Master George shouted the last word, folding his arms and staring around the room, daring someone to respond. A full minute passed, the crackling fire the only sound in the room. Even Sato seemed impressed. Tick felt scared to swallow or breathe, afraid of how Master George would take it.

“All right, then,” the Englishman finally said. “If from this point forward you’d be so kind as to act like the brave souls I meant to gather, we can move on.” He paused, pretending to brush unseen dust off his suit jacket. “Now, you may be wondering why I sent letters only to young people such as yourself. Am I correct?”

No one said a word, afraid to rock the boat again.

“Come on, now,” Master George said. “Only children would be afraid to speak up.”

Everyone spoke at once at this remark, but Paul drowned out the others. “Never thought about it, actually. But now you mention it, that’s a good question that I think I’d like to know the answer to very much. Uh, sir. Master.” He cleared his throat. “Master George.”

“Much better, much better. I knew you blokes from America were smart. Now—”

He was interrupted by a loud noise from the side. Rutger shuffled through the door balancing two silver trays stacked with enormous plates of steaming hot food in his arms.

“Who’s hungry?” he announced loudly. “I’ve prepared generous portions for everyone.” Wonderful smells wafted across the room.

He started handing out plates and utensils, almost dropping the entire load with every step. “We’ve got roasted duck, thrice-baked potatoes, succulent legs of lamb with basil and—my favorite—roast beef. Plus a slice of cherry cheesecake.” Panting, he put down a plate for himself then handed the last one to Tick. “Eat up!”

Tick needed no urging. After a quickly muttered thank you, he dug in as he balanced the plate on his lap. The food was tender and hot, juicy and rich. It may have been his hunger, but everything on the plate seemed the most delicious stuff he’d ever put in his mouth. By the sounds of smacking lips and slurping fingers from around the room, he wasn’t alone in that regard.

“Well,” Master George said, “I’m glad to see we still have our appetites. Now, if I may, I will continue our discussion. About the letters—the reason I wrote only to youngsters is because what you’re about to hear would never be believed by a cantankerous old grown-up. They’re far too set in their ways, thinking they’re all smart and such. No, I needed to bring in a new batch of recruits, and I knew they must be young and spry, ready to take on the world, as it were.”

“Uh, Master George?” Rutger said through a large mouthful of food.

“Yes, Rutger?”

“Don’t you think we should, uh, move on and tell them why they’re here? Time’s a wasting.”

Master George snapped his fingers and waved his hands in the air. “Yes, yes, you’re right, of course. Thank you, on we go.” He folded his hands in front of him and looked down at the floor. “I shall now tell you everything, from beginning to end.”

And so Master George began his story, the craziest, wackiest, most bizarre thing Tick had ever heard. And he loved every minute of it.


The Tale of the Realities

What each of you considers the world in which you have always lived and breathed,” Master George began, “is not exactly what you may think. It is in fact much, much more. Your world, the place where you were born, is what we call Reality Prime. It is the first and greatest version of the universe with which you are familiar. However, several decades ago, a group of scientists discovered great mysteries in the field of study we affectionately call the kyoopy.”

Kyoopy! Tick thought. The Q.P.! Quantum physics.

“Now,” Master George continued, “we haven’t the time or need to explore the deep scientific mumbo-jumbo, but suffice it to say the scientists discovered that alternate versions of the universe exist in harmony and congruity with the world in which we grew up. The reality we all know so well is not alone—there are other Realities. Parallel universes that have evolved and developed differently from Reality Prime because of vastly significant events that literally broke them apart from ours.”

“Master George,” Paul interrupted. “I consider myself one smart dude, but this seems crazy.”

Just let him talk, Tick thought as he took his last bite. He set the empty plate on the floor at his feet.

“Don’t worry, Mister Rogers. Give me time, and all will become as clear as my mum’s fine crystal.”

“Sounds like a bunch of lies so far,” Sato said, almost under his breath, but loud enough for everyone to hear.

Master George ignored him. “There is an energy force in the universe that binds and controls all the Realities, a greater force than any the laws of physics have ever attempted to define. This power is the lifeblood of the kyoopy, and only a handful of scientists even knows it exists. We call this power the Chi’karda, and everything we’ll be about depends on it. Everything.”

“What is it?” Tick asked, remembering that Mothball had once said the word to him.

“Rutger?” Master George asked. “What do I always say about the Chi’karda?”

Everyone turned to look at the short man, lounging on his pillows. “You always say, ‘When it comes to individual destiny, there is no power greater in the universe than the conviction of the human soul to make a choice.’” He rolled his eyes as if he didn’t want to be bothered anymore.

“Precisely,” Master George said in a loud whisper, holding up his index finger. “Choice. Conviction. Determination. Belief. That is the true power within us, and its name is Chi’karda. It is the immeasurable force that controls what most scientists of the world do not yet understand. Quantum physics.”

“So what does this . . . Chi’karda thing have to do with the alternate universes?” Sofia asked.

“It’s what creates them, my dear girl,” Master George answered. “It’s happened throughout history, when choices have been made of such magnitude they literally shake the world and split apart the fabric of space and time, creating two worlds where there used to be only one, running parallel to each other within the complex intricacies of the kyoopy. What do you think causes earthquakes?”