"I used to think that it was a big, sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off. I don't anymore. I think it's a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there, and one day you walk round your house and there's nothing there at all, nothing to keep you, nothing to make you want to stay. And then you lie down and shut up forever. Lots of little deaths until the last big one," Hob Gadling explains.|
"It's an idea I've heard before," says Death.
"And?" asks Hob.
But Death just smiles a smile that says, "No, I'm not going to tell you THAT."
• • •
The Sliders were about to leave when there was a stir in the back. It was five o'clock in the evening, and apparently something came on TV at that time because people began congregating around the single TV set up on a stack of books. The only waiter turned on the TV while suffering good natured ribbing for being a bit slow doing so.
The news report had already begun. The set behind the announcer was undramatic, and the production values were low. The announcer actually read from printed sheets rather than a teleprompter. But everyone in the room, including the Sliders, hung on every word.
"-45 Broadstreet at 8am tomorrow morning. To repeat, our top story tonight is an urgent summons from General Rickman, Commander in Chief of the San Francisco District. Anyone who worked for IBM after 1990, anyone with specialized technical knowledge involving computers, anyone with an engineering degree no more than ten years old, or any former students of Professor Maximillian Arturo or Professor Quinn Mallory, are ordered to report for possible assistance to the United States Government. Help is needed in the war effort, and anyone with the previously stated credentials will be screened and possibly enlisted in a support role to the United States Army. This summons supersedes even military duties. Those qualifying report to 1345 Broadstreet at 8 am tomorrow morning. In war news, the Spanish Army retreated to San Diego today, but not before another pocket of over 25,000 men was encircled by the 5th Army. General McCain announced he expects the surrounded Spanish to surrender as soon as tomorrow. The Spanish also suffered defeat on the high seas, when the Santa Maria carrier battle group was destroyed attempting to support the retreating -."
Arturo turned excitedly to Quinn. "Do you have any idea what this means?"
"They're calling for anyone who might be able to help them invent Sliding!"
"Exactly, my boy. I think it is worth finding out how far they have gone. If our doubles on this world are involved, I believe that they might have gotten very far indeed."
Wade was suspicious. "Why would they be so hot for Sliding technology right now in the middle of World War Three? All they care about right now is weapons tech."
That gave the Professor pause. "You are quite right, my dear. Could they be trying to use Sliding as a weapon? Perhaps they already possess the technology and are now attempting to distort its purpose?"
"Either way, this could be our ticket home!" Quinn commented. "If we help them, they could repay us by sending us home! This could be the best chance we've had fix the timer or figure out a way to find home! We could finally work with something other than garden tools and Radio Shack discards! We could work in a real, fully equipped laboratory!"
"Let us not get ahead of ourselves, Mr. Mallory. They could just as easily be working on a gravity weapon. We won't have any idea unless we apply tomorrow. I don't like the way you said 'either way.' It is as if you are implying you would assist them in creating a terrible new weapon in exchange for help getting home."
Quinn waved that point away. "I would do anything that didn't cause pain or destruction. You should know that by now. But, other than that, I would do anything in my power to get us home."
"Anything for a chance to get home!" Remmy chipped in.
"I agree." Quinn chirped, smiling at his friend. "We have to give it a shot! We can fade away if it is not what we're looking for. Wade and Remmy can hide here in the city with the timer so they can't steal it from us, just in case. And you and I can apply tomorrow and scout the field and see if they could help us."
The rest agreed and they headed out to find lodging for the night.
Quinn and Arturo waited in line for three hours the next morning before finally reaching the interviewer's desk. The interviewer, a nice looking man of about 20 who already had the rank of Sergeant, took one look at them and began laughing merrily. The soldiers with him also broke out laughing.
"Professors Arturo and Mallory! Ba ha ha ha ha!!! I think that we can safely assume you two are qualified -." He trailed off and his mood sobered. "Wait a minute." He leaned forward and peered at Quinn carefully. Then he leaped to his feet, circled his interviewing table, and stared at Quinn's legs. "Move your legs!"
Puzzled, Quinn complied.
"How is this possible?" The Sergeant asked his comrades. "Everyone knows that Professor Mallory needs a wheelchair!"
Quinn smiled casually. "Take us to your leader!" The humor was lost on them, not surprisingly.
• • •
"Wolf! Amos! Buckley! Escort our guests to the private library!" Lieutenant Gaiman ordered, then turned on his heel and entered the compound. He had a good idea where the General would be ... and he was correct. General Rickman was in the Aztec holding cell, speaking with them through the shield. This was apparent even as Gaiman turned the corner because the guard posted to the holding cell was standing outside the room looking a little peeved.
Gaiman stopped beside the guard. "Wipe that expression from your face, soldier." He ordered in a low voice. "It is disrespectful."
Gaiman inspected his gold watch, running his fingers over the surface absently. "The General may spend as much time with these prisoners as he wishes."
"And just how much time has that been these past couple days?"
The guard glanced at the Lieutenant, whose face was impassive. "Um, about 2 to 4 hours, sir."
"A day, sir."
"Oh." For a two letter word, it was one of the most powerful and textured in the English language. It could express many things simultaneously, and the speaker could always say it was intended for the harmless meanings if pressed, even if it meant the more negative ones in reality.
The soldier wondered which way the Lieutenant meant it.
"Did he give you any specific orders, private?"
"He asked that no one disturb him, sir."
The door finally opened after another half hour, during which neither man in the corridor spoke. "Lieutenant Gaiman." It was said with surprise, but no embarrassment. "Report."
Lieutenant Gaiman eyed the guard, who quickly entered the holding cell and closed the door. "We have collected two off world travelers that I think you will be very interested in meeting, General. They might be able to help us achieve success far quicker than we could have hoped."
General Rickman rubbed his hands together eagerly. "Excellent. Everything is coming together all at the same time!"
• • •
Remmy and Wade were sitting on a side street, watching a group of laughing, joking people take down a bombed out gas station. The partially collapsed structure was a hazard, so the unorganized group was finishing the job with crowbars, rope, and hammers. The piles of wood, metal, and other construction pieces grew near the road. Presumably a army truck would came by at some point and clear them out. The Sliders had seen other laden trucks pass by.
Remmy was talking with a 12 year old boy named Anthony, who had come up and sat next to them an hour ago. The related a tale of woe but his spirits seemed high. Both his parents had died in the bombing, and he was now a homeless orphan with no one to turn to. He was living in a garage with several other homeless refugees and subsisted off the free meals provided to refugees citywide.
"When they stop giving out free food I'll have to turn myself in I guess." He remarked practically. "But I'm going to see how long I can survive on my own first."
Remmy saw a boy trying to be brave, who was putting off his mourning by keeping his situation precarious and all encompassing. If he went to a foster home or orphanage he would have nothing to preoccupy himself. He didn't comment to this effect however. Instead he asked general questions about the war and how the city had been under Spanish occupation.
"They were okay. Not cruel like the news was saying. They only had us for about a month. And most of the time they were working on defending the city. They mostly ignored us unless we caused trouble."
Wade sighed. This boy's plight was far too depressing. It was not that she was insensitive to him, but they had been Sliding for three years and there were far too many worlds like this one where abject misery was commonplace. People could say what they wanted back home about high taxes and dirty politics, but at least there was enough world peace that prevented these kinds of wars. A lot of worlds they had passed through had not been so lucky. We didn't have it so bad, she mused to herself.
An Army jeep suddenly stopped in front of them, startling all three. Quinn Mallory was in the back passenger compartment, escorted by a driving soldier and a ranking officer.
He leaped from the jeep excitedly. "I'm glad you guys are still here!" The other two had agreed to hang out at this street between 3 and 6pm and 8 and 10pm today and tomorrow. It was presently 6:15pm, but they had lost track of time with talking to Anthony. "Not only are they very close to perfecting Sliding, they want our help and have agreed to compensate us by helping us find our home world!"
The other two leaped to their feet.
Quinn went on to explain that his and Arturo's doubles on this world were very involved in the Sliders program, and it was the fact that the Quinn of this world had been confined to a wheelchair all his life that led the military leaders to believe their story.
"So where is the Professor?"
Quinn grinned impishly. "Apparently there is quite a bit of ageism on this world. They wanted him to fly immediately to Seattle to meet with the Quinn and Arturo of this world. I was to stay behind to gather up you two and await the three's return."
Wade grinned. "I think you're offended!"
"Yeah, the brainiac's been slighted for the Professor!" Remmy added devilishly.
"Yeah." Quinn said, sighing playfully. "He has a six hour head start on sucking up to them!"
• • •
"My dear- what was your name again? Terribly sorry, it has been an eventful day."
"Captain Maggie Beckett." The pilot replied calmly.
"Yes, yes, of course. So, my dear, how long has your country been at war with the Spanish Empire?"
She didn't reply for a minute. When she did, it was in a terse tone of voice. "Technically, it is the Spanish-Aztec-Italian Alliance. Though we all know that the Spanish call the shots. And this time around, we've been fighting for almost a year."
Arturo was either unaware or uncaring that she was sending off serious 'shut up' vibes. "And do women serve on an equal basis with men on this world? It is not so on the world I come from."
Maggie sighed. "Mr. Arturo, if you don't mind, we are in a light plane flying over mountains still containing Spanish partisans. I need to be able to focus on what I'm doing."
The Professor threw up his hands. "Very well. I was just making conversation while trying to learn a thing or two. But what harm a partisan could do to a plane flying this high I have no idea."
His words couldn't have been more timely, as their left wing was vaporized by a shoulder fired rocket mere seconds later.
• • •
General Rickman's office was sparse and to the point. The point being, of course; orderliness, cleanliness, and efficiency. There was no bookcase. Instead, there was a computer on his otherwise bare desk and a lap top on the coffee table on the far side of the room. Beside the laptop was a CD carrying case with the words "Personal Library, Gen. Rickman" written in block letters on a label which was centered exactly in the middle of the case. Another CD case, with the label reading, "Reference, Gen. Rickman" sat next to the first case.
If he had any writing materials, stationery, or anything else of that nature, it was held inside the desk. There was no sign of plants, clocks, pictures, or even a window. This was the most bare office Quinn, Remmy, or Wade had ever laid eyes on.
They sat together on an uncomfortable couch facing the coffee table. Remmy was just reaching forward to touch the library CD case (for what purpose neither of the other two knew) when the door opened and three officers entered. Remmy jerked his hand back like the CD case was on fire.
The man with the General's stars gave Remmy a dirty look before addressing them. "I am General Rickman, Commander in Chief of the San Francisco District. I am also secretly in charge of the Olethros Project, which is trying to develop TransWorld technology. As Mr. Mallory and I discussed earlier with your associate, Professor Arturo, this technology is becoming of urgent value. What I did not state earlier was the reason."
He sighed heavily, seeming burdened by more than the war. "Excuse us, please."
The two officers with him turned as one and departed the room, closing the door behind them.
Still Rickman hesitated, as if saying the words out loud gave them added magic. "The Earth is being consumed by a biological weapon for which there is no cure, nor time to discover one."
• • •
A bucket of ice cold water roused Maggie Beckett. In seconds, she was alert, though she pretended to be much more groggy than she was. She could hear Arturo gagging and spitting next to her.
A man with a Hispanic accent and a very soft voice spoke in measured, almost melodic, tones. "You are wide awake and alert, Captain. You are also securely bound. Your attempted subterfuge is a failure."
She straightened her head and opened her eyes. Surprisingly, the man who spoke was not wearing a uniform. He wore a plain, simple white robe that stopped at the knees. His feet were bare.
"My name is Montezuma, I am a High Priest in service of the Aztec Empire. You are my prisoners. Your bodies were carried from the wreckage of the plane Aztec soldiers shot down. Neither of you is injured substantially."
Maggie tried to talk and found that she could not utter a sound. Panicking, she tossed her head back and forth, feeling something around her neck.
Montezuma raised one hand calmly. "We have secured your necks with what we call an Inhibitor. You cannot speak unless it is released. It is quite simple actually, tightly binding several of your neck muscles, which in turn restrain your vocal chords. All of this without restricting your breathing. The purpose in this is so that you might pay attention to me without interruption. The inhibitors will be released when I am ready to see if you understand me. Until then, neither of you shall say a word. Your purpose is to listen, absorb my words. Until then, there is nothing you could say that would interest me."
Satisfied with their expressions, he moved forward and touched Arturo's face gently. "You are Professor Maximillion Arturo. We know of the appropriately named Olethros Project. That name is just one of the omens which told us it was time to act." He chuckled, turning away to a table which contained a folder. From it he pulled several photos. They were of Wade, Arturo, and Quinn. "Last year three people magically appeared in Tenochtitlan. They were severely questioned, and their secrets revealed. They were from another world which mirrored ours. Most interesting was the fact that two of them were clones of noted Professors of the Unified States of America. That was the biggest selling point."
He tossed aside the pictures. "Sliding is an abomination, Professor. You and your colleagues are now trying to perfect the science yourselves. As are the Russians, the Chinese, and the Persians." He sighed. "Even our allies the Spanish and Italians are attempting it now that the word is out. It is now inevitable that it will be perfected and travelers from this world will go out to visit other worlds."
Montezuma next brought out a jewels two pronged dagger from his robes, causing both Arturo and Maggie to gasp silently. "We cannot allow that to happen. It was written four thousand years ago, 'and when the people of this land visit the mirror lands, the Gods will rain fire and destroy all knowing life.' We cannot allow that to happen. Sliding must be stopped before it is perfected. All people engaged in Sliding research must be Destroyed. It has been foreseen. It is inevitable."
His words were spoken with rock solid conviction. He smile was completely devoid of threat or menace, which made it ten times as scary. He approached them with the knife. Arturo stiffened at the High Priest circled them and stopped directly behind them.
"You might wonder how killing two thirds of the world's population could be better than tearing down the laws of this world and inviting the Gods to punish us. My rebuttal is that ANYthing is better than the vengeance of the Gods. Better to strike down our enemies with one God, Destruction, than invite them all to our land."
It was then that Arturo felt the knife on his neck.
• • •
General Rickman went on to tell them about how Aztec and Spanish scientists broke international agreements by researching new, even more deadly forms of biological weapons. This despite the fact that biological warfare had been agreed to never be used again after the horror it caused during the AS War 2 in the 70s. The worst weapon arrising from the new experiments, aptly titled Destruction, started breaking down a person's body in minutes. It attacked the nervous and cardiovascular systems, turning both into jelly. The victim died in agonizing pain. The intention was to not only kill the enemy but to demoralize them as well. People would fear Destruction far more than any other weapon. It would attack the minds, the heart, the will to fight, even more effectively than it attacked the bodies of those it came into contact with.
And there was no cure. No vaccine either.
And now the Spanish alliance was using Destruction in large doses. Soon it would be too widespread to contain, and life on Earth would be in serious jeopardy of extinction. "The only recourse is to retreat to another world with as many people as we can transport. To start a new life on another world. That is the urgency in perfecting Sliding, as you call it. We need the large Sliding machines we have built perfected and calibrated and we need to discover a world we can settle on, and we need to do it as soon as possible. There is not much time. Maybe a week before even this base, which will be locked down tomorrow, will not be a safe haven."
Before Rickman could go any farther, there was a knock on the door. "Come in!"
Major Chalker stuck his head in. "We just got a report in, General. The plane carrying the second Professor Arturo has been shot down. It happened a couple hours ago. A flyover of the wreckage showed the plane landed fairly intact in a muddy field but there is no sign of the occupants."
"Send a helicopter squad to survey the wreckage and look for survivors." The Major nodded and the door closed again. "You might wonder why such high ranking officers report to me directly, and without phone lines. We have had security problems on this base. Several spies have been caught, and yet there is still evidence of leaks. It is maddening. So we take heavy precautions. Not even my top officers are aware of how bad things are with Destruction."
None of the others were listening. They had stopped listening at the word that Arturo had crashed.
• • •
Two perfect snips with his weapon and their inhibitors lay on the floor. Montezuma walked back around to face them. "Speak."
It was madness to argue with a religious zealot. So Arturo didn't attempt it. "What happened to the Sliders you captured?"
"Against my advice, they were allowed to resume their travels. The people above me feared vengeance from their Gods." Montezuma smiled again. "They are superstitious fools. Religion has its place, but you can't be paralyzed with fear at every turn. The Gods give us a lot of leeway in our own affairs. But no matter, the winds of politics have changed and people who think as I do have now taken matters into our own hands. I am but a lowly servant, but the ones really in charge now are much more aggressive than their predecessors."
"Your people are behind the use of Destruction!" Maggie charged.
Montezuma nodded, giving her a reproving look that she would even have to ask after all he had said. He pulled out a jeweled case from his robe and opened it. Inside was a vial containing a boiling, rolling, thick red liquid. It moved frenetically like a miniature lava lamp. "This is the God Destruction. Created by man, to be sure, but the men who did so were but vessels of a higher power. Destruction. The scientists assure me that the motion is just a chemical reaction that serves notice as to it volatility. But I prefer to think of it as Destruction's eagerness to start fulfilling its function."
Montezuma eyed them for a long moment, then returned his attention to the vial. "I see that look on your faces. Destruction is not evil. It is not wrong. It just is ... what it IS. Its sole purpose is to remove human life from this planet. It has been foreseen, and it is inevitable. It is Destruction for some of us, the ones toiling to anger the Gods, or Destruction for all of us at the hands of all the Gods. Tell me, there is no other sane choice, is there?"
Arturo shook his head. "You are beyond debating sanity with, my friend. On my world your people used to sacrifice human babies by pouring molten gold down their throats."
"What has that to do with the here and now? We do what we must do to appease the Gods. Any other course of action is true insanity." He paused. "You are from a different world! Ah, now it makes sense. Our last reports had you much further North. So you must have been flying to meet the Arturo and Mallory of this world!" He paused in thought. "How can you sit there so confident that our Gods do not exist and are not ready to punish the entire world if Sliding is invented and used? You are not of this world! I cannot speak of any other world. Perhaps on your world the Gods of the Aztecs faded away or never existed. Perhaps some other God or Gods rule your world exclusively. But how can you say that our Gods do not exist? What do you really know of this world? How long have you been here? What of all that has happened which has followed to the letter what has been foreseen? Four thousand years ago our Priests predicted Sliding and warned of what would happen if it ever arose on this world. Can you explain this? Can you explain how you survived what should have been a fatal plane crash? Can you explain how you came to be in my possession, you, an otherworld traveler? At this specific time when we have just begun to unleash Destruction for the crime of Sliding? How many coincidences must it take to convince you? I can go on, but it is madness to argue with someone who has a closed mind."
"I was thinking the same thing minutes ago." Arturo replied.
Montezuma pointed at the Professor. "Of course you were. We are in the same boat, you and I. Either of us could be correct and the other mad. Or, perhaps, we are both correct." He shrugged. "I shall return soon to question you." He left quietly, still fondling the vial of Destruction.
Maggie met the Professor's eyes. "They will question us with drugs. Do you have any knowledge that could help them?"
Arturo sagged. "I know when the first test is scheduled. I know where it will be. With that information, surely they will attack the facility with everything they have. I have to escape before they return, because my friends will be there at the test site!"
Maggie brought her hands up from behind her, the handcuffs which had been securing her fell to the floor with a loud clatter. "These people have strong convictions, and are valiant fighters. But the Spanish were always better at keeping people prisoner."
Arturo beamed at her. "My dear, I think I love you!"