earth 30858
Episode 7.07
Life Support
by Slidemania
Disclaimer: The Sliders television series' characters and storylines are property of Universal and St. Clare Entertainment, series creator Tracy Tormé and Fox Broadcasting Network and The Sci-Fi Channel. No copyright infringement is intended and no monetary profit is being made off of this work. All other characters who are not found on the Sliders television series were created by me, and should only be used with my prior permission. Posting to archives is encouraged as long as my name and title stay with the story.

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

I would like to credit Steve Stoliar who wrote the script dialogue from the Sliders episode “A Current Affair” and Janet Saunders and Jennifer McGinnis who wrote the script dialogue from the Sliders episode “The Java Jive,” both in Season 5 of the series. Actual character dialogue from Stoliar's and Saunders/McGinnis's scripts are used during this episode.

* * *

Rembrandt and Quinn strolled casually along the sidewalk in downtown Oxnard. With his tongue, Remmy lapped up the fried ice cream he held atop a cone. Quinn just stared absent-mindedly into the window of a Claiborne Imports clothing outlet, as they passed by the boutique.

“Maggie's sure gonna be mad that we didn't bring her to the 60% off sale at GAP para Mujeres,” Quinn commented, staring down at his shoes. He slapped the timer from one hand into his other palm.

“Wasn't any time. We had to get spare parts for the timer,” Rembrandt reminded him, reassuringly. The Cryin' Man bit into the circular rim of his flavored cone. “Look, I know you've been down, Q-Ball. But we're getting closer to you and Colin's homeworld. I can just feel it.”

Quinn shuffled aside as a busty, tan woman wearing a feathery, colorful, sequined Mexican sundress glided past them on her rollerblades. “I'm glad someone's optimistic, Rem.”

They stopped in front of an electronics store by the crosswalk. An HDTV set, tuned to the local news, could be heard and seen through the window.

“And as the city of Oxnard continues to enjoy Fiesta de Marzo,” reported a female anchorwoman from her studio newsroom, “citizens are treated to a third consecutive year of piñatas, mariachi bands, and indigenous cuisine filling the streets. Some area residents, however, have complained about public nudity from some of Oxnard's bolder youth.”

A news clip was shown with a cluster of teenagers and college-age students parading completely naked down a street right in the middle of the festivities. Their body parts were selectively blurred out, of course.

“How about that, Carlos?” the anchorwoman chuckled to her male co-anchor.

Carlos smirked, replying to his colleague. “Well, Maria, somehow I don't think that's what Mayor Zaragoza had in mind when he proposed this community celebration to keep youth out of trouble.”

Maria continued to read the news from her teleprompter, in a professional demeanor. “Despite arrests of many area youths for continued exhibitionism, the trend doesn't seem to be going away. In fact, an organized youth coalition known as Kids for Skin is preparing to legally challenge the city's anti-nudity ordinance. The group's attorney, Ross J. Kelley, had this to say . . .”

“They're not hurting anyone. As long as they aren't toting guns or defacing property, I say let our youngsters bare it all!” An alternate of lawyer Ross J. Kelley could be seen on the TV screen, motioning passionately with his arms. The smarmy lawyer stared straight into the camera, and, pointing with his finger, declared, “Children of Oxnard - I'll fight for you!”

Quinn rolled his eyes. “Is that the only line he knows?”

Carlos assumed the news bulletin from Maria. “Mayor John Zaragoza, in a statement through his deputy mayor, stood by his position against exhibitionism. In other news . . .”

Rembrandt shook his head, snickering. “Crazy kids . . .” He and Quinn began to cross the street together. They headed toward a medium-sized city park.

“I hope everyone remembers where to meet us,” Quinn murmured, crossing his fingers behind his back.

They walked toward the bronzed entrance plaque that read: Howard Spegman Municipal Park, with a patch of lilacs planted in front of it.

Half an hour later, Quinn and Rembrandt still hadn't found the rest of their group.

“Man, I told them to meet us by the giant elm,” huffed Rembrandt, taking a moment to sit down on a park bench. “How much time, Q-Ball?”

“Just under 10 minutes.”

“Yeah, we're cutting it way too close, especially with a group as big as ours.” Rembrandt stared off into the distance. “What's going on over there?”

“Fiesta,” Quinn answered, glancing at the Mexican festivities that could be seen taking place half a kilometer away from them. He dug into his pocket, pulling out a small ticket. “Wade gave me this waiver for free food, earlier. She said it was for the fiesta in the park . . .”

Quinn's vision was suddenly altered, as it shifted to a view of Wade dancing with a man who was dressed as a Spanish conquistador. Wade let the costumed gentleman spin her around, as they frolicked amidst a crowd of people adorned in an array of Latin American attire. Then Wade reached out, linking hands with Diana Davis as the two of them did a quick little impromptu twirl together.

“Q-Ball?” Quinn could hear Rembrandt speaking to him as Quinn absent-mindedly dropped the ticket to the ground.

“They're over there.” Quinn pointed to the nearby celebration. “I saw Wade and Diana.”

Rembrandt craned his neck, scanning the crowd. Most of the people were of Hispanic or Latino descent. “I don't see them anywh - . . .” He paused, realizing what Quinn meant. “Oh, you ‘saw' saw them!”

“Yeah.” Quinn and Rembrandt began moving closer to the ongoing festival.

A row of trees on each side of the pathway lined the paved lane where the Oxnardians jigged, ate, and chattered in merriment. Venders were set up on the grass, and at least three different piñatas hung from the branches of each tree. Some of the piñatas resembled dolphins, rabbits, or birds - but all were coated in brightly arranged paper mache.

“I don't know about this. I haven't spotted them yet, have you?” Rembrandt looked around in frustration.

“No,” answered Quinn. “Not yet . . .”

“Hey, Quinn! Remmy!” The two of them heard - and then saw - Wade running over to them. “Oh, we were supposed to meet by the giant elm, weren't we?”

“Wade, were you just dancing with a Don Quixote-wannabe?” Quinn asked her, curiously.

Rembrandt gave Quinn an inquisitive glance.

“Um, yeah . . .” Wade tentatively replied.

Rembrandt slapped Quinn on the shoulder. “Damn, Q-Ball! You are good!”

“Oh, Colin!” Quinn gritted his teeth in frustration, as he spotted a blindfolded Colin attempting to whack a pink-and-blue elephant piñata. Mallory was standing nearby, mischievously encouraging Colin.

Putting his arm around Wade, Rembrandt snickered his trademark laugh. “Oh, crazy Farm Boy!” He then said to Wade, “Your man is going to do some serious damage to him one of these days.”

Wade laughed along with Rembrandt, as the two of them joined Quinn, who had whisked the blindfold off of his older brother.

“Quinn, I was having fun . . .” Colin protested.

“Bro, we're running out of time.” Quinn shoved the timer in Colin's face.

Rembrandt draped his arms around both Mallory and Colin. “Come on, let's get the others and find a shady corner somewhere, so we can slide.”

* * *

Mallory caught Malcolm around the waist, as the adolescent became the last one to fall out of the ERP Bridge.

“We have 38 hours,” Quinn announced to the group, as the purple quantum light vanished. He stuffed the timer back into his pocket. “So what new mess have we slid into this time?”

A loud boom exploded from nearby.

“You had to ask,” groaned Janine.

The sliders saw themselves in a backlot clustered with empty canisters of gasoline, abandoned dumpsters, and litter strewn all over the pavement.

Professor Arturo released a virile shout, as his rotund body dove to the ground. The Professor had just avoided being hit by a laser-like stream of energy.

“Don't move, humans!” A woman-like figure had mounted a stack of crates, aiming her weapon strategically downward toward the sliders. She was physically slender, with roughly chopped blondish-brown hair, and wore a sleek black bodysuit. But something was different about her face. Her forehead was mutated with several prominent wrinkles and indentations.

“She's a Humagg!” Colin realized, having studied the warrior's face.

“If any of you so much as flinch, I will shoot you with radiation that will cook your bodies from the inside out,” the female Humagg fiercely warned them, reiterating her intent to kill.

Rembrandt spread out his arms, stepping forward. “Go ahead, 'Magg. Draw my blood. But it will wipe out your entire kind.”

The Humagg glared at him. “What are you talking about, human?!” she demanded, through gritted teeth. Then, taking a second glance at Rembrandt, she stated, “I have seen you before . . .”

“Kendra, halt!” A trio of male Humaggs leapt out from behind some bins and rusty cylinders, where they had been crouched in waiting. They each grabbed ahold of Rembrandt, latching onto his arms and spreading them outward. One of these Humaggs looked up at Kendra, who was still towering above them all. “Look carefully, Kendra. Identify this human.” He gestured his head toward the other sliders. “These humans.”

After a moment of recollection, Kendra spat out her answer. “The transdimensional fugitives.”

The male Humagg flashed a fake smile at their human captives. “Forgive her. She is a slow learner.”

“So, our reputation precedes us.” Maggie folded her arms.

“Hands where I can see them, human!” Kendra barked at Maggie, who promptly unfolded her arms.

One of the three Humaggs began speaking a Kromagg dialect into a walkie-talkie device that he'd removed from his belt.

“What's he saying?” Quinn called over to Rembrandt.

“He's calling for reinforcements,” Rembrandt said, audibly translating sporadic parts of the Kromagg language. “They know we have the virus.”

“It was only a matter of time before you arrived,” Kendra said to them, smirking at the sliders.

All of a sudden, Colin's body tensed up and he began shaking, as though he was experiencing the beginning stages of a seizure.

“What is wrong with him?!” demanded the third male Humagg, taken aback by Colin's behavior.

It soon became apparent, as a sinister Kromagg whistle vibrated through the air. Kendra had her eyes trained intently on Colin, imposing her mind into his as she probed for information.

“She's gonna kill him!” Malcolm shouted, concerned for Colin's safety.

“Kendra, stop that at once!” one of the Humaggs commanded to his female colleague.

Colin suddenly collapsed to the ground, as the sinister Kromagg whistling sound ceased.

Popping open her eyes, Kendra revealed, “Rembrandt Brown is not the only one who carries the virus . . .”

Before Kendra could continue, the stack of crates she was standing atop of came crashing down below her. Wade's face was constrained in concentration, as she finished focusing mentally on Kendra's pedestal.

As the other Humaggs were distracted by Kendra's spontaneous fall, Janine dove to he ground, grabbing the nearest sharp object she could find - a shard of glass. Janine winced preemptively, preparing herself for the pain as she quickly dug the glass into the flesh of her arm. Blood began to ooze from her skin.

Maggie, who had been standing closest to Rembrandt, took that opportunity to bring a clenched fist and arm down hard on the neck of the Humagg nearest to her, taking him down. Rembrandt was then able to use his free fist to punch one of his Humaggs assailants squarely across the jaw, while Quinn tackled the third one to the ground. Arturo and Malcolm rushed over to Colin - who was still sprawled out on the ground - to help him. Diana grabbed the energy weapon that had fallen out of Kendra's clutches, and Mallory and Wade hurried to Janine's side to make sure she was okay.

Janine held up her bloody arm, proudly. “Their hours are numbered.”

Diana had the gun trained on the unconscious Kendra. “Get the rest of their weapons!” Diana instructed to the rest of the sliders, over her shoulder.

Maggie, Rembrandt, and Quinn each grabbed a weapon.

“Yep, definitely a plasma-squirter,” Rembrandt said, cringing while he fingered the gun in his hands.

“Something's wrong.” Mallory glanced around at the four unconscious Humaggs. “They're not gagging and choking, like the Kromaggs usually do when we release the virus.”

“Well, since they are only half-Kromagg, it probably takes longer to have an effect on them,” reasoned the Professor.

Maggie extended her arm, and shot a plasma ray directly at one of the Humaggs. It was a straight head-shot.

“Maggie?” Quinn looked at her, shocked.

“We can't take any chances. As long as they're still alive, they could alert the other Humaggs about our presence here, before they all die. Who knows what the Dynasty has planned for us!” Maggie ejected three more blasts from her weapon, instantly killing Kendra and the other two unconscious Humaggs. “I say we hide out and slide out, before anyone else discovers we're here.” She led her nine friends out of the back alley.

Rembrandt spread his arms to shoo the other sliders into retreat. “Back! Get back!” he hissed, spotting an oncoming vehicle.

The sliders watched as a humvee filled with four Kromagg officers came barreling down the deserted street. All of the Kromaggs were clutching their chests or bodies, gasping desperately for air. The driver struggled to maintain control of the military jeep, swerving in zigzags until he could bring the humvee to a complete stop.

Rembrandt, Maggie, Quinn, and Mallory - whom Diana had skittishly given her gun to - cautiously approached the vehicle with their plasma rifles aimed. Quinn reached over and touched one of the Kromagg's necks.

“Dead,” Quinn determined, checking for a pulse.

Gradually, more of the sliders gathered around the humvee. Rembrandt and Maggie began lifting the dead Kromagg bodies out of the vehicle.

“It's still running. We can use this,” Rembrandt said, indicating the humvee. “I'm gonna take this bucket for a ride - see if I can scout out some shelter for us.” He got behind the driver's seat.

“Whoa, Remmy. I'll come too.” Maggie jumped into the back of the humvee, before Rembrandt could drive off. “You'll need an extra gun to watch your back.”

Mallory hopped into the front seat with Rembrandt. “Two guns are better than one.”

Wade's face fell. She implored Mallory with her eyes not to go.

“I'll be back, I promise.” Mallory leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, from when he sat in the passenger seat.

“Janine . . .” Rembrandt motioned for her to come around to his side of the humvee, and then he handed his gun to Janine. “I can't drive and shoot at the same time. Take this.”

The seven remaining sliders watched Maggie, Rembrandt, and Mallory, who drove away, leaving behind a cloud of smoke.

* * *

The humvee's engine vibrated smoothly as Rembrandt drove himself, Maggie, and Mallory down another abandoned street. Heaps of litter, burnt wood, and skeletal corpses were strewn across the pavement. Entire buildings were dilapidated, scorched, or completely demolished.

Shaking her head, Maggie muttered, “What a place to live.”

“It doesn't look like anyone lives here anymore, Maggie,” observed Rembrandt, turning the corner.

Off in the distance, a manta ship came into view, swerved, and plummeted downward. With a thunderous boom, clouds of smoke arose from where the ship had crashed.

“Incoming,” Mallory belatedly said, in monotone.

“At least they won't be coming for us.” Maggie tilted her head, trying to pick up a faint sound she suddenly heard coming from nearby. “Guys, do you hear something? It sounds like voices screaming for help . . . human voices.”

Rembrandt followed the sounds as they became louder. Before long, he was driving toward an empty parking lot, where about twenty people were scattered across an open space, shouting and waving their arms.

A dainty woman wearing a simple skirt and blouse hurried over to them, half-limping. “Please, you have to help us! We've got people hurt!”

One thin middle-aged man was sprawled out on the pavement, hollering in agony. His left arm was completely missing, replaced by nothing but excessive blood. Another woman's face was covered with burns, as she kicked her legs wildly while lying flat on her back. Some of the other pedestrians were trying their best to assist them.

Stepping on the humvee's brakes, Rembrandt stopped the engine and leapt out of the vehicle. He tore off his navy fleece jacket, approaching the victim with a dismembered arm. “Get this wrapped around him! We've got to stop the bleeding!”

“Where did you people come from?” Maggie asked the nervous woman.

“Free Zone. We escaped through the air vents.” A woman with a short, ragged mullet of light-blond hair was helping a limping teenage girl to her feet. She stopped in her tracks at the sight of Maggie Beckett, recognizing the slider's facial features. “Maggie? . . .”

“Christina . . .” Maggie gasped, coming face-to-face with the woman whom they'd helped almost three years ago.

Mallory watched the two women gape at one another. “You two know each other?”

Maggie was already embracing a tearful Christina Griffin in her arms. “She was Wade's cellmate in the breeder camps,” Maggie explained to Mallory, over Christina's shoulder.

“Rembrandt!” Christina called out to Remmy, spotting him several feet away. Maggie took over helping the adolescent girl whom Christina had been assisting.

Rembrandt took Christina in his arms. “Girl, we thought we'd never see you again. You with these people?”

Christina nodded, glancing around. “The Kromaggs kept us housed in this facility . . . they called it the ‘Free Zone.' We've been there for months - although it's probably been longer. Days just blend together in there.”

Nodding, Rembrandt empathized, “I know what you mean. Listen, are there medical supplies at this ‘Free Zone'? We've gotta get your friends some help.”

Christina pointed toward one of the streets. “It's only about four blocks away. We didn't get very far before the Kromaggs came after us. But their ship crashed after they fired on us . . .”

“We saw,” Mallory informed her.

Looking around, Christina asked, “Are Colin and Quinn with you?”

“They're a few miles back, with everyone else.” Maggie took charge, leaving Christina with an inquisitive gaze. “Rembrandt, Mallory, let's get the most severely wounded loaded up in the humvee. Rem, have Christina navigate you to this ‘Free Zone.' Mallory and I will stay behind with those who aren't as badly injured.” She clapped her hands together. “Let's go, people!”

Expediently, the barely-wounded humans in the group helped the three sliders load up any dismembered or burned humans into the back of the humvee. Mallory made sure to hand Christina his gun right before Rembrandt drove off with her.

* * *

“This is it! Stop here.” Christina, sitting next to Rembrandt in the passenger seat of the humvee, indicated a large building in fairly good condition. The windows had been plastered over, and the only sign of life was the cover to an air vent that laid on the ground in front of the opening.

“Nice digs,” Rembrandt commented, with a hint of sarcasm.

“It was an abandoned government facility. There must be at least four- or five-hundred of us living in there.” Christina hopped out of the passenger seat, flinging open the side doors to help everyone else. Rembrandt parked the vehicle as she continued, “They won't tell us why we're being kept in such a livable environment. In fact, we rarely ever see any of the Kromaggs, except for the few who come out once in awhile to growl at us.” Christina and Rembrandt, along with a few of the mildly injured humans whom they'd brought along, began lifting the critically-wounded humans out of the humvee.

“Christina . . . what happened to your baby? . . . your son?” Rembrandt and another gentleman with a scratched face carefully laid the man whose arm had been dismembered flat on the ground in front of the opening to the air vent.

Along with another unscathed woman, Christina towed a small lady who was having trouble breathing over to where Rembrandt had positioned himself. “Jonathan. When we were first captured, they took him away from me. I thought I'd never see him again. But then, about a week later, they brought him back. I couldn't believe it. I thought for certain that Jonathan would be forced to become a Humagg warrior.” She stared toward the air vent. “But they took him away from me again about three days ago.” The words got caught in her throat. “I haven't seen him since. That's why I decided to escape with the others - I had a feeling they wouldn't be bringing Jonathan back voluntarily. Call it a mother's intuition. I figured if I was going to save him, it wouldn't be inside of there.” Her eyes became filled with tears.

Placing his hand on Christina's shoulder, Remmy reassured her, “We're gonna help you get to the bottom of this. You won't have to worry about the Kromaggs anymore, I promise. But right now, we've gotta get these people back inside.” He spoke to the humans who'd sustained only minor injuries. “Listen up. I need you guys to get these folks into your ‘Free Zone.' Do you have any doctors in there?” They nodded. “Then make sure they're tended to. Keep their bodies vertical when moving through the air ducts. Go as quickly as you can, but don't be rough on them. Christina and I are going to go back and get the others. We're bringing more of our friends to help. Understand?”

The people whom Rembrandt had given instructions to nodded their heads.

Rembrandt and Christina got back into the humvee and drove off to get Maggie, Mallory, and the other victims.

* * *

“They're back.” Quinn gestured to the large, spacious hooded jeep of which Rembrandt Brown was behind the steering wheel. He and his six companions could see the vague outline of someone seated beside Remmy in the front of the vehicle.

“Who's that woman sitting next to Rembrandt?” asked Diana, squinting to focus in on the humvee's windshield as it neared the group.

Once the vehicle was temporarily parked, Rembrandt swung open his door and jumped out. “Hey guys, look who I found!”

The passenger door opened, and Christina Griffin popped her head out, scanning the group of sliders for more familiar faces.

“Christina?!” Wade's eyes lit up with great excitement and relief. The red-headed slider ran excitedly toward her former cellmate, and the two of them met in a big hug.

“Wade!” Christina tearfully hugged her friend back. “I didn't think I'd ever see you again! I'm so glad you're okay!”

“What are you doing here?” Wade asked Christina, with a mixture of concern and curiosity. “My friends told me they found you and your son a new home on another parallel world.”

“They did,” Christina confirmed. “But about one year later, that world got invaded too. Besides, it was never really truly home for us.”

Quinn and Colin had walked up behind Wade, ready to greet Christina as soon as she and Wade finished their embrace.

“Quinn! Colin!” Christina proceeded to hug both of the Mallory brothers.

Rembrandt took Christina's hand and led her toward the rest of the sliders. “Christina,” he said, making more introductions, “this is Diana Davis, Malcolm Eastman, Janine Chen, and Professor Maximilian Arturo.”

Christina's eyes swept over all of them, finally fixating on Arturo. “So you're the Professor I kept hearing so much about?” She shared a nostalgic side-glance with Wade.

“The one and only,” Wade smirked.

Professor Arturo clasped his hands around Christina's fingers. “Madam, it is a pleasure. From what I have heard, you are an extraordinarily brave woman.”

Malcolm looked around. “Where are Mallory and Maggie?”

“They're helping my friends back at the ‘Free Zone.' It's a compound where hundreds of us have been housed for over a year,” explained Christina.

“She'll tell you all about it on our way there,” Rembrandt interjected. “Right now, there are people who need us. Their lives literally depend on it.”

Christina and the seven sliders managed to cram themselves inside the hooded humvee. Rembrandt fired up the engine once again, and they burned rubber.

* * *

The sliders' humvee continued to putter along as they pulled up to the Free Zone building. Maggie and Mallory were outside the entrance to the still-uncovered air vent, directing the last couple of injured people inside.

“Christina, I don't understand,” Quinn said, flinching in confusion after having heard Christina tell more of her experiences inside the Free Zone. “The Kromaggs don't usually provide edible food or new clothes for their human captives.”

“Yeah, from what I've seen, a prisoner is lucky if he gets a hard mattress in his jail cell,” Rembrandt added, cynically.

Christina shrugged. “We didn't question it. Most of the people in there had been abducted for the very first time. They were just thankful to be alive.”

Maggie and Mallory came over to the humvee. Diana and Malcolm were the last ones in the process of climbing out of the vehicle.

“Everyone's inside,” Maggie informed the group. “But we've gotta go in too. I promised that we'd help tend to the wounded victims.”

Janine cringed as she stared at the air vent. “Um, do we even know what we'll be crawling into? How can we be so sure this isn't some Kromagg trap?”

“We can't,” Rembrandt admitted. “But if there were any Kromaggs still lurking around in there, they won't be for much longer.” He gestured to the open air vent. “Remember, the virus is free-flowing.”

One by one, the sliders squirmed and dragged their way through the air ventilation system on their bellies. A long, dark tunnel of pitch blackness guided them for what seemed like miles. Suddenly, a rectangular opening of light flooded into Maggie's eyes, as she led the explorers to the end of the tunnel.

A crowd of people had gathered around the opening to the building's air ventilation system. Most were helping the most severely injured refugees make their way inside. As the last several sliders emerged from the air ducts, they were greeted by cheering and applause from an onlooking group of about two-dozen men and women who hadn't been needed to help the injured.

“Looks like we're famous,” Mallory beamed, gladly soaking in the attention.

Christina stood in front of the sliders, turning to address her fellow prisoners. “Yes, the rumors you've been hearing are true. These are the sliders you've heard so much about. They're going to help us escape.”

“Now hold up,” Rembrandt interjected, as another roar of applause erupted from the compound. “You've got a lot of wounded friends here who can't be moved.”

“But at least some of us can escape right away,” pointed out an alternate of Gomez Calhoun. He was gesturing to the opened air vent.

Pausing, Rembrandt looked at Quinn for help. After a silent exchange of glances, Quinn spoke up. “We might want to have a couple of people scout out the outside world, before we all go back out, just to make sure it's safe.”

“Yeah, there still could be armed Humaggs lurking around out there,” Rembrandt added. “It might take longer before the Humaggs perish.”

“Right on, Cryin' Man!” a woman from the crowd pumped her fist in the air. “We trust you!”

Diana cleared her throat. “Let's help tend to the wounded. Every second is going to count with some of them.”

Nodding in agreement, Maggie said, “We might also want to create a line of defense in case any surviving Humaggs try to break through.”

As nearly one-hundred people accompanied the sliders down the corridor, Wade began walking in step with Christina. “Um, Christina, how does everyone know who we are? Did you tell them about meeting us?”

“Not just me.” Christina draped her arm around Wade as they continued toward the end of the hallway. “A surprising number of the prisoners here seem to have recalled encountering one or more of you before their worlds were conquered. Some say that Quinn and Colin belonged to a powerful family media empire on their homeworld. Others talk about how Maggie's double was a revered astronaut on their Earth. And Rembrandt seems to be the most well-known, probably because of his music career and the fact that he's now the prime target of the Dynasty. The Kromaggs have zapped several holographic images at us of Rembrandt as a wanted fugitive, and they've promised amnesty to any human who'll aid in his capture.” She scoffed, bitterly. “Like we'd believe them.”

Christina, her fellow prisoners, and the sliders entered a large convention room, where dozens of people were milling around. Many sat at card tables or on couches and chairs, chattering in preoccupied murmurs. At least three-dozen of them moved forward to assist their wounded peers.

“Hal, we've got to get Mitch's and Luke's bodies amputated!” Christina urgently stressed to one of her fellow prisoners, as two dismembered male victims were brought in. “Where are Dr. Lujan, Dr. Jacobson, Dr. Murray, Dr. Tassler, Dr. Steinberg, Dr. Penkava, Dr. Ruskin, Dr. Sanchez, Dr. White, Dr. Hong . . . what happened to all our medical professionals?! Someone round them all up!” Barking out orders to her comrades, Christina was clearly becoming flustered.

Wade put her arm around Christina, who was shaking, and helped to steady Christina's shoulders. “Everything's going to be okay. We're here to help you, Christina.”

Maggie clapped her hands together and began shouting out orders to all the people milling around in the Free Zone, as the community's doctors began to arrive. The wounded victims received appropriate attention based on the severity of their injuries.

Christina shook her head, her eyes blurring in tears. She and Wade sat down. “It just doesn't make any sense!” Christina ranted, her face flinching in pain. “Everyone in the Free Zone was handpicked by the Dynasty. They flashed these weird glowing lights on our skin, and then brought us here. We all went through that exact same process. For the longest time, we've been trying to figure out what it all means. Then they house us, keep us well-fed, give us cleaning supplies and fairly nice clothes . . .”

Wade tilted her head, curiously. “The Kromaggs never struck me as ones who'd bother to give humans a decent wardrobe. At least not in my experience. Where did they even get your clothes from?”

“Probably from raided worlds,” Christina guessed. “Same with the food, since most of it is pre-packaged. And the showers and bathroom facilities are just left over from when this facility was run by humans, before whatever world this is got invaded.” She heaved a big sigh as her tears subsided. “What I don't understand is why they went to all this trouble. Why not just slap us in prison suits and shove us in cages? . . . the way they do on most prison colonies. What makes all of us so special? What did the Kromaggs have planned for us? I mean, there must be some point to this . . . to all these special accommodations they've given us, right?”

“At this point, Christina, I don't really think it matters.” Wade tried her best to soothe Christina's angst. “Trust me, we've made it so the Kromaggs can never return to this world again.”

“What do you mean?” Christina asked, sniffing.

“I'll explain later. Right now, we've got to do everything we can to keep your friends from dying.” Wade rose from the table, and Christina resiliently followed her.

* * *

“Coming through! We've got more who need help!” Diana plowed through the thick crowd, her and Janine carrying an unconscious elderly man.

The mob assembled in the triage area moved aside to let this newest procession pass through. Pairs of two gradually brought in individual victims who'd just been attacked.

“What the devil just happened?!” Rembrandt demanded, seeing the latest batch of injuries.

“The Kromaggs left behind a little booby trap,” grumbled Maggie, whom - with the help of Mallory - was lending bodily support to a young woman.

“I'm okay, just a little shaken,” the woman assured Maggie and Mallory. They helped her sit herself down into a chair.

“Wait . . .” Wade took a close look at the woman's face. She had long, thick, reddish-brunette hair flowing past her shoulders, and was easily in her early-twenties. “Devin!” she practically shrieked, recognizing the girl whom the sliders had saved from slavery about five years ago.

“Wade?!” Devin jumped up from her seat to embrace Wade Wells. “I didn't think I'd ever see you again, especially after the Kromaggs . . .”

“They invaded your world too?” Rembrandt touched Devin's shoulder in sympathy.

Devin nodded, glumly. “They descended upon the Dry Gulch in gigantic machines with wings . . .”

“Manta ships,” Diana filled in the blanks, somewhat unnecessarily.

“. . . Jeremy was in the desert with some of the other men, searching for a runaway, when they attacked,” Devin hoarsely narrated her husband's fate. “Jeremy made it back to Aquarius, but not before his abdomen was scorched by one of their weapons. By the time the Master Healer came out of hiding to attend to Jeremy . . .” Choking up, Devin trailed off, unable to complete the oral account.

Wade took Devin into her arms again.

After several minutes, Rembrandt gently asked Devin, “Weren't you safe underground in the Lost City?”

Devin shook her head. “Cutter's men tried to take refuge in the rocks above Aquarius, but it was only a matter of time before the Kromaggs tracked them down. Those monsters obliterated the cliffs above our city, and we couldn't stay hidden any longer. The devil rats didn't have anything better than their crossbows as a defense against the Kromaggs. Once the cliffs were destroyed, all of us Water Bearers were driven above ground into the desert.” Through sobs, Devin cried out, “The only solace I can take in the murder of my tribe - of my family - is the image of Cutter's dead body spread across the desert sand, a trail of blood and bones. Even as the Kromaggs dragged me away through the humidity, I couldn't help but laugh to myself at what had happened to Cutter. The Kromaggs may have gotten us, but at least they got that bastard too!”

Mallory, Diana, Maggie, and Janine remained silent, listening to Devin's horrifying description. Rembrandt's face simply became more hardened and enraged.

Soon, Quinn and Arturo rejoined the group. “My friends,” the Professor addressed his fellow sliders, “there's been another disaster. Apparently . . .”

“We know,” Janine cut him off. “We've seen what the explosion did. This chick was there when it happened.” Janine pointed at Devin.

“Look who we found, Quinn,” said Wade, as Devin and Quinn locked eyes.

“Devin! Are you all right?” Quinn eagerly asked, his smile dropping as he saw her swollen eyes and painful expression.

“Quinn . . .” Devin clutched Quinn Mallory's hand, and instantly, an image flashed into Quinn's eyes.

Quinn found himself in the desert, surrounded by a mob of devil rats who were shouting in fear as they zoomed past him on their motorcycles. Overhead, a manta ship dove toward them, shooting deadly rays from its nose. Quinn blinked, as the dust swept up off the ground around him clouded his vision, and he coughed hoarsely, feeling sand in his mouth as his eyes began to water.

“Quinn? What's happening?! Are you okay?! Quinn?!” Maggie called out to Quinn, watching helplessly as he choked on nothing.

The perspective Quinn was viewing shifted abruptly, as he now stood at the entrance to one of the caves of Aquarius. Water Bearers ran past him, out of the crumbling cavernous walls and into the desert light. Then, Quinn spotted a younger Devin, wearing a sleeveless cotton top and her amulet hanging around her neck, kneeling over the body of her husband Jeremy. Moving closer, Quinn saw tears flooding from Devin's eyes, and he could hear her whispering to the dying Aquarian.

“Jeremy, my Promised One, please don't leave me . . .” Quinn noticed a crystalline substance dripping from a bloody wound on Jeremy's shirtless chest, as Devin continued weeping. “. . . may Poseidon guide you from this life into the next, and may our souls never diverge. May you always be with me, my beloved Jeremy, and me with you.”

The last thing Quinn saw before he emerged from his trance was the sight of a few huge Kromaggs pulling Devin away from the demolished cave. Devin's tears trickled down her cheeks as she resisted the Kromaggs and desperately attempted to squirm out of their clutches, her amulet swinging from side-to-side.

“Dammit, Quinn!” A panicked Maggie slapped Devin's hand away, breaking Devin's manual link with Quinn. Exhaling, Quinn fell into Maggie's arms.

“It's nothing personal,” Mallory apologized to Devin for Maggie's behavior. “He gets . . . uh, visions, sometimes.”

“Yes, I could feel his essence alleviating the burden of my own,” Devin slowly nodded, looking graciously at Quinn. She switched her gaze to Arturo. “Professor, it is good to see you again.”

Smiling awkwardly, the Professor softly replied, “My dear, I'm afraid you have the wrong Arturo.”

“I do?” Devin appeared confused.

“The Professor you met wasn't really our Professor,” Rembrandt explained, in short. “Long story.”

Quinn was now staring straight at Devin. “Jeremy. The Kromaggs killed him. Devin, I'm so sorry.”

“Quinn, how did you know?” Maggie asked, remembering that Quinn hadn't arrived until after Devin had told them about Jeremy's death.

Giving Maggie a little smirk, Devin uttered, “He saw.”

“Guys, I need some help over here!” Christina was calling to the sliders from nearby. Both of her hands were full, each hand pushing down on a different person's wound with a wadded-up washcloth. “We've got way more injuries than we can handle.”

Colin and Malcolm were kneeling by a large elderly woman who had blood spewing from a gaping wound on her shoulder. The lady screamed out in pain as one of the doctors applied pressure to her injury. It took both Malcolm and Colin to firmly hold down her enormous, trembling body.

“You're going to be okay,” Colin tried to soothingly reassure her, over the woman's blood-curdling screams.

“Let me help,” came a female voice, as someone kneeled down next to Colin.

“That's okay, we've got her - ” Colin turned his head, accidentally bumping foreheads with the woman beside him. Their gazes met.

The brunette woman's eyes widened. “It's you . . . Colin?” she identified him, after a moment of thought.

In another second, Colin registered the memory of having met her. He studied her pale face, the distinct smoothness of her cheekbones. “Vanessa?”

“It is you!” Jumping to her feet, Vanessa swiveled around and called out to her son. “Kirk, come here!”

Kirk, who had just finished bandaging someone's ankle, came running over to his mother. “Mom, what . . . ?” He trailed off, spotting Colin, and also Quinn, who were approaching them. “Oh my god - you guys!”

“Kirk! Oh . . . my . . . lord!” A smile spread across Quinn's face as he gave Kirk a small hug combined with a brotherly slap on the back, as did Colin. “Vanessa, your face!” Quinn hugged the former Chandler Hotel owner, in awe at her miraculous cosmetic recovery.

“They fixed it,” she grinned from ear-to-ear. “And I have you guys to thank for it. If you hadn't brought me to that world . . .”

“Don't even think about it, Vanessa,” said Colin, accepting her gratitude, as they embraced.

“Hey, what's all the commotion . . . ?” Rembrandt, who, along with Wade, had come over to join them, felt his jaw drop as he saw Kirk and Vanessa. “. . . over here?” The Cryin' Man released a joyous laugh, which caused Wade to look baffled. “Oh, boy - I don't believe it! I don't believe it!” he chorused, emphasizing his second utterance of the word “it.” Remmy called over his shoulder, “Maggie, over here!”

“Rem, what is it . . . ?” Maggie stood frozen in here tracks as she caught sight of Vanessa and Kirk, both of them grinning at her and Rembrandt. “Kirk! Vanessa!”

More hugs followed, as Malcolm and Wade stood by in amazement.

“I can't believe it!” Rembrandt shook his head. “I just can't believe it!”

“This is unreal!” exclaimed Maggie. “So how did you two end up here . . . ?” she began to ask Kirk and Vanessa.

A beat passed before Quinn, Rembrandt, Maggie, Colin, Vanessa, and Kirk all blurted out, in unison, “Kromaggs!”

“So you met them on another world?” Wade asked, referring to Kirk and Vanessa.

Arturo, Mallory, and Christina had migrated over to this new group as Vanessa nodded. “They saved my life. If it wasn't for these guys, I'd still be an Eddie.”

Wade, Mallory, Christina, Malcolm, and the Professor all wore blank expressions.

“Day labor automatons,” Quinn explained to them, as though that was supposed to make sense.

“Basically, on their world, any ‘racially impure' citizens were classified as ‘migrants' and forced into slavery,” Rembrandt elaborated for everyone who hadn't been with them during that slide. “Some of them were manufactured into freakin' robots in the ‘repatriation' centers.”

“All part of Governor Schick's economic recovery plan,” Kirk glumly recalled.

“He was a real right-wing nut,” muttered Quinn, remembering Governor Schick's fascist political platform.

“Yeah, and Schick was very conservative too,” Colin absent-mindedly added.

“Sounds like a nightmare,” said Wade.

Putting his arm around his mother, Kirk sighed with regret, “I still can't believe I was actually dumb enough to become a Stomper.”

Maggie took his hand, supportively. “The point is, you were brave enough to be with your mother when she needed you the most.” Looking at Vanessa, Maggie asked, “What did happen after we left you at that hospital? I always felt bad that we stranded you there. When we returned to that dimension a couple of times, we weren't ever able to track you two down.”

“Don't feel bad, Maggie. I can't tell you how much better our lives became.” Vanessa smiled warmly, placing her hand softly on Quinn's arm.

Quinn spontaneously felt himself thrust into a hospital room. Bright lights shined down from above the operating table, which was surrounded by doctors and nurses in surgical scrubs. He viewed Vanessa positioned flat on her back atop an operating table. Half of Vanessa's face was still covered by the metallic mask that had been bolted to her facial skin.

“America for Americans . . .” he heard Vanessa babble incoherently, right before her sedatives kicked in.

Quinn jumped forward in time, watching as the head plastic surgeon proceeded to remove and replace the metal from Vanessa's face. After a few seconds, Quinn's perspective shifted again, this time into a studio where the roar of an audience could be heard behind him. Squinting underneath the bright studio lights, Quinn saw Kirk and a healed Vanessa - her face rejuvenated with new skin. - sitting on-stage in chairs as they were introduced by Montel Williams.

“I don't remember anything about the surgery itself,” Vanessa was recounting for everyone, as Quinn emerged from his postcognitive viewing. “All I know is that when I woke up, Dr. Amani Jones had regenerated every cell of human skin to my face.”

“You were right, Quinn,” said Kirk, addressing the physicist, gratefully. “We did become a media sensation, just like you'd predicted.”

“Yeah . . . I'll bet you even went on The Montel Williams Show, didn't you?” Quinn deduced.

“Yes we did! How did you know that?” Vanessa looked amazed.

“And because we came from another dimension, we even helped to validate Dr. Rembrandt Brown's theory of interdimensional physics.” Kirk grinned at Rembrandt. “Your duplicate self had just returned from sliding with his friends too.”

Rembrandt glanced around pointedly at Quinn, Maggie, and Colin. They were all thinking back to the same event: their encounter of their eccentric doubles at Holly's “haunted” Chandler Hotel three-and-a-half years earlier.

“I've seen you two around here,” Christina said to Kirk and Vanessa. “We must have passed one another often over the last two years. But I never knew your story. So these guys have touched your lives too?” She was referring, of course, to the sliders.

The next thing they heard was Janine clearing her throat loudly, as she pushed her way toward them. “We've got another one.” She and Diana were carrying a slim, middle-aged man who had just fainted in the triage area.

“He's dehydrated,” Diana informed them. The man was perspiring and breathing hard. “Where's our water supply?”

Devin, who'd been hanging back, watching them, now had her eyes shut. She was concentrating deeply, causing her senses to heighten their alertness. A chill tingled against Devin's skin as she said, in monotone, “That way.” She extended her arm outward in the direction of where cots and pillows had been set up. Devin gingerly plodded toward that area, where victims were being elevated or de-elevated according to the nature of their injuries. Almost everyone else magnetically trailed behind Devin, curious to see where she was headed. Devin walked right up to a stack of boxes, which contained food, and then she halted. “Here,” she stated, staring in no particular direction.

Christina instinctively moved aside some of the boxes, revealing a large, plastic jug of water that had been temporarily stored behind the cardboard stack. “Eureka!” she thankfully said, as Quinn and Maggie helped her to lift the water cooler off the ground.

“Devin, what happened to your amulet?” Wade asked, referring to the supernatural necklace jewel that Devin generally wore when she'd tried to find water.

Devin's face fell. “The Kromggs took it,” she said, solemnly. “They practically ripped it off my neck. Monstrous bastards.”

“Man,” Rembrandt shook his head, while the dehydrated man sipped from a cup, “what are the odds? It's obvious the 'Maggs have invaded all these worlds we've been to, but what are the odds of Christina, Vanessa, Kirk, and Devin all ending up in this same place?”

“Rembrandt?” A shaky, slightly squeaky voice called to the Cryin' Man from behind him.

Turning around, Rembrandt's heart thumped once in disbelief. There stood Angie Morgan, the savvy nightclub singer whom Remmy had a soft spot for. He couldn't believe, after three years of separation, there Angie was right in front of him.

“Angie?!” exhaled Rembrandt, still recovering from the initial shock of seeing her again. He embraced Angie's curvy, tender body, which was clothed in a simple blouse and skirt - quite a departure from her flashy performance attire. “Girl, they got you too?!”

“Remmy, it was terrible!” Angie clung to Rembrandt's strong chest. “I was singing at The Swinging Seahawk in Seattle when we came under attack. These . . . Kromaggs - they brought us onto this weird spaceship, and stranded us here.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Remmy, why didn't you tell me you were from a parallel world? Why didn't you warn me about the Kromaggs?”

“Oh, girl,” Rembrandt apologetically cooed, “I didn't wanna worry you. You were already going through enough after Harrell was killed. Besides, I never imagined that the 'Maggs would ever come to your Earth.” He held Angie closer.

As everyone watched Rembrandt comforting Angie, Maggie shook her head. “I never fully realized it before, but this really makes me understand how many people's lives we've affected.”

“Yeah, no thanks to me,” Quinn muttered, discretely separating himself from the rest of the group.

* * *

“There, you're going to be as good as new in no time,” Malcolm optimistically told an elderly man, whose scratched arm he'd finished wrapping up in a gauze bandage.

The older man tried to smile back at Malcolm, but his face tensed up as a loud clamor arose from the middle of the conference room. A bright light had been zapped into the room, seemingly out of thin air. The startled residents of the Free Zone crowded around the cascade of fluorescent energy from a relatively cautious distance. An ominous whistle began to pierce their ears.

“Uh-oh. I know that sound,” Mallory winced, hearing the spooky Kromagg tune.

A mean-looking, burly Humagg appeared as the beam of light subsided. “Humans, I have come to warn you - any further attempts at escape will be met with immediate execution.”

“Oh yeah?! So how come you let a bunch of us get away last time?!” Vanessa shouted back at the Humagg, angrily shaking her fist. “Your threats won't work! We aren't afraid of you monsters anymore!”

“Silence, human!” shot back the beefy male Humagg. “I have no qualms about personally tearing you to pieces!”

“Likewise!” Vanessa growled, through gritted teeth.

“Hey, Maggot!” Rembrandt called out, as he ran up behind the Humagg, swinging a wooden plank at him. “Better duck and cover!” Of course, Rembrandt said that sarcastically, as he had already hurled his makeshift weapon at the Humagg.

Rembrandt's wooden artillery slammed into the Humagg's back . . . and glided right through the rest of the Humagg soldier's transparent body.

“What the . . . ?!” Remmy jumped back, in shock.

The cocky Humagg just stood there and smirked at them.

“He's a hologram!” realized Wade, referring to the translucent creature whom they had all surrounded.

“Wait . . . not just any hologram . . .” Colin took a closer look. “That hologram locked me behind a force field once.”

Quinn recognized him too. He stepped toward the transparent Humagg, reaching out to touch its holographic energy. Leaping into his past body, Quinn felt the wind of the vortex against his back as he watched this Humagg bully brush the face of a muscular, tank-topped female Humagg with a reddish-orange ponytail. The male Humagg kissed her on the lips before plunging a dagger through the chest of his red-headed female Humagg lover.

“Kryoptus!” Quinn snapped at him, as that vision faded. “You bastard! You killed Kyra! She was probably the only one who ever gave a damn about you.”

Shaking her head, Maggie sighed disapprovingly. “How could you slaughter your own fellow soldier?”

“I had to!” roared Kryoptus, rather defensively. “She had grown weak. Kyra was dishonoring the Dynasty!” He narrowed his eyes at Quinn. “You humans have been ‘sliding' freely for too long. This time, there will be consequences.”

Christina stomped right up to Kryoptus, sticking her face inches away from the hologram's. “What did you do to Jonathan? Where's my son?!” she demanded.

“Ah, the little hybrid boy.” Kryoptus smirked mischievously at Christina. “You want your son back? . . . that's exactly what you'll get!”

An orange, whirling vortex spontaneously appeared in mid-air. A small three-year-old boy came tumbling out of the abyss, landing with a thump on the carpet. Everyone noticed the child's distorted, bumpy forehead, and his oddly-shaped cheekbones as the boy hit the floor. He immediately began blubbering.

“Jonathan!” Christina catapulted herself forward, protectively covering the small Humagg child with her body. She hugged the crying hybrid boy tightly, while lovingly stroking his thick blond head of hair.

“Mommy!” Jonathan cried out, throwing his arms around Christina.

“What are you up to, Maggot?!” Rembrandt suspiciously reared his head to address their unwelcome visitor, but by that point the hologram of Kryoptus had vanished from sight.

Wade kneeled down next to Christina, who was cuddling Jonathan in her arms. “Christina, he's beautiful,” Wade fawned at the mother's love for her child.

Christina nodded through her tears, and reached out to touch Wade. “Thank you for being here to share this with us, Wade. We owe a great debt to all of you for what you've done for us today. If you hadn't come along . . .”

“You still would have found a way,” Wade asserted. She gave Christina another smile. “Nothing the Kromaggs could have done would have kept you from getting him back.”

Christina cradled Jonathan in her lap.

“Who she?” Jonathan stuck out his finger at Wade, gazing at the slider with curiosity.

“Jonathan, this is Wade,” Christina introduced her son to her friend.

“Hi, little guy,” Wade grinned at Jonathan, gently touching his shoulders.

“She pretty!” Jonathan told his mommy, while he affectionately wrapped his small arms around Wade's neck.

Watching Christina and Wade play with Jonathan, Professor Arturo leaned over and whispered to Rembrandt, “How are we going to tell her?”

“About . . . ?” Suddenly, Rembrandt's heart dropped as he looked down at one of his arms and realized what Arturo was gloomily referring to.

The Professor nodded, his face completely solemn. “The virus.”

Rembrandt clamped his fingers against his forehead, grinning in frustration. “Oh, man!”

* * *

Mallory herded a chubby woman into a large room serving as a kitchen. The woman had a bloody gash on her forearm. Sparing no time, Mallory directed her over to a sink, where a few people who'd been washing dishes cooperatively moved aside so Mallory could clean the woman's wound.

“Okay, we're gonna get you all patched up,” Mallory tried to cheerfully reassure her. The woman was making hoarse little moaning noises, while enduring her own pain.

“I can help,” piped up a young male voice.

Mallory turned to see an adolescent in his late-teens with longish-brown hair. The young guy's eyes lit up when he saw Quinn's fraternal double. “Mallory?!”

“Seth?” Mallory leaned in to give Seth a brotherly hug while congenially slapping him on the back. “What are you doing here . . . ?” He then realized what a dumb question that was. “The Kromaggs.”

“Are your friends with you?” Seth excitedly asked.

“Yeah, and then some.” Mallory glanced around the kitchenette, and spotted Sara, Seth's fellow Keeper from St. Cataline, sitting at a table, cutting up pieces of meat for some young children.

“I knew you guys would come!” Seth enthusiastically said. He called over to Sara, “Sara, look! It's Mallory! The sliders are here!”

Sara jumped up from her chair, dropping her knife in the process. “You came!” she exclaimed, dashing over to greet Mallory. “Did the others come with you? Is Diana here too?”

“Yes . . .” Mallory couldn't even finish his sentence before Seth and Sara began pleading for him to take them to see the other sliders.

Walking back into the triage chamber, Mallory called out to Rembrandt and Maggie, “Look who I found!” He moved aside so they could see Seth and Sara trailing behind him.

“Oh, you guys . . . !” Maggie approached them, glad to see them alive but disappointed to see where they'd ended up.

Rembrandt shook his head, still recovering from disbelief. “Not you too.” He gave Seth a fatherly hug, while Angie sympathetically touched Rembrandt's back with a few of her gentle fingers from where she stood behind him.

“Diana!” Sara's eyes lit up with even more excitement, as she spotted Diana, who was walking with the Professor, in the crowd.

Diana's eyes became incredibly round when she matched up a face with the voice who was trying to get her attention. “Sara?!” She ran toward Sara, meeting her with a protective embrace. Arturo cautiously followed behind Dr. Davis.

“I missed you so much!” Sara told Diana, not wanting to let go.

“Oh, I'm so glad you're okay.” Diana broke apart from Sara, studying her face. Sara had the same slightly chubby cheekbones and long, brown, curly hair - but rather than a Keeper cloak, she wore jeans and a fuzzy red sweater. “Sara, that sweater looks so pretty on you!” Diana raved.

Sara blushed, shyly. “Thank you.”

Rembrandt ushered Seth and Sara into some chairs, looking at them, concerned. “What happened to you guys after you left St. Cataline?”

Sara's face fell. “We wanted to find ‘The City of Angels.' And we did.”

“When we docked in Los Angeles harbor, the Volsangs captured us,” Seth took over for Sara, who was now on the verge of tears. “Vortak recognized us as Keepers of St. Cataline. Rather than selling me and Sara into the slave trade, he kept us as his own personal property.”

“Who are the Volsangs?” Angie asked them, sitting herself down on a stool next to Rembrandt.

“Arctic raiders who overran our world,” Seth explained. “My father told me hw the Hemispheric Alliance, which had been our planetary government, disbanded in 1955. The nations just could not agree on enough common world laws. It had been our Earth's only central authority, so when it collapsed every country was on its own.” He paused to put his arm around Sara, who was trying to dry her eyes. “An independent military had been organizing for the previous century - they were spread across Siberia, Scandinavia, Greenland, Canada, and the Yukon wasteland. All of their top generals moved south to conquer lower latitudes, working their way toward the Equator and then past it. Vortak, the Alaskan leader of the intercontinental Volsang alliance, sent thousands of fleets to invade the West Coast. They destroyed all of the main ports, which tore apart our economy and our attempts at trade with other countries. Vortak took great pleasure in gloating to Sara and I on a daily basis about how he had ‘defeated' us.”

“And the Great Work . . . ?” Mallory solicited.

“It's gone,” Sara sighed. “Vortak smashed the quartz crystal that Diana had encrypted for us. But at least he didn't get to decode it. Vortak would have learned a lot of information about the underground resistance on the mainland, had he been able to read through the Great Work.”

“For days, we carried hundreds of volumes containing our history, all compacted within that single quartz crystal on a small rowboat, only to see it destroyed,” Seth sadly lamented. He then looked to Rembrandt with renewed hope in his eyes. “Do you think you could bring us back to our world? Maybe the Great Work is still entombed beneath St. Cataline?”

Maggie stared back at Seth and Sara, apologetically. “Sorry, guys. When the Volsangs stormed your sanctuary, I had to detonate the rest of it.”

Seth's face fell.

“Um, this might sound like a dumb question,” Janine spoke up, addressing her fellow sliders, “but what were you thinking, sending the two of them off in a rowboat, with nothing but an ocean in front of them? And how did you expect them to retrieve this ‘Great Work' from the crystal once they were safe?”

“I guess we weren't really thinking that far ahead,” Diana admitted. She clasped Sara's hand, sulking apologetically. “I made you go with Seth because I was concerned for your safety. I couldn't let the Volsangs enslave you.”

“But they got captured anyway,” Janine reminded her.

Maggie glared at Janine. “Janine,” she said, through gritted teeth, “you're not helping.”

“What?” Janine innocently responded. “Everyone else was thinking it.” She shrugged.

“No, do not feel bad,” Sara quickly reassured them. She lightly grabbed Diana's wrists. “Diana, it meant so much that you cared about me. You were right . . . the only way the Volsangs could have been defeated was to get the Great Work off the island. Maybe we didn't know exactly how we would retrieve the information - but at least you gave us hope. That is what kept Seth and I in high spirits during our voyage . . . having faith that we were protecting the only chance to save our world.”

“A lot of good it does you now,” Janine mumbled.

“Janine!” Maggie hissed, reprimanded her again.

“Rembrandt,” Vanessa called over her shoulder, from where she kneeled, helping someone, “can you get me a washcloth? We've got a bleeder here.” She had been pinching a man's bloody nose for the past ten minutes.

Picking up a wet rag, Remmy headed over to where Vanessa was kneeling. His eyes shifted over to the man whom Vanessa was tending to, and Rembrandt did a double take.

“I know that nose . . .” he said, cautiously. Not looking back, Rembrandt orally summoned his friend. “Maggie . . .”

Maggie left the group to come over to Rembrandt, and Seth, Sara, Angie, Malcolm, Janine, Mallory, Diana, and the Professor tagged along behind Captain Beckett. Maggie gasped in surprise, seeing one of the last people she'd ever expected to run across again.

“President Williams?!” Maggie exclaimed.

President Jeff Williams stared back at Maggie, taking a second for her face to register in his memory. “Maggie Beckett . . . ?” he gaped, seeing Maggie surrounded by Rembrandt, Mallory, and Diana. “What are you doing here?”

The sliders then shifted their gazes to see a frumpy middle-aged woman crouched on the floor next to Jeff. Her red locks of hair were somewhat matted down, and she wore a remarkably clean and photogenic dress.

“That's Mrs. Williams!” Mallory pointed straight at the president's wife. “She's here too!”

Sela Williams craned her neck upward, not terribly thrilled to see the sliders. “Oh, look, Jeff. It's the space aliens,” she facetiously commented to her husband. The bitterness was apparent in her voice.

“Calm down, Sela,” replied Jeff Williams. He smiled guiltily at Maggie. “How've you been, Ms. Beckett?” he asked, lightly.

“How've I been?!” Maggie responded, with a glare. “Oh, after running from your Secret Service lugs and bringing down your presidency, I've been just dandy. How about yourself, Mr. President?”

“Don't waste your breath on her, Jeff,” murmured Sela, with a hostile sneer. “This little slut destroyed everything we worked so hard for!”

“Hey!” Quinn had just taken notice of the conversation, and overheard Sela's insult to Maggie. “That ‘little slut' is my girlfriend.”

“Well thanks to your girlfriend, my public image was ruined!” Sela complained, flinching. “If my inept husband here,” she gave Jeff a harsh shove, “had just let us waste her the way I wanted . . .”

“Hey, holding that press conference was YOUR boyfriend's idea, dear,” Jeff reminded her, defensively.

“Pardon me,” Mallory interrupted Jeff and Sela, “but why are you two even still married?”

Sela Williams stuck her nose up in the air. “Oh, trust me, I was about to dump this loser.” She gave Jeff a resentful side-glance. “In fact, we were in the process of signing our divorce papers when the Kromaggs suddenly invaded.” Sela squinted at the sliders. “What are they, mutant cousins of yours?” she chided them, mockingly. “They turned our entire world to rubble.”

“Well, on the bright side . . . at least the French don't have to worry about ethnic cleansing anymore,” President Williams attempted to joke.

“Shut up, Jeff,” mumbled Sela, rolling her eyes.

Maggie scoffed at the Williamses. “You both are pathetic! You risked the lives of thousands of innocent people, and you were going to have me killed! Not to mention that poor Ambassador Hotel housekeeper.”

“Oh, that girl who was capped on Chuck's watch,” mumbled Sela, almost as an afterthought. “Incompetent boob - Kennedy could have at least checked her face before he shot her.” She grumbled, “Oh, what was her name . . . ?”

“Alexandra Shaw, dear,” Jeff reminded his wife. “Remember, the Senate was ready to impeach me over it.”

“But you had to go and resign!” Sela snapped at him. “And you did it before I could even divorce you. So I ‘had' to stand by you, or the media would have accused me of spitting sour grapes.” Glaring at Jeff, Sela muttered, “You made me look like a total idiot.”

“Oh, I think you do a pretty good job of that all on your own, Mrs. Williams,” quipped Diana, raising her eyebrows.

Sela Williams simply glared in response, her eyes wandering across the spacious room. “I suppose you're all so proud of yourselves for bringing down the Williams Administration. Thanks to you, we were treated to non-stop television gossip about how Jeff and this Alexandra Shaw girl were supposedly ‘secret lovers' . . . and then Bobby Hawks found out about our contributions from Li Peng, and blabbed it to the entire world. By late-1999, we were practically forced out of office.”

“Half a year later, the Kromaggs arrived,” President Jeff Williams added. “We tried using Noxon gas against them, but I guess their bodies are immune to it. San Francisco and L.A. both fell like dominoes, and before we knew it, Governor Hovington had surrendered the state of California over to those beasts. New York and D.C. followed.”

Christina got in-between the Williamses and the sliders. “Listen, we've all lost a lot. Everyone in this place has faced hardships. But we're here now, and we've been brought together to find a way out. Let's just make the best of it.”

Shrieks came from three people who were running past them. An overweight gray-haired woman in high heels and an orange-and-purple polka-dotted dress tromped by, releasing high-pitched giggles from her chubby lips. “Catch me if you can!” she teased her friends, who were playfully chasing her.

“Oooh, we're gonna get you, Mrs. Twiddle!” laughed one of her pursuers, a man with long, scraggly hair and a droopy face. He wore a pink polyester sports jacket and held an open umbrella in his hand.

“Run, my friends, run!” called out another guy, wiry and bearded, who was skipping gaily behind the first two. “Beware of the bunnies! Beware of the bunnies!” He whisked off his tall stovepipe hat and tossed it into the air.

Malcolm shook his head, trying to keep from smiling. “I guess some people have strange ways of dealing with stress,” he shrugged.

* * *

Wade plopped down next to Christina Griffin, who was wearily resting on a couch in one of the lounges. Christina had Jonathan sitting on her lap; the little kid rested his small head against his mother's bosom. “How are you two doing?” Wade asked Christina.

“I'm just so grateful,” gushed Christina, smiling at Wade while jiggling Jonathan's hands.

“Hi, Jonathan,” Wade spoke to Christina's son, in a saccharine voice. “What's up, little guy?”

Jonathan gently clasped Wade's wrists, but then veered his head away in order to release a hoarse cough.

“He's had a sore throat and runny nose for a little while now,” Christina told Wade, shifting Jonathan on her lap. “Dr. Penkava is coming to take a look at him.”

Wade found herself unable to speak. She was unsure how to approach the topic at hand, especially with Jonathan sitting right there.

“It's strange to think about, Wade. But I wouldn't have Jonathan today if my homeworld hadn't been invaded. We wouldn't be here right now.” Christina leaned in and cooed to Jonathan, “No we wouldn't . . .”

“Christina . . .” Wade began to speak.

“I'll never forget that day, Wade.” Christina tightly held Jonathan close to her chest. “I kept thinking how it was the scariest thing I'd ever go through, losing Tom and Jackie. Little did I know what was to come . . .”

* * *

August 15, 1997.

In the supermarket, a mob of shoppers had abandoned their carts and baskets. People slipped on squashed produce, and bumped into cardboard cutouts and product displays. All across the store, word had broken out as the news traveled in from outside. Everybody was going ballistic over the “invaders from outer space” who were approaching the city. The panicked humans poured out of the supermarket - including a young blond woman and her two brothers, who were at the market to pick up a carton of milk and some cake mix for their father's birthday preparations.

Christina Griffin screamed at the top of her lungs, bumping into other scared humans on both sides of her as they all fled down Main Street. Desperately, she flung her head left and right, looking for either of her brothers. Christina's physical pause in the middle of the mob resulted in a bunch of people colliding into her. She tumbled to the ground, her eyes blurring as her heart raced faster.

They all could feel the wind of manta ships descending from overhead. Christina looked over her shoulder, and caught sight of her older brother, Jackie. The handsome young blond man met his sister's gaze.

“Jackie!” Christina began to crawl to her feet, her knees scraping against the gravel.

A stream of fiery radiation came out of nowhere, hitting Jackie in the abdomen. His body dropped to the ground. A shaky, blackened exit wound remained on the spine of Jackie Griffin, whose lifeless corpse was now sprawled face-down on the pavement.

Christina screamed more intensely than she ever had before in her entire life. Losing control, she regurgitated the pink, chunky remains of her breakfast onto the ground beneath her.

“Christina!” a soft yet masculine voice called to her. Christina felt herself being lifted to her feet, and came face-to-face with her baby brother. Tom's thin facial features and skinny arms were scratched and bruised, while his sandy, ear-length hair was tousled with traces of dirt and mud stuck to it.

“Tom!! They killed Jackie!! . . . the aliens!! . . . blast!! . . . his stomach!! . . .” Christina blubbered incoherently. She let her little brother hug her protectively amid the stampede of frightened runners.

Great strain was apparent in Tom Griffin's eyes, as he spotted his older brother lying dead across the street. But Tom knew he must remain strong for his sister's sake. “Christina, we have to run! Now!”

They hadn't made it but a few feet through the crowd before Tom felt something heavy smash against his skull. Everything went permanently black for him.

Before Christina knew what was happening, some rough, coarse hands had fiercely grabbed her shoulders. She was pulled in-between two bald, hideous creatures with burly, simian-like physiques. They wore some sort of military uniform, which made their presence there seem all the more surreal.

Christina struggled against the Kromaggs' manual restraints, hollering at the top of her lungs. She watched both Tom's and Jackie's dead bodies become smaller and smaller as she was pulled down the street against her will.

* * *

A Hispanic man with golden brown skin kneeled down next to Christina Griffin, who gently ushered her son into the man's arms.

“Come with me, Jonathan,” Dr. Penkava congenially greeted the three-year-old boy. “How would you like a cookie?”

“Cookie!” Jonathan clapped his hands and squealed, excited by the doctor's offer.

“Jonathan, you go with Dr. Penkava,” Christina whispered to her son. “He's going to check you to make sure you're healthy. Be a good boy for him.”

Dr. Penkava took Jonathan's hand and led him away toward the hallway, in the direction of one of the kitchenettes.

“Christina, I have to tell you something.” Wade quickly spat out the words. “And it's not good.”

“What is it?” Christina looked at Wade, concerned. “What's wrong, Wade? You can tell me anything - I'm here for you.”

Wade gritted her teeth. This was going to be harder than she'd imagined. “It's about Jonathan.”

A blank expression overtook Christina's face.

“Christina . . . two years ago, before my friends rescued me, they came across a world that had concocted an anti-Kromagg virus. Sort of like the one your father helped to create.” Wade's voice shook, as she proceeded. “Before they left that dimension, Rembrandt injected the virus into his bloodstream. Ever since then, we've released the virus into the atmosphere of every parallel world that we pass through . . . including this one.”

Christina's eyes were fluttering like crazy. “But that - that means . . .”

Wade pressed her lips together, and held back her own tears. “There's a good chance Jonathan has been infected.”

Furiously shaking her head, Christina began yelling. “No! No, it can't be! We administered the antidote to Jonathan back on my homeworld the last time this happened. We cured him already!”

“I hope so.”

“You HOPE?!”

“Christina, it may not be the same virus.” Wade reached out to clasp Christina's hand, but Christina squeamishly edged away from Wade. “Since this one was created on a different world . . . Jonathan might not be immune.”

Her face flushed pink. Christina shut her eyes. “How will we know for certain?”

“Hopefully, that's what Dr. Penkava can help us determine. Christina, we could just be worrying for nothing.”

“But what if we're not, Wade? What do you expect me to do?! Lose my son all over again?!” Christina angrily shouted.

“Remember the first time we met, Christina? Look at me.” With her hands, Wade moved Christina's chin upward so Christina was compelled to stare straight into Wade's eyes. “Remember what I told you? We're going to get through this. Together. We'll find a way.”

Christina choked back a sob. “I remember . . .”

* * *

September 2, 1997.

Christina laid strapped to the uncomfortable surface of a sterile bed. Wearing only a nightgown, she had ceased attempting to break free of her restraints hours ago.

The door to the room creaked open. A dark, imposing figure lurked in the doorway. He moved closer to Christina, an erotic grin plastered on his face.

Christina Griffin proceeded to scream in terror.

* * *

May 29, 1998.

Barely a week had passed since Wade and Rembrandt's abduction on Earth Prime. It seemed as though only hours had passed since Wade was sitting in a prison cell across from Rembrandt. If he had even been “her” Rembrandt. How could she be sure that he wasn't a double or an illusion produced by Kromagg mind control?

Then, in an instant, Wade had been dragged away from her closest friend . . . possibly forever.

Now, Wade was bound to a bed, trapped where Christina had been eight months earlier. The door to the room creaked open, and a miscellaneous male Kromagg stormed in.

“Let's get this over with, human,” he grimaced, reaching for his zipper.

In the next instant, Wade realized what was about to happen. She didn't scream. She didn't squirm. She didn't try to break free. Instead, thousands of thoughts danced through Wade's memory all at once.

Rembrandt ignoring her in their prison cell.

Professor Arturo being shot in the chest by Colonel Rickman.

Quinn kissing Maggie by the cliffs.

Sid manhandling Michele.

Mutant snakes slithering toward her.

Quinn lying unconscious on the ground of a meadow, blood oozing onto the grass from the back of his head.

The Dream Masters penetrating her mind.

Bright lights flashing at her, as Mary and the Kromaggs interrogated her over an intercom.

A manta ship firing deadly rays down upon Earth Prime.

The cocky, bigoted Kromagg who was about to rape her.

At that last thought, Wade winced, her head feeling ready to explode.

The Kromagg who'd been assigned to impregnate Wade shrieked at the top of his lungs, as he felt himself spontaneously fly backwards.

After a few seconds of silence, Wade meekly opened her eyes. She saw the male Kromagg collapsed in a heap against the wall. Blood gushed onto the floor from where his skull had been cracked open.

A Kromagg dressed in green hospital scrubs rushed into the room. Before Wade could react, the Kromagg doctor plunged a syringe into her arm.

“Sedate her!” Wade could hear Colonel Kesh belatedly command to the Kromagg doctor. Kesh's scrawny, oval-shaped head peeking in from behind the door was the last thing Wade saw before drifting out of consciousness.

* * *

June 3, 1998.

Flanked on all sides by Kromaggs, Wade was led into a small room containing two beds. The room was also equipped with a sink and latrine, a curtain and showerhead, a few empty pots and pans, bars that were bolted to the wall and designed for handicapped people, a couple of simple armchairs with cushions, and a shelf with feminine hygiene products.

Kesh, who had been leading the procession to this room, shoved Wade inside. “Welcome to your new home, human.”

One of the beds was occupied by a pregnant woman with whitish-blond hair, chopped jaggedly at the nape of her neck. The woman looked over at Wade, sadly giving barely a hint of a smile.

“This breeder is completing her eighth month of pregnancy,” Kesh explained to Wade, gesturing at Christina. “You are to help her through this final month so she efficiently carries the child to term.”

Wade glared at Kesh, suspiciously. “You had me knocked out for quite awhile. Why didn't you just inseminate me while I was unconscious?”

Colonel Kesh smirked at Wade, evasively. “You have much to teach us, human.”

With that, she stepped out of the room, slamming the door and locking it behind her.

Once the Kromaggs were gone, the blond woman gave Wade a shy smile. “It looks like we're roommates.”

“I guess so.” Wade tried to return the woman's smile.

“I'm Christina Griffin,” she introduced herself to Wade.

“Wade Wells,” replied the slider, in reciprocity.

“So you're a ‘guest' of the Kromagg Dynasty too, huh?” Christina's eyes darted around the room, nervously.

“Yeah . . .” Wade came over to Christina's bedside, leaning in conspiratorially. “Are they listening to us right now?”

“I don't know.” Christina stared glumly down at her enlarged stomach.

“Look, I know we don't know each other . . .” Wade took Christina's hand and gave it a friendly, reassuring little squeeze. “But I promise you we'll find a way out of this. I don't know how, but we will.”

Christina just stared up at the ceiling, forlornly.

* * *

“Yeah, I remember,” Christina gave Wade a throaty mumble. “But you were just trying to console me, make me feel better.”

“Yes, you were pregnant with Jonathan, and I didn't want you to be under even more stress than you already were,” admitted Wade. “But that doesn't mean I didn't believe what I was saying. I really DID have faith that my friends would come and find us. And less than a year later, they rescued you, didn't they?”

“But that was just a coincidence. And by that point, it was too late for them to find you, Wade.” Christina buried her face in her hands, sobbing loudly. “He was going to turn four in just four more months . . .”

“Christina!” Wade lowered her voice to make herself sound less harsh. “You can't give up on your son. We don't even know if he's been infected.”

“He's half-Kromagg, isn't he?” Christina glared. “And your virus attacks Kromagg DNA.”

Dr. Penkava was walking back toward Christina and Wade, paternally carrying Jonathan in his arms. Maggie was following behind them.

“You've got a good boy here,” Dr. Penkava gushed in a sort of contrived way, for Jonathan's sake.

That only made Christina burst into heavier tears.

Maggie stepped forth, and took Jonathan into her arms. “Jonathan, let's go get you something to drink, okay?” Maggie spoke to Jonathan, while attentively coddling him, which was apparent in the tone of Maggie's voice. “Your mommy needs to talk with the doctor.” Before leaving, Maggie made quick eye contact with Christina, non-verbally conveying sympathy and consolation in her expression. She headed toward one of the kitchenettes with Christina's son in her arms.

“Is he going to live?!” Christina immediately demanded from Dr. Penkava, as soon as Jonathan was out of earshot.

Dr. Penkava paused, searching for the right words. “Jonathan is feeling the effects of the tearing within his esophagus. The lining of his pharynx is successively decaying at an exponential rate.”

Trying to blink away her tears, Christina asked, “Can you cure him?”

“I could try a tracheotomy, to feed oxygen into his respiratory system.” Dr. Penkava sighed. “But there's no guarantee that it would help. In fact, severing Jonathan's trachea may only do more harm than good. Even if that sustained his life, it could lead to severe complications with his digestion or vocal chords.”

Christina released heavy sobs, nearly falling to the floor. Wade caught Christina's abdomen and supportively held her.

“Are you sure there's no antidote?” Dr. Penkava asked Wade.

“Not unless . . .” Wade thought for a moment. “Wait, Remmy has the virus in his bloodstream. Could an antidote be made from his blood?”

“We must try,” Dr. Penkava said.

“Please,” Christina whimpered, tugging at Dr. Penkava's wrist. “Save my son.”

* * *

Maggie sat next to Diana and held a paper cup of water to Jonathan's mouth as the little boy took some more sips from it.

“He's going to be okay, isn't he?” Diana asked, looking at Jonathan's pale, flushed face with concern.

Sara, who sat on the other side of Diana, leaned forward to get a better look at the young Humagg. “He's so small . . . so innocent,” she commented, her stare fixated on Jonathan.

“Would you like to hold him, Sara?” asked Maggie. Sara nodded, and Maggie rose from her chair, carefully transferring Jonathan into Sara's lap.

Jonathan fidgeted, and began to grunt in a cranky manner. Wide-eyed, he inquisitively reached out, touching Sara's dark frizzy hair with his fingers.

“Take him for a walk,” Diana encouraged Sara, in a hushed voice.

Sara began to circulate around the room with Jonathan in her arms.

Wade was heading toward them, leading Christina and Dr. Penkava. “Where's Remmy?” she inquired, urgently.

Hearing his name, Rembrandt diverted his attention away from where he'd been chatting with Mallory and Seth. “What happened? Did we figure anything out?”

“Rembrandt, we need a blood sample from you,” Dr. Penkava said. “It's the only way we can derive an antidote for Christina's son.”

Looking at Christina's swollen eyes, Rembrandt nodded emphatically. “For sure, doctor. Anything I can do to help.”

“I'll get a syringe.” Dr. Penkava began to leave. “If you have anyone in your group with an interest in science, we sure could use their assistance.”

A muffled laugh got caught in Mallory's throat. “I think we can spare you a few sliders.” He smirked knowingly at Diana.

Diana now got to her feet, stopping Vanessa as she walked by. “Vanessa, have you seen Quinn or Colin? Or the Professor?” Diana asked.

Vanessa nodded at Diana. “Colin has been helping me and Kirk tend to some of the children. I also saw Professor Arturo walking around not too long ago. Quinn, I don't know. I could go look for them,” she offered.

“I'll come with,” Diana replied, as she and Vanessa walked off together.

A child-like squeal caught Maggie's attention, all of a sudden. She looked over at where Sara had brought Jonathan, only to see Sela Williams swatting at Jonathan in disgust.

“Don't touch me, you little brat!” Sela grimaced, as Sara shielded the sobbing Humagg boy from the irate former First Lady.

“Hey!” Maggie had rushed over to them in an instant. “Stop it! He's just a child.”

Sara frowned at Sela, pausing. “He just wanted to feel your dress, Mrs. Williams,” she explained, defensively.

“You stupid girl!” Sela barked at Sara. “I don't want that . . . that . . . ‘thing' feeling any part of me.” She balked at Jonathan in repulsion.

“You should be thankful that anyone's putting the moves on you at all,” Maggie uttered, sarcastically, as Sara returned Jonathan to Maggie's arms.

Sela glared hatefully at Maggie.

“I always see you wearing that dress around here,” Sara told Mrs. Williams, admiring the plush blue velvet texture of Sela's elegant frock. “Why do you wear such a fancy gown?” Sara reached to feel the softness of Sela's dress.

“Get your grubby hands off of me!” Sela squirmed away from Sara. “You were touching that nasty creature.” She crinkled up her nose. “And not that it's any of your business, but this dress is the only remnant of my old life.” Sulking, Sela exclaimed, “Oh, how I miss all that wealth and power . . . !”

Jeff Williams nuzzled up to his wife. “Remember when I bought that for you, dear?”

“Yes I do,” Sela bitterly mumbled, directing a side-glance of scrutiny at Jeff. “You bought it at a one-day-only 80%-off sale at Stacy's, if I remember correctly. It was when Congress declared that silly national tax holiday. You remember, they did it to commemorate that image of the Virgin Mary in the slice of marble rye that Senator Kitzhaber supposedly found on his plate in the Senate cafeteria.” Vanessa and Diana had returned with Colin and Arturo while Sela continued ranting. “They just wanted GNN to distract the public with some inane diversion so they could push through Proposition 286.”

The Racial Repatriation Act?” Vanessa inquired, shocked that Governor Schick's legislation might exist on another world.

“No, nitwit,” Sela scoffed at Vanessa. “The Pure Beverage and Condiment Act. What world were you living on?” She turned back to Jeff. “Remember, all of that happened right before Ms. Beckett here,” she gestured at Maggie, coldly, “interfered with our lives.”

Jeff placed his hand on Sela's thigh, his eyes twinkling. “That was sure a busy morning for me. Marcel Vache kept me on the phone all through breakfast, demanding that we amend the bill to exempt his vineyard exports from being taxed.”

Taking Jeff's hand and promptly moving it off her thigh, Sela muttered, “The grape-stomping twit . . .” She rolled her eyes. “How could you be so stupid to do business with that moron, Jeff? It just decreased your credibility.”

Sighing, Jeff conceded, “You're right, as usual, dear.”

“What are they babbling about?” Diana asked the group, having only caught the end of Jeff and Sela's exchange.

“Lover's quarrel,” Mallory smirked, raising his eyebrows.

“I don't think so!” Sela backed away from Jeff, disgusted. “I can't believe I ever married you, Jeff! I knew I should have hooked up with that governor from Arkansas . . .”

“So what do you need us for?” Colin looked around at everyone.

“We're going to help Dr. Penkava find a cure for Jonathan,” Diana said, as Dr. Penkava returned with some syringes and gauze. “Lucky for us, I aced college Chemistry.”

Dr. Penkava began preparing Rembrandt for the blood extraction, trying a rubber tourniquet around Remmy's arm. Vanessa brought Jonathan back over to Christina. Devin joined them, bringing a clear plastic bottle filled with more water for Jonathan.

Meanwhile, Arturo had huddled Wade, Maggie, Colin, Diana, and Mallory into a cluster, out of everyone else's earshot. “My friends, I am beginning to suspect that your reunions with these past acquaintances may not be mere coincidence.”

“You mean . . . do you think the Kromaggs planned this?” Wade asked.

“What I mean, Miss Wells, is how do we know this isn't simply one big illusion?” Professor Arturo looked at each one of them, in turn. “We all are aware that the Kromaggs are masters of mind manipulation. For all we know, they could be influencing our thoughts with some elaborate form of hypnotic suggestion.”

Wade shook her head, doubtfully. “I don't think so, Professor. This is real. I can feel it when I'm talking with her.”

“But how can you be certain, Wade?”

“Because,” Wade looked straight at Arturo, “I saw the pain in her eyes. Her very real pain. I felt it. I shared in it. Just like when we were in the breeder camp together . . .”

* * *

June 8, 1998.

Wade tended to Christina by her bedside. She smoothly massaged Christina's bare ankles, which had become even more reddened and swollen than they were a week earlier.

“So you've been sliding for almost four years?” Christina continued to listen to more of Wade's interdimensional accounts. “I could never do that.”

“It's been a wild ride.” Wade smiled sadly, thinking of her friends - Quinn, Arturo . . . Rembrandt . . .

“I'm sorry you had such a sad homecoming,” Christina remarked, making reference to Wade's recent return to Earth Prime. “That must have been awful, losing Quinn so abruptly . . . and then having Rembrandt turn his back on you . . . ?”

“Yeah . . . but I can't say I blame Remmy for ignoring me,” Wade admitted. “When they put us together in that prison cell, neither of us knew what kind of information the Kromaggs were hoping to overhear, so we sort of made a silent pact not to say anything at all. Besides, after so many days had passed, Rembrandt had no way of knowing whether I was really ‘me' anymore. For all he knew, they could have replaced me with one of my doubles or an illusion. I had no real way of knowing whether it was him, either.”

Closing her eyes, Christina sunk her head back into her pillow. “All those worlds you've been to, Wade . . . it just sounds like something out of a storybook. An Earth ruled by a monarchy, psychics, dragons, dinosaurs, spells, shamans, magic, pharaohs, little girls with angel wings, talking fire, green moldy people . . .”

“There's a dark side to sliding too,” Wade reminded Christina. “The corrupt politicians, assassins, bounty hunters, gangsters, killer robots, cannibals, parasites, mutant snakes, giant worms, zombies, scavengers, and hybrid monsters don't make the experience terribly enjoyable.”

Chortling, Christina opened her eyes to look at Wade. “It's funny, but a year ago, I would never have believed any of what you've told me. Not in a million years. But now . . . none of it seems so far-fetched anymore.”

“All we ever wanted to do was get home,” Wade sighed. “Now, the Professor will never see his son again, Maggie has lost her husband forever . . . and every day I wonder where Remmy is right now.” She finished her massage of Christina's flesh. “But mark my words, Christina: I will see them again. They will come looking for us. I will get us out of here.”

But silently, Wade still wondered how.

* * *

“Ms. Beckett . . .”

Maggie felt a hand tap her on the shoulder. She turned to see President Jeff Williams, sheepishly eyeing her.

“What do you want?” Maggie grumbled at Jeff.

“To apologize.” Jeff's eyes dropped down to the ground. “Maggie, I put you through so much when you were on my world. I never meant to place your life in so much danger. My staff was going to do whatever Sela told them . . . they wouldn't listen to me.” His face looked so sad and helpless. “I hope you can forgive me.”

“Look, Mr. President . . . um, Jeff . . .” Maggie heaved a sigh. She couldn't believe she was having this conversation. “I just want to put it all behind me. I realize that the situation was way beyond your control. If it's any consolation, you have my sympathy for putting up with Mrs. Williams for so long.” She laughed.

“I'm so glad you feel that way, Maggie.” Jeff Williams spread out his arms. “How about a little hug?”

“I really don't think so.” Maggie bit her lip in amusement.

“Come on, Maggie. For old time's sake?” he pleaded. When Jeff saw he wasn't persuading Maggie, he tried a different tactic. “Just a little one? It would help me finally move on with my life.”

Shaking her head while rolling her eyes, Maggie sort of had to admire his persistence. “Well . . . okay . . . just a little one.”

Jeff leaned in to wrap his arms around Maggie, and she used her arms to half-heartedly return the gesture. While they were hugging, Jeff stroked Maggie's shoulder with his hand, rapidly slinking his palm down her back and below her waist.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Maggie furiously snapped, feeling Jeff's fingers squeeze her posterior area. Jumping back, Maggie flung up her arm and swiftly slapped Jeff across the face.

Jeff smirked, even as the sting from his cheek tingled. “It was worth it.”

“You disgusting pig!” Maggie spat out her contempt at Jeff Williams, giving him a harsh shove backwards.

“Maggie, what's going on?” Rembrandt had come running over to them as Maggie's shrill voice had caught his ear from across the room.

“President Hornball here is putting the moves on me!” Maggie recoiled in repulsion.

“Oh, you know you liked it, Maggie. You all do.” Jeff winked at her.

“What's that supposed to mean?” Maggie's facial confusion was shortly replaced by shock as she spotted the familiar figure flouncing toward her.

“Excuse me! That's my man you're fondlin', missy!” the voice of Maggie Beckett rang out, only drenched in a Southern accent.

“Oh, this can't be happening . . .” Maggie closed her eyes and shook her head.

An Alternate Maggie had pushed her way through the crowd, stomping right over to Maggie. All eyes in the room were now on them.

Alternate Maggie stuck her face right in front of Maggie's. “Who the hell do ya think you are, dressin' up like me?!” she demanded, poking Maggie's chest as she enunciated each word.

“This is all a dream . . .” Maggie was almost chortling at the ridiculousness of it all. “She's just another Kromagg hologram . . .”

“Maggie, I can explain . . .” Jeff stuttered to Alternate Maggie.

Alternate Maggie held up her hand. “No need, Jeff. It's obvious this hussy couldn't wait to get her hands all over ya!”

Maggie fumed as her trashy double, who was dressed in a fishnet top and revealing lace garters. “Oh, whatever! Jeff grabbed my butt like it was a melon in the supermarket!”

“You what?!” Rembrandt flared at Jeff, protectively stepping between him and Maggie.

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Alternate Maggie railed, squinting at Maggie through tears. “You just got jealous when ya heard how me and Jeffy were steamin' up the inside of the broom closet.”

“Jeffy?” Rembrandt began to chortle out one of his trademark Cryin' Man laughs, as he realized what was going on. “You,” he pointed at Alternate Maggie, “and you,” he pointed at Jeff, “. . . together?!”

“Why, of course.” Alternate Maggie jiggled her chest. “What man could resist this sizzlin' body?”

It was all Rembrandt could do to hold in his laughter as Malcolm, Vanessa, Kirk, and Mallory found their way - along with a fairly large crowd - to watch the two Maggies' rather heated face-off.

“So you two were having an affair after all?” Maggie pointed an accusing finger at Jeff.

“Of course not!” Jeff Williams adamantly denied. He folded his arms and bit his lip. “It didn't start until AFTER the Kromaggs captured us and brought us here.”

“Jeff!” Sela Williams suddenly appeared behind her husband, flabbergasted.

“Oh, honey . . .” Jeff chuckled sheepishly, not realizing that Sela had been standing there.

Sela looked horrified. “So you've been shacking up with this trailer park slut during our time here?!”

“Hey!” Maggie and Trailer Park Maggie shouted in unison, both offended.

Mallory leaned over to Malcolm, elbowing him mischievously. “This is better than the soaps.”

“Well what do you care, Sela?” rebutted Jeff, scoffing at Mrs. Williams. “Apparently, you had no qualms about getting it on with Chuck while the media was having a field day over my highly-publicized ‘sexual addiction.' You shouldn't throw stones in glass houses, Sela.”

“Oh, grow up, Jeff!” grumbled Sela, bitterly. “At least I bothered to admit my affair to you.”

“Yeah . . . on the day we were about to finalize our divorce,” countered Jeff.

“Excuse me, but what about me?!” whined Trailer Park Maggie. She stepped into the middle of the fray. “All those years I spent shootin' out babies for my man, Skippy Lee Perkins . . . ah, I'll never forget when he first started courtin' me . . . we were workin' at Arby's together in Whitwell, Tennessee . . .” The Alternate Maggie was slipping into a nostalgic psuedo-trance. “Poppy always said you don't go fishin' from the company swimmin' hole - I shoulda listened to Poppy . . . as soon as Skippy Lee moved us to Pacoima in search of gold, he runs off with some bimbo starlet from Brentwood . . . leavin' me to raise seven li'l monsters all by my lonesome . . .”

Sela held up her hand, motioning for Trailer Park Maggie to be quiet. “Honey, I don't care,” Mrs. Williams coldly told Maggie's double. She shifted her attention back to Jeff. “What a waste of my life! After all the sacrifices I made for you, Jeff . . . I suffered through ten-dollar midnight dinners with you every week at Dugald's, back when you were starting out in the House . . . I ate their crummy two-dollar double-chocolate cheesecake just because I knew it was your favorite!”

Trailer Park Maggie leaned over to address Maggie. “Explains why her tummy's so big,” she quipped, indicating Sela's midsection.

Maggie stifled a laugh. “You may have a point there . . .”

“I beg your pardon?!” Sela spoke through gritted teeth at the two Maggies. Turning back to Jeff again, she complained, “After all I endured, with the Maggie Beckett scandal, with your ‘sexual addiction,' with the Alexandra Shaw trial . . .” Sela Williams roared at Jeff, “You selfish oaf!”

“What's going on?” Quinn had followed a group of curious stragglers into the conference room, only to see Maggie and her double caught in the middle of a marital spat.

“Well, what do we have here?” Trailer Park Maggie sauntered over to Quinn, reaching out to grab his muscular arms. “Oooh,” she cooed, squeezing Quinn's muscles, “what a fine specimen you are.”

Quinn blushed, overcome with the same sense of excitement that he felt whenever Maggie touched him. As Alternate Maggie moved her hands to massage Quinn's chest, Quinn felt his mind digging into her past. He strolled along a beaten path that was strewn with dismantled appliance parts and muddy, ragged clothing. Approaching a trashy-looking mobile home, Quinn could see a news correspondent stationed outside of it, accompanied by a camera crew.

“Yes, Anne,” the male correspondent spoke through a microphone to the anchorwoman back in the studio. “I'm here in Pacoima at the address were given just moments ago.” He'd been repeatedly knocking on the door of the mobile home.

When the door finally opened, a very pregnant alternate version of Maggie Beckett waddled out. She wore a gaudy, polka-dotted housecoat, and some of her hair was in curlers. A half-full beer bottle in one hand, she blew smoke out of her mouth from a cigarette she twiddled between the fingers of her other hand.

“What do you want?” asked a mildly-annoyed Alternate Maggie, sounding rather disinterested. “This some kinda contest?” She blew out a puff of cigarette smoke from her lips.

“I'm Tony Jacobs of GNN,” the correspondent introduced himself. He visually examined Alternate Maggie, astounded. “Are you . . . Maggie Beckett?” he inquired, tentatively.

“Do I have to buy any magazines?” asked Trailer Park Maggie, lazily scratching her side.

“No, ma'am,” answered Tony Jacobs. “The White House has named you as the woman currently having an affair with President Williams.”

“The What-House?” she squinted, blankly. A loud thump from inside the mobile home distracted Trailer Park Maggie. She poked her head inside to momentarily yell at one of her daughters. “Martha Lou, put that dog down!” A childish giggle could be heard from inside as Martha Lou gave her mother a muffled response. “I know, honey, but he don't like the hat!” Alternate Maggie argued back to Martha Lou.

“Aw, mom! . . .” Martha Lou whined, disappointed, still inside the mobile home.

Turning her attention back to Tony Jacobs, Trailer Park Maggie smiled as she tried to sound charming. “I'm sorry, now what's this about the president?”

“We had some information,” Tony explained, awkwardly, “that you might be the person having an illicit affair with the president, but . . . obviously . . . you're not the right Maggie Beckett.” He began to speak into the camera again. “This is Tony Jacobs in Pacoima, sending it back to you at GNN Central . . .”

“Wait a minute,” Alternate Maggie piped up, offended by Tony's dismissal of her sex appeal, “how the hell do you know I'm not seein' the president, hmm?” His supposition had struck a nerve with her. “It's not like I can't get myself any dates, right?” Alternate Maggie was now on the defense.

“I'm sorry, ma'am,” stuttered Tony Jacobs, uncomfortably backing away as his camera crew departed.

“Hey, come back here!” Trailer Park Maggie angrily called after Tony Jacobs and his cameramen. “You want a story, hey mister, I'll give you a story!” The yelp of a canine could be heard from inside the mobile home. “I said put that damn dog down!” Alternate Maggie once again shouted at Martha Lou, with a hoarse squeal at the end of her sentence. Trailer Park Maggie ducked back into the mobile home, slamming the door behind her.

Quinn's vision immediately shifted to the inside of Alternate Maggie's trailer home, presumably following a time lapse. Trailer Park Maggie stomped over to answer her door, as ferocious pounding continued from the other side. Before Alternate Maggie could grab ahold of the doorknob, two Kromagg soldiers burst down her door, aiming their weapons at her.

“What are you, a couple of 'em NRA bozos?” Trailer Park Maggie derided the Kromaggs, not seeming to realize what dangerous creatures they were. “I told you people, I don't have any money to give ya . . . but I already pack a bazooka, if it makes ya's feel any better.” The Kromaggs seized Trailer Park Maggie, one grabbing her shoulders while the other took her legs. “Let go of me!” she protested, with a squeal, as they carried her out of Cajero Mobile Home Park & Campground.

Quinn emerged from his trance only to feel Trailer Park Maggie eagerly squeezing his pectoral muscles through his shirt.

Maggie was in front of Quinn in a flash. “Hands off!” she snapped at her double, physically separating Alternate Maggie from Quinn Mallory.

Trailer Park Maggie slyly unwrapped her hands from around Quinn's joints. Turning to Maggie, Trailer Park Maggie smirked. “Nice dye-job,” she said, belittling Maggie's dyed reddish hair.

Glaring back, Maggie retorted, “Nice implants.”

“Hey! With all the media hoopla I had to put up with, I deserved a little treat.” Alternate Maggie adjusted her breasts, using her hands to make them protrude from her upper body more prominently. “Besides,” Trailer Park Maggie pointed to Sela Williams, “she's the one who got all the bad Botox.”

Sela put her hands on her hips, gaping in flabbergasted humiliation.

“People! Knock it off!” Diana had joined the assembly of spectators, made her way through the crowd, and got right in the middle of the chaos. “We have more important things to worry about than who ate who's cheesecake or who got the worst Botox. Quinn,” she grabbed the arm of the 28-year-old physics genius, “the Professor and Colin and I need your help if we're ever going to create an antidote for Christina's son.”

“Of course. Whatever I can do to help,” Quinn nodded.

“Good. Then come on.” Diana motioned with her hand, and Quinn began to walk in the direction Diana had indicated. Trailer Park Maggie began to follow Quinn. “Not you,” Diana sharply said, halting the Alternate Maggie's movement by blocking her with her arm.

As Quinn made a beeline for the exit, he heard a swishing noise followed by a chorus of whispers. Glancing over his shoulder, Quinn froze, and then turned his body completely around to get a better look at what had captured everyone else's attention.

A beam of light had flashed into the room, once again revealing the image of Kryoptus. The Humagg folded his strong arms, and his greasy brown hair shined due to the glossy translucence of the holographic light. “Humans, I come bearing another message from the Dynasty.”

“Why are you even still here?!” Christina screamed, breaking away from Wade, Kirk, and the other people who'd been comforting her. She tried with great futility to pound her fists against Kryoptus's body, but her hands just flew right through the hologram's energy matrix.

“I am here to dissuade you from any further acts of rebellion,” Kryoptus said, looking around the room at all of the humans.

“Wait a minute . . .” Quinn stared with scrutiny at Kryoptus. It was obvious that the Humagg could see all of the humans whom he was talking down to. Yet, because of the reality that he only existed in the room as a hologram, his physical body must be elsewhere . . .

Quinn slowly stepped forward again, this time with his arms outstretched toward Kryoptus. He meticulously touched his fingers against the holographic image, and concentrated on its energy flow.

Almost immediately, Quinn's vision was diverted to a high-tech room filled with Kromaggs at computers. Several Kromagg officers wore headsets and were speaking through various radio-like devices. Television monitors connected to surveillance cameras were set up, monitored by more Kromagg soldiers. Against one wall of the control room stood Kryoptus, bathed in a vertically-flowing energy shower.

In a matter of moments, the Kryoptus hologram ascended from the floor and disintegrated. Quinn Mallory turned to face his friends and the members of the Free Zone community.

Maggie read the telling expression on her lover's face. “What did you see, Quinn?”

* * *

“Bah!” Professor Arturo blinked his swollen eyes multiple times, after raising his head from the microscope. He, Colin, and Diana were gathered in a makeshift laboratory area with Dr. Penkava and a few other Free Zone doctors. “This cross-section is hopelessly homogenous!” Arturo bellowed, his heart pounding. “I cannot for the life of me find one single abnormality. Blistering blood sample!”

Colin stepped up to the plate, to relieve Arturo. “Let me try, Professor. You have been straining your eyes for quite a long time.”

The Professor stepped aside to let Colin look through the microscope. Removing his bifocals and rubbing his eyes, Arturo felt like an utter failure.

“You can't rush it, Professor Arturo,” Dr. Penkava told him. “It may take quite awhile to actually detect the structure of the virus.”

“We don't have ‘awhile'!” the Professor snapped, flinching. “A young child's life is at stake . . .”

Diana put her arm around Professor Arturo and walked him over to a chair, where she directed him to sit. “Professor, don't put so much pressure on yourself. We're all working together here to find a cure - as a team.”

“I know, Dr. Davis.” Arturo sighed. “I suppose when you've done it before, one's expectations of oneself are much higher.”

“This isn't penicillin,” Diana reminded him. “We're trying to find an antidote for a virus that we're totally unfamiliar with.”

Rembrandt, Maggie, and Mallory entered the “lab,” curious to see what progress had been made on the virus.

“Where's Quinn?” Arturo shot to his feet. “We need his assistance - badly.”

“Q-Ball is a little preoccupied right now, Professor,” said Rembrandt.

“What happened?” Diana hadn't witnessed any of the events that transpired following the emission of the Kryoptus hologram.

“He thinks he knows what the Kromaggs are up to . . . ” Maggie stopped short of explaining Quinn's perspective to them. She realized that the three scientists already had enough to deal with.

“So have you found a cure yet?” Mallory cut in.

“Mallory!” Diana impatiently snapped at her friend, as Arturo guiltily bristled.

“It's a zoo out there,” Rembrandt said, trying to make the three hard-working laboratory sliders feel not so pressured. “We're lucky that none of us have gone crazy yet . . . well, except for the folks from that one world . . .”

“Yeah, between Jeff and Sela's endless bickering, and my hillbilly double throwing herself at Quinn . . .” Maggie exhaled, frustrated. “I just hope we can find a way to save Jonathan.”

“Excuse me,” a skinny woman with reddish-brown curly hair stuck her head in the room, “but does anyone know anything about this rumor I've been hearing that we're all on ‘Kromagg Candid Camera'?” The woman had a dry, droll, slightly nasal voice, and was dressed in jeans, a purple turtleneck, and a red vest.

“Yeah . . . sort of . . .” Maggie cautiously told her. So secondhand chatter about Quinn's potential discovery was already spreading? “Why? Who are you?”

“Marcia Ketterman,” the nasal woman introduced herself, shaking Maggie's hand. “On my homeworld, I had sort of a knack for security systems. So I was hoping I could help out.”

“Wait a minute! . . .” Mallory recognized Marcia's voice. “I know you . . . I mean, I know who you are. You worked at Geiger Applied Research . . . I must have seen you a million times at the reception desk.” As Marcia stared blankly at him, Mallory continued, “You were the one who made announcements over the loudspeaker.”

“I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about,” Marcia said to Mallory.

“Now that you mention it,” Maggie commented to Mallory, “her voice does sound familiar.” Addressing Marcia, Maggie asked, “Didn't you provide the electronic voice for the Data Universal machines?”

Marcia shook her head, boggling at Maggie in bewilderment. “I have no idea . . .”

“Come to think of it,” Rembrandt picked up, “she sounds like one of the home shopping channel announcers that we hear on so many worlds.”

“Actually, I seem to remember her voice announcing a weather forecast once,” Maggie pressed on, thinking back.

“You people are crazy,” Marcia laughed. “I was a books-on-tape narrator before my world was invaded. I had gotten a degree in computer programming, but the economy on my Earth was so bad that there was no demand left in the market. I had to settle for reciting the entire text of Martha Stewart's Thanksgiving Cornucopia of Yumminess.”

“So you're good with computers?” Maggie asked Marcia.

Marcia Ketterman nodded.

“Q-Ball mentioned something about the Kromaggs' computer database,” said Rembrandt. He extended his arm to Marcia. “Will you come with us, maybe take a look”

“Um, sure . . .” Marcia replied, with a shrug.

“I found it!” called out Colin, his pupil still pressed to the microscope lens.

“You found something, Colin?!” Diana excitedly ran over to him, followed by Rembrandt, Maggie, and Mallory.

“Look at that.” Colin stepped aside so Diana could squint through the microscope. “See those wavy squiggles? They are rather difficult to locate, at first, because they blend in with the other curvatures. But if you look closely for long enough, you should be able to detect their distinct crimson texture. Just focus.”

Diana kept her eyes trained on the culture through the microscopic lens for several minutes, while everyone hovered around her. Finally, Diana exclaimed, “I can see it!”

“I believe those waves may belong to a viral strand that is uniquely toxic to Kromagg DNA,” Colin proudly theorized.

The Professor - who had gotten out of his chair a long time ago - circulated over to Colin and touched Colin's shoulder. “Colin, my boy,” he chuckled, “you never cease to amaze me. We may just be able to mold that raw intellect of yours after all.”

Dr. Penkava and some of the other doctors crowded around the microscope so each of them could take their turn to look through it, as well.

“This is good news, right? It means we can develop an antidote?” Rembrandt asked.

“Mr. Brown, we must first isolate the viral strain and figure out how to destroy it,” explained Professor Arturo. “But we certainly have made a giant leap in progress.”

“I'll go tell the others,” Mallory offered, heading for the door. “They've been waiting for hours, and deserve an update.”

“Don't tell them too much,” Diana called after Mallory. “We don't want to get everyone's hopes up.” She excused herself to take a short break, and followed Maggie, Remmy, and Marcia back into the main conference room.

As she walked by a small meeting room off to the side, Diana noticed a mane of dark curly hair facing away from the door. Gently tapping on the door, Diana compelled the kneeling figure to turn her head quickly, revealing her face.

“Sara?” Diana turned the doorknob, pushing the door open and allowing the former Keeper to fall into her arms. Diana could see Sara's red, swollen eyes, as the girl half-gagged while trying to repress her sniffling. “Sara, what's wrong?” Diana asked, hugging Sara with great concern.

“Diana, there's something I haven't told you yet . . . something that happened to me while Seth and I were enslaved by Vortak.” Sara's eyes were gazing down at the floor, shamefully.

“Sara, you can tell me anything. I won't judge you, and I won't stop being your friend.” Diana had an ominous hunch of what Sara was so afraid to talk about.

It took several minutes for Sara to utter her entire explanation. “One night . . . about a week before the Kromaggs came . . . Vortak . . . he . . . he . . . came into my quarters . . .” Sara couldn't completely get the words out.

“Take your time,” Diana soothed Sara, holding her in her arms as though she was the little sister Diana had never had.

“One night . . . Vortak . . . he . . . he . . .” Then Sara spoke the words Diana had been dreading to hear. “. . . he . . . forced himself on me . . . he raped me, Diana.” Sara completely lost it, bursting into tears.

Diana just held Sara closely, stroking her frizzy hair. As she glanced over her shoulder, Diana saw Wade standing in the half-open doorway.

Absolutely horrified at Sara's tribulation, Wade thought back again to her own experiences in the Kromagg breeder camp, and realized how lucky she'd been.

* * *

June 22, 1998.

Wade shifted in bed, her eyes blinded by the room's darkness. She looked over at her pregnant roommate, who was sound asleep in the bed next to her.

According to the Kromagg doctor, Christina was almost three weeks overdue. It was almost like the baby didn't want to come out, as though it sensed the terrible life that awaited it on the outside. Yet, as the Kromaggs told Wade, she would still be assigned to help Christina and the hybrid baby within their cramped quarters for the next nine months following Christina's delivery.

“So that buys me some time to get us out of here,” Wade thought to herself.

After those nine months were over, their fates would be anyone's guess. But regardless of what would happen following that nine-month period, Wade couldn't imagine that it would be good at all.

Amid her wandering of consciousness, Wade hadn't noticed the door to their room creak open. Light footsteps plodded toward Wade's body, and the imprisoned slider cringed as a flash of bright light was directed straight into her face.

“I've been watching you, human,” came a spiteful rumble that could only belong to a Kromagg. “Time for you to share in the same . . . productivity as your blond female friend.”

Wade screamed in terror as a coarse hand grabbed the front of her nightgown and yanked it forward, tearing the fabric around her collar.

“Wade!” Christina could be heard fumbling around in the dark, having just been awoken by the noise.

The hot breath of Wade's assailant pummeled Wade's cheekbones. Wade could feel her blood boiling, as all the emotions she'd kept inside for the past few months began to combust within Wade's loins, as though a chemical reaction was occurring. Quinn, Rickman, Michele, Arturo, Maggie, Logan, Devin, Kesh, Rembrandt . . . one vivid memory after another penetrated her consciousness . . . murder, passion, fear, hatred, pain . . .

Opening her mouth to scream again, Wade could feel some invisible force rising from her gut, up through her lungs, shooting through her mouth and nostrils and eyeballs all at once. She envisioned herself punching Maggie in the face, bashing Rickman's skull with a club, sending a wooden planking tearing through Sid's abdomen, decapitating Cutter with a chainsaw, incinerating one Kromagg after another down to cinders as she emitted fire from her hands . . .

A light clicked on in the room as one of the Kromagg security guards opened the door. The darkness was replaced by bright light in the blink of an eye. The first thing Wade saw was the Kromagg who'd been climbing on top of her; he was flying backward across the room, and crashed against the wall. Kromagg blood splattered across the hardened plaster.

And Wade didn't feel one bit guilty about it.

“Oh my God!” Christina gasped, after witnessing what Wade had done.

As the Kromagg guard charged into the room, instinctively furious over Wade's self-defense against his fallen comrade, he suddenly felt and saw the room shifting backward, away from him. The guard's vision went blurry as his skull slammed against a hard surface. The last image he saw was Wade Wells jumping off the foot of her bed and propelling herself down onto the floor above him. He gradually lost consciousness.

Wade towered over the two Kromagg bodies that were sprawled across the floor of her and Christina's room. She reacted quickly as a blaring, red-blinking alarm went off. A clamor resulting in an explosion of glass shards spewed from the wall above their doorway, as Wade's psychic energy caused the alarm system to shatter.

Wade was out the door by now. More uniformed Kromaggs sprinted toward her with stun guns. But Wade exerted her telekinetic strength, knocking over successive Kromagg soldiers like bowling pins as she glided down the corridor. At the end of the hallway, she saw Colonel Kesh facing her. Wade propelled her body forward at full throttle.

In a mere second, Kesh swept her hand laterally, activating a force field. Wade thudded against the shiny blue transparent barrier that Kesh had erected, and collapsed onto the floor.

Finding herself flat on the floor, Wade looked up to see Kesh - still behind the force field - standing over her.

“You are a feisty little human,” Kesh commented, pressing her lips together in amusement and intrigue. “You will be of great use to us.”

Through gritted teeth, Wade snarled at Colonel Kesh. “No! I won't let myself be raped!”

“Oh, I never suspected you would,” smirked Kesh. “And my theory was tested quite well.”

“You mean . . . ?” Wade's eyes widened, horrified. “You were watching when he tried to impregnate me?!”

With a slight nod of her head, Colonel Kesh confirmed it. “He had no idea what he was in for.”

“You never expected me to get pregnant?” A great strain overtook Wade's face. “So why let him come after me? Is it something you take a sadistic pleasure in?”

“Hardly,” scoffed Kesh, averting her eyes in disgust. “It was a test. You passed. There are many great things in store for you, human.”

“What?! What are you talking about?!” Wade yelled in confusion as footsteps crept up behind her.

“Take her away!” Kesh ordered to some Kromagg guards, who'd already hoisted Wade to her feet.

Wade screamed obscenities at Kesh, resisting the embrace of her captors as they hauled Wade back to her and Christina's room.

* * *

“Remmy, I know what to do!” Wade ran up to Rembrandt, who was huddled next to Angie and Maggie. They were gathered around Quinn, trying to calm him down.

Rembrandt looked at Wade with a questioning stare.

“The Kromaggs conditioned my mind to think like a computer, while I was a cyberiad.” Wade spoke with great excitement. “Obviously, I'm not a cyberiad anymore, but the blueprint from that experience should still be dormant in my brain. It's what they trained me for. The Kromaggs conditioned me to be a part of their computer network. It's all a matter of mental energy.”

“Wade, what are you talking about?” Maggie asked, absolutely confused by Wade's rambling.

“No, it makes sense,” Quinn suddenly snapped back to reality. “Wade's telekinetic abilities . . . the Kromaggs must have manipulated her energy as a channel through which they could effectively program Wade to open wormholes. Her telekinesis is what enabled her to open rifts in the multiverse.”

Wade nodded, having figured it out a long time ago in the back of her mind.

Rembrandt scratched his head. “So all the cyberiads had telekinetic powers?”

“No. Or at least, not originally.” Wade shook her head. “But we were all interconnected. I was able to feed off of their energy. In return, the other cyberiads tapped into my telekinesis and learned how to create the space folds.”

“They had sort of a symbiotic relationship,” Quinn explained, fully understanding the concept Wade had described.

“None of it made much sense to me until now.” Wade looked around at all of them. “But if I can breach their data network . . .”

Rembrandt put his fingers to his lips, indicating for Wade to stop talking. He gestured pointedly at the walls and ceilings.

“So you're going to actually enter their computers?” Angie gasped at Wade, incredulously.

“Psychically, yes. Where's Devin?” Wade looked around frantically, with the realization that they were running out of time.

“Shouldn't we be getting Diana's help?” Maggie pointed out. “She knows computers.”

“Diana is with Sara right now . . . she's where she needs to be.” Wade left it at that.

“Guys,” Rembrandt interjected, rather harshly. His eyes darted around in all directions, suspiciously. Lowering his voice, he cautioned, “They could be listening.”

Devin approached their circle, and locked eyes with Wade. Closing her eyes and concentrating, Wade began to speak to Devin through their mind link. “Devin, I need your help. I'm going to try to get inside the Kromaggs' computer database.”

Returning her gaze, Devin telepathically responded, “Isn't that dangerous, Wade?”

“Yes it is. But I have to do it. And I need your help. I may need your extra psychic energy to bypass it.”

“I can try.”

“Also, I'll need you to communicate with my friends, on my behalf. I won't be able to talk to them while I'm doing this.”

Devin nodded slowly. “I understand,” she spoke out loud.

“Did I miss something?” Maggie blinked, not understanding the non-verbal exchange between Wade and Devin.

“They've done this before,” Remmy vaguely stated.

Wade relaxed, willing her consciousness to drift at random. In front of her, she could see swirls of blue gyrating through a kaleidoscope-like tunnel. She felt her energy being projected forward in a steady stream.

Diana and Sara walked up to the crowd of spectators now assembled around Wade. “Sara wants to help,” Diana piped up. She looked at Wade and Devin, who were both in meditative trances. “What's going on?”

“Wade,” Devin called out to her friend, whom she could feel herself partially floating with through intradimensional space. “Sara has offered her assistance.”

“No,” Wade responded, remembering Sara's revelation that she'd overheard. “I can't let her do that. She's endured way too much.”

“Wade questions your emotional state,” Devin reported back, her eyes still closed as she remained telepathically and spiritually linked to Wade.

Turning to Sara, Diana asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? After what you've been through . . .”

Gulping, Sara nodded. “What happened to me was horrifying - the worst experience of my life. But I also know that I must do whatever I can to prevent the Kromaggs from spreading more of the same kind of pain and terror that I was subjected to by Vortak. If we don't stop them, they will only continue their violence.” Squeezing Diana's hand, Sara whispered, “Just please, don't tell Seth. He doesn't know about it yet. Let me tell him.”

Diana gave Sara a reassuring smile, confirming that she would honor Sara's wishes.

Meanwhile, Wade's body jolted as she made contact with a number of electronic sparks.

“Do you feel it, Devin?”

“Yes, Wade.”

“I need to ride one of the currents into the mainframe. Devin, transfer your strength to me.”

Devin did as Wade instructed, acquiescing a surge of mental energy from her body that allowed Wade to penetrate on of the system's hard drives.

“We're in,” Devin informed everyone, aloud, referring to Wade's entrance into the computer.

Mallory and Janine had joined the crowd. “What's wrong with Wade?!” Mallory fervently demanded, seeing his girlfriend sitting upright, seemingly in a state of meditative slumber.

The lights in the room began to flicker and sizzle. A whirling orange vortex spontaneously materialized in the middle of the room, spitting out a Kromagg who was cloaked in a protective, astronaut-like bodysuit. The Kromagg held a plasma rifle, which he immediately began firing in all directions.

“Sara, Angie, get down!” Maggie shouted, as a blast from the Kromagg weapon was fired in their direction. Diana helped Maggie push Sara and Angie out of the way before they could be hit.

Mallory threw himself on top of Wade, covering her body with his own. As she was shoved to the floor, Wade's eyes popped open.

Quinn had lunged at the suit-protected Kromagg, knocking the plasma rifle out of the creature's hands. Promptly, Quinn followed that up with a fist-punch to the Kromagg's anterior area. In response, the Kromagg tackled Quinn to the ground. However, Rembrandt took that opportunity to yank the plug connected to this Kromaggs oxygen tank.

In only a matter of moments, the Kromagg lied dead on the floor. The members of the Free Zone, who had scattered in fear when the Kromagg first appeared, cautiously moved back inward to get a glimpse of his lifeless body.

“Where the hell did he come from?!” Janine spat out, visually gaping at the dead Kromagg in immunity gear.

“Good question,” Quinn said, looking at Wade with concern. He hurried over to her. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” Wade shook out her hair as Mallory, Rembrandt, and Quinn all helped her to her feet. “Well, Hurley always told me that my mind worked liked a computer.” Wade laughed at the recollection, light-heartedly. “When we get back to Earth Prime, I guess I'll have to tell him he was right.”

Their reprieve from panic abruptly ended as Christina Griffin came running out from one of the other rooms. Her face was red, sweaty, and looked absolutely terrified.

“It's Jonathan!” Christina wailed, as Wade ran to Christina and grabbed her hands in support. “He's not breathing anymore!”

* * *

Rembrandt leisurely plinked his fingers down on the piano keys in front of him. He sat at the bench of a Bechner boudoir grand piano, which was prominently situated on a carpeted platform amidst a room of shelved books and a variety of drums. As the sliders had been told, this part of the building had once served as a music room back before the Kromaggs christened “the Free Zone” for their selected captors.

Angie Morgan savvily shuffled into place next to Rembrandt. She had finished changing the bandages on the wrist belonging to one of the many injured “Free Zoners” being housed in the former music room.

“Quite a little hospital we've got here,” observed Remmy, using his fingers to tap out a musical bar on the piano keys.

Angie began massaging Rembrandt's shoulders. “What's it all about, Remmy? Why did these monsters have to destroy our lives?” She was referring to the Kromaggs.

“That's what they do,” said Rembrandt, sighing. They lost a civil war to the humans on their homeworld, so this is how they attempt to avenge that loss.”

“Okay, I get that. But it still doesn't make sense.” Angie glanced around. “Why bring us here? Most Kromagg prisons I've heard of are worse than a roach motel. And why us? They brought me here after shining some sort of flashlight on my arms . . .”

Rembrandt's face scrunched up. “Christina mentioned something about that too . . .”

“To think, three years ago at this time I was running my Hippo Club, jamming with the gals and gents of the Sweet Thunder Revue. But after Harrell . . .” Angie gagged suddenly, as something was caught in her throat. “He loved playing the piano so much.” She sadly looked down at the grand piano in front of Rembrandt. He pulled her down onto the bench next to him.

For the next half-hour, Rembrandt snuggled Angie close to him as she cried. He thought back to that dreary weekend two-and-a-half years ago, when he, Maggie, Diana, and Mallory slid into the backlot behind Angie's club. His memory wandered backward through all the intricate details of helping Angie sustain her club. While Rembrandt immersed himself in those memories, he instinctively began playing the first few bars of “The Java Jive,” his fingers hitting the piano keys with surprising accuracy.

Angie snuggled closer to Rembrandt, as he proceeded to belt out the lyrics to the song:

“He must be sleepin'

Could he be dreamin'

Where can my baby be?”

Rembrandt tapped out the musical interlude on the piano, and Angie joined in:

“Well I've been down before

And each time he loved me more

Now I feel so alone

Tryin' to make it on my own

He must be sleepin'

Could he be dreamin'

Where can my baby be?”

The injured Free Zoners in the room were now all awake, some of them sitting upright. They listened to Rembrandt and Angie's combined vocal abilities intently and appreciatively. As Quinn Mallory walked into the music room, Rembrandt and Angie were nearing the end of the song:

“We've all been down before

You need love that much more

And you're never so alone

As tryin' to make it on your own . . .

“Hey guys,” Quinn interrupted. Both of them stopped singing and turned around. “Um, sorry to interrupt . . . Angie, I need to borrow Rembrandt for a moment.”

“Sure, Quinn.” Angie slid off the piano bench and sauntered toward the hallway. She momentarily stopped to speak with Quinn. “Thank you for everything you and your friends have done for us here. We couldn't have asked for better saviors.” She reached out and lightly brushed his shoulder.

Light flooded into Quinn's eyes as he felt a draft of temporal wind move him forward. He saw Angie sitting on a cushy pink sofa. An elegantly-dressed black man lowered his body onto the sofa, reaching for Angie's hand and planting a loving kiss on it.

“Q-Ball?” Remmy could be heard addressing Quinn, as Quinn's premonition ended. “What do you need, man?”

“We need you back in the main part of the building,” Quinn muttered, distracted. “We're still trying to hack into Kromagg database, and Wade thinks she's almost there this time. We might need you to help translate.” He watched Rembrandt's eyes linger after Angie's curvy body, as the former nightclub singer exited into the hallway. “Uh, Rembrandt . . . look, I know you have deep feelings for Angie . . .”

“Yeah, I know, Q-Ball. But I can't bring her into this, can I?” admitted Rembrandt. “It's too dangerous. I already brought Malcolm along for the ride, and he's adjusted, but Angie's a whole other story. Her emotions are . . .”

“Rembrandt.” Quinn's serious voice caught the Cryin' Man's attention. “When Angie touched me, just now, I saw something. I had a premonition.”

“Of what?” Rembrandt implored him. “Was Angie in it?”

“She was with someone.” Quinn just came out with it. “Another man. A boyfriend. Possibly even a husband. They seemed like they were really in love, Rem. And this was in the future - I could feel it.”

Rembrandt's face fell. “So she and I aren't meant to be together.”

“I'm sorry, Rembrandt. But it's what I saw, and I must have received it for a reason,” said Quinn. “Angie must be destined to fall in love with someone else.”

Heaving a sigh, Rembrandt thought back to all his years of sliding. “I've cared for a lot of incredible women from different worlds . . . Angie, Dominique, Alisandra, Monique, Grace, Alesha, Danielle . . . but out of all of them, Angie has the most heart. She was the first person since Grace who I'd actually imagined a long-term future with . . . but I couldn't bring her with us. Too dangerous. Too many risks.”

Quinn put his arm around Rembrandt in consolation. “I hate to sound heartless, Rem. But the clock is ticking. Jonathan's life is hanging in the balance. And we may only have a short period of time to find a way to crash the Kromagg computer network. We have no idea when or how they might strike at us next time.”

“Let me just explain it to Angie,” requested Rembrandt.

Quinn headed back out into the hallway, where Angie had been impatiently tapping her foot. He gave Angie a sympathetic gaze as he passed by her.

“Remmy, what's up?” Angie asked, high-tailing it back into the music room.

“Angie . . . I have to go,” Rembrandt said. “My friends need me.”

“That's not a problem. I'll be here when you get back.” She smiled at him.

“That isn't what I mean.” Remmy reached out and touched Angie's ear-length straight black hair. Gazing into her round, angelic, innocent brown eyes, Rembrandt told Angie, “I have to keep sliding with my friends after his. And I can't bring you with us.”

“But . . . why?” Angie's lower lip quivered.

“Remember I told you how Quinn gets these visions . . . sometimes of the future?”

Angie nodded.

“Well, he had one of you.”

“He did?”

“Yeah. You were with your future husband. And he wasn't me.” Rembrandt gulped with regret. “When Q-Ball gets a premonition, it's for a reason. His visions are meant to help us make the right choices. We just have to trust in that.”

Angie had tears in her eyes. “After Harrell died and you left my world, I never could stop thinking about you, Remmy. Even when I ventured out on my own, working the nightclub circuit, I never forgot that Friday night after Harrell was . . .” Now Angie was the one to gulp, unable to refer to Harrell Walker's murder. “I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come along and helped me through it, Remmy.” She shook her head. “Those were some hard times. Dropper Daddy had shot up my club, I was in debt and couldn't even give Harrell the funeral he deserved . . . the only thing that kept me going was the hope that someday I'd see you again.”

“Yeah, we created quite a few memories,” Rembrandt nostalgically said.

Shaking her head, Angie sadly recounted, “To think, one moment I was ready to become Mrs. Harrell Walker . . . and in the next, I was trapped in a freezing meat locker, shivering with guilt as I realized how Diana could have died from that bad stash in my sugar box.” She gazed into Rembrandt's eyes. “But remember what I said to you before you left? Somehow, I always knew that we would get to work together again someday. Everything just came together for us that weekend. You and your friends were so eager to help me, a complete stranger - oh, and remember that amazing song-and-dance number . . . ?” Angie was on the brink of tears again, remembering it all.

“Just be glad it wasn't a Kromagg song-and-dance number,” joked Rembrandt, trying to lighten the mood as he cuddled with Angie.

Through her tears, Angie Morgan laughed raucously. “Oh, Remmy . . . sing with me one last time, please.”

Rembrandt turned back to the piano and picked up with playing almost in the exact spot where they'd left off:

“He must be sleepin'

Could he be dreamin'

Where can my baby be?”

They ended the chorus on a stretched note. Angie pressed her body closer to Rembrandt's.

“Pretty good with no sheet music in front of me,” Rembrandt commented on his memorization of “The Java Jive.”

“You need to help your friends,” Angie told Rembrandt, reluctantly, realizing she'd been keeping him for too long. “I'd heard through the Free Zone grapevine that the doctors put tubes in the little boy's throat after he stopped breathing. How is he now?”

Rembrandt, who had already gotten up and headed for the door, stopped in the doorway to answer Angie's question before he left. “Pray,” he advised Angie.

* * *

Malcolm kneeled down next to Seth, who was in the process of bandaging a man's sprained ankle inside one of the triage rooms that had been set up.

“So what was it like on your world?” Malcolm asked Seth, curiously. “Who did you have to leave behind?”

“My mother died when I was very young,” said Seth, brushing some brown bangs of hair out of his eyes. “The other women in our sanctuary always took care of me while my father was away.”

“Sanctuary?” Malcolm was interested. “Sanctuary from what?”

“Not from what. From who,” Seth explained. “The Volsangs. They were vicious marauders who used their global army to attack sea ports and continental coasts. St. Cataline, the island where I had lived for my whole life, was our sanctuary. We pretended to be an ignorant order of paupers, so the Volsang scouts who visited us would convince their masters that St. Cataline was not worth their time.” His eyes dropped downward. “My father died defending our compound against Vortak and his raiders.”

Seth had made his way over to the sink, and was now vigorously scrubbing his hands with soap. Malcolm followed behind him.

“I'm sorry,” Malcolm said, as Seth squeezed the bar of soap in-between his fingers, harder and harder.

Looking down at the drain, through his blurry vision, Seth mumbled, “Thanks.” He blushed furiously, and Malcolm reached out to touch his shoulders, letting Seth know it was okay to cry.

“I lost my parents too. My whole world, actually,” Malcolm disclosed for Seth.

Sniffing as he wiped away tears, Seth looked back at Malcolm. “How?”

“My world was destroyed by pulsars.”


“Meteor rocks. I'd be dead right now if Remmy hadn't had saved me,” admitted Malcolm. “I owe my life to him.”

“Rembrandt is a good man,” nodded Seth. He paused, searching Malcolm's eyes deeply. “Please do not tell Sara about my tears. I must stay strong for her. I . . . care for Sara very much.”

In response, Malcolm inched forward and enveloped Seth with a comforting hug.

Seth reciprocated Malcolm's gesture, feeling no more shame for releasing his sadness. For the first time in years, he felt as though he could breathe again.

* * *


A short, stout female doctor with curly, graying hair approached Christina. The single mother had been languishing on a sofa in one of the common rooms, with Wade protectively by her side.

“Dr. Steinberg. What's wrong?” Christina addressed the doctor, in a panic. “What's happened to Jonathan?!”

“Nothing new, Christina . . . yet.” Dr. Steinberg chose her words very carefully. “The Professor and his team are still working on isolating an antibody. I was wondering . . .” She proceeded, hesitantly. “Could I get a blood sample from you? There may be some element in your physiology that can fight off and kill the virus. After all, it did originate on your homeworld, with your father's DNA.”

Christina stuck out her arm, without hesitation. “Wade, what am I gonna do without my son?!” she seethed, as Dr. Steinberg prepared to extract the blood from Christina. Swiveling her head toward Wade, Christina asked, “What else can I do? How do I keep my son out of harm's way?”

“By doing the same thing you did while in Kromagg custody,” Wade told her.

* * *

June 30, 1998.

Christina Griffin screamed in agony. Her feet in the stirrups, Christina fought to push harder, trying to release the creature that had been trapped inside of her womb for over nine months. Wade was crouched by Christina's bedside, letting her hand be squeezed by Christina. Several Kromaggs in medical scrubs were positioned at the foot of Christina's bed, coaching her. Colonel Kesh stood by the door, observing the delivery of Christina's son.

“Push!” the male Kromagg doctor gruffly commanded to Christina.

The intensity of pain coming from Christina's cervix had drained Christina of all her energy. “I can't . . .” she meekly squeaked.

“You will, breeder!” growled the Kromagg doctor.

“Its head has surfaced,” spoke one of the scrawny female Kromagg nurses, who was assisting the Kromagg doctor. She squeaked out her words to Christina in almost a frightened whisper. “If you do not cooperate, your life will most certainly be over.”

“My life is already over!” screamed out Christina, suddenly exploding with hatred for what the Kromaggs had done to her.

“Come on, Christina. You can do it,” Wade softly encouraged her friend. “Breathe and push. Use your anger, use your resolve, do whatever it takes - think of the Kromaggs, if you have to. But you have to save your baby.” Wade spoke that last sentence in an urgent, serious tone.

Heeding Wade's insistence, Christina pushed with all her might. She directed her fury down through her body, outward from her loins. Christina's eyes were closed, her heavy breathing intensified, and the pain was unbearable.

But when it was all over, she opened her eyes to see the Kromagg doctor cutting an umbilical chord, cradling a small infant in his arms. “Very good, breeder. You have served your purpose well.”

“It is male,” another female Kromagg nurse reported to everyone in the room.

“Oh, he's beautiful,” cooed Wade, admiring Christina's small, delicate, innocent baby boy. She had momentarily forgotten where she was.

Colonel Kesh now stepped forward. “Would you like to hold your child?” she asked Christina, almost tauntingly.

Christina grimaced, staring incredulously at the hybrid infant. She remembered that terrible night, when Subcommander Korindos had forced himself on her. All she could think about was how this baby had the blood and DNA of Korindos running through his veins.

“No,” Christina flatly said. “I don't want anything to do with him.”

“Christina,” Wade piped up, concerned, “he's your son.”

“Actually, he is a son of the Kromagg Dynasty,” Kesh corrected Wade, in her superlative voice. “However, we do need this breeder to nurse him for the next nine months, so he can healthily prosper.”

“You created him. You take care of him,” Christina told Kesh, hostility in her voice. “I won't.”

“You have no choice,” said Kesh, matter-of-factly.

“Can I hold him?” Wade asked, her eyes darting from Kesh to the Kromagg doctor to the Humagg baby.

“I suppose,” grumbled Kesh, rolling her eyes as she sighed in a clipped, burdened voice. “You are still the mid-wife.”

One of the nurses handed off the wailing Humagg baby to Wade, who began gently rocking him. “Christina, are you sure you don't want to hold him?”

Christina could not take her eyes off of all the Kromaggs in the room, who were staring back at her. “I'd only be doing it because they told me to, Wade,” she responded, squinting at the Kromaggs as she held back her tears. “They won't stop watching me! They got what they wanted from me, and I still feel like I'm under a microscope! Why should I do what they say?!”

The baby in Wade's arms had only continued crying more fiercely. Wade glared at Kesh and the Kromagg medical team, her gaze burning holes into them furiously. “Get out!” she yelled at them.

“You are not in control here, human!” barked back the Kromagg doctor. But even as he finished saying that, he and the female Kromagg nurses could feel their bodies being swept off the ground and flung toward the door, all in one swift motion.

Dazed, the Kromaggs tried to compose themselves, having fallen victim to Wade's telekinetic ire. But even as they staggered to their feet, Wade advanced toward them with Christina's Humagg baby still in her arms. “Get out right now! There's more where that came from!” she screeched, making her vocals noticeably audible over the baby's scared wails.

Acting on instinct, the Kromagg doctor and nurses shuffled out of the room, wanting to avoid a repeat of what had just happened.

Kesh's wicked eyes pierced through Wade Wells. “Make her change her mind!” Kesh grumbled at Wade, referring to Christina. The female Kromagg officer promptly waltzed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Wade now turned her attention back to Christina's baby, speaking to him soothingly. She looked back at Christina, who had averted her eyes away from her own newborn child.

“Christina, no matter who this child's father is, you're still his mother,” Wade said, pointedly.

Slowly, Christina shifted her eyes back to the creature she had just given birth to.

“I promise you, Christina, we won't let the Kromaggs have him,” said Wade. “He will grow up to be a compassionate young man who is loved. We won't let him be just another pawn for them.”

Christina stared at her baby, skeptically. She still couldn't forget the other parent whom the baby had come from.

Yet, Christina somehow knew it was her responsibility to save this child from falling under Kromagg influence - at all costs.

* * *

o“Are you sure this is safe?” Rembrandt asked his fellow sliders, as Wade and Devin elapsed into another joint trance. “After that last 'Magg who was sent to wipe us out, it's obvious the Maggots are watching us somehow.”

Maggie, who was standing with Diana and Sara, widened her eyes in realization. “So maybe we should watch them back?” Maggie suggested, looking directly at Quinn. “Do you think you can do that, Quinn?” she emphasized her words to him specifically. Quinn met Maggie's gaze, and figured out what she was thinking.

“We are in,” a half-conscious Devin informed them.

Quinn hustled over to where Wade and Devin were sitting. As Wade sat there, in what externally appeared to be a catatonic state, Quinn wrapped his fingers around Wade's arm.

“What's he doing?” Mallory asked Maggie and Rembrandt, confused.

“Devin,” Quinn whispered cautiously, to the water priestess, “is there a main control room? One where the computers are emanating from?”

Devin projected her partial-consciousness into Wade's. She began reading from the blueprint that Wade had established an online link to.

“Disable it,” Quinn told Devin, who, in turn, told Wade. Quinn still clutched Wade's arm.

A flash of light appeared in Quinn's line of vision, as he saw the control room full of Kromagg technicians at computers and Kromagg officers scurrying about. Thinking of everything he had been told by Archibald LeBeau, Quinn let his vision drift out of the control room, down one hallway after another. He memorized every detail as he passed through corridor after corridor, soon arriving in an area of the building where humans were milling around freely. Eventually, Quinn entered a room and approached Rembrandt . . . and then Maggie, Janine, Mallory, Diana, Sara, Marcia, and finally, viewed Devin, Wade, and himself from outside his own body.

Quinn awoke from his telecognitive state. “Follow me!” he told everyone, leaping to his feet.

“Where's he going?!” Sara asked, flabbergasted by Quinn impulsion.

“To kick some Kromaggot ass!” Rembrandt said, having caught on to Quinn's plan.

Quinn ran through the exit and down some hallways filled with Free Zoners. The other five conscious sliders, along with Sara and Marcia, hurried after Quinn, not wanting to lose his trail. As Quinn followed one familiar corridor after another, additional members of the Free Zone joined in their mass procession.

Before long, a conglomeration of at least two-dozen people were gathered in front of two heavy steel doors.

“We've been told those are off-limits,” Marcia said, pointing to the protected entrance. “No one has ever been able to get through those doors. It's not part of the Free Zone.”

The huge metallic doors suddenly creaked open.

“It is now,” Quinn raised his eyebrows at everyone. As they collectively charged through it, Quinn whispered, “Thanks, Wade.”

The sliders, their friends, and at least two-dozen other Free Zoners stood in front of an energy barrier. Behind the translucent force field was a visible room of Kromagg soldiers and technicians. Several TV monitors lined the walls, panning various sectors of the building.

“Well, I suppose you humans are so very proud of yourselves,” a stern Kromagg officer spoke to them through the blue energy barrier. “Well don't be. This wall is impenetrable. I overrode the deactivation sequence - so whatever Ms. Wells has done to get you all here, she cannot bring down our force field.”

“It's protecting them from the virus,” Maggie realized, seeing all the Kromaggs and Humaggs alive and breathing normally behind their force field.

Sara cringed at the Kromaggs in the control room. “So you HAVE been watching us this entire time?”

“For years.” Another Kromagg soldier stepped forward, next to the first one. “We knew that Mr. Brown carries the virus, so we activated this force field as soon as we detected your vortex.”

“So you just let all of your Humagg soldiers die?” Maggie gasped, appalled.

“They knew the risks. Besides, we couldn't be sure how soon you would be lured to this facility.” The officer smirked. “So when some of the humans escaped, we sent a manta ship to fire down upon them. It would create a triage situation, which we knew you humans wouldn't be able to resist coming to the aid of.”

“The timeline doesn't match up,” Quinn said, with skepticism. “Obviously, you've been invading every world we've traveled through. Yes, I know about the tracking device,” he revealed, half-gloating, when he saw the surprised expressions on the Kromaggs' faces. “But Rembrandt didn't carry the virus until months - even years - after we initially encountered most of these people. So there had to be a way to distinguish them from every other human you captured, otherwise you wouldn't have been able to selectively isolate them here.”

“Very perceptive, Quinn Mallory.” Kryoptus, the Humagg elite warrior, stepped out from the holographic projection zone he'd been inside of. He held a gizmo resembling a flashlight in his grip. Aiming it at Sara, Kryoptus ejected a light beam from the handheld device, which penetrated through the force field and illuminated Sara's skin. Bright orange speckles lit up against Sara's flesh.

“This is what they did to me and Seth, about a year after we were captured!” Sara told the sliders, her eyes fluttering against the bright light.

“The nanobots inside your body generate an imprinted residue. It is non-lethal, but can be detected through infrared scanning,” explained one of the Kromagg officers, rather proudly. “Every time you touched someone, Mr. Mallory, this residue would permeate through your skin onto theirs.”

“Sort of like fingerprints,” Diana analyzed.

“Yes,” Kryoptus agreed. “And every time Quinn Mallory touched another human, the imprints would transfer to every individual whom that human, in turn, subsequently touched. That process would continue until the residue became microscopic. Thanks to you, Quinn Mallory, all of these humans here were spared from a life of torture in our reeducation centers. Somehow, we had to track who you had encountered during all of these years. Compelling you to unknowingly transfer a residual signature onto unsuspecting acquaintances was simply an investment on the part of my masters. It greatly increased the odds that we could select a cross-section of humans from which many of whom you had been individually acquainted with.”

Wade and Devin had rushed through the open metallic doors, down the hallway and into the control room. They now stood with their friends on the other side of the energy barrier.

“Ms. Wells, how nice of you to join us,” the first Kromagg officer taunted Wade. “Unfortunately, you have no way of getting to us. You may have found some way to use your psionic training to enter our database, but we have scrambled all the override sequences to prevent any further tampering from you.”

Thinking quickly, Wade visually scanned the group that included all of her friends. Her eyes fell upon Janine, and Wade swiftly relayed a telepathic message to Devin.

“The Kromaggs don't know that Janine carries the virus too,” Wade told the Aquarian water priestess.

Devin and Wade each approached Janine from either side, linking their hands around her.

“Okay, as flattered as I am, this is not the time to be having a threesome,” Janine quipped to Wade and Devin, as the two powerful women began meditating deeply.

Within moments, Janine's body faded from view. After a few seconds, it began to reappear on the other side of the energy barrier - the same side as the Kromaggs.

“What was that?!” demanded one of the Kromaggs, as he and his fellow soldiers froze in shock at Janine's teleportation.

Kryoptus reacted aggressively, lunging forward and roughly grabbing Janine by both of her arms.

“I will tear her from limb to limb!” Kryoptus warned the sliders from behind the energy barrier, as his fingers dug into Janine's skin.

“Let go of me, you big doofus!” Janine brought her heel down hard on Kryoptus's foot, giving the Humagg a swift kick in the kneecap.

As Kryoptus tumbled to the ground, hollering, the other Kromaggs began hoarsely gasping for air. Clutching her bloody arm, Janine rushed over to the wall and slammed her fist against the deactivation button.

The force field went down.

A herd of sliders and Free Zoners flooded into the control room like a crazy mob. They punched, kicked, and scratched uniformed Kromaggs along with Kromagg technicians, left and right.

Quinn got a particularly vengeful pleasure from pummeling his fist directly into the jaw of Kryoptus.

* * *

Maggie made her way through the room of Kromagg bodies, stepping over one uniformed corpse after another. She approached the computer mainframe, in front of which Wade, Diana, Sara, and Marcia were huddled around. Wade sat directly in front of the monitor, nimbly hitting keys on the keyboard with her fingers.

“How's it coming, ladies?” Maggie asked the four women, regarding their progress.

Wade slouched back, slamming her hands down on the desktop in frustration. “It was a piece of cake getting in. So many of its programs are just like I remember them. But there's no log of coordinates in here anymore. It's like the information suddenly just disappeared. How are we supposed to send these people back to their homeworlds if we can't even match everyone up with their home coordinates?”

“Here, let me try.” Sara plunked down on the desk chair next to Wade.

Biting her lip, Maggie said, “Um, no offense, Sara, but if Wade can't figure it out, what makes you think you'll be able to?”

Sara squinted at the foreign Kromagg symbols and characters on the computer screen. “Did you try ‘Control-Alt-Shift' yet?”

“What?” Wade looked confused.

“I thought it was ‘Control-Alt-Delete'?” Maggie recalled.

“Only if you want to reboot the computer,” Sara explained. She used her two forefingers to press the “Shift” and “Alt” keys, while pushing down on the “Control” key with her thumb. After three seconds, the screen went black, and all sorts of Kromagg characters appeared. “It's called a ‘data audit.' A comprehensive log of all numerical data stored in the computer's memory.”

“You don't have ‘data audits' on your worlds?” Marcia asked the sliders.

Wade, Maggie, and Diana all shook their heads.

“Okay, maybe there's some sort of translation component,” Marcia suggested, huddling down next to Sara, “that will let us translate the numbers from Kromagg to human?”

“Why would the Kromaggs need to store human numbers in their database?” Maggie asked, blankly.

Wade thought for a moment, flicking her thumbs against each other. “If they record the prisoners' ID numbers in Kromagg characters, they must have some record of the conversions from Kromagg to human numerical sets. Kromagg math doesn't necessarily correspond to the structure of human math. And in the breeder camps, they made us all memorize our ID numbers. The database probably acts like a dictionary, so that human prisoners can be assigned their numbers and learn them quickly.”

Diana shook her head again. “I think we need to leave this to the experts,” she told Maggie.

Meanwhile, most of the other Free Zoners were gathered around Kryoptus, whose arms and legs had been tightly bound to a chair. Sweating and breathing hard, Kryoptus gritted his teeth and shut his eyes, refusing to provide information that the humans wanted from him.

“I'll ask you again, 'Magg,” rumbled Rembrandt, positioning a razor blade against Kryoptus's neck. “What's with the bright lights? Why is it that all these people were selected to be a part of the Free Zone? They deserve to know.”

Defiantly, Kryoptus snarled, “I'm dying, Mr. Brown. And you human vermin have no intention of sparing my life. You will just watch me die . . . and along with me, the secrets of the Dynasty!”

Quinn sighed. “Okay, then we're going to have to do this the hard way, Kryoptus.” He called into the crowd. “Oh, Mrs. Twiddle . . . !”

The eccentric old woman came giddily skipping over to Kryoptus, gaily swinging a plastic bag filled with salt in one of her hands. Giggling, Mrs. Twiddle plucked a pinch of salt grains from inside the bag, and gleefully sprinkled them over the bloody open wound on Kryoptus's neck.

Kryoptus hollered, until his vocal chords felt ready to snap. He struggled against his restraints, but the coarse rope only bound his flesh even more. The pain was unbearable for him. “Okay . . . okay!” he roared, coughing helplessly. Kryoptus then whispered, “Any person whom you had ever touched, Quinn Mallory, had a residual imprint engendered by your nanobots . . . left behind on their skin. All it took was person-to-person contact through flesh . . . would not matter if you merely shook the person's hand, or . . . made love to them.” Kryoptus winced in disgust at the thought. He continued to spill out his words in heavy gasps. “Once engrained . . . in a human's skin . . . the nanobotic residue would . . . multiply . . . exponentially . . . throughout the human's body. Our infrared sensors . . . could detect anyone . . . whom you had infected.” He turned his head away from Quinn, and began to slip out of consciousness.

“We're losing him!” Quinn called out.

Rembrandt swiftly slapped Kryoptus across the face, waking him up. “What about when Quinn was trapped inside Mallory?”

Near tears, Kryoptus whispered, “I don't know . . .”

“The residue probably seeped through Mallory's body, since we were sharing the same matrix,” Quinn concluded. He tugged at Kryoptus's bangs, yanking the Humagg's head forward. “Two weeks ago, we encountered Kromagg soldiers for the first time in over a year-and-a-half. In fact, they invaded a couple of days after we arrived on that world. Do you know anything about that?”

Kryoptus cringed, as Mrs. Twiddle dangled the plastic bag of salt in front of his face. “It was a Dynasty Directive,” he revealed, his heart pounding. “One of our bases reported suspicion of infiltration. Typically, we have waited anywhere between six months to two years before randomly invading the parallel Earths you passed through . . . we did not want you vortexing backward to discover our actions. However, the psychic invasion detected by our officers necessitated direct tracking and intervention . . . our soldiers were to find and eliminate you at all costs . . . before you could infect anymore dimensions with your virus.”

“So they were on a suicide mission!” Rembrandt realized, remembering the oxygen-masked Kromaggs parachuting out of manta ships.

“After Ms. Wells destroyed . . . the manta base on Outpost 88 . . . the Dynasty ordered your capture . . . dead or alive,” Kryoptus growled. “Fortunately for me . . . I had been deployed offworld . . . by the time the cyberiads . . . obliterated Outpost 88 . . . I had been . . . promoted . . . to the Elites . . . was needed . . . elsewhere . . . for more . . . conquests . . .” The Humagg elite warrior was gradually needing to take longer and deeper breathes, due to the effect of the virus.

By this point, Diana and Maggie had joined the group that surrounded Kryoptus. Maggie looked down at him, sickened. “You're a disgrace to the name of soldiers. You never, ever betray a fellow soldier - and Kyra wasn't just your fellow soldier . . . she truly loved you!”

Kryoptus looked back up at Maggie, in revulsion. “It . . . was . . . my duty . You . . . human vermin . . . had corrupted her!”

“I'm sure Kyra thanks you from beyond the grave,” Mallory sarcastically quipped.

Diana suddenly felt a rush of energy overtake her body. In the next moment, she felt nothing but anger.

“Diana?” Mallory called out to his friend.

Diana Davis felt a sharp knife being plunged into her stomach. An image of Kryoptus's pain-staken face registered in her eyes, inches away from her own face.

It was then that Diana realized these memories and emotions were not her own.

A familiar Kromagg whistle reverberated through Diana's ears, sending shivers up her spine. The next voice she heard belonged to a female, filled with a combination of sadness and rage. The female voice contained traces of humanity, yet, it sounded strangely different.

Almost Kromagg.

“I loved you, Kryoptus. With all my heart. But you must be punished,” insisted the voice.

“Who's there?!” Diana demanded, aloud, compelling the spirit to identify herself.

“I am Kyra. I died at the hands of Kryoptus. You must help me avenge my death, human.”

“Diana, are you okay? Who are you talking to?!” Sara , who had left the computer terminal, frantically asked her friend, shaking Diana's arm.

From the cosmos, Kyra plunged Diana's body forward, flinging Diana's hands around Kryoptus's neck, and squeezed. Kryoptus gagged helplessly, as Rembrandt, Maggie, Quinn, and Mallory grabbed Diana's arms and pulled her back.

“Diana, what are you doing?!” Mallory shouted to Diana, scared, as he and the other sliders restrained her.

Her eyes as large and round as saucers, Diana heard only Kyra's words as she stared off into space.

“I am sorry for using you like this, human,” Kyra apologized to Diana. “However, justice must be served.”

The Kromagg whistle emanating from Kyra's psyche grew louder, piercing both Diana's and Kryoptus's ears. Simultaneously, Kyra, Diana, and Kryoptus all yelled out in agony, and the sound of Kyra penetrating Kryoptus's mind became audible to the other people in the room.

“Kromaggs!” Rembrandt knew that terrifying sound instantly. He threw his arms around Diana, protectively bringing her to the ground. “But how . . . ?!”

Images flew through Kryoptus's mind, awakening a multitude of memories. Kyra stealing his kill. General Kronus lecturing him. Colin trapping him behind the force field. Kronus threatening his life again. And finally, amid flashes of plasma blasts and dying human prey, Kryoptus received the most horrifying image of all.

Kyra languished, taking her last breath, as he plunged the dagger through her stomach. The wind of the sliders' vortex could be felt from nearby, slapping at their Humagg skin.

“I love you, Kryoptus,” Kyra sent a final psychic message to him. “But your reign of terror must end . . .”

Diana had fainted.

And Kryoptus had fallen backward in his chair, blood flowing from his nostrils, ears, and mouth. He was no longer breathing.

Mallory fell to Diana's side, taking her upper body in his arms. “She's still alive,” he determined, taking Diana's pulse.

All human heads in the room suddenly turned toward the doorway, where Dr. Penkava stood.

Wade, along with Marcia and Sara, had gotten up from the computer a long time ago. At first, they'd been watching the scenery play out, with Kyra using Diana's body as a vessel through which she could end the life of Kryoptus. But now, Wade's attention was focused solely on Dr. Penkava.

The somber expression on the doctor's face said it all.

* * *

March 6, 1999.

Wade and Christina surveyed the nursery surrounding them. Dozens and dozens of tiny beds occupied by small babies filled the room. Most of the infants appeared human on the outside, although they were actually Humagg hybrids. Others of them were baby Kromaggs, primarily attended to by scrawny female Kromagg nurses. Several of the women in the breeder camps - Wade and Christina among them - had been assigned to care for the motherless babies. These babies' biological mothers had perished immediately following delivery, for one reason or another, leaving the children essentially orphaned for the first nine months of their lives. The Kromagg nurses were infertile or sterile, unable to give birth from their own bodies; these Kromagg women had been assigned to serve as temporary caretakers so they wouldn't be “useless” to the Dynasty. Obviously relishing their roles as surrogate mothers, the Kromagg nurses would coddle the tiny creatures, murmuring to the baby Kromaggs as they tried to appear underwhelmed in case their supervisors were watching.

A brown, worn-out backpack was strapped over Christina Griffin's shoulders. It was where she kept the breast pump and bottles for breastmilk that she had been supplied with. In her arms, Christina held her Humagg baby. She softly whispered to him, trying to comfort her son over the wailing of the other babies. A majority of the Kromagg babies and about half of the Humagg babies in the nursery were currently teething.

“I wish Dr. Bailey was here,” Christina told Wade, referring to her family doctor from back home. “He would know . . .”

At that moment, Colonel Kesh sauntered into the nursery. She was accompanied by armed Kromagg soldiers. Kesh's eyes floated upon all the human women in the room, thoroughly disinterested in their presence.

“Listen up, ladies!” barked Kesh, speaking in a clipped voice. “Tonight we will be transferring you offworld, to a new facility. We must clear these barracks to make room for a new shipment of breeders.”

“It's only been eight months,” Wade challenged Kesh, recalling that they were supposed to be there for a nine-month stay.

“Do not argue, human!” Kesh reprimanded Wade, through gritted teeth.

Wade ignored her. “So why not just kill us right now? Why wait another month?”

“Yeah, you already have our children!” Christina flared at them, holding her swaddled baby boy close to her chest.

One of the miscellaneous Kromagg soldiers frowned at Christina. “Your time is not over yet, breeder. Your son must be trained properly, and that includes optimal health. We still need your . . . mammary glands.” The soldier uttered those words awkwardly, and his face twitched in an uncomfortable manner.

“What, you're too embarrassed to say ‘breasts,' Kromagg?” sneered Christina, sensing his discomfort.

Reacting from his gut, the Kromagg soldier swiftly slapped Christina across the face. Her cheek stung, and the baby in her arms cried even louder.

“Hey!” Wade angrily snapped at the soldier, releasing a spontaneous telekinetic twinge. He fell backward.

The other Kromagg soldiers raised their weapons at Wade, but it was too late. Their bodies were abruptly lifted off the ground and pummeled over like bowling pins. Kesh had ducked out of the way in time, landing on her knees.

“Come on, Christina!” Wade grabbed Christina's hand, and they used that opportunity to flee.

“Wade, where are we going to go?!” Christina screamed, as they scurried down a hallway.

“We just have to get out of here!” Wade stressed to Christina, over the baby's frightened screeches. “Otherwise, we're dead!”

Suddenly, the hallway filled with Kromagg officers ushering human female prisoners out of their rooms.

Wade directed all of her anger at any Kromagg she saw. One Kromagg soldier after another was knocked to the hard floor. Human women ran everywhere, no longer immediately threatened at gunpoint.

It was utter chaos.

“Go!” Wade pointed to a loading dock that led to the outside world. They could see manta ships parked outside, ready to transport the breeders to another dimension. “Take your son! You have to get away! Keep running, and don't look back!”

“But what about you?!” Christina yelled back at Wade, over the pandemonium.

Wade returned a sad gaze to Christina. Somehow, Christina could sense that Wade knew she would not be escaping with them.

“My friends will find a way to get to us! Both of us! Eventually . . .” Wade trailed off, and then raised her voice again. “Christina, go! This is your only chance! Hurry!” She gave Christina a shove toward the exit.

Christina ran with every ounce of strength she had, keeping her son pressed close to her.

Wade's heart jumped as she saw a Kromagg soldier aiming a machine gun at the fleeing Christina. Using her mind, Wade willed the weapon to fly right out of the soldier's grip before he could fire it at Christina.

In the next second, Wade felt a needle-like sharpness protrude into her spine. She dropped to the floor, and looked up.

A snarling Kromagg soldier stood above her, aiming a tranquilizer gun at Wade.

Wade Wells felt her muscles relaxing. Yet, she still managed to gather a surge of energy, and used it to send the soldier collapsing to the floor. She crawled anemically, even as she felt more tranquilizer darts piercing her skin. Resisting the sedatives that were now flowing through her body, Wade found the strength to cause at least half a dozen additional Kromaggs to cry with excruciating pain. The echoes of skin tearing, bodies thudding, and voices howling rang in Wade's ears.

Then she blacked out.

The last thing Christina saw, as she momentarily glanced over her shoulder after leaving the loading dock, was Wade's body being dragged away.

Christina ran faster than she ever had before in her entire life. For hours, she delved further into the forest, until all the energy in her legs gave out. Finally, she collapsed behind a bush in the woods, cradling her son as his tears subsided.

Meanwhile, Kesh towered above Wade, as the lost slider was dragged unconscious into a prison cell. “This human will be drafted into the cyberiad project,” Kesh stated to her subordinates, a diabolical glint into her eyes. “Once she succumbs to her hydromechanical enclosure, she will have no more control over her telekinetic abilities. I shall accompany her to Outpost 88, where we will begin the procedure.”

A scratchy-voiced Kromagg subcommander asked, hoarsely, “What about the fair-haired breeder?”

Kesh stared at Korindos, who was obediently standing at attention. “I believe that Subcommander Korindos should receive the ‘pleasure' of explaining the breeder's escape to Commander Kreeshax.”

Korindos gritted his teeth, and Kesh smirked at him, sadistically.

* * *

Wade crept quietly all, sterile room. She caught sight of Christina's mop of choppy blond hair from the back, as the grieving mother sobbed heavily.

Making her way around Christina, Wade could now see her friend perched horizontally atop the bed, desperately clinging to the deceased body of her son.

“Christina . . .” Wade couldn't think of anything to say. Tears were flooding over, blurring her own vision.

Crawling off of the body of her dead son, Christina looked at Wade with weary, bloodshot eyes. Pure hatred filled her face. “You did this! You killed Jonathan!”

Shaking her head slowly, Wade reached out to touch her. Christina just slapped Wade's hand away. “Christina, that's not true. We had no idea you were on this world when we arrived. We were cornered by Humaggs . . .”

“I don't want to hear it!” Christina bellowed, the agony audible in her voice. “Just leave me alone! Get out!”

Wade slowly backed away. “Christina, please . . .”

“GET OUT!!!”

Running from the room, Wade was a mess of sobs. She ran into Mallory's arms. Her boyfriend, who had been standing outside the room, simply held Wade. He stroked her neck, and pulled her closer to him.

An hour later, Wade and Mallory reentered the former Kromagg control room. It was abuzz with curiosity and interest from various Free Zoners and the other sliders, searching the room for more clues as to the Kromaggs' intentions.

Quinn came over to Wade and gave her a small hug. “How's Christina?”

“How do you think, Quinn?” Wade responded, bitterly. “She just lost her only son.” Wade's face was puffy and forlorn. Mallory put his arm around her, squeezing Wade.

Rembrandt stood behind Quinn, and slowly approached Wade. “Um, Wade . . . we found this.” He extended a small booklet out to her. “The Kromaggs had it stored in here.”

Taking the book in her hands, Wade nearly fainted. “My diary . . .” she whispered, opening its cover and seeing her handwriting on its crinkled pages.

“We think the Kromaggs must have retrieved it from the Chandler on Earth Prime, at some point,” Quinn theorized. “They probably had it transported here so they could learn about some of the worlds we've visited . . . to see if there were any familiarities.”

Wade gripped her diary, and pressed it against her chest. It horrified her to think that the Kromaggs had read some of her most intimate thoughts.

Devin joined them, and stepped over to Wade. “They also found this.” She held up a sparkly jewel that dangled from a chain.

“Your amulet?” gasped Wade.

Professor Arturo circulated over to them. “It appears as though the Kromaggs confiscate many items of value from their prisoners. Your diary was not the only one they had collected, Miss Wells. There are also piles of public documents that the Kromaggs have accumulated from raided Earths. Those we have read through seem to indicate a trend - usually some reference to our intervention into a parallel culture.”

“We think that Devin's amulet must have some relevance to Kromagg Prime,” Quinn speculated, gesturing to the crystal that Devin had now hung around her neck. “Perhaps it's made from a geological material found on both my homeworld and Devin's.”

“Yeah, and it makes that freaky Kromaggot noise too,” said Rembrandt, his face twitching.

Marcia walked over to them, suppressing a grin. “Good job, guys,” she facetiously complimented the sliders, holding up the front page of a newspaper.

The headline read: Strange Visitors From Another World. Accompanying that headline was a black-and-white photo of the sliders' vortex, with the back of Mallory's body captured in mid-jump.

“Oh yeah!” Mallory pumped his first in the air, proudly smirking at the consequences of their very public departure from Tabloid World.

“Fog Boy!” Groaning, Rembrandt grabbed the newspaper from Marcia, rolled it up, and playfully swatted it at Mallory.

Wade turned to Marcia. “So what did you and Sara find on the Kromagg Central Database?”

“Well, we did a complete audit of its infrastructure. There is no coordinate log in the computer's memory bank.” Marcia frowned. “It must have been in there at one point, but I'm guessing the Kromaggs had their technicians erase all the coordinates before we stormed in here. They probably saw we were coming, and didn't want to take any chances.”

“Why would they even bother doing that?” Devin asked.

“To make life hell for us. It's the 'Maggs' specialty,” muttered Rembrandt, cynically. “They were thinking ahead . . . they've succeeded in stranding all these people here, with no way to get back to their homeworlds.”

“One final insult to the injury they have inflicted upon humanity,” the Professor interpreted the Kromaggs' actions, “before they let themselves fade away into that good night.”

“Quite perceptive, human,” stated a gruff voice.

On one of the TV monitors, the face of a uniformed Kromagg general appeared.

“Now that we have confirmed your movements,” he continued, “we will not rest until we find a way to counteract your lethal virus. The mass genocide you have inflicted on our species will be considered an act of war!”

Colin, who had joined the other human onlookers around the television monitor, pointed at the militant Kromagg before them. “General Kronus?!”

Kronus narrowed his eyes, recognizing Colin. “Well, Colin Mallory,” he spat out, practically smelling Colin's scent even from many dimensions away. “I will take personal pleasure in squeezing the life from your lungs!”

“You two have met before?” Rembrandt looked back and forth between Colin and the video feed of General Kronus.

Colin shrugged, trying not to smile. “He's just mad that I found a way past their force field,” Quinn's brother mildly boasted in a modest tone.

Rembrandt turned his full attention to General Kronus. “Mark my words, Kromaggot. We're gonna stop your kind for good. That's a promise.”

General Kronus scoffed. “Pathetic humans. You have no way . . .”

The television screen suddenly shattered. Kronus's angry face broke into thousands of shards of glass.

Christina Griffin stood in the entranceway. The paperweight she had hurled at the TV monitor was now on the floor, scattered with pieces of glass from the broken screen. A second paperweight had been released from Christina's other hand. It hurtled toward the video camera on the wall that had been pointed at the sliders, smashing the only transmission link Kronus had to them. Electrical sparks sprayed from the empty circuit of broken wires on the wall, where the video camera had once resided.

Everyone gaped at her in horror.

Christina was seething like a wild animal. Her puffy eyes and reddened face were smeared with a psychotic gleam.

“Wow, Christina . . . that's some arm you've got there,” Janine commented from the crowd.

Several of the sliders glared at Janine for making a joke at such an inappropriate time.

“I used to play baseball with my brothers, Tom and Jackie,” sputtered Christina. Her voice was an acidic hiss. “They're gone! So are my parents! And now my son . . . DEAD!” She flung an accusing finger at Quinn. “All because of you!”

“Christina, I never . . .”

Quinn wasn't even given the chance to finish his sentence.

“SHUT UP! Just shut up!” Christina roared, sticking her face in his. She swiftly reared her head toward Rembrandt. “And you! You're the one who injected yourself with that damn virus! If it hadn't been for you, Jonathan would still be alive!”

“Christina, please, calm down . . .”

Wade's plea was ignored as Christina flailed around, erratically. She hollered a multitude of obscenities, and her eyeballs bulged with abhorrence. It was clear that Christina wasn't even thinking clearly.

Vanessa and Maggie each grabbed Christina's arms, but Christina struggled against their grip. Colin, Sara, Devin, and Arturo all moved forward to help physically restrain the grieving mother.

Then a syringe was plunged into her bare arm, and Christina Griffin fell back into Dr. Penkava's arms.

* * *

Malcolm didn't even react to the sharp discomfort he felt in his blood vessel. He did, however, turn away as the serum from Rembrandt's bloodstream was administered to him.

“Why didn't we do this months ago?” Malcolm asked Rembrandt. Malcolm exhaled as Vanessa placed a gauze bandage over his arm.

Up until now, we never really needed to,” shrugged Rembrandt. “We went at least 18 months without running across any Kromaggs. Probably longer than that. Come to think of it, the fact that Janine and I have been releasing the virus on every world we pass through must mean that the 'Maggs are losing the war.”

Janine slapped Rembrandt on the shoulder. “Yeah, we rock, huh?” she proudly grinned.

One of the computer screens in the control room had a 3-D skeletal image of Quinn's body displayed on it. Quinn was meticulously studying the image. Tiny orange dots were speckled all over the thermal readout of Quinn's body.

“This equipment is probably interlinked throughout the Dynasty's entire interdimensional database,” said Quinn, staring thoughtfully his own graphic exoskeleton. “They were able to track my movements every time I slid. But they obviously waited four months before invading Earth Prime.”

“Probably because you had to slide us back to my homeworld, when I stopped breathing,” Maggie recalled, putting her arm around Quinn. “They had no way of knowing it was your world for certain, because your sliding trail didn't stop.” She paused, thinking back to her own military training. “Plus the Dynasty has to continuously generate new armies, raid the Earths that they occupy, restock their artilleries . . .”

“What I want to know is how they found me and Wade in L.A., if your photon trail led straight into San Francisco?” Remmy asked Quinn.

“Well, from what Marta told us, it sounded like they invaded San Francisco and Los Angeles around the same time,” remembered Quinn. “On most worlds, L.A. seems to be a major metropolitan area. They were probably hedging their bets.”

Malcolm, who had been following the whole conversation, got on his feet. “But the Kromaggs didn't invade our camp until two years after you guys left us. Why'd it take them so long?”

“A backlog, Mr. Eastman,” said Arturo, who rubbed his own bandaged arm. “When you consider how many parallel universes we slide through each month, let alone each year, the logistics for conquering all those worlds in a timely manner are astronomical. Frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't taken them longer.”

Marcia got up from the computer terminal. “The good news is that we might be able to get some of their extra sliding equipment up-and-running.” She gestured to some of the Kromagg sliding machines that were lined up against the wall in the command center. “If we can accurately trace back any of the photon trails that led into this Earth, we may be able to get some of us home.” Marcia smiled and nodded at the sliders, thankfully. “We couldn't have done this without you.”

The group, consisting of Quinn, Rembrandt, Arturo, Maggie, Janine, Malcolm, Vanessa, and Dr. Penkava, headed back into the Free Zone through its hallways. Sara, who had been assisting Marcia at the computer terminal, tagged along behind them.

“I want to say goodbye to Diana,” said Sara.

Back in the main conference room, most members of the Free Zone community were waiting in line to receive injections of the virus made from Rembrandt's blood. Dr. Steinberg, who was one of the physicians administering the shots, nodded at the sliders as they walked by. She had just finished giving an injection to a little girl with curly blond hair. The little girl, wearing a lacy pink gown, hovered a few inches above the ground as her fluffy angel wings fluttered, keeping the girl aloft in the air.

The Professor had been safeguarding the timer. “Seven minutes,” he told his friends, showing them the ticking digits that were nearing their window.

Over the next few minutes, the departing sliders bid farewell to the array of familiar faces from the past.

“We're going to miss you guys,” Seth told the Cryin' Man, embracing him and Mallory.

“I'm sorry we couldn't help you save The Great Work,” Mallory whispered to Seth.

“It's okay, Mallory. We have a new mission now. Sara and I are in this together.”

Sara was hugging Diana. “I wish you didn't have to leave,” Sara whimpered to her friend.

“Sssh, don't think about it, Sara. You and Seth have a lot of work ahead of you, helping everyone here get home. Don't give up.”

Kirk and Vanessa were both in tears, saying their goodbyes to Quinn, Rembrandt, Maggie, and Colin, in turn.

“You'll never know much you taught me . . . how much you changed my life,” Kirk whispered to Quinn.

“How can we ever repay you?” Vanessa sobbed, clutching Maggie's hands. Vanessa was especially caught up in the moment.

“Just find a way to make a difference,” Maggie whispered back to Vanessa. “That's all we can ask of you. Be there for others in their time of need. And some of the people here are going to really need you.” She was thinking specifically of Christina.

Out of all of them, Angie was the biggest wreck. She was immersed in her own tears, afraid to leave Rembrandt.

“How am I ever going to . . . ?” Gags came from Angie's throat. She couldn't even put her feelings for Rembrandt into words.

“Girl, just know that I'll never forget you,” Remmy mournfully told Angie, stroking her sleek brown hair one last time.

Wade had finished hugging Devin. “Please do something for me, Devin. Watch over everyone in the Free Zone. Especially Christina.” She looked over at one of the far corners, where Christina was standing, isolated from the rest of the crowd. “I can't promise you that you'll ever make it home someday, so I'm not going to try. But you have a new family here now.”

Devin nodded. “On my world, I was only able to scratch the surface of what my powers are capable of. You have helped me find so much more inside myself. I will utilize whatever powers I can congregate, and direct my efforts accordingly.” She looked back, also spotting Christina, all alone. “Wade, I think you'd better try to talk to her . . . one more time.”

Prudentially, Wade approached Christina. Whether or not she had detected Wade coming over to her, once Wade was beside her, Christina continued to ignore her former friend.

“Christina, please, let's not leave things like this . . .”

Christina turned around, silencing Wade with a distrait expression. “I never thought something like this could happen to me,” she said, in monotone. “Wade, I do owe you my life. That much I will acknowledge. But you and your friends have managed to take away the last ounce of happiness in my life. No matter what you say or do, you cannot bring Jonathan back.” She turned her back on Wade again, sighing. “Please, just go away. I have nothing more to say to you.”

The emotionless voice that possessed Christina made Wade quite possibly more sad than she had ever been in her entire life. They had not just robbed Christina of her only remaining family . . . they had taken away her very reason for living.

“It is time,” uttered Professor Arturo, capturing everyone's attention. He activated the timer, creating another magnificent purple wormhole that would take him and his friends to their next destination. The crowd, consisting of hundreds of Free Zoners, marveled at the vortex amid gasps and babbles of amazement.

A sucking sound could be heard, as each slider proceeded to dive into the swirling pool of quantum energy.

Before entering the wormhole, Wade took one look back at Christina. The now-childless mother had her had bowed, and did not give any indication that she was aware of the sliders' departure.

Quinn and Maggie were the last two sliders left standing in the facility. Maggie looked back and saw President Jeff Williams give her the thumbs-up, with a corny grin plastered on his mouth.

Sela Williams, on the other hand, was sticking up her middle finger.

“Very classy, Sela,” muttered Maggie, rolling her eyes. She motioned for Quinn to follow her through the vortex.

Quinn took a final look around at all the people whom he was stranding here. At the same time, he took some solace in knowing that his mere presence in their lives had brought them to this place that had been relatively safe, saving them from lives of torment and inevitable death as ordinary prisoners or breeders.

Trailer Park Maggie blew a kiss at Quinn, from where she stood in the audience.

Quinn shook his head and smirked, before allowing the vortex to swallow him whole.


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