"What do we do now?" Mallory said, looking crestfallen at the sky.
Maggie moved to speak, but there were no words. She was now the senior slider, and it was her responsibility to lead.
But she couldn't think of anything. What were they going to do?
During the slide, Rembrandt was thinking. He hadn't been this afraid since the first time he passed through the vortex. Before, he had trusted Quinn or Diana to get him safely to the next world. Now, he had been reckless, and his survival was solely on his own shoulders.
He saw the light. This was it.
It all went dark. He was dead. He had to be. He couldn't see or hear anything.
But what was that? A leaf? Yes, that was definitely wind. His eyes were just closed. He was alive.
And he was home! Earth Prime looked just the way it did before. Barren, desolate, and razed. But how was he going to activate the virus and free his home world?
"Remmy!" a voice called.
Remmy was still a little dazed. He looked for the voice, but he couldn't see anything clear. He had to be careful to avoid a Kromagg trick. There was the scream again, and he saw the figure running toward him.
He couldn't believe his eyes. It was Quinn! Or at least his double. His Quinn was still trapped inside Mallory on the Seer's world.
"Remmy!" Quinn screamed, running out of breath. "Thank God I found you! We'd almost given up."
Rembrandt was skeptical. A lot of strange things had happened during sliding, but this was one of the strangest. This was either the work of the Kromaggs or a big mistake.
"Q-Ball?" Rembrandt said, trying to notice any facial differences. "It can't be you. This has to be a Kromagg trick. Get away from me, Maggot!"
Remmy looked at his arm. The virus should be taking effect, but he didn't have any idea how long it would take.
"I'm not your Quinn," the man said smiling. "I know your professor, though."
"You're lying!" Rembrandt said, backing away and looking for a weapon to use.
He knew this man was lying. How could he know the Professor? The Professor died on Maggie's earth. There was no way this was true, but the man's smile had a calming, human feel to it.
"Okay, let me try to explain," Quinn said, looking worried that Rembrandt wouldn't believe him. "Your Professor was left on my Earth."
That didn't seem to convince Rembrandt of anything. He knew that the Professor was killed by Colonel Rickman. Rembrandt was about to interrupt when a light went off inside Quinn's head.
"I know!" Quinn announced. "You know the bridge outside San Francisco? On my earth, that bridge is blue! The Azure Gate Bridge!"
That statement hit Rembrandt hard. A few years ago, they had landed on a world with a blue Golden Gate Bridge. And on that Earth, they were not sure that they brought the right Professor. He was still skeptical, but he had to make sure, so he played along.
"Okay, Q-Ball," Rembrandt said, trying to look as calm as he could. "Why are you here?"
"Well, it's actually hard to explain," Quinn said. "While my group of sliders was sliding, an accident erased our home coordinates. It happened much like it did with your group, I hear. But that's not important. We were sliding blind."
Quinn seemed to have a fervor with his story that made Rembrandt remember the way his Quinn used to be. Sliding had ravaged Quinn, turning him from a quiet student to a soldier doing anything to survive. That had always been a tragedy in Rembrandt's eyes.
"I was the only one out of our group that understood the science," Quinn continued. "But one time, we landed on an Earth that we thought was our home. It was amazingly accurate, but the professor was gone, and the Azure Gate Bridge was gold. I was intrigued by this, so I kept the coordinates and continued to slide."
"Now, that was interesting," Rembrandt thought. "Their journey was shockingly similar to ours. So, either this Quinn really does know the Professor, or I'm in big trouble."
"When we arrived home, I met your professor," Quinn continued. "He was amazed to see me, and I was surprised to see him so happy to see me. Of course, he thought I was your Quinn coming to rescue him, and I thought he was the Professor who had never truly respected me. We eventually straightened everything out, and he asked for my help to get him home."
Rembrandt smiled, now fully engulfed inside the story.
"Together, we constructed a sort of sliding tracker," Quinn said with the same passion. "I took the professor's quantum signature and looked for your Quinn. The first time that we could get his signature stable enough to look for him was on this Earth. After talking to the people in the resistance, I discovered that you all thought that you were home. But it wasn't true! This isn't your home!"
Now Rembrandt knew that couldn't be true. There was too much evidence that this was Earth Prime to believe that.
"That can't be true," Rembrandt blurted out. "Quinn, I mean my Quinn, met his mother here. And he learned that he wasn't from this Earth."
"Well, I can't explain that, but I know that this Earth isn't yours," Quinn said confidently. "That Earth I was talking about. Well, I told the Professor about that, and it sounded like your home world. I took him there, and he confirmed it. Now let's get out of here! Something's very strange about this place."
Rembrandt looked very hesitant, and Quinn noticed. The Professor had told him that this Remmy would be different from his, and he was right.
"Cryin' Man," Quinn said with a smirk. "You know you can trust me. And you have to because there aren't any more answers for you here."
Rembrandt didn't want to take the chance, but Quinn seemed to be telling the truth. He had already made one big leap of faith today, and he was too curious to ignore this opportunity. If Quinn was telling the truth, he would finally be reunited with one of his lost friends.
"Okay, Q-Ball," Rembrandt said. "But God help you if this is some kind of trick!"
"Don't worry about that," Quinn said, trying not to laugh. "Do you want to do the honors?"
Quinn showed him the timer, and it looked more complicated than the model he had become used to. Rembrandt nervously shook his head, and Quinn activated the timer. The vortex had a reddish quality to it that reminded him of a Kromagg vortex, and that made Rembrandt nervous. But he had already come this far, and he jumped inside.
But this was unlike any slide he had ever been on. Before, he was flung all over the place uncontrollably, and the tunnel was much more curved. But this slide was almost completely straight, and it felt like he was riding on a bed of air.
"Oh yeah," Quinn said, looking back at Rembrandt. "The Professor told me that you probably wouldn't have ever been on such a smooth slide. Nice, huh?"
"You're telling me," Rembrandt said, trying to smile.
It was nice, but this all felt so different. How could his luck change so quickly?
"Hang on," Quinn said, breaking out into laughter.
At the end of the vortex, Rembrandt began to slow. The tunnel itself began to bend towards the ground, and he carefully landed on a platform.
"Talk about your safe rides," Rembrandt said.
"Well, it is too bad that all sliding can't be like that," a man said, approaching the pair. "But this model is just for testing purposes."
"My God," Rembrandt said, staring at the figure in front of him.
It was Professor Maximillian P. Arturo.
Rembrandt couldn't believe it. A couple hours ago, he thought that all his hopes were over. He was willing to take a suicidal risk on a crazy whim of a plan to try and save his home world.
Now, he was sitting beside the real Professor Arturo with the knowledge that his home world was safe. He had to pinch himself a few times to ensure that he wasn't dreaming.
"Mr. Brown!" Arturo said, sitting in a lounge area of the laboratory. "It's great to see you again. It's been such a long time!"
"I know," Rembrandt said, having trouble finding any words to say. He was already choked up, and Arturo smiled as he noticed.
"Now, I must ask; where are Quinn and Wade?" Arturo asked. "We didn't pick up their signatures when we rediscovered yours."
How could he explain all of that? The Professor hadn't been with him for three years and so many horrible things had happened to him since.
"Well, its a long story," Rembrandt started. "Actually, that's the king of all understatements. Its a really long story, and it's not a very good one."
Arturo sat back in his chair, showing Rembrandt that he was ready to receive any kind of information.
"Wade was captured by the Kromaggs about a year after, well, after we left you behind," Rembrandt said, ashamed of that mistake. "She was going to be used as a breeder until the 'Maggs decided to turn her into some kind of human computer. I'm not sure I understand it now, but I'm pretty sure she is gone."
Arturo poignantly sat in his chair, listening to what happened to his friends.
"About a year after that," Rembrandt continued. "A problem with the vortex caused Quinn to merge with his double. For a while, it seemed like Quinn's personality was breaking through, but his double told me he no longer feels his presence. So, I thought I had lost everybody, Professor."
Arturo was amazed that Rembrandt could've survived through so much turmoil. He had grown into quite a strong man since they had initially met over five years earlier.
"I'm sorry, Rembrandt," Arturo said. "I can't imagine how it must have been to experience all that you have. But I admit that we're in a similar situation. I had to mourn the fact that I might never see you again."
Rembrandt had never thought of it that way. While Rembrandt had to live through the horror of losing his friends one by one, the Professor had lost them all at the same time.
"But it was you all that gave me the strength to do all of this," Arturo said. "I couldn't imagine you all in the multiverse on your own. I feared for so long that something was going to happen to you. And unfortunately, my nightmares were factual."
Arturo and Rembrandt sat in silence for a couple of minutes. They both had to let the truth of the last few years settle in before moving on in the conversation.
"Well," Arturo said. "Tell me more about this merging thing."
The word "merging" triggered the thought in Rembrandt's head that his friends were still stuck on the Seer's Earth.
"Oh man!" Rembrandt screamed, ignoring the question. "Mallory and my friends! They're still there!"
"Pardon?" Arturo asked, not expecting an outburst like that.
"Mallory is Quinn," Rembrandt said. "Well, not really, but he's Quinn's double. The one who was merged with Quinn. Oh, it's a long story. But he and two of my friends are stuck on this strange world with no timer. We have to go back for them!"
"There's no way Mr. Brown," Arturo said. "We would have to have the coordinates to go straight to that world. You don't have the coordinates, do you?"
Rembrandt shook his head.
"How I got to that Earth you found me on is an even longer story," Rembrandt said. "I don't even know how to begin to tell that one. So, there's nothing you can do?"
"I'm afraid not, Mr. Brown," Arturo said. "If we had one of your friends' quantum signature, it would be different. This equipment can scan an amazing portion of the multiverse in a very short period of time. But without anything to go on, we would be better off just randomly sliding to find them."
Rembrandt knew that was going to be the case. He didn't understand the technology very well, and he was hoping it could provide him another miracle. But he felt as if he had used a lifetime full of miracles in a matter of hours.
"Now," Arturo said, hoping to learn all he could. "Please tell me as much as you can about this merging process. Perhaps I can help shed some light on Quinn's predicament."
"Well, there was this guy named Geiger," Rembrandt started. "He was working on some kind of experiment to merge the whole multiverse together. He tested it on Quinn's double, named Mallory, and it ended up merging Quinn together. I don't understand it myself, but my other friend Diana claims there is little hope in splitting them."
Arturo looked at Quinn, who had just entered the room. Quinn had a smirk on his face.
"Well, perhaps an amateur would find little hope in that situation, but I think we're a little more capable of handling that situation."
Rembrandt was a little confused. Arturo smiled.
"Sounds like the Bennish Effect, doesn't it Professor?" Quinn asked, chewing into an apple.
Arturo nodded. But Rembrandt still looked confused. He remembered the name "Bennish" but he didn't understand what that had to do with Mallory and Quinn.
"You see, Mr. Brown," Arturo started. "About a year ago, a double of Conrad Bennish Jr. arrived on this world claiming to have merged with one of his doubles. Now, that was under different circumstances, but I imagine Quinn's situation is very similar."
"Yeah," Quinn continued. "The situation intrigued us. In all our years of studying sliding, we couldn't imagine that happening. But when we investigated it, we found that it was true. Now, as annoying as Bennish is, he's very bright. All he really needed was our equipment, and he basically found out a solution on his own."
"You're too modest, my boy," Arturo said to Quinn. It reminded Rembrandt very much of the relationship he had with the other Quinn. It brought back memories that could only make him smile.
"The solution is fairly simple, Rembrandt," Arturo said, taking control of the conversation. "We simply configure the timer to split the vortex in two upon creation on the next world. As the person reaches the end of the slide, the vortex identifies the two different signatures and splits the person into their original components."
"Well, then we have to go back for the others, Rembrandt said. "There may still be time!"
"Time?" Arturo asked.
"Yeah, Geiger and Diana tried to split the two Quinns, but he said that they were too attached to split them," Rembrandt said. "But your solution should still work, right?"
"Yes," Arturo said. "But we will need to hurry nonetheless. The two Bennishs had been merged for only a couple weeks. If your Quinns have been merged an entire year, there may be little that we can do. I hope we are already not out of time."
"Wait, Professor," Quinn said. "You can't be proposing what I think you are. We're just now hitting some breakthroughs in the lab."
"I'm not asking you to come along, Quinn," Arturo. "You've already found your home world, and you've made a quality person out of yourself. I couldn't dream of pulling you away from that."
Quinn seemed torn. He was very excited about what was happening at the lab, but he also wanted to get back into the action of sliding. Just picking up Rembrandt had brought back so much adrenaline that he had experienced when he was a full-time slider.
"Well," Quinn said. "If we're going to leave, we have to find someone to watch over the lab."
Arturo smiled. It was almost as if the group was back together again. All except one final piece...
Wade Welles hated her life. When she finally made it home, she wanted to publish her diary to try and earn some money for her and her family. But when she arrived, she discovered that one of her doubles had already stolen her thunder.
And when she went out to look for a job, she found it impossible to find a reliable job. Technology had improved so much since she had returned that she couldn't keep up. She had to work her way back up to the kind of job she had at Computer Hell.
And she had done a good job building herself back. She was now the assistant manager at a large computer store in San Francisco. But it didn't matter anymore. Computers were just boring to her now.
During the slides, she couldn't wait to relax at home and get back to her regular job. She thought running around without a home was going to kill her.
But, now, she couldn't think of anything fun to do. She had tried "extreme sports" but nothing felt like the excitement of sliding. Even skydiving couldn't bring up the rush of sliding.
She went to the phone book, and she grabbed her phone. At times like these, she needed to talk to one of her real friends.
"Bennish?" Quinn said. "You want to leave Bennish in charge of the lab? We're about to revolutionize sliding as we know it, and you want to leave the keys to the entire lab in the hands of Conrad Bennish?"
Conrad Bennish walked up, and he put his hand on Arturo's shoulder. In his other hand, Bennish held his Walkman.
"What's the worry, bro?" Bennish said. "I may look like I'm zoned out all the time, but I know all this equipment backwards and forwards. I'm definitely the man for the job, Quinn Tin Tin!"
Quinn looked at the Professor and mouthed "Bennish?" again.
"As much as I hate to admit it, Mr. Mallory," Arturo said it. "While Mr. Bennish looks like he wandered off the set of a very poorly made surfing movie, he is the best candidate to watch over the lab."
"Yeah!" Bennish said, headbanging to one of his songs.
"What about Tyler?" Quinn said. "She's smart."
"Tyler?" Bennish said. "She thought the ERP Bridge was a board game. She couldn't run a rec center, let alone this place. Don't worry, Quinn Dude, I got it under control.
"That's what I'm worried about," Quinn said.
Bennish walked off, rocking to the sound in his earphones. As he left, Quinn walked up to the Professor.
"He's going to turn all this into vaporizers, and this whole facility into a pot factory," Quinn said.
"Quiet, Mr. Mallory," Arturo said. "You know that I'm right. I hate Mr. Bennish more than anyone, but he's going to do the best job."
Quinn put his face into his hands, and Arturo put his arm around Quinn.
"Don't worry, Quinn," Arturo said. "Besides, we have much bigger things to concern ourselves with. Let's try and get the timer ready for our journey."
"Wade!" Rembrandt's double said. "I can't believe you called! How long has it been?"
"Too long, Remmy," Wade said.
It had been a long time since they had talked. Their group hadn't been very tight, but she and Rembrandt got along. She always wanted to try and strengthen their relationship, but Rembrandt seemed very distant. It took a long time to break through to him, but by the time they were getting to be good friends, the adventure was over.
When they got back, Rembrandt went back to his music. But, like her, his thunder had been taken by his double. He had re-released many of his songs, and by the time they arrived, his songs were old news.
That was good and bad in Rembrandt's eyes. On one hand, he would have to work much harder to gain his status back. But, on the other hand, he was exploring new avenues with his music. He had to reinvent himself, and that uncharted territory made Rembrandt feel alive again.
"Do you miss it?" Wade said, bringing up the reason for her call. "Sliding, I mean."
"Miss it?" Rembrandt said. "Not really. I admit that I had a lot of fun, but working on my music is far and beyond that. So, I guess I don't really miss it."
Rembrandt missed sliding the least of the three. He was the one who didn't sign on, and he held it against Quinn for a long time. He never really forgave him for taking him away from his life.
So, was she the only one with the feeling that she wanted to slide again? Was she crazy for thinking that?
She didn't think so. Sliding was so unpredictable. It keeps you on your toes day in and day out. Before, she hadn't been overly adventurous, but now she seemed bored all the time.
She ended her conversation with Rembrandt, but she knew who she had to call next.
Rembrandt watched Quinn and the Professor work, and he was sent back to the times when he first watched them work. So many times in their first year of sliding, he watched them pull off a miracle. Was it possible that this pair had another miracle in them?
He hoped so. It seemed so impossible that they could find Maggie, Mallory, and Diana. Especially if they hoped to find them in time to split Mallory and save Quinn.
But this was the duo that saved Earths from a killer virus, a deadly asteroid, and countless forms of oppression. And while this was a different Quinn, he seemed just as able as his Quinn.
However, there were few people he trusted for a miracle of this size. Quinn and the Professor had created quite a laboratory, and they seemed to have the power and the pride to try and pull this feat off.
And as soon as he found his friends, he was going to go home. His real home. Free of Kromaggs. He would finally have the chance to get back to a normal life. Sliding had aged him so much, and he just wanted to relax.
But it was nearing an end. He could feel it. In a matter of weeks, he was going to be sitting at home. He couldn't wait, but he had things that needed to be done first.
Wade called Quinn's laboratory hoping to catch Quinn before he left for the day. But she was shocked when she heard what the receptionist had to say. She thanked God that she was so much of a gossip.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Welles, but I don't think you're going to be able to talk to him for a while," she said.
"Why's that?" Wade asked.
"I'm not sure I'm supposed to say this, but you're one of his friends so I'm sure it will be okay," the receptionist said. "The word here is that he's going to go sliding again. It has been crazy here today, with people running in and out. Apparently, they found someone important, and they're going to go on some kind of exciting adventure. Isn't that amazing? I mean, to go searching for alternate worlds. I know it is supposed to be dangerous, but I can't imagine anything more exciting. But, what am I saying, you know all this. Right? Ms. Welles? Wade? Are you there?"
But Wade had long since run out the door.
Quinn and the Professor emerged from the laboratory, meeting Rembrandt in the conference room.
"Are we ready?" Rembrandt asked, excited.
"Well," Quinn said. "It would probably be best to wait for the morning because we'll have trouble finding a place to stay, but we don't think there's any time to waste. If we're going to help your friend, we're going to have to move quickly.
"That's great, Q-Ball," Rembrandt said. "The quicker we find them, the better. But I have one question."
"Shoot, Remmy," Quinn said.
"How are we going to do this?" Rembrandt asked.
It was a simple question, but neither scientist had a simple answer.
"Well, I guess we'll just have to slide randomly until we find them," Arturo said. "There's no other way. But with our new timer, it won't be as time-consuming as our previous adventures."
Rembrandt was a little worried about that. This was like finding a needle in a haystack the size of the world. But if anyone could find them, it was the Professor and Quinn.
"So, we're really going to do this?" Quinn asked. "It seems like only yesterday that I was doing this for the first time."
"But this time," Arturo said. "We have experience on our side."
"Yeah," Quinn said. "Let's go for it."
"Wait!" Wade screamed. "Quinn! I want to go!"
It was Wade. Quinn hadn't spoken to her in a few weeks, but he was always glad to see her.
"You don't want to come, Wade," Quinn said. "This is just a quick trip to find a couple of Rembrandt's friends. It won't be any fun."
"You talk like I'm living life up here," Wade said. "I'm dying here, Quinn! I have to have another shot in the arm, and sliding is the only thing that can provide that!"
"Its going to be dangerous, Wade," Quinn said. "I wouldn't be able to live with myself if anything ever happened to you."
"Its my decision, Quinn," Wade said. "And I want to go. And I don't think you can stop me."
"You think so?" Quinn said. "Well, I have the timer."
"Just let her come, Mr. Mallory," Arturo said. "It will be nice to have a feminine influence on our journey."
"Besides," Rembrandt said. "Now we actually have the group back together again.
Everyone smiled but Quinn. This wasn't a good idea. He knew it. But, he opened the vortex, and everyone stared at the beauty of it for a few seconds.
"You have our home coordinates, right?" Rembrandt asked.
Arturo tapped the supercomputer.
"Right here, Mr. Brown," he said. "Don't worry about it. They're safe. It is my Earth too."
They both smiled, as they watched Wade run and jump inside. Rembrandt and the Professor followed them. Quinn was the last, looking at his laboratory, hoping that it wasn't the last time he would look at it.
Wade was amazed at the feeling inside the vortex. While this was much calmer than the original vortex, it was still a strange feeling. But it all almost felt like a dream.
Everything had happened so fast. One minute she was dreading another day at her job, and now she's riding a vortex on the start of a new adventure.
But when she saw Quinn, she knew another reason for her choice to slide. She wanted another chance with him. Sliding had almost destroyed her relationship with him, but she knew they were meant for each other. This slide would fix everything that the first slide destroyed.
The vortex opened, and Quinn, Arturo, Wade, and Rembrandt flew out. Just like old times, however, Rembrandt landed directly on the Professor's back. And just like old times, Rembrandt broke into hysterical laughter.
"I knew there was something I missed about you, Professor," Rembrandt said. "I just forgot that it was all the soft landings I used to have!"
"Enough, Mr. Brown," Arturo said. "Now would you be so kind as to get off of me, please."
"It must have been fun sliding with the professor," Wade said, wanting to know more about this Rembrandt's sliding adventure.
"Mr.Brown, Ms. Welles," Arturo said. "I am not now, nor have I ever been a trampoline! Now I remember why sliding was so painful for me!"
Rembrandt laughed and the others joined in. When the laugh was over, everyone looked around. This world seemed normal enough, but Rembrandt wanted to know something.
"So how long do we have here?" he asked Quinn.
"Remmy," Quinn started. "This isn't like the timer you'll used on your first slide. This is how sliding is supposed to work in a perfect environment. We just open the vortex whenever we want to."
Quinn was proud of this device. He had invented sliding, and then he had brought his friends home. His reward was this timer. It was the result of months of hard work, and it was his pride and joy.
"That's great to hear," Rembrandt said. "So, how long will we stay here?"
"I think that it would be a great idea to search each world, until we determine that it is not the world that Quinn is on," Arturo said. "Do you remember that Earth well enough to know when we're on it?"
"It would be pretty obvious, Professor," Rembrandt said. "You see, on that world, sliders were seen as, well, gods."
"That's weird," Wade said. "But to be honest, I can't wait to get there. I wouldn't mind seeing that!"
"Well, do you think this is that Earth, Mr. Brown?" Arturo asked.
"I don't think so, Professor," Rembrandt said. "The people on that Earth had, well, normal hair."
The sliders looked at a group of people in the park. Most of the businesspeople had neatly groomed green and blue hair. And a few feet away from them, a group of skaters had blond and brown hair.
"I guess we should be going, then," Quinn said, opening the vortex.
"I should hope so," Arturo said. "Green is not my color."
Rembrandt laughed and followed the others into the vortex. For the first time in a very long while, sliding felt right.