A Novel of Alternate Histories
Shy amateur historian Randy Sullivan, age 23 and unhappy with his life, is approached by his double from a parallel Los Angeles, a bombastic physicist and inventor who calls himself “Sully.” Together they step out of this reality and visit versions of Earth stranger than Randy has ever imagined… and those so eerily close as to be just out of reach.
But all is not well back home. Randy’s out-of-control adolescent brother and sister are left in the care of his cool-headed and gorgeous neighbor Penelope – the love of Randy’s life. They are stranded by encroaching California wildfires. The flames are drawing near and time is running out.
And Sully, genius and connoisseur of a thousand worlds, has a secret plan of his own – and it does not involve Randy Sullivan ever getting home alive.
“Sully takes Randy on a journey across the multiverse, showing him bizarre Earths and the wonders they contain. Yet not everything is as it seems… a delight to read.” – Alternate History Weekly Update
Orange County Police Officer Billy Rennie eased his cruiser to a stop so he could watch the lightning. He was parked on Yorba Linda Boulevard, at the western edge of Chino Hills State Park. The clouds were gray and heavy, tinted with dust, and blue-white bolts crackled through them.
No rain fell. Precipitation since early spring had been nil, instead of its typical six inches. The governor of California had declared a drought three months ago. The chaparral in the park was brown and dry as tinder, seven hundred acres of sheer matchbox. The sun was setting and the land sank into eerie shadow, though the clouds seemed to hold on to the light.
Billy rolled down the window. The smell was musty and dangerous, and the fierce Santa Ana winds blew his hair and rustled papers on his citation clipboard. The electricity made the hairs on his arm stand up.
It was an infernal recipe: above-normal temperatures, plus drought, plus unyielding Santa Anas, and now dry thunderstorms. It was shaping up to be a hell of a fire season. Lightning had started over six hundred wildfires in the last two weeks, mostly in Santa Barbera, Los Angeles, and Riverside Counties. If it stayed bad, that might climb to a couple of thousand, and FEMA and the National Guard would be out here.
So far, Northeast Orange County had been safe. But then Billy had seen that lightning, and now he had a grim feeling things would get worse.
He heard a humming sound, and his rearview mirror caught a steady blue-white glow. He thought a car had pulled up behind him, and he glanced back.
Billy’s cruiser was passed by a floating ball of blue-white light, about as big as a basketball. It hummed as it went by. He swallowed hard, and found that his throat was bone dry. The ball glowed translucently, not too bright to see through. It turned, bobbing, six feet from his car’s door, and crossed the street, growing as it went.
In seconds, Billy’s mind raced from UFOs, to swamp gas, to the glowing tops of masts of ships at night — what was it called? St. Elmo’s fire. All wrong. Then he had it. Ball lightning.
When it reached the sidewalk, it was larger than Billy’s outstretched arms. As it climbed the hill, its humming faded, but it seemed to keep growing. When it was six feet tall, it left a tiny orange flame on the grass beneath it. The wind made the flame dance and spray a ribbon of smoke along the hillside. The flame spread, amoeba-like, and tossed embers that swam through the smoke.
Billy picked up his radio. “Tango-five-five, dispatch.”
Carla’s voice came back. “Dispatch, go.”
“I just saw a…” Better keep it simple. “That is, lightning strike and brushfire at Yorba Linda Boulevard and Camino Seco.”
There was a pause while, he imagined, she said shit. “Roger, Billy, I’ll make the call.”
The fire had eaten a few square yards now, and it pulsed as gusts of wind pushed it. The ball lightning drifted over the summit of the nearest hill and vanished.
Billy’s troubles were just beginning that night, and he didn’t think of the ball lightning again until the next day. No one else saw it. And no one else saw two figures appear out of nowhere, where the ball of light was last seen.
The two figures, and their cargo, slipped away from Chino Hills State Park and escaped up the shadowy street.
Angie Lai, waitress at the Happy Dragon, watched her father handle the wok like a master. The old man sprayed in oil, and flames leapt gracefully to the kitchen’s ceiling. He flicked the wok, tossing the ingredients, and the flames vanished just as quickly.
She loved to watch him cook. A few moments later, the dish was in her hand and she breezed out to the customer.
He was sitting alone in a booth. The restaurant was mostly empty, since the dinner rush hadn’t started yet. Later, it would be packed with hungry people from the Los Angeles Convention Center down the street. Those were the two types of customers Angie saw. Locals she knew by name, and conventioneers like this guy.
She set the plate down. “Here you are.”
He smiled at her. “Thanks.” He was her age, early twenties. Cute. A little intense-looking. His eyes were an interesting shade of green. Part hazel, maybe. Angie loved eyes that color and had worn colored contacts like that in high school, which had freaked out her mom. Her mom said green eyes were demonic.
Boy, she would have loved this guy. He had bright orange-red hair, cut recently, and wore a black blazer with a t-shirt and jeans. His Convention Center name tag said
American Historical Association
“Enjoy,” she said, and sauntered back to the kitchen.
Randy had less than an hour before his talk. He’d be in front of two hundred people, maybe more. His thirteen-ingredient fried rice had settled into his stomach like a slab of granite, and he turned his fortune cookie restlessly in his fingers.
He wasn’t nervous. Just excited was all. What a shot this would be! He was going to lecture to some of the most venerable (or decrepit) history professors in the country, and he with nothing but a bachelor’s degree and a website. The exposure would put him on the map, make him legitimate. Blog hits. Book deal. Hell, it might even get him a university job. Nah…
He’d decided against that path long ago. No ivory towers. No pointy-headed postmodernist doublespeak. No departmental politics. Randy had gotten this far by working in the den of his parents’ house, with nothing but a laptop, pajamas and a caffeine IV. No reason to change now.
It had all started as Randyrandom.wordpress.com, until the randomness fell away, his posts developed focus, and he switched the domain name to Roguehistory.com. History had been his interest since he had sat in his ninth-grade classroom, listening to Mrs. King. At first sight, she was just someone’s batty old aunt, until she held up her wrinkled hands and wove stories about World War Two like a silver-haired sorceress.
As an upperclassman, he started reading history books on his own.
By college, he hated history books.
They were packed, he could see, with things that weren’t true. Too often an author guessed at a connection that didn’t really exist, or worse, repeated the guess of another author as if it was fact. Plenty were shackled by the chains of outright political bias. And every historian was mired in his own era – Randy learned that when he found his favorite biography of Abraham Lincoln was written by a guy named Herndon.
Lincoln’s life had been recreated to fit the Civil Rights movement that took place a century after his death. Omit a fact here, record a rumor there.
You couldn’t get anywhere that way. You couldn’t learn history from historians.
But nowadays, that was okay. Original documents, records, and correspondence were being scanned and uploaded to the internet for free access at a rate of megabytes per second. Anybody could jump into the data pool, swim laps, and play Marco Polo until they were pruney.
And that’s what Randy did. He dug, he found things, he made connections. And he posted them on his blog. And he developed a following. It was a small following – to a dude on the street, Randy was nobody – but to those who were into this stuff, Randy was making waves, rocking the boat, and sometimes pissing people off.
It was beautiful.
He paid a price for it, of course. With all the reading he did, there wasn’t much time for other things, like employment. He worked odd jobs, part-time, because he couldn’t tear himself away from his obsession. The poverty was, well, something he just had to accept.
And his dating life was pretty much nonexistent.
Randy twisted open his fortune cookie and popped half in his mouth. Crisp, not stale. This would be a good day. He smoothed open his fortune.
The paper came apart in his hands. It was two fortunes stuck together.
Weird. Randy supposed he could be happy about it – buy one, get one free – but all he thought of was poor quality control at some factory in Hong Kong where they belted out thirty thousand of these a day. Must be some new guy on the line. Gumming up the fortunes.
Randy’d never heard of that happening. What did it mean if you got more than one fortune?
Not that he took any of it seriously. It was bunkum, like Edison said (or was it Houdini?).
He chewed. The first fortune said, You do not see how lucky you are.
That was disappointing. He wanted specifics in his fortunes, details, the day he would win the lottery and how much, to the dollar. This wasn’t even a fortune. It was just a critique of his character.
Excerpt from Randy Sullivan’s speech at the seventy-eighth annual American Historical Association Convention [never delivered]:
Why do we study history? To understand where we came from? To learn from our mistakes? To predict the future?
You think so? Really?
What if Archduke Ferdinand’s chauffeur hadn’t made that wrong turn onto Francis Joseph Street, where Gavrilo Princip was waiting?
What’s the lesson there?
What if Barton Mitchell, of the Twenty-seventh Indiana Volunteers, hadn’t found those cigars on a hill outside Frederik, Maryland, in September, 1862?
Napoleon claimed to have lost the Battle of Waterloo because of a bad headcold. What if he was right?
This is fun. We could do it all evening.
What if Reagan had been a better actor? Lincoln a better inventor? Fidel Castro a better ball player? Giuseppe Zangara a better shot?
What if history really is just a long list of random accidents? Would we give up studying it?
No. We can’t. Because there’s something hiding there, between the accidents. Something we need….
Randy set the first fortune aside and read the second.
You will soon make a new friend.
He grinned. Better! Nothing like positive cold readings to brighten your day. How soon was soon? He wondered if reading this fortune would heighten his expectations, altering behavior toward passers-by. Maybe this prophecy could self-fulfill.
And what was he supposed to do with his fortunes now, choose his favorite? He kept You will soon make a new friend and dropped the other on the table, along with cash for the cute Asian girl who’d brought him his rice.
Time for his big speech.
He pushed open the restaurant’s doors (ringing the brass chimes) and set foot on the sidewalk beside the busy downtown street. As he waited for the light to change, his cell phone beeped out The Hunters of Kentucky, Andrew Jackson’s campaign song for his re-election in 1828.
Randy heard the unmistakable keening of his twelve-year-old sister. “Ran? Hey, Ran! You’ve got to do something about your crazy brother. He’s trying to blow up the neighborhood!”
The sibs. When Randy was a kid, his mom sat him down in his room and explained to him that, after nine years as an only child, he was about to get some company. The news rocked his little world. When he protested the invasion, his mother got that iron-eyed look that meant obey. He was just old enough to understand the birds-and-bees origin of such infiltrators of hearth and home, and grimly accepted his mother’s swelling belly.
He also saw that mom and dad were as surprised as he was.
When his mom’s middle was as swollen as one of the shiny T-Rex balloons at his tenth birthday, she sat him down again. Twins, Randy. There’s a boy and a girl in here.
A few weeks after that, mom and dad came home from the hospital with Maddie and Wayne Sullivan. All the peace and solitude of Randy’s young life died a miserable death that day, replaced with drool and diaper-stink.
Randy cocked his head, pinning his cell to his ear with his shoulder, and watched the late-afternoon sun glint off the cars waiting at the light. “What’s he done, Maddie?”
“He’s down the street, and I keep hearing these loud booming sounds.”
“What are they?”
“He wasn’t supposed to leave the house.” It was moments like this that he missed his parents the most. Why, oh why hadn’t he hired a babysitter? Someone with professional experience? And a gun?
Because he couldn’t afford one, that’s why.
And they weren’t toddlers. Randy hadn’t needed a babysitter at twelve. “How do you know it’s him?”
Randy could feel his sister’s you’re an idiot look coming at him through the phone. “Because it’s Wayne!”
He frowned. “Good point.”
“Are you gonna come get him?”
Randy almost dropped the phone. “No! I told you about my talk. I’m on in twenty-two minutes.”
“You’re not gonna do anything?”
Randy winced. “Look. You stay in the house–”
“I’m not going out there! He’ll blow me up!”
“Good. Just wait there. I’ll drive home as soon as I’m off stage. If Wayne comes in, tell him to stay put and that he’s hip-deep in trouble.”
“Spatula-deep?” There was glee in her voice.
Randy never used the long-handled barbecue spatula on anything but hamburgers. But on occasion, when he was fed up with the sibs and their antics, he’d storm after them with it, roaring and brandishing it like a Mongol sword. It made Wayne and Maddie scatter like bunnies, laughing hysterically.
“Yeah, spatula-deep. I’ll call back when I’m on my way.” Randy ended the call. He hoped that whatever Wayne was up to, he wouldn’t hurt himself, or any of the neighbors. The kid had way too much brain squeezed into his skull for his own good. It wasn’t natural.
The light changed and Randy crossed the street. He was going to do this talk, and not even Wayne’s latest mad-scientist schtick would stop him. The glass doors slid open and Randy entered the lobby of the Convention Center. There were plenty of people here, historian-types, with AHA name tags and all.
This was it. Randy’s heart began to pound.
Now, where was Concourse 153 B?
A woman stepped in front of him. “Randy Sullivan?” She was blonde, slender, his age, doing the sexy librarian thing in eyeglasses and a short skirt.
He was in full-on bulldozer mode… but for her, he could spare a minute. “That’s me.”
She smiled. “Wow, I’m glad I caught you before your talk. They’ll mob you afterwards and I’d never get close. I’m Susan Newquist.”
Randy’s mouth hung open, uncertain of what to say. He didn’t know her, but he wished he did.
“Blue Kiwi,” she went on. “UCLA’s history blog.”
“Ah,” said Randy. “We’ve emailed.” He extended his hand. Hers was soft and cool. “Nice to meet you in person.”
She leaned toward him conspiratorially. “This is so exciting. I have to say I’m a huge fan.”
She laughed. “I never miss a post! But I can’t let that spread around the department. No one here wants to admit how popular you are. A guilty pleasure. Like chocolate.”
Randy grinned. “Thanks. Neat. I’m sorry, I can’t think. I’m on in a few minutes.”
“I know! I’m heading there myself. What are you doing after? Want to get a cup of coffee or something?”
Randy’s mind filled with thoughts of Penelope. He would rather have coffee with her. But what was the point of wishing for that? There were certain things in this world that were not meant to be. He should face that and enjoy the things he could have.
For example, Susan Newquist. Time to seize the moment and make it his. Or at least, flirt with the moment and have some fun, until the moment discovered that he was broke and raising his two crazy sibs all by himself, at which point the moment would bail on him to find a more decent catch.
“Sure. Fantastic,” he said at last. “Let’s meet at the front desk in an hour.”
“Great. Here’s my card.” It was blue, with the UCLA seal. “If you can’t get away, call me.”
Randy’s cell phone rang.
Susan touched his shoulder. “You get that. I’m going to go find a seat.” And she was gone.
Nice girl, he thought, as he glanced at his phone. The screen said “Maddie.” Randy steeled himself for more wackiness. Take your best shot, kiddo.
He flipped open the phone. “What now?”
“Randy Sullivan?” asked an authoritative man’s voice.
The crowded world around Randy shut itself off. “That’s me. Where is the little girl who owns that phone?”
“She’s right here, sir,” said the man. “She’s fine. I’m Officer Ferguson of the Yorba Linda Police Department.”
Randy’s stomach dropped. “Aw, crap. So we’re up to law enforcement, huh?”
“That’s right, sir.”
He felt himself starting to sweat. “At least you’re not the paramedics. Where’s Wayne?”
“He’s here and he’s fine. We received a lot of complaints about noise from residents on this street. Some of them described gunshots. You understand, we got concerned.”
Randy closed his eyes and pressed his hand to his forehead. “Right. They weren’t gunshots, officer. Wayne’s just mixing chemicals or something. I mean… right? Not gunshots?”
“We didn’t find a gun, sir.”
“Is anybody hurt? Are the neighbors okay?”
“No injuries, sir. No firearms violations. But I’m issuing a citation for disturbing the peace. And if anybody claims property damage, I’ll add malicious mischief.”
Randy swallowed. What now, argue with a cop? “Listen, officer. I appreciate you calling me. But Wayne is just a kid. Not violent or anything. And the peace probably wasn’t that disturbed, really, since the neighbors have had it in for him for months. See, one time he…” Nah, let’s not go there. Not going to help. “We can work this out, right, officer? Hey, let me talk to him.” Randy thought up his riot act.
“Not on the phone, sir,” said Officer Ferguson. “The boy is in the back of my car–”
“You put him in your police car?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Did you cuff him?”
Randy groaned. “Is he under arrest?”
“That depends on you, sir. You’re his legal guardian, aren’t you?”
“His sister’s, too?”
“So you’re responsible for them.”
Worse and worse. We’re circling the drain, now. “Absolutely! And I watch them like a hawk, like a pissed-off hawk, most of the time. But this weekend–”
“The History thing at the L.A. Convention Center. Your sister told me.”
“That’s right. Once in a lifetime fluke. Once in several lifetimes.”
“I tell you what, sir. Traffic is lightening up this time of the evening. You can be home in less than an hour. I’ll release Wayne into your custody.”
Randy couldn’t speak. This wasn’t happening. “I can’t…”
“Pardon me, sir? I couldn’t hear.”
“I can’t be there in an hour.”
“Then I’ll take your little brother to the station and enter him into the juvenile offender system. And I’ll notify Child Protective Services.”
Randy was quiet.
Slowly, all the weight that had built up on Randy’s shoulders over the course of the phone call slipped away, replaced with a sad numbness. “All right.”
“Stay there, officer. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Randy should have looked for someone to notify, at the front desk, maybe, that he wouldn’t be there for his talk. He thought of finding Susan Newquist. But what would he say? And time was short.
The Convention Center’s parking garage was big enough for its own zip code. After a marathon jog, he came to the dark green Nissan Sentra that had been his parents’ second car. The passenger-side rear view mirror was missing, and one of the rear windows was taped up with duct tape to keep it from sliding down into the door.
Randy was behind the wheel before he noticed there was a black plastic DVD case under the windshield wiper. Some convention-related giveaway, probably. About the Civil War or the Titanic or some damn thing. He would have dug the freebie any other time, but now, he snarled, got out and yanked the case from under the wiper.
The DVD was not what he’d been expecting.
It showed a pair of blue hands holding a blue lightsaber against a starry background. Luke Skywalker’s hands, Randy knew. In yellow letters, it said Episode VI: Revenge of the Jedi.
Randy frowned. There was something wrong about that… but he didn’t have time to think about it now, and besides, Wayne was more into that stuff than he was. He tossed the DVD case onto the passenger seat and wheeled out of the parking lot.
As he zipped along the ninety-one, he watched the sky change. Brown clouds, big and heavy as mountains, cruised on the wind. The smell of woodsmoke crept in through the taped-up window, reminding him of roasting marshmallows with his folks at a campground up north, before the sibs were born. The memory filled him with a kind of emptiness — a hollow feeling that came to him when he thought about his parents.
Randy shook his head, cleared his throat and swallowed.
Hell of a fire season this year.
Flakes of ash settled from the sky like gray snow. When they almost touched the highway, the cars whipped them up again. They settled like that, over and over.
When Randy turned onto Yorba Linda Boulevard, he saw a flicker of orange firelight on the slopes of Chino Hills State Park. That was close! He usually didn’t think of the fires every summer as dangerous. They were just something interesting to watch on the news. It was easy to get used to helicopter footage of flames eating some wilderness area a hundred miles away, and maybe an occasional mansion in Malibu. Much drama, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but no permanent damage, unless you were a California gray squirrel or an insurance company.
But if the park was burning, well, that was trouble. Randy would have to tune in the local radio station and listen for, yikes… the E-word.
He made the final turn onto Forest Glen and spotted the monstrous old ash tree that grew beside his house, on the strip of lawn between the sidewalk and the street. The granddaddy ash, everyone called it. Parked on the street under it was a cop car, its lights flashing red and blue in the branches.
He parked in the driveway and got out. Officer Ferguson stepped out of the police car. He was plump and mustached, wearing a dark blue uniform, flat black gun on his hip and a shiny badge on his chest next to the radio handset at his collarbone.
Randy played it cool. “Evening, Officer. Thank you for waiting.”
His expression was typical cop: professional and bored, like he’d seen it all before. “It’s what I do. More than you’d think.”
Randy peered into the cop car’s back window. Wayne was in there, looking petulant.
Seeing Wayne shook Randy up. If Randy, at twelve, had been stuck in the back of a police car, he’d have broken. He’d have gone noodly and cried like a baby. Seeing Wayne through the back window looking no more than grumpy made Randy doubt his ability to raise him. Wayne was out of his league.
No time for that now. “Could you let him out, please?”
Officer Ferguson opened the back door and, gently and professionally, manhandled the boy out. Wayne scowled at the sidewalk, his hands cuffed behind him. His hair was brown, with only a trace of the Sullivan red. He had Mom’s dark eyes. His eyeglasses had fallen off, and dangled by the chain around his neck, the sort of chain that little old ladies wore. That had been his folks’ idea. Otherwise Wayne lost his glasses constantly. Now, the glasses lay on his orange t-shirt, over the words, “Large Hadron Collider: More Bang for Your Euro.” The shirt, size MEDIUM, hung on him roomily.
Here was his brother, released from police custody. Randy didn’t know what to say.
Officer Ferguson unlocked the cuffs. “The Orange County Police are not a babysitting service.”
Wayne put his eyeglasses on and looked around him.
“Of course not, officer,” Randy said.
“There won’t be a next time.”
Randy nodded. “I understand.”
“Have a nice evening.” The cop got into his car. Randy waited for him to drive off, but instead he sat in there, filling out paperwork.
Randy sighed. “Where’s your sister?”
“Beats me,” said Wayne.
“In the house?”
They both watched the cop car.
“What were you thinking?” Randy asked.
“It stinks in the back of that car. And there’s no door handles.”
“I believe it. You know, I’m thinking of kicking your ass right now. Soon as this cop pulls away. How’s that sound?”
Wayne looked at him. “I can outrun you.”
Randy put his arm around his brother. His fingers found a firm grip on the sleeve of Wayne’s orange t-shirt. Randy could feel the slenderness of his shoulders, the frailty of him. Randy squeezed. “You don’t seem to get it, Wayne. The police are at our house. Because of you. Is that sinking in at all?”
Wayne looked back to the car. “Yeah. That’s not cool. Can we go inside? It smells like ash out here.”
“No. Tell me what you were doing.”
“Totally harmless. Dry ice in an empty soda bottle. Add water, shake it a little, screw the cap down. Then throw. The carbon dioxide sublimates, like ice on a comet. Takes up seven hundred times as much room. Pops the bottle.” He grinned. “It’s wicked loud.” Then he frowned. “Mostly harmless.”
“Couldn’t you do that in the kitchen?”
“Did I say wicked loud? Maddie would cry. I prepped the bottles with dry ice in the kitchen. Then I put them in a duffle bag, so I could add the water while I was walking down the middle of the street. I threw them under people’s cars and stuff. It was really cool.”
Randy squeezed his wonderful little brother a little harder. Why couldn’t he be into model rocketry? Something with a community, and rules, where they go in groups to large empty spaces to blow things up? Randy didn’t suggest it. Wayne would be launching rockets alone from the back yard. Toasting the lawn. Aiming at jetliners, probably.
“Ow! Come on, Ran. Don’t hulk out. If only you’d seen it. Next time I’ll get it on video.”
Wayne swallowed. “By which I mean never. Ever.”
“I had to miss my talk to come here and save your ass from juvenile hall. Do you know how important that talk was to me?”
The car finally pulled away, accelerating loudly down the street. The two brothers stood alone on the sidewalk.
“That sucks,” Wayne said. “Wait, you were amped about that talk. You ditched your own talk?”
“The cop threatened me on the phone. Said he’d take you away. Break us up.”
“Aw, crap. Sorry.”
“Jesus Christ. You want to see that happen?”
“You want some nice new foster parents?”
“What would Mom and Dad think, if we couldn’t be a family anymore?”
“I didn’t think the cops would come!”
“You didn’t think at all! For all your brains, Wayne, you’re pretty damn stupid!”
Wayne glared up at Randy, his jaw tight, his eyes misting behind the thick lenses of his glasses.
Randy released him. “Get in the house.”
Wayne scampered through the side gate and disappeared indoors. Randy stood on the driveway and listened to the silence. No cops, no maniacal children. He smelled the ashes in the air and contemplated the miserable chaos that was his life.
His cell buzzed in his pocket.
Someone from the conference, probably, wondering if he was dead, or drunk, or just a totally unreliable flake. They’d taken a risk booking him to speak, and they’d been right to worry.
The screen said (NO NUMBER).
“Randy Sullivan?” said a young man’s voice.
“Speaking.” Randy braced himself for the questions.
“Good. Just checking.”
Randy frowned. “Who’s this?”
But the line was dead. Who had that been? The conference organizers? He wished they’d just berate him already, rather than check his number and plan to berate him later. Randy stood there and grumbled.
Calling Wayne stupid was going too far. It was okay for a big brother, but Randy could no longer be that. He had to be a parent. When he’d lost his Mom and Dad, he’d lost his brother and sister, too.
Randy had an idea. Maybe he could make a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark and stormy and piss-poor night. He grabbed the mysterious DVD from the passenger seat of the Sentra.