“Wow,” Paul breathed. “Serious?”

“Quite right, sir, quite right. The creation and destruction of alternate worlds through the power of the Chi’karda has been known to trigger great and terrible quakes. Wow, indeed. Allow me to give you an example that will explain it much better, so you can throw out the hard words and difficult phrases. Everyone, close your eyes, please.” He motioned with his hands, urging Tick and the others to obey.

Tick closed his eyes.

“I want you to picture in your mind an enormous tree,” Master George said. “Its trunk is ten feet wide, with twelve thick branches, er, branching off, breaking up into tinier and tinier limbs until they are barely measurable. Can you picture it?”

A scatter of mumbled yeses sounded across the room, even from Mothball and Rutger.

“The trunk of that tree is Reality Prime, the version of the world in which you were born and have lived your whole lives. The main branches of the tree are very established alternate Realities that have stood the test of time and survived, each one different from Reality Prime in significant ways. From there, the smaller and smaller branches are weak and crumbling Realities, fragmented Realities, most of them heading for the day when they will vanish altogether or be absorbed into another Reality. We had each of you visit one of those fragmented Realities before you came here, to give you a bit of understanding at what they can be like.

“The Realitants are a group of explorers devoted to charting and documenting the main branches of this tree for the sake of science and in hopes that one day we can better understand the makeup of the universe and how it works. And to, er, protect Reality Prime from potential, er, unforeseen dangers.”

Master George cleared his throat loudly, and Tick’s eyes flew open. Master George’s hands gave the slightest twitch at his sides. “Until recently, we had fully charted twelve main Realities, and everything was going just splendid—there’d even been talk that perhaps someday we’d discover the perfect Reality—a utopia if you will. But the reason you are here today is because quite the opposite has occurred. One of our own, a traitor like the world has never known, has discovered a Thirteenth Reality, and very bad things are about to happen. Very bad things indeed.”

“I knew it,” Sato grumbled.

“What’s in the Thirteenth Reality?” Tick asked. “What’s so bad about it?”

“Oh, Mister Higginbottom, it is quite a hard thing to talk about. With every other Reality, we’ve had mostly positive, fascinating experiences. For example, there’s the Fifth Reality, home of our dearest Mothball. There, circumstances somehow led to a drastic change in the gene pool, where everyone became taller and stronger, evolving into a much different society than the one you know so well. Then, of course, there’s the Eleventh, where Rutger was born. As you can see, they, er, had quite the, er, opposite effect in their Reality.”

Everyone looked at Rutger, who patted his big belly as if it were his most prized possession.

Master George cleared his throat again and moved on quickly. “There’s the Fourth, perhaps the most fascinating Reality of them all. Their world is much more advanced than ours, the technology revolution occurring much sooner there than it did in Reality Prime. Going there is much like traveling to the future—quite fascinating indeed. It’s where I acquired the Gnat Rat and the Tingle Wraiths.”

Tick’s jaw dropped open.

The Gnat Rat. Manufactured by Chu Industries.

That explains it, he thought. No wonder I couldn’t find anything on them. Mr. Chu couldn’t have had anything to do with the company after all—it was in another Reality.

“But I haven’t answered your question, have I?” Master George said, looking uncomfortable. “You most clearly asked me about the Thirteenth Reality, and here I am, doing everything in my power to avoid answering you.”

“Well?” Sofia asked.

“What? Ah, yes, the question. The Thirteenth Reality. I’m afraid this new place is . . . quite extraordinary. You see, for the first time, a Reality has been discovered in which . . . oh, poppycock, this is difficult to say.”

“Go ahead and say it,” Mothball urged from the back. “These kids can take it, they can.”

“Yes, yes, you’re quite right, Mothball.” Master George straightened his shoulders. “The Thirteenth Reality has a mutated and frightening version of the Chi’karda that simply chills my bones to think about. It is most certainly the source of every frightening myth, dangerous legend, or terrifying nightmare that has ever leaked into the stories and tales of the human race.”

“A . . . mutated version of the Chi’karda?” Paul repeated. “What in the world does that mean?”

Master George’s brow creased as he frowned. “Remember what Rutger told all of you about the sheer power of the Chi’karda? The Thirteenth has somehow turned that power of pure creation into something completely different. Something frightening.”

“But why?” Paul pushed. “What does that mean?”

Master George’s face paled. “It means that we have discovered a Reality that contains the closest thing to—oh, I hate to even utter the word—but it contains the closest thing to magic we have ever seen. And not the good kind of magic like in your storybooks. No, this is a very real, very dark power. And if it isn’t contained, if it somehow escapes from the Thirteenth Reality, everything will be lost.”


The Doohickey

Magic?” Sofia said. “That sounds fun.”

“You’re talking, like, abracadabra and all that stuff?” Paul chimed in. “Wizards and broomsticks?”

“No, no, no, nothing of the sort,” Master George replied, his face scrunched up in annoyance. “This is real—perfectly real—and it’s all explained by the laws of science, particularly the kyoopy, quantum physics. It’s all a matter of unique Chi’karda manipulation. In the Thirteenth Reality, though, it’s been mutated into something far more powerful and horrific. And it can be controlled by someone who understands the nature of it.”

“What can it do?” Tick asked.

“Well, it can make things fly, create horrible beasts, the like. What all of you would consider magic, which is why I used the word—though any scientist would despise such ridiculous nomenclature. This is real, this is science. And while it’s not unique to the Thirteenth, it is there that they’ve learned how to twist it, how to use it much more powerfully.”