Seattle, Washington. The early hours of April 1, next year.
A crash from the living room shocked Ell Harmon out of a nightmare. She jerked to a sitting position and peered wildly around her dark bedroom. The window rattled and the bed swayed as though a flock of cats were parading across a waterbed.
But Ell had no cats. Ditto waterbed.
Snared in the sticky cobwebs of her dream, she thought Tommy Hercules had broken in and was stalking across the living room toward her, gun in hand, anticipating sweet revenge…
No! Roused fully awake by fear, Ell managed, just barely, to apply logic. Hercules would’ve made more racket getting through the deadbolt and chain latch she’d had installed yesterday. Besides, that was the stuff of her nightmare, not reality.
The bed swayed again. When she realized why, she managed a squeak and almost wished it was Hercules.
She sat there, immobilized by dread that congealed in her belly as though she’d swallowed bitter-tasting concrete mix. A few years ago she’d been in Tokyo, speaking at a conference on the search for extraterrestrial life, when a massive quake struck. It, too, had started with a teasing temblor then paused before unleashing Hell’s demons. She held her breath and waited for the earth to explode in deadly fury.
When she could no longer hold her breath, she flopped back to the mattress like a marionette whose strings had been slashed. This was either a mini-quake or too far away to pose a threat.
She gazed at the untouched pillow on the other side of the bed. It’d be wonderful to have a man beside her right now. Someone to reassure her when things went bump in the night. Someone she could trust not to let her down.
“It’s that stupid burglary,” she said to the empty pillow. “Made me a nervous wreck. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
Another sound jangled her nerves, but this one was familiar: a book falling off a shelf in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment. The quake, she hypothesized, had startled her awake by knocking down a bunch of books, leaving a laggard poised halfway off the shelf. She hoped that was the only damage. With a groan and a yawn, she swung her legs out of bed and stumbled through the dark. Cool tiles underfoot told her when she reached the living room.
When she flipped on the overhead light, she felt blinded, exposed, and vulnerable. She grabbed the first thing at hand to use as a weapon, just in case. Unfortunately it was The Journal of BioAcoustic Biology, the issue with her award-winning article. Great weapon, yeah. She could bore Tommy Hercules to death…though he couldn’t be here. This was an earthquake, not a break-in.
Ell put down the journal and tiptoed across the living room. Crouching behind her roll-top desk, she peeked into the short hallway.
The front door was intact. The chain was still latched. Disgusted with herself, she straightened and looked for damage.
Some people designed their living rooms for comfort, others for entertaining people. Ell’s was a library and study hall. The room looked even messier than usual because half the books had spilled off one of her floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
All that panic over some books? She stomped over to pick them up. “Some people,” she muttered, “should never commit burglary.”
People like her.
As Ell rounded the couch to pick up the books, she stepped on something that crunched with the tinkle of breaking glass. She stepped back, careful not to cut her feet.
A photograph had tumbled face down onto the tiles. Not just any photo, either. Not a Christmastime portrait of Mom, Ell, and Marianne, or a landscape of pounding waves or the snowcapped Olympic Mountains.
It was the photograph. The one Tommy Hercules had used to blackmail Uncle Jake. She had shoved it between two textbooks when she returned from burglarizing Hercules’s place, trying to pretend she’d never, ever seen it.
Ell picked up the upside-down, ten-by-twelve frame. The brass was cold, yet her fingertips burned as they felt the incriminating message engraved into the metal: a love note to a crackhead mistress. She held the frame face down for several seconds then braced herself and turned the frame face up. Maybe by some miracle the image had vanished. Maybe she had never felt the insane urge to turn herself into a burglar to save Uncle Jake’s marriage.
Nope. Staring at her through shattered glass, in full-color flesh tones, pointing at her obscenely, was a pornographic photo of her erstwhile favorite uncle.
* * * *
The thundering shock of arrival jolted Prince Tro Eaglesbrood with the force of an earthquake. It tossed him out of his makeshift bunk like a windblown leaf crushed under a heedless boot. He saw nothing but grey, unfocused oblivion.
Ah—not oblivion, just concrete. He’d landed face down on the floor. Dull pain glowed along the muscles of his arm where he’d landed. The room swam around him, but he felt no agony from broken bones.
Someone groaned. Was it him? He didn’t think so, but he wasn’t sure.
In hindsight, he should have expected such severe disorientation. This was no canoe ride across a still pond. They had moved an entire kingdom.
Another groan, and this time he was paying attention. Not him.
So he wasn’t the only one to survive. Closing his eyes against the nonsensical whirl of the world, he rose on one elbow. He braced himself before opening his eyes.
The others in this underground command room, earnest councilors all, had remained standing during the hop, more intent on dignity than caution. Being scientifically minded, Tro better understood the savage forces they toyed with. Being practically minded, as well, he’d lain down in a corner of the room. Good thing, too. The jolt of arrival had scattered his twelve councilors like a toddler’s discarded toys. They moaned or waved fingers in random confusion, but they were all alive.
Creeping like a baby, Tro crossed the room on a drunken path that wove around or clambered over disoriented councilors. He reached a desk. Dizziness forced a groan from his throat as he went upright on his knees. Grasping the desktop, he hauled himself into a chair.
Opsie Beaverpaw raised her head and looked at him with eyes that went in and out of focus. “We did it?”
Tro’s mouth was dry with dusty hope, but he managed to speak. “We did…something.”
Somber, dignified Opsie Beaverpaw—ex-lover, Duchess of Nootka, leader of the nobility, and one of the most influential members of Kwadra Island’s government—giggled like a five-year old.
Tro waved a hand to activate the desk’s communication console. A compartment opened and a comm unit glided out, sensed the location of his hand, and settled near his fingertips. The unit was shaped like a fanciful killer whale with glowing yellow eyes. Tro reached for it.
And missed, like a drunk reaching for one too many glasses of seaweed beer. This much disorientation was unprecedented—but then, a hop of this magnitude was unprecedented, as well. Using an inebriate’s slow caution, he closed his hand around the whale’s cool body. He lifted it and spoke into the microphone in the dorsal fin.
“Sharkeen, this is Tro.” Hearing no reply, he tried again. “Come in, Sharkeen.”
Tro frowned, but kept his tone light and teasing. “Sharkeen, you lucky son-of-a-bitch who is now the ruler of a virgin paradise, this is your genius brother who made it possible. Don’t play coy, Sharkie. Speak to me.”
Instead of sarcastic protests about the word genius, Tro heard only more static.
Red lettering flashed along the orca’s belly, disappeared under the tail, and then scrolled back again. Tro’s eyes crossed as he focused on the letters.
The letters danced by too fast for his befuddled eyes. He held the killer whale’s belly to his face and squinted fiercely, waiting for the message to reappear.
Specified receptor device not detected.
Tracer technology was as foolproof as these venerable walls of atomically compressed rock. If Sharkeen were injured or dead, the radio would locate the nano-tracer molecules embedded in the receptor device embedded in his wrist, even if the molecules were reduced to smoke on the far side of the globe.
The red message scrolled by again. Specified receptor device not detected.
Tro knew he should feel fear’s chill, but the aftereffects of the hop rendered his emotions inchoate, like scrambled eggs. He called again, louder…as though anyone could shout across the infinite walls that separated one strand of reality from another.
“Sharkeen, can you hear me? Are you all right?”
The only replies were static and that devil-red message.
Tro kept trying and trying. The twelve councilors slowly gathered their wits, rose, and resumed their duties. Tro’s expression must have warned them away, for no one spoke to or approached him. For an hour, he badgered the killer whale with entreaties and curses. His worry turned to uncertainty, which slowly evaporated, leaving only a wispy residue of hope. Then hope, too, blew away and joined the dust in the air.
Tro put down the microphone. Stared at it. Picked it up and hurled it against the wall. It was too sturdy to shatter.
His brother Sharkeen, ruler of Kwadra Island, was supposed to greet them like a heroic, intrepid leader who had blazed the trail to a safe new world. But the political theater had backfired. Sharkeen wasn’t here.
They had fled to the wrong alternate reality.
With Sharkeen inaccessible, Tro was now the leader of a small, impoverished nation lost in a world as alien as a nightmare. They were more lost than any refugees had ever been, in all of recorded time.
Worse: He’d as good as killed his charismatic, conniving, jovial, beloved brother. Poor Sharkeen, stranded forever in their target reality—a wilderness world bereft of human civilization.
And because the Kwadran people now depended on him and him alone, Tro had time for neither guilt nor grief.
* * * *
Ell Harmon ran the despicable photograph through her shredder and swept up the glass. She threw on old jeans and a sweatshirt so she’d be decent in case—impossible, of course, but still—Tommy Hercules showed up.
Even if he did, she doubted he’d kill her. Rough her up, sure. Maybe break some bones. Leave a few hideous, painful scars.
“That will not happen,” she scolded herself. “Stop fretting about it.”
Hercules didn’t return from vacation until next week. She’d put everything in his townhouse back exactly as it had been, comparing the after with digital photos of the before. He wouldn’t notice immediately that one picture had vanished from his safe, and even if he did, he wouldn’t suspect her. She’d never even met the slime ball.
Logic lectured that the police would never come for her, either. Hercules was a blackmailer and drug dealer. He wouldn’t dare report the burglary to the police.
Ell had always been the good girl in the family, the smartest, the most conscientious, the best behaved. Getting her school clothes dirty was the limit of her transgressions. And now, although she had burgled for the best of reasons, guilt trumped logic. She shuddered.
She trudged to the washroom and splashed cold water on her face. She looked horrible, more like forty-nine than twenty-nine-almost-thirty. Dark circles underlined her blue eyes and the lines on her heart-shaped face seemed deeper than ever.
And her hair…! Listless and distracted after her evening shower, she hadn’t combed it. Her shoulder-length auburn hair was always unruly, pushing in different directions instead of falling into attractive waves. Now clumps of hair stood out like wayward springs.
Gee, Professor Harmon, an undergrad would ask tomorrow morning, why’s your hair poking every which way, like a head full of snakes?
Well, Ell would respond as the student hardened into porphyritic granite, I committed my first burglary a few days ago, and—
Out in the apartment building’s hallway, a door slammed. Ell gasped, even though it was probably just old Mr. Applebaum leaving to open his bakery near Alki Point Beach. She held her breath while the widower’s arthritic footsteps plodded down the hall.
If she’d known how the burglary would torture her conscience, she wouldn’t have done it. No one had asked her to save Uncle Jake’s marriage. The only person she’d told of the plan, her kid sister Marianne, had rolled her eyes and said Who appointed you the savior of the world? Great question. If the police or Hercules learned who committed the robbery, Ell’s future might include prison stripes or revenge lunging from a dark alley.
Stripes made her look fat. Seattle had lots of alleys.
Her cellphone shattered the gloomy silence. Bach’s majestic Toccata in D indicated an unknown caller.
Ell let the phone ring three times, perversely allowing a little more time for police or drug thugs to smash down the door and vie for the privilege of pummeling her comatose. Dread crushed her lungs as she reached into her purse, pulled out the phone, and stared as though it were a ticking time bomb. This must be what a heart attack felt like.
After a deep, painful breath, she lifted the phone to her ear.
It wasn’t the police. Nor Tommy Hercules. Instead, it was a flirtatious man from the White House, saying, “How are you, good to talk to you again.”
Ell’s chest felt even tighter than before. Surely any moment now the man would shout April fools! followed by You’re under arrest!
The White House?
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