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.
Special thanks to the following people for their help with the English-to-Persian translations in this story: Reza Mahjourian, Ara Abrahmian, Sheema Kalbasi, Hassan, Niki Akhavan, H. Utanazad, Fatema, Shadi, Linda Bartel, and Sassan Atbaei.
* * *
Quinn Mallory walked alongside his brother, Colin, over a meandering cobblestone trail. The two brothers turned to gaze at the magnificent castle behind them, a mainstay of medieval architecture. Quinn sighed heavily.
"What troubles you, brother?"
"Colin, we've been sliding aimlessly for six months, trying to find Kromagg Prime. But we've only come up empty." Quinn stuffed his hands in his pockets, forlornly. "I'm beginning to think it's a lost cause."
Putting his hand on Quinn's shoulder, Colin shook his head. "We can't think that way, Quinn. Were you not the one who told me this is our only way to find our family? It will take many attempts, plus we have to get Janine home as well. And don't forget, we had that detour in Hawaii."
"I know." Quinn slumped back against a gargoyle statue. "I just keep thinking back to what Archibald LeBeau said. He told us we need to get back to our homeworld as soon as possible. Something must be happening there . . . or it's about to happen."
A beat of silence from the Mallory brothers was followed by a female scream.
"Maggie!" Quinn recognized the sound of those unmistakable lungs immediately. He and Colin hurried through an arched entranceway, rushing back into the fortress where they'd spent the past week.
In the middle of the castle's archaically-furnished conservatory, an elderly man wearing a silky lavender robe stood with his arms raised in the air. Streams of bluish electricity flowed upward from his fingers, suspending a screaming Maggie Beckett in mid-air.
"And I thought Kromagg torture was bad!" lamented Maggie, her arms flailing against the electromagnetic force that was causing her involuntarily levitation.
"Garak, put her down!" Diana Davis shouted at the powerful wizard, as the rest of the sliders watched in horror.
Ignoring Maggie's friends, Garak fixated his determined gaze on Maggie. "I will have the secret to interdimensional travel!" he proclaimed.
Quinn stepped forward. "If you want the key to sliding, Garak, then shoot your bolts at me. Maggie can't give you the information you want, but I can!"
Colin grabbed his brother's shoulder. "Quinn . . ."
"It's okay, I know what I'm doing," Quinn whispered back. "Wizards are in constant pursuit of knowledge. He'll try to access my brain, but I'm going to give him more than he bargained for."
Another wizard, wearing a golden robe with a ruby amulet draped around his neck, held up his hand for silence. "Garak, this mortal believes he can deceive you," the mage said, his enhanced auditory nerves having picked up Quinn's hushed whisper.
"Ramus, we must bring these travelers before The Council," stressed Garak, lowering his arms.
Maggie promptly fell to the floor.
Ramus closed his eyes, channeling an empathic sensation from Quinn's body to his own. "The boy intends to escape with his friends as soon as the opportunity presents itself. He is planning to transmit a false vision to you, Garak."
Wade directed an indignant flare at Ramus, exerting a telekinetic surge from her mind in his direction. But Ramus was prepared for her. He swiveled around and grasped his amulet, which glimmered and deflected the energy. A gusty jolt hit Wade, knocking her off her feet.
Mallory ran over to Wade, who was now a half-conscious heap on the ground. "What did you do to her?!" he demanded, kneeling over Wade's body.
"Mr. Mallory," Professor Arturo called out to Quinn, from where he was locked in some wooden stocks, "don't let them have the timer! These scoundrels will only wreck havoc throughout hyperspace!"
"He's right, Quinn . . ." Maggie struggled to sit up. "They're ruthless, and they won't give up until they get what they want!"
Garak marched up to Quinn, his long-sleeved arms extended outward. "We took you in, sliders! And this is how you repay us?" He clasped his hands around Quinn's neck. "Where is your transdimensional apparatus?!"
A flash of light entered Quinn's eyes. He saw a cloudy image of Rembrandt being stabbed through the chest with a sharp, shiny, knife-like object. The mystical figure of Ramus stood behind Rembrandt's dying body in the premonition.
"All of you, get out of here!" Quinn yelled out to his friends. "Rembrandt, behind you . . . Ramus . . .!"
Quinn was losing oxygen.
The body of Ramus disappeared from sight in a twinkling flash, leaving a conical-shaped silhouette behind. Translocating himself, Ramus flashed in behind Rembrandt and pulled out a shiny dagger. "I want the secret to sliding!" he insisted, threateningly aiming the knife at Rembrandt.
Remmy barely had time to turn around before Janine had jumped on Ramus from behind. She grabbed ahold of the triangular cap Ramus wore, and pulled it down over the wizard's eyes. "Run, Remmy!" Janine hollered, as Rembrandt realized what had been about to happen.
Malcolm was helping Arturo out of the stocks, and Diana had pulled Maggie to her feet. The four of them headed for the exit, led by Mallory, who carried Wade in his arms.
"Hey, Garak . . ." Colin had crept up behind the wizard, momentarily diverting his attention away from Quinn. A hard punch from Colin's fist to Garak's jaw knocked Garak out cold.
"Thanks, bro." Quinn was panting and gasping for breath.
"Atta boy, Farm Boy!" Rembrandt said, slapping Colin on the back.
"This way!" Janine motioned for Colin, Quinn, and Rembrandt to follow her outside, across the drawbridge to the other side of the moat where their friends had assembled. "How much time, Colin?"
"A minute-and-a-half," Colin responded, after fishing the timer out of his pocket.
Once they had crossed the moat, Colin aimed the timer forward, opening a new wormhole.
"Hopefully no wizards on the next world!" Rembrandt shouted over the roar of the vortex, as the sliders each began entering the interdimensional tunnel.* * *
Wade, Mallory, Diana, and Maggie all collided against a concrete surface as the wormhole spat them out. The hard slab was covered with bits of sand, and beams from the sweltering sun shined down upon its rough exterior.
"Uck!" Maggie proceeded to spit out some sand that the wind had sent through her lips. "I'm so sick of all these magical, voodoo worlds!"
Wade grabbed onto Mallory's strong shoulders for support.
"Are you okay?" he asked her, sensitively.
Wade nodded and exhaled.
"Watch out!" Diana ushered her three friends aside as Arturo landed face-down with a plop on the desert concrete.
Moaning, the Professor rolled over. "I swear, I oughtta bring landing gear with me . . . !"
Thud! Thud! Rembrandt and Malcolm both landed on top of Professor Arturo.
"Why am I not surprised?" Professor Arturo groaned, as Remmy and Malcolm climbed off of him amid chuckles and giggles.
Janine fell to the concrete next. "Well, we escaped the bearded freaks with pointy hats," she mumbled, getting up from the ground.
"Augh!" Mallory winced, as he began to feel light-headed.
"Mallory, what's wrong?!" Diana hurried to his side. She and Wade both stared into Mallory's eyes, which were beginning to dilate.
"Whooooooaaaaaaaa!" came Quinn's vocal chords, hollering as he and Colin tumbled out of the shrinking vortex.
"Quinn, something's wrong with Mallory . . ." said Maggie, trailing off as she gaped at Quinn and Colin.
Both of the Mallory brothers had gotten to their feet, but each of the two had ceased any further bodily movements. Neither of them seemed to even be aware of their environment. Quinn and Colin were almost like statues, completely immobile.
"Quinn?!" Maggie spoke, with fearful uncertainty in her voice. She touched Quinn's arm. It felt cold and lifeless.
"What's happening?!" Malcolm quivered, unable to fathom Quinn and Colin's circumstances.
As Mallory turned his head, toward Wade, his neck movement paused. He began to open his mouth, but the sound that escaped from his throat was hoarse and not very understandable. He appeared to be uttering syllabic sounds.
Through squinted eyes, Wade shouted, "Something's wrong with Quinn!"
"Yeah, he's frozen solid, girl," replied Rembrandt, while lightly tapping at Colin's cold cheeks with his fingers.
"No, our other Quinn . . ." Wade grabbed Mallory's shoulders, but now he was gradually leaning toward her in slow-motion.
"We've got trouble," uttered Janine.
"Yes, Miss Chen," Arturo agreed. "Their bodies . . ."
"No, not just them." Janine gestured off in the distance, urgency present in her tone. "Them!"
A caravan of men on camels was steadily headed toward the sliders. They wore light, loose-fitting, robe-like cotton garments, and had kerchiefs wrapped around their faces, save their eyes and noses. These men also wore turbans on their heads - but the most intimidating piece of their apparel was the curved knives that each of them had fastened at his side.
Rembrandt looked around. They appeared to be at the edge of a city. Palm trees and domed buildings surrounded them. A handful of wandering, veiled villagers had stopped to stare at the interdimensional travelers. But it looked like any direction they tried to flee toward would have its risks. Do they run out into the open desert, or be chased through a crowded, foreign city?
"Everybody stay calm," the Professor told them, in a controlled, logical voice. "We need to make it obvious that we are not a threat to their society."
The camel riders had picked up speed, and were now in front of the group of sliders. They began to dismount their camels, and clasped their swords, holding the shiny weapons up in offense.
"Or we could just run," suggested Janine.
"Gharibehaa! Shoma ke hastid?!" one of them growled, positioning his sword outward.
"Okay, I think it's time for us to go . . ." Malcolm agreed with Janine, as the sliders each began to back away from the Arabian men who were confronting them.
"What about Quinn, and Colin, and Mallory?" Maggie whispered, hoarsely. Those three male sliders were still in a suspended state of limbo.
"We can't help them if we get filleted, Miss Beckett," Arturo emphasized, through gritted teeth in a low voice. He didn't take his eyes off of the warriors.
The masked swordsmen abruptly made their move. They advanced forward, wielding their sharp impediments. All of the sliders jumped into action, sidestepping, ducking, and making defensive gestures as necessary.
Wade had backed up against a palm tree. She knew that she should use her telekinetic powers to protect her friends. However, Wade's heart was pounding so meteorically that she was unable to think straight, let alone channel her mental energy appropriately. Perspiration trickled from her neck, from underneath her arms, and from her clammy hands. Wade just couldn't muster the necessary strength.
A snarl followed by a verbal obscenity in what sounded like a Middle Eastern language came from beneath one of the facial masks. The warrior had masterfully thrown his sword on a lethal trajectory straight for Wade's abdomen.
With a split second before the apparent eventuality that the sharp projection would pierce her flesh, Wade braced herself for agonizing pain. Anticipating a torturous intrusion below her breastbone, Wade cringed as she watched the sword come flying toward her stomach. She released a blood-curdling scream, preparing for the sensation of a lightning bolt to strike her in the heart.
But as those microseconds flew by, Wade's vision became grainy and blurred. She witnessed an erosion of translucent sparkles interrupting her regular line of vision. One moment, she could feel her body tensing up in the hot, desert air; in the next instant, her body was no longer there. Wade didn't know where she was, but she was someplace else. Visually, all she could see was a series of bright, spectral lights dominating her eyesight.
And then, she was back again, standing underneath the semi-shady palm tree, staring back at the same Arabian swordsman who was now empty-handed.
Wade whipped her head around, and saw where the sword had ended up. It had severed the shallow, frail trunk of the palm tree, bringing its shady green leaves crashing to the desert ground.* * *
"WADE!!!" Rembrandt roared, helplessly, as he watched one of the desert warriors lob a large sword at Wade.
It all happened so fast that there was no time for the sliders - or their aggressors - to react to any of it.
Everyone watched as Wade's cowering body faded from view beneath the palm tree. The sword glided directly across the exact spot where Wade had been standing, and its path was then blocked by the trunk of the palm tree. Almost as quickly as she had evaporated from sight, Wade reappeared in the same spot, now safe from the previously incoming projectile. Wade looked over her shoulder just in time to observe the sword slashing through the center of the palm tree trunk.
Rembrandt took advantage of their momentary distraction to swing his fist in a painful collision with the chin of one of the warriors. Maggie followed Remmy's lead, taking out another one. Janine also punched the lights out of a third Arab, as Malcolm kicked and tripped a fourth soldier whom Arturo moved forward to conk on the back of the skull.
A fifth Arabian warrior had pinned Diana up against the wall of a nearby temple, placing his sword at an intimidating angle below Diana's chin. As Diana bit her lip and closed her eyes, a ringing echoed in her ears, followed by a female voice.
"Ou maraa kosht! Bayad mojazaat shavad!!"
The woman's strained anger sent a ripple of intensity outward from Diana's chest. The sudden energy shock rattled the metallic sword and sent Diana's assailant flying backwards onto the pavement. Red blood flowed out from underneath his cracked skull. Passers-by on the street stopped to watch this horrifying spectacle unfold.
"This way!" Rembrandt motioned for the group to follow him toward an open entrance of the nearby temple. Remmy had protectively draped his strong arm around Wade's shoulder, and was ushering her in that direction.
"What about Quinn and Colin . . . ?!" Maggie continued to panic, rather uncharacteristically.
"We'll come back for them later!" Malcolm told Maggie, grabbing her arm and pulling her toward the temple.
Janine had pulled a shaking, confused Diana up off her knees and physically prompted her to follow the others. Arturo, in a hurried scramble, had gathered up as many of the swords as he could find that were strewn all over the ground. He brought up the rear as the seven of them disappeared into the ornate edifice.
The peasant spectators began to back away from the unmoving heaps of wounded and dead swordsmen, most of whom were now kissing sand. Only one lone woman continued to stand there, contemplating what she had just witnessed.
This woman seethed, sucking in the air from beneath her veil. She adjusted some loose strands of blond hair by her ears that messily bobbed out of the shawl wrapped around her head. Her round doe eyes followed Janine and Diana as they scampered inside the shade of the temple's entranceway. Her seething grew louder, and more drawn-out.
"You bitch . . ." whispered the female onlooker, grinding her heel against the concrete.* * *
The sliders hurried through a dim, narrow corridor into the building they'd entered. Rembrandt carried Wade while Maggie lent her bodily support to Diana. Both Wade and Diana were breathing weakly, anemic from the energy each of them had exhausted.
"Where exactly are we going?" Malcolm asked, feeling his way along the wall.
"Anywhere but out there," said Rembrandt, forging on ahead with Wade in tow.
Arturo heard footsteps clomping behind them. He spun around to see a slender female figure adorned in a loose-fitting tunic. She brushed the veil out of her eyes, which were revealed to be hateful and narrowed as they proceeded to pierce the escapees.
"Madame?" the Professor addressed her, causing the other sliders to stop and turn around.
The woman pulled a pistol out of her baggy upper garment and pointed it straight at them.
"Vera?!" gasped Janine, recognizing that miserable stare.
"Hello, Janine," the woman responded, feigning cheerfulness.
"You two know each other?" Rembrandt stared at Janine, confused.
Janine gave Arturo and Malcolm a shove, compelling the entire group forward. "Move it! Get out of here! She's dangerous!"
A lone bullet from Vera's gun ricocheted off the wall. The seven travelers were now dashing to the end of the corridor in fright.
Calmly, Vera sauntered after them, not even bothering to run. "I'm hardly the dangerous one, my dear Janine!"
The sliders reached a crossroads, where the corridor split into a two-way hall.
"W - which way?" Malcolm stammered.
A bearded, olive-skinned man wearing a tan robe and a tasseled fez on his head appeared from along one of the walls where he'd been lurking. "Come with me," the man whispered, his voice bearing an English accent.
Without hesitation, they followed this stranger into a small, open sewing room, which housed several large spindles and an array of furniture upholstered with silk.
"Why are we trusting him?" Maggie skeptically asked her friends, as their host walked over to one of the walls.
"Because our only other alternative is a trigger-happy psycho," replied Janine, catching her breath. "And her bullets move faster than the blades of our swords."
The bearded man had reached behind a canvass tapestry hanging from the wall. The parchment depicted Arabians riding camels through a desert, with silvery temples in the background of the montage. They could hear a slow creak, and saw that their bearded savior had moved open a sliding door.
"In there!" he hissed, holding the tapestry aside so they could duck through it.
Arturo touched Rembrandt's shoulder once they'd stepped through the secret entrance into the near-darkness. "Mr. Brown, it appears as though this Earth has been conquered by people of Arabic descent."
"Oh, great! Where's Aladdin when you need him?" The Cryin' Man was preoccupied with guiding a half-awake Wade along the tunnel they were following.
An abrupt tilt of multiple swords blocked the sliders' path. The weapons were wielded by a variety of robed figures, who stepped out of the shadows.
"Hey, put away your cutlery! We're not armed," Janine insisted to the swordsmen. She glanced back at the Professor, who still carried an armful of swords. "Okay, well, he is."
One of the burly, shadowy figures reached forward to confiscate the pile of swords that Arturo toted.
The sliders' shadowy host made his way to the front of the group. He flicked on a bulbous projection from the wall, and light filled the small cove.
"Whoa, where'd that come from?!" Maggie exclaimed, blinking as the light temporarily blinded her.
"It is 'manlight' . . . an innovation from the great mind of Ovid." Their mysterious host alluded to a Persian inventor from his Earth's history. "There is nothing to fear," he told his allies. "They are friends." The olive-skinned Englishman turned to speak to the sliders. "I am Damon. Welcome to our sanctuary."
"Sanctuary from what?" Malcolm questioned him.
"The Satraps," explained Damon. "We saw your friends fall prey to the Satraps' web."
"Sorry, but we haven't seen any spiders since we arrived here," Janine said, with a straight face.
Arturo shook his head. "No, Miss Chen. 'Satraps' were the governors of Persian provinces, appointed by the ancient empire's king."
"We reside in one of the three great Porteghaal satrapies," explained Damon, looking the group over. He lifted the brows above his curious eyes. "But our agents in shahr claim to have seen you fall from a hole in the sky . . ." His voice shook with excitement. "Are you angels sent by Ormus? Or divine messengers from beyond the stars?"
"Well . . . we do travel between worlds," admitted Rembrandt, with a nervous laugh.
Damon signaled to one of his associates. "Abu, the gate, please."
One of the cloaked swordsmen used his fingers to gently pull a lone brick out of the shadowy wall. He reached inside the rectangular cranny and unlatched a metallic lock. More of the men helped Abu push aside a partition that had easily camouflaged into the rest of the wall with its uniform exterior of bricks.
As someone lifted bronze bars that had been blocking the newly-revealed doorway, the sliders were escorted through a gateway. Their footsteps gradually inclined downward, and they wandered into a large, spacious bunker. The underground cove contained tapestries depicting biblical scenes, and crucifixes hanging on the walls. Atop a soft spread of Persian rugs covering the floor were the feet of many tan-skinned men and women wearing robes, tunics, cloaks, and gowns.
"What is this place?" Maggie asked, confused by all of the outstretched hands eagerly reaching to touch her and her friends.
Rembrandt guided a fatigued Wade over to a wooden chair. "Can we get her some water?"
Already one step ahead of him, a petite woman stepped forward, holding a silver pitcher. Remmy gratefully took the container from her, and brought it to Wade's lips.
The Professor crouched down next to where a weary Diana had been seated by their hosts. "How are you holding up, Dr. Davis?"
"I'm fine," Diana said, unconvincingly. She was still shaking. "The guy who was going to slit my throat . . . I could feel one of his victims calling out to me. There was bloodlust in her essence, Professor. All she cared about was getting vengeance."
"He must really have hurt her bad," Rembrandt said, giving Diana a sympathetic gaze.
Diana nodded. "I felt his sword tear into my heart."
"Girl, he didn't get a chance to slice one inch of your flesh," Rembrandt told her, shaking his head. "You knocked his Arabian stockings right off."
"So you are from beyond this world?" Damon confirmed. "You have contact with the deceased?"
Diana looked at him, and then closed her eyes. "You could say that," she answered, lost for an appropriate explanation.
"The spirit who protected her . . ." Abu gestured at Diana. "She was guarded by a child of Ormus. One born to the kingdom of Ormus."
"Who's Ormus?" Malcolm asked.
"Surely you know your own creator?" Damon tilted his head, looking at them inquisitively. "Perchance you know him by another name?"
"The Satraps oppress us for not serving Ahuramazda, their incarnation of Ormus," Abu explained. "For a long time, our world has rejected the words of Father Darius."
Professor Arturo looked thoughtful.
"Uh, oh. The Professor has that 'look' on his face," Janine said, half-teasing. "I can tell we're about to get another history lesson."
"On our world," Arturo began, looking directly at Remmy and Wade, "Zoroastrianism was a religion that had its roots in ancient Persia. Darius I was a Persian king who ruled in the Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C., and exalted the teachings of Zoroaster."
Wade nodded back at Arturo. "Their religion was a dualism that worshipped the god Ahuramazda."
"Ultimately, such teachings were overtaken in the Middle East by Islam," continued Arturo. "On Earth Prime, Zoroastrianism had become marginalized by the world's more mainstream religions - Islam, Christianity, Judaism."
"Then you are not of our world?" asked a soft-spoken female, who had broken through the small crowd to approach the Professor.
Diana looked around nervously at her friends. "No . . . we are from a parallel universe."
"Diana!" hissed Maggie, warningly.
"They've taken us in, Maggie," countered Diana, pulling the warm shawl that had been given to the physicist tightly around her shoulders. "I think we can afford to be honest with them."
"Ormus sent us to you. We come from a parallel dimension where he created different people and different cultures." Arturo decided to stretch the truth as believably as he could.
"Your confusion was evident," smiled the intuitive woman, who proceeded to introduce herself. "I am called Neda. I could see you were strangers to our world when I first saw you arrive at the city's edge." She kneeled down before Wade. "You are an angel?"
Wade choked out a laugh, swallowing her latest sip of water. "I wish."
"But you possess great power." Neda blinked at Wade through wide, wondering eyes.
"Miss . . . Neda," the Professor addressed the young woman, "why are your people in hiding from the Satraps? What injustices do they inflict upon you, and why do they object to your worship of Ormus?"
"They disagree," she replied. "Most think the triad of gods rule supreme. But we believe Ormus is the one, true creator of life. The architect of our children. The protector of women."
"But they believe in the power of a heavenly triad," Damon picked up, speaking of the belief system practiced by a majority of people on his Earth. "Ahuramazda, Mithra, Anahita . . ."
"Artabanus introduced the triad to our world, and claimed they deplored the beliefs of Artaxerxes, whom he was regent to. The soothsayers agreed Artaxerxes was to be put to death for his blasphemy. But our mystics have looked back to see the soothsayers of Artabanus as liars!" Neda had tears in her eyes, recounting the past. "I am one of the few who has been entrusted with this knowledge. We must be wise in who we share it with. The Satraps put to death any person who speaks ill of the triad."
Six pairs of eyes looked expectantly at Arturo for a coherent explanation.
Thinking, Arturo bit his lip. "Our history mentions an obscure historical figure named Artabanus. He ruled ancient Persia until his royal charge, Artaxerxes I, could take the throne, and was believed to have personally influenced Artaxerxes as a ruler." He paused, and then concluded, "On this Earth, Artabanus must have killed Artaxerxes and staged a coup to come to power himself. Artabanus must have sanctified the belief in a Zoroastrian triad of deities, and imposed that belief upon his empire. Here, Darius II, Artaxerxes II, Xenophon, and Alexander the Great would never have risen to power. Depending on the strength of Artabanus, Islam most likely never evolved to become a major world religion."
"He must have been pretty strong," Malcolm commented, "since they managed to expand into North America."
"Artabanus could easily have swept through Western Europe and crossed the Atlantic, much the way the Anglos did," theorized the Professor.
"But they speak English," Diana pointed out. "How did English survive in an empire that was mostly Arabic?"
"Most of the Satraps and their regents enjoy the company of concubines from Britannia," said Damon, in a disapproving tone. "Over time, many of us pick up the native tongue of our mothers. We use our language to correspond with our brothers across Nou-Pars."
"Gives new meaning to the phrase 'mother tongue,' doesn't it?" joked Janine.
"British concubines . . ." Arturo shook his head, unable to fathom the notion of such a socially-accepted practice. "I guess that means I don't have a double on this Earth."
"Excuse me," Maggie put her hands on her hips, "but can we get back to the important stuff?" She faced Neda, and demanded, "You were outside watching when Quinn, Colin, and Mallory . . . 'froze.' So what exactly is this 'spider web' you mentioned?"
"We only know what our contacts inside the palaces speak of," Neda admitted, regretfully. "The empire captures slaves and puts them . . . 'to sleep.' They are kept inside the main palace of each Satrap . . . but no one knows why they sleep. This secret is widespread among the Satraps, and thus we believe it must cause the . . . 'freeze' of visitors from beyond the stars. You seven must be blessed for not falling prey to the Satraps' web as your three companions did."
Maggie's brain was spinning, trying to make sense out of Neda's words. "That doesn't help us, Neda. How do we 'unfreeze' our friends?!" A real sense of panic was dominant in Maggie's voice.
"Calm down, Maggie . . ." Rembrandt placed his hand on her shoulder.
"No, I will NOT 'calm down'! We can't just leave them out there like icicles!" Maggie's eyes filled with tears, as Rembrandt hugged her closely.
Neda wore saddened sympathy on her face. "Your friends shall be transported to the custody of the Satraps, I would suppose."
"We must help them," Damon emphasized, addressing his compatriots. "Ormus sends these disciples for us to serve! We shall free them from the Satraps' cage!"
Damon threw his fist in the air. Virile roars of agreement resounded throughout the hidden, decorative den.
Arturo exchanged glances with Rembrandt, before addressing Damon. "Sir, it seems as though the Satraps' prisoners are being held captive in palaces. It sounds like that is plausibly where we would find our friends. Where is the nearest palace, and how do we get in?"
"Here in the shahr," Abu spoke up. "I lead a battalion of our spies. We work as protectors to the Satrap, Yashar. It is how we obtain knowledge of their ways."
"Undercover bodyguards," Janine paraphrased, with a smirk. "Et tu, Brutus?"
The followers of Ormus stared at her, blankly.
"Never mind . . ." Janine rolled her eyes.
"We shall prepare a procession at once!" Abu shouted, directing his soldiers into action. He turned to Arturo. "My good sir, will you pose as our envoy to Yashar? We must create an illusion of necessity to warrant an appearance in the court of Yashar."
Arturo gave Abu a nod of his head. "My friends and I will need to be told the appropriate details. Remember, we are unfamiliar with your world."
Maggie and Malcolm followed Arturo, who was led away by Neda and an entourage of swordsmen. Janine began to follow them too, but Rembrandt held her back by the shoulder.
"Hold up, Mountain Girl. We need to have ourselves a chat about that crazy woman who came after us." Rembrandt gazed at Janine with the utmost seriousness. "You know her from somewhere?"
Janine looked down at the floor.
"Talk to me, Janine." He lifted her chin up, so she was forced to face him.
"I don't feel like talking about it, Rembrandt."
"Well I don't care how you 'feel,' lady. If she's a threat to all of us, it's your responsibility to let us know what she wants." Rembrandt became more insistent. "Who is she? What's her M.O.?"
"I'll take care of it!" Janine snapped, as she slapped Rembrandt's hand away.
"Janine . . . !" Remmy inhaled deeply, trying to maintain his composure.
"You're better off not knowing," Janine insisted, stubbornly. "If she finds out what any of you know, she'll come after you guys too."
"She's already after us, Janine!"
"Do you want to save the Quinns?!" Janine blew up at him. "Because that should be your main focus right now! Just forget about Vera, and I'll handle her. This is my fight, not yours." She quickly high-tailed it away from Remmy, before he could restrain her again.
Rembrandt, frustrated beyond words, slapped his palms against his forehead. He glanced over at Wade and Diana, both of whom had fallen asleep and were being cared for by veiled females in the underground cavern. He followed the rest of the group, determined to ensure the safety of all of his friends.* * *
"Mr. Brown," whispered Arturo, as they followed Neda into another chamber beneath the earth, "what do you suppose happened to Miss Wells, when we were attacked?"
"I don't know, Professor." Rembrandt was just now reminded of the paranormal phenomenon they had witnessed earlier, involving Wade's momentary physical dematerialization. "Maybe some extension of her telekinesis? I didn't really ask her about it . . . the poor girl is already stressed enough as it is."
"At any rate, I believe it would be wise to take advantage of these people's hospitality. It may be our only chance to restabilize Mr. Mallory - all of them."
"Yeah, I just want to be cautious." Rembrandt stopped suddenly. "Wait, who has the timer . . .?"
"I don't know." The Professor looked around, and then closed his eyes. "I seem to recall Young Colin opening the vortex . . ."
"Oh, man . . . !" Rembrandt closed his eyes and slumped against a wall.
Neda had motioned for the group to stop walking. She circulated over to a marble platform, atop of which stood a man dressed in a military uniform speckled with leafy splashes of red, green, and blue over a sickening shade of army olive. He was frozen solid, his mouth wide open and his eyes bulging in disbelief.
"Not a department store mannequin, I take it?" Janine wryly observed.
"Seven years past, this man emerged through a tunnel from another world," Neda said. "We were able to get him to safety before the Satraps could discover his location. Sadly, his body was rendered inactive before he could tell us anything of the world he had journeyed here from. We have attempted, for years, to determine why his movement ceases."
Rembrandt leaned in and read from the bronzed nametag pinned to the suspended soldier's chest, identifying him. "Private Ian Zicree, #69342213."
"So you've kept him displayed down here, like a wax museum statue?" Malcolm balked, with scrutiny.
"Young man, he is much safer down here than in the clutches of Yashar," Abu assured Malcolm. "Come. We must clothe you for our mission."
Before long, Rembrandt and Malcolm were dressed in soft cotton robes with long, unisex sashes wrapped around their torsos. The Professor, meanwhile, had been given an oversized royal blue robe that covered his light, silk comis and sherwal.
"We had to loosen the fabric, sir," a young adolescent tailor's apprentice told the Professor, as Arturo emerged from his dressing quarters.
Professor Arturo gave the young boy an unamused scowl.
Janine and Maggie were then led out of another set of dressing rooms. Both of them were adorned in ankle-length sherwals - Maggie's was pink and Janine's was maroon. In addition, each of the women wore a low-cut top, revealing their bellies and the upper grooves of their cleavage. Maggie and Janine had dark veils over their faces, lavender ribbons tying up their hair, and laced buskins on their feet.
"I feel like the whore of a rodeo clown," muttered Janine, tromping out into the open while flanked by female attendants.
The male sliders looked incredulously at their two female companions, and Rembrandt pressed his lips together tightly.
Maggie gave Rembrandt a warning glare. "Rem, don't you dare . . . !" she spat out, sticking her finger out at him. Remmy continued to hold in his laughter.
"Why are we doing this again?" Janine asked Neda.
"Yashar only permits females in his court if they are there as . . . entertainment," Neda tactfully explained.
Rembrandt was now making suppressed squealing noises from his mouth, lips pressed even more tightly together.
"Oh, I dare you!" Maggie's embarrassed glare pierced into Rembrandt's bemused smirk.
"I'm sorry, girl." Clearing his throat, Rembrandt put on a straight face. "Just remember, it's for the good of the group . . ." His words dissolved into a trademark Cryin' Man chuckle. Maggie swatted him with the thick sash she'd had draped around her shoulders.
"Okay, but I just want you people to know . . . I'm keeping any of the tips I earn from this gig," Janine remarked, dryly.
Arturo put his arm on Damon's shoulder. "Tell me, Damon, why are you going to all this trouble for us? Why do you put your lives at risk like this on a daily basis?"
"In the name of Ormus." Damon made a holy sign of the cross with his fingers. "We only wish to practice freely. We must liberate Nou-Pars from the ruthless Satraps."
"Freedom of religion," Remmy nodded, remembering basic world history from Earth Prime. "Some things never change, no matter what dimension you're in."
"Nou-Pars?" Malcolm repeated Damon's words. "Is that the name of this country? Somebody mentioned Parsa earlier."
"On Earth Prime, Persia was known as 'Parsa' by those who lived there," recalled Arturo. "The English on this Earth must have modified the grammatical pronunciation, and it stuck."
Neda pressed two of her fingers between her lips and blew. "Follow me!" she called to the slides and her Arabian comrades, following the shrill whistle from Neda's lips. The female historian turned around and disappeared through a small, dark tunnel.
When Rembrandt, Maggie, Janine, Malcolm, and the Professor emerged on the other side, they were once again outdoors. The tunnel had followed an upward slope, with an exit leading straight into a bustling city street. Fortunately, the sliders blended in fairly well with everyone else, wearing their authentic Persian wardrobe.
Abu extended his arm in a gentlemanly gesture, helping Maggie and Janine up onto the tailgate of a golden carriage. White stallions harnessed by straps covered with diamonds and rubies were at the front of the vehicle. The inside of the chariot had already filled up with half a dozen other robed or veiled men and women.
"Your chariot awaits, Professor," smiled Damon, winking at Arturo as he assisted Remmy and Malcolm in hoisting the rotund academian onto the chariot's tailgate.
Neda waved to the departing horse-drawn carriage. "Good luck," she mouthed to them, as it began its procession down the street. Arturo's chariot was flanked on all sides by comis-clad men on camels.
Pedestrians shopping in the baazaar watched in awe as the magnificent chariot passed them by. They were unaware that the masquerading strangers inside were about to alter the future of their world.
Nor was that a main concern of the determined woman who was following the camels on foot, with absolutely no intention of letting that procession out of her sight.* * *
"Okay, end of the line, Professor."
The decorative chariot had stopped, and Remmy was now shaking Arturo, whose legs were stretched out in the center of the carriage.
"Aw, and I was just getting comfy," grumbled the Professor, arising from the soft fleece he'd been lounging upon.
With Damon and Abu each at Professor Arturo's sides, the undercover entourage made its way up the marble steps of the enormous palace before them. Maggie and Janine had blended in with the rest of the veiled women - a mixture of Oriental, tan-skinned, and ebony-skinned females - as men in the vicinity ogled them in their exotic, skimpy vesture.
Rembrandt frowned, disapprovingly. He wanted to say something about the disrespect being shown to Maggie, Janine, and the rest of the female "entertainers," but he kept a level head. Remmy, Malcolm, and the other men posing as Arturo's "bodyguards" hung back, bringing up the rear of the large entourage.
No one seemed to notice a less-exposed woman dressed in a tunic, a veil, and wrapped with a speckled nubia, inconspicuously melt into the crowd that flowed toward the palace entranceway.
"Professor, here is your story," Damon was filling Arturo in on his role. "You are Duke Maelgad Rhys, regent of the Welsh province of Gwyr. You are here to inquire the location of indentured servants who were exported to Porteghaal Jonoub from your jurisdiction. Yashar will have translators, so you need not worry about speaking his language."
"Wales?" Professor Arturo blinked in confusion. "Wouldn't the British Isles be under the control of Parsa?"
Damon looked back at Arturo. The bleakness in his eyes quickly morphed into anger. "Britannia is ruled by a traitorous family of royals. They allow their people to be abducted, and they sell them into slavery or indentured servitude."
"But don't they have any sense of national pride? Any value for dignity?!"
"None. The real Duke Rhys has no regard for the fate of those who are abducted. Why do you suppose so many of us fled Britannia to engage in subversion on this continent?"
"And no one even questions what happens to them?" the Professor asked, referring to the abductees.
"Not if one wishes to keep his head." Abu jumped in, his face hardened. "Those who are brought here as indentured labor serve out their terms, and many take on permanent menial occupations. Cobblers, tailors, merchants, blacksmiths . . ." His voice began to fade. "Some just disappear."
"We need you, Professor, to make a request to Yashar for the return of many thousand laborers for your own personal use," Damon constructed a cover story. "You must use flattery . . . for whatever length it takes. We need ample time to search the farthest reaches within the palace."
"Won't he know I'm not the real Duke Rhys?" Arturo inquired, nervously.
"No. Yashar has never met Duke Rhys. This is the first time he shall see the duke's face." Abu motioned for them to stop walking. They had reached the summit of the seemingly never-ending palace steps.
A line of soldiers stood along the gated doors at the palatial entranceway. They held their swords firm, and exchanged greetings with Abu.
"Aya ou safir ast?" asked the head guard.
"Alijenab Duke Maelgad Rhyz az Gwyr," confirmed Abu.
Retracting their swords, the palace guards separated so that Arturo's entourage could pass through.
A vast, columnar hall stretched out in front of them, lined on both sides with upright pillars in a vertical row. The columns supported a lofty portico, splashed with an array of creamy colors. Arturo's neck began to ache from tilting back to gaze up at it.
Damon tugged at the Professor's sleeve. "This way," he motioned. The procession of some seven dozen people was trailing them, adhering to Arturo's gradual pace.
"My lord!" the Professor whispered under his breath. He was enamored by the sheer garishness of the palace, while simultaneously intimidated by the Arabian sentries patrolling the hallways. Numerous corridors protruded outward from both sides of the main hallway. The walls between hallway intersections were covered with red velvet curtains and dexterous artwork. Statuettes mounted on raised tablets, murals slathered with acrylic brightness, and jewelry enclosed in glass compartments were among the artifacts on display along the seemingly endless corridor.
Rembrandt weaved in and out between random people throughout the crowd, finally finding his way over to Maggie. "So what's the plan? How are we gonna find Q-Ball, Farm Boy, and Fog Boy?"
"We'll have to try to sneak away while the Professor is distracting Yashar," Maggie murmured back to him. "Hopefully, Colin still has the timer on him. Otherwise, we're screwed."
His eyes darting back and forth, Rembrandt asked Maggie, "Hey . . . where's Janine?"
Maggie looked around, but Janine Chen was nowhere to be seen.
In another part of the crowd, Janine had been gazing fondly at the ceramic bust of a bare-chested female deity, which the group was passing by. But in the next instant, a hand clamped over Janine's mouth, yanking the slider's body away from the rest of the entourage. Janine felt herself being pulled through another corridor and behind a curtain.
Biting down with her teeth, Janine tried to fend off the strong grip that had curled itself around her. A potent, overbearing scent contaminated Janine's nostrils. She suddenly became very sleepy, as a thick cloth was pressed against her lips and nose. The last thing Janine saw before drifting away was the blurry yet recognizable face of Vera Serrano. Vera's stare remained undaunted, merciless, and triumphant.* * *
"Khosh aamadid." A solemn Arabian man with a shaved head greeted Professor Arturo in front of two gigantic doors in the arched foyer. His forest green comis and sherwal were splashed with golden sprinkles of some granular, almost sequined substance. He proceeded in English for Arturo's benefit. "I am Hami, Royal Secretary to the Satrap. Biayeed. Yashar is expecting you."
Two plainly-dressed eunuchs pulled open the doors, and made way for the Satrap's guests. Yashar's court was rimmed with more wall-to-wall artwork and fabric drapes, similar to that which had been on display outside in the corridors. The royal attendants, both male and female, wore plain white unisex vestures. Arturo somewhat nervously nodded at all of the soldiers, attendants, and Arabian maidens whom he passed by. All of them stared straight ahead, ignoring the strange visitors.
At the front of the room was an altar, lit with the flames of a crackling orange fire. Painted sculptures were positioned around the altar, illuminated by the flickering flames from the fireplace. The most prominent statue was the centerpiece built behind the two royal thrones. It depicted a large, muscular deity in human form, mounted on the back of a white stallion - a connecting part of the sculpture. This god's long, dark locks of curly hair fell freely over the shoulders of his golden tunic. The idol's face was tilted upward, gazing at the heavens. Above his head, a mural of black paint dotted with specks of white had been slathered on the wall, obviously meant to portray the night sky.
"He is Ahuramazda," Abu explained to the Professor, with a whisper. "We know him as Ormus. The Satraps consider Ahuramazda to be the most powerful member of the divine triad. He is the creator of life, architect of the sky and all that lies beyond. Ahuramazda controls the gateway to the afterlife, and the faith of man. He is said to have molded the horse and the camel from desert sand. That was how all livestock were born."
Arturo shifted his stare to the deified statue enshrined behind the burning flames of the altar. This second god had skin painted a dark shade of ebony. His hair was short and shaved, and he wore a rumpled white toga smeared with soot. He clutched a poker and a pair of tongs, both made of steel, one positioned in either of his hands and aimed toward the fireplace. His chocolate brown skin was made radiant and glistening by a reflection of light that bounced from a mirror hanging on the opposite wall.
"That is Mithra," narrated Damon, following Arturo's stare. "They believe he is the keeper of truth and loyalty, a prime opposition to evil. He is said to be the protector of souls. Mithra loves the sun, which is where fire comes from. They believe he gave birth to the sun, and his life-force originated on the continent of Afrigha."
"Artabanus conquered Africa before crossing the Pacific!" surmised Professor Arturo, aloud, keeping his voice hushed.
"Yes. They claim Mithra commanded the Negroes to serve them." Damon directed his visual wonderment at the Professor. "Mithra is worshipped on your world?"
"Um, no . . . just an educated guess, my friend." Arturo softly cleared his throat. "And who is that?" He gave a slight gesture of his head toward another statue. This one, resembling a female goddess, had tan skin, voluptuous, flowing hair, and a generous bosom only partially covered by her low-cut, pure white gown. The female statue had been mounted above a trickling, multi-layered water fountain, the edges of which were garnished with potted ivy and blooming irises growing from a trough.
"She is Anahita, the water maiden of Mediterrania," Damon said. "She represents fertility and purification. Anahita is believed to be the water goddess, and controls the seas and mistral winds." He indicted the quartet of white horses surrounding the goddess. "They claim Anahita nurtures Ahuramazda's horses, and she guides every young birth - human and animal - into the world."
"Tavajoh!" shouted Hami, clanging a bronze handheld bell. "Baraaye Yashar be paa kheezeed!"
The royal court full of spectators stood obediently. A tall, olive-complexioned, bearded man entered the room from a back chamber, surrounded by three male attendants dressed in white. He wore a long, purple overmantle with a striped tunic of embroidered gold.
Yashar scratched his graying, bearded chin, and surveyed the court. He glanced over at an assembly of women seated altogether, and gave them a smirk.
"Those are Yashar's concubines," Abu told Professor Arturo, referring to the nearly two-dozen women in various colors of gowns, who were seated in a section by themselves. "He likes to display them for all to see." A hint of disgust was apparent in Abu's tone.
Everyone in the court - with the exceptions of the concubines - dropped to their knees. The spectators consciously withdrew their arms and hands into their sleeves, and began to prostrate in front of Yashar. Arturo and the other sliders simply observed and imitated everyone else's actions.
Another woman emerged behind Yashar from the same chambers. She was flanked by a handful of female attendants dressed in white. The petite woman with glistening, light brown skin stepped gradually over to the dual thrones, where Yashar currently stood. Her attendants lifted the train of this regal woman's floral-patterned gown, which was tied at her torso with a bulky pink silk sash.
"Atossa, the Satrap's wife," explained Abu.
One of Atossa's attendants kneeled and removed her superior's black, laced buskins. Delicately reaching up to touch her temples, Atossa adjusted the red felt kidaris atop her head. Dangling beads had been sewn from top-to-bottom on all sides of Atossa's headdress.
At Hami's signal, the concubines began to sing in French:
"Nous tenons avant notre roi
Notre protecteur et notre amoureux
Il nous donne le confort quand nous pleurons
Il nous donne le but sur cette terre!"
"Why are they singing in French?" Arturo whispered to Damon.
"Yashar is fascinated by the sound of that exotic, dead language," Damon replied. "He enjoys hearing it in verse."
Two young men joined Yashar and Atossa underneath the canopy awning. The younger men, wearing sashed robes, sat on cushions across from their parents.
"They are Yashar's sons," Damon told the Professor.
Several eunuchs were now carrying silver dishes filled with fragrant cuisine. Yashar and his family were served first, but eventually, more of the servers brought additional plates of food to the more revered court guests - Arturo among them.
"Figures that he's the one who gets to eat," muttered Maggie, under her breath, as the Professor began to chow down on halvah and cooked poultry garnished with marzipan. Maggie, however, engaged herself with looking around the apadana for Janine.
"Mmm, what is this delectable concoction?" Arturo asked, licking his lips as he shoved another forkful of the meaty bird into his mouth.
"Roasted ostrich," responded Abu, spooning some of the marinated almonds into his own mouth.
The Professor coughed belatedly, as the ostrich meat slid down his throat. He restrained his face as well as could be expected, to prevent his nose from visibly crinkling.
Once Yashar had finished his entrée, he summoned Arturo forward with his fingers. The Professor arose from the floor, his movements synchronized with Damon's and Abu's.
"Yashar wishes to speak with you," announced Hami, smiling at the Professor.
In a deep, lilted voice, Yashar spoke to Arturo, "Zohr bekheir. Omidvaram ke hame chiz motabeghe mayle shoma bashad? Mikhahad bedanad aya az ghazaa lezzat borde'eed va aya mehman-navaziye aanha morede ghaboole shoma vaghe shode ast?"
"He wishes to know if you enjoyed your meal and if the hospitality is acceptable?" Damon translated for Arturo.
"Oh." Professor Arturo gave Yashar a big, nervous grin. "Why, yes, Satrap Yashar. Everything is absolutely delightful."
An assembly of musicians was seated behind the concubines. It included men playing lutes, syrinxes, flutes, and a couple of harps.
Yashar's translator relayed the message to the Satrap. Yashar gave Arturo a nod of his head, and then raised his arms. "Bayad saaz o aavaaz baashad !" he commanded, as everyone in the apadana got to their feet again.
Once more, the concubines began to sing:
"Nous félicitons notre chef courageux
Nous aimons son règne grand
Mai Ahuramazda soit avec lui
Pendant que l'obscurité tombe
et le sommeil commence!"
Shaking her head wildly, Atossa demanded, in a high, insistent pitch, "Man mikhaham englisi beshnavam! Be englisi aavaaz bekhaanid!"
"Atossa finds the language of Britannia as enchanting as Yashar finds French," spoke Abu, his eyes glued to Atossa's shaking figure.
Adhering to Atossa's demands, Hami gestured pointedly to the concubines. They began a new chorus, this time in English:
"We thank our kind Satrap
Who protects our sacred land
He symbolizes all
one reveres within a man!"
"Na, na, na!" Atossa shrieked. "Mikhaaham yeki az mardaanash bekhaanad!" She stuck her finger out at Arturo.
Damon's face reddened, flustered. "We do not have any troubadours in our party. None of us has the ability to sing with perfection."
"Oh yes, one of us does," insisted Professor Arturo. He snapped his fingers at Rembrandt. "Oh, Mr. Brown!" he called out. "Could we borrow your vocal chords?"
"Me?" Rembrandt came over to Arturo. "How will they even understand what I'm singing?"
"It doesn't matter," Arturo said, with a hiss. "Atossa wants to hear music sung in English. So get to it!"
Rembrandt stepped forward before the two thrones, cautiously. Atossa smiled at him, and motioned to the leader of the band. Heeding Atossa's non-verbal request, he handed off his small lute to Rembrandt.
"Good thing I know guitar," Rembrandt mumbled under his breath. He faced Atossa and Yashar, and began tentatively strumming the chords, testing out the rhythm. Then Remmy began to belt out one of his signature songs, retooling the words as he sang:
"I hath tears in my fro
Doth standeth on my head over ye
Hath a goodly length to go
Wilt this crying cease . . .
I wish I only knew!
His eyes darted around at the satrap and his wife, but both of them seemed to be enjoying it. So Rembrandt continued:
"In times past, methought our love doth never-ending
Spendeth ye and I till eternity
Perchance I realize I hath been pretending
I am merely half the goodman I used to be!
I hath tears in my fro
Doth my world be upside-down over you-ooo
I shall washeth them out, methinks
Perchance it be the saddest thing I ever hast to do-ooo!
I hath tears in my fro
Doth standeth on my head, wench . . .
With a smooth transition, he unexpectedly shifted to the first verse of another of his songs:
"My friends bid me wherefore I cry
'Tis I fare I wish to die
Tears sprungeth from my eye
Ever since say ye goodbye!"
Rembrandt launched into the chorus:
"I wilt cry like a man
Hard as I can
And if thee hath a heart
Perchance thee wouldst start
As Rembrandt continued to improvise, Atossa excitedly bobbed her head from side to side with Remmy's vocals. By now, Rembrandt Brown was definitely getting the hang of it, and really got into his musical improvisation:
"Oh, I know thou understand me, brethren!
Thou see me strolleth down thy street
And good gentles and ladies that I meet
They bid good morrow, fare thee well
And tears sprungeth from my other eye doth fell!
I wilt cry like a man
Hard as I can
And if thee hath a heart
Perchance thee wouldst start
All the while, Rembrandt made animated facial gestures, mimicking tears falling from his eye ducts. While playing the lute, he slowly twirled around, alternately singing and shouting out to the audience as he finished up:
"Thou art breaketh my heart, hither!
A tear . . . doth come out of this eye!
Oh! . . . And a tear, falleth from my other eye!
Brethren! Prithee, thou handeth me a hankerchief!
Once Remmy had concluded his extemporaneous madrigal "remix," Atossa rose from her throne and applauded enthusiastically. The rest of the court spectators followed suit, cheering appreciatively for Rembrandt's talent.
Blushing, Rembrandt took a small bow. He returned the lute to one of the musicians, and rejoined Arturo down in the apadana.
"Good job, Mr. Brown." Arturo patted Remmy on the shoulder.
"Hey, no sweat." Rembrandt wiped his brow. "Not the same without the Brownettes singing backup, though."
Yashar had jumped out of his throne, and was clapping his hands together eagerly. "Beraghsid!"
The woman in Arturo's entourage began filing up to the front of the apadana.
"What's going on?" Maggie asked, her eyebrows making a baffled contortion. She was being ushered along by the other women in veils.
"Yashar wants entertainment from the ladies," Rembrandt whispered to Maggie, as she was pushed past him and Arturo.
"I don't think so . . ." Maggie started to protest, through gritted teeth.
"Miss Beckett, we must distract Yashar for however long possible! By whatever means." Arturo's face was serious. "We need to prolong the diversion so Damon's men can snoop through the palace. I will only be able to engage Yashar in a three-way conversation via his translator for so long."
Maggie flashed Remmy and Arturo an annoyed glare. Rembrandt couldn't help but snicker again, as Maggie tromped up front to join the other dancers.
Merry notes began to flow from the musicians' instruments. The scantily-costumed women proceeded to frolic over in front of Yashar and Atossa. The lead dancers began swaying their bodies, seductively. They shifted their feet, one in front of the other, and the rest of the women followed their lead. Maggie did her best to mimic the movements of the other dancers.
Yashar smiled heartily and clapped his hands in time with the music. The dancing became more intricate and faster-paced. Their heels and toes clicked against the floor in rapid succession. Beads and bells attached to their buskins shook and jangled, as did those sewn to the women's gowns.
Maggie became frazzled. The dance moves were too complicated for her to keep up with. Unsure what to do, Maggie began gyrating herself in circles, shaking her hips waywardly.
"Be'eesteed!" commanded Yashar, jumping out of his seat.
The music went dead, and the dancing came to a halt.
"Oon!" Yashar thrust out his arm, pointing directly at Maggie.
Maggie gestured to herself, and Yashar beckoned her forward. She hesitantly stepped over to the throne.
He grinned at Maggie. "Barayam beraghs," he ordered.
Maggie turned to look at Abu, for help.
"He wishes to see your unique style of dance," Abu mouthed, with a sharp hiss.
The Persian music started up again. Rolling her eyes, Maggie began to swing her hips in circles, while raising her arms and snapping her fingers in the air. She shimmied her way up to Yashar, and proceeded to shake her chest in his face. The bells on Maggie's two-piece garment jangled, and the lips on Yashar's face curved upward.
"Damn, she's really getting into it." Rembrandt let out his trademark "Cryin' Man" chortle. Then, having glanced back over his shoulder, he noticed Malcolm missing from the apadana. "Hey, do you know where Malcolm is?" Remmy nudged the Professor, capturing his attention and Abu's.
Arturo surveyed the court. "He came in with us, didn't he?"
"A number of our men went searching for the mahramaaneh," Abu said, looking in the same direction that Rembrandt and Professor Arturo were scanning. "He may have gone with them."
"No." Rembrandt shook his head. "Malcolm wouldn't have done that. We all said we'd stick together."
Earlier, while the concubines had been singing, Malcolm found himself pushed and prodded along by a bunch of Damon and Abu's operatives.
"Where are we going?" Malcolm whispered to the nearest man. He saw one of the other undercover men talking with the guards at the entrance.
"To explore," replied the man.
Although Malcolm tried to squeeze his way out, the followers of Ormus had physically compelled Malcolm all the way out of Yashar's court. They were now walking quickly in a large cluster, turning through one extravagant corridor after another. Malcolm didn't dare deviate from the rest of the group, as he would risk attracting the palace guards' attention.
"What are we looking for?" he asked them. "Do you guys know which way you're going?"
"Yes. We know the palace well," was the response Malcolm received. "They think we are escorting the duke's 'guests' to go relieve themselves."
Malcolm almost wanted to giggle, but his heart was thumping against his chest too intensely.
It wasn't long before Malcolm and the freedom fighters who'd whisked him out of the apadana came upon an intersection within the place. They nearly ran right into a group of palace guards coming from the opposite direction.
Furthermore, those guards were wheeling a platform mounted on a pulley down the hall. Atop that platform stood the frozen bodies of Quinn, Colin, and Mallory.
"Mall - " Before he had barely squeaked out Mallory's name, Malcolm was grabbed by the collar and pulled back behind a pillar.
The guards had seen them. They quickly responded, pulling out their spear-like weapons and coming at the renegades.
Malcolm turned and ran faster than he ever had run before in his entire life. He had no clue where he was headed, but he turned the corners of the hallways in reverse order, as best as he could remember.
Dashing back into what he recognized as the main corridor, Malcolm could see Damon hurrying toward him. Damon's facial expression switched from urgency to dread as he watched Malcolm run toward him.
"Damon! They caught us!" Malcolm yelled, his mind solely focused on getting back into the apadana to find Rembrandt.
"Malcolm! Go!" Damon ran to meet Malcolm, and with a horrified gasp, pushed Malcolm out of the way.
Malcolm fell to his knees, and then rebounded back onto his feet. He had turned just in time to witness the arrow from a crossbow pierce through Damon's chest.
Wailing, Malcolm burst into the apadana. Maggie had been sensually wrapping her sash around Yashar's shoulders, rubbing herself up against him. But as Malcolm burst into Yashar's court and was seized by the guards, an irritating whistle disrupted the lively music. It was obviously some sort of alarm, meant to alert the masses.
The entire apadana erupted into pandemonium.
People dashed around madly, in every imaginable direction. The musicians dropped their instruments, and the concubines began to scream.
Yashar had jumped to his feet, knocking Maggie aside. "Khiyaanat-kaaraan!" he hollered, pointing accusingly at Arturo, who was promptly apprehended from all side by Yashar's soldiers.
Several of the flautists in the front row had dropped their woodwind instruments and were making a run for it. One of the lead harpists was basically run over by a stamede of people.
"Malcolm!" Rembrandt rushed toward Malcolm, meeting him in the middle of Yashar's court. They joined hands and ran to find Maggie.
"Rembrandt!" Maggie called out, from across the crowded room. She pushed her way through.
"We have to get the Professor!" Rembrandt shouted to Maggie, him and Malcolm wading through the terrified mob.
"We can't!" Maggie jumped into Rembrandt's arms as their paths crossed. "They've already got him! We'll have to come back!"
Abu ran by, grabbing Rembrandt's arm. "Come! There is a secret way out!"
Rembrandt, Maggie, and Malcolm followed Abu, dashing out of the apadana and merging with a stampede of people who were fleeing from the court. Down one corridor after another, the sliders stayed on Abu's tail, eventually disappearing behind the sliding door of a hidden vault.* * *
Janine's eyes fluttered open. The first thing she saw was the unbalanced face of Vera Serrano. The angry woman was straddling Janine's chest, her own abdomen perched on Janine's.
"Vera, if this is a come-on," grunted Janine, heaving from the pressure on her torso, "I suggest you refine your technique."
Releasing a shrill laugh, Vera grabbed a plush silk pillow off the floor, and brought it down over Janine's face.
Janine tried gasping for air, but she was suffocating. She took hold of the pillow, and felt her way up to Vera's wrists. Wrestling them away from her face, Janine managed to tumble Vera over to one side. However, Janine was unable to get up and run. Even as she tried to sit up or move her legs, Janine realized that her lower body was numb. Nausea and anemia seemed to be weighing down her upper body.
Still laughing, Vera stood up and began pacing around Janine, her sandals clacking against the porcelain tiled floor.
Struggling to breathe steadily, Janine choked out, "What did you do to me, Vera?"
A high-pitched giggle warbled out of Vera's mouth. "Well, lookie here. 'Gee, gee, gee,' said the mantis to the flea. How the restless have fallen. The sandal is on the other foot now, isn't it, Janine?" She kneeled down and leaned in close to Janine's face. "I'll bet you never expected to see me again, did you?"
"If my mouth wasn't so dry, I'd spit at you!" sneered Janine. The Asian slider continued trying to shake some feeling back into her body. "Why am I so tired? What did you inject me with while I was asleep?"
"Oh, nothing fancy." Vera shrugged, innocently. "Just your standard tonic made from Mandrake root. I only administered it to you so you wouldn't run away. A girl doesn't get an opportunity like this every day, you know."
Janine examined her surroundings. She recognized the pillars and the lofty ceiling from earlier, when they had first entered the palace.
"Don't bother trying to figure out where you are." Vera crouched down next to Janine, patting her on the shoulder. "I've been moving you around the palace for the past couple of hours. I'm surprised their little puka shell alarms didn't wake you up. It seems that about half an hour ago, your friends caused quite a little riot in the Satrap's court."
"My friends? How do you . . ." Janine trailed off, her head throbbing.
"I was nearby when you arrived on this world," explained Vera. "I saw all of you battling Yashar's sentries. So who are these new buddies of yours, Janine? The last time we rubbed elbows, you were sliding solo."
"Just forget about them," Janine pleaded. "You have me. Do whatever you have to."
"Oh, I intend to. But trust me, I need make this experience long-lasting for you." Vera smiled, sadistically. "A girl learns a few things when she hangs around the Satrap's digs for awhile. Things to remember. Ah, Janine, you haven't lived until you've seen a few eunuchs castrated right before your eyes. Or a wayward palace guard beheaded after he tries to rape one of the young ladies of the harem. These are my kind of people . . . they take torture to an entirely new level."
Janine cringed. She was becoming sick at the twisted pleasure that Vera took in her description of such human suffering. "You've been on this world for too long, Vera."
"So what do you want from me? Are you keeping me alive just to enjoy my misery?"
"Oh, if only I had that luxury," sighed Vera. "No, you do have some value, Janine. I want your timer."
"Don't we all." By now, Janine wished more than anything that her friends would come running around the corner at any moment. "Sorry, Vera, but one of my friends has it. Don't ask me which one of them, because I have no clue."
Vera let out an exasperated sigh. "Five weeks on this Earth, and here I was thinking I would be bored out of my mind. But then, you fell into my lap. Now I have the chance to acquire a functional timer, so I can finally slide at will."
"Sorry, but you're out of luck there, too. My friends and I are stuck sliding randomly, just like you."
"I don't believe you!" Vera grabbed Janine's hair, pulling it roughly.
Janine cried out in pain. "Stop it! Let go of me, you crazy bitch!"
Vera released the clump of Janine long, silky hair that she'd grasped. She pulled a vial of liquid out from underneath her tunic.
"What is that?" Janine demanded, her voice shaking.
Vera removed a needle from a hidden pouch in her clothing. "Don't worry, I cleaned it. I wanted to make sure your body will absorb every pure drop of this nasty little concoction." She held Janine's arm down, and aimed for the blood vein at Janine's elbow joint.
Janine wailed in distress before losing consciousness.* * *
Wade Wells slowly opened her eyes, only to see Rembrandt Brown's friendly face staring down at her.
"Remmy!" Wade cried, in relief, hugging Rembrandt. "They told us you'd gone on a raid."
"Yeah. Malcolm found Colin and the Quinns. They're being held in Yashar's palace, just like Neda thought." He paused, gloomily. "Damon didn't make it."
"Oh, no!" Wade slumped back against the wall.
"And on top of that, they've got the Professor. Yashar figured out that we were putting on a hoax." Rembrandt kneeled down next to Wade. "Listen, we gotta go back for Arturo. But I want you, Diana, and Malcolm to stay here where you'll be safe."
Wade shook her head in protest. "No way!"
"Wade, don't argue with me, girl." Rembrandt's tone was dead-serious. "It's too dangerous, and we might not get the timer back. Look, for all we know, we might already have missed the window. At least this way, you'll be with people who can protect you." He watched as Wade continued to stubbornly shake her head. "It's for the best, Wade. I - I can't let you get captured again. Not after what the Kromaggs did to you. Not after I let you get captured the last time." Rembrandt's eyes dropped, avoiding Wade's gaze in shame.
"Rembrandt. Rembrandt, look at me." Wade clasped Remmy's chin, using her fingers to turn his head back in her direction. "It wasn't your fault. We were overrun, remember? We fought them with everything we had." Wade pressed her lips together, as a tear escaped from her eye. "I'm scared, Remmy. Our Quinns, the Professor, Colin, Janine - the people we care about are in danger. My powers are out of control, and I don't know what's happening to me. All I do know is that staying here won't guarantee our safety. Neda told me how the Satraps order their soldiers to destroy the daiwadanas - sanctuaries, like this one, that they uncover and then burn to the ground. As long as we stay together, at least there's a chance we'll all make the slide."
Rembrandt gave her a half-smile. "I'm not gonna win this one, am I?"
"Nope." Wade embraced Rembrandt again, and he helped her to her feet.
"Okay, then," he said, with a sigh. "Let's go round up the troops."
The two of them headed into the next room, where the surviving freedom fighters had gathered. Diana was in the middle of their group, motioning with her hands as she rattled off an explanation to them.
". . . so that's why Ormus sent us on this mission to protect his sacred timepiece," Diana was referring to the timer, in embellishment. "If Yashar or the other Satraps discover how to use it, they will have the means to conquer other worlds."
Neda shook her head, persistently. "We must not allow them to succeed."
Maggie and Malcolm had wandered over, joining Rembrandt and Wade on the sidelines.
"Then you must help us to rescue our friends from limbo," insisted Diana. She looked straight at Abu. "Damon died defending the kingdoms of Ormus. If we are to save his many other kingdoms from dominion, we must retrieve the Professor from imprisonment. Professor Arturo is the only one of us who had been ordained by Ormus to open the gateway between kingdoms. We are but his humble disciples."
Abu, Neda, and their followers were hanging on to every word Diana spoke.
Rembrandt gave Wade a side-glance. "The girl's got brains," he mumbled, alluding to Diana's oral fabrication.
"But why would Ormus not bless you with individual magic to aid your journey?" Abu asked her, looking at Diana faithfully yet quizzically.
"Oh, but he has, Abu!" spoke up Neda. She pointed to Wade. "The ghermez one . . . she is the angel spoken of in Farzan's prophecy. Remember? 'She who moves her single self through space, shifts her presence, and along with it, carries the blessings of Ormus.'" Neda recited an oracular passage from memory. At that moment, she also carried a tattered copy of the Avesta under her arm.
"What Neda says is true," Wade joined in. "The 'magic' possessed by Diana and myself . . . it is a divine blessing. But it comes from within us, only when destiny permits it."
Neda nodded emphatically, pointing at Diana. "And her, as well? Diana created 'manlight' from within her soul, to fend off Yashar's sentry. Recall the prophecy of Mahasti: 'The ghahveie one speaks words of clarity, apace as she may confront evildoers with choler from those whom the wicked have slain.' Ormus wills it to be so. Do you not see? He endows them with the strength to punish evil."
Abu was convinced. "We shall prepare a legion to rescue the Professor and his suspended disciples."
"Hold on!" Maggie raised her arm, going into commando mode. "We really need a better plan-of-attack this time around. They'll be expecting us."
"She is right." Abu looked to Maggie for guidance. "Have you a solution?"
"As a matter of fact . . ." Maggie motioned for Abu and the other men to come in closer, and she began to detail a strategy. "Now, do you have any fertilizer?"
Abu nodded. "Yes. To cultivate our crops."
"Good." Maggie gave him the thumbs-up. "We'll also need some oil, some empty bottles, some rags . . ."
Meanwhile, Rembrandt was patting Diana on the shoulder. "Props to you, girl. You totally bailed our butts out."
"Way to go, Diana!" Malcolm echoed Remmy's sentiments, and gave Diana a small hug of friendship.
"Aw, guys . . ." Diana blushed. "But you know, I've been thinking, and I have an idea of what might have happened to Mallory, Colin, and Quinn. When I worked with Dr. Geiger, Fremont Labs had engineered a stasis generator, which we made use of in Dr. Geiger's laboratory. You remember, Rem - he tricked you and Maggie into entering it."
"Yeah, Geiger claimed his stasis field would 'pause' the timer for us, but that was bull." Rembrandt bristled at the memory. "He just wanted us out of the way."
"Well, it was highly experimental," continued Diana. "That stasis generator was not actually Dr. Geiger's creation. One of my former classmates and colleagues, Dr. Corbin Brummer, had invented the stasis generator and patented it for use at Fremont Labs all over Southern California. Since Corbin had also been one of Dr. Geiger's students, he gave Geiger Applied Research first crack at its use. Anyway, Corbin used organic polarities to erect a stasis chamber within an enclosed area. The polar strength of those naturally-occurring forces immobilizes the movement of physical entities, such as cells, blood, and organs. However, inorganic substances, like manmade artifacts, were unaffected."
"So that explains why the timer didn't shut down when Geiger trapped me and Maggie," recalled Rembrandt.
"Exactly. I'm thinking that maybe the Persian scientists on this Earth devised a stasis field similar to Corbin's, only on a much larger scale." Diana motioned with her hands, and pointedly brought them to a halt as she said, "That could be why Colin and our Quinns . . . 'froze,' for lack of a better term."
Remmy bit his lip, pondering that theory.
"So why didn't it affect the rest of us?" Malcolm asked.
"That part I haven't figured out," admitted Diana. "But based on what Neda told me about your failed mission, they're probably hiding something big inside that palace. Maybe in palaces all over Nou-Pars?"
"Or all over the world," Rembrandt speculated.
Maggie had rejoined her friends. "The troops are ready and able," she announced, proudly. "We're gonna bust Quinn, the Professor, Colin, and Mallory right out of that place!"
"Don't forget Janine," added Malcolm. "She's lost inside of there, too."
"Man, what happened to her . . . ?" Rembrandt clamped his forehead in frustration.
Maggie, abruptly keeling forward, clutched her stomach and groaned in discomfort.
"Maggie?!" Remmy hurried to her side, offering his assistance.
"It's okay, Rem," sputtered Maggie, grunting and plopping down to sit on the floor. "It doesn't really hurt . . . it was just sort of unexpected. Feels like a little bit of indigestion, that's all."
Rembrandt still looked concerned. "Are you sure you're up to this, Maggie?"
"I'm fine," she insisted. "Come on. Quinn and Colin are counting on us." Maggie rejoined the freedom fighters, and began to fire more instructions at them.
"You don't look convinced," Malcolm observed, watching Rembrandt continue to frown after Maggie, in concern.
"I'm not. And we really can't afford to lose Maggie too, at this stage in the game." He addressed Diana and Malcolm. "Keep your eyes on her. I just have this feeling . . . I don't want anything bad to happen to Maggie - I don't know if she'll be able to handle it."
Rembrandt walked away, following Maggie so he could be privy to their plan-of-attack. He left Malcolm and Diana behind, staring at each other in lingering uncertainty.
* * *
Professor Arturo was pushed along a narrow back corridor, escorted by palace guards. Hami stomped ahead in front of them, leading their prisoner to an obscure chamber that was hidden away from the main hallways.
"Where are you taking me?" Arturo demanded, even as the guards prodded him forward at knifepoint.
"You shall see," was the mere response given to him by Hami. The unsympathetic Arabic translator pulled out a key and turned it in the slot of a heavy mastic door. Arturo was then pushed through the pylon into a sunken apadana at least four stadiums large in volume.
The Professor marveled at the sight before him as he descended some steps, accompanied by his strict chaperones. In the center of this concealed apadana, a raised, circular platform had been built, spanning approximately 50 yards in circumference. Atop the truncated pedestal stood what appeared to be around five-dozen men and women - all frozen. Some of them wore olive green military uniforms splattered with red, green, and blue blotches, similar to that of Private Zicree. Others were dressed in a culturally-diverse array of civilian clothing, from jeans and sweatshirts to tunics and togas. There was even a handful of Kromagg soldiers in the mix, wearing the customary military garb or warrior bodysuits of the Dynasty. All of these people appeared to be in some form of suspended animation, with their faces contorted in various expressions and their limbs in unnatural poses.
Then, the Professor saw three familiar faces amongst the assembly of statuesque humans. They belonged to Quinn, Colin, and Mallory.
"What did you do to them?!" gaped Arturo, his stomach fluids churning.
"We did not 'do' anything to them," Hami responded, rather defensively. "These intruders chose their fate by trespassing on our planet."
Arturo turned around and saw a glass wall spanning the entire circumference of the apadana. Through the glass "window," he could see hoards of human beings, lying on their backs atop blankets and pillows while in deep slumber.
"What is this place?!" Arturo squawked, his dry throat causing him to lose his voice.
Hami smugly raised his bushy eyebrows at the Professor. "It is how we defend our empire. 21 years past, a man of English tongue appeared in this very palace. He called himself 'Silas Larson,' and claimed to be a scientist from another realm." Hami circulated over to one of the men suspended on the platform. "This is he."
Professor Arturo took a good look at Silas Larson. The desisted scientist wore a long labcoat that covered his husky frame. Larson wore spectacles on his square face, and he had a thick mop of shaggy graying hair combed to one side. His eyes were bulging wide open, as though he'd been compelled into a trance.
"He warned us of a simian race originating in the realm from which he came. Apparently, these creatures had been defeated by his human brethren in battle. Silas Larson, when brought before Yashar, said he and his people were searching for a new place to reside, in the event the simians returned." Hami stuck his nose up in the air. "Of course, we could not tolerate such an invasion of our planet."
Arturo still remained fixated on Silas Larson. Simian apes? A human prisoner who had apparently surfaced on this Earth through sliding? It was too relevant to be just a coincidence.
Silas Larson must have come from Kromagg Prime.
"So why is he frozen?" Arturo asked, slowly and hesitantly, expecting some answer that he wouldn't care for.
"When Silas Larson insisted he was not a divine messenger of Ahuramazda, we studied his blood, skin, and cells. We found a structure of molecules inherently different from our own." Hami had moved over to stand next to a crude machine resembling a television monitor. He picked up a circular looking-glass. "The zarebin made it so," he said, referring to the glassy instrument.
"A microscope!" murmured Professor Arturo, in an alarmed whisper.
"Now, our chosen people bear the blood of Silas Larson's people," Hami said. "They direct their mental effervescence to halt others from Silas Larson's realm."
"You mean . . . ?" Shivers ran up Arturo's spine as he gestured to the khoftegaan. "They're rendered unconscious, and they target the DNA of people from that dimension while in their subconscious?"
"DNA?" An addled Hami repeated the term in doubt. He disregarded it, and continued talking. "You will now become one of them, 'Duke Rhys.' We shall make good use of your mind."
Professor Arturo's heart jumped, just as he felt a sharp penetration in his arm. He quickly became dizzy, and felt himself physically falling backward into someone's arms. Everything else became a blur.* * *
Janine awoke in a sweat. She shook her head from side-to-side. For a moment, Janine had a flash of hope that maybe she'd awoken from a very bad dream.
Then she tilted her head over to glimpse Vera seated on a small stool. Vera's arms were folded while she gazed down at Janine, expectantly.
No such luck. It was real.
"You sure take your sweet time dying," complained Vera, with a haughty scoff.
Moaning, Janine realized she had a pounding headache. "Oh, what did you do to me?" she groaned at Vera, her head spinning.
"I can't imagine why it's taking so long to affect you," Vera remarked, in a rather offhanded but genuinely baffled manner.
"What?! It's taking a long time for WHAT to affect me?!"
"It's a nifty little poison indigenous to this world," smiled Vera, lightly. "Or at least, doctored up by some very sadistic alchemists on this world. It is supposed to create itching, pustules, and sores as it works its way through your bloodstream. But somehow, you must be immune to its lethal effects. What a shame!" Vera got to her feet. "Don't you just hate those quirky dimensional fluctuations?"
Janine dared to turn her head toward Vera again. She now saw her adversary reach into a pouch at her oblique and whisk out a shiny blade.
"NO!!!" Janine screamed, struggling to overcome her physical weakness. She managed to sit up.
"Injaa che khabar ast?" called an authoritative shout from down the corridor.
A lone guard had come running down the corridor toward them, positioning his sword outward. As he approached Vera, she dropped to the floor and rolled herself toward his feet. The guard was momentarily confused, and Vera took that opportunity to spring to her feet and plunge her dagger into his chest.
Janine didn't hesitate to jump into action. She shakily stood on her feet, and began to shuffle down the hallway, away from Vera.
But Vera was too entranced with savoring the agony of her victim. She withdrew the knife from the guard's chest, grinning contently as the blood oozed from his flesh. Vera inhaled the smell of his blood, and laughed giddily while she watched the life drain out of him.
It was a few minutes later when Vera finally snapped back from her mental detachment. Looking around, she realized that her hostage was gone.
"So be it," laughed Vera, doing a small twirl while holding her bloody knife in the air. "I'm going on a Janine-hunt . . ."* * *
Having roused from his sleep, hours later, Arturo found himself lying flat on his back. He craned his neck to the side and realized that he was not alone. On his left, he saw a long row of sleeping people. Both rows stretched out to what seemed like infinity. The slumbering prisoners were resting atop a spread of Persian blankets and lush pillows.
"Sleep well?" Arturo let his eyes rest, gazing up at the ceiling. Hami towered above him, giving the Professor a smarmy grin as he mocked his captive slider.
"Oh, yes! Like a baby!" Professor Arturo sarcastically retorted. The numbness throughout his muscles and excess flesh was beginning to wear off. "So this is how you're getting rid of me? Putting me to sleep like some loathsome mutt with a disease?"
A petite woman covered in a white burqa had squatted at the Professor's side. She was preparing a needle attached to a clear, rubbery tube full of some liquid.
"So you're injecting me with the DNA of someone from Kromagg Prime," established Arturo, trying to make sense of what was happening to him.
Hami didn't respond, still unsure what "DNA" was.
"But you, sir, will never force me to help you 'trap' these so-called invaders. They were only trying to warn you about the Kromagg threat. I will play no role in sustaining your little 'web' of stasis." Arturo stared up at Hami, defiantly.
"I believe you will," Hami contradicted. "You will have no control over your body, once you begin to slumber. The tsetse shall ensure that."
Arturo thought for a moment. "Tsetse? As in, the tsetse fly?"
"It is a small insect indigenous to Afrigha," Hami explained. "Our men of science manipulated its chemical properties that induce sleep in humans. The tsetse now prolongs a person's slumber, keeping him alive in a coma that spans decades."
"You genetically-engineered the tsetse fly? And the victim spends the rest of his life in an extrapolated coma?!" The Professor was appalled. "So when someone in a coma finally dies . . ."
"We replace them with others," said Hami, unashamed. "Slaves, indentured servants, serfs . . . anyone who possesses enough basic intelligence to power our 'manlight'-run machines. Since you were able to infiltrate our ranks, imposter, you must have some significant amount of brain material."
Arturo gulped. "So they . . . their minds run your computer? It's how you keep the stasis field in operation! And your Satraps do this in palaces all over the world? You force innocent people to transform into data streams of 'manlight' against their will?!"
And the Professor realized he was about to join them.
"Even as we speak, they are in the golkhaaneh preparing some tsetses to feed on you." Hami's diabolical smile grew bigger.
Then, as quickly as the line formed by Hami's lips had enlarged, it shrank in the wake of a booming sound. Another explosion sounded, now closer.
"In sar o sedaa az chist?!" Hami roared at the female medical attendant.
She just shrieked in response, dropping her needle and vial.
One explosion after another echoed through the apadana's surrounding corridors. Hami grabbed the sword that had been strapped to his side, while the medical attendant scurried around aimlessly in a panic. "Araam begirid!" he barked at her.
They waited. After endless minutes, the postern to the apadana burst right off its hinges, in a conflagration of smoke and splinters.
A number of men in turbans and overcoats came running in. Hami raised his sword, and one of the invaders clasped a bottle that had been stuffed with a dampened rag. He braced himself to hurl it through the window.
"No! Don't!" Rembrandt Brown hurried into the room, and he quickly surveyed the rows of people behind the glass partition. Rembrandt stopped Arturo.
"Mr. Brown!" the Professor yelled out, as loudly as he could manage. Professor Arturo mustered the amount of strength needed to sit up.
Maggie had charged into the room behind Remmy, armed with a sword of her own. "Stand back, Professor!" she hollered at Arturo.
Jumping forward, Maggie slammed the blade of the sword against the glass partition, shattering it into thousands of tiny shards.
Wade, Malcolm, and Diana had also entered the apadana, accompanied by many of the swordsmen from Abu's sect.
Hami shuffled over to Professor Arturo and desperately positioned his sword by the Professor's chest. "Kill me, and your friend dies!" he threateningly growled.
Wade ran toward the hole in the glass wall, clearly unarmed. Directing her mental focus at Hami, she psychically swooped the weapon out of Hami's hands. Hami's sword went flying sideways through the partition, smashing a jagged hole in it.
Completely shocked, Hami had no idea what to do next. That moment of distraction was all the Professor needed to tackle Hami from below, pummeling his captor onto the floor.
By now, Rembrandt and the others had smashed their way past the fractured see-through partition. In no time at all, Hami was surrounded by a dozen angry rebel swordsmen.
Not that he noticed. Hami was too busy grunting from the weight of Professor Arturo's rotund body, which pinned Hami to the floor.* * *
"He won't talk." Rembrandt referred to Hami, who was bound by coarse rope. The sliders had tried various forms of interrogation, intimidation, and torture. Yet, Hami chose to remain silent, withholding any useful information about the temporal stasis field.
"Miss Beckett, excellent job with the homemade explosives," Arturo complimented Maggie.
"Aw, it's nothing. Just a little fertilizer and oil in a bottle stuffed with a wet rag." Maggie shrugged, non-chalantly. "Shake, throw, and explode. Easy as pie."
Rembrandt chuckled, proudly gazing at Maggie. "It's her specialty." Remmy was recalling Maggie's similar resourcefulness at Data Universal, three years earlier.
Abu was surveying the khoftegaan, who were still deep in slumber behind the now-broken glass wall. "Their forms of dress are simple and crude. Many are female. These people must be na-matloub. Those who have no privilege."
"Meaning . . . !" Malcolm wanted a little more information.
"Serfs, concubines, slaves, jawari, and those without homes." Abu filled in the blanks.
Arturo nodded, knowingly. "In medieval times, landowning nobles used corveé services to employ laborers. Often, these workers remained indebted to their masters for the duration of their lives. Perhaps here, a similar type of system is in place for those who cannot pay what they owe. Go bankrupt, and end up in here." He gestured around the apadana.
"That still doesn't explain what's keeping our Quinns and Colin frozen in time," Maggie remarked, pessimistically. She suddenly let out a grunt and clutched her waistline as an internal sharpness shot through it.
Remmy and Malcolm rushed to assist Maggie, but she held up her hand.
"I'm fine, really. Just an upset stomach." Maggie sounded surer than she appeared.
"Well, we may just have an answer to that," spoke up Wade, belatedly addressing Malcolm's inquiry. Wade stood in front of the monitor Arturo had seen upon entering the apadana.
"What have you got?" Rembrandt headed over to take a look.
Wade had an excited gaze in her eyes. "This looks like some sort of computer. It even has a keyboard with alphanumerical characters. But why wouldn't the keys be represented in Farsi characters?"
"Because maybe . . . these prisoners are on loan for servitude from Britannia?" Professor Arturo speculated. "Imagine, if you will, all the financial difficulties encountered by the working-class on this Earth. With so many unpaid debts, acts of heresy, protests, resistance to the institutional norm . . . maybe these people ended up paying through the lease of their lives?"
Diana had been leaning over Wade's shoulder. "If these people are from the British Isles, and they're connected to the computer, then it makes sense that the keyboard would be in English. But what is their function?"
Wade looked up from the console. "The Kromaggs programmed us as cyberiads to open up wormholes," she said, of her own days of captivity. "We used telekinesis from our mental energy. Maybe the Persians do something similar to these prisoners - except, instead of telekinesis, their combined mental energies create a zone of suspended animation?"
"Good heavens!" Arturo just thought of something. "If this occurs in palaces all over the world, their temporal stasis field must be active on a global scale!"
"So how do we get Q-Ball, Farm Boy, and Fog Boy outta there?" Rembrandt asked.
Diana had left the console and approached the platform of mannequin-like humans trapped in suspended animation. She was using her PDL to scan the dimensional vibrations in closest proximity to the "frozen" humans.
"What is she doing?" Abu demanded, appearing perplexed at the sight of Diana's Portable Dimensional Laboratory.
"It's a machine that measures a person's life force." Maggie stretched the truth a little, answering Abu with a straight face. "We want to make sure the Satrap's prisoners are still alive."
"Oh, they're alive, all right!" Diana observed the data appearing on the screen. "But their molecules are barely moving." She had moved over to Colin, and scanned the spatial area around his body. "But I keep picking up a distinct quantum frequency emanating from them. And it's very obscure. This is no comparable reading like it stored in my PDL. But I'm detecting the same unique pattern emanating from each person."
"So what does that mean?" Malcolm asked.
"It means we've gotta get these 'mind drones' out of suspended animation," stated Rembrandt, impatiently. "Wade, is there any way you can shut down the system? Wake up the people who are being forced to generate the stasis field?"
"No," Wade said, shaking her head while never moving her eyes from the screen. "There's no termination program. This monitor and keyboard are just peripherals. The central hard drive must be in another location. But even if I could access a shutdown command, how do I know it wouldn't kill them? This 'computer network' they've formed seems to have replaced their brain activity."
"This is strange." Diana had begun to scan Mallory's body. "I'm picking up traces of this same quantum frequency from Mallory, but in much smaller quantities. Still, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the quantum signature that he and I both possess. I can make that comparison because ours is the default signature for my PDL." She punched in some keys to make a quick mathematical computation. "Oh my God!" Diana exclaimed, her eyes bulging as she saw the readout.
"What?" Maggie began to move forward to join Diana, but stepped in her tracks and winced again. Maggie's stomach rumbled and tumbled like the inside of a basement drier.
"Mallory's physical inertia is moving at a ratio of 1:300," Diana reported, keeping her eyes trained on the PDL screen. "For some reason, he's moving faster than the others in suspended animation. For every one second that Mallory experiences, approximately five minutes pass for the rest of us."
Arturo scratched his head. "So for every one hour that we live, temporally, it seems like 12 seconds to Mallory."
"The stasis field is affecting him to a lesser degree." Diana nodded, in agreement with Professor Arturo. "But I don't know why."
Rembrandt stared through the glass partition, watching the mind drones sympathy. "These prisoners remind me of those poor folks at Einman Entertainment." He turned to Maggie, who had joined him at the window. "Remember? They used you and Diana in the virtual reality games run by holo-hosts."
"Yeah, don't remind me." Diana made a face. "They used a personality inhibitor to bend our will so we would adhere to their simulations. When the simulation ended, we felt our own 'deaths,' and then were 'reborn.' You pulled me out of the neural network, and we brought the whole operation crashing down by convincing the holo-hosts to snap out of their trances. That ended Mark Einman's 'virtual-reality' . . . and his cash-flow, pretty quickly."
"And once they stop breathing, the Persians 'discard' these people and replace them with others, just like Einman did," Maggie muttered.
"Can't we just wake them up, like they did to you guys?" Malcolm asked Diana and Maggie. "Maybe if we shake them or use smelling salts . . ."
"No." Diana shook her head, skeptically. "Our connection to the Einman simulations was through a pair of siphoning goggles. The mind drones here seem to have an immaterial psychic link to the actual network. We can't sever it if we can't see it."
Maggie sighed. "Diana, I know you said there's a chance they'll be killed if we crash the computer system, but . . ." Her eyes began to blur once more. She just couldn't stand the thought of losing Quinn again. "If it disables the stasis field, at least Quinn, Colin, and Mallory will still be alive, right?"
Rembrandt cringed. "Maggie, you're talking about mass slaughter! There are hundreds of innocent people who were forced into this. And you want to risk murdering them by one push of a button?!"
"No, I don't 'want to,' Rem!" Maggie flared, sniffing as her tears began to fall. "But we can't just leave them like this. And it's not just our friends who are trapped. Look at all the other sliders who have been 'frozen' by Yashar." She gestured pointedly at everyone who was caught in temporal stasis. "Don't we have a responsibility to save their lives too?!"
"It may be the lesser of two evils," Diana quietly told Rembrandt, agreeing with Maggie.
"No," Remmy protested, adamantly, "I don't like it! And Maggie, can you honestly say that Q-Ball would want us to do that? Or Colin?" His eyes traveled over to Wade, who remained sitting at the console. "Or Mallory?"
"It doesn't matter," Wade muttered, staring stoically at the computer screen. "I already told you, it doesn't have a shutdown mechanism. They must have programmed in a failsafe, in case someone managed to gain unauthorized access."
"Yeah," Malcolm mumbled, sadly. "Like us."
Professor Arturo's face was thoughtfully strained. "There has got to be a way . . ." He trailed off, then raised his voice again. "The drones conceivably follow the computer's instructions because their own human minds are repressed. They cannot coherently think for themselves. When bitten by the tsetse fly, that merely prolongs their hypnotic conditions." He had rushed over to Wade at the compute terminal, an idea brewing. "They're following the system's orders, correct? So let's suppose that the system 'orders' them to emerge from their collective slumber."
A smile spread across Wade's lips. "We can't destroy the program, so we'll modify it." With her fingers, Wade typed in the following command:
The sliders watched the mind drones in eager anticipation. One-by-one, the eyes of each mind drone fluttered open. The soft murmur of yawns and confused whispers could be heard all around the room, as the mind drones began to raise their heads from the ground or sit up completely.
Every person who had been standing "frozen" on the circular platform was now walking, crawling, or stumbling around.
Quinn Mallory's physical form had reanimated right in front of Maggie.
"What happe - ?" Quinn's baffled inquiry was muffled as Maggie threw her arms around her lover and smothered Quinn's lips with an enormous kiss.
Colin, upon exiting temporal stasis, was greeted by Rembrandt. "Hey, Farm Boy. Glad to have you back!" Remmy gave Colin a brotherly hug.
"Thank you, Rembrandt," Colin slowly said, with uncertainty. "Um, Rembrandt . . . where did I go?"
Mallory, meanwhile, was enjoying an affectionate embrace in Wade's arms. "It took you long enough," he quipped, cracking a smile.* * *
"Whooooooaaaaaaaa!" Quinn shouted, tumbling out of the vortex onto a sandy desert floor. After enduring all of their supernatural conflicts on Wizard World, Quinn hoped that this next Earth might bring them some good old-fashioned R&R.
He got to his feet, next to Colin, to view their surroundings.
Quinn saw religious temples and a bustling marketplace full of people speaking in an Arabic tongue. Most of the locals were clothed in turbans, shawls, and tunics. He could see Rembrandt and Maggie brushing their dusty pants off. But as Maggie turned to look at him, her body suddenly and inexplicably "froze." Rembrandt and all of the colorfully-dressed marketgoers also ceased their movements, as though somebody had just pushed a pause button. He tried to walk toward them, but couldn't move a muscle.
Then, his view spontaneously switched over to a new image, like the channel being changed on a television screen. The next thing Quinn knew, he was in a large chamber someplace indoors.
"What happe - ?" he tired to ask, but didn't get a chance to finish his sentence.
Maggie Beckett came hurtling toward him at full throttle, enveloping him into the warmth of her soft arms. Now wearing a veil and two-piece silky garment, Maggie looked like an exotic dancer. She pulled back her head, in tears, and then leaned forward to give Quinn the hugest kiss his mouth had ever felt from hers.* * *
Colin propelled through the wormhole, following his flailing and wailing brother.
"Whooooooaaaaaaaa!" Quinn's vocals echoed against the walls of the Einstein-Rosen-Pudalski Bridge. A rift opened, and Colin fell through it from behind Quinn.
Hitting the ground and tasting sand, Colin got to his knees. They were in a desert climate, and Colin could see a marvelous city before him. It contained shiny buildings and bustling people who wore strange clothing. Colin wanted to laugh at the silly garments these pedestrians had wrapped around themselves.
He saw Rembrandt and Maggie standing near one another, but they suddenly "froze." In fact, so did everyone who'd been walking through this weird desert city.
Colin tried to move his arms or legs, but he couldn't.
In a split second, his surroundings had changed into a large indoor room. Colin saw Rembrandt, now dressed in different clothing, all of a sudden walking in front of him and slapping him on the shoulder.
"Hey, Farm Boy. Glad to have you back!" Rembrandt boisterously greeted Colin, giving him a hug.
"Thank you, Remmy." Colin didn't know what to make of this situation. Where was Rembrandt welcoming him back from? "Um, Rembrandt . . . where did I go?"
Rembrandt laughed in response, and Colin frowned in contemplation.* * *
Mallory collided against a concrete surface, being ejected from the wormhole at the same moment as Wade, Maggie, and Diana. Hot rays of sun beamed down on Mallory's skin through the soft cotton of his wifebeater.
Wade grabbed onto his shoulders, and he lifted her from the ground. "Are you okay?" Mallory asked his girlfriend, concerned that she'd been bruised.
Wade nodded and exhaled.
"Watch out!" Mallory heard a shout from Diana, and felt himself being pushed out of the way. Professor Arturo had thudded face-down on the hard desert floor.
"I swear," griped Arturo, rolling over with a moan. "I oughtta bring landing gear with me . . . !"
His rant was interrupted by Rembrandt and Malcolm emerging from the vortex, both plopping down smack atop the Professor's belly.
"Why am I not surprised?" Professor Arturo said, with a groan. Mallory joined in Remmy's and Malcolm's snickers as they crawled away.
Janine landed on the concrete next, her rear end throbbing. "Well, we escaped the bearded freaks with pointy hats." She had gotten to her feet, mumbling bitterly.
Mallory suddenly felt a painful twinge in his forehead. "Augh!" he shouted, as his split-second headache was replaced by nausea and fatigue.
"Mallory, what's wrong?!" he heard Diana call to him. Except it sounded as though she had said it all in one breath.
The next thing he saw was Wade's and Diana's faces staring down at his. He opened his mouth to talk to them, but they had already turned away as he heard a garbled swish of clunks and shouts from the rest of his friends in the background.
Brightness from the sun above them became magnified several times over. All of the people, objects, and structures that Mallory laid eyes upon had taken on a weird bluish tint.
He turned toward Wade, trying to ask her what was happening. But men dressed in Arab clothing and riding camels had approached the sliders from the depths of the desert. The camels seemed to gallop over to the group, and the riders practically jumped right off them and scurried up to the sliders. Hmm, camels aren't supposed to be that fast! The Arabians drew swords and moved out of his line-of-vision. In another moment, hands were whisking him away, propping him up on some sort of wooden platform. The platform began to carry him away, into the city.
During this entire time, Mallory only had been able to utter the question, "What's going on?" He had meant to direct that query at Wade, who was obviously no longer in sight.
Everything whirred past him amidst a cloud of blueness. Mallory saw sidewalks full of veiled people zip by. Everything he viewed was moving at an accelerated rate. Camels galloping, merchants and shoppers running with armloads and basketfuls of goodies, temples and bungalows zooming past his eyes . . . it was like traveling a linear path at the speed of a roller coaster. All the while, the blinding blue light smacked against his pupils.
Finally, the tumultuous ride came to a stop in front of an enormous palace. As Mallory continued to watch people fly past him at the speed of light, he attempted to walk away from his now-stationary position. He hadn't taken more than five steps before some Arabian soldiers manhandled him, practically throwing him back to his original spot atop the wooden platform.
The next thing he knew, Mallory felt the platform traveling forward into the palace, once again at roller coaster speed. He watched as the long, winding journey through various hallways passed him by in a blur. Every so often, he caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a statue, a framed painting, or a piece of artwork along the sides. All of it zipped past him too rapidly for him to get a good look. Mallory felt as though he was being taken for a ride through multiple levels of a video game, at hyperspeed, with no control whatsoever rover his direction.
They stopped for a few seconds in front of two large doors. Some sort of entranceway, obviously. For a microsecond, Mallory thought he saw Malcolm's face pop out from behind a gigantic pillar, but he couldn't be sure.
Mallory felt himself yanked into a spacious room. Soldiers had grabbed him and placed Mallory on a new platform, this time surrounded by many other people. Mallory continued to stare at the view directly in front of him. People were laying atop blankets and pillows on the other side of a see-though wall, several meters away from him. The occasional Arabian-dressed person walked past him, still at hyperspeed. At one point, Mallory was positive he saw Professor Arturo escorted into this ridiculous sequence of supersonic events unfolding. Arturo rushed up to Mallory, peering straight at him up-close for about a second. Then, the Professor was ushered away.
"Professor!" Mallory heard himself trying to call out. But by the time he'd finished shouting, Arturo had already vanished from sight.
By now, Mallory had mentally concluded that this was all some sort of zany dream. He relaxed his shoulders, just watching to see how everything would play out. He saw an unconscious Professor Arturo dragged into the enclosed area behind the translucent glass wall. Arturo was sedated and directed to lie flat on the floor. Mallory could hear the accelerated blasts from what sounded like explosions, as smoke filled the room. Then he watched as familiar faces appeared, standing in front of him and looking back at him: Rembrandt, Maggie, and some more Arabian soldiers, then Wade, Diana, Malcolm . . .
Wade stared back at Mallory for the longest time, her face illuminated by the bluish brightness. He wanted to call to her, reach out to touch Wade, but he was hesitant to do anything. So far, anytime he'd tried to speak or make a move, time seemed to just rush past him, indiscriminately.
A few seconds later, Wade zoomed away, just as Mallory had expected she would. Not long afterward, Wade sat down at what sort of looked like it could be a computer. Diana had zipped up to Mallory, and appeared to be measuring him with her PDL. Eventually, Diana went away too, and after a few more seconds, the Professor rocketed over to join Wade at the computer-thingy.
Wade jumped up from the computer-ish station she'd been sitting at, and ran toward Mallory. However, as Wade came closer to Mallory, her movements slowed down. Soon, it almost seemed like she was running in slow-motion, as though Wade was moving at Baywatch speed. Wade then switched to what looked like normal speed, and she threw her arms around him. The blue light suddenly became red, and then the redness dissipated so that all regular colors showed up correctly within Mallory's vision.
Mallory could now hear Wade, audibly. She and the other voices in the room no longer sounded like the squeaky, accelerated, chipmunk-esque pitch of a tape recording on super fast-forward.
"It took you long enough," he joked to Wade, flashing her a cute grin.
All of this had taken place in what seemed like less than two minutes.
* * *
"So you don't remember anything, Colin?" Maggie had brought a pitcher of cold water to her disoriented friend, who was now sitting to shake off some of his dizziness.
"One minute, I was in the desert," Colin recalled, and he poured a refreshing gulp of water between his lips and down his throat. "In the next, I was here, with all of you."
"Yeah, same with me," Quinn said, coming over to stand with Colin and Maggie.
"For me, it was different," Mallory spoke up, dabbing his sweaty face with a wet rag. "I could see everything that was happening, but it all whooshed by at an accelerated speed."
"It was the temporal stasis field," Professor Arturo concluded, momentarily leaving Wade's side at the computer so he could address the rest of the group. "After sedating the mind drones and placing them under hypnotic suggestion, the Persians allowed a genetically-engineered tsetse fly to feed on the defenseless prisoners. The combined effects of the hypnosis and the physical anemia allowed the mind drones to generate a stasis field that suspended the movements of certain incoming visitors."
"But why us?" Quinn asked, his face strained in thoughtfulness.
Diana, who had also been sitting next to Wade at the computer, got out of her seat. "As best as we can tell, the mind drones were programmed to target the specific quantum signatures of transdimensional travelers from one particular dimension. A unique internal structure of similar patterns found within the inherent composition of genetically-dissimilar DNA."
Mallory shook his head back and forth, making googly-eyed expressions. "Say what?!" he uttered, completely lost by Diana's technobabble.
But Quinn understood what Diana was trying to say. "You mean . . . ?" he gasped, hoping against hope.
Quinn looked at Colin.
Colin looked at Quinn.
"Everyone who was placed in suspended animation . . . is from our homeworld?!" Colin could barely get the excited words out of his mouth.
"WHAT?!" Mallory, Rembrandt, and Malcolm all spat out their shock and puzzlement, in unison.
Quinn smiled, subtly. "They targeted sliders originally from Kromagg Prime."
"How could they . . . ?" Rembrandt closed his eyes and shook his head. He didn't even want to attempt to figure out the science for himself. He'd leave it to the experts to explain.
"By identifying the quantum signatures of individuals born on Kromagg Prime, our Persian friends believed they were preventing a potential Kromagg invasion," Professor Arturo explained.
"So they trained the mind drones to immobilize you with their combined psychic energy," added Diana, looking straight at Colin and Quinn. She pointed at Mallory. "However, this phenomenon only had a reduced affect on Mallory, because he and I have a base quantum signature innately different from the rest of yours. The stasis field partially affected Mallory, most likely because Mallory's body contains residual quantum imprints of the Kromagg Prime signature, leftover from when he was merged with you, Quinn."
Quinn nodded, totally comprehending the theory. "Makes sense."
Mallory shook his head, still utterly lost by the scientific technobabble. "There are way too many scientists in this group," he groaned.
"It's the same way Dr. Corbin Brummer's stasis generator worked on our world," Diana told Mallory. "Corbin matched up a common sequence for our Earth's quantum signature. Then he programmed his stasis generator to suspend the molecules of anything containing that unique signature. When Geiger put Remmy and Maggie inside the stasis generator, they weren't completely 'frozen.' They were still conscious and could move, albeit in an extremely limited manner due to the confined spatial parameters. Corbin's stasis generator also failed to fully immobilize our old Egyptian timer."
"This timer didn't stop, either," Colin provided, holding up the timepiece that showed over five hours still on its readout.
"Excuse me," a sophisticated voice interrupted them. "Quinn Mallory?"
Quinn turned to see a husky, spectacled scientist with a thick tuft of graying hair. He could tell that the guy was a scientist because of the man's pragmatic labcoat.
"I know your father, Michael." The scientist gave Quinn a warm smile.
Arturo greeted this scientist who emerged from temporal stasis only minutes earlier. "Dr. Silas Larson, I presume?"
"Correct," replied Dr. Larson, nodding at the Professor. "How did you know?"
"My captors told me about you. I was about to be 'put to sleep' permanently," answered Professor Arturo. "Long story, Dr. Larson."
"Wait . . . 'Larson0'?" Maggie touched Dr. Larson's wrist, and he looked at her. "You don't happen to know a 'Sergeant Vernon Larson,' do you?"
Silas Larson's eyes widened. "Vernon Larson is my younger brother! But he's been enlisted as a 'Private' in our military for the past decade."
Mallory sighed, exhaling nervously. "Not anymore . . ."
"He must have been offworld when his brother was promoted," Diana deduced.
"You know my brother?" Dr. Larson eagerly glanced around at the sliders.
Rembrandt cleared his throat. "Um, Dr. Larson . . . when exactly was the last time you saw your brother? What year?"
"1981," responded Silas Larson. His eyes darted around at all of them. "What year is it now?" he asked, with obvious hesitation.
Maggie locked eyes with Silas, pressing her lips together in discomfort. "2002," she told him, truthfully.
Silas Larson inhaled slowly, an expression of both horror and interest overtaking him. "I've been 'asleep' for 21 years?!"
Mallory leaned over, sniffing Dr. Larson near his armpit. "You still smell awfully fresh," he light-heartedly consoled Silas, trying to make him feel better by commenting on the scientist's lack of body odor.
"Wait . . . Dr. Larson, I know this is a lot for you to handle, but . . ." Quinn looked directly at Silas Larson. "If your last memories were from 1981, how did you recognize me? I would only have been eight years old, and my parents had sent me offworld during the war."
"I know." Silas nodded sympathetically at Quinn. "But Mike and Elizabeth had cutting-edge technology at their fingertips. I don't know how advanced your foster Earth is, but your parents had a photograph of you . . . 'digitally-aged,' if that makes any sense. They enhanced your image to predict what you'd look like as a young adult." He took another moment to gaze at Quinn. "They were remarkably right on the money."
A noisy clamor of voices drifted in faintly from right outside. Abu drew his sword as the doors to the apadana burst open.
Janine Chen crawled through the entranceway on her belly, wearily slogging her arms and legs against the floor.* * *
"Janine!" Malcolm ran over to the Asian slider, helping her off the ground. She was still pretty shaky.
"Janine, what happened?!" Rembrandt followed Malcolm over to her. The rest of the sliders also gathered around.
Gasping and sputtering, Janine tried to recover from her exhausting trek across the palace floor. "It's Vera . . . she . . . poisoned me!!"
"Oh my God!" Diana exclaimed, eyes bugging out.
"Don't worry . . . I seem . . . to be . . . immune." Janine let Malcolm escort her over to a chair.
"Janine, don't try to talk," Colin said, kneeling in front of her. "Just take some time to catch your breath."
"Miss Chen, we will get you treated on the next world," the Professor comforted her.
"No . . . you don't . . . understand." Janine paused, and took a big gulp of air. "Vera . . . she's coming!"
Mallory sputtered in perplexed bewilderment. "WHO is Vera?!"
"She's some Mystery Lady who tried to kill us," Rembrandt grumbled. He gently grabbed Janine's chin, tilting her head upward so she was forced to face him. "It's show-and-tell time, Mountain Girl. What's the deal with this Vera-lady, and what does she want from us?"
All the while, veiled women from the Sanctuary of Ormus had been flocking in and out of the apadana, granted free passage by the Sanctuary's rebel sentries. One of them tiptoed over to where the sliders had assembled around Janine, trying to blend in with the other female rebels, inconspicuously.
But Janine wasn't fooled for a second. "It's her!!!" she screamed, recognizing the familiar tunic.
Everything seemed to unfold in fast-forward, giving anybody little time to react. Vera dropped her veil and leapt toward Janine. She did a cartwheel across the floor before colliding into Janine and tackling her adversary to the ground.
Janine cried out in pain as her ribs hit the tiles beneath her back. Vera had jumped on top of Janine, and was digging her nails deep into Janine's shoulders.
Rembrandt had knocked Vera out, using the barrel of his musket to slam against the back of Vera's skull. The vengeful woman hurtled to the ground, still breathing but hardly awake.
Tears were streaming down Janine's face, from a combination of anger, physical lethargy, guilt, and intense fear. The Cryin' Man kneeled down and took Janine in his arms, letting her blubber away her emotions.
Abu and several of his comrades dragged the unconscious Vera to her feet. "She will be dealt with," Abu assured the sliders, as the followers of Ormus carried Vera Serrano away.* * *
Maggie brought a cup of tea to Silas Larson. He sat at a small table, sadly contemplating the heartbreaking news that had just been delivered to him.
"My baby brother . . ." Silas sniffed, thinking of his youngest sibling lying dead on the tundra of Purgatory, Vernon's eyes scooped out by some vindictive Kromagg bastard.
Taking a seat next to Silas, Maggie gently put her hand over his. "He went out a hero," she softly assured Dr. Larson. "I only knew your brother for a short time, but he had a superior sense of duty. He would have willingly died if it meant saving your homeworld, because he valued honor and loyalty above all else."
Silas Larson nodded, still sniffing. "That was Vern. He could be hotheaded and he liked running the show. But nothing meant more to him than standing by his country . . . his family . . . his species."
Rembrandt sat down across from Silas. "Your brother and me . . . we didn't always see eye-to-eye, but we both had a common purpose in defeating the Kromaggs."
Dr. Silas Larson stared at Rembrandt, wondrously. "So this virus you speak of . . . it annihilates Kromaggs?"
Rembrandt smiled slightly. "Yep. It takes about 48 hours to blend itself into the atmosphere of an Earth, but it does the job."
Diana sat down on Dr. Larson's other side. "From what we've seen, the virus appears to target a Kromagg's lungs, causing the esophagus to collapse. It's much cleaner than your Voraton device, and has no affect on humans."
"Yeah, Michael always regretted inventing that piece of junk," Silas muttered, referring to the Voraton KR-17. "It's one of the reasons I went sliding. Our Earth was slowly deteriorating, and I hoped we might be able to find an ecological solution on an alternate dimension. But I ended up here. Yashar's soldiers interrogated me, and they kept me in isolation for . . . well, a long time. Eventually, I couldn't keep track of all the days anymore. I had to tell their translators about the Kromagg threat. It was the only way I could justify my sudden appearance on their homeworld, and still have any hope of staying alive. Then they bathed me, dressed me in my original clothes, and ultimately, I fell asleep."
"And others from your world followed you," Diana concluded. "They must have latched onto your photon trail, arriving on this world too."
"What about these dead 'Maggs?" Rembrandt inquired, pointing to the handful of Kromaggs who lay dead on the floor, victims of the newly-released virus. "How did they end up here? They couldn't have made it past the Slidecage."
"They were probably hesitant to reenter Kromagg Prime," Diana speculated, "since none of their brethren had ever returned safely. It's likely that some of the Kromaggs decided to slide by themselves in the vicinity of Kromagg Prime, hoping to eventually find a way to shield themselves from the Voraton plague. Some of them probably followed the residual photon trail to this world, convincing the Persians all the more that this Kromagg species Silas had spoken of was indeed real."
Quinn had overheard a good portion of this conversation, and jumped into the discussion. "The Persians on this world have probably quarantined mind drones all over the world. In essence, the temporal stasis field acts like a 'Slidewave,' slowing down the motion of any DNA from Kromagg Prime. Explains why Mallory was affected too, albeit to a lesser degree."
"And all the serfs with unpaid debts provided free labor to power the stasis field," Diana added. "That's how they've been able to maintain this system for two decades."
Abu marched over to Silas and the sliders. "Have the khoftegaan awakened in palaces other than this one?"
"It's a possibility," Diana predicted. "If English-speaking mind drones in other regions sensed the command to 'awaken,' there could be a domino effect across the rest of the continent. Maybe even across the rest of the planet, if the command gets translated correctly."
Maggie realized her stomach felt more calmed, and placed her hand over her cervix. "All that faint rumbling that I felt inside of me earlier . . . it's gone now."
"Do you think it had anything to do with bringing down the stasis field?" Remmy asked her.
"How could it?" shrugged Maggie. "I don't have any DNA from Kromagg Prime inside of me." She paused, momentarily. "Except . . ." Maggie looked straight at Quinn, and then blushed furiously.
"Okay . . ." Rembrandt quickly changed the subject. "Dr. Larson," he said, addressing Silas, "we've been trying to get Quinn and Colin back to Kromagg Prime for quite awhile now. Any ideas on how we could get around the Slidecage?"
"You can't." Silas shook his head. "Unless the Slidecage has been destroyed by now. And from what you told me earlier, when you escaped from the Slidecage, it was still intact?"
"Well, we definitely didn't destroy it," Maggie said. "In fact, we left two good friends behind in there." She was thinking of Thomas and Jules.
A thought suddenly occurred to Quinn. "Silas," he addressed the scientist, "do you still have the coordinates to our homeworld."
"Up here." Dr. Silas Larson pointed to his brain. "405-134-101-118."
"That's it!" Quinn practically yelped. "Give us those first six digits again!"
Silas blinked, a bit startled. "405-134 . . ."
Diana had already pulled out her PDL, and was punching the numbers in as Silas Larson spoke.
"Colin and I have been trying to find those first six digits!" Quinn excitedly told Silas. "Our parents placed the first half of this coordinate set in a microdot they'd left with my mother on Earth Prime, and the second half in a microdot that they gave to Colin's foster parents. My microdot was lost during my merge with Mallory, but we still had Colin's half to work from." He whirled around and called out to his brother. "Colin!"
Colin came over. "What is it, brother?"
"We've got 'em!" He flashed Colin a gleeful smirk. "Dr. Larson just gave us our homeworld coordinates!"
Realization slowly hit Colin. "You mean . . . we're going home . . . ?"
Colin was speechless.
Silas tried to make sense of what Quinn had just told him. "Glad I could be of help," he said, with a tentative grin. "But didn't you and Colin have your homeworld coordinates memorized?"
"My memories were a little foggy, after Mallory and I finally separated from one another," Quinn admitted. "That information was lost from my brain during all those months jumbled inside of him."
"And I had a hard time remembering things, too - from all those months when I was unstuck," Colin added.
"So basically, we were both starting from scratch," Quinn said. He turned to Colin, excitedly. "But not anymore! We're finally going home, bro!"
Quinn and Colin hugged each other, and Maggie ran over to join in their excitement.* * *
Wade had called up a string of numbers on the screen of the crude Arabic computer. She had deciphered the following set of coordinates:
They had been encoded within the disabled program, which was deactivated when Professor Arturo had entered the command for the mind drones to "Awaken."
"It looks like the Persians mapped out a grid of the multiverse, too," Wade observed, pointing to the coordinates for Kromagg Prime. "Do you think they have sliding technology?"
"They could have been developing it," Quinn theorized, skimming over the numerical grid Wade had activated. "At last, they've designated a hyperspatial coordinate set for their own world, probably as an index for if they ever gain the ability to slide themselves."
Quinn pointed at one emboldened string of numbers that stood out from all the rest:
"So those are the coordinates for this world." Diana had entered them into her PDL, along with the coordinates for Kromagg Prime. "There. Recorded and logged. We'll want those on-hand, so we can come back here to get all these people home."
"If we can even get past the Slidecage," Colin emphasized. "Quinn, you programmed it to bounce travelers back to where they came from, so they would not get stuck inside. Now that we have our homeworld coordinates again, how can we get past this barrier?"
"I don't know, Colin. I guess we'll have to try to unscramble the decryption string again," shrugged Quinn. "We'll work from the data we have in your microdot. But we're so close now. We can't turn out backs on all the people back home who've been waiting decades for us to return."
"Quinn," whispered Wade, faintly enough so that no one in the vicinity could overhear, "how are we going to get all these people from your homeworld back to Kromagg Prime? They can't possibly all come with us through the vortex."
"I know, Wade." Quinn flagged down Rembrandt. "Remmy, I need to get my people home." He waved his hand around the room at all the human natives of Kromagg Prime whom he'd just emerged from suspended animation with. "Is there a safe place where they can stay until we find a way to get them off this world?"
Rembrandt nodded. "Sure thing, Q-Ball. I'll talk to Abu." Remmy went off in search of the head freedom fighter.
"Excuse me, Quinn . . . ?" Silas Larson had made his way over to the computer console where Quinn, Colin, Wade, and Diana were gathered. He was escorting a young lady by his side. "This is Emily Beecham. She has some questions for you about the Slidecage."
Emily nodded, eagerly. The young woman, appearing to be in her mid-twenties, wore rectangular spectacles on her thin, angelic face. Curly bobs of light brown hair cascaded past her neck, dipping into the pulled-back hood of her sweatshirt. "I'm looking for my older brother, Thomas."
"Thomas?" Quinn repeated. "Thomas Beecham?!"
"Yes. You know him?" Emily looked hopeful.
Quinn waved Maggie over to them. "Maggie, this is Emily Beecham . . . Thomas's sister."
Maggie turned her head incredulously toward Emily Beecham.
"He was stationed on another world . . . we were told it was a penal colony for war criminals," explained Emily. "There was apparently an uprising, and most of the platoon stationed there got slaughtered. Thomas was never found in the rubble, though, and our government declared him Missing-in-Action." Emily sighed, forlornly tossing a strand of curly hair out of her eye. "My big brother was always a resourceful one, so we held out hope that he'd somehow survived."
"He did," Maggie confirmed. "Thomas took refuge in the Slidecage. He saved my life."
Emily Beecham's breath was taken away. "How did you escape the Slidecage?"
"Don't worry about that right now. The point is, Thomas is still alive." Maggie touched both of Emily's shoulders. "You have to have faith, Emily. We're about to leave here, and once we make it to your homeworld, we'll find a way back into the Slidecage so we can get Thomas out of there."
"Can I come with you?" asked Emily, her eyes widening in anticipation.
Quinn and Maggie exchanged hesitant glances.
"It's dangerous, Emily," Maggie cautioned her. "We might not make it back there right away."
"I'm well-acquainted with the danger. I started sliding back in '96, after being cleared by the Mallorys," Emily said. She pulled a timer out of her pocket. "I had to find Thomas. I knew there was a likely possibility I'd never be able to return to our homeworld, but I had to try. Our family needed peace . . . to finally know his fate."
Quinn bit his lip, still reluctantly. "I already promised Silas that we'd consider bringing him with us. If anyone can reconfigure the decryption string to bypass the Slidecage, it's him." Giving Emily a sympathetic gaze, Quinn continued, "So far, our wormhole has been able to transport the ten of us safely. Adding an eleventh person might not make much of a difference, but twelve people could be pushing it."
Emily held up her timer again. "Look, I'll make a deal with you guys. If your vortex begins to feel too unstable, I still have my own sliding device. I can always bail on you and venture back out on my own."
Quinn and Maggie looked over at Rembrandt, and then Diana.
"We should probably take a group vote," Diana suggested. She looked at Emily. "For what it's worth, I'm all for it."
"She has my vote," Wade said, over her shoulder, from where she sat at the computer.
"Mine too," agreed Rembrandt, who'd just returned from talking with Abu.
Maggie turned back to Emily and smiled at her. "Well, Emily, I don't want to say 'Welcome aboard' prematurely . . . but it looks like it might be unanimous."* * *
Hundreds of people, having been awakened from either tsetse-induced slumber or from suspended animation, were still milling around inside the apadana. Most of them had golden tan or pale olive complexions, and the former "sleepers" were dressed mostly in tattered robes or ragged tunics. The followers of Ormus were coordinating an immediate evacuation, leading these "refugees" into the hidden passageways that would take them to the rebels' Sanctuary.
"The sojourners from your world will be well taken care of," Abu assured Quinn. The rogue bodyguard wanted to bid the sliders farewell before he returned to his Sanctuary.
"Thank you, Abu. For all the help you gave my friends." Quinn shook Abu's hand. "I promise you, as soon as I reach my homeworld, we'll send reinforcements back here to rescue our people." Quinn was, of course, referring to all the ragtag sliders from Kromagg Prime whom he and his friends could not bring with through their own vortex.
"You've got a big job ahead of you," Rembrandt told Abu, giving him a grateful handshake. "I got to talking with these people . . . so many of them were serfs, beggars, or prostitutes. I can't begin to imagine how you'll blend them back into your society."
"We shall persevere," Abu stated, optimistically. He gazed fondly at Rembrandt, Maggie, Professor Arturo, and the other allies he'd formed. "I am honored to serve Ormus and his disciples." Abu's eyes wandered back to Rembrandt. "You will be pleased to know that Neda sent word to us . . . Private Zicree awoke inside of our Sanctuary, once you severed Yashar's web."
"What will you do now, Abu? I mean, since you're sort of out of a day job . . ." Maggie inquired, awkwardly.
Abu stared up at the sky, thoughtfully. "I do not know. But we must continue to spread the message of Ormus . . . free the khoftegaan across the land." He gave Maggie a respectful smile. "And I must thank you, Captain Beckett, for sharing your expertise in warfare."
"Aw, don't mention it," Maggie said, modestly. "Making the grenades is easy; it's throwing them that takes some practice."
Colin coughed, to get everyone's attention. "Um, one minute before we leave."
Soon, the purple vortex opened like an umbrella. Diana, Malcolm, Wade, and Mallory all hurried through it.
Silas Larson and Emily Beecham both stared dreamily at the majestic wormhole. From each of their perspectives, it seemed like ages since either of them had done this.
"Come on!" With a wave of his hand, Quinn motioned for Silas and Emily to leap forward with him into the interdimensional abyss.
Abu turned to his fellow soldiers, once all the sliders had departed. "Yashar's men will fight to reclaim the palace, in due time," he predicted. "Let us obliterate their artillery before we leave, lest they doubt our resolve . . ."* * *
Diana set her tray down at the medium-sized table covered by a parasol. She joined Rembrandt, Quinn, Wade, Janine, Silas, and Emily, who were already eating lunch at an outdoor café.
Overlooking the al fresco diners was an enormous pillared pantheon with a fertile variety of ivy and vines spilling out of its balconies and terraces. The multi-leveled structure contained orange groves, palm trees, and grapevines surrounding its lower walls. Other points along the pyramid-like architecture had ferns, geraniums, petunias, Venus flytraps, cacti, and patches of mosses and lichens.
Marveling at the Hanging Gardens, Diana exhaled in awe. "Wow. You know, I never thought I'd see one of the Seven Wonders of the World right here in L.A. . . . well, an Alternate L.A., anyway."
"Yeah, Nebuchednezzar XIV really wanted to bring the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Pacific coast," Quinn commented, taking a minty sip of sekanjabin from a glass goblet. He smacked his lips, savoring the syrupy drink. "Man, I still haven't shaken Mallory's flapjack fetish."
Wade glanced up at the hydroponic garden. "Yeah, it's beautiful. But I don't think I'd want to live here," she murmured.
As if to demonstrate Wade's point, a dark-skinned slave came running down the street past the Babylonian café. A posse of soldiers chased after him, armed with whips and clubs. They ended up tackling the runaway slave, growling obscenities at him.
Rembrandt nearly choked on his Eggplant Baqliyya, a slab of lamb ribs layered with eggplant and onions.
"His master killed someone else's eldest slave, so now that master's own eldest slave must be put to death," Silas Larson assessed the situation, glumly. He and Emily had been paying attention to the details surrounding this dimension's alternate history, as they were quite excited to be sliding again.
"You both seem to be readjusting pretty well to the sliding lifestyle," Diana commented to Silas and Emily, fairly thrilled with the temporary presence of their newest companions.
"Hammurabi's Code still reigns," added Emily, repeating their knowledge of this Earth. "A consequence of Persia having never conquered Ancient Mesopotamia."
Janine dipped one of her hai balls into a dish of salty murri. "Plus they worship a creepy god," she said, gesturing to a life-sized statue of the deity Marduk. The painted sculpture depicted a long-haired savage whose face was coated with white paint. "He looks like Marilyn Manson." Janine rolled her eyes at the image of the paternal killer.
All eyes had focused specifically on Janine, by this point.
It took a few moments before Janine realized that everyone was looking at her. "What?!" she snapped, irritably bothered at being the sudden center-of-attention.
"Okay, Janine," said Rembrandt, acquiring a serious frown. "Start talking. Tell us what the deal is with Vera."
Janine closed her eyes. "You guys . . ." she began to protest, sort of meekly.
"Janine, we really need to know," emphasized Wade, appealing to Janine with sincerity in her eyes. "The only way you can fully protect us from her is to explain to us why she has this vendetta against you."
Sighing, Janine slowly opened her eyes. "It's just a really bad memory for me. I've never talked about it with other people."
"It will probably make you feel better to get it out in the open," Emily softly encouraged her.
Janine remained silent, looking down at the surface of the table.
Quinn leaned over to speak to Janine in a comforting voice. "If it would be easier, you can show me first."
Flinching several times in a row, Janine hastily held up her hand, indicating for Quinn to match his palm up with hers. "Do it, before I change my mind."
As Janine concentrated, recalling her first encounter with Vera, Quinn watched the entire scene unfold via a psychic flashback. Quick flashes of Janine being chased down an alley by Vera Serrano whizzed through Quinn's extrasensory mind. A noisy rush of garbled background noise cluttered his ears, but eventually, distinct sounds could be filtered out. Quinn made out coherent sentences of dialogue being exchanged between Janine and Vera, as the two women faced off in a remote backlot that seemed to be doubling as a junkyard. In the background, beyond the discarded remains of a fabric-torn recliner and a defunct TV set, the coastal landscape of San Francisco could be viewed on the horizon.
"I must save this world!" Vera Serrano screeched, holding up a vial that she was preparing to drop on the cement pavement.
Janine lunged at Vera and tackled the wiry woman. They wrestled around on the ground, and Janine managed to clutch Vera's wrist to prevent her from throwing down the vial.
A clunky timer was shaken loose from the belt around Vera's waist. As it clattered to the ground, the timer ejected a thick stream of quantum energy. The resulting wormhole whisked Vera, screaming and hollering, right off the ground. Janine, who was unaffected by the pull from Vera's vortex, covered the unbroken vial with both of her hands. She squinted against the wormhole's wind, and as Vera disappeared through the ERP Bridge, Vera's timer also floated through the vortex before it closed.
"Wow," Quinn said, flatly, once his flashback had ended.
"Yeah," Janine agreed, trying to shake the remainder of that memory out of her head.
"What did you see, Quinn?" asked Wade.
Quinn looked at Janine, eager to learn more. "What was in the vial?"
"Vera was going to drop a vial of nerve gas agent on an Alternate San Francisco," explained Janine. "Don't ask me why; it's not like she told me. I ran into Vera by chance, while I was scouting out that world for Slidetronics. Vera and I were complete strangers, but she was more than happy to brag to me about what she was about to do. I brought the agent back to my world, where our scientists studied it in quarantine. They're still working on a countervirus for it, as far as I know."
"And she blames you for her timer being corrupted in the struggle," concluded Quinn, "which sent her on a random sliding course. Just like our timer."
"Probably," agreed Janine, in monotone. "That's most likely what happened. I don't know a whole lot about that nutcase, but what I have learned, I wish I could forget."
"Well, you don't need to worry about Vera anymore," Diana tried to reassure Janine. "She's stuck back on that Persian World for good. I doubt she'll last very long."
With a snort, Janine formed a crooked line across her lips. "Obviously, you don't know what this freak is capable of."
Deep down, Janine hoped Diana was right.* * *
In the depths of Abu's sanctuary, the followers of Ormus were busy preparing a procedure. Some Mandrake root was boiling in a pot of water, which bubbled within an enclosed, steaming vat.
Atop a flat bed of bamboo laid Vera Serrano, not moving a single muscle.
The scientist had prepared a clean needle. He was about to apply a tourniquet to Vera's arm, before administering the drug. "Are you certain this is what must be done?" he asked Abu.
Abu nodded, grimly. "This woman is an enemy of Ormus. She attacked his disciples, our friends. We shall ensure that she does not commit that sin again."
All the while, one of Vera's eyelids flickered open at intervals, peeking at the situation around her for a split second.
"This is a humane way to punish the misguided . . ." Abu did not get to finish his sentence.
In a flash, Vera leapt up to her feet atop the table, giving Abu a swift kick in his gut.
As Abu fell backward, Vera propelled herself off the bamboo table with great agility. She spun around, grabbing the needle-bearing scientist around his waist. With one quick moment, Vera had gripped the scientist's wrists and shoved the needle into his gut.
By this point, more of the freedom fighters had grabbed their weapons. But Vera was ready and quick on her feet. She cartwheeled her limbs like a rotating wheel, dodging the line of fire. Whipping around, she delivered successive karate kicks to the spine of every man whose back was turned to her. Each soldier doubled over with an excruciating grunt.
Abu was crawling to his knees, trying to recover from Vera's surprise kamikaze move. But he never had a chance. Vera's sharp fingernails dug into Abu's neck as she snapped it in half from behind.
Neda now stood in the arched doorway of the underground infirmary. Her mouth was wide open, as she had been watching Vera's swift movements in horror.
"What's wrong, dear?" Vera derided Neda in a fake saccharine voice, moving toward the female historian. "You people never developed gymnastics on this world?"
Neda, paralyzed with fear, couldn't move her feet. But even more significantly, she was mentally recalling a passage from the Avesta.
"Sholeh's prophecy," Neda gasped, realizing its literary resemblance to Vera Serrano. Neda recited the verse, in a ghastly voice, "The wayward one shall slaughter hundreds, before she is swallowed whole by space and time. Her speed, vengeance, and ruthlessness provides a window to her corrupted soul."
Neda's vision went black, as Vera's fist collided with the Persian woman's forehead.
"Sorry. I don't do windows," Vera quipped, stepping over Neda's unconscious body, which was sprawled out on the floor.
She then spotted a familiar device, which had been set down atop a vertical stone pedestal. The digital numbers on its readout ticketed down, forebodingly.
Vera grabbed her timer and ran.
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