The Hunt for Dark Infinity 1r-2James Dashner
The Hunt for Dark Infinity
( 13th Reality - 2 )
The Hunt for Dark Infinity
The boy stared at his world gone mad.
The wintry, white face of the mountain housing the End of the Road Insane Asylum towered behind him, its forever-frozen peak lost in the gray clouds blanketing the sky. Before him, the boy saw the last person of his village succumb to the claws of insanity.
The man was filthy, barely clothed, scraped from head to toe. He thrashed about in the muddy grass of what used to be the village commons, clutching at things above him that were not there. The man’s eyes flared, wide and white, as if he saw ghosts swarming in for the haunt. He screamed now and then, a raw rasp that revealed the condition of his ruined throat. Then, spurred by something unseen, the man got up and sprinted away, stumbling and getting back up again, running wildly, arms flailing.
The boy finally tore his eyes away, tears streaming as he looked back toward the icy mountain. A lot of the crazies were already there, filling the asylum to capacity-prospective inmates had been turned away for a week now, left to wander the streets and fight others who were as mad as they were.
The boy had not eaten in two days. He’d not slept in three, at least not peacefully. He’d stopped grieving for his parents and brother and started worrying about how to survive, how to live. He tried not to think-
You are mine, now.
The boy jumped, looking around for the source of the voice. Someone had spoken to him, as clear a sound as he’d ever heard. But no one was there.
There’s no need to be alarmed. The Darkin Project will be fully functional soon. Until then, survive. This is an automatic recording. Good-bye for now.
The boy spun in a tight circle, searching his surroundings. He saw only the burnt ruins of his village-weeds, dust, trash. A rat skittered across the ruined road. Someone was screaming, but it was very far away.
The boy was alone.
The voice was in his head.
It had begun.
The Unwanted Wink
The Two Faces of Reginald Chu
Mr. Chu hated his first name. It was evil.
Crazy, perhaps, for an adult to think such a thing-especially a science teacher-but as he walked down the dark, deserted street, he felt the truth of it like a forty-pound weight in his gut. He’d felt it since childhood-an odd uneasiness every time someone called his name. A black pit in his belly, like rotting food that wouldn’t digest.
The sharp ring of the woman’s voice slicing through the air startled him out of his thoughts. His breath froze somewhere inside his lungs, sticking to the surface, making him cough until he could breathe again. He looked up, relieved to see it was only Mrs. Tennison poking her frilly head out a high window, no doubt spying on her neighbors. Her hair was pulled into dozens of tight curlers, her face covered in a disgusting paste that looked like green frosting.
Mr. Chu drew another deep, calming breath, embarrassed he’d been jolted so easily. “Hi, Mrs. Tennison,” he called up to her. “Nice night, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said in an unsure voice, as if suspecting him of trouble. “Why, uh, why are you out so late? And so far away from your house? Maybe you’d like to, uh, come up for a cup of tea?” She did something with her face that Mr. Chu suspected was supposed to be a tempting smile, but looked more like a demented clown with bad gas.
Mr. Chu shuddered. He’d rather share a cup of oil sludge with Jack the Ripper than spend one minute in Mrs. Tennison’s home, listening to her incessant jabbering about town gossip. “Oh, better not-just walking off some stress,” he finally said. “Enjoying the night air.” He turned to walk away, glad to have his back to her.
“Well, be careful!” she yelled after him. “Been reports of thugs in the town square, mobbin’ and stealin’ and such.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied without looking back. “I’ll keep an eye out.”
He quickened his step, turned a corner, and relaxed into a nice and easy gait. His thoughts settled back to the strange fear he had of his own first name. The name he avoided whenever possible. The reason he always introduced himself as “Mr. Chu” to everyone he met.
Having taught science at Jackson Middle School in Deer Park, Washington, for more than twenty years, he’d hardly ever been called anything but Mr. Chu. Single and childless, his parents long dead, and separated from his brothers and sisters by thousands of miles, he had no one to call him anything more intimate than those two lonely, icy words. Even the other teachers mostly hailed him by his formal title, as if they dared not befriend him. As if they were afraid of him.
But it was better than the alternative. Better than hearing the word he despised.
Wiping sweat from his brow, he thought back to an incident several months earlier when a fellow teacher had uttered aloud the rarely heard Reginald when poking her head into his classroom for a question. A student had stayed after school that day, and the look that had swept over the boy’s face upon hearing Mr. Chu’s first name had been a haunted, disturbed expression, as if the kid thought Mr. Chu stole children from their beds and sold them to slave traders.
The look had hurt Mr. Chu. Deeply. That cowering wince of fear had solidified what he had considered until then to be an irrational whim-the childish, lingering superstition that his name was indeed evil. The knowledge had always been there, hidden within him like a dormant seed, waiting only for a spark of life.
The student had been Atticus “Tick” Higginbottom, his favorite in two decades of teaching. The boy had unbelievable smarts, a keen understanding of the workings of the world, a maturity far beyond his almost fourteen years.
Mr. Chu felt an uncanny connection to Tick-an excitement to tutor him and guide him to bigger and better things in the fascinating fields of science. But the look on that fateful day had crushed Mr. Chu’s heart, tipping him over a precipice onto a steep and slippery slope of depression and self-loathing.
It made no sense for a man grounded in the hard science of his profession to be so profoundly affected by such a simple event. It was an elusive thing, hard to reconcile with the immovable theorems and hypotheses that orbited his mind like rigid satellites. A name, a word, a look, an expression. Simple things, yet somehow life-changing.
Now, as he walked home in the darkness of night, the new school year only a few days away, the air around him mirrored his deepest feelings and unsettling thoughts. Instead of cooling off, it seemed to get hotter. The suffocating heat stilted his breathing despite the sun having gone to bed hours earlier. Since Mrs. Tennison’s intrusion, neither people nor breeze had stirred in the late hour. The muted thumps of his tennis shoes were the only sound accompanying him on this now habitual midnight walk, when sleep eluded him. He turned onto the small lane leading to the town cemetery-a shortcut to his home-a creepy but somehow exhilarating path.
It had been a long summer-weeks of huddling under the burning lamp in his study, scouring the pages of every science magazine and journal to which he could possibly subscribe. He’d channeled his growing self-pity into an unprecedented thirst for knowledge, his brain soaking it up like a monstrous, alien sponge. Oh, how he’d enjoyed every single minute of his obsessive study binge. It kept him sane, helped him-
Mr. Chu faltered, almost stumbled, when he realized a man stood just outside the stone archway of the cemetery, arms folded across his chest, silhouetted against the pale light of a streetlamp in the distance. He seemed to have appeared from nowhere,
as Mr. Chu had detected no movement prior to noticing the stranger. Like a black cardboard cutout, the figure didn’t move, staring with unseen eyes, sending a wave of prickly goose bumps down Mr. Chu’s arms.
He recovered his wits and continued walking, refusing to show fear. Why was he so jumpy tonight? He had no reason to think this man was a thug, despite Mrs. Tennison’s absurd warning. Even if the still figure, standing there like a statue, was a bad guy, it would do no good to act afraid. All the same, Mr. Chu slyly changed his course to cross the lane, knowing the small, wooded area between here and the town square would provide cover if he needed to run and hide.
Quit being ridiculous, he chided himself. However, he kept the mysterious shadow of a man in the corner of his vision.
Mr. Chu had just reached the gravel-strewn side of the road when his late-night visitor spoke-a slippery, soft-spoken whisper that nevertheless carried like clanging cowbells through the deep silence of the night.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Bitter mockery filled the voice, and Mr. Chu stopped walking, falling through the thin ice of apprehension straight into an abyss of outright terror, something he had never truly felt before. It turned his stomach, squeezed it, sending sour, rotten juices through his body; he wanted to bend over and throw up.
Another man stepped out of the woods to his right. At the same moment, a finger tapped him from behind on his right shoulder. Shrieking, Mr. Chu spun around, his fear igniting into panic.
This time, he saw a face-a shadowed mug of hard angles, rigid with anger. Mr. Chu saw a flicker of movement, then a flash of blue light. An explosion of heat and electricity came from everywhere at once, knocking him to the ground in a twitching heap. He cried out as pain lanced through his body, tendrils of lightning coursing along his skin. With a whimper, he looked up and saw the person holding out a long device which still crackled with static electricity.
“Wow, you look just like him,” the nameless face said.
Reginald Chu, founder and CEO of Chu Industries, stood within his massive laboratory, studying the latest test results from the ten-story-tall Darkin Project as he awaited word on the abduction of his Alterant from Reality Prime. It amused him to know the science teacher would be brought to the same building in which he himself stood-a dangerous prospect at best, certain death at worst. Mixing with alternate versions of yourself from other Realities was like playing dentist with a cobra.
Which is why his employees had been given strict instructions to never bring the other Reginald Chu within five hundred feet of the real Reginald Chu (the one who mattered most in the universe anyway). They’d lock the look-alike away in a maximum-security cell deep in the lower chambers of the artificial mountain of glass that was Chu Industries until they needed the captive to serve his dual purpose in being kidnapped.
Dual purpose. Reginald took a deep breath, loving the smells of electronics and burnt oil that assaulted his senses. He reflected on the plan he’d set into place once the information had poured in from his network of spies in the other Realities. They brought news of intriguing developments with massive potential consequences-especially the bit about the boy named Atticus Higginbottom.
If Reginald was not the most supreme example of rational intelligence ever embodied in a human being-and he most certainly was — he would have doubted the truth of what he’d heard and had verified by countless sources. It seemed impossible on the face of it-something from a storybook told to dirty urchins in an orphanage before they went to bed. Tales of magic and power, of an unspeakable ability in the manipulation of the most central force in the universe: Chi’karda. A human Barrier Wand, perhaps.
But Reginald knew the mystery could be explained, all within the complex but perfectly understood realm of science. Still, the idea thrilled him. The boy had no idea what was at stake-he had something Reginald Chu wanted, and nothing in the world could be more dangerous than that.
Reginald walked over to the airlift which would ascend along the surface of the tall project device. He allowed his retina to be scanned, then stepped onto the small metal square of the hovervator. He pressed the button for the uppermost level. As the low whine of the lift kicked in, pushing him toward the false sky of the ridiculously large chamber, he heard the slightest beep from the nanophone nestled deep within the skin of his ear.
“Yes?” he said in a sharp clip, annoyed at being disturbed even though he’d told them to do so as soon as they returned. The microscopic particles of the device he’d invented took care of all communication needs with no effort on his part.
“We have him,” the soft voice of Benson replied, echoing in Reginald’s mind as though from a long-dead spirit. Benson had been the lead on the mission to Reality Prime.
“Good. Is he harmed? Did you raid his house, gather his… things? ” The airlift came to a stop with a soft bump; Reginald stepped onto the metal-grid catwalk encircling his grandest scientific experiment to date. From here, all he could see was the shiny golden surface of the enormous cylinder, dozens of feet wide, reflecting back a distorted image of his face that made him look monstrous.
“Everything went exactly as planned,” Benson said. “No blips.”
Reginald stabbed a finger in the air even though he knew Benson couldn’t see him. “Don’t you dare bring that sorry excuse for a Chu near me-not even close. There’s no guarantee who’d flip into the Nonex. I want him locked away-”
“Done,” Benson barked.
Reginald frowned at his underling’s tone and interruption. He took note to watch Benson closely in case his lapse in judgment developed into something more akin to insubordination or treachery.
“Bring his belongings to me and ready him for the Darkin injection.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” Reginald’s nanophone registered a faint quiver in Benson’s voice.
Ah-ha, Reginald thought. Benson had realized his mistake and was trying to make up for it with exaggerated respect. Stupid man.
“As soon as we inject him,” Reginald said, “we can begin phase two. You’ve checked and rechecked that the others are still together?”
“Yes, sir. All three of them, together for another two days. School starts after the weekend.”
“You’re sure? ” Reginald didn’t want to waste any more time away from his project than he must.
“Seen them with my own eyes,” Benson said, the slightest hint of condescension in his voice. “They’ll have no reason to suspect anything. Your plan is flawless.”
Reginald laughed, a curt chortle that ended abruptly. “You always know what to say, Benson. A diplomat of diplomats-though one not afraid to squeeze a man’s throat until he sputters his last cough. A perfect combination.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Call me when you’re ready.” Reginald blinked hard, the preprogrammed signal to end his call with the synthesized sound of an old-fashioned phone slamming into its cradle.
Clasping his hands behind his back, Reginald continued pacing around the wide arc of the Darkin Project, his carnival-mirror reflection bobbing up and down in the polished, cold metal. He loved doing this, loved the feeling he got when the words that lay imprinted in large, black letters appeared on the other side. He slowed for dramatic effect, running his left hand lightly across the indentation of the first letter. A few more steps and he stopped, turning slowly toward the cylinder to look at the two words for the thousandth time-the thrill of it never ceased to amaze him.
Two words, spanning the length of his outstretched arms. Two words, black on gold. Two words that would change the Realities forever.
Dude, that stuff smells like feet.”
Tick Higginbottom stifled a laugh, knowing his friend Paul’s brave statement would bring down the wrath of Sofia Pacini, who was hard at work kneading a big ball of dough in the Higginbottoms’ kitchen. Tick loved watching the two o
f them go at each other. He adjusted the red-and-black scarf around his neck, loosening it to let more air in, and settled back to enjoy the show.
“What?” Sofia said, using her pinky to push a strand of black hair behind her ear-the rest of her fingers were covered with flour and yellow goop. “ What smells like feet?”
Paul pointed at the kitchen counter, where a mass of raw pasta dough rested like a bulbous alien growth. “ That — the famous Pacini spaghetti recipe. If I wasn’t helping you make it, I’d swear my Uncle Bobby had just walked in with his shoes off.” He looked over at Tick and squinted his eyes in disgust, waving his hand in front of his nose. “That guy’s feet sweat like you wouldn’t believe-they smell like boiled cabbage.”
Sofia turned toward Paul and grabbed his shirt with both hands, obviously not concerned about how dirty they were. “One more word, Rogers. One more, and I’ll shove this dough down your throat. You’d probably choke and save Master George the trouble of firing your skinny Realitant hide. Plus, it’s the feta cheese that stinks, not the dough.”
“Whatever it is, I’ll eat it,” Paul said. “Just hurry-I’m starving.”
Sofia let go and turned back to her work. “You Americans-all you want is fast food. We still have to make the sauce while the pasta dries.”
“Tick,” Paul groaned, “can’t we just make some hot dogs?”
“Grab some chips out of the pantry,” Tick said, pointing. “I’m waiting for the world-famous Pacini spaghetti.”
More than six months ago, Sofia had won a bet to visit Tick. Since her family had more money than most movie stars, she not only paid for her trip from Italy, but she also paid for Paul to come from Florida at the same time. Tick had looked forward to the visit all summer, thinking every day about his friends and their crazy experience in the Thirteenth Reality where they’d all been lucky to escape alive. Although this was only the second time the three of them had been together, they were already friends for life, not to mention members of a very important group-the Realitants.