|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.|
I would like to credit the following writers for their contributions to script dialogue from actual Sliders episodes, as much of this dialogue is recalled during this episode via flashback sequences: Chris Black, Bill Dial, Marc Scott Zicree, David Peckinpah, Jerry O'Connell, Richard Manning, Keith Damron, William Bigelow, Doug Molitor, and Joel Metzger. I would like to emphasize for the record that I do not have a very big appreciation for Season 4 of Sliders (in fact, I thought that Season 4 was the worst of Sliders' five seasons), but I am simply properly crediting the aforementioned individuals where credit is due.
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.* * *
"So . . . were you born with no legs, just fins?" Colin asked the raven-haired mermaid whom he sat next to.
Sitting atop rocks at the edge of a lagoon, Colin had his bare feet dipped in the crystal clear water. The young, long-haired mermaid, seated beside Colin, bathed her own lower body's scaly emerald-tinted fins in the pool. Wearing only a bikini top made of clam shells, she laughed gaily while splashing the fins of her fishtail about in the lagoon waters. All around them, mermaids and mermen leaped about, swimming and playing.
"Colin! The train's leaving!" The sound of his younger brother's voice snapped Colin Mallory out of his hedonistic absorption of the environment around him.
Smiling apologetically, Colin told the mermaid, "I have to go." Quinn was jabbing him in the shoulder, impatiently.
The mermaid leaned forward, planting a peck on Colin's cheek with her lips. She then did a backflip, gleefully plunging herself into the depths of the lagoon, and swam off to join her friends.
Colin let himself be pulled to his feet by his brother. "She was nice. I wish we could stay longer here, brother."
Quinn gently smacked Colin upside the head, hoping to smack some sense into his older sibling. "Bro, you CANNOT have a fling with a mermaid!"
Colin bowed his head as he and Quinn trudged along the winding stone pathway surrounded by exotic island vegetation and flora. "It has just been so long . . . I miss Susannah, and I had to leave Catherine behind on the world that was not really our homeworld."
"With the docile Kromaggs?" Quinn remembered now. "Ah, Isaac Clarke's daughter. Listen Colin, I know how you feel . . ."
"No, you do not," Colin coldly interrupted him. "You have Maggie, and Mallory has Wade. Will I ever find my true love?"
Quinn was rendered speechless as Colin forged ahead of him on the pathway, sulking. They had reached the meeting place where the rest of their companions were gathered, waiting for them. Quinn attempted to follow Colin, to apologize, to say something to cheer him up, but Maggie distracted Quinn with a hug as she wrapped her arms around him.
"Done." Professor Arturo had finished entering a new set of coordinates into the timer. "Ladies and gentlemen, a new world awaits us."
"We're trying out a different vicinity of numerical coordinates, gang," Diana announced to her friends. "This could bring us closer to Kromagg Prime." She turned to Janine. "For the next slide, we'll apply the Lange theorem and see if we can inch closer to your homeworld, I promise."
Janine tossed her hair back. "Well, let's go. I'm not getting any younger."
"Mr. Brown, it's your turn." Arturo amicably handed off the timer to Rembrandt Brown.
Remmy smirked cutely, opening the vortex in front of the group as the timer hit zero. "Here's hoping for an Earth with no warfare, no mutants or monsters, especially no Kromaggs, no plagues or contagious diseases . . ."
". . . and some decent room service at the Chandler, for a change," Mallory finished off. He and Wade leaped in together, followed by Quinn and Maggie, also sliding as a pair. Rembrandt slapped both Colin and Malcolm, who each flanked him, on their shoulders as they jumped into the shimmering purple wormhole as a trio. Diana, Janine, and Professor Arturo brought up the rear.* * *
"Dr. Davis! Miss Chen! Get off of me!" growled the Professor, grumpily. Arturo had landed flat on his back after being spit out on the other end of the wormhole. Much to his discomfort, Janine and Diana had landed on top of his gigantic belly with a thud, immersed in giggles.
Diana snorted as she and Janine rolled off of Arturo's stomach. "Sorry, Professor!" She and Janine burst out laughing again. "It just was such a hilariously convenient place for us to land."
Janine's olive skin had turned bright red from her tears of amusement. "Professor, you're like a big soft pillowy cushion."
Giggling at what had just taken place, Wade extended her hand to help the grumbling Professor Arturo up off the ground. The rest of the team was standing around, studying their newest surroundings. They were in what appeared to be a quaint, grassy park; a cool breeze flowed through branches of weeping willows and deciduous trees that covered the landscape.
"Check that out." Malcolm gestured to where a group of young children were gathered, all of them clothed in simple tunics. They had formed a semi-circle around a cherubic diminutive, who sat angelically upon a hollow log. A shiny piccolo was pressed to the cherub's lips, as sweet, harmonious music streamed from the instrument. His young spectators watched attentively and listened in awe, obviously breathtaken by the curly-haired albino's instrumental abilities.
"Wow, that little guy is good!" exclaimed Rembrandt.
Maggie gave a curious, side-long glance at the toga-clad pedestrians who strolled through the park around them. "I wonder if we landed back on Roman World?"
"I don't think so, Maggie," negated Diana, snapping open the screen of her PDL to double-check the coordinates. "This is a totally new set of coordinates, so we must assume there would have to be some dissension in regard to this Earth's history. No two worlds can be exactly identical . . . it's just not mathematically feasible."
"Diana's right," agreed Quinn. "Even the difference of one digit in a set of coordinates is likely to signify some form of divergence. That's one of the prime theoretical building blocks of quantum physics . . . right, Professor?"
"Absolutely correct, my boy," Arturo winked at his former student. "I am glad to see you were paying attention in class after all, Mr. Mallory. At times, I suspected you might have been the one who always launched those blasted paper airplanes at me when my back was turned, during my lectures."
"That was Wing," Quinn informed his mentor, rewinding his memory back to those enthralling days at the University of California.
"Come on, let's listen to the music." Wade took Mallory's hand and led him over to where the children were assembled. Quinn and Maggie trailed after them, also holding hands.
Rembrandt checked the timer's display panel. "A little over two days until the next window." He and the others were lagging behind, respectfully keeping their distance to the rear of the two couples. "What do you say we go tune in to the entertainment?" Remmy suggested, leading his friends over to the semicircle of spectators. He handed off the timer to Professor Arturo for safekeeping.
As they approached the crowd, Janine blurted out her first complaint on that Earth. "There aren't any chairs!"
"Aw, dare to try something new, Miss Chen," encouraged Arturo, as he, Remmy, Diana, and Janine plopped down onto the grass. "You haven't truly appreciated the fine arts until you've experienced it as an actual groundling, Shakespearean-style."
Janine nevertheless grumbled something mercurially under her breath, while Rembrandt snickered heartily at her.
"What's wrong, Colin?" asked Malcolm. The two of them were the only sliders still standing.
Colin sighed, as he and Malcolm slogged closer to the crowd of onlookers. "I feel so lonely, Malcolm. I feel like I have no one." His sad eyes seemed to contain nothing but emptiness.
"You have us." Malcolm gave Quinn's brother a smile. "You have me." He slapped Colin on the back as they sat down behind the others. Colin tried mustering a smile to return to Malcolm, but it was half-hearted.
Meanwhile, Wade sat cross-legged on the ground, enjoying the show; Mallory was on one side of her, Quinn on the other. Maggie sat next to Quinn on his other side. Mallory, noticing Quinn's and Maggie's hands interlocked, gently took Wade's hand into his own. Quinn, glancing over at Wade and Mallory, gave Wade a warm gaze, which she returned. Then, Quinn took Wade's other hand, clasping it into his own free palm. Taking notice of this subtle exchange, Maggie bristled and gave Quinn and Wade a slight glare, which they seemed oblivious to.
The cherubic musician had just finished up his piece. His audience of children, sliders, and other miscellaneous groundlings all rose to their feet and applauded. Flashing a grin at his spectators, the cute, youthful piccolo-player bowed modestly to his fans. In the next second, within the blink of an eye, his impish, toga-clad body shimmered lucidly and evaporated from sight.
"Where'd he go?!" exclaimed Mallory, swiveling his head back and forth. There was no sign anywhere around them of the mysterious musician.
"Okay, that was freaky!" Rembrandt promulgated, rubbing his eyes.
"He just . . . vanished into thin air!" Maggie looked extremely baffled. "Was that a mirage or something?"
"If it was, then it must be contagious," Quinn pointed out, "because it looks like everyone else here saw him disappear too."
"Maybe this is another amusement park or theme park type of place?" Janine suggested. "Remember Mother Goose Land?"
The sliders reassembled together as the other spectators drifted away. "One must approach this with reason," Professor Arturo rationalized. "Perhaps what we saw was some sort of holographic illusion?"
"Yeah, that one dinosaur preserve we slid into a few years back had holograms as park rangers." Wade found herself momentarily agreeing with the Professor. "He just seemed so real . . . almost as though he was an angel . . . or maybe exited through some supernatural means . . ."
"Miss Welles," interrupted Arturo, "please do not bore us with any of your mythological fantasies. There is most likely a reasonable scientific explanation for what we witnessed."
Wade folded her arms, pouting, as the dectet slowly plodded through the park. "Professor, why do you always have to be so stubborn? Why can't you ever just have faith?"
"Miss Welles . . ."
"You and I have both seen these same things . . . the world with unicorns, the esotericists, and what about when Aurora and Felice taught me witchcraft?" Wade stood in front of Arturo with her arms folded, blocking his path.
Arturo still frowned with skepticism. "I won't deny having observed such phenomena, Miss Welles. But did you ever stop to consider that what you may perceive as 'supernatural' does not necessarily preclude a scientific explanation?"
Shuffling over to Wade and the Professor, Malcolm presented another thought. "Maybe the supernatural can be explained through science, and vice versa?"
"Hmm." Wade pondered that for a moment. "I can see what you're trying to say, Malcolm. But . . ."
"But you simply can't manipulate the natural world by sticking pins into some farcical voodoo doll!" Arturo interrupted, opining with a haughty snort.
Overcome with abrupt vexation, Wade shot a fierce glare at Professor Arturo, inadvertently unleashing a twinge of ire from her mind. It tersely zapped the Professor with an electromagnetic pulse that startled the upper half of his body. Arturo backstepped a couple of paces as his head and chest trembled from the shock. Rembrandt caught Arturo and helped to steady his friend's shoulders. He scolded Wade, "Damn, take it easy, girl!"
Wade had gasped in spite of herself, immediately repentant at her intrinsic exertion. "Oh, Professor! I'm so sorry!" She rushed to his side, apologetically.
Arturo finally came to, fuming at Wade as he noticed her in his line of vision. "Bah! Stay away from me, you adamant wench!" he growled.
Any guilt Wade had previously went out the window at that very moment. "What did you call me?!" His insult had not improved her mood.
Mallory hurried to Wade's side, jutting out his hand to create an invisible boundary in front of Arturo. "Cool it, Professor."
Rolling her eyes, Maggie sneered, "What else do you expect? Wade likes to play make-believe." Her icy voice seemed to be particularly slathered with hostility. Wade opened her mouth to retort, but Quinn stepped in before she could say anything.
"Come on, Maggie," Quinn pleaded with his girlfriend, who was exchanging mutual glares with Wade. "You're not making things any better."
"Oh sure," Maggie huffed, "take her side!"
"I'm not taking sides with anyone!"
"Oh, just admit it, Quinn! You still have feelings for her!"
"What?!" Quinn sounded shocked, in the same way the rest of the group reacted. Yet, he couldn't ignore a small tingle of guilt at Maggie's words.
Wade blinked twice. "Maggie, even if that was true, I'm with Mallory now."
"Give it a rest, Wade. I've seen the way you two look at each other." Maggie cynically folded her arms.
"Maggie, that's just . . . nonsense." Quinn softly reached over to caress Maggie's shoulder, but she bitterly shrugged him away. Rembrandt, Diana, Arturo, Malcolm, and Janine were all taken aback in silence by the emotions that had just unfolded.
"Um . . . where did Colin go?" Diana had suddenly noticed that a member of their team was missing. Everyone looked around, but Colin was nowhere in sight.
"Oh great!" Quinn groaned, peeved at his brother's sudden disappearance, but somewhat relieved to change the subject. "Where did he wander off to now? Come on, guys. Let's go find him."
Maggie, giving Quinn and Wade each one final vindictive glare, followed Diana and Arturo down a path. The nine of them had split in a few different directions to search for their lost slider. Quinn, Janine, and Malcolm veered off toward another area, leaving Rembrandt, Wade, and Mallory.
Remmy implored Wade and Mallory with his sincere eyes. "Maybe you two better keep your distance from Q-Ball or Maggie, until we find Farm Boy and get settled in?"
"Fine," said Wade, as Mallory put his arm around her. "I don't know where Maggie got the idea that Quinn and I have feelings for each other. Sure, I had a crush on Quinn when we worked at Doppler together and during the semester we both attended college at North Shore, and even when we first began sliding. But I outgrew that. It was puppy love, and I wouldn't trade my friendship with Quinn for anything resembling romance."
Mallory ran his fingers through Wade's hair, stroking the back of her scalp. "Maggie's just afraid to lose another love. She already lost her first husband to Rickman . . ."
". . . and now she's scared of losing Q-Ball to you, girl," Rembrandt finished off, looking straight at Wade.
"Well she won't!" Wade snapped. Lowering her voice and collecting herself, she digressed, "Shouldn't we be looking for Colin?"
"Colin!" Mallory called out, cupping his hands around his mouth like a bullhorn as Wade and Rembrandt walked alongside of him.
"Farm Boy!" Remmy's vocals echoed throughout the park. Off in the distance, they could hear their fellow sliders also shouting Colin's name.
Off in a shady, secluded part of the park, Colin had wandered away to be alone. After hearing his friends engage in what looked to be the beginnings of another typical quarrel, the novice scientist decided that he needed to collect his thoughts in solitude. As he stepped beneath the shadows of oak trees and weeping willows, Colin spotted the figure of a young woman seated atop a tree stump. The voluptuous maiden had long, free-flowing black hair that fell beneath her waist, and wore a simple peach-colored gown clasped on the outside with a sparkly golden girdle. She elegantly sported a garland of white roses in her hair, and hummed a soothing, melodic tune through her lips. A creamy white dove was perched on her shoulder.
The woman's eyes met with Colin's. As they locked gazes, Colin inhaled a sweet aroma through his nostrils, a scent that made his body go numb. In the next instant, as he studied the intricacies of her silky olive skin, every cell of his body felt alert and excited.
"Chairetismos," the woman greeted him. "Poio briskomai sas onomazo?"
Colin couldn't understand her words. "What?"
Switching to perfect English, she restated, "Hello. What is your name?"
"Colin Mallory," he replied, almost robotically.
"Come closer, Colin Mallory," she beckoned him. He approached her obediently. "You are quite the specimen. Do you have fondness for me?"
Nodding eagerly, Colin didn't hesitate with his answer. "Yes. Very much so."
"Good. Very good." The woman smiled brightly. As her scent became stronger and more potent, she leaned forward and locked lips with Colin. They kissed endlessly, engulfed in passion - that is, until a familiar voice pierced Colin's eardrum.
He broke away from his seductress and turned to see his younger brother staring at him, standing with Janine and Malcolm. "Quinn?"
"Who is he?" the woman demanded.
"He is my brother. Shall I introduce you?"
Quinn yelled off toward the others. "Guys, I found him!"
Maggie, Diana, and Arturo were the next to appear, followed shortly by Wade, Mallory, and Rembrandt. Quinn advanced toward Colin.
"Halt!" The woman in the golden girdle stood and motioned her palm to yield Quinn. "Do not come any closer!"
Quinn stopped in his tracks. "Who are you?"
"I am Aphrodite."
"Well, Aphrodite," piped up Maggie, mockingly, "he's with us."
"Not anymore," Aphrodite declared, as energy spewed from her raised palm, creating a translucent wall that separated her and Colin from the nine sliders.
"Aphrodite?!" Wade exclaimed, definitely making a visual and literary connection.
Quinn charged forward, but was thrown back off of his feet and onto the ground after colliding with Aphrodite's translucent barrier. Remmy, Maggie, and Wade rushed over to help Quinn to his feet.
Releasing a wild, maniacal cackle, Aphrodite threw her arms around Colin, and the two of them evaporated from sight with a glistening sparkle.* * *
"Tell me I did not just see what I thought I saw!" blurted out Janine, her eyes practically bugged out. "That lady just . . . kidnapped Colin and vanished with him!"
"COLIN!!" Quinn yelled out, praying that his brother was still somewhere nearby. Sweat poured down his face as he continued to holler. "Colin!! Where are you?!"
In that next moment, Quinn felt a hand brush against his quavering shoulder. It belonged to Rembrandt. "Don't worry, Q-Ball . . . we're gonna find Farm Boy."
Quinn gaped at Remmy in disbelief, his eyes bulging out. "How?!" he exploded. "We don't even know where to begin looking for Colin! . . . we don't even know what just happened to him!!"
"Quinn, don't panic . . ." Maggie tried to be a voice of reason.
"How can you tell me not to panic, Maggie?!" Quinn's eyes were blurring with tears. "I've just lost my brother!!"
"You're about to lose a lot more, Mallory!" sneered a sinister voice. The shaggy face of Angus Rickman appeared from behind an oak tree. His scruffy body slinked out of the trees' shadows, as he gripped his infamous syringe firmly. "Hello, sliders!"
"Oh, man!" Rembrandt groaned, craning his neck up toward the heavens. "Don't make us deal with him too!"
"Mr. Brown's words are prudent," the Professor affirmed to the group. "We have enough problems as it is." His voice shook as Rickman gingerly advanced toward the group. "We must get to a neutral zone. You know the drill, ladies and gentlemen - run like hell!"
The nine interdimensional travelers heeded Arturo's advice, reluctant to let another of them fall victim to Rickman's syringe. They scurried like crazy toward a Parthenon-like structure that was situated several meters away. Howling like a coyote, Colonel Rickman ran after them.
"I need brain fluid!" came Rickman's raspy roar of vocals, flowing behind the sliders and into their ears as he continued the chase.
Malcolm led the pack, as they madly fled from Rickman's pursuit. "There's a mausoleum up ahead," Malcolm gestured to the Greek temple they were approaching. "Let's get inside!"
"I'm gonna getcha, sliders!" Rickman's whimsically taunting voice wafted after them.
"Go back to the nut house, crazy man!" Janine sarcastically derided Rickman over her shoulder, between gasps of air while she ran with her friends.
Mallory reached the mausoleum first, having surpassed Malcolm in speed. After dashing up the marble steps, he flung open the door to the edifice and ushered Diana, Wade, and Malcolm through the entranceway. Arturo wasn't far behind, with Quinn, Maggie, Janine, and Rembrandt bringing up the rear.
Once inside the mausoleum, the group dove behind a coffin-like tomb made of cement. "This must be where nobility is buried on this world," Professor Arturo hypothesized, his round cheeks pressed against the concrete floor. He pointed to some pictographs carved into the solid edge of the tomb. "These hieroglyphics resemble those of ancient Egyptian royalty," he explained, "so it's likely that this Earth's North American civilization borrowed from theirs."
"Who cares?!" Janine spat out in a hushed whisper. "We have a British werewolf stalking us, and all you can do is babble about Egyptians!"
"Well pardon me, Miss Chen," Arturo sarcastically hissed back at Janine, "but I'm merely attempting to make sense out of our current environment! So I hope you'll forgive my resourcefulness!"
"Pipe down, you two!" Diana reprimanded them with an equally cautious whisper. "Or we're gonna give ourselves away!"
They heard the door of the mausoleum creak open, but none of the sliders dared to peer out in the open. Besides, they all could pretty much guess who it was. Rickman's ominous footsteps clacked against the concrete, and his subtle cackle echoed off the walls.
"I'm losing patience, Maggie!" came a shrill yell from the mad colonel. "Can't you quit while you're ahead, captain? I can play this game for as long as it takes . . . save yourself the trouble and give yourself up, love!"
Maggie's flesh burned at Rickman's cockiness. Never in her life more than in that moment had she wished she was armed with a weapon. "Angus, I'm the one you're angry at! You can't hold my friends responsible for our past!"
"Oh really?!" Rickman mocked her plea, condescendingly. "I beg to differ."
"What do you want, Rickman?!" Maggie demanded, her blood boiling.
Colonel Rickman growled. "Give yourself up, Maggie!" he repeated. "I want Mallory, and I want you! The others can go."
Rembrandt nudged Wade, whom he was laying beside. "Girl, can you do your magic? Use your telekinesis on Rickman?" he whispered.
Wade shook her head, eyes squeezed shut. "I can't, Remmy. My heart is pounding, my palms are sweating . . . I can't channel it when I'm in this kind of emotional state."
Mallory gave Wade's clammy hand a supportive squeeze.
"Keep him talking," Malcolm whispered to the group, as Rickman's footsteps clattered in the background. They could hear him prancing around the room.
Quinn cleared his throat. "So how did you find us, Rickman?"
The colonel let out an amused snort. "What, that genius IQ of yours slipping already, Mallory?" he chided Quinn. "Ever since Logan and I were separated, I've been independently tracking your photon trail. It took me awhile, but eventually I latched onto your tracks again. Did you forget your quantum physics notes at home, my lad? I vortexed in and spotted your gang watching that darling cherub play his pipe . . . a talented young chap, he was."
"So you followed us this whole time?" Rembrandt clarified.
"Yes, Mr. Brown. I wasn't terribly surprised to find you and Mr. Mallory getting cozy, Maggie," digressed Rickman. His footsteps became louder. "But it was a bit of a shock to see that Mr. Mallory #2 had taken to you, Wade." The disfigured madman now appeared plainly within sight of his huddled prey, as he stood towering above the floor-dwellers. "My, my, my . . . I see I've hit the motherlode!"
In a flash, Quinn lunged at Rickman from below. But the colonel was ready, projecting a swift kick into Quinn's stomach. As Quinn keeled over with a painful grunt, Rickman snatched up the nearest slider - Diana - and held her tightly in his arms. His syringe, which he'd plucked from his pocket, was now aimed straight at the back of Diana's scalp, threatening to penetrate her.
"Let her go!" Mallory shouted at Rickman, his face inflamed.
Diana cried out in vain, her eyes wide open and as circular as saucers. The physicist's body shook, paralyzed with fear, while Rickman held her in a tight headlock.
"I believe I'm the one calling the shots here," Rickman purred with satisfaction. He backstepped toward the exit, with Diana in tow. "Try anything, and the good doctor here loses her life!" Colonel Rickman stated his threat proudly, albeit with the utmost seriousness. "If any of you follow us, I feed on her brain fluid. And from what I recall, she's one smart cookie, isn't she now? Hmm, perhaps I can use her neurons to get inducted into MENSA?!"
Diana whimpered as Rickman dragged her away from the mausoleum, out of the line of vision of her friends. None of them dared to test Maggie's nemesis . . . with his erratic behavior and need for sustenance, there was no doubt that he'd make good on his threat.
Mallory's whole body trembled uncontrollably. "We're just gonna let him take her away?!" he bellowed.
Frowning, the Professor gave Mallory an empathetic gaze. "We have no choice, Mr. Mallory. That man is as unstable as they come. But as long as he retains Dr. Davis as his bargaining chip, we can be sure he won't kill her. If we don't make any overt sudden moves, Rickman will keep her brain intact. Am I correct, Miss Beckett?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Maggie narrowed her eyes. "Rickman really wants me, so he intends to use Diana to make a trade."
"Maggie, you're not going to? . . ." Malcolm trailed off, unable to bring himself to complete the thought.
Maggie didn't answer.* * *
"Please . . . let me go." Diana could hardly choke out her helpless words as Rickman made his way through the woodland brush, still clasping onto Diana's upper body. He stumbled a lot but never lost his grip on her, having to maneuver his body across the woods under the moonlit darkness of the evening sky with only stars to guide them. His hospital needle still teased the nape of Diana's neck.
"Sorry, Diana," he hissed, coming to a stop by a ditch, "but you and I will be taking a little trip soon."
"What?!" Diana now was even more scared and confused. "What are you talking about?" her voice shook.
With his free hand, Rickman removed his timer from his pocket and waved it in front of Diana's face. The bright red digits of Rickman's timer were counting down from 30 seconds. "A new dimension awaits us, sweets."
Diana gasped, her face turning pale. "No! You can't take me offworld . . . please . . ."
"I can and I will!" bragged Rickman with a growl.
All Diana could do was watch helplessly as the numbers on the display panel continued to tick down.
Fifteen . . .
Fourteen . . .
Thirteen . . .
Twelve . . .
Ten . . .
Eight . . .
Thirteen . . .
Nine . . .
Nine . . .
Nine . . .
Seven . . .
Eleven . . .
Eleven . . .
Five . . .
Eight . . .
Rickman did a double take. "Dammit! Not again!" He slammed the timer against his own thigh, impatiently. "Come on! Don't do this to me!"
Realization hit Diana. "Your timer is malfunctioning," she observed.
"Not if I can help it!" Rickman said through gritted teeth. After the timer was whacked against the ground with Rickman's one free hand several more times, it reset its digits to 18 seconds and began counting down normally again.
Diana pleaded to Rickman with her doe eyes. "My friends won't even know where I am!" she told him.
"That's the whole point, my dear," Rickman smirked in response. "If your companions knew where to find you, it would sort of defeat the whole purpose of my using you for leverage, wouldn't it now?" He aimed the timer and opened his wobbly red vortex. "Go!" Rickman harshly shoved Diana into his wormhole, and then jumped in after her.
Their two bodies surged across Rickman's Einstein-Rosen-Pudalski Bridge, surrounded by a hellish glow of redness. Diana screamed out loud as she propelled through the horrifying, unfamiliar tunnel, while Rickman just threw his head back and laughed, enjoying the ride.
"Get me out of here!" Diana screeched, maniacally. She felt the cold breeze of the inner vortex slap against her delicate skin.
Rickman simply chortled at Diana, as the physicist freaked out. "What's the matter, love? . . . is red not your color?" He smirked as the opening at the end of his wormhole appeared off in the distance.
Heaving anxiously, Diana tightly closed her eyes. Then, she heard Rickman's laughter begin to dwindle as the two of them felt their bodies slowing down inside the vortex. Diana reopened her eyes to see herself and Rickman still surrounded by red quantum energy within the wormhole, as the vortex's exit rift suddenly clamped shut.
"Something's wrong!" barked Rickman, as he and Diana stopped in midair.
This feeling was all too familiar to Diana, who mentally recalled the time she, Remmy, Maggie, and Mallory were momentarily stuck in midair inside the vortex, over a year ago when their old Egyptian timer had been malfunctioning.
Rickman swiveled his head toward Diana and growled, "What's going on?! This is supposed to be a one-way trip!!"
A sly smile curved across Diana's lips. "I guess we're taking a detour," she smirked. Both of them were now propelled backwards, the tunnel in front of them closing in toward them as they involuntarily levitated back the way they'd entered.
THUD! In less than a minute, Diana and Rickman were regurgitated from the vortex, thrown back into the trench that they'd previously been camped out in. As they hit the ground, Colonel Rickman swiftly logrolled his body and clasped himself around Diana's body once again. Rickman's syringe still threatened to penetrate the scientist's scalp.
"Is this the only position you know?" Diana bitterly muttered under her breath, struggling against Rickman's grasp.
The mad colonel was not amused. "What is wrong with my timer?! Why did we land back on the world we were supposedly leaving?! . . . is this even the same world?" While he rambled, Diana reached into her jacket pocket and slid out her PDL. "What is that contraption?!"
"It's a Portable Dimensional Laboratory," she replied, forcing herself to make eye contact with him. "A computerized database that can digitally analyze coordinates and dimensional matrices." Rickman gave her a blank stare. "It can tell us what world we're on," she enunciated for Rickman, loudly and slowly, as though he was a child.
"How does it do that?!" he demanded.
"I'm not even going to begin to try to explain it to you," she snubbed him. "Just give me your timer."
"Rickman, I can't help you if you won't cooperate!" Diana was losing her patience with him. Secretly, she wanted to know for herself if she was still on the same world as her friends.
Grumbling, Rickman reluctantly handed his timer over to Dr. Davis, still keeping his other arm greedily wrapped around her upper body.
She glanced at the display panel. "Your timer reset itself again," Diana pointed out to her captor. She indicated the digits, which counted down from 77 hours.
"What?!" roared Rickman. His hot, rancid breath spewed in Diana's face; she squirmed and grimaced, repulsed. "What did you do to it?!"
"I didn't do anything! Your timer is malfunctioning, Rickman! It probably needs to be recharged." Dr. Davis kept struggling against his embrace. "If you don't let go of me, I'm not going to be able to fix your timer."
"Oh yes you will!" Rickman seethed, pressing the sharp tip of his syringe close to Diana's flesh. She gasped, gritting her teeth. "Or I will suck out your brain right this very moment, and figure it out for myself!"
Fighting to remain calm, Diana kept her voice steady and firm. "Brain fluid doesn't give you intellectual cognition. If you leave me for dead now, you'll be ALL ALONE. You don't know how to operate my PDL, and you'll be taking a long shot gamble that someone on this world might know what to do about your timer. Chances are, no one will. What are you gonna do then?! Huh?!"
The colonel's nostrils flared. He abruptly released his hold on Diana, thrusting her to the ground with a clunk. "I'm watching you, doctor. Don't you dare attempt to make a run for it, or you will be painfully sorry. Remember, animal DNA is bubbling inside of me . . . I have the reflexes and speed of a cheetah. You wouldn't stand a chance!"
Diana crawled to her knees and grabbed up her PDL. She took the timer from Rickman and began to upload their current coordinates into her device. "Yep, we're on the same world as before," she confirmed, after a few minutes of electrons circulating and humming from her PDL. "Your coordinate set hasn't changed since our attempted slide."
Narrowing his eyes, Colonel Rickman scowled. "How did that happen?"
"The rift closed before we could reach it. Because your timer isn't functioning properly, the wormhole must have constricted in mid-slide and then bounced us back to our point of origin," she theorized, shutting down the PDL screen. "My friends and I once experienced something similar, although not to this extreme of a degree. I don't know what caused it, though."
"You don't know, eh? And I thought you were supposed to be smart?!" He inhaled, his scruffy face flushed. "What about the first time you 'fixed' my timer? . . . on Dr. Vargas's island. Can you not just do now what you did back then?"
"Rickman, I didn't know how to fix your timer," Diana admitted, her eyes dropping to the ground. "And I still don't know how. I was just buying time so you wouldn't kill my friends."
"Then how come I was able to slide after you fiddled around with my timer?!"
"I don't know! I just rearranged some wires at random. I really have no clue what I made it do! I must have accidentally reset your timer . . . trust me, it was never my intention to repair it. We all wanted you stranded on that island forever!" Diana glared at him.
"Pity, eh?" Rickman seethed at her, gritting his pointy teeth. "Thanks to you, I'm stuck on a random sliding course, forced to track you ungrateful blokes and your blasted wormhole! And on top of that, my timer is going all helter-skelter."
"Hey, don't blame me for that!" Diana lambasted him. "You're the one who started all of this - killing Maggie's husband, killing Malcolm's father and stepmother, killing the Professor's double, deceiving all those people from your homeworld into thinking they'd get a second chance at life, and then feeding on their brains!. . ."
With a swift swoop of his arm, Rickman slapped Diana squarely across her face. His nails scraped against Diana's brown skin, leaving a set of bloody marks as she was knocked to the ground. Diana moaned, her mouth kissing the muddy ground as she fell into unconsciousness.
"It's almost dawn," Rickman whispered to Diana, despite the fact that she was no longer awake. "I think it's time you take a wee bit of a nap, love . . . you've been up all night mouthing off to me, and I'll need you at your best if you're going to get us out of here." With his fingers, the colonel stroked the physicist's bloody cheek as the sun peered over the clouds and birds chirped gaily.* * *
The bodies of Aphrodite and Colin materialized, emerging out of thin air. As Aphrodite continued hugging Colin's abdomen, her long, slender arms and hands massaging his waist, Colin looked around to view where they were. As far as the eye could see, ivory clouds surrounded the two of them, like gigantic chunks of fluffy cotton candy. Off in the distance, the golden reflection of some arched gate-like structures twinkled.
Colin looked at Aphrodite. "Where are we? Is this heaven?"
Aphrodite laughed, beaming at Colin. "We are home, Colin. I have brought you to my domain, Mount Olympus."
"Mount Olympus? . . ." Colin vaguely remembered its reference from the mythology he'd heard Wade orally narrate. "The home of the gods . . . you're a god?!"
"Goddess," she corrected him. Finally, she'd released her lock around his stomach. "And this is where you shall join me for eternity."
Colin blinked, her words hardly registering with him. "But I have things to do . . . Quinn and I must find our homeworld and our parents, and we must free Rembrandt's world from the Kromaggs . . ."
"Hmm, it sounds as though you have had quite an interesting life. I wish to learn more." Giving Colin a warm smile, Aphrodite reached out and placed her soft hand against his forehead.
In a flash, Colin's mind rewound as he recalled moments from his early childhood. Through postcognition, Aphrodite saw a young five-year-old Colin helping his adopted father milk cows on their farm; she could feel the cold milky liquid slip between her own fingers as Young Colin squeezed the heifer's udder.
Aphrodite now could see the image of Colin's adopted mother, dressed in a simple calico Amish frock. She had her hands on her hips, and was staring down at her adopted son angrily.
"I am sorry, Mother," apologized Young Colin, meekly. He took a few small steps backward as his mother advanced forward.
Colin's mother flung Young Colin's homemade sundial across the room; it crashed against the wall. "How many times must I tell you to cease this tomfoolery, my child?!" Mother hissed. "You cannot measure the sun's pattern with that silly toy! Only God can know that." She reached into her apron pocket. "Give me your tongue, Colin."
Young Colin shuddered as Mother jabbed a sewing pin through his outstretched tongue. Wincing in pain, he shrieked.
Colin felt it from his former self, and shrieked.
Aphrodite felt the pain from both Colin and Young Colin, and shrieked. She let go of his forehead. "Oh, what misery," she lamented, sympathetically. "How dare she treat you in that manner! Where is this 'Mother' of yours?! I shall turn her into stone!"
His tongue still stinging, Colin shook his head. "Mother did not realize the error of her ways. It was the only way she ever knew. She is still on the world I was raised on. And I have no way to get there. The only way would be from my brother Quinn's microdot, which he lost a long time ago. It has the coordinates to my adopted homeworld encoded in it."
"You are from another world?"
"Yes. My brother and our friends have visited many."
Now Aphrodite was really intrigued. "I must know more." She reached out and once again touched Colin's forehead.
Another bright flash connected the minds of Aphrodite and Colin. The goddess could feel herself soaring through the air on a hang-glider, viewing the tilted landscape from Colin's perspective. She was suddenly surrounded by Quinn, Maggie, and Rembrandt on Amish World. Quinn slapped his hand on Colin's shoulder, saying, ". . . I'm your brother."
"Your brother?" Aphrodite asked Colin, recognizing Quinn from earlier.
Then Aphrodite found herself standing next to Quinn in front of the sliders' old sea blue vortex. Offering his hand to Colin, Quinn declared, "Brother!" They leaped forward into the wormhole, and Aphrodite experienced a firsthand plummet across the ERP Bridge, a kaleidoscope of vivid blue swirls and sparkles.
Aphrodite removed her hand from Colin's forehead again. "This is how you travel to other worlds?" she asked him.
Shaking himself back to reality, Colin nodded. "It's called sliding. I must return to my friends now."
But Aphrodite ignored his request. "I must see more!" she selfishly decided, slapping her palm above Colin's eyebrows.
Before Colin could protest, his memories flashed backward again. He was seated at the Chandler Bar next to Susannah Morehouse's conniving double, sipping umbrella drinks.
"Don't tell me you don't like pizza!" winked Mother Morehouse, as Colin's vision switched to the elaborate study inside the luxurious Morehouse manor.
"I will not tell you that," replied Colin's past self, innocently.
"What is pizza?" Aphrodite inquired, confused.
Suddenly, they were standing in a murky swamp, along with Maggie, Quinn, and Rembrandt.
"Gotcha! Die, mosquito!" seethed Maggie with an indulgent grin, swatting her arm as a mosquito pricked her flesh.
"Maggie!" Quinn reprimanded her. "Can't you read?" He pointed to a sign that read: Do not kill mosquitoes.
A park ranger approached them; he'd been watching. "I'm going to have to fine you, miss. $5,000."
"What?!" snorted Maggie. "Are you crazy?! I'm not paying that!"
The ranger glared at Maggie.
"Maggie . . ." Rembrandt warned her, apprehensively.
In an instant, they were back in the Chandler Bar. Aphrodite sensed a sharp twinge in her shoulder - which was also Colin's shoulder - and looked down to see the tranquilizer dart that Damon had just injected Colin with.
"You sound orange," Aphrodite heard Colin deliriously mumbling as the words vibrated from her own mouth.
Aphrodite suddenly had two hot, steaming cups of hot chocolate in her hands. Maggie was at her side, holding another two cups of the hot chocolate. The two of them came tiptoeing out of a kitchen into a living room where Quinn and Remmy sat on the sofa waiting for them.
"Cocoa!" Maggie announced, a stupid grin plastered across her face.
"Yummy yummy cocoa bunny!" came the random goofy words out of Colin's mouth, making absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Now Aphrodite was vicariously standing with Colin in an empty Chandler Hotel suite. Next to them was a young boy. The three of them stood on the other side of an astral plane, illuminated by a blobby, expanding orange rift.
"Matthew," Aphrodite whispered, looking at the boy and somehow knowing his name. She could see and hear acid rain pounding against the window panes outside - she just seemed to know it was acid rain, and felt its sting against her skin.
The various images came rushing faster, from Colin's mind into Aphrodite's.
Rembrandt used his strong arm and fist to punch the lights out of Kromaggs in the dark tunnels of the Slidecage.
Colin flew through the air with Quinn, Maggie, and Remmy, after the four of them jumped out of a plane. They proceeded to skydive into the wormhole, which had been activated several hundred feet above the ground.
A waitress wearing a kimono and a sombrero handed Colin a "to-go" bag inside a fast food restaurant.
"What strange clothing!" Aphrodite exclaimed with a whisper.
The words: Miguel San: Where Ranchero cooking meets the Pacific Rim were printed across the outside of the fast food bag. Aphrodite could taste the tart and dill mixture of crab, avocados, cucumbers, and flour tortilla from Colin's Tokyo Roll, as it tumbled around in their mouths like laundry in a washing machine.
Kyra, the Humagg warrior, stared into Colin's - and Aphrodite's - frightened yet resilient eyes, fascinated by her captive in the Kromagg prison cell.
Roxanne, Colin's temporary bride from Lipschitz World, seductively circled him. He laid flat and helpless atop the waterbed of their honeymoon suite. Roxanne was ready to consummate their marriage.
Colin watched in despair as superstitious medieval villagers dragged Rembrandt away, shouting accusations of heresy at the Cryin' Man. Maggie's double stood by, watching and smirking.
Aphrodite broke her mental link with Colin. She was quite disturbed by many of the images. "What anguish! Well, you may no longer fear these foes. I shall protect you, and you will never face another impudent, hairless creature ever again!"
"No more Kromaggs?" Colin had a faraway look in his eyes. It sounded tempting. But then he remembered Quinn, and discarded the notion. "No. I must return to my brother. Please."
Aphrodite wore a small frown. "Colin," she sighed, "you are acting quite obstinate. You no longer need Quinn, or Rembrandt, or Maggie, or any of the others. This is your new home." She smiled. "Besides, even if you did manage to escape, you would miss your next sliding window. I have restrained the flow of space-time here in my realm of the Sky Kingdom, where we are now and where we shall remain for eternity. By the time you would figure out how to leave here, your friends will be gone."
"My friends would never abandon me."
She went on, ignoring his retort. "But, of course, that will not happen. No mortal man dares to leave my domain - nor does he desire to. You shall learn to love me. I promise." She tilted her head, grinning sweetly. "Trust me, my love, you will never WANT to leave Mount Olympus!"
Colin stared back at Aphrodite, apprehensively. He glanced down at the clouds beneath them, but could not see any sign of Earth below. Trembling, Colin realized that this deity had invaded the very memories that he held dear from his lifetime. And she had accessed the information about sliding from his mind, leading him to believe that she must now understand the gist of interdimensional travel. Plus she knew all about how the timer works, and the one-shot window of opportunity.
He heaved a sigh. Aphrodite now seemed to know more about quantum physics than he did.* * *
"How's the research coming, Professor?" Remmy walked over to Arturo, placing his hand on the scholar's bulky shoulder.
"Quite well, under the circumstances, Mr. Brown," replied Professor Arturo, glancing up from the thick, hardcover, leather-bound book he was sifting through. "In one day, I have learned more words about this Earth than Socrates most likely wrote during his entire existence. Fortunately, for Mr. Eastman and myself," the Professor gestured to Malcolm, who was assisting him, "this version of our continent is bilingual. English and Greek are spoken fluently here. Consequently, written documents have been transposed in both languages, as well."
"Done." Malcolm set the quilled pen he'd been using down on the stone table in front of him and Arturo. "The timeline's done, Professor. Wanna hear it, Remmy?"
Janine poked her head into the entranceway of the repository. "I've got lunch," she announced, stepping into the room with two larger wicker baskets draped over her arms.
Arturo checked his stopwatch. "It's almost dusk, Miss Chen. A little late for lunch, I'd say . . . my murmuring stomach can attest to that."
"Sor-ry!" grumbled Janine, plopping the baskets onto the table. They were filled with homemade gyros, fresh fruit, and whole wheat rolls. "The marketplace is crowded this late in the day. Everyone here in Arthro Agkelos must be scrambling to shop early so they all can beat the mad dinner rush. Kind of an ironic strategy, when you think about it."
Rembrandt zeroed in on Arturo and Malcolm and the mess of texts, scrolls, and yellowed papers in front of them. "So fill us in."
"What about Miss Beckett, Miss Welles, Mr. Mallory, and - Mr. Mallory?" inquired the Professor, taking a pita breadstick from one of the baskets. "Won't they want to know what we've found out about our newest locale? It may help us in tracking down Colin and Dr. Davis"
Rembrandt shook his head. "I think they've got enough on their minds, just recovering from the shock of what's happened. Maggie, Wade, and Fog Boy are all close to Diana, and Farm Boy is Q-Ball's family. And they're both family to me - all of you are!!" His deep brown face had become weathered from exhaustion. "There's just got to be some way to get Colin and Diana back! We always get out of situations like these, even when it seems absolutely hopeless - which is how I'd describe things right now."
Malcolm got up and came over to give Rembrandt a hug. "You can't expect yourself to protect everyone all the time, Remmy," he told his friend.
"I know, Malcolm . . . I just keep losing the people I care about! I keep losing you guys too damn often!" Rembrandt sat, quivering, as Malcolm helped him into a chair. "First when Rickman killed the Professor - although it was really the Professor's double, but we thought it was the 'real him' at the time - and then when Wade got taken by the 'Maggs. Not to mention when Q-Ball and Fog Boy were merged by Geiger. And of course," he looked at Malcolm, "when I had to leave you behind - twice . . ."
A small tear escaped from Malcolm's eye.
"Come on, eat up, people," Janine broke the silence and tension. "I didn't stand in line at the agora all day for nothing. These gyros won't make a very pretty centerpiece, you know." She addressed the Professor, "Why don't you share with us what you've learned about this alternate reality we're in right now. Because all I've learned so far is that the people here are pushy and don't bathe nearly enough."
Arturo cleared his throat. "Ah, yes." He glanced down at his notes. "Keep in mind, Mr. Brown, that since Christianity is not prevalent on this Earth, I calculated these dates relative to the calendar of this world, in accordance with the calendar we would have followed on Earth Prime. The parallels are quite remarkable, actually, at least as far as the timeline goes. As our history contends, part of the reason the Greek Empire fell on our world was due to the ten-year battle of Troy and its afterward consequences, which dates back circa 1200 B.C. our time. The difference on this world was the lack of conflict between Greece's two most powerful city-states, Athens and Sparta. Here, both Athens and Sparta united with each other and with the smaller city-states in order to combat the Persian invasions by Xerxes and Darius. Xerxes was defeated at Athens in 480 B.C., and the Greeks gained control of the Persian navy. Unlike on Earth Prime, this world never saw the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, nor was Socrates ever executed. In fact, there was absolutely no Hellenistic Age at all."
"Hellenistic?" Rembrandt was baffled by the word.
"It was the period when Greek city-states feuded with each other, Remmy," explained Malcolm. "It existed on my world too . . . I remember studying it in my history class."
"Alexander the Great also lived on in this dimension," Arturo elaborated. "On Earth Prime, he died at the young age of 32 in approximately 323 B.C. Here, Alexander lived beyond age 32, and was able to extend his empire into northern Europe - above the Arctic Circle, in fact. The only nations he didn't initially conquer were those of the British Isles, and that was because they weren't connected to the mainland."
Janine scratched her head, while chomping on a carrot. "But that doesn't make sense. If Alexander controlled the Greek navy, why not take over Britain too? He must have had the ability?"
"But he concentrated most of his navy power on colonizing Africa, using the Atlantic Ocean and the Nile as gateways into the African continent," said Malcolm.
"Careful, Malcolm. You're beginning to sound like the Professor," Rembrandt snickered, giving Malcolm a wink.
Arturo ignored Remmy's ribbing. "Greece continued to conquer major European powers, including France, the Romans, and the Slavs. Eventually, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra were forced to ally with Alexander's descendants, who by that point ruled the Greek city-states. That way, Alexander granted autonomy over Egypt to Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, while gaining the allegiance of their kingdom. Obviously, Julius Caesar never came into power, as the Romans had been suppressed earlier on."
"So Greece owns the whole world." Janine snatched up a gyro. "Then why are there people here who speak English? When I was in the agora, I heard a mixture of English and Greek being spoken. The vendor who I bought our dinner from looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him how he knew English."
The Professor pinpointed a spot on his notes with his chubby finger. "In 793 A.D. - at least, equivalent to what would be that along Earth Prime's timeline - Redburg, Queen of Wessex in England, poisoned her husband, King Egbert. You see, the Greeks had finally decided to cross the English Channel to overrun the Brits and Celts. But Queen Redburg saw an opportunity to gain political power through a one-woman coup. She immediately courted and married Skopeus, who was one of Greece's two dual kings at that time. Skopeus and Redburg conspired to have Greece's other king, Oceanus, assassinated. Following the successful assassination of Oceanus, Skopeus and Redburg brought a sole family monarchy to the Greek Empire, thereby uniting Greece and Britain. As part of this alliance, English was indoctrinated into the empire's culture as a second language. Redburg had already become fluent in Greek, and Skopeus fluent in English. And so they raised and trained their children to bilingually carry on the ways of this new Greek monarchy. Centuries later, their descendants sent the combined Greek and British navies on a massive mission to find a shorter waterway to India . . ."
". . . and they landed in North America!" Rembrandt completed the equation. "Except now it's Neos Cretos. The signs around the park said so: Arthro Agkelos, Gi apo Chrysafi, Neos Cretos. City of Angels, Land of Gold, New Crete. So that's why people speak both Greek and English. Now it makes sense." He glanced down at his wristwatch. "I'm gonna check on the others." Remmy exited the repository and circulated over to where Quinn, Wade, Mallory, and Maggie were gathered. The four of them sat on the marble steps outside of another pillared temple. "Hey guys. How're you doing?"
"How do you think, Rembrandt?!" snapped Quinn, his raw, puffy red eyes flaring. "I've lost my brother - probably forever!"
Maggie gave Quinn a hug, as the scientist continued to weep and blow his nose on a handkerchief.
Mallory was also upset, but had an expression of determination on his face. "I'm not leaving Diana behind on this world with Rickman. I'm the reason she came sliding with us in the first place. If I ever see Rickman again, I'm gonna snap his neck like a twig!"
Wade held Mallory's shaky arm to steady him. "Rickman isn't going to hurt Diana. Not while he hasn't gotten what he wants." Her eyes jumped over to Maggie.
"Wade's right," Maggie conceded. "Diana is still alive . . . Rickman may have trained me to write off people as casualties, but he also knows me well enough to figure out that I'm not going to sacrifice those closest to me." She took a long pause. "I'm going to have to make the trade. Myself for Diana."
Quinn's jaw practically dropped to the ground. "Maggie! You can't do that! Rickman will torture you to death!"
Maggie's eyes were blurred with tears. "I can't let Diana die because of me!" she cried. "If it hadn't been for me, Steven would still be alive today!"
"Maggie . . . you can't blame yourself for Steven's death," Rembrandt softly told her.
"But I do. If I'd never married Steven, he wouldn't have been on the base and probably never would have even known Rickman to begin with."
"Yeah, he just would have been killed by the pulsars along with everyone else on your world," Wade reminded her. "Quinn's right, Maggie. Rickman is responsible for his own actions."
"Wanna bet?" Maggie looked in Wade's direction through her own blurred vision. "Or did you forget what I'd told you while we were on Hybrid World? How after I met Steven and broke up with Angus, he got shipped off to the Gulf War where he contracted the brain fungus. If I had stayed with him, things might have been different . . . Rickman never would have become the psycho he is today. Whether any of you want to admit it or not, I have Steven's blood on my hands - and the blood of everyone else who we brought to the New World or was killed by Rickman on any of the Earths he's passed through! I created this monster, and every kill he makes will have my name written all over it."
"Maggie, you had no way of knowing," Quinn stressed to her. "Even if you and Rickman had married each other, he still could have been deployed to the Persian Gulf. But playing 'what ifs' with yourself is not going to change the past."
"You can't just give yourself to Rickman," added Mallory. "How would that be honoring Steven's memory?"
"Oh, I'm not just 'giving myself' to the colonel," Maggie resolved, a new blaze of indignation in her eyes. "If I have to die to stop the killing, you can bet I'll be taking that bastard down with me! I'm not about to leave him behind to slaughter more people on this world - or on any other."
"There is another way," Wade quietly spoke up. She looked back and forth between Quinn and Maggie. "I've been thinking about this a lot . . . obviously, the supernatural has a great presence on this Earth. How else can we account for Aphrodite's powers? Assuming I'm right, I could try to locate both Colin and Diana by asking the spirits for help. Maybe I can even contact another deity on this world who would help us?"
Quinn appealed to Wade with his lost eyes. "Try it, Wade. I'm willing to do anything at this point."
"Are you sure it will work, Wade?" Maggie asked.
"No," Wade said, flatly. "But as far as I can see, it's our only other shot."
"Miss Welles may be right," came Professor Arturo's stately voice. He, Malcolm, and Janine had joined them on the temple steps. "Wade, I may have underestimated your intuition. I apologize for my hastiness. After studying the historical texts of this Earth, I've come to conclude your instincts may not be all that implausible after all."
Janine looked shocked. "Professor, what caused this sudden leap of faith? Do you mean to tell us you actually believe in Gods and Goddesses now?"
"I don't know what to believe anymore, Miss Chen," the Professor admitted. "But let us just assume for one moment that Miss Welles is indeed correct. Let us suppose that on this world, Aphrodite, as we know her from Greek mythology, is actually a sentient being - at least on this Earth. If that proves to be true, then theoretically, there may be other deities in existence who could help us to counteract Aphrodite's roguishness. One can look at it as a matter of physics. If on our world, one omnipotent God exists, who's to say that the dimensional structure of an alternate reality does not support multiple deities? Perhaps this world's genesis caused more than one force to design the natural formation of the universe?"
Rembrandt could not stop gaping. "Professor, I never thought I'd live to see you convert to Paganism."
"I am not a Pagan, Mr. Brown," Arturo grunted. "I was merely recalling something previously stated by Mr. Eastman. Science could be used to account for what others perceive to be supernatural. I am not discarding science as a practical application. I am simply attempting to use science to reconcile what is obviously uncharted territory for human knowledge. And based on what we witnessed yesterday, I would certainly classify our situation as uncharted territory."
Giving the Professor a resolute smile of friendship, Wade stood up. "It's almost dusk. I'll get started. The spirits should be more active upon nightfall."
Arturo held back the urge to roll his eyes. "Go ahead, Miss Welles," he encouraged her, trying to sound enthusiastic. "You do that voodoo that you do so well!"* * *
"Okay, we need fire," Wade said, still on her knees. She was outlining a circle that connected each of the five points of the pentagram she'd shorn into the grass, using Mallory's Swiss army knife. "One of the four natural elements."
Janine joined her. "Here, try this," she offered, holding out a cigarette lighter. With a snap, she ejected a spark of fire from it.
"Hey, I learned a long time ago to always keep one of these on me at all times, after our little tussle with your cult of 'Sisters' in Silver Gate Park." Janine reached down and lit the pile of twigs that Wade had positioned in the center of the pentagram.
"Wade, how is this supposed to go, again?" Rembrandt called out, as he approached them with his arms full of freshly-picked roses. "This world doesn't even follow Wicca. What if there aren't any Pagan spirits here to summon?"
"It's not like we have a better plan," pointed out Janine, with a shrug. "And Wade has performed magic before. I'd say it's our best bet."
"Okay, I found the red raspberry leaves. They tasted delicious," Mallory joined in the gathering of ingredients. He had just emerged from the forest. "The raspberries, not the leaves. And are these of any use too? They looked like they might be important." Mallory held out a handful of gangly roots that he'd pulled from the ground, showing them to Wade along with the raspberry leaves.
Examining them, Wade nodded in the affirmative. "Yes. Good work, sweetie!" She leaned up and gave Mallory a peck on the lips. "These are Bloodrot and Boneset. Different native tribes used them for medicinal purposes."
Maggie and Quinn were hurrying up the path, their arms filled with an array of various sweet-scented and multicolored flowers. "We plucked these from the city gardens," Quinn explained, as he and Maggie dumped their armloads of flora next to Wade. "We tried to find some of the ones you wanted."
"And we collected a few extra," Maggie added. "Fortunately, I remembered enough from when I was in the Marines and my platoon had a botany unit as part of our wilderness survival training." She picked up a flower with hanging white tufts all around its center blossom. "This is chamomile. And this," she held up a spiky yellow flower, "is agrimony. We also got Wormwood and eucalyptus."
"Very good, Maggie." Wade smiled, visually surveying the exotic selection. "And I see Coltsfoot Leaf and Hawthorn flowers in the mix. And anise seeds." She shook some tiny seeds that fell from a collection of bright-green feather-like floral leaflets. "This must have been a garden of imported plant-life. Most of these plants came from England, Greece, and North Africa. I studied botany too, in college."
As Quinn and Maggie began arranging the flowers within the circle atop Wade's pentagram, Arturo and Malcolm rejoined the group, having returned from the nearby woodland. Malcolm carried a cluster of roots and leaves in his hands.
"I found some lavender for you," Malcolm told Wade. He tossed the bright flowers onto the pentagram that Wade had carved into the grass. "Some sage too. And I think this is Comfrey Root." Malcolm extended a palm branch filled with rough, hairy bristles.
"Yes it is . . . and what have you got there?" Wade leaned in to identify the seeds in Malcolm's other hand. "Fenugreek and rue. Perfect!" She motioned for Malcolm to begin sprinkling those seeds amongst the other seeds, herbs, roots, and flora, which had by now composed a fascinating collage of nature around and within the five-pointed Wiccan star.
Professor Arturo displayed a ceramic jug that he cradled in his arms. "I filled it up with water, Wade. But I still have no clue what you intend to do with all of this."
Wade took the jug from Arturo. "Thanks, Professor." She turned to address the rest of the sliders. "Okay, let's do this! We have most of the elements. Water," she indicated the jug in her possession, "fire," she gestured at the crackling fire, "the earth is represented by the ground and all the plant-life we collected - now all we need is air."
"Um, there's air all around us, Wade," said Janine, rolling her eyes.
"The oxygen we breathe is passive. We need an active form of air," Wade clarified. She thought for a moment. "I need you all to help me create a flow of air somehow. Direct it toward the spirit circle."
Rembrandt sighed, and slid his arms out of his jacket. "Will this work?" he asked, and began slowly flapping his jacket, creating a gentle breeze.
"Remmy, you're a genius!" Wade interrupted Rembrandt's flapping by giving him a quick, big hug.
"What about the fifth element - spirit?" Malcolm inquired, having been familiar with the fundamentals of Wade's religion.
"That's who I'm going to summon." Wade stepped into the spirit circle, situating herself in the center of the pentagram, in front of the sizzling fire. All around Wade, the sweet aromas of flowers and organic herbs surrounded her, wafting pleasantly. Arturo began to pour the water downward from his pitcher so that it trickled onto the spirit circle. Closing her eyes, Wade launched into a heavy meditation.
"I still don't understand what she's doing," Janine said, making a face as though she thought Wade was insane.
Malcolm explained it to them. "Wade is using the strength derived from those flowers and herbs to harness their powers. Those plants are natural remedies that help your body build a resistance to infections."
"I see," Quinn ventured, tentatively. "These plants contain enzymes that control a body's metabolism, respiratory system, nerves, and cardiovascular muscles. Wade hopes to use them as stimulants to alert her senses. Right?"
"Which god is Wade trying to contact?" Maggie asked, tilting her head skeptically.
Malcolm looked at Maggie. "She doesn't know yet. Whoever will listen, I guess."
"Inveni deum, inveni deum," Wade was chanting, as the fire blazed in front of her. "Free Colin from Aphrodite's wrath. Alleviate her presence from him. Inveni deum, inveni deum . . ."
At that moment on Mount Olympus, Aphrodite nestled her body against Colin's. Suddenly, she pulled away from him, tingling fervently.
"What happened?" Colin was startled.
Aphrodite shut her eyes. "I can feel myself being drawn to Earth . . . by a mortal! It is one of your companions, is it not?! I can sense your presence in her plea!"
Colin narrowed his eyes at her. "You will not hurt them."
Amused, Aphrodite merely laughed at him. "Colin, my kindred, no one will stand in the way of our love. What needs to be done must be done." The goddess began to vibrate, and then a duplicate version of herself virtually popped right out of her skin, as though Aphrodite had been hiding a carbon copy of herself underneath the surface of her own body.
Colin Mallory did a triple take.
Both of the Aphrodites stared at him with lust in their eyes. But only the original Aphrodite spoke to him. "You are a slow learner, Colin, so I shall explain. I have created a clone of myself, and will be sending her down to Earth."
"To complete what must be completed."
"You don't mean? . . ." Terror filled Colin's eyes. "No!!"
"Yes!!" Passion burned in the eyes of both Aphrodite and her clone. The Aphrodite clone glided away in a downward descent, abruptly disappearing as she exited through an invisible portal amongst the clouds.
"Inveni deum, inveni deum . . ." Back on Earth, Wade was still chanting. The scents from the flowers and herbs became magnified by the fire's heat and from the artificial ventilation that Rembrandt created by waving his jacket. A luminous glow formed around the spirit circle, protecting Wade and the elements within the enclosure.
With a glossy shimmer, the image of Aphrodite's clone appeared in front of Wade, outside of the sacred barrier.
"You called?" Aphrodite's clone tilted her head and smirked at Wade.
"You!" Quinn's eyes were filled with rage at the appearance of the goddess. "What did you do with Colin?!" He charged toward her.
"Quinn!" Wade's sharp voice stopped Quinn Mallory in his tracks, although his visual contempt for Aphrodite remained. "Aphrodite, where is Quinn's brother?"
The deity batted her eyelashes, feigning innocence. "In a safe place," she boasted. "Colin now resides with me in my domain on Mount Olympus."
"Mount Olympus?" the Professor repeated, dumbfounded. "Does such a place actually exist?"
"Of course." The cloned Aphrodite smiled sweetly. "He is quite happy, and I will thank you mortals to leave us be."
Quinn inhaled, venomously. He sucked in his urge to scream at her. "May I at least see my brother one last time?"
"No," Aphrodite's clone stated simply. There was now coldness in her voice. "And I intend to make it so that you and your mortal friends will no longer be a nuisance to Colin or myself." She extended her arm, and motioned at Quinn.
The young scientist suddenly felt his body being lifted off the ground, pulled by some invisible force. "Hey! Put me down!" Quinn demanded, as he involuntarily levitated higher up and further away from the group.
"Quinn!" Maggie called out, helplessly. She swiveled her head toward Aphrodite's clone, with fire in her military eyes. "You bitch!"
Aphrodite's clone merely laughed. "You think I am actually offended by that?"
"Q-Ball!" yelled out Remmy, as his friend was being taken away from them. "Wade, do something!"
Wade concentrated all of her energy on the Aphrodite clone. "Flamen!" she shouted, reciting a Latin command. Coupled with Wade's telekinetic power, the exerted force struck Aphrodite's clone, knocking the goddess off her feet. As the deity's grip on Quinn was relinquished, Quinn fell from the sky and hit the ground hard. His body rolled over, unconscious.
Rembrandt, Arturo, Malcolm, Janine, Mallory, and Maggie all rushed over to Quinn. Arturo took the pulse of Quinn's immobile wrist. "The boy is still alive."
"Thank God!" gasped Rembrandt, looking up at the heavens.
"Yeah, all of them," muttered Janine, her heart still beating like a drum.
Aphrodite's clone was now back on her feet. "Fools! I will destroy all of you!" She fiercely floated toward the sliders who were gathered around Quinn's body.
Wade intervened. "Fallacia! Multiplica ego! Multiplicate nos!" At Wade's command, an almost holographic image of herself was created, appearing next to the other sliders. Then, an individual image of each slider became duplicated from their actual bodies. In another second, the pseudo-holographic image of each slider multiplied several more times. A vast array of identical duplicates - Wades, Rembrandts, Maggies, Quinns, Malcolms, Arturos, Mallorys, and Janines - were scattered and intermixed amongst the large group. Every bodily move in any direction made by any of the sliders was simultaneously replicated by their holographic images that had been created from Wade's spell. For example, if Rembrandt took a step forward with his left foot, so would all of the other Rembrandts who had been generated through the spell. Since there were literally dozens of visual carbon copies of each slider, Aphrodite's clone could not differentiate the real bodies from the fake ones.
"Dolos!" screamed Aphrodite's clone, firing a stream of electromagnetic energy at one of the Wade doubles. Predictably, the goddess's energy exertion simply caused the Wade hologram to flicker.
Now that her friends were temporarily protected from the deified clone, Wade concentrated her focus on defeating the deity. But as she did so, the holographic sliders that Wade had conjured up began to wobble, and then, one by one, they gradually disappeared.
"Damn!" Wade realized, feeling the diminished power of her spirit circle. "I don't have enough elements!" It was true. Arturo was no longer pouring the water onto the grass, and Remmy had quit flapping his jacket to create the breeze of air.
Upon hearing Wade's lament, the Aphrodite clone began floating toward Wade with menacing vengeance in the deity's eyes.
"Wade! Look out!" shouted Malcolm.
"Gela!" Wade commanded to Aphrodite's clone.
The goddess momentarily froze, suspended in midair by Wade's impromptu mandate for temporal stasis. Then, the supernatural clone became reanimated, and continued to advance toward Wade.
"Dammit!" Wade cried out, again. "I can't hold her for very long! I don't have enough strength left from the elements! Glacie con! Gelare!" she yelled at Aphrodite's clone again, in desperation.
Wade had managed to successfully freeze the clone's body for another couple of seconds. But immediately upon reanimation, Aphrodite's clone released a burst of energy at Wade, causing Wade to be thrown off her feet and outside of the spirit circle. The Aphrodite clone instantly vanished into thin air, but then reappeared next to Quinn where he was still sprawled out on the ground, just beginning to regain consciousness. "Time to finish what I began . . . !"
"NO!!!!" wailed Maggie, lunging at Aphrodite's clone with Mallory's Swiss army knife in hand.
"Maggie! Stop!" Wade cautioned Maggie, as Wade got back on her feet.
Too late. Maggie, in a blind rage, had sliced the knife into the clone's flesh. Aphrodite's clone howled in agony, as a clear whitish liquid oozed from the slit made by Mallory's knife in her skin. Flaring and seething at Maggie, the Aphrodite clone ejected a powerful stream of light and heat from her palm, spraying it upon Maggie. Maggie's entire body - flesh and clothing alike - began to harden slowly, every inch of her turning to stone. Still wounded, Aphrodite's clone departed with a magnificent shimmer.
"Maggie!!" Quinn managed to get to his feet, and half-ran half-stumbled over to where Maggie stood immobilized. She was now basically a solid statue, with no sign of life present in her redundant eyes.
The rest of the sliders were coming over, gathering around the stone statue of Maggie Beckett.
"Good heavens!" gasped Arturo, reaching out to touch Maggie's cold, sleeveless, skinless shoulder.
"Oh, Maggie!" Janine shook her head, unable to believe it.
"Son of a bitch!!" exclaimed Rembrandt. He couldn't even begin to describe the horror he was feeling.
"Maggie?!?!" Quinn screamed out once again. Bursting into uncontrollable tears, Quinn Mallory threw his arms around the statuesque body of his beloved, and sobbed endlessly.
Wade cringed, feeling incredibly disappointed in herself for not being more prepared. "I always said Maggie was a tough bitch, hard as a rock," she leaned forward and used her fist to gently tap the stone surface of Maggie's paralyzed body, "but this is pushing it."* * *
By dawn, Quinn still hadn't moved from his spot. He remained on his knees, clutching Maggie's waist. His weeping had trickled down to a mere whimper, but that didn't compel Quinn to abandon the virtual sculpture of his true love.
The rest of the group, who had kept silent for the remainder of the night and early-morning, now began to quietly whisper and plot amongst themselves. Rembrandt took charge. "Okay guys, we've got less than a day left. What are we going to do?"
Mallory shook his head. "I'm not leaving Diana behind on this world, especially not while that psycho has her."
"Mr. Mallory," Professor Arturo addressed Quinn's fraternal double, "you do realize that Rickman may already have departed from this world?"
"And that means he took Diana with him," Malcolm added. "The only way for us to track their wormhole would be for us to slide."
"But what if Rickman and Diana haven't left this Earth yet?" countered Janine. "Then if we slide, we'd have to backtrack through the vortex again, anyway. And by that time, maybe the two of them will have left this world for real?"
"Yeah, we don't know how much of a layover we'll have after the next slide," agreed Remmy. "We could be stuck on the next world for a week . . . or for a month. And if Rickman has less time than we do remaining on his timer, he'll be able to shake us much faster."
"But what if Rickman ends up with a month-long layover?" Wade objected. "We have no idea what he'll do to Diana if he has to wait that long. And we don't even know how long before Rickman's next window opens. Like Janine said, if we slide but Rickman doesn't, we'll just have to come back for him again anyway."
"And if we wait around to try to find him and Diana, we'll miss the sliding window," Rembrandt said. "Then we'll be stuck here for 29 years with no way to go after them."
"But Remmy, didn't Rickman say he wants Maggie?" recalled Malcolm. "So since he has the coordinates of this Earth, wouldn't he just bring Diana back to this world to get what he wants?"
"Unless he leaves Diana stashed away on another Earth, as collateral," Janine proposed. "At this point, he actually has someone who we want back. That seems to be his whole twisted reasoning for making the trade - Diana for Maggie and Quinn."
Mallory gestured over to where Quinn was still keeping the suspended Maggie company. "Although Rickman probably doesn't know what happened to Maggie."
"What did happen to Maggie, anyway?" Janine asked Wade. "How exactly did Aphrodite turn her to stone?"
Wade opened her mouth to answer, but Arturo interjected. "It's called genekinesis. Aphrodite must have used her energy to slow down Miss Beckett's body molecules, thus solidifying Miss Beckett into a de facto stone figure."
"But can it be reversed?" Malcolm asked.
"I can try," Wade offered. "But I don't know how effective a spell will be when it's daylight." She pointed upward at the shining sun poking out from behind the clouds in the sky.
"Mr. Eastman, any scientific application can be reversed, in theory," declared the Professor. He put his hand on Wade's shoulder. "Witness the cryokinesis Miss Welles inflicted on Aphrodite."
"Cryokinesis?" Mallory squinted.
"The slowing down of molecules to place an object - or a person, as the case may be - in a state of temporal stasis. Suspended animation, if you will." Arturo frowned. "As we saw, when Wade froze Aphrodite's body, the effects were only temporary."
"That's because I didn't have enough elemental force to fuel my abilities. I could only keep her frozen for a second." Wade's gaze dropped to the ground. "And I think I've figured out why my tracking spell ended up summoning Aphrodite." She walked over to the defunct spirit circle and picked up a white rose from the pile of assorted flora and herbs. "According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite's flower is the white rose. If that mythology is real on this world, the white rose must have attracted her from Mount Olympus." Wade's eyes skirted over toward the edge of the spirit circle, where she noticed something else. She reached down to touch it. "This appears to be a dove feather. The dove is supposed to be Aphrodite's sacred bird. Since the rose and the dove were in the pentagram while I was summoning for a deity . . ."
". . . they attracted Aphrodite like pheromones," Janine finished off.
"And she's still got Colin up there. Or so she says." Malcolm pointed up at the sky above them.
"So what should we do?" Rembrandt asked the team. "Slide or stay put?"
After a few minutes of contemplative silence, the Professor spoke up. "There is another option. When the timer reaches zero, half of us could attempt to track Rickman's photon trail, assuming he has indeed slid from this world. That way, even if Rickman is still on this Earth, our sliding window will not expire, and those of us who slide would still have the coordinates to return to this world. The rest of us would stay behind on this Earth to search for Rickman and Dr. Davis, as well as for Colin. And," he looked over at where Quinn was keeping Maggie company, "find a way to reconstitute Miss Beckett."
"So who stays and who goes?" Remmy looked to the group for a strategy.
"I already said I'm staying behind," Mallory stated, folding his arms. "My gut tells me Diana is still somewhere on this Earth."
"And I'll stay here too." Wade linked her arm with Mallory's. "Maybe I can contact another deity who will help us?"
"I think it's pretty much a given that Q-Ball's gonna stay with Maggie." Rembrandt Brown glanced over at his friend again. Remmy's heart ached in empathy with Quinn's misery. He looked at Malcolm, Janine, and the Professor. "So I guess we're the ones who'll slide, no matter what."* * *
Wade pressed her hands flat against the surface of Maggie's genekinetically solidified body. She had carved another pentagram into the ground surrounding Maggie, making sure that Maggie was in the center of the five-pointed star. After using Janine's lighter to make another fire inside the pentagram, Wade had recruited the other sliders to pour water inside of and create artificial wind outside of the new spirit circle. Wade concentrated heavily, directing her own life force beneath the outer layer of Maggie's stone body.
"Make Maggie whole again," Wade softly recited. This was just one of many previous attempts. The stone surface of Maggie's body trembled, and then became almost malleable like clay as a ripple penetrated through it against the palms of Wade's hands. Following that, nothing else happened. Wade broke away from Maggie. "I can't counteract Aphrodite's powers. She's just too strong, and I'm not powerful enough to undo what Aphrodite did."
Quinn tilted his head up at the sun. He brushed some more tears away from his red eyes. "Would it work if you tried it at night?"
"No." Wade shook her head, somberly. "I'm sorry, Quinn. It's not a matter of what time of the day it is . . . it's who I'm up against."
Sniffing through his nostrils, Quinn grabbed Wade's wrists meekly. "You summoned Aphrodite, right? So can't you try again, and summon Colin instead?"
"Q-Ball . . ." Rembrandt didn't want to see Quinn set himself up for more disappointment.
Wade tried to give Quinn a smile. "Actually, I was just thinking of that." She bent over and picked up the knife that Maggie had stabbed Aphrodite with. Its blade was still coated in the thick whitish liquid that had dripped from Aphrodite's flesh. "This is ichor. It's what the Gods and Goddesses bleed, instead of blood."
"So it's a god's equivalent of human blood?" Quinn asked.
"Yes. Since Colin is probably still with Aphrodite, I can use her ichor to track them. But," Wade stared down at Quinn's arm, "I'll need some of your blood, too. After all, Colin is your brother, so your blood should form a natural link to his."
Without hesitation, Quinn extended his arm. "Dissect me." He gritted his teeth and cringed, anticipating the pain.
Wade severed a small couple of inches of the flesh from Quinn's arm, as gently as possible, drawing his blood onto the knife. She then kneeled in front of the fire, letting Quinn's blood and Aphrodite's ichor drip down from the blade into the fire. "Blood to blood, I summon thee, locate Colin Mallory."
A majestic, translucent image appeared in the air, almost resembling a hologram. It displayed the towering mountains and golden gates of Mount Olympus. All of the sliders gaped at it.
"So Farm Boy really is up there?" gasped Rembrandt, breathtaken by the beauty of Mount Olympus.
Malcolm looked at Wade. "Why didn't the spell attract Colin?"
Wade opened her eyes and frowned. "Aphrodite's hold over Colin is too strong. She won't let him leave her domain. I can't penetrate through her energy to bring Colin back down here."
Quinn collapsed to his knees again, sobbing.
Mallory took Wade's hand and helped her up from her kneeling position. "How about Diana? Can you reach her?"
"I'll need something connected with Diana to use as part of the summoning spell."
Mallory made his way over to the middle of the pentagram, and stood next to Maggie. "Me. You can use me."
"Huh?" Wade was confused. "I know Diana means a lot to you, but . . ."
"Diana and I are from the same homeworld," he reminded Wade. "That means we have the same quantum signature, right? And that's something unique and different from anything else that could be found on this Earth."
That hadn't even occurred to Wade. She stood facing Mallory, and grasped his shoulders. "A vessel shall be this man's essence, through which to seek Diana's presence!"
Wade could feel a cyclical vibration stirring throughout Mallory's body. Her eyes glazed over as she appeared to go into a half-catatonic state.
"Wade?" Rembrandt ventured, praying that he wasn't about to lose another friend.
But Wade just stared straight ahead, even though she seemed to have heard Rembrandt. "I have made contact," she said, in monotone.* * *
Diana awoke with a moan. Seeing that it was daylight, she rolled over, rubbing her head. It was throbbing like hell, and she could feel dried, crusty blood on her cheek. A repugnant odor had made itself home in Diana's nose. She crinkled up her face, repressing her nostrils and breathing through her mouth.
"Morning, love. Or should I say, good afternoon?" Rickman was standing over her, leaning in and breathing onto her face.
"Ugh! It's you!" Diana recognized Rickman's putrid stench. She groaned. "How long have I been asleep?"
"A day and a half, my dear."
"What?!" Diana bolted upright. "Are you serious?! Why didn't you wake me?!"
"I enjoyed watching you sleep." He coyly grinned, reaching out to stroke her.
Diana slapped his hand away. "Don't touch me! I'm not a morning-person."
"Ah, but as I told you before, it is the mid-afternoon." Rickman showed Diana his timer - it was counting down from about 35 hours and 46 minutes.
She eyed Rickman suspiciously. Could he have messed with the timer to deceive her? No, that was a stretch. She glanced over at a nearby tree; the side of the trunk facing her was covered with moss. Toward its right, the sun was positioned in the sky. She at least knew it was the afternoon. "Wait a minute . . . haven't you slept at all?"
"I've been busy doing . . . other things." He smirked.
Diana's eyes popped open in horror. "You didn't?. . ."
"Ah. No, although the thought did cross my mind. And as flattered as I am by your supposition," he licked his lips, "I am saving myself for Maggie."
"You sick bastard!"
"Why thank you."
"So I suppose now your animal DNA allows you the luxury of forgoing sleep?" Diana chided him, sarcastically.
"Not exactly. I did bribe one of the passers-by, who happened to be a slave, to watch over you while I slumbered for a spell. Funny how he actually thought the cubic zirconium in my pocket was worth something." The colonel looked quite proud of himself.
"Yeah, I'll bet it's just dandy having all those cunning creatures living inside of you, huh? More beasts for you to plot with, I'll bet."
Rickman instantly became sullen. "No, in fact, that's where you're mistaken. Just have a look at this." He rolled up his sleeve and shoved it underneath Diana's line of vision. There were a number of speckled blue and green scales growing out of the flesh of his hairy arm. "This has begun happening ever since I fed on those mermaids from the last world. Itches like hell!"
Diana scowled at him. "Don't expect any sympathy from me, Rickman. You're making me just another one of your victims, when I never did anything to deserve this!"
"Wrong!" Rickman growled at her. "You teamed up with the sliders. And they entered my world and hijacked the course of my life forever."
"How is that my fault?!" Diana exploded. "I wasn't even on your homeworld when the pulsars destroyed it!"
"A mere technicality. The fact is, you are now in their company. That makes you subject to their sins."
"What sins?!" Diana couldn't believe the nonsense this man was spewing. "You owe your life to my friends. They rescued you and all those other people on your Earth from becoming cosmic dust!"
He didn't seem to be listening. "Eventually, you must die too, for your part in my misery."
"You're not going to let me back alive, are you?!" Diana realized. "So why wait around, huh? Why don't you just suck my gray matter out right now?!"
"Unfortunately, I need you for collateral. As I explained before, you are my bargaining chip . . . at least, that's what they assume. Your friends care about you very much. That will be their ultimate weakness."
Even though she knew it was a bad idea, Diana couldn't restrain herself from releasing all of her anger out on Rickman. "You think cruising through the multiverse has been peachy for me either?! The Kromaggs have invaded and pillaged my homeworld - and hundreds of others! But I suppose you'd just feed on their brain cells too, wouldn't you? So excuse me if I don't shed a tear over your shaggy little beard, ‘Colonel' Rickman! Because for all I care, you can just go straight to hell!!"
"Where do you think I've been for the past five years?!" snapped Rickman. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be a mutant?! - a freak!! And needless to say, this rather hairy physical metamorphosis of mine has not helped my social life. It's a wee bit difficult getting a date when you have the DNA of hundreds of animal species pulsating through your veins."
"Oh, I'm playing my violin for you, Rickman. Do you really think I have any interest in your dating prospects?! Go tell it to Chuck Woolery."
"Never mind!" She was steamed with contempt. "Just let me go! Leave me alone!"
"Sorry, but that is not an option . . ."
"He killed me! It was him!" A woman's voice entered Diana's head.
"Now see here, doctor. You are going to make certain my timer stays running . . ."
"He stuck a needle in my head!" came another echoing voice. A different person called out, "That man must pay for what he did to me!"
Diana nearly collapsed from bearing the excess of pain and torture from the deceased beings who were reaching out to her. She felt everything that they felt.
"Are you listening to me?!" Rickman stuck his face in front of Diana's.
"He killed me!"
"You killed them!" Diana seethed, knowing Rickman was responsible.
"I killed WHO?! Who did I kill?!" Rickman demanded.
"All of the innocent people who you've extracted brain fluid from during the last five years! They're telling me . . . they're sharing with me . . . I can feel them, and what you did to them! I can see it all!" Another jolt went through Diana, although this time the sensation was different. "Wade!!"
"Wade? Where?!" Rickman looked around, frantically.
Diana's body slowly levitated upward, and then, in a rapid flash, her body jetted away through the air.
"Come back here!" Rickman demanded, as Diana swiftly floated away. He snarled a primordial noise, and let his legs propel himself forward like a wild animal.* * *
Malcolm wandered alone in the garden, collecting his thoughts. Wade and Mallory were doing their best to contact Diana, but the way things had been going these past couple of days, Malcolm wasn't getting his hopes up. He leaned against a marble statue of Apollo, turned around, and stared up at the god's lifeless eyes.
"Man, why can't you help us out?" he wondered, aloud.
Malcolm felt someone watching him. As he slowly rotated his head, the adolescent came face-to-face with a human likeness of the Apollo statue. The glorified creature stood before Malcolm, partially bare-chested except for where his toga covered flesh.
"Who are you?" Malcolm asked.
"I am Apollo," the god stated, looking deep into Malcolm's eyes. "But you already knew that, did you not?"
Malcolm nodded, speechless. He couldn't take his gaze off of Apollo's muscular, virile breast. The deity's flesh glistened as a luminous glow outlined his figure.
"Are you fond of what you see?" Apollo smiled at Malcolm, knowingly.
Malcolm nodded again. Then, remembering what was really important, he spoke up, "Will you help my friends? They're in trouble. One of them was taken by Aphrodite."
"Ah. That sister of mine does crave her mortals." Apollo pressed his lips together, amused. "I would venture that she brought your friend to Mount Olympus, correct?"
"Yeah, how did you know? Wait . . ." Malcolm realized who he was talking to. "You're an Olympian, aren't you? Can't you go to Mount Olympus? Colin's brother really misses him. We all do."
Apollo gave Malcolm a nod of his head. "For a young man as handsome as yourself, I would be most pleasured to offer you my aid."
"Oh, wow! Thanks!" Malcolm thought for another moment. "But that's not all . . . some of my other friends need your help too . . ."
The deity raised his hand to silence Malcolm. "Do not fear," Apollo assured Malcolm. "It shall be done . . ."* * *
"Enough delay." Aphrodite's clone had reappeared on Mount Olympus. She merged back with her original body, and the two Aphrodites became one again, right before Colin's eyes.
"Wh - what? . . ." Colin stuttered.
"I have lived two lives, Colin," Aphrodite told him. "Based on what I have seen, I know that becoming immortal is the path you must choose. Those ‘friends' of yours will only lead you to danger."
"They care about me."
"I care about you more, Colin. Let me live your life once more, so we may never forget your meager mortal existence." The goddess placed her hand on Colin's forehead once again, and all at once, image after image streamed into her mind from his.
Kolitar, his pruny face covered by an Old West bandanna, juggled his guns as he masqueraded as Mr. K.
Sitting atop a mattress, Quinn, Remmy, Maggie, Colin, and Aphrodite slid out of the vortex, with a cushy thump.
Holding hands with Quinn and Maggie, Colin and Aphrodite plunged down a dark, winding chasm.
Aphrodite felt herself punching a Navajo shaman squarely across his cheekbone. The shaman had been taking apart Colin's laptop computer.
They stood inside a bubbleverse with Thomas Mallory and Rembrandt, watching as aged versions of Quinn and Maggie lived out their golden years.
The ground shook and vibrated as a pair of extremely large feet chased after the sliders. "Maggie!!" roared a giant, who was pursuing Maggie, Quinn, Remmy, Colin, and Aphrodite on the ground.
Aphrodite felt herself kissing the beautiful Catherine Clarke on the lips . . . and was quite aroused by it.
A bohemian wildly slapped streaks of orange and purple paint onto an easel canvass, inside his loft in Bakersfield SoHo.
Quinn screamed out loud as he clutched his arm, a bullet penetrating his arm causing Quinn to fall to the casino floor.
A bolt of lightning struck Colin and Aphrodite while inside the vortex, and they felt themselves multiplying and being spread across the multiverse.
The images came faster now. Aphrodite split a stalk of bamboo in half with her bare hands. A monkey stuffed a peeled banana into its mouth and grinned, showing its teeth. Soon Aphrodite was lying in a field of cannabis, and in the next moment was being chased by a Dublian spaceship. Logan shot Maggie in the arm with a gun. Rickman pressed his syringe against Wade's scalp, while holding Wade in a headlock. A group of flashy, sequined Vegas showgirls danced and kicked their legs up high onstage. Colonel Tennent's wobbly blue vortex emerged out of nowhere, swallowing them whole . . .
Aphrodite was so overwhelmed by Colin's memories that phrases overlapped each other, spoken by a mixture of many different voices.
"We've been through hell and high water looking for our homeworld. We can't stop now."
"Why does everybody always expect me to have all the answers?"
"Because you usually do."
"I am CHOSEN!"
"Tiiight paaants . . . !!"
"Look, I've been a horse and buggy man most of my life. Warp speed is a new concept for me."
"I'd rather be staked out in a typhoon in my birthday suit than spend another second in this madhouse!"
"Quinn, do you ever wonder why we have so many fingers?"
"I wanna see you sweat . . . I wanna see you grind . . . !!"
"I think we'll buy that channel that shows nothing but science fiction programming."
"How the crops hanging, Farm Boy?"
"Crops don't hang, Rembrandt."
"I wanna make you mine . . . I'm losing my mind!"
"You don't hurt someone to help yourself. At least, that's how it should be."
"These beets are chemically preserved, and will retain their wholesome color long after they are no longer safe to eat."
"Tiiight paaants . . . !!"
"What if this is one of those stranger worlds?"
"Colin, every world is a strange world."
"What is this, a Michael Jackson video?"
"Oh, this is a wonder. I must read it. Where is the outhouse?"
"Walk across the floor . . . in those tight pants . . ."
"You people make me ornerier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest. Sorry, it's catching around here."
"Will you bust a seam . . . when you do that dance . . ."
"Why does this drink need an umbrella?"
"Tiiight paaants . . . !!"
"Here goes . . . everything."
"Makin' me steamy . . . tiiight paaants . . . !!! . . . I know that you want me, baby!"
"I never thought I'd be saying this, but I miss the Kromaggs. Yes, they're scary. Yes, they're dangerous. But there's never a dull moment!"
"Sliding makes me sleepy."
"Put ‘em in the wash . . . put ‘em in the dryer . . ."
"Oh great! Great! This is great! Now we're sliding into closets! What's next, landing inside a brick wall?"
"Oh, this is truly inspired!"
"Shrinking them tighter . . . I can sing higher . . .!!!"
"I've spent my whole life trying to adjust to my own world. Now I've got a million more to deal with."
"Tiiight paaants . . . !!"
Aphrodite broke away from Colin, and covered her ears. "Oh, your friend Maggie had a dreadful singing voice! I am so glad I turned her to stone."
"Colin, I want to make you a god."
"I wish to give you immortality, so we may thrive together for eons to come."
Colin shook his head vigorously. "I don't want to be a god. I want to find my birth parents, and free the homeworlds of my friends from the Kromaggs."
"But as a deity, you will possess the ability to destroy all of the Kromaggs. At least, the ones who try to trespass upon this Earth." A golden goblet appeared in Aphrodite's hand. "Drink, Colin. Become one with me." She brought the goblet of liquid to Colin's lips.
He leaned his head away from her. "What is it?"
"Ambrosia. One sip shall make you immortal." Aphrodite used her energy manipulation to forcibly tilt forward Colin's head back toward the goblet. "Drink," she repeated.
Colin pressed his lips together tightly, shaking his head in protest. But despite his resistance, Colin could feel his mouth opening against his will. Aphrodite was using her powers to force his mouth open. The thick, warm liquid spilled into Colin's mouth, tasting fruity and bitter to him at the same time. He tried desperately to keep from swallowing it, but Aphrodite compelled Colin's esophagus to expand as the ambrosia slid down his throat.
Aphrodite stood back expectantly, as though she was waiting for something to happen. But no physical metamorphosis of Colin's body occurred. "Antarsia!" she shouted, in realization. "You have to WANT to drink it for it to work! You must WANT to become a god! WHY would you dare reject immortality?!"
"Because," Colin glared at the goddess, "the last thing I desire is to be like you."
Ire filled her face. "Will yourself to change!" she commanded to him.
"You can't tell me how to feel!" Colin shot back at her. "Since you were born a goddess, you must have no knowledge of what it means to be a human. I pity you."
Aphrodite gasped, as though Colin had just slapped her in the face.
A swish could be heard, and a small, cherubic creature teleported onto Mount Olympus next to Aphrodite. Colin recognized this familiar impish being. It was the cherub who had been playing the piccolo in the park when the sliders had first arrived on that world.
"Cupid?!" Aphrodite looked down at the diminutive Greek pan.
"Hello, mother," Cupid greeted her. The toga-clad god glanced from Aphrodite to Colin. "Entertaining another of your gentleman friends, I see."
"Son, I told you never to interrupt me while I have a guest!" Aphrodite reprimanded her son.
Cupid giggled, shaking his curly locks of golden blond hair. He evaporated, and then materialized next to Colin. As Cupid reached out and linked his arm with the arm of Quinn's brother, Cupid mischievously giggled again as he merrily teleported himself and Colin out of Aphrodite's domain.
"What is going on?!" Aphrodite demanded, seeing that she was all alone up there. "Colin!! Cupid!! Come back!!" The goddess wailed violently as she descended down through the clouds.* * *
"Shift thou matrix, from there to here . . . bring Diana Davis to our sphere!" Wade continued to recite her incantation, channeling her plea through Mallory's body as she massaged his clothed flesh.
"I hope she knows what she's doing," Rembrandt whispered to the Professor.
"She has so far, Mr. Brown," Arturo whispered back. "Remember, Dr. Davis is able to tap into the universal consciousness, and Miss Welles has lived as a Kromagg computer. I would not doubt the odds of the two of them establishing some sort of psychic link."
Then in a flash of light, Malcolm spontaneously appeared in front of Remmy and Arturo, the teenager holding hands with Apollo.
"Malcolm?!" exclaimed Rembrandt, startled.
"Remmy, don't be afraid. This is Apollo." Malcolm introduced them to his new friend. "Yes, he's the real Apollo. He's going to help us rescue Colin . . . and Diana . . . and Maggie."
Janine allowed her feet to carry her over to them. "Whoa, not another god!" She stared at Apollo. The gorgeous deity smiled at all of the sliders, his muscular, exposed bare nipple glistening. "Do you by any chance know any goddesses who show off their boobs as proudly as you do?"
Apollo chuckled at Janine. "Well, I could summon my sister Artemis . . ."
Holding up his finger, Rembrandt cut in. "Hold on, man. You're saying you can make Aphrodite stop obsessing over Colin?"
In response, Apollo grinned, humbled. "Unfortunately, I am not that powerful. No Olympian is. We cannot control each other's actions. I have no say over my sister's emotions. However," he rested his palm on Malcolm's shoulder, "thanks to the request of this handsome young man, I have sent my nephew to Mount Olympus to retrieve your friend Colin."
Quinn's ears caught wind of Apollo's statement. For the first time that day, he pulled himself away from Maggie's paralyzed side. "You're bringing back my brother?" Quinn rushed over to Apollo, his bloodshot eyes pleading to the god.
"Yes, my child. Your brother will be safe," Apollo confirmed. "And I will see to finding your other friends."
"I think we've already found one of them," piped up Janine, as they continued to talk over Wade's vocal incantation, which could still be heard in the background. "Or rather, she found us. Look!"
Off in the distance, the body of Diana Davis could be seen emerging from beyond the horizon, floating toward them. Diana was illuminated by a bright glow of almost heavenly light that outlined her entire profile.
"Diana!" shouted out Rembrandt.
Malcolm turned to Apollo, excitedly. "You found Diana?!"
Apollo shook his head. "I have no idea who she even is."
Professor Arturo swerved his head around to gaze at Wade and Mallory within the spirit circle. "Miss Welles . . . ?!"
"It was all Wade!" realized Janine, catching on.
Diana continued her rapid levitation toward them through the air. Rembrandt , Malcolm, Arturo, Janine, and Quinn all hurried toward Diana to meet her halfway. But the physicist simply proceeded to hover right past them, headed straight for Wade's spirit circle almost as if she didn't even notice the others. Diana descended as though she was an angel, landing smack in the middle of the pentagram next to Mallory.
"Diana!" Mallory threw his arms around her, tearfully.
"Mallory?" Diana snapped out of her trance, and seemed to be a bit confused. "How did I get here?" She looked around, coming face-to-face with the stone likeness of Maggie. "Is that . . . ?"
Wade nodded solemnly, wrapping her arms around Diana in a sisterly hug. "Aphrodite did it to her."
Everyone else came over to welcome Diana back. "Wade, I could feel you," she said, while hugging Malcolm. "I could feel all of Rickman's victims, and all the pain they endured. Now I truly know how badly Maggie wants him dead once and for all."
Wade nodded. "I could feel you too, Diana. They must have been reaching out to you from beyond the cosmos. I was able to transcend myself paradimensionally, and that must have been where your essence met up with mine."
"I'm so happy you're safe!" Mallory exclaimed, giving Diana another hug even as she hugged Rembrandt. He ended up collectively embracing both Remmy and Diana.
"What about Colin?" asked Diana.
Janine shook her head. "Nope. We're working on it, though."
"Oh Quinn! I'm so sorry!" Diana gave Quinn Mallory a consolatory hug.
"I'm just glad Rickman didn't hurt you," Quinn whispered to Diana, holding her close. "He's already taken too many lives."
"We've got a little supernatural help." Malcolm put his arm around Apollo.
Amid a swirl of pinkish mist, Colin and Cupid abruptly surfaced in front of the group. The two of them were holding hands.
"Hi guys!" Colin greeted them.
"Colin!" Quinn rushed over to his brother, more tears spilling from his eyes as he blubbered in joy. "Is it really you?"
"Farm Boy!" Rembrandt echoed Quinn's elation, followed by Malcolm, Diana, Wade, Arturo, Janine, and Mallory as they all crowded around Colin Mallory and his rescuer.
"Hey, weren't you serenading us in the park a few days ago?" Janine pointed at Cupid, recognizing the cherubic god.
Cupid blushed, and gave a slight nod of his head. "I was indeed."
A familiar howl could be heard off in the distance. It repeated, getting closer.
Rembrandt narrowed his eyes. "Rickman!"
"He must have followed me," Diana concluded. "Rickman told me his animal DNA gives him increased speed."
"Yeah. The only reason he didn't catch up to us back on Witch World was because Aurora knocked him unconscious when he confronted us in the cave," Mallory remembered. "Hell, Rickman could probably enter the triathlon on this Earth and take home a gold medal."
Sure enough, Angus Rickman sprinted toward them, moving through a sequence of leaps and gallops. "Sliders! I will take great pleasure in being the instrument of your deaths!" He let out another coyote howl.
"I think not. Their lives are mine," declared an insanely saccharine female voice. Aphrodite made her alluring body visible, and glided over to where the sliders were assembled. "Apollo, dear brother, you have chosen such insignificant allies." As Rickman charged ahead closer to the group, snarling and senselessly waving his syringe around, Aphrodite extended her arm toward him. She projected a ray of golden heat and misty steam from her palm. The heated mist showered down upon Rickman from the palm of Aphrodite's hand, weakening the mentally-deranged colonel's bodily movements. Colonel Rickman had solidified into a lifeless bronze statue.
The sliders stared at their former enemy, shocked at his metallurgical transformation. Rickman was frozen in time; his outstretched arm grasped a syringe, which was also now gilded in bronze. The madman had been in the midst of hissing at his human prey, and consequently, his face remained motionless in an unattractive bronzed facial entanglement. Even the untrimmed hairs of his bear and whiskers had become immortalized within a solid bronze encasing.
"Well, that's one way to get rid of him," quipped Janine, studying Rickman's altered physical form.
Aphrodite focused her glare on Wade. "Now to destroy you and your minions, mortal witch!"
Instinctively, Wade and Diana clasped each other's hand. As Wade directed all of her telekinetic energy at Aphrodite, Diana heaved inward deeply, inhaling a vibe of strength courtesy of those who guided her from beyond the cosmos. Aphrodite had emitted another stream of heat, this time straight at Diana and Wade. But the two female sliders deflected that wave of lethal humidity with an explosion of their own combined psychic potency. It bounced back at Aphrodite - which she hadn't anticipated happening - and subdued the goddess by dissolving her energy matrix. The deity released a blood-curdling scream as her molecular structure faded away.
"What . . . was that?" Janine was now completely baffled.
"They did it!" exclaimed Malcolm. "Wade and Diana killed Aphrodite!"
"We did?" Wade blinked, exchanging gazes of disbelief with Diana. "I didn't think the Olympians could be killed."
"We cannot be," said Apollo. He smiled proudly at Diana and Wade. "You did not kill my sister. You defeated her. Aphrodite is still very much alive . . . she is simply in an extremely weakened state. As a consequence, she has retired to Mount Olympus for what will certainly be a very prolonged sabbatical. It will be quite a number of cycles before she regains her strength."
Cupid's saintly eyes twinkled. "My mother occasionally must be put in her place," he added, with a sideways glance of camaraderie at his uncle. "It is most . . . refreshing to find humans who possess the power to do so. And entertaining, at that."
"Oh, nice way to talk about your mom," Mallory teased him, elbowing Cupid and chuckling.
"Gentlemen, we will be forever indebted to you," Professor Arturo said, nodding gratefully in turn at Apollo and Cupid. "What you have done for us today . . ."
"Think nothing of it," Apollo interrupted the Professor. He subtly gripped Malcolm's hand, sending a tingly vibration through the adolescent's nervous system.
Quinn stepped over to the two male gods, imploring them with his sincere face. "There is one more thing I would like to ask of you . . ." He motioned to the stone statue of Maggie. "She's . . . my lover . . ."
Cupid nodded, in understanding. "And my mother was responsible for that, as well?" With non-verbal confirmation from Quinn, Cupid turned to Apollo. "Uncle . . . ?"
Apollo nodded at his nephew. The tall, manly sun god left Malcolm's company, and strode over to where Maggie stood suspended in stone. He placed his silky hands against Maggie's rough outer surface, caressing her bosom and torso. The hard edges practically melted, and Maggie's skin morphed from a rocky exoskeleton back into smooth human flesh covered by the colorful fabric of her stylish clothing.
As the stone melted back into skin, Maggie stared at her savior, Apollo. "Who are you? . . ." In a split second, a familiar face was by her side. "Quinn?" she groaned, dazed. "What happened?"
"Maggie!!" Quinn threw his arms around Maggie, smothering her with the biggest hug he'd ever given anyone in his entire life.
Everyone else crowded around them, and Maggie noticed some additional faces among the bunch. "Colin?! Diana?!" She moved forward to embrace both of them. "How did they find you? . . ." A third shock caught her eye. "Oh my god! . . ." Maggie made her way over to where the bronzed body of Rickman had become a solidified alloy. "Is that . . . ?? . . . How . . . ?? . . ."
Quinn came up behind her, touching Maggie's shoulder. "Aphrodite did it to him. She and Rickman were coming after us at the same time, and he kind of got in her way."
Exhaling, Maggie took a moment to absorb the situation. "I've heard of bronzing baby booties, but . . ."
"Maggie, don't you understand?" Rembrandt emphasized. "Rickman is gone! It's over. No more wolfboy."
Maggie smacked her hand against her forehead. "I know I should be relieved, Quinn . . . but it just doesn't feel right. I should have been the one to avenge Steven's death. Rickman should have died at MY hands!"
Quinn draped his arms around Maggie's torso, holding her close. "Rickman will never bother us again."
Maggie tried to smile, but the bittersweet rock in her stomach remained.
"About one hour until dusk," Arturo informed the group, glancing up at the sky. He glanced down at the timer. "And a little less than that until we slide. Now we can continue to forge onward, to find and return to our respective homeworlds."
Sighing, Maggie stared ahead toward the setting sun. "At least the rest of you have homes to go back to . . . Malcolm and I lost our home."
Malcolm proceeded to break the long silence that followed Maggie's hard-hitting statement. "My home is with Rembrandt now." He clutched Remmy's hand, sticking close to his older friend.
Quinn leaned down to kiss the nape of Maggie's neck, his arms still caressing her abdomen. "And yours is with me."* * *
"Come on, Professor. Yoga is good for you." Colin offered Arturo encouragement as the hefty scholar huffed and puffed while straining to separate his legs even further apart.
"Bah! Now I know how the turkey breast feels right before its wishbone snaps into two!" panted the Professor. "Mr. Mallory, I implore you to explain how you can possibly find this relaxing!"
Colin inhaled, peacefully. "It cleanses the toxins from your body." With his eyes shut, Colin stretched his arms high above his head.
"If I had to choose between a few toxins floating around inside my arteries or my innards being systematically dismembered," grunted Arturo, collapsing onto his back, "I would gladly take the toxins." He laid down flat atop the mat in the outdoor courtyard, doing daily meditations along with Colin, Malcolm, and Janine.
"So Colin," said Janine, who had flexed her legs comfortably in a lotus position, "what was it like up on Mount Olympus? What did you even do up there for three days?" Unlike Professor Arturo, she didn't seem the least bit winded.
"Three days?" exclaimed Colin. "It didn't even feel like one day. I could not possibly have been absent for that long?"
"Well, you were no longer on Earth. And Aphrodite told us that time moves slower up there," Malcolm pointed out, lifting his knee up to his ear.
"What I don't understand is what she meant when she told me she'd lived two lives?" Colin pondered. "Unless she was referring to her clone's life . . ."
"Ah, so that was her clone who turned Maggie into stone." It made sense now to Janine, as she pulled her legs over and back behind her shoulders.
Professor Arturo took a long swig from his water bottle. He brushed the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jumpsuit. "Simultaneous existence," he concluded. "It's a concept in theoretical physics where two different versions of the same body can exist separately and equally for limited periods of time. They live out different experiences, but once Aphrodite rejoins her two selves, she then retains the full memories of both selves in their entirety."
"So because Aphrodite is immortal, neither her nor her clone could be destroyed, right?" Malcolm asked. "And eventually, they'd have to become one again."
Colin peered up at the clouds. "I think she knew what was going on the whole time. Aphrodite forced me to drink and digest her ambrosia so I would become a god. But I refused. She said that one's free will must compel them to want immortality in order for the ambrosia to make you a deity. I guess she hoped the drink would somehow entice me to join her forever on Mount Olympus."
Janine bit her lip. "But Aphrodite seemed like one possessive brood. What if Cupid hadn't rescued you? Do you think she would have kept you up there forever, no matter what you wanted?"
Raising his waist to form an arch with his body, Colin sighed as he began another stomach crunch. "I do not believe I wish to find out."
On the opposite end of the compound, the other sliders were enjoying a delicious brunch of fresh fruit and a variety of sandwiches.
"Boy, the Professor sure picked the wrong morning to start his diet," chuckled Rembrandt, biting into a thick Black Forest ham sandwich.
"Yeah," agreed Mallory, his mouth full of chicken, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, honey mustard, and sourdough bread. "I can finally enjoy a Monte Cristo without having to worry about getting stomachaches or quantum seizures."
Diana raised her glass of sparkling cider to propose a toast. "Well, here's to the universal collective consciousness. Without it, I doubt I'd be sitting here right now. I doubt any of us would."
"I'll drink to that." Wade clinked her glass with Diana's, in agreement.
Quinn nibbled from a vine of grapes that Maggie fed to him with her fingers. "I still can't believe you two went up against a goddess and defeated her," he said. "With all of the electromagnetic energy that Aphrodite's matrix most likely stored and carried, I would have expected her to blow all of us to kingdom come."
"I doubt I could have done it all by myself," Wade admitted, smiling thankfully at Diana. "Even with all of the natural elements, my spells might not have been enough to trump Aphrodite. And I'm sure she could have warded off even my most intense telekinesis. But when Diana and I blended my telekinesis with Diana's energy burst, we were able to create a combustion strong enough to overpower Aphrodite."
"It probably had something to do with the penned up agony of Rickman's victims . . . they used me as a vehicle through which to relieve their misery," Diana speculated. "I was already angry at how Rickman abused so many of us, and how he had no plans on stopping anytime soon. Aphrodite just happened to be a convenient enemy whom we could all take our combined fury out on."
"I never thought I'd be saying this," Wade added, squeezing a slice of lemon into her drink, "but for once the Kromaggs actually did something right. If they had never engineered me as a cyberiad, I don't think I could have known how to make contact with Diana. The psychic connection between her and I is what ultimately prevented Aphrodite from destroying us all."
One of the servants at the compound entered, carrying a plate of various melons. He set it down at the edge of the hot springs pool, where the six sliders were gathered.
Maggie picked up a watermelon slice, and savored its juicy crunch. "I'm sorry for how I acted before, you guys," Maggie apologized to the group, mainly addressing Quinn and Wade. Her face shamefully stared down at the gleam of the pool as she failed to make eye contact with any of her friends. "With all that's happened, I was taking my anger out on you, and I shouldn't have done that. The whole time, I was really angry at Rickman . . . and Logan . . . and Geiger . . . and the Kromaggs . . . I guess I was a real bitch to you, wasn't I?"
Wade softly touched Maggie's shoulder. "No you weren't," she said, telling a white lie. "Death is something you can't escape from seeing when you slide. After awhile, it builds up inside of you. But Rickman is history now. We can focus on getting everyone home, rather than getting the best of goddesses."
Rembrandt chortled a bit, thinking of a past sliding adventure. "Do you guys remember Bauggawawa, the crazy lake lady, guardian of her golden fleece?" He spoke mainly to Maggie, Diana, and Mallory, who'd actually experienced that slide with him.
"Do I have to?" Diana rolled her eyes, munching on a piece of cantaloupe. "What a nightmare! She followed us through the vortex, and then met an equally vindictive double of herself on the other end. Fortunately, we were able to leave them BOTH behind."
Mallory rested his head against the patio tiles, staring up at the sunny sky. "I wonder . . . if they exist on other worlds, do you think Gods and Goddesses have doubles?"
Half-snickering, half-grimacing, Rembrandt shook his head. "Fog Boy, I don't think I wanna find out."
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