"A Place in the Rotation"
Rembrandt Brown couldn't allow himself to show how terrified he was. Sitting on a tree branch roughly twenty feet in the air holding on to a high-powered rifle and looking through the scope for any sign of activity, he tried to present a picture to the enemy of a confident, in-control team leader. But the giant lump in his stomach, a seeming ball of fears and anxieties, told him that this was not really the case.
He didn't hold out much hope that Mallory and Diana were still alive. They had been assigned to cover the outskirts of the perimeter. The two sliders had been scheduled to check in with Remmy hours ago. They had not. Rembrandt had started to regret sending the two off together against this ominous anonymous threat.
'Well, not exactly anonymous,' Rembrandt thought. A version of Maximilian Arturo that was apparently the leader of this murderous group of sliders had come out to explain the situation to them when they first arrived. He promised that he would not enter the field of battle himself and would not reveal the identity of those who would. However, he did allow them to arm themselves and take defensive positions across the field of battle. Rembrandt wondered if any of that would do any good. The pessimist in him doubted it.
If there was any hope left for their side, it rested completely on the shoulders of Maggie Beckett. She was the soldier, the one who could best deal with such an enemy. But now she was late, too. 'Damn it, Maggie,' Rembrandt thought with more fear than anger. 'Where are you?'
As if to answer his thoughts, he saw a woman moving in his direction, carrying someone else. As she moved closer, Rembrandt saw the two of them clearly. It was Maggie...carrying another Maggie.
"Stop!" Rembrandt called out. His voice carried throughout the valley but that couldn't be helped. He couldn't let her within range without knowing for sure that it was his Maggie. "Don't come any closer!"
"It's me, Rembrandt," Maggie said, her voice seeming to be one giant sob. "I...I killed..." She couldn't continue. Tears flowed freely from her eyes. Rembrandt knew she'd been developing her softer side over the last few years, but he'd never seen her like this.
Rembrandt wasn't about to be fooled if this was some sort of trick. "Listen, Maggie, don't take this the wrong way, but I have to be sure it's you." Maggie didn't stop crying as she nodded. "Tell me some things about the last three worlds we were on." Rembrandt asked for that in particular for two reasons: to confirm her identity and to get her focus on something other than the dead body she was carrying.
Her red, watery eyes focused on Rembrandt. "The last world was the one where America was at war with India. I tried to order a dish with curry and got in trouble for not calling it 'liberty spice sauce'. The one before that had Kromaggs, and we hid out until the slide. And before that I think was the world where women weren't allowed to wear shoes..."
Rembrandt was satisfied. "Listen to me, Maggie. I need you to put the body down and get your gun out. You're like a walking target out there."
Maggie laid the body of her double on the ground. She was still sniffling a little but had otherwise stopped crying. Once she had done what Rembrandt asked, Maggie put her hands in her pockets. She shot him a horrified look. "Oh God, Remmy, I must have left it..."
The slider mentally cursed. "OK, girl, I'm coming down. Stay right there." Grabbing the harness he had used to get up here in the first place, he began to climb, shimmy and step his way down the large oak tree. About halfway down he jerked his hand away from some poison oak. He laughed mirthlessly. Poison oak was the least of his problems on this world.
When he touched bottom, he adjusted his rifle so it slung effortlessly over his shoulder. He walked to Maggie. She reached out to hug him and they shared a momentary embrace. Strong friendship was conveyed in it and nothing more. "Let me get you something," he said, reaching into his knapsack that contained various forms of weaponry and ammunition. "I think there's a handgun in here..."
"Drop it," came a hostile voice from their right. Rembrandt looked to see Quinn Mallory, in camouflage military fatigues, holding a pistol at them. "I want the bag and the rifle down on the ground now." Rembrandt reluctantly complied. "Hands in the air and don't move." He spoke with more deadly authority than Remmy had thought him capable of. He began to circle, eventually going all the way around them. Rembrandt wondered why for a moment, then concluded from the way he was looking them up and down that he was searching for hidden weapons. He couldn't exactly frisk them without putting himself in danger.
"Listen up," Quinn said harshly. "Here's how it works. Two of your friends are dead." Rembrandt and Maggie shared a look of dread. "So are two of mine." Now Rembrandt looked strangely at Maggie. She had killed two of them and not told him? "That means there's only four of us here. The Mansion needs four warm thumbprints for us to get inside. That means we need you and you need us and nobody else can die if we all want to live. So I need you to be honest, and I swear to God if you lie you won't have time to die of thirst or exposure. Are you carrying any concealed weapons?"
Rembrandt and Maggie both shook their heads no emphatically. Quinn, looking relieved, holstered his gun. Almost as soon as he had done so, Rembrandt heard three shots ring out. It wasn't until he looked down that he saw the bullets had gone through him. Blood began to pour from his mouth as he sank to the ground. He only had enough time to turn around and see who had shot him. "Maggie..." he whispered as he gave up his last breath.
The Maggie who had been lying on the ground wearing a blood-soaked shirt and staying as motionless as she possibly could picked herself up effortlessly and put the smoking gun in her holster. "That was sloppy," she declared. "Launching into that big speech. Why the hell didn't you just shoot him?" she asked Quinn.
"I was out of ammunition," Quinn explained. When Maggie looked furious, he responded with anger of his own. "Next time I'll give you half the team to deal with on your own!"
"Those two?!" Maggie declared. "They're always the easiest to bag! Tell you what, if the General agrees, I'll take 'em on solo next time and you can be the one to deal with crybaby Allison."
"It was an act!" Allison, the name they had given the other Maggie out of sheer practical convenience, insisted vehemently. "Remember the plan? I wig out, one of you guys shoots Rembrandt?"
Maggie rolled her eyes. "Right. And which part of the plan had you staring at Maggie's dead body for five minutes?!"
"Excuse me for not being as callous as you about killing my doubles," Allison spat.
"Oh, there's definitely a double or two I wouldn't mind killing," Maggie said menacingly.
Quinn cleared his throat. "Ladies? We do have some business to attend to."
"Right," Allison agreed. "Time to check in with the General, I suppose."
"Go ahead without me," Maggie said. Quinn looked at her strangely. "Much as I don't mind a little blood being spilled," she looked pointedly at Allison, "I don't want to wear it any longer than I have to." Quinn didn't stop looking. "I'll catch up, I swear." Finally he acquiesced and he and Allison headed in the direction of the General's office.
"The Rembrandt I remember was a good shot," Allison stated. It was such a non sequitir that Quinn could only stare at her in response. "I'm not trying to dredge things up, it's just that's why I didn't try anything while he was still up in the tree. Because the Remmy that was with us was... a helluva..." She had lost Quinn's attention. "I know you don't like to talk about it," she whispered. There were a few moments of awkward silence.
"Sounded a bit like you were practicing to me," Allison said, once again out of the blue.
"Hm?" Quinn asked. He had clearly been lost in his own thoughts.
"The speech you gave, it sounded like you were practicing it," she said, attempting to explain herself. "Not that I'm accusing you of anything, it's just..."
Quinn sighed. He knew what she meant. They had all heard some variation of the speech he had given at some point in their stay here. That's the reason they were all still alive. "Maybe I was."
The rest of their walk was conducted in silence. As they approached the General's office, they heard the British voice they had been waiting for. "Weapons," it called out. Quinn and Allison quickly ditched the guns and knives they had been carrying on them. They began to walk closer. "All of them," came the voice again. Quinn smirked and withdrew a grenade and another large knife from his inside jacket pocket. The familiarity of this routine was almost comforting to him.
They finally came within sight of the General. He was wearing his standard suit and tie, a marked contrast to the forest setting that surrounded him. Then again, he was never the type to hide. He sat on his "chair" that he had made from a sturdy tree stump and a log. "Where's Maggie?" he asked.
"Changing back into her clothes," Quinn told him earnestly. "She should be right behind us."
"Then we'll wait until she arrives," Arturo told them. There was probably nothing wrong, but he hadn't gotten this far without being careful. He never wanted to be guilty of underestimating the intelligence of the other teams. Recruiting two Maggies had been his masterstroke; she had the most military experience of any of the sliders who regularly came through here and it was extremely unlikely that a newly arrived sliding team would also be carrying two Maggie doubles. That meant the only deceit he had to worry about was betrayal within his own unit. But he sincerely doubted all three of them would betray him.
Finally, Maggie showed up, sporting a grass-stained red shirt and blue jeans. "Excellent," Arturo declared. "I see that we're all present and accounted for. Shall we head to the Mansion?"
The four of them walked towards a clearing in a meadow not far from the General's office. As their weight was applied to the ground, a panel rose from it. There were four square buttons in the center. Each of them put their right thumb on it. As they did so, the place they called the Mansion emerged from the ground as well.
"You four are all that stand?" the deep, ominous voice of the Old Man rumbled. It was a rhetorical question; there was no way they'd even try to get anything past the machine. If past experience was any indication, it was incinerating the bodies as it spoke. Once it was satisfied, it opened the doors to the Mansion.
Quinn breathed a small sigh of relief. This was their respite between kills, and it was this that was the only thing that made life even somewhat bearable. He was no closer to discovering what this machine was, or what its ultimate goal might be. It was like the General had told him a thousand times, they had to play by its rules for now, but eventually it would slip up and reveal a weakness. There were moments when he doubted that was true.
Maggie walked up to the slate that hung just behind the door. There were forty-nine marks on the board. The team they had just killed brought it up to an even fifty.
Quinn Mallory held a magnifying glass in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other. Carefully, he removed the power chip and placed it in a drawer that was filled with them. He continued to take the timer apart piece by piece, removing each component with a great amount of gentleness, as though he were a surgeon operating on a loved one. Once the timer was completely dismantled, he put the plastic and metal husk that once housed it in its own little drawer.
After he had finished taking it apart, Quinn gave a deep sigh. This timer that he had taken off of the last team's Diana had been every bit as useless as every other one he had broken down and stored here. Every timer they had seen went dead the moment it arrived in this dimension. There was something about this world, something undoubtedly engineered by the thing in charge of it, that prevented each timer from opening the vortex. Quinn was certain that if he figured out exactly what caused the effect he could neutralize it and find a way to escape.
He had been so lost in his work that he had failed to see Allison standing in the doorway, watching him. She wasn't shy about making her presence known now, though. "Why do you keep doing that?"
"Somebody has to do the lab work," Quinn answered soberly. "The General doesn't seem interested anymore, so it's up to me."
"I hate to say this, Quinn," Allison said softly, "but I think you're wasting your time. Whatever it is that holds us here, it hasn't slipped up yet."
"I know that," Quinn answered dismissively. "If it does, when it does," he corrected, "I don't want to fail because we lacked for equipment."
Allison nodded slowly. "Still... you have to eat something. Plus you know the General gets cranky if we don't hit the gym between missions." She examined him closely. "And have you even slept?"
"I'll get it all done," Quinn answered her. "Don't worry about me." Allison still seemed concerned, but managed to walk away without saying anything more.
Finally alone, Quinn pulled out the bottom drawer on the right hand side of the desk. It revealed two large electronic devices that Quinn referred to as PSMs, or Portable Sliding Machines. Built piece by piece from old timer parts, they were much more powerful than your average timer and would open a portal that could handle a considerably greater payload and would stay open for twice as long. Of course it's capabilities were completely theoretical at this point, but Quinn was confident it would more than suit their needs if it ever became possible to use it.
Then, as was his habit, he pulled out the other large drawer at the bottom and withdrew a notebook from it. At the top he had written the number 488. He crossed it out and put down 492. At the bottom there were one hundred tally marks, indicating the number he had killed personally. He added two more lines. He then turned a few more pages, coming to the end of a long list. He wrote the names "Mallory" and "Diana". Before he had killed them, he asked each of them for something distinctive about themselves, some sort of epitaph. He dutifully wrote down what they had said next to their names.
As Quinn returned the notepad and slammed the drawer shut, he thought of the slate near the door where they kept track of how many teams they'd killed. The fifty teams, the two hundred people, listed there were only how many the four of them as a team had killed. But Quinn wanted to remember everyone who had died, even those that had been killed before he had arrived. When he left this place, he was going to find as many of the families of those that were killed as he possibly could and let them know what happened to their loved ones. It was the least he owed them.
Quinn shed his lab coat and walked down the long winding hallway to his room. He changed quickly into a tank top and shorts and headed to the gym. He tried to enter a quiet, meditative state while he exercised, but it didn't work often. It was hard to escape the memories of all he had done and even harder to remove himself from the mercenary mentality he had to have to be successful where he was. It got more and more difficult each day to go out there and kill and then come in here and act like it never happened.
Quinn showered and redressed quickly, then headed down to the kitchen. He forced himself to eat something and washed it down with what must have been nearly a gallon of water. The General stressed drinking lots of liquids, saying that "dehydration was as great as any enemy they faced in the field". Quinn didn't really buy it, a mission seldom lasted longer than a day and they could take canteens with them, but he didn't want anybody to be able to say he didn't give a full effort to the team.
Now that he was operating on a full stomach, Quinn realized for the first time how exhausted he truly was. He staggered off to his room, collapsed on his bed and decided not to set his alarm. If the General and the Maggies, or Maggie and Allison as he had to remind himself they now liked to be called, wanted him up badly enough, they'd let him know.
It came as a surprise to him then that Quinn woke up on his own. At first he reasoned that he was up early, but then he caught a glimpse of his clock. He had been asleep nearly eight hours. "This has 'bad' written all over it," Quinn grumbled.
Fearing something had gone wrong, Quinn scrambled out of bed and hastily put on some clothing. Rushing out of his room at record pace he arrived at their standard meeting place, the large parlor they had designated the living room. Quinn didn't see anything wrong immediately, although you could never really tell around this place. "What's going on?" Quinn asked with hazy urgency.
"We have yet to receive word on who our new guests are to be, Mr. Mallory," the General announced with his usual level of pompous bombast. "So we have not even begun to discuss our strategy. However, it seems you plan to paralyze the enemy with derisive laughter at your clownish outfit."
Maggie snickered lightly as Quinn looked down at himself. He wore a bright yellow t-shirt with red and purple sweat pants. On one foot was a black dress sock covered by a bunny slipper; the other was completely bare. Quinn slipped quickly back to his room with a mumbled apology and went to get changed before he could be embarrassed further.
That they had no information on the group that was to be arriving was quite an oddity. The machine was always able to track the wormhole of the arriving sliders and then usually showed them where on this world they landed. It was a process that allowed for contact to be made more quickly and it gave a distinct advantage to the home team. 'Now we won't have that advantage,' Quinn thought sourly.
Attempting to return to the group as suavely as possible, Quinn re-entered the room in an all-black ensemble with leather jacket and his long hair pulled back into a pony tail. It gave him a distinctly European look, if it was a bit trashy. "So any idea on why we don't have any intel?"
"Do we ever have any idea why it does what it does?" Maggie asked him hatefully. "When it's ready, it'll tell us."
Quinn didn't like it when the timetable of their captor changed for no apparent reason. That usually meant the machine was up to some mischief. "Where's Allison?" Quinn asked, deciding to change the subject.
"Practicing her marksmanship," Maggie told him. "I don't know why, she forgets what her gun's for as soon as she enters the field."
"That's a big of an exaggeration," the General chastised mildly. "And might I remind you, Ms. Beckett, that she still has more individual kills than you do."
"Just give me a couple of weeks," Maggie remarked smugly. Quinn could take no more and decided to join Allison at the firing range.
As Quinn entered the room he was asked to choose his weapon. He requested a .357 magnum. 'Call me a sucker for the classics,' Quinn thought mirthlessly. The gun and several boxes' worth of ammunition were soon issued to him.
Allison looked to be running one of the more complex scenarios for target practice so he decided to leave her to it. Quinn stepped into a booth a few rows down. "Give me number five this week," he requested. An image of a thin, balding man in a suit appeared in front of him, seemingly holding a knife to his throat. Quinn shot at his chest without thinking twice. The image dissipated, but a metal disk where the heart would have been remained in its place. Once the bullets had penetrated it, it fell to the floor with a metallic clang.
This was Quinn's favorite scenario and also the one he could never finish. Five targets rose and were dispensed of quickly. It was the last one that gave him the trouble. Coming from his blind spot, the shooter held his gun on Quinn. Quinn was paralyzed. The face, the expression, everything was too familiar. Before he knew it, a red dart had hit his chest. "Bang! Bang! You're dead," came the synthetic voice. Before Quinn could rise to end the program, he heard another voice, the General's. "Mr. Mallory! Ms. Beckett! Report immediately!"
Quinn rushed into the room to look at the monitor, where the General's and Maggie's attention was fixed. A vortex was open and it had deposited three sliders on the ground. "Did it ever tell us who these guys are? Where they came from?" Quinn wanted to know.
"I'm afraid not, Mr. Mallory," the General told him, "and I believe I know why."
As Quinn watched the monitor a very familiar exchange began. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," said this team's Arturo. "I think I've just seen God and I could have sworn he was driving a Cadillac!"
"No," Quinn said to himself. "No, no, no. This can't be happening."
His words drowned out those on the monitor, so that the next words he heard were "better than sex".
"Well, I wouldn't..." Professor Arturo started, but he was interrupted by a crash a short distance away. The three sliders rushed over to see a man who had been driving a Cadillac crash into a large oak tree. The car was badly damaged and the man driving it, an African-American in his mid-forties, was unconscious and bleeding from a large gash in his forehead.
"Oh God, Quinn," Wade said helplessly.
"Do you know this man, Mr. Mallory?" the Professor asked.
Quinn shook his head to indicate that he didn't. "The vortex. When I increased the power, it must have caused it to travel outside into oncoming traffic." Quinn looked down at the man sadly. "He never even knew what hit him."
"We have to get him to a hospital," Wade said urgently.
"A fine suggestion," Professor Arturo commented smugly. "Where would you suggest we look for one? There doesn't appear to be anything resembling civilization around for miles!"
"Guys, we only have five hours here," Quinn reminded them. As a visual aid, he withdrew the timer. Inside the Mansion, four jaws dropped as they saw that the timer was counting down.
"We need to move quickly," Maggie advised the group. "This group is obviously fresh, and they've got access to a motor vehicle. Plus the original four are always the hardest to take out..."
"Don't be an imbecile!" the General angrily scolded her.
At Maggie's perplexed look, Allison stepped in and explained. "Their timer works, you braindead bimbo! And we've got only five hours to get our hands on it! This is what we've been waiting for, or at least most of us have, for months and all you can think about is making the kill?! You disgust me!"
"I get the job done, which is more than I can say for you," Maggie retorted.
"You're both off the mark," Arturo interrupted quickly. "We can neither treat these people as our deadliest foes nor dismiss them as easy kills. Given the short time frame we have to work with, and the amount of subtlety involved, we may have to..."
"We don't have to kill them," Quinn said in an uncharacteristically soft voice. That statement drew the attention of his companions, who saw that he was crouching on the floor, his legs bundled in his crossed arms. "If their timer's working, then we can all slide out of here alive."
"It's too risky," Maggie countered. "There's no guarantee that they would take us with them when they left."
"True," Allison agreed, "but what if we left them here? Incapacitated or something? They could take our places."
"No," Quinn interjected in what seemed like a knee jerk negative reaction.
"Quinn's right," the General assured the rest of them quickly. "Every time we've attempted to incapacitate our opponents rather than kill them, we've been the worse for it. No, I'm afraid killing them is the only practical choice. As for obtaining the timer, that could be tricky. But I suppose that should wait....until..." Arturo stopped mid-sentence, watching Quinn as he stormed back to his room.
"What's with him?" Maggie asked. Neither Allison nor the General felt that merited a response.
"You talk to him," Arturo ordered the woman who went by her middle name. "I should speak with our new arrivals. I may have to convince them of something, and quickly."
"How's he doing?" Quinn asked, looking down at the man who he did not know was Rembrandt Brown with concern.
"Not very well, I'm afraid," Professor Arturo answered honestly. He had taken off the man's jacket and was using it to press against his bleeding forehead. Still... "The bleeding's stopped, more or less, but there's no way to tell whether or not the damage is more extensive. Not without access to medical facilities."
At almost that exact moment, Wade came sprinting down from a nearby hill. Quinn looked at her expectantly. "Anything?"
Wade shook her head. "I'm sorry, Quinn. There's no cityscape visible and I didn't see any houses nearby either." She paused to catch her breath as Quinn turned his attention back to a wounded Rembrandt. "Isn't it a perfect setting, though? You'd never find a place like this on our world, at least not near San Francisco. And the view of the bay..." She stopped talking when she noticed nobody was exactly enthralled. "Sorry. But if circumstances were different..."
"But they aren't different," Arturo interrupted harshly. "They are what they are. Your 'spin around the universe' has already produced one casualty, Miss Welles. At least have the decency not to trivialize the experience by yammering on about the scenery."
Wade began to walk off briskly. "Wade," Quinn called after her. "Come on, he doesn't mean anything by it. We're all a little rattled, it doesn't mean..." She promptly fell out of earshot nonetheless. "Great. Now we have Wade to add to our worries. Good job, Professor."
"Not even someone of the intellectual caliber of Miss Wade could find a way to get herself into trouble on this world," Arturo proclaimed. "I doubt anyone could, unless they were already hurtling along in an automobile at sixty miles an hour." He exhaled deeply as he once again examined the injured Rembrandt Brown. "I'm afraid we're faced with an unpleasant choice, Mr. Mallory. Allow this man to go untreated until the vortex retrieves us, and possibly risk his death, or..."
"Advance the timer," Quinn finished for his physics professor, confirming that he had been thinking the exact same thing. "Activate it early."
"It's not the most desirable option," Maximilian Arturo told him grimly. "But it beats sitting here, helpless, when a man's life is at stake."
"More than one man's life is at stake, I'm afraid," came a familiar voice from the woods.
Quinn moved instinctively towards it, putting himself in harm's way to protect the injured man. "Who's there?" he called out.
Satisfied that they would not be a threat to him, Maximilian Arturo, the self-styled General, stepped out from the shadows. "I believe you recognize me already, so I won't deem it necessary to answer you. However there is something crucial that we must discuss."
"Quinn?" Allison queried softly as she knocked on his door a few times. "Can I come in?"
"It's open," Quinn told her bluntly.
It wasn't exactly the warm invitation she'd been hoping for, but she'd take what she could get. Allison entered the doorway and promptly sat down in a chair at the foot of his bed. "Do you want to talk?"
"Do you want to listen?" he smirked back, years of repressed emotions thick in his voice. "The things I could tell you... If you knew half of..."
"I've been at this a long time, too, Quinn," Allison assured him. "Whatever's on your mind, I can handle it."
"You promise you won't tell the General?" The former pilot nodded. "I think we should just let them go. It'd mean living off the land for a while, or some mild torture maybe, like that time it dropped us into that underground spring with the constant hot steam. Still...I think it would be worth it. It's the least we can do."
Allison took it in for a moment. She looked him in the eyes with sincerity. "I guess I understand. You relate to this Quinn, this group. It makes sense that you'd want to give him every chance to..."
"I watched Wade die," Quinn interjected coldly. "She fell into my arms with this horrible blank look on her face and I watched the life drain out of her. I guess I was in a rage, and I looked up at her killer...and it was her. Another her. It was Wade's face again, staring at me in incomprehension and fear." He swallowed the lump in his throat and rested his head against the headboard. "We just looked at each other for a little while. It seemed to take forever. I looked her in the eyes and I saw that she couldn't kill me. Not me. Not in a million years. And then I put two bullets through her heart." He sat up once more, forcing himself to make eye contact with Allison. "I didn't do it because I wanted vengeance, and I didn't need to. From a practical standpoint, it made more sense to keep her alive. Hell, we had to do CPR on that group's Remmy just to have four warm thumbprints to get into the Mansion. I did it because I couldn't stand to look at her. Not then and not ever again." Allison cast her eyes downward. "I don't want these people to have to go through something like that."
"We won't kill them, Quinn, I swear," Allison promised. "I'll work something out with the General, and it'll be..."
"No," Quinn insisted emphatically. "That's not enough. You have to promise to help me let them leave alive. All of them."
"What?" a suddenly puzzled Allison questioned. "Why?"
"You really don't get it, do you," Quinn retorted with growing anger. "I don't want to just spare them death. I kill people every day. And do you know how I rationalize that with myself? How I make it right?" Allison couldn't make herself respond. "I don't kill them, I save them. From this life. If I went through all of this, killed people with the faces of just about everyone I've ever known and cared about, just to see another group of innocents forced to do what we do, then I've failed completely."
"Two of them?" Wade questioned skeptically, as Quinn recounted the story of the other Arturo's arrival on the scene. "Well, other than an increase in pompous insults on this world, I don't see why that's so bad."
"It gets worse," Quinn explained. "This area, this whole world for all we know, is a part of some sort of game. I don't really want to get into detail, but apparently the losers get killed."
"You're joking," Wade retorted with a scoff. When the serious look on Quinn's face didn't vanish, she got the message. "You're not joking." Her lip quivered a bit and she forced herself to look at the ground. "What are we going to do?"
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "The Professor's down there now, trying to talk some sense to his double. But it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot we can do."
"How much longer do we have to stay here?" Wade wanted to know.
"The window won't open for another four hours," Quinn stated glumly. "If only I'd set it for fifteen minutes again, like I did on that first world. Or if I hadn't increased the power..."
"Don't do this to yourself, Quinn," Wade told him. "Whatever's done is done, and whatever happens, happens for a reason. And if you're looking to blame someone, I was the one who wanted to go."
"Maybe," Quinn conceded reluctantly. "But if anybody dies here, it's still my invention that caused it. I don't think I could live with myself if..."
Neither Allison nor Maggie had heard gunshots from inside the Mansion before. The firing ranges were soundproof and the kills never came anywhere near the place, because it was always underground during the hunt. The sounds carried well, considering how enormous the place was, and both Captains Beckett arrived at the place where the sound originated as quickly as possible. It was the General's quarters.
The two women entered cautiously, understandably concerned that an armed threat might present itself once they came in. But there was no one alive to threaten them. General Arturo sat at his desk, his face buried in a book he had been reading, with a gaping hole through his forehead. Quinn Mallory was slumped over a chair across from him, with a piece of his head missing and its former contents splattered over the wall behind him.
"Oh God," Allison exclaimed. "Why?!" Maggie reached down and grabbed a piece of paper that lie below Quinn's left hand. Below his right was the smoking gun.
Maggie read the note aloud. "Arturo convinced the four of them not to advance the timer. I tried to convince myself that I could go home and live a normal life, but I can't. I'm sorry, but this was the only way out. The General didn't understand that. I trust the two of you do."
"What do we do now?" Allison asked her more militaristic counterpart.
"Now we change the game plan a bit," Maggie answered her. "We have to offer two of them a place in the rotation."
"Should we say something?" Allison asked, watching as her double shoveled the last bit of dirt over the hastily dug graves of their former companions.
"Don't let me stop you," Maggie told her coldly. "I'll be back inside. If you come up with any more ideas on how to waste precious time, let me know."
Allison lingered only a moment over the two plots of dirt that now contained the bodies of Maximilian Arturo and Quinn Mallory, men who'd been at this a lot longer than either of them had. She would miss them as friends, as human beings and as hunters.
Still, the other Maggie had a point. There was little time to mourn. After saying a short prayer for some reason even she didn't understand, she sprinted into the Mansion so they could start deciding what to do with their newest set of visitors.
"Ow!" Professor Arturo exclaimed loudly. Quinn was applying an ice pack (or, more accurately, his overshirt that he had filled with as much ice as had been in a Big Gulp in their mysterious car crash victim's Caddy) to his forehead, but he wasn't too adept at medicine. "Give me that," he demanded, snatching the improvised cold pack from the hands of his student.
"What happened?" Quinn managed to ask between groans.
"My rapscallion double," Arturo stated, as if that explained everything. "I suppose some are less benevolent than others. This one felt the need to render me unconscious before he departed."
"Did you see where he went?" Wade asked with concerned curiosity.
"Of course I didn't, you blithering idiot!" the Professor exclaimed. After a dirty look from Quinn, he softened his tone. "I thought he'd already gone, but then he attacked me from behind. I'm afraid I didn't see much after that."
"He left something," Quinn said as he scanned the ground around the Professor and found a bulging green canvas bag. "Guns, ammunition, canteens, field bandages, the works."
"Why leave all this if they're planning to kill us?" Wade queried. "It doesn't make sense."
"These people seem to want something approximating a fair fight," Arturo stated with cynicism heavy in his voice.
Wade scoffed, although there was a considerable amount of fear in her voice. "Trained killers against the three of us? They call that fair?" She looked at the two of them as if they could magically get her out of here. "We need to get out of here. Use that doohickey again. Open another window. Take us back home." Her pleas became more desperate by the moment.
"If we can believe a word this world's version of me says, that wouldn't be a viable option," Professor Arturo stated from his position on the ground. "There's a good chance we wouldn't make it home, and there's no telling what travails the next parallel world we visit might hold. If it's worse than this one, we might as well be signing our unexpected hitchhiker's death warrant and perhaps even our own."
"Worse?!" she practically shrieked. "How could it be worse?!"
"There are dozens of ways," Quinn noted with an unusual amount of wonder in his voice. "A planet with no oxygen, standard subzero or carbon melting point temperatures, or one filled with large, hostile creatures. And those are just scenarios where the Earth exists..." He stopped when he saw from the expressions of both Wade and the Professor that he wasn't helping.
"Even if he's right, which is a big if, it's worth a shot," Wade told them petulantly.
Arturo sighed. "I must admit that taking our chances on the next world does have a certain appeal to it, given the alternative. What say you, Mr. Mallory?"
Quinn had a thousand-yard stare on his face. "Before he left our world, my double was trying to warn me about something. 'No matter how bad a slide gets', or something to that effect, and then his voice got drowned out by the roar of the wormhole." Quinn exhaled deeply. "I want out of here as much as the rest of you. But I don't want to strand us somewhere, even someplace decent, for the rest of our lives."
Wade stood next to him, tears starting to form in her eyes. "I don't want to die, Quinn!"
"I know," Quinn told Wade in a soothing voice. The next words he spoke were spoken with authority. "We need to start thinking. We need a plan."
"I believe I have one," Arturo stated. "Hide." Quinn shot him a puzzled look, and the Professor promptly went into lecture mode. "These people clearly have an advantage over us militarily. The question is, what advantage do we have? The answer is time. In slightly more than three hours, a vortex will come ripping into this dimension and will retrieve the three of us, leaving this world behind as simply an unhappy memory."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Quinn asked. "What about him?"
"I'm afraid we'll have to leave him here," Arturo said with sadness in his voice. "Of course, if we believe we can return here safely in time for the slide home, we should come back for him. But we cannot possibly lug an injured man around while we're attempting stealth tactics."
Nobody could really argue with that. Their situation had changed so quickly in the last few hours that it was hard for them to mentally process it all. "If we're going, we should go soon," Wade told them and again there was no dissent on that point. Arturo and Quinn lifted Rembrandt into the back seat of his car and put the shirt that had been doubling as Arturo's bandage underneath his head. Then they quickly made their way through the woods. Only one thought drove them and never left their minds: there were people on this world who weren't going to rest until they were all dead.
"We just have to come up with the right pitch," Maggie assured her counterpart. "With their Rembrandt already on death's door, we'd only have to kill one of them. I'm sure they'd look at it as an acceptable casualty."
"You just get more idiotic by the moment, don't you?" Allison asked rhetorically in her irritation. "I'm ashamed to share your genetic structure!"
"That goes double for me," Maggie grumbled. She stopped herself from tearing into her other self. "Arguing isn't going to get us anywhere."
"You're right," Allison conceded. They had already wasted precious minutes debating the point of who was now team leader, but eventually decided to postpone the decision until after they'd resolved the matter at hand. "We're running out of time. We obviously need to eliminate two of the sliders as quickly as possible. For one, if anything goes wrong and we're stuck here, we'll end up with extra live bodies. There's nothing the Old Man hates more. Also, we don't know how many people the portal will support."
"True," Maggie said. "Well, I think it's obvious which two we need to eliminate."
"Agreed," Allison said with satisfaction. "Quinn and Arturo," overlapped with Maggie's "Wade and Rembrandt."
Their exclamations of protest then came in sync as well. "Wade and Rembrandt?!" "Quinn and Arturo?!"
"I can't believe you're serious," Maggie told with a surprised tone to her voice. "They're the scientists of the group. If anything goes wrong with the timer..."
"The timer's exactly what I'm thinking about," Allison countered. "Quinn and the Professor are the most likely to activate it early. The other two would probably even be afraid to touch it. Our primary goal is getting access to the window. We can't do that if they've already used it to escape."
"What about the 'if something goes wrong' component of our planning?" Maggie asked. "What are we going to do with a shell-shocked, traumatized and practically useless Wade and a Remmy who's not going to be useful as anything other than a decoy for a long while?"
Allison arched an eyebrow in amusement. "As I understand it, that's a pretty good description of half your group when you arrived."
"Exactly," Maggie spat back. "And you can see what happened to them."
"None of these guys are likely to be long-termers," Allison told her, the gravity of the situation returning to her mind quickly. "Better to have two people we can dispense with easily than people who could take us down with them once they understand what's going on." She paused and there was hesitation in her voice. "Besides, could you even look at another Quinn and Professor so soon after..."
Maggie was tempted, but she resisted the strong urge to goad her double into an emotional outburst. "Could you bring yourself to kill them so soon after?"
Allison wasn't about to back down. "I do it everyday."
Quinn, Wade and Professor Arturo moved slowly and quietly through the woods that topped a large hill that had been fairly close to their previous location. It was a painfully obvious place to hide, but none of them had experience with this sort of thing. It was rather unfortunate, as the odds in their favor were poor enough as it was.
Professor Maximilian Arturo looked over at Wade as if she exemplified their unpreparedness. "Miss Wade, you're holding your gun the wrong way."
"Huh?" she questioned. She looked on somewhat sheepishly as Quinn reached over and turned her so that the trigger was within easy reach of her fingers. "Thank you," she managed to say.
"This is hopeless," Professor Arturo complained in a stage whisper. "These people must know every nook and cranny that exists in this playing field. Coupled with our inexperience in this area, and the fact that we're bound to draw attention to ourselves sooner or later, this is a surefire recipe for disaster."
"We'd draw less attention to ourselves if you wouldn't rant so much," Quinn informed in a less-than-kind tone of voice. "And wasn't this hiding idea your plan in the first place?"
"I think that gives me more of a right to be pessimistic, not less," the Professor countered. "If a plan forged by someone of my tactical and strategic ignorance is all we're depending on then I'd say we..."
Wade put each hand on one of her fellow sliders. "I think I hear something."
"Nonsense, Miss Welles," Arturo told her chidingly. "It's probably just..." The Professor was interrupted again, this time by a large object falling from a tree in front of them.
It was a woman's body. She had light brown hair, was voluptuous if not attractive, and was completely smeared in blood. Wade screamed. All three sliders moved back instinctively. It took each of them a moment to get their bearings. "She might still be alive. I should probably check to see if there's any chance..." Quinn didn't bother to finish his sentence.
"I was a candy striper," Wade said a little numbly.
"I believe that to be ill-advised, Mr. Mallory," Professor Arturo told him in a hushed tone. "We should depart. Post haste. We have no idea who killed this woman, but we do know that her murderer could easily do the same to us."
"I'm not going to leave anybody to die, Professor," Quinn responded gallantly. "Not if I don't have to."
"And what about us, hm?" Arturo countered fumingly, abandoning any attempt at quietness. "Have you forgotten that we're your responsibility as well? How long are we to endure these killing fields while you feebly attempt to save every anonymous victim?"
"You don't understand, Professor. What I'm trying to say is..." A small voice interrupted his train of thought.
He turned to see Wade seemingly traumatized into action, her hands pressing down on the chest of the woman whose ability to cling on to life seemed tenuous at best. "I remember CPR," she said over and over again. "I remember CPR."
The explosion happened too quickly for any of them to do anything about it. Quinn bellowed the most anguished "No!" anyone present had ever heard, Professor Arturo did his best to restrain his pupil from doing something foolish and Wade Welles lay charred and dead on the ground.
It was as good a time as any for the entrance of Maggie Beckett. She brandished a gun in the direction of the two sliders. "Let me see the timer." Nobody moved. "Let me see it!" she shrieked. Arturo held the device up meekly for her perusal. The former marine was pleased to see there was only less than an hour left. She had to move rapidly; it was almost nightfall and there was no time to potentially get lost, or overpowered, in the dark. "Take me back to where you left the car," she ordered and the three of them began an unhappy trek back to their point of arrival.
Quinn Mallory and Professor Maximilian Arturo stood motionless. They had already deposited all of their weapons and ammunition in the Cadillac as their captor held them at gunpoint. Captain Maggie Beckett (although her name was unknown to the two sliders) had a look of determination in her eye. But it was ebbing. She was tired, she was anxious, and she was running out of time. This didn't particularly play in her favor so far as the stand off that had developed was concerned. "This is no time to get stupid, kid. Give me the timer."
"The timer's no good without me," Quinn said with swagger. "I'm the only one who knows how to activate it, so if you kill me, you can forget about ever using it."
"That trick's so old my grandma wouldn't fall for it," Maggie sneered. "I'll let it slide because this is your first time, but try any other stunts like that and I'll take my chances with your Professor here as my only hostage."
"I'm serious," Quinn said, as he swallowed the large lump in his throat. "I built a safety into the circuitry of the timer. As of now, it's activated. It won't allow the vortex to open before I deactivate it. I did it in case I came to a world populated by horrible creatures. Something akin to this I suppose. I didn't want it falling into the wrong hands, allowing some monster to come back through to my world."
Maggie's eyes narrowed in pure hostility. "You're a sucky liar, kid."
"Madam," Professor Arturo stated in a helpful tone but with desperation permeating his voice and manner. "I know you're accustomed to sliders and the devices they use. You may have even run into groups similar to ours before. But you cannot possibly know for certain that he is lying, any more than I can. If you do something rash now, there's every chance that neither you nor I could open the vortex."
Maggie's eyes darted predatorily between Quinn and Arturo. "Fine. We wait for the vortex to open. Then all of us will go through. Agreed?"
The Professor's relief was obvious. "Now you're behaving like a sensible person. I knew that we could work this out peacefully if we just..."
"No," Quinn interjected angrily. "I'm not letting her go through. I'll stay here first."
"Don't be an idiot, Mr. Mallory," Arturo growled. "This situation is bad enough without your making it worse."
"She killed Wade, Professor," he exclaimed, emotion heavy in his voice. "If she wants to leave, then she deserves to stay here for the rest of her miserable life."
"You want to make a life-or-death judgment call, fine," the Professor countered. "But speak for yourself. I'm not going to risk my life over some futile gesture of spite..." Just then Maggie fired her gun. A bullet pierced Arturo's shin. "Ow! Damn!" he exclaimed as he sunk to his knees on the ground.
"You two listen to me," Maggie instructed, her voice icy as Antarctic snow. "The only reason you're alive is I need live people on this world in case anything goes wrong. The mansion needs four warm thumbprints to get me in, but I don't much care about what state the other parts of the body are in. Now I can riddle you full of bullets until you can't move on your own power and then leave you behind to die while I slide off, or you can cooperate and I might think about taking you with me."
"I don't much like the odds of that happening," Arturo grumbled as he sat on the ground, clutching his leg.
Maggie was getting a little frantic. "Look, you don't have anything to bargain with. I'm holding all the cards!"
"Not quite," Quinn countered, his voice starting to sound as cold and calculating as hers. "I still have the timer. You're not exactly the patient type and you haven't just shot me and taken it yet. You must be worried about what'll happen to the timer if I go down." Quinn's eyebrows raised mischievously. "Ask yourself this: how many times would you have to shoot me before I'd be unable to smash the timer into shards? How many bullets would it take before that impulse was quashed?"
Maggie cursed silently. He had pretty much figured her out. She tried not to let it show. "I'll make you a deal. I'll put my gun on the ground. You put the timer on the ground. If I try to reach for it, my gun, or any other weapon before time runs out, you can stomp it to pieces all you like. You try to run off with the timer and I'll be able to gun you down in a heartbeat."
Quinn turned the proposal over in his mind. He didn't see too much that could go wrong with it, not any more than what had gone wrong now at any rate. He looked to Professor Arturo for support. "We seem to have little choice in the matter, Mr. Mallory."
Quinn nodded towards Maggie. "The gun first." The former marine captain turned slider turned murderer sent nonverbal cues of agreement his way, crouched and placed her hand gun gently on the grass. Quinn followed suit, placing the timer barely five feet away from where the weapon lie.
Awkward silence pervaded as the two of them stood there, their hands empty, their hearts pounding in their chests. Quinn helped the Professor as he carefully rose to a standing position once again while keeping an eye on Maggie. "How much time until the gateway opens, Mr. Mallory?" Arturo asked with a grunt.
He cast his eyes downward to get a look at the readout. "A little less than fifteen min..." At that moment, a bullet pierced his temple, tore through his brain and exited into the woods behind them, killing him rather quickly in the process.
"Good Lord," Professor Arturo exclaimed upon checking his pulse to make sure he was dead. "I thought I'd have to endure his sanctimonious yammering for hours. What the hell were you thinking? Why didn't you just kill him where he stood?" He put the smoking gun in the other Arturo's jacket pocket, the one he had been wearing for several hours now.
"I was afraid I'd hit the timer," Maggie explained as she picked her gun up off of the ground and stuck it in her pants pocket. "You know I never was a very good marksman. Duplicity was always my game of choice."
"And you play it well," Arturo complimented her warmly. "Perhaps a little too well. Did you have to shoot me in the leg?"
"It seemed like the right thing to do," Maggie shrugged. Arturo frowned at her. "Oh, don't start that. We'll be on a safe world getting you to a hospital before you know it."
"That's not exactly how I wanted to spend my first few moments on a new world," the General muttered crabbily. "Still, I suppose it's hardly the worst case scenario. I suppose Maggie was completely taken in by your routine and that your shock and grief over 'my' death seemed appropriately genuine."
"Of course," Maggie smirked. She then looked over at Quinn's motionless body. "You really did kill him. Wow. I thought the four warm bodies thing actually was our back-up plan. Shows what I know."
"There is no back-up plan here, Allison," Arturo told her. "It's all or nothing."
"I'm done being called Allison," Maggie reminded him sternly. "Now that my genetic mistake of a double is dead, I'm going back to my rightful name."
"A wise choice," the General muttered distractedly.
"Just think," Maggie noted winsomely. "A normal world. Beaches, hot dogs, saunas, romantic movies, not having to kill people. All of it will be back. And all because..." As her back was turned to him, Arturo withdrew the gun from his jacket, aimed it at her heart, and fired into her. She had time to turn and face him with a shocked look on her face, and fall limply to the ground.
General Arturo hovered over her, examining her lifeless body. He then snatched the timer from the ground. In the process of doing so, he received a hard, swift kick in the stomach that sent him flying through the air. "You bastard!" Maggie's angry voice exclaimed. "You shot me."
"If you'll recall," Arturo, who was now decidedly lying on the ground, explained defensively. "You shot me as well. I was simply returning the favor."
"Now who sucks at lying?" Maggie said, standing over him with the gun pointed at his head. "You were trying to kill me and take the timer. Which makes no sense, but I'm long past trying to find logic in your motives anyway. I still don't know why the hell you killed Quinn!"
"He was a liability, but you're not," General Arturo said earnestly. "I swear I wasn't trying to kill you." Maggie wasn't impressed. "Listen to me. I know you always wear Kevlar on a hunt. If I wanted you dead, why wouldn't I have gone for a head shot?"
"Don't know," Maggie answered dismissively. "Maybe you're as lousy a shot as I am." She aimed her gun at him menacingly. "But I don't think even I could miss at this range."
"Ms. Beckett, let's be reasonable about this, hm?" General Arturo pleaded without sounding pathetic. "Put the gun down and we'll talk about this like rational people."
"I'm not feeling very rational," Maggie told him with a smirk. "Getting shot does that to a person. But then I guess you'd know."
Arturo started to say something, but then his eyes flashed to Maggie's belt. "Please, no," he said, desperation now filling his voice. "You've taken what you want from me, just spare my life. I beg of you."
Maggie looked confused. "What are you...?" Then she heard something from behind Arturo. A gun cocking. There was someone with a gun aimed at her sitting up in the Cadillac. It only took a moment to realize that it was Rembrandt.
Bloodied and beaten, Rembrandt Brown had likely suffered head trauma. He certainly wasn't thinking too clearly. He woke up with a pile of guns and ammunition in his lap and found one person threatening another with a gun. Remmy was no hero, but he did want to save his own skin. "Drop the weapon or I'll shoot," he threatened.
Maggie cursed under her breath. She did her best to turn her main focus to Rembrandt while keeping an eye on Arturo. "Rembrandt, you don't want to do this."
Remmy's confusion was heightened. "How do you know my name?"
Arturo jumped in. "She's a thief, sir. She's already taken our wallets and now she means to take our lives. She thought she'd already killed you by hitting your car. Now she's finding out she counted you out too soon."
"Shut up!" Maggie yelled. "He's lying. Rembrandt, put the gun down and I'll get us out of here. I'll take you back to your homeworld."
"Wha...?" Rembrandt said with confusion in his voice.
Maggie had blown it. Arturo seized the opportunity marvelously. "She's a raving lunatic, sir. If you kill her, you'll be doing the world a favor."
"No, Rembrandt," Maggie said, as she saw him start to squeeze the trigger. "Don't!" He fired, and the bullet missed by a mile, as Arturo had anticipated. It hardly mattered. The General used his one good leg to kick Maggie's feet out from under her. Once she was on the ground, he killed her effortlessly.
"Are you alright, Mister, uh, Brown was it?" Arturo asked as he stumblingly made his way to a standing position.
"I guess so," Rembrandt answered, audibly shaken. "Who are you, anyway? Where are we? How'd I get here?"
All valid questions. None of them were ever answered. As soon as Maximilian Arturo outmaneuvered Rembrandt, he smothered him to death with his own jacket. The General thought it was a little overdramatic, but he was almost out of ammunition. No sense in wasting it.
Other men, more sensible, more enterprising, would have killed for the privilege of sliding alone. Perhaps to impersonate their double upon returning home, to take sole credit for the discovery of sliding, or simply so they could put everything from this world behind them and start over fresh. But Maximilian Arturo was not like any of those men. He, in point of fact, wasn't even going to use the timer. He ended up depositing it in a special bin in the Mansion that crushed it into little electronic bits. It was the third such working timer he had destroyed that way.
How did he enter the Mansion, you ask? He had designed the place with a secret entrance, of course. Anything else would have been crazy. There was much he would have to think about over the next few days. There would be three places in the rotation to fill. Perhaps he would have to stop the siren-like beacon from drawing groups of sliders here for a week or so. Or perhaps he would switch over strictly to Kromaggs and other non-human sliders, and incinerate them for his own amusement. He hadn't decided yet.
Maximilian Arturo, aka the General, was addicted to murder. It was something that would eventually kill him, he figured, but if addictions were easy to rationalize away, nobody would ever light up a cigarette. Arturo pulled out some surgical instruments to withdraw the bullet from his leg. 'Next time I won't recruit a Maggie', he vowed. 'They're too trigger-happy.' He strained and sweated visibly as he withdrew the slug from his flesh. Injuries were one of the big hazards of the habit. "Damn," Arturo swore. "I hate getting shot."