“Quit your whining and come on,” Sofia snapped.

Tick cringed, wishing his friend would ease up on the poor kid. Tick didn’t like him either, but Sofia seemed way too harsh—who knew what Sato might do to retaliate.

Begrudgingly, Sato finally started walking. The sounds of footfalls crunching the thick undergrowth of the forest suddenly filled the air, echoing off the canopy of interwoven tree limbs.

Tick moved to catch up with Mothball, practically running to keep up with her pace. “I have a question.”

“Go on and ask it, then.” Mothball pushed an enormous branch out of the way that everyone else simply walked under.

“The alternate versions of ourselves in other worlds—does that mean there is one of me in every Reality?”

“That’s usually the case, it is. We call ’em Alterants. Strange how all that works—even though the Realities can grow in vastly different ways from each other, there seems to be a definite pattern when it comes to the people.”

“What do you mean?” Tick asked, stooping to avoid a huge chunk of moss that drooped over a thick limb like a giant beard.

“Even though a Reality may have different governments and cultures and climates and all that from another Reality, the general pedigree of people remains quite similar—downright spooky, it is.” A huge bird cawed from overhead, followed by the squeal of a small animal.

“So in your Reality—the . . .”

“The Fifth, it is.”

“Yeah, the Fifth. There’s a really tall version of me there? My Alterant? And he’s alive right now, with parents named Edgar and Lorena?”

“Chances are ya be right. Course, I’ve never met ’em, and never tried. Dangerous stuff, messin’ with Alterants.”

Sofia and Paul had been following closely and listening to every word while Sato hung back, only a couple of steps behind them. Though he acted indifferent to the conversation, Tick had a feeling Sato was intently paying attention.

“Why is it dangerous to mess with Alterants?” Sofia asked.

“Since I had dealings with Tick in Reality Prime,” Mothball said, pausing a second to reassess her bearings. She changed directions slightly and headed down a shallow ravine scattered with boulders among the trees. “I didn’t want to meet his Alterant in any of the other Realities. Not only could it make me go mad, it could lead to the little sir meetin’ his taller self in my Reality. Disaster, that.”

“Why?” Paul asked.

“If two Alterants meet and truly recognize each other for what and who they are, well, then only one of the poor blokes can survive. Still trying to figure out the why and how, we are, but one of them ceases to exist. Sometimes that causes a nasty chain reaction that can rattle the Realities to their bones. Bet yer best buttons some of the worst earthquakes and such you’ve had were because of Alterants seein’ each other. Master George and the Realitants have worked their buns off to avoid such meetings, but Mistress Jane likes to bring Alterants together. She thinks it’s funny. Mad, she is. Crazy as a brain-dead Bugaboo soldier.”

That was the second time Tick had heard Mothball refer to Bugaboo soldiers, but he was too busy thinking about Alterants to ask any more questions.

“Whoa, man,” Paul said. “This is some downright freaky stuff. You’re telling me there’s all these Pauls running around the universe? I better be a big-time surfer in one of them. And a world-class pianist in another.”

“Face it,” Sofia said with a smirk. “You’re a no-talent bum in all of them, just like you are here. Or, there. Or, whatever.”

Paul stuck out his tongue. “Sis, you’re hilarious.”

“Call me ‘sis’ again,” Sofia challenged, raising her fist.


Sofia pulled back and punched Paul solidly on his upper arm with a loud thump.

“Ow!” he yelled, rubbing the spot. “That’s no fair. I can’t punch a girl back.”

Tick laughed, and Mothball surprised everyone when she did, too.

“Glad my pain can give everyone a nice chuckle,” Paul said, still wincing. “Tick, a word of advice. Don’t mess with Italians.”

“I learned that just from her e-mails. Whatever you do, don’t rip on her spaghetti.”

“Tick,” Sofia said. “I like you. You’re smart . . . for an American.”

Sato completely ignored all of them, never breaking his stoic expression.

Before anyone could throw out another sarcastic remark, Mothball stopped next to a big pile of fallen branches and twigs. She turned toward the messy heap and took a deep breath. “’Ere we are.” She bent over and yanked on a large branch, pulling it off the stack. “A little ’elp would be nice.”

Tick grabbed a branch and everyone joined in, even Sato, who was mumbling something Tick couldn’t understand.

Tick saw a glimmer of metal when he pulled off a prickly branch, his curiosity increasing his pace. Soon, they’d cleared the entire pile, and all of them stared at what they’d uncovered.

Three sleek and shiny motorcycles were lined up in a row, silver with sparkly metallic red paint. They were the coolest things Tick had ever seen, but there was one thing about them that seemed a little odd.

None of them had wheels.


Chi’karda Drive

They’re called Windbikes,” Mothball said, gesturing with a wide sweep of her arm. “Quite fun, they are.” Everything about the strange vehicles looked exactly like a normal bullet bike you’d see zooming down the freeway: a small windshield, silvery handlebars, shiny body with a big black leather seat. But the machine ended in a flat bottom instead of two round wheels.

“I hate to break it to you,” Paul said, “but somebody, uh, stole the tires.”

Mothball laughed, a booming roar that bounced off the overhanging branches. “You’re a funny little man, you are, Paul.”

“Are you telling us these things . . . fly?” Sofia asked.

“Well, I’d hope so, what with them not having wheels and all. Come on,” she said while pulling the bike on the end away from the rest, pushing it across the ground. “There’s three. One for me, and two for you kiddies to share. Methinks you’ll be better off if ya go in pairs.”

“Not me,” Sato said. “I go alone.”