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 extend special thanks to SpaceTime for his speculative theories (which can be read at his website, EarthPrime.com) regarding Sliders mythology based on information deduced from the episodes "Invasion," "The Return of Maggie Beckett," and "Requiem," as well as TemporalFlux for providing access to "lost scenes" from the episodes "Invasion" and "The Return of Maggie Beckett" (the scripts of which can be read at his website, The Dimension of Continuity). Much of these theories and script details were helpful to me when synthesizing my own interpretation of how the synergy of the Sliders multiverse can be explained.* * *
I would like to credit David Peckinpah for his script dialogue from the actual Sliders episode entitled "Dinoslide," as some of this dialogue is recalled during this episode via flashback sequences. I would like to credit Michael Reaves for his script dialogue from the actual Sliders episode entitled "Requiem," as some of this dialogue is recalled during this episode via flashback sequences. I would also like to give due credit to the following writers, who, in writing past scripts for actual Sliders episodes, created various guest characters that appear in this story: Tracy Tormé, Bill Dial, Michael Reaves, David Peckinpah, Chris Black, and Eleah Horwitz.
Mallory leaned his head back, pouring the final sediments of wine from a golden goblet down his throat. "Aw, yeah!" he gasped, savoring its fruity, delicious flavor. "Nothing like free outdoor wine-tasting, eh, Malcolm?"
Malcolm Eastman was walking alongside Mallory through the crowded, colorful streets of Ventura. "Yeah," he responded, unenthusiastically. Even though he was getting to drink at the young age of seventeen, the adolescent could hardly muster up any excitement or sense of enjoyment. He unceremoniously finished the swig of red alcohol from his own goblet.
"Hey buddy, what's on your mind?" Mallory tossed the plastic chalice aside, and draped his arm around Malcolm's shoulder. "This stuff is supposed to calm your nerves, not make you feel down in the dumps."
Malcolm stopped to rest on a bench at one of the street corners, and Mallory sat down beside him. "I don't know, man," Malcolm said to his friend. The youngster's shoulders sagged with lethargy, despite all of the liveliness buzzing around them. "For the last couple days, my stomach's been churning. I don't know why . . . but it doesn't feel good, that's for sure."
Mallory placed his hand on Malcolm's forehead, checking for warmth. "Well, it doesn't feel like you have a fever."
Malcolm scanned the bustling street festival, where exhibitions of artwork and wine-tasting were in full swing. "I know you guys brought me here to see the art." Now he looked almost guilty.
"Don't worry about it," Mallory reassured him. He placed his hands on both of Malcolm's shoulders. "We don't slide until later this afternoon. Just try to relax, okay, buddy?"
Malcolm nodded, as the two of them stood up. They began strolling across the brightly chalked sidewalk, past jugglers, mimes, and portrait artists who were working on their masterpieces-in-progress along with their stationary displays of completed work.
"How about some more wine?" offered Mallory, taking two complimentary goblets from a nearby hospitality booth.
"No thanks," muttered Malcolm. He began lagging at a slower pace. "I've just been thinking a lot about Gretchen lately. Where she is right now . . ."
Mallory nodded in understanding. Malcolm had choked up and trailed off, unable to complete his oral thought. He was trying to get his mind off of imagining all the terrible things Gretchen must have endured during the last two years. Searching for a diversion, Malcolm centered his attention on a glass-framed acrylic portrait of the Channel Islands. The simulacrum depicted humps of a jagged archipelago, dotting the shaded blues of the Pacific Ocean amid cloudy whiteness. It was being sold for $500.
Softly touching Malcolm's shoulder again, Mallory reassured him, "She doesn't blame you, Malcolm. You can't beat yourself up over what happened to her. Gretchen wanted you to be safe from the Kromaggs, remember? She told you to escape while you still could."
Malcolm didn't answer. He and Mallory commenced their stroll amid the boisterous crowd of the Ventura street festival, remaining silent as they took in the raffish sights.
One tempera-based portrait caught his eye. It was a glossy depiction of a man shining his flashlight into the shadows of some dark woods at night. In this still image, his flashlight illuminated a haunting, shimmering humanoid figure. This appeared to be one of the area's well-known ghost hunters.
"You like it?" asked a female artist with thick red glasses. Malcolm couldn't take his eyes off the audacious skull-shaped tattoos on this woman's arms.
"This is Clayton Barnes embarking on one of Ventura County's earliest 'ghost hunts' in 1927," she explained to Malcolm and Mallory. "Here, Mr. Barnes is in the process of encountering his very first poltergeist."
"And the two of them make a lovely couple," quipped Mallory, hastily steering Malcolm away from the freaky artist. He could tell that Malcolm felt uncomfortable, from the way the teenager shifted in place.
"Hey, watch it, man!" called out an irritated Elston Diggs, who happened to be a nearby citrus vendor whom Mallory almost tripped over. "Watch where you're going!"
Ignoring the Alternate Diggs, Mallory reached out to steady a shaken Malcolm. "Hey, buddy, are you okay?"
Slightly dazed, Malcolm responded, "I don't know . . ."
An unexpected wave of nausea overcame him.
Out of nowhere, an ugly black crow fluttered toward them from an angle. The bird promptly landed on Malcolm's shoulder, perching itself there as though it was at home in a nest or tree branch.
With a gasp, Malcolm tensed up as a vivid flare of green light penetrated his vision. Amid this sudden incandescence, Malcolm caught a glimmer of what looked like a human face.
"Malcolm . . . a dazed, feminine voice resonated.
Even as he snapped back to reality, the imprint of that ghostly visage remained etched in his consciousness.
"Gretchen . . ." whispered Malcolm, distinguishing his friend's faint locks of blonde hair even amid the murky image.
Mallory began leading Malcolm away from the crowd. They were headed toward one of the city parks, where Mallory knew the other sliders would be convening. "You saw Gretchen?"
Malcolm stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. "Yeah, I did. It was her, Mallory!" He looked at his friend frantically. "I'm telling you the truth! Please believe me! Gretchen is in trouble, and we've got to help her!"
Mallory put his arm around Malcolm, who looked utterly terrified. "I do believe you, Malcolm. Don't worry, we're gonna figure this out."
Minutes later, they had rejoined their six friends at the Ventura Pier, by the ocean's edge on the outskirts of the Thomas Bard Memorial Park.
"How was the art festival?" Wade asked them with a smile, failing to immediately notice Malcolm's trembling lips.
"We saw more than just art," said Mallory. "Or at least, Malcolm did."
Rembrandt approached his young friend, concerned. "Malcolm? What happened, partner?"
"It's Gretchen. She's still alive." Malcolm looked deep into Rembrandt's sympathetic eyes. "She was calling out to me."
Without any hesitance, Rembrandt believed his young friend's claim. "Yeah, I've been there," he proclaimed, switching his gaze knowingly over to Wade.
Wade lightly took Malcolm by the wrist. "When the Kromaggs abducted me, Remmy had been the last important person in my life who I'd had contact with. That's probably why I was able to form such a natural psychic bond to him." As she and Rembrandt exchanged nostalgic glances, Wade continued, "If Gretchen is still alive, it's possible that she could be reaching out to you in the same way."
Maggie stuffed her hands in her pockets. "So how do we get to her? You sent us space folds, Wade. You brought us to the Earth where you were being held prisoner."
"I haven't seen any," Malcolm said, perplexed, referring to the space folds.
Mallory put his hand on Malcolm's shoulder, as the Professor checked the timer.
"We have a little more than ten minutes," Arturo told them, showing the display panel.
"Malcolm," said Diana, "if you can, you need to try to reestablish contact with Gretchen. If she's still being used for breeding, we have to get to her before the Kromaggs decide they're done with her."
Tears began to appear in Malcolm's eye ducts. "I don't know how," he whispered, painstakingly.
Wade was thinking back to her time in psionic suspension. Most of it was a blur, since Wade had been heavily infused with drugs by the Kromaggs. After serving as Christina Griffin's midwife, and then having helped Christina and her son escape from their breeder camp, Wade's initial weeks upon weeks of psychic concentration had been initially unsuccessful. Nevertheless, she still remembered some faint flashes of her numerous attempts to contact Rembrandt from across dimensions.
"Try this," Wade advised Malcolm, after extensive recall. "Close your eyes, and focus your mind entirely on Gretchen. Project your thoughts as far as you can, until you feel her again. Then ask her to send you a chain of numbers . . . the closest numbers she can see."
Diana realized what Wade was trying to get Malcolm to do. "A coordinate set. Good thinking, Wade!"
Standing in the middle of the serene municipal park, Malcolm shut his eyes and took several deep breathes. His silent thoughts resonated outward from his mind.
"Gretchen? . . . Gretchen? . . . Where are you . . . ?" Malcolm thought, feeling himself half in his body but half outside of it.
Professor Arturo gazed at the meditating Malcolm, in wonderment. Years ago, he would have merely dismissed Malcolm's attempts as naïve optimism. But after all of the amazing psychic phenomena Arturo had witnessed since then, he could no longer disregard the untapped power of the human mind. The Professor was whole-heartedly fascinated by what was unfolding within their group - - while simultaneously concerned for Malcolm's safety too, of course.
With only a couple of minutes left on the timer, the sliders watched as Malcolm murmured Gretchen's name under his breath.
"Gretchen . . . please tell us where you are . . . the adolescent mentally beckoned his good friend.
"Malcolm? Gretchen's voice resonated across hyperspace. "Everything . . . so hazy . . ."
"Numbers, Gretchen!" Malcolm emphasized. "My friends want you to send me numbers! Please! It's the only way we can find you . . ."
Wade deftly took one of Malcolm's quivering wrists. "We're running out of time," she whispered to him, hoping that Malcolm - - and perhaps Gretchen - - could somehow hear her. Wade feared that if Malcolm broke the connection with Gretchen in order to slide, he might not be able to find her again.
"Four . . . six . . . four . . ." Malcolm suddenly spat out a succession of numerical digits.
Diana already had out her PDL, and began entering numbers as Malcolm recited them.
". . . seven . . . eight . . . five . . . three . . ." continued Malcolm, now totally in sync with Gretchen.
" . . . five . . . four . . . four . . . zero . . ." Gretchen communicated to Malcolm.
". . . five . . . four . . . four . . . zero . . ." Malcolm repeated, aloud.
The Professor was entering these numbers into the timer, as Malcolm spoke them.
". . . one!" Malcolm said, in unison with Gretchen. He felt their psychic link dissolving.
When Malcolm opened his eyes, he was greeted by his seven friends staring avidly at him.
"Welcome back," Janine said, with a snarky yet amicable smile.
"It was Gretchen!" Malcolm told them, with great urgency in his voice. "She needs us to come to her!"
"We know, partner." Rembrandt put his arm around Malcolm's rib cage, holding him closely. Non-verbally, Remmy exchanged percipient glances with Wade. The two of them had been through this before. "We definitely know."
Diana had begun to intensely scrutinize the screen of her Portable Dimensional Laboratory. "Well, Malcolm, those numbers you gave us fit perfectly into twelve digits. They meet the common parameters for a standard set of sliding coordinates."
Arturo had finished entering the twelve-digit sequence into the group's timer. "I assume we are in consensus about accessing these coordinates when the window opens?" He looked up, studying everyone's faces.
"It could be a trap . . ." Janine was the only dissenting voice to bring up a situational concern.
"We've all got the anti-Kromagg virus in our bloodstreams," Maggie disagreed with the risk factor. "Besides, we owe it to Gretchen." In her own mind, Maggie felt a great deal responsible for Gretchen's situation, since she shared the same homeworld as Malcolm and Gretchen. She and Quinn had chosen that primitive world for the Pulsar Prime refugees. From her perspective, Maggie felt that if she had only been able to find a highly populated, more civilized Earth for them to settle on, Gretchen might never have been abducted . . .
Diana linked her arm with Maggie's, as though she could sense Maggie's guilt. "It's no one's fault but the Kromaggs'. They are the ones who started this . . . but I think it's time for us to finish it." Even as she said that, Diana quietly slipped her PDL into the inner pocket of her vest, and then caressed her hand over the barely noticeable bulge.
Wade peered over Arturo's shoulder to see the timer's readout. "Only about thirty seconds left . . ."
Mallory took Malcolm's free hand, sandwiching the seventeen-year-old between himself and Remmy. "We're gonna get her back," Mallory resolutely told Malcolm.
"That's a promise," Rembrandt echoed Mallory's sentiment, with a nod of his head.
As soon as the Professor opened the vortex, Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut while his friends ushered him into those winds of uncertainty.
* * *
Each of the sliders could only remember seeing one thing inside of their vortex. The sparkly purple tunnel morphed into an ominous shade of reddish-orange all around them.
Rembrandt opened his eyes, remembering virtually nothing about his preceding trip between worlds. What he did recognize was that eerie feeling of impotence, having one's body suspended in midair, with no way to move one's limbs or joints.
Rembrandt Brown's eyes darted from side to side, and his eyes soon adjusted to the dim enclave. He spotted, to his left, Arturo, Diana, and Maggie. On Rembrandt's right side were Malcolm, Mallory, and Janine. All of the sliders were similarly being held by some invisible force of stasis, inches above the ground.
Professor Arturo's heart thumped as he glanced toward Rembrandt, who was directly to the Professor's right. "Déjà vu, Mr. Brown?" Arturo dismally ventured.
"What the hell's going on here?!" shouted Janine. By now, all seven of them were fully awake.
"Welcome," came a hauntingly monotone female voice.
In the corner of the small enclave, a bright light shone down from the ceiling. This "spotlight" revealed the skinny figure of a woman dressed in simple clothing. The sliders' hostess had slanted, Oriental eyes, and straight black hair cropped right below her chin.
"Mary." Rembrandt said the name in stark, disheartened realization. Then, he took a second look at the mysterious woman from his friends' past. "Wait a minute . . ."
". . . aren't you supposed to be dead?" Professor Arturo balked, completing Rembrandt's thought.
"Who's she?" Maggie asked Remmy and Arturo, obviously failing to recognize Mary, despite their encounter with one of Mary's doppelgangers two years earlier.
"She's the Kromaggs' lapdog," Rembrandt uttered, his voice like poison. He rotated his eyes, and verbally addressed Mary. "But Quinn said you died."
Mary took a step forward, and continued to speak in her somber tone. "Yes. That was part of their plan. The Kromaggs instructed me to stage my death and allow you to escape, so they could track your journeys." With a pensive tilt of her head, Mary added, "But you had undoubtedly figured that out, by now."
"How did you know we'd be coming here?" demanded Professor Arturo. He twitched his face, perplexed as to how they could possibly even dream of getting out of this one.
Mary paused, as though she was listening for instructions on what to say. "My masters were informed of your impending arrival by a reliable source. You are presently in a eugenic research center on 'Earth 23,' one of the earliest dimensions that fell under Kromagg rule. The Dynasty has unfinished matters to attend to, regarding your interference in its affairs."
"OUR interference?!" Even from where most of his body was frozen in midair, Rembrandt was livid at the mere suggestion that this was somehow humanity's fault.
"Where's Gretchen?" asked Malcolm, in a strained voice. He feared the worst - - that the Kromaggs had already killed her.
Mary shut her eyes, telepathically communicating with her Kromagg superiors. "My masters do not know who you are referring to," she told Malcolm.
Mallory rolled his eyes. "You can drop the act," he sneered at her. "We've met Kromaggs who can speak English. You don't need to translate what we say for them."
"No, Mr. Mallory," Arturo acknowledged Mallory's suspicion, "but they do need her to communicate telepathically. They don't want us to hear what the Dynasty apparently has in store for us."
"Mr. Mallory?" Mary paid special attention to Arturo's address of Mallory. Out of her own volition, the interpreter took a few steps in Mallory's direction. "You cannot be Quinn Mallory," she stated to him, her petrified British accent underscoring the pivotal ambiance around them. "I remember Quinn Mallory vividly . . . his voice, his appearance . . . are you related to Quinn?" Her last question was spoken in a curious tone.
"Yeah, I'm his fraternal twin," Mallory sneered again. "I'm not telling you anything. You want to know about me, come and get the information yourselves!"
"They may just take you up on that offer, Fog Boy," quivered Rembrandt, reminding Mallory of the Kromaggs' propensity for interrogation.
"Wait . . . where is Miss Wells?" Arturo had been so overtaken with shock from the situation, it wasn't until then that he suddenly noticed one of the members of their team was absent.
Rembrandt flinched. "What did you do with Wade??!!" he roared, the Cryin' Man's vocals echoing through the chamber.
Mary's eyes shifted uncomfortably. She was clearly receiving more telepathic orders from her masters. "Enough," she stated. "You shall have your answers shortly."
As Mary turned around and took a stride into the darkness, Janine addressed her comrades. "So . . . what does this mean?" her voice uncharacteristically shook.
"Interrogation. Mind probe. Execution. Dissection." Maggie flatly laid out her prediction, as a blur of tears obscured her vision.
They were all caught off-guard by a raspy hissing noise coming from someplace behind where they were being held in stasis.
"What's that smell?" Diana referred to the sterile, gaseous scent that slowly filled their noses. "It smells like . . ." She felt her eyelids dropping. ". . . ether."
Rembrandt wanted to calm his friends down, tell them everything would be okay. Proclaim that somehow, they would beat the odds yet again and get out of this. But he couldn't - - and not just because the ether was suppressing his speech and causing Rembrandt to fall asleep . . .
Because deep down, Rembrandt wasn't at all confident he could believe they would.
* * *
A voluptuous, olive-skinned maiden strolled down a pathway paved with marble. She wore a skin-tight silvery gown that clung to her flesh. The woman had tiny pomegranates strung throughout her free-flowing black hair.
But she was not any ordinary wanderer. Her intuition had drawn her here, to stand beside a humanoid statue, which bore the likeness of a man whom she had been responsible for enshrining in a bronzed cage.
The goddess Aphrodite swiftly extended her long, slender arms, touching the effigy of Colonel Angus Rickman. Her fingers caressed his hardened surface, causing Rickman's bronze shell to melt away.
As he was released from his entrapment, Angus Rickman commenced with a feral snarl, and proceeded to jab the syringe forward in his outstretched arm.
The needle simply snapped like a toothpick, as it failed to pierce Aphrodite's immortal flesh.
"I am too strong for your mortal weapons," the goddess smirked, staring down at the bewildered and agitated Rickman.
Rickman whipped his head around in a frenzy, surveying the landscape of Pagan World. "Where are the sliders?!" he demanded.
"They are gone," she replied. With an unnerving smile, she gloated, "I suspended your life force in time. You have been trapped on this world for countless cycles."
The colonel looked perturbed, although not all that surprised. "How . . . how long have I been here?" he growled.
"Seven months, in mortal time," Aphrodite answered him.
Rickman was intimidated, fully subscribing to the notion that a deity had controlled his fate. But he tried his best not to show it. "Why now . . . ?" he asked, with breathless apprehension.
Aphrodite began to circulate around the sliders' enemy, compelling him to turn and follow her movements. "Not long ago, I was resting on Mount Olympus when I received a message. It came from beyond my realm, which was quite unusual." Aphrodite bent down to pluck a rose out of the ground, and she began tearing apart its red petals with her fingers. "I still do not know who sent me that message, but it contained great wisdom. It was delivered to me in the form of an empathic sensation . . . I recalled my previous subjugation of your meager subhuman fur. That memory ignited a surge of presentience. Apparently, another power of equal greatness to myself desired for me to take pleasure in the pain you will inflict upon our mutual foes."
"What are you talking about?" Rickman's eyes boggled as he tried to process Aphrodite's cryptic words.
Aphrodite fumed with impatience. "I am sending you to seek them out!" she hissed, with naked vengeance in her eyes. "To cause Colin Mallory and his comrades great pain for daring to cross me!"
"You don't say? 'Great pain,' eh?" Rickman, despite all the remarkable things he had seen during his lifetime, remained skeptical. He wondered if Aphrodite was simply stroking her own ego by elucidating a grandiose fantasy that she harbored.
Reluctantly, Aphrodite inched her fingers toward Rickman's rugged skin. As she held back a cringe, the goddess stroked Angus Rickman's flesh, closing her eyes and moaning as she channeled the prescient deluges of pain that Rickman would be destined to inflict on those whom they both despised.
By now, a handful of poorly-dressed peasants had stopped to watch the goddess rant in front of Rickman. From a distance, the Greek plebeians cowered and observed in silence, intimidated by the powerful deity's ire.
"What are you staring at?!" Aphrodite whipped her head around and barked at the peasants. The small crowd of impoverished citizens fearfully scurried away, scattering in all directions.
Rickman crinkled his nose and snarled. "I'm not afraid of you. I've been to hell and back - - what are you going to do? Turn me into a statue again?"
"If you fail to heed my command," the goddess stated, simply. "Besides, this is your chance to exact revenge on your foes. My powers allow me to track Colin and his companions to their present location among worlds. I shall open a portal at the edge of my universe, and send you through it. You will track down our adversaries and destroy them on my behalf."
The defiant adrenaline was still rushing through Rickman's veins too quickly for him to process Aphrodite's words. "You dare to give me orders, goddess?!" he growled at Aphrodite, out of pure rebellion.
Aphrodite fumed. "You fool! I am bestowing upon you the opportunity to bask in the obliteration of those who have caused you a lifetime of agony!!!"
As Aphrodite's words hit him, Rickman took a calculated pause so he could ponder Aphrodite's proposal. "So why don't you just go after them yourself?" he suspiciously asked the goddess, wondering if there might be a catch.
"Now listen here, beast!" Aphrodite had pretty much lost all of her patience with this malformed creature. "I am not doing this for you. You will merely serve as a vessel for me to punish those who have dared to defy my authority. If I leave this world, I may never be able to return. I am unwilling to give up dominion over my kingdom. In simple terms, your life is expendable." She stared Rickman down, sensing how his remaining human cells would gradually die completely over the next couple of years. "I could make you a god, but that would be such a waste. Do you not want to kill these enemies of yours before you perish? Is that not the purpose behind your pursuit of them?"
Rickman looked down at the still-malfunctioning timer in his hands. "I suppose I can only suck out other people's brain fluid for so long . . ." he admitted, realizing how far ahead of him the sliders must have gotten by now. "Fine. If you really can do what you claim, then send me to them right now." He folded his arms, as he stood before Aphrodite expectantly.
"So be it." With a whisk of her hand, Aphrodite had opened a rift in time and space, which appeared as a large, gaping, swirling hole of energy only inches off the ground. She informed Rickman, over the roar of the vortex, "This is a one-way journey! Once you arrive at the destination, you will be on your own! From that point forward, you will be out of my reach!"
The deformed and antsy Colonel Rickman faced the thunderous wind of Aphrodite's portal. "So long, beautiful," he thanked the goddess in jest, turning his head to bid her farewell. Swiveling back toward the vortex, Rickman braced himself and leapt in. "I'm coming for you, my dear Maggie!" his bloodthirsty howl echoed across the transdimensional tunnel.
Once her portal had dissipated, Aphrodite turned back to the new crowd of mortals that had tentatively gathered during the last few seconds. She spotted one particularly muscular, tan, shirtless human male - - a servant who had been running an errand when sidetracked by Aphrodite's scene.
Even from several feet away, Aphrodite could feel what the handsome servant was feeling - - his mortal lust for her flawless physique, and the blood rushing to his loins.
The goddess proceeded to frolic toward him.
* * *
As Malcolm groggily awoke, he saw that he and his friends had been moved. Wade was still absent from their group, but the other seven of them were now sprawled out across the floor, inside a spherical enclosure that appeared to be approximately twenty feet cubed in area and volume. The edges of this strange entrapment were slightly murky, although translucent, for the most part. Outside of their new "prison," a dimly lit sea of spaciousness could be seen.
In other words, there was no real way of deciphering where they were - - aside from knowing they were in Kromagg captivity, obviously.
Malcolm crawled across the cold floor, and began shaking Rembrandt, who was still asleep. "Remmy! Remmy!"
"Huh . . . ?" Rembrandt Brown gradually came to. He opened his eyes to see Malcolm's face looking down at him. "Malcolm? Wh - - what happened?"
"Remmy, the Kromaggs moved us!" Malcolm helped Rembrandt to sit up, and the Cryin' Man took in their gloomy prison that they were enveloped in.
The others began to stir. Maggie sat up next, and Diana opened her eyes next to Maggie.
"We can move again . . ." Maggie realized, taking in their surroundings.
"Bastard 'Maggots!!! Let us out!!!" Rembrandt leapt to his feet with a surge of adrenaline, and charged toward the translucent barrier in heated rage.
"Remmy, no!!" Diana shouted after him, as Mallory and Professor Arturo proceeded to wake up.
Rembrandt paid no attention to his friend's warning. With a sense of desperation, he propelled his body forward and upwards, vainly hoping to penetrate the barrier that kept the sliders penned in. As soon as Rembrandt hit the translucent wall, an electromagnetic flash illuminated Remmy's body, shocking every bone in his skeletal structure and stopping him cold. Remmy slumped to the floor.
This was the scene Janine awoke to.
"Rembrandt!" Maggie shuffled over to him on her hands and knees, followed by Malcolm, Diana, and Mallory.
"I'm fine . . ." groaned Rembrandt, unconvincingly. While he was not seriously injured, the electrocution from the force field had left every cell in the Cryin' Man's body tingling.
"What's going on?" The first sight that the newly-awakened Janine had been confronted with was that of Rembrandt being zapped and falling back, having failed to defeat the Kromaggs' electromagnetic "fence."
"They relocated us while we were sleeping, Miss Chen," the Professor informed her.
Janine looked around in confusion. "So why go to all this trouble? Why didn't they just kill us in our sleep?"
"Because," replied Maggie, who'd had plenty of her own experience dealing with Kromaggs, "they want to get as much information out of us as they can. And since they probably know who we are, we're doubly valuable to them."
"Quite right, human." Another eerily familiar female voice wafted from behind the translucent "fence."
All around the sliders, bright lights flickered on from the ceiling and walls, causing a blinding sensation. Once their eyes had adjusted, the sliders saw dozens of armed Kromagg guards surrounding them on all sides.
However, the commanding officer who had taken center-stage looked awfully recognizable - - at least, to four of the sliders. She stood tall and proud, her slender figure adorned in a decorated Kromagg military uniform. Mary stood by Kesh's side, her eyes modestly and meekly staring at the floor.
"Colonel Kesh?!" spat out Maggie, identifying the soldier in shock.
"It's 'Lieutenant Kesh,' actually," she responded, in a superlative tone of voice.
"She got a promotion?" Mallory looked at Diana, Maggie, and Rembrandt, bewildered. "How?" he gaped. "Didn't she die on the manta base?" He directed his next statement at Kesh. "Didn't you die on the manta base?"
Lieutenant Kesh pressed her lips together in amusement. "Hardly."
"Wait, you know this brood?" Janine asked her friends, referring to Kesh.
Rembrandt coughed raucously, trying to catch his breath so he could answer Janine. "She's the commanding officer who oversaw Wade's implantation. We thought she blew up when Wade destroyed the Kromaggs' command center - - the one that deployed space folds."
Lieutenant Kesh served up a tiny smirk for them. "That was not me," she told them, enjoying the suspense. "I was nowhere near 'Earth 50' when your Ms. Wells hijacked our achievement. No, the 'Colonel Kesh' whom you encountered was bred from the same two Kromagg specimens at the same time as myself."
Diana was taken aback. "Your sister?"
Rembrandt glared at Lieutenant Kesh. "Well, that would explain why you and her have the exact same butt-ugly face."
Mallory wore an odd combination of astonishment and amusement. "Kromagg twins?"
"So she was your identical twin sister?" Maggie said to Kesh.
Kesh stuck up her nose. "Kromaggs do not cling to such sentimental bonds as you humans. It is one of your greatest weaknesses as a species."
"And I suppose a Kromagg sign of 'strength' is chewing through the umbilical chord on your way out?" Janine rolled her eyes upward.
Kesh replied to Janine's retort with a pseudo-chuckle. "Do not underestimate our intelligence. We have tracked your long-term movements every step of the way, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. And here we are."
"So you have been tracking us through every world we slide to?" Diana confirmed. "Through the device you implanted in Quinn?"
With a coarse affirmative nod of her head, Kesh asked the group, "Speaking of which, why is Mr. Mallory not currently with your party?"
"He took a little road trip," quipped Maggie, in a wise-ass tone.
"Where is he?" Kesh demanded.
"I have a better question," Mallory piped up, putting on a fake smile of charm. "How did you know about our visit to the manta base when that entire dimension was vaporized?"
As her boots clacked against the floor, Kesh made her way over to a spot from which all the sliders had a clear view of her. The Kromagg lieutenant swept her arm in a horizontal motion, somehow activating a data stream that rained down from the ceiling.
The digital video feed from three years earlier showed Rembrandt, Maggie, Diana, and Mallory being surrounded by armed Kromagg guards. Lieutenant Kesh's biological sister, who had been in control of the manta base at the time, had already strode into the camera's frame at some point before the data stream was activated. She stood before the four sliders upon encountering them for the second time that day, sizing them up once again.
"How refreshing to actually underestimate a human mind for once," commented the biological sibling of Lieutenant Kesh. "It's a mistake I have no intention of making twice." The vicious colonel reached over to the hydropod that Wade was encased in, and turned the dial to sedate the cyberiad. "Clever human, indeed," Kesh remarked, shooting a glance in Mallory's direction.
Mallory flashed her a cute yet defiant smirk. "To know us is to love us."
"But to no avail," Kesh retorted. "You are just in time to witness the greatest triumph in the history of the Kromagg race. The liberation of our homeworld." She pressed a button to turn on the intercom. "Bridge, this is Kesh," she relayed her instructions to the control room. "Stand by for launch countdown. Initiate transdimensional fold." Turning her attention back to the sliders, Colonel Kesh smugly explained to them, "Once our ship is past the Slidecage, we will bombard the planet with an anti-human plague. And we owe this all to your friend and her colleagues." Kesh indicated Wade and the other cyberiads, still trapped in their hydropods. "Sad to say, but the prolonged psionic effort of this mission will probably burn their brains down to cinders. Fortunes of war . . ."
The streaming video that recounted this scene from three years ago was suddenly paused in place, and the likenesses of these players on the video feed became frozen in time.
"This security tape was transmitted offworld from Outpost 50 only minutes before that dimension ceased to exist," Lieutenant Kesh harshly narrated. She cast a critical glare upon Rembrandt, Maggie, Diana, and Mallory. "The four of you were added to our database of transdimensional fugitives. This little escapade is what convinced us to place a bounty on your head, Mr. Brown." She stared directly at Rembrandt. "When Ms. Wells obliterated our project, it only underscored how detrimental your influence was to the Dynasty's future survival."
"So where's Wade?" Rembrandt demanded from Kesh. "You wanna know what happened to Quinn so badly . . . you tell us what you did with Wade, first. She'd better be safe!"
"Or you'll do what?" sneered Kesh, holding in her temptation to chortle at Rembrandt's hollow threat. The lieutenant whisked her hand in another steady motion, shutting down the paused video feed and retracting the data stream. "Your impudence will only get you a more painful mind probe."
Rembrandt shuddered, as he observed the terrified expressions on his friends' faces. He couldn't bear to put them through that.
"Look, we're not going anywhere," Diana tried to reason with Lieutenant Kesh. "So why don't you just tell us why you brought us here? How did you bring us here, anyway? And what do you have to gain?"
Kesh pursed her lips together, before saying to Diana, "You have a logical mind. So unlike most humans. You are correct that we sought you out for purposes other than just random torture." She turned to address Mary, whose eyes were still locked on the floor. "Mary, why don't you explain to our 'guests' how they got themselves into their current predicament. They may possibly comprehend the technology more easily if they hear it from a fellow homo sapien."
Mary finally took her eyes off the floor, making nervous eye contact with Diana through the force field. "You were brought here, to this exact dimensional point, by a 'pandimensional energy snare,' which generates a magnetic pull across multiple worlds." She averted her eyes away from the sliders, choosing to focus in on the wall across the room. "The Kromagg Dynasty programmed its cyberiads to telepathically emit a stream of numerical coordinates in a continuous loop. Due to the random nature of your destination selection, they knew it would only be a matter of time before the cyberiads' hyperspatial data aligned precisely with those on your translocation device."
"So you had the cyberiads feed those numbers into our timer?" Diana didn't want to tell them that Malcolm had made psychic contact with Gretchen. If the Kromaggs realized one of their human prisoners had the mental capacity to interact with the cyberiads from afar, they might simply take Gretchen's life.
"Cyberiads?" Maggie sounded appalled. "So you rebuilt your fleet?"
"Of course," Kesh replied, with a sinister grin. "It was our only hope for exterminating your kind. After all, do you not intend to do the same to us?" She raised her eyebrows, knowingly.
Mallory hissed to his friends, through gritted teeth, "I think they know about the virus . . ."
"Yes, very resourceful." Kesh began circulating around the "fenced" force field, compelling the sliders to follow her footsteps with their eyes. "Based on how efficiently you've decimated so many of our outposts, I assume this virus is airborne? I must commend your sense of strategy. You have managed to slow the Dynasty down, forcing us to sequester our own soldiers. Most of the Humagg hybrids we have deployed to those dimensions end up being . . . how would you humans word it? . . . sacrificial lambs."
"Cannon fodder," Rembrandt seethed, under his breath.
Kesh made her way back over to Rembrandt. She stopped right in front of him, protected by the force field that separated them, and crossed her arms. "But now that we have you in our possession, we can draw blood samples from you and your companions, in order to create an antidote." She raised her eyebrows. "Kromaggs everywhere sincerely thank you, Mr. Brown."
Rembrandt was totally frozen, paralyzed. His whole body had gone numb, after hearing Kesh's words.
"Now, I can make this entire process very quick and painless for your friends, Mr. Brown . . . IF you agree to cooperate. That means telling us what happened to Quinn Mallory." Kesh leaned toward Remmy, her nose inches away from the transparent electromagnetic barrier that divided them. "Why is he no longer a member of your little group?"
The Cryin' Man used every ounce of strength he had to contain his rage. "You want answers, 'Magg? . . . you come and get them yourself!" he spat out at Kesh. Remmy was unwilling to sell out Quinn and Colin voluntarily, and vowed that if the Kromaggs wanted to obtain that information, they'd have to do it by force. "Dissect my brain, find what you need."
"With pleasure." Lieutenant Kesh confidently backed away from Rembrandt, a gleeful glint of triumph in her beady eyes. She acted as though she was about to stride away, but then stopped, swerved her body toward Rembrandt's general direction, and spoke with a sense of happenstance that was clearly calculated and rehearsed. "Oh, and Mr. Brown, before we begin the interrogations, I assume you still would like to know what we have done with your dear Ms. Wells?"
With another wave of her hand, Kesh had activated a second data stream, which appeared on the wall once again in plain view of all the sliders. Through the transparent electromagnetic walls, they watched as Wade's current situation became clear.
The streaming video feed showed Wade, strapped upright in a chair, completely immobilized. She appeared to be trapped in an even more cramped "cell" than the rest of the sliders were in. It was surrounded by a similar electromagnetic barrier. Wade's eyes were covered by a metallic bar that hung down from the ceiling, horizontally curved so that it appropriately molded with the shape of her cranium, while obscuring her entire line of vision from one ear to the other.
"Is . . . is she still alive?" Malcolm eked out, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
"Oh, very much so," affirmed Lieutenant Kesh. "She can hear whatever we decide she should be told. However, we felt it was imperative that we suspend her capacity to freely move any of her appendages - - including her eyes. After all, we wouldn't want Ms. Wells to find some way to utilize any of her telekinetic abilities in an offensive manner."
A rumble arose from Rembrandt's stomach. "Don't you hurt her!" he warned Kesh and the other Kromagg guards who were stationed around the room.
"You are in no position to make threats, Mr. Brown," reiterated Kesh, with derisive amusement in her voice. She retracted the data stream, and the image of Wade vanished.
"Oh yeah? You can't keep us in here forever." Rembrandt stared at Lieutenant Kesh, defiantly. "And the moment you try to extract my blood to create your antidote, the virus will kick your 'Maggot asses. Bet ya didn't think of that when you decided to lock us behind this nifty little force field of yours?"
"Bravo," Kesh condescendingly clapped her hands in fake applause. "You outsmarted us. Your blood is indeed toxic to my species." She paused, in mock contemplation for effect, as a beat passed. "However, there are some individuals on my side of the war who ARE immune to your viral pathogens." Kesh shouted over to some of the guards, commanding them, "Bring her in."
A mechanical door slid open, shedding a ray of exterior light into the dark, spacious chamber. As the Kromagg guards at the doorway moved aside, they cleared a path for a curvy, feminine, silhouetted figure.
Another light from above sprayed down upon the recent arrival, bathing this human female in glowing fluorescence. Her chocolaty brown skin and frizzy, reddish-brown hair were made visible by the neutrally tinted lights.
Rembrandt's beating heart nearly jumped up into his throat, as he recognized and verbally addressed the Kromaggs' apparent human ally with an emanation of incredulity.
"Grace . . . ?"
* * *
Two Kromagg guards were striding down a dim corridor in unison. Both of them gripped their large, sturdy weapons, heading straight for the central control room.
"What is the plan for interrogating the transdimensional fugitives?" one of the soldiers asked his compatriot, as they orally communicated in their native Kromagg tongue.
"Lieutenant Kesh has instructed Dr. Venable to appeal to the human emotions of Rembrandt Brown," answered the other Kromagg soldier, who happened to be a personal aide to Kesh's second-in-command. "If that interrogation proves fruitless, we will extract additional information from each of Mr. Brown's companions, one by one. After a thorough inquisition of these seven humans, we will execute them in gradual succession, right before Mr. Brown's very eyes."
"And if he still resists?" the first soldier countered, throwing out another hypothetical.
"I cannot imagine that he would," offered the second soldier. "But if Mr. Brown does somehow tolerate the complete massacre of his friends, we will still have samples of their blood. We can place Rembrandt Brown in cryogenic suspension, until the viral antibodies have been fertilized. Then, we can bring Mr. Brown out of stasis, and force him to witness the destruction of his own species."
The conversational rumbling of their shared Kromagg dialect was cut short by a spontaneous anomaly of light. It had materialized as a bubbly mass of luminescence at the end of the hallway that the two Kromagg soldiers were proceeding down.
Both of the simian soldiers grunted in stupor, as a humanoid figure tumbled out of this bright rift. The unexplainable tear in space-time sealed itself shut, as the hairy form of Angus Rickman crawled to his knees.
Rickman stared up at the hideous faces of the uniformed Kromaggs, although he was not terribly fazed by their appearance. "Who are you?!" he growled. "Where am I?!"
This was the first time Rickman had ever seen a Kromagg.
Each of the Kromagg soldiers raised his hefty weapon and fired straight down at Colonel Rickman. The deranged madman howled as waves of medium-voltage energy from the Kromagg weaponry stunned him into submission.
"What is this creature?" one of the soldiers queried. "And how did he get here?"
"We shall find out soon," uttered the other one.
Together, they lifted Rickman's rugged arms. One of the soldiers handed an arm off to his partner, who clasped onto both of the colonel's wrists. The Kromagg soldier who gripped their prisoner unilaterally took on the task of dragging the unconscious Rickman down the corridor, while the other soldier spotted them, armed with his high-tech stun gun.
Soon, they had arrived in the epicenter of Kromagg Command, where the sentries shocked their superior with this newly-acquired prisoner.
"Where did you find this animal?" demanded General Konntul. His dark, turnip-shaped head remained staunchly serious, soliciting an arrogation of respect from any and all subordinates.
"He arrived through a vortex," one of them diffidently responded. "But it was unlike any vortex I have ever seen . . ."
Rickman was coming to, as his advanced adrenaline allowed him to recover from blows to the head faster than most humans would. "Where are they . . . ?" he mewed, fighting through groggy deliria. "Where are . . . the sliders . . . ?"
"The sliders?" General Konntul repeated Rickman's words, clearly intrigued.
"My dear Maggie . . . and Quinn Mallory . . . I will kill them!" Rickman had snapped to alertness, regaining his sense of dispatch. He gritted his teeth and snarled, fighting against the restraints of coarse Kromagg hands.
"Sliders? Quinn Mallory?" Konntul suspiciously regurgitated the words that had spewed out of Rickman's mouth. The general gave his subordinates a hard stare. "How does he know Quinn Mallory? Is this cretin under the employment of our enemies?"
"We do not know, sir," replied one of the soldiers, nervously.
General Konntul seethed, and yanked Rickman up off the floor by his collar. "Then I will find out!" He asked his soldiers, "Is Lieutenant Kesh still debriefing the prisoners?"
"Yes, sir . . ."
With an impatient grunt, General Konntul roughly pulled the still-unsteady Rickman out of the room.
* * *
Kesh gave Rembrandt a cagey smirk, watching as the Cryin' Man sized up Dr. Grace Venable with a mixture of incredulity and indignation.
"Mr. Brown looks perturbed," Kesh commented aloud, to no one in particular. She sprouted a titillated smile for Rembrandt. "Ah, so you and the good doctor ARE acquainted, after all?"
"Of course." Grace shot a side-glare at Kesh. "You should know by now I wouldn't lie to you. It would jeopardize our agreement." She moved closer to the force field, reading Rembrandt with her conflicted eyes. "Long time, Remmy."
"Not long enough for me . . ." Rembrandt eyed Grace with utter revulsion.
Mallory watched Rembrandt and Grace glare each other down. "Um, you two know each other?"
Maggie took the other sliders aside, and whispered to them. She began explaining who Grace was and how they'd met Grace.
"You couldn't have ended up here!" Rembrandt protested to his former lover. "We turned you over to the authorities on your Earth."
With a modest nod of her head, Grace replied, "Until the Kromaggs reinvaded my world. It turned out the initial supply raid wasn't enough to satisfy their leaders, so the mantas came back for complete domination. They broke me out of my London prison cell." She glanced above Rembrandt's head, reflectively. "I agreed to work for them again, in exchange for amnesty."
"The Dynasty felt that Dr. Venable would prove to be quite useful at some point," Kesh broke in, still trying to repress the demented glee in her voice. "How right we were."
Rembrandt ignored Kesh and stayed focused on Grace. "How can you even look at yourself in the mirror?" he asked her, his vocals stained with pure disgust.
Grace looked hurt and irate at the same time. "You betrayed me, Rembrandt," she accused him, her voice shaking.
"You betrayed your species, Grace," countered Rembrandt, shaking his head. It was clear to him that if this woman had any remorse at all, it was buried deep beneath her flesh and bones.
"Didn't you learn anything?" Maggie piped up, speaking angrily at Grace. "You saved Quinn's life, dammit! A human life. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Grace released a regretful sigh. "I did what I had to do for my own survival," she said, and shifted her lingering eyes from Maggie back to Rembrandt.
Their exchange was interrupted by the door to the chamber opening and releasing another gush of light from the exterior corridor. More Kromagg guards ushered a decrepit, moaning, hunched-over body through the metallic doorway. As they pulled this struggling person into the light, the fluorescence beat down on his shaggy chin. All seven sliders were terrified at what they saw.
"This . . . creature arrived in the facility only minutes ago," announced General Konntul's voice, as he emerged from the shadows. Marching over to Lieutenant Kesh, Konntul indicated Rickman's hideous appearance. "He has given us no indication as to where he comes from, or how he was transported here. I believe he could be a misguided human experiment gone badly awry."
Kesh's gaze bounced from Rickman over to the others. "Perhaps we should turn him loose on our 'guests'?"
Rickman continued to snarl, squinting in discomfort as the fluorescent light bothered his corneas.
But Maggie, still overcome with the initial distress of seeing her enemy again, finally reacted aloud. "Rickman?!" she practically screamed, balling her fists while remaining conscious of the electromagnetic barrier that penned her in. In another second, her voice shrunk to a confused quiver. "But - - but . . . you died? . . . didn't you?"
Diana came to Maggie's side. "We saw Aphrodite turn him into a bronze statue," she reminded Maggie.
"I was freed," Rickman bared his pointy teeth at them, in satisfaction. "We have some unfinished business to attend to, Maggie dearest . . ."
"You bet your neanderthal ass we do!" Maggie pounded her fists against the energy barrier, before Diana could stop her. Maggie jumped backward and shrieked, as the force field shocked the flesh of her knuckles.
"Ah. So you're acquainted with him, as well? What an ironic stroke of good fortune for the Dynasty." Kesh smiled sadistically at Maggie, and then whipped her head around toward Rickman. "Take this . . . monster to one of the interrogation cells," she ordered the guards. "We'll put him to good use, in time."
"Rickman, I swear to you, I'll . . . !" Maggie ranted a variety of colorful obscenities, as Mallory, Diana, and Rembrandt all cohesively restrained her.
Meanwhile, Rickman teasingly licked and puckered out his lips at Maggie, while intermittently flicking out his tongue. He leered at her and cackled, even as his Kromagg wardens dragged Rickman out of the room.
Once Rickman was gone, Kesh cleared her throat to get everyone's attention. "Dr. Venable," she spoke to Grace, "perhaps if our 'guests' heard some firsthand accounts from you, describing the scope of our activities, they would be more cooperative?"
"Listen . . ." Grace said, glazing her eyes over the seven interdimensional travelers. She felt it was time to try to talk some sense into them.
"Save it," Mallory cut her off. Despite having never met either of them before, he gave Grace and Mary a sharp, cold stare. "We don't want to hear anything you have to say. Not after selling out your entire species."
Mary shyly dropped her head to the floor, while Grace turned to look at General Konntul.
"You cannot get through to them?" he asked, impatiently.
"If I could have a few minutes alone with them . . ." Grace proposed, her head oscillating back and forth between Konntul and Kesh.
Kesh sighed, and then snapped her fingers at the guards. "Allow Dr. Venable five minutes alone with the prisoners." She no longer even bothered to put up the front of cloaking her semantics by using the word "guests" as a reference to the sliders.
As all of the Kromagg guards filed out, Kesh and Konntul both gave Grace expectant looks. The general and lieutenant accordingly followed their subordinates out of the chamber, leaving all of the humans alone together.
"You fools! I'm trying to help you!" Grace shouted at the interdimensional rebels - - most pointedly at Rembrandt. "The Kromaggs WILL kill all of you if you don't do what they want!"
"What exactly is it that they want?" shot back Janine, with tired skepticism in her tone. "Are you seriously trying to convince us that we can avoid interrogation somehow?"
"If you play your cards right," Grace put forth. But none of them were buying it.
Mary took her eyes off the floor, and made eye contact with Rembrandt and Arturo. "The Kromaggs may not simply kill you. They have the ability to do much worse."
Arturo returned Mary's stare, critically. "Madame, why should we give credibility to anything you say?" he challenged her. "The last time we crossed paths, you helped set up an entire ruse so the Kromagg Dynasty could track our journey."
"You faked your own death just to gain favor with your masters," Rembrandt fiercely spurned Mary, adding to the Professor's contempt. "You played us. You exploited our sympathies. As far as I'm concerned, you're just a lying piece of trash."
Mary winced, their words striking an emotional chord in her. "Please understand, I had no choice."
"There's always a choice," Rembrandt negated her claim. "But you took the easy way out. You just blew in whichever direction the wind took you. I spent three months stuck in Kromagg hell because of people like you!"
Mary didn't respond. She simply bowed her head in shame.
Grace lightly touched Mary's arm next to her, while scowling at Rembrandt. "You just don't get it, do you? You have no clue what kind of even worse hell you're in for, if you resist. I've seen the things the Kromaggs have done to test subjects from other worlds. I've helped them do it!"
"Is that all we are to you now? 'Test subjects'?" Maggie turned her back on Grace and Mary, unable to look at them any longer.
"I've been with these apes for the last seven months," Grace emphasized, trying to get through to them. "They've made so many scientific advances since you last saw them. Your determination to spread your virus across the multiverse only makes the Dynasty even more hell-bent on defeating you. Don't you see? I can prepare you for what you're in for. Maybe I can broker some kind of a deal, at least for some of you . . ."
"Get out of my face!" Rembrandt spat out, in complete revulsion. He was clearly putting this conversation to a definitive end.
Grace sighed, gravely. "You have no idea what you're doing to your friends, Rembrandt."
She and Mary turned their backs on the prisoners and sauntered out of the chamber.
The slam of the metallic doorway had a hostile, ominous sound to it.
* * *
Hours had passed. The seven sliders had been left alone in their spherical prison. They sat in silence, occasionally speaking to one another at intervals. Not that there was much to say.
As Diana had admitted earlier, they weren't going anywhere.
Maggie gulped, leaning her head against Rembrandt's shoulder from where they sat on the floor. "Do you think they're listening in on us?"
"You can bet on it," Rembrandt muttered.
"That's probably why they summoned their guards out of the room," said Arturo, glancing cautiously upward at the dimmed lights that splashed down on them. The eerie brightness only partially splattered against the sliders' faces.
"So they're hoping we'll let our guard down?" Diana tried to understand the Professor's reasoning. Despite her own intense personal hatred for the Kromaggs, and her burning desire for vengeance against them, Diana had forced herself to remain extremely calm during this entire situation - - mainly because she knew someone had to take control, as the rest of her friends successively began to flip out. "They're making the atmosphere less intimidating, to trick us into giving something away?"
"It's not gonna work!" Mallory pointedly called out, loudly projecting his voice toward the ceiling. "We know what you're trying to do!"
"What's going to happen to us?" quivered Malcolm. "What about Gretchen? I swear she brought us here! You don't think the Kromaggs brainwashed her?"
"No, I can't believe that," Remmy said, putting on a confident front for Malcolm. Silently, he had been wondering the same thing himself. Since the Kromaggs had the means to turn Wade into a human computer, who knew what else they were capable of!
"You'd think they'd at least give us some food," sulked Janine. As if on cue, her stomach growled with hunger pains. "They're not going to learn anything new from us if we starve to death."
"Janine, how can you think about food at a time like this?" Maggie snapped, harshly. She crinkled up her face, irritated with Janine. "All you ever do is complain! Well enjoy it while you can, because we probably won't be alive much longer for you to dump on!"
Rather than shooting back one of her standard retorts, Janine just blinked several times while staring at Maggie. Usually, she gained great satisfaction and amusement from getting Maggie's temper riled up. But this time, something was different. Something in Maggie's voice. It was much more frantic. Not something you'd hear from the indomitable Maggie who never gave up. This wasn't the indignant, proud, headstrong Maggie Beckett who always had to get in the last word with combative superiority.
No, this Maggie sounded downright helpless - - almost as though she was admitting defeat. Janine watched curiously, as Maggie snuggled closer to Rembrandt, cowering in his arms. Janine noticed that Maggie's face was uncharacteristically streaked with tears of helplessness.
They barely noticed an imposing Kromagg figure stalk through the mechanical doorway as it slid open. He stood at the edge of the force field, sizing up all of the prisoners. Some gun-toting miscellaneous Kromagg guards had followed him into the chamber.
"Her!" They recognized the voice of General Konntul, whose stubby finger pointed straight at Janine.
"Me?" Janine indicated herself with her hands. She had no idea why she would be singled out before any of the others.
One of the guards had armed a hefty weapon, which was much larger than the standard defensive machine guns used by Kromaggs. He angled in toward Janine, and fired.
"What are you doing?!" The words had barely left Janine's mouth before she spotted an odd-shaped impediment fly right through the normally-indomitable force field, landing with almost perfect precision by Janine's feet.
Another translucent barrier of energy sprung up from the crystal on the floor beneath Janine. In the next moment, Janine Chen found herself trapped within her own bubbly "cage," independent from the greater energy barrier that domed and encircled the septet of explorers.
Mallory exhaled, remembering this same technology from not too long ago. "The containment crystals," he said, identifying it. "The same ones the Humaggs used when they invaded Michael Mallory's penthouse on Kromagg Prime!"
"Oh, great . . ." Janine rolled her eyes, and slammed her hands against the solid yet transparent surface that now separated her from the outside world.
General Konntul had removed a smaller green crystal from his pocket. He held it out, directed at Janine. "You will be coming with us, human," he stated.
A magnetic pull caused the "energy bubble" - - with Janine inside of it - - to slide across the floor and pass right through the edge of the force field, which a human body otherwise couldn't penetrate. As Konntul and the other guards exited the chamber, the Kromagg general carried the green crystal in one of his hands, pulling Janine along with him in a virtually magnetic fashion.
Janine Chen nearly burst out laughing as she witnessed herself - - from inside this enclosed orb - - gliding down the dank hallway. Her situation seemed so surreal that is was ludicrous. Janine felt as though she was some human mannequin on display for the Kromagg Dynasty to gawk at, serving as an expositive centerpiece in this procession of evil. It felt like her garish, superfluous captivity was merely for show.
"Now I know how zoo animals feel," she muttered.
The Kromaggs directed Janine's "bubble" into a smaller room, where a chair that looked like it belonged in a dentist's office was reclined backward. It was just calling for Janine to be strapped in and have her brain picked apart.
"Is it time for my fluoride rinse already?" Janine cracked, as the ominous sight of this lone chair caused fear to truly proceed to set in.
Her sarcastic quip was answered by a hissing sound. Janine began to feel faint and light-headed. The gaseous substance was somehow being pumped into her bulbous prison.
"Well, at least they're giving me Novocain first . . ." Janine silently thought to herself, while losing consciousness.
When she came to, Janine saw she had been firmly strapped into the "dentist's chair," unable to move any of her limbs. A myriad of tubing protruded into the various spots along her arms. The Kromagg figures standing around her all wore astronaut-like hazmat suits. They were clearly cognizant of and prepared for the possibility that Janine might be carrying the anti-Kromagg virus.
The only parts of Janine's body she could really move of her own will were her eyes and her mouth - - and even they felt numb. Her remaining senses tightened, and Janine went on the defense.
"So, since this is my first interrogation, don't I even get a goody bag?" Janine clenched her jawbone, in terse preparation for whatever they were about to do to her. "I need something to commemorate this moment. Where's my 'Welcome-to-Hell' coffee mug?"
She recognized General Konntul's piercing eyes through the helmet of his hazmat suit. "You are the transdimensional fugitive whom we know the least about," he said, audible through a voice communication device attached to his protective headwear. "It is time for us to become acquainted."
Janine screamed out in agony as a searing burst of pain unexpectedly shot through her forehead. She could literally feel Konntul's claws scratching and digging through her brain.
As Janine struggled to breathe normally amid the intrusive agony, she concentrated on thinking certain thoughts. General Konntul wanted information from her, and that was exactly what Janine intended to willingly give him.
Konntul trudged into Janine's mind with unflagging valor. He found himself standing on a brightly lit stage, above the captivated gazes of hundreds of human eyes shrouded in the darkness. As Konntul swiveled his head, he spotted a male and female dancer linking arms while they stood in the center of the stage. The male dancer wore skin-hugging purple tights with his red hair tousled and his pinkish face painted kabuki white. His partner, the female dancer, wore a fluffy, frilly blue leotard with a matching tutu that dropped below her knees. The female dancer had her long, silky black hair pulled back with ladybug barrettes and fastened to the top of her head. She stood there with an energetic, goofy grin plastered across her face as she and her partner began a synchronized succession of avant and arrière steps.
That female dancer was Janine Chen.
As the ballerina and her counterpart physically separated from each other, Konntul couldn't help but watch in compulsive fascination at their respective divertissement. Janine gingerly rotated her body, completing a series of soft pirouettes while in the Arabesque position.
Janine's male partner, meanwhile, executed a smooth développé, unfolding his leg as he raised it. For a man, he was remarkably limber - - almost like a spaghetti noodle. His movements were independent from Janine's, and if their terre-à-terre had any connection, as far as storytelling, Konntul possessed neither the temperament nor the patience to interpret it.
This adagio continued to unravel, accompanied by the gentle orchestra music. Janine looked completely withdrawn from reality, staring off into space while lifting her foot in a dégagé move. The male dancer had transitioned to a round de jambe, meticulously circulating his leg outward. He lifted his foot in a passé, flashing the audience a huge, goofy grin.
"Enough of this!" growled General Konntul, obviously not getting any information he found useful. Projecting his thoughts into Janine's, the oafish Kromagg commanded to her, "I do not care about your past occupational toils! I want to know how you came to join Rembrandt Brown's group!"
Even as he extracted those words from his own mouth, Konntul mentally delved farther into Janine's consciousness with antsy expectancy. He saw flashes of multiple imagery, none of which he recognized: Pearl Chen ranting with haughtiness, Vera Serrano laughing with psychotic frivolity, Admiral Gareth Mackay gagging as a machete pierced his gut. All of these firsthand perspectives from Janine's memory, unfamiliar to Konntul, phased in and out of Konntul's telepathic reach, one blurry enigma after the other.
Suddenly, they were back on-stage, in the extravagant opera house. The music from the orchestra pit was louder, faster, narrating the scene as Janine and her male dance partner jointly rollicked across the stage together in allegro.
Some secondary members of the corps de ballet danced out, adorned in frilly, colorful garments. They began to prance around in deliberate formations surrounding Janine and her stage partner, performing a fluid enchaînement that seemed to speak to the movements of the two main dancers.
Janine moved away from the male dancer, initiating a variation as the spotlight shone down on her. She inched across the stage in a careful pas de bourrée while the female members of the ensemble circulated around Janine as they performed soft glissades en tendu.
"Tell me of your attempts to breach the Dynasty's security!" commanded General Konntul, plaintively trying to sweep aside the sprite-like humans who rotated around Janine.
But all he got in response was a silently defiant tingle, as the orchestra music accelerated. Janine sprinted all over the stage in a series of complicated sautés and jetes. The females of the corps de ballet allowed their bodies to follow Janine in camber, occasionally pivoting in détourné according to whichever direction Janine had shifted her body in.
Konntul found himself inexplicably captivated by this mere human woman's dexterity, distracted with trying to visually keep up with her.
The human male seemed almost sorrowful in his measured advances toward his counterpart of the opposite sex. The Oriental ballerina simply ignored him, launching into a plié before performing an entrechat as though she was a rocket ship launching into outer space.
Even as Konntul reached for the information he desired out of Janine's mind, his hand felt somehow whisked away. This happened as the male ballet dancer proceeded toward Janine in a cabriole while the music quickened in its pace. He appeared to be trying to capture Janine's attention, doing a succession of virile battements. Meanwhile, Konntul's own head throbbed with each kick.
Janine passionately leapt upward in a pas de chat as the music intensified to its peak. Upon landing, she spun on her leg in a fouetté, confronting her stage counterpart with a hopelessly vapid expression still on her face.
The orchestra proceeded into the coda. Janine lifted herself up in a grand jeté, followed by a tour en l'air topped off with a batterie of tremendous ballon as the music gaily taunted Konntul. The male dancer caught Janine in his arms and helped her descend to the floor, so she could end their dance with a triumphant pirouette. Even their anticlimactic port de bras made Konntul's head spin. The music slowed. General Konntul hollered in aggravation.
Konntul emerged from Janine's mind, his face flushed deep crimson. "She is useless!" he complained. "She is wasting our time, and she knows it. She knows nothing but her silly human avocations!" He roared at the subordinate guards, "Send her back!"
Janine smiled surreptitiously to herself, even as more gaseous fumes were fed into her bloodstream intravenously, and she lapsed out of consciousness again.
* * *
Lieutenant Kesh's boots clacked against the floor, as she flowed down the hallway. She was surrounded on both sides by a number of lower simian soldiers who'd been assigned to her security detail.
"The standard protocols will be suspended," she was telling her subordinates, speaking exclusively in their native tongue. "These humans do not warrant the same procedures for disposability as normally applied to our expendable prisoners. We have an unprecedented opportunity to halt the spread of this virus that is so toxic to us. If approached prudently, we may even obtain the knowledge to reverse it . . . and, perhaps, 'turn the tables' on the humans."
Kesh suddenly stopped dead in her tracks, as a blobby mass of energy appeared at the end of the corridor. About twenty feet in front of Kesh and her minions, a tangerine-colored wormhole had completely formed. The thick, textured vortex crudely expelled a human woman from its core. The strawberry-brunette haired, slipshod woman - - whose business-casual attire was rumpled, as though she'd just emerged from a battlefield - - skillfully landed on her feet in a crouched position once she'd exited the quantum anomaly. She was armed with a pistol - - however, that didn't deter Kesh's soldiers from aggressively flanking this human on all sides.
"Identify yourself!" Kesh snapped at the human female, who was fruitlessly struggling to resist the Kromagg guards who'd managed to disarm her.
Logan St. Clair stared back at Lieutenant Kesh, obviously feeling confounded to have landed there, but not seeming terribly thunderstruck to be surrounded by Kromaggs.
"I'm not a threat to you!" winced Logan, wrestling against the Kromaggs who'd seized her arms. Her eyes dashed around the immediate vicinity of the Kromagg facility, with deductive contemplation. "I'm hunting down the sliders."
"Who?" Kesh only was momentarily confused by Logan's reference. After pausing to recall the limited information she and her peers had already gleaned from Rickman, Kesh formed an astute smile across her lips. "What are these 'sliders' you speak of?" she solicited from Logan - - although Kesh had a pretty good idea already.
"They're interdimensional travelers," Logan spat out, ceasing any upper body resistance against her captors. "Six men, four women. Surely your race has encountered them before." Logan's facial expression slowly transformed from uncertainty to portentous caginess.
Kesh pressed her lips together, hiding her delight. "Indeed we have. Although two of them are no longer traveling with their group."
Loan blinked, astonished. "Which two?"
"Quinn and Colin Mallory." Staring peculiarly at Logan, Lieutenant Kesh approached the solo slider. "Why are you pursuing these transdimensional travelers?" she demanded.
"Let's just say they destroyed me, and now I intend to do the same to them," Logan stated, coldly.
"How did you acquire your translocation technology?"
"I've seen what your kind does to humans," Logan defiantly smirked at Kesh. "I'm not telling you anything else until you grant me full amnesty."
"We shall see about that," retorted Kesh, sticking her nose up in the air. "Lock her up!" she commanded to her lower-level cronies, indicating Logan.
"You can't do this! . . . You'll be sorry . . . !" Logan railed in animus as the Kromaggs dragged her away, leaving Lieutenant Kesh standing there with her third-in-command.
"The 'sliders' . . ." uttered Kesh, contemplatively, repeating Logan's reference. She gave her subordinate a smug side-glance. "I think we may have found yet another resource to break down these humans' defenses. Indeed, this could be most entertaining . . ."
* * *
Rembrandt, Maggie, Arturo, Mallory, Diana, and Malcolm sat around helplessly inside of their stasis "cage." With no clocks and no further contact from Mary, Grace, or any of their Kromagg captors, the six remaining sliders were helpless. They could only lounge on the cold, hard floor . . . waiting.
But waiting for what? None of them knew. In some ways, that was the worst part.
Diana tilted her head up toward the ceiling. "It must have been hours by now since they took Janine."
With a muffled gulp, Malcolm whispered, "Do you think she's . . . ?"
"No." Rembrandt cut off Malcolm's verbal thought, straightaway. Then, more calmly, he continued, "The girl's a tough cookie. And they know the least about Janine, out of any of us. Yeah, I'm sure the 'Maggs are squeezing every once of new information they can get out of Mountain Girl."
Maggie was silently fighting back tears. As she finally proceeded to speak, for the first time in hours, the pain was evident in her voice. "They're just going to keep taking us away, one by one. Until we're all gone." She gagged on a throatful of phlegm, but coughed thickly to get it under control. "We have to take them down, the first chance we get. I'd rather die than help these monsters kill off the rest of our species."
"But how do we do it?" countered the Professor, rolling over from his belly onto his back. "What power do we have over these skilled warriors? How could we possibly overtake them?"
"Yeah, they just pump ether in here to knock us out every time they want to perform another interrogation," Diana pointed out, morbidly. "I wouldn't be surprised if they've already drawn Janine's blood and have started working on synthesizing antibodies."
A baleful silence followed Diana's words. Mallory had an unspoken urge to break that inaudible veil, but he couldn't think of any dialogue that seemed appropriate.
In another minute, the six prisoners could hear the metallic door to the chamber entrance slide open. This faint sound was postdated by a crack of light, with soft footsteps echoing against the floor.
"Who's there?" called out Rembrandt, alarmed.
"It's me . . ." came a soft, familiar British intonation.
"Mary?" hissed Professor Arturo, in bafflement. "What in God's name are you doing here? Why did you come back?"
"Are you here to scoop our eyeballs out for your masters?" Maggie contemptuously sneered.
"No," Mary flatly and emotionlessly answered Maggie's snide remark. "I am here to free you."
"Yeah, right!" Rembrandt chided her. In the dark, he folded his arms with skepticism. "Fool us once . . ."
"I swear to you, it's the truth," Mary insisted, her voice drenched with a painful desire for acceptance. "I had to wait until I could make my way to you, alone. The Kromaggs are not watching you at the moment, but this window of opportunity will close very quickly. Please, you must trust me!"
With that, Mary slid a glowing rectangular key against the force field. In a flash of bluish luminescence, the transparent wall came down.
Rembrandt had jumped to his feet, and he emerged from the "cage," pushing Mary out of the way. He suspected it was a trap, but he'd take anything he could get. "Run!" he ordered to his friends.
The sliders' reflexes became keen and responsive. They dashed out of the chamber, emerging into a brightly lit hallway.
"Which way?" Malcolm's voice spoke in terror. The young man balked at the selection of divergent hallways spanning the vista before him and his friends. Every corridor seemed to jut out into a separate unknown direction.
"This way!" Rembrandt hollered, instinctively pointing toward the corridor directly in front of him. No sooner had Remmy's command of initiative resounded than a caustic klaxon began to yelp, acutely penetrating the sliders' ears.
Rembrandt and Maggie hurried in front of their sextet, forging a directional path for the others. They proceeded to lead the rest of the group, preparing to turn its first corner while on the run.
"We gotta get our hands on some weapons . . ." Maggie began to declare, momentarily swiveling to face her sliding companions. But the very moment that words spilled out of Maggie's mouth, the former Marine suddenly keeled forward.
"Maggie?" Diana's voice shook with incertitude. Then, with horror, Diana and the others could see a thick red blotch seep through the front of Maggie's white blouse, over her abdominal area. The sliders shifted their gazes to spot a Kromagg soldier standing not more than three feet behind Maggie, having suddenly appeared from around the corner.
The Kromagg soldier had shot Maggie at point blank range.
Rembrandt had no words. Just uncontrollable rage, as the Cryin' Man lunged at the simian soldier and tackled him. Moving quickly and ferociously, it had taken Rembrandt merely a split second to clobber the soldier with three successive, hefty sucker punches to the face, offensively knocking the sentry out cold.
It all happened too nimbly for the Kromagg guard to defensively respond. In the process, Rembrandt had confiscated the guard's pistol. Shaking, weapon in hand, he kneeled over Maggie, who has no longer breathing.
"Oh, God!" gulped Mallory, practically speechless.
Diana's lip quivered. "Maggie . . ." she meekly said, as tears began to erode her eyes.
To make matters worse, the klaxon continued to audibly grind away over the facility's loudspeakers. It sounded like a pregnant female pterodactyl in labor.
Rembrandt tightened his grip on the pistol. He tensed up, a deadly glare hardening in his eyes. "We've gotta keep moving," he stated, with very little emotion in his tone - - although it was clear from Rembrandt's stone-cold facial expression and shaky knuckles that he was about ready to explode, and basically kept it held in for everyone else's sake.
As the five remaining sliders jetted down the dim corridor, Diana pointed to an oval-shaped crevice that was errantly carved out of the wall. "Look. Over there."
Arturo squinted toward the spot Diana had gestured at. "Is that . . . ?"
"I think it's a sliding machine!" Her heart jumping with bittersweet hope, Diana raced over to the spacious crevice. "It might be a way out of here."
"But we don't have our timer!" Malcolm shouted, over the screech of the klaxon. "We'll have no way to slide anymore!"
Rembrandt twisted his neck around, glancing at Malcolm through pained eyes. "I'm not letting the 'Maggots recapture you guys . . ." He hurriedly turned to Diana. "Can you make it work?"
Stepping forward, Diana began to push some buttons on a panel adhered to the wall. She didn't seem to know what exactly she was doing, but attempted to enter a random coordinate set.
Amid a fissure of wires, the sarcophagus-shaped alcove - - which was only big enough for one person - - became illuminated with titian quantum energy.
"Go!" Rembrandt abruptly pushed Diana into the small, cramped space, and he slammed his knuckles against the activation pad. Diana fell backwards into the funerary-like mold, and within seconds she had vanished from sight, swept up in an interdimensional displacement of photons and ions.
Rembrandt turned to face his three remaining friends, ready to repeat the process. "Malcolm . . ." he began to beckon the youngest member of their team.
But Remmy's intent was bamboozled by a harrowing jolt to his arm. Rembrandt Brown saw another handful of Kromagg soldiers in Nazi-like uniforms rush up from around the corner, and one had fired his weapon with great precision at Rembrandt's elbow.
Amid the screams that exploded from Rembrandt's lungs as he clutched his now-bloody upper joint, Arturo artlessly rushed a couple of the shoulders. The Professor heaved his full hylic weight against the Kromaggs, causing the pristine warriors to topple against each other like dominos. But a forceful boot came down hard on Professor Arturo's spinal chord. Arturo plummeted downward, his jawbone making callous, painful contact with the solid floor. The helpless professor proceeded to feel the valences of numerous Kromaggs form a dogpile onto him.
Mallory's gaze jumped from the outnumbered Arturo to the flesh-scorched Rembrandt. As Remmy fought back howls of agony, Mallory noticed what the Kromaggs intended to do. They had inflicted a non-lethal injury on Rembrandt, with the intent to torture him in a prolonged manner. Through a combination of physical pain and psychological trauma - - having to watch his friends die in a variety of hideous ways - - Rembrandt would be emotionally broken down by their Machiavellian tactics.
Moving with instinct, Mallory shoved Malcolm in the direction of the sliding machine that had previously whisked Diana offworld. "Go, Malcolm!" he painstakingly called out, giving his young friend a push toward the pall-shaped crevice.
But the next thing Mallory saw was a discharge of radioactive light strike Malcolm. It illuminated the teenager's body, highlighting Malcolm's otherwise invisible exoskeleton. Malcolm's final screams of life dwindled to a mere echo, as he was vaporized from existence by a Kromagg plasma weapon.
"NOOOOO!!!!" Horrified, Mallory couldn't believe it. He could not bear to think that Malcolm's life had been snuffed out so expediently and superfluously. Mallory's eyes darted from Rembrandt, who'd been encircled with judiciously positioned weapons, to Arturo, who'd become physically immobilized on the ground.
Yet, all Mallory could think of was Malcolm's senseless demise. Mallory released a primordial roar, and lunged headfirst at the nearest Kromagg soldier. Almost supernaturally, Quinn's fraternal double clasped the Kromagg's neck and snapped it with one crusty motion.
Everything began to move around Mallory in slow-motion. Visually, the movements of the Kromaggs were reduced to a snail's pace. His entire view became compartmentalized into chunks, like shards of broken glass from a shattered mirror.
Slowly, Mallory's skin tingled, and he could see the fractures recoalescing. He was lying on a surgical table, strapped down, unable to move his arms or legs.
Looking down at him, her image made refulgent by bright ceiling lights, was Lieutenant Kesh.
It took Mallory several moments to catch his breath. Only then did he realize this had been an exercise in Kromagg deception. Mallory could feel the pressure from the energy emitted by the translucent force field barrier that separated him from Kesh.
"You!" he seethed at Kesh.
She smirked down at him. "Did you have a nice dream, Mr. Mallory?" she taunted him, with amusement in her voice.
"So, my friends . . . ?" Mallory wanted to brush the perspiration from his face, but his limbs were tightened against the surgical table.
"Yes, they are still alive," Kesh confirmed for him. "All of them."
"It was just an illusion," he said, with stark realization setting in.
"To remind you of our superiority," Lieutenant Kesh stated, raising her eyebrows supremely.
"Don't you mean your manipulation?" Mallory retorted, clenching his muscles.
"Call it what you wish," responded Kesh, haughtily. "We simply desired for you to see what will happen to your beloved companions if you fail to cooperate."
Mallory strained to speak pugnaciously. "You wouldn't."
Kesh snorted at his wishful thinking. "The Dynasty has plundered thousands of worlds, decimated billions of human beings. What makes you think we would treat the eight of you any differently?"
"Because we're not just eight random people," Mallory countered. Even from his constrained position, he relished the thought of somehow making Kesh squirm. "We have information you need. If you kill all of us, that knowledge dies as we take our last breaths."
Lieutenant Kesh's triumphant smirk contorted into a deflated scowl. "We have ways of attaining the information you speak of."
"Then why don't you just go ahead and do it?" he challenged her, cringing in defiance. Although he could barely move, Mallory was determined to prevent Kesh from retaining all of the power in this impossible situation.
Kesh called his bluff. "Ask, and you shall receive," she curtly replied to Mallory. With a snap of Kesh's fingers, a hazmat-suited male Kromagg stepped forward from behind the anterior end of Mallory's position on the surgical table.
Mallory knew what was coming next.
The impact of this Kromagg interrogator's mind scraping against Mallory's neural lobes grated throughout the slider's auditory system. Mallory winced, fruitlessly resisting the release of visual data images from his memory. Close-ups of each slider, in turn, being injected with a viral fluid substance. Wade telekinetically moving a pile of stones in a forest on Witch World. His own body merging with that of the Quinn from Earth Prime, as they fluttered across Dr. Geiger's wormhole generated from the Combine. Leaning in, kissing Wade on the lips for the first time. Quinn and Colin phasing out of sight as they teleported themselves off of Kromagg Prime, away from their longtime friends.
Mallory exhaled, once the interrogator emerged from Mallory's mind. "He does not know how to synthesize the virus nor its antidote. Neither does he have the transdimensional coordinates of the world where this virus originated," the interrogator informed Kesh, referring to the data he'd retrieved from Mallory's mind. He spoke in a heavy Kromagg dialect, to shield his words from Mallory's ears.
Under her breath, Lieutenant Kesh sharply altered a curse word in the Kromagg language.
The interrogator continued to speak heavily in Kromagg, due to Mallory's presence. "The humans disabled their Slidecage device. However, the homeworld is still plagued by a viral agent . . . although one that is different from the one their species originally concocted. The transdimensional fugitives must have released this second pathogen they carry, upon arriving on our homeworld - - undoubtedly in a conscious attempt to preempt our repatriation efforts. Quinn and Colin Mallory have separated from their friends, presumably to preventatively spread this new virus to other parallel dimensions."
Kesh cocked her head, digesting the interrogator's revelations. "What about Ms. Wells?" she spoke to him, still from behind the safety of an invisible energy barrier. "Did you obtain any insight into her newfound powers?"
"Indeed." The interrogator smiled knowingly. "The details are not entirely clear to me, but through some set of circumstances, Ms. Wells acquired telekinetic abilities . . . similar to those inherent in so many of our own offspring. Apparently, homo sapiens can possess it even on worlds where our race never existed."
"Impossible," scoffed Kesh, glancing upward. "Humans are incapable of developing such mental strength on their own. Every telepathic human being we have seen has been co-opted and taught mental projection abilities by the Dynasty before mastering them."
"Believe what you wish," said the interrogator, "but I know what I saw. The human did not acquiesce those memories to me voluntarily." He paused before coyly adding, "You also may be interested to know that Mr. Mallory has romantic feelings for Ms. Wells, which are duly reciprocated."
Kesh pursed her lips together, thoughtfully. Hearing this additional piece of information opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for her. "Very interesting, indeed."
"What shall I do with the prisoner?" The interrogator gestured down at the drowsy Mallory, for whom one hell of a headache had set in.
Lieutenant Kesh tapped her foot for a few moments, and then addressed Mallory in English. "You will not be reunited with your companions, Mr. Mallory. We still have unfinished affairs to attend to, regarding your presence here."
"What do you mean?" Mallory demanded, imploring her with sharp eyes.
Kesh's smile tightened deviously. "If you do not willingly answer our questions, then Wade Wells will be the first of your friends whom we execute." Finishing off her threat, she gestured for the interrogator to leave the room as she was planning to. "And her death will be more excruciating than anything you have seen in our illusions - - by a thousand fold."
They left Mallory laying in the dark, unable to move as his heart raced.
The Kromaggs obviously knew how much Wade meant to him.
And they were not making idle threats.
* * *
Rembrandt had sprawled himself on the cold floor within the sliders' enclosed prison. Hours had passed since the guard had removed Mallory from the cell, and on top of that, they hadn't returned Janine yet either.
Maggie reached over to massage Remmy's shoulder. "They're both tough, Rem. It will take a lot for the Kromaggs to break 'em." But even as she unconvincingly told him that, Maggie's stomach churned and constricted into tighter knots. She couldn't seem to control her shaky voice again, and Maggie's feigned optimism was underscored by a rush of tears. "It's . . . gonna . . . be . . ." But she couldn't choke out the rest of the words.
Remmy silently took Maggie Beckett into his arms, as she wept uncontrollably.
"Rembrandt." The voice that called to him echoed throughout the prison chamber.
The Cryin' Man slowly turned around, recognizing the female voice with revulsion. As expected, he spotted Grace Venable standing outside the energy "cage," looking in at him.
"Go away, Grace. Or 'Helen.' Or whatever the hell your name really is," Rembrandt icily said. At the moment, he was most concerned with being there for Maggie, who had broken down completely.
"Madame, what is your business here?" the Professor confronted Grace, standing up to face her through the translucent wall.
"I've been given permission to take Rembrandt on a 'tour' of our facility," Grace responded, keeping her voice steadied in a business-like tone. "The Kromaggs feel he should see firsthand what all of you are up against. Trust me, it's much greater than anything any of you could ever imagine."
Over his shoulder, Rembrandt shot Grace a glare of pure hatred, while still cradling Maggie in his arms. "I'm not going anywhere with you," he whispered with a baneful hiss.
"You have no choice." Grace solemnly stepped out of the way as a Kromagg soldier emerged from the shadows behind her. In a matter of seconds, the Kromagg had aimed an elongated rifle at Rembrandt through the wall of the force field.
Rembrandt beckoned Diana, and handed off the distraught Maggie into Diana's caring arms. Then, dauntlessly, Rembrandt got to his feet and walked over to the force field's edge, staring down the barrel of the Kromagg's gun with valorous resolve. "So this is how it's gonna end, 'Magg? You're gonna assassinate me with some superbullets that can piece a force field, just to make an example . . . ?"
But Rembrandt suddenly realized that the weapon he was confronting head-on was not just any standard life-snuffer. He had seen this same type of weapon used earlier.
By the time Rembrandt fully realized what it was, the Kromagg soldier had already fired a familiar-looking crystallized "grenade" through the force field. It landed at Rembrandt's feet and immediately blossomed a limpid enclosure around Remmy's body.
The Cryin' Man couldn't believe he'd been duped so easily. He knew he should have expected it. But things were happening so fast, it just hadn't occurred to him as instantly as it could have.
"You bitch . . ." Rembrandt seethed at Grace.
Dr. Venable's eyes dropped to the floor. "It's for your own benefit," she told him.
Rembrandt didn't even bother to protest, as he was pulled away from his friends, confined to his own little rectangular "bubble." Grace clutched a small green rectangrium gem, which she used to extract Rembrandt's glassy pod from the sliders' "cage" and guide him out of the chamber.
Grace and Rembrandt traveled through countless corridors in silence. Ultimately, Grace was the first to break their mutual chagrin. "Aren't you even the slightest bit curious why I'm doing this?"
"No," lied Rembrandt, making sure to keep his voice distant and cold. The truth was: he did want to know what the Kromaggs were up to, and what could possibly be motivating Grace to aid them. He'd thought Grace had recaptured some of her humanity when she healed Quinn's mortal wounds on Thatcher World - - but apparently not.
"It's called self-preservation, Rembrandt," Grace told him, without prompt. It was as though she could read his mind, knew what he was thinking. "The Kromaggs gave me an opportunity, and I took it. Don't tell me you wouldn't do the same thing."
"I wouldn't," Rembrandt replied, icily.
"No, I suppose you wouldn't," Grace said, muttering with frosty realization. "That's your problem, Rembrandt: you're too emotionally invested in people. You can't figure out how to be resourceful, work with what life throws at you."
Rembrandt bristled at Grace's flippant taunting. "You know nothing about my life. You don't know what it's been like . . ."
"Maybe not," she interrupted him. "But I do know how you and your sliding squad have devastated the lives of so many people on other worlds." She saw, via Remmy's facial expression, that her words had made a psychological impact on his psyche. "Oh, you mean even with Quinn's genius IQ at your disposal for so long, your ragtag team couldn't figure out that every Earth you've slid to would end up being conquered by the Kromagg Dynasty?"
Rembrandt's hardened face didn't change. "There was nothing we could do about that . . . short of leaving Quinn behind. And that wasn't an option for us."
"I see. Always thinking about yourselves first, huh?"
"We started releasing the virus on every new world we passed through, once we figured out how it worked." Rembrandt balled his fists together from inside the containment field. "I know what you're trying to do, Grace, and it won't work. I'm not gonna fall for your reverse psychology."
"Really? It seems to be working pretty well so far." Grace raised her eyebrows at Rembrandt.
"Why do you care, anyway? I'd think all those worlds and people the Kromaggs slaughter would be your last concern."
She didn't answer him. "We're here," Grace announced. The physician stepped back and flicked her hand toward a window seemingly made of glass.
Through the crystalline containment pod, Rembrandt found himself gazing into a quarantined room. Slumped over on a bench against one of the four walls was a humanoid figure, clad in only a simple gown. The gray flesh of his bald, reptilian head contained scales and indentations. The "creature" caught Remmy's eyes through the translucent divider. With pained humanity in his facial expression, the hybrid personage pointed his mostly homo sapien finger straight at Rembrandt, accusingly. "You! I remember you!"
Rembrandt was taken aback. "The Leader?" he muttered under his breath, upon seeing the duplicitous human-turned-hybrid who had once kidnapped Maggie and held her hostage with the intent to kill. Remmy had never suspected he might see this malevolent individual ever again.
"Actually, his human name is Edwin Weir," Grace spoke up, gesturing to The Leader. "The Kromaggs captured him after invading his homeworld, and have learned a lot by performing a cacophony of experiments on his body. 'The Leader,' as he calls himself, has given us a great deal of data on Reticulan physiology. His world's technology has also been fascinating to explore."
The Leader was solely focused on Rembrandt, flaring at the slider with hateful recognition. "You traitors left me high and dry, only to abandon me at the mercy of those monsters . . . !" He abruptly shifted his finger upward toward the ceiling, clearly switching his reference to the Kromaggs.
Grace continued. "Our research from 'Earth 1478' shows that the Americans dissected the earliest Reticulan peace emissaries, and most of the rest of the extraterrestrial species kept its distance from Earth. It seems Mr. Weir was the most developed live specimen the Kromaggs could find who possessed Reticulan DNA. Apparently, alien nucleotides were infused into the human polymer chains of him and his peers, creating these abhorrent genetic defects. Fortunately for us, those flawed medical treatments resulted in a plethora of interspecies science for the Dynasty's geneticists and physicians."
Still fuming, The Leader snarled at Rembrandt, "Why didn't you and your friends bring me with you through your vortex?! I've been at the mercy of these neanderthals, poked and prodded, sliced and sewn back up . . . !!!"
Having reached his breaking point, The Leader propelled forward in a homicidal rage. He clearly intended to penetrate the glass in an attempt to attack Rembrandt. Obviously, he wasn't thinking rationally, since it was unlikely the Kromaggs would have left the "glass" of his cell wall unprotected - - plus Rembrandt himself was still shielded by his containment pod.
As The Leader charged toward Rembrandt, Grace flicked a switch on the wall next to The Leader's cell. In mid-lunge, The Leader's entire body came to a halt, frozen in place several inches above the floor.
Rembrandt's eyes bulged in shock at the surreal sight. "Wh - - what did you do to him?" he stammered, observing The Leader suspended in mid-air.
Grace calmly turned her head to face Rembrandt. "It's just an antigravity field. We use it to keep him from overexerting himself. Don't worry. This 'glass' barrier is impenetrable. From time to time, Mr. Weir tends to forget that fact . . . how it isn't actually glass, but a fortified silicate that's keeping him penned in."
Some hazmat-suited Kromaggs had unlocked and entered The Leader's cell from a backdoor. They approached the mutated Edwin Weir, who was still "frozen" in mid-air, and one of the Kromaggs proceeded to inject him with a syringe from a utility pack.
"Now what are they doing?" Rembrandt, despite his indignation, was peculiarly curious.
"They're giving Mr. Weir a dose of tranquilizer. It's necessary to keep this subject docile when they bring him into the lab," explained Grace.
One of the hazmat-suited Kromaggs nodded at Grace from inside the cell, indicating that they were done administering the tranquilizer to The Leader. Nodding back, Grace flipped the switch on the wall back to its original position.
Inside his cell, The Leader promptly unfroze. He dizzily fell back into the arms of the well-protected Kromagg technicians.
"Intrepid out . . . !" slurred The Leader, slipping out of consciousness.
Grace folded her fingers, and shot a sly look at Rembrandt. "Thanks to you and your friends," she said, "the Kromagg Dynasty gained an unprecedented outlet to study the Reticulan species. If you hadn't passed through 'Earth 1478,' they never would have gotten their paws on him."
In light of his revulsion, Rembrandt had to ask, "What did you do to him?"
"Just some DNA splicing, a little bit of cloning." Grace shrugged off his inquiry. "Several of the Earths you gave the Kromaggs access to have had plenty to offer in the way of human DNA replication. And the clones they've created have been thriving . . . there are quite a few 'Little Edwins' running around in these facilities, for us to observe."
Remmy squinched up his face. "You have no right . . ."
"Lieutenant Kesh would beg to differ," Grace quietly replied. "They view us as a threat to their survival. Of course the Kromaggs are going to do whatever science will allow them to, for the insurance of their survival. And we've discovered many useful possibilities from Mr. Weir's modified physiology: expanded brain capacity, enhanced auditory nerves, self-propulsion, multiple pectoral glands, double eyelids . . ."
"Stop! STOP!" Rembrandt covered his ears. "I don't wanna hear anymore!" He scowled at Grace. "Take me back to my friends! Now!"
"I can't do that, Remmy." Deep beneath her piercing eyes, Grace flashed her former lover a softened gleam. "There's still more you need to see."
Grace Venable began to magnetically pull Rembrandt's crystalline "cage" away from The Leader's cell. She used her handheld crystal to direct Rembrandt through additional corridors for the next half hour. All the while, Rembrandt saw them pass by more electromagnetically sealed cells housing human prisoners in decrepit states of existence.
"You're running a freakin' death camp in here!" Rembrandt shouted at Grace, through the glassy barrier.
The doctor didn't respond. She soon halted their movements in front of a much wider, fuller screen. Looking into it, Rembrandt could see the inside of an elaborate laboratory - - obviously shielded from the outside by another transparent force field. But something - - or rather, someone - - specifically caught his eye.
Kneeling on the floor was a black woman in her early-to-mid forties. She wore a gown resembling green hospital scrubs, and appeared to be oblivious to Grace and Rembrandt's arrival. Her scraggly hair was a kinky, unbraided mess, falling just past her shoulders where it was hastily chopped off.
As the woman turned to stare in Rembrandt and Grace's direction, Rembrandt recognized those unmistakable piercing eyes.
"Dr. Sylvius . . ." he said, recalling the hard-ass geneticist from Organ Donor World.
"We thought she'd be familiar to you." Grace continued, in a subdued voice, "A limited memory scan of this specimen showed us traces of your group's intervention on her homeworld. After you allowed her identity to be consumed by the alien symbiont presently inside of her, an epidemic broke out across her dimension. Alien parasites procreated using humans - - particularly woman - - as their vessels for gestation. Their primary requisite for longevity is heat."
Accordingly, Rembrandt noticed heat lamps built into the ceiling of Dr. Sylvius's cell. The whole enclosure appeared to be balmy, with Dr. Sylvius's own skin covered by beads of perspiration and an oily glow.
"So you sequestered her? Why?" Rembrandt couldn't take his eyes off of Dr. Sylvius, although she gave no indication that she had reciprocally identified him.
"The species that symbiotically lives within Dr. Sylvius and her colleagues - - it has been invaluable to us in our study of cell replication," said Grace. "Especially because it contains some strain of an accelerated growth hormone. In a controlled environment, its behavior has shown the Kromaggs how to develop more sophisticated techniques for cloning."
Rembrandt scrunched up his face, mainly in confusion. "Cloning? Why would you need . . . ?" But in an adroit moment of clarity, the reason became frighteningly evident to Rembrandt as he verbally trailed off.
Picking up on this, Grace magnetically hauled Rembrandt farther down the corridor. It was only a matter of time until they arrived at a heavy steel door, to which Grace punched in a code on a keypad. The metallic doorway slithered open, revealing a stream of neon green light from the interior chamber.
"Where are we?" asked Rembrandt, taking in the gargantuan maze of crisscrossing corridors stretched out before him and Grace. It seemed like miles of twists and turns that no one could possibly navigate their way through.
Then, Remmy heard footsteps in the distance. Countless footsteps belonging to countless pairs of feet. The clacking of boots against cement flooring echoed across this coliseum of endless latitude, growing louder by the second.
And what Rembrandt Brown saw next sent shivers up and down his spine.
Marching in lock-step with each other were at least sixty or seventy Kromagg children, who walked in an irreproachable, systematic procession. The young Kromaggs - - none of whom looked more than ten-years-old - - had formed an obedient line, and they each carried smaller-yet-durable weapons across the left shoulder. All of them were dressed in neatly-pressed black bodysuits as they strode in tandem past Grace and Rembrandt, double-file.
Rembrandt couldn't even speak.
An adult Kromagg voice barked out an order to the simian children, upon which their footsteps came to a collective halt. Another command was belted out at them, and in response, the children-in-arms struck a defensive formation.
Rembrandt stared at Grace in disbelief. "They're . . . they're Kromagg children?"
"Training the next generation of Dynasty manpower," said Grace, without even a flinch. "This battalion is just one of hundreds."
"But . . . but Kromagg women die right after giving birth," choked out Rembrandt. "Limited fertility. That's why the 'Maggs began crossbreeding, right? So how could you have produced so many of them?" He still wasn't sure how to react. He took another look at the militant sequence of miniature warriors. "They're only children, Grace! And . . . and these are PURE Kromagg children - - not Humagg hybrids."
Grace Venable returned his gaze with merely a silent expression of hubris.
"How'd this happen, Grace?!" He was losing it. Rembrandt pounded against the cramped containment field. "You obviously brought me here for a reason, Grace! So spill it! When did the 'Maggs regain their ability to breed?"
With a sigh of pity, Grace began to explain, "Three decades ago, certain Kromaggs who possessed soothsaying abilities had the foresight to advise the Dynasty's military leaders on their species' imminent fertility problems."
"PSYCHIC Kromaggs?!" blurted out Rembrandt, interrupting Grace's narration. Although knowing what their species was capable of, he was surprised it hadn't occurred to him earlier.
"Taking this prophetic advice, the Dynasty made the decision to place thousands of Kromagg embryos in cryogenic suspension, and shipped them off to multiple locations offworld." Grace sounded rather bored having to explain it all, but she was coherent and soft-spoken as she did so. "However, their methods of cryogenics were underdeveloped, and there was no way to fully gestate them to term."
"Then how . . . ?"
"If you'll let me finish." Grace cut Rembrandt off with a sharp reprimand in both her eyes and voice. "In the past five years, the Kromagg Dynasty has utilized more advanced cryogenics from other parallel worlds."
"Don't you mean 'stole'?" sneered Rembrandt.
"Coupled with that progress," Grace commenced, ignoring Rembrandt's dig, "Kromagg scientists adopted a human-conceived 'artificial womb' from one of the worlds their military raided. It apparently was invented by humans on that Earth for men to carry babies to term, after genetic defects prevented pregnant women from doing so."
It mentally clicked for Rembrandt. The monarchy-based Earth where Danielle's double was a duchess and Rembrandt had served as a surrogate father for unborn King Rembrandt in place of his own double . . .
"That 'artificial womb' has repopulated the Kromagg race, allowing it to harvest and fully gestate their species. This scientific innovation compensates for the lack of fetus otherwise endured by past generations of Kromaggs." Dr. Venable finished the recount, and placed her hands on her hips.
"The last five years . . ." Rembrandt closed his eyes, realizing the role he and his friends had unwittingly played in this development. "So how did they grow so fast? Some of those kids can't be much younger than ten!"
"Kromaggs age twice as fast as we do," stated Grace, matter-of-factly. "And we're harvesting more and more of them by the day, all over the multiverse. These young Kromaggs are being trained for war. Many of them will go on to serve as future military leaders, since they will automatically be allowed to excel and ascend to higher ranks over their Humagg counterparts."
"Why are you telling me this?!" Rembrandt had clamped one palm over his face. "If you think this is gonna break me down, Grace, think again. I'll never give up the fight against these monsters, so they'd might as well just kill me right now!" Rembrandt searched Grace's cold, barren eyes for any trace of sympathy. "What happened to your humanity, Grace? How can you so easily aid in the destruction of your own species?"
"Because . . ." She leaned in to intone her rationale to Rembrandt through the pellucid wall. "My own species was willing to throw me to the wolves long before I knew the Kromaggs even existed."
"What are you talking about?"
"My father was Franklin Venable, a surveillance operative for the British government. He risked his life, away from our family, throughout much of my childhood - - he was a double agent, working covertly on behalf of the Crown during the Anglo-Stani War. He suffered in the trenches of Tajikistan to subvert Rasulov . . . but in the end, he was charged with espionage by corrupt U.K. officers - - our own government that we'd trusted."
Rembrandt was now quietly listening. During their previous time together on Thatcher World, Grace had never divulged these details of her family's history to him - - obviously because she'd been hiding her true identity from him throughout their entire romance.
"Luckily, we were able to escape before they could apprehend my father," Grace elaborated. "He arranged to have the deaths of everyone in my family faked, and we fled to Ireland. I was only eight at the time. He moved us all - - my mother, my three sisters - - to the Irish Republic. My dad became 'Gilbert Donovan,' a bourgeois chimney sweep . . . and I took on the name of 'Helen.' We spent the next nine years as free missionaries, constantly on the run . . . until the Green Guard detonated our safe house!" Grace closed her eyes, and a lone tear fell down her cheek. "I was the only member of my family to survive. So one of my father's colleagues, Basil Canterbury, put me on a boat bound for America, which, at the time, had no extradition agreements with Great Britain or any other country. I thought I was safe . . ."
"And that's why you took back your birth name," Rembrandt quietly concluded.
"To honor my father's memory." Grace sniffed, and wiped some more tears away. "One of Basil's contacts got me into medical school at Georgetown. I built a better life for myself, and vowed to keep my family's work alive through my practice."
Rembrandt was torn between feelings of sympathy and reprisal toward this woman. "So how'd you get caught?"
"Bounty hunters," muttered Grace. "They tracked me down in Philadelphia, kidnapped me, and had me shipped back to Europe. I was being tried in the International Criminal Court - - as 'Helen Donovan,' due to a bureaucratic oversight - - when the Kromaggs invaded Luxemburg."
"And the 'Maggs recruited you," Rembrandt finished, with an acrimonious murmur, "to be their patsy."
"I was facing life imprisonment," Grace defended herself, haughtily. "Even behind bars I was still in danger. When the Green Guard discovered I was the only member of my family to survive, they would have sent mercenaries from the Irish Republican after me. Somehow, they would have found a way inside whichever prison I was housed at, and they would have executed me in cold blood. Before they left my world, the Kromaggs provided me safe passage to the nation of California. It was the only place I could be free . . . and even then, I was still always looking over my shoulder."
"How do I know you're not lying, Grace? . . . making this all up?!" snapped Remmy. "You've deceived me before!"
"Why would I lie to you at this point, Rembrandt?!" shot back Grace, her voice emotionally strained. Grace's tone was completely devoid of any trace of deception or desperation - - only sadness and verity.
Rembrandt inhaled with heavy realization. She was right: the Kromaggs, and Grace, clearly had the upper hand right now. Besides, what she was telling him was way too detailed, intricate, and unrehearsed for her to be making it up all on the spot - - even if she had mastered the art of pathological lying in most situations.
The Kromaggs were going to do whatever they wanted to him and his friends. There was simply no motive that could benefit or justify Grace embellishing her personal history to him.
"Why didn't you just tell me all of this in the first place?" sighed Rembrandt. "Back when we were on your world . . . my friends and I could have helped you. We would have found a new Earth for you to live on . . ."
"Get real, Rembrandt," muttered Grace, her eyes dropping to the floor. "There's no way you would have helped me if I had told you I'd worked with the Kromaggs. Or any of the other things I did in my past that made me ashamed to call myself a human being. Besides," she made eye contact with Rembrandt, in a moment of pure sincerity, "I loved you, Remmy. And I couldn't bear the thought of losing you. I knew it would only be a matter of time before other mercenaries came after me in California . . . Agent Hackett just beat them to it. And they would go to any lengths to apprehend me . . . California was free from any conciliation agreement with the U.K., so unauthorized covert operatives were the only way to bring in fugitives. And hitching a ride with you and your friends was my only chance at a happy life."
Rembrandt quickly shook his head back and forth. "I'm sorry, Grace. I really am. I'm sorry for the loss and pain you've had to endure in your life. But mostly, I'm sorry that I can't forgive you. Because at the end of the day, you were still a knowing accomplice to the Kromaggots. You stood by and did nothing while human genocide broke out all around you. And the fact that you've collaborated with the 'Maggs not once, but TWICE now . . ." He just closed his eyes and shook his head again. "I can never love you, Grace. I can't even hate you. I only pity you."
Grace puckered his lips together. "Very well," she replied, in a chilly whisper. "But I can only do so much to help you if you won't get past your personal feelings."
Rembrandt tightened his own lips. He had no intention of saying one more word to her.
Grace glanced over her shoulder. The infantry of Kromagg children had been instructed to march forward, and they were headed in lock-step down one of the corridors. Dr. Venable turned back to Rembrandt. Her eyes nervously darting upward for a moment, she hissed at Rembrandt, "I don't know what else I can say to make you see reason."
Beneath his clamped mouth and clenched jaw, Rembrandt Brown silently retorted, "Don't say anything else. You've said enough for one lifetime."
* * *
Angus Rickman awoke to the sight of bright fluorescent lights shining down on him from the ceiling, accompanied by the upside-down masked face of a Kromagg surgeon in blue scrubs.
"Psycho monsters!" roared the deranged colonel, spitting upward at this captors. He tried to maneuver his arms and legs, but they were strapped down tightly.
Rickman felt a needle being plunged into one of his arms, and he howled out accordingly. Tilting his neck, Rickman could see the clammy, hairy hands of a female Kromagg nurse drawing his blood through some tubing.
Colonel Kesh had entered the medical bay, safely enshrined behind a standard "invisible" force field for her own protection. She curtly nodded at the Kromagg head physician and interrupted him, "Kollrak, begin the interrogation."
Of course, not understanding the Kromagg language, Rickman had no idea what the hell she was saying.
Kollrak projected his own mind into Rickman's, all the while emitting an ominous whistling sound as Kollrak's mental energy was expelled and transferred. Rickman roared in torment, his brain tissue sliced through and brushed aside with metaphorical knives.
Images from Rickman's past came whizzing back to him, obscured by a slightly blurry border of crepuscule from Rickman's perspective. He felt himself regressing into a youngster, standing back at a distance as an adult male shoved an adult female against a wall.
"Mum!" he heard the child-like version of himself call out, helplessly. He watched his mother teeter from the impact of her husband's grainy fist colliding with her jaw.
Flashes of history surged through Angus Rickman's brain, placing him by his mother's bedside as she took her last breath. He stood near her gravesite, and gently placed a small carnation at the base of his mother's tombstone. But that memory was soon jettisoned away from Rickman by the sting of his father's bare hand gruffly slapping Rickman's own pre-pubescent cheek.
"How many times do I have to tell ya . . . don't leave your damned toys on the foyer, you worthless git!!"
Rickman could smell the elder Rickman's intoxicated breath as it whipped against his nostrils.
And then . . . SMACK!!
Rickman felt himself toppling against the carpet. His head pounded. His ears rang.
He ran forward in a daze, pushed by the shrill vocals of a drill sergeant. In one moment, Rickman was dashing along with other uniformed men through a strenuous obstacle course. They weaved through tunnels, around pipes, and into wading pools. They "regained" on ropes suspended over a water tank, and practiced their marksmanship by piercing cardboard targets that depicted soldiers of the Kremlin. But in the next moment, he was being pinned on the chest with a silver star by a stately general, while proudly and ceremoniously wearing his green beret.
Kollrak peeled aside layer after layer of Rickman's memories. He watched from Rickman's firsthand perspective as the younger soldier, a member of the British Royal Marines, rocketed across the sweltering, sandy deserts of Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. The Kromagg interrogator could almost feel then-Colonel Rickman's dry mouth and sweaty skin as he dove into a sand pit to dodge an incoming blast of enemy fire.
In another moment, the heavy artillery evaporated from Rickman's arms. He was now horizontally spread out on a silk-sheeted, king-sized bed, making love to a scantily clad Maggie Beckett.
Maggie, sporting a shorter hairstyle of reddish-blond curls, removed her lips from Rickman's and pushed him away. "I can't do this anymore, Angus," she said, guiltily covering up her bare chest with one of the lavender bed sheets.
Strapped down in the Kromagg medical bay, Rickman growled as he relived that moment of betrayed rage. His memories shifted to a firsthand view of his outstretched arm, plunging a syringe into Corporal Thaddeus Eastman's neck. Then, his syringe morphed into a gun as he used it to pull the trigger and fatally shoot the wheelchair-bound Dr. Steven Jensen. Then, Rickman was suddenly transported to the corner of a tiny Escondido antiques shop - - on an alternate dimension - - gazing at himself in a Victorian mirror while he used a syringe to jam some fluid into his scalp . . . and momentarily morphed into the likeness of a sprightly nun whom he'd left comatose just moments earlier. Then, he whisked his head from side-to-side, vaguely recollecting the blurry images of assorted huminal faces - - gathered around him against a jungle backdrop - - as one female creature with zebra-patterned skin gently pressed a wet rag against Rickman's forehead.
Finally, multi-colored luminescence filled Rickman's eyes, and a buxom Mediterranean woman stood before him. The sparkly light dissipated as the goddess removed her hands from Rickman's formerly petrified chest.
"Aphrodite!" called out Rickman, as confused longing radiated from his lungs.
Kollrak had emerged from Rickman's mind, relatively unfazed. He faced Kesh and the rest of his fellow Kromaggs in the medical bay.
"He was captivated by some woman . . . he referred to her as 'Aphrodite,' before I lost contact with his memories," Kollrak spoke to his colleagues in their native language, gesturing to Rickman.
Lieutenant Kesh tilted her head in contemplation. "Aphrodite . . . the human goddess of love." Rolling her eyes at the unconscious Rickman, she scoffed, "He's delusional."
"Are you certain?" Kollrak blinked, still wide-eyed. "Everything felt so real."
"Aphrodite is a fictitious deity representing humanity's hormonal urges," reiterated Kesh. She book-ended her statement, in a dismissive tone, "A figment of the human psyche."
"But the rest of what I saw . . ." protested Kollrak.
Kesh held up her hand, stiffly cutting him off. "Most likely, a majority of it was real . . . or based on a vestigial reality. Tell us, Kollrak, what else did you learn about the subject?"
"This human was a warrior," Kollrak told his Kromagg colleagues. "At some point in his life, he contracted an abhorrent, heteromorphic disease . . . and was subsequently discarded by his own species. This subject endured an abnormal metamorphosis into a degenerate specimen. His genetic makeup contains attributes and markers from an assortment of lower mammals. Somehow, he has blended their genetic components with his own."
"And the virus . . . ?" Kesh tapped her foot expectantly.
"He knows of it, but possesses no trace of it within his own physiology." Kollrak raised his eyebrows. "This beast is motivated primarily by his desire for revenge."
"How intriguing . . ." Kesh snapped her fingers magisterially at one of the Kromagg nurses. "Wake him up!" she ordered the nurse, referring to Rickman.
The miscellaneous nurse, a dowdy female Kromagg who seemed intimidated by the mere sound of Kesh's voice, removed some smelling salts from a nearby surgical table. She shakily held them in place beneath Rickman's nose.
Rickman's eyes soon popped open. "What's happening to me . . . ?" he garbled, barely audible.
Instead of answering, one of the several Kromaggs who were hovering over him jabbed his arm with a syringe, and began extracting a blood tissue sample from him.
Reacting, Rickman yelped, causing the Kromagg nurse at his beside to release a startled little squeal herself.
"Be silent, Kylia!" Kollrak gave the nurse a harsh reprimand.
From his lateral position, Colonel Rickman stared up at Kollrak, Nurse Kylia, and the other Kromagg medical personnel who towered above him dressed in medical scrubs. Gradually, Rickman watched their images morph until they were all wearing hazmat suits, revealing their true sartorial selves.
"You deceived me . . . !" Rickman growled, and then clenched his teeth together. He could feel a sharp intrusion slice into his other arm.
Nurse Kylia displayed a scalpel along with a pair of forceps, which had a chunk of skin adhered to it. The skin sample was a severed cuticle of scales - - one example of the mermaid DNA that had ingratiated itself into random areas of flesh throughout Rickman's body.
"Interesting," commented Kesh, from the corner of the room. "The manbeast harbors much for us to discover. I shall report this latest development to General Konntul." She turned and exited the room.
Rickman gritted his teeth, and prepared to feel the unpleasantness of additional incisions to his flesh.
* * *
It had been just a few hours since Grace Venable returned Rembrandt to the sliders' communal cell. Wade had not been seen or heard from. Mallory and Janine had not been brought back either. The five remaining inmates could only sit - - or pace around in circles - - and wait to see what would happen next.
Malcolm was slumped over, in tears. All he could think about was Gretchen and the psychic message she had seemingly sent him. Was she all right? Was it too late to save her? How could they even find her when he and his friends were entrenched in Kromagg captivity? As these questions continued to race through Malcolm's mind, he only cried harder. Rembrandt sat on the floor next to the lopsided Malcolm, putting his arm around his young friend.
Maggie, meanwhile, had crumpled herself up into a big heap on the floor. She was shaking, uncharacteristically dejected. It was as though her usually tenacious, fiery spirit had been doused by an ice cold bucket of water that left a mournful void where her soul once existed.
Diana approached Maggie, and knelt down beside her. "Come on, Maggie," she whispered. "We need to find some way out of this."
"There is no way out of this . . ." moaned Maggie, sibilating in a raspy wheeze.
Dr. Davis gave Maggie a hug, still trying to get though to her. "Would Quinn want you to give up?"
"Quinn . . ." said Maggie, hoarsely squeaking out his name.
Professor Arturo had wandered over to them, and he discretely pulled at Diana's collar to get her attention. "We've got to snap her out of this," he whispered with urgency, referring to Maggie's emotional rigidity.
"She's shut down completely," Diana sighed, standing up to speak with Arturo. "This isn't the Maggie I know. A few more hours, and I'm afraid she'll become catatonic."
Arturo shook his head. "She's been acting like this for awhile, even before today. I didn't want to say anything at first, but . . ."
Diana nodded in agreement. "I've noticed it too. Ever since Quinn and Colin left us. Occasionally, Maggie has been able to deal with it just fine - - but she's grown increasingly more fragile throughout the past few weeks. One minute, I think she's handling things okay . . . but then the next day . . ."
". . . you wonder if she's going to break down in tears," the Professor completed their similar thought. "I didn't say anything because I assumed it might be 'female problems,' which is not my area of conversance. But apparently, we've all picked up on Miss Beckett's change of behavior."
Diana stomped her foot, disaffected. "I just can't figure out what to do for Maggie right now . . ."
Their conversation was disrupted by the opening of the chamber door. Mary softly stepped inside, surrounded by more Kromagg guards.
"They're coming to take us away . . ." Professor Arturo rolled his eyes at the sight of Mary and her armed entourage.
"Dr. Davis," Mary primly addressed Diana, "one of my superiors wishes to speak to you. In private."
Diana folded her arms. "And what if I refuse to go?" she defiantly challenged Mary.
"That is not an option," said Mary, matter-of-factly.
One of the Kromagg guards positioned his rifle, ready to shoot a containment crystal through the electromagnetic wall.
Rembrandt was immediately on his feet. He scurried to Diana's side, while Arturo flanked Diana closely at her opposite shoulder.
"Ha! Try trapping Diana inside your damn crystal now!" Remmy taunted them. "If you fire it in here, you're gonna end up snaring all three of us." Rembrandt and Arturo planted their feet firmly on the ground, unwilling to budge from Diana's side.
A wispy noise suddenly filled the six sliders' ears, accompanied by a potent scent in their nostrils.
"Ether . . ." Diana heard the words slink out from between her lips, before collapsing to the ground.
When she awoke, Diana found herself in a standing position, encased within the translucent rectangular walls of an "energy cage" created from the containment crystals.
"Damn!" she spat out, regaining her balance. The sliding physicist patted her vest pocket, where her PDL was still safely tucked away.
The Kromaggs must have overlooked it.
Diana could see she was in a different room, the lights dimmed - - with her friends nowhere to be found.
Mary suddenly emerged from the shadows, carrying what appeared to be some sort of portable strobe light, lantern-style.
"Hello again, Dr. Davis," Mary softly lilted.
Brushing unwashed strands of hair out of her eyes, Diana simply asked, "Why was I brought here?"
"We are in seclusion," said Mary. "My masters have granted permission for you to speak exclusively with an important member of their hierarchy."
"Who? And why me?" Diana's gaze flitted around the dark chamber. Aside from the silhouettes of almost palatial-looking structures, Diana could see nothing or no one other than Mary - - no additional bodies, no movements.
"That is not for me to disclose," Mary evasively stated. "She will be arriving shortly."
"Who's 'she'?" Diana repeated. When Mary responded with silence, Diana tried a different tactic. "I don't know if I can trust you. From what little my friends have told me about you, your death was faked so the Kromaggs could track them back to Earth Prime. You lied about the Kromaggs not being able to speak English. You lied to Quinn by bringing him to an indoor garden, and you made up some story that they were planning to execute him. How do I know you're not doing the same to me right now . . . that they aren't secretly listening in on us here?" Diana tightened her lips before speaking again. "How do you feel about doing the bidding of these killers, Mary?"
Even through the dark, Diana could see Mary repentantly bow her head. "I have been in service of the Dynasty for the past 23 years," Mary recalled. "I was six years old at the time. I have been told that my world was one of the very first of the Kromagg Dynasty's conquests." She paused, and added, "They spared my life. They gave me the privilege of serving them."
"Yeah, as a slave!" Diana shook her head. "How can you endure this lifestyle?"
"When the alternative is death . . ." Mary trailed off. She then leaned in close to the slider, and whispered, "Diana, I do what I do to give humanity a fighting chance."
Diana took a minute to digest Mary's words, not quite knowing what to do or say next. She finally cleared her throat and asked, "How many other humans are in this same type of position as you, Mary? What's the criteria for your role as a 'servant' of the Dynasty?"
Mary inhaled softly, and her voice returned to a regular pitch. "Only a few of us from select worlds are chosen to be 'greeters.' The Kromaggs base our appointment on a variety of factors: obedience, intellect, passivity, approachability toward human prisoners . . . only the best and most qualified of us are allowed to function in this capacity. Generally, we are selected as children, and trained through our mid-adolescence. We learn the oral Kromagg language and are taught telepathic abilities, so that we may interpret for human prisoners of higher status and facilitate their transition into captivity."
"You said you were taken from your homeworld 23 years ago," Diana clarified, probing for more information. "That would mean your Earth was invaded in 1979. But according to Quinn and Colin's parents, humans didn't build the Slidecage to defend Kromagg Prime until the early-eighties."
"That is correct," confirmed Mary. "After being driven from their homeworld, my masters established a new home base on another dimension, which they named 'Earth 1.' At that point, they feared mass extinction from the human-released virus, if they tried to reenter the toxic atmosphere of their home dimension. But they suspected that our homo sapien counterparts from their homeworld might use transdimensional travel to seek violent retribution. So after giving the virus a few years to dissipate, the Dynasty sent an exploratory team back to scout out their old homeworld. It was then they discovered that the Slidecage prevented them from dealing a preemptive strike to humanity."
"So they hoped to use the cyberiads to expedite that process," Diana said. "Except that the cyberiads couldn't help you with that other roadblock you're trying to overcome . . . the virus."
Mary sighed. "We have already extracted blood samples from you and your comrades," she verified for Diana. "In a matter of months, Kromagg scientists will have synthesized antibodies to neutralize the potent virus in your bloodstreams. As for the new generation of cyberiads . . ."
"So you DID restart the cyberiad project?" Diana reiterated. "Wade's detonation of the manta base only delayed it?"
"Yes." Mary glanced around nervously before continuing. "When Ms. Wells destroyed their facilities on 'Earth 50,' she failed to take into account the blueprints for cyberiad development preserved at outposts on other Earths."
"It was only a short-term solution," Diana realized out loud. "But it still forced your 'masters' to start from scratch."
Mary shut her eyes for several moments, as though she was concentrating intently. "I should not even be telling you any of this," she admitted to Diana. "If my masters were to find out . . ."
The Oriental interpreter closed her eyes again, and then reopened them after about thirty seconds.
"What?" Diana looked around, but she couldn't detect any clue that explained why Mary had paused.
Mary leaned in to whisper again to Diana. "She is here."
"WHO'S here?!" Diana was growing more than a teeny bit frustrated with Mary's elusiveness.
A lone set of footsteps echoed through the mysterious chamber. They grew closer and more prominent, until a tall, cloaked figure appeared next to Mary.
"Who are you?" Diana demanded an answer from the shadowy, enigmatic contour.
A penumbra of light washed over the lanky profile, springing from Mary's "strobe-lantern." Diana saw a pruny-faced female Kromagg, who had bulging brown eyes and a light mocha complexion. The female Kromagg wore a golden robe, embroidered with a full, dispersed pattern of tribal markings. She focused in on Diana, wearing a facial expression of grave urgency.
"And you are . . . ?" Diana waited for this recondite creature to identify herself.
The robed Kromagg spoke to Mary aloud, without actually looking at the Asian interpreter. "Leave us," she instructed Mary.
With an obedient bow of her head, Mary slipped away into the darkness.
"I am an augur," the female Kromagg revealed to Diana. She spoke in a discerning, rhythmic tone, never once exhibiting the need to physically blink an eyelash. "My species employs but a paucity of us who possess . . . how would humans word it? . . . clairvoyant abilities."
Diana suppressed spontaneous laughter, using the tip of her tongue. "Kromagg psychics?"
"Yes. We are soothsayers." She responded to Diana's initial skepticism with the utmost seriousness. "I requested this summit under the guise of issuing you a warning. For all my administrators know, that is why I speak to you in this moment."
"But you're actually here for a different reason?" Diana looked confused.
"I must deliver you a message, rather than a command." The Kromagg prophet gestured fluidly with her hands as she spoke. "Sublime forces beyond this realm compel me to do so."
Diana bit her lip, in spite of herself. This was all so hokey. "I've seen a lot of incredible things sliding, but this really takes the cake. I think something fishy is . . ."
"I can see I must earn your trust, Diana," the Kromagg prophet interrupted the slider, with humility in her voice. "Please . . . ask me what you wish to know. Anything you have pondered. Consider it a test of goodwill."
From inside her "energy cage," Diana folded her arms and began assessing the situation. What possible motive might the Kromaggs have for orchestrating this kind of ploy?
"Okay," said Diana, playing along, "so then, tell me . . . why a 'K'?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Every Kromagg I've met has had a name beginning with the letter 'K.' Why is that? Does it have some special significance to your species?"
The Kromagg prophet looked at Diana, a bit stunned by the simplicity of Diana's question. "The earliest members of our species possessed limited phonetics. As they interacted with other organisms of various tongues . . ."
"You mean human beings?" Diana interrupted.
". . . they developed a more coherent oral lexicon," the prophet said, with a slow nod of her head. "According to classical lore, our forefathers wished to make the Kromagg race culturally distinctive, as we continued to coexist alongside homo sapiens. An influential sire of our species gave himself the name of 'Kronus,' and thus initiated the tradition of alliterating Kromagg individuals based on the human letter 'K.' For millennia, as we maintained civil encounters with human beings, they adopted our syllabic references into their language."
"Kronus?" Diana repeated the name of the ancient Kromagg sire. "Kronus . . . as in, 'Cronus'? The Greek Titan of the harvest season. It sounds like your species may have been more influenced by human culture than you realize."
"Initially, there was abundant mutual tolerance between both of our races," the Kromagg prophet told Diana. "Tension only escalated into warfare during the most recent centuries . . . ever since 'The Conflict' began."
"You mean the Kromagg Prime civil war?" Diana was beginning to understand. "But I still don't see what any of this has to do with me?"
"You sense I am being truthful with you, do you not?" asked the Kromagg prophet.
"Yes . . ." Diana found herself saying. Her mind churned: Diana's instincts told her that she was learning privileged information that most humans weren't privy to.
For whatever reason, this sagacious Kromagg had chosen to confide in Diana . . . and Diana knew she needed to exploit it to the utmost of her ability.
"In the years since 'The Conflict,' Kromagg women have become infertile, correct?" Diana solicited another clarification.
"That is sadly true," nodded the prophet, grimly. "Our scientists discovered that your virus destroys the ovaries in most females of our species. Only a small number of our females are able to give birth . . . and their life spans are cut short following a pregnancy."
"So most of those female Kromaggs die during childbirth? Or right afterward?"
"Yes. Also a consequence of your virus. That is why we had to resort to breeding the Humagg hybrids from human females."
Diana cringed, and she thought of Christina Griffin. But continuing to press for answers, Diana asked, "So what do Kromagg women usually do? Give birth knowing they're going to die?"
"Sometimes. Some of our females willingly make that sacrifice for the greater good." The Kromagg prophet fixated her gaze on the wall behind Diana. "Others choose never to mate. They fulfill lesser roles within our government . . . Kromagg women may work as medical nurses, surrogate custodians, menial custodians, or 'collectors' . . ."
"What do you mean by 'collectors'?"
"Female Kromaggs whose task it is to accumulate items abandoned by your species when our government raids other dimensions."
"So basically," assessed Diana, her voice drenched with heavy sarcasm, "Kromagg women function as either babysitters, janitors, looters, or doomed incubators?"
"Generally." Folding her fingers together, the Kromagg prophet shifted her eyes thoughtfully, so she could make direct eye contact with Diana once again. "Only select females of our species have the prowess to advance into positions of military leadership."
"And except for you . . . because you're psychic." Diana folded her arms, in mental scrutiny of the structure of Kromagg society. "You and the few other Kromagg women who are 'special' get to be exempt from any form of physical labor."
"Ours is a mental labor," she answered, simply.
"I see." The human physicist twisted her thumbs together from inside her entrapment. "I'm sure it's also a nice perk that you and the other psychic Kromaggs are 'special' enough that you get to remain perpetually distanced from your race's fertility crisis."
"Just because I do not experience their anatomical misery does not mean I cannot empathize with their spiritual pain," replied the Kromagg prophet, quietly and humbly. "Of course, I, as well as others of my esoteric clan, foresaw it years before it came to pass. Our peers failed to believe us before it was too late."
"So you're saying that you, and a whole bunch of other psychic Kromaggs, can get premonitions . . . but your military leaders won't believe you?" gaped Diana. "They don't use that to their advantage?"
"They do . . . at this point in time," she answered Diana. "But not until much damage was done to our collective gene pool. For a long time, they failed to put their faith in us. But presently, they utilize our knowledge at every opportunity." She paused, before continuing, "It is how we became so fascinated with you and your companions, Diana."
Diana Davis paused, incredulously. "Are you saying . . . you and your fellow seers gave the Dynasty the idea to implant a tracking device in Quinn? And that's why all of this has happened?!" Her voice grew louder. "That's why you ended up invading my Earth?!"
"We foresaw many useful permutations, from human minds, made available by the conquests of those worlds. At first, our leaders could not fathom the possibilities of human ingenuity . . . they remained so imperious as to believe that any idea conceived by a homo sapien was inherently flawed and subsidiary."
"And what about you?" Diana asked the simian-faced soothsayer. "Do you consider your species to be superior to mine?"
"Indeed." The Kromagg prophet held up her finger. "But . . . there are always exceptions. You, Diana Davis, are one such perquisite. Your friends, Quinn Mallory and Professor Arturo, also harbor intellect far greater than that of most Kromaggs. But Diana, your future contains a threshold to transcend a cerebral state beyond the limits of that which even many of the most profound members of the human race shall never dream of reaching."
"What are you talking about?" Diana was now just plain baffled.
"Part of your destiny, Diana, is to aid your companions in stopping the genocide of humanity," she stated.
"Why can't you stop it?" Diana asked, with a sneer. "If the Dynasty's leaders value your psychic gift so much, then you should be able to convince them that it's in their best interest to leave us alone."
"But I cannot," the Kromagg prophet said. "Most of my prescient peers have the same myopic agenda as our Dynasty hierarchy. They have seen the same inevitability I have, but they believe it can be altered. Their prejudices blind them to any hope for a better future."
"And what exactly is YOUR agenda?"
"To survive. Or at least, to help others of my race survive. To ensure that humans and Kromaggs might once again coexist and collaborate. It might be a fruitless hope, but I find it preferable to genocide or extinction."
"So how are we supposed to make it happen, if your leaders are so hell-bent on reactivating the cyberiad project?" Diana challenged her. "And what can I possibly do about it?"
"I fear that only a minority of my species will survive the forthcoming racial apocalypse," the prophet said, her voice shaking. "You must give me your promise to show your humanity, even when you are no longer a part of this universe. Once you have left your mortal life behind, I ask you to take pity on the members of my species who survive in consciousness only."
Diana shrugged, her mouth hanging open in mystification. "I - - I still don't know what you're talking about. So I'm going to die? How am I supposed to stop the Dynasty from using the cyberiads to reinvade Kromagg Prime if I'm dead?"
The Kromagg prophet calmly tilted her head. "You misunderstand. The cyberiads have not yet been fully redeveloped. We have not reached that point quite yet. But we will soon. We are coming extremely close."
"So then what's this 'Kromagg apocalypse' you keep talking about? Is that when I'm going to die?"
"THEN WHAT?!" Diana threw up her hands. "All I want to do is reclaim my homeworld from your kind! You savages destroyed the world I grew up in! The world that made me everything I am today!"
"And you must leave it behind." The Kromagg prophet closed her eyes and declared, in a clear, articulate voice, "Diana, I have seen what is to come . . ."
"Then quit speaking in cryptic platitudes and just tell me already!" Dr. Davis slammed her fists against her enclosure. She wanted to throttle this long-winded, verbose Kromagg for giving her the runaround. "If you can really see into the future, then tell me what I really want to know! Tell me this: will I get home? To the Earth where I was born? Will I ever go back there?"
"It is certain . . ." the Kromagg prophet expanded her eyeballs, with knowing veracity, ". . . that you will not."
Diana's heart thudded to the bottom of her stomach. Her hands went cold, and the tingles rushed up and down her flesh. She wanted to write off this Kromagg as some crackpot who was just playing mind games with her . . . but she couldn't.
"No . . ." Diana protested, in a timorous whisper.
"You will never return home," the Kromagg prophet went on, speaking to Diana with precognitive certainty. "You will come close. But you shall never return to the Earth you once knew."
"Oh, yes I will!" Diana insisted, stubbornly. "I have family and friends back there. I turned my back on many of them and took them for granted before I began sliding . . . but I can't just forget about them forever! I have to get back!" The tears began to escape from Diana's eyes. "Or I'll die trying . . ." She thought for a moment. "Oh, so is that how I'm going to die? While trying to get home again?"
"You will not die," the Kromagg prophet corrected her. "Not in the way you fear. You will be reborn." She paused, and then gestured accordingly with each of her hands, in turn. "You will be neither here nor there."
Diana was about ready to pull all her hair out. "That makes no sense . . ."
"Just please remember my message," the Kromagg prophet pleaded with her. "Whatever happens, always remember."
A globular light came bobbing through the darkness toward them, eventually illuminating Mary's timid face.
"Madame Soothsayer," said Mary, faintly bowing her head in the Kromagg prophet's direction, "the other augurs request your presence. They say they have been summoning you . . ."
"I know. I have heard them." The Kromagg prophet seemed to be making a veiled reference to her presumably telepathic abilities. She placed her hand against the "energy cage," as a way of vicariously touching Diana. "I must commune with my peers. We will leave you here to meditate in contemplation."
"No!" Diana banged her hands against the crystalline shell. "I wanna go back! Take me back to my friends! Please!"
But Mary and the prophet had already departed, slinking away through the darkness . . . and leaving Diana to consider her apparently incalculable future.
* * *
Malcolm Eastman awoke from a deep sleep to discover that he was no longer in captivity with his friends. Instead, he was suspended in mid-air by another gravitational force. The seventeen-year-old was unable to move his arms or legs, and his cries for help went unanswered.
"They must have taken me too, when they came for Diana," he uttered, under his breath.
Malcolm shifted his eyes back-and-forth, scanning the new chamber he'd been placed in. Most of it was dim . . . except for the sinister shadow of a Kromagg-like figure standing about twenty feet away, directly in front of Malcolm's view. Slowly, a beam of light spilled over the presumed interrogator, revealing the unsympathetic stare of General Konntul.
Allowing himself to tingle in fright, Malcolm intentionally spoke no words. He just glared back at the Kromagg military officer.
"You are quite a bit younger than your other companions!" Konntul's voice boomed out at Malcolm. "Tell me how that came to be! How did someone of your puerile age become a 'slider'?"
Malcolm kept his mouth shut.
"We have ways of compelling you to cooperate!" threatened General Konntul, as some additional Kromagg silhouettes entered the dark chamber.
"Malcolm . . ." From out of nowhere, the youngest slider could hear a familiar voice echoing to him from nearby.
"Where are you?" Malcolm meekly whispered aloud. He didn't know how else to communicate with Gretchen, without tipping the Kromaggs off.
"What was that?" Konntul took a curious step toward Malcolm. "What did you say, human boy?"
"I won't let them hurt you," Gretchen's soft, caring voice rang in Malcolm's ears. "I will protect you, Malcolm. Just like I promised."
Somehow, Gretchen had reestablished the telepathic link she had initially used to bring Malcolm to her.
Konntul motioned to someone off to the side. At that point, Malcolm felt himself being pulled down toward the floor - - albeit still unable to move his limbs by his own free will.
"It appears you shall have to learn the hard way how to cooperate," grunted Konntul. The Kromagg general plunged his own consciousness into Malcolm's, determined to identify the adolescent's role in the group of sliders.
Malcolm cried out in travail, as though a hammer was repeatedly slamming against his skull. He began to sweat while numerous visions were yanked from his private memories.
A young indigenous boy in his early teens stood next to a thirteen-year-old Malcolm, and skillfully used a primitive slingshot to knock a soaring heron off its swift course of aerial flight. The younger Malcolm emulated the tribal adolescent's actions, nailing his own fowl by using only a piece of rubber, a stick, and a small stone.
One month earlier, Malcolm decorated the walls of Fort Riverside's underground catacombs with thick pieces of colorful chalk. He rubbed a black chunk of chalk against the cement, outlining the eyes of his Cheshire Cat mural.
On a grassy plateau back on the New World, Malcolm sprinted away from his other young friends who had been brought with the Pulsar Prime refugees, as the group of children enjoyed a lively game of freeze tag.
In another part of the valley, Malcolm somberly stood next to Gretchen. They watched the corpses of many indigenous natives being buried in the ground. Some of the refugees from Pulsar Prime pounded makeshift crucifixes as impromptu gravestones next to each burial plot.
Back at his family's old Fort Riverside apartment complex, Malcolm ran toward his father, whose body laid comatose on the ground. Corporal Thaddeus Eastman had a puncture wound severing the back of his scalp.
Near the top of a grassy hill on the New World, Malcolm sat sketching a likeness of the monstrous T-Rex from memory, using a furrowed scroll of canvass fabric.
Switching back to Pulsar Prime, Malcolm yelled in fear as he witnessed Colonel Rickman shooting a gun at the wheelchair-ridden Dr. Steven Jensen and killing the scientist in cold blood.
On a low plain in the San Fernando Valley, Malcolm peeked out from behind a cluster of boulders as he watched a redheaded adult female biologist scream and flail in the air, her legs caught between the vicious, giant teeth of a carnivorous Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Each of these visions was succeeded by another in Malcolm's mind. Soon, they sort of flowed together in a transitive sequence, as though they were part of a professionally-edited montage of film clips. Konntul observed this entire mnemonic series with flagitious enthrallment.
"Bantu . . ." Malcolm suddenly called out, in a hoarse whisper.
He flashed back to the inside of a frame tent, where he clasped Gretchen's hand as they silently watched Bantu cough and pant. The native boy, clad only in a simple loin cloth, was dying from the influenza. A doctor from Pulsar Prime kneeled by Bantu's side, preparing a syringe with antibiotics. But a dark-skinned shaman - - sent by Bantu's people to remain at the young adolescent's side throughout his sickness - - adamantly clutched the doctor's wrists. The shaman forcefully jerked the doctor's arms away, whisking the syringe from the doctor's grip and snapping it in half. Malcolm could only cry heavy tears as he watched Bantu's life slip away.
"Do not be sad, Malcolm," came Gretchen's benignant voice once again. Her soft, motherly vocals wafted through Malcolm's tympanic membranes, at a pitch far beyond Konntul's oblivious auditory nerves.
"Gretchen . . ." Malcolm heard himself calling out to his long-lost friend, without even moving his mouth. It felt like his own brain was vibrating, essentially doing all the talking for him.
A haunting image came back to Malcolm. On the outskirts of a forest at the edge of the San Fernando Valley, Rickman held Gretchen tightly in place, aiming a gun at her head. Gretchen was gagged with a piece of cloth in her mouth, and her eyes fluttered in terror.
"Gretchen, where are you?" Malcolm felt his mind instinctively calling out to Gretchen.
"I do not know . . ." she replied. "The Kromaggs. Unable to hear us. You must listen, Malcolm. Time running out. Get your friends. Bring . . . force field . . . down . . ."
Gretchen's message was interrupted by another memory flittering into Malcolm's consciousness. He watched a harrowing scene unfold from nearly two years earlier: Kromagg manta ships emerged from red holes in the sky, shooting blasts of energy at the humans who fled across the valley. Then, time jumped one day forward: Gretchen was dragged over the grass and toward a manta ship by the thuggish hands of Kromagg soldiers.
Malcolm released a blood-curdling holler, pent up and expelled from the laconic accumulation of these painful images. He could feel his memories colliding with Gretchen's, resulting in a disarray of erratic afterthoughts.
Konntul emerged from Malcolm's mind, quite pleased with himself. "The boy was once a refugee on 'Earth 1028'," General Konntul disclosed to his Kromagg peers, cloaking his words in an oral language that Malcolm wouldn't be able to understand. "It was the sparsely populated dimension containing the ancient creatures . . . those which the humans refer to as 'dinosaurs.' The sliders, being the meddlesome samaritans that they are, must have retrieved him from that Earth."
"Shall we return the boy to his friends?" one of them asked, pointing at Malcolm.
"No. Let him remain in here for awhile," Konntul said, decisively. "I want the boy's companions to worry about his fate while they continue to consider their predicament." A demented smile crossed Konntul's face. "Perhaps we might even turn the manbeast loose on them?"
"Will Lieutenant Kesh approve?" another asked.
"Kesh has transported herself offworld, to deliver a formal report to the Dynasty in person," Konntul informed them. "Besides, I outrank her. My orders take precedence over Kesh's - - remember that. If she attempts to usurp me, there will be consequences."
The Kromaggs sealed the chamber up tight, leaving Malcolm trapped alone - - but still linked to Gretchen.
"Gretchen, I'm scared . . ." Malcolm reached out, hoping to spiritually feel her.
"I know . . ." Gretchen replied. ". . . but . . . I am here with you."
"I've missed you so much . . ." Tears cascaded from Malcolm's eyes, despite the rest of his body's immobilization. "Gretchen, where are you? How can we save you?"
"I do not know."
The two of them allowed an awkward silence to linger. Malcolm finally sent out another mental message to Gretchen, after what seemed like an eternity. "Gretchen, when we were back on the New World . . . I'm sorry if I ever caused you any trouble. I know I didn't always listen to authority . . . went off and did whatever I wanted . . ."
"Malcolm, do not be sad," Gretchen repeated, in a humane, echoing voice. "You brought me so much happiness when we were together." She paused, and then continued with a measured vocal cadence. "You helped to fill the void in my life that Tracy left behind."
Tracy. Gretchen's son, who had been five years old when the pulsars hit. Malcolm had never met Tracy in person, but Gretchen always talked about him. Along with her husband, Tracy had been the one bright spot in Gretchen's otherwise formulaic life stationed at Fort Riverside.
Gretchen's memories were now churning, causing Malcolm's to temporarily subside. Her nostalgic sentiments swept up Malcolm, and they were both thrust backward into their shared past.
* * *
January 19, 1998
Gretchen Chambliss stood in line, holding her young son's hand. Tracy Chambliss, scrawny with buzzed blond hair, clutched his mother's waist.
"Mommy, when are we leaving?" Tracy asked, innocently looking up at her with round, timid eyes.
"Ssssh," Gretchen gently quieted him. "Soon, sweetie." She'd only told Tracy they would be going on a trip. Gretchen hadn't had the heart to tell him that they were leaving this world forever, and everyone else stranded behind them would be destroyed by a rotating, radioactive neutron star from outer space.
Gretchen and Tracy continued to stand in line, flanked by a long string of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, and their families. The entire medical staff of Fort Riverside had been corralled into one group, with all military officers and their families sanctioned off into a second area. The base's scientists, engineers, and their families comprised a third contingency. Now, each of these groups was being screened prior to transportation, for security purposes. Or, at least, that's what they'd been told.
It wasn't long before Gretchen and Tracy had made it to the front of the line. Once there, an officer with a clipboard confirmed their identities.
"Gretchen Chambliss . . . you're in Group A," the officer read from his master list. "Your son will have to go with Group B."
Tracy clutched his mother's hand tightly. "Nooooo!!!!" he wailed.
"Please, can't he stay with me?" Gretchen pleaded.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. We have to follow protocol. Colonel Rickman's orders." The officer looked and sounded genuinely apologetic.
Tracy threw his arms around Gretchen's waist. Two more officers came over to them, and grabbed Tracy by the shoulders. They yanked the five-year-old, kicking and screaming, away from his mother, physically unpeeling the boy's grip on her.
"Don't hurt him!" Gretchen cried out, overcome with tears. Someone had to hold Gretchen back, to keep her from charging after Tracy.
"Mommy . . . !!!" Tracy's youthful windpipes screeched as he was pulled away and disappeared from sight.
"I love you, honey . . . !" called out Gretchen, in-between sobs.
She buried herself in the comforting embrace of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Hinds, who was Rickman's second-in-command. He was also a good family friend of the Chamblisses, and had gotten to know Gretchen's family quite well during all the years they'd lived on the base.
"It's going to be okay," Robert reassured her, with steady composure. "Gretchen, we'll be reunited with them soon." Little did Robert know he would never see his own wife again.
Colonel Rickman marched over to Gretchen. "Is there a problem?" he demanded, crisply.
"Colonel . . ." Gretchen tried to eke out a coherent thought amid her blubbering. "Colonel Rickman, why can't I stay with my son? Please . . ."
Rickman held up his hand, cutting her off. "I understand your frustration," he spoke, in a softened tone. "But you're needed here. We must have all the most capable medical personnel in this initial group, to be on-hand in case there are any injuries. Most of us will be sliding for the first time." Rickman turned to address Robert. "Lieutenant Hinds, come with me. We need to prepare the rest of the officers before they're screened." He shot an authoritative glance back at Gretchen. "Now I suggest you listen carefully to Captain Beckett's instructions, so you can aid us if anything goes wrong. You'll see your son again soon enough."
Gretchen nodded. Rickman hadn't really answered her question as to why she and Tracy had to be separated, but Gretchen was too shaken to challenge him any further.
Robert supportively touched Gretchen on the shoulder as Rickman led him away.
In another five minutes, Gretchen and the rest of Group A had been assembled together. There were about ten children among the two-dozen adults. Captain Maggie Beckett entered the room, her heels click-clacking against the cement.
"Listen up!" Maggie shouted, pacing in front of Gretchen and the other medical staff. "It's imperative that you follow every order given to you, to the letter. Anyone who diverges from our protocol will be executed on sight, no questions asked."
She momentary consulted her watch, which read 03:54.
"At 'Oh-Four-Hundred Hours,' the power grid will be activated. On my command, you will proceed into the vortex, in five increments of seven. Do not be intimidated by its appearance. Jump feet first . . . you will find yourselves gliding down a long tunnel. Let the energy carry you through, and you should be fine. Remember, as you near the end of the tunnel, propel your legs first, and you should land with relative ease." Maggie clapped her hands together. "Those of you who are employed as doctors and nurses . . . I want you waiting on the other end for the next wave of sliders, as the groups immediately succeeding yours will consist of military officers. Together, you will retrieve the medical supplies, foodstuffs, tools, and livestock that we'll be sliding as a shipment directly preceding the final group of humans. Any questions?"
There were none. Everyone was just waiting anxiously for the moment of truth.
Within minutes, a massive red vortex appeared. It was at least twenty feet long and fifteen feet high. Maggie stood in front of the windy rift, her arms outstretched.
"Go! Go! Go!" she hollered, as the first seven people - - five adults and two children - - linked hands and plunged forward into the blobby redness. The remaining four waves of seven prepared for their turns.
Gretchen's septet was the last one to depart. As she clutched the hand of the adolescent girl next to her, Gretchen noticed a number of people emerge from the sidelines and suddenly skirt past Maggie from behind.
"Hey!" Maggie angrily yelled at the unauthorized sliders, as they hastily snuck behind her back and shuffled through the quantum doorway.
Gretchen bit her lip and stifled a laugh. Those people hadn't been cleared by Rickman for interdimensional travel, yet they were willing to take matters into their own hands and risk possible execution just to avoid guaranteed death. Obviously, they weren't taking any chances of possibly being left behind to get fried by the pulsars. Gretchen had to admire their tenacity for bucking strict procedure and possibly endure Rickman's wrath so they could continue to breathe.
As she moved forward along with the other members of her septet, Gretchen felt and watched the red quantum energy wash over her. She hurtled across a winding tunnel, just as Captain Beckett had described - - and her thoughts remained with Tracy as Gretchen's floating body approached the New World.
* * *
January 21, 1998
The sun beamed down over a grassy hillside in the San Fernando Valley. Dozens of new refugees from Pulsar Prime were organizing a cumulative supply of clothing and edible rations, to be distributed amongst their tiny population of less than two-hundred.
Gretchen took a break from sorting through the piles of clothing her people had brought with them. She stood, looking down upon the valley, hands on her hips. This was their Earth now, and they were going to have to make the best of it.
"Gretchen . . ." A finger tapped the blonde nurse on her shoulder.
Turning around, Gretchen came face-to-face with Brenda Martinez, who had been one of her coworkers on the nursing staff at Fort Riverside. Brenda ran her fingers through her fluffy black hair, as light perspiration glistened off her tan complexion.
"We've divided up the spare clothes," Brenda informed Gretchen. "Should we distribute the smaller sized items amongst the kids first?" Brenda and the other nurses who'd been brought along from Pulsar Prime had all informally agreed to designate Gretchen as their leader among their ranks.
"Oh, um . . . yeah. That sounds like a plan." Although she felt distracted, Gretchen knew she needed to focus . . . for the sake of everyone else's survival. "Yes, good thinking." Gretchen placed her hand on Brenda's shoulder. "You distribute clothes out to the girls," she instructed Brenda, "and tell Michael to distribute to the boys."
"What about the rest of us?" Brenda asked, referring to the adults.
"Um . . . I guess the military officers should get first crack at everything," said Gretchen, while trying to compartmentalize emotions in her mind. "They'll probably want the more durable clothing, anyway. The rest of us can make due with the lighter items."
Brenda studied her friend's face, carefully. "Gretchen, I know something's bothering you," she said, sympathetically. "It's Tracy, isn't it?"
Gretchen's eyes fluttered, as she tried to hold back tears. "Colonel Rickman made a judgment call. I don't understand it . . . but nothing can bring my son back."
"If you need to talk, just let me know," Brenda whispered, putting her arm around Gretchen and giving her a little squeeze.
"I'm fine." Gretchen sniffed through her nostrils, with a sense of finality. "Come on, these children should be our priority now."
Brenda took a second hesitant glance at Gretchen, but she reluctantly headed over to consult with a long-haired man in his mid-thirties.
Gretchen began opening a stack of first-aid kits when Robert Hinds kneeled down next to her.
"Hi, Robert," said Gretchen, hardly taking her eyes off of the bottles of calamine lotion.
"Did you hear?" Robert spoke to Gretchen in a low, conspiratorial tone.
"Hear about what?"
"Rickman. He's disappeared." Robert's eyes lingered across the majestic valley landscape. "No one knows what happened to him. We sent a search party out last night, but didn't have time to cover much of the area."
Looking at the ground, Gretchen's face hardened. "Do you think he went with the sliders?"
"No. Captain Beckett left with them yesterday," Robert told her. "Beckett didn't tell anyone why she was leaving, but according to the people who saw her slide out, Rickman didn't leave with them."
"I wonder if he's hurt?" Gretchen's eyes jiggled around, as she thought out loud absent-mindedly. "Maybe he got bit by a snake, and is lying somewhere, injured, paralyzed? . . . or maybe he fell off a cliff down in one of the canyons . . . ?"
"Gretchen . . . ?" Robert put his hand on her shoulder, concerned.
"I'm sorry." Gretchen closed her eyes to keep the tears pent in. "I know the colonel was only trying to do what he felt was best. But it's because of him . . ." She inhaled a throaty heave. "If Rickman hadn't been the one calling the shots, maybe Tracy might still be with us?"
Robert hugged Gretchen close to him. "I know. I've thought the same thing about Sarah during the past day. 'What if I had insisted she come with us'? 'What if I had snuck her into my group'? But you know Colonel Rickman . . . once he makes a decision, there's no changing his mind. It's got to be done his way."
The blaring of a male voice caught their attention. First Lieutenant Craig Andrews, one of Rickman's most loyal men, had gotten his hands on a bullhorn. He was proceeding to bark out orders at everyone gathered in his immediate proximity.
"Everybody, listen up!" he shouted, his hard vocals amplified by the bullhorn. "You all need to move to the East Plateau . . . we're using dynamite to clear enough land so our livestock can graze, so unless you want to be deprived of milk or beef for the rest of our time here, I suggest you get your asses moving!"
Robert snorted. "I can't believe Andrews thinks he's actually in charge now."
Gretchen shrugged. "He was always one of Rickman's biggest cheerleaders. I guess he thinks he's heir apparent to carry on the colonel's orders."
"Yeah, well, his 'leadership' is going to jeopardize morale," scoffed Robert. "I'm gonna have a little chat with Craig . . ."
Gretchen headed off toward the plateau to the east of the nearest small forest. She ushered many of the small children forward, but then caught sight of a boy crouched down in the grass.
"Pardon me," Gretchen called out to the young adolescent. He looked slightly older than twelve, and wore a light blue T-shirt and red athletic shorts that stood out against his brown skin. His hands were pressed against his knee.
The boy looked up at Gretchen. "Yeah . . . ?"
She could see he had tears in his eyes.
"Are you okay?" asked Gretchen.
"I skinned my knee." He uncovered his hand to reveal a bloody gash just below his kneecap. "Some of the kids were chasing me . . ."
"Come here," Gretchen softly said. She helped to hoist Malcolm to his feet. "Let's get that cleaned for you."
As they neared the gathering spot on the plateau, Gretchen noticed Malcolm was having trouble walking. His legs and feet were shaking as he plodded alongside Gretchen through the grass.
"Michael . . . !" Gretchen called to Michael Wheaton, one of her fellow nurses. The smiling, long-haired man, wearing an oversized tie-dyed shirt and corduroy shorts, came over to lend a hand.
"What's your name?" Gretchen asked Malcolm.
"Malcolm. Malcolm Eastman," he replied, still wincing.
"Malcolm skinned his knee," Gretchen told Michael, helping to steady Malcolm before he stumbled.
Michael quickly lent his own arm and shoulder to aid Gretchen in making sure Malcolm retained his balance. "Hey, buddy," Michael amicably said to Malcolm, seeing from the teen's crinkled face that Malcolm was still experiencing discomfort. "Listen man, we're gonna have you feeling better soon, I promise."
"Thanks . . ." Malcolm responded, with a gulp. They had finally arrived at the relocated first aid station, which had been placed in-between a series of tents.
Gretchen and Michael sat Malcolm down in a folding chair. Gretchen knelt by Malcolm and let him squeeze her hand, while Michael carefully yet efficiently swabbed and cleaned the bloody wound right below Malcolm's knee.
"Was one of your parents stationed on the base?" Gretchen asked Malcolm, hoping to keep his attention off the marginal pain.
"Yeah . . . my dad and stepmom." Malcolm looked down at the ground. "They were both in comas when the pulsars hit. No one knew why."
Gretchen nodded, empathetically. "My son, Tracy, was left behind too."
Malcolm and Gretchen shared a mutual gaze of understanding. They both had lost the primary family members in their lives . . . and were facing this uncertain new world together.
"All done," Michael cheerfully reported. He had finished wrapping an adhesive ACE bandage around Malcolm's leg, after applying iodine to the injury.
"Thanks, man." Malcolm mustered up a smile for Michael.
"No problem, dude." Michael patted Malcolm on the shoulder as he headed off to round up some of the other children.
Gretchen gave Malcolm a tiny smile. "If you haven't picked a group to sleep with yet . . . there's definitely room for you to stay in our tent."
"Thanks." Malcolm managed to return Gretchen's smile.
All of a sudden, murmurs rippled through the crowd assembled on the plateau. A little girl was standing at the edge, overlooking the valley.
"Look!" squealed the little girl, pointing excitedly.
A docile herd of brontosauri could be seen in the distance. The gigantic reptiles dug their necks down into the bushes by a small lake, searching for sustenance. One brontosaurus raised its head and released a cooing rumble. The creature seemed as though it was gazing with interest directly at the group of human refugees - - even though they were positioned hundreds of feet away from the brontosauri.
"Dinosaurs?!" gasped Gretchen, hardly able to believe it. None of the scouts who'd scoped out the area earlier had seen any signs of dinosaurs!
The surreal sight was met with a mixture of amazed and enthusiastic reactions from most of the smaller children.
"Whoa . . . !"
"Way cool . . ."
Gretchen merely reached for Malcolm's hand, clasping it in her own.
Malcolm glanced sideways at Gretchen, while keeping his eyes trained on the incredible panorama of dinosaurs grazing amid a scenic valley.
Nervously, Malcolm's fingers tingled, as his voice wavered.
"It's a whole new world . . ."
* * *
February 10, 1998
Malcolm had been on the New World for a little more than two weeks. He missed Rembrandt like crazy. He realized how much he'd taken his old life for granted. However, two people had filled the void left by the family and friends who were no longer with Malcolm. One was obviously Gretchen. They'd spent every day together since the refugees' arrival, and Gretchen had become like a mother to him.
The other was Bantu. An indigenous boy approximately the same age as Malcolm, Bantu had encountered the foreigner from Pulsar Prime one shady afternoon as Malcolm doodled on a sketchpad underneath a massive eucalyptus tree. Little had Malcolm known that the spot where he'd randomly chosen to concentrate on his artwork also happened to be a special nighttime marker for stargazing, utilized by Bantu's tribe.
Their bond had been instant. In the past weeks, Bantu had taught Malcolm how to hunt a variety of valley-dwelling critters - - gophers, raccoons, foxes, weasels, and birds. Now, on this sunny, humid Tuesday, Bantu was leading Malcolm toward the edge of a clear, glistening freshwater lake.
Not that it mattered much whether it was Tuesday or any other day of the week. To Malcolm and the others from Pulsar Prime, the calendar days they'd been accustomed to had become mostly irrelevant.
Bantu got on his hands and knees, and crawled around over the rocks at the lake's edge. Malcolm just followed behind Bantu, standing over him and watching him with great curiosity. To Malcolm, Bantu resembled Mowgli from The Jungle Book, navigating his agile body covered with tribal markings while wearing nothing but a loincloth.
Lifting one of the rocks, Bantu retrieved a wiggling worm from underneath it. He displayed it for Malcolm, and then pointedly dropped the live worm into a shallow area of the lake. Bantu pointed downward, indicating for Malcolm to observe.
It wasn't long before a fat rainbow trout came swimming toward the water-drenched worm. As the fish sucked up the tiny annelid, Bantu whisked out an arrowhead that had been tucked in the waistline of his loincloth. Bantu flung the arrowhead directly at the rainbow trout with extraordinary precision. The arrowhead pierced the fish's midsection, and Bantu reached into the water to retrieve the limping trout. Smiling, Bantu triumphantly waived the fish in the air, holding it by its fins.
Impressed, Malcolm smiled back and clapped his hands together, applauding for Bantu's accomplishment.
But Bantu wasn't finished. He tossed the newly-dead fish onto the grass, and then tugged at the shoulder-high sleeve of Malcolm's shirt.
"Mal-cum . . ." said Bantu, enunciating his friend's name and indicating for Malcolm to follow him.
Bantu led Malcolm over to a somewhat deeper part of the water, near a cluster of huge rocks where the two boys could sit and dip their bare feet in the water. Holding up his finger, Bantu gestured for Malcolm to watch. The native teen got on his belly atop one of the rocks, and then sucked in a breath of air. Bantu plunged his upper body into the shallow water, chest-deep. He held his breath underwater only momentarily, emerging seconds later with a handful of jiggling hermit crabs.
"Awesome!" Malcolm exclaimed, watching Bantu fling the shelled crustaceans against the rocky surface in order to immobilize them.
Once he was finished, Bantu gestured straight at Malcolm. Although Malcolm didn't quite follow at first, it soon became apparent what Bantu was trying to say. The native boy grabbed at the front of Malcolm's shirt and gently but repeatedly tugged the fabric away from Malcolm's chest. He then pointed directly downward into the waters that Bantu had just fished from.
Malcolm could sense that Bantu was basically trying to tell him, "Your turn."
Glancing at the dead hermit crabs that Bantu had caught, which were now lying on the shore, he licked his lips, anticipating the taste of seafood again. Grinning at his indigenous friend, Malcolm whipped off his shirt and faced the water. Malcolm then held his breath and plunged himself deep into the water, bare-chested. Bantu held onto Malcolm's waist, so the novice wouldn't lose his balance and fall in.
Once he came up for air, Malcolm found a squirming crab in each of his hands.
"Yes! Yeah, baby!" After throwing the hermit crabs to the shore, Malcolm pumped his first in the air. "I did it! Oh yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about!"
Bantu nodded his head and verbally cheered for Malcolm in Bantu's own native language. He threw his arms around Malcolm, hugging him to celebrate Malcolm's achievement.
They spent the remainder of the afternoon fishing for trout, catfish, guppies, chubs, and hermit crabs. By the time the two young teens headed back into camp, they carried a massive net full of aquatic creatures between them.
Gretchen was picking wild berries at the edge of camp when she spotted the boys coming toward her, hauling their bounty. "Oh, Malcolm!" Her face lit up when she saw their forthcoming dinner. "Did you catch all of that?" She ran over to Malcolm and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "Oh, I am so proud of you!"
Malcolm beamed. "Thank Bantu . . . he's the one who showed me how to do it."
Gretchen squeezed Bantu's bare shoulders. "Thank you so much, Bantu! Would you like to join us for dinner tonight? I think we'll be having quite a feast!"
Bantu couldn't really understand what Gretchen was saying, but he nodded graciously nonetheless.
Malcolm grinned at Bantu again, as the three of them dragged the net full of seafood into camp. He knew one thing: after dinner that night, he planned to teach Bantu how to draw.
* * *
February 20, 1998
Malcolm watched solemnly as four men lowered Bantu's limp, lifeless corpse into a deep grave in the ground.
His friend was really gone.
Gretchen, who was standing next to Malcolm, squeezed the boy's hand. Malcolm's eyes were dry: he'd cried so much throughout the past day, there simply weren't any tears left.
Unbeknownst to the refugees from Pulsar Prime, upon arriving on their new Earth they'd carried bacteria with them that the native people had no immunities to. The influenza had swept over the local indigenous population like a tidal wave, taking the lives of most every member of Bantu's tribe within at least a twenty mile radius.
Bantu was only the most recent of the casualties.
More than one-hundred residents of Malcolm and Gretchen's camp had gathered by a clearing to honor Bantu's memory. The skilled native had not only befriended Malcolm and a few of the other children, but Bantu had taught these refugees - - adults and children alike - - countless useful skills for surviving in this rugged terrain. Now, they grieved that Bantu had perished at the mercy of an extrinsic disease that they'd been responsible for imposing about him and his tribe.
A young pre-pubescent girl, Cindy Ellison, sat amongst the funeral audience as she serenaded the ceremony by playing her flute. The sprightly, brunette, pig-tailed ten-year-old had brought this shiny, silvery instrument as one of her few personal possessions when sliding to the New World. She blew through the pipe, sonorously replicating the tune to "Amazing Grace" with flawless sublimity.
Once Cindy had concluded, Gretchen moved to the forefront of the assemblage. She stood atop a flattened boulder so she could deliver the eulogy to memorialize Bantu.
"As I'm sure most of you are aware, Bantu was a valuable ally to our community," Gretchen began. "He will be remembered for his generosity, his resourcefulness, his thirst for life." She paused, and continued, awkwardly. "When we first arrived here, Colonel Rickman wanted to enslave the local population out of expedience. I find it heartening to know that we, as a community, decided against following the colonel's original plan-of-action, amoral as it was. We've buried many fallen brothers and sisters from the local tribe, but Bantu's memory deserves an exceptional tribute. Bantu had all the makings of a selfless leader, someone who would become legendary among his people. I only pray that God will forgive us for bringing such an unforgiving plague to this world in the first place."
Malcolm closed his eyes, nearly gagging on his dry throat.
With a sigh, Gretchen commenced her eulogy. "I ask that you all join me to pray that Bantu's soul be elevated to paradise, to bring him the peace he deserves. Heavenly Father, we beg for your . . ."
The beginning of Gretchen's prayer was drowned out by a vicious roar echoing toward them through the valley. Everyone looked around frantically, trying to see where it was coming from.
"The dinos . . . ?!" Andrews shouted out, blatantly confused by the vicious pitch of that particular roar.
"Over there!" One of the group's scientists, who happened to have a background in paleontology, pointed at the horizon.
A colossal reptilian beast was storming toward the funeral site at full force. It bore its menacing, razor-sharp teeth, and released another growl that could break glass.
"It's a Tyrannosaurus Rex!!" the scientist informed everyone, in shock himself.
Screams and shrieks blared from the crowd of scared human beings. Adults scrambled to higher ground, dragging the panicked children along with them.
Craig Andrews wasted no time signaling to his fellow military officers, all of whom were armed with rifles. "FIRE . . . !!!"
The soldiers shot their rifles at the T-Rex, but their tiny bullets barely penetrated the dinosaur's epidermis. Seeing the futility of their impromptu strategy, Andrews yelled for the armed men and women to follow the unarmed civilians up the hillside.
But one solider didn't make it in time, and soon found himself impaled and crushed between the hungry T-Rex's enormous teeth.
A stampede of terrified humans remained on a beeline up the hillside, racing for their lives and not looking back.
* * *
March 3, 1998
Malcolm and Gretchen carried some tins full of vittles to the evening campfire, where Rembrandt Brown and Wade Wells were waiting for them. Ever since the sliders had returned to the New World - - where two months earlier, they'd relocated and transported the Pulsar Prime refugees - - Malcolm had wanted to make them feel at home. Secretly, he hoped Rembrandt might consider staying behind permanently.
Quinn Mallory and Maggie Beckett had gone out to track Colonel Rickman, who'd also apparently returned to this Earth. So while news of Rickman's wrath spread across their camp, Gretchen and Malcolm were left to serve Wade and Remmy a hearty dinner under the starry night sky.
In front of the crackling fire pit, Rembrandt hungrily and curiously took a bite of the tender meat Malcolm had put on Rembrandt's plate.
"Ya like it, Remmy?" Malcolm looked for Remmy's reaction.
Rembrandt chuckled, swallowing his first bite. "Delicious flavor. I don't think I've ever tasted chicken this good." He released another half-chuckle.
Across the fire pit, Malcolm shot Gretchen an amused glance, which Gretchen acknowledged with a knowing smile of her own.
"It's not chicken," Malcolm informed Rembrandt. "More like gopher or weasel. I trapped them." He took a bite out of the crispy gopher meat, sucking its moisture with his lips.
Rembrandt glanced at Wade, morbidly. The chunk of meat seemed to churn at the bottom of Rembrandt's stomach.
"I'm so happy I'm a vegetarian," Wade dryly remarked. She had been staring down the whole time at the ground, where her plate of cornmeal rested.
Gretchen looked in Wade's direction. "The small burrowing animals and birds are all that's left," she explained to Wade. Switching her gaze over to Rembrandt, Gretchen clarified, "The T-Rex has wiped out everything else."
"Look, uh . . ." Rembrandt awkwardly stumbled to find the right words. "We saw hundreds of graves . . ." He gestured with his hands, while coping with his discomfort.
Gretchen shamefully glanced down at the campfire. "Those deaths are on our heads, I'm afraid." Her somber eyes met Remmy's. "The native population had no immunities to the bacteria we brought with us."
Wade was now listening incredulously, registering shock as Gretchen explained what had happened.
"Common flu virus. Went through them like wildfire," Gretchen continued. "And they were too superstitious to let us inoculate them."
"We saw bones at the settlement," Wade said, clearly paying attention to this tragic account.
"We lost nearly twelve people when the T-Rex attacked," said Gretchen, still speaking repentantly. "We were warned, but no one took the tales seriously."
"What tales?" asked Rembrandt.
"The natives worshipped the dinos," Malcolm told them. "They made animal sacrifices to them to keep them happy. When the game ran short, they came to us and asked for some of our livestock for the allosaurus and the T-Rex."
"And our stock was too valuable to give in to superstition," Gretchen said to Remmy, "so we refused." She turned back to Wade. "I mean, we'd never seen the T-Rexes . . . we thought they were just a myth. Until they got hungry enough and attacked."
"No more catered lunch means they have to hunt," Wade quipped, sympathetically. She then inquired, with concern in her voice, "How many are there?"
"Most of them have died from starvation." With a slight hint of pride in her voice, Gretchen boasted, "We've gotten really good at hiding, and our camps are scattered all over the mountains. But there's at least one: the biggest and most aggressive. He's stayed alive by cannibalizing the remains of the others."
Wade looked at Rembrandt silently, as if to ask him, "What do we do?" with her eyes.
Remmy, tight-lipped, looked back at Wade as though he was saying, "I have no clue."
Gretchen squeezed her eyes shut. "We're all so scared . . ."
Rembrandt's stare bounced back and forth between Gretchen and Malcolm. "Listen . . . we'll get the T-Rex. We'll find a way to save your people. Q-Ball is resourceful . . . he'll come up with a plan. He always does."
* * *
March 4, 1998
Malcolm trudged through the grassy brush of the valley. He was annoyed . . . very upset that he couldn't help the sliders in their mission to kill the T-Rex. But Quinn had made Malcolm head back to camp while the four interdimensional explorers attempted to decapitate the T-Rex with dynamite from inside its feeding cave.
From out of nowhere, Colonel Angus Rickman stopped in Malcolm's path . . . yanking a terrified Gretchen, whose wrists were bound by a "leash" made from stiff rope.
Malcolm instantly recognized Rickman. The colonel's face was physically altered, as Maggie had explained to all the refugees back at camp. But Malcolm knew those piercing, malevolent eyes anywhere.
"We meet again, Malcolm," Rickman said, announcing his presence.
Malcolm looked horrified. "You killed my father," he spoke, softly and sadly. The teenager felt way too shocked to be angry.
Rickman indicated Gretchen. "And I'll kill her . . ." he threatened, ". . . and you . . . unless you do exactly what I tell you." He had a determined face of stone as he asked Malcolm, "Where are the sliders?"
Although she was gagged, Gretchen shook her head back and forth at Malcolm, silently pleading with him not to tell Rickman anything. She knew that Rickman would never spare her life or Malcolm's just because Malcolm chose to cooperate.
But Malcolm didn't know what else to do. He knew he had to find a way to get Gretchen away from Rickman.
"They're back at the T-Rex's feeding cave . . . planning to blow the dino's head off with a dynamite rocket," Malcolm spoke all at once, quickly.
"Ah. Sounds like a brainchild of Mallory's," Rickman knowingly assessed their plan. He refocused his attention on Malcolm. "Okay, boy, here's what you're going to do. Assuming the sliders survive their little outing, you are going to bring them back to this spot. You can tell them that Nurse Chambliss, here, suffered a rattlesnake bite, or something equally as plausible. Just get them back here. Or else . . ." He pulled a knife out of his back pocket and waved it around menacingly with one hand, while holding Gretchen in place with the other, ". . . I will slice out her guts with this knife!"
Malcolm gulped and nodded, backing away.
"Well, go! Go now!" Rickman impatiently waved Malcolm away. "Bring me the sliders!"
His heart pounding, Malcolm raced through the high grass, fighting back tears. Not only did he fear for Gretchen's safety, but also for that of his friends - - whom Malcolm realized might not make it out of that valley alive.
It wasn't long before Malcolm spotted the four of them, heading toward him, all smiles. Wade was leading the way, with Rembrandt, Quinn, and Maggie following behind. They toted weapons, either strapped to their backs, or, in Maggie's case, in their hands.
"Hey, we did it, Malcolm," called out Rembrandt, valiantly. "T-Rex is toast."
But as he took in Malcolm's face, Remmy immediately knew something was wrong. Malcolm looked like he was about to cry.
"What is it? What happened?" asked Rembrandt.
Malcolm launched into his act of deceit. "Gretchen. Bit by a snake. We gotta help her." His face was paralyzed with fear - - although not because of a snakebite.
"Alright, alright, calm down." Rembrandt wanted to reassure Malcolm. "It's gonna be all right."
"Show us the way," Quinn stoically solicited from Malcolm.
"This way." Malcolm led them back in the direction he had come from. He trudged forward in silence for what seemed like an eternity, aware of the four sets of footsteps trailing him. Malcolm hated lying to them . . . but he didn't know what else he could do.
After several minutes, Rembrandt called after Malcolm, "This is pretty remote country. What was she doing way out here?"
Uh, oh. Malcolm hadn't prepared for being questioned by his friends.
"She was . . . hunting," Malcolm lied, unconvincingly. "Yeah . . . she was hunting birds."
"That's quite a hike from camp," Quinn noted. The suspicion in Quinn's voice was noticeable. "We saw plenty of birds flying there."
"She likes it out here," Malcolm continued to fib. "She likes being here by herself."
Maggie began walking in step with Malcolm. "You're lucky you found her," Maggie said to Malcolm. Then, with a slightly accusatory prod, she asked, "I thought you were headed towards camp?"
Malcolm stopped, turned around, and gave Maggie an indignant glare. "You think I'm lying?" he snapped, defensively. "She got bit by a snake. We gotta help."
Rembrandt took Malcolm aside. "Look, Malcolm," he put his arm around the boy, "there's something wrong here, partner. Now, you can tell me the truth. What's going on?"
Malcolm pouted, stubbornly and insistently. "It's just like I told it." He turned to walk away.
"It's okay," Rembrandt called to Malcolm, in a strong voice. "I know you wouldn't lie to me." Remmy turned to look at his friends, aware that the guilt would finally get to Malcolm.
Indeed. The jig was up. Clearly, his friends knew he was lying. Malcolm relented.
"Colonel Rickman," revealed the young adolescent. "He was there when I got back. He's got Gretchen. He said he'd kill her." Malcolm followed it up with another upset pout. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Malcolm, you did what you had to do." Rembrandt knew Malcolm felt bad enough for lying, and he didn't want Malcolm to think they blamed him for it. "We all understand that. She'll be fine - - believe it, alright?"
Malcolm bowed his head with hopelessness.
"Where is he now, Malcolm?" Quinn asked in a serious tone, referring to Rickman.
"About half a mile up there," Malcolm said, pointing. "It's a box canyon, there's no way out."
"I'll split off," Maggie plotted, momentarily turning her head toward Quinn. She spoke swiftly and strategically. "I'll work my way around and fall in behind him."
"No," said Quinn. "He trained you - - he'd be expecting that."
"So what are we supposed to do?" Maggie retorted, impatiently. "Just walk in there like lambs to the slaughter?"
Quinn thoughtfully addressed Rickman's young pawn. "Malcolm, you told him that we were going into the cave to kill the dino." He paced around from behind where Maggie stood. "But you didn't know that we got out alive until you met us on the trail."
"So the colonel can't be sure we didn't all die back there?" Rembrandt reasoned, catching on.
"Yeah, and I'd say the odds were definitely in T-Rex's favor," Wade commented. "It's a miracle we got out alive."
"Let's hope he doesn't believe in miracles," Quinn referred to Rickman, pacing back the way he came. "Malcolm, you're going to have to do a very scary thing. You're going to have to go up there alone, and tell Rickman that the dino got us."
"No!" Malcolm shouted, in a panic. "He'll kill Gretchen. He'll know I'm lying. He could be watching us right now."
"If he were, we'd all be dead right now," Rembrandt insisted to Malcolm with a shake of his head - - although Rembrandt himself wasn't so sure that was true. "It's the only way, Malcolm. It's the only chance that she has. Now you can do it, I know you can."
"And if he believes me?" Malcolm slightly cocked his head, giving it a jerk as he tried to stall the inevitable. "He might just kill us both right there."
"No. He'll want to see for himself," Maggie reassured Malcolm, with a hint of softness in her voice. "He'll take you and Gretchen with him back to the cave."
"Malcolm," Quinn's voice was dead-serious, "you're gonna have to go up there, look him in the eye, and tell him that we're all dead. Can you do that?"
"I've got to." Malcolm preemptively held back tears. "But I'm scared. I feel like a coward."
"Listen." Rembrandt came over to Malcolm and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Courage doesn't mean that you're not afraid . . . it just means that you act even though you are . . . I mean, that's bravery. It's what heroes are made of." Remmy clasped Malcolm's neck and chin with his hand. "And you know I'm proud of you, right?"
Malcolm closed his eyes. How could he deserve a friend as good as Rembrandt?
"Hmm?" Rembrandt prompted him.
Malcolm nodded, silently.
"Alright, alright, let's go then." Rembrandt led the group away.
Soon, Malcolm had to separate from the sliders. He was alone again, jogging back toward the spot where Rickman had ambushed him.
Rickman suddenly popped out from behind a tree, with Gretchen in tow. "Where are the sliders?" he asked Malcolm, expectantly.
Malcolm stopped in his tracks. "Dead. They never got out of the cave," he launched into his lie. "The Rex got 'em."
With a sinister tone, Rickman hissed, "You wouldn't lie to me, would you, boy?" Malcolm timidly shook his head in fear. "You see . . . if you lie to me, I'll have to cut her."
Losing his temper, Malcolm yelled, "They're dead! They're all dead!" His anger had built up, and he couldn't take it anymore. Malcolm charged at Rickman. "Let her alone! Let her alone . . . and then I'll kill you!"
Malcolm tried to physically accost the colonel, but Rickman overpowered the teenager and pushed him down to the ground.
"You're a brave little boy," remarked Rickman, vocally sounding a bit impressed. He knelt down and grabbed Malcolm by the shoulder, pulling at the teen's shirt sleeve. "I could use a man like you," he whispered, forebodingly, breathing on Malcolm's nose and lips.
Malcolm could smell Rickman's rank breath.
"Now . . . let's just go back into that cave, shall we?" Rickman helped Malcolm up, and led Malcolm and Gretchen away through the brush.
As Rickman pulled Gretchen by her bound "rope cuffs," Gretchen glanced back at Malcolm. They traded silent, empathetic gazes.
After at least half a mile, Rickman began to slow down. He pulled out his canteen. "Hey, hey, boy," he spoke to Malcolm. "Here." Rickman took a swig from the canteen, and then offered it to Malcolm. "Don't stall, get some water. Come on, you must want some."
As Malcolm reached for the canteen and reluctantly took it, Rickman grabbed Malcolm around the neck and pushed Gretchen back into the bushes.
"What are you doing?!" a scared Malcolm shrieked at Rickman.
Gretchen got to her feet and tried to maneuver her bound wrists to make a move to free Malcolm, but Rickman pushed her down to the ground against some rocks.
"Sloppy, Maggie!" Rickman called out, aiming his gun at Malcolm's back. "Very sloppy! When you covered your tracks, you brushed out all the other tracks here as well, even the boy's. Or - - or did he fly here, eh? And just touch down over there where the tracks begin?"
Crouched down behind some low branches, Maggie projected her voice to Rickman and threatened, "I won't miss at this range!"
"Neither will I!" added Quinn, who was crouched behind a massive log.
"Well that makes three of us," Rickman retorted, almost jovially. He still held Malcolm in a tight headlock. "You see, if I'm hit, even if it's a clean head-shot, my trigger finger will jerk. And I'm afraid this . . . this poor boy . . ." The melodrama was just dripping from Rickman's voice. ". . . this poor boy here will have an exit wound in his body that you could pitch a cat through!" Colonel Rickman had finished up his threat with homicidal glee.
"Let the boy go!" Quinn ordered, forcefully.
"Hey!" Rickman protested, with acrimony. "I'm in charge here." He paused, and then moved his head around as he addressed all of the camouflaged sliders. "Now, I want you all out in the open . . . now!"
Quinn rose from the ground, his weapon clutched in his hands. Remmy and Wade had already relinquished their rifles, standing in plain sight of Rickman.
"Throw your rifle down, Mallory!" Rickman commanded, as soon as he saw Quinn still armed.
Quinn hesitated, unwilling to obey Rickman's command.
Rickman extended his gun momentarily, and fired a shot near Gretchen - - who was positioned helplessly on the ground, her gag off. The bullet ricocheted near Gretchen's kneecap.
"I won't ask again," Rickman said, repositioning his gun to Malcolm's back.
Quinn dropped his weapon, in defeat.
"Now . . ." Rickman took short gasps for breath, and matter-of-factly declared out loud, ". . . Maggie won't give up her gun because she's too good a soldier. But right now she's figuring acceptable casualties."
"You got a clear shot, Maggie?" verified Quinn.
"Whenever you're ready . . . !" The fire could be plainly heard in Maggie's voice.
"The boy will die, Mallory!" Rickman taunted Quinn, aloud.
"Maybe. But if I don't take you down he'll probably die anyway, it's just a matter of time," Quinn somberly pointed out. "So I'm gonna call him an 'acceptable casualty'." Quinn was calling Rickman's bluff.
Rickman saw an opening. "There is another way." He smiled, diabolically. "Give me the timer, and I'll go. And then you can live here, happily in peace," he rambled, facetiously, "and I'll know you won't be chasing me. Now, that sounds like a pretty good plan to me."
"What about all the people you'll kill on other worlds?" Rembrandt countered. "None of us can live with that."
"There's a downside to any deal," Rickman flippantly shrugged.
"Don't do it, Quinn!" Maggie knowingly cautioned her friend. She didn't believe that any "deal" brokered with Rickman could be trusted.
Laughing, Rickman goaded Quinn, "You see, Mallory? She knows you, she knows you haven't got the guts to sacrifice the boy." Rickman used his free hand to take out his timer. "There are rules about opening the vortex before the time's run out, aren't there? But I've never been one for rules. You know, time's up, and I'm tired of this game!" He made his final demand with desperation. "Give me the bloody timer or I'll kill this boy!" With that, he opened his red vortex, dragging Malcolm toward it.
Surrendering, Quinn began making a move to set down the timer on the ground.
Maggie scampered from her position to intervene. "Quinn, no!"
Quinn dropped the timer to the ground.
"Alright, easy now . . ." With Malcolm still in tow, Rickman kneeled to the ground.
This was it. This was his chance! Malcolm grabbed a handful of sand and flung it in Rickman's eyes. Rickman wailed from the stinging sensation.
Quinn tackled Rickman, and the two of them wrestled on the ground. Rickman used his fist to clock Quinn across the face. Then, Rickman pulled Quinn toward the red vortex, aiming his gun at Quinn's chest to discourage Maggie from firing her rifle at them.
Rembrandt moved forward and yanked Quinn out of Rickman's grasp. Losing his balance, Rickman flailed backward and was sucked up into the red vortex.
Maggie frantically fired her rifle four times in a row. But Rickman was gone.
"NOOOOO!!!!!!" Maggie wailed in frustration, angry and disappointed in herself for the missed opportunity. She covered her face with one hand while turning away from Quinn, with the other hand on her hip.
Quinn just lightly touched Maggie's shoulder, as if to say, "Don't worry, we'll get him."
Meanwhile, Gretchen had crawled over to Malcolm and tearfully embraced him.
"You're safe now," she whispered to the young adolescent. "I'll never let you go . . ."
* * *
April 25, 1999
"Hey, Malcolm! Wait up!"
Malcolm groaned to himself, as a caustically familiar face appeared by his side.
Over the past year, Malcolm had forged pretty good relationships with the rest of the children and adolescents. They had to - - the youngsters were dependent on one another for their mutual survival as much as the adults were. But there was one girl who consistently got on pretty much everyone's nerves . . .
Tamika Bradley had only been brought with the refugees because she had a certain blood type and DNA structure . . . not to mention her father - - who was an influential colonel yet unaware of Rickman's plans for the Pulsar Prime refugees - - had used a cunning emotional appeal to twist the arm of Wade Wells, while Wade had been composing Rickman's list of finalists to bring to the New World. Aside from that, Tamika had a penchant for making herself obnoxiously useless around camp. She usually lounged on the sidelines, flirting with the older boys and making sarcastic comments that she viewed as "witty." No one dared to lecture or discipline Tamika about her thoughtless behavior, lest they incur the overprotective wrath of Colonel Bradley.
"What are you doing, Malcolm?" chirped Tamika, walking in lockstep with the disgruntled male teenager.
"It doesn't look like you're doing nothing, Malcolm."
"I'm going hunting, Tamika." Malcolm knew that Tamika hated the forest, so he hoped by telling her his plans she would get off his back.
No such luck.
"I can't believe they make us eat those rodents." Tamika squinched up her face, thinking of Michael's special recipe for grilled raccoon.
"Well, Tamika, you can go suck down some earthworms if you don't like eating small animals." Malcolm flinched, looking straight ahead as they kept walking.
"Don't you feel guilty about killing animals?" Tamika flashed him a big dumb grin. "They never did anything to you."
Malcolm looked away from Tamika. "I do it so we can survive."
Tamika showed her teeth even larger. "Oh, you big strong provider, you." She grabbed Malcolm's bicep, which was exposed by his sleeveless muscle shirt.
"Tamika . . ."
"You know, we're all gonna have to pair up soon. And I wanna be with you, Malcolm. This world is going to need some beautiful black babies."
Much to Malcolm's relief, he spotted another guy around his and Tamika's age approaching them on the trail, carrying a duffel bag. It just happened to be Alec Halsten, one of Malcolm's best friends from camp.
"Yo, Malcolm!" called out Alec. The thirteen-year-old bit his lip, when he saw Tamika hanging around Malcolm. Alec could tell that Tamika was clearly dogging his buddy. "I thought we were gonna hunt?"
"I've been trying to get back to camp to find you . . ." Malcolm shot an irritated side-glance at Tamika.
"You guys don't gotta hunt!" Tamika insisted. "Let's go play 'freeze tag' with everyone else."
Alec brushed some snarls out of his eyes from his curly mop of sandy-blond hair. "Buzz off, Tamika."
"Make me." Tamika squinted at Alec, shaking her head back and forth.
Alec grabbed the zipper of his jeans. "Tamika, wanna see my 'Lochness Water Monster' . . . ?" he mischievously asked, preparing to unzip.
"Oh, GROSS, Alec!" Tamika squealed, and then sprinted away.
Malcolm and Alec shared a good laugh at Tamika's expense.
"Let's go, man." Alec slapped Malcolm on the shoulder, and they headed into the woods.
Soon, the two boys were crouched in some brush, targeting sylvan critters with their homemade slingshots.
"Yeah! Got one!" Alec had successfully pelted a rabbit with a stone from the slingshot, knocking it unconscious.
"Way to go, man!" They both hurried over to the immobile rabbit, and Malcolm initiated a high-five with Alec. "You're getting really good at that!"
"I learned from the best." Alec finished the job, and handed the dead rabbit over to Malcolm. "Bunny soup tonight, huh?"
"Yeah." Malcolm stuffed their catch in the duffel bag they'd brought along.
Alec exhaled from the humidity surrounding them. "Dude, it's hotter than hell today." He pulled off his shirt, and beads of sweat dripped down Alec's exposed chest.
Malcolm tried not to be distracted. "Whaddya say we try to find some gopher?" he proposed, leading Alec over to another outdoor nook. "Everybody seems to like the flavor."
"Sure." Alec crouched down next to Malcolm again. He really felt Malcolm was the closest thing to family he had on this strange, underpopulated Earth. Alec's older brother, Jeff, and their parents hadn't made it to the New World, so he was one of several of the children from Pulsar Prime whose relatively stable lives had been ripped away from them in the blink of an eye.
"You know, none of the guys are gonna want to pair up with Tamika," commented Alec, from where he and Malcolm lay in the underbrush. "Her face could make the dinos run away in fear. You're not going to fall for Tamika, are you, man?"
Malcolm kept his head down. "Alec, man, that is never gonna happen. Trust me."
"Right on. You're too good for her, man. And it's obvious that she wants you real bad." Alec elbowed Malcolm, accordantly. "Us bros gotta look out for each other."
"Definitely." Malcolm trained his eyesight on the nearby undergrowth, where small animals could be expected to dash by at a moment's notice.
"Have you gotten a good look at Nina lately? Dr. Alarcón's daughter," Alec mentioned one of the nicer, more attractively burgeoning teenage girls back at their camp. "Man, is she hot!"
"Haven't really noticed," Malcolm said, distracted by his desire to catch some more small game. "Hey, can we just hunt?"
"Yeah. Sure, bro." Alec knew that Malcolm was one of the shyer guys in their age group, and didn't think anything more of Malcolm's request.
After a couple more hours of hunting, Malcolm and Alec returned to camp with their bags full of dinner. On the outskirts of the newly-constructed settlement, they were greeted by Darren, a slender but muscular teenager only about two years older than them.
"Hey, guys!" Darren slapped both of them on the shoulders simultaneously. "Nice catch!" He hauled their duffel bags over to the "animal hut," where the meat would be skinned and cooked by the adults later on that evening. "Hey, it's going to be dusk in a couple of hours. Come on, us guys are gonna swim before dinner. The girls already went this morning."
Because the youngest children from the Pulsar Prime settlement were rather modest about their bodies - - and the older teens were approaching or undergoing puberty - - the boys and the girls felt most comfortable bathing separately. So the kids always divided into two groups, one for each sex - - and only an adult or two, of the same gender, supervised during the kids' bathing times.
Malcolm, Alec, and Darren arrived at one of the freshwater lakes, where most of the other boys were already jumping and splashing around naked in the water.
Alec, who was already shirtless, began to undress. "Come on, bro!" he said to Malcolm, as Darren had already begun to strip off his own shirt and jeans.
Malcolm had to admit, he was fairly sweaty from the hunt. And besides, after spending a whole year with these boys, any modesty took a backseat to the necessities of life. Soon, Malcolm was enjoying a cool, refreshing dip along with Alec, Darren, and the other young guys.
Once the boys had gotten dressed again and walked back into camp, their nostrils collectively picked up the distinct scent of smoked bear meat. They all looked at each other, knowingly. Colonel Hinds must have shot one much deeper in the woods.
Michael Wheaton came running over to them. "Malcolm!" the male nurse addressed him. "Gretchen needs your help!"
Malcolm stepped forward, away from the rest of the boys. "What is it, Michael?"
Michael fingered his beaded necklace, which he wore over his trademark tie-dyed shirt. "Molly Cyrus is having her baby," he told the boys.
"Whoa! Cool!" gasped one of the younger boys, as the youthful guys chattered about this news amongst themselves.
"What does she need me for?" Although he was confused, Malcolm had faith in that it was Gretchen making the request.
Michael put his arm around Malcolm, taking the teenager aside. "I think Gretchen knows you're a lot more mature than most of the other kids. She needs someone she can depend on. This is a first for all of us, remember."
Malcolm followed Michael into one of the tents, where Molly was reclined on a heap of blankets. Dr. Kasper and Gretchen were positioned in front of Molly's outstretched legs, as the sweaty woman with long, matted-down red hair grunted during contractions. Blake Grassel, the baby's father and Molly's fellow scientist, was kneeling next to his mate, holding her hand.
Her baby would be the first child born on the New World.
"Malcolm, can you wipe Molly's face when she needs it?" Gretchen indicated a bowl with a wet rag dipped in it, on the ground.
Malcolm soaked up all he could with the washcloth and gently dabbed Molly's blustery face.
"Thank you . . ." Molly mouthed to Malcolm, fighting through her labor pains.
"Michael, I need you to go get me some scissors, rubbing alcohol, a suture kit . . ." Gretchen listed off a number of other items for Michael to fetch.
"You're almost ten centimeters dilated," Dr. Kasper reported, pushing his glasses back up onto his nose. "You're doing great, Molly. Now I need you to breathe and push, breathe and push . . ."
Another hour passed, and Malcolm forgot all about dinner. Not because he was sickened . . . rather, he was inspired by Molly's strength and endurance, especially in these rustic conditions.
"And . . . it's a girl," announced Gretchen, as Michael cut the umbilical chord.
The tiny baby girl wailed with new life, as Dr. Kasper finished tending to Molly.
"Oh, she's beautiful . . ." cooed Gretchen, who had cleaned Molly's newborn daughter and wrapped her in a fleece blanket.
In a matter of moments, the child was in its mother's nurturing arms.
"Wow . . ." was all Malcolm could say.
Molly turned her head toward Malcolm, exhausted yet cheerful. "Would you like to hold her, Malcolm?"
Tentatively, Malcolm looked at Gretchen, who nodded to him encouragingly. Michael came over and showed Malcolm how to properly cradle the gurgling baby in his arms.
"Oh, thank God for such a wonderful miracle!" Gretchen thankfully stared up at the heavens.
"Have you thought of a name yet?" Dr. Kasper asked Molly.
Molly traded glances with Blake, and nodded. "Jobina," she said, firmly. "Her name is Jobina. After my grandmother."
Malcolm saw Gretchen give him another smile, and he dug his fingers into a patch of soil underneath the tent.
Maybe this Earth could become a land of rejuvenated life, after all?
* * *
July 27, 2000
"Hey, Malcolm? What's that?"
A six-year-old named Corey pointed up at the sky, from atop a verdurous bluff. During his daily morning stroll, the fifteen-year-old Malcolm had passed by the spot from which Corey was observing.
Malcolm looked up to the same spot in the sky Corey was gazing at. A thick, almost puffy red wormhole had opened up against the baby blue clearness of the troposphere.
"I don't know . . ." quivered Malcolm . . . but he had a bad feeling about it. A really, really bad feeling.
The next thing Malcolm and Corey knew, a strange-looking winged warship shot out of the crimson rift.
"ALIENS!!!" screeched Corey, in a panic.
Malcolm wasted no time shepherding Corey through the forest, trying to compel the little boy to run as fast as he could. Malcolm's heart raced, and he could hear additional manta ships zooming through the sky above them, shooting laser-like projections. The two boys heard a blend of crashes, explosions, and human screams in the distance.
Then, a brusque male voice was heard, amplified across the valley. It was obviously some sort of advanced technology, enabling a loud enough magnification of the creature's voice so it could be heard within five miles in every direction.
"Humans, you must surrender!" commanded the draconian voice. "Your Earth has been claimed by the Kromagg Dynasty!"
Corey dropped to his knees, immersed in tears.
"Corey, come on! We have to get out of here!" Malcolm tried provoking the young boy to get back up on his feet.
But Corey had run out of energy. "I don't wanna die!" he wailed, sobbing into the ground.
Malcolm felt himself collapsing on the ground next to Corey. Somehow, he had lost his will to run away. He started shaking, desiring the comforting embrace of his dead parents, Gretchen, Alec, Remmy, anyone . . .
Huddling underneath the shade of a sumac, tucked away in a small alcove of this forest, Malcolm shielded Corey with his body. He felt the need to protect this young boy, whom he was almost a decade older than. Malcolm knew that Corey, at such a vulnerable age, needed protecting.
Malcolm gulped through his tears: but who would protect him?
Hours must have passed before Malcolm was awoken by a rustling above him and Corey.
A hideous ape-like creature towered over them, dressed in a black bodysuit and aiming a large weapon at them.
"Get up!" ordered the simian warrior.
Malcolm now noticed there were three of them.
"Run, Corey!" he shouted to his friend. Corey had been stirred awake too, and tried to scramble away at Malcolm's command.
But one of the Kromaggs grabbed Corey, easily restraining the six-year-old kid. Malcolm tried to go for one of the Kromagg's kneecaps, but Malcolm's arms were twisted behind his back, prodding the teen into submission.
The Kromagg soldiers dragged the two boys out into a sunny clearing. Malcolm and Corey each struggled, to no avail.
Suddenly, one of the soldiers felt his shoulder grazed by a bullet. Robert Hinds leapt out of the bushes, armed with a small pistol.
"Colonel Hinds?!" Malcolm recognized him.
"Corey, Malcolm, run . . . !" hollered Robert.
But before Robert could pull the trigger again, Malcolm saw another Kromagg sneak up from behind Robert. Colonel Robert Hinds fell face down on the grass as a laser-like beam pierced Robert's abdomen.
"Noooo!!!!" Malcolm screamed. But Malcolm felt a hard metallic surface slam against his head, before he was knocked out cold and everything went black.
When Malcolm awoke again, it was nearly dusk. He sat up, and saw himself surrounded by clusters of the very same people he'd lived with for the past two years. The fifty or so human women and children were enclosed in a makeshift fence made of barbed wire. Armed Kromagg soldiers stood at intervals around the perimeter.
"Malcolm!" he heard Gretchen's voice.
He turned to face Gretchen, who'd knelt by his side. Her hair was disheveled, and blood was splotched across her face and clothes.
"Oh, Malcolm! Are you all right?" She brought him in close for a hug.
"Yeah . . ." he lied, even though his head was still throbbing. Malcolm surveyed the perimeter, eyeing the Kromagg sentries. "Who are they?"
"I don't know . . ."
"I heard them call themselves 'Kromaggs.' What do they want?"
"I don't know. Listen, Malcolm . . ." Gretchen pressed her finger to Malcolm's lips, compelling him to be quiet. "Whatever happens, if you have the chance to get away - - run. Hide. Don't look back. Don't worry about me, or Michael, or anyone else. You understand me?"
Malcolm lost it, and his vision flooded over. "Gretchen, don't leave me . . ." he whispered, meekly.
Gretchen pulled him close to her. "I won't. I promise. I won't leave you, Malcolm."
As he shivered in Gretchen's arms, Malcolm's eyes wandered over the surrounding landscape. His gaze became attached to a lone crow, which was cawing as it fluttered high above the barbed wire.
Malcolm's skin went numb.
* * *
July 28, 2000
The morning sun woke Malcolm. He'd spent the night out cold, cuddled next to Gretchen on the ground. Slowly sitting up, Malcolm took a moment to look around at his fellow prisoners. He wanted to see who else was trapped within the barbed wire pen.
Michael was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Alec.
"Gretchen . . ." he whispered to his friend, waking her up.
Gretchen stirred. She popped her eyes open, and was instantly dismayed to learn that the whole ordeal hadn't been just one big nightmare.
"Have you seen Alec . . . ?" Malcolm asked her, with tremulous concern in his voice.
Shaking her head, Gretchen said, "No. Not since the day before yesterday."
Malcolm plucked a blade of grass out of the ground and pouted. "Colonel Hinds . . . they shot him dead. He was trying to rescue me and Corey."
Gretchen's heartbeat deflated upon hearing this. "Robert . . ." she uttered, closing her eyes.
All of the humans within the pen suddenly rumbled as an overwhelming noise descended from overhead. A massive manta ship had touched down and landed on the field right next to the barbed wire prison. It appeared to be at least three or four times as large as a commercial airplane.
The gate to the pen was unlatched, and a slew of Kromagg soldiers stormed inside. The crowd of imprisoned refugees from Pulsar Prime backed up in fear, against the very edge of the perimeter.
One of the head Kromagg officers spoke to the humans through a bullhorn, in perfect English. "All human females who are sixteen years of age or older will step forward. Your lives have been extended."
The human women in the crowd whispered to each other, baffled by what the Kromagg officer meant.
With a smirk, the Kromagg officer raised the bullhorn to his lips again. "The males and the youngest females in your group will remain here."
Gretchen and Malcolm looked at each other frantically. They were about to be separated - - possibly forever.
A lanky biologist, who rarely ever spoke, walked to the front and faced his fellow prisoners. This usually timid man had an expression of pure, unbridled, bloodthirsty vigilance on his face. "They'll have to take us by force!" he yelled, enraged. Raising his arm in the air, he signaled to the other humans. "CHARGE . . . !!!"
The fifty-some humans raced forward in unison, lunging, kicking, and maneuvering to disarm the Kromaggs. Consequences be damned. It was freedom or death.
Amid the verbal shouts and mechanical firing of gunshots, enough of the humans had managed to push enough Kromaggs out of the way. Now, a path was cleared out of the barbed wire pen, and at least two-dozen humans were able to make a run for it.
Malcolm pumped his legs faster than he ever had before in his entire life. He didn't look back. He tuned out all of the cries, grunts, blasts, and carnage behind him.
Only when he reached a Stonehenge-like aggregation of vertical rocks did Malcolm finally duck down to catch his breath. He peered over the rocky structure, looking back at everyone whom he had left behind.
Four-hundred feet away from where Malcolm hid, a number of human bodies laid dead on the grass. But many of the women had been apprehended, and they were being corralled into the enormous manta ship, compelled forward by what looked like some mechanical cattle prods.
And among them, Malcolm could make out Gretchen's tiny blond figure.
"Gretchen . . ." he whimpered, watching his friend get shoved inside the manta ship.
Her words from the previous day rang through Malcolm's eardrums.
"Run. Hide. Don't look back."
Gretchen had wanted him to be safe. She wanted to make sure Malcolm would live. And to do that, Malcolm knew he needed to continue to run.
Gathering up a fresh breath of air, Malcolm turned and ran with all his might.
* * *
Malcolm sat alone in the dreary Kromagg chamber, practically in a trance. He and Gretchen had exchanged postcognitive experiences from afar. Somehow, they could jointly feel each other's pain, anger, sorrow, and fear.
"Why did you make me relive that?" Malcolm cried out to Gretchen via their telepathic link. "Why . . . ?"
"My last memories of you . . ." Gretchen's voice responded within Malcolm's mind. But her connection with him was fading quickly.
"Gretchen!!! Don't leave me again . . . !!!" Malcolm shrieked, aloud.
But he felt closed off from her, as though an invisible wall had been erected between them.
And Malcolm didn't know how to break that wall down.
* * *
Her arms strapped down, Logan St. Clair gripped the sides of her chair. The rogue slider gritted her teeth and braced herself.
General Konntul, wearing a protective hazmat suit, stared Logan down and tried his best to intimidate her. "You will cooperate with us, human. Otherwise, we have no reservations about dissecting you from top to bottom."
Logan crinkled up her face. "I'm not telling you a damn thing," she said, snidely. "How do I know you won't just kill me anyway?"
"Your chances for survival are much greater if you reveal what you know," Konntul answered. "Now let us try this again: how did you become acquainted with the 'sliders'?"
Shaking her head, Logan insisted, "If I talk, I want safe passage off this Earth."
General Konntul glanced back at the Kromagg guards in the room who were observing this interrogation. "Have it your way, human. Do not say I did not warn you . . ."
Focusing his mental stamina, Konntul proceeded to enter Logan's mind.
Grunting and moaning, Logan contorted her face as she resisted Konntul's invasive action. She used every ounce of strength she could muster to fortify her consciousness from the interspecies mind probe.
For nearly twenty minutes, Konntul heaved through his throat while trying to trespass upon Logan's psyche. Unfortunately for him, he could only catch a few fleeting glimpses of memories from Logan's subconscious.
Finally, the Kromagg general retracted his mind from Logan's. "She has a mind of steel," Konntul grunted to the other Kromaggs, referring to Logan. "She is not as easily broken down as most others of her race."
Although she couldn't understand Konntul's language, Logan exhaled, opened her eyes, and smirked at him. "I told you, I want to stay alive. How about I cut you a deal?"
Konntul leaned forward, skeptically. "I'm listening . . ." he forced the words out of his mouth.
"You're obviously afraid of the sliders for some reason. Why else would you be dressed like an astronaut?" Logan sneered at Konntul's hazmat suit. "So what is it? . . . do they carry some synthetic virus that destroys Kromagg DNA?"
Konntul curled his lip, and his scornful expression confirmed it for her.
"I see." Logan smirked, industriously. "Because of this virus, you can't confront them inside of Rembrandt's cell unprotected, right?" She let a beat pass. "But I can."
Konntul flared at Logan's smugness. "How can I be certain you are not working with them? Perhaps I should just have you shipped off to a breeder camp right now, and save myself the trouble of agonizing over whether I can afford to trust you?"
Logan inhaled through her nostrils, bracing herself for what was to come. "Go ahead and scan my mind, then. I'll acquiesce so you can see there is no love lost between myself and them."
Logan proceeded to close her eyes. She opened her mind for Konntul, and her voluntary intent minimized the pain. Konntul dug through Logan's memories, browsing numerous mixed images of Logan working at Prototronics . . . Logan and her henchmen shoving Wade into a holding cell . . . Logan screaming while pounding her fists against the glass window of the Royal Chancellor Hotel, watching, powerless, as Quinn, Wade, Rembrandt, and Wrong Arturo escaped through the vortex inside the hotel lobby during the city's midday power brownout . . .
It had only taken Konntul a few minutes to assess Logan's knowledge. "She does not have access to the virus," he told his subordinates, in front of Logan and within her earshot. "In fact, she knows barely anything about this plague the humans carry - - other than how lethal it is to our species. However, she does have a history of animosity with these sliders." Konntul smirked in Logan's direction. "She was an interdimensional thief - - working AGAINST other humans."
"I want to make the sliders pay," Logan insisted. "I won't hesitate to do what I need to, to get the job done."
"What do you propose?"
"Send me inside their cell, with a gun and a knife." Logan smirked contently. "I'll do the rest."
"What exactly will this accomplish?" Konntul folded his arms with skepticism.
"I know Rembrandt." Logan surveyed the room full of Kromaggs, meeting their gazes of disregard head-on. "He's fiercely loyal. If you push him far enough, he'll crack."
"In what way?"
"Let me torture one of his friends," Logan proposed. "Rembrandt can be broken down if it involves threatening the life of someone in his motley crew." She referred to the sliders in a contemptuous tone.
Konntul pondered Logan's proposition. "Whom should we use?"
Logan only needed a moment to consider his question. "Maggie," she said, definitively. "She seems to be the most unstable. We have to target someone who'll react impulsively . . . Rembrandt will be more concerned about protecting his friend whose vulnerable emotions make her an easy target."
Konntul exchanged dialogue in Kromagg with his fellow soldiers.
"Come along," he gruffly spoke to Logan, as several militant sets of Kromagg hands unstrapped the rogue slider and led her into a different room.
Logan St. Clair looked around the armory they were in. All around them, she spied an endless variety of errant-looking weapons arranged on shelves. Out of the corner of her eye, Logan also saw a shelf lined with rectangular, greenish-tinted crystals.
General Konntul had removed a Glock from one of the armory cabinets. "This is a human-made weapon confiscated during one of the Dynasty's supply raids. I assume you know how to operate it?"
Logan tilted her head to the side with a smirk. "Naturally," she said.
The Kromagg general proceeded to dictate their game plan for Logan. "Once we have rendered the sliders unconscious with ether, you will be sent into their containment cell. Professor Arturo should pose no physical threat to you . . . your primary objective is to convince Rembrandt Brown that Ms. Beckett will be terminated if he fails to cooperate with us. You must coerce him . . . by any means necessary. If you can accomplish what you claim, we will reactivate the inflow of ether and extract you out safely."
"What do you mean you'll 'extract' me?" Logan inquired, suspiciously narrowing her eyes.
Konntul snapped his fingers, and one of his subordinate guards brought over an elongated rifle. In front of Logan, Konntul displayed the unique weapon for Logan and then removed a rectangrium gem from his pocket, which he loaded into the back of the rifle.
"This weapon expels a special crystal, which will create an impenetrable force field around you within seconds of its discharge," Konntul explained the dynamics of the weapon's use to Logan. "However, the membrane of that force field can meld with others of its genus. That is how we shall transport you into the sliders' cell without exposing ourselves to any trace of the virus that may have been emitted from their bodies."
"And how am I ever supposed to get out of this little bubble, once I'm inside?" Logan asked, skeptically.
"The rectangrium gem deactivates the force field through physical touch," Konntul told her. "Once you are inside the sliders' cell, we will launch another rectangrium gem at the wall of your own enclosure, so you will be released. You will be able to move around freely within the sliders' cell."
Logan put her hands on her hips. "How do I know you won't just kill me, or ship me off to a breeder camp afterward?"
Konntul glared at her. "Our arrangement involves a bit of trust on your part too, Ms. St. Clair," he mused.
"Oh, alright," Logan rolled her eyes and said with an exaggerated groan. She knew she needed to manipulate the situation fast if she was going to have any shot of pulling this off.
Logan St. Clair suddenly released a fake "sneeze" from her mouth, aiming toward the Kromagg soldier who guarded her side. The unassuming Kromagg guard jumped back, spontaneously disgusted by the germs he perceived as coming from Logan's mouth. In the process, he had knocked over an eight-foot-tall freestanding shelf full of ammunition canisters.
"Oooops . . ." Logan sheepishly and belatedly covered her mouth, feigning innocence. "Sorry."
"YOU FOOL!" General Konntul barked in English at the lowly guard. The general didn't even bother to disguise his vocal irritation in Kromagg. "We determined she does not carry the virus! There is no need for you to balk at her . . . internal fluids!" He'd struggled for a moment to come up with an appropriate reference for Logan's salivary discharge.
"Yes, sir!" responded the guard, who had dropped to the floor to hastily pick up all of the scattered bullets and taser darts. His low-level peers also knelt down to help.
Logan had taken that opportunity to ever-so-inconspicuously pocket a rectangrium crystal from the shelf behind her, using a backhanded manual reach of her hand. After slipping it into the rear pocket of her jeans, Logan returned to a submissive, bowing pose in the spot where she stood.
General Konntul was too flustered - - and the rest of his soldiers, too intimidated - - to notice Logan's scheme.
"Come now!" Konntul soon raised his arm, trying to restore order among his subordinates. "It is time." He looked straight at the fallaciously cowering Logan, who remained standing in place as though she felt embarrassed by her impromptu "sneeze."
Logan's gaze was fixated on the rectangrium "rifle" being aimed at her. She realized that she couldn't act too demure, or else her change in behavior might raise suspicion. "So why haven't you just put on one of those nifty astronaut suits of yours and gone in to torture them yourself?" she asked, bugging out her eyes while using a condescending tone.
A Kromagg soldier ejected the rectangrium gem from his tubular weapon, and it landed with precision at Logan's feet. Before she knew it, she was ensnared within the translucent enclosure that had sprouted up all around her.
"Do not test my patience, Ms. St. Clair," spoke Konntul through the confinement area, with gritted teeth. "You are only doing this because I allow it. Is that clear?"
"As infertile ovaries," Logan quipped, giving him a tight smile and half-smirk.
Konntul used another rectangrium gem to magnetically guide Logan's containment pod out of the armory and through many additional corridors. Once they had reached the sliders' prison chamber, Logan felt her pod glide into the room and over to their force field.
"I see the ether did the trick," Logan remarked. Her words echoed back through her containment field's walls, as she surveyed Rembrandt, Maggie, and Arturo all sprawled out unconscious on the floor.
Glancing over her shoulder, Logan noticed Konntul wasn't in the chamber. Only a few hazmat-suited Kromaggs supervised Logan's transfer, manually angling multiple rectangrium gems so they could guide Logan's capsule from a distance.
Eventually, Logan had arrived inside the larger "dome" that housed the three remaining sliders. One of the "hazmated" Kromaggs shot another rectangrium gem through the primary containment field. He aimed with such accuracy that the green gem hit the edge of Logan's own containment pod to deactivate it, rendering Logan free to move around inside the larger containment field.
Maggie awoke with a grunt, feeling a hard shoe give her a swift kick in the stomach. She groggily stared upward to see Quinn's vindictive distaff double standing above her.
"Wakey, wakey . . ." Logan taunted Maggie in a derisory voice, with a calculated smile.
"You . . . !" croaked Maggie, unable to find the strength to move.
"Wha - - ?" Maggie gagged, as she was kicked in the ribs by Logan.
Rembrandt and Arturo had begun to stir, and they were now waking up. Like Maggie, both male sliders were weak from the gaseous inhalation.
"Logan?!" shouted out Rembrandt. He was confused as to how she had gotten in there. "What the hell . . . ?"
"Not now, Rembrandt," said Logan, dismissively. "I have some unfinished business with Quinn's little sweetheart here." She kicked Maggie in the side again.
"You . . . bitch . . . !" sputtered Maggie, between gasps of breath.
"You're hurting her!" Rembrandt yelled, getting to his knees.
"That's kind of the point," Logan retorted. She instinctively aimed her Glock at Rembrandt. "Do not move, Brown. You may not be afraid of your own death, but . . ." In an alacritous movement, Logan had redirected the gun away from Remmy, toward Maggie. ". . . are you willing to risk hers?"
"Leave her alone, Miss St. Clair!" the Professor called out, struggling to regain his balance.
"I don't think you're in any position to be giving orders, fatso," Logan talked down to Arturo, keeping her gun trained on Maggie.
"Logan, let's talk about this . . ." Rembrandt tried to keep a composed voice.
Logan snorted at him. "Talking is way overrated." She swept her arm downward, and pistol-whipped Maggie clear across the face.
Maggie moaned louder, falling back onto the floor.
"Stop it!" Remmy pleaded with Logan.
Logan ignored him, and remained focused on Maggie. "Oh, come on, this isn't the Maggie Beckett I've grown to know and love!" she chided the former marine, bending down and pistol-whipping Maggie again.
Groaning in more agony, Maggie didn't even bother to fight back.
"Maggie, Maggie, Maggie . . . where's your adrenaline? Did someone cut off your brass balls?" Logan's sinister grin indicated she was enjoying this way too much.
That was all Rembrandt could take. Now on his feet, Rembrandt released a warlike yell and charged at Logan.
Logan pulled her trigger with deliberate precision, sending Rembrandt down to the floor on his knees. Remmy clutched his stinging shoulder where the bullet from Logan's gun had grazed his skin - - not deep enough to cause serious damage, but puncturing ample flesh so that Rembrandt could feel it burn.
"I WILL kill her, Rembrandt!" Logan stated, switching to a vicious, no-nonsense tone.
Still on his knees, Remmy hollered, "Why are you doing this?! What is it that you want, Logan?!"
"What do I want . . . ?" Logan paused dramatically, pressing her finger against her lips in mock contemplation. "I want . . . freedom." She then aimed diagonally and fired - - nailing Maggie in the leg.
Maggie screamed in distress.
"PLEASE . . . !!!" Rembrandt hated to beg for Logan's mercy, but she didn't appear to be making idle threats.
"Stand back!" Logan backed away, closer to the translucent wall of the containment field. Aiming the Glock in the three sliders' general direction with one hand, Logan pulled the slab of rectangrium out of her back pocket.
"What's she doing?" Professor Arturo asked his friends, with a suspicious voice.
Rembrandt recognized the rectangrium. "Where'd you get that from?" he demanded to know from Logan.
But instead of answering, Logan quickly scraped the piece of rectangrium against the electromagnetic surface of the transparent wall.
From outside the chamber, the hiss of ether had already been activated and fed into the room through pipes by the Kromagg technicians who'd been observing this scene through their security cameras. But it was too late. With one clean swipe of a rock, Logan had brought down the entire force field.
The Kromaggs in hazmat suits reached for their weapons, but Logan had been ready for them. She fired a round of successive shots from the Glock, puncturing the protective fabric and oxygen tubing that comprised their hazmat suits.
With Rembrandt's and Maggie's blood exposed to the free air within the chamber, the now-unprotected Kromagg lackeys didn't stand a chance. They fell to the floor almost instantly.
And the door to the chamber entranceway sealed itself shut, obviously being programmed from afar by observers in some control room.
Rembrandt, Maggie, and Professor Arturo were trapped in the darkened chamber - - along with Logan St. Clair.
* * *
Wade wiggled in the seat that she was strapped down against. The metallic bar still covered her eyes, making most of Wade's vision completely dark. For the past day or two, she had grown increasingly desensitized to this repressive position.
A faint ringing in Wade's ears became slightly more audible. At first, Wade assumed she was just hearing things. But as her cochleae filled with acoustic waves, she knew it had to be something else.
Somewhere, somehow, there was someone reaching out to communicate with her.
"Wade . . . ?" the voice resonated.
In response, Wade projected her own thoughts. "Who's there?" she telepathically inquired. The last time she'd done this, it had been with Devin - - and that had been nearly five months ago. But the whole process flooded back to Wade as though she was getting back on a bicycle and riding it again.
"It's me, Wade . . . Gretchen." the voice identified herself. "Do you remember me?"
Gretchen? Malcolm's Gretchen? Could it be?
"Gretchen?" Wade mentally called out. "Are you the Gretchen who I met on the New World?"
"Can Malcolm hear you?"
"Yes. Contacted him. He needs our help. All your friends do."
"Our help? What can I do?" Wade could barely even move. She had no idea how she could possibly rescue the others.
"Wade . . ." A third mental voice had joined in, although this one Wade sensed the identity of immediately.
"I told you guys Gretchen was here! Wade, we've got to help her!"
"I'm going to try, Malcolm." Wade specifically addressed Gretchen, "How can Malcolm and I reach our friends?"
"Have access to a map of the facility . . . can send you to your friends, Wade."
Wade digested Gretchen's words. As a mortal who'd studied the art of witchcraft, Wade had some firsthand experience with channeling her energy to displace matter intradimensionally. But whenever she did so, it took a lot out of her . . . and the one time Wade had teleported her own body - - albeit involuntarily - - she'd been left as weak as a deflated balloon.
"Gretchen, I don't know if that's such a good idea," communicated Wade, cautiously. "I've done it before, and it sucks so much energy out of your body."
"But my energy. Not yours. Won't weaken you at all," Gretchen responded, in sentence fragments.
"Wade, please . . ." Malcolm interrupted their telepathic triad. "It's our only chance. It's Gretchen's only chance. There's no other way."
Every nerve in Wade's body told her this didn't feel right. But what could she say? If they were going to ever get Gretchen out of her cell, Wade knew that she and her friends needed to find a way to free themselves first.
"Okay, Gretchen," Wade relented, "but go slowly. Don't overexert yourself. And send me out before you send Malcolm anywhere . . . in case something goes wrong."
Wade and Malcolm both saw an illustration flash across their corneas, imprinted against the blackness of their impaired sight. The sketchy facsimile looked like some kind of architectural blueprint.
Gretchen was doing it. Somehow, she'd found a way to get her hands on a map of the Kromagg facility! Wade and Malcolm were getting the opportunity to view it as Gretchen did.
Then, Wade felt herself practically float right out of her skin. The air around her tightened, turning ocean blue in color. And just as quickly, it had evaporated, allowing Wade to stroll right into another room as though she had stepped off an elevator.
Gretchen had done it! Gretchen Chambliss had somehow used her mind to tap into the Kromaggs' database and activate a wormhole, transporting Wade to a different part of the facility in the process.
Looking around, Wade saw Mallory strapped to a surgical bench. They were both obviously locked inside . . . but fortunately, no Kromagg guards were in there with them at that moment.
"Quinn!" Wade ran over to Mallory, and began to unstrap his restraints.
"Wade . . . ?" Mallory groggily murmured, coming to.
Wade offered her shoulder to Mallory, and helped to lift her lover up into a sitting position. "I'm so glad you're okay." She smothered him with a hug.
"Is it really you?" Mallory spied Wade suspiciously. "How do I know you're not just another Kromagg trick?"
"Honey, it's me . . ." Wade emphatically said, realizing that Mallory must have been victimized by some really scary Kromagg-generated illusions.
"How did you get in here?"
"Gretchen . . . I tapped into her mind link with Malcolm." Wade got Mallory to his feet. "I think Gretchen might have used it to channel my abilities somehow, and she brought me here . . ."
"Wade," Mallory clutched his girlfriend's shoulder, mentally pushing aside the weirdness of the moment, "the Kromaggs are going to be back any minute now. We've got to get out of here . . . we've got to get back to everyone else!"
"Okay . . ." Wade instinctively closed her eyes, telepathically reaching out to Gretchen again. "Gretchen, can you hear me . . . ?"
"I am here, Wade."
"Gretchen, if my friends and I can get out of our cells, we can release a virus throughout this entire dimension and destroy all the Kromaggs on it. Can you do that? Can you find my friends and free them?"
"More than 500 cells containing prisoners in facility . . . cannot identify all human captives . . ." Gretchen communicated to Wade, in strange, incomplete sentences.
More than five-hundred? How could Gretchen possibly have calculated those blueprints so quickly, even if she was using some form of remote viewing to view and transmit their images?
At any rate, time was running out. Wade could feel it.
"Gretchen, my friends are in some of these cells. Probably scattered all over this building. How can we find them?"
A ten-second beat passed, before Gretchen gave Wade an irreversible answer.
"Opening all cell entrances throughout facility . . ."
Before Wade and Mallory knew what was happening, the doors to Mallory's cell had mechanically slid open.
And as more loud, obnoxious klaxon alarms began blaring above and all around the two humans, both Wade and Mallory could see the reflection of reddish flashing lights stream in from the nearest corridor.
* * *
Logan St. Clair carefully stepped over the bodies of the dead Kromaggs whose hazmat suits she'd punctured. She kept her gun trained on Rembrandt, Maggie, and Arturo from afar. Every few seconds, Logan would glance back at the sealed chamber door.
Rembrandt gave her a hard stare. "What's this all about, Logan?"
Professor Arturo was wide-eyed. "You made a deal with the Kromaggs?"
"I'm not stupid, Max. I knew they'd betray me." Logan applied the slightest bit of pressure on her weapon's trigger. "So I decided to betray them first."
Maggie, still severely weakened, leaned on Remmy's broad shoulders to hold herself up. "Well, they know about the virus we carry. That's why they've trapped us in here." She angrily flinched at Logan. "So how do we get out of this now, genius? Any minute, they'll probably begin pumping deadly gas in here to finish us off. We're as good as dead, unless that entrance just magically opens!"
As if on cue, the chamber door suddenly opened. A flood of blinking red light gushed inside to overtake the dimness, accompanied by the familiar klaxons screeching at full blast.
Wordless, Logan backed away from Rembrandt, Maggie, and Arturo, backstepping straight into the hallway. Eventually, she and her menacing gun had disappeared from the chamber doorway.
"Come on!" Rembrandt shouted to Professor Arturo, and the two of them jointly guided the anemic Maggie out into the corridor with caution.
Red lights continued to blink on and off at intermittent spots along the walls. The three sliders could see the back of Logan's fleeing figure quite a ways down the hall, sprinting away from them as she turned a corner.
"Mr. Brown," the Professor tried to raise his voice above the klaxon roar, "look at our wounds!" He indicated the bloodiness smeared at random spots across his, Rembrandt's, and Maggie's bodies. "The virus has to be working its way through this building by now. We must find the others, and retrieve the timer!"
"For sure, Professor," replied Rembrandt. He was staring over Arturo's shoulder. "But right now, we've got company . . ."
The Professor turned around and saw a mob of humans approaching the three of them. These disheveled prisoners wore bland unisex jumpsuits, and walked dazedly like zombies. They were clearly disoriented.
"Who are they?" Maggie asked, wincing from her wound, as she leaned against Rembrandt for support.
A thin woman with a red "pageboy" hairstyle stepped ahead of the group, speaking in surprisingly coherent sentences despite her threadbare appearance. "Who let us out?" she asked the sliders, in a heavy French accent. "The Kromaggs told us we could never return home."
"I don't know . . ." Rembrandt couldn't provide an insightful answer for her or the other confused prisoners.
The Cryin' Man recognized another voice that made his heart jump for joy.
Near the back of the mob, Malcolm had appeared. He was craning his neck up while jumping, trying to make himself visible to Remmy, Arturo, and Maggie.
"Malcolm!" Rembrandt ran toward his young friend, leaving Arturo to watch over the injured Maggie.
Rembrandt pushed and weaved his way through the disconcerted mob, finally making his way to Malcolm and giving him a fatherly hug.
"Gretchen," stated Malcolm, whispering in Rembrandt's ear. By now, the klaxon had somehow been turned off, and all the sliders could hear was the rumble of flummoxed human voices echoing through the corridors. "She spoke to me . . . and to Wade. I think she freed Wade from wherever the Kromaggs were keeping her."
"How could she do that?" Rembrandt asked, confused.
"I don't know."
Malcolm and Remmy looked at the contingency of ex-prisoners whom Gretchen had collectively released from their cells. Some were old and gray, others middle-aged or young adults. A few were adolescents or children. All of them were dressed in identical prison-issued jumpsuits - - with the exception of a handful who, for whatever reason, had been allowed to retain distinctive clothing.
"Alright, everyone listen now!" Rembrandt cupped his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice, getting all of the ex-prisoners' attention. "We're gonna bust out of here, so none of you panic, okay?"
"Good luck!" scoffed a stocky black woman, who appeared to be in her mid-fifties. "This place is like a maze!"
"Yeah, dude," agreed an alternate of Conrad Bennish Jr. "The Kromaggs designed it so every corner looks the same, to mess with our brains, yo!"
"Look, Mr. Bennish," spoke the Professor, tightly, "we have neither the time nor the luxury for negativity . . ."
"Hey, old guy . . . like, how'd you know my name?" Alternate Bennish asked Arturo.
Professor Arturo tried to keep his face from flushing red with impatience. "I've met your doppelgangers, Mr. Bennish," he intoned, as calmly as he could manage. "And trust me, all of them possess the same impeccable mastery of the English language as you do."
"Rock on!" Alternate Bennish gave him a double thumbs-up.
The black woman put her hands on her hips. "I think you people are lying to us!" she accused Rembrandt and Arturo. "You're probably working with the Kromaggs, trying to fool us into thinking we're safe!"
Professor Arturo rolled his eyes, heaving an exasperated sigh. "Mr. Brown, care to take a stab at this . . . ?" he deferred to Rembrandt.
"Look, lady . . ." Rembrandt considered how to approach this. "What's your name?"
"Azalea," the woman told him. "I'm Azalea Powell. Not that it's any of your business," she remarked, haughtily.
"Listen, Azalea, I know after everything you've been through that this is hard to believe . . ."
But she didn't give Rembrandt a chance to finish. "Honey, after rotting in here for so long, if you can get us out of here then I'll believe you are Jesus Christ incarnate himself!" exclaimed Azalea Powell, still frowning dubiously.
"You must realize," the French woman spoke up, addressing the sliders, "so many of us in here have quite simply lost hope."
"I know. I've been there," Rembrandt admitted to them. "But my friends and I . . . we found a way to access a gateway between dimensions. It's how we've avoided the Kromaggs for so long."
Murmurs rippled through the crowd of unisex jumpsuits.
"Can you take us with you?" asked a young, British-accented woman with long, blond hair. She had rejuvenated hope in her voice.
Rembrandt looked around, catching the eyes of Arturo, Maggie, and Malcolm. They were all thinking the same thing: there was no way the vortex could carry all those people with them to the next dimension.
"First, we have to get back our timer," Malcolm told the group. "I don't suppose any of you would know where we could start looking?"
A meek, scrawny little man shyly raised his hand. He wore a unisex jumpsuit like everyone else, but his arms, hands, neck, and face contained a greenish skin pigment, making him look like an extra from Star Trek.
"You could try the labs," suggested the moldy-faced gentleman, speaking bashfully. "I've been taken to them so many times, I could probably bring you there by instinct."
"Okay. So we have a starting point . . ." Rembrandt reassured everyone.
Occasionally, additional ex-prisoners trickled in from different parts of the facility, curiously joining the spot where their peers had already convened around the four sliders. Before long, two additional sliders had trickled in along with them.
"Wade! Mallory!" shouted Malcolm, running over to meet them. He quickly ushered the two of them back to Rembrandt, Maggie, and the Professor.
"We're okay," Wade told them. "But we've got to move fast. We overheard people saying they've seen soldiers roaming some of the hallways."
"Miss Wells, that's impossible," negated Professor Arturo. "We have already concluded that the virus is sweeping across this facility. No Kromagg in its path would stand a chance."
Mallory pointed, his finger shaking. "Um . . ." he began to stutter, "I think th - - they could . . ."
Two Humagg soldiers, armed with energy guns and wearing matching black bodysuits, were sprinting toward the assemblage of humans. The Humaggs fired recklessly at the crowd, causing the ex-prisoners to shriek and scatter in panic.
But suddenly, two sparks were ejected at the Humaggs' necks from behind. Both hybrid soldiers collapsed to the ground.
Grace Venable stepped out from where she'd been hiding, behind a pillar. She held a taser gun in her hand.
"Grace?" Rembrandt gasped, as all of the ex-prisoners cautiously retreated back toward the sliders.
"Yes, Rembrandt. Surprised?" Grace stepped over the two unconscious Humagg bodies, which were piled on the ground. "Most of the Kromaggs have fled into quarantine. But the Humagg soldiers were given orders to seek out you and your friends, and eliminate you." Grace held up the taser gun. "I got away when I could . . . to warn you."
"Great!" Wade balked. "So we're still being hunted like wild game?"
Grace locked eyes with Rembrandt. "I know where they're keeping your timer, Remmy. I can bring you and your friends there. But we haven't got very long. I don't remember exactly how much time is remaining until your next window of opportunity, but it can't be more than a few hours, at most."
Rembrandt closed his eyes. He hated accepting Grace's help . . . yet, he knew he had to - - for his friends.
"Why are you helping us, Grace?" Rembrandt asked her. "Are you hoping to get some kind of reward out of it?"
"Rembrandt, forget about her for a moment," Mallory diverted Remmy's attention away from Grace. "We need to find Diana and Janine first."
"Yeah, you're right," Rembrandt admitted. He pointed to Grace. "If you really want to help, then you stay right there." He turned to Wade. "What do you think, sweetheart? Any idea on how to track down Janine or Diana?"
Wade placed her finger against her lip, contemplatively. "Gretchen somehow opened all the prison cells in this building at the same time. Maybe she was able to break into one of the databases, I don't know? But if Gretchen is near a computer terminal, maybe she can access a record of where the Kromaggs brought Diana and Janine?"
Malcolm's distracted gaze, meanwhile, trailed along the edge of the corridor. He caught sight of a furry rat, scampering away across the tiled floor.
His fingertips went numb, and the numbness began to spread inward.
Malcolm approached Wade. "We gotta find her again!" he stressed to Wade, trembling and visibly shaking as he imagined Gretchen being dissected on some laboratory table.
"I know, Malcolm," she replied, softly. Wade reached out with her hand, and Malcolm took it. Together, Malcolm and Wade concentrated in tandem, emitting any bit of mental energy that Gretchen might be able to latch onto in some way.
"Malcolm, Wade . . ." came Gretchen's voice, flowing into their ears. She had detected their presence.
"Gretchen . . ." Malcolm called out to her. "How did you do it?" How did you open all those prison cells?"
"I willed them open . . ." Gretchen's voice explained, with narrative uncertainty.
"I don't understand." Malcolm telepathically projected his confusion to her.
"Malcolm, we need to focus," Wade's voice interrupted, cutting into Malcolm and Gretchen's exchange. "Gretchen, is there any way you can track down our friends for us?"
Gretchen didn't respond.
"Gretchen?!" Malcolm cried, panicky.
"Gretchen, are you still there?" Wade's voice emanated.
"Wade? Malcolm?" A fourth voice had joined their commune, and Malcolm and Wade both recognized its tonal vibration.
"Diana?" Wade identified one of their two still-missing friends. "How . . ."
"I must be close enough to hear you guys." Diana's voice was rushed, as though she was releasing thoughts from her brain while simultaneously using her legs to run.
"Who are you?" Gretchen cautiously asked, unfamiliar with Diana's presence.
"Gretchen, this is our friend, Diana," Malcolm telepathically introduced them. "Can you bring her to me and Wade?"
"I can try . . ." Gretchen's voice faded out.
On the outside, everyone in the corridor watched Wade and Malcolm commune, as they uttered their words out loud while simultaneously speaking to Gretchen and Diana with consolidated telepathy.
"Is it Diana?" Mallory eagerly asked Rembrandt. "Did they find Diana?"
"I don't know, Fog Boy." Rembrandt was just blown away by this exchange. "They've said her name . . . maybe Diana found a way to tap into the link that Malcolm and Wade are sharing with Gretchen?"
Everyone who was gathered around the sliders looked up, as a wobbly mass of blueness formed in mid-air. Before anyone knew what was happening, Diana Davis had been expelled from the anomaly. Diana landed on the ground with a thud.
Malcolm and Wade broke off contact with Gretchen.
"Diana!" shouted Malcolm.
"Dr. Davis, where did you come from?" Arturo reached down to help his friend and colleague to her feet.
"I don't know," Diana said, catching her breath. "One minute I was alone in a dark room, talking with Malcolm, Wade, and Gretchen . . . and the next minute, I was here . . ." Diana looked around at all of the recently-freed prisoners who stared at her in awe as they chattered amongst themselves. "Um, who are all these people?"
"Long story," said Rembrandt, squeezing Diana's shoulder.
"What - - what in the blazes was that thing?!" Azalea exclaimed, referring to the vortex-like structure Diana had just been spat out of.
Grace cleared her throat. "There's something I think you all need to know . . ."
"Not now, Grace!" Rembrandt harshly cut her off. He led Diana over to Malcolm and Wade. "The three of you need to ask Gretchen if she knows how we can find Janine."
"Well, glad to see you didn't forget about me!" called out an unmistakable voice.
Janine Chen had found her way over to the sliders and their very large audience of onlookers.
"Miss Chen!" Clapping his hands together, Professor Arturo thankfully seized Janine by the arm and escorted her over to the rest of their group. "How ever did you find us?"
"You okay?" Wade asked Janine. "They didn't hurt you, did they?"
"Aw, they tried to mess with my mind, but I just convinced them that I used to be a ballerina," Janine said, waving the thought away with her hand. "So when my cell door opened, I followed these other people here. We've been wandering these halls for the past hour . . ." She looked around, gesturing to the ex-prisoners' identical unisex jumpsuits. "The Kromaggs don't seem to have much of a fashion sense, do they?"
"Janine, Diana . . ." Rembrandt tried to sum it all up as succinctly as possible. "These are all folks who the Kromaggs have kept here for years, experimented on . . ."
"It's not fun," piped up a young boy, who looked as though he was about eight years old. The boy's pale face was distorted with patches of unique bumps, presumably from attempts at interspecies hybridization.
"Oh, God!" gasped Diana, as she extended her arm and gently clasped the innocent, caliginous little boy by his shoulder.
An elderly, wrinkled man with an eggshell-shaped head spoke to Diana and the other sliders. His face was marked by a drooping, wispy mustache hanging past the corners of his mouth and below his chin. He addressed them in a foreign language. It sounded like Mandarin Chinese.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we can't understand you," Professor Arturo enunciated to the old Chinese man, loudly and clearly.
"He's trying to say what they did to us," explained a little girl, who looked about eleven or twelve in age. She wore a tattered, burgundy gown, and the back of her frock had a slit through which a set of organic angel wings were sticking out.
"The little angel's right," agreed the British woman, concurring with the young winged girl's statement. "People from all over the world, from many worlds, are with us. The Kromaggs have taken skin grafts, drawn our blood, injected us with all sorts of chemicals." She gestured to the little boy with the distorted face. "Some of us have retained more physical scars than others. It's bloody madness, I tell you."
Janine glanced momentarily at the blond British female, and then did a double take. "Hey," Janine asked the woman, studying her face and hair, "didn't you used to be one of the Spice Girls?"
"Ough! Bollocks! Don't remind me!" groaned the tart-tongued alternate of Emma Bunton. She was quite embarrassed that someone finally recognized her former celebrity alter ego.
Malcolm's eyes sagged to the floor. He was trying to clear his mind of any environmental distractions, hoping to concentrate all of his mental stamina on reconnecting with Gretchen. But as Malcolm's gaze lingered across the slippers worn on the random feet of these prisoners, he noticed a small beetle crawling atop the floor tiles. The black, thinly segmented insect used its hind legs to mount and traverse one man's slipper-clad foot.
At that moment, a rush of chilly tingles sprinkled the flesh of Malcolm's arms, legs, and neck.
"Gretchen's in trouble!" Malcolm just blurted the words right out of his mouth. "We gotta help!!"
"We will, Malcolm." Wade wrapped her arms around Malcolm, and pulled the nearly hysterical teenager into a tender hug. "But you've got to focus everything you feel right now onto Gretchen. Let her know that you need her."
Malcolm sniffed through copious tears. "I can't . . ."
"You've got to, partner," Rembrandt told him, softly taking Malcolm by the shoulders. "Remember what I once told you about courage . . . ?"
"Malcolm, I need you to take me to Gretchen," Wade spoke to him, in an urgently serious tone. "I'll do the rest. But I need you to bring me to her."
Still blubbering, Malcolm whispered, "Please tell me we can save her, Wade."
"We can. I promise." Wade glanced at Rembrandt's melancholy eyes from where Rembrandt was standing behind Malcolm. She linked Malcolm's fingers with hers, and together, the two of them allowed themselves to perish into a deep meditative trance.
"Gretchen . . . ?" Malcolm's telepathic essence yearned for his friend.
"I am here, Malcolm," was her reply.
"Gretchen," communicated Wade, "can you bring us to you, this time? The same way you sent me to my friends - - can you summon us to you?"
A mild wind touched the skin of hundreds of people who were crammed in that lone corridor. Its chilly texture gained strength, until it was gushing against every person's face.
And a zealous geyser of blue arose from Malcolm and Wade's shared touch. The thick blanket of blueness swept across the corridor, digesting everyone - - Malcolm, Wade, Rembrandt, Diana, Mallory, Arturo, Maggie, Janine, Grace, Azalea, Emma, Alternate Bennish, the French woman, the moldy guy, the young boy, the winged girl, the elderly Chinese man. All of those nameless, victimized human beings were inexplicably transported from space and time.
* * *
The hundreds of disoriented humans adjusted to their new surroundings. They had collectively materialized in a wide, spacious storage room. Lined against the walls were ambits of aquarium-like tanks, each containing a human head.
"Hydropods . . ." whispered Rembrandt.
Bubbles effervesced through the greenish-tinted watery substance that surrounded each immersed human head.
"The cyberiad network . . ." Wade murmured, shaking her head back and forth. She was all too familiar with it.
"Dear God . . . !" exclaimed Arturo.
Malcolm had visually zeroed in on one of the hydropods. Trembling, he approached the glass tank, mournfully eying the human female trapped inside, her flowing blond hair inundated by emerald nutrient fluid and ascending bubbles.
Realizing who it was, Wade buried her hands in her face. Her heartbeat deflated, in commiseration with Malcolm.
"Gretchen . . . ?" uttered Malcolm, emotionless. His entire body shook, followed by a slow waterfall of tears as he stared helplessly through the glass at his captive friend.
Although most of the ex-prisoners who'd been transported by Gretchen into this room were blatantly confused, the sliders knew what was going on. Malcolm's friends slowly came over and surrounded him. Rembrandt placed his hand on Malcolm's shoulder again.
"That explains the teleportation," Diana realized, aloud. "They were space folds. Gretchen was the one who moved us from one room to another."
"Gretchen and the cyberiads," Maggie amended Diana's statement, still in shock herself. And she was witnessing this phenomenon for the second time.
"What are these people?!" Azalea shouted, horrified by the aesthetics of the cyberiads' visual oppression.
"They're a product of Kromagg science," Grace quietly explained to everyone in the taciturn room who was unfamiliar with the concept of a cyberiad. "Harnessing energy produced by the human mind to create rifts in the multiverse. Making transdimensional travel a reality using a network of neural consciousness."
Wade solemnly addressed all of the ex-prisoners. "I used to be one."
Janine was squinting, stupefied, at the hydropods. "How can they still be alive if the Kromaggs cut their heads off?" she queried, referring to the cyberiads.
"They didn't decapitate us, Janine," Wade patiently said, in a quiet voice. "Everything below the collarbone is still contained in a cubicle underneath the hydropod."
"Their heads merely appear to be sectioned off," Arturo speculated, "so their brain waves can interact with, and be suppressed by, the hydrogen molecules." He gestured at the electrodes protruding from Gretchen's intubated anterior, as a way of illustrating his description.
Malcolm had moved closer to the glowing, translucent, glass container. Through his teary vision, he stared longingly at Gretchen - - who simply stared back at him, unable to move her mouth or head.
"Malcolm," she sent another telepathic message out to him, "where am I? What have they turned me into?"
"Gretchen, I'm so sorry . . ." Even telepathically, Malcolm's thoughts were conveyed with heartbroken abjectness.
Wade and Diana exchanged empathetic glances, as they were privy to every decibel of Malcolm and Gretchen's psychic exchange.
"There's nothing you can do for her." A man stepped forward. He was one of the few prisoners who wore distinct, non-standardized clothing - - his consisted of khaki pants and a clashing, purple-and-yellow vest right out of the 1970s. "They are all doomed." He nodded bleakly at the cyberiads.
"Who the hell are you?" Janine shot back.
"The name's Chester Marks." He spoke with a very slight British accent. "I am one of a select group known as 'The Dream Masters.' Apprentices of the Kromaggs."
Wade narrowed her eyes at Marks. "Yeah, I know who you are. We've been to your Earth. Your buddies put me in a coma," she ranted, referring to her psychotropic entrapment at the hands of the Dream Masters. "They practically killed me!"
"My apologies, lass," Chester Marks said, not at all sounding sincere, "but if they did as you say, they must have considered you a legitimate threat."
Rembrandt looked ready to kill Marks. "Bull," he malignantly muttered, under his breath.
"What do you mean you're the Kromaggs' apprentices?" Diana asked the Dream Master.
"In exchange for information about our abilities, the Kromagg Dynasty guaranteed us immunity from persecution," answered Chester Marks, a cagey glint in his eye. "We taught them how to enhance their powers of illusion, accelerate and intensify hallucinations . . ."
"It's true," Grace confirmed, backing up Chester's claims. "The Dream Masters have been a valuable resource for the Kromaggs in studying the human psyche."
Malcolm, Wade, and Diana were caught off-guard again by Gretchen's voice.
"Malcolm, Wade . . . what has happened to me?" Gretchen's strained vocals rang out.
"You must be honest with her," Chester Marks told the sliders. "It is the only way to motivate the cyberiads to do what needs to be done."
"You can hear her?" Diana asked Marks, referring to Gretchen.
"Aye. One of the side effects of invading people's subconscious is heightened telepathy," said Chester. "The Kromaggs have had me access the memories of individual cyberiads to learn more about how the transformation affects them."
"You bastard . . ." Wade was shooting Chester Marks a deadly glare. "You have no right . . ."
"He's unfortunately correct," came another voice.
Mary had stumbled into the psionic lab, appearing disheveled from running. In one hand she held a remote control, which Mary had used to open the laboratory doors. "The Humaggs have been given instructions to preserve the cyberiads at all costs . . . up until the Humagg soldiers themselves take their final breaths . . ." She took gasps for air between sentence fragments.
Wade met Rembrandt's eyes. They both were thinking of when Remmy had discovered Wade as a cyberiad. After using Rembrandt's eyes to view her own bioengineered transformation, Wade had nearly gone into cardiac arrest from shock.
"Gretchen . . . we can let you use our eyes to view yourself . . . but it could be more than you can handle," Wade telepathically cautioned Gretchen.
"Wade, I must see," pleaded Gretchen. "Do you not understand?"
"Yes, I do." Wade bowed her head.
"Use my eyes, Gretchen," Malcolm told her, blinking back tears.
As the nutrient fluid bubbled past her forehead, Gretchen reached out and seized control of Malcolm's vision. His eyeballs became hers, and soon she could see the entire room full of cyberiad receptacles.
Malcolm felt Gretchen's heart racing. He could feel it because she was causing it to happen to him too.
"Gretchen . . . ?" Wade called out to Malcolm's friend.
Both Diana and Wade could feel the anger rippling through Gretchen's pneuma. It was now spreading to the dozens of other cyberiads throughout the psionic lab.
"They're reaching a critical mass!" Mary cried out, as she witnessed the afflicted facial contortions inside all of the hydropods.
"Remmy, you have to stop them!" Dr. Grace Venable frenetically stressed to the Cryin' Man.
Rembrandt met Grace's gaze with dead eyes. "There's nothing I can do," he stated, simply. "It's gonna play out the way it's gonna play out."
"Nobody move!" a harsh command was barked out at all of the humans.
In the open doorway stood General Konntul - - wearing a protective hazmat suit and aiming an energy weapon straight at where Wade, Malcolm, and Diana had gathered.
* * *
"Konntul?!" Mallory, his protective instincts kicking in, was about to lunge at the Kromagg leader.
"Stand down, human!" Konntul's yelp flowed through his insulated suit. "I will not hesitate to put a deluge of radiation into any of your friends."
Konntul switched his address over to Grace and Mary, both of whom were standing amongst the sliders, shamefully withdrawn.
"Dr. Venable . . . Mary . . . I should have known you would seek to betray the Dynasty." He spoke to them the way a disappointed father would lecture his teenager who'd stayed out past curfew.
"It's over, Konntul," said Grace, in a controlled voice. "There's no way they're letting you get out of here alive." She gestured to not only the sliders, but also to the rest of the human ex-prisoners whom Gretchen had intradimensionally brought into that room.
General Konntul flinched, defiantly. "Not until I exterminate as many human vermin as possible . . ."
But Konntul stopped, gasped, and gagged. He felt a sharp protrusion tear through the back of his hazmat suit, severing his spinal chord and slicing through his intestines.
Konntul jerked around, falling back. As he hit the ground, he was able to look up and see who had stabbed him - - the robed female Kromagg prophet, wearing a lone oxygen mask.
"Prophet, what do . . . you think . . . you are doing . . . ?" Konntul managed to angrily choke out, before the blood dominated his throat and his life slipped away.
The Kromagg prophet looked up from where General Konntul had fallen. Her round, frightened eyes spilled over the sliders.
"Why . . . ?" Rembrandt mouthed to her.
"I must stop the genocide!" the prophet hissed through her oxygen mask. Making one final appeal with her forlorn eyes, she advised the sliders, in a mantic whisper . . .
"Leave this Earth!"
Then, using the same knife she'd used to butcher Konntul, the Kromagg prophet brought it to her own throat, and, with one posthaste swoop, slit her own esophagus.
Everyone in the room was rendered speechless, as they watched the prophet tumble to the floor.
"What did she mean?" demanded Janine. "Why did she look so terrified?"
"If she was really a psychic," Mallory said, "whatever she saw can't be anything good."
For all intents and purposes, Malcolm, Wade, and Diana had remained oblivious to the demise of Konntul and the Kromagg prophet. The trio was, instead, still in deep commune with Gretchen. They each could feel the anguish rippling from Gretchen, and by extension, all the rest of the now-awoken cyberiads.
"Please . . ." Gretchen psychically pleaded to Malcolm and Wade. "Let us perish."
"Noooo!" protested Malcolm, directing his emotions at Wade and Diana for backup. "Gretchen, you can't give up. I won't let you."
"Malcolm, we can program the system," Gretchen referred to herself and her fellow cyberiads, "so that once we are gone it will crash automatically. All information on how to rebuild this heinous experiment will be lost."
"No! You can't leave me, Gretchen!"
"Malcolm," Wade told her friend, through the communal telepathic link, "I know you love Gretchen. But she's in too much pain. You can't expect her to live this way for the rest of eternity."
Tears streamed down the exterior of Malcolm's face, even as he continued to commune telepathically. "There's got to be a solution. Diana, can't you find some way to bring them out of those tanks safely?"
"I can try, Malcolm. But I'll need to access their system manually." Diana had no clue how to proceed with a neural manipulation of the Kromagg Central Database from the inside, as Wade had once done.
"Then do it," Malcolm commanded.
Diana released her grip from Malcolm and Wade, causing her to become marginally distanced from their shared psychic link. She hovered over to the computer terminal, talking to the rest of the sliders as she tried to log onto the network. "Gretchen is feeling tortured in there," she told everyone else, who had been disconcertedly watching Diana, Wade, and Malcolm engage in silent telepathy. "If we can't get them out of those hydropods . . . they could spend the rest of their lives as vegetables." Pounding on the rollout desk beneath the keyboard, Diana winced. "Dammit! I'm locked out!"
"Let me help," offered Grace, stepping over to the same computer terminal where she stood by Diana's side. "I know a backdoor into the database."
Wade and Malcolm were still deeply linked to Gretchen. "Malcolm, I can't live like this," Gretchen's haunting voice implored him. "I beg you . . . free us."
"No . . ." Malcolm refused. "I've come this far, searching for you. I can't go on without you.
Another sharp whistle screeched in Malcolm's and Wade's ears. They released each other's hands, degrading the telepathic bond in order to physically cover their ears.
Diana, hearing it too, scanned the computer screen with wide eyes. "Their vitals are erratic!" she exclaimed, for the benefit of everyone in the psionic lab, while watching the rapidly fluctuating colored bars on the monitor that represented the cyberiads' vital signs. "If we don't do something quick, they're going to go into cardiogenic shock!"
Malcolm ran over to Gretchen's hydropod, and pressed his fingers and face up against the glassine surface. "Gretchen, please, hang on!"
"I can't . . ." her unsteady voice trembled.
Chester Marks came forward, having been able to telepathically listen in on the sliders' exchange with Gretchen for the past few minutes. "This isn't healthy for them," he spoke, ominously. "I'm going to coax them out of their limbo."
Marks closed his eyes, projecting his essence into the neural circuitry between hydropods.
"What are you doing?! Stop it!" Malcolm turned around and began physically shaking Chester Marks.
"Oh my God!" Diana gasped, as a blobby anomaly appeared on the computer screen. "The cyberiads . . . they're generating a foreign mass of energy. It looks like . . . another space fold?" She pressed a key, switching to a geographic map of the planet Earth. "But it's not even anywhere near here," she realized. Zooming out the screen to display a map of the solar system, Diana said, "This new wormhole was created beyond the stratosphere!"
Grace studied the screen over Diana's shoulder. "It's purging them of all their collective energy," Dr. Venable intoned.
"Too . . . much . . . pain . . ." Gretchen's voice echoed through Malcolm's and Wade's ears, followed by a chorus of cries from the other cyberiads.
Diana and Grace stood at the computer with widened eyes. They watched helplessly as the spectroscopic digital blob on the screen got bigger and bigger. Panning her gaze over to the VU meters, Diana could see their needles oscillating like crazy.
"This anomaly is increasing in magnitude! They're purging themselves of too much strength!" Diana announced to the room, unsure what to do.
But Wade knew what had to be done. Whatever mass of energy was being created couldn't be good news.
"Gretchen, release your consciousness. Let it drift away," Wade telepathically coached Gretchen.
"NOOOO!!!!" Malcolm shouted, both in his mind and out loud.
"Tell the rest of them to let go, just like you are . . ." Wade instructed Gretchen how to lead the rest of Gretchen's cyberiad colleagues.
"Wade . . . no . . ." Malcolm's telepathic appeal was down to a whimper.
"I love you, Malcolm . . ." Gretchen's voice faded away.
A long, continuous, never-ending beep blared from the speakers of the computer terminal.
Diana turned around to face everyone. "They've flatlined," she said, quietly.
Everyone in the room watched in silence as the horizontal line crept straight across the screen.
Malcolm had fallen to the floor, languishing in a sea of his own uncontrollable sobs. Rembrandt came over to kneel down beside Malcolm. The Cryin' Man enveloped his young friend with a soft hug, allowing Malcolm to go numb within Remmy's embrace.
* * *
Mary led the way down one of the many monolithic corridors within the detainment center. Wade, Mallory, Arturo, and Janine had volunteered to retrieve the timer while Diana and Rembrandt coordinated things back at the hydropod nerve center. Rembrandt had insisted that Grace remain there with them, where he could keep an eye on her.
"This way," Mary whispered to them, her eyes darting skittishly left and right. She had armed herself with a small laser-based energy gun for her own protection, and also found some weapons to give to the four accompanying sliders.
"I still can't believe you faked your own death," Wade bitterly said to Mary, walking in step with her. "You can't imagine how sad and guilty it made Quinn feel. He thought you'd given your life saving us from the Kromaggs."
Mary knew the groundwork of this facility well. She sped up, but the sliders kept right in sync with her quick pace. "I had no choice," Mary replied, guiltily batting her eyelashes. "The Kromaggs are . . . were my masters. Had I disobeyed their orders, I would not be here speaking to you at this moment."
"I would never have done their bidding," Mallory scoffed, almost superlatively. "How could I be a traitor to my own species?"
"I suppose you are just braver than I," admitted Mary, humbly. She turned a corner, and directed the sliders into a sunken stairwell. "But I did what I could. I disrupted the destination coordinate sets when no one was watching. Sometimes I brought prisoners food even when they were denied their meals. When the Dynasty put a bounty on Rembrandt's head, Dr. Venable and I misdirected the digital messages across dimensions, in the hopes of protecting Mr. Brown and you, his companions."
"My goodness . . ." Professor Arturo exclaimed. "The two of you could have been punished for those actions."
"The penalty is death by electromagnetic execution," confirmed Mary, with a nod of her head, still staring directly forward.
"If it had been me, I'd have blown the place up," boasted Janine, shooting Mary a flippant sneer.
Wade bit her lip. She had to acknowledge these risks Mary and Grace had apparently taken on the sliders' behalf . . . but that didn't erase all the deception both women had also been responsible for.
"We are here," Mary announced, in monotone. She got ready to click the handheld remote in her palm . . . but the five of them saw that the mechanical doorway to the lab was already ajar.
"Oh, my . . ." Mary appeared genuinely shocked.
"When Gretchen opened all the cell doors in the building, she must have also opened the doors to every other room too," concluded Wade. "Including all the laboratories."
They peered inside . . . and among a sea of dead Kromagg bodies that were sprawled out across the floor, Mary and the sliders saw none other than Logan St. Clair and Angus Rickman, located at different spots in the lab where they each rifled through an array of Kromagg gadgets and gizmos.
"Logan?! Rickman?!" Wade blurted out, then belatedly covering her mouth.
The four sliders charged into the lab, guns aimed at their nemeses.
But by now, Logan and Rickman were also armed.
"Stand back, sliders!" growled Rickman, clutching an energy gun and aiming it in Wade's direction.
"We're just helping ourselves to some leftover Kromagg goodies," Logan explained, raising a laser rifle.
"They've got some pretty interesting trinkets in here," Rickman devilishly smirked at the sliders. Glancing over at Logan, he added, "Wouldn't you agree, love?"
"Quiet, Bisclavret!" Logan sharply lambasted Rickman. She turned her attention back to Mary and the four sliders. "Okay now, we're gonna do this nice and slowly . . . just back away and turn around the way you came. We," she indicated herself and Rickman, "are just going to take our newfound treasures and slide on out of here."
"Sorry, but we can't let you do that," Mallory retorted, with fake sweetness. "How do we know you won't come after us?"
"Yeah, what's stopping you from shooting us right in our backs?" Janine challenged the sliders' two enemies.
"Nothing." Logan cocked her head. "I guess we have a Mexican standoff here now, don't we? So why don't you back up and stay at a safe distance until we're gone. That way . . ."
A hoarse cough disrupted Logan's proposal. "I hate to interrupt," came a macabre, slightly nasal voice, "but I found this sharp shiny object and just had to use it to my advantage."
Edwin Weir - - aka "The Leader" - - had Arturo trapped in a chest-lock. The disturbed hybrid aimed a scalpel at the Professor's neck.
The sudden shock of his situation had caused Professor Arturo to drop his weapon, which clattered to the floor.
"Mr. Weir . . ." Mary attempted to reason with him.
"Shut up!" The Leader didn't want to hear it. He had Arturo locked firmly in place. "One wrong move from any of you, and this tub of lard gets liposuction in his neckline!"
"What makes you think we even care if his life gets snuffed?" Rickman shot back at The Leader, referring to Arturo. "The fewer sliders there are in the world, the better, I say."
"You hurt our friend, and I start spraying bullets," Janine threatened Edwin Weir. "And the first one will go through your chest, baldy."
"Oh, and we'll save a deadly ray of ions especially for you, Rickman," Mallory added to Janine's warning.
The Leader dug his nails into Arturo's chubby shoulders. "You don't wanna go toe-to-toe with me, fools!" he hissed at the sliders. "My genetic metamorphosis has made me dangerously spry. Trust me . . . I'll take down as many of you as I can on my way out! At the first sound of any gunfire, he," The Leader gave Professor Arturo a harsh shake, "gets it in the throat!"
Wade gave both Mallory and Janine conspiratorial side-glances. They were silently brainstorming how to play offense and defense at the same time.
"And no using your telekinetic abilities either, red," Edwin "The Leader" Weir cautioned Wade. "If you do, 'Butterball' here goes bye-bye." He constricted his grip around Professor Arturo, causing the Professor to grimace in pain.
Wade looked dumbfounded. "How did you . . . ?"
This human oddity whom she'd never even met before somehow knew that Wade possessed telekinesis. But how?
"How did I know?" The Leader finished Wade's sentence with a vicious bark. "I can sense it. Another one of the many quirks that Reticulan DNA carries." He narrowed his eyes. "So don't toy with me, missy."
"Um, this is all very amusing," Logan piped up, sarcastically deriding everybody's one-upsmanship, "but my timer is eventually going to reach its window." She patted her pocket, which harbored a gigantic bulge. "So let's cut the pleasantries and settle this already."
The Leader cleared this throat, with Arturo still hostage in Weir's arms. "What do you suggest?"
"An entente," Logan replied, businesslike. "We all go to our respective corners, and then make our exits in a systematic fashion. I'm willing to agree to a temporary cease-fire, what about you?" She briefly glanced in Rickman's direction.
"Aw, you're no fun!" Rickman implicitly acquiesced.
"Great. Then me first." Logan cagily shuffled toward the door, keeping her weapon focused on The Leader and the sliders the whole time.
That left Rickman standing in a corner all by himself.
"Go on." Janine gestured, using her gun, for Rickman to follow Logan's swift exit. "Before we change our minds."
As Rickman slinked out into the hallway, they could hear the echo and whoosh of Logan's vortex being activated nearby - - illuminated by a dark orange light.
Now, Edwin began backpedaling out of the lab. "If you want your friend back alive, don't follow me . . ."
Once The Leader had exited with Arturo in tow, Mary hastily shuffled over to a worktable. She picked up the sliders' timer, and handed it over to Wade. "You're fortunate that the Kromaggs did not get around to taking it apart."
Wade took the timer and saw there were three hours, forty minutes, and fifteen seconds left on the readout. "At least we got it back with hours to spare," she breathed a sigh of relief.
"Now we just need to get the Professor back," Mallory commented. "But how?"
"They haven't had time to get very far," Janine said. "Let's hope that pasty-faced freak still thinks he has some use for the Professor . . ."
Their walk back to the main cyberiad lab was long and uneventful. It was as though they knew something terrible and horrific would be waiting for them back at the Kromaggs' old stomping grounds.
Wade, Mallory, and Janine - - guided by Mary - - poked their heads back into the entranceway. A large number of the ex-prisoners had been milling around outside, mumbling and chattering amongst themselves. And now the sliders knew why.
Dr. Sylvia Sylvius, her eyes burning with pure lust, had backed a young human male into a corner. She licked her lips, seductively. The young man's heart rate intensified. Dr. Sylvius savored the position she had the poor guy trapped in, keenly inhaling his pheromones.
"She's going to kill him!" screamed the double of Emma Bunton, who was watching helplessly from the sidelines along with the other ex-prisoners and the sliders as Dr. Sylvius fingered the twentysomething male like a spider inspecting its prey.
"No she isn't," Rembrandt spoke up, shielding Malcolm and Maggie with his arms. "She's gonna mate with him."
"Oh, God!" Wade gasped, finally realizing who the familiar figure from their past was. "That's Dr. Sylvius. What's she doing here?" Wade glanced at Remmy, recalling their encounter with the unscrupulous doctor on Organ Donor World. "Didn't she . . . ?" Wade gulped, as she remembered the alien symbiont that had overtaken Maggie's body.
Rembrandt nodded, bleakly. "It got her, girl," he told Wade, referring to Dr. Sylvius. "There wasn't time to save her before we slid." He looked on remorsefully as Dr. Sylvius opened her mouth, and a protracted crustacean-like creature inched its way through the doctor's esophagus and over her tongue. "I'm sure the 'Maggs have had a hell of a good time experimenting on her . . . finding out how that - - thing inside of her works."
In the next second, Janine had fired her weapon at Dr. Sylvius from twenty feet away.
"Janine, what are you doing?!" yelled Mallory, a little too late with his inquiry.
Dr. Sylvius fell back onto the floor, clutching her wounded shoulder. The innocent male bystander whom she'd grasped in her clutches took that moment to run away.
"Well we can't just let her reproduce!" Janine answered Mallory.
"Yeah . . . she may have been an unethical bitch, but not even Dr. Sylvius deserved to be a pawn of some alien parasite," Wade agreed with Janine, as blood dripped through the nightgown-like fabric where Dr. Sylvius had been shot in the shoulder.
The mouth of Dr. Sylvius opened again, and the slimy, twelve-foot-long organism squirmed its way out of her. It hissed irascibly, mounting the doctor's chest and then leaping off of her onto the floor.
The dyspeptic symbiont whipped its antennaed head around, sizing up all the humans in the laboratory. Clearly, it was trying to sense who might be suitable as a new host.
All of the scared ex-prisoners backed farther away from the loose, turbulent creature.
Multiple shots rang out from Wade's, Mallory's, and Janine's guns. Following a barrage of deadly bullets, the alien symbiont laid motionless, bathed in a puddle of its own ensanguined ooze.
"I guess there's more than one way to skin a symbiont," Janine quipped, watching as Dr. Sylvius struggled to catch her breath from where she was crumpled on the floor - - now dispossessed for the first time in more than four years.
"Forget about her." Rembrandt hurried over to Wade. "Where's the Professor?" Looking distrustfully at Mary, Rembrandt demanded to know, "Where did she really take you guys?"
"It was one of the Kromagg labs, just like she said," Wade reassured Rembrandt, holding up their timer. "But Logan and Rickman were also there, raiding the laboratory. They got away. And that 'Leader'-guy showed up too . . . he took Arturo hostage." She began to address Mallory, Janine, Malcolm, Diana, and Maggie, as well. "Guys, we've got less than three hours to get him back."
"Then you'll do exactly what I want," came a familiar voice from behind them.
There, again, stood the gray-skinned Edwin Weir, practically poking his sharp surgical tool into Professor Arturo's scalp.
"If you want the old man back alive, you're going to help me get out of here." The Leader's circumspect eyes showed he meant business.
The cluster of ex-prisoners gazed quizzically at this strangely deformed human being, who had taken someone hostage. They know all too well how Kromagg captivity could take its toll on the human mind . . . and this guy appeared certifiably nuts!
"Dude, like, you need a major tan," Alternate Bennish observed, oddly fixated on The Leader's mutated complexion.
Diana slowly emerged from the crowd. She had dealt with him before, and felt that maybe she could get through to him.
"Mr. - - Leader," she disconnectedly addressed him, "do you . . . ?"
"Edwin! My name is Edwin," he stated, scowling emphatically. His hand shook as it held the scalpel against Arturo's neck.
"Edwin . . . do you remember me?" Diana asked him, keeping her voice level and non-threatening.
"Of course I do!" he responded, in a jaded tone. "Three years ago, you and your friends traveled to my Earth . . . ruined my only chance at gaining credibility with the American public on my world."
"No, we prevented you from going beyond the point of no return," said Diana, sensibly. "You were prepared to murder Maggie, remember? If the authorities on your world had found out, do you honestly believe they would have listened to you?"
"Of course they wouldn't have," scoffed Maggie, from where she stood next to Malcolm, grumbling and weathered. "That psycho would have been shipped off to the nut house . . . exactly where he belongs!"
"Careful, Ms. Beckett . . . you wouldn't want your stinging repartee to cause my fingers to slip, digging this sharp impediment into your friend's chubby neck." The Leader stiffened his grip on the Professor. "Now, I want out of this God-forsaken hole, so I can find a new place to hunker down and educate the masses." His beady eyes poured over the seven interdimensional travelers standing before him. "So . . . you 'sliders' are going to work your technological magic and transport me to a new Earth. If you don't . . ."
Abruptly, The Leader grunted and tumbled forward, allowing Professor Arturo to scurry out of his clutches. Edwin Weir had been knocked unconscious from behind by a cold blow to his own scalp.
Azalea Powell stood in that spot, exultantly displaying a paperweight that she must have grabbed from one of the opened rooms.
"I knew that hairless fool was bad news!" Azalea exclaimed, puckering out her lips.
Arturo gratefully rubbed his aching shoulders, as Rembrandt came over to comfort the Professor. "Madame, thank you for getting that unhinged ninny away from me."
"My pleasure . . . IF you people can really do what he said you could." Azalea placed one hand on her hip, and looked at the sliders expectantly.
"Can you do it?" the French woman joined in Azalea's plea. "Can you take us off this Earth?"
"We can go home?" the young winged girl asked, hopefully.
Diana apprehensively exchanged looks with a few of her sliding companions. "We're going to try," she tentatively told the ex-prisoners, sounding a lot more optimistic than she actually was. "In the time we have left, I'll see if I can start up one of the sliding machines." She addressed the displaced captives in general. "Maybe they have your IDs on file in the Kromagg Central Database, with home coordinate sets to match?"
Diana purposefully strode back over to the computer terminal. Mary and Grace followed Diana, latently offering their knowledge to aid in her search.
Coming over to the Professor, Mallory patted Arturo on the back. "You okay? That was a pretty close call."
"Yes, Mr. Mallory, almost becoming a life-sized science project certainly makes a man count his blessings," remarked Professor Arturo, rubbing his tingly scalp.
Having lowered her weapon to her side, Wade approached Malcolm. "How are you doing?" she cautiously inquired from him.
Malcolm only gave Wade a poisonous scowl. He turned away from her and wandered off toward a corner, by himself.
Rembrandt came up behind Wade. Placing his hands on her shoulders, The Cryin' Man told his friend, "He's gonna need some time, girl. Lots of time. Try not to take it personally."
"I know . . ." Wade trailed off, as some teardrops escaped from her ducts. Right now, the pain Malcolm felt was the last thing she wanted to think about.
At the computer keyboard, Diana had begun scrolling through a series of files accompanied by onscreen "mug shot"-style digital photos.
"Well, this appears to be an inventory cache," she observed, her fingers mechanically taking position on pre-accustomed spots across the keyboard. "It's probably a recent log of every human prisoner brought to this Earth." Diana turned her head slightly over her shoulder and summoned one of her friends. "Remmy . . ."
Rembrandt was by Diana's side in a moment. He peered at the top of the screen, scrutinizing the set of Kromagg numerical characters that appeared above the photographic readout.
"Zero, zero . . . two . . . three . . ." the Cryin' Man read out loud, translating slowly. He only knew rudimentary characters in the Kromagg language, but Remmy was fairly sure he had the numbers correct. "What Earth did you say this was?" He glanced back at Mary.
"Earth 23," Mary confirmed, timidly pointing at the screen. "You must access an encoded codicil in order to view a prisoner's corresponding home coordinates." She lightly tapped her fingernail against the monitor.
"Rembrandt, let us help your friend," Grace appealed to her former lover, knowing how unfamiliar Diana was with the Kromagg Central Database. "Mary and I have accessed the system hundreds of times. We can take you through it a lot faster."
Rembrandt gave Diana a skeptical look. She was the only one he trusted with this matter, right now.
Diana returned Rembrandt's frown with a tight, browbeaten smile. "She's right, Rem. They know what they're doing. I could wander around inside this database for years without finding what we need."
Shooting annoyed bristles at Grace and Mary, Rembrandt conceded. "Fine. But I'm watching you two."
Grace took over at the keyboard, typing in data at a rapid pace. "The quickest way to match each person up with their profile in the database is by entering the attributes of every individual, then cross-reference those with the file inventory. Hair color, height, eye color, geographic place of origin . . ."
Diana scratched her head. "I still can't get that anomaly from earlier out of my head," she said, in regard to the strange blobby object that had appeared on the screen in the past few hours. "It looked like some kind of wormhole . . . but that would mean other sliders have accessed this dimension from offworld."
"Maybe it was another manta ship?" suggested Rembrandt.
"There is one way we can check for certain," volunteered Mary. She placed her finger where the F7 key would normally be found on human-made keyboards. "Dr. Venable, bring up the 'topographic roving satellite.' Full-screen." Then, Mary spoke directly to Remmy and Diana. "This device will display a three-dimensional view of the planet from outer space, while zeroing in on any sensory activity."
As Grace viscerously punched in the proper keys on the console, Diana asked, "Can you trace where on this dimension that anomaly first appeared?"
"I should be able to," nodded Grace, glancing at Diana even as she continued to type. "I'll bring up an aerial feed of the closest geographic point to where this anomaly surfaced."
Grace activated the topographic video feed, which appeared on an auxiliary monitor above the computer terminal. The atlas-like digital imagery shifted to an analog video feed, showing a shiny vortex suspended over the Golden Gate Bridge.
"It's San Francisco," realized Diana, staring at the real-time video transmission.
A chrome, pancake-shaped spaceship with a sigmoid rim zoomed through the exuberant anomaly. The extraterrestrial ship descended upon this alternate San Francisco.
Rembrandt's face went pale. "The Dublians . . ." he whispered, despondently.
The other sliders had quickly gathered around the computer console.
"What are 'the Dublians'?" Grace asked, confused. Her mocha face had also whitened.
"They're an alien species from outer space," Mallory told Grace and Mary. "And their brutality rivals the Kromaggs'."
Mary blinked through wide, muddled eyes. "What is their primary objective?"
"We don't know, completely," Diana admitted. "From what we've seen, they use photon-based weapons, and implant human beings with some sort of neck-chip that subdues free will. We've only been captured by them once, and we had just a small taste of what they're capable of."
"Subjugation. Enslavement. Demolition." Rembrandt flinched in abhorrence. "Pretty much the same as the Kromaggs . . . except with flashier technology."
Grace Venable shook her head in confusion. "But why would they come here?"
"Most parallel Earths probably have their own Dublian species," Janine shrugged. "This just happened to be the point in time when this dimension's Dublians decided to invade."
"Not quite." Chester Marks had approached the group. He extended his arm and pointed a finger at Malcolm. "It was his friend. She summoned them."
Malcolm's face flushed an irate shade of crimson. "You're a liar!" he berated Marks. "Gretchen would never do that! She didn't even know about the Dublians!"
"She didn't have to," Marks quietly replied. "As a cyberiad, your friend was constantly entangled in a ganglia of confusion. She and her peers had access to not only all the electronic functions of this facility, but to immaterial cosmic doorways beyond even their comprehension."
Diana stared loathsomely in doubt at the claims Chester Marks was making. "How could you possibly know that?"
"Because," said Chester Marks, with utter seriousness, "that Kromagg prophet who tried to warn you blokes . . . my mind was tapped into hers. And the prophet had used her extrasensory powers to communicate with the cyberiad network. Coupled with her powers of precognition, she was manipulating them to send your group messages . . . omens."
The sliders were all rendered silent.
Wade broke that silence. "I still have some of the cyberiad imprint left behind on my brain," she told everyone. "It usually directs your actions according to what your heart feels . . . like when I wanted to find Remmy: once he came close enough to us from across the multiverse, I was able to reach out to him on a spiritual level. It's all a part of how they programmed us. They thought they could control us with drugs . . . but our human will, as cyberiads, managed to override that."
"So that's why Gretchen was able to suddenly contact Malcolm," deduced Mallory.
Arturo looked strangely at Marks. "Sir, are you saying that the Kromagg prophet foresaw all of this?"
"Yes." Marks gave a somber nod. "She was able to commune with the cyberiads, with animal life . . . all to orchestrate your intervention." He surveyed the group of sliders as a whole.
Malcolm bowed his head and began to cry again. Mallory put an arm around Malcolm, holding him in a close, brotherly hug.
Rembrandt scratched his head. "So why didn't that prophet tell the other Kromaggs to prepare them for a Dublian invasion, if she saw everything?"
"They wouldn't have believed her," Diana said. "Mary took me to see the prophet, who filled me in on the politics of their species. Apparently, the Kromagg higher-ups prefer to believe only the psychic predictions that conform to their myopic worldview."
The short, stocky guy with moldy greenish skin broke into their conversation. "So what are we supposed to do now?" He and the other ex-prisoners had been listening to this insupposable explanation provided by Chester Marks.
"It's only a matter of time before they'll be here," Maggie made a reference to the Dublians. Her face was even more uncharacteristically ghost-white than usual. Up until this point, Maggie looked as though she was about to faint.
Rembrandt came up behind the trembling Maggie and steadied his friend. "You can't let yourselves be captured by the Dublians," he announced to all the humans in the lab. "Trust me, these creatures are every bit as ruthless as the Kromaggs. Maybe even moreso. They'll have you swallowing down your own vomit for breakfast."
"So take us with you through your sliding tunnel," the French woman pleaded to the interdimensional travelers. "To get us away from this dimension."
Diana wore a strained expression. "There's not nearly enough power in our timer for us to bring all of you with us," she told them, regrettably. "If we tried to slide all of you through, our vortex would probably collapse on itself."
Azalea indignantly put her hand on her hip again. "Then what do you expect us to do?" she pressed the sliders. "No way in hell am I letting myself be taken prisoner again!"
"I think I know a way," Wade tenuously spoke up. "But you're not going to like it."
"Tell us, please," the alternate of Emma Durant begged them. "At this point, I would do anything just to have my life back."
Wade took a deep breath, before explaining. "Pretty much everything Kromagg is electronically linked to their control database. If we can find a way to program the system to self-destruct . . ."
"Why would we want to do that?" interrupted the French woman, emphatically throwing her hands in the air. "Are our home addresses not in their computer?"
Rembrandt closed his eyes and shook his head. "If the Dublians get their hands on any of this Kromagg tech . . ."
The room fell silent.
". . . other parallel Earths will be at risk," the Professor finished Remmy's thought. Arturo scanned all of the ex-prisoners. "Including all of your homeworlds."
"Not only that," Diana added, "but the Dublians from this dimension could gain access to their alternate selves from other dimensions. What will happen if Dublians begin teaming up with their counterparts all across the multiverse?"
Another uneasy silence followed.
Azalea shook her finger in the air. "So you're gonna get rid of the only way for us to go home? . . . to reunite with our families! Nah-uh! I don't think so!"
"Would you rather see your homeworlds conquered by the Dublian empire?" Janine retorted. "Because that's what will happen if the Dublians get their hands on all of this sliding equipment."
None of the ex-prisoners liked what they were hearing. The children were sobbing, while the adults scowled at the sliders.
Rembrandt knew that time was running out. "Do it," he told Wade, decisively.
Wade hurried over to the main computer terminal. "Grace, does the control database have a self-destruct system?" she asked Dr. Venable.
"Yes," answered Grace. "However, I've never accessed it directly."
"Just take me through it," Wade instructed Grace and Mary, who both flanked her at the keyboard.
Alternate Bennish raised his fist. "Dudes," he rallied his fellow ex-prisoners, "like, don't let them deep-six our only way outta here!" He pointed straight at the terminal where Wade, Grace, and Mary were gathered. "Stop those chicks!"
Mallory and Janine immediately raised their weapons, positioning them toward the riled ex-prisoners before they could rush Wade.
"Don't even think about it!" Mallory warned them, and the disgruntled humans reluctantly backed off. "Look, we're sorry you've gotten this raw deal. But if it comes down to it . . ."
"We'll take you all out to keep those beady-eyed freaks from coming after everyone else," Janine editorialized, showing no mercy in her facial expression.
Chester Marks moved between the groups of the sliders and ex-prisoners. "Listen to this squad. They have plenty of experiences with such matters."
"And how would you know that?" Maggie challenged Marks, in a throaty voice through bloodshot eyes.
"The Kromagg prophet told me so."
"Of course she did." Diana rolled her eyes at Marks while making her way over to the computer console.
Wade had finished typing in a sequence on the keyboard. She turned around to update Diana on what Grace had just helped her to do. "I remember seeing this self-destruct program from when I was part of the cyberiad network. You know, I hadn't remembered it until now, but the cyberiad imprints are definitely still there in my mind."
Grace faced the rest of the sliders. "I've initiated a lockdown so we'll be sealed in. Once we activate this sequence, every Kromagg computer on this Earth that's plugged into the interdimensional database will crash. However, since there's a firewall separating the system from offworld mainframes, that burnout will only be limited to the Kromagg databases within this dimension itself. After that point, the only way any of the lost information can possibly be retrieved would be by accessing the Kromagg Central Database from another dimension."
"And the Dublians won't have any way to travel offworld if they can't use these sliding machines in the first place." Diana nodded approvingly. "Okay. Do it," she instructed Wade, Grace, and Mary.
As the ex-prisoners watched in chagrin, Wade pushed the pivotal key. In a matter of minutes, computer monitors all across the Kromagg facility began to flicker. Like dominos, the computer screens faded to black, and soon they spewed smoke as their hard drives crashed. Sparks flew from the various pieces of sliding equipment that had been plugged into the database, as they each shorted out. Soon, this trend was spreading to Kromagg-engineered computers in science facilities and prisoners all across "Earth 23."
But it was a mixed blessing. The ex-prisoners stood solemnly throughout the lab, stewing over their predicament. Some cried tears of distress. Others glared banefully at the sliders. They all realized that their only foreseeable way of returning to their homeworlds had just gone south.
"Look, we're sorry," Rembrandt called out to the crowd, with wholehearted sincerity. "But you can't give up."
Azalea mockingly tilted her head from one side to the other and back again. "What do you expect us to do? Sprout wings and fly home?"
"Hey, some of us probably can," Alternate Bennish pointed at the young winged girl, attempting to crack a joke.
Maggie spoke up, momentarily reverting back to her old perseverant self. "Arm yourselves," she told them, resolutely. "And lock yourselves down anywhere you can inside this facility. The Dublians will eventually try to break through, and you've gotta be ready for them."
"Their weapons cause instant vaporization," Diana supplemented Maggie's description of the Dublians. "So grab every Kromagg laser or firearm you can find, and don't hesitate to defend yourselves."
The French woman looked sedate. "We will only be able to fend them off for so long," she pointed out.
Meekly raising her hand, Mary spoke up in her timid, British-accented voice. "All hope is not lost," she reassured them. "We still have portable sliding machines independent from the Central Database itself. There should be enough of them to transport everyone here offworld."
Emma continued frowning. "But we still can't get home?"
"You'll be sliding randomly, the way we do," Mallory explained, indicating himself and his friends. "But you'll be safe from the Dublians."
"And you can prepare yourselves to fight the Kromaggs if you encounter other worlds they've conquered," added Diana. "And, since most parallel universes aren't Kromagg-occupied, at the very least you should be able to find some peaceful Earths where you can settle down and live out your lives."
Azalea, Emma, Alternate Bennish, the French woman, and the other ex-prisoners who were learning their newfound fates looked at each other with resignation. It wasn't exactly what they wanted, but it would be better than nothing.
Rembrandt Brown took charge. He began to coordinate the distribution of remaining weapons to the ex-prisoners, so they would be armed if the Dublians somehow made it into the building. Remmy proceeded to divide the humans into smaller groups, according to a dispersion of age and ability. Arturo gave the group leaders a quick tutorial on how to access the gate, store coordinates, and set the timer for a specific destination point. Once the sliders had departed, Mary would be responsible for setting and dispersing portable timers.
"And don't forget . . ." Rembrandt projected his voice to give all the soon-to-be interdimensional travelers the most important piece of advice he could think of. "Whatever you do, DON'T open the gateway early!"
Two hours, twenty minutes, and eighteen seconds later, the sliders were making last-minute preparations for their departure. Many of the ex-prisoners, now armed, were still milling around the psionic lab, shooting bitter glares at the sliders. While they were grateful for the opportunity to escape this world, they couldn't help but also be resentful, nonetheless, about these strangers' admitted role in destroying the direct pathways back to their respective homeworlds.
Their pity party was soon interrupted by the distant noises of Dublian spaceships blasting at edifices in the outside world.
"Attention to all who reside in this facility . . ." Mary's voice resonated though a loudspeaker system. "All of us can surely hear these Dublian invaders approaching. Report immediately to those teams Mr. Brown and his friends have assigned you into. We will proceed with a coordinated evacuation into interdimensional space within the hour . . ."
Diana looked at Rembrandt, guiltily. "There are Kromagg science facilities all over this Earth. What about the people who don't have sliding technology at their disposal?"
Wade walked up next to Diana, and caught Rembrandt's eye. The two old friends were thinking the exact same thing . . .
Thousands of newly-freed humans on that Earth were going to have to face the Dublians. Without weapons. And without a way to flee that dimension.
Grace inserted herself into the close-knit assemblage of sliding compatriots. The eight of them stared at Dr. Venable, cautiously and suspiciously.
"I . . . I just wanted to say goodbye," Grace spoke, hesitantly and with very little emotion.
Rembrandt sighed and shook his head. "I can't forgive you for what you've done," he told Grace, bluntly yet softly. "But for what it's worth, I hope you find a better life for yourself somewhere out there."
Grace's eyes dropped to the ground, and she addressed her former lover with a vacant murmur. "Goodbye, Rembrandt."
Remmy turned to his friends, not looking back at Grace. "Let's get ready . . ." he encouraged them.
Diana already had her PDL out. She was inputting coordinates into the timer. "I'm setting our next destination locations for 'Kimono Prime.' That should give us some time to regroup."
As Rembrandt put his arm around Maggie, who still appeared shaky and meek, the Cryin' Man noticed an insect flitter past his ear. He did a double take, and watched the tiny white moth that was fluttering around the room amongst the sliders.
"Man, that's strange," Remmy commented, eying the insect. "You don't see those indoors too often."
"Ah, but it's not merely strange," Chester Marks spoke up, stepping forward. "This is an extension of your shared destinies. A remnant of the Kromagg prophet's essence."
The white moth fluttered directly in Janine's face. "Well tell it to go away!" she retorted, squinting and squirming while she swatted at the moth. Janine then pointed her finger straight at Chester Marks. "And YOU are really creeping me out . . ."
The Dream Master bowed his head in response. "I am but a messenger, my friends."
But the sliders pointedly ignored him, as the timer hit zero and Diana opened the windy vortex.
Wade cupped her hands around her mouth to address the ex-prisoners. "Don't lose faith!" she called out to the curious onlookers. "Never let other people decide where this life will take you!"
Wade disappeared into the quantum tunnel, and the Professor was right behind her. "Be well!" he nodded at them, while projecting his voice.
Diana and Janine went into the vortex next. Rembrandt and Mallory were getting ready to help Maggie through, when they noticed Malcolm standing almost frozen like a statue. His gaze drifted longingly across the laboratory at Gretchen's inert face in the no-longer-bubbling hydropod.
"Malcolm . . . ?" Rembrandt summoned his friend. "We've gotta go, buddy."
The white moth had almost contentedly made itself at home on Malcolm's shoulder, resting there.
Shivers rippled up and down Malcolm's flesh.
"I can't do it. I can't go . . ." Malcolm's voice was all choked up.
Uh-oh, Rembrandt thought to himself, seeing Malcolm's questionable emotive state. He gave Maggie a gentle push toward the portal. "Go!" he persuaded her, not wanting Malcolm's cold feet to spread to his other diaphanous friend. Following Rembrandt's nudge, Maggie went through.
"Hey . . ." Mallory came over to Malcolm, approaching the adolescent with cautious sensitivity. "We're gonna be with you, bro. We won't leave you alone, I promise."
Malcolm had tears in his eyes, and his plugged nose caused him to have muffled speech. "Nothing good will happen if we go. We'll just keep seeing lots and lots more death. Most of us won't get home . . ."
The seconds that their window would remain open were ticking away, and Remmy knew that. "Look, Malcolm, she's gone. You have to let Gretchen be at peace now."
Whipping his head around and nearly knocking Mallory off his feet with that motion, Malcolm flared at Rembrandt with deadly eyes. "I can't! Didn't you hear the Dream Master? I'm the one responsible for bringing us here . . . and that means I'm the one who killed Gretchen!"
"Malcolm . . . you can't listen to anything that crazy kook says," Rembrandt's voice softened, and he stepped forward, reaching out to touch Malcolm.
But the teenager squirmed backward, staring down Remmy with sullen, dismal eyes. Then, in another instant, Malcolm swiveled around and ran toward Gretchen's lifeless hydropod.
"Malcolm, you can't stay here!" Mallory hurriedly called after him. "The Dublians are coming . . . !"
However, Rembrandt didn't give Mallory a chance to finish his verbal appeal to Malcolm. Instead, the Cryin'Man made a brusque, precipitous movement directly toward Malcolm, grabbing the adolescent's arm and yanking him forward.
Following Remmy's lead, Mallory grabbed ahold of Malcolm's other arm, and the two of them thrust forth the wailing young man into their quantum tunnel against his will.
* * *
"Dr. Aiona, please report to Radiology. Dr. Aiona, report to Radiology, Lab 12A . . ." a perky, effeminate male voice came over the hospital-wide intercom.
Arturo and Rembrandt sat in the comfy lobby of the Van Nuys branch of Fujimori Allied Health. They had made an educated conjecture by deciding to set their coordinates for Kimono World. It turned out their gamble paid off: according to the timer's readout, they would be staying on that world for the next three weeks, two days, four hours, and sixteen minutes.
And they knew what that meant. It was time for some of them to get temporary jobs, while letting other members of their team recuperate - - specifically Maggie and Malcolm.
"So we checked Maggie in to see a doctor, get her leg fixed," Rembrandt was telling the Professor, as they leaned back against the silk cushions that rested on bamboo-based armchairs. "Fortunately, her double has a health insurance plan with Fujimori."
"That is good to hear," Professor Arturo said. "But you realize that even once Miss Beckett's flesh heals, her heart will still be withered."
"I know. And that's why we're getting her some help." Rembrandt looked at Arturo with grave seriousness. "I mean, as in, 'professional help' - - someone who can run some tests on her, talk with her about what she's feeling. I've been ignoring Maggie's needs for too long."
"An evaluation from a medical authority would seem to be in order. I had hoped to make a similar suggestion, but I wasn't certain that it was my place . . ." Arturo admitted.
Rembrandt just closed his eyes and shook his head. "I don't know about this anymore, Professor. I mean, Maggie's always been the strong one. To see her breaking down like this . . ."
The Professor patted Rembrandt's wrist, comfortingly. "You have done the right thing. We will help her through this, Mr. Brown."
Yawning, Rembrandt looked up at the ornate Mikado clock across the room. "I just would rather not think about it right now . . ."
Arturo patted Remmy's hand again, and then changed the subject. "We've determined who will be working for the duration of this slide," he said, referring to the sliders' traditional rotation of switching up who would work odd jobs to earn money for their group from one world to the next. "Mr. Mallory is supervising afternoons at a nearby arcade. Miss Chen will be cashiering at an organic foods shop downtown. And Dr. Davis found employment in the local university's printing services department."
"Great. We'll need the extra dough to cover the co-pay for Fog Boy's prescription," commented Rembrandt, making a reference to the Dapsone medication that Mallory had continuously gotten refilled for himself on that Earth throughout the past six months.
By this point, Wade had joined the two men in Fujimori's opulent hospital lobby. She toted a cardboard beverage carrier with three large lidded paper cups of Jiaogulan soy coffee.
"Thanks, sweetheart. You're a lifesaver." Rembrandt gratefully took the warm, hybridized coffee and brought it to his lips. "I really need a pick-me-up."
Wade sat down next to Arturo, handing the Professor one of the cups while she kept the other one for herself.
"Thank you, Miss Wells." Professor Arturo drank the herbal beverage with gentlemanly graciousness.
Reaching over to the coffee table, Wade picked up a copy of Modern Geisha magazine. She balked at the demure woman who modeled a traditional Japanese wedding dress on the booklet's cover. "One thing I've noticed each time we come back to this world: the women here are so submissive. It's like they don't have any goals for themselves beyond serving their husbands and fathers."
"Let's not judge," the Professor cautioned them, after swallowing a mouthful of tea. "Who are we to question the way of life led by these people?"
"Yeah, and at least they all seem to be really nice," Rembrandt remarked, looking at Wade. "There are a lot worse places we could stay. How about Cannibal World? Or Tornado World? Or Snarling Flapper World?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay," Wade brusquely conceded, in an annoyed tone. She set down her plastic cup of herbal coffee on an eggshell-patterned coaster. "I guess I'm just feeling . . . sucky."
Rembrandt nodded, in empathy. "About Malcolm?"
"I just feel so horrible for him," Wade said, whisking her hands through her puffy, layered, ear-length red hair. "Malcolm lost someone who he really loved. I know what it feels like to go through that."
"We all do, girl." With a side-glance at Arturo, Rembrandt reached over behind the Professor and placed a comforting hand on Wade's shoulder.
"Malcolm's locked himself in one of the bathrooms. He won't talk to anyone." Wade began to cry. "I . . . I know he blames me for Gretchen's death. And why shouldn't he? I'm the one who made the decision."
"No, Miss Wells . . . Gretchen did." Professor Arturo clutched Wade's knee, with allegiant firmness. "She knew she needed to sacrifice herself to save the rest of us."
"He won't even look at me." Wade had barely heard the Professor's words. "This is so hard on him."
"Malcolm has to deal with it on his own terms," said Remmy. "It's gotta be torture for him. I think he blames himself more than anyone . . . for feeling he didn't do enough to save Gretchen." Rembrandt looked at Wade with stark sincerity. "I know that's how I felt when I lost you."
Wade didn't say anything else. She just leaned forward, still in tears, and gave Rembrandt and Arturo a dual hug.
* * *
A tall, slim Kromagg soldier dashed out of what used to be Bayside Power & Electric - - now renovated into one of the Dynasty's many garrisons on Earth 23. The soldier donned a protective hazmat suit, which he had jumped into while having fled into quarantine along with his surviving comrades.
But now this lone Kromagg, known by his birth name of Kagdirn, had broken out of the facility, forced to brave the virus-infected outside world. Dublian soldiers had overrun the former human-operated power plant. So with a timer in hand, Kagdirn had decided to make a run for it, hastily trying to avoid an onslaught of lethal Dublian lasers.
As he ran across the cement, a hand from his outstretched arm gripping the timer, Kagdirn could hear a spacecraft approach him from overhead. He felt the wind of its force whip against the back of his insulated suit. Kagdirn cried out, unexpectedly, as a burning laser tore through his spine, ripping apart the desperate Kromagg's ribcage.
And then, Kagdirn felt nothing else.
Two minutes later, the Dublian war craft had landed on a clearing of pavement near the Kromagg corpse. Footsteps approached Kagdirn's dead body.
And a scaly green hand reached down, clasping its reticulated fingers around the timer that used to be in Kagdirn's possession.
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