Country music drifted through the honky-tonk as Wade Welles tapped her foot to the time and tune. She sipped the house beer and let her thoughts drift along their well-worn paths. Thoughts of home, family, and friends long gone bubbled up like the carbonation in her drink. This time though, she didn't feel regret. Too bad it wouldn't last, but at least these moments of contentment were coming closer together. Things could be so much worse.
"Come dance with me, girl," Rembrandt Brown tossed a strong, brown hand in Wade's direction.
She smiled, "Sure thing." Nary an eyebrow was raised as the former R&B singer waltzed the pixie around the wooden dance floor in a decent approximation of a two-step.
He pulled her closer, "How are you holding up?"
"I'm doing alright, Remmy." Wade gave her stalwart companion a genuine smile. "I'm doing just fine."
"Good," he spun her out and back again. "Ready for the next adventure?"
"I don't know," she kept one hand on his forearm, "I like these quiet worlds."
"That's because we don't have to work," Rembrandt grinned.
Maximillian Arturo poured himself three fingers of single malt, fifty year-old scotch and removed his apron. He sat near Wade's abandoned beer and watched his two friends dance. The group was an odd combination to say the least--which he rarely did. "Ah, at least those Scots could do one thing right," he smacked his lips in appreciation of the warmth and flavor.
"Not to be a buzz kill," Quinn Mallory weaved through the honky-tonk's regular clientele, "but we've only got five minutes."
Wade and Rembrandt worked their way off the dance floor at Quinn's wave. "Enough time to finish my beer." Wade made good on her comment.
"How was the factory today?" Rembrandt clapped Quinn on the shoulder.
"Payday," Quinn gloated, "and I've got cold hard cash. I love a world where banks are open until nine."
"Nice job, m'boy," Arturo complimented, setting his empty glass down.
The foursome made their way to the alley entrance. Quinn checked both sides of the alley for observers before activating the timer. As usual, a pinprick of light cut through the walls of the universe. Then it spun into a wider and brighter circle. At man-size, Rembrandt jumped through. Arturo and Quinn followed Wade. The whirlwind of trash and debris formed by the vortex drifted back to the ground. The music drifted out the door, supreme once more.
"Ooof," Wade said.
"Dang," Rembrandt echoed.
A world away, all four sliders had landed safely. The carpeted floor did little to cushion the sliders. "Anybody got a light?" Quinn demanded, peering into the dark. His comment came seconds before light flooded the room.
"This can't be good," Maggie muttered at the gun in her face.
On the other end of the gun glowered something not quite human. It, rather he, was dressed in a severe uniform reminiscent of Earth Prime's Nazi Empire. His gloves covered an itchy trigger finger if the cold hatred in his eyes was anything to go by. Sharp teeth flashed in his grim smile. The light reflected off his hairless head.
"Welcome to Hell," an unfamiliar voice clipped.
What if you could slide into a thousand different worlds?
Where it's the same year...and you're the same person...but everything else is different?
And what if you can't find your way home?
"Where is she?" Quinn panted several blocks from the building they had landed in.
"I thought she was with Remmy," Maggie grunted.
"I thought she was with you two," Rembrandt was bent over, his hands on his knees. "Now that I think about it, I don't remember her getting up."
"Figures," Maggie snarked.
"Don't start," Quinn warned her, "We can't just leave her there."
"Where exactly was there?" Maggie stopped. "Why aren't they following us? Something is really weird about all of this."
"You're right," Rembrandt stood upright. "This is weird. They were Kromaggs, weren't they Q-ball?"
The two men exchanged glances. "Good question," Quinn sounded surprised.
"What are Kromaggs?" Maggie asked, resting against the wall.
"They kind of looked like Kromaggs," Quinn grunted while seemingly ignoring Maggie.
"Except they spoke to us," Rembrandt felt a little more worry seep into his bones.
Maggie ran her fingers through her hair and asked again, "Kromaggs?"
"Descended from apes," Quinn looked around, "a darker version of humanity. They can read minds, project images into minds, control pet humans. They take over any human world they come to, destroying it. We've been to only a couple of their worlds. It was awful," he finished softly.
"I don't think those were really Kromaggs though, Quinn," Rembrandt looked around the alley, as if fearing pursuers.
Quinn was looking back the alley too. "It was dark."
"Great," Maggie grunted, "we have no idea who has Wade, or why."
"Nope," Quinn agreed.
"If they are Kromaggs, Wade's in more danger than we can imagine," Rembrandt said softly.
"We need a plan," Quinn fought his worry.
"There's a bar," Maggie pointed across the street. Not even she would leave Wade at the mercy of the insidious sounding Kromaggs. "Let's see what we can find out about these Kromaggs."
"I don't know if this is such a good idea," Rembrandt started. "This entire world could already be under their control."
"Listen, Remmy," Maggie put on what she liked to call her military manner. "We need information."
"I know. I'm just wondering if walking into a bar is the way to go," Rembrandt held up a hand.
"We go," Quinn assumed the mantle of leadership with the ease of a man forced into the role for years.
Quinn gulped, his pulse raced, and his heart's unsteady rhythm almost drowned out the bedraggled figure in front of him. They had landed less than thirty minutes ago, only to be greeted by the Kromaggs. It had been over a year and a half of looking over his shoulder, not really trusting the Kromaggs to have left them alone. Yet before him now stood three glowering ape-men. Their hair, confined by topknots, cascaded down their backs doing nothing to soften their appearance.
"We will allow you to leave this world," a blind human interpreter monotoned, "together and unharmed if you acquire an ancient artifact for us."
All three of the Kromaggs appeared to be focusing their will on the interpreter.
"Why do you need our help?" a strangely calm Arturo asked.
"My masters may not walk freely on this world. We have," the interpreter paused as if sorting through voices in his head, "had problems with our sliding equipment. It is our understanding that a component for the generator is missing. Apparently, it was hidden about the time of our arrival. We need the power."
"What kind of a generator?" Arturo was curious despite himself.
"I am not privy to that information," the interpreter almost sniffed.
"Oh," Arturo said.
"So, why should we help?" Quinn tried to sound bored.
The interpreter took on his listening attitude again. "If you don't, we will kill you all painfully. To insure you find and turn over the artifact, we will make the girl our guest."
"Are you sure that's necessary? The girl knows nothing. Hold me instead," Arturo began, only to be cut off by the interpreter.
"The girl stays. You will seek out the artifact."
"Right," Quinn drawled. "Have you got anything else on this artifact?"
"No," the word cut off abruptly as the interpreter collapsed. Without another word, the three men were escorted to the gates at the front of the building and locked out.
"Is it just me or is this a whole new level of bizarre?" Quinn turned to his friends.
"Not just you, Q-ball," Rembrandt eyed the large building they'd just exited.
"Now what?" Arturo asked quietly.
"No idea," Quinn answered just as softly.
Maggie slapped another shot glass on the table. Across from her, the barmaid sat and drank. The barmaid slapped her own shot glass onto the table. "Not bad," she complimented Maggie, "I'm Jane."
"Maggie," the slider tossed out as she tossed back another shot of tequila. Nine glasses now sat atop the small table. A crowd of men exchanged catcalls and bets.
"Looking for information?" Jane asked, throwing down another shot herself.
"Yep," Maggie didn't miss a beat as she slammed another shot. "Who are those whack jobs in the big building at the top of the hill?"
Jane switched to vodka shots as she answered, "Claim to be from another universe. Tried to take over," she chuckled mirthlessly, "not that it worked."
"How'd you stop them?" Maggie felt her eyes water at the shot of rot gut someone had slipped her.
"They were dumb enough to occupy the Psychic Center," Jane put another empty glass on the table. "All that experimenting messed up the whole Hill. Of course, that made it easier for us to confuse them. Now, there's one thing we've convinced them they want above all else."
Maggie felt her vision waver with her next shot. "What's that?"
"The Talking Rain Statue," Jane slurred.
"Oh," Maggie stated with all the seriousness of a drunk about to pass out. Her head hit the table with a none-to-gentle thud.
"I win," Jane used the same tone of voice and her head hit the table too.
"Great, now we need Maggie to sober up and get information on the statue," Quinn sounded disgusted to Rembrandt's familiar ears.
"What was that Psychic Center bit about?" Rembrandt eyed his friend.
"Who knows? Who cares?" Quinn glanced around, "We have other things to worry about."
"How long do we have?" Rembrandt hadn't thought to ask the question earlier. No one had.
Quinn pulled out the Egyptian timer, "Six hours."
"Great," Rembrandt looked disgusted. "How do we get her up?" He gestured to Maggie.
"I guess we could make her throw up and drink some water," Quinn grunted as he lifted Maggie from her chair.
"Quinn, baby," Maggie slurred, awake for the moment.
"Let's go," Quinn's voice was gentler for her. Rembrandt remembered when he'd had that voice for Wade.
"How much time do we have left, Quinn?" Rembrandt nursed a beer.
Quinn stealthily slipped the timer out of his jacket pocket, "Less than six hours."
"This isn't good," Arturo kept his voice low. "We need a likely looking local to pump for information. The waitress seems to think you're cute," he nudged Quinn.
"I doubt my charm will be enough to get our questions answered," Quinn eyed the tall, dark haired woman thoughtfully. Her green eyes snapped at him in a friendly way as she seemed to notice his gaze. He smiled and lifted his empty glasses. She held up three fingers and smiled at his nod. "She's on her way. What do you say we give her a nice tip?"
"Probably wise," Arturo concurred.
"I'm just glad the money from the last world works on this one," Rembrandt finished the amber liquid in his glass. "But what's up with their beer?"
"I guess it's all about the micro-brew," Quinn started.
"Here you go, boys," Jane flashed them all a smile that turned brighter when it got to Quinn. "I'm Jane, by the by."
"Thanks, Jane," Quinn drawled. "You wouldn't be able to give us some information would you? We're from out of state."
"I'm off in ten minutes. Why don't you buy me a drink or two?" Jane had known tonight would have some fun in it.
"Sure thing, darlin'," Quinn gave her his sexiest grin.
Ten minutes later, Jane was ensconced next to Quinn in a quiet back booth. Across the table sat Rembrandt and Arturo. A plate of chipoltˇ wings, a small bowl of blue cheese dressing, four full beer glasses, and three empties littered the table along with a pile of napkins. "Those jokers?" Jane grimaced.
"Yeah, what's the deal with them?" Quinn picked up a tiny drumstick, dipped it in the dressing and sucked it dry while waiting for her answer.
"No one really knows or cares," Jane smirked. "Just some group who ended up at the Esper Research Facility. They've been up there for the last two months. They don't have more than a week before we clean them out for good."
"What's the Esper Research Facility?" Rembrandt asked grabbing a tiny wing.
"You know. Every state government had one west of old Miss." Jane waved over another waitress, "Loaded fries," she ordered before finishing her answer. "Ours hit some seriously interesting leads and when we made our alliance with Oregon they moved on up. After all, everyone knows the Oregon facilities are on the cutting edge."
"We must use different lingo in Ottawa," Quinn fibbed quickly. "What's an Esper?"
"You know, someone who's gifted," Jane gave Quinn a goofy smile. "Let's see...telepathy, precognition, empathy."
"Oh," Rembrandt was starting to understand, "so how come they can't leave?"
"What were they?" Quinn finished his beer.
"I'm not sure," Jane set her empty glass with the others, "Why?"
"They kidnapped our friend," Quinn said softly, ignoring the look from Arturo.
"Oh my gosh," Jane looked appalled. "How'd that happen?"
"We got into the building without realizing who or what was currently there," Quinn grimaced. "They demanded we turn over some sort of an artifact if we want our friend alive. I'm guessing it's the statue you mentioned."
"That sucks," Jane opined as a plate of fries covered in cheese and chili was set on the table.
"Talk about a heart attack on a plate," Rembrandt said, momentarily distracted.
"They're good," Jane grinned. "Back to business. Liquid Sunshine is a small sculpture that looks like something you'd dig out of the sand after a double strike of lightning, except it's artificial. You can tell by the veins of blue in it."
"Any ideas where we can find it?" Quinn sounded as unhopeful as he felt.
"There's a warehouse on Pier 13. You might get some more information there. Ask for Vanity," Jane bit her lip. "I've got to go boys, but good luck getting your friend out."
"Thanks for all your help." Quinn grabbed her hand and palmed a twenty into it.
"Any time," Jane smiled as she walked away.
"They use a statue to power a building?" Rembrandt asked, his mouth stuffed with chili fries.
"They can use a pogo stick for all I care so long as it gets us Wade back," Quinn said, throwing down another ten to cover the dish. "Let's go. The less time she has to spend with those monsters, the better. I just hope they're leaving her alone."
She sat slack-jawed. One refrain echoed mockingly through her head, "No ifs... I'm getting home or I'm going to die trying." She couldn't even laugh any more. Everything had changed. Images accompanied the repeating lines. Images of the Professor, dead on a dead world.
"No ifs..." Various doubles mocked her--the killer, the whore, and even the young mother.
"I'm getting home..." Images of walking in on Quinn and Maggie, not just once, but numerous times. Images of Rembrandt bonding with them.
"Or I'm going to die trying..." Only darkness. Only despair. How could she have ever thought that? Only she had. At one time she'd hoped. Such a long time ago....
There was a faint buzzing from the sound of the lone halogen light bulb still functioning. Wade examined it with care, as she had every other square inch of the room she was enclosed in. Wherever this place was, it wasn't the state-of-the-art Kromagg prison camp she'd last had the displeasure of being held in. There was no magical security barrier holding her in, only a locked door.
Judging from its shape and functionality, Wade guessed she was in some sort of interview room. A common wooden table was in the center of the room with three ordinary chairs accompanying it. She could tell there had been posters or pictures on the wall at some point from the dried up tacky gum. Now three of the windowless walls were bare. The fourth, however, sported a mirror that went from end to end. There was never a doubt in her mind that whomever or whatever on the other side could see her every move.
"I'm not going to help you," she said, addressing the mirror. "Play all the games you want, but you'll learn nothing from me."
She closed in on the mirror, peering closer and closer until she couldn't even see her own reflection. Was there a sound on the other side? Was she nose to nose with one of them right at this moment? The thought repulsed her and she blew into the mirror, fogging it up to escape the imaginary gaze.
"Great, they haven't even talked to me and I'm already losing it," she said softly. Of course, that could be their plan. Maybe it would be best to just sit still and wait. Let them come to her. She eyed the mirror with a secret little smile that said 'I'm on to your little game.'
'You have no idea what kind of game is being played.'
Wade stepped back quickly from the mirror. Did she just think that? Or did it come from somewhere else? She was still frozen in her spot as the door opened. Wade was still unsure if her mind was her own, because she couldn't possibly be looking at who she thought was before her.
"How can you be here?" Wade's perplexion showed in her voice. "You died. Quinn saw you die."
"How do you know I'm not a double?" Mary swallowed nervously.
"Instinct," Wade paused, "and your response."
"Oh." Mary motioned Wade out of the room. The two women walked through empty hallways, past deserted rooms in silence. A short time later they came to an abandoned room which looked as though it had served as someone's dorm. Mary took a seat and motioned Wade to another one.
"You betrayed us." Wade's statement hung in the air between the two women for several minutes.
"Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?" Wade snorted.
Tucking her hair behind her ear, Mary answered softly, "I just want you to understand. You don't know what it's like...having them always in your head. Always there. The garden was my only safe place. They would've taken that from me..."
"What did you take from us?" Wade's eyes narrowed, "If you are alive, they let us escape. Why?"
"I don't know," Mary whispered.
"I don't believe you," Wade tapped her foot.
"They don't tell me things. I'm just a human," Mary tried to convey sincerity.
Wade's look said it all.
"She hasn't moved," a Kromagg flunky whispered to his superior.
The superior, Captain Krolag, muttered back, "I had better make contact. Could this mission go more wrong?"
The flunky's look spoke volumes as Captain Krolag walked into the same room the three sliders had escaped from. Wade sat on the floor, mouth open, her eyes vacant. Surprisingly there wasn't any drool dripping toward the floor.
"I am Captain Krolag," the Kromagg officer offered to Wade.
"So?" she mumbled.
Krolag motioned for his lackey to bring in a chair, "Your friends escaped."
"So?" Wade repeated.
Krolag shifted uncomfortably in his recently acquired seat, "You could've escaped with them."
"Probably," she agreed complacently.
"Why not?" Krolag was becoming annoyed with this woman's apparent inability to say more than a word.
Sensing his frustration, a twinkle entered Wade's eyes as she answered with, "Because."
"A real answer," Krolag politely demanded.
"You're much more personable than some humans I know," Wade observed from left field. "To answer your question, why should I have a made a mad dash for the window? For all I know, you rule this world."
"We do not," Krolag's curt answer and the pain in his eyes said it all.
"Why not?" Wade demanded.
His smile less than reassuring, Krolag shot back, "Because."
"Seriously," Wade shifted so that she now sat cross-legged on the floor.
Krolag leaned forward. "Why aren't you afraid of me? Of us? Of capture?"
"Fear is an interesting thing," Wade mused, "you must have something of value to have fear. I have nothing of value left. Everything I ever cared about has been ripped from me or destroyed from within. When I started this, I had people I cared about, a hope of going home...now I have nothing. Does life matter when you are only reacting?"
"Pier 31," Maggie muttered darkly. Whether she was feeling ill from her recent binge and purge with alcohol or was using her military manner was up for debate. The warehouse in question stood tall and imposing on the waterfront. Streetlights highlighted some of the broken windows adorning what would've been the second floor of a normal building. About a foot below the row of windows ran a narrow metal ledge. To the trained eye, the warehouse exuded an air of abandonment. To Quinn and Maggie, it exuded danger.
"I don't know about this, you two," Rembrandt whispered, "I mean, we don't even know if this is the right place." He paused. "Or what we're looking for."
Quinn's disgusted look went unnoticed in the dark, dank alleyway between two warehouses, "The taxi driver said this was the place."
"Yeah," Rembrandt interrupted, "We should really trust a guy named Vanity."
"You have a problem with his name?" Maggie snotted.
Quinn cut them off before they could get into yet another pointless argument, "Could we concentrate on the task at hand?"
"Sorry," Maggie said. "Look, Quinn, are we sure this is what would she be doing? If these Kromaggs are as nasty as you say, I don't think we should be helping..."
"Don't say it, Maggie," growled Rembrandt. "Wade is not one of your acceptable losses."
"That's not what I'm saying," Maggie said, genuinely hurt by the accusation.
"Then what are you saying?"
"I'm saying instead of giving the Kromaggs what they want, we should just take them out ourselves."
Quinn laughed. "Just the three of us? Storm a Kromagg compound?"
"The barmaid said they were weak..." Maggie began.
"The barmaid is wrong!" Quinn fired back.
"Fine. We do it your way," Maggie conceded, although her body language betrayed her words.
"Good. Maggie, you'll take the window on the west wall, Remmy the window on the east, and I'll take the back window." With those words, Quinn began to quietly run to the back of the building. Exchanging shrugs Rembrandt and Maggie made their own swift way to the sidewalls.
For her part, Maggie had jimmied open the window while muttering to herself, "Figures that I'll be the first in." She'd begun to keep a running commentary in her head. Of course, Maggie oftentimes made assumptions without checking her facts first. She slithered into the crack she'd made in the window. Slowly she felt her way down the wall, hitting a high shelving unit. "Could it be darker," she continued her internal commentary as she scrambled down the shelves.
At the bottom, she crouched, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Towers of boxes, rows of shelving units, and other accoutrements found in warehouses shimmered to life as her vision adjusted itself.
The large, rather intimidating professional scooter racer smiled maliciously. "I'll be needing a little something special if I'm going to be handing this over." He tossed the delicate blue veined, glass construct in his large hand.
"Such as," Arturo asked.
"Hmmm," Vanity mused. "I think I'm in the mood for a special treat. Chocolate." He paused. "Chocolate and coffee. Ah," he smacked his lips, "a double tall mocha. Get me that, then you get the statue."
"Alright," Quinn rose with a grim smile.
As the three sliders made their way out of Vanity's office, Rembrandt muttered, "How hard can getting a cup of coffee be?" Before he could finish the comment, he was forced to follow the other two into a cab.
"We're looking for a coffee joint," Quinn shot at the driver.
She turned around, her dark hair in a ponytail. "Coffee's illegal," she slurred.
"Is there anyplace you can recommend, my dear," Arturo asked, entering the conversation.
"What makes you think I'd know anything about illegal activities?" she snapped.
"I always figured cab drivers were the most informed people in any city," Rembrandt got in before either Arturo or Quinn could screw it up.
"Right," she glanced around. "We could try Java Jive. It's a speak-easy."
"So," Krolag licked his lips, "you sit here."
"Haven't we finished this discussion?" Wade groaned as Krolag seated himself yet again on the simple straight back chair.
"You seem unable to answer anything simply," Krolag smiled in what he hoped was a friendly way.
Far from reassured, Wade shook her head, "The story of my life. If Miss Beckett," she drawled the name, "were here, I'm sure she'd have some witty comeback, or at least successfully slut her way out of things."
"You don't like the people you travel with?"
"Once upon a time..." Wade let the words fade away.
"Why do you care?"
Krolag pulled on his left ear for a moment, "Frankly, I'm hoping you might be able to shed some light on why my people are stuck here. I have no idea how your history will help, but I'm desperate."
After an interminable silence, "Fine. I tell you about my past after you answer a question for me," Wade's eyes had a hard quality most of her doubles would have trouble recognizing.
"What is your question?" Krolag shifted in his seat.
"What's up with the English and the new military garb?"
"That's two questions," Krolag observed offhandedly. "The Imperium has always used these uniforms. They are a legacy of the first world that welcomed us. The world that led us on the path to multiversal domination. The world..."
"Whatever," Wade interrupted.
Krolag shot her a puzzled look, "It is the same place we learned to speak human tongues."
"Didn't learn that on your home world?" Wade snotted.
"Only the ambassadors," Krolag eyed Wade. "Why are you asking these questions?"
One and one had begun to add up for Wade during Krolag's answers. "Curiosity."
"It's not like you think," Mary said while setting up a tea tray.
Wade took a minute to look at the other woman. Her dark hair hung in small braids, and her hands shook slightly as she poured tea. "Oh?"
Mary poured dark green tea into a small, handleless cup. "It's not like you think," she started again. "This world is different."
"Oh?" Wade repeated as she accepted a cup.
After a deep breath, Mary continued, "Their control is slipping and they know it. Because I have always been so passive, they aren't tightening their controls on me like they did the others. That's why the others died. I'm the only tame human they have left."
"Something about the way you said that makes me think you are anything but tame," Wade sipped.
Instead of answering directly, Mary continued, "They've been whittled down from the outside. They can't leave the compound. They can barely leave the building. It's me and five of them."
Wade twirled her cup absently, "There's much I still don't understand."
"I've changed. I've seen too much," Mary faded for a moment. "You have no idea what I've seen. What I've been forced to do..."
Wade put a hand on Mary's shoulder. "We've all done things we never thought we'd do."
"I've caused so many deaths," Mary whispered. "I didn't tell Quinn the truth about my past."
"Then tell me," Wade hid her trepidation.
"I was taken as a child. All children were tested," Mary paused.
"Tested for what?" Wade asked even as she had an inkling of what the answer might be.
"You were different?"
"How?" The question hung in the air for a few moments.
"I'm too passive," Mary made one of her many pauses. "It takes a lot to spur me into action."
"What's spurred you?"
"When we landed there were 30 Kromaggs and 100 human slaves. It started small. A human would bleed out here. A Kromagg would get shot there. It's gotten worse, the last five Kromaggs have managed to go through twenty-four humans in a two of days. The strongest human slaves they had. I'm the only one they have left. If they thought they could, they'd go after the locals. How can I allow any of this to continue?"
"That's not the whole story," Wade intuited.
"We deserve our freedom," Mary acknowledged Wade's suspicions without spelling things out.
"Let's check on Remmy," Quinn hissed at Maggie, startling her into a few inches jump off the floor.
"Don't do that," she hissed back at him.
Quinn tried to smother his chuckle. It was so rare that he could get a rise out of Maggie with such ease, "C'mon."
The two sliders picked their way through the dim warehouse. The street lamps outside provided the only light. Five minutes had elapsed by the time they made it to the west wall. They looked carefully from side to side, before determining that Rembrandt was nowhere to be found. "Where is he?" Maggie hissed.
"When did I become psychic?" Quinn snarked, trying not to be worried for his friend.
Maggie's eye roll was lost in the darkness. "Lay off, Quinn," she muttered as the lights suddenly came on.
"I'm going to need some fudge," the bartender at Java Jive drawled over a roaring techno beat. Over a hundred patrons gyrated to the blend of techno, sitar, and conga drums echoing out of the speakers.
"Why do you need fudge?" Arturo asked.
"The coppers may turn a blind eye to our illegal activities," Diggs smirked, "but they aren't about to allow chocolate on the premises. Do you know what that would do to our customers?"
"No," Arturo perplexedly answered.
"It'd make them crazy," Diggs said.
"So, where could we acquire some fudge?" Quinn broke in. He glanced around a little disgustedly as he felt a craving for a good beer start deep in his core.
"Let's see," Diggs pulled out a rolodex. "Chocolate Nation just got busted last night." He pulled the card and tossed it into an ashtray that he promptly dropped a lit match onto. Flipping through several other cards he finally stopped, a nasty grin on his face, "Atzeca is the perfect spot. They have fudge, quality fudge."
"Oh crap." Quinn pulled Maggie onto the floor. Perhaps it was a good thing Rembrandt hadn't yet made it into the warehouse.
"How are we going to get out of here?" Maggie snarled in Quinn's ear.
Before Quinn could respond, a familiar voice addressed them. "Um. Guys," Rembrandt came over the internal public address system. "The front door was unlocked and I found a map of the contents. Would you make your way to the front?"
"You have got to be kidding me," Maggie continued her snarling all the way to the front of the building. "Whose bright idea were the windows anyway?"
"Yours, girl," Rembrandt chuckled as he finished going through a large sheaf of papers. "I think I found three likely spots for the statue to be."
Maggie snatched one and stormed off, snarling to herself.
"Maggie the cat," Quinn took a moment to grin at Rembrandt before sauntering off on his own.
Suddenly, Mary zoned out. After several minutes of nodding and muttering she told Wade firmly, "You have to stay here."
"It's going to get dangerous," Mary poked her head out the room door that doubled as Wade's prison.
"What do you mean, Mary? You're kind of freaking me out here."
"Be freaked out. Just don't leave this room until you hear silence."
"Why?" Wade fought the note of panic she felt starting.
"Because I'm going to destroy my masters." She paused yet again, "with a little help."
"Are you in contact with the locals?" Wade felt her mouth go dry.
"Many people here are like me. The same things that make life difficult for the Kromaggs boost human abilities. Surely you've felt it," Mary looked at Wade. "I have to go now. Remember, stay here until it's quiet."
After Mary slipped out, Wade whispered to herself, "Oh no."
"After the Professor died, it all fell apart," Wade wiped a stray tear from her face.
"Besides my life ending up like a bad B movie?" Wade shrugged. "It seems like the further we got from where we left the Professor's body, the weirder things became. I keep getting shoved to the side. Each time Quinn picks her first, I become more of a ghost." Wade looked down, "We've been to so many strange worlds lately. It's like he's stopped being a scientist. Now, it's action Ken and action Barbie."
"What do you mean he's stopped being a scientist?" Krolag leaned in.
"He doesn't even notice when the laws of nature are broken. I get magic. I get science fiction stuff. I don't get how he can ignore it when we land on a world with vampires or a world with comic book super powers. Those things aren't natural."
"You landed on a world with vampires?" Krolag's tone was understandably incredulous.
"Yeah," Wade shrugged.
"My good man, we are offering you three thousand dollars for that fudge bar," Arturo fought the urge to rub his temples. The three sliders had made five stops so far in their quest to find a double tall mocha for Vanity. All of them were aware of how little time they had left.
The man in question, one Michael Hurley, Quinn's old boss, hemmed and hawed. "Well now, I don't know about that, boys. It takes a lot of money to make the chocolate go round these days. Yup. Sure does. Chocolate's real expensive." The entire time he spoke, he fidgeted with an empty shell case. "Yup."
"Surely, three thousand dollars can help you acquire more chocolate," Quinn practically begged.
"Five," Hurley said, suddenly decisive.
Quinn practically shoved the money at him, grabbed the chocolate and hustled out the door with Rembrandt and Arturo in tow.
"How did you get that much money, Quinn?" Rembrandt hissed.
"I told you that was the better job," Quinn smirked.
"I find it hard to believe a factory worker makes that much money on any world," Arturo snarked.
"Gentlemen, let's not forget what I was doing in the factory," if anything Quinn's smirk widened.
"Right," Arturo grunted, "I still don't get how a honey factory works."
"On a world where everyone has a major sweet tooth?" Quinn shrugged, "I got the green."
"You can be obnoxious," Rembrandt opined once the three were safely in the cab.
"Did you get it?" the driver asked a little too calmly.
"Unfortunately not," Arturo sighed. "Oh well, I guess it's another night of vanilla for us, right men?"
Taking his mentor's lead, Quinn followed up with, "Yeah...vanilla."
"Should we make one last stab at Vanity's better nature?" Arturo asked his friends.
"You know," Quinn said, taking on an air of disappointment, "I think we might as well walk back."
The driver stopped the cab and accepted the hundred Quinn handed her. She watched the three make their dejected way down the sidewalk in her rearview mirror. "That was a bust," she said into her CB.
Quinn hunched his shoulders even more. "What was that all about?"
"Elementary my dear boy, she was an officer of the law," Arturo could hardly be blamed for his smug tone.
Rembrandt tightened his coat, "How did you figure it out?"
"A taxi driver working after two a.m.?" Arturo queried before harrumphed "How far are we from that loud coffee place?"
Chuckling, Rembrandt pulled a box from underneath the desk he had found the papers on. Opening it, he pulled out an abstract, crystalline, free flowing statue. Light shimmered off of its numerous facets. "They'll never learn," he whispered to himself.
Across the warehouse, Quinn continued his steady search for the right number. The box he had been sent to retrieve was at the bottom of a tower of boxes. He stepped back and looked at it as dispassionately as possible. There had to be a way to remove his box without bringing the rest crashing down. He spied an empty wooden apple crate. If he could work it under the pile as he worked his box out...well, it might just work.
"It was unlocked," Maggie snotted to herself, climbing the same set of shelves she'd used to get down from the window. Holding onto the top shelf she noticed a small box pushed all the way to the back. She sneezed several times as her efforts to reach the box, displaced years worth of dust.
Maggie had just successfully snagged her box and was making her way back to the floor when a huge crash startled her.
"Damn, boy!" she heard Rembrandt yell.
"Oops," Quinn's voice echoed in the deafening silence that followed the crash.
"I've got it," Maggie announced, holding up her box.
Quinn stood up from rescuing his box and announced, "No, I've got it."
"Actually," Rembrandt held up his find, "I've got it."
The three sliders shared a perplexed moment before Quinn remembered his role, "We'll take them all."
To their credit, Maggie and Rembrandt were able to keep their smartass comments to themselves. Instead of spewing forth the understandable venom they harbored at Quinn's continued highhanded methods, they examined Maggie's statue which she had removed from her box. "Look," she showed Rembrandt, "it's just like yours only blue."
"Strange," Rembrandt held the two statues side by side. Sparks flared between them. "Very strange," he amended.
"Let's go, people," Quinn called back from the door.
Maggie and Rembrandt shared an eye roll.
While Quinn and Arturo continued to meander down the sidewalk, Rembrandt slipped away with the fudge. The three were hoping that taxi hadn't followed them, but they weren't taking chances. The pair of sliders talked of inconsequential things to keep their minds off of what was happening to Wade and what might happen to Rembrandt if he got caught.
"I didn't know there was a world where things could be so odd," Arturo kept his voice low.
"No kidding," Quinn kicked a can in front of him. "It's like this world got all the oddness the universe had to offer."
Arturo nodded even as he spoke, "Between the random outlawed coffee and chocolate, to the Kromaggs hiding in a compound, to the Esper Experiments, I don't know what to think. Why wouldn't they have coffee?"
"Maybe they make the psychics spastic." Quinn chuckled, "Maybe they've outlawed everything that's bad for you."
"They have beer though," Arturo mused.
"Hey guys," Rembrandt appeared in front of them with a brown paper bag. "It's amazing how fast that was with some chocolate and money."
"What do you think of this world?" Arturo asked.
Rembrandt chuckled, "I've never seen a stranger place."
Before long, Vanity was sipping his illicit beverage with relish. "A job well done," he sighed tossing Arturo the Liquid Sunshine statuette. "Good luck, boys."
"Yeah, whatever," Quinn muttered as Arturo professed the group's sincerest thanks.
"Be good, my boy," Arturo whispered to Quinn.
"How much time do we have?" Rembrandt interrupted.
Quinn pulled out the timer, "Dang. Thirty minutes."
"Let's move, men," Arturo started to huff and puff in motivation, lumbering to a jog.
"Why have you returned?" Krolag demanded. The sliders could see Wade still sitting on the floor. Maggie snorted to herself. "Well?" Krolag felt as though he were repeating himself.
"We found three pieces which could solve your little dilemma," Quinn was amazingly calm.
"How would you know anything about our dilemma?" Krolag waited.
"Ahem," Quinn cleared his throat. "We hear things. Humans aren't that stupid. So, if we give you the pieces, we get the girl, right?"
"Here you go, then," Maggie handed over her piece.
Rembrandt followed suit, "Anything for Wade."
"And if she doesn't wish to go?" Krolag arched an eyebrow. Behind him Wade rose to her feet.
"We take her anyway," Quinn tossed his statue at a flunky.
Krolag nodded once, and turned to the right side of the room where a pedestal stood. First he placed Quinn's rose-colored statue on it.
Wade joined her companions.
Then he placed Maggie's blue statue on it.
Quinn activated the vortex.
Krolag placed Rembrandt's clear statue on the base.
Wade entered the vortex.
Steel shutters closed all the windows suddenly.
Rembrandt entered the vortex.
Electric sparks danced across the ceiling.
Maggie entered the vortex.
Sparks began to dance across the floor.
Quinn leapt into the vortex.
The Kromaggs began to scream.
A world away, all three male sliders were out of breath when they reached the door of the compound. It was open. Quinn, Arturo, and Rembrandt looked at each other nervously as they slipped through the door. Two dead Kromaggs lay in bloody pools a few feet past it. "Gross," Quinn murmured under his breath.
"Eloquent as always, Mr. Mallory," Arturo sniped to hide his own unease.
The threesome continued further into the compound. "This is too eerie," Rembrandt whispered as the group passed several more bodies.
At the main building, the building they had landed in, the door was also open. Another Kromagg body littered the floor. Pools of blood ran together forming small streams that the men were careful to step around. They heard someone crying and as one they went for that sound.
Wade sat huddled in the center of the room. She rocked back and forth. Tears streamed down her face.
"Wade," Quinn knelt by her side, "Sweetie, can you tell us what happened?"
"They tricked you," her voice was barely audible.
Rembrandt looked around nervously, "Tricked us how?"
"They tricked you," Quinn noticed how glazed Wade's eyes were as she repeated that phrase.
"Who tricked us?" Quinn gently laid a hand on her cheek.
Wade violently shuddered away from his touch. "They brought it here."
Her eyes were haunted, not glazed, Quinn thought absently. "What did they bring, Wade?"
"Weapons," she breathed. "Strange weapons."
"Mr. Mallory," Arturo kept scanning the room, "I suggest we leave."
Quinn pulled out the timer again. "You are good, Professor." Quinn lifted the timer and pointed toward the center of the room. Arturo leapt through the swirling vortex of light and wind first. Rembrandt dropped the statuette before leaping into the circle. Quinn lifted Wade up and pulled her through the vortex.
As it closed with a pop, Mary slipped from the shadows. She picked up the discarded statue, holding it in one hand. In the other, she held a gun. Slowly, Mary placed the statuette on a pedestal. Sparks began to play along the ceiling, The last two Kromaggs entered the room. Mary turned. With frightening calm, she raised the gun and fired. One fell, a bullet through its brain. Sparks began to dance along the floor. The final Kromagg screamed in agony.
Quinn managed to cushion Wade on the landing. He exchanged glances with Arturo and Rembrandt, "We need to get her someplace safe now."
"Have you got her?" Rembrandt asked.
"Yeah," Quinn grunted, standing.
"Allow me to lead the way," Arturo led them quickly to an upscale Motel 12.
"I'm fine," Wade whispered.
Arturo made arrangements with the clerk while Rembrandt snorted at Wade, "You are shaking, girl."
"I'll be ok," Wade gave Rembrandt a weak smile.
Quinn grabbed one of Wade's hands, "Just the same, we're all here." He lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
"My heroes," this time Wade's smile was a little more sincere. "Can we afford this place?"
"Barely," Arturo answered her, returning. "I'm afraid you and Mr. Brown will need to get jobs tomorrow."
"That's cold, Professor," Quinn objected.
"No," Wade looked at Arturo, "I need a distraction and I think the Professor knows that."
A few days later, Quinn slipped into the main room of the suite. Wade sat near the window, clutching a pillow. "Hey," Quinn walked over to her.
"Hey," Wade echoed.
He sat down at her feet, "How are you feeling?"
Wade shrugged, "How am I supposed to be feeling?"
"I don't know," Quinn admitted softly. "How was work?"
Wade smiled weakly, "It was pun."
"Ouch," Quinn chuckled. "Don't you love working at a restaurant like that though?"
"I'm a waitress," Wade snorted. "At least the tips are good at To Ale And Back."
"They are having a reading tonight. Rembrandt is even writing a piece," Quinn stopped and the conversation drifted to silence. Many thoughts ran through Quinn's head and most of them centered around Wade. He'd caused her enough pain. She shouldn't be going through more. He didn't even know how to help. "What happened back there Wade?"
"A slaughter," her voice was as quiet as it had been when he found her in the room.
Quinn sat on the floor beside Wade's perch and waited.
"Mary had help," Wade struggled to keep going. "However, she was the one who killed most of the Kromaggs so efficiently. I wasn't supposed to see anything. She told me to stay in the room. But I knew something major was going down. I snuck out. It was so strange."
"That's what you told us," Quinn kept his voice low.
Wade swallowed, "They went through the entire place. I'm not sure how they missed me following them. Maybe they didn't. Mary only mentioned five Kromaggs. They found a whole bunch of them. They unleashed some sort of a weapon. I can't figure Mary out. I don't think she can just tell the truth. She tells parts of it, but something's wrong with her."
Quinn twined one of his hands in hers, "Any ideas why?"
"Everything they did to her, who could blame her?"
"I still don't know why you trusted her at all; what if she betrayed us again?"
"There was something about that place. It heightened human perceptions. It heightened my perceptions..."
"Like Derek did?" Quinn did an admirable job keeping jealousy from his voice.
"No," she smiled momentarily, "after she finished giving me another version of her past. One that rang truer," she looked at Quinn, "she zoned out and she was in my head. I don't know a person could lie mind to mind. I could feel her emotions, feel the flavor of her thoughts. It was so fast. In that moment she showed me how to hide my thoughts from the Kromaggs."
"That would be a comfort," Quinn murmured.
"Yeah, but I don't know how to show someone else. It was that place. I had to trust her after that. Anyone would..."
Quinn didn't respond; they just held hands.
Special thanks go to TemporalFlux for the continuity help.