Written by Slider Sarah
Laurie Price stared at the computer screen in front of her. She had been relentlessly studying the Kromaggs ever since she had been granted permission to join a research team. She had known a lot about the Kromaggs before the recent studying; it was difficult not to when they had taken over your world and your life was now spent in fighting them. Many of the files in front of her were the ones she had helped to retrieve from the Kromagg systems. Ever since the Kromaggs had taken her world she'd worked with the resistance to help free it. Despite her youth at the time, she'd help retrieve a lot of information from the Kromagg mainframe. It was she who had uncovered the information which led her resistance group to perfecting sliding, yet she had never before slid to another world. When her resistance group had perfected sliding, they had sent teams through to random worlds to try and find something that could help defeat the Kromaggs. Some of the information they had gathered had hinted at a weapon which drove the Kromaggs off their world, but so far, no-one had gathered enough to make one of their own. Laurie's dream was to visit other worlds and to help find something which could free her world, but previously she had not been permitted to. When the research teams were first created, Laurie had been too young and this was the first opening since her eighteenth birthday. She'd being waiting over a year for this chance to come, but it was a shame it had cost another's life.
Laurie had not yet met the three other people who would make up her team, 6-Beta. They were still on the world where they had lost their fourth member. They had sent an interdimensional radio message explaining what had happened and asking for a replacement member. As the next on the list, Laurie had been assigned. The other members of 6-Beta would only be returning for a few hours, so she would have to prepare herself.
She typed a few commands into the computer and pulled up her team-mates' files. The first she viewed, the team-leader's, was of a man named Mike Chambers. At 42, he was easily the eldest of the group, but he had a reputation as a strong, but considerate leader. He had been in a Kromagg labour camp on another world from the time their world had fallen until about two years ago when there had been a mass breakout and he had been able to return home, to the world the Kromaggs had christened Earth 117. The second was that of the team scientist, Stephen Henley. Laurie could vaguely remember seeing him one time in the lab when he had brought the timer in for repairs. He was a tall black guy of about 30 who looked nothing like a scientist at a glance, but if you looked closer you could see the intelligence in his eyes. Each research team had to have at least one scientist in it, just in case the timer was damaged. This meant that the number of teams was restricted to the number of scientists who could be spared from the Earth 117 lab, and this was not so many. The third and final member was another man, this time one who had been training as a doctor before the 'Maggs invaded. His name was Connor Matthews and it seemed he was responsible for getting the team into some of the more, "unusual," situations that often occurred.
A sigh escaped Laurie's lips and she leant back in the chair. On an impulse, she drew up a fourth file, that of the deceased member. The file was for another man, unusual for the research teams. A significant effort was always made to include one female in the group and most of the groups had two men, two women. The result of the old grouping, she realised, could have an effect on how she would be accepted. They would never have had to cope with a woman travelling with them, let alone one as young as she was.
She closed down the file and looked at her watch. They would be here within a few hours and she hadn't gathered her possessions together yet. She didn't have very many; Most of what she once had was destroyed by the Kromaggs, so what she did have was very precious to her. What she did have was a few scrappy old photos of her family and friends from before the invasion and a few little trinkets she'd collected from various sources. It wasn't much, but it was all she had to remind her of how life had once been.
* * *
"Incoming vortex!" The customary yell as an opening vortex was detected rang through the Earth 117 Kromagg Resistance Headquarters. The shout always brought with it a rush of fresh activity as it was tracked.
"'Magg or Human?" called the base commander.
The young boy at the computer vainly tried to give an answer. "I don't know."
Laurie smiled slightly. He was only a young lad of about twelve. They were so short on people in the resistance that they used anyone who was willing and most people were. She didn't know the boy well, but she knew how he was feeling. He wasn't prepared for the complexity of the work he had to do. It used to be her job, but now she had been reassigned.
"I need to know NOW!"
Laurie could see how nervous and confused the boy was so she ran to his computer and typed a few keys.
"Definitely one of ours," she called, "It's carrying...three people and it's opening in building 16." Mentally she made a note to ask someone to teach the poor kid how to read the data.
"Any 'Maggs in that area?"
"Nope, it's clear." At that last remark from Laurie, about half the people in the room migrated to building 16 to welcome the returning team. Laurie Price was one of them; it was supposed to be her team to be that was returning.
Building 16 was a partially intact building, only just inside the border between the Humans and the Kromaggs. It was an area of little use to the Kromaggs and it wasn't very near to the Resistance headquarters, so there were rarely any Kromagg patrols there, but it never hurt the Humans to be cautious anymore. There were so many occasions on record where caution could have saved lives.
The leader of the resistance beckoned to the others to move in closer to building 16, with guns ready just in case. The resistance leader was a natural leader with a head for planning. It was he who had organised the remaining humans in the area into a proper resistance force, rather than the random, barely effective, spontaneous attacks in which many people had died due to lack of structure. These days, he very rarely left the Resistance Headquarters except during a few of the organised attacks. Laurie had got to know him quite well during her time at Headquarters. He was almost like a brother to her now, despite the significant age difference. The Kromagg invasion had matured almost everyone and Laurie was no exception.
Laurie followed the others towards the building. She had no gun, but she did have a small, sharp knife. From a distance it would be useless, but in the case of an attack, it would be useful. The 'Maggs would be less likely to shoot her with intent to kill since she was a female of child-bearing age and that would let her get close enough to them to cause an injury if not death.
Everyone outside was silent so that they could hear everything. Gradually, a conversation reached them, accompanied by footsteps. The entire conversation was conducted in whispers, but those nearest the entrance to building 16 could distinguish the sound of three male voices, none of which carried the sneering tone of the Kromaggs.
"Where are they?"
"They'll be here. They're probably being cautious. After the screw up last time they'd bloody well better be!"
"Ssshhh! There could be 'Maggs around!"
When the three men first stepped slowly out of the building, there was no wild welcome for the returning travellers. Even if it had been customary to so, which it wasn't until they returned to base, no one would have felt comfortable in these circumstances. The remaining members of 6-Alpha wore sober looks on their faces and there was an air of sadness. One of them, the leader, carried the few belongings of the deceased member in a small bag. He nodded to the resistance leader and they were ushered outside quickly before returning to base camp.
Laurie felt superfluous to the event. She did very little other than to add more to the numbers. One of the resistance leader's favourite policies was, "Safety in numbers," so wherever on Earth 117 anyone went that was not in the heavily fortified resistance stronghold, a significant number of humans followed, except in special instances. Laurie had only volunteered to come along this time for the first glimpses of her new team. Now she had seen them properly, she wasn't sure whether it was a good idea for her to join them or not. Sure, she still wanted to visit parallel worlds, but she didn't feel comfortable with the situation. Her soon-to-be team had just lost a member, a friend. They wouldn't want a virtual stranger with no experience in sliding imposing on their grief. And they were all men who had never slid with a woman before. How was she going to cope with that? For a few moments she considered saying she'd changed her mind and didn't want to join them after all, but then she realised that if she didn't go, some other poor person would have to and she didn't want to inflict her problems on others. She'd meld with the rest of them eventually. However long it took.
* * *
The remaining members of 6-Alpha had been in debriefing since they had returned to Headquarters. Laurie knew there was no point in just waiting around for them to finish, so she had taken it upon herself to give the young lad who had taken over her position instruction in some of the duties.
He was only twelve as she had guessed. His name was David and his parents had died in the initial attack. One of his younger brothers had died soon after and the other was on the Kromagg-free world where the resistance left their young children and those needing to recover. In effect, he was an orphan of the invasion. It wasn't unusual; in fact it was quite common.
Laurie's story was not unusual either. The Kromaggs had taken her parents and older brother and she had not found any record of their deaths yet so she clung to the hope that they were still alive, even if it were in a forced labour camp. Laurie had been one of the lucky few. By chance, she'd been out of the first target area when the Kromaggs attacked and somehow she'd managed to stay free. It pained her to think about what might have happened to her family and friends, but she did so often anyway.
"Right, you see those shapes over there," David nodded, "Well, that indicates what's coming through the wormhole. Small splodges are usually people and the bigger ones tend to be Kromagg things. What do you think it's reading now?"
"Er, three people?" He didn't sound too sure of himself.
"Yep, it's still reading the data from the last wormhole and it will until another one is opened."
"Does the equipment work both ways? Incoming and outgoing, I mean."
"Yes. Okay, the map in the corner tells you where the vortex is located and those numbers over there are the temperatures of the objects travelling through. And those numbers at the top of the screen tell you if the people travelling through are Human or Kromagg. It only works on people though, not objects."
"How does that work?"
"I have absolutely no idea. It's something the scientists came up with. You'll have to ask one of them."
"I might do that."
Laurie was pleasantly surprised at the speed at which David was learning. Of course, he had only been about seven at the time of the invasion. He had grown up learning that he had to be able to learn and adapt quickly as well as thinking on his feet.
"Why is that light flashing at me?" David's question snapped Laurie's mind back into focus.
"Incoming wormhole!" she called and the to David she said quietly, "Didn't you get any training? How did you manage last time."
He shook his head. "Someone must have been behind me last time 'cos I didn't shout.
There were only two other people in the room at the time, but the activity of both increased rapidly. "'Magg or Human?" asked one of them.
David paused, but Laurie gestured at him to continue. "Kromagg?"
"Is that a question or an answer?"
"Answer," he said, "It's opening near to Kromagg Central and there are two big blobs coming through."
The other occupant, a woman, spun around and typed something into the computer. "I'm on it. Co-ordinates of previous world?"
Again, David faltered, unsure of how to work this out, so Laurie took over. She pulled up a box from the bottom of the screen and reeled off a set of numbers.
"Send all the data to me, please."
Laurie pointed to one of the keys and said, "That one," to David. Quietly, she said, "You did great." David made a face at her. "Really."
"What does she do?" he asked.
"Compiles lists of Kromagg activity. It's a very demanding job since it consists of sifting through information from the teams as well as the Kromagg mainframe and the headquarters here."
"Laurie, you're needed." The face of one of the resistance peered round the broken doorframe and interrupted.
Laurie gave David a reassuring smile and a few words of encouragement, the followed the messenger out the door. It was now she was to meet her team properly for the first time. She was excited, but at the same time, incredibly nervous. She wanted to go, but she wanted to stay as well. If she was going to stay, she would probably have taken David under her wing, but she wasn't staying, he'd have to cope on his own and so would she.
* * *
Connor Matthews doodled on the scrappy page of notes in front of him, still shocked about the sudden death of his friend. He didn't want someone else taking the place once occupied by his friend. He didn't even feel quite ready to go sliding again just yet. It didn't feel right; he needed time to grieve, but it didn't look like he was going to get that. Someone else, he didn't know who, had been assigned to the team and they were to leave once the timer had been checked over. The best he could hope for was a nice quiet world on the next slide.
He was seated in a small room in the middle of the fortified area generally known as Resistance HQ. He looked across at his other two companions. Stephen was fiddling with his identification earring, something he often did when he was nervous or stressed. This time, Connor couldn't tell which it was. They'd had more than their fair share of stress recently, but they were also about to meet their new member, something none of them were looking forward to.
Usually, Connor would say something funny at this point to break the tension, but he wasn't in the mood. Instead, he started tapping his pen, but was met with such aggravated looks from Mike and Stephen that he stopped almost immediately.
Everyone looked towards the door as footsteps became audible. The door creaked open and two people entered. One of them, the messenger asked, "Where's Jonathan?" Jonathan was the name of the resistance leader. "He's meant to be here."
Mike answered the question. Officially, he was the leader of his team and so was expected to. "He just took some notes to Marie and Robert for the database."
"Oh. In that case, Mike, Connor, Stephen, this is your new team member, Laurie Price."
All three of the seasoned members of the team stared at her in disbelief. She wasn't at all what they had expected. They had expected a woman of some description since they were the only team without one, but they had been expecting someone a little older. Laurie barely looked her nineteen years and they had not been told her age.
Connor thought about asking her if she was actually old enough to join the team, but decided that if she was over the age she would probably be mortally offended by the comment. That would not be a good way to start.
No one knew what to say. It was a difficult time for them; the guys had only just lost their previous member and Laurie was new to this kind of thing.
The person who had brought Laurie to the room chickened out of breaking the ice for them. "Well, I'll leave you all to get to know each other." With that he hurried out, closing the door behind him.
"Hi," said Laurie. It seemed like the best thing to start with.
"Hello," mumbled all three of her team-mates. They raised their hands in a brief and unenthusiastic wave as they said it.
Laurie searched her mind for a suitable question, carefully avoiding anything that might lead to the previous member. As hard as she tried, anything she thought of could trace back to their lost friend.
In the end, she just asked the first thing that came into her head. "When do we slide out?" she said, being careful not to let her excitement show through her voice.
Stephen looked up briefly and then checked his watch. About three hours," he said before looking at the others for conformation. When they nodded, he continued, "Not very long. Will you be ready by then?"
"I should be," she replied. Then she blurted out, "I'm sorry I joined your team under these circumstances."
"So are we," replied Connor, before returning to his doodling.
The awkward silence did not end with the entrance of Jonathan. He had already skidded into the room, anxious to get there before Laurie, when he realised he had failed. He knew that the guys were likely to be fairly hostile towards their new member and he had hoped to make sure they would be courteous. He was too late. The damage could already be done. Only time could tell.
"Um, I think I'd better go and make sure I've got everything ready," said Laurie nervously. As she made her exit through the door. The other members of her team murmured a goodbye collectively. Jonathan gave them a disappointed look before following her.
"Look," he said when they were on the other side of the door, "They don't really mean to be like that. Well, they do, but they wouldn't usually. It's just because of…"
Laurie cut him off mid-sentence. "I know, everyone's been telling me that. I could work it out for myself, y'know."
"I know, I just wanted to make sure you knew." He sighed. "You sure you're okay?" He raised his eyebrows at her.
She smiled at him. "I'm fine." She looked at her watch. "But haven't you got things to do?"
Jonathan looked at his watch as well and for a split-second, his face showed signs of panic. However, it was only momentary since he was known for being able to regain his composure instantly, whatever the situation. He swore under his breath. "I've got that 'ambassador' coming from one of the other earths. Which one?"
"271." Laurie's answer was brief, but accurate.
"That's the one. I've gotta go."
He turned towards Laurie, apologising for having to go, but she shooed him away, knowing what he did was important.
When he had gone, she laughed to herself. At times he could be so disorganised, but when it mattered, he could be more organised than anyone she knew. Whenever it could affect anyone in a fairly significant way, he was the perfect leader. Otherwise, he was all over the place.
* * *
Laurie was the last of her team to arrive for the slide. Connor, Mike and Stephen had all had a shower and changed since she had last seen them and they were still talking to a group of technicians. Laurie didn't feel comfortable enough to join them; she felt she wouldn't be welcome. Instead, she sat on a cabinet and glanced at them every few seconds. She hoped they would notice her and invite her over. Otherwise she'd stay where she was.
Connor had noticed Laurie enter, but didn't want to invite her to join them, even though it was obvious she wanted to. In his mind, she was butting in. Deep down, he knew it wasn't her fault; She'd been assigned to their team and she did not determine the length of the stay at base. However, he did not like a stranger, albeit a friendly one, joining them on what would become a fairly long journey. It just didn't seem right.
Other members of the resistance on Earth 117 came to Laurie to say good-bye, but it didn't stop her feeling out of place as regards to her team. They were who mattered now.
Jonathan entered some time later, accompanied by a tall, dark woman. She was the 'ambassador' from Earth 271. Her counterpart existed on this world and was also a member of the resistance. At times it could be quite confusing when there were two or more of the same people running around. In the past, it had been the source of many comical incidents.
There were many tearful good-byes. Even though most research teams did return, what had happened on the last slide had made a deep impact on the whole base. They were now far more aware of the dangers sliding offered. Other people had died on other earths before and every time it happened, there was a period of time after when the sliding teams and those on the base were very conscious of what may happen.
Someone placed their hand on Laurie's shoulder. "It's almost time," he said laconically.
She nodded and then gave him a hug. She walked over to her team and was surprised when Stephen handed her the timer.
"It's your first slide," he said quietly, "You should have the honours."
She took it from his outstretched hand whilst watching the grave faces of the others. She ran the timer over in her hand. It was smooth to the touch. The timer was based on a design found in one of the Kromagg files. They had taken it from a group of sliding humans they had captured. It was not exactly the same because the Kromagg file stated that it had been 'given' back to the humans after one of the humans who used it had been implanted with a homing device and therefore the files on it were not complete. There were also other modifications. A small addition was the interdimensional radio transmitter. It could only be used to send from the team to base, but it had proved it's worth on past missions.
As the timer counted down to zero, she held her arm in front of her and as it hit zero, she pressed the button to open the blue swirling vortex.
Laurie stood staring at the hypnotic gateway before her for a few seconds. She'd seen them before, but never this close. She could feel the slight pull of the vortex. She knew everyone was waiting for her to go through first, so she took a deep breathe and leaped into the mass of whirling blues in front of her.
The actual slide was entirely new to Laurie. There was an exhilaration as she hurled through the vortex, but there was also a fear that it would never end. She and her companions were still separate, but at the same time, they weren't. Just as Laurie was beginning to wonder if it would ever end, the exit appeared and she was thrown out into a new world.
* * *
Laurie screamed as she came out of the vortex which was suspended 4 feet in the air. She came to rest on a pile of rubbish-filled bags, in an alley currently devoid of any human life. She made sure the timer was till in her hand before she scrambled off the rubbish heap, just in time to avoid being hit by Connor as he also came flying out the wormhole.
Behind Connor flew out Stephen and after a slight pause, Mike landed on top of them both. Connor was being squashed at the bottom of the heap they had just created and he was being very vocal about his discomfort.
"Urgh! I am NOT going before you lot next time!"
Mike laughed as they separated themselves and climbed off the rubbish pile. "You know the rules; the team-leader must enter the vortex last whenever possible and since I'm the team-leader, I get to land on the top of you lot when we land."
Connor tripped over one of the bags as he tried join the others on the solid ground and ended up sprawled face down on the road in front of them. He made a funny noise as he stood up. "Well then, Stephen goes before me."
"Oh no, we're not getting into that argument again." Stephen shook his head at his friend. "Nice try, though."
Connor rolled his eyes but said nothing. In truth he was only trying to take his mind off the last world prior to their brief stop at the base.
All their expressions fell as they noticed Laurie. She reminded them of their loss. Mike spoke to her, "How long do we have?"
Laurie looked down at the timer in her hand. The red readout display was intact and fully functional. "47 hours; nearly 2 days," she said nervously.
"Right then, we'd better make ourselves at home," announced Mike with fake enthusiasm. It was part of his job to make everyone feel as happy as possible in the circumstances. Usually, he wasn't too bad at it, but this wasn't one of his better days. With that one comment, he managed to earn himself glares from the other three people in his team.
Despite their discomfort at Mike's fake enthusiasm, Stephen, Connor and Laurie followed him out of the fairly dark alley way in that order. It wasn't a horrific sight that greeted them as they emerged, although was more times than not. It wasn't what they would consider futuristic either. In fact, it looked pretty close to their own Earth before the Kromaggs invaded. A bit dirtier and crowded, but fairly similar all the same.
"Woah!" Laurie could barely believe her eyes. She hadn't seen another world before and considering what it now looked like back on her world, she'd practically given up hope on ever seeing a world where there wasn't any barbed wire or dead bodies or demolished buildings and the like. It was just such a strange feeling. She couldn't move she was so enthralled. She just stood there staring.
In the end, Connor dragged her in the direction of their favourite hotel, The Chandler. "Come on. You'll get over it." He wasn't particularly enamoured with teaching someone the rules of sliding as the team would have to do for Laurie and he wanted to get to the hotel so he could sit down. He could already feel the bruises from the slide and they were hurting.
The Chandler Hotel was present on most of the worlds they visited and it was the favourite stopping place of what was now team 6-Beta. Many of the other teams used it is well. It was a nice comfortable group of chain hotels which wasn't too expensive and it also had it's own bar and access to numerous television channels which were favourites with some of the guys. On most worlds anyway. It was also situated quite handily situated near convenience stores and a library. Again, on most worlds.
Mike didn't pay for their suite straight away even though he had enough cash in is bag to do so. One of the policies of the sliding teams was to spend as little money a possible, even if it meant cutting corners and skipping out on bills. The resistance had very limited funds and couldn't waste it on frivolous things like good hotel rooms. The team members did get a small amount for personal use but not much.
He took his wallet out of the bag and flicked through the notes. There were several different currencies inside, the most common ones used on alternate earths. He took out enough for the deposit and the receptionist handed him the keys.
They trouped up the stairs together, Laurie still amazed at how similar it all was. She had visited a relative once in the Chandler and it was all coming back to her.
The guys knew the place really well so it took almost no time at all to locate their suite. From the second they opened the door they acted like they were home because for them, it was probably the closest thing. In Laurie's mind her home was still the base on alternate Earth 117.
Laurie just stood in the doorway like a tourist while the others flopped down on the comfy chairs at the same time as throwing their bags into different areas.
"Ah! Rest at last," cried Connor.
It was a couple of minutes before they noticed Laurie again. They kept doing that. They still weren't used to her presence, nor should they be expected to.
It was Stephen who did realise first. "Oh yeah. Um…Just sling your bag down somewhere and take a seat."
She did just that, but still felt uncomfortable, despite the fact that she was curled up in a sofa-type chair, something she hadn't even seen since the Kromaggs invaded. She snuggled down further into the cushions and looked at the room around her. She remembered similar things from that time so long ago, but this was far more modern. The television looked more streamlined and pleasing to the eye. She hadn't watched television in ages. She probably wouldn't recognise most of the shows even if this world was almost exactly the same as her own. Everyone knew how often shows got cancelled. She wondered if any of the shows she used to watch were still running. She'd have to look later.
Connor reached over to the table next to the sofa he was on and picked up the remote. In many ways it was similar to the timer. Both were sleek, black controls that were capable of changing lives in different ways. However, the remote got broken far less often than the timer. He pressed a button and the television came to life. He flicked through the channels, trying to find a news channel or at least a news report.
Mike and Stephen had already migrated into their assigned rooms by this point, which left only Connor and Laurie.
Finally, Laurie plucked up enough courage to ask Connor a question. "What are you doing?"
"What? Oh, this." He waved the remote at her. He'd been off in a daydream. He'd been thinking about his lost friend again. That was a pain that wasn't going to go away after only two weeks. "I'm just checking out the news stories. It's one of the best ways to find out about a world."
"Really?" Laurie peered round to look at the television set, but when she realised she couldn't watch properly if she was falling off her chair so she got up and moved to sit on the sofa with Connor. "I didn't know that."
Connor sighed regretfully. "There's not a lot you do know about sliding yet." He ignored Laurie's quizzical look; he didn't want to hurt her feelings. Eventually, she gave up hope for an answer and instead stared intently at the news reports.
* * *
The sun was beating down on the world, but there was still a chill wind in the air. The streets were busy with office workers on lunch breaks or off to meetings and other people going shopping or doing lunch. The shop fronts were filled with wares of all kinds. It was not an expensive row of shops, but it serves the needs of the ordinary people. Four far-from-ordinary people were taking in these sights.
As she strolled down the road, Laurie was amazed at what she saw. How could two worlds be so different? She had a joyous air about her, something which to a certain extent irritated the other three who were still not in the best of moods. She was oblivious to that and spent her time gazing in wonder whilst voicing aloud a few of her thoughts.
As the stone Connor had Stephen had been kicking along the street flew out of theirs and Mike's reach, Laurie saw something which startled her. Or rather someone. Coming towards her was a group of people, one of whom was a 12-year-old boy.
He came closer and closer and Laurie began to get confused. How could he be here. He was not far in front of her when she spoke. "David! What are you doing here?" she blurted out before the others could stop her. The kid stopped in his tracks, obviously quite terrified, but a woman who was presumably his mother. Before she moved out of hearing distance, Mike apologised for Laurie's behaviour, citing 'strangeness' as the reason. Laurie could see the woman looking back over her shoulder every couple of seconds as she hurried her son away. The look on her face implied that she thought Laurie was some kind of danger to her son.
Laurie would have followed and called again, but she was forcibly stopped by Mike. He then took her by the arm and dragged her back to their hotel room. His expression was one of intense anger.
"What the Hell did you think you were doing?" he roared once they were in the confines of their suite. Laurie didn't answer so he continued. ""You never, ever do anything like that again, do you hear me?"
Laurie nodded meekly.
Stephen and Connor kept out of the firing line as best they could. They knew how Mike could be when he got mad. Connor especially since he had been on the receiving end several times.
"If you see a double of someone you know, you NEVER speak to them as you did unless you have to. It can have dangerous repercussions."
It suddenly dawned on Laurie that the David she had seen was not her David; it was one of his doubles, the one from this world. She felt so stupid in the aftermath. "I'm sorry. I just…"
"You just what?"
"I didn't think. I didn't know."
"You knew about doppelgangers in parallel universes, didn't you?"
Everyone knew about them. "Well, yes, but…"
"Then you did know, you just didn't think as you said before."
She thought about that. "I guess."
"No," said Mike firmly, "In this life you never guess." His temper was cooling a little, but only slightly.
The observant Stephen could see this and decided to intervene. He knew Laurie had done something very stupid, but since she was a first time slider, he thought Mike was being a little harsh. "Mike?" he asked, quite nervously, but not nervous enough that Mike picked up on it.
Mike turned his head sharply to pinpoint his stare on the man who dared interrupt him. "Remember she's a first timer."
Mike continued to stare at Stephen for a few moments while he thought that over. He then turned his piercing blue eyes back to Laurie and Laurie automatically shirked back from him. "How much training have you had."
Laurie wasn't quite sure what he was talking about, but she answered as best she could. "Not a lot."
Mike rolled his eyes. It was quite a common practice among the members of what was now 6-Beta. "Great(!)" he mumbled under his breath. "Then you've got an awful lot to learn. Connor?"
Connor just turned round and hit his head on the door in exasperation. He knew he'd be called upon to help. After all, he was the one who broke them most often and Mike used every opportunity he could to try and make him adhere. So far it hadn't worked.
"Yeah, yeah, I know." He walked round the room and took a seat almost opposite the one Laurie was practically cowering in."
"We'll leave you to it then," announced Stephen, "If you need us we'll be down in the bar." He exited the room after picking up his coat. Mike was just ahead of him.
"Do you want the full or compact version?" he asked, hoping she would say, "compact." He was lucky; she did.
* * *
At a small table in a corner near the bar Mike and Stephen were seated. This was one of Mike's personal policies. He felt that if you sat at the bar, others could overhear conversations and that wasn't a very good idea if you're not familiar with the world.
"So," Mike said after taking a mouthful of his beer, "What do you think of the girl?"
Stephen swallowed his mouthful before replying. "A bit green, but she could be promising. If she takes in enough to be useful."
"She's an expert computer hacker." Mike threw that in to see how Stephen would react.
Stephen spluttered into his drink. He was surprised to say the least. "Seriously?"
Gravely, his companion nodded his head. "She was one of those responsible for pulling data out of the 'Magg mainframe."
Stephen was astounded. She just didn't seem like a girl with that kind of mind. In fact she'd come across as being quite frivolous. Now he wished he'd checked up on her before they'd left. "She can read 'Magg as well then?"
"No, there was a group of them who worked on a translation programmes. You should know about that, Stephen."
In reality, Stephen had been getting a bit behind with some of the new discoveries made and only paid attention to those which could help the team. He much the same words he repeated this thought to him leader.
Mike ran his finger round the rim of the glass. "It is surprising, though. She doesn't come across as being someone who could do that."
"She could be very useful to us, then. No-one would ever suspect she was capable of such things."
Both of them went quiet. That thought had somehow lead both of them back to ponder the death of their companion. Both of them, and Connor, felt it was their fault when really it had been a complete accident and nothing could be done to prevent it. That didn't stop anyone feeling guilty, though.
A barman came up and took away their empties. Mike and Stephen chose not to order any more. They'd already each had three.
"I suppose we'd better go and see how they're doing," said Mike, still reeling from the guilt. Stephen agreed and they made their way back.
* * *
As they neared the door, they could hear Connor's exasperated shouts. It was even louder as they entered. Connor seemed to have pretty much given up. He pointed at them the second the door opened.
"There is no way in Hell we can teach her like this!" he roared at a volume equal to or surpassing Mike's earlier. "Sliding isn't something you can learn by theory. You have to learn by practice." In his last sentence he had taken to hitting his fist into his palm.
"Okay," conceded Mike calmly.
Connor stopped dead, suddenly realising Mike's little ploy. "You planned this all along, didn't you?"
"Couldn't you just have TOLD me that to start with?"
"Like you said, the only way to learn properly is by practice."
Connor was beaten and he knew it. There was nothing he could say now to change that fact. He had walked straight into Mike's little trap. He hated being cornered.
From the sofa, Laurie's voice reached the rest. "Do you mind if I turn in now? I'm really tired." Slightly more confidence was now evident. She was beginning to see how the team fitted together and how she could become a part of it, even though it may take a while.
"Sure, sure," replied Mike. "As long as you don't mind us making a bit of noise out here."
"If it's not too loud." Laurie did want to sleep.
When Laurie had turned her back, Connor made a face at her. Once the door was shut, "It's started already."
"What has?" asked Stephen curiously.
"The nagging. All women nag."
Laurie's voice was muffled, but still audible. "I heard that!"
Stephen and Mike stifled a laugh and Connor just made another face.
* * *
Laurie sat on her bed and took a few items out of her bag. The first things that came to hand were her notepad and pen. All sliding team members were required to keep a professional journal of the worlds they encountered, but most also liked to keep a personal diary as well. Laurie was one of them and it was that which had come to hand first. After a moments thought, she decided to start with that one. It might help her organise her thoughts for the professional one. She opened the book at the next clean page and picked up her pen. Before writing, she thought, "I wish this thing had a lock."
That day finally came, but now I don't quite know how I feel. The day started out great. I was so happy. Then it all went into the unknown. I know they don't really want me here, but they're stuck with me. I feel so rejected. If it doesn't improve, I'll have to quit the assignment. I don't want to, but if they don't let me in, I'll have to. If they don't let me in, I've got no chance. It's gonna have to mostly come from them and I think that may take a while. They're still missing their last member. He's only been gone 14 days. I shouldn't expect miracles. If they open up enough to let me inside, I can become one of them in a sense. I was watching them and how they acted around each other. They really are friendly and they joke around all the time. I wish I could be a part of that, but whenever they notice me they tense up. On the base it was difficult to form friendships like that because everyone was always coming and going and even if they weren't, there was always the air of oppression from the Kromaggs. We may not have been working for them, but they still had our world. At least in small groups, you know where you stand.
That's enough of the depression for now. The slide was awesome. I've never felt anything like that before, but I can't describe it. It's indescribable for lack of a better world. It's exhilarating and terrifying and words I couldn't even dream of. I can't wait to try it again! It's probably the best thing I've ever felt! It's amazing how close this world is to my own before the maggots came and destroyed it. I hadn't seen things like shops, trees, family groups or any of the other things I saw for so long I'd almost forgotten what they were like. I watched a bit of television as well. I don't know how I lived without it! I guess I just had other things on my mind. It's amazing what you can learn from it. Connor told me that the television is one of the best ways to learn about a culture. Actually, he said that about the news, but I think television's a natural progression.
I did the most stupid thing today. I spoke to one of David's doubles in this world thinking he was him! I should have known better since I have seen doubles before, but I discovered today that it doesn't always work like that. What I did got Mike real mad at me, but he seems to be less angry now. He then lumbered me onto Connor to teach Connor a lesson in practicality. I don't think I care much for being used like that. But it was funny seeing Connor's face.
My hand really hurts no, so I'll sign off for the mo'.
Laurie dropped the pen and rubbed her hand. It really did hurt; it wasn't just an excuse to sign off. She had loads more to write about, but if she carried on now she wouldn't have a hand left for the official one which was mandatory. She pulled out another notepad from her bag and after flexing her right hand began to write again.
* * *
Mike, Stephen and Connor spent most of the evening sitting round the television watching cheesy sitcoms and drinking beer. In between those two activities they did a little talking, mostly reminiscing about the old team. 6-Alpha. It was painful recalling those times, but at that time they would have rather embraced the pain of the past than the uncertainty of the future. In the end, to dull all the pain they had a little too much to drink. Because of that, their diary's did not get written. At least not coherently.
In the small hours of the morning when Laurie had finally drifted off, she was awoken as they attempted to go to bed. It was probably half an hour before they were sufficiently quiet for her to sleep again.
* * *
Laurie woke up fairly early the next morning. It was habit she'd acquired after the invasion. When part of a resistance you had to keep on your toes or you may well end up dead.
She grabbed her purse with the money this world used in and checked on the guys before creeping outside. The money on this world was the most common on the worlds visited. She'd paid careful attention to the money Mike had given the receptionist. The rest of her team were still fast asleep, probably sleeping off their hangovers. She didn't particularly want to be around when they woke up moody and that was one of her motives for sneaking out.
The air was quite crisp around her and the wind was biting so she pulled her coat tighter round her, not that it really helped much. It was so good to feel air like this again. It tended to be quite different on Kromagg occupied worlds because of their waste. The 'Magg's didn't care about the environment because it wasn't their world and they weren't expected to care.
She stopped in front of a small café. It looked so inviting. She could smell the rich coffee and the aroma of fresh bread. She gave in to her senses and entered. This could be her breakfast.
* * *
"Where the Hell is she?!?!" Mike was really angry. Again. His headache wasn't helping either. He knew it was there because he'd drunk to much the previous night, but he preferred to blame anything else for it.
His shouting brought both Connor and Stephen out of their sleep. In truth, it could probably have woken anything that wasn't dead, but there wasn't a chance to test this out. Connor and Stephen forced themselves out of bed and groggily joined Mike in the main room.
"What?" Stephen finally managed to get himself together enough to get one single word out. Connor still hadn't reached that stage. He'd drunk more than the others the previous night.
"She's not here! She's gone! Who knows what trouble she could get into in her inexperienced state!"
Stephen and Connor both winced at the volume of his booming voice. Connor also looked blankly at Mike.
"Laurie." Mike gave him the answer to his unspoken question almost condescendingly.
"Who? Oh, yeah, her." Connor really didn't have many memories of anything, but it seemed to be gradually coming back.
"Then she's not here at all?" asked Stephen.
"Do you think I'd be shouting like this if she were?" Mike emphasised his point by moving closer to Stephen as he spoke. Hangovers never failed to put Mike in a foul mood with anything and everything.
"Then we'd better go look for her."
Before anyone moved to get ready, Connor asked the one vital question. "Does anyone have anything for a headache?"
* * *
Feeling much better after some painkillers, Mike, Stephen and Connor eventually made it out of the hotel. It took a few moments for their eyes to get used to the bright light.
"Does anyone actually know where she might be?" queried Connor.
They all looked at each other and then shrugged.
"Didn't think so."
It was Mike's job as leader to organise things in times like these. "How long do we have?"
Even though the words, "Until we slide," hadn't been said, Stephen knew they were there. He discreetly looked at the timer and then announced, "28 hours."
"28 hours. Then that gives us enough time. If we split up we can cover more ground. We'll meet back here in 2 hours." This was not the sort of thing Mike had been looking forward to on this world. He'd hoped for a nice relaxing time after the Hell he and the others had been through in the past month, but with a girl completely new to actual sliding he was unlikely to get what he hoped for.
The three off them separated and set off in different directions, all of them complaining how inconvenient it was. They really wanted a break, but so far fate had not handed that to them. It seemed to want to keep them going until they collapsed or worse.
Connor walked quickly. His height was an advantage because it meant he could look over a lot of the people. It was still difficult trying to find anyone in this place because it was quite crowded for some reason.
He scanned the faces of as many people as possible. Some of them he recognised, but none of them were Laurie. He was annoyed with her for dragging him out with a hangover, but he was also a bit afraid for her in a way because she was so inexperienced and now she was out on her own in a strange world. Anything could happen to her. He hadn't been particularly friendly to her so far because it felt wrong for her to be there, but he didn't want anything to happen to her. Despite his jokey outward appearance, he was a very caring person and he always tried to help when he could. That had got him into trouble far too many times already. At least with someone else who didn't follow the rules all the time he might have a supporter. He hoped so anyway. It was a little too soon to tell.
Connor's mind began to drift a little, but he continued walking. He still saw the faces of the people around him, but gradually they stopped registering.
After some time, he stopped by a small café. He was about to chide himself for letting himself get side-tracked by the delicious aroma of coffee when he saw a face sitting at one of the tables. Not just any face, Laurie's face. At first he wasn't sure if it was her or her double, but then he recognised her clothes. This was definitely his Laurie. He casually opened the door and sat down at her table without saying anything.
Her face registered how startled she was when she realised it was him and not some creepy pervert. "I didn't think you'd be up yet," she said as though nothing was wrong.
"Where have you been?" he returned with a forced coldness in his voice. "We've been worried."
"You have?" She seemed surprised. "I woke up early and wanted to get outside so I did. Then I found this lovely café and I decided to have breakfast here." She made a flowing gesture with her left arm, the right was still engaged with the coffee cup.
"You should have told us where you were going."
"I didn't want to wake you. You were all gonna be hungover after the amount of alcohol you consumed last night so I thought it was best not to."
"Then you should have left a note."
She thought for a moment. "On the little table, weighted down by the lamp."
"Why would anyone look there? That's a bit out of sight isn't it?"
"Sorry," she said unsure of how else to respond.
"That's your second lesson learnt," commented Connor. "Never leave without telling another where you're going. Let's hope the other lessons don't take too long to learn because, Mike's gonna get really angry every time. Laurie looked almost as though she was gonna break down in tears, so Connor's soft side made him relent slightly.
"Come on," he said more gently, "In 30 minutes we have to meet Mike and Stephen back at the Chandler. Brace yourself because Mike will be annoyed. He always is when he has a hangover."
She smiled sweetly at him. "Aren't you?"
He smiled back in that slightly embarrassed smile that many woman think he was sexy. "I just don't show it."
* * *
Other than the shouting done by Mike to Laurie, the rest of the day past fairly much without incident. The guys were still feeling awful so they stayed in the suite and Laurie stayed with them. They had decided to allow her to go anywhere she wanted as long as she told them where, but she didn't take them up on it. However, she did insist on watching the television all day though.
Later that evening, Connor finally took up his pen to write his own personal diary. He'd been keeping this particular one for some time and the pad was nearly full.
Not even changing worlds can take away the pain. It's still there, no matter how hard I try to get away from it. Alcohol give a brief respite but when you sober up again it just gets worse. Why did it have to happen to him? I know I've asked that question a million times already, but I still haven't received a answer.
Our new member, Laurie, is a peculiar girl. She's already managed to infuriate Mike twice. I don't that's entirely her fault though. He's feeling the pain and guilt as well. In fact, he probably feels it more because he is/was team leader.
I wish we could have been alone for a little longer. Sure, she'd keeping our minds off the subject, but I think what we need is to come to terms with it in our own time. It might even help to go back to that world, but I don't see Jonathan allowing it. He'd say it was too dangerous. It probably is, but I want to go anyway.
He snapped the book shut and put it away. He didn't write as much as some, but as he looked back on his old writings, it was just as insightful. He found it quite difficult to express his feelings to other people, but it wasn't as hard on paper.
* * *
The next morning comprised mostly of last minute reconnaissance. There were trips to libraries and newspaper stands and notes were taking on the most significant differences from their home Earth. Not that there were really very many, so more of the minor differences were included.
The notes they took were very brief and in very small writing. They had to be otherwise they'd up carrying entire encyclopaedias with them and that would get quite heavy.
Laurie kept fairly quiet during this time. It was something she hadn't though about much. She had thought that all you needed to do was observe the worlds, but she had been wrong. You had to instigate the research yourself. Of course, sometimes, as Stephen explained, you didn't need to; the differences came and found you instead of the other way around. Laurie wondered what that meant. She expected she would find out at some point.
The slide was early afternoon so they made their way back to the hotel before lunch. They ate in the bar, saying they would pay everything at the end. Only they knew that they wouldn't. At first, Laurie thought it was wrong to do stuff like that and then slide out before paying, but when she asked she was told that if they didn't do that, the resistance wouldn't have anywhere near enough money to feed everyone. Or buy weapons to defeat the Kromaggs. Laurie relented although she still wasn't happy with it.
The hotel suite was to be left fairly tidy. That was one thing Mike insisted on. It was one thing in his mind to skip out on bills and another to create extra work for the cleaners.
"Have you got everything?" he asked Laurie as she emerged from the washroom.
She held up her bag before putting it over her shoulders. "I hope so."
"Good, because if you haven't we can't just come back for it."
For once, everyone was completely ready before the allotted time so they had to sit around for quarter of an hour. No one was allowed to leave the room so close to the slide. Not this time anyway. They also couldn't activate the vortex early. Laurie and a couple of others had found references in the Kromagg data base suggesting that a group of humans had done that and were now fated to wander the multiverse searching for home. No one on Earth 117 had wanted that to happen, so precautions were taken immediately.
"Time's nearly up," announced Stephen. He then pointed the timer at the wall.
"Remember; Don't open it too close to the wall or it'll go through and freak out next door."
Stephen didn't think he was too close, but he took heed of Mike's warning and moved back quickly before opening the vortex. It opened with it's 'back' about 10 cm from the wall.
The pull of the gateway send a wave of exhilaration through Laurie. She gasped and Connor picked up on that.
She knew his motives were not of politeness. He just didn't want to be first in because whoever went first usually ended up the most squashed. Laurie didn't want to be squashed either. She missed it last time by the skin of her teeth. However, there seemed to be no way out of it. Luckily, Mike intervened.
"Come on, Connor, we know what you're up to. Just jump." With that he pushed Connor with a small laugh. It wasn't a hard push, just enough for Connor to lose his balance and fall into the vortex.
As he did so, he yelled, "I'll get you baaaa…."
Mike added his own commentary after Connor's lean form had disappeared in a quiet voice, only just audible. "That's what you think."
Laurie decided she would take the plunge and go next. She jumped in the vortex feet first, hoping that's how she'd land.
The wormhole spurted her out in a junk pile and somehow she managed to land exactly on Connor. Stephen and Mike tumbled out of the vortex just to the left of her so she and Connor were spared their weight. She then noticed a piece of metal was sticking into her arm and it wasn't very comfortable. She stood up and examined her wound. It seemed to be only a surface cut.
"Let me have a look," said Connor. He turned her arm over and prodded it gently. "You'll be fine."
Mike and Stephen also picked themselves up and looked around. "I really hope the entire world isn't a junk-pile," commented Mike as he saw the piles of waste around them. "How long do we have here?"
Stephen had just looked so didn't need to look again. The timer went to him most of the timer by default since he was the only one who could fix it properly if necessary. "12 hours, 5 minutes."
"Just great(!)" muttered Connor, loud enough so that they could all hear. "Another early morning slide. I hate them."
The others laughed as they made their way to where they thought the exit was.
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