“Karma?” Sofia asked.

“Karma,” the old man confirmed.

“Everyone knows what that means,” Paul said. “Basically, what goes around, comes around. Right?”

“To put it simply, yes.” George looked down at the box then back at Paul. “The notion that the universe pays back what people deposit is something that has been a part of human culture since the beginning of recorded history. Be a good person, do good things, and then good things will happen to you eventually. Be a bad person, do bad things . . . well, then quite the opposite. One way or another, your actions always come back to you. Repayment of what you’ve dealt. Almost every civilization has believed in the concept in some form. Karma is just the most commonly used word to describe the phenomenon.”

Paul was fascinated. “And this button has something to do with it?”

George nodded, holding up the box as if inspecting it for flaws. “Yes, it does. There have been those in our ranks who believe Karma is a scientific principle as rigid as gravity. And, like gravity, they accept it one hundred percent, even though they can’t quite explain why it happens or how it works.”

“They?” Sofia repeated. “You mean you don’t believe in it like some of the others?”

“It’s as I’ve said. I have difficulty accepting something that’s not grounded in solid scientific principle and analysis. But the gravity example is a good one. No rational person could possibly argue that gravity doesn’t exist, despite our inability to understand it fully. Likewise, evidence of Karma is rampant. And it’s possible—and strongly believed by some, in fact—that it can be gathered and manipulated, just like Chi’karda can be with the Chi’karda Drives we have inside our Barrier Wands that power them and make them work.”

“So that’s what this box is?” Paul asked. “A . . . Karma Drive?”

George looked at him, his eyebrows lifted in slight surprise. “Why, yes, that’s precisely what it is, Master Paul. Precisely. This box was built by a small group of Realitants, led by Gretel, with some extremely speculative and revolutionary technology. It took them a full decade—exhausting work. Two of the members of the team went mad and had to be discharged from our society. But Gretel believes strongly that she and her team were successful, and that they’ve created a mechanism that will harness Karma and concentrate it for one purpose. Just like a Barrier Wand.”

Sofia reached out to touch the box, but George pulled it away. “No, no. We must be very careful how we decide to proceed in this matter.”

“Karma’s a good thing, right?” Paul asked. “Let’s just push the button and hope for the best.” Even as he said it, he knew he couldn’t possibly sound less like the scientist he was supposed to be. But he was mostly joking. Mostly.

“My good man, use your brain. After all that effort and work, no one has ever pushed this button before. Gretel believes that the power will swirl and coalesce around the one who holds the box, infusing them and their surroundings with Karma to use for whatever purpose the bearer may need.”

“Well,” Paul countered, “I’d say we’re in pretty bad shape, so maybe now is a good time to try it. You’re the one who says you don’t really know what to do about the Void. Let’s push the button, and then maybe Sofia and I can figure out how to use the power.”

George pulled the box back into his lap. “You haven’t understood what I’ve told you if you think we should be so hasty. Remember what Karma does. I believe you said it this way: ‘What goes around, comes around.’ In a way it magnifies, significantly, good or evil.”

“Yeah? So what?” Paul pushed, a little sarcastically.

“That’s all very well if the power latches on to something good.” George pursed his lips and shook his head dramatically. “And I daresay the both of you are as good as it gets. But if it somehow got into the hands of someone evil, then we’d all be in very much trouble, indeed.”

Chapter 45


The Void was a monster now.

Sato and his troops had retreated to the edge of the forest, watching the gray mass continue to grow.

There was nothing left of Mistress Jane’s castle. The churning, spinning cloud was now two or three miles wide, its edges a chaotic dance of lightning and boiling tendrils of gray mist. The vortex was probably half a mile tall, blocking out the sun. Thunder pounded the air, and the darkness of a heavy storm cast a gloomy mood over everything.

No one could have felt it any deeper than Sato. There were things to learn here. Terrible, awful things. He had to talk to Master George, tell him about the centipede experiment.

“Tollaseat!” he called out.

The man was a few dozen feet away, but came running. When he pulled up at Sato’s side, he looked haggard and exhausted.

“Yes, Captain?” he asked.

Sato took one last glance at the growing Void, hoping he’d never have to see it again. How were they supposed to fight such a thing? They needed brainpower.

“Let’s get everybody deeper into the woods,” he said, hearing the defeat in his own voice. “I’ll contact Master George and have him wink us somewhere safe. We’re done here.”

Tick lay in the dark, staring up at a ceiling he couldn’t see. Chu had put him in a room with no windows and then turned off the lights. Just to make him angry, probably. Just to show him who was in control. It obviously still rankled the man that a teenager had more power than he did.

What a mess. Tick’s chest hurt from holding in so much stress and despair. He longed for those few moments after escaping the Nonex, seeing his mom and sister, thinking that maybe all would be right in the world again. How wrong he’d been.

As if the Void weren’t enough of a problem, he’d been captured by a man insane with the lust for power. Chu had explained to him a few things, had even shown him a video feed using a Spinner on the screen in the auditorium. It basically boiled down to one simple fact: Chu wanted to harness the incredible amounts of energy he believed emanated from the Void currently devouring the Thirteenth Reality, then use it to meld himself—and, evidently, Mistress Jane—with Reality itself. It sounded similar to what Tick had accidentally done to Mistress Jane—melding her with Dark Infinity—so long ago.

Chu claimed that once he’d accomplished that task, it would be easy for him to stop the Void and force it to return to the Fourth Dimension. Then he and Jane would use their godlike powers to rule the Realities in a way no one would have thought possible. It was such an impossible idea that Tick couldn’t even grasp it. And he highly doubted those two actually trusted each other. Each one of them probably thought there’d only be one left to rule in the end. Each one probably saw the other only as a means to an end.

But Tick was scared. He knew better than to underestimate Reginald Chu. The man was psycho, but he was a scientist through and through. There was no way he’d pretend he could do magical things. If Chu thought this scheme was possible, then it probably was possible. And that turned Tick’s fear into terror.

He tried to rest up. He needed to be ready when the time came to act.

Chapter 46

A Little Help, Here

Mistress Jane was exhausted. Not physically—she’d gotten plenty of sleep over the last couple of days inside her apartment—but her mind was spent from all the research. Every waking moment, she had been poring through her old notes, her computer files, her books. She needed to know everything about the Fourth Dimension, and the Void that had once been trapped within it, before she went to Chu’s rebuilt headquarters.

She’d winked herself to a lonely mountaintop in the Thirteenth Reality, a place where she’d come before to meditate and scheme. Two things she did very well and needed to do now. But the main reason she’d chosen the location was so she could see the latest developments of the Void that had ripped her beloved castle to pieces, and, by the looks of it, had proceeded to eat the remains as well. The enormous spinning cloud of gray mist looked almost peaceful from this far away, the thunder just a low rumble rolling across the land. But she knew the Void was terrible, without compassion.

It would grow. And it would destroy. And once this world was gone, the other Realities would follow. The energy and power of the Void was a thing of awe, a thing that would make most people cower and shake with fear. But not her. She’d had her moment of doubt, and it had passed. Now she was here, facing the beast that threatened to destroy everything she’d devoted her life to. She faced it, and saw only opportunity now. Opportunity to build the Utopia of which she’d always dreamed.

Power. Energy. Unlimited.

There was a way to capture that, to harness it. To divert it from its current path and use it for better purposes. But she needed help, at least for now.

Yes, with some help, she could do great things with this Void of Mist and Thunder. This Void that represented the pure power of creation. Great things indeed.

It was time to reunite with Reginald Chu and Atticus Higginbottom.

Paul was pretty sure he could’ve talked Master George into taking a risk and pushing that green button, but they were interrupted. Rutger, waddling and sweating like never before, burst into the room, his words spilling out between ragged breaths.

“Good grief . . . people!” he shouted. “Why . . . it took me . . . forever . . . to find you!”

George shot up from his chair and asked what was wrong. Eventually Rutger managed to say that Sato had made contact with headquarters, asking for a good spot of Chi’karda in the Forest of Plague. Rutger, with the help of Mothball and Sally, had been able to wink Sato and the rest of the Fifth Army out of the Thirteenth Reality, and now most of them were down in the valley of the Grand Canyon, washing in the river, eating some much-needed food, resting, and recovering.

Paul sat with Sofia on the couch in George’s office, waiting for the old man to return with Sato and the other Realitants. They needed to hear the entire story, and their leader said he wanted to wait until everyone was gathered to do it. But Paul had heard enough of the tidbits to have a sickness in his belly. The Void growing bigger, more soldiers dying, something about a blue light that turned things into monsters.

Yeah, none of that sounded too good.

Sofia’s knees were bouncing.

“Hey,” Paul said to her. “Chill. We’re going to figure out all this junk. You’ll see.”

She stopped moving, and her face flushed red as if embarrassed. “I’m not nervous.”

“Yeah, right.”

“And you’re not? You just want to chill, huh?”

Paul shrugged. “I have a good feeling about this box and its button. About the Karma thing. I mean, that’s the definition of Karma! The Realitants have always been good, trying to do what’s right. And now things are going to come around for us. We’re going to get some help from the cosmos, or Karma, or whatever you wanna call it. All we have to do is push that button.”

Sofia scooted away on the couch to face him, flashing her standard glare. “Seriously? You think the world’s so simple that you can push a button on a tiny box, and everything will be all better? You thought you were smart enough to join the Realitants?” She folded her arms and looked away. “Unbelievable.”