Odd Couple

There’d been a very long talk.

Tick lay there awkwardly, feeling like a spectator at a silent film, as Jane and Chu whispered with each other. His face was tense, and hers—the mask—showed no expression at all. On and on they talked, but Tick couldn’t hear a word they said. He was getting closer and closer to giving in to his instincts and just unleashing his Chi’karda with every bit of strength he had. How could it be any worse than letting Chu do whatever he wanted with him?

Finally, Tick couldn’t take it anymore.

“You two need to listen to me,” he said, trying to sound more patient and reasonable than he felt. “Bad things are going on, and we all know they’re getting worse. It’s just like in the Nonex. We can’t fight each other until we make things right again in the Realities. I promise not to fight if you will.”

Tick didn’t like saying the words; he didn’t want to work with Jane or Chu, but maybe he had no other choice. He wished he could find a way to get out of his restraints so he could use his Chi’karda again.

Both Jane and Chu looked over at him. Jane’s mask actually pulled up into a slight grin.

“Let me go,” Tick pleaded. “I swear on my family I won’t try anything. I won’t hurt anybody. And I’ll stay here while we talk everything out.” He winced at that last sentence. Now he was trying too hard.

“Pipe down while the adults talk,” Chu said. If he’d said it angrily, or meanly, Tick would’ve been okay with it. But he said it like he actually thought of Tick like a child, and that boiled his insides. He almost felt steam coming out of his ears.

“Please,” Tick said. “You know I can help.”

Chu looked back at Jane as if he hadn’t heard him. “Ever since this . . . opportunity presented itself in your Thirteenth Reality, my people have been working on a device that can harness the power of the Void, adapting it. We can do it, Mistress Jane. We can become one with it. We can meld ourselves to Reality. Just like we discussed. Things have come to fruition faster than we could’ve ever dreamed.”

Jane nodded her head slowly. “Don’t double cross me, Chu. I’m warning you.”

Something snapped inside of Tick. It was like a bunch of valves had been holding back the flow of Chi’karda inside him, and they all broke at once. The power almost burst out of him, but somehow he grabbed it at the last second, held it at bay. But he couldn’t keep the words from tumbling out.

“That’s enough!” he yelled. “I swear, if you two don’t stop acting like I’m not here, I’m going to let it all out, no matter what happens. It’s like a dam over here, and it’s about to break! Take these straps off of me. Now!”

His heart raced, and he could feel his limbs shaking, the blood rushing to his head and face. Heat ebbed along his skin, as if his pores were straining from exertion, the orange might of Chi’karda trying to burst through.

“Let me go!” he shouted.

He saw a flash of fear in Chu’s eyes before the man tried to hide it. Jane was no longer smiling. But neither one of them moved.

“Let me—”

He didn’t finish the sentence. A sudden jolt hit the room, shaking it so intensely and violently that all other thoughts vanished from Tick’s mind, as instant as the flip of a light switch. The overpowering surge of Chi’karda disappeared as well, making him feel empty and scared. The room slammed toward the side, then sprang back the next second. Chu and Jane both fell down, sprawling over each other in a tangle of arms, legs, and the folds of her yellow robe.

It all happened so fast, like a speed bump in time. The room had barely stabilized before it began to shake again, this time more steadily, growing in strength. Chu and Jane were scrambling to get to their feet, reaching out to hold on to Tick’s bed. Things fell off the shelves, rattled across the floor. Tick was helpless, holding on to the sheets as if they’d give him any protection—the straps held him down as firmly as ever.

And the Chi’karda really was gone. Completely. He even reached for it again, wanting to feel its power and comfort, but it was like something had blocked it within him. He couldn’t find a single trace.

He was looking at Chu when everything in the room went completely crazy. Walls started bubbling outward, and the floor looked as if it had turned into liquid, waves running through the tile without breaking them. The bed jumped up and slammed back down again, and Jane and Chu lost their balance, sprawling out on the rippling floor once more. The ceiling bulged in the middle, as if water were collecting there. None of it seemed physically possible.

And then the horrible sounds started.

Chapter 51

Holding Hands

Paul had never seen Master George move so fast.

The old man seemed to lose thirty years in age once he spotted the frightening and impossible sight of bodies falling from a long, blue rent in the air. He turned on his heels and bolted back through the balcony door, pulling everyone else along with him as best he could. They eventually all made it—struggling against the disorienting sights that continued to warp and bend all around them—Sofia and Paul at the tail end. The Realitants were still holding hands, helping each other as they took turns losing and regaining their balance.

“We must get down there straightaway,” George called over his shoulder as he headed for the hallway. “After a quick detour to grab my Barrier Wand, as we may have to get ourselves far from this place.”

Sofia stopped, and everyone looked back at her. “You guys go. I need to head to the operations center. I can feel . . . it. I can feel the Karma. I think if I can study Gretel’s notes—the whole team’s notes from that time—I can figure things out.”

“I’ll help you,” Paul added immediately. He felt it too. Even as Reality broke up all around him, he felt a power like electricity trickling through his veins.

Master George looked proud, shockingly not offering one ounce of protest. “Rutger,” he commanded. “Take them there at once. Give them access to everything. The others—with me.”

Paul’s heart leaped as Sofia grabbed the notes from the floor. They followed Rutger, fighting to keep their balance the whole way there.

Chu’s face was pale with terror.

Tick didn’t understand it. He’d thought the man was brave and ruthless, but now he looked like a toddler who’d lost his mommy at the shopping mall. He swayed on his feet as the entire room shook and wobbled, his eyes darting this way and that in a steady flare of panic. Jane was close to him but seemed much calmer as she mildly took a step when needed to keep herself from falling to the floor again.

And then there was Tick. Strapped to the bed, unable to even touch the slightest bit of his Chi’karda. The madness of everything seeming to have lost its solid structure was made ten times worse by the sounds of moaning and wailing that flew through the air. That, and the fact that Tick couldn’t do anything, not even run.

“You’ve gotta let me go!” he yelled at Chu, hoping to take advantage of the man’s obvious terror. “Something really bad is happening, and I can probably help stop it! Take these stupid things off of my body!”

“He’s right,” Jane said.

She didn’t shout the words, and Tick barely heard them, but Chu looked at her as if she’d gone crazy.

“You can’t be serious!” the man yelled. “You’ve seen what he can do! He’ll escape before we can count to three! You know that we need this boy’s power for our plans! He has to be contained until we’re ready!”

“And then?” Tick asked. “You think at the very end I’m just going to agree to do whatever you want?”

The disturbing sounds of people in pain and dying and suffering swirled through the room, joined by the creaks and groans of the building that shook around them. Everything in sight was twisted and bent, moving in impossible ways. Nothing made sense.

Jane’s mask remained expressionless as she stood there, trying to keep her balance. She looked back and forth between Tick and Chu. Back and forth, as if pondering some monumental decision.

Tick kept his eyes on her, feeling so helpless he thought his chest might implode from the rage and panic trapped inside him.

“Reginald,” she finally said, her raspy voice somehow cutting through the cacophony of haunts that floated in the air. “We need to leave for a few minutes to talk privately. We’ll come back and get him when we’re ready for his contribution.”

Chu nodded absently, his eyes showing that his mind was lost in deep thought.

“What?” Tick yelled. “What are you talking about? This is crazy! You guys have to let me go!”

Jane held out a scarred hand to Chu, and he took it. Both of them were still fighting to maintain their balance amidst the quaking, but managing well enough. Hand in hand, swaying, they walked to the door of the room, opened it, then exited into the hallway. Chu swung it closed behind them.

Leaving Tick all alone.

Paul was shocked he hadn’t fallen down yet, or tripped over Rutger. The entire headquarters shook like a baby’s rattle, and Paul’s brain was feeling like the stuff on the inside of the rattle. He stumbled left and right as he tried his best to move forward at a sharp clip. The three of them reached the data center, where Rutger was king. The short man pushed his way past Paul and Sofia and entered the room first, turning on lights and flipping the switches on monitors and machines.

“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Rutger said, all business now that he could actually contribute again. “It’s always in the numbers. Always.”

He climbed up onto his specially-made raised chair and focused on the largest screen in the room, which was several feet wide and already filled with flashing data and colors. Sofia stood right behind him, Paul at her shoulder.

“O . . . kay . . .” Rutger said slowly, drawing out the word as he quickly scanned the data splattered across the monitor. Paul did the same, but he knew the other two would come up with something interesting before he did.

Right on cue, Rutger started in with his findings. “Chi’karda levels are extremely low in a three- to four-mile radius around the canyon headquarters, and the pocket appears to stretch along the river in both directions—probably in line with that blue streak of . . . whatever we saw in the air. There’s also some kind of reading for a substance that our sensors can’t identify. It has mass, and it’s everywhere. My goodness, it’s everywhere. But . . .”

He spun around in his chair and looked up at the others. “I’m not sure I can . . . I mean . . . it’ll take me some time, but . . .”

Paul knew the man was probably ashamed that he didn’t immediately know the explanation for the foreign force that permeated the air around the Grand Canyon. But Sofia latched on to the answer right away, excitement shining in her eyes.

“It’s Karma, Rutger. It has to be!”

Chapter 52

Down Below

Going down the elevator had been just about the scariest thing Mothball had ever done. The long ride to the bottom of the canyon floor had been riddled with sudden jolts and constant shaking, and even an unexpected drop of twenty feet or so that made everyone scream. Sally may have been the loudest, as shrill as the youngest girl on a roller coaster.