"No. PLEASE. No. Not after all this time. I mean, a stupid accident." Bernie Capax moaned. Then he seemed resigned. "But I did OKAY, didn't I? I mean, I got, what, fifteen thousand years. That's pretty good, isn't it? I lived a pretty long time."|
Death shrugged. "You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime.
You got a lifetime."
- Neil Gaiman
"Death takes no denial."
• • •
They got out of the cell rather easily since it was unlocked, but the guard on the other side of the door was a bit more of a problem. Maggie pulled him into the room while Arturo closed the door. The two of them commenced to beat the poor man senseless, though he did put up a valiant defense. While they subdued him, the Professor kept muttering about how his arm hurt and how they must have dragged him by his arm when they captured him.
When the man didn't move anymore, Maggie checked to make sure he was breathing okay and then handcuffed him. He'd been holding a rifle so she took that and gave Arturo the knife.
"I commend you but I find it odd that you were concerned he was still living." Arturo mentioned.
Maggie seemed amused. "I AM in the services. We are not exactly worried about whether the enemy survives. However, if we get recaptured it will go worse for us if we kill their people along the way. So I'll try to avoid it if I can."
Their corridor was a deadend. Maggie turned to her companion. "I think I can get you out of here, Professor Arturo. But you have to follow me closer, don't speak, and take any non verbal cues from me. Pay close attention to me. We probably only have a 50-50 chance of pulling this off, but with some luck maybe we can do it. Do you understand?"
The other man smiled. "My dear, I am in your hip pocket. I'm your silent shadow. Lead on."
She spared him a smile and they were off.
• • •
"We have to assume they are lost and move on." General Rickman declared when the helicopter squad reported in that there was evidence of Spanish partisans at the scene and no sign of the two passengers.
"We can't just give up!" Wade declared passionately.
Quinn rose to his feet. "You have to keep looking."
Rickman eyed them coldly. "We don't have the resources. Look, I know that you are civilians and unused to this kind of thing, but it is really better if you move on right now and grieve later. And if he does escape and make his way back here, or is exchanged for a prisoner we have, then your wasted energy grieving now will inhibit the success of what we are trying to do."
"You cold bastard." Wade spat.
Remmy took her in his arms. "Wait a minute. There is a chance for an exchange?"
The General nodded. "We have several of their prized leaders, both Spanish and Aztec, so whichever group got him could be interested. We have already sent out feelers through the channels. All I am saying is that a ground or air search is pointless and risks lives I can't afford to risk right now. We have to keep them away from this base as long as possible. And you, Professor Mallory, need to start working immediately with my scientists on perfecting Sliding."
The Sliders were not happy but there was little they could do about it.
"You have to remember that we are facing the prospect of millions, perhaps thousands of millions of people dying here. Sliding is the most important thing to focus on." The General added.
Despite himself, Quinn was a little amused to notice that the America on this world must have the kind of numbering concepts as the English of his world. He could spend a lifetime just tracing back the differences of one world with his own and be quite happy. Back to the situation at hand ... "Okay. If you promise to do everything in your power to get him back, I'll start immediately on Sliding."
• • •
"Are you comfortable?" Maggie asked.
Arturo sighed. "I'm not. But one can't complain given the circumstances."
They had made their way up to the hanger on the roof of this compound. They'd only encountered one other guard, apparently this compound was no longer fully staffed. Such things were fluid, but it might even be behind American lines now. Once there, Arturo and his pilot crept over to a cargo plane and hid within the boxes in the middle compartment. It was not pressurized, but they didn't have to worry about it getting too high. Planes, especially unarmed ones, needed to keep a low profile during wartime.
Now they were huddled together, waiting for the plane to take off.
"Are you married?" Arturo asked suddenly.
"I was." She replied shortly. The space they were in was confined, so she was pressed against him, and his arms were around her. Their faces were past each other, though, to allow comfortable breathing. In this way they could keep the lowest profile, share body warmth in the cold temps, and talk without anyone overhearing. "It didn't work out."
"Yes, I once had a woman I loved dearly but I mistreated her and lost her. More to the point, I neglected her. I rationalized that it was important that I give that much time to work, that I was working towards a higher goal than mere human passions, and that she would stick with me. But the short, insignificant days turned into weeks and months and years and the minutes turned into memories and before I knew it, she was gone. I was a fool."
"It was much the same for me. Work was more important. I was saving lives, protecting this country! Why couldn't he understand that?" She pleaded. "He was so insensitive to how important serving our country is right now."
"Perhaps he was." Arturo returned.
They were quiet for a while.
"I have a theory about this place and our friend Mr. High Priest." Arturo said suddenly. "Tell me something, does it seem odd to you that the Spanish-Aztec alliance would construct and equip a hidden base in what was deep behind their lines at the time? From what I read, the Spanish held this entire region for several years. When hot war broke out they took San Francisco but only held that a short while before they were driven back, past this area and far to the south. But at one time this area was deep behind their lines. What is the purpose for what is, in effect, a partisan base?"
"That's a good question." Maggie mused.
"I think this is a private enterprise. I think Montezuma is a free agent. I think he was bluffing about reporting to higherups. I think this base is not only a secret to the Spanish empire but also the Aztec empire. I think Montezuma himself is solely responsible for this plague. He and the people he has convinced to follow him."
Maggie considered that. "That makes a lot of sense. It is hard to imagine a government believing they could survive a planetwide biological holocaust. Even if they DO have a vaccine or cure ready, which there is no evidence of, the other countries would notice they are not being afflicted and would strike out before they died out. Destruction would not work fast enough to prevent a vengeful nuclear strike."
"I agree, although I CAN imagine a zealot government being so foolhardy. I just don't think that is the case here. This base has been here a while. It is well equipped, but I noticed that none of the planes matched types, as if they were collected on the sly. A lot of the markings are of different units. The soldiers were not evenly equipped. This facility has been hardened and camouflaged for a while now, though the need for it to be so has come up only recently. So it is as if they were hiding from EVERYone, not just your country."
Maggie nodded in the darkness, he could feel her hair rub against his face as she did so. "I believe you're on to something. This changes things."
"We could end the madness right here and now by destroying this base. If there is the head of the monster then it could be severed right here, right now, before any more of Destruction is spread. They are obviously not finished with their plan or they wouldn't still be here. In any case, they plan on attacking the base we came from to prevent the Sliding experiments, so stopping them now would be beneficial either way."
Arturo considered that. "Just how do you propose 'stopping them' my dear? Just the two of us?"
She didn't reply.
That worried him.
They were quiet for another long while.
"I have a secret to tell you." The Professor finally said. "Two actually. In case I don't make it and you do. I want you to find my friends and tell them both things."
"Okay." Maggie promised simply.
First he talked about his friends. Describing them and their adventures. He talked at length, until she felt she almost knew them. And then he was ready to confess his two secrets.
• • •
Wade found Quinn a couple hours after he had started working with the scientists. He was just finishing up a conference call with the Quinn and Arturo of this world. "Hey Wade." He greeted tiredly.
She gave him a hug. "How is it going?"
"It looks like we could have it working by tomorrow. It will take a lot of hard work, but I think they have gotten far enough along that they just need me to show them some refinements and shortcuts. And they have the ability to store coordinates, so I am going to see if I can add that ability to our timer."
Wade was afraid to ask the next question. Three years ... after that long hope was a cruel mistress. But it had to be asked. "Can they help us get home?"
Quinn smiled hopefully. "I think so, yes. I have to get back to work sweetie. Let's have dinner later." He said it absently, as if it mattered little if she wanted to or not.
Wade was hurt, even though she knew how much was on his mind right now. She put aside her hurt and left him to his work. He was, after all, trying to get them home and help save part of this world's population.
Remmy saw her expression as she rejoined him at the doorway. "What's wrong girl?"
"I'm worried about the Professor." This was both a truth and a lie at the same time.
"Do you think ..." She started to add and then trailed off.
"What?" Remmy asked her gently.
"Nothing." She brushed past him and was gone.
• • •
The second secret was that he was dying, that he did not have much time left. He was still holding her close as he told her this. They were trapped in a closed hanger of a secret base and it was starting to look like there would be no flights for a while and they were going to have to find some other way out of there. Which would expose them to the danger of being caught and questioned.
Both of them felt very vulnerable. But that was not why she suddenly kissed him. Lust was not the motive either. She did so because it felt right, because it was a way of sealing the compact, of sealing the deal that she would tell his friends all this if he didn't make it back. And she did it because it felt GOOD.
They finally parted lips, both of them breathless.
"After we get some sleep, and if no one has taken this plane out of there, we have to move out. We can't wait any longer." She said when she had recovered her voice.
"I'm going to see if there is a way to end this right here, right now."
Arturo smiled. "I know that too."
"Professor Arturo, I'm also going to get you safely back to the base."
This time he didn't say he knew.
• • •
Quinn had his face mere inches from his cereal bowl.
Wade and Remmy and Major Chalker were eating fruit and pastries, but Quinn had opted for a disgustingly sugary cereal. It was almost five in the morning and he had worked through the night. The others had gotten up a little while ago. None of them slept particularly well. The Sliders were worried about the Professor, and Chalker was worried about the fate of his world and its population. General Rickman had finally told his highest officers the scope of the disaster that faced them.
Lieutenant Gaiman approached, carrying only coffee. "The General has declined to join us after all, Major."
"Is he still with those fuc-." Chalker stopped himself, glancing at the others. "Is he where he usually is?"
Gaiman nodded, face grim.
Chalker shook his head peevishly.
Quinn slowly brought another spoonful up to his mouth. He would have to look less tired to look dead. Wade gave him a concerned look.
"Any word on the prisoner exchange possibility?" Remmy wanted to know.
Major Chalker sighed. "I'm afraid not. We are not using official channels so it takes time. So far no one we have contacted is even aware that they were captured. That could be good or bad. Perhaps they were not captured after all, and are merely hiding out."
Remmy sighed. "I guess we just have to stay optimistic." Still, he was worried. They were down to 5 days and some change before their Sliding window.
Wade heard something and leaned her head closer to Quinn. "Is he snoring?"
• • •
They crept from the plane a couple hours before dawn. Both of them stretched and rubbed their limbs to encourage circulation. Then they rounded the plane and headed for the stairs.
"Freeze." The voice was even colder than the order.
Both escapees stiffened.
"Drop that rifle and both of you raise your arms." The voice was professional and unhesitant. There was a click. "I've got them. Left side of the hanger."
Maggie shook her head bitterly. Where had this bastard hidden? She hadn't seen him.
Within five minutes the hanger was floodlighted and half the base's population, including Montezuma, was there. The gloating priest stood before the two, caressing his vial of Destruction, and let them suffer his inspection for a long time before speaking.
"I admire your attempt to escape. It was your duty, so I bear you no ill will for it. Therefore, know that your imminent execution is not petty revenge. I wanted you to know that. In reality, you are of no further use to me. We have heard from our spies, we know where the compound is and what its defenses are, and we shall attack it tonight. Destruction will consume the base tonight." His expression was static, he apparently didn't even take satisfaction in winning. At first they had thought he was gloating, but now it seemed that it made little difference to him because, to him, everything was foreseen and inevitable. When the end result is preordained, why would one wish to gloat?
Arturo spoke, startling everyone with the power of his voice. "Perhaps you are right, sir. Perhaps on this world your Gods do exist and perhaps they have decreed that Sliding is evil and shall not be tolerated. But if that is so, then you believe what you are doing will save your people while destroying most of the rest. That you are executing a preemptive strike, before the punishment of the Gods is incited."
Montezuma nodded. He didn't seem inclined to listen to much more.
"What if you are wrong about that? What if you are the instrument of the Destruction of the entire world? What if Destruction does not stop with the Spanish and the Americans and all the others perfecting Sliding? Who says that the Gods have to come down here themselves to Destroy everyone when they have such an excellent lackey in you?"
Montezuma's face grew red. In his native tongue he ordered his men to kill both prisoners. Now.
Then, before anyone could react, Maggie had closed the short distance between them and pounced on him. One crushing chop to his arm and he released the vial of Destruction. She straddled him and raised the vial as the surrounding soldiers lifted their weapons.
Maggie grinned down at the High Priest. "You better hope someone outside this base can carry out your plans!"
"No." He pleaded. "You can't. You wouldn't!"
Seeing what she had in her hands the soldiers drew back. Some of the officers were running for the wide open doors, screaming into their radios for the ventilation to and from the hanger to be sealed immediately.
Maggie's eyes met Arturo's. For a long second they gazed at each other, perhaps remembering the kiss, perhaps remembering the exchanged secrets, perhaps merely cherishing the moment.
Then her finger released the safety top of the nonbreakable vial and she threw it high into the air, scattering the contents.
Destruction rained down on them.
None of the running officers made it to the door.
The ventilation was not shut off in time.
Montezuma's grand scheme ended, not with a bang, but with 275 screams.
Continued in Part 2... »