Wade Welles bit down an urge to throttle the man standing in front of her. His light blue uniform did little to hide the grease and soda stains acquired from a shift on the job. The cash register emitted another sickly sounding mechanical eep as if in response to Wade's carefully controlled frustration. "I gotta get my manager," he mumbled hurrying from her glare.
"It's a dollar seventy-five," she snarled to the thin air.
Soon enough the young man and his manager returned. "What seems to be the problem," the manager smiled soothingly.
"I'd like my change," Wade's clipped tones should have signaled the manager.
"What does the register say?" All competence, the manager turned to the hapless employee.
"That's the thing, sir. It don't say nothing. I typed in eighteen dollars and twenty-five cents."
"Good," the manager murmured as Wade rolled her eyes.
"She gave me a twenty," he pointed to Wade.
"Good," the manager trilled again.
"And now she's all mad," the employee finished with a definite whine to his voice.
At this, Wade felt compelled to break in, "I'm still waiting for my four value meals and my dollar seventy-five in change."
"So, you didn't give her any change?" The manager looked at the employee.
"The register didn't say to," he swallowed nervously.
"You have got to be kidding me," Wade's voice had begun to rise.
"Now, ma'am," the manager tried to soothe, "there's no need to be upset. It'll just take us a bit to figure this out. Let me go get the calculator from my office."
"Of all the worlds to get stuck on for weeks," Wade growled to herself, "I land on a world where public education never got off the ground. What were the founding fathers thinking?"
The manager and the employee returned, again. This time they held a basic, electronic calculator. Laboriously, the manager typed in 20, then -, then 18.75. "That equals, one dollar and seventy-five cents," he smiled brightly at Wade.
Gritting her teeth, Wade snarled, "GIVE ME MY CHANGE."
"Here you go," the employee thrust the small amount of money, a bag, and a cup holder with four sodas at her.
Walking down the street, towards the park where she was supposed to meet the other three Wade kept up an internal monologue regarding the stupidity of creating a national education policy based on fear of the lower class. She caught sight of Rembrandt and Quinn sitting on a park bench and she hurried toward them. "How was your last day, Remmy?" she called by way of greeting.
"Interesting," Rembrandt offered, relieving her of the sodas. "It seems so wrong that the only kids in schools are the ones who can pay, and at that, they are lodged into specific tracks."
"It is pretty sad," Quinn agreed, digging into the bag to pull out a burger and fries for Rembrandt, then another set for Wade, and finally a set for himself.
"I just can't understand how this country has advanced at all," Wade's voice was still husky from the frustration she was trying to release.
"Their best and brightest are given a chance," Quinn replied amiably. "Did you have trouble with the change again?"
"Yes," she snarled, biting into her burger viciously.
Both Quinn and Rembrandt were unsuccessful in holding back their chuckles. In fact, it quickly turned into belly laughs from both men. Ever since their arrival onworld, Wade had run into difficulty after difficulty due to the low level of education present. While all three men had gotten jobs teaching the elite, or at least those who could pay, Wade had been left to find them housing for their stay and to keep them fed.
Instead of letting the two get to her with their laughter, Wade chilled them asking, "Shouldn't the professor be here by now?"
"I'm sure he's on the way," Rembrandt popped a fry in. "Hey, Q-Ball?"
Quinn looked up from his cheeseburger, mumbling, "Yeah."
"Nice manners," Wade sighed.
Ignoring her, Rembrandt asked a question that had been on his mind this whole slide, "What happened with their education system?"
"I hadn't really thought about it," Quinn mulled it over. "Maybe they've always had a bias against public education."
"Actually," a slightly malicious glimmer entered Wade's eyes, "it's only since the sixties that our education system has really been called into question. And it did take awhile for the government to get onboard with public education. I think this world went to an extreme."
"I do remember talking to one of my students about the voucher system that his parents used."
"I said left," Arturo snapped at his student driver. "Try not to be a blistering idiot," he mumbled under his breath.
Fighting back her tears, the driver, voice quivering offered by way of apology, "I thought that was left. I forgot my watch at home today."
After a long-suffering sigh, Arturo found a little compassion in himself, "It's alright, m'girl. Let's take a left up here, shall we? Remember, that means turning in your direction."
As she turned, the driver threw Arturo a grateful glance, "You have no idea how much I appreciate this sir. I have a much better chance of making something of myself now."
"I know," Arturo agreed absently. "What are you planning to do now that you can drive?"
"I can get a job at a take out place," the girl practically glowed. At Arturo's direction she pulled off to the side of the road, next to the park. "Thank you again, so much." She leaned over and gave Arturo a kiss on his bearded cheek. Blushing, she looked down at the steering wheel.
Overcoming his own embarrassment took Arturo a moment, "You are most welcome. I hope you are successful." With that, he left the car and made his way to where his fellow sliders were chowing down.
"Nice, Professor," Quinn smirked. "We have to slide," Quinn looked at the timer, "now."
"Great, I don't even get lunch," Arturo growled.
"Nonsense," Wade thrust a bag and soda at him.
Rembrandt just chuckled as Quinn opened the vortex. The usual pinprick of light spiraled into a swirling vortex of energy. One by one the four sliders threw themselves into an environment they would never understand. Some things are taken on faith.
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?
As if in answer the youngest of the three men groaned.
"Awake, are you?" Kate stopped her rocking and her tapping.
Cracking open an eye, Quinn Mallory groaned again. "Who are you? Where am I?"
"Quite the conundrum," Kate non-sequitured. "If you don't know who you are or where you are, how can you answer my questions?"
Obviously confused, Quinn tried to puzzle through what the woman was saying. All he came up with was, "Wuh?"
"Indeed," Kate agreed amiably. Wade chose that moment to utter a groan of her own, "Ah, the damsel in distress." Kate winked at Quinn before standing.
"Where?" was all Wade managed to mumble before groaning in pain again.
Kate walked over to Wade, "You are under my tree. I'm not sure why you are all in my back yard," she graced Quinn with a glance. "I've spent the last ten minutes trying to figure out what two of you were doing in my tree."
Quinn finally sat up and immediately regretted the action. Swallowing the urge to throw up at the pounding echoing through his head, he turned. "Oh, crap," he declared upon seeing Arturo sprawled across a downed tree branch. Then he looked up, spotting Rembrandt, Quinn fell back to the ground. "This is not good."
"Now that we've cleared the duh factor," Kate drawled, "perhaps we can get ya'll inside."
"My name's Kate, by the way," Kate handed out Tylenol and glasses of juice. "Would anyone like to explain how you end up in my back yard?"
"You wouldn't believe us," Wade grunted, laying her head down.
"Bad shrooms?" Kate felt her lips quirk in a grin.
"Something like that," Quinn gingerly sipped at his juice. He made a face after tasting it, "What is this?"
"Pineapple lemon," Kate shrugged.
"Ah," Arturo let a look of ick pass over his face before popping the pills and slugging back the entire glass of juice. This should be an interesting world, he thought.
"Bottoms up," Rembrandt toasted, following Arturo's example.
"Why not," Wade groaned, again, as she too popped the pills and slammed her glass of juice. "Could I use the bathroom?"
"Sure," Kate led her to the stairs and then up to the bathroom.
No sooner had the women left than Arturo hissed, "What happened?"
"I have no idea, Professor," Quinn rubbed absently at his temples.
Rembrandt nonchalantly stood and leaned against the doorjamb.
"We should take a look at the timer," Arturo gently prodded.
Instead of nodding, Quinn pulled out the timer and slid it across to Arturo. "Something had to go wrong with the densitrometer."
"The demonstrator?" Rembrandt queried from the doorway.
"Densitrometer," Quinn corrected, "it's what keeps us from landing inside of things."
"Like, oh say, a tree," Rembrandt snorted.
After opening the back, Arturo slid it back to Quinn who, after a cursory glance, declared, "I need better equipment."
"Perhaps I'm still teaching at the University," Arturo offered reaching for the timer and popping the back on.
"Good idea, Professor, if they have universities." Rembrandt moved back to his seat at the table, "Should we all go?"
"Go where?" Wade asked as the two women entered the dining room.
"The University," Quinn managed a weak smile.
"That figures," Kate chuckled.
As with any institution of higher learning, the hallways of the University of California were cluttered. In fact, the whole feel of the building was more like that of a co-operative than a college. Of course, on this earth, a world where flower power was a huge success, that was par for the course. Wade lay stretched along a hallway wall, her head pillowed by her jacket. Rembrandt sat near her head, also asleep, as he leaned against the wall. The two rested across from Dr. Mallory's office.
Inside the office, Dr. Quinn Mallory reclined in his swivel chair, feet on his desk, and regarded his visitors. To be fair, the slider Quinn Mallory couldn't stop staring at his long haired, bearded double and the tattoo that peeked out from his shirt sleeve. "So," Dr. Mallory said.
"Yup," Quinn replied.
"Interesting," Dr. Mallory mused.
"Indeed," Quinn appeared to echo.
"Gentlemen," Arturo broke in. The man has never heard of me, yet he holds my University position on this earth. It's uncanny the way he and Quinn seem to be communicating. I've never done that with one of my doubles.
"Doubles," Dr. Mallory ignored Arturo. "That could be groovy."
Good God, Arturo turned his biting comment into a mild cough before his thoughts could be shared by his outside voice.
"It's interesting," Quinn admitted. "We need your help."
"Then let's get to the geek speak," Dr. Mallory grinned. "You found a way to pierce the veil. I got a little side tracked."
"How?" Quinn's curiosity came to the front.
"Having a kid does that," Dr. Mallory began.
However, before Dr. Mallory could get any further, Arturo interrupted, again, "Gentlemen, we are on a schedule."
"Right," Quinn responded absently, "You tried to develop sliding?"
"I did," Dr. Mallory stated. "Went out a couple of times, came home, got distracted." He gave a rueful grin.
He got distracted from one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time? Arturo was sure his astonishment showed on his face, not that either Quinn noticed.
"Our densitrometer is damaged. We landed in a tree," Quinn grimaced.
"Let's go next door to the lab," Dr. Mallory clicked his tongue in thought which made Quinn smile to himself.
"You have a lab next to your office," Arturo couldn't keep the admiration from his voice. Hmmmph, the inner voice grumbled.
"Natch, man," Dr. Mallory key carded the lab door and gestured the other two in, "I am the man who won the Nobel."
"Impressive," Quinn whistled. Then he took a good look around the lab. "Very impressive."
Over the next hour the two doubles transferred the densitrometer from Dr. Mallory's timer into Quinn's timer. It was a delicate process which left Arturo to gaze out the window. "My it's colorful," he muttered.
"What's that?" Dr. Mallory looked up before reattaching the back of the timer.
"Oh, nothing," Arturo smiled genially and returned to his thoughts. How can they be so similar? It's obvious they've led different enough lives that they shouldn't be able to understand each other so well. What is it about Quinn Mallory? How does he always invent sliding?
"Here you go man," Dr. Mallory handed over the repaired timer.
"Thanks," Quinn hefted it experimentally. "Mind if I take the old densitrometer too?"
"No problem," Dr. Mallory hesitated a second, "but why?"
"You just never know," Quinn smiled ruefully.
I wonder if this will work, Arturo took another look. A state of the art lab. A brilliant mind. And no killer instinct.
"Mr. Brown, Miss Welles," Arturo shook a shoulder each, gently. "It's almost time to go.:"
"But it's such a nice dream," Wade complained before sitting up. She absently ran her fingers through her hair.
"How long before we slide?" Rembrandt asked while standing.
"A matter of minutes my dear Mr. Brown. Come, come," Arturo ushered Wade and Rembrandt into Dr. Mallory's laboratory. Hmmmph, the inner voice snarled again.
"Nice digs," Wade remarked.
"Thanks," Dr. Mallory smiled as he walked across the small lab to punch something in his computer."
"Did he solve all our problems?" Wade hissed at Arturo.
"Two reasons for a no, Miss Welles," Arturo leaned over. "One, we don't have the time for the answers to all our questions."
"And the second?" Wade raised an eyebrow.
In answer, Arturo pointed to the bookshelf. Embedded half in the wall was a perfectly preserved paper airplane.
"Oops," Wade whispered, a little awed.
"You guys ready," Quinn fired up the timer in answer to his own half-question. For a moment the lightning flared more brightly than ever before, piercing a hole in the fabric of the multiverses. The hole expanded more rapidly than ever before, as well. In quick succession Wade, Rembrandt, Arturo and Quinn entered the gaping maw of exotic matter.
"Hmmm," Dr. Mallory told himself, "I don't miss those landings."
"Okay, that was freaky," Wade groaned, picking herself out of cherry wood shards.
"What happened Mr. Mallory?" Arturo managed to keep his question one step above a whimper.
Across the room, next to a large picture window, a shocked blonde sat and stared. She ignored whatever the woman on the other end of the fiber optic wire was saying. Anne Bleu stared at what was left of her living room. "Oh Moons," she whispered.
"Anne, I'm on my way," the figure on the other side of the computer shouted.
None of the sliders had noticed her yet. "There must've been some sort of power drain," Quinn hypothesized forlornly. "I just don't understand."
"There must be enough of a difference between his densitrometer and ours," Arturo grumbled while sitting up.
"I suppose," Quinn mused. "His circuit probably moderates power at a slight imbalance to our circuit."
"How come we landed on furniture?" Wade queried.
"No idea," Quinn sighed, leaning his head back on the couch. As he turned to the side he noticed an inquisitive pair of hazel eyes. "Oops."
"Yeah," Anne agreed. "Oops." If her tone was bit sarcastic, she was to be forgiven for the reaction the shock had on her. After all, it wasn't every day Anne Bleu saw intergalactic travelers.
"At least we don't know you," Rembrandt said without thinking.
Fortunately for the sliders, the doorbell chose that moment to waft the sound of faerie wind chimes throughout the house. Seconds later Anne's boss and best friend let herself in. "Oh Moons," she gasped looking around the room. "Looks like I'll have to start your raise next week."
"Ha. You are so funny," Anne almost snapped, "have you met the company?"
"I see three strangers and myself," Wade Welles, computer genius, tossed back. "Consider me introduced."
"Great, smarty," Anne finally managed to pry herself out of her seat.
"Don't be bitter just because I'm beautiful and brainy,"genius Wade joked.
The first thing Remmy noticed about her was her self-confidence. She was the first Wade double he'd seen totally at ease with herself and the world around her. Out of curiosity he glanced at his Wade; she seemed to unfold a bit in the presence of her double.
"How did you know about us?" Quinn asked.
"Web cam," Anne motioned to her laptop.
A slightly evil glint gleamed in genius Wade's eyes, "She was getting ready to show me her brand new coffee table."
Rembrandt felt like he was in the middle of some weird, verbal ping pong match and there were no rules. This new Wade--this world's Wade did not give off the best vibe.
"That's mean," Wade tossed back at her double.
Shrugging, genius Wade admitted, "So?"
"What exactly do you do, Miss Welles?" Arturo shook his head a moment.
"Wade's a frigging genius," Anne chimed in. "She designs specialty computer chips for computer nerds, the government, and her friends."
"You don't write software?" Quinn asked.
The two women who belonged on this earth exchanged highly amused glances. "Um, no," genius Wade snickered.
"The girl has no aptitude for software," the laughter burbled below the surface of Anne's voice. "Why else would she use an Applet?"
"You're one to talk," genius Wade snotted to her friend.
"Yes, well," Arturo interrupted the flow of the conversation. "We should be on our way and all."
Shut up, Professor, Rembrandt thought as he shot a glare at Arturo. There was something about her that Rembrandt needed to place. Something was slightly off.
Quinn managed to sneak a look at the time while everyone else looked at Arturo in differing states of confusion. "We only have a couple of hours," he stated.
"Until you vortex out?" genius Wade asked gleefully.
"We call it sliding," Wade corrected her double absently.
Why is she so interested? Rembrandt had found a place to sit off to the side of the room. A place no one else would really notice him. Despite his flamboyance, Rembrandt had learned long ago how to blend in during family brawls and that was what this smelled like.
"Too bad we can't replace the circuit again," Arturo remarked to Quinn.
"What kind of a circuit?" genius Wade wandered to the couch.
"I doubt you would have heard of it," Arturo breezed.
"Yet," genius Wade showed remarkable restraint, "I could have something close in my warehouse."
Rembrandt had leaned forward, his arms resting on his legs as he wondered why no one else questioned this. It was all too easy. Too convenient. Then again, in a moment of true honesty, he was usually the first to jump the train to bad things. Normally, he'd be the first to accept anything that might make the journey easier--anyone. Not her. There was something about Wade.
"You have a warehouse full of computer parts?" Wade asked incredulously.
"My husband does which is close enough," genius Wade shared with her double.
"Who did you marry?" Wade's glance flickered to Quinn.
With an almost imperceptible negative shake of her head, genius Wade answered, "PJ Wallach, my husband runs Cotlets Industries. He started it out of our garage the first year we married."
"Huh," Wade said.
"So, can I see it?" genius Wade asked with extra politeness.
"Fine," Quinn tossed the timer over to genius Wade.
The two older men sacked out on the couches. "How can you possibly sleep again?" Arturo grumbled to Rembrandt.
"Who says I'm sleeping," Rembrandt drawled before appearing to doze off. Inside his thoughts continued to cluster around the idea that this Wade was somehow innately different from their own. On the surface she appeared only a little different. But Rembrandt was man who lived by his gut, and his gut was broiling.
In the kitchen, Wade chatted with Anne. "How long have you two known each other?" Wade sipped avocado juice.
"We grew up in the hood together," Anne winked. "Actually we met at boarding school. We are different enough that we became fast friends."
"Different enough?" Wade queried.
"Let's just say your duplicate," Anne looked in askance at Wade for her word choice, "is totally adventurous."
"Okay," Wade took a moment to absorb that tidbit. "Why did you call her your boss? Do you design computer hardware too?"
Once she overcame her laughter, Anne answered properly, "No. I design and coordinate all their marketing."
"Nice," Wade sipped more juice.
"How come you aren't more rattled by this? Do you meet duplicates all the time?" Kate nibbled on a celery stick.
"Not at all," Wade paused. "We've been sliding fast and furious for several hours. A lot has happened since we started sliding. Sometimes it hits in weird ways."
Popping off the back with strangely practiced ease she set to work at the dining room table with Quinn by her side. Quinn silently observed her examining the inner workings of the timer as he mentally catalogued the differences between his Wade, this one, and all the other Wades he'd met.
"Which one is it?" genius Wade interrupted Quinn's thoughts.
Shaking himself quickly, Quinn pointed to the circuit, "That one."
Using her cellphone to snap a quick picture Wade made fast work out of contacting her husband and arranging for a messenger to run a similar part over. Once it arrived Quinn had little time to adapt it and insert it into the timer. Again, he pocketed the defective densitrometer. After thanking Anne and Wade for their help the sliders hit the tires and lit the interdimensional fires on their way to the next world.
Rembrandt looked for a moment before jumping through the vortex. His eyes landed on the computer . He had to jump or stay stuck forever. The little computer camera was blinking steadily.
"Were you recording the whole time?" Wade asked.
"What do you think?" Anne snorted. "We are golden."
The two women exchanged the types of smiles that might have frightened the three of the sliders and set off alarm bells with Rembrandt. "Money, money," Wade high fived her partner. "Finally our production group can get off the ground. It's all about the luck."
"After all, it isn't about luck. It's about what you do with the luck," Anne sat on her couch.
Rembrandt Brown moved around his large kitchen with grace and ease. He carefully combined ingredients while humming an old tune his brother had made famous. All the while his mind ran circles in an ever tightening spiral laying the foundation for his next novel. In the next room his wife was replying to emails. Above her, lining the wall like soldiers on parade, were the original, framed cover art for her husband's twenty-four novels. Each had spent a time on best-seller's lists across the globe. Even in the couple's native country.
Walking into the library which held many of the couples' books on built in shelves (they were in every room to be fair), the computer table, and the cover art, Rembrandt brought his wife her early evening cocktail, "Thank you darling," she gave him a luminescent smile.
"Anything for you," he bent down enough to kiss her briefly. As usual, the kiss ignited the passion that always lay below their surfaces. Unfortunately for the long standing couple, a series of crashes and curses emanated from their kitchen. Cautiously they made their way to the other room, cocktails in hand. "Oh my," Rembrandt duhed.
"Indeed," his wife agreed, absently sipping her whiskey and soda. "So, does this make your books true or my math valid?"
"I'm not sure, darling," Rembrandt radiated bemusement. "After all, you were the first to receive a Theoretical Prize."
"True," she began to chew on her lower lip. "Damn," she turned a smile on her husband.
"Damn indeed," he smiled back.
"Mom?" Quinn Mallory pulled himself out of a pile of pots and pans.
"Excuse me," Amanda Mallory managed not to drop her drink before she drained it upon hearing the startling proclamation.
"Mrs. Mallory?" Wade pushed herself off the stainless steel chopping block table island in the center of the kitchen.
"She is Mrs. Brown," Rembrandt lifted an eyebrow before draining his own drink. From the sound of them they might be more dangerous. After all, they could be the Westies of whatever world they came from. Why he and his wife knew they were from another world could only be explained by the couples' individually honed intuitions--intuitions that had never led them astray.
"Good gawd," Arturo slurred from his position above the dishwasher, "You married Quinn's mother?"
The loving couple looked at each other in exasperation as Amanda reached for the phone. "Wait," Rembrandt the slider begged crawling out of the pantry.
"What is going on?" The world-famous novelist demanded.
"You probably won't believe us," Slider man replied.
"Try us," Amanda dryly supported her husband.
"We're not from this universe," lyrically slipped from Rembrandt the singer's lips.
"Naturally," Amanda and her husband deadpanned together.
Unnoticed in the exchange of doubles and double's mom or maybe she wasn't his double's mom if he didn't have a double which was a confusing conundrum to the aspiring nobelite, Quinn slid back down to the floor, his back resting against one of the ovens. He couldn't take his eyes from the happy couple; it was obvious they were happy, at ease, and deeply in love. His mother and Rembrandt? It was enough to make his muddled mind want to go on a three-year-old's tear after losing a favorite toy to a little sister.
"What do you mean, naturally?" The good professor had recovered his aplomb and found the whisky bottle. Slopping some in the glasses of his hosts he raised the bottle in silent, stunned toast and swigged. Straight from the bottle. Poor Arturo lost his decorum when he discovery of where they had landed rattled his brain. The whiskey restored it enough for another question before his hosts could answer, "Where are we?"
"Naturally, because Rembrandt doesn't have an exact look alike on this world," Amanda answered the first question.
"And believe me, we would know," Rembrandt her husband rolled his eyes. "You are in France.
"France," Arturo sputtered.
"Perhaps we should move to the sitting room," always a genial host, Rembrandt turned his wife the proper direction. And like goslings on display the sliders obediently fell in line.
Ohmygod, Quinn's mind gibbered upon entering the opulent room which seemed created to display, rightly so, the rewards of a Nobel in Physics. Above the fireplace, in a glass case, against royal blue velvet were a Nobel medal, a diploma, and a letter. Like a moth to a bug zapper, Quinn was drawn to the case. "Amanda Brown," he breathed, although without fogging up the glass.
Close enough to hear his protégé, an impressed Arturo queried Mrs. Brown, "You won the Nobel?"
"Yes," Amanda felt a light blush grace her cheeks, "for my work on multiple universes theory which has radically changed much of our science. I managed to prove they exist." She paused, "Well, they exist theoretically. My work was so innovative they created a new Nobel category so they could give me an award."
"Hmmmph," Arturo muttered.
"What made you start your research on that topic?" Wade wondered aloud as she idly walked past a built in book shelf which held twenty-four hard cover books.
"I read a book," Amanda exchanged smiles with her husband who had happily settled to a place in the background of the party.
Still, barely noticed, Quinn gently set himself on a corner chair. Once there he proceeded to fold inside himself with a minor case of shock.
"Perhaps you could help us," Arturo began.
Quinn sat at a bar stool in the kitchen. Rembrandt, the local Rembrandt had just poured them each a frothy glass of home-brew. "You seem a little dazed, son."
"Yeah," Quinn gulped both his answer and his beer.
"Hey double," Quinn's Rembrandt wandered into the kitchen, "you okay Quinn?"
"Not so much," Quinn finished his glass.
Always a genial host, Rembrandt slid his untouched glass toward his double, refilled Quinn's cup and grabbed himself a fresh pint. "How come you are so rattled?" he asked.
A bevy of bemused and befuddled thoughts beamed Quinn's mind like Speedy Gonzales on crack setting a trap for Sylvester the cat. "You married my mom," he paused to collect the scattered shards of his intellect and integrity. Failing, he went on with, "She's a physicist. I always figured I got my smarts from my dad, because he was a scientist. My mom's just a housewife."
Both Rembrandts chuckled at the plaintive noted in Quinn's voice. However, it was the man who understood Quinn the best that said, "Everyone can surprise you Quinn. Haven't you learned that yet?"
"She can't help us Remmy," Quinn's cynicism, largely suppressed until this moment, saw its chance to grasp control and fought like a dog who didn't want to be spayed.
"Quinn," theologian Rembrandt propped his elbows on his counter, "you can't think like that. Life is all about moments of faith. If you travel from universe to universe, you have to hold on to something. Some belief, some truth, some kernel of strength. Find that truth and zen it."
"What?" Quinn was pretty sure he hadn't heard right.
"Zen it?" Rembrandt asked his double unconsciously mimicking Quinn's surprise in his own tones.
"In all of my novels, fantasy or future fiction--in all of my treatises on faith, I focus on a few core ideas. One of them is the idea that we must learn from the past, prepare for the future, but live in the now. The eastern philosophy of Zen." Rembrandt shrugged easily and leaned against his sink counter.
"Huh," the Cryin' Man pondered.
"Wow," Quinn openly mulled. "This just keeps getting weirder."
"You do know that's your outside voice, right?" Rembrandt the writer grinned.
Amanda Brown, absently clicked her tongue against her hard palate as she examined a chip. "Geo-spectrum stabilizer?" she looked at Arturo.
"Yes," he too was a tad flummoxed by this encounter with Mrs. Mallory. After all, if she could be this brilliant, what of his lovely Christina?
"I drew up plans based on my mathematic theory," she tapped at her laptop quickly. A series of blueprints found their way to the screen. "Ahhhh," she mused aloud. "It looks like your densitrometer circuit is sparking against the geo-spectrum stabilizer."
"Oh dear," Arturo looked concerned, "Quinn was afraid something like that might happen. However, I must confess that you really shouldn't know anything about a timer."
Ignoring the obvious fudging of the truth, Amanda got back to business and Arturo's last question, "I'm afraid, sir, that I have always been a little unscientific in my methods. I suppose that's why theory appeals to me over the practical applications of science. This way I can prove my leaps of logic with math." She continued to puzzle over the timer as she spoke, "What are you doing with such disparate pieces of technology? How is this thing even running?"
"We take what we need where we can find it," to be fair, Arturo did consider it a perfectly logical answer.
Amanda, however, disagreed, "You didn't take any back ups? You brought nothing of your own world's technology with you?"
"Erhm, no?" Arturo fought the urge to gulp.
"How long have you managed with this hodgepodge?" Amanda asked incredulously.
After a quick bought of head math, "Four years," Arturo responded.
"Four years?" Amanda let her shock color her response, "You people have been sliding more on faith than technology."
"Madam," Arturo huffed and puffed, and if he had hackles, they would've been raised, "Quinn and I are brilliant scientists.
Fortunately, Amanda had no need to prove herself. "Right," she said making a couple of minor adjustments to the geo-spectrum stabilizer. Glancing at the display she smiled with something like relief, "There you go."
"While I thank you for your effort, madam," Arturo cleared his throat.
Amanda interrupted him without rancor, "You don't see how a theorist can help you? After all, you've applied my theories."
"Well, yes." Arturo had the grace to look a tad uncomfortable.
"What can it hurt?" She asked.
Left to her own devices, Wade spent a merry hour looking at the view. As the others entered the room, one by one, she pulled them onto the window seat for a moment.
"Bloody hell," Arturo said as he was the last to see the Eiffel Tower. "It's time to leave," he announced once he regained his composure.
Quinn, slack-jawed, watched Rembrandt and Rembrandt say goodbye. Arturo lifted the timer with some glee, happy to be gone from this house of weirdness. And still Quinn had trouble adjusting. His mother had just told a woman he'd almost fallen for that she would be a great daughter in law. His mother won a Nobel. That thought fluttered through Quinn's mind through the entire slide between vortices.
"I just don't know if I'm making the right decision, Bells," Mad Max Arturo groaned to a young man sitting on the stoop of an abandoned building.
"Listen, Max," the young man, Bells, shook his head setting off the jingling of his namesakes, "you know how the rest of us feel about those government programs."
"I know, I know," Mad Max wandered back and forth, the coattails of his jacket fluttering raggedly behind him. "These people appear different."
"Everybody's different," Bells shrugged.
Mad Max waved his conductor's wand around absently, as he paced, "Of course, there's still that pesky densitrometer problem." The old man's gaze lifted toward Big Ben. "How do I put that into the song?"
An alley away, something occurred which would have sent the down and out physicist, his friends, and those trying to help them. A pinprick formed in the universe, four bodies came tumbling down, and four voices raised in a chorus of groans. Four sets of arms pushed their bodies upward. "Is it just me or is this not getting any easier," Rembrandt's complaint was lightly tinged with whining.
"You have got to be kidding me," Arturo groaned looking into the distance.
"What?" A concerned Quinn followed his mentor's gaze only to see the stony edifice of the world famous Big Ben. "Oh crap."
"Figures that woman wouldn't know anything practical," Arturo huffed. "After all, the Nobel is purely theoretical."
Quinn and Rembrandt both leapt to their recent benefactress' defense with Rembrandt slightly in the lead, "At least she tried to help. And she couldn't have been stupid."
"I'm sure she tried," Quinn's defense fell as weakly as it should've.
"We need a real scientist," Arturo huffed.
"How much time do we have?" Wade's eye roll was audible. Didn't it just figure? First France, now bloody England. Would they ever figure it out?
"An hour and a half," Quinn sighed.
"We are so screwed," Wade bit out walking to the front of the alley.
"Hold up girl," Rembrandt called, hurrying after her.
However, Wade had stopped at the alley entrance. A silly smile on her face, "Think the Professor will be happy with that scientist?"
Choking down his laughter, Rembrandt turned back to motion the other two to hurry, "Oh, that should be the perfect scientist for him," he whispered to Wade.
Bells watched Mad Max rant and rave while pulling out a pouch. He kept one eye on the doings in the street, the passers by, the foursome exiting the alley. All the while he rolled a cigarette from his own special blend of herbs and tobacco. As he lit the cigarette he did a mental double take. Among the foursome was a citizen enough like Mad Max to be a younger brother. Although, according to Mad Max's stories, he had no family. No connection to society. Why else would he be on the fringes?
"Excuse me good sir," Arturo approached his double. "Oh my."
"Huh," Mad Max circled Arturo, "A citizen with my face."
"Erhm," Arturo looked to his companions for help.
"Citizen?" Wade asked a tad dumbfounded. The local in front of her looked like a bum.
However, it was the other man, the younger man, who answered. "You've never been to the Fringes?"
"Apparently not," Wade's reply was dry. Her attention remained fixated on the dichotomy represented by the double Arturos.
"How could anyone in this seeming utopia not have heard of the Fringes?" Bells leaned against a higher step.
"There are no utopias," Wade's gaze stayed.
"Gee, girl. This is the land through the rabbit hole," a stream of smoke escaped Bells' lips. "The environment is cared for, everyone has health care, education is free through post graduate school."
"Yet some people choose to drop out of society," Wade pivoted towards her conversation partner. "What can you tell me about your friend?"
"Mad Max is no man's friend and every woman's memory of father, pastor, and social worker," Bells' hands tapped idly on a tiny animal skin drum that hooked at his rope belt. "Who's your friend?"
Unconsciously slipping into a mimicry of Bells, Wade answered, "The grand Professor is an enigma, a riddle, a question that will never quite be answered. Father figure, judge, and judged. Interdimensional tourist. Follower of the white rabbit."
A smile touched Bells as he prepared another cigarette, "Mad Max can fix any problem that isn't his own." He offered Wade a cigarette and unthinkingly she accepted. "He is the white rabbit."
"If you'd seen my day," Wade took a drag like the natural a double of hers might've been. "If you'd seen the wonders I've seen. If you'd shared my pain," she really looked at Bells, "you'd follow the white rabbit too."
"I hear you sister," Bells scooted over so Wade could watch the show with him.
Rembrandt perched against a wall and read a book he'd borrowed from his double. Quinn had also ignored pretty much the entire conversation while watched the hands slowly move on the face of Big Ben. "Is this London?"
"Of course, m'boy," Mad Max appeared to never miss a beat.
"Right," Quinn went back to ignoring the conversation.
Arturo took a big breath, "You have to love London."
"If you are a citizen," Mad Max shot for enigmatic.
"Yes, well," Arturo went for the full on bluff, "I'm working on a project with my friends."
"Diverse group you have here," Bells cheshired to Wade.
Falling easily into the role of outside observer, Wade slipped back into the game, "Two brains, one heart, and little, old me."
"Looks like one brain, one heart, vision, and bluster," Bells continued to tap.
"They're good men when you dig," a half-smile flitted across Wade's face.
"So's our utopia," tap tap.
"Why escape perfection?" Wade asked.
"It's a shallow veneer," tap tap, "not even dry. Promises to fix the world that remain empty."
"C'mon," Wade gestured to the sky. "No smog."
"It's all underground," tap tap, "like us."
"So, are you the symptoms or the disease?" Wade watched the continuing, unraveling conversation between Arturos.
As Arturo handed the timer over to Mad Max, the conversations continued, "The cure," tap tap.
Rembrandt was engrossed in his book, "Or a side effect. The result of the Mad Hatter's Unbirthday party," Wade smiled.
Mad Max had his back turned to everyone, tap tap; Quinn continued to be transfixed by a landmark.
"Been to France," tap tap.
"It seemed like another world," Wade cheshire grinned.
Quinn tore his gaze away from the clock. "We better hurry."
"Care to see the rabbit hole?" Wade reached over to tap tap Bells' tiny drum.
"Well, I do have an appointment with the Queen," tap tap back.
"Right, good as new," Mad Max handed the timer back as it hit zero.
Shaking his head, Quinn activated the timer. Probably the most amazing thing was the utter lack of surprise exhibited by Mad Max and Bells as first one, then another of the foursome jumped through the rabbit hole. All to quickly the pretty colors and power vanished in an imperceptible poof of magic disappearing. "You really need to find something else to smoke," Mad Max shook his head.
"What'd you do to their device?" tap tap.
"Nothing. What was I going to do on a street corner?"
Tap tap, "Good point. Should we go down to the bridge?"
The two Fringers wandered their way through the hilly streets of London until they reached the park next to a bridge. A rather large suspension bridge, it spanned an enormous body of water. Small and large ships could easily be seen making their ways to parts known and unknown. In the park itself, stood a statue of a tall, bearded man in his top hat. Surrounding the statue were the tables of Fringers who catered to Citizens looking for something different. Mad Max and Bells took their places and began to serve their regular customers with tales of far off worlds, rabbit holes, and the future.
"Wooohoooo," Rembrandt shouted, lifting Wade off the ground to kiss her soundly. "It's a beautiful sight."
"Yes it is, Mr. Brown," Arturo grinned back.
"I never thought the Bay would look so good," Wade leaned against a railing. "However, you can't convince me that quack on the last world fixed us."
"He had to Wade," Quinn replied ruefully, "We went from France to London."
"Did any of you look at the atlas Remmy and Amanda had?" Wade looked from man to man.
"No," Quinn glanced at his cohorts, "Why?"
"France, the Eiffel Tower, it was all just east of the Mississippi," Wade tapped her fingers against the railing.
"How do you explain Big Ben, Miss Welles?" Arturo asked with genuine curiosity.
"I don't know. But he was a quack," Wade shook her head.