Chapter 43

One with Reality

Chu had refused to say another word after announcing that it was “all about the soulikens.” Tick knew soulikens were imprints of energy created by life and memories and thoughts. Stamps of life on Reality. They accumulated throughout one’s existence until their signature hung around them like an aura. The Haunce—the most amazing creature Tick had ever met—was made up of trillions of soulikens.

Tick had an idea of what Chu meant. Most of his Alterants—if not all—had died at some point. Maybe their soulikens had somehow bled to him. Maybe that could explain the powers he had. He’d never wanted to talk to Master George so badly.

But that would have to wait. The gurney on which he lay had been rolled out of that hospital-like room by a man and a woman dressed in blue scrubs then down a long hallway and into an auditorium with rows and rows of chairs and a stage. Draped behind the stage was a huge screen of white material. The workers pushed him about halfway down the aisle then raised the back of the bed so Tick was able to sit up. His arms, legs, and torso were still fastened tightly down by the thin cords of metal. And his Chi’karda was still being blocked.

Chu had walked the entire way beside them, silent and brooding. He dismissed the blue-clad man and woman, leaving him and Tick alone inside the auditorium. The room was barely lit and cold; it was about as uninviting a room as Tick could imagine.

He looked at Chu, but the man was staring at the large screen, his hands folded in front of him. For at least two minutes he said nothing, which drove Tick batty. But he refused to say anything either, because he knew the man was waiting for him to do so.

Finally, Chu gave in and spoke. “Have you ever seen a fire, Atticus?” He still stared ahead, not turning to face Tick.

It certainly wasn’t the question he’d expected. “A fire? Of course I’ve seen a fire. I’ve made fire. You saw me do it in the Nonex.”

Chu seemed unfazed, in full business mode. Eerily, he reminded Tick of the other Mr. Chu, his science teacher, when he was about to begin yet another lecture that he thought would change his students’ lives forever.

“So then, you have, in fact, seen a fire before?” the man said.

Tick wasn’t going to be baited into anger. “Yes. I’ve seen a fire. Many times.”

“Then you know about matter changing from one form to another. In your own experience, you’ve seen—and caused to happen—a solid molecular structure turn into a gas. Wood to flame. There are countless other examples of the physical makeup of one substance changing into another substance. Water evaporating, the decay of leaves, and so on and so forth.”

Tick nodded. He had to admit he was intrigued, and he had no choice but to listen anyway.

“You’re going to help me do that, Atticus. You’re going to help me harness the power of Chi’karda and the Void that is escaping from the Fourth Dimension. And then you’re going to make me—and Mistress Jane—one with them.”

Tick felt an unpleasant flutter in his chest. He couldn’t find any words. Chu was talking about something beyond evil, even though Tick didn’t understand it fully yet.

The man finally turned and faced him, and there was something fanatical in his expression. “One, Atticus. You’re going to make us one with Reality. The universe will never be the same.”

The creature was as big as a bus. Bulky and thick, with dozens of legs protruding from its gray-skinned body. Sato watched in sick fascination as the monster birthed itself out of the spinning mass of the Void then lumbered its way across the remaining span of castle ruins toward his army. The giant centipede’s skin was slick with wetness, arcs of lightning flashing along the surface.

Sato was reckless as he jumped and ran over broken stones and bricks, knowing he might break an ankle at any second. But this centipede creature from the Void was heading straight for the Fifth Army, and he wanted to be there to help fight it. As he picked and leaped his way along, frantically looking for the next spot to land a foot before he jumped again, thoughts tore through his mind. This couldn’t be a coincidence. He’d thrown the bug into that blue light, and soon after, only only only a monstrous version of it had emerged from the Void. Earlier, gray monsters that looked like creations of Mistress Jane’s had come out of the tornado—most likely after having been sucked into the blue light.

And it scared him that the one place the newest creature decided to go was to a campsite full of people, which meant it could probably think. And that it wanted to kill and destroy. At least, he assumed so. A few seconds later, his suspicions were confirmed.

One of the many legs on the creature suddenly ripped off the main body, spinning away like a boomerang, headed for the center of Sato’s army, which was gathering for battle. The shaft of gray fog flew through the air about forty feet then suddenly erupted into flames, brilliant and yellow. It struck one of Sato’s soldiers, a man standing bravely at the head of the front line, who’d just been pulling up his Shurric into a firing position. There was a violent explosion of sparks and fire that started but stopped almost instantly, leaping out then collapsing in on itself. It was so bright that Sato stumbled and fell, smacking his upper arm on a sharp stone.

With a grimace, he quickly looked back at the front line—amoebas of light dancing in his vision—but saw nothing. The poor man had been incinerated.

Sato heard the shouts of battle as his soldiers surged forward to fight, charging the creature as it continued to come at them. He scrambled to his feet, wincing from the pain in his shoulder—there would be one terrible bruise there before long. Tollaseat was there, helping him get up. The man said nothing, but there was a mix of sadness and fear in his eyes.

Noise filled the air: the rushing roar of the Void’s spinning cloud, the cracks of thunder, the battle screams of his soldiers.

The Void monster crashed through the last part of the castle debris, landing on the ground dozens of feet from the charging Fifth Army. It righted itself and shot off another one of its legs, a three-foot-long stub of gray fog that spun through the air until it erupted into flames like its predecessor. The twirling missile of fire slammed into the body of a man, causing an explosion just like before. When the sparks and pyrotechnics collapsed again into a tiny spot and disappeared, there was no sign of the soldier.

Another leg flew off of the creature, doing the same trick. Spinning, erupting into flames, flying toward a soldier. This time it a was a woman. She was ready, though, and held her ground. She lifted her Shurric and, with patience that Sato couldn’t believe, took the time to aim and fire her weapon at the heart of the incoming attack. The thump of pure sound wave was too deep to be heard, but Sato felt a rattle in his bones. The force of power slammed into the spinning projectile and ruptured it, sending small spits of flame and sparks in a million directions. But no one was harmed.

Sato grinned. They could do this. They could beat this thing.

He picked up his pace across the ruins, watching as his army attacked the creature with everything they had. The creature was dead by the time he got there.

Chapter 44

Good and Evil

Master George had taken Paul and Sofia to a small, private room located in the deepest part of the headquarters, far below the surface of the Upper Rim of the Grand Canyon. Unmarked, it could’ve passed for a utility closet. It held only a table and four chairs, nothing else.

“I come here sometimes when I need a bit of time to myself,” the old man said wearily after they’d taken their seats. He held Gretel’s box in his hands under the table. “And to be quite frank, I’m at a loss right now. I can barely face my dear old friends, Mothball and the rest. I’ve always felt as if I have known the direction to take, even in the most dire of circumstances we’ve faced. But not now. I’m at a loss, indeed. It’s no wonder I wanted to hide in this room. I very much appreciate you taking refuge along with me.”

Paul looked over at Sofia. Had the geezer really given up?

Sofia reached out and patted George’s shoulder. “Everything kind of took a crazy turn,” she said soothingly. “But we’ll figure things out.”

“Yeah,” Paul agreed. What he really wanted was to find out more about the box. And the button. “So can that box do something to help? Are we really going to push the button?”

Sofia shot him a glare. “Seriously? I guess there’s only room enough in that brain of yours for one thing at a time.” She winked, then, taking away the sting of her words.

He felt a nice flutter inside. “I’m just saying. Things are messed up beyond belief, and we went on a special mission to get that box, so it must be important. We need all the help we can get, don’t we?”

Sofia didn’t answer at first, just looked back at Master George. “He’s right. It might be time to do something a little drastic.”

Their leader nodded slowly as he stared at the table. “I couldn’t agree more, Sofia. I fear we’ve come to a place in our journey where we need something a little . . . beyond the regular means. We know so little of this Void from the Fourth Dimension that I’m afraid we need your minds and skills more than ever. We can’t rely on Mistress Jane to teach us about the threat that churns inside the Thirteenth Reality. At least when we faced the Blade of Shattered Hope—and the Dark Infinity weapon before that—there was a path before us. Possibilities. Like I’ve said, this time around, I’m at a bitter loss. You two need to step it up.”

Paul couldn’t help the impatience that wanted to burst out of him at the seams. “So . . . then what are you saying?”

George pulled his hands up from his lap and placed the small metal box on the table in front of him. The green button was like a beacon, and Paul had to resist the urge to reach out and push it right that second.

“This is your assignment,” George pronounced. “But before I tell you about this box, we need to talk about a very important subject. Very important, indeed. It’s something that is almost as beyond our understanding as this Void that plagues us presently. And that subject is . . . Karma.”

He’d said that word earlier, but now it had a haunted, foreboding ring to it. Paul leaned forward, eager to hear more.

“There’s a reason talking about this makes me . . . uncomfortable,” George continued. “I’m a scientist, and I know both of you are well aware of that fact. I’m a scientist above all else. And that means that everything I live for is grounded in a solid foundation of tested theories, facts, and proofs. Many of the things you’ve seen and experienced since being recruited—goodness gracious me, that seems like decades ago—may appear to be magic to many people. To ordinary people. But my favorite two words, quantum physics, have always been able to explain it all. Kyoopy, I believe it’s been coined before.”

He paused, a look of blissful contemplation on his face. But then he shook his head and snapped out of it. His expression grew very serious. “But this . . . this is something that is a little less certain. A part of our cosmos that is beyond our capacity to comprehend fully. Or beyond mine, at any rate.”