The Empty World

By SL4ever

Originally posted at the JOC Board

Prelude: (Deafening Silence) [posted: 8/3/99]

"So what did she say to you, big boy?" Wade teased mercilessly.

Quinn ignored her. "We Slide in one minute, fellows. Letís duck into that alley."

Maggie was at his other side. "Come on, what did she whisper into your ear? I wonít tell anyone."

"Look, I donít want to go into it!"

Wade shot Maggie a coy look. "Iíll bet she asked for your phone number, didnít she?"

"Or did she ask you ...," Maggie leaned forward and whispered into his ear. Remmy, overhearing, cackled loudly.

Rushing ahead of them, away from his two pests, Quinn rounded a corner in the alley, glanced around to see if anyone was watching (not that it mattered at this point), and activated the vortex. "You two are just going to have to keep wondering!" He screamed over the roar of the wormhole. "Iíll take this one to the grave!"

Disappointed, the two women jumped in. Remmy hesitated a second. "I was close enough to hear what that gorgeous asked you! She wanted to know if you knew where Fieldman Street was! You were in a hurry and just shook your head. From your reaction, those two pissants thought that it was about something else!" Still laughing, the other man jumped into the vortex.

Quinn, secretly bemused, followed him and the vortex closed behind him.

***

They landed in a reddish brown park. The grass, the leaves on the trees, any thing that would normally be green was a shade of reddish brown. The sun was warm for the early evening, and there was not a cloud in the beautiful blue sky. A light breeze smelling of roses and cinnamon, washed over there bodies and refreshed them.

Wade rose to her feet, peering around her. "Do any of you see anyone?"

Remmy and Maggie helped each other up. "Not a soul," Remmy replied hesitantly.

There was no one in sight. Despite the fact that this should be rush hour, the streets were devoid of moving vehicles, the sidewalks empty, and the entire city contained no audio clue that there was another human being within miles. There was no sign of devastation to the houses, buildings, or parked cars. There was no violence obvious in the form of blood or rubbish. And no bodies littered the streets, park or yards in any direction they looked.

As far as they could tell, they were completely alone in a city which could house hundreds and thousands of people. And, at first glance, there was nothing to reveal where everyone had gone.

Chapter One (Morgue City) [posted: 8/4/99]

Quinn glanced at his timer. "Oh no!"

The others glanced around. "How bad is it?" Remmy wanted to know.

"4 months," his voice was dead.

That settled into their stomachs like a heavy, indulgent breakfast. Quinn sighed heavily. "Well, letís walk around and see if we can determine what is going on. Remember, if you run across a corpse, give it a wide berth, we donít know if a disease killed everyone ... assuming they are all dead."

"Yeah. Maybe it is just something really good on TV. Like a Seinfeld series finale or something." Remmyís attempt at humor fell flat with the others.

Quinn led the group across the street and towards a block of residences. "Letís find out for sure. For now letís stay together."

The first house they checked was a two story brick veneer structure with a white porch. A white picket fence, eerily similar to that which circled Quinnís house, bordered the property. As Quinn opened the gate he noticed that a dog bowl, chain, and water bowl were all near the porch, but there was no pet in sight. Maggie, suspicious, knelt and stuck her finger in the water bowl.

"I thought that this water looked very clean. Itís still cold, though it HAS to be at least 85 degrees out here! The food looks undisturbed as well."

"Then there have to be people around!" Remmy exclaimed.

Quinn knocked on the front door. After waiting a minute, he tried the doorbell. He could hear it through the door, but it was not followed by the sound of footsteps. "Guys, this is weird."

"You can say that again. And itís getting dark soon," Remmy commented, glancing around.

Maggie tried peering into the window next to the door, to no avail. "Letís try the next one."

***

Four houses later, they had to conclude that no one was going to answer their knocking. If this city was still inhabited, then a conspiracy of silence was afoot. During the past half hour of exploring they still had not heard anything other than natural sounds, and had not seen any evidence of death or destruction.

At the sixth house, Remmy decided that enough was enough. "Screw this!" He picked out a childís baseball bat from the yard and shattered the window next to the door.

"Remmy!!"

"Rembrandt!!"

"Way to go, Remmy!!" Maggie cheered.

After listening for rushing steps, or maybe the tell tail sounds of a gun being readied to fire, he reached throw and threw the lock open.

Quinn, after glaring a minute at his old friend in mild exasperation, went in first. All of the windows were shaded, so it was quite dark in the house. No interior lights were turned on, but Quinn corrected that as he moved from room to room. Before leaving each room he called out in an attempt to avoid getting shot or beaned with a frying pan.

Maggie had a few choice comments on decorating style (heavy on cat knick-knacks and statuettes) and Remmy noted that there were no TVs in sight, but there was no other commentary until they reached the kitchen.

It was filled with acrid fumes and a measure of blackish smoke. Maggie darted to the stove, moved a pan from the element before turning the stove off. She quickly opened the window next to the stove. Remmy opened the door leading to the back yard to allow in more air.

Wade gestured to the cutting block island, on which several ingredients had been diced but not used. A carrot was halfway sliced and the knife lay beside it as if discarded in haste. "Guys, this stuff is fresh."

Maggie picked up an onion. "This is still cold, as if it just came out of the refrigerator."

Remmy shook his head ruefully, "why they had it in the fridge, I donít know."

"Do you think that we can maintain our focus, please?" Quinn snapped, nervous.

Wade turned to him. "And just what is our focus? Donít jump down our throats! Anything could be a clue, so it is all relevant."

"Youíre right. Iím sorry. But whatever happened must have happened just as we arrived. That much is obvious." Quinn sighed, "letís move on."

They entered three more houses in the same manner, each time finding clues that whatever had happened was extremely recent. In one house there was a bathtub filled with still warm water and still bubbly bubbles. A folded towel lay on the toilet seat along with a robe. Undergarments and socks were still scattered on the floor, and a little water had splashed down the side of the tub, like would happen when someone stepped in. There were no telltail signs that anyone had left the tub, however. Not wet footprints or puddles, and the only towel in the room was dry as cornbread. Quinn even checked the laundry basket and could not find a wet towel within.

In another house a car was still running in the garage. The key was in the ignition, the car was set in reverse, and was nudging the closed garage door. It was as if someone had started the car, set in on reverse, and then vanished before they could open the door.

The third house contained little evidence until they checked upstairs. They found something of interest in the bedroom. Upon a writing table lay a letter. It was almost full of words, but the last written line ended in mid-word, and the pen rested on top of the paper next to the unfinished word.

Wade was getting more and more nervous. "Thereíre all dead, arenít they? Weíre not going to find anyone no matter how much we look, are we?"

"It looks that way, doesnít it? I have heard stories of people finding ships like this. I donít remember the names now, they were Bermuda Triangle fables. People would board, finding the table set and stuff, but everyone would be gone. And all the life boats were still there." Quinn rubbed his forehead. He was getting a killer headache. "I think there are also stories about this happening to towns."

"The Bermuda what?" Maggie wanted to know.

Quinn almost snapped at her before remembering that she was not of his world. "It was this hoax that was perpetrated for almost 200 years because certain shipping companies wanted exclusive shipping rights to the lucrative Caribbean ports. It was finally exposed as a fraud when an author took a two year research sabbatical and discovered that there was no record of almost all of the supposed "vanished" ships ever existing, to say nothing of them filing a travel plan through the Triangle. No manifests, no crew lists, no evidence they ever left port at all. Anyway, there is too much to go into right now."

Remmy glanced at Wade. "Eggheads never believe in anything that canít be measured."

She spared him a smile but still looked scared. He was sure that all of them felt the same fear. They were at the point where they were trying to fill the deafening silence with anything. Remmy had stayed in the doorway because they didnít think it was a good idea for all four of them to enter completely into a room. "What kind of thing would cause people to vanish in mid word?"

Maggieís fingers itched to be holding a weapon, preferably a gun. "I donít know, but we have four months to try to keep the same thing from happening to us."

Chapter Two (The Scarecrow) [posted: 8/5/99]

Darkness was falling like a brick tossed from a high rise building. As they left the house in which the unfinished letter resided, Quinn halted them. "What do you say we find a place to crash? We are not in San Francisco, that much is obvious. We are in a suburb. But they still have hotels."

"What about one of these houses?" Maggie wanted to know.

Remmy and Wade both recoiled. Wade spoke first, "I am NOT sleeping in someoneís house! Especially not a vanished person's house!"

The other woman relented. "Then I suggest that we hustle unless we want to be on the streets at dark."

The rest agreed and they began jogging towards what they believed was the center of town. If something followed them, none of them were aware of it.

***

They reached a quaint "Mom and Pop" hotel just as the last of the light disappeared from the sky. As they had come to expect, no one was present in the lobby. Quinn rounded the front desk and pulled out two room keys.

Remmy stopped him. "Um, I donít want you ladies to take this the wrong way, but I think we should stay in the same room. I have no intention of letting any of you out of my sight."

The two women agreed without so much as a forced joke.

Quinn checked the filing system for a minute and then selected what he believed was a double room key. "Letís go."

Stopping only to raid the lobby vending machine until they were out of change, they hustled to their room. Remmy used every existing lock on the door and closed the drapes. Fortunately, this was not the type of room which had huge picture windows, so they felt fairly safe.

They soon found, to their dismay, that things were not going to be easy. There was no power or water available. That forced another trip outside the room to the drink machine, which fortunately accepted dollar bills. Then they returned to the lobby and relieved the front desk of both flashlights that could be found.

Then, finally, they were ready to sleep for the night.

***

A bloodcurdling scream woke the Sliders a couple hours later. Rembrandt, the closest to Quinn the screamer, jerked back and fell off the bed, landing with a violent thud. Maggie leaped from bed, snatch her flashlight from the nightstand and aimed it at Quinn as if it were a laser, all in one motion.

Struggling to catch his breath, Quinn apologized. "Iím sorry. It was a bad dream." His eyes darted wildly, and he gasped like a fish. "Gosh. What a nightmare."

Wade was there. She placed a cool, soft, hand on his damp forehead. "Do you want to talk about it? Exorcise the demons?"

Still shivering, but calming now, Quinn nodded. "It was so vivid!! I woke up, and all of you were asleep. I tried to shake Remmy, but he didnít budge an inch. And then the outside door swung open and a I could see a shape silhouetted by the moon. It was at least 7 feet tall, it dwarfed the door. It wore a straw hat and overalls. It was quickly obvious that it was a scarecrow. It beckoned me with one stabbing motion.

"I followed it outside of our room. It faced me and suddenly I could see it clearly. It was not a scarecrow at all. What I had mistaken for a straw body was actually a skeleton wearing loose clothes. Its frame was human, but the skull was that of a jackal, and it faced me with glowing green eyes within it sockets.

"íQuiiiiiiin.í It whispered, dragging my name out just like that. ĎBehold!í It held up a glass of water. As I watched, I could suddenly make out something floating within. Slowly it dawned on me that it was more than one something. It was a thousand tiny flakes. Then, the more I stared, the more the flakes resembled tiny people. And the darker the Ďwaterí got until the water was crimson and the Ďflakesí were gray.

ĎCome,í the jackal headed monster taunted me. ĎDrink up! Drink long and hard! Drink the fruits of the destruction you reaped!í

I yelled back that I would not, but a skeletal hand, thin and steely, seized my hair and forced my head back. Before I could resist, it poured the choking liquid down my gullet."

Quinnís hands were clenched into white fists. "And then I woke."

***

The others were asleep again, but Quinn knew that he would not be sleeping again tonight. He lay in bed a long time, comforted by his friendsí snores and night noises. None of them, including him, were cowards. Each of them had survived and persevered under conditions that would make most men and women break. But this situation was so far outside of their experience that all them had been reduced to huddling children.

But was that all there was to it? He growing feeling of dread which was dragging him down sometimes seemed to originate outside of his body. He seemed to be breathing it in, absorbing it.

Nervous, he rose and stepped gingerly to the window. Was there anything standing at the window, past the drapes? Calling himself foolish, he wheeled and headed back for bed without moving the drapes to take a peek. He almost missed it. If not for the moon sneaking through the drapes and catching the dangling chain just the right way, he WOULD have missed it until morning.

Quinn reached out and pulled the drapes back a little more, shedding light on the exterior door. His heart froze as he pondered the ramifications. The chain, the deadbolt, even the handle lock, had all been undone. Anyone could waltz in here. And only someone from in this room could have unlocked these.

It must have been him. He must have done it in his sleep. He quickly secured the various locks, hands shaking with dread. What had gotten into him? What had really happened as he slept, trapped in that nightmare?

The remaining night seemed to last forever.

Chapter Three (The Day After) [posted: 8/6/99]

The morning sunlight was as harsh and cleansing as a salt water scrub. Quinn and Remmy basked in that sunlight early the morning after Quinnís dream. The two men sat on the curb outside of their room, waiting for the ladies to finish showering and whatever else they needed to do.

Remmy turned suddenly to his friend. "Youíre thinking that we had something to do with these missing people, arenít you? Thatís what that freaky dream last night was all about."

"Come on, Remmy. It is obvious that the people had been here until right before we Slid in. What else could it be?"

"Kromaggs maybe?" The other man offered.

Quinn disregarded that. "We have encountered them exactly once in the hundred or so worlds we have visited. It doesnít seem very likely, does it? Besides, they seemed to be the type to take a world by brute force, not stealth. If whatever happened here had nothing to do with us, then it was done by stealth."

"There hasnít been the slightest sign of violence, has there?" Maggie added as she left the hotel room. "Still, I think we need to break our rule and arm ourselves. What did this might not even be human, Quinn."

He sighed. "But if we are all armed, there is an equal chance that one of us will hurt themselves or another of us by accident. This is a tense situation. I would not have wanted to have had a gun in my hands last night during my dream."

Maggie scoffed. "You donít hold your finger on the trigger with the safety off while you are sleeping, silly. Come on, I am trained for it, at least let ME have one."

"I think Iíd feel better if one of us had a piece." Remmy added.

Quinn glanced at Wade, who shrugged a little reluctantly. He rose to his feet. "I also have a problem with all this breaking and entering. Now we are talking thievery. Still, this is a survival situation. We donít have time for niceties. Okay, Maggie. Get something powerful but safe. But letís all stick together for now. When we pass an appropriate store, weíll do it."

***

The first store they passed was a clothing store. They were downtown now, and there still was no sign of anyone, living or dead. Remmy stopped the group. "Listen guys, we had to ditch all of our extra clothes two worlds back. I need some stuff. When is the next time we are going to have an opportunity like this? The doors arenít even locked because it was apparently open for business at the time!"

"Itís still stealing." Quinn protested. "What if this worldís army rides in here this afternoon? What if there was some kind of super weapon this world invented which destroys people but leaves property intact, like a high powered neutron bomb variation? An actual neutron bomb would leave evidence, but if this was something more sophisticated, the authorities canít be far behind. Either them or an occupying army. So what happens when they find us carting off thousands of dollars of clothes, supplies, food, electronics, and everything else youíll want to take next? That makes us looters! One gun is okay because it is for basic protection. Enough food to live on will also be forgiven. But if we go overboard, we are in trouble if the army or police show up. For all we know, looting is punishable by death on this world. How about taking it a little slower, okay?"

Remmy sighed. "I guess youíre right. But Iím starving and that vending machine junk just isnít cutting it anymore. Letís find some real food!"

The others agreed. But Quinn walked along, lost in thought. The third time he didnít respond to Wade, she stopped him. "What is it? Did you just think of something?"

"Actually, it was what I said a minute ago. I hadnít thought it out." He finally replied. "What if there HAS been a tremendous radiation burst here recently? Or some other kind of super weapon? We need to find a Geiger counter and see if this city is irradiated. If we delay too long out of ignorance, it could mean death when a rapid retreat could have saved our lives."

Quinn faced the other two and continued. "Remmy, you and Maggie find her a weapon and then round up something to eat. Wade and I need to find an electronics store so I can either locate or assemble a Geiger counter. If it looks like it will take me a while, Iíll send Wade back here to lead you to where I am. Check back at this spot in an hour to see if she is here." The bright sunlight had restored their boldness, so none of them felt back about separating. It was not preferred, but both tasks need to be done as soon as possible so splitting up seemed the only way.

The others agreed and they went on their ways.

***

"You buy that jive about looting?" Remmy asked Maggie when the other two were out of sight.

"Makes sense to me. It wouldnít look good if we had a stolen hum vee loaded to the gills with merchandise, would it?" She grinned impishly. "Not that I would EVER be tempted to do that."

"Of course not."

It wasnít long before they spotted an Army/Navy store. It did not contain firearms, but Maggie selected a solid pair of boots and think pants. "If I am going to fire a weapon, I need something better than tennis shoes and thin slacks. These clothes are necessary to our survival."

Bemused, Remmy grabbed a $400 combat jacket. "So is this beautiful example of American craftsmanship!" He quickly donned it.

Maggie snorted. "It says ĎMade in Canada.í" She noted, glancing at the tag.

The other manís mood was not in the least dampened. "It looks sharp as hell, girl. I donít care if it was made on the moon!"

While Maggie changed in the back of the store, Remmy fooled around at the counter. He was poking in the file cabinet and looking through the mail when he noticed something really unusual. "Hey Maggie!"

"You donít have to scream, Iím right here." She replied, walking back to the front.

"Look at this calendar! It says 1971!"

"So what? He idiot never buys a new calendar. It is also marked through May 10th, but this is April 12th or 13th, the best I can remember."

He frowned. "I donít know. I have been wondering about how old all of the cars look on the streets."

"Remmy, honey, the vending machine last night accepted dollar bills. That didnít happen on my world until the late 80ís."

"Youíre right. I forgot about that. But on my world it was the early 80ís, I think. Anyway, it was NOT the early 70ís, I know that much."

Maggie lead the way out of the store. "Besides, Quinn told us that Sliding is never time travel."

Remmy shrugged. "I know, but some worlds donít have time moving as quickly as others. That is what we have noticed, anyway. And donít forget, sometimes things are invented earlier or later than our home worlds. So that doesnít necessarily mean anything. Anyway, forget it. It doesnít really matter."

They finally reached a hardware store several minutes later. The guns were all locked, either to the wall or within cabinets. But a huge set of keys lay in the floor behind the counter, as if dropped in haste. Soon Maggie was loading a pump shotgun which had a pistol grip. It was lightweight, held 10 shells, and should drop anything that got close enough to try and harm them. After grabbing one box of shells (if they needed more than that, they were goners anyway so there was no point in bringing enough ammo to fight a war.) they were ready to look for some "vittles."

***

Wade hurried along the vacant sidewalks about 30 minutes later. She was only three blocks from the rendezvous and was in no danger of being late. But she was rushing because a sudden cold chill hit her a block back. She kept then started thinking that she was being followed. It seemed wise to hurry to meet her friends. All day she had been feeling good, confident even, but now she thought that she was going to scream if she had to walk another block with this chill freezing her down to her core.

She rounded the corner that brought her within sight of the meeting place. She hesitated for a moment to try and find her friends. She finally relaxed a little when her eyes found them. She could see Maggie and Remmy sitting with their backs to a low wall, staring up at the crisp blue sky. Maggie held a shotgun in her lap. Remmy was wearing a new jacket and clutching a huge paper bag as if it were a newborn child.

They were normalcy. Safety. They were her longtime, comfortable friends.

They were the last thing she saw before a skeletal hand snatched her from behind and ripped her back around the corner and out of sight.

***

Maggie sighed and glanced at her watch. "I wonder what is taking Wade so long?"

Chapter Four (Exploration) [posted: 8/8/99]

Quinn had put the finishing touches on his Geiger counter when the other three arrived, so he spoke without looking up. "Check this out, guys. They had kits for these stocking the shelves. I am not sure, but I get the impression that there is more radiation on this world. Or more fear of it." He would have said more but he finally raised his eyes.

Maggie and Remmy were leading a semi-dazed Wade over to a chair. She was responsive but looked exhausted.

Quinn jumped up and rushed to his friend. "What happened? Are you okay?"

Remmy sighed. "She didnít meet us so we started looking around. We found her huddled up against a building a block from the meeting place. All she has said is that something Ďgrabbedí her. She didnít see what. Then she blacked out and woke shortly before we found her, too shocked to move."

Quinnís expression tightened. "Okay. Wade and I found these keys in a car. The door was unlocked, and the keys were on the floor. As if someone had just gotten in and was about to start the car. Weíre taking it. That way we can get her back to our room. Just let me finish assembling this." After giving Wade a comforting pat on the shoulder he returned to his work bench and resumed assembling the device.

Maggie staged herself at the door, her back to the room. Remmy settled next to Wade and held her close because she was shivering.

"I ... don't ... remember ... what happened ..."

"Shhh. Itís okay girl, weíll figure it out later."

Quinn rose and turned on the device. He circled the room, held it close to each of them, and then stepped outside. "It looks clear, guys. Whatever is going on, I think we have ruled out radiation."

Maggie and Remmy helped their friend rise to her feet. "Then letís get the funk out of here!" Remmy remarked.

Maggie, thinking he had said the other word for a second, looked at him in shock. Then it dawned on her what he had actually said. "Cute, Remmy."

***

Back at the hotel room, Wade was sleeping peacefully. The other three had finished their meal and were sitting on the hood of the green Ford escort they had commandeered. As the sun dropped from its high noon apex, Remmy glanced at his watch. "Itís been almost 24 hours, Q-ball. No one is coming or they would have been here by now."

The other man sighed. "I fear that you are right."

Maggie didnít seem all that disappointed. "At least that means this is one world where we can chill out without conflicts from the local natives. I was worried about an occupying force taking this city."

"It also means that we are going to have to find out what happened here on our own. How about you stay with Wade, while Remmy and I search the local library to try and get a grip on this worldís history?"

The other two agreed, and soon Quinn and Remmy were driving back into town.

"Any ideas on how we are going to survive here without power or water for four months?" Remmy wanted to know. "Just dragging that bucket of water into our bathroom this morning for sponge baths was a pain."

Quinn shrugged. "It wonít be a party all the time, but we can handle it. Find a house near a park with a lake, that would do it. And make sure that our house is near a grocery store. Canned and dry goods will last a long time. We have a couple weeks on the bread and fruit, after that it will be all long term stuff."

They arrived at the library. As with other buildings they had seen, it was open. Quinn headed straight for the reference section while Remmy settled into periodical section. The next couple hours flew by as each man tried to absorb the similarities and differences of this word. Finally, Remmy rose to his feet, stretched luxuriously, and went to find Quinn.

Quinn seemed happy to see his friend. "Oh, man, this is one screwed up world, isnít it?" He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "The technological development is so uneven. It appears that big corporations never got started the way they did on our world. So, with less competition, a lot of commercial products were never invented. But it appears that there have been many more wars, so military technology seems to be even more advanced than we have encountered."

"You said that right. Most of the magazines I saw were talking about this huge Canada/Spain war that is going on right now. The newspapers were talking about America might be fighting some people called The Holy Persian Empire." Rembrandt commented dryly.

"I think that what we might be looking at in this city is the result of some kind of weapon. Maybe it was just a test, or maybe it was the opening shot of a war. Letís keep looking."

Remmy returned to his magazines. When he tired of them he went upstairs to the childrenís library and found a couple of their grade school history books. He didnít have time to wade through college level history in which an entire chapter was spent on one decade. He needed a brief overview that could give them enough to go on.

What he found was astonishing. There had been at least 4 times as many wars on this world as any world he had ever been on. A large scale global conflict lasting decades had caused massive devastation in the 1800ís, followed by four more "world wars" this century. There was no mention of an atom bomb, but something called a "Plastic Bomb" had ended the fourth "Alliance War" in 1966. In the 4 years since then, according to this textbook, the world had been tensing waiting for the next major conflict. That prompted him to examine the publishing date. 1970. It was odd that this was the most recent textbook.

Remmy placed it down and searched the remaining books in the childrenís section. "Learn to hate quietly." "10 ways to get out of a fight peacefully." "Why the Persians hate us." "The hunt for the bloody sock."

He shivered. "What the devil kinda world have we landed on?" He muttered, glancing at his watch. This was odd. They had entered this building in the middle of the afternoon. But his watch said it was 2 oíclock. He wished that he had a digital which could tell him if it meant am or pm.

Quinn was where he had been before. "Hey man, what time do you have?" Remmy wondered.

"Oh, um, looks like 12:45. Hey, that canít be right."

Remmy glanced at his watch again. "Yeah, mine says ..." he looked down again in horror. Now his watch read 12:46.

Quinn narrowed his eyes, concerned. "Whatís wrong, buddy? Our watches could have been damaged by some aftereffect of this weapon. Donít wig out on me!"

"Itís not that. This is more than a damaged watch, unless a watch can jump backwards in just a few minutes."

***

Maggie finally grew tired of pacing the hotel room floor and stepped outside again. She was about to walk to the lobby and see if there were any drinks leftover in the fridge behind the counter when a noise within a room halted her.

Bringing up her weapon, Maggie nudged the ajar door with her foot and entered.

A man was lounging on the bed, smiling gently at her. He mockingly raised his hands. "Oh please, madam!! Donít shoot!!" He chuckled good-naturedly.

"Who ... who are you? Do you know what has happened to everyone?"

Suddenly the man was off the bed and in front of her. His luminous green eyes twinkled with inner light. His fine dirty blond hair was cut short and smelled of apple shampoo. His clean shaven skin looked so smooth that she wondered if he were too young to have facial hair. But that couldnít be, there wasnít a trace of baby fat, and his manner was of someone older than her. His clothes, expensive looking slacks and a button down shirt, also spoke of mature sophistication.

How had he gotten over here so quickly? She had not seen him move, but now he was so close that she could smell his aftershave. She suddenly felt self conscious about her inadequate bath this morning.

The manís eyes impaled her. His soft voice entered her eyes life a furtive stranger when he spoke again. "I have been wondering that myself. So you are telling me that none of you know?"

Maggie fought to lower her gun to his chest. She forced herself to take a step back so that she could threaten him with it. "No, we donít. Youíve been following us. You are the one who scared the hell out of Wade, arenít you? Who are you?"

The eyes travelled down her body slowly, lingering on her legs. "Who do you want me to be?"

"I am an ex soldier! If you think for one moment that I wonít blow your head off, you are about to be sadly disappointed!"

The man smiled knowingly. He raised his hands again, as he had before. "Then I guess that who I am right now is your prisoner."

His attitude was starting to annoy her, despite the desire he knew that he generated within her. "Youíre damned right you are." She was using her best firm voice. "Come on out there!"

The man followed her instructions meekly. But she couldnít shake the feeling that he was not intimidated in the slightest.

Chapter Five (The Next Day) [posted: 8/13/99]

Some time later Quinn and Remmy returned to the hotel room.

"Oh thank god!" Wade cried. "I have been losing my mind here. Sheís been like this for hours!"

Maggie was huddled in a corner of the room, cradling her shotgun and shivering. Her thousand yard stare was devoid of any recognition when Quinn crouched down to look at her. He carefully removed the weapon from her clenched fingers, prying back each finger separately.

Remmy helped his two friends move Maggie to the bed, where they stretched her out and covered her with a warm blanket. "I couldnít move her by myself." Wade explained. "I woke up a while ago and sheís been the same way the entire time."

Quinn faced her. "You were much like this, although a little more responsive. What do you remember of that time?"

A confused look filled her eyes, then her face whitened. "There was a man. He grabbed me and pulled me around the corner. I talked to him for a minute. I answered all of his questions. I donít remember anymore. I just remember how disoriented I was for so long after we talked."

Remmy put a comforting arm around her. "What did he look like?"

Wade grimaced and stiffened her resolve. Her slight trembling subsided. "I donít remember." Then she contradicted herself. "He had blond hair. Piercing eyes. He smelled of apples. Thatís all I remember."

Quinn set aside Maggieís weapon. "Well, there are two possibilities, as far as I can see. Either whatever weapon was used here causes hallucinations, or there is a man wandering around who is stalking us. Since the symptoms are the same, he could have something to do with what happened to Maggie. Maybe he has access to a powerful drug."

Remmy agreed. "Sounds reasonable. Do you think he might target the two of us next?"

"Good point. He very well might. I think that all of us need to stay together. Separating seems like a bad idea right now."

With that, the group settled down to eat what the men had brought. They had plenty of water now as well; a trip to the nearest grocery store had settled that.

A largely sleepless night followed.

***

In the morning Maggie was mostly back to her old self. She remembered cornering a stranger fitting the description of the man who accosted Wade. She lead him at gunpoint to this room ... and the next thing she remembered was waking this morning. She conceded that it very well might have been a hallucination. "There was something about him that didnít seem right. Didnít seem real."

Wade, on the other hand, insisted that he was real.

Quinn cut in and described what the previous dayís research had yielded. "We are on a world where violence and war is much more accepted and common. The technology of war is far beyond anything we have seen on any world we have been to. Certain technology seems to have taken a backseat, however. For instance, there is no mention of modern dish or clothes washers in the encyclopaedia that I looked at. But there are voluminous articles about identification devices, weapons, and TV. The latter for propaganda and mass control, I presume. America on this world is a military state. It also covers Canada and Central America. America has 100 states on this world, and a population of over a billion people. China and Persia are the other two superpowers and they are equally massive. This three way cold war (which occasionally becomes hot) has been boiling since the turn of the century.

"The penal code, which I glanced at, is 20 volumes long. Apparently crime on this world is off the charts."

Remmy agreed. "You wouldnít believe how large the Ďdaily crimeí section is in the local newspapers. Thatís right, they have an entire section devoted to it. Crimes which would turn your stomach seem to occur on a daily basis."

Quinn continued. "Make no mistake about it. We have arrived at a hellish world. If the population had not disappeared, I doubt if we would have survived four months here."

Silence reigned for a full minute. Maggie finally broke it. "Then it seems very likely that what happened here was the activation of some kind of superweapon."

"It sure looks that way, doesnít it?" Quinn agreed. "But that doesnít explain the two Ďassaultsí that we have experienced. Unless the weapon causes hallucinations."

They stewed on that for a minute, then Quinn leaned forward. "What if this Ďentityí or man or whatever you two have encountered is not a weapon of attack but of defense?"

"I donít follow you, Q-ball."

"Well, this is just brainstorming. But what if there was advance knowledge of this 'people destroying superweapon'? And what if America had set up special defenses in each city in case the Weapon were every used? Something like a computer with holographic projection abilities. Or perhaps some other way of Ďattackingí an invading army. And what if these defenses think that WE are the invading army. It wouldnít be the first time one side of a war had tried psychological attack on invaders. This would even explain that uncharacteristic dream I had the first night."

Maggie was into this. "That makes a kind of sense. It would only work if the other side didnít know you had this set up. But the goal would be to create paranoia and eventually force the enemy to withdrawal."

"I donít know, Q-ball. Did you see anything to suggest this much sci-fi technology at the library?"

Quinn met Remmyís gaze. "No. But thatís why we have to go back there. All of us this time."

"Do you really think that top secret weapon defenses would be spelled out in the public library?" Wade scoffed.

Quinn smiled at her. It was not an unreasonable question. "No, but the precursors would be! They donít tell you HOW to make an atom bomb in the library, but they tell you that it has been done. They may not tell you that government computers can spy on your e-mail, but if there is no mention of e-mail in the public library, then the government probably isnít spying on something that doesnít exist on this world. Do you see what I mean?"

Wade returned his smile. "No! Just teasing, I think I follow you."

Quinn continued. "In this case, we are looking for evidence that advanced holographic technology has been discovered. Or advanced artificial intelligence for computers. If we donít find any evidence of that, then my theory doesnít hold water."

***

At the library each person focused on research they were predisposed to. Wade looked into computer technology, and also some of this worldís religions because sometimes science could be hidden in religious dogma. Maggie focused on military history, especially the most recent global conflict. Remmy scanned more of the contemporary history by looking at back issues of newspapers and magazines. He was especially looking at the recent political situation. And Quinn was back in the reference room again, tracking down the hard science.

Remmy was about 20 feet from Quinn, within sight. If Remmy looked the other way, he could see Wade at a table with a stack of books and a notepad. Wade could see Maggie out of the corner of her eye without even looking up. All of them frequently eyed the others to insure that everyone was okay.

About an hour into his reading, Remmy sensed something and looked up quickly. The blond man was seated next to him, smiling causally. "That looks good. Is that the latest copy of ĎNewsdayí?"

"Who the devil are you?" Remmy snapped. He raised his voice. "Hey, here he is! Letís find out what is going on!"

Wade turned another page after scribbling furiously on her notepad.

Quinn peered into a book so thick it almost obscured his face.

Maggie was not within sight, but since she didnít round the corner in a hurry, she appeared to have not heard him either.

"I donít think they can hear you." The man observed snidely.

"Who are you!?!"

"It is interesting that you are so inquisitive, because I have many questions for you to answer."

Remmy rose. "If you think for one minute Iím going to play your reindeer games, you are sadly mistaken!"

The man found that infinitely amusing. "Oh my! An old Christmas song reference. I love it! That is rich!"

Without responding, Remmy turned and headed for Quinn. If his friend couldnít hear him for some reason, perhaps he might see him.

A frigid, skeletal finger impaled his spine, causing him to scream with shock and pain. Putrid breath floated the next words past his face. "Donít you EVER turn your back on me!!"

***

A thud caught everyoneís attention. Wade reached Remmy first. The man had collapsed from his chair onto the floor. Quinn and Maggie reached him at the same time. "Same as both of us?" Maggie asked tensely.

Quinn studied his friendís contorted face. "Worse."

Chapter Six (The Last One) [posted: 8/14/99]

"Letís make him comfortable and get back to our research." Quinn stated flatly after a minute.

"What are you talking about? We have to get him the hell out of here!" Maggie exclaimed.

Wade sighed. "Sheís right, Quinn. What good is research going to do us right now? He needs someplace to rest."

"Listen to me! Both of you! This entity has just shown us that it can assault one of us at any time, not matter what precautions we take! And there is not a thing we can do about it! Until now we have been able to work under the assumption that most likely it was a man we were dealing with. Well, do either of you think that a man walked up to Remmy just now?"

Maggie was not backing down. "He might have drugged Remmy from afar. We wonít know exactly until Remmy wakes up, IF he does!"

"The ONLY way we are going to find out what is going on is to research this world! Is Remmy going to be any more safe at the hotel room? No. Are we going to be any more safe there? NO! The difference is, the answer to this riddle is here! Not anywhere else! Now look, Maggie. If you are scared to stay here, and you want to huddle in a smaller room that makes you feel some kind of false safety, then you be my guest! I am not your general or your boss. You can do what you want to do, as always! But the answer is here. There IS no safety from whatever this is, but there IS an answer. And I intend to find it. But before you run out of here how about helping me move Remmy to that couch in the lounge section?"

Maggie shot him a cold look. "Aye, aye, SIR!" Lips pressed into a flat line, she helped Wade and Quinn transport their fallen friend to a comfortable couch. Then Maggie returned to her research area without another world.

Wade stopped Quinn as he started to return to his area. "I know that she can be abrasive on occasion, but there is no reason to be an asshole about it. In this case she is just scared like all of us are."

Quinn shook his head. "I know we all are. But the time for the luxury of fear is past. We have to find an answer and we have to find it fast."

Wade watched him rush away for a minute, started to bite her tongue, then spoke her mind anyway. "Just remember that just because Maggie and I are women does not make us frightened children! We have both been through too much with you to be patronized."

That stopped Quinn for a minute, but he continued on without turning or commenting.

The hours passed with the dragging slowness of a walk through the desert. With each turned page, each passing minute, each Slider felt more drained and less enthusiastic that they would ever find the answer.

***

Wade rose suddenly and hurled a book across the library. It skittered across a reading table like a stone skipping a pondís waters and blasted into a column with finality. She stood there watching itís flight with flushed face, sweat dampened hair, and balled fists.

Quinn and Maggie reached her at roughly the same time. Quinn, mindful of his previous behavior, tried to lighten the mood. "That book must have said something bad about Pearl Jam."

Wade speared him with her furious gaze. This time, however, it was obvious that she was not mad specifically at him. "Itís just not there, Quinn! They have a lessor understanding of computers than we do! They have calculators, and the government has a few mainframes. They have things like the money reader we saw in the vending machine, and what they use for security identity cards, which is the same tech. But there is no mention anywhere of PCs. There is nothing about programming languages. Their level of technology is around where we were in the late 60ís or early 70ís. And it seems by choice. They should be further along than they are. It is all in front of them. They had the vacuum tube in 1912, for crissakes! They invented the transistor in í33. It is like they knew what they could do but choose not to pursue that line of research at more than a snailís pace!"

Maggie jumped in. "I am not sure I understand why you are upset."

"Iím upset because I feel like I have been reading this stuff for days and we are not getting anywhere. Take my word for it, Quinn. This world does NOT have artificial intelligence. We were barking up the wrong tree on that one."

"Iím inclined to agree with you." He replied, frustrated. "There is also no indication that they have mastered holographic technology. You know what their primary focus seems to be? Genetic manipulation. They were cloning sheep in the 50ís, believe it or not. They are light years ahead of anyone we have seen on DNA research and modification. And that is just the released, non-confidential information I have seen. Who knows what they have accomplished that is not public information yet?"

"That goes along with what I have seen," Maggie added tiredly. "This Ďplastic bombí you mentioned to us is a genetic weapon. It can change a city of millions into a semi-comatose population ripe for the conquering. The invading soldiers merely have to round up anyone useful and give them the antidote, and kill the rest as they lay shaking on the ground."

"This is a horrible, nightmare world." Wade spat. "We are in hell."

"Okay," Quinn surrendered. "Letís get back to the hotel room. We have had enough for one day. And I need to think of research lines for tomorrow."

"Are you still so sure that the answer is in this room?" Maggie snapped snidely. She expressed her point with a stabbing finger motion.

"I have been lying here for some time, able to hear you guys but it was like I was in a dream." Remmy said suddenly. He was up, and stood only a few feet from them. "I have a question. You three are getting more and more at each otherís throats. Every since we came to this world, which, by the way, is the most violent world we have ever encountered, we have been more paranoid and aggressive than I have ever seen us. Can somebody tell me why that is?!?"

The other three looked at him in shock for a long minute.

"Youíre right." Quinn said, speaking as if from a long distance away. "There is something unique about this world. Something about it that breeds aggressiveness, hate, and malice. And it is affecting us."

Wade impulsively hugged Quinn. "Iím sorry." Each of them hugged Maggie in turn, and then all three of them faced Remmy again to see if he had completely recovered. He looked good.

He grinned at them. "What, no hugs for the old guy?"

***

Over a meal at a reading table, Remmy told them what he remembered of what had happened to him. The last thing he remembered was the pain in his spine and the whispered comment. There was the hint of memory of a long interrogation, but he couldnít remember any of the questions. He was quite shocked to discover that none of the others had seen a man.

"But he seemed so real! I would swear that it had not just been in my head."

The others chewed on that.

Maggie finally spoke. "Quinn was right about one thing. This entity can get to any of us at any time."

"Yeah," Remmy agreed. "And there is only one of us that he hasnít Ďgottení yet."

All eyes were on Quinn. He nodded tiredly. "Unless you count the dream. But I think that I am going to have a little visitor soon. Maybe if I walk into it with my eyes open, I can learn something. All three of you resisted, maybe by accepting him I can try to find out what is going on."

"That sounds really dangerous!" Wade remarked.

"What choice do we have? It is going to happen anyway. It might as well be now, and it might as well be partly on my terms." He stood.

Each of his friends thought to stop him, but for once they were all on the same page. Honestly, what choice did he have? They all knew it was going to happen.

Quinn nodded, happy with the solidarity. "Iíll go into the hallway, lie down, and see if I can Ďsummoní him. Leave me alone for ten minutes, and then go out and see if I am unconscious. If I am, just carry me to a couch. If not, I will likely be back by then anyway. Hopefully, when I wake, I will have some answers."

His friends agreed, and watched him walk out into the hallway and close the door behind him. All of them nervously looked at their watches.

***

The Man was waiting behind the door. "So you think that you can do better than the others?" He grinned openly.

Quinn shrugged. "I donít see a reason to resist or lie to you. There was talk of questions. What do you want to know?"

The Man advanced on Quinn. The others were right, he smelled of apples. When he grinned this closely it seemed as if Quinn could see more of his teeth than he should have been able to. "Youíll answer anything, will ya?"

"Anything I have any knowledge of. Weíre all in this together, right?"

The Man howled like that was the funniest thing he had ever heard. He laughed like an insane hyena, loud bursts which sprayed Quinnís face with spittle. The Slider did not flinch, however. Nor did he attempt to wipe his face.

"Iím not scared of you."

The Manís laughter stopped as if turned off with a switch. Suddenly he was behind Quinn. He was whispering into Quinnís ear. Quinn refused to turn, refused to show nervousness. He got the idea that he had enraged this Ďmaní terribly. That he might have pushed it too far with his acceptance, and that he was about to pay for it. But he could not buckle. The others were counting on him.

"There are many ways to scare a man, my dear." It whispered. "And I intend to show you every single one of them!"

***

When the others checked the hallway 9 minutes later, there was no trace of Quinn. Nor was there a trace of him in the rest of the building.

He had disappeared.

Like the other thousands who had lived in this city turned empty graveyard.

Chapter Seven (The Dome) [posted: 8/15/99]

The three remaining Sliders returned to the main reading room after searching the rest of the building. For a long time they sat at the table nearest to the door.

Wade was worried sick about her close friend, and wondering what they hell they were going to do now.

Maggie had collected her weapon from the far corner and was wondering if it was of any use.

Remmy was trapped between wanting to look for Quinn and wanting to wait for him here. To venture out now seemed foolhardy. But to wait could endanger Quinn if her was lying somewhere hurting.

Maggie was the one to break the stalemate. "The way I see it, we have four choices. We can search the entire city for him, most likely wasting time and isolating ourselves from each other. We can sit here like we are and passively wait for something to happen. We can have another of us try to Ďsummoní this entity while the other two watch from afar this time. Or we can go back to research and try to find out what is going on."

The other two pondered their choices. Wade spoke first. "Sitting here is stupid, I agree. So is looking for him because he is not in this building, the obvious place, and there was no drag trail or any other indication that someone took him off somewhere so we have no idea where to start. On the other hand, we have no idea what to research next. For that we need to form a hypothesis and try to prove it wrong. I donít know if we can do that without Quinn here. But I am totally against trying to summon that thing again, even if we are watching."

Maggie sighed. "It sure seems like we are screwed any way we look at it."

"Especially since Quinn had the timer." Remmy added tiredly.

The other accepted that realization glumly. Quinn HAD had the timer! And now there was no trace of him. If they couldnít find him or at least the device in the next three some odd months, they were stuck on this horrible world.

Remmy rose suddenly. "Hey, is that a map of this city over there?"

The others followed him to the checkout desk. Behind the desk was a street map of Arcadia, which was apparently what this city was called. This library was represented with a huge, colorful icon. They recognized the park where they had arrived. Individual businesses were not represented, so they could only approximate where they hotel was, but the street layouts looked familiar.

"Maybe we could figure out a likely place Quinn would be taken, or perhaps a way to contact the outside world for help." Remmy commented.

The other two agreed. Maggie peered at the map carefully. Only a few buildings were identified. Important places like City Hall, Bushman Hospital, and ...

Maggie stabbed the map with one finger. "There! Arcadia Military Barracks! From what I have read, this America has a centralized military force, there are no distinct branches. So everything, Army, Air Force, etc, should be on this base."

"Good thinking! Letís go!" Remmy urged.

"Anythingís better than sitting here any longer!" Wade agreed.

***

The Barracks was a geodesic dome that towered a hundred feet in the air. There were several smaller buildings on the grounds, but the copper painted dome dominated the facility and took their breath away. Sunlight gleamed crisply, especially at the panel edges.

The grounds were encircled by a double set of 10 foot high electrified fences. Even though the power seemed to be off in this city, there was no guarantee that a place like this wouldnít have itís own power supply. Fortunately, they didnít have to worry about it because the front gates gaped like inviting hands. An empty truck close to the gate suggested that perhaps tragedy had struck while it was entering. Or perhaps the gates were left open during the day on a regular basis. Whatever the case, they were open and the Sliders didnít have to challenge the daunting fences.

Remmy parked near the front entrance of the dome and Maggie hurriedly jumped out, her shotgun covering them. If anyone in this town had survived, it had probably been here. They couldnít take any chances.

"This place is spooky." Remmy commented as he approached the front entrance.

"No doubt," Wade agreed, eyeing the 12 foot high windows which bordered the Plexiglas door. She spotted metal frames just outside the storefront style entrance. No doubt, if there was some kind of problem, think metal doors would slam out from the bordering walls and seal the door and windows from the outside world. The Plexiglas itself looked as if it would withstand any small arms fire.

The front door seemed to be electric powered, probably triggered by the security booth they could see inside. Apparently no one had been entering, because the door was sealed tight.

"Can you shoot through it?" Remmy wanted to know.

Maggie rapped her knuckles against the two inch think Plexiglas. "Not even with a bazooka. A rocket launcher would do it, Iíll bet."

"Well, you never know what will be laying around here." Wade remarked.

"Good point," Maggie returned. "Letís walk around. There should be a couple more doors, maybe we will get lucky."

***

The next small door they ran across was as tight as the front entrance. But they did, indeed, get lucky as they rounded to the rear of the squatting structure. Huge garage doors were completely open, revealing a mammoth vehicle park. Dozens of small tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles of unusual design crowded the garage. They couldnít see the far wall, but there was a good chance one of the doors to the interior would be ajar. Both walls adjacent to the open bay doors contained attached guard booths, empty as usual. When occupied, no one other than authorized personal would have been able to gain entry here. Especially since a .50 machine gun was mounted on each sealed booth.

"What a hellish world this is," Wade restated, shuddering.

"Letís start looking for an way inside." Maggie said tightly. "It is getting dark."

"Already?" Remmy asked, confused.

She went on. "And look for something we might be able to drive that is open. We might have to upgrade our transportation if we make contact with someone and need to reach them."

The three Sliders entered the menacing building.

***

The Man walked the streets of Arcadia, lost in thought.

How long had his home town been empty now? A day? A minute? A century? Time had no meaning anymore.

Where had everyone gone?

Suddenly angry, he picked up a rock and hurled it into the sky. "I hurl a rock ... into the sky ... when it falls ... someone will die!" He giggled at his wit, then the depression returned. Not any longer. There was no one to die for him any longer.

There was no one to hate.

No one to kill.

How long had things been this way?

There WERE the strangers. The four strangers. Now three. The smart ass had died in front of him just as it seemed that he was about to get his answers.

Now there were three. They were exploring the Dome right now.

He HAD to get his answers! He had to find out what was going on.

And he would, even if he had to rip all of them apart to make them tell him.

With renewed purpose, he headed for the Dome.

Chapter Eight (The Team) [posted: 8/16/99]

None of the doors leading deeper into the facility were unlocked or ajar, so they fanned out to search for a dropped passcard or something else they could use to gain entry.

Wade was rummaging through a small two-person tank when she thought she heard someone call her name. She jerked up. She could almost make out a shape in the corner of her eye, but when she turned the only thing she saw was the back of the tank. Suddenly cold, she hurried through the rest of her search and rushed out of the vehicle. No one was close enough to the tank to have been what she sensed.

She walked to the next open vehicle, this time a light transport.

"... wade ..."

She turned, frightened now. There was no one in sight. Suddenly, though she opposed guns as a rule, she wished she had something to defend herself. It was a silly desire when she took a moment to think about it. For what good would a projectile weapon do if their enemy was insubstantial?

Meanwhile, Maggie thought that she had their way in. A twenty foot high balcony circled the garage. The balcony provided access to a door leading inside. A door which was open. The only problem was that there was no way to get up to the balcony. No normal way, that was. Maggie grinned to herself and went to get her friends.

"You have GOT to be kidding!" Remmy remarked upon hearing her idea.

"Do you have another way in?" Maggie wondered.

Wade knew that this mock playfulness was simply a way to keep from thinking about Quinn. "Still, you are enjoying this too much."

Her plan was to slide a tank over to just under the balcony, elevate its gun, and shimmy up the barrel to the guard rail, and then pull themselves up. "If the barrel is oiled, weíre screwed." She observed, smirking.

"Yeah, as if you didnít like oiled barrels!" Wade shot back teasingly.

Maggieís jaw dropped. That was unlike Wade, and was a little mean. She, like Wade, knew that they were just doing anything to avoid thinking about their missing friend, so she let it pass. She remembered what Remmy had said about the possible influence of this world. How long before the three of them were permanently at each otherís throats? Was violence even possible?

Disturbed, Maggie backed the tank up to the designated point. Turning off the engine, she walked back to the turret area and reached up to lift herself into the seat.

"Maggie."

"Yeah?" She answered, not turning around. She lifted herself up to the seat and buckled herself in. Then she remembered that she was in the compartment alone. She shot a look behind her.

A skeletal man stood inches from her, its grinning skull at the level of her waist. A rotting tongue protruded from between decaying teeth and tasted the air between her thighs. She swiftly closed her legs and reached for a long screwdriver she had shoved into her belt earlier.

And then it simply wasnít there anymore.

Shaking, but resolve unwavering, Maggie elevated the barrel where it needed to be and jumped from her seat.

***

Only a thirty degree angle had been required, so all they really needed to do was not lose their balance and they shimmied up the cannon. To make things easier, Maggie raided a clothing locker on a transport and gave herself and her friends tactical gloves and boots that would increase their grip. Finding boots that fit Wadeís tiny feet was a problem, but they managed.

Remmy went up first. Gasping with effort, he reached the guardrail and hauled himself up. Without even glancing at the open door behind him, Remmy turned and prepared to give the other two a hand if they needed it. Wade made it up without a problem. Maggie, perhaps feeling a little cocky, slipped a third of the way up and almost fell headfirst onto the concrete 15 feet below her.

Face white, holding on for dear life, Maggie recovered and made it the rest of the way up at a more reasonable speed.

"Now that was scary!" Remmy remarked.

"You think?" Maggie snapped. She sighed, "Iím sorry. We HAVE to control our antisocial tendencies. This world is emotional poison."

"I agree. Good recovery, Maggie." Wade offered.

Remmy agreed as well. "We are not going to make it if we donít stick together. As a team, we are better than as three individuals."

Maggie suddenly realized that she had forgotten her shotgun. It was beside the driverís seat in the tank. Screw it. What good had the weapon done them? Their best weapon was there resolve to remain a team.

***

The door lead to main hallway 12 feet wide and 10 feet high. The walls were painted puke green, and the floors a dull gray. It was an almost mind-numbingly ugly combination. Battery powered lights, the first working modern convenience they had discovered on this world, lit their way. They took the first hallway off the main hallway.

This second corridor STANK. The odor of rotting food permeated far beyond the open double doors from which it apparently came. Covering her nose, Maggie peered through the doors. "Itís a cafeteria!" She reported. "There are several half eaten trays on the tables. And open glasses of spoiled milk. This stuff has been here for a couple days."

"Does hell have working bacteria?" Wade wondered aloud. "Maybe we arenít there after all!"

They retreated to the main hallway. "I know one thing," Remmy remarked, "it has been forever since we have slept. We are inside now, so how about finding a place to crash for a couple hours?"

Maggie agreed. "It might be a long time before we get another opportunity."

They cast about several hallways and peeked into dozens of rooms before they found an office with cots stacked against the wall. Of particular interest was a hand weapon on the desk. As the other two selected three cots, Maggie checked out the "pistol."

It was a good 30 inches long, the barrel narrowing down to a fine point. The handle was so short that her first two fingers completely covered it, leaving her bottom two fingers to curl uselessly into her palm. Oddly, it was warm to the touch.

"When you are a finished playing with your new toy, perhaps you could help us drag this file cabinet in front of the door?" Remmy said mildly.

"Of course." Maggie helped them seal themselves into the room. The now secured door was the only way in or out, so they were safe to sleep. "We are exhausted, so I donít think falling asleep will be a problem. So I am leaving the light on. I donít want to be fumbling with it if we need to rise quickly."

They settled in and all three were soon asleep.

***

The Man entered the tank. He was in a messing with their minds mode right now. He wanted them to be ripe and supple, ready for the plucking and eating when he was ready to do so. Here was where he had sent a little scare present to her, he thought as he glanced at the turret seat.

He turned to the driverís seat. He bent on one knee and leaned forward. He breathed in deeply and was able to taste the fear and apprehension she had experienced while she rested her body in this chair. The military plastic seat was not known for absorbing odors. No, it was more a sensation than a smell.

The Man grinned to himself. Finally, people to play with again.

***

Pounding.

Scratching.

Or was it sobbing?

A mixture of sounds roused Wade, so jumbled together that she could not identify it. As she rose from her cot, and found herself in a vast cafeteria, she realized in the back of her mind that she must be dreaming.

It didnít matter. She walked towards the sound. Past tables upon tables of rotting meat and spoiling milk. Past hulking, spooky Kromaggs dining on things she would rather not know about. Past a leering Rickman, who appeared to be eating a brain sandwich. Past the feverish demons that she had once hallucinated when she was dying of the fever. Everyone, every nightmare person she had encountered the past 4 years was here in this endless room.

And, at the far end of the room, after an eternity of walking, she found the newest addition. Quinn Mallory.

And she could see right through him. He was a ghost.

Chapter Nine (The Stairwell) [posted: 8/17/99]

Wade awoke crying. What was the point in going on? She had lost her closest friend. Why not just lie here and accept whatever this freak after them wanted to do? They didnít even have the timer. What was the point?

Remmy appeared and sat next to her. Without a word he embraced her tenderly. Drawing strength from him, Wade hugged him back. "This is the point." She muttered, not quite away that she was talking aloud.

"Huh?" Remmy replied, not quite hearing her.

"Whenever you two lovebirds are ready." Came a semi-angry voice. Looking over, they found that Maggieís lips were a flat line. Her eyes were menacing. She was the one with the most reason to be angry because of what she had gone through in her life. She was the most aggressive of the three remaining Sliders. She was losing it fast.

Remmy stood. "Maggie, this world is getting to you again-."

She cut him off. "You think I donít know that?!? Of course it is! It is getting to all three of us! We donít have the luxury of being able to coddle each other! We have to get moving and find a communications device! Letís go!!"

Remmy sighed. "Aye-aye."

Wade pulled out one of their bottles of water and a hand towel and proceeded to knock the sleepy dust of her face.

Maggie shook her head but managed to avoid saying anything.

***

None of the elevators worked, so they had to take the stairs. Maggie reasoned that whatever command center existed would be in one of two places, the center of the building, or deep below the ground. She was betting it was underground, so they were going that way. A military complex wouldnít exactly have maps hanging on every wall to assist invading forces, so they were going to have to wing it.

The stairwell was Spartan and functional. It looked less like something military and more like something one would see in an office building. The steps were poured concrete, the handrails were puke green painted metal. 20 steps separated each landing, and a door leading into the next level was at every second landing.

As they stared down the middle and estimated that there were at least 15 levels below them, Wade expressed doubts. "I donít know guys. That is a lot of stairs. I would hate to get trapped in here."

She expected more hostility from Maggie, but the other woman surprised her. Maggie produced a flare from her backpack and shut the entry door on it. "Even if there are automatic locks on the stair doors, this is at least one door that we can get through, okay?"

Wade lifted her eyebrows in surprise but nodded. "Okay."

They started down gingerly, then with growing confidence.

Ten levels underground, the lights suddenly failed. Then each of them clearly heard the sound of the flare being kicked out from the doorway and the door closing with grim finality.

Maggie dropped to her butt and held the weapon close to her stomach so that it could not be snatched in the dark. Remmy turned to face the steps they had just traversed and gripped the handrail tightly with his left hand, leaving the right hand free. Wade, in the middle, also gripped the handrail for dear life.

"It looks like we lost light for this entire stairway." Maggie noted tightly. "If memory serves, there is a landing 10-15 steps below me, and a door on the right as we hit the landing. Letís take it down easy, okay?"

"Youíll never make it." A bemused voice predicted.

Maggie yelped, Remmy almost lost his balance, and Wade felt like screaming. None of them could tell exactly where the voice came from. Was he near? Was he up or down? Who was he closest to? They couldnít tell.

"Who are you?!" Maggie demanded.

"Ahhhh. I remember you. You were ... good. You fought me, I like that." He made it sound somehow sexual, although it had been a mental violation.

Maggie was sweating and she hated him for it. "I am going to kill you." It was spoken like a loverís promise, with finality and total sincerity.

That return of tone seemed to unsettle him. He fell silent.

For five agonizing minutes they waited in total darkness. Despite anything they said, The Man did not respond. Attempts to use their flashlights failed. Apparently whatever this was stalking them had power over light and dark.

"Screw this." Remmy finally said. "Letís move."

"I agree. I will call out the steps as I take them." The point woman let them know.

Just as they all inched down one step, a frigid, skeletal hand caressed Wadeís neck. She screamed and almost lost her balance, almost plunged herself down the remaining steps.

"What was it? Whatís happening?" Remmy exclaimed, reaching out in the dark and grabbing her blouse.

"Something ... touched my neck!" Wade reported angrily. She proceeded to cuss the mystery man out with lingering attention to his lineage, his ability to reproduce, and the resemblance between his face and his bottom. It was a worse tongue lashing than anyone had received since Samson cussed out Delilah upon finding his hair cut off.

Despite their apprehension, Maggie and Remmy couldnít help but be amused. Remmy tried to calm her, nevertheless. "You need to save your strength, girl."

"Iím telling you! I have HAD it with this s-."

She was cut off when Remmy suddenly hollered and grabbed the handrail with all his might to keep his balance. "He touched me just now! On my back!"

"As long as you remain here, I will not frighten you." The man promised in a taunting voice. "Take one step and I shall startle you into falling to your deaths. Where will I touch next? Whom will I touch next? Canít you just imagine that my hand is hovering over the back of your neck at this moment? Or is it your butt? Is it you, Wade? Is Maggie next on my touch list?" He laughed deeply.

Maggie fought the strong urge to just start firing at random in the dark. "All right! Listen me, guys! Drop to the steps! Lay your entire body on the steps. We are going to crawl down. There is no danger of falling, and as long as you can ignore this freakís touching and not let it get to you, him startling us shouldnít matter."

They followed her orders. ĎThank God for her military training,í Wade found herself thinking. Perhaps uncharitably, she couldnít bring herself to say it out loud.

The Man still tried, gamely, but none of them lost their focus. When he touched someone unexpectedly, that person yelped through clenched teeth, but there was no danger of falling.

Finally, blessedly, they reached the landing. Maggie made the mistake of jumping to her feet immediately and was viscously shoved the instant she straightened. She barely managed to catch the guardrail for the next flight of stairs before she plunged down THAT set of steps. She kicked out in case he was trying to follow up on it, but her boot contacted only air.

The other two crawled over to where they had heard her stop and reached out until they made contact with her legs. Of course, in light of recent events, they let her know what they were doing. Remmy didnít feel like getting a mouth full of boot at this juncture.

Maggie dropped back down to the floor with them. "Letís get to the door and get the hell out of this stairwell."

At that moment the lights all came back on. Inches from their huddled faces was a floating skull with glowing yellow eyes. Just as their eyes adjusted and the three of them realized what they were looking at, the skull screamed a piercingly, painfully long moment and then disappeared. All of them were startled and Maggie had to grab the rail again to keep from falling backwards down the stairs.

"These frigging stairs must have my name on them or something." She muttered.

Remmy was shaking his head. "Guys, I donít know how much more of this crap I can take."

It was Wadeís turn to comfort him. She embraced him. "But itís not just you, itís us, right? Weíre a team!"

Maggie grinned and tried to lighten the mood. "Iím just glad that we three have strong bladders! I have been with big tough guys who would have needed a shower and a change of clothes by now!"

Chapter Ten (The Devil Prison) [posted: 8/18/99]

Professor Arturo sighed and removed his glasses, frustrated. "I think that is going to have to be it for now, my boy."

Attendants removed the vibro helmet from the young manís head and unstrapped the sweating youth from the chair which had held him for the past four hours. Quinn Mallory didnít move immediately. "I was so close! I could see them! Wade even heard me call her name! Why couldnít they see me?"

"You have to understand, my boy, this is not something we have ever attempted. When we established the Dimensional Prison 27 years ago, we never anticipated anyone becoming trapped inside. It was a prison for one person and one person alone. There was no way in nor any way out. It was the perfect incarceration for a man so dangerous he held the entire world in his influence."

Quinn sighed. "Iím still not sure that I am buying this. The man is some kind of genetic mutant? He is over two hundred years old? He has mental powers so immense that he managed, by himself, to fill the entire world with hate? You make him sound like the devil incarnate."

Arturo, a Professor of Dimensional Science on this world, fixed the other man with a stony stare. "Perhaps he is, Mr. Mallory. Perhaps he isnít. All we know is that since we imprisoned him in 1971, there have been exactly NO world wars, crime in all countries and empires is down 350%, and rampant hate and paranoia are extinct compared to humankindís emotional condition pre-Imprisonment. The Dimensional Prison saved this world from an enraged meltdown! Believe what you will, Mr. Mallory, but the entity trapped in there with your friends is the most cold hearted, powerful, and evil creature to have ever been spawned from evolution!"

Quinn still looked skeptical.

"Come with me, I want to show you something! We can grab a bite along the way."

Outside the Dome the sun was shining brightly. The fences that had once encircled this facility were gone without a trace. A single guard, armed with only a sidearm, actually smiled at them as Quinn and Arturo strolled by. They walked along a winding road which softened the slope of the hill the Dome squatted on. Quinn could see most of Arcadia from here. It was bustling with life, carefree citizens strolled here and there smiling and waving at each other. Only a few people looked annoyed or unhappy.

A few buildings had been demolished and a few more had sprung up since 1971, apparently. Other than that, the city looked the same as the one he Slid into, only with living people inhabiting this one.

Two children wearing something similar to roller blades nearly collided with Arturo as they swooped in from a side road. The Professor laughed good-naturedly and called for them to be careful. He returned his attention to Quinn. "Iíll bet you are wondering why it appeared that everyone had just disappeared when your vortex was attracted to the Prison and you arrived there instead of here. Well, the way the Dimensional Prison worked was it took a second in the life of Arcadia and captured it, duplicated it. Shiva, as we call the mutant man since his real name has never been known, was captured along with it since the trap was attuned to him alone. Everything physical and non living was duplicated as it was in that second. Now, we would have liked to have frozen time inside the Prison entirely, thus ensuring that Shiva would never be able to escape, but that is not possible. We were able to slow it down to the rate of one second passing in there for each week that passes out here. Which means that approximately 23 minutes had passed in there for the 27 years which had gone by out here."

Arturo paused for breath, but still waved his arms like a conductor on crack as he talked. "When you four entered the prison, you destabilized it. It was set for one individual. All of the sudden, there were five of you, and time, in relationship to us out here, sped up. The problem with the Prison has always been that a person can escape from it if they realize that they are in it. It is a fragile construct. For instance, when you felt that your life was threatened, you Ďfellí from the Prison and arrived in our beautiful park, where the four of you should have landed in the first place. If Shiva is given enough time, he will realize what has happened to him, escape, and the entire world will feel his vengeance. It will be back to the Cold War, back to the American Empire being a military state ..." His voice trailed off in genuine horror.

"You remember those children who I nearly collided with? They are too young to remember the kind of world it used to be. I remember that world, Mr. Mallory. I remember it well. We HAVE to get your friends out of there and restabilize the Prison before that happens!"

Quinn was still looking skeptical.

Arturo started walking again. They had reached the bottom of the hill before the professor continued. "Do you have any more questions?"

"A million, actually. The first of which is, who set this Ďprisoní up and why did they come to this conclusion about Shiva?"

"It would take hours to describe the evolution of the idea of Shiva. It started in the late 1800ís when a social scientist noticed that the world had been getting more violent, paranoid, and hate-filled for at least a hundred years by that point. One of his students continued the research, aided by connections in the government. By working backwards, painstakingly and over a period of 20 years, the student came to the conclusion that it all started, here in this very town, sometime in the year 1796. This town become a hotbed of hate, violence, and crime all out of proportion to surrounding areas during that year. As the years passed, surrounding towns began to act the same way, as if someoneís mental powers were increasing with age. Then, suddenly, a path of hate stretched from this town all the way to New Persia, which is the biggest city on the eastern seaboard, btw. It was a direct line, and it followed a railroad that connected to two cities which are a continent apart. All cities in between were affected, but no other cities were. It was as if his powers still had a limited range, you see."

Arturo stopped again and faced Quinn. "I can show you the statistical figures for violence and crime for the Ďpathí and for all other cities in that time. The numbers are undeniable. Something was affecting people, and it was obviously moving but in a limited way."

He resumed walking again, his voice flat. "By the mid 1800ís, his powers were apparently mature and limitless. The world became an endless bloodbath. There was still a moving epicenter where things were even worse, and apparently that was where he was. Researchers noticed that that epicenter moved to Arcadia about once ever ten years, as if he liked to visit his home city every now and then."

He suddenly stopped walking again. "Weíre here."

Quinn had been so absorbed in the other manís words that he hadnít noticed they were in a historical residential section. The other man had stopped in front of a dilapidated four room house. The yard was overrun with reddish brown grass and gnarly weeds. The house was encircled by a high security fence and the gate was guarded a seriously looking man. "Exactly how powerful is this man? And why hasnít he died?"

Arturo answered as he handed the guard his ID card. "We are not 100 percent positive that he is 200 years old, but there have never been two epicenters at the same time, so that is more likely than this being generations of mutants. Plus, there is the fact that mutants and genetic freaks can rarely breed. As for his powers," the man waved Quinn through the gate without pausing for breathe, "the sky is the limit as far as we can tell. He seems to be able to project auditory, visual, even tactile hallucinations into a personís mind. Survivors of extremely violent situations linked to Shiva had reported such things. The emotional projection of hatred seems to be constant and might be involuntary. We are fairly sure that his mental powers would be severely limited in his Dimensional Prison, which is why the four our you could last longer than second trapped in there with him."

The Professor gestured to the rundown house. "This is apparently the house sitting on the land where he was born. This house is over a hundred years old. No one has been able to live in it. It has been abandoned for as long as anyone is this neighborhood can remember. Except once every ten years or so. Residents interviewed in the 60ís remembered seeing a blond man once every long while. Step inside, my boy, and believe."

Quinn suddenly realized something. "We did some research in the library! We found that genetic manipulation and DNA research had become a hot research path by the turn of this century. The government encouraged this because they wanted to understand Shiva and possibly figure out how to deal with him, right?"

Arturo nodded. "It was ultimately decided, upon discovery of parallel worlds and travel between them in 1960 that the answer was there. The Dimension Prison is, in essence, a modified wormhole. You might also call it a tiny parallel world consisting of one city. But it is one we control. Now, Mr. Mallory ..." He gestured again to the door.

Feeling a mixture of trepidation and scorn, Quinn crossed the threshold.

***

He was instantly filled with an all consuming rage. PAINT IT BLACK!!! PAINT IT RED!! I WANT KILL EVERY LIVING DEAD!!! BURN IT ALL TO THE GROUND!!! I WANT NOTHING LEFT!!! !!!I WANT NOTHING LEFT AROUND!!!

He was only half conscious when the guard and Arturo pulled him from the building. The two men looked to be fighting murderous urges themselves. "Sweet baby Jesus." Quinn muttered, gasping like a hooked fish.

"It has been 37 years since Shiva has resided here. Yet those mental and emotional impressions are still this strong. So tell me, Mr. Mallory, do you believe me now?"

Though nearly blacking out, Quinn managed to speak. "I have <gasp> never felt such <wheeze> inhuman hatred in my life. We have got to get them out of there <gasp> before he rips their minds open!!"

Chapter Eleven (The eyesÖ) [posted: 8/20/99]

Back in the lab, Arturoís assistant informed them that the necessary calibrations had been completed. He should be able to be seen by his friends now. They were, in essence, projecting his mind into the Prison, so Quinn would appear as a ghost, but at least he could interact with the other Sliders.

"The trick, my boy, is to tell your friends how to escape without letting Shiva find out. All is lost if he sees you or overhears any of your conversation with your friends. Also, you must get at least one of them out this trip. As soon as possible. The Prison is still destabilizing. It is demanding more and more power. If those demands exceed our ability to supply, the Prison will evaporate and Hell will once again be visited upon this world. Your exit was fortuitous, much longer without one of you escaping and the Prison Ďwallsí would have already collapsed. But your exodus only slowed the unraveling, the others must escape, and soon. AND, they must do so without Him finding out what is happening. It is in your hands!"

Quinn grimaced. "Thanks for putting the weight of this entire world on my shoulders. Well, lets get this on, shall we?"

Arturo smiled and patted the other manís shoulder. "Youíll do fine, Mr. Mallory. Good hunting!"

***

The Command Center was in the second level from the very bottom. From the hideous (in their minds, at least) stairwell it was only a short corridor to the brain of the facility. Fortunately the blast doors were open because there would have been no way for the Sliders to force their way past them.

The Center was shaped like a globe, and the blast doors led into a circular balcony that formed what would be a globeís equator. The ceiling to the vast room curved in on all sides to form the "North Pole" and the area below the balcony was a series of smaller and smaller circles of contiguous computer consoles until only one console squatted at the lowest and central part of the room, the "South Pole." It was an odd, if efficient, use of space.

Maggie stayed at the doorway. "I donít know if this will do any good, but Iíll stay here. If we are dealing with a physical being, there is no way he can get past me to get at you guys, even if it is pitch black or he is invisible. This entry to too tight."

The other two agreed and fanned out to try and find a communications console. If they could find one they were going to try and reach someone outside of Arcadia. If not, Wade was going to try and hack past the security system and see what fruit the mainframeís vast memory stores would bear on what had happened in this city.

Maggie watched them power up one computer console after the next, a tedious job because there were over 300 in this room.

"Maggie..."

Startled, the woman wheeled and prepared to use her high tech weapon. It was Quinn ... rather a ghostly version of him.

"Listen to me, Maggie. We donít have time for 20 questions. You must do exactly what I say immediately. It is vital." The ghostly image of Quinnís earnest face was compelling. So was his low key whispering.

***

The tenth console Wade tried yielded the first hope she had felt all day. Certainly the first hope she had felt since entering this room. For some reason this room was damp. The air tasted wet and acrid, and smelled as badly. A thin sheen of moisture coated the consoles. Not enough to endanger the workings of the devices but enough to be annoying. And the absorbent chairs soaked her bottom each time she sat in one, further annoying her.

Now, finally, she could put aside the annoyances. "Remmy! Maggie! I think I have found the communications console!"

At that moment, the emergency overhead lights dimmed to nothingness. All of the consoles which had been activated died down again. Once again, for the second time in several hours, they were plunged into total darkness.

"Wade? Maggie? You both okay?" Came Remmyís concerned voice.

"Iím fine!" Wade answered.

They waited but no answer came from the entry.

"MAGGIE!?!" Remmy yelled this time.

Finally an answer came, but it was not her voice. It was The Man. "She was most delicious." He snidely remarked, smacking his lips.

The voice and the words chilled both of the remaining Sliders to the bone.

***

As soon as Maggie appeared in the park she was greeted by two off duty policemen. They relieved her of her weapon and offered to take her to Quinn. The ride to the Dome was surreal. Seeing Arcadia alive with people was even more startling than see the missing buildings or the new ones which had popped up in their place.

By the time she reached the facility (almost fainting with shock upon seeing the missing security features) Quinn had reentered the Dimensional Prison and it was up to this worldís Arturo to explain what was going on.

Before he could really start to soothe her puzzled mind, they were interrupted by an exclamation from Quinn. "He is in there with them both right now! I canít get to either without tipping my hand!"

Arturo leaned forward and yelled to insure that the younger man could hear him. "Wait until He goes for one or the other, then pull out the one He is not close to! If He is too close to both of them, you are just going to have to wait!"

An aide ran up with a printout. Arturo read it and crumpled it in disgust. "We donít have much time. Shiva could be in our laps in minutes if we donít get them out of there! We are approaching a cascading dimensional meltdown, beyond the threshold of which there is no stopping his escape."

***

Wade eased herself out of the seat, trying not to make a sound. She heard a wet footstep as he advanced on her and his footwear scrunched the damp carpet. She had the feeling that he might have the ability to project hallucinations into their minds, which would explain how they could have heard him close the stairwell door far above them but he could touch them in the dark just moments later. His body must have been many levels above, but he was able to project the touch sensations down on them.

This time it felt different. It felt like He was "really" here. This was no hallucination. And He had chosen to pursue her.

Another wet step. Wade dropped to her hands and knees and crawled under the console. There was a gap between the desk and the floor, enough for her to drop down to the next ring of consoles, 5 feet below this ring. If He didnít hear her, she would be a level below where He had seen her before the lights died. She might be able to parlay that advantage into sneaking to the entry behind Him.

Two more insistent steps as she slid her waifish body through the gap and rolled onto her stomach so she could ease down the wall. Another crunch-hissing step, He was mere feet from her console now. The damp carpet soaked her shirt and bra with foul smelling water. She couldnít afford to let it bother her but she actually had to suppress the urge to make a disgusted sound. When the urge was past, she slid down the wall and released the floor below her console when her tippy-toes touched the floor below. Silently, she crouched down. She had done it! And without a sound!

The Man landed heavily directly in front of her, grunting as he absorbed the fall and straightened. Wade screamed in surprise and turned to run. The Man grabbed her arm and flung her against the wall she had just eased down.

She dropped to the floor, the breath knocked out of her. Where was Remmy? She gasped out his name but she could barely hear it so there was little chance that he had. Still, wouldn't he hear the struggling? He must be seconds from pouncing on this man.

A soggy crunch. He was standing above her now. He giggled. "Let there be light!"

The Control Room was flooded with light, hurting her eyes. When her eyes adjusted, she could plainly see that Remmy and Maggie were gone. Vanished like everyone else. The crushing reality that she was alone now was almost too much for her.

The Man smiled kindly down at her. As he leaned down to get a closer look at her, she found herself gazing into his blue eyes.

She had never seen eyes more full of madness.

Chapter Twelve (The Undying Man) [posted: 8/22/99]

After a long minute, Wade finally found her voice. "Why?"

The Man cocked His head and regarded her with the same mock-friendliness He had been affecting since He caused the lights to be raised again. "Why what?"

"Why do you hate so much? I can feel it boiling off from you!" Her upper lip curled in disgust. It was beginning to overwhelm her.

"Why?" The Man laughed bitterly. "Why canít I die? Why did everyone I first loved die and crumble to dust?? Why were my people slaughtered to a man woman and child??? TELL ME, why should anyone on this miserable rock ever draw another stinking breath????"

Wade recoiled from this outburst. Suddenly, she saw Him as He truly was, not how He had wanted her and her friends to see Him. His face was long and narrow. His body was tall and lean. His jet black hair hung down to his waist. He was full blooded Indian. His eyes were ancient.

"This little town rests on the spot that my tribe used to call home. There is little resemblance now to what I grew up to. But since I must call something home, I call this disgraceful place home." His tone was more muted, but still concealed none of his outrage.

He must be far older than she could conceive of. What would it be like to never die? What would it be like to see everyone she had ever known die? And then to see invading armies eradicate her people until not even their bones remained?

With nothing left, not even a people to call her own, and with the rest of the world to blame, she would hate everyone and everything. And she might even do what she could to atomize them.

The Man broke her reverie by lifting her up by her arms. "Tell me, my dear. What are you feeling?"

"I hate you." Her eyes glowered with the emotion he was most familiar with.

"And your friends, who vanished so mysteriously?"

"You said that you killed them?"

The Man laughed hugely. "You will find me to be a fantastic liar. Perhaps. Or perhaps I did kill them..." He looked confused for a moment, then brushed the feeling aside and returned his attention to her. "But how do you feel about them?" He pressed.

"I ... hate them! Quinn got us in this mess and he rejected my feelings for him! Rembrandt is a whining, self absorbed little man! Maggie is an egotistical bi-."

The manís laughter drowned her out. "And yourself? How do you feel about yourself?"

"I am a shallow, fashion absorbed loser!" She answered pitifully. Then His hate in her overwhelmed her and she attacked him.

The Man swung her around, pressed her against one of the console walls, and locked her in an embrace. "Have you ever made mad, passionate love while hate burned deeply in your heart?" He asked her breathlessly. "It is simply divine." He kissed her, deeply.

Wade savaged his tongue with her teeth. As he pulled back she snarled like a rabid animal, his blood trickling from the left corner of her mouth.

The Man threw back his head and laughed. The banshee calls echoed from the high twisting ceiling and crashed back down on them like a Greek chorus. "You are MINE now. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. You will love me as well as hate me." His speech was thick, as his tongue already swelled.

Wade prepared to hurl herself at him, to inflict whatever injuries she could, to not stop until he was forced to kill her ...

"Wade?"

That oh so familiar voice smashed through the hatred that was clouding her mind. It was Arturo!

The Manís head jerked towards the entry. That voice had come from down the hallway. But he couldnít sense anyone there! Shoving her to the damp floor, he bounded over a console and darted up the steps at breakneck speed.

Instantly, Quinn appeared in front of Wade. "Listen to me, Wade! We donít have time for 20 questions. You must do exactly what I say immediately! It is vital..."

***

There was no one in the hall, despite the fact that he HAD heard someone. Actually disappointed, when he returned to the Control Center.

His last plaything was gone.

His world was empty once more...

***

By the time Wade had been brought to the room in the Dome where her friends were gathered, she had regained her composure. At first she had attacked one of the officers who was waiting there for her. But the hatred seeped out of her and she was finally herself again. She fervently hugged her friends, especially Quinn. All three of them received tear stained kisses.

When she told her story, Arturo jumped up. "We had it all backwards!! We thought his genetic deformation was his mental powers! That was not it at all! He wasnít born with these abilities! He was born with a built-in exceedingly long life span. Scientists have long theorized that we are only using a small percentage of the great potential our brains possess. But what if someone had hundreds of years to explore the full potential of their minds? And what if they were already of the mindset to hate and then were provided plenty of reasons to do so? There is another thing to consider. What if an inflated lifespan drives human beings insane?"

He continued on, conjecturing with several aides excitedly.

The Sliders drifted away from that conversation and huddled together.

"Iím just glad that we are all together again!" Quinn remarked, smiling at his friends.

Wade let out a deep sigh. "After being so scared of him, and hating him, now all I feel is pity. Where he is now, he is a tiny little man."

"I like it like that." Maggie commented unwaveringly.

Wade smiled and had to agree. "No matter what circumstance a person finds themselves in, they still have a choice over whether they let hatred into their hearts. So Iím not even going to feel pity for him. He is a sad little man and he is going to spend eternity in that dreadful place."

Quinn nodded agreement to that and moved on. "It was actually the good Professorís idea to provide a distraction, by the way. I could perceive what was happening, and I could tell that he was not going to wander away anytime soon. But I couldnít think of what to do next. But Arturo said that he could enter and create a diversion to make Shiva leave you alone long enough for me to free you. I couldnít do it because I had disappeared as far as He was concerned. To reappear would be to blow the secret of what was going on."

"Shiva, huh?" Wade asked thoughtfully. "The Eastern god of destruction? Shiva the Destroyer? The Eater of Worlds? Very appropriate name!"

Remmy slapped his hands together in mock eagerness. "So, what do you say we go over to the library and do some reading?" His eyes twinkled.

Quinn jumped up. "Speaking of hate..."

Maggie scowled playfully. "Where is my laser pistol or whatever that was?!?"

Wade jumped up and ran to the coffee machine. "I have a better idea!"

Their mixed, healing, laughter went unnoticed by Arturo and his cronies, who were still locked in furious debate.

 

Epilude (The Empty World) [posted: 8/22/99]

Time...

... slowed ...

... dooooooooowwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnn ...

... aaaaaaaaaggggggggggggaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn ...

Where had she gone? Where had her friends gone? At first he thought that he had gained another new ability and accepted it as he did every such gift. He thought that he could now will people to cease to exist.

The Man slowly climbed the stairs. There was no reason to hurry now. No one to meet, nothing to see.

Perhaps that WAS it. Perhaps he had willed the world to die, and that is where everyone had gone. He knew that the four visitors had been from a parallel world, He had gleaned that from His first round on questioning. So it had simply taken time for them to vanish because of the awesome power of His mind.

The Man smiled to Himself. These thoughts pleased Him.

In the time it took Him to think these thoughts, to traverse the empty stairwell, decades passed on the peaceful world that existed outside of the Devilís Prison.

THE END


Alternate Earth 117
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