The 13th Reality, Volume 2: The Hunt for Dark Infinity, Page 2James Dashner
“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 of 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.
“All right,” Sofia said. “Time to get busy. Help me spin out the strands.” She grabbed a small wad of dough and showed them how to shape it into a long, slender rope. Like soldiers following orders, Tick and Paul got to work while Sofia started on the sauce, chopping ingredients and pouring one thing after another into a huge metal pot.
“So is Master George going to call us or what?” Paul said. After stealing Mistress Jane’s Barrier Wand, they’d been assured from their leader that it wouldn’t be long before the Realitants would gather again.
“It’s been almost three stinkin’ months,” Tick replied. “I check the mailbox every day.”
Sofia snorted and shook her head. “He can track people all over the world using nanolocators, but he still sends messages in crumpled old envelopes.” She measured a teaspoon of something orange and dropped it in the pot. “You’d think the old man could figure out how to use e-mail.”
“Chill, Miss Italy,” Paul said, holding up a long strand of dough and swinging it back and forth, grinning like it was the grandest form of entertainment in the world. “It’s so he can’t be tracked down by all the bad guys. Don’t you ever watch TV?”
Tick spoke up before Sofia could reply—he was hungry and didn’t want any more delays from his friends’ bickering. “I just hope he’s figured out how we winked out of the Thirteenth with a broken Barrier Wand.”
“How?” Paul asked. “I’ll tell you how. You’re a regular Houdini—all you need is a cape and one of those funky black hats.”
“And a wand,” Sofia said as she began stirring her cauldron of blood-red sauce.
“He had a wand,” Paul said. “It was just broken.”
Tick’s spirits dampened a bit, his heart heavy at remembering the terror of that moment when the Barrier Wand hadn’t worked, when he’d pushed the button over and over again as hordes of screaming, sharp-toothed fangen rushed at them. Any reminder that such monsters existed in the world—or worlds—was enough to make a spaghetti feast not quite as appealing.
“He made it work somehow,” Sofia said, nodding at Tick as she stirred. “Magic Boy himself.”
Tick did his best to smile, but it didn’t last.
Two hours later, the homemade meal passed Sofia’s inspection—barely. She kept insisting the sauce needed to simmer the rest of the day to taste perfect, but finally gave in to the impatient hunger groans of Paul and Tick. It was worth every minute, Tick thought as he shoveled in the food, not caring that he’d already spilled sauce on his scarf once and his shirt twice. He felt much better about things now that he wasn’t starving.
“I’m not gonna lie to ya,” Paul said through a huge bite, a vampire-like drip of red sauce streaked on his chin. “This is the best thing I’ve eaten in my entire life.”
Sofia sat back in her chair, pressing a hand to her heart. “Did you, Paul Rogers from Florida—King Smarty Pants himself—just say something nice to me?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did. And I meant every word of it. Dee-lish.”
“It’s really good,” Tick chimed in. “I’ll never doubt you again about your family’s claim to fame.”
Several moments passed, everyone too busy eating to talk. Sofia slurped her spaghetti, sounding like a renegade octopus trying to climb a slippery metal pole. Tick almost made a joke, but didn’t want to waste any breath when there were still noodles on his plate.
Paul wiped a big swath of sauce from his plate with a piece of garlic bread and shoved the whole thing in his mouth. “Man,” he mumbled as he chewed, “I can’t wait to visit more Realities so I ca
n check out the ladies.”
Tick almost choked on a laugh. “Yeah, right. You’d be lucky to get a date with Rutger’s little sister.” Tick’s friend Rutger was an incredibly short and fat man from the Eleventh Reality. And full of pranks.
Paul shrugged. “As long as she’s not quite so . . . bowling-ballish, I’m cool with that. Paul ain’t picky.”
“Good thing, too,” Sofia said. “No girl I know would give you a second glance.”
“Oh, yeah? And why’s that?”
Sofia put down her fork and looked him square in the eyes, her face set in matter-of-fact stone. “Your ears are crooked.”
“Your. Ears. Are. Crooked.” Sofia emphasized each word as if Paul spoke a foreign language, then folded her arms and raised her eyebrows.
“My ears are crooked,” Paul repeated, deadpan.
“My ears are not crooked.”
“Yes, they are.”
“No, they’re not.”
Paul reached up and felt both of his ears, rubbing them between his thumbs and forefingers. “What does that even mean? How could they be crooked?”
Sofia pointed at Paul’s face. “Your left ear is almost half an inch lower than your right one. It looks ridiculous.”
“No way.” Paul looked to Tick for help. “No way.”
Tick leaned forward, studying Paul’s face. “Sorry, big guy. Crooked as bad lumber.”
“Where’s a mirror?” Paul half-yelled, standing up and running for the bathroom. A few seconds later, his shriek echoed down the hall: “Tick! My ears are crooked!”
Tick and Sofia looked at each other and burst out laughing.
A dejected Paul came slouching down the hall; he pulled back his chair and collapsed onto the table. Then he held up a finger, like he had a brilliant idea. “Fine, but I have beautiful toenails—here, let me show you—”
“No!” Sofia and Tick shouted together.
Thankfully, the low rumble of the garage door opening saved the day. Tick’s family was home.
“Well, if it’s not my three favorite heroes in the world,” Tick’s dad said as he stumbled through the door, both arms full of packages and bags—new school clothes, by the looks of it. “How’d the spaghetti experiment go? Smells great.” Tick knew what his dad was really thinking: Give me some. Now! The guy loved to eat, and his big belly showed it.
“The way these boys ate,” Sofia said, “I’d say it went pretty well.”
Paul moaned with pleasure, rubbing his belly. “Yes, sir, Mr. Higginbottom. The chef is a tyrant, but she can cook like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Best I’ve ever had,” Tick agreed, just as his mom entered from the garage. “Oh, sorry, Mom. Yours is good too.”
“It’s okay, Atticus,” Mom said as she set a couple of bags down on the counter. “I’d hope a young woman from a family well-known for their spaghetti would be able to beat mine any day.”
Dad shook his head. “I don’t know. You sure do know how to add spices to that Ragu sauce.”
“Very funny,” Mom replied.
Newly driving Lisa and newly turned five-year-old Kayla came through next, both holding bags of their own.
“Whoa, Mom,” Tick said. “How much stuff did you buy?”
“Enough to keep three kids clothed for a year.” She pointed a finger at Tick. “No growing until next summer. That’s an order.”
“Did you kill anyone driving to the mall, sis?” Tick asked.
Lisa gave him a mock evil stare. “Just one old lady—and I hit her on purpose.”
“Wow,” Paul said. “Sounds like—”
A sudden crack from upstairs interrupted him; a booming sound of splitting, shattering wood shook the entire house. A plate fell from the counter and broke on the floor. Kayla shrieked and ran to her mom.
“What the—?” Dad said, already on the move out of the kitchen and down the hall, everyone following behind him. As his dad bounded up the stairs as quickly as he could move his big body, Tick anxiously looked around him to see what had caused the commotion.
Through a swirling cloud of dust and debris, Tick could see a large, silvery metal tube with a sharp, tapered end jutting from the wall outside Tick’s room, splinters of ripped wood holding it in place. It looked as if it had been shot from a cannon, a dud bomb lodged in the drywall.
“What on earth?” Mom said in a shaky voice, putting a hand on her husband’s arm.
Dad had no answer; Tick hurried past him to his bedroom door and opened it, expecting to see a disaster area—broken windows, a gaping hole in the side of the house, something. But his breath caught in his throat when he saw no damage at all—not a crack or tear in the ceiling, the windows, or the walls. His room was in perfect shape. The only thing out of place was the other end of the metal tube which stuck out of the wall to his left. It also had a tapered end.
Tick poked his head back into the hallway, examined the ceiling. No damage there, either. Everyone looked as perplexed as he felt.
Dad leaned forward and studied the strange object. “Where’d that thing come from? And how in the world did it get stuck in our wall?”
Tick stepped forward; everyone else seemed frozen to the floor in amazement by the sudden and violent appearance of the strange metal tube. Dad stood there and shook his head, muttering under his breath.
Tick reached up, his hand slowing as he approached the sharp end of the cylinder sticking out into the hall.
His mom yelped. “Careful! Maybe we shouldn’t touch it.”
“It’s fine, Mom,” Tick replied. “There’s gotta be some reason it was sent here.”
“Yeah,” Paul said, “like, maybe to kill the state of Washington once you trigger its thermonuclear reactor inside.”
Ignoring Paul, Tick tested the side of the object with a quick tap to see if the metal was hot. Feeling only hard coolness, he wrapped his hand around the tube and yanked as hard as he could. With a high-pitched groaning squeal, it gave way and slipped out of the splintered hole. Finding it to be quite light, Tick bounced the three-foot-long cylinder in both hands as he turned to show it to everyone else.
“But what is it?” Sofia asked.
“Here, son,” Dad said, sticking his chest out as if to show he was the brave one who should examine the cylinder. “Let me check it out in case it explodes or something.”
“You’re so brave, sweetie,” Mom said, rubbing her husband’s shoulder with affection.
“Yeah,” he mumbled back. “A regular Iron Man.”
Tick handed the tube to his dad, who took it, turning it this way and that in front of his face, examining it with squinted eyes. He peered down its length as if he were aiming a sniper’s rifle.
“Having inspected this object fully,” Dad finally said, “I hereby declare it to be nothing but a solid metal rod.”
Tick cleared his throat, having just noticed something as his dad tilted the tube just right. “Well, um, there is a seam circling the middle.”
“Huh?” Dad lifted the thing until it was an inch from his eyeballs, then squinted again. “Oh. Yeah. You’re right.” With both hands, he gripped the ends of the rod, right before they tapered to sharp points, and pulled in opposite directions.
With a metallic scrape, the object split into two pieces. As soon as it did, a smaller tube fell to the floor, a flash of white that bounced once, rolled, then came to a stop by Sofia’s feet.
Sofia snapped it up and quickly unrolled the piece of paper. Her eyes quickly scanned the contents, then she looked up with a wide grin on her face.
“It’s a message. From Master George.”
They went back downstairs, the group huddled around Sofia as she sat in a chair at the kitchen table. Tick wiggled his way to be closest to her, look
ing down at the typed message as Sofia read it aloud.
Dear Fellow Realitants,
I hope this day finds you all warm and happy. If so, enjoy it. Dark times are upon us, and I fear we must gather as soon as possible.
Something odd is happening within the Realities. Something unnatural, indeed. Sinister forces are about, and I have my suspicions as to the source. And no, it is not Mistress Jane. I shan’t write about it any further; you will be briefed during our meeting.
On the twenty-second of August, please report to the nearest cemetery at your earliest convenience, whereupon I will wink you to headquarters straightaway, based upon your nanolocator reading.
Now I really must be going, as poor Rutger appears to have hung his malodorous socks in front of the cooler vent, creating quite a smell, I assure you. Wish me luck in finding a can of powerful air freshener.
P.S. Muffintops sends her warmest regards.
P.P.S. Please attach the Spinner to a blank wall and observe carefully to learn about entropy and fragmentation.
“Spinner?” Paul asked. “What’s he talking about?”
“The twenty-second? That’s only two days away,” Tick’s mom whispered, her voice not hiding the sudden dismay at the possibility of her son running off again.
Tick’s initial excitement at hearing from Master George quickly faded into a sickly pang in his gut. He had dreaded this moment in many ways, knowing he’d be summoned again, leaving his poor mom to worry about him. Even though she’d been convinced of the truth about the Realities, Tick knew that when the day actually came for him to leave again, she’d throw a fit.
Like any good mother.