Paul understood but didn’t want to admit it. “How can you blame him for winking away really quick just to check on his family? I’m sure he’ll be back any second. You’re making too much of it!”

George slammed his hand down on the table. “I will not have you speak to me this way! I am your leader and I demand respect! We’re on the cusp of something that could kill every single living person in every Reality! Each of us have higher callings than running off to check on mums and dads!”

He stopped, and the entire room fell dead silent. Even Rutger had frozen with a piece of steak halfway to his mouth. Paul’s anger had vanished, replaced by pure shock. He’d never seen this before.

“I know I sound harsh,” George finally said in a much calmer voice, “but I feel as if our organization has slowly gone down the pits, so to say, since Jane embraced her evil ways and Lorena Higginbottom decided to leave our ranks. We used to be disciplined and strong and willing to sacrifice all for the greater good. But now I can’t even convince any of our members to leave their homes and come to help us. We’ve fallen apart, I swear it.”

The old man suddenly slumped down in his chair and buried his head in his hands. Paul half-expected him to sob, but he just sat there, perfectly quiet and still, for a long minute. Then he looked up, and his face was as determined as Paul had ever seen it.

“Never mind all that,” George said. “We have a job to do, and I expect us to do it. If I have to go it alone, I will. And if . . . when I defeat the Void of the Fourth Dimension, I’ll build the Realitants from the ground up. I stake my life on this promise to all of you.”

Paul blinked, not sure what to say.

“Ya won’t be alone s’long as my heart’s still tickin’, you won’t,” Mothball said. “I’ll be by your side to the bitter end, warts and all.”

“Me too,” Rutger added. Then he finally finished off his bite of juicy steak.

Sally wasn’t about to be upstaged. “Ya’ll ain’t havin’ all da fun, I can promise you that.”

“Paul and I—we’re in too.” Sofia said. She shot Paul a look that said he better shape up. But something in her eyes let him know that she understood his frustrations about George’s reaction to Tick leaving.

Paul groaned. “You guys know very well that I’m not quitting. But after all that Tick has done, I think it’s really lame to just snap your fingers and accuse him of being a traitor. It’s about the most unfair thing I’ve ever heard.”

“It wasn’t a snap of my fingers,” George said sadly. “Master Atticus chose to go against my direct order. If my words were harsh, I apologize. But I don’t want someone by my side in the very last battle of these worlds who might turn his back on me.”

“Tick would never do that,” Paul said in a low growl. “You know it. He just went for a quick trip to check on his family.”

“Sorry to be the one to point this out,” Rutger said, “but he hasn’t come back yet, now has he?” His eyes darted around the room as though worried he’d said something wrong. “But no one likes the boy more than me. I hope you’ll be a little forgiving, Master George.”

The leader of the Realitants nodded slowly. “We will deal with him how we must, I assure you. However, I already have a very bad feeling that we may not see him for a while. A very bad feeling indeed.”

Tick’s heart lifted when he passed a clump of trees close to the road and saw the turn into his neighborhood come into view. He’d been lightly jogging and now picked up his pace to a full sprint, eager to run up the steps of his porch and rip the door open. He knew everyone would be there. Safe and sound and happy. He knew it. He was completely ignoring the small part of him that worried something horrible had happened. That they wouldn’t be there. Or worse.

This was why he had come. He needed to know for sure. Master George was probably ranting and raving by now, but he’d deal with that when he got back. Soon. He was just about to reach the street, less than thirty feet away, when he heard a loud noise from somewhere above him.

It was a bang, instant and piercing, like the clang of two giant iron pots. Times a thousand. Tick was so startled that he cried out and fell to the ground, rolling off the road and down the slight decline. He came to a stop in the dirt, on his back, looking up to search for what could have possibly been the source of such an awful sound. He saw a blur of flashing light and something silvery and long above him, accompanied by a great whooshing sound, like the thrust of rockets. Wind tore through the air and ripped at his clothes, sending dust and pebbles scattering down the slope.

Holding up his forearm to shield his eyes, his vision finally cleared enough to see the thing that had suddenly appeared in the sky over his head. It was a thick rectangle of silver metal, roughly the size and shape of a coffin. Its surface was smooth, without any seams, and the lights that flashed around it made no sense to Tick, as if they were being created by invisible protrusions from the flying object. Whatever it was, the push of air from the silver coffin was like a hurricane blast, growing stronger as it hovered in the air.

Then it slowly descended toward Tick.

He flopped onto his stomach, got his hands beneath him, and pushed up to jump to his feet. He slipped and slid as his arms windmilled, fighting to gain his balance on the small hill. He’d just gained solid purchase when there was a clicking sound right behind his ears. The noise sent a burst of terror through him, though he didn’t understand why, and he burst into a sprint, not even taking a chance to look back.

He’d only gone a few yards when a thin cable of something strong slipped around his stomach, coiled tight, and ripped his body up into the air.

Chapter 39

A Rebound of Power

Tick’s initial shout turned into a strangled grunt as the cord pinched into his stomach and he vaulted away from the ground. His body doubled over as he grabbed the ridged metal of the thing that had captured him—it felt like a wire on an old telephone pole. He twisted and kicked with his feet and tried to pull the thing loose, to no avail. He continued to rise, the sight of the road replaced by the tops of trees, all of it making his head spin and his stomach flip. Giving up on the cord, he tried to turn so he could see what held him.

The blocky silver rectangle was pulling him along, the metal cord coming out of a hole just big enough for it to fit. There was a moment where everything seemed to freeze, and Tick searched his mind for a possible explanation of what was happening. If anyone was watching from below, what else could they think except that a UFO had zapped down from outer space to steal the first human they could find in order to perform experiments? It was all just so . . . odd. Tick was surprised at how little terror he felt now—much less than when he’d first heard that clicking sound.

Because he remembered that he had an untapped amount of power inside his body.

He closed his eyes and let the Chi’karda flow into his chest, into his heart and nerves and bones and muscles. The surge of it was like a rushing river, somehow cold and hot at the same time, filling him with a rapturous clarity and a sense of being unstoppable. Like he could crush mountains or drink up the entire ocean and spit it back out. He wanted to roar and pound his chest. When he opened his eyes again, the familiar orange mist spun around him and clung to his skin, particles of light bouncing along his clothes, untouched by the wind.

With both hands, he grabbed the trailing length of the cord that connected his waist to the boxy contraption that flew through the air. He wrenched his body around until he’d twisted enough that he faced the long cube of silver. After pulling in a deep breath, he blew out the power that had boiled and churned inside of him, letting it flow like an open faucet, throwing every ounce of power at the box that had captured him. A great rushing sound filled his ears, and the world blinded him with orange light.

A thunderclap shook the air, along with a massive jolt of power.

Tick was suddenly plummeting, his hearing deafened, his senses completely out of whack. It was like he’d been flooded with numbing drugs. On some level, he felt the tops of trees scratching his back, felt the cord still cinched tightly around his waist, but his vision had gone from orange to bright white, and he could hear absolutely nothing. The pulse of his blood was a pounding in his head, a thump-thump-thump that he could only feel, a vibration that rattled down his spine.

He was still being pulled along. Somehow he knew that. The branches weren’t suddenly gone—nothing tore at his clothes or bit at his skin. His eyes darted wildly, trying to see anything but the whiteness that seared his sight. The calmness and sense of invincibility from earlier completely vanished, replaced by a fiery panic that lit up his nerves. What was happening to him? He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear. He barely felt the motion of flying through the air or the metal rope wrapped around his middle. How could all that power he’d thrown at the long, silvery coffin not have freed him and dropped him to the forest floor?

He didn’t know what else to do but try again. Though weakened from whatever had happened the first time, he concentrated on his internal self, pooling the Chi’karda once again. It came as only a trickle, a weak stream of power that barely made a splash compared to what it had been before. It had no form or substance. It couldn’t take shape. It wasn’t strong enough for him to do anything with it. And he still couldn’t see.

His panic erupted into anger. Rage tore through his body and weakened some of the dam holding back the Chi’karda. He screamed and tried again, pulling on whatever lever he sensed that controlled the link between him and the Realities. The surge came, rushed through him like a flood, filling him with relief as strong as the power itself.

Still flying through the air, still attached to the cord, he didn’t wait, didn’t allow himself even a second to enjoy the swell of pleasure. He threw everything he had at the object holding him captive.

This time he didn’t hear the thunderclap at all, just felt it. A thump of violence that jarred his bones and rattled his skull. The blinding light around him brightened even more, intense with heat and pressure. The rope around his waist jerked forward, pulling his body along with it. A sprinkle of pain cut through the numbness, making him reach for his back. But his fingers were numb too, and he felt nothing there. All was blunt and dull and lifeless. Nothing made sense anymore. His brain began to shut down.

His hearing came back just long enough for him to hear that clicking sound again. Then everything exploded in a rush of movement, and darkness engulfed him.

Chu needed a break from his run-down excuse for a temporary office. Maybe a permanent break. He hated the little place, and he missed the power of being in charge, of being seen as the man in charge.

Reginald Chu stood in the newly built laboratory, leaning against the railing as he stared down at the massive chamber. It was seven or eight football fields wide and at least three tall. Big. Really, really big. Even larger than the chamber inside the mountain palace, which Atticus Higginbottom had brought crumbling down right before Chu was sent to the Nonex. Tick. The little rat.