John’s ears popped as he and Grace transferred from Universe 7651 to Universe 7650.
Grace tossed the duffel bag of weapons and gold onto the scraped stone ground. She scanned the horizon and then slid the pistol in her hand into its holster. Grace’s normally frizzy red hair was tied tightly in a ponytail. In her army fatigues, she looked nothing like the gawky woman John had first met in freshman physics lab nearly two years ago.
“I’ll go back for Henry,” John said.
She looked at him flatly.
“Sure, I’ll be right here,” she said, as she dragged the duffel outside the transfer zone. John couldn’t help feeling guilty for all that Grace had gone through. If it wasn’t for the transfer device, she never would have been kidnapped and tortured by Visgrath.
John reached into his shirt and toggled the switch on the transfer device. Instantly he was inside their small warehouse at the stone quarry in Universe 7651. He swallowed to clear the pressure in his ears.
“Is Grace, I mean, is everything all right?” Henry said. He sneezed and wiped his nose with a tissue. “Is it all clear over there?”
John nodded to his friend. He’d met Henry on the same day he’d met Grace. The three had ended up lab partners in freshman physics at the University of Toledo, and that partnership had led to their building a company that manufactured head-to-head pinball machines, an arcade game that had never existed in Universe 7650. Unfortunately that anomaly had been what Visgrath had detected.
Henry seemed to deflate with relief. He was as tall as John, but it was hard to tell with his slouch. While John was slender and sandy blond, Henry was even thinner and dark haired.
“Send us through again,” John said.
“Let me set the timer.” Henry was their backup. If a party of Alarians had been waiting for them in 7650, he’d have come running with guns blazing when John had failed to return to give the all clear.
“You sure that thing will work?” John asked, as Henry turned the dial on a mechanical timer. It began ticking.
“So far in every test,” Henry said. He ran to join John in the center of the transfer zone.
“How many tests have we run?” John asked.
The timer dinged, and the inside of the shed was replaced by the bare rock of the quarry site.
A light drizzle had begun to fall, odd for a July day in northwest Ohio.
“Let’s go let Janet and Bill know we’re back,” John said. Janet and Bill were his parents, or rather they would have been if John had ever been born in this universe. Bill and Janet were childless in 7650, and they’d taken John in when his broken transfer device had marooned him in this universe.
Henry reached to grab the duffel but Grace beat him to it.
“I got it,” she said, and tossed it over her shoulder.
“I can carry it for you,” Henry said.
“I got it, I said.”
Henry cast a quick glance at John, whether for sympathy or in embarrassment, John didn’t know. John shrugged. Grace hadn’t been herself during the six weeks they’d spent in 7651 trying to build a transfer device to get them back to 7650, Grace’s and Henry’s home universe. She’d always been quick with a pun or a bad joke, which she was more than willing to laugh at herself. Her withdrawal from Henry, however, had been painful and obvious. Once they got back to her home universe, everything would be all right. Even as John thought it, he felt how hollow it seemed. Grace had been tortured. There was no easy way back from that.
The quarry was across McMaster Road from Janet and Bill’s small farm. It was nearly identical to the farm where John had grown up in Universe 7533, his home universe. This farm had been a little more run-down than his own, but when he’d come to stay with the Rayburns, he’d done what he could to fix the place up. The Rayburns had become a surrogate family for him, and for that he was grateful. When he had been tricked out of his life by his own doppelganger, John Prime, when he found he couldn’t return home again because the device Prime had given him was broken, Bill and Janet had taken him in.
They crossed the road and passed through the line of trees that marked the border of the Rayburn farm, situated at the corner of McMaster and Gurney roads. A hundred meters in front of them was the main barn and next to it was the house.
“Car’s here,” John said. “They must be home.” He glanced across Gurney Road. He couldn’t see the Rayburns’ second barn, where he had built his own transfer gate. His car would be there, waiting for him, where he’d left it six weeks earlier. The trees were too full of green to catch a glimpse of the barn.
John tried the front door, but it was locked. He knocked and waited.
Grace peered into the front window.
“It’s dark in there,” she said. “You got a key?”
John shrugged. “No,” he said. “But there’s one around back, hanging from a nail.”
“Maybe they took a walk,” Henry said. He looked up and down Gurney Road.
“Uh-huh,” Grace said.
Henry coughed again, loud in the quiet.
“You all right?” John asked. Henry had been unable to shake the cold for the last couple days. Now he looked pale and lethargic.
“Yeah, just tired.”
“Yeah,” John agreed. They’d pulled a few all-nighters to get the transfer gate in 7651 working.
John led them around back. He plucked the key off the nail and unlocked the back door.
It squeaked as he pushed it open ten centimeters.
“Bill? Janet?” he called. There was no answer.
He pushed the door the rest of the way. It thunked into something and would go no farther.
John squeezed himself through the small opening. The house was too hot, as if it had been closed up all day long.
He looked down at what was blocking the door. Two tarps were bundled on the kitchen floor, each about two meters long. He reached down and nudged one. It was heavy. John moved the tarp aside and recoiled in horror.
Bill’s bloodless face stared up at him.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “Oh, god.” He stumbled backward against the kitchen table. Grace squeezed into the kitchen. She reached down and moved the tarp on the second bundle.
“Don’t,” John said, but she ignored him.
Janet Rayburn had been shot in the side of the head. Black blood ran down her face. One eye stared in the wrong direction.
Henry pushed into the kitchen, took one look, and turned white.
“If you’re gonna barf, do it in the sink,” Grace said.
“I’m … okay,” Henry said. He glanced at John. “John, are you okay?”
John looked away from the two corpses. They weren’t his real parents, he repeated to himself. They were just one of a near infinite number of Bills and Janets. He’d met versions of them, he’d met versions of himself. This didn’t matter. This didn’t matter.
But it did.
They weren’t just dups: what Visgrath and the Alarians called people who weren’t unique in the multiverse. They were his parents. They were good people.
“You okay?” Henry asked again. He touched John’s shoulder.
“No, no, I’m not,” he said. “We need to call the police.”
“Hell, no,” Grace said. “No police.”
“They need to be buried!” John said.
“No police,” Grace said. “They’ll think we had something to do with—”
She stopped and stared at the sound of a key in the front door.
“Go!” she whispered.
She pushed Henry through the back door, and then followed. John took one look at his dead parents and left them. He pulled the door shut after him, gently setting it tight against the frame. He didn’t have time to lock it.
They ran from the house toward the orchard. It was the only direction they could go if they wanted to remain unseen from the front of the house.
“The tractor,” John said.
It was old and rusted and surrounded by a clump of uncut grass. Grace slid around it on the wet grass, and Henry awkwardly settled next to her.
From behind the tractor, John peeked out at the house.
Shadows moved inside. There was no noise.
“Police?” Henry asked.
Grace shook her head. “There’d be warrants and examiners and ambulances. There’d be bullhorns. That is not the police.”
“Murderers,” John said. Whoever had killed Bill and Janet had come back.
Minutes passed, and John saw no more shadows against the window nor any other sign of movement in the house. He chanced moving out from behind the old tractor and ran diagonally toward the barn. Using it as cover, he peered around toward the front of the house.
Four men were carrying the corpses across the road into the woods.
“What are they doing?” Grace asked.
“Heading toward the other barn,” John said.
“Why?” Henry asked, panting.
“It’s where I built my first transfer gate,” John said. Because his own transfer device was broken—it only went forward from one universe to another and never backward—John had had to reverse engineer the device and build his own in order to go back to Universe 7533 to recruit John Prime. The original transfer device fit on John’s chest and moved from universe to universe with the transferee, but the ones the team built were several meters tall and remained in the universe where they were stationed.
“They’re using your transfer gate,” Grace said through gritted teeth. “Let’s go.”
John caught her arm. “Hold on. Let them get ahead.” The second barn was about three hundred meters into the woods along a rutted dirt road. The summer growth would make it easy to follow the four and remain hidden, as long as they were far enough ahead. John counted to thirty.
They ran across Gurney Road. Slowly they crept up the overgrown road until they heard voices. Then John led them through the brambles into the trees. Maple and ash trees rose up above blackberry shrubs that caught at their clothes and hands. John ignored the thorns, intent on the men who had murdered his surrogate parents and hauled them away.
John motioned Grace and Henry down. He could see the open barn door from where he crouched, just twenty meters away. Bill’s and Janet’s bodies had been tossed against the barn, and the sight of it filled him with anger.
A van was parked next to his car. Besides the four men he had counted already, there were four more people in the barn. He heard words. One of them was shouting.
“Alarians,” Grace said. She slowly unzipped the duffel bag and withdrew an M4 carbine.
Visgrath and the Alarians were marooned universe travelers. Decades prior, they had been trapped in Universe 7650 by an organization of multiverse police called the Vig. They had had no transfer gates nor the ability to build one and had been forced to make the best of it. They’d created a huge conglomerate—Grauptham House—and “discovered” in 7650 inventions that they knew existed in other universes. They’d even pretended to author one of Beethoven’s symphonies.
When John and the Pinball Wizards had created their head-to-head pinball machines, Visgrath had noticed. He’d found John and invested in their fledgling company, trying to determine if John was a marooned traveler as well. When Visgrath discovered John had a device, he had snatched Grace and Henry as bargaining chips against John.
John had built the transfer gate in the barn and used it to recruit his own doppelganger, Prime—who had given him the broken device in the first place and stolen his life—to help him save his friends. They’d done it, but marooned themselves in Universe 7651, at least until they had built a transfer device there.
“Hold on,” John said. “They’re armed.” All the Alarians wore pistols, and some of them had rifles. Eight against three wasn’t good odds, especially since the Alarians probably knew how to shoot. Grace could shoot too, having spent hours firing her weapons into the empty quarries for target practice in 7651. But Henry was no expert shot, and he was sick. No, the odds weren’t good.
“Let’s go back and call the police,” John said.
“And then explain the transfer gate to them how?” Grace asked.
“They’re using it,” Henry said.
Two Alarians stood in the middle of the transfer zone holding one of the corpses.
“Ready?” someone said in English. A technician stood at the controls of the gate.
One of the Alarians nodded.
“Three. Two. One!”
The two Alarians and the corpse disappeared.
“Six against three,” Grace whispered.
Two more Alarians took the second corpse and stood in the transfer zone. They disappeared.
“The perfect way to get rid of a body,” Henry said.
John stared at him, momentarily outraged at the cruel statement.
“Sorry,” Henry added.
“Four against three,” Grace said. “Odds are getting better.”
She stood. John grabbed her shoulder and pointed. Two more Alarians stood in the gate transfer zone.
“Where are they going?” Henry asked.
“Who cares?” Grace said. “Away is fine with me.”
“Let’s go,” John said. He took a shotgun from the duffel, made sure it was loaded, and stuffed a handful of shells in his front pocket.
Grace and John ran, heads ducked low, toward the barn door.
They were only a few meters away when the first Alarian—the technician at the controls—noticed them. He looked up, his mouth an O.
“Freeze,” John said. The man raised his hands.
The second Alarian was talking on a phone. Apparently they’d had enough time to rig a telephone line into the barn. The second one turned and looked at John and Grace.
He said into the phone, “They’re back. The vermin are here.”
“Drop the phone,” Grace said.
“Yes, you heard me,” the Alarian continued. He started to say something in Alarian.
Grace raised the M4 and fired a burst of shots into the wall near the phone. The Alarian dropped the receiver.
Henry trotted up behind John and Grace, heaving and dragging the duffel. He wheezed, and then stopped with his hands on his knees while he coughed.
“Hands behind your heads,” John said. “Do it.”
The second Alarian paused, glaring at him, and then slowly raised his arms.
“Where do you all think you’re going with my transfer gate?” John asked. “Must be somewhere special.”
The standing Alarian said something hateful in his own language.
Grace grinned, but in no way pleasantly.
“I’m gonna have to learn that language,” she said. “It’s so mellifluous.”
“Over here,” John said, motioning to a spot on the other side of the control panel.
The two Alarians started forward, and then both stopped, looking toward the barn door.
John heard it too, another car coming up the road.
Grace spun and took a spot by the door.
John kept his shotgun pointed at the two.
“Kneel,” he said, but he kept looking out the door of the barn. “What is it?”
“Another van,” Grace said. “Maybe four more bad guys.”
“Henry, cover these two.”
“Right,” Henry said, digging in the duffel bag for a weapon.
John turned and took the opposite side of the barn door.
“Wait for them to come closer,” Grace said.
But they didn’t. The driver must have seen Grace or John by the door. He stopped short and pointed.
The Alarian in the passenger seat opened the door and rolled out.
He had a pistol.
Bullets slammed into the barn wall, making holes of sunlight.
John dove to the ground, realizing how thin the walls were.
He fired one burst of shot into the van’s grille. The windshield chipped and starred.
More bullets slammed through the barn.
Behind him, Henry cried out and dove for the ground.
Grace couldn’t seem to get a good shot from her position on the dirt floor. She fired a series of rounds into the air, posturing fire making certain the Alarians knew they were facing big guns.
John pumped the shotgun and fired again.
Behind him he heard the hum of capacitors.
He twisted on the ground. The Alarian technician was starting the transfer gate.
“Henry! Stop them!”
“I can’t!” Henry was covering his head.
Bullets ricocheted through the barn.
John stood up, trying to see where the two Alarians were.
He spotted the leader, the one who had been on the phone, and he had a gun now. He pointed it at John. John rolled away, taking himself out of the barn and near his car. Henry scuttled after him.
Grace slid around to get a better aim on the new van and filled it with M4 rounds. She had no clear view of the two Alarians inside the barn, however.
John glanced up. The two Alarians were running for the transfer zone. The leader fired at him wildly.
The technician clutched a handful of rolled-up engineering prints.
They squatted in the transfer zone and the leader fired covering slugs at John and Henry. John had no clear shot from his vantage point behind his car.
They disappeared as the transfer gate triggered.
“Damn,” Henry said.
All of the Alarians in the van except the driver were out now and firing at them.
Grace slid backward on her belly. She reached into the duffel and pulled out one of the hand grenades that they’d purchased from a shady arms dealer in 7651. She pulled the pin and threw it at the van. It skittered and rolled, disappearing under the van’s front axle.
The driver watched the grenade disappear under his vehicle with a look of disbelief. He dropped the van into reverse and backed down the road. His associates, who had been taking cover behind the van, found themselves in the open. One flopped into the passenger seat. Another dove into the rear. The last ran into the woods for cover.
John hid behind his car waiting for the explosion.
“Down!” he yelled at Henry.
He peeked from over the hood of his car. Grace met his gaze from behind the barn door.
“I guess that gun dealer was pulling our legs about the hand grenades,” she said.
“We paid five hundred dollars for that,” Henry squawked.
“It did its job,” John said. He listened as the tires of the van screeched as it accelerated onto Gurney Road.
“What do we do now?” Grace said. She nodded at the transfer gate.
“We take it apart and get it out of here before they come back,” John said.
Copyright © 2012 by Paul Melko