- The Void of Mist and Thunder
“Where’s Chu?” she asked, as though the boy were her servant and not her mortal enemy.
Atticus shrugged. “I don’t know.” He knelt on the ground and started arranging the logs in an orderly pyramid.
“You find some matches I don’t know about?” Jane asked. “If you think I’m in the mood to help—”
The logs burst into flame, all of them. An instant bonfire.
Atticus stood up, gave her a glare. But then his look changed to guilt, as if it were against his nature to be mean. Then he smiled, which made Jane angrier.
“Altering the physical state of wood from a solid to a gas?” he asked with another shrug. “You think I can’t do that by myself? Come on. That’s as easy as lighting a match, Mistress Jane.”
He didn’t wait for a response, just turned and walked away, disappearing back into the woods.
Igniting fire. Such a simple thing, really. And yet, for some reason, it terrified her to see the boy do it without any obvious effort whatsoever. She flopped down onto the sand, staring at the waves as they lapped onto the beach and tried to ignore the icy fear trickling through her veins.
Atticus—the boy known as Tick—was a foe to be reckoned with.
Jane had been sitting on the beach for hours, staring out at the wondrous ocean that wasn’t really an ocean, when suddenly the horizon jumped up and down. The water turned from blue to green to black, then froze into ice, crackling; then it was hot and boiling. A fish popped out of the shifting water and spread its fins like wings, hovering a few seconds before exploding into a spray of rainbow-colored sparkles. Lightning shot down from a cloudless sky and hit the water, creating huge splashes of something dark and thick, like oil. She looked down at the sand, and within a matter of seconds, it had changed color three times.
Par for the course in this place that seemed beyond the realm of the physics she understood so well.
She’d just lifted her gaze back to the ocean when a thump of sound shook the air and the ground, a thunderclap that made her bounce off the sand. She threw out her arms for balance and searched the beach for any sign of what had happened.
The sound thumped again. Then again. The land around her shook, but this time didn’t stop. The trees behind her trembled; several were uprooted and fell, crashing against each other. Dots of light fell from the sky, vanishing before they hit the ground. Farther down the beach, pillars of stone shot through the sand, rising up until it looked like they had their very own Stonehenge to explore. The ocean froze, then cracked into a million icy pieces, exploding upward a hundred feet, then falling again like a rain of crystal. The sand nearby swirled in little tornadoes, the funnels spinning faster and faster.
Suddenly Chu was by her side, having sprinted in from the shifting woods. He collapsed next to her when another jolt of sound and quaking shook the world.
“This is madness!” he shouted at her. “Things are becoming more and more unstable!”
Jane wanted to argue with him—that was always her instinct—but she knew he was right. First, the strange gash in the air earlier, peeking into another Reality. And now this, a sudden uptick in the strangeness that was the Nonex. She nodded at Chu.
The thumps of noise stopped. The land grew still. The pillars that had risen on the beach slowly sank back underground. The ocean liquefied, glistening and smooth. The small funnels of spinning sand stopped, collapsing with a dusty poof. All seemed still and quiet.
Thoughts and plans were forming inside Jane’s head, but they weren’t solid enough to describe. Like an epiphany in another language, the ideas still needed to be translated, but they were there all the same.
Reginald Chu had a look in his eyes that made her think his mind had spun in the same direction as hers.
“Together,” he whispered, his voice still loud in the sudden silence. “If we can work together, then I think there’s a way for both of us to be happy in the end.”
One Last Try
It’s hot, Mom.”
Lorena Higginbottom looked over at her daughter as they trampled through the woods. The girl did have a few strands of hair matted against her forehead, like squiggly little worms. “Well, the fall weather should be here soon.”
“I’m so hot my sweat is sweating.”
“That doesn’t make sense, dear.”
They’d visited these woods in eastern Washington every day for the last week, stomping their way along the same path often enough that a solid trail was beginning to appear, making the journey a little easier. Lorena had the straps of a duffel bag looped over her shoulder, its contents consisting of a single item. An extremely important, rare, expensive, incredibly-difficult-to-create item that she’d guard with her life, if necessary.
The item was long, solid, and heavy, with a brass shell lined with dials and switches. A Chi’karda Drive was housed inside it—a complex network of chips, wires, and nanotech that could literally alter reality itself.
It was a Barrier Wand.
And the only hope she had of finding her son.
“If it doesn’t work today,” Lisa said as she ducked under the low-hanging branch of an oak tree, “I think we should try something else.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Lorena responded. “I wanted to do this without getting George and the others involved, but we might not have a choice.”
The two of them stepped across the forest floor, cricks and cracks filling the air along with the pungent smells of pine needles and bark and something else that wavered between sweet and rotten. Sunlight broke through the canopy of leaves and sprinkled the ground with golden drops.
“What do you have against Master George anyway?” Lisa asked.
Lorena almost stopped walking, but she caught herself and kept going. Did she really want to talk about her feelings toward the leader of the Realitants right now? They were so complicated. “Nothing at all,” she finally said, a simple enough response.
“Come on, Mom. I know there’s something. I’m not quite as stupid as Tick always says I am.”
“Tick says no such thing!”
“Mom, answer the question.” Lisa pushed her way past a small branch and seemed to make no effort to keep it from swinging back and smacking Lorena in the face.
Lorena heard the girl snicker. “I’ll get you back for that, young lady.” She was glad her daughter couldn’t see the sudden smile that sprang up, but it couldn’t be helped. Lisa’s playfulness was a welcome thing indeed.
“So . . . answer the question.”
Lorena had no choice but to address the touchy subject. “As I said, I have nothing against that man whatsoever. If I did, not in a million years would I have let Atticus continue working for him and his merry group of heroes. It’s just complicated.”
“Then why haven’t we contacted him? Why aren’t we working together with him? He knows a lot more than we do!”
Lorena kept her doubts about that to herself. “I may be out of practice, but I’m no dummy when it comes to the Realities, you know.”
Lisa stopped and faced her mom. “I know, Mom, but don’t you think we could figure this out a lot faster if we had their help?”
“Maybe.” Lorena stepped closer to Lisa and reached out to grip the girl’s shoulders. “But I have my reasons. Number one, George has a heart of gold, but he can be reckless when times get . . . tense. That’s okay usually—but not when my son’s life is on the line like this.”
“And number two?”
Lorena gathered her thoughts for a second before answering. “The world’s in shambles, Lisa. All the natural disasters, all the deaths, all the homeless and sick, all the damage. And who knows what kind of permanent damage the other Realities have experienced. George and the Realitants are going to have a lot on their plate, and to be honest, I wouldn’t be able to blame them if Atticus wasn’t their top priority.”
“What? How can they—”
“He’s one boy, Lisa! One life. The Realitants have to worry about billions of others.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that even though George claims he’s going to do whatever it takes to find out what happened to Atticus, I can’t put my full trust and hope in that. We need to take it on ourselves to get this done. Do what we have to do, and let them do what they have to do.”
Lisa pursed her lips, obviously considering it all for a long moment. “Maybe it helps that two groups are coming at it from different directions. Only one of us needs to find him.”
“Bingo.” Lorena did her best to smile, but for some reason, her heart couldn’t make it feel genuine. Once again, speaking of the world and the trouble it was in had soured her mood; everything seemed worse since her son had vanished.
“So we go to the spot,” Lisa said, “and we try again.”
“Bingo times two.”
“And if it doesn’t work today, then we try something else.”
“Bingo times three.”
“Okay.” Lisa turned around and started walking again.
As Lorena followed, she thought for the millionth time that she was crazy to involve Lisa in this quest. Yes, she was endangering yet another of her children, but she couldn’t help it. Lisa was bright, and upbeat, and funny. Brave. And the girl loved her family as powerfully as Lorena did. She needed Lisa. Edgar—bless his heart—wasn’t the right person to help her now. And someone had to be with little Kayla.
Lorena needed Lisa. Desperately. She couldn’t do this alone. Lorena would just have to do whatever it took to keep the girl safe until they figured things out. Until Atticus was back together with them all.
They reached a clearing about twenty feet wide, their recent visits and footsteps and sit-downs having flattened the grass considerably. A circle of thick pines bordered the spot, the tree branches stretching to the sky far above. Lorena saw a squirrel scurry its way up one of the trees, dropping an acorn in its haste.
Lisa slipped off her backpack; she’d been in charge of the food because Lorena had to carry the heavy load of the Barrier Wand. They’d done this every day, and sharing a nice lunch put some cracks in the heavy dome of doom and gloom that hung over their mission. The two of them sat down in the middle of the clearing, facing each other.
“You want the turkey or the ham?” Lisa asked as she pulled out the sandwiches.
“Turkey. That ham’s been doing something awful to my stomach.”
“Thanks for sharing, Mom. My hunger just doubled.”
They chomped through the meal, and then it was time to get down to business. Lorena unzipped the duffel bag and pulled out the hefty shaft of the Barrier Wand. The scant drifts of sunlight that filtered through the leaves glinted and winked off the shiny golden surface as she maneuvered the thing until she held it directly in front of her folded legs, its bottom end sunk into the debris of the forest floor. She looked past the Wand at Lisa.