The Void of Mist and Thunder (The 13th Reality #4)(15)

by James Dashner

Tanner sat down in a chair opposite them, a remote in his hands. There was a huge television on the wall, bigger than any Mothball had ever seen in her life. Of course, they didn’t do a whole lot of that sort back in the Fifth Reality.

Tanner was a scrawny man with mussed-up hair and whiskers on his chin. But he had sharp eyes, and he took his job seriously.

“I’ve put together a hodgepodge of what’s been going on lately,” the man said after everyone was settled. He clicked the remote, and the television buzzed to life. “I’d say sit back and enjoy the show, but I don’t think you will very much. It’s not pretty.”

“Oh, doncha worry, son,” Sally said, his straw pinched between his fingers as he slurped his chocolate milk. He looked like an overgrown two-year-old kid in overalls. “Back where we work, we sho ’nough used to things that ain’t purty. Ain’t that right, Mothball?” He laughed, a booming sound that could only be described as a guffaw.

Mothball wanted to slug him; she knew very well he was talking about her. But then again, Sally wasn’t the handsomest cat in the litter, so maybe he was poking fun at himself as well. “Right as rain, you are,” she said. “But I’m sure you were a cute wee one when you were born and all. Been downhill ever since, it ’as.”

Sally laughed again.

“Shall we, um, get on with it?” Tanner asked.

“Yes, indeed,” Mothball replied. “So sorry for my partner, here. A bit cracked in the skull, he is.”

Tanner smiled, but it was a haunted one. “I’m afraid you’re both going to lose your appetite for laughing soon. The whole world is in one big heap of a mess. Fires, riots, rebellions, anarchy. Looting and murders. Like I said, it’s not pretty.” He pointed his remote at the television and clicked it again.

A horror show came to life on the big screen.

Paul had never understood why people liked to drink warm milk. He’d heard of it before, but it always sounded nasty to him. Warm chocolate milk, maybe. But take out that brown stuff and he wanted no part of it. Milk was meant to be ice-cold, especially when washing down some cookies.

At least those were yummy. Oatmeal and raisin.

Gretel was sitting in her chair, eating and sipping along with Paul and Sofia, but she’d yet to say anything about . . . well, anything. Paul still had no idea why they were there, which was why all he could think about was how much he didn’t like warm milk.

Sofia cleared her throat. “We really appreciate you letting us in, but I don’t think we have a lot of spare time on our hands. I’m sure Master George wants us to learn what it is you have to tell us, and then get back to him.”

Paul felt like he needed to add something. “Yeah, let’s get on with it.” He winced on the inside. That had come out a little harsher than he’d meant it. “I’m dying of curiosity here. Ma’am.” He threw that in there to sound polite.

Gretel took the last bite of her cookie then drained her cup of milk. She placed her dishes on a small table beside her. “I understand your impatience, but you’re going to have to bear with me a few moments longer before we get to my part of this story. First, I need to hear yours.”

Paul wanted to groan and kick something, but he kept himself still and quiet.

“What do you mean?” Sofia asked.

Gretel shrugged as if it were obvious. “I haven’t had one squirt of communication with the Realitants—or civilization at all, for that matter—in more than a year. I’m no longer what you’d consider ‘active,’ and informing me of the latest has to be on the bottom of George’s to-do list. So I need to get caught up on everything that’s been going on.”

“Everything that’s been going on?” Paul repeated. “That’s like asking us to give you a quick wrap-up of the Civil War. You have any idea how much has happened in the last year?”

“Well, actually, no, I don’t. Which is why I need you to tell me about it.” She folded her hands in her lap and raised her eyebrows.

Paul looked over at Sofia. “You tell her.”

Sofia had impatience stamped all over her face, and she started speaking immediately, as if she didn’t want to waste one more second. She began in the only place that made sense—how she, Paul, Tick, and Sato got recruited by the Realitants—and then she flowed into the problems they’d had with Reginald Chu and Mistress Jane. On and on and on she went, speaking so fast it gave Paul a headache trying to keep up, but eventually she got to the part about Jane trying to sever the Fifth Reality from existence and almost destroying the entire universe instead. She sounded like she was telling someone how to make breakfast.

Finally, she finished.

Gretel didn’t say anything at first; she just kept looking at Sofia as if she needed some time to absorb all the things she’d been told.

“Well?” Paul asked to break the awkward silence. “What do you think? Things as rosy as you pictured, living out here in your swamp palace?”

The old woman looked sharply at him, her expression turning grave. “Son, what you’ve just described to me is far, far worse than I imagined, even in my worst nightmares after the earthquake that hit this place. I think I finally understand why George sent you to me. Come, we need to enter my safe haven.”

She stood up, her eyes distant, and gestured for the young Realitants to follow. Paul and Sofia exchanged uneasy glances then joined Gretel, leaving the comfy living room with the warm fire and entering a cold, uninviting room with shiny steel walls. There was a bare light in the ceiling that flickered and a large safe in one corner of the room. Gretel shut the door behind them with a heavy, ringing thud; Paul spun around to see that it was also made of steel like the inside of a bank vault.

Gretel spun a wheel-handle and clicked a big lock. Then she walked over to the safe in the corner—a big, black square—and started turning the large combination dial. Paul stared, wondering what in the world they were about to see.

As Gretel continued to work at the safe’s mechanism, she spoke over her shoulder. “I don’t call it the safe haven for nothing. It’s a haven for my safes. A safe within a safe. What I’m protecting here is very important.”

Paul asked the obvious question. “What is it?”

There was a loud click, and then the door of the safe swung open. Paul and Sofia stepped forward to see what was inside. It was an old, tattered, dusty shoebox. Gretel pulled it out and set it on the floor. Carefully. Then she sat right beside it, folding her legs underneath her like a teenager. Paul and Sofia sat next to her on the ground. Paul’s eyes stayed glued to the box. He was so curious he almost reached out and opened the lid himself.