drinking age for us minors, back when it looked like there might not be a tomorrow. I guess Parliament thought, 'We're probably gonna die anyway, so why not let the kids have their fun?'"
Malcolm laughed. He and Jules strolled along a cobblestone path made from polished rocks, past weeping willows and green grass being showered with automated sprinklers.
They were at Knott's Berry Vineyard, two miles outside the city limits of Buena Park, California. Malcolm and Jules, being roughly the same age, had been encouraged by Elizabeth Mallory to spend the day together. The two of them were entering the park's "petting zoo" - a scenic wildlife preserve where deer and rabbits frolicked about freely.
"Elizabeth says that the ECU was central to restoring these acres of beauty," Jules recalled, based on his experiences as Elizabeth Mallory's scientific apprentice. "Her scientists worked tirelessly to create an artificial atmosphere that was placed around Buena Park. It helped to neutralize the toxins emitted by the Voraton."
"Man, I wish I was good at science." Malcolm smiled at Jules, with a hint of good-natured envy.
"I saw your sketchings . . ." Jules shyly spoke up, blushing a little bit. "That drawing you did in the car ride over here. Of the swan." Jules was referring to the likeness of a handsome swan floating across a pond. Malcolm had only drawn it to pass the time during their car ride from Pasadena to Buena Park. "It was very beautiful, Malcolm."
"Thank you," Malcolm responded, feeling more tingles ripple up his skin from the sincerity expressed by Jules.
They stopped in front of Camp Woodstock, the play area designated for families visiting Knott's Berry Vineyard. Small children were scampering underneath the arched entrance, giddily mesmerized by the cartoony life-sized statues of various Peanuts comic strip characters.
"Do you want kids?" Jules suddenly asked Malcolm, with a faraway look in his eyes as he observed the happy little tykes.
This question took Malcolm by surprise. "I - I don't know. Um, I guess I never really thought about it."
That wasn't entirely true. Back when he was living on the New World colony with other refugees from his and Maggie's homeworld, Malcolm clearly remembered Gretchen talking with him about how the colonists had a grand responsibility to repopulate their new Earth.
"I don't know either," admitted Jules, somewhat bashfully.
The two teenagers were startled by a nearby clamor. Outside the fence of the park, a mob of angry people was gathered. They shouted harsh obscenities at the tourists inside Knott's Berry Vineyard.
Frightened children ran to their parents. The protestors were scary-looking, adorned in mock military uniforms with their faces painted similarly. And they were bald.
Malcolm clutched Jules's hand, almost as a reflex. Their mutual touch instantly gave both boys a communal sense of comfort.
"Who are they?" Malcolm whispered, his voice shaking.
Jules replied in a low, hushed voice, "The Maggistas."
"Maggistas?" Malcolm was still rather confused by this reference. "They can't be Kromaggs . . . ?"
"No," Jules confirmed for Malcolm. "As Elizabeth explained earlier, they are humans who sympathize with the Kromagg Dynasty. They despise our government for what it did to our Earth . . . for what it did to this society. Especially The LARKS Act."
Malcolm was now staring at the mob of Maggistas with horrified intrigue. He wondered how they had cosmetically transformed themselves to resemble the Kromaggs.
"They're wearing prosthetics on their heads," Jules told Malcolm, as though he had read his friend's mind. "Plastic. They didn't shave their heads. I thought the same thing too, the first time I saw them demonstrating. They wear makeup, as well." Jules made a second reference to the distorted, bumpy texture of the Maggistas' faces. It was obviously a topical layer of cosmetics, designed to facially emulate Kromagg features on these humans.
"I hate the Kromaggs!" Malcolm said, in an acidic whisper. He was now thinking of Gretchen, and her abduction two years earlier from their colony on Primitive World. Tears streamed down Malcolm's face as he thought of all the terror Gretchen must be enduring in the breeder camps. If she was even still alive . . .
Jules gently brushed the tears from Malcolm's soft, mocha cheeks. "Don't cry, Malcolm," Jules said, his heart crumbling as he shared the sensation of Malcolm's sadness.
"Gretchen was the only one who looked after me . . . who cared about me . . ." Malcolm gulped, between sobs, speaking of his two years stranded on that primitive refugee colony.
Jules gave Malcolm a soft hug.
The police had arrived. Positioning shields and cattle prods, they began rounding up the unruly Maggistas.
"Oh, there you boys are!" Elizabeth Mallory came scampering up the park walkway, having been searching for Malcolm and Jules. "I was afraid the Maggistas might have gotten you. A few of them managed to vault the fence, and took some hostages over by Ghost Rider."
Emily Beecham was speed-walking after Elizabeth, and finally managed to catch up with their group. "Most of the Maggistas have been detained," Emily informed Malcolm, Jules, and Elizabeth. "But it sounds like they're still shutting down the park for the rest of the day, just as a precaution."
Malcolm and Jules collectively breathed a sigh of relief, clutching each other's hand.
"Let's go home," Elizabeth decided, placing her hands on the shoulders of Jules and Malcolm. She saw how scared Malcolm looked.
The four of them headed toward the nearest exit to the parking lots. As Elizabeth and Emily led the way, Jules turned to Malcolm, whose tears were slowly subsiding.
Jules leaned in, and gave Malcolm a very quick peck on the lips.
Jules then pulled away, and they both returned their attention to following Emily and Elizabeth out of the park.* * *
Quinn woke up in a comfy bed, still groggy from having fainted in his father's laboratory.
Maggie was sitting by his bedside. "Quinn, are you all right?" she asked, through concerned, squinted eyes.
"Ugh, what happened?" moaned Quinn, trying to sit up. He saw Michael sitting next to Maggie.
"You took quite a fall, son," Michael told Quinn. "You got dizzy after having one of your . . . premonitions?" He waited for Quinn to verify his assumption.
Quinn closed his eyes and laid back. "Yeah . . ." He tried to recall exactly what visions he'd seen, then remembered one in particular. "Dad . . . ?"
"Dad . . . so has our Earth been vulnerable this entire time? Ever since I disabled the Slidecage?"
"Before that, even," Michael regretfully confirmed. "Around '97 or so, ECU scientists tested our atmosphere and discovered that most of the toxins created by the Voraton had dissipated from the stratosphere. Your mom and her team had concluded that, in theory, if the Kromaggs could somehow bypass our Slidecage, there wouldn't have been enough viral chemicals remaining to significantly affect most Kromaggs soldiers. It had been ten years worth of environmental erosion, followed by another ten years of our only biological defense against the Kromaggs gradually evaporating."
Colin had entered the bedrooms with Thomas and Silas right behind him. "So what did you do once you realized the Slidecage no longer worked?"
Michael sighed. "We've been basically planning for war ever since. We crossed our fingers that they wouldn't try to reinvade, and so far we've been lucky . . ."
"But our aeronautics division has been working on long-range defensive missiles, in case our luck runs out," Thomas admitted.
Maggie stood up, resolutely. "Thomas, I've seen the horror those weapons can cause to the civilian population. There's gotta be a better way."
Thomas shook his head. "I wish we had one, Maggie."
"How likely is it that the Dynasty will try another invasion?" Quinn looked to his father, frantically.
Perplexed, Michael shook his head. "I don't know, Quinn. The Dynasty must still have our homeworld's coordinates on file - after all, it's their homeworld too. But as far as we know, the Kromaggs are still under the impression that the Slidecage is active. The only other person who I gave the full decryption algorithm to was Silas. We knew that if he found a way to reverse the Voraton's plague, he'd need an equation to help him slide back here so he could share it with us."
All heads in the room turned to Silas Larson.
Silas shrugged helplessly. "When Yashar captured me, his soldiers confiscated my timer."
"So it's probably still back on Persian World," Colin deduced.
Maggie tilted back her neck, in relief. "Then there's no way the Kromaggs could ever get ahold of it. Even if 'Yashar's web' has collapsed by now, we infected Persian World with the anti-Kromagg virus."
Quinn looked over at his father. "Dad, the Kromaggs are not stupid. They've obviously been tracking us, and they probably suspect what we're doing. It's unlikely that the Dynasty would attempt a mass invasion without covering their butts first."
From out in the foyer, the front door could be heard opening. It wasn't long before Elizabeth Mallory poked her head in the room.
"How are my scientists?" she asked, stopping short at the sight of Quinn lying weakly in bed. "Oh, Quinn! What happened?! Are you okay?!"
"I'm fine, mom," Quinn answered, as Elizabeth leaned in to smother him with a hug. "I just had another . . . vision. I sort of fainted."
Malcolm, Jules, and Emily crept into the room, silently waving hello to everyone else.
"How was Knott's Berry Vineyard?" Colin asked them, brushing his hand against Malcolm's shoulder.
"It was . . ." Malcolm had no idea what to say.
". . . an experience," Jules finished for Malcolm, smiling at his new friend.
"We had to leave early," Emily told them. "There was a little trouble in the park."
Maggie looked concerned. "What kind of trouble?"
"The Maggistas," Elizabeth explained. Michael knowingly acknowledged her reference, with a somber nod of his head. "They were harassing park visitors again. I should have considered that before I brought the boys there."
"No. We had a nice time, Elizabeth," Jules assured her. He smiled at Malcolm again, and gave his fellow adolescent a small squeeze of his hand.
"Even considering everything we went through with the Voraton, the Kromaggs have sure managed to leave their mark behind," commented Emily, retrospectively. "I mean, they still have humans from this dimension taking up arms on their behalf."
The realization of Emily's words slowly simmered inside of Quinn. As though in a trance, he reached over to the nightstand next to his bed and grabbed a small pocketknife that had been left there earlier.
"Quinn . . . ?!" Maggie, startled by Quinn's brisk actions, could barely utter her boyfriend's name before he'd plunged the blade into the flesh of his arm.
Colin watched the blood ooze from above Quinn's elbow. "Why did you do that . . . ?"
But it only took Colin a moment to realize why.
Quinn stared up, from his bed, at Colin, Maggie, his parents, and Hannah, who'd just wheeled herself into the bedroom.
"The Kromaggs aren't getting anywhere near my family," Quinn declared, shaking, as he released the pocketknife and it tumbled to the floor.* * *
The evening was filled with more celebrating, topped off by food, bubbly, and lot of laughing. All ten sliders had gathered with the Mallorys and their newfound friends from Kromagg Prime. Quinn was now feeling a lot better, so his parents had decided to liven things up accordingly with some additional festivities.
Diana stood with Emily Beecham, nibbling on a smoked oyster hors d' oeuvre as they mingled at one end of the buffet table.
"So Emily," Diana asked, "now that you're home, do you have any big plans?"
"My family is just glad I'm still alive," replied Emily, blushing. She took a sip of wine from her goblet. "While I was gone, my dad purchased a farm out in Valencia. My parents have been breeding llamas, sheep, and camels, trying to increase the fertility of those beasts. I may help out by monitoring their breeding patterns for awhile. Eventually, I'd like to get back into organic chemistry - maybe see if I can do my part in replenishing our Earth's resources."
"And what about you, Thomas, my man?" Mallory asked Thomas Beecham, slapping the nerdy former recluse on the shoulder. They had joined Diana and Emily. "What's at the top of your list?"
Thomas blushed. "Reconnecting with my sister." He exchanged smiles with Emily. "Michael offered me a job working in the archive at Mallory Central. I'll get to sift through thousands of files on parallel universes that were explored during the pre-Voraton era - sans coordinates, of course. Should be fun . . . I always was more of a bookworm than a G.I. Joe."
Mallory shook his head, pressing his lips together. "Whatever floats your boat, Tommy-boy." He elbowed Thomas as he began moving along to chit-chat with other people. "But ya know, a guy's never too old for a bottomless margarita and an exotic danger or two," he recommended, before heading toward the other end of the buffet table.
Thomas looked slightly nonplussed, puckering his lips together as he considered Mallory's proposition. "Nah. I think I'd get a little too tipsy in that scenario."
Maggie gave Thomas a heartfelt smile at his modesty, and then she turned to the 19-year-old orphan. "What about you, Jules? Still planning to stick around here?"
Taking a quick sip of flavored mineral water, Jules nodded. "Elizabeth and I are working on a new family of sunflowers. They've already begun sprouting . . . I can't let them down now."
Malcolm abruptly released a laugh. He blushed, after realizing that he was the only one who'd found Jules's comment funny. Malcolm blurred his laugh into an awkward cough, then took a swig of mineral water.
Over by the fondue pot, a spurt of laughter erupted from Rembrandt's vocal chords. The Cryin' Man was watching as Mallory taught Colin how to catch a cocktail weenie in his mouth after tossing it up in the air.
Upon rearing his head back to welcome the miniature hot dog between his lips, Colin lost his balance and fell backward - taking down the entire buffet table with him in an eardrum-busting clatter.
A glittery blue glow spontaneously erupted from Jules's body, temporarily causing the young man to vanish from sight.
"Jules!" Malcolm heart thudded against his chest, in a confused panic.
All heads in the room turned curiously from Colin lying in a heap on the floor over to the spot where Jules had been standing.
Within another second, Jules's body had resurfaced. The older adolescent looked winded, terrified, and extremely embarrassed.
"Good heavens!" gasped Professor Arturo, still trying to make sense of what he had witnessed.
Jules's face turned pink, and he hastily darted out of the room in shame.
"Jules!" Elizabeth called after her young protégée, with an air of sympathy and some obvious understanding of what had just happened to Jules.
"No, Elizabeth . . ." Malcolm gently yet firmly stopped her. "Please . . . let me."
Elizabeth gave Malcolm a heartened smile and nodded her head at him. As Rembrandt and Mallory helped a messy Colin up off the floor, Malcolm exited the parlor. He quietly made his way into one of the empty guest bedrooms, where Jules had taken refuge.
"Jules . . . ?" Malcolm crept into the room.
"Go away, Malcolm."
"Jules, what happened?"
"I'm a freak, that's what happened!!" Jules looked up at Malcolm through his swollen eyes. The adolescent was crumpled on the floor, sobbing.
Malcolm closed the door and locked it behind him. "You can tell me. I promise you that no one else will hear." He kneeled on the floor next to Jules, and hugged him.
That only made Jules cry harder. He immersed himself in the softness of Malcolm's arms. "It was . . . a bad idea . . ."
"What was a bad idea?"
Gagging, Jules tried his best to clear his throat. "I volunteered to receive an implant."
"An implant?" Malcolm was confused. "What kind of an implant? For what?"
"Michael was working on a teleportation device . . . and he needed volunteers . . ." Jules continued to choke out the words. "For some reason, it only works on those of us from our homeworld."
Malcolm began to caress Jules's back, hoping it would help to calm him. "But I thought you were born in the Slidecage?"
"I was," he admitted. "But both of my birth parents were from this dimension. Michael measured my quantum signature . . . he said it looked like I'd inherited both of my parents' signatures." Jules sniffed. "They needed younger people to be implanted, so I said I'd do it. But something went wrong . . . and now . . . THIS keeps happening to me!" He was referring to his spontaneous teleportation ability.
"Can't they remove the implant?" asked Malcolm.
"No. It's a part of my biochemistry now." Jules looked down in shame. "I'll bet I must seem hideous to you! A total freak!"
"No!" Malcolm insistently reassured him.
Jules refused to make eye contact.
Instinctively, Malcolm abruptly leaned forward and pressed his lips against Jules's for a long kiss. Jules, initially shocked, wrapped his arms around Malcolm, in turn. He craved the warmth and tenderness of Malcolm's body, and didn't want to let him go.
Neither one of them wanted to let the other go.
Feeling something he'd never felt for another person ever before, Jules placed his hands on Malcolm's obliques and slowly slid Malcolm's shirt off.
Malcolm did the same to Jules.* * *
"So explain this again, Dr. Mallory?" Professor Arturo was still trying to grasp the scientific concept that Michael and Elizabeth Mallory were describing for him and his friends.
"They're called 'body slidules.' It is an organic device implanted into a human being, giving him or her the ability to create wormholes to move oneself through space and time." Michael Mallory began speaking reflectively. "My father engineered the first prototype in 1965. The body slidule was originally intended as a way in which humans on our Earth might be able to physically elude any assaults from the Kromaggs."
Quinn squinted, shaking his head. "Dad, when you say 'organically-based' . . . what exactly did you make it from . . . ?"
"It's an organic compound made from iron, zinc, and magnesium. When inserted into the brain, it would dissolve and merge with blood vessels and brain tissue," Michael said. "Those metals are grown in the jungles of Africanus before being manipulated for material-building purposes. Unfortunately, because of where it's available geographically, the Kromaggs initially had exclusive access to most of it."
"The metallic variables in this organic compound pick up digital transmissions sent to the test subject," Elizabeth picked up the description. "This allows a person to channel his or her own neural signals outward, after the subject consumes a plethora of glucose. The excess energy generated will hopefully create a wormhole."
"Hopefully?" Maggie sounded suspicious.
"Not everyone can withstand the process. My father used himself as one of the earliest guinea pigs," Michael recalled. "He was able to generate wormholes from his body, but his physical capacities deteriorated every time he did so. That's why his lab assistants made sure he carried a portable sliding machine with him, just in case he couldn't get back on his own."
Quinn was thinking back to what Archibald LeBeau had told him, about the 1965 encounter with the elder Mallory.
"That's amazing!" Colin exclaimed.
"Yes, but it wasn't foolproof. This practice eventually took its toll on my father, and he died from brain hemorrhaging," Michael sighed. "Since then, we've been extremely cautious, and we made sure to develop it further before permitting anyone else to experiment on themselves again."
Arturo was mesmerized by this description. "Dr. Mallory, how in the name of God is someone able to create enough energy to transport himself interdimensionally?!"
"Yeah, it must take a ton of mental discipline to do that," Wade commented. "I should know."
"That's why Jules volunteered himself," Elizabeth said. "He told us how Kolitar had taught him the Kromagg healing technique, and then he showed us."
"That boy displayed tremendous mental capabilities," remarked Michael. "Such an ability is exactly what you need to withstand excessive quantum leaps. Also, so far, the slidule has only been successfully implanted in people whose quantum signatures originate from our homeworld. Jules was the perfect candidate."
"So what went wrong?" Rembrandt inquired. "Was he too young?"
"No, no, no," Michael assured them. "In fact, younger volunteers are preferable. The older someone becomes, the harder it is for them to adjust to the implantation. Spontaneously jumping from one dimension to another takes its toll on one's bone structure and metabolic rate." He sighed again, still regretful. "I was only 22 at the time, and I volunteered to be implanted myself. But my father wouldn't hear of it. He felt that the template was too unstable, and he didn't want to risk losing his only remaining son - especially after my baby brother, Charlie, was killed in a Kromagg attack." A hint of a tear glinted at the edge of Michael's eye.
Quinn flinched, thinking of his Uncle Charlie, the family member whom he'd turned to for kinship in the years following his adopted father's death on Earth Prime. Uncle Charlie . . . dead on this world . . . at the hands of the Kromaggs.
Colin tentatively raised his hand. "Um, perhaps it didn't work on Jules because he was born offworld? In the Slidecage."
"Maybe, but probably not," Elizabeth said. "Both of Jules's biological parents were from this world, so Jules should have genetically inherited their quantum signatures. Aside from that, the materials used to construct the Slidecage would also have contained our homeworld signature. Jules was born within those walls, so the quantum imprint likely rubbed off on him. We know this because when we measured Jules's quantum signature, it matched ours perfectly."
"So why didn't the implant work?" Diana asked, with a hint of exasperation. "Was Jules unprepared for it, psychologically?"
"No. We believe that, since the original template was made with my father's nucleotides, that Jules's DNA rejected it. We've been unable to successfully modify that template, even after almost four decades of retesting. Through trial and error, we've seen that no matter who agrees to be implanted, regardless of his or her quantum signature, mental ability, or age, the body slidule ultimately fails . . . to varying degrees."
"For Jules, his unique DNA prevents transdimensional relocation," said Elizabeth. "But because the implant cannot be removed, residual amounts of the organic metals will presumably remain in his system for the rest of his life. Jules can't willingly move himself using the body slidule - but he is still prone to erratic moments of spontaneous teleportation, intradimensionally."
An empathic gaze spread across Wade's face. "Like me," she said, knowingly.
"Except that your ability seems to be purely mental, Wade," observed Michael Mallory. "But Jules, on the other hand, gained this ability largely due to outside chemical influences. Even with his strong mental threshold, it's going to be an uphill battle for him to learn to control it."
"I can't even control mine!" Wade exclaimed, shaking her head in sorrow for Jules.
"This entire ordeal has been - is an extremely scary experience for him," Elizabeth said, obviously exhibiting some desire of motherly concern for Jules's well-being. "He was embarrassed when all of you witnessed his self-teleportation."
"So what can we do for him?" Mallory asked, sensitively.
"He needs some time to himself," Elizabeth said, remembering how Malcolm was with Jules. "He'll hopefully feel better in the morning." She looked around at all of the sliders. "The best thing we can do for Jules is let him know that we don't think any less of him because of this. He's struggled with self-consciousness and . . . guilt," Elizabeth dared a quick side-glance at Quinn and Colin, before continuing, abruptly, "throughout his entire life. All he wants is to be treated as though he's 'normal' . . . whatever that's supposed to mean . . ."
"Mom?" Quinn caught sight of a subtle quiver from his mother's lips. It was obvious that Elizabeth was trying to hold back tears.
Quinn reached for Elizabeth, to take her hand, but she squirmed away from Quinn before he could touch her.
"No!" she snapped, and then shuddered. Elizabeth closed her eyes. "Excuse me . . ." She took off running into another room.
"Mom?!" Quinn, confused and concerned, made a motion to go after his newfound mother. But Colin held him back.
"Dad, you'd better go see what is wrong," Colin suggested to Michael Mallory.
Michael already wore a distraught expression. "I think I know," he replied, ominously, following his wife into the next room.* * *
Quinn and Colin looked at one another. Whatever their mother was upset about, it was obviously serious.
"Quinn, go after her!" Wade hissed, in an almost reprimanding tone. "She's your mother, and she needs you!"
When Quinn hesitated, Maggie gave him a physical nudge forward. "Come on! You're their family. You guys have to show your parents that you care!" she emphasized. With that, Maggie practically forklifted Quinn and Colin into the bedroom after the Mallory parents.
Elizabeth was sprawled out on her and Michael's bed, sobbing uncontrollably into her husband's lap. As Maggie aggressively guided Colin and Quinn further into their parents' bedroom, the brothers perched themselves right next to Michael and Elizabeth.
Colin reached out to touch Elizabeth. "Mom?" he asked her, tentatively. "Did . . . did we do something wrong?"
Elizabeth slowly sat up to face Colin, her swollen, red eyes looking back at him. "Oh, no! Absolutely not, sweetheart!" She gagged, and then sputtered, "There's something I need to tell you boys."
"Elizabeth, are you sure . . . ?" A piercing gaze of shame from his wife cut off Michael's gentle voice.
"It's time we told them, Michael," she said, quietly. "It's time they knew the truth." She quickly glanced at Quinn, and then added, "Before they discover it on their own. They should hear it from us." Elizabeth Mallory sniffed, and gave Colin's knee a little squeeze.
Michael sighed. "Should I explain it to them?" he asked his wife.
"Explain what?!" Quinn demanded, in exasperation. Although he felt for his parents, Quinn was starting to become scared. And that fear was really getting to him.
"Quinn, Colin . . ." As tears returned to Elizabeth's eyes, her voice became meek and guilt-ridden. "Your . . . real mother died - almost 29 years ago."
"WHAT?!" blurted out Maggie. She nearly knocked over a lamp on the Mallorys' nightstand.
Speaking slowly, Quinn stared, expressionless, at Elizabeth. "You didn't give birth to us, did you?" He had been mentally putting the pieces together over the last several seconds.
Elizabeth Mallory shook her head. "No," she eked out, in an anemic whisper. Tears continued to stream down her cheeks, although her audible sobs had subsided.
"Quinn, your mother, Amanda, died shortly after giving birth to you," Michael stoically revealed. "She had a pelvic cyst that ruptured, and the doctors couldn't save her. It had been hidden behind the fetus, and had gone undetected on the doctor's ultrasound until right after delivery." He turned to his other son. "Colin, you were only ten months old at the time."
Colin shook his head. "My earliest memories are from my home in Westchester, before my parents died. Before I was brought to El Segundo."
Michael closed his eyes, forcing the words out of his mouth as he relived he memories. "I was so afraid to raise you boys alone. You were just a newborn, Quinn. So, four months later, Elizabeth and I married. We had worked in the same lab together, and although I never stopped loving Amanda, Elizabeth was the one bright spot for me in many tedious days." He gazed lovingly at Quinn and Colin's stepmother. "Without Elizabeth, I never would have gotten through my grief over Amanda's death. I had been about ready to kill myself."
Elizabeth looked back at Michael with an equal amount of love in her eyes. "I couldn't let your father destroy himself, just throw away his life like that and leave the two of you orphaned. Amanda, though I didn't know her very well, was a good person. She wouldn't have wanted your father to remain so lonely and unhappy."
"No, she wouldn't have," Quinn softly agreed, having known Amanda Mallory better than practically anyone there in the room.
"And next to your birth mother, Elizabeth was always someone I could turn to for strength and goodness . . . for happiness." Michael's lovestruck eyes shifted from his wife back to his sons.
Gulping, Quinn asked, "Dad, you didn't - I mean, when our birth mother was still alive . . . ?"
"Absolutely not," Michael stated, with unquestionable honesty. "I could never have done that to Amanda. I never would have been unfaithful to your mother."
"Your father and I were never together until after your birth mother passed away," Elizabeth reassured her stepsons, placing her hand on top of Michael's. She gazed at Quinn and Colin, harboring deep angst in her nurturing eyes. "But I've always loved you boys as though you were my own. As though I had given birth to you myself."
"But you didn't," Quinn told her, quietly.
"No, I didn't," admitted Elizabeth. "But that didn't stop me from loving you both unconditionally. I suppose . . ." She paused and then ventured on, warily, "I suppose you both despise me now. I wouldn't blame you if you did."
"Of course we don't," Colin insisted. He was still blinking, trying to come to terms with what he and Quinn were being told. "My foster parents in El Segundo . . . they may not have looked like my real parents, and they certainly were strict, but their love for me was always apparent. And in my heart, I knew that's what truly mattered."
Elizabeth smiled back at Colin, feeling a bit of welcome relief.
Quinn's eyes, however, were trained on the floor. "So . . . our birth mother . . . she died right after giving birth to me?"
Michael nodded, sadly. "In a matter of hours."
"So she died because of me?" Quinn's head snapped up, as he forced himself to visually confront his father and stepmother. "I killed my mother?!"
"Quinn, no!!" Maggie tried to assure him, rushing to his side. "You didn't do anything."
"Oh, honey, please don't think that!" Elizabeth pleaded, overcome with emotion. Her heart yearned for her stepson. "Quinn, it wasn't your fault at all!"
"Quinn, you were only a baby at the time. And your mother's cyst was at least a year old. It had been in her body well before you were even conceived," insisted Michael.
Quinn got to his feet, cringing in shame. "But they couldn't detect it because of me! If I hadn't been growing inside of her . . ."
He couldn't bear to think about it anymore. Quinn took off running.
"Quinn, please . . . !" Elizabeth Malloy burst into tears.
"Come back, brother!" Colin called out to Quinn, advancing toward the door after him.
Maggie had already jumped out of the bedroom, right behind Quinn. "Listen to me, Quinn!" She had followed him into the parlor, where everyone else was watching in confusion. "You can't blame yourself for this! It's nothing you could have prevented!" Maggie spoke to him in an emotional, strained voice, about ready to cry, herself.
"I can't do this anymore!" Quinn shook his head wildly. "I just can't!"
In a flurry, Quinn fled out onto the foyer, disappearing through the Mallorys' front doorway.
Maggie ran after him halfway, but stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes were watering up.
She just didn't know what to do.* * *
"Would someone please tell us what the devil is going on?!" Rembrandt sputtered, at a total loss as to why Quinn had just bolted from the penthouse.
Maggie was now blubbering heavily onto Colin's shoulder.
Michael trudged out from his and Elizabeth's bedroom - Elizabeth noticeably absent from his side. "I can explain . . ." he told them, his voice shaking.
Rembrandt, Arturo, Wade, Mallory, Diana, Janine, Hannah, Silas, Emily, and Thomas listened as Michael Mallory recounted the tragic ordeal of the death of his wife, Amanda. He told the ten of them how he had immediately married Elizabeth, who raised Quinn and Colin as though they were her own flesh and blood.
"Unfortunately," Michael was telling the group, "the war was getting worse. We really needed to step up development of the Voraton KR-17, and quite frankly, it was unsafe for the boys to remain on our world. So, less than a year after we got married, Elizabeth and I made the painful decision to give Quinn and Colin up for adoption. We didn't feel there was anyplace in this dimension secure enough for them to reside . . . thus, Elizabeth and I scouted out habitable parallel worlds until we could track down two married, childless sets of Amanda and myself. Our duplicates agreed to take care of Quinn and Colin until we could defeat the Kromaggs and return for our sons. But if either of us died . . ." Michael shut his eyes, guiltily. "We just wanted them to be able to grow up happily and safely."
"Whoa!" Wade uttered, totally taken aback.
"Well, that definitely explains why Elizabeth appeared in the microdot, rather than Amanda," said Rembrandt, not really knowing what else to say.
"Well, gee, we're just full of surprises today, aren't we?" Janine smirked, looking in Michael's direction.
Diana elbowed Janine in a reprimanding manner.
"Quinn's foster parents told us that he had been killed in a car accident. They even showed us his death certificate," Michael recalled, "although it is now obvious that they had that document falsified. When we slid to Colin's adopted dimension, we learned of a terrible influenza that had swept through their community. The Michael and Amanda Mallory of that world had died five months earlier, and no one seemed to know the whereabouts of the family that had taken Colin in. The local pastor in Westchester mentioned that the family was very distant from the rest of the village, and tended to keep to themselves." Michael put his arm on Colin's shoulder, for support. "With this knowledge, Elizabeth and I lost all hope of ever reuniting with our sons. After we had Hannah, Elizabeth and I tried to come to terms with the loss of the boys and accept it. But then, when word came of their arrival in the Slidecage . . ." He frowned, reflecting on the past several years. "Obviously, we hoped you'd find your way here . . . but we knew that your trek was dangerous, that Kromaggs on other worlds would pursue you, and that overall, the odds were against you."
"We tend to beat the odds when playing interdimensional roulette," Mallory boastfully said, with his eyebrows raised. "Although I have been known to lose my shirt on occasion." With that, he humbly tightened his lips.
"Well, honestly, for awhile there we weren't even sure we wanted you boys to see what had become of your homeworld," Michael sadly admitted. Guilt was strewn all over his face as he looked at his oldest son. "Colin, you and your brother were too young to remember this, but you both were born amid one of the bleakest points in our world's history. Kromagg guerillas were attacking us seemingly out of nowhere. We took down a lot of their manta ships, but not nearly enough. By the 1950s, most humans had been completely driven out of Eurasia and Africanus. Western Europe was in turmoil - Kromaggs and humans literally fought each other on the streets, hand-to-claw. When your mother . . . when Amanda was pregnant with Quinn, we realized how awful things would be for you, growing up here - unless we were successful in defeating the Dynasty. 1973 was a particularly bad year, since at least a dozen American cities were hit very badly. It was absolutely devastating." He looked winded just talking about it.
"Colin, when your birth mother died . . ." Elizabeth, who had just entered the parlor, stopped herself from choking out her words as she addressed the remaining Mallory brother. "It was just too much for your father to bear. He couldn't fathom having to live with himself if the Kromaggs somehow got their hands on either of you. So that's why we put you and Quinn up for adoption. Our government needed us to create a bioweapon. We didn't feel we could keep you safe with our attention devoted to that endeavor."
Colin dropped his eyes, glumly. "I realize that you gave us up out of love, and that you did what was best for us. But please understand . . . Quinn blames himself entirely, for enabling the Kromaggs to conquer additional worlds as they track us."
Elizabeth shook her head, wildly. "Oh, no, no, no! It's not his fault at all!" Her eyes widened with sympathy. "Oh, poor Quinn! These past four years must have turned him into an emotional wreck!"
"Yeah, Q-Ball blames himself for everything," Remmy sighed. "For the invasion of Earth Prime, for what happened to Wade, for Mallory and Diana's world being conquered, for Janine being dragged into this . . ."
"We really should talk to Quinn about that," Thomas spoke up. He adjusted his eyeglasses. "Um, you see, it's kind of our fault for driving the Kromaggs out into the multiverse in the first place. That world on which you first encountered the Dynasty," Thomas was, of course, referring to Earth 113, "well, that was probably one among the first couple-hundred or so Earths they colonized after we drove them from this planet with the Voraton. The Kromaggs had high-tailed it out of this dimension en masse in their manta ships, so they had plenty of artillery and armory to conquer at least a good half-dozen worlds before they had to hoard more resources from other Earths. In fact, one of those worlds sought us out for help, before we erected the Slidecage."
"How?" asked Arturo, curiously.
"They must have broken though enemy lines and hijacked a Kromagg vortex," recalled Thomas, "because they sent some human emissaries to ask us for military assistance. A large portion of their soldiers had apparently been wiped out during the first couple days of invasion. We didn't feel comfortable giving them a Voraton device of their own, since we were beginning to have doubts about the one we'd released on our own soil. So our military dispatched troops to their Earth, which was still under Kromagg attack. At the pleading of King Ezekiel and Queen Annabelle, their dimension's North American rulers, we shared our missile technology with them. After all, we felt quite guilty, having inadvertently unleashed the Kromagg menace onto their turf in the process of liberating our own." Thomas took a deep breath, and then continued with his historical account. "That's the dimension where Mangana, the South American region I'd been deployed to, eventually came under attack in 1986." He heaved a sigh of distress. "To think, I could have avoided all that carnage if I'd just stayed out of the Junior Corps."
Maggie gave Thomas a confused stare. "What's the Junior Corps?"
"An attempt to shore up our military. They started it in the middle of the century," Thomas explained, "as a way for students to pay off their college debt. And I had plenty of that." He sighed, shaking away the memories.
"Vern enlisted when he was 15," Silas contributed, thinking of his brother. "But he did it because he'd always wanted to serve his country. Unfortunately, our government used financial bribery to tantalize enlistees who really didn't want to be there. We needed the manpower, so they were desperate to lure young men into armed service."
Thomas grumbled, bitterly, "Biggest blunder of my life. I'd thought it would be an easy way to keep the bill collectors off my back. Heh . . . I thought maybe I could get a simple grunt assignment. Perhaps I would be able to remain stateside on armory duty? But nooooo . . . lucky me got shipped offworld to Mangana - home of exotic mosquitoes and fire-breathing ants."
Emily put her elbow on his shoulder, softly touching her brother to clam him down. "I was only three years old when Thomas left for basic training. I felt so proud of my brother . . . sliding off to war to teach those apes a lesson!"
"I got to come home for holidays . . . although with our family all together, the only thing we could really look forward to was the tasty Thanksgiving pheasant." Thomas wryly bit his lip, exchanging smirks with Emily.
Biting her lip, Emily good-naturedly explained to the sliders, "Our extended family is a bit . . . wacky. Messed up, actually. And that's on a good day."
Janine wore a confused grin. "Fire-breathing ants?!" she spat out in disbelief, still hung up on the reference Thomas had made a moment earlier.
"Just an expression," Emily clarified, with a smile. "Right, Thomas?"
"Er, try telling that to he poor saps in uniform who accidentally parked their fannies atop Manganese anthills." Thomas refocused his attention on Maggie. "Anyway, the Junior Corps gave me a plumb assignment, even though it was the last place I wanted to go. But it's not like I had much of a choice. Once you committed yourself, they locked you in and assigned you wherever they needed to fill space. I never would have even joined the Junior Corps if our family hadn't been too poor help me pay my student loans."
Maggie still looked puzzled. "I don't understand why you would send more of your troops to their world. I thought you said your war criminals were exiled there? Why not just let the manta ships blow them to smithereens?"
"Maggie," Michael Mallory patiently explained, "they may have been cretinous pieces of human garbage, but they were still human. And they weren't the only ones in danger. All the good people of that world were now at the mercy of Kromagg invaders. Because of us. We unwittingly released the Kromaggs onto their world, so we felt a moral responsibility to help them defeat the Dynasty."
"Our main rationale for sending war criminals offworld was to protect our own civilian population," said Thomas. "Mangana was sparsely populated, so it was the perfect place. The people of that world allowed us to send our exilees there, in exchange for our military protection. They didn't want our bad guys escaping Mangana and inflicting terror on their world's civilians."
"So we bartered," stated Michael, "making a deal with the Royal Family. That Earth was way ahead of us in developing non-violent scientific innovations. We provided them with our military manpower and some of our combat artillery, and in turn, they shared with us some of their scientific breakthroughs."
"Once the Kromaggs invaded that Earth, our alliance became even more crucial to their survival," Elizabeth said. "They even had to resort to unleashing an advanced weapon on many of their cities that were occupied by the Kromaggs. Their weapons were so horrific, they refused to share that particular technology with us. This weapon was apparently developed using an advanced form of fission, one that our scientists had never dreamed could be possible. It was an explosive device made from atomic components, fueled by nuclear chain reactions resulting from the bombardment of neutrons."
Arturo looked at Remmy, and then at Maggie.
"An A-bomb!" Maggie realized, a glimpse of terror relived in her face.
"The atom bomb," Professor Arturo explained, "was invented on most of our homeworlds as a way to defeat enemies in our Second World War."
"Boy, I'll bet the 'Maggs were thrown for a loop." Rembrandt whistled. "Their butt-ugly bodies torn apart by radiation."
"They lost a lot of humans, too," Elizabeth glumly reminded them. "New York, Boston, Philadelphia . . . these cities were all destroyed. Luckily for the monarchy, their palace in San Francisco was spared."
"You can't imagine how scary it felt," Emily somberly narrated, "knowing that my big brother was stuck on an Earth where this terrible monstrosity of a weapon cooked people alive when dropped on cities." Emily blinked back tears. "I was only ten, the last time Thomas got deployed. I knew he was in the jungles and hoped maybe he would be safer there than in a larger target . . ." She sniffed, loudly. "But he never came home."
"Thomas was declared Missing-in-Action in July of 1986," Michael Mallory remembered, looking at his friend. "Since the Slidecage had been built by that point, we sent a roving probe on a one-way trip to Mangana, so we could confirm the fates of our soldiers. We couldn't send any humans through to bring surviving soldiers back with them . . . it was just too risky to take the chance that any surviving Kromaggs might torture one of our human operatives into giving up the decryption string, which they would have needed in order to return here." He bowed his head in shame. "There were literally no survivors in Mangana, and Thomas's body wasn't among the rubble."
"That's because I had gone plantains," Thomas said, using some more Kromagg Prime slang. "I cracked. I was so traumatized, I just wandered off. Eventually, I came back and scrounged up an old sliding device from the wreckage. I entered our homeworld coordinates, but . . ." Emily put her arm around Thomas, as he rehashed the experience in his memory. ". . . I was diverted to the Slidecage instead. Plenty of tunnels, but no friends."
"Yeah, having to confront the Slidecage was a major deterrent for anyone contemplating a journey offworld after '81," Silas gave his perspective. "When I began sliding for the ECU, I knew I probably wouldn't be able to come directly home. If I found anything that looked promising, I was supposed to report to the royal court of Ezekiel and Annabelle, so they could contact my Earth. Mike just couldn't risk giving me the decryption string, in the event that the apes caught me and they tried to enter my mind. That turned out to be a moot point, once Yashar got his hands on me."
Dana took a reserved sip from her glass of iced tea. "Silas, I still don't quite understand why you continued to age for two decades? Most of the humans in Yashar's stasis web seemed to have ceased all bodily functions . . . including aging."
"There must have been some sort of containment field around those of us who'd been placed vertically on their platform," shrugged Silas, taking an educated guess. "That would explain why our hygiene didn't seem to be an issue when we awoke. I guess they used those of us who appeared to have the highest intelligence as a 'nerve center' within the stasis room. We got the 'special treatment' . . . being suspended upright in physical limbo rather than sleeping horizontally on the ground. They gave us the 'privilege' of being frozen vertically."
"Well, someone has a pretty high opinion of himself," joked Mallory, ribbing Silas with his elbow. Then Mallory remembered that he, Colin, and Quinn had been inside of that vertical containment field along with Silas. "Hey, you hear that, Colin? You, me, and your brother were VIPs."
Colin gave Mallory a puzzled look, and then shook away his sense of inquisitiveness. "We must be here for Quinn," said Colin, refocusing his energy on his brother. "He needs to know we support him."
"I'll drink to that." Raising his wine-filled glass, Rembrandt got to his feet. "Let's go find him."* * *
Quinn hadn't gotten much farther than the penthouse lobby before collapsing on a cushy, circular settee.
Who was he kidding? Where was he going to go? Besides, Mallory Tower was heavily guarded. It was unlikely that the security personnel would let Quinn take off on his own.
So the 28-year-old physics genius simply buried his head in his folded arms. This was NOT the homecoming that he had dreamt of for so long.
Minutes later, he felt an arm touch his shoulder. Wearily, Quinn looked up and saw Rembrandt.
"Q-Ball, I know what you're going through . . ."
"Really, Rembrandt?" Quinn sharply cut his best friend off. "You were given up for adoption as a kid by a mother who really wasn't your mother? No, Rembrandt, I don't think you have a clue what I'm going through!"
Maggie stepped forward, but Remmy motioned for her to pause for a moment. "Quinn, I may not be in your shoes right now. But I don't even know if my family is still alive. Neither do millions of other people on Earth Prime."
"Oh, I forgot - another travesty I'm responsible for," Quinn uttered, sarcastically. "Yeah, thanks for reminding me, Rem."
Maggie marched over to Quinn, and plunked down beside him. "Quinn . . ." She softly put her hand on his knee.
Quinn briskly slapped Maggie's hand away.
"Dammit, Quinn! Don't push me away!" Maggie cried, grabbing both of his wrists. "Whether you like it or not, we need you! Your father, your stepmother, Hannah, Colin . . . me."
Forcing himself to make eye contact with Maggie, Quinn squeezed his eyes shut, trying to suppress his tears. "What am I even doing here? This world was going on just fine without us. All I did by coming here was cause them . . . was cause my parents more pain."
Colin sat down on the other side of his brother. "Dad and Elizabeth . . . Mom - they both deserve the chance to get to know us. Hannah too." Colin implored Quinn with his childlike expression. "Don't you want to know them, too?"
"Of course," whispered Quinn, as Maggie draped both of her arms around his chest. "But what about the commitment I owe all of you? I can't just abandon you guys."
Wade kneeled down by Quinn's feet. "What's important is that you get to know your parents. The rest of us will be fine." She gave him an encouraging smile. "Just for a little while. We can always backtrack to this world after we make the next slide. But your family is just as important as the rest of ours."
Something else occurred to Quinn. "You're right," he told his friends, quietly. "But there's something I need to do first."
He got up, and began to lead Rembrandt, Colin, Maggie, and Wade back to the Mallory penthouse.* * *
As Quinn reentered the parlor, a wave of relief spread over Michael and Elizabeth Mallory's faces.
"Quinn . . . !" spoke Elizabeth.
"I want to apologize for how I behaved, earlier," Quinn proceeded to say. "I guess the initial shock was just too much for me to handle."
"No, please don't apologize, Quinn," Elizabeth tentatively made her way toward her stepson. "You have nothing to be sorry for."
"We should have handled it better," lamented Michael, following behind his wife. "And we're sorry that things happened the way that they did for you boys."
Quinn motioned for them to stop approaching him.
Michael and Elizabeth obediently halted in their tracks.
"What I need to know from you is . . ." Whipping around, Quinn asked his brother, "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Colin gently put his arm on Quinn's shoulder. "I think it's the only way you'll have a peace of mind, brother."
Quinn turned back to his parents, both of whom were looking at him with eager anticipation. "You both know about my . . . abilities?" They nodded. "Well . . . I would like to use you to go back in time. I need to relive what happened."
The older Mallorys both appeared slightly confused.
But the Professor had caught on to Quinn and Colin's thought processes. "Dr. and Mrs. Mallory," he addressed Michael and Elizabeth, "Quinn would like to channel a temporal flashback from your touch. He wants to peer backward to the time when his birth mother was alive on your world."
Michael and Elizabeth exchanged glances.
"What can we do?" Elizabeth asked, helpfully.
"We have determined that Quinn seems to receive visions when he touches an object or person connected to what he views," Colin explained to them. "When he touches people, we believe Quinn's vision relates to what the person is currently thinking about. So we need you to think back three decades. Recall our births, and your offworld journeys to find suitable alternate families whom you left us with."
"I need to see," Quinn said, flatly.
Michael gave his son a serious gaze, and he and Elizabeth walked over to Quinn. "Are you sure about this, son?"
Nodding, Quinn insisted, "No question in my mind." Still, his hands were shaking as he reached for Michael.
"Quinn, you have it in you. I know you do," Colin encouraged his brother. "Just stay with your vision. We've practiced this together, remember? Just concentrate, and the more you embrace the vision, the more in touch with its details you will be."
As Quinn slowly gripped his father's hands, a potent surge emanated from both of their bodies, electrifying the two Mallory men. Although he still stood upright, Quinn felt himself falling backward through time, as though he was standing with his back to a cliff while plummeting over the edge.
Quinn found himself in a hospital room, surrounded by doctors and nurses in scrubs. His mother, Amanda Mallory, laid in a hospital bed with tears of simultaneous joy and pain streaming down her face. A nurse removed a small, naked baby from underneath Amanda's sheets - baby Quinn Mallory.
An eerie, sterile smell penetrated Quinn's nostrils. It was as though he was actually in that room witnessing his own delivery - with all the central players oblivious to his spiritual presence there, of course. He could even feel the heat of the other bodies around him. Quinn watched as his father - twenty-eight years younger - cradled Quinn's newborn self in his proud arms. Amanda Mallory mustered a smile, as she looked on.
"Amanda's vitals are strong," came the voice of a nurse. "Wait . . . what's this . . . ?"
"What's what?!" Amanda shouted. Quinn could practically feel his mother's heart beginning to pound.
The real-time ultrasound, which was plugged in and still monitored Amanda's now-empty womb, showed strange hump on her epidermal wall.
"Some sort of anomaly is on your wife's uterus," the doctor calmly told Michael, though his voice was tainted with obvious anxiety.
"What is it?! What does that mean?!" screamed Michael, beginning to sweat as his face turned red with panic.
"Michael . . . ?" Quinn could hear his mother weakly moan. The heart rate monitor that Amanda was hooked up to showed her heartbeat rapidly accelerating.
Michael's memory suddenly shifted forward in time. Amanda's monitor had just flat-lined.
"I'm sorry," the doctor solemnly gave Michael his condolences.
Michael just kneeled at Amanda's beside, holding his dead wife tenderly in his arms. "Why?! Oh, WHY did this have to happen?! I promise you, Amanda," he continued to whisper to her, "I will do everything I can - and more - to protect our sons." He buried his face into Amanda's cold flesh.
And the chills tingled throughout Quinn.
Quinn returned to reality, breaking his manual connection with Michael.
Michael Mallory sighed. "1973 was a bad year," he whispered, regretfully.
"So it happened . . . just like that?" Quinn's stoic voice was devoid of any signs of life.
"Your mother had a stress condition, too," Quinn's father told his sons. "She could only handle so much at once. The cyst was already too pervasive to be removed safely, but Amanda's vulnerable respiratory system didn't make things any better."
"I have to see more," Quinn stated, quickly. He grabbed Elizabeth's hand, this time, along with his father's.
Quinn saw Michael and Elizabeth, both clad in silver bodysuits, step in front of a video camera in a room illuminated by white lights on the walls. As they began to speak, the words of his father and stepmother were audible to the clairvoyant slider.
"Hello, our precious son," Elizabeth spoke, while staring at the camera lens as the recorder picked up her dialogue. "How we wish we could be with you to help you understand all that we are about to tell you."
Quinn could see he was obviously witnessing the recording of the message that the Mallory parents' had left for him and Colin in each of their microdots.
"We hope that you find it in your heart to understand and to forgive us," Michael solemnly uttered. "There is a great civil war raging in our world, and if our side should lose that war, it will mean the end of life for us as we know it. Our enemies are a separate race of higher primate called the Kromaggs. We've lived in peace with them for centuries, but now a bloody conflict has broken out."
"The Kromaggs now control more than half of our planet. The lands they've conquered have been decimated. Peoples enslaved or killed. Your father and I are working with other government scientists developing a weapon that will drive the Kromaggs from our world," explained Elizabeth, emphasizing the word "will" in the future tense, "but we fear they may overrun us before the weapon can be finished."
"Our race against the clock may already be lost, but we cannot bear the idea of losing you or your brother to the Kromaggs," Michael insisted, "and that's why we've made the painful decision to place you with our duplicates on parallel worlds as foster parents to ensure your safety."
"If we triumph, the Kromaggs will be destroyed or driven away," Elizabeth confidently stated, emphasizing the word "will" again. "But if you're viewing this, you must assume the worst, for we have promised your foster parents to return for you should our side claim victory. They, in turn, have promised us to tell you the truth about yourself when you come of age and are able to accept it."
"Please know that giving up our children, even in order to save them, is the most difficult thing we've ever had to do," confessed Michael, with great sincerity and sadness. "Our hearts will break for you every day."
"We love you, son," concluded Elizabeth. She took a deep breath. "The numerical sequence you are about to receive contain the coordinates to your brother's parallel Earth. We pray that you find him, Quinn. God bless and keep you both."
The distorted garble of mechanical beeping that followed had the effect of snapping Quinn back to the present. He looked intently at Michael and Elizabeth.
"Show me when you met our parents - our foster parents," demanded Quinn. "When you left us with them."
Almost immediately, Quinn was thrust back to the past once more. He stood in a dim, cramped shanty alongside his father and stepmother. Two doubles of Michael and Amanda Mallory - both dressed in simple Amish clothing - stood across from them. Alternate Amanda was holding a small, one-year-old toddler with sandy brown hair in her arms.
"Please, take good care of our Colin," Elizabeth softly implored them.
"We shall," the Amish Amanda Mallory assured them. The one-year-old Colin was looking curiously at his soon-to-be mother with wide eyes.
"If we don't come back for him by his eighteenth birthday," said Michael, "it is absolutely vital that you give him this." Michael unfolded his hand, revealing a small blue microdot. "Colin must learn where he came from, especially if it's become obvious that we've lost our battle against the Kromaggs and will not be returning for him."
"You must not lose it," Elizabeth emphasized, referring to the microdot. "It's our only link to Colin and Quinn."
Michael dropped the microdot from his fingers into Alternate Amanda's palm. "Please, place it somewhere close to Colin for safekeeping."
Alternate Amanda removed a broach pin from where it was pinned to her frock, over her heart. She snapped open the locket-like trinket, unfolding a hidden compartment that was the perfect cranny for hiding the Mallorys' microdot. "My husband crafted this with his own two hands. He is very talented." She smiled fondly at her Michael.
Blushing slightly at his wife's swooning, Alternate Michael nodded at his double. "We shall make certain that Colin receives it when he comes of age," he reassured his doppelganger.
Twenty-five-month-old Colin, not appearing to be cognizant of his biological parents' impending departure, stared blankly at his new Amish adoptive guardians.
With a watery shimmer, the images viewed by Quinn shifted forward six weeks into the future. A maroon vortex opened, plunking out Michael, Elizabeth, and another small baby swaddled in Elizabeth's protective arms.
The baby was him.
Quinn saw the three of them strolling through Golden Gate Park, with the magnificent red bridge spanning over San Francisco Bay in the background.
Another flash was followed by a quick glimpse of Michael in a phone booth, running his fingers down a white page listing.
A third temporal discontinuity led Quinn to a sidewalk. As he followed his father, his stepmom, and his own bundled sixteen-month-old self up some steps, Quinn recognized the building they were approaching. It was the apartment complex where he'd lived with during the first years of his life within memory. Quinn recalled the moderate-sized apartment building with its Swiss architecture and anally-pruned green lawn, the cornerstone of Quinn's youth from the days before his parents had bought what would become their permanent San Francisco home.
This time, Elizabeth was sobbing uncontrollably as she handed baby Quinn over to Amanda. "Please don't let anything happen to him," she blubbered, reluctantly letting go of her toddler.
"We'll take good care of him," replied the Amanda Mallory of Earth Prime. She gazed down at her new foster son with loving eyes. "I'm . . . not able to have children. You have my word that we'll keep Quinn out of harm's way."
The Michael Mallory of Earth Prime looked down with fatherly pride at sixteen-month-old Quinn, who was gurgling obliviously. "I've always wanted a son," he whispered.
Reaching out to lightly touch his double on the arm, the Michael Mallory of Kromagg Prime requested, his voice cracking, "If we don't make it back . . . tell him how much we loved him!"
Michael and Elizabeth turned to one another for comfort, weeping in each other's arms. After a few moments, they parted, and Michael reached into the rear pocket of his silver, sanitary bodysuit. As he unfolded his hand, a clump of gauze could be seen in his palm.
"If we don't return," Michael instructed them, unwrapping the gauze strip to reveal a tiny blue microdot, "please give this to Quinn when he comes of age. Have him press it to his forehead . . . he'll understand where he came from."
Still holding onto his father and stepmother, Quinn began to feel woozy. He could literally feel the winds of multiple years whoosh past his ears, their passage whirling through his tympanum.
When Quinn's vision rematerialized, he viewed Michael and Elizabeth back on the doorstep of his Earth Prime parents, aged several years.
"We've come for Quinn," he heard Elizabeth say.
Amanda looked at her husband, nervously. "Quinn is spending the week with relatives in Nevada. His aunt and uncle," she quickly told them.
Michael put a comforting hand on Amanda's shoulder. "If you can come back next week, that will give us time to prepare him. To meet you." His chin quivered, and he gave a hearty nod to his double.
"Next Saturday, at noon?" confirmed the Michael Mallory of Kromagg Prime.
They made the arrangements.
Quinn's vision was now corrupted by tears, as he shifted to a scene with his biological parents inside a church cathedral. A plainly dressed pastor, with a hint of an archaic accent, was telling Michael and Elizabeth, "I am sorry, my good folks. But your counterparts . . . after they died from the influenza, little Colin was sent to live with another family. Amos and Veronica were their names, although for the life of me, I cannot recall their family name. They must live in some village nearby, but precisely where, I do not know. I am truly sorry."
Quinn's heart jumped a beat as he watched a tearful Elizabeth fall into Michael's arms. Once again, his perspective morphed ahead in time many hours.
"I'm sorry," came the stoic words from the mouth of the father, the Michael Mallory who'd raised him, "but Quinn . . . Quinn was in a car accident this weekend, as his aunt and uncle were bringing him back from Henderson."
Elizabeth fell to her knees. She made a half-choking, half-hiccupping sound.
Michael was already quickly losing it. "How . . . how is your wife doing?" he inquired, rather awkwardly. He was trying to hold back his tears, and be strong for Elizabeth's sake.
"Not well," answered the Michael Mallory of Earth Prime, with a hard look in his eyes.
"Can . . . can we see her?" choked out Elizabeth, through her watery eyes.
"No. She's in no condition for that." He removed a scroll from where it was fastened to his belt underneath his shirt, and unfolded it. "You don't believe me? Here's proof," he uttered, quite brusquely. "It's the coroner's report, along with Quinn's death certificate." Michael handed the documents to his alternate self from Kromagg Prime. "I'm sorry, but we're really not up to visitors right now. You'll have to leave." He began to close the door.
Elizabeth reached up and grabbed onto the doorknob, desperately.
"I'm sorry," repeated Michael of Earth Prime. He yanked the door shut, with a curt slam.
Michael and Elizabeth embraced, and continued to sob.
Quinn had finally seen enough. He let go of his father and stepmother, and returned to the present.
"Quinn . . . ?" Maggie clutched his arm. "Are you okay?"
"I saw it all," Quinn said, emotionless. His eyeballs appeared absolutely hypnotized.
Michael softly touched the shoulders of Hannah, from where she sat in her wheelchair. "We were completely devastated. But right after Elizabeth became pregnant with Hannah, the Maggistas attacked. They stormed the compound where we were being housed. Fortunately, all of the Maggista intruders were killed by security forces, but not before they took Elizabeth hostage." His lower lip quivered. "We almost lost Hannah."
"I was very lucky to come out of that attack safely," Elizabeth said. She looked down at Hannah. "We both were. But Michael and I were terrified, following that horrible experience. So we convinced Parliament to pass The LARKS Act."
"What the hell is this LARKS Act everyone keeps babbling about?!" Janine exclaimed, still a bit miffed that she didn't know what it meant.
"The Loathing and Resisting Kromagg Sympathizers Act," Michael solemnly spelled out the full name of the legislation. "It gives our government broad authority to conduct searches and seizures related to suspected Maggista vigilante activity. It also strips convicted Maggistas of all rights otherwise awarded to law-abiding citizens. Many leftists and civil libertarians disapproved of its passage, putting it mildly. In fact, Janine, your double is a member of the Berkeley city council, and she started a national movement to attempt to get The LARKS Act abolished. So far, it's failed."
"Gee, I wonder why," Janine rhetorically stated, eyeing Michael and Elizabeth critically.
"I've gotta agree with Janine on this one," Remmy spoke up, apologetically gazing at the Mallorys. "Look, I hate the Kromaggs as much as anyone - with every fiber of my being. And I make no apologies for any human who helps them to rape or kill. But isn't a law like that too easy for people to abuse?"
"Mr. Brown's question warrants due consideration," Professor Arturo agreed. "I can easily see common citizens exploiting this LARKS Act in order to falsely implicate their adversaries."
Elizabeth's shoulders sagged. "It's the price we pay for keeping ourselves safe," she told them, matter-of-factly. "The Maggistas have established so many widespread pockets of resistance that they left us with no other choice. Besides, our investigators are quite thorough. It's highly unlikely that anyone who's falsely accused will end up receiving a long-term punishment."
"Mom . . ." It just slipped out of Quinn's mouth, yet he couldn't correct himself, and had even proceeded to compassionately touch his stepmother's wrist. "I understand how scary it must have been for you, but . . ."
He didn't get to finish his sentence. The next beam of light to penetrate Quinn's eyesight was sharp, vivid, and laser-like. He watched, frightened, as a glowing red photokinetic ray zoomed straight through Elizabeth's abdomen, leaving behind a scorching black hole right before she collapsed.
Fearing the worst, Quinn fainted again.* * *
Eventually, Quinn Mallory awoke to find a pair of dark, Oriental eyes staring back at him. A kindly-faced Asian woman in a white lab coat was standing over Quinn.
"Welcome back," she said, with a slight grin.
"What happened?" Quinn groggily asked. He didn't even feel any pain or discomfort. He was just tired. "Who are you?"
"I'm Dr. Yang," she answered him. "I'm a friend of your parents. You're going to be just fine; all you need is some bed rest."
Quinn noticed his father, his stepmother, Maggie, and Colin standing at the foot of his bed. They all looked very relieved.
"Did you have another vision, brother?" Colin inquired.
"Yeah." Quinn recollected it. "It was of . . . Mom!" He pointed at Elizabeth, who looked momentarily delighted that he had instinctively referred to her as "Mom" again.
"Quinn, what did you see happen to your mother that scared you so badly?" Maggie wanted to know.
"Someone killed her. With some sort of . . . energy weapon." Quinn spoke in broken sentences. "I couldn't see who it was . . . but the beam of light seemed familiar . . . I could feel it. Almost . . . Kromagg."
Colin, Maggie, and the Mallorys looked at one another.
"But that's impossible," Dr. Yang reasoned. "The Kromaggs can't come back here . . ." However, she stopped short, before remembering . . ."
Colin remembered too. "The Slidecage is down. And the virus had been reversed before Quinn punctured his arm."
"So wouldn't Quinn have changed the future?" Maggie was trying to understand. "Why would he still receive that premonition?"
A looming quietness overtook the room.
Then Quinn slowly asked, "How long was I unconscious?"
"Over half a day," answered Elizabeth, whom Quinn suddenly realized was wearing different clothes from when he'd last seen her.
The same clothes she'd been wearing in his premonition.
"Guys, come in here! Now!" Diana's voice urgently called from the next room.
Colin and Maggie helped Quinn out of bed.
"I don't think . . ." Dr. Yang tried to stop them, but Maggie resisted.
"We may be out of time," Maggie insisted, in a stressed voice.
The three sliders joined Michael and Elizabeth Mallory, who had gathered with everyone else in front of the Mallorys' HDTV plasma screen.
Jules was squeezing Malcolm's hand for dear life, from where they sat on the floor of the parlor. "The president is about to speak," Jules informed everyone.
A black man in stately attire had taken the podium, in a press conference room. He began to address the unusually quiet audience of reporters.
"That's Davis Carruthers," Michael whispered to Quinn, Maggie, and Colin, identifying the handsome president.
"Americans . . . friends across the globe . . ." President Davis Carruthers began his speech, with a well-disciplined and composed demeanor. ". . . the day we have all hoped and prayed would never come has indeed arrived. The Kromaggs are back."
A split-screen cut the camera shot of President Carruthers in half, partially eclipsing him with video footage of Kromagg manta ships entering the earth's atmosphere through blobby red wormholes. "The radio broadcasts, news reports, and Internet feeds you've witnessed are regrettably true. More than 150 manta ships have invaded through entry points all across the planet," the president continued. "The good news, under these adverse circumstances, is that many of these manta ships seem to have inexplicably crashed. At this time, we have no explanation for their self-destruction, as the toxins from the Voraton device that was deployed 25 years ago were, to our knowledge, eradicated by the ECU." He cleared his throat, commencing with his address, somberly. "But this miracle has not come without a price. Prior to the malfunction of the invading mantas, countless metropolitan areas, and their civilian populations, took huge hits. The death tolls are estimated to be in the tens-of-thousands. Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, San Antonio, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston . . . our great nation's ten most populous cities have all come under attack in the last 15 minutes. The civilian casualties have been brisk yet massive. Make no mistake: our Kromagg enemies will suffer repercussions for their ruthless assault on our loyal American citizens and our allies."
"Oh lord!" gasped Elizabeth, as they all listened to the president's speech in horror.
"Several government facilities have been detonated," President Carruthers continued. "We are currently evacuating areas with the most severe urban casualties. Although no more known manta ships have entered our atmosphere, our satellites have still detected continuing vortex activity. The National Guard has been dispatched to these major cities, where it will intervene with any and all violence being directed at innocent civilians. All citizens are advised to obey the instructions of our military's soldiers, and remain in your homes. I assure you, we will get this situation under control."
"Yeah, right," muttered Maggie, turning to the Mallorys. "I realize that your president is trying to minimize panic, but he's going about this all wrong. He needs to tell people to lock and load, and take over."
"Maggie, we can't allow anarchy," protested Michael, meekly. "If we give people free reign to do whatever their fear motivated them to . . ."
"Dad, you haven't seen how the Kromaggs have evolved," Colin interrupted, calmly but firmly. "Ever since they left our world, they have been plotting their revenge."
"They've had 25 years to join forces with 'Maggots from all these other dimensions," Rembrandt explained, his face hardened. "Spreading their propaganda, teaching new generations of 'Maggs how to hate us . . ."
"And they raid artillery from every Earth they conquer," Diana told the Mallorys. "They've combined human weapons with their own innovations. Technologically, the Kromagg Dynasty had acquired a pretty hefty stockade by now."
Michael frowned, glancing around at all the sliders. "So what should we do?"
"Well, we can't just sit around here and do nothing," Emily asserted, rising from the sofa.
Thomas placed his hand on Emily's arm, holding her back. "Sis, we can't do anything reckless. Trust me, you don't want to see the kinds of things going on out there right now."
"I'm not suggesting we should," insisted Emily. She locked eyes with Maggie. "But what Maggie said makes sense. We have to arm ourselves in case they storm this building."
"Miss Beecham is right," Arturo agreed. He turned to Michael. "Dr. Mallory, you must have firearms stored somewhere?"
Michael Mallory reluctantly stepped over to a cabinet built into the wall. "I'm telling you, there's no way anyone is getting past security downstairs . . ." He spun the combination lock, and opened a cache filled with an array of high-tech weaponry. "There are photon-based energy weapons," he explained, as he and Elizabeth began distributing the ammunition amongst their guests. "They are not toys."
"Aw, and here I was hoping to play laser tag with the Professor," whined Janine, with mock sarcasm.
"I'm serious," reiterated Michael, quietly. "When triggered, they emit waves of targeted, short-range solar radiation that will vaporize their target within seconds."
"I can live with that," Rembrandt said, giving Michael a curt nod as he took the energy rifle. Remmy positioned his hands on the weapon, appropriately. "It's a little clunky, but if it gets the job done . . ."
Down in the lobby of Mallory Tower, General Thurman spotted a fleet of uniformed guardsmen approaching the glass entrance.
"Soldiers, incoming!" Thurman announced to his fellow military sentries. He advanced into the entranceway, in order to greet the reinforcements.
The hulky commanding officer with a reddish haircut saluted to Thurman, as the general opened the gate. "Sergeant Wilson Travis, US87429951, of Fort Irvine," he identified himself.
"Sergeant." Giving his visitor a brisk nod, General Thurman inquired, "What's the status on the Kromaggs? Early reports indicated that we sent 'em packing, I hear?"
Sergeant Wilson Travis smirked. "Ah, don't get your hopes up. They are actually much closer than you think."
Thurman watched as the sergeant's face slowly morphed, revealing pointy teeth and a bumpy indentation on his forehead. Before Thurman could react, he felt a sharp pain throbbing across his brow. He could literally feel his brain ache as a sinister ringing echoed in his ears.
"Sergeant Wilson Travis" probed General Thurman's mind, and upon retreat, his muscular fingers snapped the general's neck like a twig.
"The Mallorys are in Suite 1047!" the 'Magg commander shouted to his troops, who had, by this point, dropped their "purely" human facades. "Uppermost level!" He barked their targets' location amid an uproar of radioactive bullets and energy pulses.
Up in the Mallory penthouse, a red alarm began blaring as it blinked off and on. Michael and Elizabeth both jumped into action.
"We've been compromised!" yelled Michael, releasing the safety panel on his large, heavy weapon. He called to his sons, "Boys, get the ladies into the bedroom! Wade, Diana, Maggie . . . !"
"No can do, Michael!" Maggie called back to Michael, gruffly. She squatted down in the corner, shielding the Professor, who was also armed. "I've just drafted myself!"
Elizabeth protectively ushered Malcolm and Jules into a very back corner of the penthouse. "You two stay here." She hurried back over to Diana, and took the physicist's arm. "Diana, stay with Jules and Malcolm. As soon as I step away," Elizabeth pointed at a button built into the wall, "push that button."
Diana didn't even ask why. The moment Elizabeth had backed out of that corner, Diana slammed her fist against the button. A shimmering green force field immediately went up, sectioning off Diana, Malcolm, and Jules from the rest of the apartment.
Colin rushed out of Hannah's bedroom, which he had wheeled his half-sister into. "I told Hannah to stay in her room," he informed his father and stepmother.
Elizabeth grabbed two remaining handheld energy guns, and clasped one into Emily Beecham's grip. "Come on," she said, dragging Emily inside Hannah's bedroom. "Lock yourself and Hannah in the closet," Elizabeth instructed her. Looking Emily firmly in the eye, she commanded, "If they manage to get in, use it!"
Emily nodded, and urgently slid open Hannah's closet door.
"Mommy, I'm scared!" Hannah blubbered, through tears. Although she was a young adult, Hannah still sounded like a helpless child.
Elizabeth kneeled down in front of Hannah, giving her daughter the last weapon. "Ssssh, it's going to be all right, sweetie. I promise." Stroking Hannah's cheek, Elizabeth prodded the gun into her daughter's hands. "Take this, sweetie. Until you hear your father or me speak the code - just like we practiced."
Hannah nodded, and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek. Elizabeth fought back tears, shuffling out of her daughter's bedroom and locking the door behind her.
The glass doors to the Mallorys' foyer exploded, as a hand grenade flew through the broken partition and erupted in a smoky conflagration. An army of Humagg soldiers rushed the penthouse.
One ejection after another sounded off from the humans' weapons, as dozens of Humaggs were vaporized in rapid succession. But some of the Humagg soldiers had managed to duck past the line of fire, deeper into the penthouse.
A frizzy-haired Humagg female with an ebony complexion swerved her gun at an angle toward Arturo.
"Professor, duck!" Maggie compelled Professor Arturo to roll out of the way, while she fired back at the Humagg.
Their Humagg assailant threw her weapon aside, and inexplicably yanked what appeared to be a small, shiny rock out of her pocket. She grinned defiantly, looking smug, fearless.
Maggie was momentarily too startled and shocked to move. "What the hell is that?!" she spat out, before remembering to pull her trigger.
But it was too late. The Humagg had thrown the glittery stone at the floor beneath Maggie's and Arturo's feet, and it left her hand right before her body was hit by an energy wave and evaporated.
A spherical barrier rose from the stone, the moment the object hit the ground. The globular membrane seemed to confine Maggie and Arturo within a bubble, not allowing them to move outside of it.
"Maggie! Professor!" shouted Rembrandt, from across the room. He was hunched behind a sofa, and fired his weapon before ducking back down. Remmy had vaporized another Humagg, but not before half of the piece of furniture was blown to bits.
"Janine, cover me!" Silas shouted, as he made a run from his spot underneath a coffee table to relocate behind a larger, more secure vertical pillar.
Silas Larson suddenly shrieked, his face turning red. He had been knocked to the floor by a fierce gust of radiation from one of the Humagg intruder's firearms.
A gaping mess of blood and flesh remained, where Silas's arm had been blown off at the elbow.
Janine ejected a stream of energy-based ammunition from her rifle, causing the molecular disintegration of the Humagg responsible for dismembering Silas. The excess blast from Janine's gun shattered one of the hydropods, and its green-tinted water spilled out of the wall onto the carpet.
Dr. Yang, who was unarmed, made a run for cover behind a couch in the parlor, having scampered from the alcove she had crouched down in. But as she made the leap across a few feet of open space and empty carpeting, the doctor was hit with a reddish energy ray discharged from the gun of a spiky-haired male Humagg.
The spiky-haired Humagg quickly swerved around while digging into the pocket of his bodysuit, pulling out another of those rectangular crystalline rocks and throwing it straight at Colin and Thomas. Both Colin Mallory and Thomas Beecham had jumped up from behind an endtable in the corner of the room to take aim at the Humagg. But both men were encased within the shiny, bubble-like barrier before either could fire his weapon.
Rembrandt saw the spiky-haired Humagg aiming his energy weapon straight at Elizabeth, from about twenty feet behind her. Elizabeth, however, was oblivious. As a red laser was ejected from the Humagg's gun, realization suddenly clicked into place for Rembrandt.
He remembered the earlier premonition Quinn had spoken about, involving Elizabeth. Quinn had claimed to have foreseen a laser-like beam of energy penetrating Elizabeth's abdomen from behind.
As he mentally connected the dots, Rembrandt instinctively jumped into action. He leaped at Elizabeth and tackled her to the ground, pushing her out of the way of the Humagg's line of fire - both of them narrowly dodged a ray of lethal energy by microseconds as it breezed above their necks.
With Remmy and Elizabeth now both unconscious on the floor, their roguish Humagg target darted out of the main parlor and into one of the hallways, so he could escape the main theater of fire.
Wade and Mallory, several moments earlier, had narrowly escaped the paths of numerous Humagg assailants - those soldiers had since been vaporized. Now, Mallory and Wade found themselves cornered in Michael and Elizabeth Mallory's bedroom, afraid to leave the confines of the room and emerge back into the parlor.
They could hear that a majority of the weapon-blasting had ceased.
Mallory locked eyes with Wade from where he stood across the older Mallorys' bedroom. "I don't hear anything out there. Do you think it's safe yet?"
"I don't know." Wade's heart was thumping, as she imagined her friends potentially lying dead on the floor of the Mallorys' penthouse.
"I saw Silas get hit in the arm. But I don't know what happened after that." Mallory's voice shook. He was truly scared. "Did you see how many Humaggs we were able to take down?"
"I'm not sure," Wade's voice cracked. It was too much for her to bear, the thought of losing Remmy, the Professor, Quinn . . . all over again . . .
"Did you see any of us get hit?" Mallory couldn't restrain himself from impatiently demanding answers.
"I DON'T KNOW!!" Wade repeated, yelling back at her boyfriend.
That silenced Mallory.
The next thing they knew, the bedroom door had been kicked down. A spiky blond Humagg in his twenties - who looked like a reject from some obscure heavy metal band - pummeled his way into Michael and Elizabeth's bedroom. With a swift lunge, he spun around and judo-kicked Mallory, causing Mallory to drop his energy weapon, which skidded across the floor and underneath the Mallorys' purple waterbed.
"Quinn!" Wade called out, as she watched Mallory's face tense up and freeze, as though he was in a trance.
She could see the Humagg concentrating intensely on Mallory, apparently probing Mallory's mind.
Withdrawing from inside of Mallory's psyche, the Humagg slammed his fist against Mallory's jaw, knocking the slider out cold. The Humagg then proceeded to turn his attention to Wade, taking aim at her with his weapon.
As her eyes flickered sideways, Wade telekinetically swooped the gun out of the spiky-haired Humagg's grip. She was terrified, acting purely on instinct.
Wade's action only angered the Humagg even more. He seemed to march across the room in fast-forward, giving the timorous Wade very little time to react. She did the only thing her body told her to do at that moment.
As the Humagg aggressively lunged for Wade, she dematerialized into thin air right where she was standing.
The Humagg now appeared genuinely baffled. Completely thrown for a loop, the confused Humagg tentatively took a few steps forward, positioning himself in the very spot where Wade had stood a moment earlier.
And as Wade rematerialized back into that spot, the Humagg felt Wade's body - her bones and blood - expanding outward from inside his own skeletal structure. Her body grew, inflated, taking up more space, pushing against the Humagg's flesh and blood vessels from the inside out. It burned like hell, as the Humagg felt all of his cells explode upon his life-force being released from the confines of his Neanderthal shell.
Wade just stood there, the Humagg's muscles and limbs having combusted all around her. All that remained of the extinct Humagg were his black ashes scattered across the flotaki tug of the Mallorys' bedroom floor.
An instant cremation.
Back out in the parlor, Quinn cautiously lurked around the room as he surveyed the wreckage. Dozens of dead Humaggs lying on the floor from head wounds or other non-vaporized lethal injuries. Silas flat on the ground, howling, with half of his bloody arm missing. Janine trying to wrap what little remained of Silas's arm in a handmade tourniquet from curtains. Diana, Malcolm, and Jules still safely behind a force field in the corner of the apartment. Colin and Thomas, and Maggie and Arturo, in pairs, trapped within strange, glittery spheres. Rembrandt, Dr. Yang, and his stepmom each lying facedown on the floor.
"Elizabeth!" screamed Michael, one of the last still-armed humans standing. Paralyzed with fear at the sight of his unmoving wife, Michael dropped his gun and fell to his knees by her side. "Oh, Elizabeth!" he bellowed, losing control of his emotions. "Please don't die!"
Uncertain what he should do next, that's when Quinn spotted, out of the corner of his eye, the terror-inducing figure standing in what was left of the Mallorys' penthouse foyer.
A full, pure, bona fide Kromagg protected by a sturdy hazmat suit.
On instinct, Quinn fired an energy blast at this newest Kromagg visitor. But by that point, the insulated Kromagg, wearing a rather cocky smirk, clicked a handheld device in front of him and propelled himself forward into a semi-translucent blob of space-time that had just emerged out of thin air. By the time Quinn's ammunition had reached the spot where the hazmat-clad Kromagg had stood, the creature had disappeared.
The hazmat-suited Kromagg suddenly reappeared right behind a weeping Michael Mallory, having teleported twenty feet across the apartment. Another brunette, pony-tailed Humagg jumped to her feet, where she'd been playing dead on the corpse-strewn floor.
"Finish them off!" roared the hazmat-suited Kromagg to his female Humagg subordinate, as he pulled a dagger from his white camouflaged side-pocket.
Quinn remembered this scene as it hit him like a slab of granite. This is exactly what he had seen in his premonition: his father's murder from behind, at the hands of a hazmat-protected Kromagg.
Another blast from Quinn's firearm was followed by the immediate vaporization of that menacing Kromagg - hazmat suit and all. Michael was still on his knees, not fully realizing everything that had just transpired.
The Humagg with the brown pony-tail, meanwhile, somersaulted her body across the carpet, far enough away from Quinn's radar that he couldn't get a weapon lock on her. She pulled out another of those limpid rocks, and hurled it straight at the greenish force field that protected Malcolm, Jules, and Diana.
As the gem hit the translucent barrier, it projected a spherical shielding of its own. When it collided with the edge of the force field, the defensive barrier of the Mallorys' built-in force field disappeared.
Diana stood protectively in front of Malcolm and Jules, shielding the boys' bodies with her own. She watched in horror as the persistent Humagg strode toward them, eyes penetrating Diana's.
"Get ready to run . . ." Diana quivered, in a whisper, to Jules and Malcolm. She was fully expecting her mind to fall victim to intrusion from the female Humagg.
Malcolm picked up on what Diana was anticipating. "Don't let her do it," he hissed back at Diana.
"I'm not going to allow either of you to be mind-warped," Diana told them, still whispering.
"She's obviously killed before," Malcolm responded, watching in terror as the pony-tailed Humagg approached Diana, only a few feet away. "So make her feel the pain she's caused."
Heeding Malcolm's advice, Diana closed her eyes and instinctively reached out beyond the cosmos. She knew it was her only shot of saving Malcolm and Jules, but at the same time, Diana's mental detachment gave her an almost innately empowering form of comfort. Even as she initially felt the Humagg's psychic pulsations tear though her forehead and skull, Diana succumbed to a neural numbness that suppressed any physical pain she otherwise would have felt. Greater masses of energy - outside of her own - were filling the mental void that Diana had willingly created for them within her brain.
The throbbing pressure lightened against Diana's skull. Necrodimensional screams of anguish and vengeance penetrated back outward from within Diana's soul, as she allowed the deceased humans to use her body as a conduit for retribution.
When it was all over, the pony-tailed brunette Humagg had fallen, lifeless, as a bloody heap on the floor.
"Wow," Diana exclaimed, breathlessly, as the tortured souls faded away into oblivion, "that bitch really loved to kill people."
Malcolm's arms were wrapped custodially around Jules. "Is that the last of them?" he whispered, anxiously surveying the room.
Jules nodded. "I believe so. I've been around Kromaggs my entire life. I would be able to sense them if any were still in the penthouse."
Quinn was staring at Maggie and the Professor from where they were entrapped behind the strange energy "cage" that one of the Humaggs had erected. He pressed his fingers against the solidified see-through "wall," but the structure was hardly texturally translucent. Still, Maggie and Arturo seemed to be alive and breathing just fine from inside of it. They were just enclosed within these close quarters.
"Quinn!" Colin pounded against the energy-based enclosure that he and Thomas were trapped in. "Is Mom okay?"
Quinn's mind raced to their parents. He turned around and saw his dad helping Elizabeth - who was regaining consciousness - off the ground. "Mom!"
A woozy Elizabeth took Quinn into her arms, as he knelt beside her.
"Um . . . Mike? Elizabeth?" Thomas called to the Mallorys from where he was entrapped next to Colin. "Er - we're going to need a tad bit of help here."* * *
Hours later, the scorched Mallory penthouse was crawling with paramedics, scientists, and members of the National Guard. A team of first responders carried away a black bodybag on a stretcher, while Elizabeth Mallory wept with grief.
"If we hadn't called Lillian over here . . ." Elizabeth sniffled, blowing her nose with a handkerchief . . . she would still be . . ."
"Ssssh. Mom, it's not your fault," Quinn softly comforted her. His time, he didn't even realize he'd referred to her as a mother rather than a stepmother. "You and Dad had no way of knowing that Dr. Yang would get caught in the crossfire."
Wade clicked shut the cell phone she'd been talking into. "I just spoke with the hospital, guys. It sounds as though they amputated Silas in time, and have him stabilized."
Emily was wheeling Hannah out of Hannah's bedroom, where the crippled young lady had been resting ever since the soldiers and medical teams arrived.
"Mommy!" Hannah squealed, and Elizabeth left Quinn's side to run to her daughter.
Rembrandt had also been recovering, elevated back on some of the surviving furniture with a cold rag pressed against his forehead. "How's it coming? Heave we gotten them out yet?" Remmy slowly sat up. Fortunately, the paramedics had found that Rembrandt sustained only minor bruises and a bump on the head.
"We're still working on it," Diana told him. She had been assisting some of the Epcot Center scientists, who were trying to determine the nature of the force fields that encircled Maggie, Arturo, Colin, and Thomas. Diana was attempting to measure the matrices of the "energy cages" with her PDL.
Mallory had risen from the futon where he'd been resting with a wet rag over his throbbing jaw. His dialogue sounded mostly coherent, although slightly garbled in places. "This is one crazy contraption," Mallory observed, peering at Maggie and the Professor from behind the translucent barrier. "How would you even build this thing?"
"Mr. Mallory," harrumphed Professor Arturo, from his entrapment, "if we knew that, then they probably would have some idea how to extract Miss Beckett and myself from this enclosure now, wouldn't they?" After several hours of confinement, the Professor was losing his patience.
"Yeah, Mallory, why don't you go look in a fun house mirror?!" snapped Maggie, also becoming fairly punchy.
Janine, her arms folded, was circling around the "energy cages." She gave Maggie a teasing smirk. "Well, looks like Captain Beckett can't even tolerate a little recess in the cooler," Janine chided, taking a small bit of pleasure in watching Maggie squirm restlessly.
Maggie glared back at Janine, and slammed her palms against the energy barrier with great futility.
Michael Mallory had now emerged from his den, tailed by a couple of his lab assistants. In his hand, Michael clutched a glossy, greenish rock. "Okay, I'm solely operating on a hunch here, but it's all we've got right now." He held up the luminous gem.
"So you're going to free our friends by breaking them out with a big ole stone from your collection of polished rocks?" Janine remarked, failing to comprehend the usefulness of Michael's gem.
"Wait a minute! I've seen that before!" Rembrandt pointed directly at the green rock Michael was holding.
As if on cue, a creepy, familiar sound emanated from the rock, piercing the sliders' ears with a haunting chill.
Now it really clicked in Remmy's memory. "That's a 'Magg rock!"
"Yeah, it definitely screams Kromagg," agreed Wade, her flesh tingling with chills as the sinister pitch continued to resonate through the air. "And that looks like the same kind of rock that Devin's amulet was made out of."
"This is rectangrium," Michael Mallory informed them, referring to the rock in his hand. "It originated on the continent of Africanus. The Kromaggs used to regularly mine it when they controlled that landmass, pre-Voraton."
"And it might be what the Kromaggs used as a metallic base to synthesize this new forcefield technology," Quinn speculated, gesturing to the containment crystals and the "energy cages" that had been erected from the crystals.
"Quinn, how do you know that?" Colin inquired, from within the containment field.
"When we first ran into the Kromaggs, the timer operated on the same frequency as their manta ship that I crashed," recalled Quinn. "They must partially power the manta ships with some engine or fuel made from rectangrium. There seems to be some inherent magnetic pull that vibrates on the same frequency as the mineral itself."
"It wouldn't be the first time," Diana agreed. "The living gems of Chapere operated on a similar principle."
"They could use rectangrium to manipulate energy particles," Quinn further speculated, indirectly referring to the Kromagg scientists. "If the Kromaggs can manipulate it to open space-time, interdimensionally, then maybe they can reverse the rectangrium's polarity to also enclose space-time around a defined radius?"
"So that would mean this rectangrium is attracted to hydrogen ions, and vice versa," Diana theorized. "That's why it helped lead Devin to locate water. That would also mean the manta ships must be hydrogen-based. Quinn, you'd said the manta ships are built from an organic metal, right?"
"Um, this is all very interesting," Maggie spoke up, impatiently, "but how does it help to GET US OUT OF HERE?!"
"If those clearer crystals operate on a reversed polarity," hypothesized Michael, "then the gravitational pull from pure rectangrium might be enough to neutralize the containment area." He approached the "energy cages," and as Michael drew nearer to Maggie and Professor Arturo, he could feel a force pulling the rectangrium gem even from within the tight grip of his hand.
Michael swiped the edge of the rectangrium gem against the edge of the energy barrier. Almost immediately, the energy barrier surrounding Maggie and Arturo practically melted. They both stepped forward into the newly-opened spaciousness, relieved that they were no longer confined.
With another swipe, Michael had used the rectangrium to free Colin and Thomas from their energy-based imprisonment. Colin bent over to pick up one of the containment crystals that remained behind on the floor.
"These are certainly worth further study," Colin commented, fingering the rectangular gem. As his fingers brushed against them, Colin once again found himself trapped within an enclosure that was created by the containment crystal.
Michael swept the rectangrium gem across the edge of the confinement area, releasing Colin from his temporary prison once again. "Be careful, son. You must have accidentally triggered the crystal's force field somehow, when you touched it."
Wade recalled what she and her friends had been told upon first arriving on Earth 113. "Remember how Mary said the Kromaggs had harnessed the power to control gravity? Maybe they doctored it up in a way that they could rig a small crystal to project energy?"
Quinn thought about that. "Well, we've seen that the Kromaggs have plenty of force field technology. If they were able to engineer gravity so that it follows certain parameters . . . it's entirely possible."
"Isn't that the whole idea behind those space folds?" Remmy asked, mainly directing his question at Wade.
"Given the fact that they submerged our heads in water, I'd have to say that hydrogen was likely a part of it," Wade confirmed, in retrospect.
"Incredible!" the Professor exclaimed. "The Kromaggs have apparently found ways to compel a gravitational flow to run in one direction or another, largely fueled by their prevalent use of hydrogen-based power. And they can transfer that principle to apply it to their psionic domain over the minds of human test subjects. To think, the Kromagg scientists were ages ahead of our own environmentalists! And they did it all with hydrogen!"
"But there was an actual Kromagg in here," recalled Quinn. "A real one. He was wearing a protective suit. That Kromagg had his own timer, and he seemed to be able to summon and shift space folds at will . . . it's how he traveled across the room and bypassed me."
"They must be experimenting with new forms of manually-operated teleportation," Diana reasoned. "It sounds like that form of sliding was intradimensional. And he obviously knew he'd be exposed to the virus . . . why else would he have worn a hazmat suit?"
"But none of the Humaggs they sent as part of their raiding party wore any type of protective shielding," Michael Mallory pointed out. "Apparently, the Dynasty sent them here as sacrificial lambs."
"Just like a Kromagg," Rembrandt sneered, with a look of disgust. "The 'Maggots are too chicken to endanger their own lives, so they send in a bunch of half-breeds as cannon fodder."
Wade sighed. "From what I saw while in the breeder camps, there was so much contempt toward Humagg babies from the Kromagg commanding officers. With all of the hybrids they're cross-breeding every day, the Humaggs are pretty expendable to them."
Maggie scratched her head. "So the Humaggs must have shapeshifted to trick the military officers in order to get past security."
"Except that they still possess Kromagg DNA," Elizabeth said, of the Humaggs. "Our sensors detected that unique DNA and alerted us, as soon as the Humaggs entered this building. The only reason they took so long to perish must be because these Humagg hybrids can withstand your virus for longer periods of time."
Mallory, the cold washcloth still pressed up against his aching jawbone, was listening to a broadcast via a handheld short-wave radio. "It sounds like the manta ships have stopped coming in," he announced to everyone, his words slightly warbled as he spoke through his teeth.
Moving forward to help him, Wade led her boyfriend over to a surviving armchair in the penthouse. "Ssssh, sit down, sweetie. You shouldn't try to talk until the pain goes away."
Jules tapped Malcolm on the shoulder. "Let's help clean up," he suggested to his new friend, gesturing at the scattered rubble around the penthouse.
"I never thought I'd say this," Diana spoke up, winking at the two young boys, "but after today, vacuuming will seem like a vacation. I'm actually looking forward to it."
As everyone began concentrating on their own tasks, Quinn signaled to Maggie and Colin with his hands. He had to talk with them.
Elizabeth's maternal instincts picked up on the sliders' underlying desire for privacy. She took her husband's hand. "Why don't we see if we can dig up some refreshments for everyone?" she pointedly suggested to Michael.
Michael took the hint, and followed his wife toward the kitchen so their sons could have some private time.
"We have to figure out what we're going to do." Quinn spat it out, getting straight to the point. That day's events had been a real wake-up call for him, regarding their ongoing journey.
Colin looked at his brother. "Do you want to stay?"
"Don't you?" Quinn studied Colin's eyes closely.
"Of course I do, but . . ."
"Whatever you guys decide," Maggie cut in, softly, "I want you to know that I'll be here with you to support you."
"What are we talking about?" Rembrandt interrupted the conversation, having overheard bits of it. He wasn't sure he liked what he was hearing.
"You guys, I obviously received that premonition for a reason," Quinn stressed to them. "I saw my father killed in cold blood by a Kromagg invader, and I was able to prevent it. I was meant to alter the future. We were meant to come here all along, at this exact time!"
"Or," broke in the Professor, attempting to be a voice of logic, "you simply made wise, courageous choices, which resulted in an eventuality different from the one you foresaw earlier. Your actions were not necessarily predestined, Mr. Mallory."
Quinn ran his fingers through his hair. "It just feels like we're missing something. Was this attack supposed to be some sign that we should stay here? That the Kromaggs are going to try to reinvade again?"
Remmy heaved a deep sigh. "You know we'd miss you like crazy, Q-Ball. You too, Farm Boy. But you gotta do what you gotta do. If you two believe strongly enough that staying here with your folks is the right thing for you to do . . ."
"If they stay, I stay," Maggie declared, positioning herself between Colin and Quinn.
Rembrandt sighed again. He hated the thought of losing three friends at once, even though he knew they'd be okay. "But you gotta understand, the rest of us can't stay with you. We have to get Janine home, find Gretchen, not to mention get back to the rest of our Earths and open up a can of 'Magg whoop-ass . . ."
Smiling heartily at Rembrandt, Maggie came to his side and put her arm around him. "You don't need to justify it to us, Rem. We all know what our priorities are. And it won't be like we'll never see each other again. We can still program the timer for specific coordinates, remember? Now that the Slidecage is down, there's nothing stopping us from going offworld to visit one another."
"Mr. Mallory, I can only add a word of caution," Arturo spoke up, humbly. "Make sure you are absolutely comfortable with your decision, whatever it may be. Remember, if you stay behind and then foresee something that we should know about, you will not be able to contact us to warn us about anything while we're sliding between other worlds."
Quinn absorbed this reality, and his eyes glazed over each of his friends, one-by-one. Maggie, who had shown him what it truly meant to love someone. Colin, who had given Quinn the one gift we'd wished for throughout his entire life: a brother. Rembrandt, who'd been like a brother, and who had been his best friend for such a long time. Professor Arturo, who had been a paternal substitute for the father Quinn had lost, and who had guided Quinn through so much interdimensional uncertainty.
He then glanced around the room at his other companions. Wade, the sister he'd never had. Diana, who'd literally saved his life, and whom Quinn shared a sense of intellectual fraternity with. Mallory, his pseudo-doppelganger, who brought such a fun spirit to life. Janine, whose biting wit and sarcastic banter always seemed to make life more interesting. Malcolm, who, in some ways, had been like a kid brother to Quinn, but even moreso to Colin. Jules, safe and sound after being rescued from the Slidecage. Even Thomas and Emily, the siblings who Quinn barely knew, yet seemed like such great people.
And then his mind wandered to his newfound parents, who were in the next room, probably hoping to lengthen their sons' stay.
How was he supposed to choose?* * *
Wade entered the huge domed building, with the sun glistening through each of its glass window panes. Seemingly endless rows of exotic plant life stretched out as far as the eye could see. Elizabeth Mallory, wearing a long white lab coat, came walking between an aisle of fauna, toward Wade. The botanist had a warm smile on her face, as she set down her clipboard.
"Wow! Elizabeth, it's so beautiful in here!" Wade exclaimed. She inhaled the sweet fragrance of blooming flora. "And it smells like heaven!"
"Jules is showing Malcolm how spore germination works," Elizabeth told Wade, grinning toward the boys, who were huddled in front of a Bunsen burner and several petri dishes filled with water. "It's sad . . . I really wish Malcolm could stay behind. He and Jules have grown so close. But I know he has someone out there who needs him."
"We all need him," admitted Wade. "It's bad enough that Quinn and Colin . . ." She quickly bit her tongue, realizing that she should word her disappointment carefully around Elizabeth. "And there's no way Jules can come with us?"
"I need him here," Elizabeth said. "He spent his whole life existing solely to please forces of darkness. Jules needs to have the freedom to live in one stable place where he can make his own choices. He's become like family to me and Michael. And he's satisfied with the work he's doing on our world." She gave Wade a sad gaze. "He really wants Malcolm to stay. But I think Jules understands how much Gretchen means to Malcolm, and how Gretchen needs you guys to rescue her."
"So you have faith that Gretchen is still alive?" Wade asked Elizabeth, covering her mouth a split second later, after hearing how bleak that sounded.
Elizabeth nodded her head. "I've got to believe it. From what Malcolm told me about her, Gretchen sounds like a real survivor. She lost her only child to the pulsars, yet she carved out a completely new sense of purpose for herself in her life. I know how, as a mother - at least as much of one as I could have been to Quinn and Colin - that's not an easy thing to do in the aftermath of tragedy." In the background, a spray of water arched over the greenhouse plant life as the sprinklers kicked on. "Wade, come walk with me. Let's take a walk outside. I think Malcolm and Jules would appreciate a little more time alone."
Wade exited the botanical greenhouse, alongside Elizabeth. "Thanks for being so cool toward Malcolm," she emphatically praised Quinn and Colin's adopted mother. "He needs all the support he can get. I know that it's not always easy for him to talk about it with us - even those of us who know there's nothing wrong with being gay."
Elizabeth gave Wade another of her warm smiles, which she seemed to produce on a never-ending basis. "I grew up in San Francisco, Wade. Some of my best friends were drag queens and tattoo artists. The first time Jules told me about himself, right away I gave him a big hug." She stopped to sit on a boulder at the edge of a manmade brook that ran through Epcot Center. "Some members of our own species seem to forgot that our differences are only miniscule. Not enough people examine our commonality as human beings. One would think we would have learned by now, due to our collective struggles against the Kromaggs. Love, whether platonic or romantic, is universal. And I could see it in the faces of both Malcolm and Jules, the first time they mutually laid eyes on each other."
"Elizabeth . . . I don't mean to sound selfish . . ." Wade stared down at the ground. "But this past day has been tough for me and my friends. We're coming to terms with possibly losing three really good friends." She let those words hang in the air, before continuing. "It's been especially hard for Maggie. She and I haven't always been on the best of terms, but I do know that she truly loves Quinn. And now, Maggie is wrestling with the feeling that she's turning her back on her other friends in order to stay with Quinn and Colin. But I know that if Maggie had to lose Quinn and Colin all over again, it would be nothing short of devastation for her."
Elizabeth remained quiet. "Maggie will always have a home here, if she needs one," Elizabeth replied, in a nuanced tone.
"It's not just Maggie. This decision has all of us reexamining our roles in the group." Wade paused, as sheer sadness registered in her eyes. "Especially those of us who've been with Quinn since the very beginning."
Now, Elizabeth was intensely studying Wade's contemplative facial expression. "You loved him, didn't you?" Elizabeth asked Wade, referring to Quinn. She reached over and gently took Wade's hand. "You were once in love with my son."
"Back then . . . everything was so different," Wade reflected. She peered over at the babbling brook, watching ripples form in the water. "I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had never gone to Quinn's basement that day . . . if he had never invented sliding. Could Quinn and I? . . . I mean, our doubles have fallen in love on other worlds . . ."
"Wade, you were meant to fall in love with Mallory." Elizabeth looked deep into Wade's eyes, confirming her assumption. "I can tell that you have no regrets about everything that happened to you. Because, in the end, after Diana restabilized you, you were led to meet your one true love."
"Everyone who I've met on this journey," Wade said, "has played a role in shaping who I am. Remmy, the Professor, Diana, Christina, Devin, Colonel Kesh, Maggie . . . Quinn. Both of them. Whether they were a friend or adversary, I wouldn't be where I am - and who I am- today, without their influence. For better or for worse, I now have all of this power at my fingertips - and I don't know what it means, or what to do with it. But I'd much rather be where I am today than be left in some breeder camp to die." Wade sighed, forlornly. "It's just that I started sliding in the first place because of Quinn. It's impossible for me to imagine finishing this journey without him." She glanced up at the cloudy sky, thinking back. "Quinn and I went to school together for a semester, before he began studying at Berkeley. He was still a senior in high school, technically, but so much more mature than most guys his age. Maybe that's what attracted me to him? Then I got him a job working at Doppler Computer Superstore. Every day that we had a shift together was a treat for me. Every time he told me about some new software that had come in, or whenever he took a subtle dig at Mr. Hurley . . . I guess I was a lot more innocent back then, huh?"
"We grow and change with the seasons, Wade," articulated Elizabeth. "It's like what one of my mentors at Quantico once told me: 'as our roots become deeper, and our branches or leaves become higher, our bark and collenchymas toughen to survive Mother Nature's wrath.' We all endure stormy weather, Wade. But how we adopt to those situations determines how high we will be lifted . . . how many seeds we will be able to spread around us."
"I never thought of it like that." Wade stared at Elizabeth Mallory. This is the woman whose family she would have been welcomed into, had she and Quinn only made that long-lasting, intimate connection during their early years of sliding. "Can I give you a hug?"
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around Wade with maternal warmth. At that point, Wade realized what a different person she would be today, had she sacrificed her independence and actively pursued an actual romance with Quinn Mallory.
But, alas . . . it was not meant to be.* * *
"Hey, kiddo." Mallory lightly tapped on Hannah's bedroom door, which was already slightly ajar. He hold a plastic container in his hands. "I brought you a little snack."
Hannah's eyes lit up when she saw the treat Mallory was delivering to her. "Wild rice cakes!" she squealed. "They're my favorite!"
"That's what your parents told me," laughed Mallory, bringing the wild rice cakes to Hannah's bedside. He set them down on her nightstand, and awkwardly kneeled next to her. "So . . . exciting week, huh?"
"Yeah . . ." Hannah was staring, captivated, at Mallory. "I cannot believe that you are someone who could have almost been my brother."
Mallory blinked in confusion for a moment before he realized Hannah's reasoning. "Yeah . . . mind-blowing, isn't it? I guess you could say that you're the closest I've ever had to a sister. I was an only child, and it got pretty lonely. Especially after my parents died."
"Well, if you weren't my 'Almost-Brother,' I'd tell you how cute you are." Hannah giggled, and smiled at her almost-brother. "Wade's pretty lucky." Her eyes then narrowed in sympathy. "How did your parents die?"
"My birth parents were killed in an Amtrak accident," Mallory explained. "Actually, my mother was a different person from your mother - I mean, she wasn't your mother's double, or Amanda's. But I don't remember either of my parents very well, because I was only five when they died." He thought back, pensively. "My adopted parents were nice people. But I never really appreciated all that they did for me. I was never interested in school, and I ran with a pretty rough crowd. Yeah, my life was all about motorcycles, beer, and hot chicks. I didn't even finish my senior year of high school."
"Whoa! You and Quinn are way different!" a wide-eyed Hannah exclaimed.
"Except for our names," Mallory nodded in agreement. "But then the accident happened. I was cruisin' with my buds, and my motorcycle sort of collided with an oak tree. Damn euphoriant hallucinations." He tried to shrug off his serious accident with a mild joke. "My spine was damaged, and I lost the use of both of my legs. I had to learn how to rely on other people just to get through the day."
"That's how I feel all the time." Hannah's face fell. "I feel like I'm just a burden to people, and my parents have to store me here like some object that's taking up space."
"Your parents just want you to be safe, Hannah," said Mallory. "Your world is a lot more dangerous that mine was. I've seen how they look at you and talk about you, and your parents love you more than anything. Having you live with them is probably what keeps them from worrying about you every second of the day. I know that's how my parents felt, when I stayed with them right after my accident."
Hannah's face brightened, and then she looked down at Mallory's healthy legs. "How did you get out of your wheelchair?"
"The scientist who Diana was talking about earlier, Dr. Geiger, found a way to extract DNA from my doubles on other worlds," Mallory recounted. "I didn't really understand it at the time - I just wanted my legs back. Geiger offered me a miracle, in exchange for letting myself be the subject of his ongoing research. Little did I know what he really had planned for me."
"Dr. Geiger wanted to fuse you with one of your alternate selves," Hannah remembered, from the sliders' earlier narrations.
"And your brother ended up being the unlucky soul who got caught in the middle of our Faustian deal," Mallory bitterly lamented. "In the end, everything worked out. But it wasn't much fun for any of us. I had once thought there'd be nothing worse than being paralyzed from the waist down . . . but then I got to experience the joys of having another person's consciousness blended with my own. Eventually, Quinn's mind settled to the bottom, like sediment. But I always knew he was still there, no matter how much I tried to deny it to myself."
Hannah could tell that reliving these memories was hard for Mallory, and she gave him an optimistic grin. "I like you both better as two people."
"Me too." Mallory smiled back at her. This young woman just seemed to radiate gusts of avidity and zest. "You know, Hannah, on one world that my friends and I visited . . . the people in that dimension had discovered nanobots with healing properties. They dissolved them in their water, and you could literally drink your way to a healed spine or a remobilized foot. It came with a heavy price, but . . ." Mallory preferred not to go into details of the BIR and the Dead Man's Light. "Hannah, what I'm saying is that somewhere out there, there's a world that can heal you. Don't give up hope of being able to walk someday. You've never been sliding, but the possibilities in the multiverse are endless."
Her eyes were transfixed on Mallory's legs. "You really think I'll finally be able to walk? Even though I was born this way?"
Mallory leaned in, ruffling Hannah's hair with brotherly nurture. "I believed it about myself, even before I knew sliding existed."
Hannah reached out and gave Mallory a thankful hug.
"Now go eat your wild rice cakes, kid," chuckled Mallory, handing the food container over to Hannah as he stood up on both his feet.* * *
"Dad . . . Mom . . . ?"
As Michael and Elizabeth Mallory led Quinn and Colin into a dark corner of Michael's laboratory, the Mallory brothers spotted a TV screen displaying nothing but static and snow.
"Dad, Mom, what's this all about?" Quinn asked. Their parents had pulled him and his brother away from their friends, telling their sons only that they had something they wanted to show them.
"We've been waiting for just the right time to present this to you," Michael told his sons. He pushed a VHS tape into the VCR, and grabbed a remote control. "But your mother and I . . . Elizabeth and I, we realized we needed you to see this before anymore time passes."
"We know you and your friends are all trying to make decisions regarding where you go from here," Elizabeth emphasized. "So we can only hope this might help you to determine the best course of action."
"What are you showing us?" asked Colin, staring at the VCR.
Michael pushed a button on the remote control. "This is a 'time capsule' of sorts. Your grandfather left it behind for you boys, before he passed away. Neither of you had been born yet. But your grandfather held out the same hope that we did: that his future grandchildren might be able or willing to someday continue his life's work."
An elderly face appeared on the screen. The burly old man, with a drooping mustache and square cheekbones, wore a silvery bodysuit similar to those that Michael and Elizabeth had been wearing in the microdot transmission.
"He's . . . our grandfather," Colin gasped, amazed to be face-to-face with this video link to his past.
"My dearest grandchildren," croaked Michael Mallory Sr., in a deep voice that exuded social prominence. "I haven't much time remaining. Due to pursuit of scientific innovation, my molecular structure is deteriorating by the day. I leave this message with your parents so that future generations of our family might learn from my failures." His gaze drooped downward with a look of shame.
"Failures?!" Quinn turned to his father and stepmother. "What's he talking about? I thought you said he died from brain hemorrhaging?! How did our grandpa REALLY die?"
Michael gestured to the screen. "Just keep watching," he told his sons, in a hushed voice.
By now, it is inevitable that you are familiar with the concept of interdimensional travel," continued Michael Mallory Sr. "In May of 1965, I invented an experimental device called a 'body slidule.' This neural implant contains a liquid form of rectangrium, which is a mineral unique to our Earth. For centuries, the Kromaggs have mined this powerful gem as a natural resource - a way to power their technology. Now that it has reached human hands, our species has the ability to theoretically transport one's body interdimensionally."
Quinn looked at Colin, appalled. "That's basically what the Kromaggs were using Wade and the other cyberiads for . . . to generate wormholes from the human mind!"
"As any good scientist does, I experimented on myself for the initial trial of this body slidule," Grandpa Mallory explained. "However, I had only limited success. I was able to move myself through interdimensional space, but I could not sustain that ability at great length. As a consequence, my subatomic structure is unraveling, and my days are numbered." He took a sad pause. "Others have volunteered to have themselves implanted with altered versions of the body slidule, but our success has advanced minimally. Through extensive study of my slidule prototype, your father and I have concluded that my original template will only configure to the matrices of those who harbor our DNA. In other words, if this prototype is to have any long-term success, it will only be through the implantation of future generations of our family."
Colin and Quinn stared at each other, speechless.
"I do not expect you or any of your offspring to make the same risky sacrifice that I chose to make," stated Michael Mallory Sr., in closing. "But please be mindful of the strong probability that successfully implanting the body slidule in a human being will ultimately give us and our allies the upper hand in battling the Kromaggs as well as potential future adversaries. I only ask that you take this factor into consideration upon deciding in what manner you wish to advance my life's work."
The picture on the screen dissipated, leaving only more static and snow in its wake.
Quinn slowly rotated his head toward his parents. "It has to be me," he uttered, in monotone.
"What?!" Colin's eyes nearly popped out at what he was hearing.
"Son, as your grandfather said, none of us are asking you to make this kind of sacrifice . . ." Michael told Quinn, with great sincerity and seriousness.
"Don't you see, Colin?!" Quinn grabbed both of his brother's shoulders. "This is why we were brought back home, at this specific point in time. This is why I received Archibald LeBeau's powers of clairvoyance, and developed my own! We were meant to take our grandfather's invention to the next level!"
"Quinn . . ." Colin tried to calm his brother down.
But Quinn knew what he was feeling. He could sense the clarity rushing through him. "We both carry the anti-Kromagg virus! Think of how many worlds we could spread it to, if you and I were able to adapt to a body slidule! Colin, think of all the billions upon billions of lives we could save!"
"If it even works on us!" Colin cautioned, although Quinn's optimism was beginning to rub off on him.
Elizabeth placed her hands on Quinn's and Colin's shoulders. "We've been refining your grandfather's prototype for decades, and it's vastly improved from its earliest incarnation. We cannot guarantee that there wouldn't be risks . . . but you two are the first family members from your grandfather's lineage who would be implanted since, well . . . since your grandfather. Michael is too old to endure the implantation without a substantial detriment to his health. Hannah can't be implanted, for obvious reasons."
Colin sat there with his mouth open. Finally, he slowly said, "Brother, I believe we are the best hope for this world. And for the other worlds out there."
Quinn looked at his parents. "If we both do this . . . ?"
"We can synchronize the slidules in both you and Colin," Michael assured them. "We can program your implants to operate on the same frequency. But . . . are you boys absolutely positive you want to do this? The body slidule isn't something that can be simply inserted or removed like a battery."
Colin and Quinn gazed at one another for the longest time.
"We're sure," Quinn confirmed, not taking his eyes off his brother.
Colin sighed, dreading the next part of their decision. "Who's going to tell the others?"* * *
"You're WHAT?!?!" Maggie shrieked, upon hearing Quinn deliver the news to her. "Wh - what do you mean you're . . . being implanted?" Her voice switched, in a split second, from angry to terrified.
Quinn held Maggie softly. "Maggie, we need to do this. Colin and I . . . we've finally figured out what our purpose is in all of this."
"Your purpose is to be with me!!!" yelled Maggie, the tears blinding her eyes.
"Q-Ball . . . isn't this dangerous?" Remmy asked his best friend. "I thought your grandpa died from the body slidule?"
"He died of brain hemorrhaging," Michael Mallory clarified. "The psychological effects were too much for him to endure, once his body began internally disintegrating. And that's because the prototype my father developed was so unstable. We've greatly improved it over the past four decades."
"Then how come it hasn't worked on anybody else?!" Maggie challenged him, seething through her blubbering.
"Maggie, when compared to anyone else, Quinn and Colin are the perfect candidates," Michael calmly tried to explain. "They're young, they're physically strong, they have the right quantum signatures, Quinn has an unprecedented amount of mental strength . . . and most importantly, their DNA is closer to my father's than any other person's has been. The others who've been implanted . . . none of them possessed DNA from our family. That's a key factor as to why so many previous implantations were unsuccessful. While Jules and the other most recent test subjects who were implanted with body slidules didn't experience the same physical breakdown that my father did, the prototype still could not conform to their body chemistries well enough for any of them to fully translocate themselves at will. Quinn and Colin should be able to overcome that inability."
"But . . . but . . ." Maggie desperately sputtered for an argument to fling back at Michael Mallory.
"Michael, what about old age?" Diana asked the scientist. "Wouldn't there be a risk of the body slidule breaking down as Quinn and Colin become older?"
"The organic minerals - including the rectangrium - that comprise the body slidule should naturally dissolve within their neural pathways," Michael explained. "By the time they're dissolved, those organic compounds will have fully integrated into Quinn's and Colin's bodies well before significant aging begins to occur. Over time, the implant will become a part of them . . . just like an organ or skeletal structures."
Maggie's mouth was just hanging open, as she stared at Quinn with a pleading gaze.
"And once this . . . implant has melded with their brains," the Professor asked, for his own clarification, "how will Quinn and Colin be able to slide at will?"
"Once the body slidules thoroughly work their way through the boys' systems, they simply focus their combined mental energies on a numerical coordinate set, and the chemicals in their bodies will do the rest," Michael explained. "Of course, I'm oversimplifying it for the benefit of our laypeople, here." He gave Rembrandt, Wade, Mallory, Maggie, Janine, and Malcolm a series of sheepish side-glances.
"Gee, thanks for the vote of non-confidence, Mike," muttered Janine, with sarcasm.
"We'll be monitoring Quinn and Colin's photon trail from right here in Epcot," elaborated Elizabeth, "so that each time they slide, we'll track what Earth they pass through. We'll also equip them with their own emergency timer, which they can use to divert themselves back here if they absolutely need to. All of this technology . . . the body slidules, the emergency timer, our tracking system - all of it will run on the same neural circuit, determined by Quinn and Colin's brain power. Quinn and Colin's body slidules will also be interlinked with each other, so the two of them will always move through dimensions in a completely synchronized manner. If they happen to lose their emergency timer, all they need to do is mentally focus on their homeworld coordinates."
"Okay, I get how it works . . ." Rembrandt was still skeptical. "But bottom line: where does this energy come from, and how can we be sure it's safe?"
Elizabeth bit her lower lip, trying to figure out a concise way to summarize it. "The glucose that their bodies produce will react with the implant to trigger the body slidules. You see, every time glucose is produced, it revitalizes the body's energy. After all, glucose is the main energy source for powering the human nervous system - without it, our brains and nerves wouldn't function properly. Essentially, the excess energy will transcend our sons beyond dimensional barriers."
"A biological 'sliding machine' fueled primarily by glucose!" Arturo exclaimed, realizing the gist of the technology. "Astonishing!"
Maggie began shaking her head in protest. "No! You guys can't do this!" She trained her eyes on Michael and Elizabeth, fiercely. "You can't honestly tell us this will be 100% foolproof!"
"Nothing is 100%, Maggie," spoke Michael Mallory, gently. "But the greater good . . ."
"Screw the greater good!" Maggie pushed past the Mallorys, and grabbed ahold of Quinn's arms. "How can you do this?! How can you leave us?! How can you leave me?! How can you be so selfish?!"
"Maggie . . ." Rembrandt moved forward to try to calm down the hysterical Maggie.
"Shut up!" Maggie snapped. She turned back to her lover. "Quinn, please . . ."
"Maggie, even on the worlds where we leave the virus behind, it isn't necessarily permanent," Quinn told her. "Eventually, the virus is going to burn out. If Colin and I can leave behind samples with scientists on parallel worlds and teach them to replicate it, the virus can be reconstituted if any of those dimensions ever need to recreate it."
"I'm begging you not to do this!" Maggie yelled at Quinn, with pleading, teary eyes. "I'll even make a deal with you! Guess what I'm thinking, and you won't go! If you don't guess correctly, you stay. Got it, Quinn? I'm thinking of a number between one and ten . . ."
"No you aren't," Quinn cut her off, with a mix of firmness and sympathy in his voice. He knew Maggie too well, and he couldn't let her guilt him into ignoring what needed to be done.
"But how . . . but we . . ." Maggie had to struggle to suppress her temptation to gag.
He softly stroked her damp cheek. "All those other Earths out there need to be protected from the Kromaggs."
Falling victim to more heavy tears, Maggie choked out, in a whisper, "But who's going to protect you . . . ?"
Quinn enveloped Maggie in his arms, as she cried away whatever additional futile discussion there would have been on the subject.* * *
Quinn's nude body shivered through the drafty cotton nightgown that barely covered him. He turned his hand to the left, watching Colin, who laid on the surgical table parallel to his own.
This was it. Quinn could see the drugs being pumped into his bloodstream though an intravenous tube in his arm. He began to feel groggy, as his parents walked over to his bedside, their faces towering above him.
"There's still time to back out, Quinn," his father quietly told him. "Remember that this procedure is irreversible. If you have any doubts, just say the word . . ."
"No . . ." Quinn eked out, with a hoarse whisper. "I have to do this . . ." His eyes wandered across the room, at the viewing chamber that was separated by glass from the rest of the operating room. Rembrandt, Wade, Hannah in her wheelchair, Diana, and the Professor all watched him and Colin from behind the glass partition.
"Where's . . . Maggie . . . ?" whispered Quinn, as his vision began to fade out. "Isn't she coming?"
Elizabeth just sadly shook her head, as she and the rest of the world faded from Quinn's sight.* * *
Wade picked up a ballpoint pen from the coffee table in front of her. Sinking into the cushy sofa from where she was relaxing in the lobby of Epcot Suites North - a building that had remained untouched by the Humagg raiding party - Wade opened her diary to a fresh page, and began writing.
May 5, 2002
As I write this, Quinn and Colin are recovering from their implantation. Michael and Elizabeth say that Quinn and Colin underwent the surgery just fine. Now I guess we'll see how their body slidules change them. If they change them.
I've been with Quinn since the beginning, so it's weird imagining going on without him. When Diana brought me back from beyond this world, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Quinn stuck inside another man? A man who would turn out to be my true love. That was almost a year-and-a-half ago. Little did I know how much things would come to change.
In a way, I can relate to Quinn. Although it's scary, it's also kind of empowering to be able to move yourself freely, from Point A to Point B, without having to worry about the traditional confines that come with limited mobility. To know that you were put on this Earth - well, these Earths - to better the lives of other people, through a supernatural occurrence that you yourself don't fully understand.
But I can't help but wonder if Quinn is doing this for the wrong reasons? The whole time I've been sliding with him, he's been carrying around a horrible sense of guilt that he just can't seem to get rid of. Quinn blames himself for everything bad that's happened to us. He shouldn't . . . he didn't know that all of this would take place. It's not like he got premonitions back when he invented sliding.
Colin agreed to be implanted out of loyalty to Quinn. They both have a mission to complete, and for them, that means making sure that every world has the means to defeat the Kromaggs. None of us know what will happen to them, or if we'll ever see them again after they depart. We all hope that Quinn and Colin will adjust to the body slidules, and they can somehow accomplish their goal.
This has, by far, been the hardest on Maggie. It makes me regret all the times she and I fought over petty little things that, in retrospect, don't seem to matter much anymore. Ever since Quinn made his decision to receive a body slidule, Maggie has completely shut down. I've never seen her like this. When we first began sliding with Maggie, she was the strongest one in the group. Fearless, determined, always motivated and never deterred from coming out on top. But now, it's like she's a totally different person.
Wade stopped writing as Diana plopped down next to her on the couch.
"How've you been holding up?" Diana asked Wade, sensitively.
"It's still all so surreal to me." Wade closed her diary. "Like a strange dream that never ends. Ever since I came back . . . all these events, one after another . . . finding out that the Professor was still alive, plus all the encounters with Logan, Rickman, Geiger, Aurora, Aphrodite, Hyacinth, Christina, Vera . . . why are all of these people always coming in and changing our lives?!"
"I don't know." Diana looked down at the floor. "I'd say it's more accurate to look at it as us coming in and changing their lives." She inhaled deeply. "That's what we do. The Kromagg Dynasty started it, so we've gone and learned from the evilest."
On that bleak note, grim silence hung in the air between Wade and Diana.
Finally, Wade spoke up. "Any changes since I left the laboratory?"
"Yeah. That's actually what I came over here to tell you." Diana touched her friend on the shoulder. "Quinn and Colin are leaving tonight. At daybreak, they decided. We're going to see them off."
"Great," muttered Wade, as she and Diana rose from the couch. "Just great." Her tone was depressed and withered. "I can hardly wait."* * *
As Wade and Diana arrived back at the Epcot Central Laboratory, Quinn and Colin were chowing down on some red-coated fruit bars. The brothers sat next to each other atop one of the examining tables, their legs dangling over the edge.
"Mmmm, fruit punch-flavored," Colin commented, savoring the taste of the concentrated energy snack.
Elizabeth held out an X-ray that one of the assistant technicians had just handed to her. "Quinn, we did a final scan of your body. It appears that those nanobots - the ones that the Kromaggs apparently injected you with - are still present in your bloodstream. We couldn't find any way to remove them without potentially disrupting the integration of your body slidule."
"That means . . ." Quinn paused in mid-chew. ". . . if the Dynasty is still tracking us . . ."
"They'll be tracking just you and Colin, now," Michael confirmed with a nod, "Not your friends."
Rembrandt looked around the room at the other sliders. "Kromagg-free while on the road, for once. Nice, huh?"
Michael stared down at his sons, with great seriousness in his voice. "It is absolutely imperative from now on that one of you immediately release your blood into the atmosphere, every time you enter a new dimension. Just in case they try to send more Humagg hybrids after you."
Professor Arturo tilted his neck, thoughtfully. "Dr. Mallory, your advice contains much clarity. However, we must keep in mind that the Kromagg Dynasty is probably exercising tremendous discretion as to when and where they send their Humagg soldiers on these 'suicide missions.' After all, it is certain that they know, at this juncture, how we've been infecting all the worlds we leave behind. They'll want to safeguard themselves against the possibility of their soldiers - or even any of us - somehow inadvertently backtracking their photon trails into the heart of the Dynasty. Wherever that may be. As it is, they are already becoming an endangered species in the multiverse. The release of a virus lethal to Kromagg DNA within the epicenter of their empire would be a crushing blow to the Kromaggs' very survival."
"Um . . . I hope this doesn't sound like a stupid question . . ." Colin blinked several times. ". . . but each time we make a new slide, how do we keep from losing our clothes? I mean, our clothing is not a part of our natural molecular structure . . ."
"Not a dumb question at all," Michael smiled. "Because of the transmissions we'll be constantly releasing, that data stream resonates on the same frequency as the rectangrium. It will create a light electromagnetic field as a 'shell' around your bodies upon every slide you initiate. This field will recoalesce around your bodies, while enveloping any 'peripherals' close to you. By 'peripherals,' I mean your clothing, your emergency timer, or other small objects that you might wish to carry with you from Earth to Earth."
For a second, that information gave Maggie a spontaneous, untamed glimmer of hope. "So why can't Quinn hold me in his arms each time they slide? I could travel with them!"
"No, Maggie." Michael severed the last remaining string of faith that the former marine had, which was keeping her ability to cope from shattering. "If an unimplanted person tries to become part of the translocation process, their presence would probably destabilize the entire electromagnetic field. Quinn and Colin will still be novices at this, Maggie. Their combined generation of transdimensional energy won't be strong enough to carry you with them, from world to world." His shoulders sagged, and Michael avoided continued eye contract with Maggie. "I'm sorry."
Maggie just stared off into space. The grimness in her eyes was replaced with a blank expression of lost incoherence.
As Quinn and Colin were finishing their power bars, Elizabeth began fussing over them. "Now remember, boys, your diet should consist of things like soy, poultry, fish, fiber, whole grains, and plants with phytochemicals . . . whenever they're available, you'll need plenty of proteins to maintain your fluid balance. That's essential in order to keep your rates of glycogen and glucose exchange high for continuing an abundant generation of energy."
"That's one of the reasons it didn't work for me," Jules told them, referring to his body slidule. "As a diabetic, I must keep my blood sugar low."
"Be sure to eat breakfast whenever you can." Elizabeth commenced with her motherly concern. "An increased metabolism will improve your cognitive abilities. The more glucose your bodies churn out to feed your cells . . ." She stopped, and began to tear up. ". . . the better you'll be able to produce more energy to keep sliding . . ."
As Colin took his stepmother in his arms, he looked at Quinn over Elizabeth's shoulder. "I think it is time for us to depart, brother."
Their eight former companions, the Mallorys, the Beechams, and Jules all followed the brothers over to a platform in the laboratory, from which Quinn and Colin had planned to make their departure.
"We'll be monitoring you the entire time," Michael assured his sons. He extended his arm to give Quinn and hearty handshake. "Your first self-slide might be wobbly, but I am confident you will find your stride. Godspeed, son." In mid-handshake, Quinn and Michael paused, stared at one another, and then hugged.
Michael and Elizabeth then switched sons to embrace. "Don't be afraid to use your emergency timer, if you need to," Elizabeth whispered to Quinn, while holding him tightly. "It will automatically pull you back to Kromagg Prime." Elizabeth's blurred vision had now rendered her sightless.
Janine patted Colin on the shoulder, while giving him a mild hug. "Bring me back some souvenirs, Colin."
"Take care of yourself," Quinn told Malcolm, hugging him. "Make sure Remmy doesn't get too lonely without me."
Malcolm's voice caught in his throat, as he turned to hug Colin goodbye. "I'm gonna miss you so much, man!" he blurted out, immersing himself in Colin's arms.
"We'll see each other again, Malcolm," Colin affectionately spoke to him, in reassurance. "I promise."
"I'm sorry . . . for getting you involved in this," Quinn whispered to Janine. He withdrew from her arms and emphasized to her, in a hushed voice, "Get yourself home. I don't wanna see you again." He smiled at her, good-naturedly.
"For what it's worth, I hope I never see you again either," Janine playfully smirked back at Quinn, biting her lip as she smiled. "And I don't blame you."
"See you again, Mallory," Colin said to his brother's fraternal double, giving Mallory a brotherly squeeze of camaraderie.
"You can count on it," Mallory responded, grinning as he choked back the urge to cry. "Hey, you'd better come back. You, me, and Malcolm still gotta go streaking on Mardi Gras World."
Colin laughed hoarsely, as Wade came over to wish Colin well. Mallory, meanwhile, turned to Quinn. "Like looking in a mirror, huh?"
"Yeah, right," Quinn grinned back, and they traded mutual embraces of camaraderie.
Wade waited her turn to hug Quinn goodbye. "I just don't have words . . ." she sputtered, in between sniffles.
"Don't worry about it. We've been through so much together. There's no way I'm gonna forget about you," Quinn softly told her, taking Wade in his arms.
"Never betray the journey," Emily whispered in Colin's ear, while giving him a hug.
"I won't," Colin promised her, as he tingled in anticipation of the adventure he and his brother were about to embark on.
Thomas gave Quinn a lopsided grin. "If it hadn't been for you, I'd still be playing checkers in the tunnels with Jules," he quipped.
Quinn slapped Thomas on the shoulder, heartily. "Anytime, bro. Anytime."
"You guys did so much for me," Jules thanked Colin.
"We're so glad you are safe," Colin emphasized, while hugging the 19-year-old orphan.
"I have so much more to learn from you guys," Diana whispered to Colin, tearfully wrapping her arms around him.
"I was just about to say the same thing," Colin replied, as Jules wished Quinn goodbye.
"I'm looking forward to trading more technobabble with you, Diana," smirked Quinn, trying to keep from completely losing it at this point, "when we return."
"And I'll hold you to it," Diana teased Quinn, with a murmur.
Hannah reached up from the seat of her wheelchair to hug each of her brothers. "I'll be thinking of you the whole time."
"This is only the beginning, Hannah," Colin assured his little sister, as he and Quinn were both sandwiched between Hannah's arms.
"Yeah, we definitely have a lot more good times ahead of us," Quinn agreed, echoing Colin's reassurance to Hannah. The young paraplegic Mallory daughter let go of both of her half-brothers, still smiling up at them.
"Young Colin, you are one-of-a-kind." Professor Arturo gave Colin a fatherly hug.
"I will miss your knowledge and wisecracks, Professor," Colin sincerely bid Arturo farewell.
"I hope you find what you're looking for, Q-Ball," a tearful Rembrandt cooed, his arms wrapped around Quinn's, "even if I don't fully understand why you're doing it."
"Careful, Cryin' Man," Quinn shot back, with playful affection. "You're getting tears in my fro."
They both laughed raucously and emotionally, while wiping tears from their faces.
"Mr. Mallory," Arturo said, as Remmy scurried over to Colin. "I . . . I simply don't know what to say!"
"You don't have to say anything, Professor," Quinn told him, squinting through his tears. He felt as though he was losing another father all over again.
Rembrandt hugged Colin tightly. "Stay fresh, Farm Boy!" he warbled, now at a total loss for words.
"That's what the fruit bars were for, Remmy," replied Colin, almost in deadpan, which incited a trademark infectious laugh from an emotional Rembrandt.
"There's so much out there for you yet to discover, my boy," the Professor murmured to Quinn, with vigor, still holding onto his most venerated student. "Carpe diem!"
"You can count on it, Professor!" Quinn let his surrogate father embrace him.
Maggie, not surprisingly, was already a teary mess. "I love you, Colin," she told her good friend, kissing him on the cheek.
"I love you too, Maggie." Colin's own tears started up again.
By now, the Professor had detached himself from Quinn. It was just Quinn and Maggie, staring at each other in prolonged silence.
Maggie, her eye ducts still spewing a waterfall, nearly gagged on her words. "I can't believe you're leaving me," she stated, almost accusingly.
Quinn felt a cold, hard stone deep in the pit of his stomach. "This is my penance, Maggie. For causing everything that's happened. It's something I have to do. It's something I owe to the multiverse."
For what seemed like hours, but was actually minutes, Maggie didn't respond. Eventually, she uttered to Quinn, "Will I ever see you again?"
"Yes," he whispered back to her, meaning it with every ounce of his heart. "I'll slice through space and time itself, if I have to, to get home to you."
And they kissed, deeply and timelessly. It was a kiss that Quinn continued to feel, even as he separated from Maggie and stepped onto the platform with Colin. Even as he gripped Colin's hand with his own. Even as they both closed their eyes, focused their minds, concentrated on a numerical sequence they'd predetermined together - and ultimately allowed their immeasurable bond as brothers to jointly lift the cloudy energy from inside of their bodies, outward.
Even as they simultaneously faded away, out of that dimension where they'd been born.
Quinn still felt it.* * *
Within a matter of minutes, the Mallory brothers had resurfaced on a grassy hilltop. Having floated across the multiverse, practically weightless, the brothers were now once again standing on solid land.
"Well, we made it," Quinn exhaled, and placed his hand perpendicular to his forehead to block out the sun.
For miles, the land stretched out as nothing but endless plains, dotted with the occasional cluster of trees. At the base of the hill they were on top of, a trio of indigenous natives, who were perched on horseback, stared up at Colin and Quinn. The natives did not appear to be hostile - merely astounded and mystified. They had obviously witnessed the two brothers materialize in their dimension.
"Um, Quinn . . . ?" As Colin shivered, he gestured below their necks. "Where are our clothes?"
Quinn and Colin looked down, and realized that they were completely naked. Tingling from the breezy draft, they noticed a ring of ashen debris scattered around their bare feet.
"Our 'peripherals' must not have survived our initial slide," Quinn speculated. He looked back at the gawking native horsemen, and blushed. "Hopefully, this won't become a trend."
Colin was still holding their emergency timer in his left hand. "Well, at least our backsliding device is still intact." He turned to Quinn. "But I am rather chilly, brother. What shall we do?"
Quinn gave the tribesmen a bashful little wave with his hand. "Uh . . . let's go find some animal skins . . . or leaves . . . or something . . . before we try again."* * *
Diana had finished punching in keys at the Mallorys' computer terminal. She swiveled around in its wheeled desk chair, having ejected a small, circular disk from the floppy drive.
"Coordinates to Persian World - downloaded from our timer," declared Diana, handing the tiny microdisc to Emily Beecham. "This should get you guys back to that dimension, so you can bring back all those people from your homeworld whom Yashar held hostage."
"Thanks, Diana." Emily turned to Thomas. "Whaddya say, bro? Wanna join us on the rescue mission?"
Thomas shrugged, and pushed his glasses back up on his nose. "What the hell. I've still got a few good slides left in me."
Professor Arturo gave Emily a look of concern. "Miss Beecham, I understand your zeal to liberate your people. But are you sure it's safe for you to slide back there? There's a chance that not all of the Persians' stasis fields have been disabled yet."
Michael Mallory entered the computer room, with Janine tagging along behind him. "That's why we're sending some of King Ezekiel's refugees with our reconnaissance team. They asked to depart from their world with us, pre-Voraton. They couldn't handle the turmoil on their Earth, and preferred to seek sanctuary in our dimension. So we gave them a home with us. About fifty of King Ezekiel's subjects have been living on our world for the past 30 years, and several of them have volunteered to come with - in case our people end up still being susceptible to the Persians' stasis technology."
"Neda showed us where our people are being given sanctuary on her world," recalled Emily. "If the stasis fields have collapsed, I think we can bring them home just fine."
"We've scheduled our team to depart for Persian World in six hours," Michael announced, motioning for Emily to come with him so they could prepare.
"Speaking of departures . . ." Diana had removed the timer from the pocket of her mint green blouse. "We have less than half an hour left before ours. In light of everything that's happened this week, we really can't afford to miss the window."
They strolled into the adjoining laboratory, and began to round up all the remaining members of their team.
"Where's Maggie?" Rembrandt looked around the lab, observing that only seven of the eight sliders were present.
Elizabeth gestured toward one of the exits. "I saw her out on the balcony earlier. Ever since Quinn and Colin left, she's been moping around." Tightly pressing her lips together, Elizabeth added, "Her sadness is contagious."
Rembrandt wandered out onto the terrace where Maggie was leaning against the balcony, looking down at the view of Pasadena below. The entire city was spread out across the valley - a mix of Mexican architecture and bungalows against the backdrop of sickly green hills that were only beginning to experience rejuvenation.
Remmy touched Maggie's shoulders from behind. "It's time to go," he told her.
Maggie Beckett turned around, her swollen eyes meeting Rembrandt's. "I'm scared, Remmy. I don't know how I can go on without Quinn. He hadn't even been back with us for a full year yet . . ."
"We have to do it, Maggie," Rembrandt quietly told her. "Q-Ball wants us to finish the journey."
"I think . . ." Maggie choked through her tears. "I think I want to stay behind. Quinn and Colin might come back here . . . they'll need to see a familiar face!"
Rembrandt just shook his head, as he took Maggie in his arms. "I need you," he said to Maggie, with genuineness in his voice. "We all do. Look, I know we've become a big group, but we've got strength in numbers. The more of us there are to spread the virus . . ." His eyes shifted up at the clouds. ". . . the better our chances are of defeating the 'Maggs for good."
"I know." Maggie barely squeaked out the words. "And I realize that the rest of us can't afford to lose track of one another. I just hope that Quinn and Colin come back safely . . . and that I didn't just see them for the last time."
Rembrandt gently put his arm around Maggie, and walked her back inside.
Soon, the timer read:
With less than three minutes until the slide, everyone began wishing the Mallorys and the Beechams farewell.
"I'll miss you guys," Emily said, as she and Diana hugged each other goodbye.
"Don't think about that," Diana gently hushed her, in a reassuring voice. "You've got to get your people home."
Mallory leaned down to pat Hannah on her shoulder. "Remember what I told you, kiddo."
"I will." She looked up at Mallory from her wheelchair. "Will you guys come back to visit?"
Mallory smiled. "You can count on it. And that's a promise from your Almost-Brother."
Wade gave Elizabeth a warm hug. "Thank you for all of your guidance, Elizabeth. Your moral support really put things in perspective for me."
"Anytime, Wade," replied Elizabeth. "And I have a feeling I'll be seeing you again soon."
Rembrandt shook Michael Mallory's hand. "Well, you've really had me on a roller-coaster ride, man. First I thought your Voraton weapon was the only hope left for my world. Then I learned it would destroy my Earth. And now . . ." He couldn't quite put it into words. ". . . we just wouldn't have survived here without you."
Michael returned the Cryin' Man's smile. "Find your home, Rembrandt," he spoke, supportively. "Liberate your world from the Kromagg Dynasty. Do it on behalf of all the Earths out there that we haven't been able to save."
Jules embraced Malcolm and softly whispered in his ear, "I wish you could stay here."
"I wish you could come with us," Malcolm replied. "But as soon as I find Gretchen, I'll bring her back here. And then we can all be together."
"I love you, Malcolm," whispered Jules. "And we will find a way to reunite."
Malcolm whispered back, as they sadly parted bodies, "I love you, too."
Maggie had been sobbing over Thomas, as he enveloped her in his arms while they said goodbye. "Thomas . . . if it hadn't been for you . . . I would have died in that airlock . . . I wouldn't be alive today . . ."
"Ssssh, don't think about that," Thomas Beecham comforted her, aware that Maggie's heightened emotions could largely be attributed to the loss of Quinn. "Just focus on your mission, captain. Quinn and Colin are counting on you to carry on their work."
"Thanks . . . you've been a good friend." Maggie tried to brush her tears away. "Goodbye, Thomas."
"So long, Lola," quipped Thomas, in response, and he and Maggie shared a spontaneous joint laugh. "I'd better be seeing you soon, once you do what needs to get done."
Janine cleared her throat, pointedly, and waved her wristwatch-clad arm in the air above her head to get everyone's attention.
Arturo, whom Diana had handed the timer off to, aimed the apparatus forward. "Three . . . two . . . one . . ."
A purple stream of energy shot out of the timer's nose, and their swirling purple vortex formed. Professor Arturo and Janine jumped in, followed by Diana, Mallory, and Wade, all of whom gave final waves to their friends from Kromagg Prime.
Malcolm exchanged one last gaze of affection with Jules before entering the Einstein-Rosen-Pudalski Bridge. That left Maggie and Rembrandt, who gave the Mallory and Beechams emphatic glances before making their way through the tunnel.
Once the vortex had closed, Michael, Elizabeth, Hannah, Thomas, Emily, and Jules were left standing there, pondering how surreal the past week had been.* * *
Maggie looked down at her cheeseburger and fries, from where she sat at a small umbrella table, across from Rembrandt. She then glanced over the terrace at the public street that ran alongside the quaint outdoor café she and Rembrandt were dining at.
Out on the sidewalk, a woman had a firm grip on a leash in her hand. About thirteen feet diagonally upward, the other end of the woman's coarse, thick, sturdy leash was fastened around the elongated neck of a giraffe. The gentle, well-behaved creature plodded obediently across the sidewalk. On the other side of the street, a young boy was similarly walking two baby giraffes side-by-side on shorter leashes. None of the passers-by were at all fazed by these exotic pets being taken out for leisurely strolls by the giraffes' human owners.
"Well," said Maggie, looking down again at the cheeseburger on her plate, "I guess it's safe to assume that they don't serve giraffe burgers on this world."
Rembrandt made a slight gagging sound as he chuckled at Maggie's observation, nearly choking on his onion ring in the process. "Yeah, the next five days here ought to be interesting."
With a sigh, Maggie looked around. Those weren't the first domesticated pet giraffes the sliders had seen being led around attached to leashes on this Earth - and they probably wouldn't be the last.
"Colin would have found this world so amusing," Maggie lamented, nibbling on a lone sliced pickle. She really missed Quinn and his brother.
"Yeah, it didn't take a lot to make Farm Boy laugh," commented Rembrandt. "He always lived life to the fullest, and enjoyed the simple humor in everything." Slapping his hand on his forehead, Remmy exhaled. "Look at us, Maggie. We're talking about them like they're dead. They are coming back. I just know it. They've got to."
"But how do you know that, Rem?!" Squinting, Maggie tried to suppress her tears, but they still showed. "What if they don't come back? What if we never see them again?"
Rembrandt sighed, surveying Sunset Strip, which was adjacent to them. He watched all the carefree Californians, walking their giraffes past palm trees and licking their papaya-flavored lollipops.
Then Rembrandt got up from his seat and moved over to kneel down next to Maggie. "It'll be okay, Maggie. I promise."
Maggie simply buried her face into Rembrandt's chest and arms.
She could not stop sobbing.
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