TWO WEEKS AGO|
Rembrandt leaps into the vortex for what he believes may well be the last time. It is weak, red...and it somehow feels wrong. He feels like his body is twisting, distorting...this must be the end.
He sees a pinprick of blue appear among the swirling red. It grows rapidly and he recognises it, it is a vortex. A vortex within a vortex? Is that possible? He barely has time to ponder the question before it engulfs him and rips him from the pull of the red vortex. Seconds later, he is ejected from the vortex at speed. He hits a cold, hard surface and rolls to a halt.
He is shivering uncontrollably, but not from cold. He can't control his body, his nerve-endings not responding to his brain's commands. He opens his eyes but all he can see is a pale fog. "My god, I'm blind!" he thinks to himself.
Someone calling him! The voice is familiar...but his brain refuses to recall the name. Hands grab him and he tries to fight them off in panic. But all he achieves is to increase the spasms of his out of control limbs.
"What's wrong?" asks the voice, but it isn't speaking to him. "An epileptic fit?"
"It's the slide," responds another voice this one unfamiliar. "Pulling him from the other vortex like that has destabilised the cohesion of his cells."
"You never said that would happen!" accuses the first voice.
"We had no way of knowing!"
"Can you stop it?"
"I...think so." The voice shouts out to someone else. "Get a gurney in here! We have to get him to the infirmary."
Remmy feels two hands take hold of his face. The hands are soft, but they hold his head to stop it jerking around. The voice again, concerned...
"Hold on, Remmy! You'll be all right."
The touch is as familiar as the voice. Remmy's tortured brain makes the connection. He struggles to speak the name until it eventually comes out as little more than a whisper...
TWO YEARS EARLIER
"Let go of me!"
Wade's screams are as useless as her struggles. The two Kromagg guards half drag, half carry her down the corridor. Rumours had been rife among the prisoners in the staging area about what went on in the camp and she recoiled, mind and body, at the notion. In the staging area women they were all women, a fact that seemed to lend credibility to the rumours were stripped and subjected to some kind of medical treatment. After a few weeks they would be taken away and never seen again.
Wade had been in the staging area for about a month now it was her turn. One guard says something in the ugly guttural language that she can't understand. She continues her vain struggle, straining every muscle in an attempt to break free. But she is pulled ever closer to the door.
Suddenly the corridor is flooded with light. Wade's eyes open wide as a vortex opens right in front of her, right where the dreaded door was. Her guards stop dead, uncertain of what to do. Wade takes the opportunity to break free. She runs for the vortex but one guard chases her and tackles her, bringing her crashing to the floor and landing heavily on top of her. She looks vainly at the vortex and sees figures emerge. One, two, three...five of them!
The figures are masked and dressed in some kind of combat fatigues. They emerge at speed and with a practised roll after hitting the ground, are quickly up and prepared to fight. Four of them hoist weapons to their shoulders that look much like the standard US Army issue assault rifles that she is familiar with, while the fifth pulls out a pistol. The standing Kromagg reaches for his sidearm but isn't quick enough. Simultaneous volley fire from two of the soldiers drop him to the floor.
The 'Magg on top of Wade hauls her to her feet, using her as a shield while he reaches for his own weapon. Wade grabs his hand as it pulls the weapon from its holster and forces it to the side as he fires. The blast from the weapon hits the metallic walls of the corridor and both Wade and the Kromagg feel the reflected head from the laser charge. They recoil. The Kromagg tries to turn back to face the invaders but is too late. One rifle butt, then another, crash into his head as the masked soldiers reach him.
The 'Magg staggers backwards and drops. He's not unconscious but one soldier steps up and puts a single bullet in his brain. The door that Wade was so afraid of opens and an unarmed Kromagg steps out. The other two soldiers open fire and he too goes down. Wade watches, her relief mixed with horror at the close-quarter killing...and tinged with fear as she doesn't know who her rescuers are, or even if they are rescuing her at all. The four soldiers with assault rifles ignore her completely and set about securing the area. Two race down the corridor while the other two enter the mysterious room and immediately begin firing.
Wade presses herself against the wall, seeking a refuge that isn't there. The fifth soldier approaches her and she watches him fearfully. But he holsters his weapon and removes his mask, revealing a face she knows...
Derek Bond, Prime Oracle, smiles.
"But how...?" she begins but is cut off by the wail of sirens.
"Explanations later," says Derek. He pills out a timer and checks it. Seconds are counting down. He calls out, "Time!"
The soldiers hurry back as he presses the timer button and a vortex appears. Derek and Wade leap together and the soldiers follow. The vortex vanishes and the alerted Kromaggs find only their fallen comrades when they arrive seconds later.
Rembrandt opens his eyes to a darkened room. Despite the gloom, some inner sense of the multiversal sameness of hospital rooms tells him that he is in one. For a moment he wonders how he got there but immediately the memories crash upon him like water through a burst dam. He remembers the uncontrollable twitching and the blindness, now both gone. Then he remembers something else. Could it really have been...? He looks around the room, his eyes quickly becoming accustomed to the low light and sees a small figure curled up in a chair. The figure is little more than a silhouette but Rembrandt recognises it nevertheless. How many times had he watched her sleep like that as they shared small hotel rooms on worlds when money ran short?
"Wade?" The word issues from his mouth as a mere croak, his throat too sore and mouth too dry to summon the shout he wants. He clears his throat as best he can and tries again. "Wade?"
Wade stirs from her light sleep and throws off her blanket. She rushes over to his bed.
"Remmy? Oh, thank God!" She throws herself at him, her hug threatening to dislodge the various tubes that he is still connected to. But he doesn't notice as he returns her embrace.
"Is it really you?" he asks.
"It's me," she confirms.
"But I saw you die."
Wade breaks the embrace and gives him a surprised look. "It must have been a double."
Rembrandt refuses to let himself believe that so easily. "How can I be sure that YOU'RE not the double?"
"Because I'm telling you," says Wade. "Don't you believe me?"
She sounds hurt that he doesn't recognise her. He tries to explain. "I want to believe you more than anything," he insists. "But I don't dare hope. The Wade I saw die...she knew me. More than any double I ever met before."
"She must have had a life that was a very close parallel to mine," says Wade. "Since I've been working on the project I've learned that can happen." She takes his hand. "Ask me any question you want. Ask me about Quinn, or the Professor, or the time I made out with a robot." She smiles. "You can even ask me about the time you declared undying love for me. I'll keep answering until you're convinced. But the real proof is you being here."
Rembrandt gives her a questioning look and she explains. "If you weren't my Rembrandt, we'd never have found you."
Rembrandt is sitting up in bed as Wade feeds him breakfast. He was going to protest that he could feed himself but decided he liked being waited on and let her do it.
"Man, I'm hungry!" he declares between mouthfuls.
"I'm not surprised. You've been on intravenous fluids for two weeks."
"Two weeks? I was out that long?"
Wade nods. "We were really worried at first. Your cell-structure was scrambled by the slide."
Remmy looks worried. "But I'm ok now, right?"
Remmy doesn't seem convinced. He feels parts of himself as if to make sure they are still there. "How'd they fix it?"
"Actually it was just bed-rest," says Wade. "They way they described it was like a shaken up bottle of soda. The only thing you can do is to keep the cap on and wait until it dies down. So they just kept you sedated to stop you shaking yourself apart and let your cells settle down in their own time. Here, drink."
She places a glass of orange juice to his lips and he drinks from it. Then he leans back.
"Ok, I've eaten. Now are you going to tell me what's going on?"
"Where would you like me to start?" asks Wade.
The questions tumble from Remmy's mouth. "Where are we? How did you get away? How did you bring me here? What about Maggie and the others?"
"I'll take the first two questions together," says Wade. "I was rescued from the Kromaggs by Derek Bond and we're on his world."
It takes Rembrandt a second to register the name. "Derek Bond? The Oracle guy?"
Wade takes a breath before starting the story. "When we were here the first time, the Prime Oracle had some psychics probe Quinn and the Professor's minds without their knowing. These were special psychics called Recorders who can copy and store information from someone's brain like copying computer data to a disk."
"I think I know where you're heading," says Rembrandt. "These Recorder guys took everything Q-Ball and the Prof knew about sliding, right?"
Wade nods. "They passed the information to this world's scientists and they started work on their own sliding machine."
"Sleazeballs," says Remmy. "Picking stuff out of a man's brain like that."
"Don't knock it," says Wade calmly. "If they hadn't done it, you'd be dead and I'd be...worse."
Rembrandt calms down and lets Wade continue with her story.
"You know that Derek and I had a...connection?"
"Well that didn't end when we left. I didn't know it but he was still aware of me, wherever I went." She pauses. "He knew what was going to happen to me. Saw it the moment we left this world. Then when he found out about the data the Recorders had gathered, he set the scientists to work. Aside from a few test runs, my rescue was the first time their sliding machine was used."
"They can control it?" asks Rembrandt. "They know which world they're going to when they slide?"
"Not exactly," says Wade. "They've combined the physical science of sliding with their own psychic science. If they can mentally lock in on a world, they can slide to it, otherwise they're sliding blind just like we were."
"And Derek mentally locked in on you?"
Rembrandt nods. Then a thought strikes him. "What about me? I'm not connected to Derek."
"No," says Wade, "you're connected to me."
Rembrandt gives her a questioning look.
"I said that you being here was proof that you're my Rembrandt," says Wade. "See, everyone has a sort of mental fingerprint. A telepath can sense and recognise the fingerprint of someone they know, especially that of a loved one. Only it's not like a real fingerprint that people are born with, it's unique between two people because it's the result of their shared experiences." She pauses. "So no double could ever have the same fingerprint." She smiles. "No-one else could be my Remmy."
Rembrandt smiles back and reaches for her. They hug again, this time with Remmy certain of who he is hugging. After a while they break. Remmy has a concerned look again.
"So are you saying you're telepathic now?"
Wade laughs. "Don't worry, I can't read your mind. Derek says I have a latent psychic ability...but I'm too old for it to be developed now. Training has to start in childhood. I get flashes, but I can't control it. It works best when I dream."
"But you connected with me," points out Rembrandt.
"That was a technique Derek developed. He links with me and uses his power like a sort of booster rocket to enable me to reach out and search for fingerprints. But it's hard. We can only search for maybe an hour at a time before we're exhausted. We'd been searching for almost 18 months before I found you. Derek says it was only your heightened emotional state at that point that let me make the link."
"I was thinking about you," says Rembrandt. "Maybe that helped."
Wade just smiles and nods. Rembrandt asks a question that has been forming in his mind during their conversation.
"So are you and Derek...?"
"Like I said," says Wade diplomatically, "we have a connection."
ONE WEEK LATER
Rembrandt looks around appreciatively as he enters Wade's apartment for the first time. It is large and stylish, with all the latest gadgets.
"Nice place," he says.
"The Project pays well," says Wade.
Remmy gives her a look. "That's about the fifth time you've mentioned 'the project'. What is it?"
"Didn't I say?"
"That's why I'm asking."
"It's the iDET Project. iDET stands for Inter-Dimensional Exploration and Travel."
"You mean sliding?"
"I'm the only person on the project that calls it that. Everyone else said was an unscientific term and 'didn't accurately define the project's purpose'...but I think they just wanted a catchy acronym." She shrugs. "Anyway, they put me on the executive board because of my experience with other worlds. I don't really think they wanted me there but nobody says no to Derek."
"There's a lot to be said for having a boyfriend in high places."
"He's not my boyfriend."
"Ok." He looks around. "Bathroom?"
Wade points. "Thataway."
Remmy goes into the bathroom and does what comes naturally. As he is washing his hands he notes a man's razor. It's clearly not Wade's as her own pink one is beside it. The spare toothbrush, men's deodorant and cologne complete his mental picture.
"Look Wade," he says as he exits, "I don't want to be in anybody's way here so maybe I should stay in a hotel for now."
"Don't be silly. You're not in my way."
"I was referring to the owner of the silver-black Gillette."
"That's Derek's," Wade tells him. "He's not here that often."
"I thought you said he wasn't your boyfriend."
That evening, Derek comes over. Over a slightly awkward meal Rembrandt watches Derek for any signs of the megalomania he'd exhibited previously, as well as observing the interaction between Wade and Derek. To a casual observer they appear to be a couple, for all that Wade insists they aren't. Derek tells Rembrandt how he had become Prime Oracle when Melanie had voluntarily stood aside about 6 months after they had left. He had created the position of Vice-Prime for her. Rembrandt raises the question of the Seer, thinking Derek might have some insight.
"What do you think? Was he for real?"
"Hard to say," says Derek. "The world you were on certainly knew a good deal about your group. And he was right that you would die in that red vortex. I saw that much through Wade."
"It wouldn't have been hard to arrange things to make that prediction come true," observes Wade. "A minor misalignment of the primary stabiliser coils would result in a vortex that would rip your cells apart."
Rembrandt looks at her in surprise. "Damn, girl. What text book have you been eating?"
"Sorry. iDET's Defence Research Team have been looking into remotely destabilising vortices as a way of preventing Kromagg invasions. I've had to sit through a million technical presentations and some of it sinks in."
"One thing that wasn't true is that virus you say you injected yourself with," says Derek. "Our doctors couldn't find any trace of it."
Rembrandt frowns. "But they used it to beat off the Kromaggs."
"Perhaps they never intended to give you the real virus."
"Or maybe that particular viral strain can only survive in the particular biosphere in which it was created," suggests Wade.
Remmy gives her a look. "Technical presentation?"
After the meal, when Wade is in the kitchen getting a new bottle of wine, Rembrandt thanks Derek for his part in saving him. Derek seems to have acquired some modesty since they last met and he waves the thanks aside, telling him that it was all down to Wade.
"That's the other thing I have to thank you for," says Remmy, "saving Wade."
"No thanks required," replies Derek.
"It's lucky you're Prime Oracle," says Remmy, "I can't imagine my government back home putting together that sliding facility to help me rescue a friend."
"Oh, it wasn't wholly altruistic, I assure you," says Derek. "Even as Prime Oracle I couldn't have ordered the setting up of iDET for purely personal reasons. The fact is that Wade is vital to the safety of this world, and quite possibly every world."
Rembrandt looks at him in surprise as Wade returns with the wine. "Talking about me?"
"Yeah," says Rembrandt, "Derek was just telling me how you're second in importance to God."
Wade gives Derek a look. "Exaggerating again."
"Not at all," says Derek "the Prime Oracle was very clear."
"Wait a minute," says Rembrandt, "I thought you said YOU were Prime Oracle."
"The old Prime Oracle," clarifies Derek. "That is, the one before Melanie."
"The one who tried to run me over," adds Wade. "And it's not me who's important, it's Quinn."
"Q-Ball?" asks Rembrandt.
"When I became Prime Oracle," says Derek, "Melanie passed on two things to me. One was the information that the Recorders gathered, the other was the previous Prime's last prediction." He goes on. "He said he'd foreseen that the fate of our world, and more, was inextricably linked to Quinn Mallory."
"That was why he ordered the Recorders to pick Quinn and the Professor's brains," explains Wade. "He knew one day it would be needed to find Quinn."
"I don't get it," says Remmy. "If this Oracle dude knew Quinn was important, why didn't he just lock him up and keep him here when he had the chance?"
"Because it's the Quinn of now that's important," says Derek, "not the Quinn of then. Holding him here would have altered the future."
"That's a pity," mutters Rembrandt, before saying, louder, "So how is Q-Ball supposed to save the world?"
"That, he couldn't foresee," says Derek ruefully.
"Can't YOU see it?"
Derek shakes his head. "It was his vision, not mine. And that brings me to a major concern." He pauses. "Neither I, not any of our top seers, can see more than a year ahead from this point in time. It's like a veil has been drawn over the future and it's very unsettling."
Remmy shrugs. "Some of us have never been able to see the future. We live with it, you can too."
"It's not that simple," says Derek. "We believe that the reason we can't see it is because some cataclysmic event may be going to take place. Or it may not. The key to preventing it is, we think, Quinn Mallory." He looks at Wade. "Which is why Wade is so important. She's the only person in all the worlds who can find THE Quinn Mallory."
Rembrandt feels a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He's about to speak but Wade gets there first.
"So as soon as I'd recovered, Derek started training me to search."
"And it took you all this time to find me?"
Wade nods. "It's not easy. It's a bit like trying to find a radio signal when you don't know the frequency. You just have to track through all of them until you hit it." She shakes her head. "Actually no, it's more like trying to pick out a single voice in a crowd of thousands. Or trying to spot a..."
"Wade, I get it."
"Sorry. Anyway, I thought Quinn would be the easiest to find, but whenever I try to focus on him it's like whispers in a dark room. They seem to come from everywhere. Derek can't explain it."
"Wade," says Rembrandt hesitantly, "there's something you need to know about Q-Ball."
"He's...not really Q-Ball any more."
Wade frowns. "What are you talking about?"
Haltingly, Rembrandt explains what happened to Quinn, starting with the revelation that he wasn't of their Earth, and ending with the melding that resulted in Mallory.
Wade is too stunned by all this to speak.
"That would explain why you couldn't locate him," observes Derek, but Wade isn't listening.
"Quinn's dead?" she asks, finally finding her voice.
"Not exactly," says Remmy. "To be honest, I never really got a handle on it myself. I just learned to accept it after a while."
"So where does this leave our search for Quinn?" asks Derek.
"It's over," says Wade, simply. "Quinn doesn't exist."
"We could try and find this Mallory person."
"He's not Quinn," spits Wade.
"He's all that's left," says Derek calmly.
"Even if I wanted to, I couldn't find him," says Wade. "I can't isolate the fingerprint."
"What about Maggie?" suggests Rembrandt. "He's with her."
Wade's voice is cold. "I never connected with Maggie."
"I know you couldn't locate Quinn before," says Derek, "but that we know what happened, we might be able to compensate."
Wade doesn't respond. She just buries her head in her hands. Rembrandt and Derek exchange a look.
"Look, I know he's not Q-Ball," says Rembrandt, gently. "But if it's possible I'd like to find him and the others. We've been through some stuff together."
"And I went through some stuff with Quinn!" yells Wade. "You've had a year to get used to him being gone, how about giving me some time to mourn him before you go asking me to rescue the man who stole his soul?"
With tears in her eyes, Wade turns and rushes to her bedroom. Remmy calls after her, but she slams the door behind her. He starts for the door but Derek stops him.
"Best to leave her for a while I think."
"She doesn't understand," says Rembrandt. "Mallory didn't steal Quinn's soul."
"She understands," says Derek. "She's a highly intelligent woman. But she's also a woman of strong emotion. She just needs time to balance the two."
"Can't you, you know, do something to calm her?"
Derek raises his eyebrows in surprise at the request. "I could. But mentally suppressing emotion is only ever temporary. Sooner or later it comes out. Besides, I learned long ago not to touch Wade's mind without her consent."
"Yeah, you're right," admits Remmy. "I just hate seeing her upset." He sits back down and sighs. "So what will you do if she won't search for Mallory?"
"She will," says Derek.
"You sound very sure about that."
"I am." He smiles. "You haven't had a chance to see her at work. She's driven to succeed in this. True, a good part of that was that in helping us she also found her friends but I know she'd have worked with equal dedication if she were searching for complete strangers. Once she's come to terms with her loss, she'll be ready to try again."
Rembrandt regards Derek carefully. "You seem to have got to know Wade even better than I do."
"I don't know about that," says Derek. "You've shared experiences with her that I can only imagine. But I have had the privilege of helping her search." He pauses. "And we do have a connection."
Rembrandt nods. "I'd heard that." He sighs. "I guess we might as well call it a night. Can you see yourself out?"
Derek doesn't answer. Instead he closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them he shakes his head. "Wade would like me to stay here tonight."
Remmy doesn't quite know what to say to this so he just says, "Ok."
TWO WEEKS LATER
Rembrandt looks at Wade with concern. She's been very withdrawn since she heard about Quinn. As he watches her work on some iDET Project papers, it suddenly strikes him how much she's changed since he last saw her. Her hair is longer, back to its original colour. Her face has changed from pretty to a mature beauty. And she's less effervescent, less bubbly than she once was.
"What are you looking at?"
He is startled out of his reverie. "You," he says with a smile. "You're different."
"You aged well," he says.
She smiles, but it's just the barest flicker, before turning back to her work. He frowns. After the initial euphoria of being reunited she seems to have retreated from him, become almost cold. It's not just her grief over Quinn. In the past she'd have turned to him for comfort, not shut him out. He decides to find out what's bothering her.
She looks up again.
"Are we ok?"
Wade frowns. "What do you mean?"
"You and me. Are we ok?"
"Sure. Why wouldn't we be?"
"I don't know, Wade. It just seems like we're not connecting like we used to."
"We've been apart a long time," says Wade.
"I know that," says Rembrandt. "But I used to consider you my best friend in the world. And now, I don't know, it just seems like we don't have that any more."
Wade looks at him thoughtfully for a moment as if considering whether or not to say what's on her mind. She makes a decision. "When I was captured," she begins, "I keep thinking you'd come. I imagined you and Quinn appearing out of nowhere to save me." She pauses reflectively, "Funny how I always imagine Quinn being with you, even though I didn't know he'd found his way back." She looks into Remmy's face. "So I waited...and waited, but you never came."
"That's what made Derek come for me when he did. It wasn't just that I was in danger, that had happened plenty of times, but that for the first time I was without hope. Because for the first time, I'd been abandoned by my friends."
Remmy moves towards her, wanting to comfort her but he is halted by her next words.
"Did you try?"
"Did any of you even try and rescue me?"
Remmy is silent for a moment, and his silence is all she needs.
"You didn't try."
"I thought you said you couldn't read my mind?"
"I can't," she replies, "but I can read your face."
"We didn't even know where they'd taken you," protests Rembrandt. "And even if we had, to try and get you out would have been suicide."
Wade gives him a look like she has never given him before cold and hard. "I'd have died before abandoning you. And there was a time when you and Quinn would have done the same for me too." She stands abruptly. "I have a meeting."
She grabs a jacket and leaves the apartment. Rembrandt wants to stop her but doesn't know what he would say if he did.
Rembrandt is visiting with Dominique. He had hooked up with her again some days after he got out of the hospital. He'd been disappointed to find that she was now involved with someone but as one of the few people he knew in this world, he valued having her as a friend. He pours out his soul about Wade.
"She blames me for leaving her in that place," he says in distress. "She thinks I abandoned her."
Dominique just sits back and lets him get it off his chest.
"I would never do that! If there had been any chance, any chance at all that I could save her I would have. Even if I'd had to die to do it!"
"I know that," says Dominique quietly. "And so does she."
Remmy shakes his head. "You didn't hear her."
"Trust me, she knows. Listen, it's classic transference of blame. It's not uncommon among victims of violent crime. A rape victim will often blame her husband or father for failing to protect her even when there's no possible way they could have stopped it."
Rembrandt looks at her with surprise. "I thought you were a nurse?"
"I minored in psych. And on this world, we KNOW what makes the mind tick. Look, the four of you had been together for, what, three years?"
"In all that time you three men were the only constant in her life. You were her family. All the sense of security she had was bound up in you. And then what happens?"
"Arturo dies," says Remmy.
Dominique nods. "Wade loses her father figure. And straight after that..?"
"Maggie comes on the scene." Remmy shakes his head. "Wade never really got along with Maggie."
"Maggie appeared at a time when Wade needed you and Quinn to be especially close to her. She prevented the family grieving that Wade needed. And her presence drove a wedge between Wade and Quinn. Suddenly, when she needed it most, Wade no longer had a family."
"She still had me," protests Rembrandt.
Rembrandt considers. "I don't know. I guess not. I got a little into myself for a while back then. Things were never the same after the Professor died. Now that I think on it, I don't think I ever saw Wade truly happy after that."
"And then," continues Dominique, "she gets captured. She knows intellectually that there's nothing you or Quinn could have done to save her, but the fact that you didn't try proved to her what she already feared. That you no longer cared about her."
"That's not true. I love Wade!"
"I know that," soothes Dominique. "But in Wade's mind you failed her. She knows she's wrong, but she can't help it."
Remmy sighs. "Poor Wade. But if I'm just hurting her by being around, maybe I should move out."
"No," insists Dominique. "That's the worst thing you could do. You'd be abandoning her again."
"So what can I do?"
"Just stay there and take everything she throws at you. Let her know you'll never leave her again."
Wade comes home to find the table laid out with candles and wine. Rembrandt is standing by the table. "I made dinner," he says.
"So I see."
He's somehow managed to obtain a covered silver platter. Wade doesn't know where from because she knows she doesn't own one. Rembrandt lifts the lid with a flourish.
The platter is filled with ribs. Wade approaches silently and sniffs. "Is that smell what I think it is?"
Remmy smiles. "Grandma Brown's secret sauce"
A little smile crosses Wade's face. "I always loved it when you made your ribs and sauce."
"I hope I remembered how to do it right," says Remmy. "I haven't made it since I lost you. You liked it so much, I never wanted to eat it without you."
A tear forms in Wade's eye and she wipes it away. "Well then," she says with a smile, "let's eat."
She goes to sit down but Remmy stops her. "Wait a second, I have something to say." He takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when you needed me. But I want you to know that if there had been even the slightest hope in my mind, nothing would have stopped me coming for you. And a day didn't go by when I didn't think about you." He pauses. "You know the other Wade, the one who died?"
"I don't want to go into detail but she was going to set off a bomb to stop the Kromaggs on the world she was on. She couldn't leave and I...I decided to stay there and die with her."
Wade looks at him with surprise.
"The only reason I didn't is because she teleported me out of range. Now, I'm not telling you all this to try and make myself out to be some kind of hero. I just want you to know that you mean more to me than my own life and there is nothing I won't do to protect you."
Wade can no longer hold back the tears and they flow freely. "I'm sorry," she says. Remmy takes her in his arms and she sobs on his shoulder.
Wade and Remmy are watching TV. Wade is snuggled up beside him as he flips through the channels.
"TV on this world sucks," he says.
"It's not their fault," says Wade. "It's hard to tell a story when half the audience can predict what's going to happen next."
"I guess." He switches the TV off and smiles down at her. "I'm so happy to have my Wade back."
Wade smiles back. "I'm happy you cared enough to keep looking for her."
"So," says Remmy, "given our newly reacquired closeness, are you going to tell me the deal with you and Derek?"
Wade laughs. "Why do you want to know?"
"I'm looking out for you. If you're involved with this guy I'm gonna make damn sure he's worthy of you." He pauses. "That and I'm nosey as hell."
Wade sighs. "Me and Derek...well, we're close," she says. "And we satisfy a need in one another. Derek's under a lot of pressure as Prime Oracle and I'm the one person that he can switch off with and just be himself. He'd always believed that I'd be by his side and in a way, I am." She pauses. "For me, Derek provides comfort, something to hold onto. When I arrived here my connection with him was the one thing I had left. I'd lost everything else I ever had."
Rembrandt nods in understanding.
"Plus," says Wade, "sex with a telepath is, literally, mind-blowing."
Remmy stares at her in surprise until he sees the twinkle in her eye. His face breaks into a smile and so does hers. The smiles turn to giggles and they are both soon laughing uncontrollably.
TWO MONTHS LATER
Rembrandt is at the iDET facility watching Wade and Derek "search." Wade explained that they always search there so they that can quickly be ready to slide.
Watching them, Rembrandt feels like he's intruding on an intimate moment. Wade and Derek sit cross-legged on the floor facing each other, cupping one-another's face in their hands and staring into each others eyes. He wonders again about the relationship between them.
The search has been going on for some time and Rembrandt is struck again at how much she has changed. Doing this she seems almost other-worldly. Derek is serene, unmoving, but Wade twitches and convulses the whole time. Rembrandt is concerned but the technicians monitoring them tell him it is normal, the result of her channelling far more mental energy than she is trained to handle.
Suddenly Wade takes a sharp intake of breath and throws back her head. She slowly exhales as she rolls her head forward again. She looks suddenly exhausted as she opens her eyes. Derek's reactions were less strong but he also seems wearied by the effort. They look at each other but no words are necessary they both know what they found. Wade turns to Rembrandt.
"What? What happened?" asks Remmy. "You find Q-ball?"
Wade shakes her head slowly. "I found the Professor."
Rembrandt and Wade emerge from the vortex into an office. Both hit the floor but Rembrandt is quickly on his feet and looking around. "Where is he?"
Wade looks around from her place, still on the floor. "Dammit, he must have moved. But it can only have been seconds ago. He can't have gone far."
Remmy opens the door and looks out. There's nobody in sight. He comes back in. "Not out there."
Wade uses the desk to haul herself to her feet. Remmy goes to help her. "You ok?"
"I'm still a little woozy from the search. I told you it was draining."
"Yeah. You didn't tell me it was so creepy to watch though." Wade is virtually hanging on Remmy's arm, clearly tired. "Look, why don't you stay here while I scout around for him?"
Wade nods. "Good plan."
He guides her to the chair and then dashes out of the office. It is obvious from his surroundings that he is in a university. "Professor!" he calls. Getting no answer, he heads down the stairs. He briefly wonders why there's nobody around before remembering that it's a Saturday. He reaches the main doors and stops. They have been broken open. Carefully he opens one and peers out, but aside from a few cars and people walking about, there is nothing to be seen. The fact that the door was clearly forced open makes him nervous and he hurries back up to Wade.
He enters the room and is relieved to find Wade right where he left her. She looks up expectantly but he shakes his head.
"No sign. But something's not right. The front door was forced open."
"That's not the only thing," says Wade.
She gestures at the desk drawer. Remmy moves round to see it and sees that the drawer has also been prized open.
"Someone was looking for something," observes Rembrandt.
"And there's this," says Wade. She picks up a picture frame on the desk and shows it to Rembrandt. It is a picture of the four of them, taken on some now forgotten world where they had found time for enjoyment. "This is the Professor's office," she says.
"Someone wanted something of his," says Rembrandt, adding, "and if he was here at the time..."
Wade looks worried. "When I sensed him...he was in a heightened state of emotion. Like you were. Maybe it was fear."
"Ok," says Remmy, "we've got to find him. You up to it?"
"Try and stop me."
A few moments later, Wade and Remmy emerge from the university and look around.
"Where do we start?" he asks.
"The Professor's house," she says. "It's not far from the campus. At least, it wasn't last time we were here."
They set off at a fast walk.
"Wade," says Rembrandt, "if the Professor has been here all this time, not moving around like me, how come you never stumbled across his fingerprint before?"
Wade shrugs. "I wasn't looking for him. I thought he was dead. Finding him...it was like looking for a particular face in a crowd and suddenly seeing someone else you recognise."
Rembrandt shakes his head. "This is all happening too fast for me to take in. One minute he's dead, the next I find out that a man we went sliding with for months was a fake."
"I know. For now I'm just focussing on one fact he's alive. I can take time to come to terms with the other stuff later. That's it."
The last two words are accompanied by a nod in the direction of the professor's house as it comes into view. They break into a run and quickly reach the gate where Rembrandt places an arm in front of her to hold her back.
"Whoa there, girl. We don't know what's going down here. Let me check it out."
"I can take care of myself."
"Hey, keeping you from harm is my new vocation in life, remember? Stay there."
Wade does as he asks and watches nervously as he opens the gate and approaches the house. There is no sign of a break-in or any other trouble as he checks the door and then scoots around the house checking the windows.
Wade bites her lip as he disappears round the corner, then is startled by the sound of the front door opening. An elderly man in a dressing gown emerges and picks up the newspaper lying on the mat. Wade looks at him in surprise and he looks at her with puzzlement.
"Can I help you?" he asks eventually.
"No," says Wade. "I mean, yes. I was looking for Professor Arturo. I thought he lived here."
"Oh he did. I bought the place from him about eighteen months ago."
Wade is dismayed. "Do you know where he moved to?"
"Sorry, no. Are you a relative?"
"No," says Wade. "We were closer than that."
At that moment Rembrandt reappears having completed his circuit of the house. The old man steps back in fright and Wade quickly reassures him.
"It's ok," she says. "He's with me."
Rembrandt looks at her, puzzled and she gestures for him to come back to her. "Sorry for troubling you," she tells the man and leads Rembrandt away.
Moments later they are walking aimlessly along.
"So what now?" asks Rembrandt.
Wade thinks for a moment. "If someone wanted something from the professor, what might it be?"
"It can only one thing," says Rembrandt. "Sliding."
Wade nods her agreement. "Could the machine still be at Quinn's house?"
"After all this time? I doubt it."
Wade nods. "But we have nowhere else to start. And maybe Mrs Mallory will know where the professor went."
They arrive at Quinn's house and pause at the gate. They can see that the front door has been forced open.
"Pay dirt," says Rembrandt, before turning to Wade. "Wait here."
Wade doesn't argue and watches as he ducks into a neighbour's yard and picks up a baseball bat left there by some youngster. He returns and heads to the door. He pauses to listen and hearing no sound, carefully eases the door open and peers inside. Seeing no-one, he enters. A quick look round confirms there is nobody in the immediate vicinity and Rembrandt makes his way slowly towards the basement door.
Suddenly, the creak of a floorboard behind him causes his to whirl, bat raised. It's Wade. "I told you to wait outside," he hisses.
"I'm not letting you walk into danger alone," she hisses back, firmly.
He gives her an exasperated look then holds out the bat. "Take this."
She does so and they both head for the basement door. It is ajar and Remmy eases it open a little more. Voices can be heard one of them very familiar.
"I keep telling you it doesn't work!" bellows Arturo. If Wade and Rembrandt could see what was happening they would see him tied to a chair in the basement with two suited men standing in front of him whose demeanours declare them to be working for the government or the mafia, or possibly both.
"We know that," says one of the men, his voice calm but cold and hard. "And we know that YOU know how to fix it."
"I haven't the faintest idea how to fix it," says the Professor. "It I could travel to other worlds why would I still be here? Answer me that."
"Then you'll just have to do that," declares Arturo.
"You don't understand," says the first man. "You're only of use to us if you repair the machine. We don't keep useless things around."
"You wouldn't dare," says Arturo, sounding less than certain. "The police would investigate."
"The police don't investigate what we tell them not to investigate."
"Besides," says the other man, "who said they'd find enough left of you to investigate?"
"I won't do it," says Arturo, his voice scared but firm.
The first man, who seems to be in charge, sighs. "Ok, do it," he says to his partner.
Wade and Rembrandt hear the click of a pistol being primed and Rembrandt moves fast. Hurling open the door he leaps from the stairs onto both men, one just raising his gun. He hits them hard and takes them both down.
"Mr. Brown!?" shouts Arturo in amazement when he sees who it is.
Rembrandt wrestles with the man holding the gun but the other man stands and reaches for his own gun. He takes aim...then turns as a Wade flies towards him screaming out a war cry and swinging her bat.
The man turns towards her but too late. Her bat connects with the side of his head and he is sent sprawling to the floor, unconscious. She scrambles for his dropped gun and points it at the man still struggling with Rembrandt.
"I've never killed a man before," she says. "Don't be my first."
The man decides she sounds like she means it. He stops struggling and drops the gun.
"Miss Wells?" says Arturo in disbelief.
A short while later the professor's attackers are bound and gagged on the floor while he himself is free. After much hugging, shaking of hands he still can't believe they are here. He clamps one arm around Wade, unwilling to let her go.
"This is incredible, incredible," he says. "I never thought to see you again."
"The feeling's mutual," says Rembrandt.
The professor looks around. "But where is Mr. Mallory?"
Remmy and Wade exchange a look. "That's a long story," says Wade. Arturo senses that the news isn't good but she changes the subject before he can enquire further. She points at the bound men, "Who are the men in black?"
Arturo glares at the two men. "Government agents," he says, "although not for any agency that I've ever heard of."
"They wanted you to help them slide?" asks Rembrandt.
"Indeed, Mr. Brown. Oh, they were quite subtle about it at first. Just a couple of personable men in suits visiting my office to ask me about sliding. I told them I had no knowledge of it but I suspected they wouldn't take no for an answer and disabled the machine. I soon realised I was right to because last night I came home to find the house had been entered."
"You live here now?" asks Wade.
"Yes, Quinn's, that's this world's Quinn's, mother moved away and wanted to pass the machine on to me. I decided that rather than move it, it would make sense for me to move here." He pauses. "Aside from being guardian to the machine, I wanted to be in the first place any of you would come, if you returned." He shakes himself. "Anyway, I could see that they'd been trying to make the machine work, though rather ineptly. Foolishly I'd made notes on how to repair it and left them in my office drawer to be delivered to a colleague of mine in the event of something happening to me. I went to destroy them this morning and found the men there. They took the notes from my drawer, not that they would be much use to anyone other than a physicist, and marched me back here where, as you heard, they tried to force me to repair it."
"We're getting this 'nick of time' thing down to a fine art," comments Rembrandt. "And speaking of time, isn't it time we slid the hell out of here?"
A short time later, when Wade and Remmy have deposited the gunmen in the yard, they return to the basement to find the Professor dousing it with gasoline.
"What are you doing?" asks Wade.
"I'm making sure that the people those men work for never obtain the secret of sliding."
Satisfied, he takes the notes that the men stole from his office and sets them alight. "Now might be a good time to leave," he says and Wade hits the timer to generate the vortex.
She and Remmy jump into it. Arturo tosses the lighted paper onto the floor and watches the gasoline take hold before turning and following them.
Back at iDET, Wade, Arturo and Rembrandt are getting down to the serious business of reminiscing.
"I still can't believe you didn't realise you were travelling with a fake," declares Arturo.
"He was very convincing," says Remmy.
"But the man was a buffoon!"
Remmy smiles. "Like I said, he was very convincing."
"He must have had more in common with you than you thought," says Wade. "I don't know what drove him to do what he did to you, but he proved that like you he could be kind and wise and noble."
Rembrandt joins in. "Not to mention grouchy, overbearing..."
"Yes, yes, all right Mr. Brown. Suffice it to say that you found my doppelganger to be at least as pleasant or UNpleasant a travelling companion as you found me."
"He died saving us," says Wade quietly.
This statement takes the wind out of Arturo's blustering. "Well, it's good to know that he upheld the Arturo honour at the end. And if he saved you, I can forgive him everything else."
"You know," says Wade, "It almost seems like fate. If your double hadn't switched places with you, you'd probably have died in his place."
"I don't believe in fate, Miss Wells."
Wade smiles. "On this world, Professor, it's hard not to."
"So come on, Professor," says Rembrandt, "tell us what happened after we left."
"There's not much to tell," replies Arturo. "I thought about using the machine on that world to slide but I had no way of following you or finding our own world. The prospect of sliding alone didn't appeal so I decided the best course of action was to assume my double's life."
He goes on. "I wanted to repair the damage my double had done by revealing the existence of sliding so I claimed the whole tale had been an elaborate hoax. Half the population thought we were charlatans anyway so it wasn't too difficult. It didn't do my, or rather my double's, reputation much good of course but I managed to pass it off as a psychological experiment, a test of how willing people would be to accept such a fantastic story."
"How did you explain where the rest of us had disappeared to?" asks Wade.
"Only the two of you had a high public profile and I found I didn't have to explain you're disappearing at all. You'd both made money out of it and the story soon circulated that you'd fled to South America with your ill-gotten gains." He grins. "In the more lurid versions of the story, you were lovers."
Rembrandt and Wade exchange an amused look. "You're kidding?" says Rembrandt.
"Not in the least. The tale of two people bound together by love and crime quite captured the imagination of that section of the public that is drawn to such nonsense. The two of you became the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. There was even a television movie made."
Remmy is thrilled. "Who played me?"
"I have no idea," says Arturo. "I never watched the stupid thing."
"Why didn't you tell me about it before we left?" says Remmy accusingly. "I'd have checked out the local video store."
Arturo shakes his head at him then carries on. "Anyway, not long after that there was a period of political upheaval. Communists managed to regain control of Russia and set about trying to recapture the old Soviet Union states. NATO stepped in and there was a brief but very bloody war. Fortunately neither side resorted to nuclear weapons but much of Eastern Europe was devastated. Then the newly formed League of Arab States threatened to withhold the supply of oil from the West unless Israel withdrew to its original borders. Thankfully a political solution was found for that one but not before the price of oil had gone through the roof and rationing was brought in. There was even a temporary ban on the use of personal transport." He pauses. "In all the troubles, people forgot about sliding."
"Not quite everyone," observes Wade.
"Indeed, Miss Welles." He gets serious. "But enough about me, I think it's time you told me where Mr. Mallory is."
Wade and Remmy become instantly subdued. Wade looks pleadingly at Remmy, asking him with her eyes to do the painful job of telling. He does so, and Arturo shakes his head solemnly. "Poor, Mr. Mallory. What an awful fate."
Wade takes his hand and he squeezes it. "The old Prime Oracle saw that Quinn was vital to the future, but since he became merged with Mallory, nobody can see much of it."
"I suppose that makes sense," says Arturo. "At the quantum level everything is fundamentally uncertain. The nature of Quinn's existence, if he exists at all, would be constantly changing from moment to moment. The same would be for any part he might have to play in the future."
Wade looks thoughtful for a moment then turns to Rembrandt. "Remmy, could you bring me another coffee?"
"Sure," he says. "Professor?"
"I presume we will shortly decamp to somewhere they serve alcohol and can drink to our reunion, and Mr. Mallory, in the proper fashion," says Arturo, "but for now, do you think you could rustle me up some tea?"
"I'll try," says Remmy, "but I'm a little out of practice."
When Rembrandt has gone, Wade turns to Arturo. "Professor, if we find Mallory... can Quinn be put back together?"
Arturo gives her a sympathetic look. "I honestly don't know, Wade. If this Mallory person has absorbed all of Quinn's sub-atomic structure, then in theory it can be separated out. But that's far from saying we could actually to do it." He pauses before adding. "And there's no telling what we'd end up with if we did. What we got back may be even less the Quinn we knew than Mallory is."
Wade nods silently, but in her eyes there is a spark of hope.
SIX MONTHS LATER
Life for the Sliders had moved on since the rescue of Arturo. Rembrandt had moved out of Wade's apartment two months previously. He hadn't gone far though, taking the newly vacated apartment upstairs so as to still be nearby if she needed him. It was around the same time that he started his affair with the now married Dominique, something Wade scolded him for but privately, he knew, approved of. He'd been co-opted by Wade onto iDET's Defence Research Team as an expert on Kromagg's, but that didn't take up too much of his time so he'd found a local jazz club at which he sang regularly and was even considering becoming part-owner of.
The Professor lived at the iDET project facility, emerging from time to time to see Wade and Rembrandt, at which times he would display an exuberance and joyousness that Rembrandt rarely remembered seeing when they were sliding together.
Derek had all but moved in with Wade, although she continued to deny that they were "a couple." As the time beyond which Derek couldn't see the future got closer, the pressure on him as Prime Oracle increased and Wade was his support. He'd asked her to move into his official mansion but she'd refused, being unwilling to leave the first place in years that she'd been able to really call home.
Wade herself was increasingly frustrated at her inability to locate Mallory. Derek was more positive, knowing better than she that every attempt refined their technique. Rembrandt had asked why they couldn't just go to the same co-ordinates they picked him up from but it was explained that since he was already in the red vortex when they found him, the co-ordinates weren't actually on the world.
Finally, one night, at 4am, Rembrandt is wakened by a phone call.
"Remmy?" It's Wade's voice.
"Who else would be answering my phone at 4am?"
"Dominique?" suggests Wade.
"Well yeah," he admits. "But she's not here."
"Lucky her husband is only a low-grade psychic."
"Did you wake me up just to check on my love life?" he asks.
"No, I'm at iDET. Can you come over?"
"Yeah. I couldn't sleep so Derek and I decided to do a little late-night searching."
Rembrandt doesn't wait to hear more. "I'm on my way."
A short time later, Rembrandt arrives at the facility. He finds Wade, Derek and Arturo waiting and is surprised by their lack of urgency.
"Come on, people, let's slide. We don't want to lose him."
"It's not that simple, Mr Brown," says Arturo. "Wade hasn't been able to home in on Mallory like she did with you and I."
Rembrandt frowns and looks at Wade. "So what did you home in on?"
"I'm not sure," she admits. "Since we couldn't isolate the fingerprint, we've been trying to triangulate around the strongest echoes. It's not very exact."
"How not exact?"
Wade looks at the Professor, who answers for her. "In three-dimensional terms, we have a target area of approximately five hundred and ten million, sixty six thousand square kilometres."
"That's a big target," says Rembrandt.
"You realise of course what that means."
Arturo sighs in exasperation. "Five hundred and ten million, sixty six thousand square kilometres is the surface area of the Earth, Mr. Brown. It means that Wade has identified a single world."
"That's great," says Rembrandt.
"To an extent," says Derek. "Mallory could be anywhere on the world."
Remmy shrugs. "So we might have to look around a little. We didn't always have psychic links to tell us where we were going." He grins at Wade and Arturo, "It'll be just like the old days."
"We're working on the assumption that Mallory has remained on the world you left him on, Mr. Brown," says Arturo. "That being the case, where would you suggest we start?"
"Well I left them all in San Francisco," says Rembrandt. "We'll start there."
"Ok," says Wade, standing. "Let's get ready to go."
"You're leaving now?" asks Derek.
"If you wait a while I'll organise an assault team."
"What for?" asks Rembrandt.
"Protection," says Derek. "We're only assuming this is the same world you left. It might turn out to be another one we know nothing about."
"No soldiers," says Wade.
"Wade, I really think..."
"No! The three of us will deal with it."
Her firmness brings that conversation to an end. Rembrandt sidles over to Derek.
"I thought nobody said no to the Prime Oracle?"
"Nobody except Wade," says Derek, ruefully.
Wade, Rembrandt and Arturo emerged are in a café having breakfast. All are wearing dark glasses and hats (Remmy a baseball cap, Arturo a fedora and Wade a beret).
"Why do we have to wear the glasses and hats?" asks Rembrandt.
"If what you say about this world is true," says Wade, "they know us. I want to stay incognito for now."
"Yes," says Arturo with sarcasm, "I'm sure we're attracting no attention at all dressed like this." He turns to Rembrandt. "Well, Mr. Brown, is this the world you left?"
Remmy nods. "Yeah, I think so."
"Hmmm," muses the Professor, "and yet this Seer of yours doesn't appear to be waiting to greet us. Interesting."
"Maybe he's suffering from the same thing Derek is," says Rembrandt. "Speaking of which, how come Derek didn't come with us?"
"He's not allowed to slide," says Wade. "As Prime Oracle he's too important."
"Perhaps we should seek out this Seer?" suggests Arturo. "It would seem to offer a better prospect of finding our quarry than simply wandering the streets."
Wade is reluctant. "From what Rembrandt says, I'm not sure we can trust him."
"I can go alone," says Rembrandt. "That way you can back me up if need be."
"That might be the best plan," says Arturo.
Wade is gazing aimlessly out of the window when she sees a fancy limousine pull up on the street opposite outside a boutique. She watches the passenger emerge...then leaps from her seat and races out of the door.
Maggie stops and turns. She stares open-mouthed at Wade. "Wade?"
"I didn't think there was a Wade Welles on this world. We checked."
"Not this world," says Wade.
Realisation dawns on Maggie. "You're Quinn's Wade?"
Wade is surprised to hear Maggie describe her as such. "I guess you could say that."
The Professor, having seen her dash out has chased after her. "Really Miss Welles, you mustn't go running off like that. I'm not as young as I... Good lord."
The expression of surprise comes when he realises who Wade is talking too. Maggie is equally surprised to see him. Rembrandt, who had paid the bill before following jogs over to them. He hugs Maggie warmly.
A crowd is starting to gather. They recognise Maggie and Rembrandt and it is slowly dawning on them who Wade and Arturo are.
"Let's get out of here," says Maggie and ushers them towards her limousine.
"Home, Parker," instructs Maggie and the chauffeur drives away.
"Is he yours," asks Wade with a hint of sarcasm.
Maggie is still struggling to take everything in and misses Wade's dig. "How is it you're here? You're both supposed to be dead."
"It's a long story, Maggie," says Rembrandt. "For now, just accept that we're here, and we're alive."
They have arrived at Maggie's home, which is really more of a mansion. Remmy whistles his appreciation.
"How can you afford a place like this?" he asks. "Did you marry a millionaire or something?"
"I have a good career," says Maggie defensively, before adding, "Although I did marry a millionaire."
"What do you do?" asks Wade.
"A little of everything. I've modelled, wrote a book...and I have my own TV talk show."
Wade smiles. "And to think when I met you you were Rambo with breasts."
"Wow, being a celebrity slider really pays off on this world," says Remmy, not noticing Wade's jibe. "Imagine, the singing career I'd have had if I'd stuck around. Does Diana have a TV show too?"
"No, she stayed with science. She heads up this world's sliding programme."
"She's just not as smart as you, huh?" says Wade.
Maggie glares at her. Rembrandt finally picks up on the tension and tries to change the subject. He picks up a picture of a handsome man. "This him?" he asks.
"Yes, that's Taylor."
"He looks familiar," says Rembrandt. He shows it to Wade, "Don't you think?"
Wade frowns. "Isn't that the guy from the coffee commercials?"
"On this world he makes 15 million a movie," says Maggie pointedly.
Arturo speaks up. "I'm sure this exchange of life stories is all very interesting but aren't we forgetting that we came here for a reason?"
Between then, they fill Maggie in on what's been happening. "So you see," says Rembrandt when they have finished, "we really need to take Mallory back with us to see if whatever made Quinn so important is part of him now."
"I doubt Mallory would be much use to you," says Maggie quietly.
"Why not?" asks Arturo.
Maggie pauses before replying. "Because he's insane."
The four of them are looking into Mallory's room. It is a simple room, with a bed, table chair and a few other items. Mallory is playing a video game that resembles Tetris and appears to be incredibly good at it. He looks better than the three original sliders were expecting. Wade can't stop staring at Mallory, as if trying to see the Quinn within him with just her eyes.
"He looks ok," observes Rembrandt.
"I didn't say he was foaming at the mouth," says Maggie. "He can be quite lucid at times."
"What's the nature of his illness?" asks Arturo.
"Oh, it's a classic," says Maggie with bitterness. "Voices in the head. Carrying on conversations with people who aren't there about things that aren't happening."
"Can we talk to him?" asks Wade.
"What's the point?" says Maggie. "He's in no state to save a world."
"I want to talk to him," insists Wade.
Maggie gestures at the door. "It's not a prison."
Wade looks at Rembrandt, who nods, and together they enter. Maggie and Arturo follow.
Wade and Remmy approach Mallory. Despite her insistence on seeing him, Wade finds herself holding back.
"Hey, man, how's it doing?" says Rembrandt with forced cheerfulness.
Mallory looks up. Rembrandt smiles. "Remember me?"
Mallory stares at him blankly, then he turns and looks at Wade and says, "Oh hey, Janie wants to know if you'll swap shifts on Saturday. She has a date with the guy who drives the Compaq delivery truck."
Having said this, Mallory returns to his game as if nothing had happened.
"What was that all about?" asks Rembrandt.
"I told you," says Maggie, "talking to people who aren't there about things that aren't happening."
"But he wasn't talking to someone who wasn't there," observes Arturo, "he was talking to Wade."
The three of them look at her. "I worked with a girl called Janie at Computer World," she says. "That truck driver was a jerk and way too old for her."
Before the others can react to this news a voice behind them says, "Rembrandt? Is that you?"
They turn and see Diana. Rembrandt goes over and hugs her. She has many questions. "When did you get back? What's going on."
Rembrandt gives her a brief rundown of events, right up to the point where Mallory talked to Wade.
"He recognised you?" Diana asks her.
"Not exactly," says Wade. "It's more like I just happened to fit into whatever was going on in his mind at the time."
"But it shows that he's not just creating random images in his mind," says Diana excitedly. "They're coming from somewhere, from Quinn!"
"It could just be a coincidence," says Maggie, cautiously.
"No," says Diana. "The odds are astronomical. You know, I always wondered if his illness had something to do with the accident but I had no point of reference with which to check the theory. Now there's no doubt. We have to tell his doctors."
"What would they be able to do if you did?" asks Arturo.
Diana's excitement is deflated a little. "I don't know. But it might at least give them a basis to work from."
"We don't have time," says Wade. "We need to get him back to our world." She corrects herself. "I mean Derek's world."
"And do what?" asks Maggie. "Can't you see he's no use to you?"
"We might be able to help him," says Rembrandt. "Derek's people, they really know about the mind."
This gives Maggie pause for thought, but Diana speaks up. "They're not planning on treating him."
Everyone looks at her but she just looks at Wade. "You're going to try and separate Quinn and Mallory aren't you?"
Wade's silence provides the answer.
"What?" shouts Maggie. She turns on Remmy. "So what was all that bull about treating him?"
Rembrandt himself is surprised by the news. He turns to Wade. "When were you planning on letting me know about this?"
"Nothing's been decided," says Wade. "We didn't even know if we could. And it might be dangerous. You knew Mallory and I didn't want to put you in that position until we were sure."
"We?" Remmy looks at Arturo. "So you knew about this too?"
"I've been working on a procedure to separate them," says Arturo, calmly. "It's been mostly theoretical until quite recently."
"Meaning it's no longer theoretical?" asks Diana. "How are you going to do it? I've looked into it but always come up against the same problem. The matter stream just isn't controllable enough to the degree required."
"That was my worry too," admits Arturo. "But there's an element on the world we're on called rentium. It's the most perfect conductor of energy I've ever seen and using it in a sliding machine produces a vortex of amazing stability. I believe that matter travelling through such a vortex will be easier to control."
"Tests on both organic and inorganic matter have been positive. But whether it will work on something as complex as a human is impossible to say."
"Tell me something," says Rembrandt, "were you going to trick Mallory into coming back with is and then force him to be your test subject?"
"Nobody was going to force anyone to do anything, Mr. Brown! We were hoping to persuade him." He gestures towards Mallory, who is sill playing his game and ignoring them. "We didn't know we'd find someone incapable of making a choice."
"Maybe he can't," says Maggie, "but I can make it for him. You're not taking him."
"We need him," says Wade.
"I don't care."
"Don't you want Quinn back?" asks Rembrandt.
"Not at the expense of Mallory's life. Maybe you're forgetting that this man was you're friend too. He saved all our lives at one time or another and he has the right to exist."
"Some might say this isn't much of an existence," observes Arturo.
"It's all he has. And you don't have the right to ask that he give it up, even to save a world. Would any of you do it?"
"I did," says Wade. "Or at least one of me did."
"Come and ask again when it's you," says Maggie.
There is a stand-off. One that is broken when Mallory completes his game. A little tune plays to celebrate a high score and he puts down his controller. He stands, faces the group and says, "I want to be fixed."
Everyone is saying their goodbyes. Mallory's moment of lucidity had lasted just those five words. He was now carrying on a conversation which, as far as Wade could guess, concerned Quinn's best friend from middle-school. But he was unresisting and allowed Wade to lead him.
Maggie watched them with concern. "I wish I knew for sure that he was really lucid when he said that," she mused.
"You can come with us, you know," says Rembrandt to Maggie. "Make sure he's ok."
"I have commitments," says Maggie. "But you let me know how it goes."
"I will," assures Rembrandt.
"Are you quite sure you don't want to come along?" Arturo asks Diana. "We could always use someone with your experience on the project."
"It's tempting," says Diana. "But I have a lot to do here. And it's not like I can't visit."
"True," says Arturo. "With sliding, an alternate dimension is just like a foreign country. They do things differently there."
Wade says her goodbyes with just a nod to each woman. She hits the timer and opens the vortex.
ONE WEEK LATER
Wade, Rembrandt, Arturo and Derek are gathered at iDET in a conference room.
"So we're ready?"
"As we'll ever be, Miss Welles," replies Arturo. "I've made all the tests I can reasonably make."
"How's Mallory?" asks Derek.
"No change," says Rembrandt. "Aside from that one time, he hasn't said anything to suggest he even knows what world he's on."
Wade shakes her head. "I don't know if I can do this. How can I send a man into the vortex when he doesn't even know what he's doing?"
"It's very unpleasant," agrees Arturo. "But unless he becomes lucid again by chance, it seems we have no option."
"Our best people have tried to reach him," says Derek, "but we can't. It's like whatever is inside him is coming from somewhere beyond our perception."
"His last words said he wanted us to try," says Rembrandt. "That's good enough for me."
They are ready to go. In the sliding room they now have two machines.
"Mallory and Wade will enter the slide as normal through the new machine," explains Arturo. "That's the one that has been constructed with the rentium components. But rather than travelling to another dimension he will in effect be held in a holding pattern while we filter out Quinn from Mallory. Then the three of them will emerge from the second machine."
"Sounds simple," says Rembrandt.
"If only it were, Mr. Brown," says Arturo. "Of only it were."
They are interrupted by the arrival of Wade, leading Mallory. He seemed calmer with her, although he never showed any sign of being aware of her presence. She looks at Arturo, Rembrandt and Derek.
"Are you ready, Miss Welles?"
She nods and Arturo fires up the vortex. Mallory seems mesmerised by it and Wade takes a deep breath before leading him towards it. They enter...
Rembrandt and Derek watch helplessly as Arturo and the support technicians work feverishly. Seconds turn into minutes until Arturo shouts, "That's it, they're coming out!"
Rembrandt looks as figures emerge from the second machine. Two figures emerge...both male and collapse on the floor. Rembrandt rushes over. And rolls one over. It's Mallory. He reaches for the second...
"It worked!" he yells as he sees the face. "It's Quinn."
"Where's Wade?" shouts Derek. "Why hasn't she come through?"
Rembrandt realises she isn't there. "Professor!"
Arturo doesn't answer as he and the technicians continue to work.
"Talk to me, Professor!" yells Remmy.
"Here she comes!" he calls back and in that instant, Wade emerges. She falls to the floor and Derek rushes to her.
"Did it work?" she asks.
"It seems so," says Derek with a glance at the two unconscious figures.
"Good," Wade says before passing out.
THE NEXT DAY
Wade enters the conference room to find Arturo, Rembrandt and Derek there. All three rise and greet her warmly.
"What's going on?" she says. "They say I've been out all night."
"My apologies for the rough slide," says Arturo. "In the act of separating out Quinn and Mallory we almost lost you."
"But it worked, right?" she says. She looks at Derek. "You said it worked."
"It worked," confirms Derek, "to a degree."
"What do you mean?"
Arturo explains. "The physical separation worked. We now have a Quinn and Mallory." He sighs. "But neither is entirely complete."
"Get to the point!" demands Wade.
"Their bodies are fine," says Arturo, "but they have no minds."
A short while later, Wade is looking at Quinn and Mallory in adjacent beds in the infirmary. Both are hooked up to machines. She goes to Quinn's side.
There is no response. She takes his hand. "Quinn, it's Wade. Can you hear me?"
"He can't, Miss Welles," says the Professor. "At least, his ears hear you but his brain isn't accepting the signals."
Wade struggles to hold back tears. "What are these machines doing?"
"Just monitoring vital signs," says Derek. "Their bodies are operating normally, but it's like they're operating on auto-pilot. The EEG shows no brain function at all."
Wade looks at him. "What about you? Can you sense anything?"
Derek shakes his head. "Our best brain specialists have tried, but like an empty house. The structure is there, but there's nobody living in it."
Wade is devastated and looks at Quinn again. She brushes hair from his face. "I'm sorry, Quinn. We should never have done it."
"Tell her about the basement," says Rembrandt.
Wade looks up, puzzled. "Basement?"
"A metaphor," says Derek. "Within the empty house there's a... a black spot. Something we can't see into."
"We've been speculating that Quinn's mind has retreated into, whatever it is," adds the Professor.
"So how do we get it out?" says Wade.
"We can't," says Derek. "But maybe you can."
TWO DAYS LATER
Wade is back in the infirmary by Quinn's bedside. Mallory has been moved to another room. Rembrandt looks in on him but his condition is as unchanging as Quinn's. Worse, Wade realises since he doesn't even have the slim chance that Quinn has. Wade can't connect with Mallory, and nobody who might be able to Remmy, Maggie, Diana possesses Wade's latent psychic ability. She'll feel guilty and sympathy for Mallory in time, but for now she is concentrating on Quinn.
Rembrandt is there, along with Arturo, Derek and Dr. Skyler...one of the world's leading brain specialists. He and Wade are going to try and delve into the dark spot in Quinn's brain. Derek's theory was that if Quinn's mind was in there, only Wade could find it. But she needed help to guide her there and that was Dr. Skyler's job.
"Are you ready?" asks Dr. Skyler.
Wade nods and they get into position. Both she and Dr. Skyler place a hand to Quinn's temple and their other hand to each other's. Wade flinches as Skyler starts to connect. Linking minds is an intimate process and Wade isn't comfortable doing it with someone other than Derek. But she focuses on Quinn, and that gives her the strength to continue.
Skyler completes the three-way connection with Quinn and Wade is assailed by images as her brain tries to make sense of everything. It settles on an image of a house since that was the metaphor Derek had used. But it's a house with endless rooms and corridors stretching for miles. Wade has no idea where she is going but Skyler is at her side leading her.
Time is meaningless here but it seems only moments before they reach the doorway to the basement. The door opens as they approach and it is black inside. Pure black. She waits for Skyler to take her in but realises he can't. She moves forward alone...and enters.
The door slams behind her. She calls out for Skyler but there is no answer. She is alone, in the darkness. Fighting to control her panic she concentrates on the instruction Skyler gave her. Focus on Quinn. On who he is, the things they shared, on what he means to her.
"Quinn!" Inside her mind she calls for him. "Quinn, it's Wade! Can you hear me?"
At first darkness seems to mock her efforts but suddenly there is a light, dim but real. She isn't surprised to see the basement resembles one she is familiar with Quinn's.
"Quinn?" she calls again as she heads down the stairs.
She looks around and sees the sliding machine, cloaked in shadow. As she approaches she realises there is a figure there, standing within the space where the vortex would appear. Even in shadow, she knows who it is.
She rushes over...and stops. The figure is Quinn but he is spread-eagled, naked and bound by chains to the machinery. She moves towards him. "Quinn?"
He looks up. Recognition flickers in his eyes. "Wade?" he whispers.
"I'm taking you with me."
"You'll be trapped too. Get out now!"
Wade ignores him and pulls at him chains. She can't break them and searches for a tool. She finds a pair of heavy-duty wire-cutters and sets to work. She frees one leg, then starts on another. She fails to see new chains emerging from the machinery, heading for her.
"Leave me!" shouts Quinn but Wade is already working on freeing one arm. As she does so, the chains rise up behind her. Hearing the chink of their movement she turns in time to see them lunge for her.
"No!" yells Quinn and with his one free arm he pushes her.
The force of his mental push is many times that of any physical one and Wade is sent hurtling away from the grasping chains and up towards the door. She crashes through it and immediately feels Skyler grab her and pull her away and out of the house.
Back in the infirmary, Wade collapses and Skyler slumps forward. The other rush to help and fire questions at her. What happened? How is she? Did she find anything?
Wade is devastated by her failure. "I almost had him," she sobs. "He was trapped but I almost had him!" She looks up. "We have to try again."
Derek looks at Skyler who shakes his head. "Not yet," he says.
"But he's trapped there! He can't get out!"
Rembrandt gently takes hold of her. "Come on Wade, you're in no shape to go back in there now."
"He's right, Miss Welles," says Arturo. "Once you're rested and we have a better understanding of what happened, you can try again."
Wade reluctantly allows herself to be taken away. All five leave the room but once they are outside they hear a voice from inside.
They race in to find Quinn awake. He is panting heavily, staring at his own hands as if not believing he is back in the physical world. Wade is first to reach him, saying his name as she takes his face in her hands.
"Wade, I've seen it," he says. "The point at which everything connects. That's where the answer is."
"The answer to what?" asks Wade.
"To everything." He looks at her intently. "We have to find it before it's too late."