This supposedly grown man was acting like a child, and it annoyed Tick to no end. “Maybe you can just tell me why I’m here.”

Chu’s head pulled back ever so slightly, as if he were surprised that Tick would take such a tone considering his obvious disadvantages. “Don’t mistake bravery for stupidity, boy. With all the people I’ve crushed or pushed aside in my lifetime quest to rule the Realities and make them better, it should be clear that I have many, many enemies. But no one comes close to being a target of my sheer . . . animosity as you do. Mr. Higginbottom, I despise you—there’s no other way to put it. And your margin of error with me is as thin as a red blood cell. Do you understand?”

“You despise me?” Tick asked, incredulous. “How do you think I feel about you?”

“I’m sure the feeling is mutual. But it hardly matters now that I have such complete control over you. I suggest you take a more humble approach.”

But Tick wasn’t done sharing a piece of his mind. “And what’s all that garbage about making the Realities better? All you want is power, and you know it. You don’t care about anyone but yourself.”

Chu’s face flashed with anger, and he leaned in closer to Tick. His bad breath wafted to Tick’s nose and made him want to squirm out of the bed. “You shut that mouth of yours, do you hear me? Shut your mouth and show me some respect. You could never possibly understand me or my motives. I’ll do what needs to be done, and no one can stop me. Yes, I may have a petty streak in me, and I may have done a few things that I might not be proud of, which is unfortunate for you because when I’m done using you, I’m going to dispose of you in a way that brings me a great deal of satisfaction. It’s something you can start looking forward to.”

Tick lashed out, but the restraints held his arms in place. He was furious and had never wanted to hit another person so much in his life. But he slouched back down onto the bed, knowing he couldn’t be stupid enough to try anything with his power over Chi’karda. He’d just have to be patient and wait for the right opportunity to come along.

But at least he had his words. “You’re a pathetic man, Chu. How can you even look yourself in the mirror tonight after standing there and talking like that to someone who’s not even fifteen years old yet? Pathetic and sad.”

Chu, of course, did the most maddening thing then. He laughed as he straightened back up to stand tall. “Don’t goad me on, kid. You can yap all day if you want about how young you are, but we all know the power that’s trapped inside your child’s body. And we all know why.”

Tick paused, surprised by the odd statement. Even though he hated to let go of his anger, he had to know what the man meant. “What . . . why . . . why what?”

Chu raised his eyebrows. “Don’t play dumb with me, boy. Reginald Chu knows all—or at least what he cares to.”

Tick started to sit up before he remembered the restraints. Groaning in frustration, he closed his eyes then opened them again. He needed to find some humility. “I’m serious. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“This is unbelievable. How could he keep you in the dark about this?” Chu looked at him in disbelief. “I’m talking about why you, of all people, have this incredible ability to manipulate and control Chi’karda. Don’t tell me that old man George hasn’t explained it to you yet. He knows. He went well out of his way to confirm it.”

Tick was dumbfounded. “What does he know?”

Chu folded his arms and peered down at him, slowly shaking his head. “Soulikens, Atticus. It’s all about the soulikens.”

Chapter 42

Poor Little Centipede

Sweat poured down Sato’s face, and it wasn’t just from the effort of digging through and tossing aside the countless broken stones that had lain between him and the source of the glowing light at his feet. He was nervous because the massive storm of the Void was growing louder and bigger, its shadow looming over him, Tollaseat, and the dug-out pit in which they stood. They needed to figure out this anomaly and get away from there.

He got down on one knee and inspected the source of the light. It was a slit in the floor, about three feet long and a few inches wide. Although it wasn’t really in the floor—it was more like the rip in Reality he’d seen before when the gray fog had first appeared beside the castle walls. Blue light shone from behind the odd crack in the air, so intense that it was hard to look at it directly. There was nothing else there, as if it were a small window into a river of radioactive material or something otherworldly. The light continued to pulse, flashing every few seconds so brightly that it was blinding.

“How’re we s’posed to figure what she might be?” Tollaseat asked. The man was too long and gangly to try to squat down next to Sato. “Took a bit of work, it did, gettin’ down this far. T’would be a mighty shame to go back empty-handed, now wouldn’t it?”

Sato thought Mothball’s dad had an uncanny gift for saying a lot of words that offered no help whatsoever. “I don’t know. Just let me think for a second.”

He did try to think, and that didn’t help either. He wasn’t a scientist. Somehow he’d become the captain of an army, for crying out loud. But he knew without any doubt that this small spit of shining blue light had something to do with . . . something.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a centipede creeping along a broken slab of stone. Testing some theory on the edge of his mind, he picked up the poor little thing and tossed it into the slice of pulsing light. The bug disappeared in a tiny burst of white electricity, tiny jagged bolts skittering across the blue surface before dying out. There was no sign of the critter.

“Well, ain’t you a cruel one,” Tollaseat chided him from above. “What did that wee bugger ever do to you?”

Sato stood up, letting out a big sigh as he did so. “I was just putting him out of his misery. Pretty soon this whole place will be eaten up by . . . whatever that is out there.” He jabbed a thumb in the direction of the tornado, then gave one last glance to the blue anomaly. “It was just an experiment. I thought maybe something would happen. Look, I have no idea what to do here. We’ll just have to describe it to Master George and see what he thinks. Come on, let’s go.”

The two of them started up the pile of rocks they’d burrowed out of before. Sato was halfway to the top when he heard a horrible roar, like something half-mechanical and half-animal. It was followed by shouts from his soldiers.

His heart sank, and his first thought was, What now?

He picked up the pace and scrambled the rest of the way, almost falling twice as pieces of stone tore loose or broke off. When he reached the peak of the debris, he balanced himself and stood up, Tollaseat right beside him.

Something monstrous was crawling out of the churning mass of the Void’s huge tornado. It was big and long, with lightning arcing along its gray skin. With a terrifying dawn of awareness, Sato realized that the thing looked like . . .

It looked like a centipede.

Paul was just about to slip into the laboratory of the Realitant headquarters when Sofia spotted him from down the hallway. Great, he thought. He’d almost made it.

She ran up to him. “What in the world are you doing? I looked all over for you. Master George is not happy.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault those idiots can’t figure out what we’re supposed to do next.”

“Idiots?” she repeated. “Really? You’re calling them idiots?”

“Very funny. Look, I might not be the smartest tool in this workshop, but at least I don’t think it’s okay to sit around fiddling my thumbs. I think it’s high time you and I figured out something on our own.”

Sofia rolled her eyes, but he saw some compassion in there too. She was trying to keep everyone happy on both sides of the fence. “Paul, you know very well that not a single person here is fiddling their thumbs. The rest of them are analyzing data, talking to other Realitants, and researching. They’re trying to learn more about the Void and its energy so we can beat it. I was just coming to find you to help. We need every set of eyes.”

“I’ll tell you what the Void is,” Paul said. “It’s a big gray tornado that’s getting bigger the longer we stand around here. We need Tick to go in there and . . . do whatever it is he does. Our friend is obviously in trouble, and that should be our number-one priority. Getting him back.”

“And you really think Master George disagrees with that?” She folded her arms. “They can’t latch onto his nanolocator. Mothball went to Deer Park but saw no sign of him. His dad said he never showed up. We can’t go looking behind every rock and tree in the universe.”

“Oh . . . oh, man.” The news made Paul wilt inside. “There’s gotta be a way to find him.”

Sofia sighed. “Rutger will keep scanning for him, hope he pops back onto the radar.”

“Tick should be our—”

“—number-one priority. I know! Don’t you think I’m worried like crazy too? I just think we should all work together, not sneak around like this. What are you doing here anyway?”

Paul couldn’t keep a secret from her, not now. “I came for the box.”

“The box?”

“The box.”

Her mouth was slightly open, her expression saying that she had no doubt he’d gone nuts. “And why are you going for the box?”

“Because I’m going to push the green button.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“We don’t even know what it does yet!”

“George does, or else he wouldn’t have made us go get it.” Paul reached out and opened the lab door. He’d seen their leader put the box into a cabinet drawer, even though the old man had tried to keep it a secret. The drawer wasn’t a safe, though. It didn’t have a lock or anything. Maybe George thought if the box was hidden in a place people wouldn’t suspect, it might be safer.

“Paul, don’t.”

He ignored her and stepped into the room. When she didn’t reach out and yank him back by the collar, he knew he had her. Times had grown desperate, and it was time to do something desperate. Before either one of them could change their minds, he ran over to the cabinet. She followed right on his heels. Paul ripped open the drawer.

The drawer was empty.

“I thought you might come looking for this,” a voice said from behind them.

They spun around to see Master George at the lab door, bouncing the box with its little green button in his right hand. At first Paul thought that Sofia might’ve betrayed him, but one glance at her showed that she was just as surprised—and disappointed—at their leader’s arrival.

“I just wanted to . . .” Paul began, but didn’t know how to finish.

“Yes, I know,” George said. “You just wanted to help, I’m sure. I guess it’s time we had a talk about this very special device. It’s time I told you about Karma. And then it may very well be time to push this button.”