Part One of the Loose Ends Trilogy,
by Darran Jordan [eclectica]
Chapter Two: The Still Before the Storm
"So this is where it all started." Logan looked around the basement, frowning slightly as she took it in. "It isn't exactly what I imagined."
The basement was distinctly dusty, large white sheets had been thrown over most of the equipment there in an attempt to keep it all tidy during its owner's absence. The sliding equipment was arranged in parts around the room, the enormous power coil taking up a large part of the space, while in the corner stood a blackboard, the formula for sliding written across it in chalk.
"I wrote that," Quinn said suddenly. It was the first words he had spoken since they'd arrived here, arrived on Earth Prime.
"You wrote...? But this wasn't your world..."
Quinn seemed to smile slightly, but the expression was gone in an instant to be replaced once more by his stony faced stoicism. Logan got the impression that the white tribal paint he wore was not so much a mask as a representation of his real face, the blank face of hopelessness that lived beneath his skin.
"No, this wasn't my world, but I slid in here during one of my travels, before I met the Kromaggs. I remember I spent the day pretending to be the Quinn of this world, I lost him his job, insulted his Professor and kissed his friend Wade before coming back here and finishing off the equation that had been stumping him for so long."
"Quite the trouble maker weren't you," Logan smiled. She saw in this double a little bit of herself, but the stony face that replied to her showed that Quinn did not share the sentiment.
"I used to do that all the time, play pranks, have fun. Look where it got me."
Logan didn't reply, instead she pulled one of the sheets from off the equipment and bent over to examine it.
"It looks like everything is still functioning here, we should be able to modify it without a problem."
A simple plan, she thought to herself, a simple plan was all it would take. Break into the basement laboratory of this world's Quinn Mallory, modify the equipment there to produce a counter frequency to any wormholes that the Kromaggs tried to open in this dimension. In theory they should be able to block them from entering this dimension, from invading this world. That done, they could work towards a more permanent solution to the Kromagg problem. They could work toward a way of wiping them off the face of the multiverse forever. Then she would have her revenge, then she would be satisfied. But first, a simple plan. Very simple. If only it would work.
"It should work," Quinn concurred, examining the rest of the equipment with a professional eye. He suddenly looked up the stairs to the door leading to the rest of the house.
"What if my moth... if the mother of this world's Quinn comes home and finds us here? If she sees me she might take me for her own son - that would raise all sorts of difficult questions."
"Don't worry about it," Logan replied off handedly, "it doesn't look like she's been down here at all since her Quinn slid out of this dimension - even if she does come home unexpectedly there's no reason that she should even notice we're here."
Her answer seemed to satisfy Quinn and he silently turned back to his work, opening up a panel in one of the many constructions littered about the place, adjusting wires as he spoke.
"We could have used the Professor's help here, whatever he's doing I hope it's worth it - if you're right we don't have much time before they plan to invade."
"After what you told him before, Max thinks that his friends might have found a way back home," Logan replied. "It's certainly a possibility and, much as I hate them, they could help us stop the Kromaggs. Max went to look for them, I think that's worth his time. If he draws a blank he'll come straight back here. Either way we have to be ready, if we don't get the wormhole counter frequency running in time then it'll be too late. If we're to save this world we have to do it now."
Quinn merely nodded by way of reply, choosing instead to continue with his work. Beside him Logan set to her own series of tasks. It would work, she told herself, it had to. She'd stop the Kromaggs, she'd stop them good. Nobody messed with Logan St. Claire and got away with it. Nobody.
Professor Maximillian Arturo took a moment to look about the foyer of the Chandler Hotel.
"I haven't been here in a while," he mused quietly to himself.
The Chandler looked just how he remembered it, just how it had looked in every dimension he had ever visited. In the constantly changing leap from one world to another it had provided a certain constancy to his life and those of his sliding companions, the place they had always stayed at, the place they always went to meet up should they have got separated. He only hoped that since he had finally made it home, some of his friends might have made it too. Miss Welles, Mr. Brown and Mr. Mallory, he fervently hoped they had. From what Quinn's double had told him earlier the false Professor that had left with them, the impostor that had taken his place at their sides, had been killed; indeed he had given his life to save Quinn. It had shaken the Professor up a little to hear that, after having hated his double so vehemently for so long, but in the end he understood. The man had been almost identical to himself, and Arturo knew in his heart that what had changed him had been his travels with the others. He knew in his heart it would have changed his double in the same way; he would have become part of the sliding family, whether he had intended to or not. It had still been hard hearing that he was dead. And that a woman named Maggie had now joined his friends in their travels. When Quinn's tribal faced double had encountered them they had been hot on the trail of a killer named Rickman who had a timer with the coordinates for Earth Prime in its memory. Arturo could only hope that they had found him, and that they had made it home. It was as he looked around the foyer, trying to will his friends to appear before him, that he heard a familiar voice echoing from the nearby bar.
"Cry like a man... oh yeah, cry like a man..." came the sound of a voice raised in song, a piano playing softly in the background.
"Rembrandt," the Professor whispered to himself, a broad smile breaking out across his face. He heard the applause of the audience as the song drew to an end and hurried across the foyer toward the entrance to the bar. He rounded the corner to see his friend, Rembrandt Brown, bowing to the audience, a wide grin across his face. The famous 'Crying Man', not seeing the Professor, gave a final wave, then turned to a door at the back of the stage area and disappeared out of sight. Arturo was preparing to race after him when he heard another voice, once again all too familiar, speak from the stage area, and looked up to see who was sitting at the piano.
"I'm afraid it's time for the Crying Man's break ladies and gentlemen, but he'll be back later on this afternoon, in the meantime I hope you'll enjoy a few piano tunes from yours truly."
The woman turned back to the keyboard and began to play, her fingers dancing lightly across the keys, filling the room with music. The Professor's mouth gaped open as he watched her, he almost couldn't believe she was really there. Wade Welles. And Rembrandt was here too. That meant they'd made it, they'd made it back, all of them. Finally it was over, the great adventure that had been Sliding was finally coming to an end. If Logan's plan worked then they'd be safe from the Kromagg creatures and finally, finally, they could get on with their lives. The Professor's face was beaming as he walked between the tables of chatting people listening in to Wade's music, moving up until he stood beside her. She still hadn't seen him and, not wanting to disturb her unduly, Arturo touched her lightly on the shoulder before saying:
"My dear Miss Welles, sometimes I thought I'd never see you again."
There was a sudden crashing noise as Wade's hands fell awkwardly onto the keyboard. The Professor stepped back, uncertainly, as Wade turned with eyes wide and mouth agape. She said nothing, merely stared with an expression of extreme shock. When she finally spoke her voice was quiet, strangled.
"Pro... Professor?" she whispered uncertainly.
"Yes Miss Welles, it's me. It seems we finally all managed to slide home after all."
The Professor suddenly noticed that there were tears in Wade's eyes, but before he could work out what to say to comfort her he was knocked backwards as Wade launched herself forward, grabbing Arturo in a hug and sobbing uncontrollably.
"Miss Welles, it's alright, please don't cry, everything's alright now..."
But regardless of what he said it was some moments before Wade was able to compose herself. Those around the bar who had been listening to the music were looking on with interest, and Wade seemed to suddenly notice them and remember where she was.
"Um... I'm just taking a short break folks. I'll be back with more music soon."
Then she quickly led the Professor away to a small table in the corner of the room. Arturo smiled as he sat opposite her at the table, at last he had found his friends and was home, at last!! He looked at Wade and smiled. He was sure they'd have a lot to talk about.
"There," Quinn grunted, turning the switch and charging the power relay, "it should be ready to go."
"It's all ready over here as well," Logan replied, emerging from behind a mass of circuitry, a grim smile playing across her face. "Congratulations Quinn, I think we just saved the world."
Quinn frowned at her, his eyes dark and glaring in contrast to the pale white of the tribal paint he wore. "Don't celebrate yet Logan, we still have to see if it works."
"There's only one way to do that," Logan countered, "are you ready?"
"If you are," Mallory nodded.
"Then let's do it."
Together they began flipping switches, checking the complex readings that flickered across small LCD screens as they did so. The low whine of power began to build behind them, building, slowly building as the device came alive. Sparks flew from one of the nearby cables and Quinn quickly adjusted some of the settings.
"Steady," Logan muttered, "steady."
The whine of power was continuing to grow in pitch, almost unbearably loud now as they continued the activation process.
"Be careful," Quinn shouted above the roar, "if we don't compensate for the build up in time then the power will overload the system."
Logan nodded by way of reply, her hands quickly moving over the cables and wires that held their newly rigged apparatus in place. "It's got to work," she muttered softly to herself, "it's got to."
The whine of power was almost deafening now. They were so close, so close. Logan could see the strain on Quinn's face as he monitored the circuits.
"It's working," he yelled over the din, "it's already started working."
Logan hurried around to the other side of the machine where Quinn was standing and examined the figures which were flickering past on the small LCD screen. Even as she did so she heard the sound of the power drop down to a constant hum in the background. She looked at Quinn in triumph.
"We've done it," she grinned, "we've really done it. So long as this machine remains active no one can slide into this dimension. The Kromaggs can't invade now. We've done it, we've saved Earth Prime."
Quinn gave a small smile, it only lasted a moment, but Logan could see that he was pleased; along with all the pain he carried he now had a burning ember of hope.
"Now to the real business," Logan continued, all the happiness leeching out of her voice to be replaced with an angry resolve. "I want revenge on those creature's for what they did to me and my world, and I'm sure you want the same. So, how do we do it? How do you think we should wipe out all the Kromaggs in the multiverse?"
"I still can't believe it," Wade whispered, shaking her head from side to side, "Rembrandt is going to have a fit when he gets back. I wish you hadn't missed him."
"Bad timing, Miss Welles, it's what got me into this trouble in the first place."
Wade smiled, fighting back the urge to start crying again. He was alive. The Professor was alive. And he was her Professor, and in some ways he wasn't as well, but she was so glad to have him back she didn't care, she just didn't care about the smaller details. Since returning home everything had been so uncertain, and while they waited for Quinn to follow them here with the second timer both she and Remmy had put their lives on hold. But now, for the first time since arriving home, Wade felt that everything was going to work out alright. They were all going to get happy endings.
"But what about these people you say you slid here with, you haven't told me anything about them yet," Wade smiled enthusiastically.
"Yes, they're a strange pair," the Professor replied, "from what I can gather they're both doubles of our Quinn. One has long hair, wears a sort of white tribal paint on his face. He was living with some sort of tribe at the top of a mountain surrounded by unbreathable mist when we found him. The other double is a female by the name of Logan, Logan St. Claire."
As he spoke Wade's body suddenly stiffened, her eyes going wide with alarm.
"Professor... I've met them, both of them. They're both killers, both evil. The other Quinn, he helped Rickman, he tried to kill Maggie and our Quinn, and Logan... we must have met Logan just after we accidentally left you behind and went off with the other Professor. She's evil... she killed your double on her world, fired a bullet at me... I would have died only her vortex was too strong and drew the bullet back into it... Professor, you can't trust them. You can't!!"
The Professor was taken aback by the vehemence of Wade's words, frowning thoughtfully as he considered the situation.
"They have their dubious sides, I'll admit that, but whatever they've done in the past they're making up for now. They're working on a machine at the moment to protect this earth from invasion."
"I'm sorry Professor, but I still don't trust them. I need to know what they're up to for myself."
"I'll take you to them," Arturo replied. "But shouldn't we wait for Mr. Brown to get back?"
"No time," Wade replied. "If they're up to no good we have to put a stop to it now, we can meet Remmy back here later."
"Very well then," the Professor assented, "let's go."
Like a masterpiece of clockwork the machine ticked and whirred. To anyone who didn't know what it was, all it would appear to be would be a flashy monstrosity, cables and wires occasionally sparkling, lights and LCDs winking furiously while a soft humming roar continued endlessly beneath it all, the roar of life ebbing and flowing, as though the machine were a living thing, breathing in and out, in and out. But it wasn't a living thing, just a machine, hastily assembled to serve a function. Who could have guessed that it was all that stood between peace and the invasion of the earth. Who could have guessed what it did, who could have guessed what thoughts ran through those spiralling cables and ticking clockwork innards. Or so Logan thought as she watched the machine she had made with Quinn as it went about its business, broadcasting its cancelling frequency, keeping the Kromaggs out. Had she not been so intently watching she might have noticed the faces of Wade Welles and Professor Maximillian Arturo appear at the small window which looked down into the basement, but she didn't notice. Even if she had it is doubtful it would have made much of a difference.
"So what do you think Quinn," she asked, turning from her perusal of the machine to take in the sight of her companion, seated roughly upon the nearby stairwell, "how do you think we should kill them?"
"Genocide is a tricky business," Quinn muttered thoughtfully. "The most obvious answer would be some form of biological weapon keyed to attack their specific physiognomy."
"But neither of us are biologists Quinn, and I don't think we'll find anyone to help us on this earth."
"There are other worlds," Quinn answered, "worlds where we could find help, where there are inventions and solutions just waiting to be taken."
"I know," Logan replied heavily, tapping the side of her head as she did so, "I've got details of some loaded in the computer linked to my brain. Unfortunately we can't slide out, not without disconnecting this machine, and I don't intend on doing that until I'm ready. As long as this machine stays running no one can slide onto this earth, and that's how I want it to stay, for now."
"That means we have to come up with an answer ourselves," Quinn mused. "I wonder... do you think it's possible to adapt sliding technology into a weapon?"
"Maybe..." Logan nodded. "I read in the database about your double using his timer as a weapon against a Manta ship... perhaps we could rig up something similar, but on a larger scale..." She smiled broadly at Quinn. "I think we're onto something."
Quinn stood abruptly, his long hair falling across his face as he did so. "Perhaps we'd better find the Professor, he's been gone for a long time."
Logan nodded quickly. "Yes, Max could be of great help to us working on such a weapon, we should find him immediately. He said he was going to a hotel called the Chandler, we'll go there..."
The two of them made their way up the stairs, sneaking quietly out of the empty house, leaving their machine behind them, ticking and whirring in the cold and empty basement. Empty that is, until Wade pushed open the window and slid carefully and quietly inside.
"You heard them Professor," she whispered up to the face of Arturo framed in the window, "they're talking about genocide. They want to wipe out everyone on the planet!!"
"Now Miss Welles, I think that is a rather circumstantial reading of the..."
"And this machine?" Wade hissed. "Did you hear what they said about this machine? No one can slide onto Earth Prime while it's running."
"Precisely Miss Welles. It's to keep the invaders out."
"Oh, I don't think so. Didn't I tell you Professor, that Quinn and Maggie haven't arrived yet?"
"Yes," the Professor answered frustratedly, "but what does that have to do..."
"Don't you see," Wade answered, "they've used you Professor, you're just a part of their plans for revenge. The alternate Quinn wanted to kill us, Logan wanted to kill us - now they plan to take their revenge by making sure Quinn can't return home - can't return that is until they've enacted their plans for genocide. By the time Quinn returns he'll find a world in chaos filled with the dead and the dying, if they have their way."
"Miss Welles, I implore you, listen to me. Perhaps they both were evil when you met them, perhaps they both still are deep down, but this machine of theirs was made to combat an evil far greater than their own, against the threat of interdimensional invaders we all have to work together."
"There's something you don't know Professor," Wade muttered darkly. "The man we just saw, not only did he try to kill us, not only did he help Rickman escape... he said that he was responsible for the Kromaggs. He said he was the one who gave them the ability to slide. Do you think that someone who did that would suddenly be trying to stop them now?"
Arturo looked imploringly down at Wade, wishing he could fit through the window after her. "Please Miss Welles, come back up here. We'll go to the Chandler, find Logan and Quinn and..."
"Don't call him Quinn!!" Wade snapped. "That man is not Quinn Mallory!!"
"You know what I mean Miss Welles. Please, just come back up here. At least let's go find Mr. Brown and let him know what's going on."
"Oh we'll go to the Chandler, we'll find Logan, Quinn's double and Remmy and get this whole thing sorted out, but Professor - I can't leave this thing operating, not if it's going to stop Quinn from getting home."
"Miss Welles no... wait..." But Arturo's shouting was in vain, for Wade had already hefted the large iron bar from the nearby toolbox and was using it to smash the machine to pieces. Sparks flew as wires and cables snapped and snagged, LCDs winked and faded as the clockwork wheels stopped spinning and the hum of power began to sputter and fade. With a final whimper the machine shorted out and died, its winking lights dying like the last embers of the fire, leaving only a cold collection of parts strewn haphazardly across the floor of the basement.
Wade dropped the bar with a clatter of metal and climbed up and out of the basement window, emerging once more in the open air beside the Professor.
"I think you acted rather rashly Miss Welles," he said stiffly.
"Maybe," she replied, "but you'd have done the same if you'd seen what those two are capable of. I couldn't risk them keeping Quinn from returning home. Come on Professor, let's go back to the Chandler. We'll get hold of Remmy then try and work out what those two are up to now. Whatever plot they've hatched, they won't stand a chance against the three of us. And when Quinn gets back it'll be the four of us, together again." Wade smiled up at the Professor and he found himself smiling wearily back.
"I only hope you're right Miss Welles, I only hope you're right." Together the two of them turned and made their way back towards the Chandler.
Unnoticed, in the sky far overhead, a portal suddenly bloomed into life, like a great flower growing in the sky. It was only a moment before its centre belched forth the flower's poisoned fruit, a great black ship, like a giant manta swooping down out of the sky, dark wings casting their shadow on the unsuspecting earth below. Nearby the first portal another one opened. And then another. And then another. And then another...