Written by Hawk50
Originally posted at the JOC Fanatics BBoard
I think it was the sound of someoneís head hitting concrete that woke me.
Oh, well, it hadnít been a restful sleep anyway -- I hadnít had one of those in -- well, ever since Iíd landed in this shithole.
The iron springs of my narrow cot squeaked as I swung my legs to the floor and ran my fingers through what I knew was a severe case of bed head. Groggily I looked at my watch, wondering for the millionth time why they had let me keep it and why I even bothered to look at it. Time meant nothing in here, Just one more day to try and survive. Just another good day to die.
The illuminated dial read five minutes after five. Judging from the darkness that must mean a.m. Shit, these monsters were at it early. Some poor bastard was getting the snot beaten out of him in the holding area right across from my cell.
Must be somebody pretty special for these goons to give up their beauty sleep. I snorted at my lame attempt at humor. No amount of beauty sleep could help these guys. Kromaggs, they were called. The name suited them. Ugly sons of bitches with dome-like heads and faces only a mother could love. A mother with a strong stomach. And they had an attitude to match their appearance. Mean as hell. Hard. Cold. Cruel. Merciless.
Ever since their arrival on our world six months ago, nothing had been the same. They were everywhere. Here with the express purpose to wipe the human race off the face of the earth. And they were succeeding. By the time most of the nations of the world had decided to put aside their petty differences and unite to fight this enemy, it was pretty futile. Europe, with the exception of Great Britain, had been decimated, as had the former Soviet Union and Japan. Africa had put up no fight whatsoever. South and Central America -- the same. Just a few pockets of resistance remained -- in England, Canada, India, China, Australia and here in the United States.
I shook my head, smiling again at the irony of it all. Iíd been raised on a steady diet of sci-fi -- my older brother had been an Asimov freak -- Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, Men in Black, the X-Files. But to come face-to-face with a real, Ďotherworldlyí menace -- at first, I kept waiting for Steven Speilberg or George Lucas to peer out from behind a camera and yell "Cut!" It didnít seem real. But it was.
Oh, well, since I was up, I decided to sneak a peek at the holding cell. Although I had seen enough death and violence to last me several lifetimes, it could well be someone I knew -- someone with the Resistance.
Edging over to the corner of my cell, I could remain unseen and still see what was going on.
Wow. Lieutenant Kovar. Theyíd brought out the big guns for this guy.
I didnít recognize the prisoner -- and he was still recognizable. He had one thing going for him, if you could call it an advantage -- his height. Lt. Kovar was a short SOB and he couldnít reach this guyís face.
Oops. I was wrong. Just then, Lt. Kovarís fist connected with this guyís chin and sent his head crashing back against the cement wall. For a moment his knees buckled and I thought he would black out, but he steadied himself and glared back at the lieutenant.
The guy was dressed in jeans, desert boots, and a white T-shirt. At least it had been white at one time -- now it was streaked and stained with blood and sweat. His legs were secured to the cell wall with ankle cuffs and short, heavy lengths of chain. Two bulky Kromagg guards were positioned on either side of him, pinning his arms back. Oh, yeah, the bastards always fought fair like that.
I couldnít tell too much from where I was standing. Like I said before, he was tall, with dark hair, slender but well-built, young -- maybe mid-twenties. And he wasnít afraid of them.
Lieutenant Kovar hit him in the chest and stomach repeatedly. The guy winced and grunted, but otherwise made no other sound. Fresh blood dripped from the corner of his mouth, and splattered on the floor.
The lieutenant was enjoying this way too much, to my way of thinking. To him, extracting information was secondary. He was into pain. Big time.
He paused, shoved his face up close to the guy and said, "Again, hu-mon. I ask you to tell us the coordinates of your home world."
I drew back into the darkness -- stunned. Had I heard Kovar right? Coordinates? Home world? So this guy wasnít from here!
If you had told me this six months ago, I would have chalked it up to bad booze, bad drugs or a diet of sci-fi twenty-four/seven. But now I knew better. I went back to watching.
It took the guy a while to respond. By the way he was trying to catch his breath I could tell Kovar had done some damage. Cracked ribs for sure -- possibly broken. Hopefully none had punctured a lung. He wasnít coughing up blood -- that was a favorable sign, although the blood dripping from the corner of his mouth might have been more than just a split lip. Much more punishment to his mid-section and something might rupture.
The guy leveled his gaze at the lieutenantís ugly face and replied slowly, pacing his words. "For the hundredth time, Iím telling you I donít know what the coordinates are. If I did, do you think Iíd be here -- in this hell-hole?"
I had to give him A+ for guts. The guy was either very stupid or very brave. I hoped brave. I wanted to signal him somehow, to encourage him to back off, or feign unconsciousness -- anything to keep Kovar from killing him before I had a chance to talk to him.
Just then, Kovar took care of it for me. Another lucky punch to the jaw, another blow against the concrete wall, and this time, the guy was out. He would have fallen to the floor if those goons hadnít been holding him up.
Kovar made a disgusted sound deep in his throat.
"Put him in the cell with the wo-man. We will try again later."
I couldnít believe my good luck. I quietly eased back onto my cot, feigning sleep.
A few minutes later, the door to my cell swung open and the guy was dumped unceremoniously on the floor.
I roused up, pretended to rub the sleep from my eyes, and shouted at Kovar.
"Hey, what is this shit? Who is this guy? This is supposed to be a private cell!"
"Silence!" Kovar roared. "Take care of him."
I jumped out of bed and strode over towards him. Putting my hands on my hips and standing feet apart, I was taller than he was by at least five inches. He hated that. That and the fact I was blonde, blue-eyed, female -- and not afraid of him.
"Oh, yeah?" I shot back. "With what? This isnít exactly the Mayo Clinic here, yíknow."
He glared at me a moment. I glared back. His nostrils flared and he eyed my large breasts through the thin cotton tank top I wore. Then his eyes traveled down my body, past my wrinkled khaki shorts and down my long bare legs. He licked his lips, revealing pointed, crooked needle-like teeth. This Magg wanted to jump my bones. And the thought of that made my skin crawl.
Only one thing stopped him. I was the only member of the Resistance who had been stupid enough to get captured alive. And Kovar knew Iíd kill myself before Iíd let him have me. That drove him crazy. That, and the fact I wasnít afraid of him. Whatever, he usually gave in to my demands.
He waved his hand dismissively as he turned to leave the cell. "Get her what she needs," he barked at the other two Maggs, and walked out.
I knew from past experience the Maggs werenít crazy about taking orders from a woman. But they also knew theyíd be in deep shit if they didnít get me what Iíd asked for. Word had a way of getting back to Lt. Kovar.
"First of all, I need some bedding. This guy ainít bunking with me," I said. "Next, Iíll need towels, water, something for bandages, tape, hydrogen peroxide, any kind of pain pills you can scare up, and ice. Plus, letís see if you all canít find him another shirt."
They grumbled, but left to do my bidding.
I pulled my flimsy blanket off my bed and knelt beside him to assess the damage.
Carefully I turned him over onto his back and folded up the blanket to cushion his head. He was going to have a lump back there from hitting the wall, but the blows hadnít broken the skin or cracked his skull.
The corner of his mouth still bled a little and his lower lip was split, but his face was relatively undamaged. It was a good face, too, handsome, with strong, clean lines. Long, dark eyelashes brushed his cheeks and behind that split lip were straight, white teeth. I wondered what color his eyes were.
I moved my hands gently down his right side, then his left. He groaned. Oh, yeah. I could feel breaks in at least three of his ribs. As soon as the goons came back with the supplies Iíd asked for, I could do a more thorough assessment.
He stirred and opened his eyes. Light blue. Nice. He looked at me with a vague, puzzled gaze. I could tell he was really out of it.
"Who..?" he started to ask, and attempted to sit. His broken ribs stopped him before I could. He sucked in his breath sharply and turned even paler than he already was. The pain must have been intense.
"Easy," I whispered to him. "Lay back. Close your eyes. Rest. Youíre in no shape to move."
"My -- my friends," he whispered back, forcing each word painfully through his lips.
"Havenít seen them," I said softly. "Iím Alex."
"Quinn," he breathed. And then his eyes closed again.
He must have passed out again. And then he began to shiver. I swore under my breath, cursing the Maggs for being so slow to bring the items Iíd requested. The floor was cold -- and damp. He didnít need to add pneumonia to his list of ailments.
I slid the blanket out from under his head and tucked it around him as best I could. Then I positioned myself with my back against the cot and eased his head and shoulders into my lap. He lay between my legs, head pillowed on my abdomen. I gently brought my legs into his sides, trying to trap what warmth was available through the thin blanket and my flesh. He stirred restlessly. Unconsciously, I began to stroke his forehead and hair. Where the hell were those damn Maggs?
It was a weird vantage point - looking at him upside down. It was nice to see another human, for a change. Iíd been living among these ugly mothers for far too long. I wondered about him. Quinn, he said his name was. Where was he from? Was he alone? No, heíd said something about friends. Usually all new captives were brought to this section of the prison, and I hadnít heard the Maggs brag about killing any more humans lately. If he was traveling with someone, hopefully theyíd eluded the Maggs -- and might have even hooked up with Resistance fighters.
Just then I heard them coming up the hall -- loaded down, from the sound of it.
I helped them wrestle the bedding inside, and took the other items from them. As they turned to leave, I stopped the one closest to me.
"Got a knife I can borrow?" I asked.
He snorted, "Do you think I would arm a prisoner -- a wo-man?"
I rolled my eyes in exasperation. "Yeah, like Iím going to try something that stupid. Donít get your panties in a wad. I just need to cut off his shirt, okay?"
"I will do it," he said, leaning forward and slicing through the T-shirt, from neck to hem, before I could stop him. Well, at least the Magg didnít cut him. Then they left, slamming the cell door behind them.
Well, shit. I was also going to use the knife to cut bandage strips, but I guessed my teeth would do.
And they had brought a lot of almost everything I asked for, so I wrapped Quinn up in a couple of blankets while I prepared a pallet for him on the floor. Then I whistled for their return.
With a lot of grumbling and complaining, I got them to deposit him, none too gently, on the makeshift bed. I wondered again about asking for a knife, but thought the better of it. Then, we were alone.
I gingerly pulled apart the halves of the T-shirt and eased them off his shoulders. Already the skin of his chest and stomach was beginning to discolor. I felt along his collarbone, breastbone and again down his right side. Then, the left. Most of the damage seemed concentrated on that side of his ribcage. Yeah, Kovar had a mean right hook.
I undid the top of his jeans and felt around the stomach and kidney area. I certainly was no expert, but I hoped it was just badly bruised. If he pissed blood then weíd know there was a more serious problem.
I was gonna need him conscious to tape his ribs, so I decided to work on the split lip. Carefully I wiped the blood away and applied some ointment, made him a make-shift ice pack for his head, re-fastened his jeans and wrapped him back up in the blankets. Then I settled back on my cot to wait for him to come to.
I must have dozed off. The sound of clinking keys and metal trays being slid across the floor woke me. Oh, yummy. Breakfast.
I glanced at Quinn. His eyelids fluttered open. I moved over to his side.
He attempted to sit up. Obviously the pain stopped him and he eased back down.
"Where am I? What happened?" His confused eyes met mine.
"You probably donít remember, but weíve met," I said. "Alex. Welcome to the Kromagg Hilton. Finest accommodations this side of hell."
He moved again and drew in a sharp breath. "Oh, yeah. Think I met the welcoming committee already."
"Look, Quinn," I said. "Youíve got some broken ribs. I need to tape them, but Iím gonna need your help. I know itís gonna hurt like hell, but weíve got no other choice."
"Okay, Ďdocí," he smiled weakly. "What do I do?"
I helped him to his feet, and then began taping him up, alternating strips of tape with strips of sheets I had ripped apart earlier. I know it must have hurt. The one thing the Maggs hadnít supplied was painkillers. Still, he stood there, not flinching, head bowed, bracing himself on outstretched arms against the bars of the cell.
He was about three inches taller than I was. Broad shoulders and a deep upper chest, the skin there lightly dusted with freckles. Narrow waist. Flat stomach. A great butt and long legs encased in those dusty jeans. All in all, very easy on the eyes.
Beads of perspiration dotted his upper lip and face by the time I finished.
"Sorry I hurt you," I said, almost in a whisper. For some reason, my hands were shaking slightly.
He turned slowly and grasped my hands in his.
"Thanks, Alex," he said, looking into my eyes.
Then he leaned in and kissed me, softly, on the cheek.
It was just a friendly gesture. And I was certainly used to being Ďhit oní. So what was it about this guy that suddenly made my heart race and my palms sweaty?
I dropped his hands and turned away. I wasnít expecting this -- wasnít ready for this -- didnít need this. Luckily, I donít think he noticed.
The Maggs had brought a red long-sleeved flannel shirt for him to wear, so I helped him shoulder into it. With all the tape on his chest, he couldnít button it easily, so he left it open.
"So," I said lightly, "ready for breakfast?"
"Is it edible?" he smiled. Damn! He had a great smile.
"Actually, itís not bad - if youíre a meat and potatoes kind of person," I answered. "These guys believe in lots of protein."
We ate silently. The way Quinn kept glancing my way made me wish I had access to a mirror. I kept my blonde hair cut very short, so my Ďbed headí look had probably subsided. My dad had been a dentist, so I had long been schooled to take care of my teeth. Being just shy of six feet tall, my height intimidated most guys, but it didnít seem to bother Quinn.
Quinn looked up from his meal. "Alex -- is it safe to talk here?"
"Safe?" At first I didnít know what he meant. "Oh, you mean, is the room bugged? I donít think it is, Quinn. The Maggs mess with your mind in other ways."
"I know," he said grimly.
He proceeded to tell me more about himself and his run-ins with the Kromaggs on other worlds. I wasnít sure why he was trusting me -- I could have been a Kromagg plant, for all he knew -- so I asked him.
"Why are you telling me all this, Quinn? Arenít you afraid Iím a spy - or something?"
Then he leveled those light blue eyes at me. "Youíre not, Alex. I donít know why I know, but I do."
He told me about sliding -- about his friends -- Maggie Beckett and Rembrandt Brown -- and his brother, Colin -- who were all still on the outside somewhere.
He told me about the Professor. About him dying on a now-destroyed world, taking a bullet which had been meant for Quinn.
And he told me about Wade Welles. About losing her to a Kromagg breeding camp. The pain in his voice, his eyes, when he spoke of her was raw, evident. Although he hoped heíd find her alive someday, I think we both knew the chances were mighty slim.
Then he asked about this world -- about Kromagg domination -- the Resistance -- and me.
"Why havenít you been shipped off to a breeding camp, Alex?" he asked. "I would think that any woman who looked like you..." and then his voice trailed off and he actually blushed. "Er - that didnít come out well at all, did it?" he grinned sheepishly.
Normally, I might have been offended. Strangely, I wasnít. In fact, his words caused me to smile.
"Why arenít I some Kromaggís little Ďplaythingí? Well, itís not for Kovarís lack of trying, I assure you," I replied.
"Kovar? Is he the commander here?"
"Sub-commander. Lieutenant Kovar. You were Ďintroducedí to him earlier this morning. Short guy. Bad attitude," I said. "Plus, Iím a member of the Resistance. The Maggs think theyíll lure others here by keeping me a prisoner and alive."
"Will your friends attempt to rescue you?" Quinn asked.
"Possibly. But it will take some time -- and planning. Our ranks are thinning. Rescue attempts can be costly -- both in loss of lives and equipment," I said. "We donít go in much for heroics any more. Actually, since Nick was killed three months ago, thereís not been anyone around to lead the charge."
Quinn grinned. "Then the Resistance hasnít met Maggie yet."
He took it easy the rest of the day. The Maggs actually had the decency to let him - er - relieve himself in another part of the prison, and he told me, upon his return, that everything was normal. That meant no kidney damage, which was good. About mid-day, I checked my tape job. He said it helped. Yeah, Iíll bet. Above and below the bandages, his chest and stomach was a mass of bruised flesh, in garish colors of yellow, green and purple. He looked like a poster child for humans against physical violence.
We just sat around and talked, mainly. We both kept waiting for Kovar to yank him out of the cell for more interrogation, but it didnít happen. I seriously doubted that Quinn would be able to withstand much more of Kovarís Ďdirect lineí of questioning. Maybe the Maggs believed he didnít know the coordinates. Maybe they had their hands full with something else, because they were strangely absent from this wing of the prison.
He asked me more about the Resistance.
"Here in Northern California, weíve got a pocket of about seventy-five Resistance members - some military, former National Guard members, several college students," I said. "Not too much brass -- no real leadership, to speak of."
"You mentioned someone named Nick," Quinn asked. "Was he in charge?"
"Yeah," I replied. "Nick had great tactical skills. He was a master at carrying out attacks and rescues." I brushed away a tear that snuck out of my eye. Damn! Three months and I still cried when I talked about him.
"This Nick," he asked gently. "He was someone special?"
"My fiancé," I replied simply. "We were going to be married before the Maggs invaded."
"Was he in the military?" Quinn asked.
"No," I smiled, "He was a professor at UCLA -- romance languages."
Quinn looked at me quizzically.
"Yeah. Go figure," I laughed. "But you know those Italians and French were always at war. Lots of battlefield planning, And you know what they say about opposites attracting."
"Alex," Quinn said softly. "Iím sorry."
"I know, Quinn," I replied. "Your Wade. My Nick. Plus my father and two of my brothers. Not to mention the millions of others theyíve killed on this world. The Maggs have a lot to answer for."
"They will, Alex," he said, a steely look in those light blue eyes. "Sooner or later, they will."
We talked more about his friends -- and sliding.
"Thank God I wasnít carrying the timer when the Maggs captured me," Quinn said. "These bastards already have access to too many worlds as it is."
"Arenít you afraid theyíll slide without you?" I asked.
"If it comes to that, I hope like hell they do," he answered. "But, if I remember correctly, Remmy said we had several days on this earth. There may still be time. And," he laughed slightly, "if I know them like I think I do, they wonít rest until theyíve made at least one attempt to rescue me. Maggie can be - very persuasive."
"And, if theyíre unsuccessful? If they do slide without you?" I questioned.
"Well, then," Quinn smiled. "Youíve got yourself another Resistance fighter - if youíll have me."
Lunch and dinner came and went. Quinn made an attempt to eat, but was really in too much pain to have much of an appetite. Again, I silently cursed the Maggs for not providing any painkillers. But, of course, that wasnít their style. That would have been -- too human.
He was lying on his pallet, one arm flung over his eyes, trying to shield out the glare from the naked light bulb that hung in the hall, lighting up part of the cell.
I was pacing the floor. Soon, he noticed.
"Whatís up, Alex?" he asked. "Youíre as nervous as a caged tiger."
I continued to pace, rubbing the back of my neck with one hand.
"I donít know, Quinn, but somethingís up. I feel it."
"Yeah?" he asked. Although he didnít move, I could somehow sense him become more aware of his surroundings. "Like what?"
"Well, for one, our friend Lt. Kovar hasnít been sniffing around here today. Thatís not like him. Two Maggs usually bring the dinner tray, not one. Theyíve always had a guard at the end of the hall. There isnít one posted tonight. And, itís just too quiet."
He struggled to sit up. I went over to help him. Together, we got him to his feet. "If youíre uneasy about all this, thatís good enough for me," he said. "Letís just be on our guard."
He sat on my cot. I continued to pace the floor. We didnít have long to wait.
Just after sunset, all hell broke loose.
It began as vague sounds and low rumblings from the other end of the prison. Then lights flashed and sirens began to wail.
"What the hell...?" Quinn began.
I immediately pressed up against the inside cell wall.
"Quinn!" I hissed. "Over here!"
He quickly joined me. He stood directly behind me, my back up against his chest, both our right shoulders pressed against the inside wall. Neither one of us made a sound.
The rumblings got closer and muffled explosions rocked the ground.
Footsteps. Sounds of a scuffle. Gunshots. Then the lights went out.
I saw a lone figure outside our cell. An unfamiliar female voice yelled "Duck and cover!"
I turned and found myself in Quinnís arms, my face pressed against his neck, as a small explosion blew the lock off our cell door.
"Maggie!" Quinn shouted. "Thank God!"
I caught sight of a shapely female figure dressed in army fatigues. She grabbed at Quinnís arm.
"You okay?" she asked Quinn. He just nodded. She turned to me. "Anyone else in this part of the prison?"
"No one that I know of," I replied. I grabbed a blanket off the cot and wrapped it around my shoulders. The night air could be chilly and I wasnít really dressed for cool weather.
She brandished an AK-47. "Letís move!" she ordered.
Soon we found ourselves outside in the prison compound. The bodies of half a dozen Maggs littered the ground. Lt. Kovar was not among them.
We were joined by a heavier-set black man with an automatic pistol and a tall young man armed with a rifle. I guessed these were Rembrandt and Colin. There was a striking resemblance between Quinn and this young man.
Just then I saw Kurt, who had been serving as acting leader of the Resistance the night I was captured. I know I lit up at seeing his homely face.
"Alex!" he beamed, his smile making him almost handsome. "Long time, no video!" He handed me a semi-automatic rifle. "Remember how to handle one of these?"
"You bet," I smiled back. "Letís blow this pop stand."
Midnight found us safe within the bowels of the city, deep within Resistance Headquarters.
I had to hand it to Quinn. He didnít slow us up during our escape from the Magg prison and I never heard so much as a groan escape his lips during the long, extremely rough ride back to headquarters. We were shoved in the back of an old military transport truck like so many sardines. The truck shocks, such as they were, were shot. You could feel every pothole, every bump, every patch of gravel.
I glanced over at him about midway through the trip back. His eyes were closed and he had a tight, pinched look about his mouth. The rest of us were bundled up against the cold night air. Quinn was sweating.
I reached over and grabbed his hand, squeezing it. "You okay?" I whispered.
He opened his eyes. They were glazed with pain, but he merely nodded and squeezed back.
We piled out of the truck into the safety of the headquarters receiving area. Other transport vehicles were parking next to ours and other Resistance members were coming over to greet me. The mood was one of jubilation, celebration. We had successfully hit the Magg prison with no loss of life to the Resistance forces.
Quinn was the last one out of the back of the transport, moving quite slowly. He grimaced as he jumped down from the tailgate, but steadied himself. That was when Maggie propelled herself across the concrete and grabbed him in a tight hug.
"Quinn..," she began. All the color left his face and his knees started to buckle. He was going down. Kurt and I each grabbed an arm.
Maggie pulled back, stunned. "What...?" she said, a puzzled look in her eyes. Quinn had managed somehow to button the red flannel shirt. Maggie noticed the sweat marks, and ripped the shirt open. She saw the tape, bandages and bruises and a horrified expression crossed her face. "Oh, my God," she exclaimed. "Quinn..."
"Itís okay, Maggie," I said, helping to steady him. He hadnít passed out, but he was close to going under. "This is some of the Maggís interrogation work. You didnít know." I turned to Kurt. "Help me get him to the infirmary."
Maggie followed closely, with Colin and Rembrandt right behind her. No one said anything until we got Quinn settled on a cot in the infirmary. Kurt excused himself and left, but not before I assured him I was none the worse from my incarceration.
Sandy Washington, third-year medical student and our resident doctor, checked my makeshift bandage and re-examined Quinnís broken ribs. Her skilled fingers confirmed the breaks Iíd found, plus others. Every rib on his left side was either cracked or broken. She also looked at his bruises and gave him a couple of powerful painkillers. He began to drift off even before she finished her examination.
She lead us all into her small office.
"Right now what he needs most is rest," she said, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb Quinn or the handful of other patients in the infirmary. "You did a good job bandaging him up, Alex. Itís a little too soon to tell, but I donít think tonightís ordeal undid any of your handiwork. In fact, the tape probably helped keep those ribs in place. I didnít know you had any advanced medical training. Did you take classes? Work at a hospital?"
"How about Girl Scout Troop 67? First Aid merit badge," I replied, with a grin. "Guess I just retain a lot of information."
Colin and Rembrandt looked at me gratefully. It was hard to read the expression in Maggieís eyes. Respect, maybe. I could tell she really didnít like me. Probably because of my close proximity to Quinn. He hadnít mentioned that there was anything going on between them other than friendship. She obviously felt more than that for him.
Sandy eyed me. "Friendly diagnosis, Alex? Youíve undergone quite an ordeal, too. You need to get yourself some rest, a good meal," -- and here she looked at my attire -- "and some decent clothes. Youíll catch cold running around dressed like that."
"I dunno," Rembrandt drawled from a corner, a teasing gleam in his eye, "I donít see anything wrong with the way sheís dressed, do you, Farm Boy?" I guess he was talking to Colin.
Colin replied, "Well, it is not really appropriate for the weather. She might catch a chest cold..." Here Rembrandt whooped with laughter, I smiled, Maggie glared at Colin and Colin actually blushed.
I liked both men immediately.
After thanking Sandy, we got up to leave. A glance in Quinnís direction showed us he was sleeping soundly, so no reason to disturb him further tonight.
Maggie moved swiftly down the hall ahead of us. Colin and Rembrandt fell in on either side of me.
"Iím Rembrandt, by the way." Here he stopped and extended a hand. "And this is Quinnís brother, Colin. We canít thank you enough for helping Q-ball."
I shook his hand warmly. "Q-ball? I like it -- it suits him. Quinnís told me so much about both of you I feel I know you already," I said. "Iím Alex." Then I shook Colinís hand. We continued on down the hall. Maggie was nowhere in sight.
We reached one of the common rooms in the headquarters building. Several well-used sofas and chairs were arranged in groups around the center of the large room and an old upright piano was shoved to one side. A few tables with paperbacks and board games were in one corner; a small coffee bar with more tables and chairs in another. The room was adjacent to the cafeteria; small cubicle-like bedrooms were down the other hallways.
I was greeted warmly by several of my friends, then excused myself and went to my old bedroom. After ten days as a Ďguest" of the Kromaggs, that double bed had never looked more inviting. I rummaged through the footlocker at the end of the bed, pulling out a comfortable pair of jeans and a UCLA sweatshirt. I threw the cotton tank top and khaki shorts in a pile in the corner of my tiny closet, then, wrapped in a large terrycloth towel, made my way to the community shower. I stood under the hot water for five full sinful minutes. I shampooed my hair three times and, upon emerging from the shower, scoured my teeth for several minutes at one of the sinks.
The mirror told me I was really none the worse for wear. I quickly dried off, dressed in the jeans and sweatshirt, and went back to the common room to talk with Rembrandt and Colin.
Even though it was late, most of the Resistance members were too buoyed by the success of the mission to sleep. The room was crowded; the mood, jubilant. I was hugged and kissed by several folks on my way over to where Colin and Rembrandt sat.
I sat between them on the sofa; Kurt was relaxing in an overstuffed chair across from us. Maggie had disappeared.
I turned to Rembrandt.
"Quinn refers to you as his best friend. How long have you two known each other?"
Rembrandt grinned. Damn! It must be a rule that in order to slide you must have perfect teeth. Rembrandtís smile was -- if it was possible -- even more blinding than Quinnís. But, whereas Quinn smiled with his mouth and eyes, Rembrandtís smile involved his entire face. He reminded me of a mischievous cherub.
He was dressed comfortably in a mustard-colored flannel shirt and slacks. He wasnít as tall as Quinn or Colin -- I guessed about 5í11" or so -- with a somewhat stocky build. He was a handsome older man with an expressive face and warm dark eyes. And that smile!
He sighed expressively. "Oh, man, it seems like an eternity since the boy genius sucked me and my caddy into that wormhole."
He must have seen my incredulous look for he proceeded to tell me all about that day, some four years earlier, when R&B singer Rembrandt "Cryiní Man" Brown, all prepared to make his musical comeback by singing the national anthem at a Giants game, disappeared into the vortex along with his vintage Cadillac.
I laughed until I cried as Remmy, as he insisted I call him, regaled us with the funnier side of sliding. Even Kurt was laughing. I glanced over at Colin. He was obviously enjoying himself, but he was much more laid back. He kept smiling, though -- another great smile with a wonderful set of dimples to match. These Mallory boys were -- well -- amazing.
He was as handsome as Quinn, but in a different way. Colin was a bit taller than Quinn and had a more slender build -- not quite as broad through the chest and shoulders. His hair was lighter and longer than his brotherís; he had a strong, square jaw, a cleft in his chin and nice eyes.
"So," I said, looking around. "Maggieís not the social type? Funny, I thought since she helped successfully lead the charge, sheíd be here in the thick of things."
I thought I managed to say that without the slightest hint of cattiness, but Remmy arched an eyebrow. Colin grinned again, and Kurt said, "Sheath those claws of yours, Alex. With her military background, she helped us immensely."
"Hey, Kurt," I shot back, a little hurt that heíd come to her defense so quickly. "I meant nothing by that. Iím serious. I could tell by the way the operation ran so smoothly that someone with some experience had obviously helped plan this. I really wanted to thank her for getting us out. I donít know if Quinn could have taken another Ďsessioní with our friend Lt. Kovar. And I sure as hell couldnít have done anything to stop it."
Kurt had the good sense to look a little chagrined. "Sorry, Alex, no offense meant."
"None taken, friend," I said. "Man, itís good be out of that place." Suddenly I felt very tired. I stood. "On that note, think I will turn in. Sandra prescribed rest for me, too, and that old double bed of mine looked awfully inviting."
All three men stood. Kurt grabbed me in a bear hug and whispered "Damn, itís good to have you back, Alex. I was afraid weíd lost you." Tears sprang unbidden to my eyes and I hugged him back. "Me, too, Kurt. I thought Iíd never see your ugly mug again."
He grinned as he released me, shook hands with Colin and Remmy and walked over to another group.
I stood looking at the pair. "I never properly thanked you two," I said. "Guess you guys were the shot in the arm this group has been needing for some time."
Remmy gathered me in his arms as if it were the most natural gesture in the world -- as if he and I had known each other all our lives.
"And I never thanked you properly for looking out after Q-ball. Guess this makes us even, huh?"
I looked into his eyes. "One thing you should know about me, Remmy. I donít keep score. And especially not with friends, okay?"
He grinned back at me and hugged me again, even tighter. "Point taken, Alex," he said.
Then Colin hugged me. His was as friendly as Remmyís, but with an underlying presence. I couldnít put my finger on it, but it was nice. Very nice.
"Thank you for my brotherís life," he said, looking into my eyes. His were also a beautiful shade of blue. Very much like Quinnís but very different. Again, I couldnít put my finger on it. There was much more to this quiet young man than met the eye.
"Breakfast?" Remmy cocked a finger at me.
"Itís a date," I smiled back, then headed off for my room.
The next morning I was awakened by a light rapping on my door.
"Hey, sleeping beauty," I heard Remmyís resonant tones. "You decent?"
"Give me five minutes, Remmy," I said, jumping out of bed. I pulled on the clothes I wore the night before, ran a comb through my hair, gave my teeth a quick going-over and splashed water on my face.
I flung open the door. Both he and Colin stood there.
I glanced at my watch. Seven a.m. I hadnít slept this late in months.
"Letís go check on Quinn before we grab breakfast," I said, linking arms with the two of them.
"Our thoughts exactly," Remmy smiled as we went down the hall.
Quinn was still sleeping when we arrived. His color was better, however, and he seemed to be resting comfortably. Most of the other infirmary patients had been released, so he had the place pretty much to himself. Sandy had him moved to a regular bed nearer her office so she could keep a closer eye on him.
Sandy gave us a quick up-date.
"He pretty much slept through the night," she said. "Iím going to keep him well-medicated -- give him a chance to rest and recover from that beating. Heíll probably be out most of today. Why donít you all check back later?" She smiled and said slyly. "Donít worry -- I will personally see he gets a lot of Ďhands-oní treatment."
I looked at Sandy. Mousy little Sandy? The girl voted most likely to stay married to her work? Then I realized she was kidding -- sort of. I smiled ruefully. Guess a lot of women fell victim to that Mallory charm.
We left the infirmary and made our way to the cafeteria.
Over a positively delicious -- to my jaded taste buds, at least -- breakfast of fresh baked bread, fruit and coffee, I learned more about Maggie.
"So, whatís the story, guys?" I asked, elbows on the table, sipping my third cup. "What shoved that bug up her ass? I didnít get the feeling from Quinn that there was really anything between the two of them. As a matter of fact, he gave me the impression he still cares a lot more for this Wade who used to slide with you."
At the mention of Wade, Remmyís whole demeanor changed. Uh oh, I thought, did I open up a can of worms?
But instead of getting upset, Remmy began to explain.
"Youíve got to understand, Alex. Wade was with us from the beginning. She and Quinn were close friends before they slid and their relationship quickly developed -- at first. But things soon got very complicated."
He reached over and took my hand. "We have been leaning on Quinn for leadership and direction since the very beginning. And, sometimes, blaming him for our being here." He looked down at the table, and said quietly, "I ragged on him more than anyone. Basically, he feels responsible for us. And all of us have been in life-threatening situations more than once.
"You know we lost the Professor. And he was Quinnís anchor - someone Quinn could talk to -- about technical stuff, solutions to problems. Then, when Wade and I were captured by the Kromaggs, something sort of gave way in Quinn. Heís been distancing himself from us ever since. Not consciously, but he has. In fact, it started before that -- with the Professorís death, really. Wade was the first to notice. She thought she was losing Quinn to Maggie. Truth was, heíd already begun the isolation process -- from all of us."
I squeezed his hand. "Iím truly sorry, Remmy. He really loves all of you, you know."
"I know," Remmy sighed. "Iím not sure I could deal with all the guilt and responsibility weíve been heaping on him."
"And Maggie?" I asked.
"Maggieís had a hard row to hoe, girl," Remmy replied. "We enabled her to slide from her world, which was consequently destroyed by pulsars. I canít explain what they are -- youíd have to ask Q-ball. Anyway, she lost her career, her family, her husband and her world -- all in one day."
Remmy went on to explain. "Maggieís a military brat -- itís been her whole life. Sheís used to doing things Ďby the bookí. So here this rag-tag group of individuals show up and we talk about loyalty and friendship above devotion to duty, and we do things Ďon the flyí. We knocked her off-balance. Maggie hates being off-balance. She hates not being in charge.
"Maggieís late husband Stephen was also a physicist, like Quinn -- and he was also working on sliding. Heíd been hurt in a skiing accident and ended up in a wheelchair. Maggie gave up a promising career as a pilot to stay closer to him and I think she resented that. Then along comes our boy Quinn. Handsome. Brilliant -- like Stephen, but also active, exciting -- all the things her husband used to be. And Maggieís an attractive lady. Admittedly there were sparks.
"Nobody liked her at first -- especially not Wade. And she and Quinn fought like cats and dogs. But you know what they say about that fine line between love and hate. Yeah, Maggie definitely has feelings for Quinn. But I donít think Quinn wants to get too close to anyone just now."
I sat back. Well, that did explain a lot. I glanced over at Colin, who had been quietly taking all of this in.
"What do you say, Colin?" I asked. "Youíve been awfully quiet."
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the tabletop. His manner of speaking was much like his demeanor -- calm, quiet, but with an underlying strength.
"I think Remmy has summed it up quite well. Maggie is looking for a cornerstone -- something or someone on which to build a new life. I think she thinks sheís found it in my brother."
Just then Kurt came hurrying into the cafeteria, a look of concern on his face.
"Alex," he said, rather short of breath. "Come with me to the command center. Weíve got a -- situation."
"Sure, Kurt," I said, pushing back my chair.
Remmy and Colin stood also. "Can we be of help?" Colin asked.
Kurt hesitated a split second. "Come on," he said, and headed out the door.
Seconds later we were in the command center. It was fairly quiet, but there was a bustle of activity around the short-wave radio and the large area map of the city and surrounding area.
"Whatís going on, Kurt?" I asked.
"Well...," Kurt hesitated, then dropped his voice. "Itís Maggie. We think the Kromaggs have got her."
"What...?!?" all three of us burst out at once. Kurt went on to explain.
"She evidently was agitated with the situation when you and Quinn arrived back here last night. We think she went out for a walk -- maybe to clear her head, or something. She doesnít know the area very well, didnít take a weapon and didnít tell anyone where she was going."
"So how do we know the Maggs have her?" I questioned.
"Well, no oneís seen her since last night, and about thirty minutes ago we started picking up short-wave transmissions from the Maggs. They mention a female prisoner -- the physical description pretty well matches Maggie. I had Sarah and Mark conduct a thorough search of headquarters before I alerted you. They assure me sheís not here."
"Shit!" I said. "Any idea where theyíre holding her?"
"They apparently feel we got into the prison too easily, so theyíve taken her to a compound to the north of the city," Kurt said. "Seems they donít plan to be surprised again."
"This is going to take some planning," I said, "and the fewer of us involved, the better. Remmy, Colin, you in on this?"
"As if you had to ask, girl," Remmy said, a resolute look in his eyes. Colin merely nodded.
"Kurt, Iíll need one volunteer. No more. And," I stopped him before he opened his mouth, "it canít be you. Youíre too valuable to this movement."
Just then, I felt a hand on my arm, and a soft voice said, "Count me in -- itíll be just like old times."
Smiling broadly, I turned and hugged the pretty blue-eyed blonde woman who now stood beside me. "Hey, Angie, you know thereís no one Iíd rather have on my team."
I turned to Colin and Remmy. "Remmy, Colin, meet Angie Davis -- a crackerjack markswoman, demolitions expert -- and a helluva fine friend."
Angie shook Remmyís hand, but just smiled up at Colin. "Actually," she said, a becoming blush on her cheeks, "Colin and I have already met."
Damn! I looked at Colin, who just smiled enigmatically and shrugged his shoulders. How did they do it?
"How much time until you slide, Rem?" I asked. He pulled the timer out of his pants pocket. "Six days and change," he answered.
"Time enough to get the job done," I answered. "Letís plan."
I checked in on Quinn once more before we left. Remmy and Colin had already been by, and had left the timer with him. I could tell they had briefed him about what we were up to, because he wore a concerned look on his face as I approached.
The bed had been cranked into a sitting position, and Sandy had moved portable screens on either side of the bed, affording him some privacy.
Sheíd removed my makeshift bandage and replaced it with a heavy-duty reinforced brace. He, of course, was shirtless; the bedclothes were tucked in around his hips and legs. Below the bandage the skin of his abdomen was dark purple.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, facing him. He grasped my hand in his.
"Wish I were going with you," he said.
"Yeah -- well, maybe next time," I smiled. "Howíre you feeling?"
"All things considered -- lousy," he laughed slightly. "Not bad, Alex, really - thanks to you. You and your friends saved my life back there."
"Hey, I didnít do anything special," I protested.
"Yeah, tell me another story," he replied. "Listen. I know I canít talk you out of doing this, right? Any more than I could talk Remmy and Colin out of it."
"Right," I nodded.
"You just be very, very careful," he said. "Youíre too important to everyone here -- and to me -- to lose."
"Flatterer," I smiled. "Those are the painkillers talking." I teased him, but his words made me feel warm inside.
His light blue eyes seemed to see inside me "Iím serious, Alex, donít take any unnecessary chances." And he pulled me toward him.
Our lips met in a soft kiss. Then he dropped my hand and put his hand behind my head, pulling me in for a deeper kiss. Our lips parted. I could feel his tongue searching the inside of my mouth and the pressure of his lips on mine increased.
His mouth was warm and inviting, the kiss was passionate, yet comfortable. Main thing was, it felt so right.
The kiss ended. Our eyes met. Then he smiled.
"Weíll pick this up where we left off when you get back," he said.
"Iím going to hold you to that, mister," I grinned.
A few hours later, Colin, Angie, Remmy and I found ourselves in a humvee traveling the back roads towards the Magg compound. I drove; Remmy rode shotgun. Angie and Colin were in the back.
Our scouts had located the compound, which was situated about 17 miles northwest of the city. It was ironic, really, that these bastards had located a breeding camp and prison complex amid breathtaking scenery. As if their human victims could appreciate the beauty of nature in such a place.
My mind was kept busy with driving, planning and keeping a lookout for Magg reconnaissance groups. Angie was similarly occupied. Remmyís eyes were constantly moving, checking the road for signs of ambush.
Only Colin seemed affected by the raw, natural, majestic beauty of the surrounding redwoods and sequoias. He gazed, eyes wide, at the wonder around him.
"Truly amazing," he said. "I never realized trees could grow so tall."
The other three of us exchanged quick glances -- and smiles.
"Yeah," Remmy said. "It Ďisí beautiful. Count on the Kro-maggots to screw up one of Godís finer creations."
I put a hand on Remmyís thigh. "You have pretty strong feelings about our Magg friends, Remmy," I said.
"Yeah," I snuck a look at his profile. His jaw was tensed, but he didnít take his eyes off the surrounding countryside. "Three months in a Kromagg re-education center can really alter your perception. There were times when I thought theyíd break me for sure."
"Well, our little raid wonít make up for what you suffered," I said. "But maybe weíll even the score a little."
"Itís a start," he replied.
I eased the humvee to a stop on a secluded ridge not too far from the prison. There was enough cover to keep the vehicle from being seen -- and there were several good vantage points overlooking the compound.
We made sure everything was under cover, then took off on foot through the thick underbrush.
"Everyone, stay low!" I hissed, as we approached a ridge with a view of the fenced-in exercise yard. Angie immediately crouched down ; Remmy was well-hidden also. At first, I was afraid that Colin, because of his height, would stand out, but he seemed to have a woodsmanís natural ability of blending in with the scenery.
We were all in camouflage pants and drab olive T-shirts; the camouflage jackets were stashed in the humvee. Both Angie and I had AK-47s; Remmy was armed with an Uzi; Colin shouldered a semi-automatic rifle.
I signaled to Remmy; he eased over to where I was positioned - flat on my stomach, peering at the camp through powerful binoculars.
I kept my voice low. "Just a couple of things, Remmy," I said. "And I hope youíll take this in the spirit itís given. First of all - no heroics, okay? Angie and I have been doing this for quite some time, and weíre damn good at it. So if either one of us gives an order, I expect you and Colin to follow it. This is no time to go all macho on us."
Remmy got a funny look in his eyes, but he just nodded.
"Secondly, you guys say you function as a group -- a team. Well, this is an example of teamwork at its apex. We all cover each otherís backs. Just because Ang and I give the orders, that doesnít mean your input isnít important. And weíll expect you both to pull your weight -- and more. Okay?"
Remmy nodded again. "I served in the Navy," he said. "Donít worry about me."
"Okay, I breathed, relieved. I moved my head in Colinís direction. "How about Colin? Think he can handle all this?"
Remmy leveled his gaze at me. "Donít you worry about Colin, Alex," he replied. "I think heíll surprise you."
I pondered Remmyís remark, then I glanced over in Colinís direction.
He was as still as a statue. If I hadnít known where he was positioned, I would never have seen him. He blended in perfectly with the greenery. He handled the rifle with confidence, and his eyes were alert, watching. A small chill went involuntarily down my spine. He looked perfectly at home -- competent , controlled -- and dangerous.
Angie caught my gaze, and smiled at me. She mouthed the words, "Heís a natural," to me, and then eased up to where I was positioned.
"We still on plan?" she asked.
"Yeah," I replied, "with one small change. I want you and Colin to scout out the camp. Find us an entry point. Report back here in two hours. Weíll move at sunset. Remmy can stay here and help me with the preparations."
She started to move out. I put a hand on her arm. "No unnecessary chances, okay?"
"Hey, Alex," she smiled. "I know the drill."
I watched as she and Colin disappeared through the underbrush. Neither made a sound.
Remmy was at my elbow. "Change of plans, eh?"
"Yeah," I said back. "I would have never dreamed he was so good at being invisible."
"Like I said, Farm Boy will surprise you. Heís equally at home with a gun," Remmy replied.
Earlier, that news would have been unexpected. Now...."Letís get busy, Remmy," I said, heading back for the humvee. "Weíve got a lot of work ahead of us."
Remmy gave me more insights to all the sliders as we worked quickly to ready ourselves for the planned raid. I was surprised to learn that Colin hadnít been with the group long.
"Quinn learned a few months ago that he had a brother, and we were lucky enough to lock on to the coordinates which led us to Colinís world," Remmy said. "When we first met him, he was flying a hang glider. Colinís world was simple -- are you familiar with the Amish? They were a lot like that -- farm folks, mostly -- not really technologically advanced. Colin was considered quite an oddball -- always inventing things. He and Quinn are alike in that respect."
"Theyíre a lot alike in many ways," I said.
Remmy smiled at me. "Yeah, they are. Most people donít notice that because Quinnís always been more outgoing. But both of them are really smart -- geniuses, really -- and both can hold their own in a fight."
"Well, I hope youíre right, my friend," I smiled back at Rembrandt. "Weíre fixing to put your fight theory to the test."
We had finished the final preparations when Angie and Colin made their way back to the humvee.
"You want the good news or the bad news first?" Angie asked.
I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. "Oh, what the hell, gimme the good news. Lord knows we can use some."
"Well," she began, "the good news is apparently they donít think we know where theyíre located because they havenít doubled the guards. And, this must be a fairly new facility because theyíre not finished with the electrified fencing, extra guard towers and floodlights."
"Thatís encouraging," I replied. "And the bad news?"
"Your old friend Lt. Kovar is here," Angie said. "And Iím not sure where theyíre holding Maggie, although Colin says he thinks he has a pretty good idea."
Inwardly, I groaned. Great. Lt. Kovar. He could be a problem. Iím sure he was still smarting from Quinnís and my escape. The higher-ups didnít take kindly to prisoners being sprung. I was willing to bet theyíd read him their version of the Riot Act. Most Kromaggs didnít get much more than a second chance to redeem themselves. If he lost Maggie, there would be hell to pay.
"So, Colin," I said, "you think you might have an idea where Maggie might be?"
"Yes," he said, simply. "While Angie was checking out the grounds, I did a quick inspection of the prison. There is a short wing on the northwest corner that has two guards posted at the end door. We scouted the whole complex; no other wing is that guarded. That was also where your Lt. Kovar spent most of his time."
Angie glanced at Colin, and smiled. "Heís right, now that I think of it. That is where we saw Kovar. And there were two guards there the whole time."
"And, that was also where most of the fence is in place," Colin added.
I was impressed. "Very observant, Colin, thanks," I said. "Okay, boys and girls, letís huddle. Weíve got our work cut out for us."
Sunset found us creeping through the underbrush, approaching the camp from the northwest side. Remmy muttered something under his breath about getting too old for all of this and tanning Maggieís hide, once she was safe.
I smiled to myself. Underneath his complaining, I could tell Remmy really cared about Maggie, warts and all. It was extraordinary how this group of definite individuals stuck together through rough times; the only two having any real blood ties being Quinn and Colin. Some of our Resistance members could learn a few lessons about loyalty from this foursome, I thought.
Before I knew it, Colin was at my elbow. I never heard him. "Jeezus, Colin!" I said softly, with a start. "At least clear your throat or something!"
"Sorry," he whispered back. "I thought the point was not to make a sound."
Was that a sarcastic grin? I shook my head ruefully. Remmyís words were coming back to haunt me.
"What is it?" I asked.
Then he was all seriousness. "Kromagg patrol. About three hundred yards ahead, to our right. And closing."
I signaled the group to stay perfectly still. Minutes later, they passed us, not even glancing our way.
"Thanks, Colin," I whispered, squeezing his arm. Then I signaled to the group. "Letís move."
We closed in slowly, cautiously, in no hurry, for there were still several minutes of daylight left. And it wasnít easy to move undetected through underbrush armed to the teeth.
Remmy had insisted on carrying most of the load of explosives we had brought. His face was wet with perspiration and his T-shirt streaked with dirt and sweat, but he wasnít complaining. Colin, being familiar with the area since he had scouted it with Angie, took point. I found myself hoping that maybe, when all of this was over, these two would decide to stay with the Resistance. And, of course, I wanted Quinn to stay. Hell, maybe I could even become chummy with Maggie, since this seemed to be an Ďall for one and one for allí type of bunch. If she chose to slide, theyíd go with her.
Enough daydreaming, Alex, I mentally shook myself. You certainly wonít help Maggie if you donít pay attention to what youíre doing.
We slowly approached the compound. I waved Remmy away about 200 yards to set some explosive charges to be used as diversionary tactics, if needed. And, armed with an Uzi, Remmy had an unrestricted view of the whole camp and could provide us with great ground cover, if we ran into trouble.
The wing had the two guards posted at the entryway; otherwise, the compound was deserted. Was it because of the Kromaggís arrogant belief in their military superiority or a trap? I was betting the farm on overconfidence.
Angie covered our backs as Colin and I moved closer toward the northeast wing.
I whispered in Colinís ear. "Weíre not going to be able to sneak up on these guys from this angle. Thereís not enough cover. Iím giving you two minutes to move in behind the guards and then Iím going in like Iím giving myself up. You follow?"
Colin nodded. We glanced at our watches.
I squeezed his shoulder. "Two minutes -- starting now."
Those two minutes felt like two hours. With fifteen seconds left, I detected a slight movement about 50 yards behind the guards.
I smiled to myself. I stood up, one hand in the air, the other dangling my AK-47 by the strap. I walked slowly toward the guards, who were staring at me in amazement.
"Hi, fellows," I said cheerily. "Long time, no see."
They moved towards me, and the one closest said, "Surrender your weapon, wo-man."
That was as far as he got. Colin clubbed the other guard heavily on the head with the butt of his rifle, and I swung my AK-47 around, catching the Magg in front of me squarely in the stomach. He grunted and fell to his knees, the breath knocked out of him, and as he raised his head I caught him right under the chin. They were both out for the count.
Angie came running up to us, and grabbed the Magg I had flattened under the arms. Colin bent down, relieved the one he knocked out of his keys and opened the wing door.
The door swung open. It took a second for our eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Then Colin and Angie were dragging the unconscious Maggs inside to an empty cell.
"Get Maggie," Angie hissed at me. "Weíll secure these two and keep a lookout."
They didnít need to tell me twice. I sprinted down the hall, glancing in cells. They were all empty.
She was in a small cell near the end of the hall. Her clothes were dirt-stained, but intact. She had a small bruise purpling on her left cheek and she had a none-too-clean rag wrapped around the knuckles of her right hand. Apparently she had not gone quietly with her captors.
"Maggie," I barked, "you okay?"
Her eyes blazed in her face; her chin had a determined set.
"Yeah, just get me the hell outta here."
"Stand back," I ordered. She stepped away from the door as I blasted through the lock.
She stepped out. "Thanks," she said.
I pointed in the direction of the exit. "This way. Remmy, Colin and Angie are waiting out there." I tossed her one of the weapons we had relieved from the Magg guards. "I donít know how long it will be before youíre missed. Stay alert."
She pulled the clip back smoothly. "Right," she nodded.
She handled the weapon with practiced ease.
"Army?" I asked
"Marines," she replied.
"Good outfit," I said. "Letís go."
This was too easy. Where the hell was Lt. Kovar? We made our way back into the compound, Colin and Angie falling in beside us.
We traced our path back to Remmy, gathered up the explosives and were making our way back to the humvee when the sirens sounded and the searchlights began to scan the hills.
"Letís move!" I shouted and we high-tailed it back to where the humvee was hidden.
The whine of bullets pierced the air, and, down at the compound, I caught the sound of motors being started.
"Guess they missed your company, Maggie," I said.
"Yeah. What a shame. I forgot to leave a note thanking them for their hospitality," she snorted.
It was too bad a piece of eye candy like Quinn should come between us. I liked this lady -- a real smart-ass, like me.
We made the humvee -- Maggie was crammed in the back between Colin and Angie. I smoked the tires getting back on the road.
I cursed under my breath, wrestling with the steering wheel as the vehicle bounced over the rough unpaved road. The Maggs had the advantage of being a lot more familiar with this terrain. I had driven this road just once - about three hours earlier -- in the daylight. There were more twists and turns in this poor excuse for a goat path than I remembered. The large trees were a hindrance, too. During the day they were awe-inspiring; at night, they were just plain hazardous.
The Maggs were closing; they began firing at the humvee whenever they caught a glimpse of our tail in their headlights. The air was thick with the sound of automatic weaponsí fire, and occasionally you could hear the Ďpingí of a bullet striking metal.
Colin, Maggie and Angie returned fire as best they could, trying to stay covered and not getting thrown out of the weaving vehicle. I had the pedal to the metal and was desperately trying to keep control. I had to think of something fast; we were not going to lead these goons back to the Resistance base camp.
Then Colin was shouting in my ear.
"I saw what looked like an old logging road about half a mile from here on the left when we came down! Maybe we could take that and throw them off our trail!"
Amazing. I hadnít noticed it, but I wasnít surprised by his powers of observation. So, I began keeping an eye peeled.
It was little more than two overgrown ruts in the side of a mountain, but it was there. I nearly missed it, and jerked the wheel sharply to the left. The humvee squealed in protest, but it made the turn. Remmy grabbed the front dash for support; I could hear the other three being jostled about in back.
"Sorry, guys!" I called out. "Hold on to -- well -- something!"
We made it up the trail. I floored it for all it was worth and soon we found ourselves halfway up the mountain in a small clearing.
Luckily, we had been far enough ahead of the Maggs that the dust would have settled by the time they passed the cut-off. In that respect, the darkness was kind to us; they probably wouldnít notice the path immediately or guess that weíd gone up it. It would buy us a little time.
I killed the motor. We all sat, listening, as the Magg convoy sped by the cut-off below us.
"This wonít fool them for long," I whispered. "Theyíll soon discover that weíre no longer in front of them and begin back-tracking. If weíre lucky, they wonít discover this path until daylight. Weíve got the advantage; letís set up and wait for them."
We began setting up a small camp in the dark. I eased the humvee out of sight. I planned to position us on either side of the clearing opening, so we could catch them in the middle.
It was beginning to get cold; we couldnít risk a fire. We worked as best we could by the light of a half moon. I got out the first-aid kit so we could patch Maggieís knuckles.
As the other three began unloading gear, I motioned her over to me. I shined a small penlight on her hand.
"Letís get something on those cuts," I said.
She unwrapped the rag. She wouldnít meet my gaze. Then, she said, "Hey. Thanks for getting me out. That was really stupid of me and Iím sorry I put you guys at risk. I know better than to go out by myself in unfamiliar territory -- especially unarmed. I just wasnít thinking."
"It happens," I said, spreading some antibiotic ointment over the abrasions. I took some gauze and wrapped it around her hand, securing it with tape. She started to pull away, but I held on, forcing her to look at me.
"Look, Maggie," I said, "letís clear the air. If you had anything to do with planning the mission that sprung Quinn and me -- and Iím betting you did -- youíd make one hell of a Resistance fighter. Youíre quick, youíre tough, you know your weapons. I like you -- and I think, given the chance, we might be friends.
"I know you think thereís something going on between Quinn and me. And," I smiled at her, "Iím not saying it wouldnít be nice. He is easy on the eye, and he seems like a great guy. But thereís a lot more at stake here. Weíre fighting for our country, our way of life, our very existence here. You all are just passing through. Believe me when I tell you I donít have time to get involved with anyone. Life here is too iffy -- too short. Okay?" I squeezed her hand gently for emphasis.
Then she did meet my gaze. A look passed between us, and her smile was friendly and genuine. "Thanks," she said.
She was about to say something else when I heard both Remmy and Angie gasp in alarm. What the hell...?
Maggie and I rushed over to them. It was hard to make out just what was going on in the dim light.
Remmy and Angie were kneeling on the ground. Both were helping Colin to a sitting position against some boxes of explosives.
"Get the first aid kit, Alex," Angie hissed. "Heís been hit."
I turned on my heel and sprinted to the humvee, grabbed the kit and a more powerful flashlight.
Maggie had joined the trio on the ground. Angie had fished in her pocket and was bringing out her Swiss Army knife.
"Left shoulder," she said.
I trained the light on the group. The front of Colinís T-shirt was dark with blood.
As Angie was cutting off the T-shirt, Remmy said, trying to keep his voice light, "Hey, were you just going to keep quiet about this, Farm Boy?"
Colin was noticeably pale, but his voice was steady as he spoke, "I know this sounds strange, but I did not really feel it at first -- I thought I had just struck something inside the vehicle when we were making our escape. Then, when I started to unload..."
Angie said, "There it is -- the exit wound."
Sure enough, high up on Colinís left shoulder, just under the shoulder blade, was a hole the size of a dime. She eased him gently forward, signaling me over with the flashlight. I shined the light on his back. The bullet hole there was about the size of a pencil eraser.
"Weíre in luck," she breathed. "Clean entry, clean exit. Nothing vital hit." She smiled at Colin. "Weíll get you cleaned up. Try not to use that arm. Youíll be fine."
Colin smiled back at her. And I smiled to myself. Angie was usually the last one to volunteer when there were wounds to be patched. Guess she considered Colin a special case.
Maggie and Remmy, obviously concerned, but relieved, went on setting up. I hunkered down beside Colin and Angie, providing light for Angie to work by.
I had to hand it to the brothers -- Colin was as stoic as Quinn when it came to bearing pain in silence. Angie removed the remainder of Colinís T-shirt and cleaned both wounds with peroxide. Then, using gauze pads and tape, she bandaged his upper chest and back and secured the left shoulder with more gauze.
Colin wouldnít let us strap his left arm to his side to limit movement, but he did let Angie rig a make-shift sling. We got him into one of the camouflage jackets and Angie made him go take it easy by the humvee, and told him if she so much as caught him lifting that left arm to scratch his nose, sheíd come down on him like gravy on rice.
While he insisted he was fine, I ordered him to take it easy. "Weíll need you to be 100 percent later, Colin," I said. "Take advantage of the lull now. Get some rest."
Now, all we could do was wait. The air grew colder, especially without the benefit of a fire, and the night seemed to stretch out forever.
It was really beautiful out here in the hills. The stars were so low and bright you felt you could reach out and touch them.
Even the forest creatures seemed to be on our side; the night noises were friendly, not threatening, and there was just enough chatter to let us know we werenít being snuck up on.
Maggie, Remmy and I were too keyed up to sleep, so we took watch. Colin had been able to drift off to sleep and he and Angie huddled together like puppies. He lay on his right side, his left arm pressed tightly against his chest, his head in Angieís lap. She had her arms draped lightly around his shoulders and her head was resting against the side of the humvee.
Maggie, Remmy and I talked quietly. They asked several questions about the Resistance and in turn I asked them about their respective home worlds. Sliding had sounded very exciting at first, but, the more they talked, the happier I was that I was here on my home world, no matter what shape it was in.
Remmy told me that the Kromaggs had been beaten back on some of the alternate earths they had visited. He said one world in particular was Quinn and Colinís home world and that they hoped to reach it one day, learn the secret and carry it to other worlds infested by the Maggs.
Maggie eventually drifted off to sleep; Remmy and I continued talking. He told me more about his time with the Kromaggs. As he talked, my respect for this man grew. My ten days with them had been practically unbearable, but I now realized that Lt. Kovarís attraction to me saved me from many of the indignities humans suffered at their hands. Remmy had been subjected to three months of constant mental and physical torture. I doubted most of the people I knew -- even Nick -- could have withstood it, but it seemed to have made Remmy stronger.
And he agonized over Wadeís loss. In his way, Remmy loved Wade as much, or even more, than Quinn. And he felt personally responsible for her being shipped off to a breeding camp. My heart broke a dozen times over for him that night.
I couldnít help myself. I reached over and hugged him tightly, then whispered fiercely in his ear.
"You canít let this continue to eat at you, Remmy," I said. "From what youíve told me about Wade, I seriously doubt she holds you accountable for whatís happened to her. Itís an unfortunate fact that shitty things happen to good people. Let go of this before it kills you -- or drives you crazy. I know Wade wouldnít want you jeopardizing your health and mental well-being like this."
He drew back from me as soon as I released him.
"I know I should let go, Alex," he said, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. "But itís hard to do."
"Then help me kick some Kromagg butt while youíre here, Rem," I said. "For yourself. For your lost home world. For Wade."
Hey," he smiled back at me, some of the old spirit coming back into his face. "Iím with you there, girl."
Dawn was just beginning to peak over the horizon. I had drifted into a sort of half-slumber when I heard the sound of vehicles far off in the distance, just a split second before I felt Maggieís hand on my shoulder.
I was instantly awake. "I hear them," I nodded to her. She went to rouse Remmy, I crept over to the humvee. I nudged Angie and laid my hand gently on Colinís left side.
"Easy, Colin, donít jerk awake or youíll really feel that bullet wound," I whispered. "I think we might have company soon. You two get into position."
He must have heard me, because he didnít move. Instead, clear blue eyes gazed into mine. "Thanks," he said. "Weíll be ready."
We heard them pass below us - three small reconnaissance vehicles, by the sound of them -- probably holding about four Maggs each. No large transports. That was a plus.
They missed the turn-off, and we heard them fade off into the distance. No time to breathe easy, though. I had a feeling theyíd be back -- hopefully not with reinforcements.
We were stationed on both sides near the entrance of the clearing. The humvee was hidden from sight; Angie and Colin were positioned on one side; Remmy and Maggie on the other. I stayed near a small overhang of trees right at the opening of the clearing, where I could keep an eye on any vehicles that might find their way up.
I crept over to Maggie and Remmy. "Weíll wait another thirty minutes. If we donít hear any more vehicles on the road, weíll work our way back to headquarters."
Maggie and Remmy nodded. I didnít need to pass this word on to Angie. She already knew the drill.
After about ten minutes, I heard the sound of motors in the distance -- approaching much more slowly, obviously searching for cut-offs and hidden side roads. It was just a matter of time now.
Angie nodded to me -- she heard the engines. I started to signal to Maggie when I caught sight of Remmyís Uzi -- theyíd obviously heard the sounds, too, and were settling into position.
The engines drew closer. Then I heard the sound of voices and the engine noises began to make their way up the mountain. Oh, shit. They found our logging trail.
I listened closely. Three vehicles. The same three weíd heard earlier -- no more.
They grew closer to the clearing. My body tensed, I whispered, to myself, "Wait for it. Wait for it." It was as if the others heard me. There was no sound, no movement, from our group.
The three reconnaissance vehicles pulled into the clearing, slowing to a stop. Lt. Kovar was in the first jeep. He signaled the other vehicles and the Maggs began to get out, shouldering their weapons.
"Now!" I shouted, and the clearing erupted with gunfire.
Two Maggs went down immediately. The others, Lt. Kovar among them, began to seek cover among their vehicles and jockeyed for better firing positions.
I could hear Angieís AK-47, and Colin, obviously slowed by his shoulder wound, was picking his targets carefully, making every shot count.
Remmyís Uzi cut down most of the occupants of the second vehicle while Maggie pinned down most of the Maggs from the third vehicle. One of the Maggs reached for the radio. I placed a single bullet through both their innards -- I didnít want anyone of them calling for back-up.
Five Maggs left -- one for each of us.
I was so intent on watching for the other members of my team that I lost track of my own surroundings -- until I felt the cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against the side of my neck. A leathery hand covered my mouth and Lt. Kovarís unmistakable voice whispered next to my ear:
"Ah, wo-man, so we meet again. Any sound you make will be your last."
I felt the bile rise in my throat, but I didnít make a sound.
"Drop your weapon -- quietly," he ordered.
I set the AK-47 down easily. Lt. Kovar kept the gun barrel pressed to my neck with his right hand and grabbed my left arm with his left hand, twisting it roughly, painfully, behind my back.
He was pushing me back further into the trees and underbrush. Right now he had the upper hand -- that gun was too close to the major artery in my neck for him to miss killing me.
He kept talking as we walked. His voice was soft, cold, impassive -- and sent shivers down my spine.
"You have been quite an embarrassment to me," he murmured, his lips very near my left ear. "I didnít expect such cleverness from a mere wo-man. I should have used you and then shipped you off to one of our other Ďspecialí camps -- any children you bear will make fine warriors."
He was making my skin crawl. His breath was hot on my neck and the tip of the gun barrel felt like it was making a permanent indentation under my right ear.
I decided to make a move. No way was this guy gonna kill me without a fight.
I pretended to stumble over a root. His grip tightened on my arm and I attempted to swing around and knee him in the groin.
At least he didnít pull the trigger. Instead, he clubbed me hard, twice, on the back of the head with the pistol.
Too late, I realized my mistake. I went down on my back, stunned, fighting to stay conscious. He had twisted my left arm so hard that heíd cut off the blood flow, and it lay numbed and useless at my side.
I raised my right hand to try for his eyes, and he hit me sharply across the face, knocking my head back and bloodying my nose.
There was a roaring in my ears and lights danced before my eyes.
He was on top of me, tearing at my clothing. I felt my T-shirt rip and his hand was on the webbed belt of my camouflage trousers.
I tried to call out -- to scream -- and then his mouth was on mine, biting at my lips, his needle-like teeth drawing blood.
Oh, God. I was about to be raped by a Kromagg -- and there wasnít a damn thing I could do about it.
I suddenly heard a roar and then Lt. Kovar was lifted off of me.
Still stunned, I watched the scene unfold. I felt detached from my body -- as if I were watching the whole incident in slow motion.
Remmy was like a man possessed. He kept pummeling Kovar with both fists, all the while screaming, "Get your filthy hands off her, maggot!"
While they were both fairly evenly matched in size, Remmy had the element of surprise -- and rage -- on his side. He was slowly beating Kovar to a bloody pulp. I really thought he was going to kill him with his bare hands.
Then I saw a flash of steel --Kovar had managed to pull a knife from his belt.
I tried to help, but I was still too stunned to move. I did, however, manage to find my voice.
"Remmy! Look out! Heís got a knife!"
Kovar pinned Remmy to the ground and raised the knife in his right hand, poised to plunge it into Remmyís chest.
A single shot rang out.
Kovar froze, as a small, red hole appeared in his right temple. Then he fell across Remmy.
I turned my head. Maggie stood there with Kovarís smoking pistol in her hands.
"Serves you right, you bastard," she said. "Thatíll teach you to mess with my friends."
Remmy and Maggie both rushed over to me and helped me up. "You okay, sweetheart?" Remmy said, concern written all over his handsome features. "That maggot didnít hurt you, did he?"
I shook my head slowly, still trying to clear it. I grabbed both their shoulders and pulled them in for a quick hug. "Thanks," I said, my voice barely above a whisper. "You guys saved my life."
"Hey," Remmy said, smiling. "Friends donít keep score, right? Didnít you tell me that once?"
I grinned back, "Yeah, guess I did."
We made our way back to the clearing. There were eleven dead Kromaggs in all, including the late Lt. Kovar. Our group had suffered mainly bruises, scrapes, and abrasions, plus, of course, Colinís shoulder wound. Only Angie had escaped unscathed.
My nose and lip were still bleeding, and I was gonna have one hell of a goose egg on the back of my head. I wiped my face on a rag, surveyed the group and then chuckled.
"It figures," I said. "The rest of us look like weíve come through Armageddon, and all Angie has is a smudge on her nose."
"I do? Where?" She scrambled in her pack for a mirror. The gesture was so feminine, so like Angie, that the rest of us burst into laughter.
She smiled sheepishly, catching on to the joke. "Oh, youíre pulling my leg, right?"
"You catch on fast, o blonde one," I grinned, playfully ruffling her hair.
I barked orders, "Letís start loading this gear up now. I want to be gone before the rest of the Maggs come looking for their missing colleagues."
Even if I do say so myself, it was a triumphal return. In addition to freeing Maggie and ridding the earth of Lt. Kovar and ten of his kind, we also gained three new vehicles, several weapons, tons of ammunition, and a radio which might be repairable.
Colin and I were spirited off to the infirmary upon our return. I needed a couple of stitches to close the cut on my lip from Kovarís teeth. Sandy praised Angie for the work she did on Colinís shoulder. She did insist, however, that he keep it in a sling for a few days and started him on some antibiotics to cut down the risk of infection. Then she made us both stay overnight for observation.
It was Quinnís turn to visit the infirmary. Heíd managed to sweet-talk Sandy into releasing him, promising to take it easy. I could tell from the tell-tale bulge under his shirt and the stiff way he moved that his ribs would take some time to heal. Even so, his smile was still dazzling, and he looked and acted like he felt better.
I told him as much. He grinned, reached out and caressed my cheek. "Itís the painkillers," he said, echoing my words of a day earlier. "How are you feeling?"
"Like my lip is two sizes too big and my head is two sizes too small," I grimaced. Other than that, just fine."
"Both Colin and Remmy said you were amazing," Quinn said. "Maggie said youíd make one hell of a Marine, which is high praise from her."
"Listen, Quinn, your group are the ones who are amazing," I said, raising up on one elbow. "They really are a team. They could teach several people in our organization a thing or two."
"Yeah," he said, his eyes softening, "they are all special. I couldnít be with a better bunch of folks."
"You need to tell them that more often," I suggested. "They think the world of you and your opinion."
"Iíll be sure to do that," he said, squeezing my hand.
I looked across the room, to the bed Colin was in. Angie was sitting on the bed on his uninjured side, and the two of them looked deep in conversation, her blonde head very close to his darker one.
"Howís Colin?" I asked.
"Doing fine," Quinn answered. "Actually, Angieís the best medicine he could have. Heís quite taken with her, you know."
"I think the feelingís mutual," I replied. "You know," I added, looking directly into his wonderful blue eyes, "itís going to be hard for us to say goodbye to you."
Quinnís face became serious.
"I promise you, it will be no easier for us," he said. "You do understand why we canít stay?"
I nodded, unbidden tears coming to my eyes. There was a sudden lump in my throat. "Of course. Although I wish you -- all of you -- could stay."
"You could come with us," he suggested. But from the way he said it, I think he already knew that answer.
I shook my head. "You know I canít, Quinn. Much as Iíd love to. What weíre doing here is important. This is my world -- for better or worse -- and these are my friends -- whatís left of my family, really. I could no more leave here than you and Colin could stop looking for your home world."
"I know, Alex," he said softy. "And I understand. I donít have to like it -- but I understand."
I managed a watery smile. "We still have five days, Quinn," I said. "Letís not waste them."
Those days passed quickly. Maggie threw herself into helping train many of our people in some of the finer points of being an effective Marine, and Remmy not only dispensed some valuable information on explosives, he also spent evenings providing some explosive entertainment.
Weíd gather around the old upright piano in the common room, and tunes from the sixties and seventies would fill the air. Some we knew -- some we didnít, but for the most part, we shared a common musical past. So, we sang along to songs by the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Drifters, Sam and Dave and many others.
Even Maggie showed a musical side -- a bit more Ďover the topí than Remmy, to be sure -- but fun all the same. I couldnít remember when weíd all sung and laughed so much.
Colin and Quinn took part in the festivities, but on a limited scale. Colin spent most of his time with Angie. He wasnít familiar with the music -- the world he grew up on didnít have rock and roll -- but he would join in on the choruses, singing not exactly on-key, but enthusiastically all the same.
Quinn mainly sat on one of the overstuffed sofas, foot tapping. His ribs were healing well, but slowly, and he was wise enough to restrict his movements. Most evenings would find us sitting close together, his right arm draped casually over my shoulders, my hand resting lightly on his thigh. He and I would sing along on occasion, but usually we were content to sit and watch the others party.
And we talked. Oh, how we talked -- about everything. My world. His world. Our hopes, our fears, our disappointments. I told him more about Nick and he told me more about Wade. We talked about our families and how much we missed them. I knew I had told Maggie that there was nothing going on between the two of us, that I didnít have time to get involved, but this handsome rascal seemed determined to make a liar out of me.
It was our last night together. Maggie, Remmy, Colin and Quinn were due to slide the next day. So, naturally, the festivities were at a peak that evening.
It was a particularly lively sing-along session. Half the folks in the room were gathered around the piano singing to Bob Segerís "Old Time Rock Ďn Roll", while Maggie was in the middle of a large group of dancers busily gyrating on a cleared area of floor near the piano. Sheíd made her share of Ďconquestsí while sheíd been here, and it made me smile to see several of her swains jockey for position around her.
Remmy also had several of our ladies wrapped around his talented, musical fingers, and they were hanging over the piano.
I leaned in and spoke in Quinnís ear, having to almost shout to be heard.
"Theyíre certainly having fun, arenít they? Makes me feel like an old maid chaperone."
Then I felt his lips nuzzle my earlobe. His voice, subtly sexy, murmured back, "You are the least likely woman in this room to be mistaken for an Ďold maid chaperone,í Alex. In fact, Iím about to suggest that we leave this party and go someplace more -- private."
I looked into those unbelievable blue eyes. "Why, Mr. Mallory," I breathed, "I do believe youíre propositioning me."
"About damn time, donít you think?" he said, smiling that crooked, sexy smile.
It was as if the rest of the room faded away. I was aware only of his presence.
"I want you, Alex," he said. "And I hope you feel the same. I donít want to slide without having made love to you. Is this okay with you?"
I took his hand and helped him to his feet. Then, taking care not to squeeze his left side too hard, I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his right shoulder for a long moment. He wrapped an arm around my waist and stroked my hair with his other hand. Then I looked up at him.
Our eyes locked. Then he bent his head and his lips met mine. Taking care not to press too hard against the stitches on my upper lip, he nibbled my lower lip gently, tentatively. Then my lips parted and he was inside my mouth, tongue probing, tasting. I moaned and he cupped the back of my head with his hand.
The kiss lasted several seconds. Then we pulled apart. I took his hand.
"Come on," I said, leading him toward my room.
Neither one of us said a word as we walked down the hall. I opened the door, we entered, and I closed the door behind me.
A small low-watt light was on by the bedside, barely illuminating the room and casting shadows over everything. Quinn reached over and locked the door. We both stood looking at one another.
Oh, God, I had unconsciously wanted this moment to happen from the minute I had taped up his ribs and heíd kissed me on the cheek. But now, I was nervous, unsure, behaving more like a 14-year-old on her first date than an experienced, previously engaged Resistance fighter. What was it about this man that made my palms sweat and my breath catch in my throat?
"You okay with this, Alex?" he smiled at me. "I want this to be something we both want. If youíre not sure, we can stop now." He grinned that irresistible grin. "Of course, Iíll need to find the nearest cold shower, but we can stop." Then he turned serious. "You know Iím only joking, donít you? But it is true that Iím not going to be much help. Itís your decision, sweetheart."
The endearment was my undoing. I moved closer to him, and started unfastening the buttons on his flannel shirt.
He reached up and cupped my chin, lifting my mouth to his for another soft kiss. Nervously, I fumbled with the buttons, then opened the shirt, easing it off his shoulders.
A wide tape and cloth brace still covered much of his chest, but the bruises above and below the bandage had begun to fade. I sat him on the edge of the bed and pulled off his desert boots and socks, and then helped him back to his feet.
He stood there before me, clad in nothing but the brace and those snug, faded jeans. His arousal was evident, but still he didnít move. He just stood there, his chest rising and falling with each breath, as my eyes moved over him, drinking in the sight.
I wanted to commit him to memory -- his face, his body, the way he moved and spoke -- something I could instantly call up on those lonely nights ahead when he was off on some parallel world. His blue eyes, his broad shoulders, the way his hair felt, thick and soft beneath my fingers. His crooked, perfect smile, the two small scars on his upper lip. I reached out and brushed the side of his face with my fingers, then stepped back.
I pulled the UCLA sweatshirt over my head, tossing it to the floor, and then reached behind me and undid the clasp on my bra. It followed the sweatshirt.
His breathing became more labored and his eyes gleamed with pleasure as I moved closer to him.
"Oh, God, you are so beautiful, Alex," he breathed.
"So are you," I said, and moved into his arms.
Our lips met again. I lifted my arms and placed them around his broad shoulders, tangling my fingers in his thick hair as I pulled him closer.
His hands grasped me around the waist, and then moved slowly up my ribcage until they were under my breasts. His long fingers lightly brushed my nipples and they instantly hardened.
His tongue plundered the inside of my mouth and then he withdrew and nibbled at my lips and neck. His fingertips continued to brush my nipples until the sensation was almost painful.
I pulled back from him, chest heaving, and unfastened my jeans. I pushed them down my hips, leaving them in a puddle on the floor. My lace panties followed.
His eyes narrowed, smoldering. I reached for the front snap of his jeans and then eased them down his long, slim legs, taking his thigh-length briefs along with them.
I eased him back on the bed, positioning myself over him. I continued kissing him -- mouth, face, neck, shoulders -- reveling in the slightly salty taste of his skin.
His hands ran along the curve of my back and cupped my bottom, pulling me up to where his lips could tease my nipples. I threw my head back as his mouth circled first one nipple, then the other, suckling lightly.
Then one hand moved between us, to the moist curls at the junction of my thighs, and he began to slowly caress me. I could feel him, hard, against my leg.
I moaned with pleasure and he grinned, then helped position me over him, easing me down onto him with infinite gentleness.
He filled me completely. Slowly, I began an easy up and down motion, taking care to stay well away from his left side. He gripped my hips with his hands, helping me, guiding me. The friction grew faster and keener and sweeter with every thrust of my hips. The feeling was intense, overwhelming, and I was no longer in control. I moaned and shuddered with pleasure as I found sweet release, and then I hear him cry out and shudder below me.
We stayed as we were for a long moment until we both began to breathe normally again. I eased off of him, cuddled next to his uninjured right side and pulled the covers up around us both.
My head was against his shoulder and my arm lay lightly across his upper chest, which was now damp with a fine sheen of perspiration. He turned and looked at me, for once, those blue eyes unfathomable. Then he cupped my chin in his hand and drew me toward him for a gentle kiss.
"Rest now, sweetheart," I heard him whisper, as my eyes closed. "Weíve got a long, glorious night ahead of us."
We made love two more times that night.
The first time, I was again the aggressor. I awoke him with small kisses at the base of his throat, then moved my mouth down across his shoulders, his stomach, and lower.
He breathed in sharply as I took him in my mouth, teasing him to readiness, and then settled myself on top of him again, moving in slow, easy strokes.
"I believe you like being on top," he grinned, as I watched the play of sensations cross his face. His eyes darkened with passion and his hands again found their way to my hips, guiding my movements.
"Is that a complaint, Mr. Mallory?" I purred, as I increased the thrust of my hips ever so slightly.
"Oh...God...no," he groaned, his hands tensing on my hips as we rode to a mutual climax.
The second time, I awoke to find him positioned over me, braced on his hands, his mouth blazing a trail across my lips and neck.
"Quinn!" I said, alarmed. "Your ribs!"
"Shhhh!" he admonished, shutting me up with a kiss. Then he pulled back. His hair was tousled, his eyes gleamed in the semi-darkness and he had that heartbreakingly sexy grin on his face.
"But...should you be doing this?" I asked.
His eyes seemed to seek out my soul. "I want to see your face. To look into your eyes as we make love. To remember this moment for as long as I live. To tell you I love you. Just this once, Alex. Iíll take it easy. I promise."
Tears crept to the corners of my eyes. "I love you, too, Quinn," I said. And then I gave myself up to absolute ecstasy.
He rained kisses down my body, pausing to pay homage to both my breasts. I reached down and caressed him, taking his hardness in my hand and stoking it. His breath quickened. He parted my thighs and entered me, slowly, deliberately, inch by breathtaking inch.
And then, he began to move. Slowly at first, then more rapidly, going deeper and deeper with each thrust of his hips. His eyes never left my face. I caressed his cheek, his upper chest. He leaned in and kissed me deeply, running his tongue over my lips and then trailing small kisses at the corners of my mouth. I could feel the fire building within me, threatening to engulf me. I clutched at Quinnís shoulders, my body rising to meet his. I tossed my head back and closed my eyes as wave after wave of incredible sensations shook me. I clung to him as he held me closely, waiting for the trembling to subside.
I slowly opened my eyes to find him looking at me, a tender smile on his lips.
"Are you okay?" I asked, caressing his face.
"I hurt like hell," he admitted. "But it was worth it."
A light rapping at the door woke me. I looked over. The early morning sun streamed weakly in through the curtained window above the bed. Quinn was asleep on his right side beside me, his left arm lying lightly across my stomach. His mouth was slightly parted and he breathed easily, his dark eyelashes brushing his cheeks.
I gingerly slipped out of his grasp, taking care not to wake him. I grabbed my robe from a hook on the back of the closet and padded to the door. Quietly I turned the lock and opened the door, just a crack.
It was Angie. She looked at me with eyes that seemed -- well, different. She looked radiant. She had a sated, fulfilled look about her, like a cat that had just finished a saucer of rich cream. She, too, wore her robe, but underneath I could see the collar of Colinís shirt. Angie, who took such pains with her appearance, who usually looked as if she had just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, was a bit rumpled this morning. Her hair was tousled, her lips slightly swollen, and her neck was dotted with small bruise marks.
She looked over my shoulder, caught sight of Quinn sleeping peacefully, and leveled a shit-eating grin at me.
"You, too?" she said.
Then her face turned serious and her lower lip trembled slightly.
"They slide in a few hours, Alex," she wailed mournfully. "Oh, God, I donít think I can let him go."
I hugged her tightly. "I know, hon, I know," I said, tears coming to my eyes, too.
Wanna talk about it? Coffee at our old table in the common room in, say, five minutes?"
She smiled at me shakily, wiping the tears away with the back of her hand. "Yeah."
I checked on Quinn again. Still sleeping. I resisted the urge to brush the hair off his forehead for fear of waking him, slid into my jeans and sweatshirt and hurried off to meet Angie.
She was already there, clutching a steaming cup between her hands; mine waiting for me on the table, just like I liked it. We were the only two people in the room.
She looked up at me. Two fat tears tricked down her cheeks. She sniffed loudly and fumbled in her pocket for a Kleenex.
"Youíve got it bad, too, eh, girl?" I asked sympathetically.
She nodded. "Heís just so special, Alex. So warm and caring -- so strong, and yet, so gentle, yíknow? Weíve just gotten to know one another -- and now heís leaving." She glared fiercely, and her next words shocked me. "You know, I hope Iím pregnant. At least a part of him will still be here with me."
I sat back, not saying a word. I hadnít even considered the possibility of getting pregnant. Yet, we hadnít used any protection. Well, that was one thing I wasnít going to dwell on, yet. First, we just had to get through this day.
"Anythingís possible, Angie," I said softly. "You know what they say -- ĎLife is what happens to you while youíre busy making other plans.í You and I are just gonna have to be strong -- for them as well as ourselves. I know this isnít any easier for them."
"I know," she sighed. "But -- damn it, it isnít fair!" She looked so righteously indignant that I had to smile.
"Lifeís not fair, Ang, you know that." Enough of this dwelling on the negative. I tried to steer the conversation to more positive thoughts. "I take it his shoulder wound wasnít much of a deterrent to your -- er -- late-night activities?"
She brightened -- and giggled -- and blushed becomingly. "Actually, no. Colinís really quite, ah, versatile."
I was reminded of Quinnís handsome face bending over me earlier this morning, and smiled, too. "No, youíre right. Seems those Mallory boys can be very inventive."
"Ribs not a problem, then?" she said slyly.
I grinned back. "What do you think?"
She got up to leave. "I need to see if heís awake yet," she said, and then hugged me quickly. "Thanks, Alex. I do feel a little better."
I grabbed her hand, squeezing it as we went our separate ways. "Weíll get through this together, Ang, I promise." I said.
I went back to my room. Quinn was sitting up in bed, the sheet gathered around his hips. He looked at me with love and concern as I walked in.
"Everything okay, sweetheart?" he asked, patting the spot next to him on the bed. I hurried over to him and put my arms around his neck, kissing him softly.
"Yeah. Angie and I just had an early morning pow-wow," I said. "She and Colin were together last night, you know."
"I would have been surprised if they hadnít been," he said. "She okay?"
"About as okay as I am with all this," I replied.
"You know I donít want to leave you," he said, holding me close, his face buried in my hair, his voice muffled.
"I know, Quinn, I know," I said, "but we both know you have to, and we both know why."
"Damn it, Alex," he said, hugging me even closer. "Youíre breaking my heart."
We all gathered out in the receiving area to watch them leave. Colin had come over and hugged me fiercely, but he was spending the remaining time he had with Angie.
I noticed Remmy being extra sweet to Whitney, one of the girls who drove our transport trucks, so I guess they might have hooked up last night.
Maggie, however, was not choosing any one favorite. She was holding court with several of the fellows, dispensing kisses and hugs among about a dozen of her admirers. I had to smile. Maggie never seemed to do anything halfway.
Quinnís arms were around me. We had all said our farewells. There was nothing left to say.
Maggie aimed the timer and a swirling blue vortex appeared. Although I was expecting it, the sight took my breath away. She turned, made a long sweeping bow to the crowd, blew a few more kisses and jumped. Remmy was next. He paused, squeezed my hand and gave me a look. Then he was gone.
Colin gave Angie one last long, lingering kiss, then he, too, leapt into the wormhole.
"Iíve got to leave, sweetheart," Quinnís voice was loud, to be heard over the roar of the vortex.
Tears were streaming down my face. I didnít care. "I know," I said. "Take extra care of yourself, Quinn Mallory. Come back if you can."
He held my chin in his hand, kissed me deeply, tenderly, and looked at me one last time with those impossibly blue eyes. "You know I will," he said. "I love you, Alex."
Then he was gone.
We all watched the vortex close. The rest of the group began to wander back inside. Angie and I stood there until we were the last two people left out in the receiving area.
"Do you think theyíll be back, Alex?" she sniffed.
"I donít know, Angie," I said, putting my arm around her shoulders. "I certainly hope so."
We made our way back to the common room. Angie said she was going to lie down for a little while and made her way to her room.
For the first time since Quinn left, I felt chilled and shoved my hands in my jeansí pockets. My hand hit sometime -- a crackle -- paper.
I pulled it out. A folded piece of white notebook paper. And something tucked in the bottom of the note.
As I unfolded it, the words swam before my eyes. It was a note from Quinn.
Dearest Alex, (it read)
Iím not good at good-byes. But I couldnít leave without giving you something and without letting you know how I feel. There was a singer on my world who summed it up quite well. You may not know him. His name was John Denver. And I want to dedicate this song to you. Iíll love you forever - - -
And, scrawled at the bottom, were these lines:
My Sweet Lady
Lady -- are you crying?
Do the tears belong to me?
Did you think our time together was all gone?
Lady -- youíve been dreaming.
Iím as close as I can be
And I swear to you our time has just begun.
Close your eyes and rest your weary mind.
I promise I will stay right here beside you
Today our lives were joined -- became entwined.
I wish that you could know how much I love you.
Lady -- are you happy?
Do you feel the way I do?
Are there meanings that youíve never seen before?
Lady, my sweet lady,
I just canít believe itís true.
And itís like Iíve never, ever loved before.
See you soon.
And, at the bottom of the note, a small gold band. It just fit.
I slipped the ring on my finger, folded the paper, and pressed it close to my heart.
"I believe you will, Quinn Mallory," I whispered to myself. "I really believe you will."
Alternate Earth 117
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