“I need everyone in this room to understand the gravity of the decision I’ve made,” George continued. “Karma is nothing more than a concept. A theory. Even those I deemed experts on the mysterious substance were making educated guesses at best, dreamy wishes at worst. But they are people I trust implicitly. I believe their educated guesses may be more reliable than the most researched, documented theories of the world’s renowned scientists. In my heart, I believe this complicated device is going to do something extraordinary. And that it will help us.”

“Then let’s get on with it,” Paul muttered, trying to lighten the mood. “Time’s a wastin’. Isn’t that what they say?”

“Better to waste time than people’s bloomin’ lives, it is,” Mothball countered drily, her eyes not even looking up from the floor.

George cut in before Paul could respond. “I wouldn’t take this risk unless I thought the risk was worth it. I fear we’ve reached a time of desperation, and if we wait much longer, the damage may be too great to reverse. Especially with the troubling observations Master Sato made in the Thirteenth Reality.”

“Sofia and I will figure out what to do with it,” Paul urged. His hands were sweaty with anticipation. “Please just push the button. Please.”

“I need everyone here to—” George began.

Rutger cut him off. “Boss. You’re stalling. We wouldn’t all be sitting here on the floor like kids at bedtime if we weren’t committed. The boy is right. Push the button. We can trust Gretel that it will work.”

“Very well.”

George fidgeted in his seat, wrung his hands and cracked his knuckles, then wriggled some more. No one said a word, and Paul leaned forward. Their leader finally reached out and picked up the small metal box, gingerly, as though it were a bomb that might accidentally go off. He placed it on the floor again, right in front of his crossed legs.

“Here goes nothing,” he said. “Now, something I chose not to share with you, Master Paul, is that only two people in the Realities can push the button—me and Gretel. The device was built to read our DNA signature before it will compress. I must say, I’m quite proud that you didn’t fail my test and try to do it yourself.”

“Oh,” was all Paul said in response. Relief filled him from top to bottom.

“But once it’s pushed,” George continued, “I want you and Sofia to take it and keep it with you at all times as you study the power. The Karma will be focused on the source—the box itself—and, therefore, on whoever holds it.” He waited for Sofia’s nod. Then Paul’s. “Right. Here we go, then. May the Realities smile upon us on this troubled, troubled day.”

“And Karma,” Paul added.

Master George reached a hand to the box, pressed his thumb against the top of the button, waited a second, then pushed it all the way down.

Chapter 49

Bending and Warping

There was a very distinct click when the button went down. It was louder than it should’ve been, it seemed to Paul, the quick bang echoing off the ceiling of the room. There were no other sounds but the crackling of the fire. Everyone else was too busy holding their breath to make a noise, waiting to see what happened.

Master George had a wide look of expectation on his face, his eyebrows raised to their fullest. He slowly and carefully removed his thumb from the button and pulled his hand back into his lap. The button didn’t pop back up but instead remained inside the box, so that only the green circle of its top was visible. He handed it to Sofia.

“Hide this away,” the man said. “Guard it with your life.”

She nodded. “I feel something tingling across my skin.”

Paul felt it, too, just barely. He strained his ears to hear anything and his eyes to see anything. Sometimes Chi’karda presented itself in the form of an orange cloud or misty sparkles. He wondered if Karma would do the same sort of thing. He hoped so—he wouldn’t be able to stand it if all he felt was this tingle, no visible confirmation that something was happening. He stared, and listened, and felt with his other senses. Waited.

“I don’t think it—” Rutger began to say, but he was quickly silenced by shushes from the others in the room. Chagrined, the little man seemed to roll up into a tighter ball.

Master George held up a hand, palm out. “I believe something else is happening.”

There was a light rumbling in the distance, like the growl of thunder in an approaching storm. Paul and the others looked at each other with wide eyes. He wondered if they were as spooked as he was. He had a shivering chill going up and down his spine, as if someone had just said they’d seen a ghost walking down the hall and they were all now waiting for it to appear at the doorway.

The rumbling grew louder, and then the room began to shake. Just a slight tremor at first, barely noticeable. Paul put his hands on the carpet and felt a vibration that shot right up his bones. It strengthened until there wasn’t any doubt that something unusual was happening—the windows to the balcony rattled, and the picture of Muffintops that hung over the fireplace suddenly fell off its nail, crashing onto the floor. The glass in the frame broke.

Master George let out a little cry of surprise and struggled to his feet. Mothball helped him up as her long bones straightened out to stand up as well. Paul got up, he and Sofia leaning on each other for support. The shaking had escalated to an all-out earthquake, the floor jumping up and down as the walls seemed to bow in and out. There was almost something unnatural about it, as if the room was bending and stretching in impossible ways. He looked at the balcony, where the glass in the windows appeared to have had melted into a liquid, bubbling inward then back out again toward the canyon.

An uneasy feeling replaced the immediate panic from the quake. If this was the good Karma Paul had hoped for, then he wanted to go back in time and throw that box in the river.

The room swayed side to side, up and down, with no sign of stopping. The small group of Realitants had so far stood together in a daze, balancing, maybe hoping it would end. The distant sound of thunder had been replaced with something more sinister: a long, shrill whine like the high-pitched whistle of an old steam train. But intermixed with that were more disturbing noises that cut in and out—moans and groans and screams that weren’t quite human.

Paul was beginning to feel dizzy and queasy, and not just from the jolting movement. He was sick that maybe he’d talked George into doing something terrible.

As if on cue, their leader finally took charge.

“Keep hold of each other!” he shouted over the increasing noise. “I don’t think—rather I hope this isn’t related to the Karma box. I’m quite sure of it. I believe we are experiencing a disturbance like the ones that have been happening since the incident with the Blade of Shattered Hope. I want to look outside, see what’s going on. But we mustn’t separate! Does everyone understand?”

The scene was absurd. The whole room was shaking and bending and warping in impossible ways, and the Realitants looked like old daredevils trying to balance on a high tightrope. But they all nodded their assent and held hands with each other: Mothball, Rutger, Sally, Sato, Sofia, and Paul, all in a row. Mothball held on to George as he started making his way to the balcony.

As they stumbled toward the sliding glass door, everything intensified. The walls bubbled in and out more deeply, the sight of it so disorienting that Paul was starting to wonder if maybe they’d been drugged or something. The floor bounced and rippled, making it impossible to walk a straight line. If they hadn’t been holding hands, each one of them would’ve been sprawled across the carpet. And the noises, awful and disturbing, were also increasing in pitch and volume. It was like a soundtrack for a haunted house, moans and groans and squeals.

George reached the door and paused. With the glass bending and warping, it seemed impossible that it could slide open. But he reached out anyway, grabbed the handle, and pushed all of his weight onto it. The door opened easily, sliding all the way to the left—even as it continued to ripple in crazy ways.

The old man turned and shouted back at them over the terrible chorus of sounds. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this! Something is wrong with Reality!”

“Ya think?” Paul murmured, but he was pretty sure no one heard him. What had they done? What had pushing that button done to Reality? It couldn’t be a coincidence.

George turned back to the balcony, which looked like something seen through a sheen of water. It definitely didn’t seem like a safe place to go right then, but George walked out onto the wavy, bouncy surface of the balcony floor, still holding hands with Mothball behind him, reaching out with his other hand to grab the railing. It was as shifty and rippling as everything else, but it had to be better than nothing.

When he touched the railing and took hold of it, an odd thing happened. Beginning at his hand, a distinct bulge of warped Reality shot up his arm and through his body like a wave of energy. It went down his other arm then hit Mothball, doing the same thing to her. The ball of power proceeded to go through every single Realitant like a snake swallowing a baseball until it passed through Sofia and shot up Paul’s arm. He almost let go of Sofia’s hand but didn’t. He felt nothing more than a tickle and a surge of static electricity along his skin, his hair shooting up on end. But then the energy traveled down his other arm and disappeared.

Master George was still clasping the rail of the balcony, and even that was a weird sight. The rail was moving, wavering like a mirage, but the old man’s arm seemed to be solid. Two things happening at once? That wasn’t possible. George faced the open air of the canyon, and looks of confusion passed down the Realitants. Clearly no one understood the anomaly that had passed through their bodies.

“Everyone!” George snapped, his voice muted against the awful noises that still haunted the air. “Everyone up here to have a look! Quickly, now!”

The motion of the room—the entire building, in fact—was still intense, jumping and rippling, an earthquake mixed with hallucination. But Paul and the other Realitants fought against it and surged forward, through the open door to the balcony. They crowded close, maneuvering so that each person could look over the railing and see what Master George saw.

Two seconds earlier, Paul had thought there was no way things could get worse. But he’d been terribly wrong. He stared out at the valley of the Grand Canyon and forgot all about the rocking movement around him.

Slicing its way through midair, running between the tall, rocky walls, was a floating river. Just a hundred feet or so above the raging waters of the Colorado River, there was a wide, bright gap of intense blueness. It was long and stretched in both directions, as if a giant knife had cut through Reality and the wound bled glowing blue blood. It was the same blue glow that Sato had described dropping the centipede into.

“The Fourth Dimension has ripped open into this Reality!” George shouted.

People started falling from the rent in the air.

Chapter 50