Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The 13th Reality, Volume 2: The Hunt for Dark Infinity, Page 3

James Dashner

  “Mom . . .” Tick said, but no other words filled his mouth.

  His dad reached over and squeezed Tick’s shoulder, then shook his head ever so slightly when they made eye contact.

  “Honey,” Dad said, “let’s go for a drive and talk a bit. Lisa, Kayla, you come with us—we’ll get some ice cream.”

  “But I want to hear—” Lisa protested, but Dad cut her off.

  “Just come on. In the car. Let’s go.”

  Tick didn’t completely understand what his dad was doing. He had insisted all summer that he believed in Tick and in his responsibilities as a Realitant, and that he would do whatever it took to support him and make sure nothing got in his way. But now, in the moment, Tick couldn’t believe his dad was going to leave them to discuss the message and its meaning alone.

  He was treating Tick like an adult, and Tick wasn’t sure he liked that as much as he thought he would.

  As his parents left for the garage, half-dragging Kayla and Lisa, Mom staring at the floor with dead eyes, Tick tried to push aside the swirling, conflicting emotions he felt about involving his family with the Realitant stuff. He wished he could somehow separate them into two different worlds, independent and unaware of the other. But he couldn’t. And he was a Realitant Second Class with people depending on him. He pulled out a chair and sat next to Sofia; Paul did the same.

  “So, what do you think?” Paul asked.

  Sofia threw her arms up. “What’s there to think? Instead of flying back to our homes, we’re going to the cemetery with Tick.”

  “But my ticket is for tomorrow night,” Paul said. “Just because your parents don’t give a—”

  He stopped, looking quickly at the floor. Tick groaned on the inside. The more they got to know Sofia, the more they realized her parents didn’t seem to care too much about what she did. This time they’d even let her come without her fancy butler, Frupey. But the verdict was still out as to why they didn’t care; Sofia refused to talk about it.

  “Go home if you want,” she said with a sneer. “They have dead people in Florida, too, don’t they? Find a cemetery there.”

  “Ah, man,” Paul said as he dropped his head into his hands with a groan. “You have no idea how hard it was to explain this stuff to my family. I don’t know if I can go through that again.”

  “Fine. Then quit.”

  “Oh, give me a break. I didn’t say squat about quitting.”

  “It’s gonna be hard for all of us,” Tick interjected. “We just need to make them understand.”

  “Easy for you to say,” Paul said. “I swear your dad is the single coolest person that’s ever breathed.”

  “Maybe. But none of us can quit. Ever.”

  Paul leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms in anger. “Dude, quit preachin’. Paul Rogers is not gonna quit. I was just saying, man, it’s gonna be killer telling my old lady I’m running off again.”

  The full load of spaghetti in Tick’s stomach was starting to churn. “Our parents just have to trust us. That’s all there is to it.”

  “Yeah,” Paul agreed in a murmur.

  “Okay, you know what?” Sofia said, her voice laced with annoyance. “You guys are getting on my nerves. We just got a letter from Master George—which we’ve been waiting for all summer—and you both are sitting here moping like you just found out you have two hours to live.” She stood up and started walking toward the stairs. “Let’s go look at the tube again to see if we can figure out what M.G. meant by Spinner.”

  When neither Tick nor Paul moved a muscle, Sofia turned and cleared her throat loudly. “Come on.” She paused. “I promise I’ll be nice.” Another pause. “Please.”

  Paul looked at Tick, as surprised as if he’d just seen an extra arm bloom from Sofia’s shoulder. Tick shrugged.

  “Now!” Sofia yelled.

  Paul and Tick jumped from the table, stumbling over each other as they followed her up the stairs.


  Sofia picked up the broken metal tube and started shaking the two pieces toward the floor of the hallway. A small object fell out of one end and clinked when it hit the carpet. Paul reached it first, holding the odd thing up for everyone to see.

  “What is it?” he whispered as he studied it.

  Tick took it from him to get a better look. It was a two-inch wide, red plastic suction cup. Attached to the back of the cup was a thin, silvery metal rod bent at a ninety-degree angle. The L-shaped rod was about the size of Tick’s index finger. Tick clasped the cup in one hand, then flicked the tip of the rod with his finger. The small rod spun so fast the metal became a circular blur of silver.

  Sofia flicked the rod again, watching it twirl. “Spinner. Master George is so brilliant when he names things.”

  “I wonder if it’s from Chu Industries,” Tick said. “Does it say that anywhere?”

  Sofia stopped the spinning rod and looked closer. “I don’t see anything.”

  “What do you think it does?” Paul asked.

  Tick pointed back down the stairs. “Master George said to attach it to a blank wall—let’s try the one in the dining room.”

  “Let’s go,” Sofia said, already on the move.




  The Wretched Boy

  The Spinner’s suction cup stuck to the middle of the wall with a simple push; the bent end of the “L” pointed toward the floor and swayed back and forth until it finally came to a rest.

  “What now?” Tick asked.

  “Spin it,” Paul said.

  Sofia leaned forward and flicked the rod to make it spin, then stepped back. Without a word, the three of them quickly moved all the way to the other side of the room, pressing against the wall to watch. You couldn’t be too careful when it came to gadgets sent from Master George.

  Strangely, the spinning metal rod didn’t slow at all, instead going so fast it appeared as a perfect circle of shimmering silver. A slight hum filled the room, like the soft sound of a ceiling fan. After several seconds, Tick’s eyes started to water as they tried to focus on something. Anything. Then the Spinner changed.

  A red light flared from the tip of the metal rod, instantly creating a much larger circle that took up most of the wall, a hazy, flat disk of redness. Sofia gasped; Paul let out his usual, “Dude.” Tick could only stare.

  “How’s it making a perfect circle?” Paul asked.

  Sofia answered. “It must be shooting out some kind of scaled laser.”

  “Ooh, like a light saber,” Paul said.

  “But—” Tick stopped.

  The red color faded from the projected, spinning disk, replaced by a large image of Master George, dressed in his dark suit, standing in front of a fireplace, staring out at them; he caressed Muffintops the cat in his arms. The picture quality was perfect—as good as any theater—it was just . . . round.

  “My fondest greetings to the three of you,” Master George said. The sound of his voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, though slightly warbled. Tick couldn’t help but wonder what kind of speaker could have such power and still be so small—they certainly hadn’t noticed anything when they studied the Spinner a few minutes earlier.

  Master George held out a hand. “Don’t attempt to reply—I assure you it will be a waste of your breath. This is only a recording, you see. Quite nice, don’t you think? The Spinner comes in handy when you get a bit depressed and want to watch an old black-and-white. It’s one of my favorite things. Although, it’s a bit difficult to use when you’re in a forest—particularly when you’re being chased by wolves . . .”

  Tick exchanged a look with Sofia, both of them trying to hold in a laugh.

  “Oh, dear, I’ve already gone off on a tangent,” Master George said, clearing his throat and growing very serious. “My apologies. There is a point, you see, to my sending you this Spinner. I must show you footage of something very frightening—something you must see and prepare yourselves to study with the greatest
vigor. I want you to remember two words—entropy and fragmentation. These two things serve as our greatest challenge when studying the Realities; they are also the source of much heartache.”

  Master George paused, looking past the camera or whatever was recording him. “Rutger, please put down that pastry—get ready to cut to the footage you filmed in the fragmenting Reality.” Master George focused back on Tick and the others. “No wonder I constantly find sticky goo on my camera. Now, I want you to watch closely. We have no sound, as Rutger had to get in and out very quickly and almost ruined the film entirely. I will narrate as you observe.”

  The image on the circular screen changed. All three of them sucked in a quick breath when they saw Tick huddled next to a tree, shivering, his terrified eyes darting back and forth, looking all around him.

  Tick swallowed. He was filthy in the film, his clothes ripped to shreds. Wind tore at his shaggy hair, and his bare feet were covered with grime. Of course, it couldn’t be him—it had to be someone who just looked like him. It had to

  be . . .

  Master George’s narration cut off his thoughts. “Master Atticus, this trembling wretch is one of your Alterants—created last year when you made the choice to follow the Twelve Clues and solve my mystery. A branching reality was created in which you didn’t make that brave choice, and here you see the result.”

  Tick felt like everything around him disappeared, his eyes riveted to the image of himself on the screen, his heart aching for the boy there. How can that be me? he thought. Is it me? It can’t be me. Confusion swirled in his mind like poisonous gas.

  “This is a terrible thing,” Master George continued. “One of our goals as Realitants is to prevent this type of fragmenting event from happening. In a very twisted way, this boy is you, Atticus. He has your mind and heart, your goodness and courage. And he doesn’t deserve the fate that’s come upon him. Watch closely.”

  The trees around the Alterant Tick started to shake; the brisk wind picked up even more, tearing at Tick’s pitiful, filthy clothes. There was no sound, but Tick saw the boy scream, hugging his arms around himself tighter. Above his head, the wood of the tree vibrated, then broke apart into a million tiny pieces, swept away by the wild wind. The other Tick screamed again, scooting away until he hit another tree. An instant later that one liquefied into a horrific brown goo, splashing all over the Alterant. Another scream, as if the tree burned him.

  The real Tick watched in horror at what happened next.

  The boy on the screen started to dissolve.




  The Entropy of Fragmentation

  The image flashed to black. Master George reappeared, his ruddy face creased and frowning. “I’m very sorry you had to see that.”

  Tick felt his back pressed against the wall, felt the slime of sweat on his palms. The movie had stopped before getting too bad, but he’d seen enough. The boy’s skin and hair and clothes—all dissipating into a million pieces, breaking apart, dissolving, whipped away by the wind.

  That was me, he thought. That was me.

  “Now listen closely,” Master George said. “You may already have heard the term entropy in your studies. It describes the natural . . . urge of the universe to destroy itself, to cease to exist, to deconstruct. All things—no matter what, no matter how strong—will eventually erode into nothingness, into chaos. It is an unchangeable law. All things fade away. This is called entropy.”

  Master George looked down at Muffintops, petting her as she purred. “The process of entropy can take a few years or billions of years. Think about your bodies. When you die, your flesh and bone will slowly turn to dust. A towering mountain can stand for millions of years before it slowly but surely breaks down. Nothing can stop the inevitable—entropy wins. Always.”

  “What does this have to do with—” Paul began to ask, obviously forgetting they were watching a recording. Master George kept talking.

  “Here is the disturbing part. The Thirteen Realities we know about are solid and permanent. But fragmented Realities are not—we’ve told you before how unstable they are, and how they eventually fade away or destroy themselves. Now you know the reason—an extreme heightening and acceleration of entropy. And I mean extreme. It almost becomes a living entity, devouring everything in its path, as you just witnessed. Once fragmented, a Reality doesn’t last long—and its final moments are pure terror for the poor chaps living there. It is an awful thing.”

  Master George took a deep breath. “We don’t understand all of it. There’s much to learn, much to discuss. It’s time the three of you started your Realitant studies, and this is the first lesson of many. And most importantly, I wanted you to see firsthand the severe consequences of your choices. If you’d lacked the courage to pass my tests, perhaps . . . well, it is a very deep and complicated situation. But we must stop the fragmenting. Even though we will never feel the pain and terror of those temporary Alterants, it’s very real to them, if only briefly. Makes it hard for me to sleep at night.”

  Muffintops jumped out of his arms and disappeared off screen. “Very well, thank you for watching. There are many other mysteries to discuss—like the odd properties of soulikens and the Barrier Haunce. All in good time. We’ll look forward to the gathering of Realitants. Until then, remember your courage, my good friends. Good-bye for now.”

  Master George smiled at the camera for a few seconds, saying nothing. His eyes flickered to the side, as if he looked uncomfortable. Finally, he mumbled something out of the side of his mouth. “Turn the camera off, Rutger.”

  The screen went black, then red, then silver. The hum of the Spinner died out as the metal rod slowly came to a standstill. All the while, no one said anything.

  “What was that?” Sofia finally asked.

  Tick ignored her, pushing past and walking out of the dining room. The spaghetti churned inside his stomach, and he didn’t know how much longer he could last before throwing up. A throbbing ache raged behind his eyeballs.

  “Tick?” Paul asked from behind.

  “I don’t wanna talk about it,” was all Tick could get out.

  He barely said a word the rest of the evening, ignoring his friends and family equally. The image of that boy on the screen—of himself—screaming and then dissolving . . .

  How could he ever get that out of his head?

  He went to bed early that night while everyone else watched a movie downstairs.


  The next morning, Tick, Paul, and Sofia decided to get out of the house and talk over things—maybe do some research at the library. Tick felt a little better on waking up; every time the disturbing image of his fragmenting Alterant popped in his head, he tried to picture Muffintops. After another excellent Lorena Higginbottom breakfast of eggs and fried potatoes, the three of them headed out.

  They stayed mostly silent until they reached the long road that led from Tick’s neighborhood to the town square of Deer Park. The rising sun kept the east side of the street in shade, the towering evergreens and oak trees of the forest providing relief from the late summer heat. The humidity had dipped considerably in the last couple of days, giving the air a hot but pleasant feel. Birds and crickets sang their songs in the woods; somewhere in the distance a lawn mower cranked up.

  “Man, feels good out here,” Paul said, bending over to pick up a rock. He threw it deep into the woods; it cracked against a tree.

  “You guys need to come to Italy sometime,” Sofia said. “In the summer, we can go up to the Alps and cool off. Best place in the world.”

  “No argument here,” Paul replied. “Florida downright stinks this time of year. You go outside for two seconds and presto—sweaty armpits.”

  “Lovely,” Sofia said.

  Tick only half-listened to the conversation, staring into the woods as they walked. They neared the spot where so much had happened a few months ago—meeting Mothball, the sign from Rutger about the midnight meeting on the por
ch, getting clues from the two of them, screaming in desperation after Kayla had burned his original letter from Master George. It all seemed like a dream now.

  “—to Tick, Earth to Tick.” Paul had stopped, snapping his fingers in the air.

  “Oh, sorry,” Tick said. “Just daydreaming.”

  Sofia sighed. “Better than listening to Paul drone on, trust me.”

  “Miss Italy, be nice to me. I might have to save you on our next mission.”

  “I better update my will.”


  “I know.”

  The Muffintops distraction trick wasn’t working so well for Tick as they walked. That kid. That poor kid. The whole concept of Alterants was confusing—especially when you threw in the whole thing about fragmented Realities. What was the difference between the Tick they’d seen in Rutger’s film, Tick himself, and the Ticks that existed in the stabilized Thirteen Realities? It made his head hurt thinking about it.

  “What do you guys think of all that entropy stuff?” he asked, kicking at a pebble on the road and watching it skitter across the pavement.

  “I remember studying it in science,” Sofia said. “Seems crazy that it could be accelerated like that and just . . . eat away at the world.”

  “It’s freaky, dude,” Paul said. “I mean, if I decide to turn left instead of right up here, am I gonna create a nasty Reality where I get eaten alive by monster air? That ain’t right.”

  “It’s weird that—”

  Sofia never finished her sentence, cut off by a loud yelp in the woods to their right, followed by the sudden, rushing sound of crunching leaves and breaking twigs. Someone, or some thing, was running toward them through the trees.

  Tick and the others froze, staring toward the sounds, which grew louder as the whatever-it-was came closer. Crick-crash, crick-crash. Another yelp, this time more of a short scream, echoed off the towering trunks and leafy canopy.

  “What is that?” Paul asked.