By Ivan Turner
Wade came through first, thinking, Why do they always send me first? One of these days, she just knew it, the Professor was going to come through right on top of her and then that would be the end of Wade Wells. As another, larger form plunged out of the vortex, Wade, who was the most agile of the Sliders, rolled to the left to avoid Rembrandt Brown's tumbling dance into this world. Next came the Professor, who never seemed to land with any grace despite his British ego and unwavering dignity. Shaking the cobwebs from her head, she sat up, looked around, and saw that they were only three. Not too far above them, the bridge between worlds shimmered and blew.
"Where's Quinn?" she shouted over the din.
Rembrandt looked up from the bush he'd landed in (he always landed in a bush or a fountain or something). "What?"
"He was right behind me." the Professor said. "He'll be along."
As the vortex began to shrink and close, Wade felt a surge of panic, the same panic she always felt until they were all through. Who was getting left behind? Was this home, or just their last stop? Who had the timer? That was the worst one. If something happened at the last minute and the person with the timer didn't make it through the portal, they would all be trapped. Would Wade mourn, then, more for Quinn or for herself? It was a disconcerting thought that left her wondering about a selfishness she tried (and succeeded) not to show. Then, just as it was on the verge of shutting them away from Quinn forever, he came through, tumbling through the air like a ragdoll, and landed on the grass in a heap. The timer was in his hand.
"That," the Professor said, "was by far one of the worst slides in all of our history together."
Quinn looked up with a bright smile on his face, that grin he always grinned when it came down to the last second and that surge of adrenaline pushed him to finally make it all turn out right. It infuriated her even as it melted her resolve.
"Yeah, you certainly cut that close, Q-Ball. You think maybe we could have a little time to relax?"
"Where's your sense of adventure, Rembrandt?" Quinn returned, getting to his feet and brushing the grass from his jeans. They were in a park but it didn't look like any park they recognized. Wade was disappointed, as she always was when they first realized they weren't home. "Besides..." Quinn was cut off by a sudden and disturbing beeping coming from the timer. His smile faded as he looked down and flipped it open. "Whoa, guys, we've got to slide now!" Reaching out with the timer, he fired open the portal. It hung where it had hung just seconds before, the world behind it distorted and the world beyond it a mystery.
Wade breathed a sigh.
"So much for that rest, eh, Mr. Brown?" the Professor laughed.
Rembrandt flashed him a lopsided, half-hearted grin. "You laugh, Professor. But I know sliding makes you just as hungry as it makes me."
The Professor harumphed and then turned to Wade. "After you, Miss Wells."
She gave him a backhanded glance and jumped into the tunnel. Quinn, eager to be away from this unknown world now that there was no chance to explore, darted past his two companions and began his slide. Rembrandt and the Professor stepped up at once, looked at each other coldly for just a second, then laughed about the whole thing.
The Professor went first.
They came through on a slab of concrete that was almost just large enough to accommodate them. All around it was soft grass.
"That's great," Rembrandt remarked, rubbing his aching shoulder. "Let's get something to eat."
"Mmmm," the Professor agreed. "And let's do try and be discreet this time."
"Come on, Professor," Quinn said. "It's not like we get into trouble on every world. After all, what can happen in..." He lifted and flipped open the timer "...a minute and a half."
"What?!" Rembrandt cried. "Let me see that!" As if he knew anything about the physics of sliding. Still, the timer showed him the same thing it showed Quinn. One minute, twenty four seconds and counting down. Disappointed (and let's not forget hungry), he let go of Quinn's wrist and turned away.
"Guess lunch'll have to wait, guys" Wade laughed. She took secret pleasure in their discomfort even when it resulted in her own.
"Girl," Rembrandt said. "You just wait 'til we have twenty seconds to slide and you have to go to the bathroom."
And Wade laughed in spite of herself.
And, once again, , Quinn fired the timer, this little magical box that could open portals to different universes, and the vortex grew open in front of them.
Wade went first...
...and finally the Professor came through. The cement slab on which they had landed in the last world was gone in this one. In fact, the whole park was gone. Where they had arrived was a greenhouse filled with all different varieties of plant life. As Wade looked around, she noticed flowers and fruits that didn't grow anywhere in America let alone San Francisco. She was awestruck by the enormity of the place. Above them, great lights, like miniature suns, beat down upon them. The roof was opaque, as were the walls. There were no doors in sight.
"Hey, guys?" It was Rembrandt. "I could use a little help."
Wade turned her attention away from the greenery and tried to locate the sound of the voice. Quinn was already standing over a large bush into which Rembrandt had entangled himself (always a bush).
"Ow!" Rembrandt cried as Quinn tried to get his leg free. "This better not be poison ivy."
"I don't think you have to worry about that," the Professor said, inspecting the prickly leaves even as he tried to regain his own composure. "This particular variety of plant isn't native to the United States."
"Great," Rembrandt answered sarcastically as he finally got one arm and one leg free. "So, who knows what kind of poison it is."
"Don't worry, Rembrandt," Wade said. "I've seen this on TV. It's harmless enough."
"Tell that to my leg," Rembrandt said as he seemed to become even more entangled on his right side.
Quinn pushed aside some more branches. "Don't worry, Rembrandt. We'll have you out of there in a minute. He handed the timer over to Wade.
Without warning the lighting in the greenhouse suddenly changed to a deep red. The four sliders stopped for a moment; even Rembrandt forgot his pain. Looking up and around they were suddenly startled by a booming klaxon. It blared on and on, over and over.
"I don't like this" commented Quinn in a barely audible voice.
Rembrandt was starting to struggle. "Get me outta this, man."
"Better hurry," said the Professor. "Visitors are on the way."
Looking up, they saw, moving between the rows of plants and flowers, men in red uniforms with black visors and odd shaped rifles.
"Guess we're not supposed to be here," Quinn deduced.
"Well we're not going to be here for long," Wade said, looking at the timer in disbelief. "Ten seconds."
Two seconds went by while the others looked up at her in disbelief. Then Rembrandt began to thrash and yank at his leg, crying, "Get me outta this!" Quinn was trying to be supportive as he worked quickly to free the other's leg.
The timer began to beep and this time it was Wade who opened the portal.
Rembrandt was not yet free.
And the soldiers were approaching.
"Wade, go!" Quinn shouted and he was no longer wearing that smile. She could tell that he didn't think he was going to be able to free Rembrandt's leg before the soldiers arrived, before the portal closed, before it all went to hell because of a bad fall. A stupid bad fall.
Wade froze. She couldn't go without the others; she couldn't go without Quinn. And Quinn wouldn't go without Rembrandt. Of all of them, Quinn felt most guilty about Rembrandt. Wade and the Professor had each made their own decision to slide that first time. But Rembrandt had been sucked into the vortex by a miscalculation of power made by Quinn. She was suddenly struck by the fragility of their whole situation. One bad turn and they could be trapped forever on a world as alien to them as if it were in another galaxy.
The professor stood his ground for just a minute, carefully calculated exactly what needed to be done in order to get them all safely through. The portal would be closed or almost closed in seconds. The soldiers, having seen it, had halted their approach but it was only a matter of time before their sense of duty overrode their sense of caution.
"Miss Wells, go. We are right behind you." Even Quinn looked up at the Professor startled by his optimism. "Mr. Mallory," Arturo continued, stepping past the younger man. "Sometimes in life, especially in our lives, circumstances require a more drastic, more violent course of action." Reaching down with both arms, oblivious to the pain of a thousand minor cuts and scrapes, he grabbed hold of the protected trunk of the bush, the heart of the plant, and yanked with all of his weight and all of his might. The roots came free and this, above all else, stirred the soldiers back into action. Over the roar of the portal, they couldn't really hear what the soldiers were saying, nor were they terribly concerned. The two men were far more interested in helping their companion into the tunnel.
Once Wade saw that they were moving, she wasted no time in sliding. She disappeared before their eyes. Again the soldiers hesitated but their commanding officer shouted out and they began to open fire. Tiny needles flew by the sliders' heads and bodies as they limped forward, Rembrandt dragging the whole prickly bush behind him. But they reached the vortex unharmed and shoved Rembrandt inside.
It was already shrinking, beginning to close.
The Professor jumped through without preamble and Quinn followed close behind. As he cleared the threshold and slid from that world he felt the tiniest of pinpricks on the back of his neck.
Wade was already working on freeing Rembrandt's leg when the Professor arrived in all the glory and elegance sliding had to offer. Quinn came right behind and the two of them tumbled together through the grass (the park had returned) and onto the bank of a shallow stream. She shot them a sour glance as the Professor worked to free himself from the jungle of limbs he and Quinn had created.
"Well," the Professor said jovially as he finally separated himself from Quinn. "How long are we here?"
Without checking the timer and without looking up from her work, Wade answered, "Four minutes."
"What the devil? Are you sure?"
She gave him another unhappy face.
"Hmmph," the Professor commented. "Then I suppose we'd best see about freeing Mr. Brown quickly."
Rembrandt looked up at him with a harrowed expression, then diverted his attention to Quinn. "Hey, Q-Ball. You okay?"
Quinn was sitting on the bank of the stream, rubbing at his neck and shaking his head. "Just tired all of a sudden."
The other sliders exchanged a look.
"Let's have a look at you" the Professor said, abandoning Rembrandt into the capable hands of Wade Wells.
There was a red welt on the back of Quinn's neck the discovery of which prompted a "Good Heavens" from the Professor. He immediately began searching the ground in the area in which they had landed and found one of the small needles that the soldiers had fired at them on the previous world. Quinn looked on drowsily as the Professor brought it up for inspection.
"Some sort of tranquilizer," he said hoping more than knowing that he was right. "How do you feel, my boy?"
"Well..." Quinn said then trailed off.
"Quinn?" Wade prompted.
"Well," he repeated. "More lightheaded than drowsy. I'll be okay."
The timer began to chime.
"Sorry, Rembrandt," Wade told him looking down at the unfinished job of separating him from his garden nemesis.
Rembrandt shrugged. "I just hope we have enough time to get to it on the next world. What's wrong with the timer anyway?"
"Mr. Brown, I assure you," the Professor explained as Wade opened the portal helped the singer to his feet. "The process by which the amount of time we spend on each world is determined is quite random. Four quick slides does not mean we'll be spending the rest of our days travelling from world to world every few minutes or so."
"Well I hope not, Professor. 'Cause when the Cryin' Man gets hungry, the Cryin' Man gets cranky."
"Yeah, well the Cryin' Man better slide or else we all might miss the window," Wade said and helped him into the vortex.
"Go on, Miss Wells" said the Professor. "I'll assist our slumbering companion."
"Not really sleepy," Quinn remarked as Wade slid and the Professor helped him up. "Whoa... Just dizzy."
"Yes, well I'm sure a good slide between worlds will help cure all that."
And then they were gone, leaving behind a new and forgotten world.
This time, the Professor came through on his feet. It was a first for him, though he came through running and collided face first with a metal slab.
"I've bloodied my nose," he complained, pulling out a handkerchief and dabbing and the reddened nostril.
The park was totally gone, replaced by a bustling metropolis. Fortunately, the portal had evacuated them onto the sidewalk. One look told them that sliding into the middle of the avenue would have meant certain death. Rembrandt sat up against the side of the building tugging at the plant around his leg while people walked by. Each person, every face in the crowd of hundreds, turned to stare at him as they passed. Despite his discomfort and annoyance he smiled up at them as they went by, determined to show anyone who recognized the Cryin' Man that he was nothing if not in good humor. Unfortunately, they weren't in high spirits. And they didn't look like fans.
"Hey, guys," Wade said. "Look around."
The place was completely industrial all man-made. There were buildings and cars. Every strip of land was paved over. There wasn't so much as a hint of nature. Even the air smelled artificial.
"I don't like it here," Quinn commented. Then he let out a short bark of laughter.
"That's just great," Rembrandt said. "He's bad enough when he's sober. Now some moron from two worlds ago drugged him and we have to put up with it slide after slide."
"How long do we have this time, Miss Wells?" the Professor asked in a serious tone.
"Just under eight minutes," she answered and the tone in her voice disturbed him.
"Well I am gettin' this thing off my leg."
Sirens sounded in the distance.
"Nothing about this place is natural," Wade said. "It's as if these people have done everything they can to cover up nature. Even their clothing looks synthetic."
"Perhaps we should wait until we get to the next world before we have lunch?"
"Or the world after that," said Quinn and then began saying after that over and over again.
"I wish there was something we could do to snap him out of that," said Rembrandt.
The squeal of tyres brought them all around and they saw four steel vans with red and blue lights coming around the corner sirens blaring. As the vans came closer, people all over the street withdrew from where the sliders were standing.
"Maybe we should get off the street," said Wade.
"How much time?" the Professor asked.
"Almost six minutes."
"Get up, Mr. Brown."
"This thing is still stuck to my leg."
"We have to move now!"
"Citizens!" came the call from the vans as they screeched to a halt. "Please step away from the accused."
"Accused?" The four of them looked at each other, wondering which one of them it was that was the cause of so much trouble. Nobody moved.
"Please step away from the accused."
Wade shrugged and the Professor stepped forward. "My good man" he said to the truck. "Would you mind explaining exactly which of us is the accused and what it is he is accused of?"
This seemed to have absolutely no effect at all. The trucks remained still, their flashing lights throwing eerie shapes up against the sterile walls.
Finally a side door opened and a man stepped out. He was dressed in what, to them, appeared to be a standard issue policeman's uniform. There was a pistol holstered at his side and a nightstick in his hand. He looked them over briefly and then pointed the nightstick toward Rembrandt who was still sitting on the ground but had stopped fidgeting with the plant stuck to his leg.
"We just got here," Rembrandt complained.
"Now, Mr. Brown, we've already discovered on several worlds that our doubles are not always as..."
"Step away from the accused," the officer said.
"Two minutes, guys," Wade told them.
"This man is our friend," the Professor said. "We shall not step away until we are given some explanation for what is going on."
"Guys," Quinn said, sounding a little more lucid. "Look at the side of the truck."
Looking up, they saw the words, Anti-Natural Enforcement Squad stencilled on the side. The Professor looked at Rembrandt and then back at the truck. Finally, his eyes settled again on the officer. "Do you mean to tell me that you intend to arrest him because he has a plant stuck to his leg?! That's preposterous!"
"There will be no arrest," the officer said. "The offensive organism must be incinerated."
"Please step away."
"Now see here..."
A hatch opened up in the top of the truck and a large nozzle lifted out and began to take aim. It became clear that the Anti-Nature Enforcement Squad intended to carry out its duty innocent bystanders not withstanding.
"Thirty seconds," Wade counted.
"Miss Wells, I'm afraid that thirty seconds could very well be a lifetime."
"Last warning. Please step away."
"Hey!" Quinn shouted. "Could you at least give us a minute to say goodbye?"
"The offending organism must be incinerated."
Now the people on the street were beginning to mill around and the sliders noticed a soft chant coming from the crowd. Perhaps it had been there all along. Perhaps not. Either way, it was extremely disconcerting. As the chant grew in volume, they were able to make out the two words, "Burn them."
"Burn this" Wade said but not too loudly, and then fired the timer opening the portal directly between them and the deadpan policeman.
"Come along, Mr. Brown," the Professor said. "Your new friend will have to keep until the next world."
"Easy for you to say. How many slides am I gonna have to drag this thing through?"
"Quinn?" Wade asked. "You okay?"
He looked up at her, then up at the gateway as if it was something he'd never seen before. Then he smiled. And ran first to the next world. The Professor helped Rembrandt through and Wade came, mercifully, last.
"And where are we this time?" the Professor asked standing up and dusting himself off.
"The question isn't where," Rembrandt said, tearing at the unconquerable bush. "It's for how long?"
"Less than a minute," Wade said and the fatigue was evident in her voice.
"Well I am not goin' anywhere with this thing on my leg."
"You will if you have to," Wade told him.
"Girl, this plant has seen four worlds already."
Quinn chuckled. "Why don't you just lose the pants?"
"That's not funny." And Rembrandt truly did not look amused. "This thing almost trapped me on the first world and almost got me killed on the last. You think that's funny, Q-Ball?"
Rembrandt stood, still trailing pieces of foliage, but the Professor intervened. "Let's take a breath now and calm down. It's clear to me that this rapid sliding has put us on edge, but we must all realize that this is just a difficult coincidence which will eventually pass. And above all we must stick together."
"The Professor's right," Wade said, taking Rembrandt by the arm. "Now let's go. It's time to slide."
Rembrandt finally managed to get rid of the plant in its entirety on the next world. His pants had protected him from most injury, but there were still minor cuts and scrapes on his leg, just as there were on the Professor's arms. Once the plant was gone, though, his spirits lifted considerably and he turned his complaints back to food, which they could not get because there simply was not time. They slid three minutes and twenty eight seconds after their arrival.
They spent fourteen seconds on the next world and forty four seconds on the world after that. The next three worlds took them all of two and a half minutes. In the next hour, they travelled to forty two worlds, some so close to their own that they weren't sure if they should even slide. Each time Wade fired the timer and they left an Earth behind, they wondered if they were making a mistake. Had they been home and left it behind all because they were afraid of becoming trapped? There were too many possibilities and too little time in which to discuss them. All they could do was keep sliding. There was no time for food and there was no time for sleep. There was no time to check the timer and see if something was wrong. There was only time for sliding.
Tired and battered, Wade slammed hard into the Professor and bounced off like a rubber ball. Her fingers opened up and the timer fell out into the grass. Quinn, feeling much better (ironically enough) after more than an hour of sliding, motioned first toward the timer, then thought better of it and went to Wade. For the first dozen slides, the tranquilizer had made him almost unable to function. All he'd been good for was silly comments and aggravating Rembrandt. Now he was better. He was trying, in his head, to figure out what was causing the timer to function the way it was but there were no answers. Like the Professor had said earlier, the formula for determining the amount of time spent on a world contained too many variables for it to be predictable. It was all random.
Unless it wasn't.
They had often compared sliding to playing a roulette wheel, but maybe it wasn't as random as that. Perhaps the bridge could take them from one world to any other world or perhaps it could only take them to a select few worlds depending on where they were. And, perhaps, the amount of time spent on each world was dependent on a variety of factors including the world they had come from the world they were going to, and the time they had spent on the last world or the last X worlds where X could be any random number determined by some incalculable factor.
He had tried, at several times, to discuss this theory with the Professor but Arturo seemed uncharacteristically uninterested in the physics of sliding for the time being.
"You all right?" he asked as he helped Wade to her feet.
"I hurt everywhere," she said tiredly.
The Professor went and slowly retrieved the timer from the ground. "We have thirteen minutes on this world."
"That's like an eternity compared to what we've been doing," Rembrandt said.
"Yes," the Professor agreed. "And I suggest we use the time find some food. We must keep up our strength if we are to continue."
They had seen this park over and over again already and were tired of looking at it. If nothing else, this thirteen minutes gave them the time to change the scenery. It was late afternoon now and they moved into one of San Francisco's many business districts. Traffic moved through the streets and people went about their business. No one took any notice of the four haggard sliders and they found their way into a fast food restaurant.
"It all seems normal enough," Quinn said.
"We know the folly of that assumption."
"Maybe we're home," Wade said. "Did you ever think of that?"
"While I wouldn't rule out the possibility, Miss Wells, I certainly would not like to entertain any false hope. We now have eleven minutes to get some food into our stomachs and ascertain whether or not we have actually reached our goal."
"Maybe we've already been home?" Rembrandt said, finally voicing what they'd all been thinking. "How many worlds did we hit today? It seems to me we'd have probably hit our Earth at least once."
"I don't know, Remmy," Quinn answered. "There are an infinite number of worlds out there." Even as he said, he realized that it wasn't the encouraging thing he had wanted to say. But the truth was that he simply did not want to believe that they had been home because he did not want it to be true. To have been home and walked away was a notion that Quinn Mallory didn't think he could bear. "Why don't you guys sit down and I'll get the food?"
"Ten minutes, Mr. Mallory. Don't take too much time looking at the menu."
Quinn flashed him a grin and then disappeared into the crowd. Once he'd found out where the lines began, he was able to find a spot on what seemed to be the shortest one and wait his turn. Three minutes went by while he waited. When he got to the front, he leaned over the counter and looked at the cashier for the first time.
"Quinn!" she said, almost hunkering down and beckoning him to lower his head and hide his face. "Are you nuts!"
"What...?" It was Wade, which threw him. He had seen her as a rebel leader, as a business tycoon, as a ruthless killer. His own Wade had even worked for the mayor on one world. But a cashier in a fast food restaurant? This was not like Wade at all.
"Shhh! You've got to get out of here. The police know about us and there are cops everywhere."
"Cops?" Not again. What had he done this time? And what did she mean about the cops knowing about them? But none of that mattered in the scant few minutes they had left on that world. It was better for him to simply accept the situation and take advantage of the opportunity. "Wade, I need some food and I need it quickly." Another minute had gone by.
She paused, looking around, then said, "Okay. Just keep your head down."
"Thanks," he said as she turned. "Wade."
"I need enough for four of us."
"Don't ask me now," he said. "I'll explain it all another time." And another minute had gone by, leaving him just five until the slide. They wouldn't have time to eat anyway. They'd have to take it with them. Wade's double came back with the food two minutes later, burgers and fries shoved haphazardly into a paper bag.
"Now get out of here," she said.
"Don't worry. Where I'm going, they'll never catch me."
Four minutes until the slide.
And she reached across the counter, grabbed him by the head and kissed him full on the mouth. And Quinn noted that though this was Wade, in a way, this kiss wasn't like kissing the Wade from his Earth, the Wade who had gone from world to world with him.
"Thanks," he said, smiling, and then moved away from the counter thinking that at least he had learned that they weren't home.
"Quinn Mallory?" A man stepped out of the crowd and flashed a badge.
"You're under the arrest for the murder of Professor Maximilian Arturo."
"Several other undercover officers came out of hiding to take him into custody. He was turned around and pushed, face first, up against a wall. One of the officers began to frisk him and the detective read him his rights.
Quinn's mind spun. Throughout the course of their sliding, they had seen a lot of worlds and met a lot of their doubles. Many of these experiences had left them surprised and even ashamed, but never had Quinn ever expected that he'd be arrested on sight for murdering the Professor. "Professor," he cried out. "Professor, I need your help."
From out of the crowd came Arturo, Rembrandt behind him and Wade leaning on the Cryin' Man for support.
"What's going on here?" the Professor asked. In his hand, the timer ticked off the last couple of minutes before the slide.
"Who're you?" one of the officers said.
"Who am I? I am Professor Maximilian Arturo and this man is my friend. Would you please explain to me why it is you're arresting him?"
The officers looked at each other in surprise and the detective asked, "Did you say you're Maximilian Arturo?"
"They think I killed you," Quinn shouted and one of the cops told him to shut up.
The Professor burst out laughing. "Is that so? Quinn? Murdered me? Well, my good fellow there has obviously been some mistake since I am here and very much alive at the moment. Now if you'll be so kind as to release my friend, we'll be on our way."
"Hey," Wade said, suddenly noticing her double. "Is that... I work in a burger joint?"
The policemen suddenly noticed also that there were two Wades in the restaurant. The detective was about to comment when the timer began signalling that it was time for the next slide.
"Sorry guys," Quinn said to the police. "I'm not your man."
As was the rule, everyone backed away as the vortex opened up. Quinn went in first, the bag of food still in his hand. Rembrandt followed right away. Wade lingered, staring across at her double staring across at her. It wasn't as if she'd never witnessed this phenomenon. She'd encountered a double on one of their first slides. But to find out that a Wade Wells could be working in a fast food restaurant went so against everything she wanted to be. Ultimately, at the Professor's urging, she stepped into the vortex and slid on to the next world. The Professor went last, smiling at the policemen and tipping an imaginary hat. Then they were gone from that world, leaving a befuddled crowd and an unsolved murder.
On the next world they had eleven seconds. Not nearly enough time to eat the food Quinn had gotten, though it was still ironic that they slid into the same restaurant with a bag of food already in hand. Wade was pleased to note that she did not have a double behind the counter.
On the world after that, there was no fast food restaurant. They slid into a wooded area with three minutes before the slide. Rembrandt grabbed the bag of food from Quinn's hand and dug his hand into it. But before he could take out a burger or even a single french fry, they were charged by a tiger. In his panic, Rembrandt tossed the bag of food at the animal, which grabbed it in its mouth and began to pick at its contents. By the time it had grown tired of American fast food, the vortex was already open and the sliders were gone from that world, their stomachs still empty and their minds still weary.
Three worlds later they were finally able to find something to eat. The timer granted them fourteen and a half minutes which they used to get some hot dogs from a vendor. It was not the Professor's first choice but it had been so long since they'd eaten and they had used up so much strength sliding that anything would do.
Wade was still chewing on her last mouthful as they slid to another world.
Over the course of the next twelve slides, forty two minutes all told, they encountered varying degrees of civilization all in the same spot as the fast food restaurant where Quinn had almost been arrested. He was still trying to work out the possibilities surrounding the timer's behaviour, but couldn't seem to focus through the fatigue. His mind kept wandering back to the Professor's murder back on that other world and what Wade had said. The police know about us. It didn't matter. He had left worlds behind without ever knowing what his doubles did so this shouldn't have affected him at all.
They made thirteen more slides, each slide occurring less than a minute after the last. Finally, they found themselves in a department store with nine and a half minutes to rest.
The portal opened up in the middle of the men's department and the sliders came through into a series of racks and sales. Rembrandt made sure, even as he was falling out of the vortex, to steer himself away from anything dangerous or entangling. Quinn held his head low and ducked underneath a store display. The Professor collided with a large rack full of dress shirts and knocked it over. Wade, eyes closed, mind numb, tumbled from the vortex with no interest in even attempting to avoid a collision. She barrelled into the Professor and collapsed on top of him.
Panting from the exertion, Rembrandt stood himself up and began to clear away the clothing that had been blown about by the portal. People stood everywhere watching in awe as the sliders attempted to right their weary bodies.
"I don't know how much more of this I can take," Rembrandt said. "All this screaming is not helping my singing voice."
"We've got nine and a half minutes," Quinn, who had gotten hold of the timer seventeen worlds before, told them. "Let's get out of here before somebody calls the cops."
The were getting looks from the bystanders that were more hateful than suspicious. It was almost as if they had landed in a world of body snatchers who suddenly noticed outsiders. Quinn half expected them to start pointing and accusing them of being not of the body.
They moved quickly toward the exit. Well, what passed for quickly as far as four people who had spent the previous few hours putting their bodies through the physical torture of being thrown about by an interdimensional vortex. Of all of them, only Rembrandt seemed physically able to function at his normal level. Seeing the others as haggard as they were, he abandoned his usual cavalier attitude for a more serious, almost protective, stance.
Wade was the worst off. Looking at her, Rembrandt didn't think it was the physical trial as much as the emotional trial. Wade was a strong person but only so long as she had hope. And, in the last few hours, hope had become a commodity among the sliders. Even the Professor has stopped assuring them that the situation would right itself.
They stopped and looked to see what they assumed was a store manager approaching them. He was a tall man with dark brown hair and handsome features. His voice was deep and commanding.
"We were just on our way out," Rembrandt said to him and tried to get the others to move.
"Not with this." And he grabbed the timer out of Quinn's hand as he said the word "this".
"Hey!" Quinn said. "That's ours."
"Then you'll have to show me a receipt."
"A receipt?!" Rembrandt laughed. "Man, we didn't get it here."
"Oh," the manager said. "I'm sorry." Then he paused, held out the timer. And smiled as he drew it back again. "Prove it." And he turned and walked away.
"Who does he think he is?" Rembrandt muttered. "I'll take care of this. When I'm through kickin' his sorry butt, he'll be the cryin' man." And he stalked off after the manager.
"We'd best go as well," said the Professor. "It wouldn't do us any good to be separated this close to the slide."
"This is close to the slide?" Wade asked.
They caught up with Rembrandt in the toy department. The manager no longer had the timer in his hand and he and Rembrandt were arguing over by a display that left the three of them dumbfounded. Above the display was a big picture of smiling Quinn Mallory. In his hand was a timer. Written just underneath in big letters were the words, Quinn Mallory's Timer. And underneath that, a hundred toy replicas of, yes, the timer.
"Oh, my God," Quinn breathed. "I don't believe what I'm seeing."
"With that picture up there, how could the manager not have recognized you?" Wade said.
"Beats me," Quinn said.
"On this world, your double must have perfected sliding without getting lost." And Quinn thought he detected the faintest bit of a dig in the Professor's words. Or maybe he was just at the end of his rope and being defensive.
"How much time do you think we have left?" Wade asked.
"Just a couple of minutes," Quinn said through gritted teeth.
Rembrandt, they could tell, was crossing that threshold between annoyance and good wholesome anger. Though they couldn't hear what he was saying his voice was clearly audible and his tone clearly understandable. There was a crease in his forehead and he jabbed one furious finger in the manager's face. The manager, who was no small man (in fact he was taller than Rembrandt), was also becoming angry. He stuck his finger up once, then again, and finally, when it appeared as if he wasn't getting through, he actually reached out with both hands and shoved Rembrandt back two steps.
The others stared on wordlessly.
For just a moment, Rembrandt stood where he was as if he was trying to decipher what had just happened. He seemed surprised, as if his own anger had melted away with the attack. The Cryin' Man was a lover, not a fighter.
"Perhaps..." the Professor began and then Rembrandt launched himself across the small gap between himself and the manager. Grabbing the larger man by the collar, Rembrandt twisted him around and swept him off of his feet. The two men went to the ground struggling.
"You guys find the timer," Quinn said. "I'll help Remmy."
As Wade and the Professor began sifting through the timers, one by one, throwing aside the fakes, Quinn moved over to where the two men were fighting and pulled Rembrandt free.
"Let me go, man! Let me go!"
Gaining his feet, the manager wasted no time in throwing a punch which landed squarely against Rembrandt's jaw. If it weren't for Quinn holding onto him, he'd have stumbled back another two paces. This infuriated him more. Without thinking, he thrust Quinn aside and launched two quick punches which both found their marks on the manager's face. The first one broke his nose, the other knocked out a tooth.
Security was coming.
"Guys," Quinn called over to Wade and the Professor. "How's it coming?" There was urgency in his voice.
The two of them, standing in a sea of timers, just looked at him. How did he think it was going?
The manager was moving away now. Even if his strength was a match for Rembrandt's, his determination was not. The madness that had taken captive of the Cryin' Man's attitude was completely alien to him. Yet he adjusted to it as if it had been there all along. It gave him a new emotion to sing about. Later on, he would decide that he very much preferred love songs.
But right now, he was enthralled by it. It took all of Quinn's strength and persuasion to hold him back. A moment later, it didn't matter as security reached and surrounded them, cutting off Rembrandt's path from the manager.
The timer began to beep.
The Professor, standing with timers at his feet and timers on shelves at all levels, tried to focus and zero in on the sound. All the timers may have looked the same, but only theirs was making any noise.
"I've got it!" Wade cried out, plucking it out of the pile at her feet (which, by the way, meant that she had already looked at it and overlooked it, a realization that did not escape the Professor's notice). Flipping it open, she aimed it into the middle of the aisle and pressed the button.
The opening of the vortex seemed to have a paralyzing effect on everyone who witnessed it. The Professor noticed, as he stepped away from the Sliders display, that there was some fine print on the banner which read "as seen on TV". Laughing to himself, he began to part the security guards by moving them bodily out of the way.
"Go along, Miss Wells," he told her as Quinn and Rembrandt stepped out of the circle. Wade slid, another astonishing sight to a society that had actually witnessed sliding, but only on television. Quinn went next and then the Professor. Rembrandt hesitated a moment, the wind from the portal blowing in his face. When he turned back, he saw the manager and scowled at him. Then the Cryin' Man returned and he smiled his showman's smile, the smile that had won him audiences all over the country, and he fell into the vortex and slid to the next world...
...which lasted all of twenty eight seconds.
They slid regularly for the next seven hours, the longest of all of their stays on any world a full twenty two minutes. They scrounged out food where they could, but attempting to sleep was a waste of time. The rigors of being spat out of the vortex was taking a huge toll on their bodies. Wade and the Professor were on the verge of collapse and Rembrandt, despite his physical stamina, was at his wits' end. Quinn simply drew against his determination which seemed to have an infinite reserve.
"How long this time," Rembrandt panted.
Quinn looked at the timer in his hand. "Three and a half minutes."
"Naw, man," Rembrandt answered. "Not again."
"Just rest for now." It didn't matter where they were. Sometimes they slid into a public place, sometimes into a barren wasteland. They didn't ever stay long enough to care.
"I mean it, Q-Ball. I'm done sliding."
The Professor looked up now, suddenly awakened from his fatigue.
"What're you talking about, Remmy?" Quinn was tired, too, and not in the mood for games or complaints. It seemed as if Rembrandt was still trying to get even for being dragged into sliding in the first place.
"Face it," he said. "It's over. The timer finally gave out and we've got to stop."
"We're not stopping," Quinn said. "I'm not giving up."
"Mr. Brown, you must believe that this will all eventually correct itself."
"I don't. I'm sorry, Professor. You all are my family, but I can't go on. There's no time to eat or sleep. Sliding from world to world is one thing if you get to stay for a while, but this is inhuman."
Now Quinn believed him. Rembrandt wasn't simply trying to get under his skin. "Remmy, you don't even know what kind of a world this is."
"I'll take my chances."
The timer began to beep. Quinn opened the portal.
"At least slide once more so we can discuss it further," the Professor pleaded.
But Rembrandt shook his head.
Now Quinn was getting angry. "Just one more world, Rembrandt."
But Rembrandt shook his head again. "Just one more could be just a hundred more."
Quinn, flabbergasted, looked to Wade for support. Sometimes, out of all of them, she could be the most persuasive. "Wade?"
She looked at Rembrandt, then sadly back at Quinn. "I'm staying, too, Quinn."
And now his features sank to their lowest level. His feelings for Wade, to that day, went unresolved. To him, the idea of losing her was unbearable. But he wasn't feeling love or even sadness now. He was feeling betrayed.
"Stay with us, Q-Ball. Stop sliding. If you keep this up, it'll kill you."
He looked once at Rembrandt, his gaze intentionally diverted from Wade. "It'll have to."
And then he threw himself into the portal, leaving all three of them behind, not even caring.
"Please reconsider," the Professor said, but Wade and Rembrandt didn't respond. Finally, he said to them, "I shall miss you both." And then stepped through the gateway before it could close.
As Wade watched the portal shrink before them, she was gripped by a sudden terror. Quinn's last word to her had been her own name, a plea. His last emotion outrage. What he had done he would regret for the rest of his life.
And so would she.
The Professor's trip was surprisingly smooth. He landed on soft grass and had little trouble righting himself. Above them, the portal shimmered. Quinn was standing there, looking up at it, his eyes narrow, his heart broken.
"How long, Mr Mallory?" the Professor cried over the roar of the interdimensional tunnel.
Quinn did not answer, simply handed over the timer and turned away, walking from the park. Bewildered, Professor Arturo looked down at the timer and read the numbers in disbelief. They had just under four days on this world. Four days!
Quinn hung his head low and he felt a tear slide from his eye. Now he was sad. Now he was wishing he could take it back, wishing that Wade was with him again.
He ignored the call, not interested in anyone's company or anyone's opinion. Even the Professor's. In the back of his mind, he understood now that the Professor was all he had left. Behind him, the rush of air ceased as the portal closed up and he knew for certain that the two of them were all alone. Wade was gone, Rembrandt gone. Trapped on one world in an infinite collection of them. Would they ever find them? Was it even possible? And, by that same token, was it even plausible to think that they could eventually find their way home? Even if they did, what would it matter without Wade and Rembrandt. And Wade. If they ever got home, if this world was their home, it would be a bitter irony.
Right now he was tired. Maybe they would see Wade and Rembrandt again. They were just as likely to find that world as they were to find there own. But first, they needed to rest. They had four days on this world. Four days! Maybe once he had eaten and slept, Quinn's focus would return. His outlook would brighten.
Maybe, after a rest...
This time he stopped.
He stopped because the voice he had heard had not been the Professor's.
He stopped because he had been taken by surprise and, though his senses had been dulled by fatigue, they were not dulled to the point of not being able to recognize the voice he wanted to hear the most
And he turned.
He turned because he had to know.
He turned because, though they had been fooled before by doubles of themselves and doubles of each other, hope, that long lost commodity, always turned up in great supply when he least expected it.
And he saw Rembrandt standing with a smile on his face, vigorously being shaken by the shoulders by the Professor, who was also beaming.
Who was running toward him.
And Quinn's face lit up and he forgot all of his sadness and all of his resentment, and that boyish grin for which they knew him so well invaded his features and took over his face. He caught Wade up in his arms when she reached him and hugged her close and tight.
When he put her down, after a long time but not long enough, she looked up at him. And smiled. "I couldn't let you go without saying goodbye," she said. "I couldn't let it end that way."
"Now you don't have to," he said.
"I know." She grinned at him.
"I guess you were right, Professor," Rembrandt was saying as the two of them caught up with Wade and Quinn.
"It is a sad state of affairs, Mr. Brown, when I am needed to teach you about having faith."
And they laughed, walking together and not thinking about how close they had come to being split up. All of that was behind them. For four days anyway. Now all each of them needed or wanted was some decent food, a hot shower, and a warm bed.
Alternate Earth 117