James landed heavily, the fall knocking the wind out of him. The overpowering smell of rotten food and other things he didn’t want to think about assaulted his nose. The sound of indignant squeaks and lots of creatures scurrying away told him he wasn’t the only occupant of whatever he had landed in. He opened his eyes, unable to believe he was still alive after such a fall, then blinked in confusion.
He lay in an alleyway in the middle of a huge pile of rotten garbage. Unfamiliar buildings loomed on either side, and past them, he could see the night sky, with no sign of the hole he had fallen down.
“Must have been dreaming,” muttered James. He suddenly remembered the events before the imagined fall and looked around urgently for the killer or the man in white, but saw no trace of either one of them.
“Cops. Gotta get the cops.” He hauled himself out of the garbage pile and shook off the few items clung to his clothes. He pulled out his phone. No service.
He cursed the phone—the only place it ever had a reliable signal was inside his flat—and put it away. Figuring there would be a pay phone nearby, or maybe an open store, he hurried toward the end of the alley.
Reaching the street, he almost collided with a woman crossing the entrance to the alley. He managed to stop himself in time.
The woman seemed as surprised to see him as he was to see her. She wore a costume that looked vaguely Victorian, dark blue, with a full skirt but tight bodice. Her long black hair and slim figure suited the costume, but the thick leather belt around her waist with the large leather pouch attached didn’t match the rest of the outfit. But it was probably the perfect place to keep her money and phone.
His brain finally caught up with the idea that she might have a phone.
“Please, I need to use your phone. My friend’s been attacked, and I need to call the cops. An ambulance, too. He might still be alive.”
The woman looked at him as if he were mad. “Phone? Cops? What are you talking about?” She looked him up and down. “And who the bloody hell are you, anyway?”
He stared at her in disbelief. She was either drunk—although she didn’t sound drunk—or stupid. He was going to have to find someone else to help him.
A loud noise interrupted his thoughts. It sounded like a steam train coming down the road. He turned to see a strange sight. Four lights, nothing like the lights of a car, hurtled toward him.
The girl grabbed him and pulled him back. “Quick! Into the alley, you idiot.”
The cry of annoyance James had been about to loose died on his lips as the source of the noise became visible. The vehicle was like nothing he’d ever seen. The shape was similar to a horse-drawn carriage, but instead of the usual wood finishes on the side, the carriage was made from a weird lattice of metal bars meshed together in a way that suggested function, instead of comfort or design, had been the overriding theme. No horses pulled the contraption. Instead, the vehicle had a huge engine on the back, with a smoke stack billowing a noxious black cloud. His nose burned as the smoke reached him. The lights he had seen were lanterns, and they illuminated the carriage enough for him to see the man sitting in the driver’s seat—a man who appeared to be wearing a ‘red coat’ British soldier’s uniform from the 19th century.
As James tried to take in the strange carriage, he began to notice other details of his surroundings. The street on which he had emerged looked nothing like the main street he expected. The light level was low, with only a handful of street lamps visible, and the street lamps had been replaced with old-style gas lamps more fitting in a museum. They created just enough illumination to make out several of the buildings opposite. Unlike the shops and flats he knew, the buildings were small Victorian terraces. No, that wasn’t right. Paying closer attention, he realized that the details were wrong. They looked more like someone’s idea of what a Victorian terrace house should look like.
“Thanks for almost getting me caught, idiot.” The woman fixed him with a contemptuous gaze. “You know there’s a curfew in this section of the city. The guard can execute us on the spot.”
“Curfew? Guard?” It was his turn to repeat words as he struggled to come to terms with the odd view.
The woman rolled her eyes. “You really are a moron, aren’t you? I should have guessed from your clothes. What are you? Some village idiot who’s come to the big city to try and make his fortune?”
“Hey, you’re the one in the fancy costume.” He’d only just met the woman, but she was already beginning to get on his nerves.
The woman opened her mouth to respond, then closed it. She stared fixedly at his left arm.
Suddenly, she grabbed his arm, and before he could react, she pulled on the sleeve near his bicep. The shirt ripped without effort. Her grip on his arm became vice-like.
He finally regained his wits. “Hey, let go!” He managed to wrestle his arm away from her. “Do you have any idea how much this shirt cost?” He looked at the sleeve to assess the damage. She had almost torn it off.
The woman said nothing. Instead, she reached for the pouch on her belt, and pulled out a gun unlike anything he’d ever seen in magazines or movies. It looked like it belonged in some sort of sci-fi TV show, but it was unmistakably a gun.
James quickly raised his hands. “Hey, now, let’s calm down here. There’s no need to get violent. We’re both adults. I’m sure we can work something out. I don’t have any money, but I have a phone. It’s the latest model. Did you want my phone? It’s all yours.”
“Who are you?”
He couldn’t interpret the strange tone the woman’s voice had taken. “James. James Riggs.”
“Not your name.” The woman waved the gun slightly. “Who are you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
The woman stared at him, then motioned with the gun back to the street. “You’re coming with me to see my father.”
“Now, look, I’m sorry I called what you’re wearing a fancy costume.” He took a step back. “It’s really nice. There’s no need for any of this. I’ll just be on my—”
The woman’s voice was hard. “You’re coming with me to see my father right now. If you try to run, I will shoot you. Any more complaining, and I might shoot you anyway. Understand?”
He looked at the woman, at the gun, and back to the woman. “Yes ma’am.”
* * *
Lahire sat back in the throne, thoughtful as he looked over the dimly lit room. Even in the limited light, the extravagance and splendor of the throne room was obvious. Marble floors and columns, gilding, huge and complex tapestries, and more than a few inlaid gems combined to create a throne room both impressive and fitting for someone of his status. It had brought him a sense of great satisfaction when the new throne room had finally been complete, allowing him to demolish the old room where his mother had held court for the two centuries of her reign. But the joy he normally felt from sitting on his throne and looking out over his creation had faded that evening. He’d expected Taxard to return from the errand an hour ago, and he didn’t like to be kept waiting.
Finally, the door to the throne room opened, and a figure moved into the room. The light from the hallway silhouetted the figure’s tall frame before the closing door removed the light source.
The newcomer moved smoothly across the throne room floor, stopping several yards from Lahire and kneeling with a bow. “Your Majesty.”
“You’re late. I trust everything went to plan.”
Taxard straightened. “The target is dead, as you ordered.” He paused. “However, there was a complication.”
“What sort of complication?” He leaned forward in annoyance. He didn’t like complications. Complications disrupted the neat order of the society he had forged.
“A witness. A native of the world. He managed to escape.”
“You’re slipping. You’ve never left any survivors before.” He waved his hand. “It doesn’t matter. The authorities in that world can do nothing. They may even believe the witness was the one responsible for the murder.”
Taxard shifted slightly. Lahire recognized the movement. He had seen it many times from subordinates bringing him bad news. But he had never seen it from Taxard.
Lahire narrowed his eyes. “What is it you’re not telling me?”
“The witness. When he escaped… he escaped to Wonderland.”
“What?” Lahire was on his feet in an instant. “Explain yourself!”
“The witness, a male, passed through a portal. It closed before I could get a precise fix on its destination, but I managed to track him as far as this city.”
“You’re sure that it was a native of the Otherworld, and not another fugitive?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. He had the aura of a native. There was no mistake.”
“You allowed an outsider to come here? You fool! Find this man. Find him at once. Mobilize the entire guard and have them do a house-to-house search. This outsider is a threat to the society I have built, and I will not tolerate it. The last thing I need is for the rebels to find him and use him as a symbol to rally behind. Or worse.”
Taxard bowed low. “I will do as you command.”
He fixed Taxard with a steely gaze. “See that you do. Go.”
Taxard bowed again and swiftly departed the throne room. Lahire glowered after him for a moment, then turned and left the throne room via his private entrance. Taxard had made a mistake, but he knew of another who had some explaining to do.
He moved quickly through the castle’s hallways. The sounds of the Heart Guards’ frantic activity filled the castle as they carried out his orders. He was confident the outsider would be found. As long as the outsider hadn’t made contact with the terrorists, everything would be fine. The executioner would do his job, and order in Wonderland would be maintained.
At least, that was what he told himself.
He reached his destination and descended the stairs to the lab area he had first created, and since expanded many times, over a century ago. The stairs opened out at the bottom into a huge cavernous room, filled with all manner of devices and sounds. The room was hot, but for once the air wasn’t filled with steam or smoke. Electricity crackled to his left; however, he walked toward the voice straight ahead.
“No, you imbeciles! I told you to connect the dilator to the converter, not the convector. Are you trying to kill us all?” A whip cracked loudly, followed by a whimper. “Take it apart and do it again.”
Lahire strode past the tables and half-built frames of various creations to the open central area. The thin and hunched form of Dr. Keron stood in front of a large engine of some kind, while two round little men frantically worked on it. Like all of his creations, it looked like a jumbled collection of parts jammed together in the middle of a large metal frame.
He had to admit the doctor had produced results over the years. He had designed all the war machines in Lahire’s army, and his creations had been instrumental in the final war. But lately, his work had not been to the same standard. The terrorists had created a number of devices recently that had surprised and confused the doctor. Lahire was beginning to suspect that soon he would have to find a new head of research. Perhaps even the one currently working for the terrorists.
The doctor stopped berating his two assistants and turned to face him. “Your Majesty! You come at a fortuitous time. In a few more minutes, I will be ready to demonstrate—”
“I thought you told me no one could travel to the Otherworld anymore. That it was now sealed off?”
“That’s correct, Your Majesty. Travel there is now impossible.”
“Then, how do you explain an outsider arriving in Wonderland?”
“An outsider? Impossible. The only way they could have come through is if another brought them while the barrier was down.”
“What do you mean, ‘while the barrier was down’?”
“Well, obviously you still require Taxard to travel to the Otherworld. While he is gone, the barrier is disabled. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to return.”
“You never mentioned this to me!”
“I thought it obvious.”
One of the assistants let out a sudden cry of surprise. A loud screeching noise filled the air.
“Take cover!” Despite his apparent frailty, Dr Keron moved at lightening speed to dive behind a large rock slab covered in scorch marks. Lahire, no stranger to the doctor’s mishaps, was right behind him.
A loud explosion caused the ground floor to shake. Smoke filled the air, causing him to cough. The doctor, apparently unaffected by the smoke, stood and moved toward what had become twisted wreckage. His two assistants lay on the ground nearby, their clothes scorched and burnt in places.
The first one sat up, apparently unharmed despite the damage to his clothes. “I told you to turn the fitting clockwise. You turned it the wrong way!”
The second one rose, staring furiously at the first. “Nohow! I was standing opposite to you, so obviously I had to turn it counter-clockwise. Besides, you gave me a wrench when I specifically asked for a spanner.”
“A wrench is much better than a spanner! It doesn’t repeat any letters in its name.”
“Contrariwise, spanner is much easier to spell. Imagine if I had to write what I wanted, instead of speak it, and you—”
Dr Keron removed a whip from beneath his coat, and flicked it at the two men. They cringed back from the loud crack.
“Enough! Another word from either of you, and I’ll cut your food rations. Get this mess cleared up.”
The two men leapt to their feet and rushed over to the wreckage. Lahire managed to get his coughing fit under control. The doctor, seemingly unconcerned, took a notebook out of his pocket and made some notes. Lahire crossed to where he stood.
Dr Keron looked up. “My apologies for the inconvenience, Your Majesty. Tweedles aren’t too bright, but as you just witnessed, their resilience to physical damage does mean they have their advantages.”
Lahire stabbed a finger at Dr Keron’s face. “I should have you executed for your recklessness. I could have been killed!”
“And yet, you weren’t, Your Majesty. You are still safe and sound. And more importantly, I have some new data that should improve the speed of our latest fliers by fifteen percent.”
Lahire stopped, impressed at the news despite his anger. “How soon can you have the improvements out to the navy?”
“The first fliers will be modified before the end of the night. The rest of the fleet can be upgraded over the next three weeks.”
He nodded. “Do it.” His mind returned to the original reason he had come down there, but continuing the topic with Dr. Keron was pointless. He had learned everything he needed to know.
Someone had known the schedule for when Taxard left for the Otherworld, which meant a spy was present in the castle.