Chapter One

There's Another World Out There

"I'm looking for maps of worlds that don't exist."

The old man tending the counter of the bookshop hesitated a moment, hands looming over the stack of papers before him. His bushy eyebrows tilted upward as he glanced at the lean figure walking toward the desk, an elegant individual that seemed a stranger to the small town. He was a tall, well dressed man, an older gentleman though, certainly, no older than the ancient store owner, whose hair and finely trimmed goatee were both a dirty grey, the skin around his cheekbones pulled tight. He was elegantly attired, dressed in deepening shades of black from his coat, to his tie and buttoned shit. A gleaming silver watch encircled his wrist, catching the rays of light pouring into the store. Its crystalline face tossed light all around the room, a diamond ring on his finger catching that light and reflecting it again, so that the strange visitor seemed to emerge from out of a glittering halo that parted as he stepped up to the desk.

The shop owner chuckled for a moment as his shaggy eyebrows continued to arc upward at the tall, lean man, the edges of his mouth creasing with a smile. "I don't have many people like you inside of my shop, stranger. Judging by that watch, it looks like you've got the money to buy anything you wanted from one of the nicer stores in the city. Don't know why you'd want to come all the way out here to my bookstore."

This gentleman returned a smile at the comment, tilting his head slightly as his eyes flickered across the mahogany surface of the desk. "I've never been one for avoiding small towns. After all, sometimes you find a diamond in the rough. Besides, what I'm looking for is unusual, and I've yet to find exactly what I'm searching for in the city."

"Well, there's all sorts of unusual floating around on the internet these days." The old man shook his head, still chuckling, his gnarled fingers pushing aside the papers he'd been looking over. "Okay stranger, I tell you what. I'm not exactly sure how to answer you. I've got plenty of maps," he said with a wave at the magazine rack near the entrance of the store. "Of course, they're all real maps, of the only world we've got. Well, that and the city of course."

"I know my way around Dallas well enough," the suited man replied, glancing at the rack for a moment before turning his attention back to the shop keeper. "The truth is, I need maps of places people have never seen." He hesitated, his words only slowly coming forth, his fingers resting lightly on the desk. "Fantasy maps, I suppose, from stories. However, they have to be detailed, and as detailed as possible. Lovingly so. They have to grab the soul, the imagination. What I need is something made, carefully and with the finest attention to detail, so close to real that a man could imagine himself making a journey to the impossible world he was looking at."

"As close to hand drawn as they get, then."

"Yes, that's right. I'll get no good out of a cheap maps made to fill the pages of a magazine. I need something authentic, as close to real as the fantastic can get. If I set this map side by side with one of earth, I'd expect to believe it was another planet I could travel to."

The shopkeeper nodded, agreeing with the man, but was just as slow in returning a response, his eyes drifting to the rear of the store. His teeth gnawed softly into his lower lip as his eyes lingered at the door that sat to the far back of the reading room. "I truly don't want to disappoint you, you know, but I've got nothing hand drawn." His mischievous eyes shot to the back of the store as he waved a crooked finger in the air. "However, I think I've got just the thing you're looking for. A few things, actually. It's been some years since I pulled them out but I'm sure I've got some maps lying around somewhere. One of them may suit you. Now, mind you, they're from books written decades ago, when people cared about those sorts of things." His smile grew now, his body shaking as he pushed himself off the stool, his light feet slapping the wood beneath. "Yes, I'm sure of it!" he almost cried out as he moved beyond the desk, pulling alongside the stranger. They stood in stark contrast against one another, the first short and lively, the second tall and stoic. "I'll go get them immediately! Just wait here."

The well dressed stranger almost laughed, watching as the elderly man raced away, zipping between bookshelves and vanishing into the warehouse where his goods were stored. The edges of the stranger's lips curled upward into a smile as his eyes moved to his watch, glancing at its face, the second hand ticking away the time. "I'm not going anywhere, my friend. I've got all the time in the world."

Maximus Douglas, all of seventeen, wandered down the sidewalk of Waxahachie, Texas. His tossed and shaggy hair fell down in front of his eyes, almost blocking them as they scanned the pavement, his head pinned downward as he shuffled along the street. He counted the cracks as they passed beneath, hands shoved deep inside of a green cargo jacket, its several pockets holding dozens of gadgets and trinkets that he picked up each time he went for a walk. Random trinkets helped fuel his imagination, and could range from thimbles to old cards from trading games. He knew most people found his hobby odd, but Waxahachie wasn't the busiest town around, and sometimes it was hard for a young man his age to find things to do. It was south of the big city lights of Dallas, and really far north of anything else he considered important. Florida was a few hundred miles east, and California was a few hundred miles west. No, Waxahachie was sort of just 'there', in the middle of nowhere. It gave Max a bit too much time to daydream, which, it turned out as he got older, wasn't a good thing. Max was failing in school.

It was unspoken weight that hung from his neck and dragged him further down as the year went on. He'd always done well in math and English when he'd been in middle school, but at some point in high school he'd lost his way. It was hard to tell where and when it began, but for the longest time he'd had trouble fitting in with his classmates, and slowly, Max had started to spend more time by himself. He wasn't a jock, not by far. He got winded just going up the steps at his school, and while he was energetic, he had never been too good at sports. Footballs and basketballs seemed to have a love affair with hitting him across the head, and he didn't seem capable of developing the reflexes necessary to deflect their affections. Max did love being outdoors, but spent that time looking for things, or making up stories. His favorite pastime always involved books, reading them obsessively and jotting down his own ideas in a notebook he kept in his backpack, which followed him everywhere. That journal was filled not only with ideas, but sketches, and while it was his greatest pride, it was also his greatest worry. Whenever he wrote anything in it, he shielded the book from view with his arm, which he wrapped around the journal as if he were scribbling some great secret. He didn't need people thinking he was any stranger than they already did, and even the hint that someone might find and read his stories made his stomach jog in circles.

Still, despite being mildly antisocial, there was at least one organization that he enjoyed, and that got him outside and into the fresh air. It was the Waxahachie Archeology Club. Given his love of odd trinkets and pieces, it was no small wonder he enjoyed going out with them, combing the earth for signs of arrowheads and spear tips left by the local native tribes. The students didn't get a chance to explore dig sites too often, but they'd head out on the dry riverbeds when they could, breaking up the solid Texas dirt to see what they could find. One piece they'd discovered, an old arrowhead buried in what had once been a river, he now kept on him all the time. In fact, he wore it around his neck on a string. It was the only accessory he bothered with.

The club had become one of the few places where he could go to have a good time. He'd met Heidi there, a fellow dreamer and thinker, but by far a better student who kept her nose in the books. She was famous for her string of perfect test scores and academic awards, achievements they gave out every month at the school. Max had never qualified for one, since he was so busy with his stories. He'd let her see inside of his notebook once, and just once, at a time when he'd finally felt he could trust her. It had only been for a few minutes, but it had been long enough for Heidi to see a few of his drawings and read some of his story ideas. Afterward she'd had nothing but good to say, but Max didn't receive criticism easily, not even positive compliments. He'd been embarrassed just to show her the book, and he'd quickly put it away, ignoring anything she had to say about it. Every minute she'd held it had been one more minute he'd been unable to breathe, his anxiety piling up inside his chest as she held onto it.

It was the first time he'd shown anyone the story he'd been working on for the longest time, about a knight named Manathor and a black dragon named Ebony. Every day he'd write a few more pages of his story, of the knight's descent into the great tree that held his world up, the pet dragon Ebony accompanying as they fought downward through the branches, into the trunk of the tree and down toward the roots. The world was dying, because the roots of the trees were corrupted by a sickness, an otherwordly creature that had begun to eat at the source of life for all things. In his head, Max plotted out an epic final battle, in which Ebony would transform into a blade composed of living dragon essence, and together they'd drive the vile invader out of the roots and back into the empty chaos that was the space between worlds. It would be the ultimate sacrifice, the dragon giving up its life to become a weapon powerful enough for Manathor to save their world, and also a great sign of the friendship the two had. Now, he wasn't nearly close enough to the end to have begun figuring out all the details, but if he knew anything, it was that a good fantasy story needed swords, dragons and some epic evil. So, he was working toward the conclusion, a little at a time. It was his biggest focus day to day, and he probably committed more time to dreaming up how he'd end his story than he did to working on his math homework.

As much as she loved a good fantasy book, Heidi wasn't as much the dreamer as he was, but she was smarter than anyone else he'd ever met. Her father was a physicist, her mother a mechanic, and somehow Heidi had turned into a mathematically brilliant Ms. Fix-It who could repair just about anything, mechanical or electronic. She was so smart that his parents had actually hired her to tutor him, an endeavor that had only gone so well. The latest test results, which had just come in that afternoon, had been better than his past scores but not by enough. He was still failing his class, and his parents had let him know they were upset with his progress in a confrontation that had quickly escalated into shouting. Frustrated, he'd taken to the streets, as he always did when he was feeling upset. His home away from home was the local bookstore, where he'd lose himself for hours in the comfy reclining chair, a book in his lap and the warm light of the lamps glowing against the rich red wooden walls. He'd find an old classic, plop himself down into that plush chair the store owner kept in the rear, and just disappear into the story. It was the only way he had of de-stressing from days like this.

The familiar jingle of the bell brought a smile to his face when he stepped inside, and the smell of leather covers and aging paper had always been a big part of the appeal behind his love of real books. He'd purchased a few novels on his digital tablet, but there was nothing like the feel and smell of a physical, hardcopy book. Max loved the sensation of the cover in his hands and the scent in his nostrils whenever he opened the pages, the paper crinkling between his fingers. It was something he looked forward to every time he came to the store, and he instantly knew where he was heading. The old shop keeper waved to him with a smile as Max made a beeline for the back shelves, the wooden boards beneath his feet creaking as each step struck a soft sound throughout the quiet bookshelves. His eyes shot around the corner to his favorite section, where all the fantasy and science fiction was kept, the books that he loved most. He didn't know what he was looking for, exactly. He never really did, but that was the joy of book shopping. There was always something new to be found, and you never knew exactly what story you'd stumble upon.

He quickly became lost in his search, eyes pouring over cover after cover, so focused that he barely noticed the door bell ring again. On an afternoon in the middle of the week, it was rare for the store to get many customers. Max was normally the only one. It was so unusual that anyone else might have paid attention, but the boy was too fond of his stories, and was intent on finding something to read. At least a few more minutes passed before he finally turned, only slightly, catching sight of someone in the corner of his eye. It was a tall, black suited man, a distinguished wave of grey hair atop his head, his suit light and expensive looking. Just barely, he could overhear the conversation coming from the desk, and though he didn't like to eavesdrop, he couldn't help catch the faint words floating from the front of the store.

"I'm looking for maps of worlds that don't exist."

Max's nose wrinkled at the statement, his lip curling at the words. "Maps of worlds that don't exist," he'd repeated softly, eyes breaking away from the books in front of him, his face turning to observe the strange gentleman. The shop keeper was just turning the corner of the desk, walking through the rear of the store and vanishing into a door that led into the storeroom. Max had never been inside there, but in his mind he imagined a mammoth warehouse, filled with towers of books that scraped the rooftop like fingertips. While his head swam with images of a city made of books, his eyes remained focused on the stranger before him, his legs taking him forward by a life of their own as he continued to cycle the man's words in his head. The older man, nearly seven feet in height, looked down as the much shorter boy approached.

"Can I help you?" The man's voice lifted and hinted at an accent that Max couldn't pin, distinguished but firm and resonating with authority.

"Uh, yes sir. I wasn't trying to listen in on you, but I couldn't help it."

The man's eyes shifted toward the back of the store, begging for the shopkeeper to return with greater speed, not less. "You mean you were eavesdropping," he said plainly, his face emotionless and gaze empty.

"Well, yes. I didn't mean to though. It was an accident."

"It was an accident that you listened in on my conversation?" His voice tilted downward, irked. "I suppose anything can be passed off as accidental if that's the case."

"No, I'm sorry sir, I really didn't mean to."

"It's fine, it's fine," he replied, brushing Max off with a wave of his hand. His fingertips went to the bridge of his nose, rubbing at it for a moment before he looked up again, producing a smile that seemed entirely artificial. "I'm being unnecessarily rude. What is it I can help you with?"

" Max stuttered, unsure of himself. "I just... How can there be a map of someplace that doesn't exist? It doesn't make any sense."

"It doesn't make any sense..." He echoed Max's words as his eyes continued to burn into the young man, his mouth slightly open as he lingered at his next word, his eyebrow cocked sharply upward. The man's fingers brushed at his goatee for a moment as he stared at the boy. "I have a particular talent, young man. A skill few others do. I am a scientist you see, and my particular area of research has to do with travel. Few people know of it, because it's incredibly secret, quite hush hush. If I'm successful though, then one day, the worlds people dream of in books like these won't be dreams any longer." His finger stretched toward the back reading room, with its rows of science fiction and fantasy novels. "Anything you can dream already exists somewhere in reality. Perhaps not the reality we inhabit, not this universe, but in another."

"There's more than one universe?"

"Thousands of them. At least, that's the theory, and in each one of them reality is slightly different. Things impossible in ours are possible in another. I'm not just talking about swords and lasers, but worlds with mammoth creatures that fly through space and cities that exist underwater. In each reality there's a unique twist. People who can fly, animals that can speak, living planets and houses made from walking trees. Anything and everything is possible. If you've thought it, there's a chance it exists, somewhere."

Max's lips twisted up as he heard all this, his eyes almost going cross at the words. "I mean, it all sounds interesting, but where's your proof?"

"My proof?" The man's face contorted. "Well, there's none, but we'll have it, one day."

"One day, huh? I don't think you make a good scientist if you think you're just going to come up with evidence one day."

The stranger's face turned from displeasure to full annoyance. "I may not be a good scientist, but if you're like me, a dreamer, then you enjoy the thought something... more, out there." He stopped, eyes locking with Max's. For a long moment he didn't break his gaze, and Max found himself suddenly terrified, shaking and yet unable to break away from their locked eyes. A cold shiver danced down his spine as he swallowed hard, feeling a lump swell in his throat as the man's look held him, the boy unable to comprehend why he couldn't look away. Finally the stranger reared back, head darting aside as he rubbed at his brow. Max nearly stumbled backward when their eyes finally broke the connection, a deep gasp escaping his lips. The man quickly turned back to face Max, his eyes taking on an entirely new character, with none of the hypnotic qualities they'd possessed just an instant before. "In the windows of our soul, our imaginations, we can go places we can't in this monotonous reality we call our lives. I enjoy books, stories and maps. These are things that take my mind to other places. They're also what keeps me believing in my goal." A smiled crossed his lips, that thin moustache of his lifting as he did. "I'd encourage you to keep dreaming, young man. That's all you've got to get by in this harsh world of ours. Even if I was wrong and this was the only reality we had, your imagination can take you places your feet never could, when life is boring or harsh. It's good not to forget that."

Max was about to respond when the sound of a door shutting caught his ears, the old shop keeper returning, a stack of lengthy parchments bundled up in his arms. The pair of them turned their attention to the back as the old man scurried along, back to his post at the front desk, arms dumping the documents onto its surface. "There we go!" the old man said with a grin, the papers, all rolled up with rubber bands at their centers, rolling along for an instant before settling to a halt. "All the maps I could find that I thought might suit you."

"Thank you kind sir," the stranger returned with a smile, looking to have none of the intensity he'd possessed just a moment before. "I'll take them all. And..." he turned to look at Max for a second, a glimmer in his eye. "I'll pay in advance for any two paperback books this good boy would like to have."

The owner's smile stretched wide as he tapped the desk. "Well what do you know, Max. Seems you came in on the right day."

"Well, guess I did," Max replied, hesitant, his voice still quiet. "Thanks, sir."

"Think nothing of it," the man replied, tipping two fingers toward the boy, eyes gesturing to the rear. "Now, go pick out two books before I start to rethink my offer."

Max nodded. "Thanks," he said one more time as he stepped away, feet pulling him into the back of the store.

"And like I said? Always keep dreaming."

"Yeah, right," he'd barely managed to reply, shuffling away. Max rolled his shoulders as he tried to shake off the cold that had fallen on him, like ice thrown down the back of his shirt, his body still tingling as he went back to scouring the counters for something to buy. His eyes kept darting over to the stranger, glancing back every few seconds until he finally saw the man walk away from the counter, allowing him to focus on the books before him. Yet he stared at nothing in particular, his memory lingering on the stranger's words. "Maps of worlds that don't exist."

Singularity Technologies was one of the largest employers in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area of Texas, which was saying something in itself. Dallas was a hub of travel from the east coast to the west coast, a place where business was done and news was made, famous for its sports teams, night life and economy. Soon, its fingers of commerce had stretched out into the surrounding towns and counties, into places like Waxahachie, drawing thinking minds and intellectuals, businessmen and dealmakers. It was the place where Heidi's father had become employed.

Heidi Trevino, Max's best friend, was perpetually dressed in a button down white shirt and jeans. Her blonde and brown hair was always kept in a braid, feminine in some respects, but practical in others. Given all the work she did with her hands, it kept any stray strands out of her eyes. Her fingers were always wrapped in orange work gloves that she only took off on rare occasion, and her face was coupled to glasses that she wore or took off according to her whims. Seated alongside Max in the back of her father's car, which sped along on the streets near downtown Dallas, they made for quite the odd couple. Not that anything romantic had ever arisen between the pair, even if their classmates had stretched to find something.

"So how long until we get there?" Heidi asked, eyes moving from sign to sign as they passed along on the street. "I'm excited to see this project you've been talking about."

"Well I'm excited to show it off to you," her father, Manuel, had tossed back, grinning from the driver's seat, his eyes on her via the rearview mirror. "It's really amazing, the whole reason I ever wanted to become a scientist in the first place. The fact is we've lost our ability to be creative, to dream. You need that to be really good at what you do. You need to be able to think outside of the box. If we didn't, who knows if we'd have ever been able to put a man on the moon?"

Max's lip jutted out a bit as he listened in. "Sounds like you're really inspired."

"Oh, I am. This is big, after all. Really big. A new form of energy, something that will let us power homes and vehicles. It might even have application for space travel, if we can make it work."

Heidi's eyebrow arched, looking unconvinced. "Not that I doubt you dad, it's just..."

"I know, I know, I have a habit of getting too excited about stupid things. I'm telling you though, this is it, a clean form of energy without any waste production, that's not reliant on the sun. It's an energy between the particles that make up the particles making up the particles that make up atoms. If we can just harness it, it's going to mean a new era in energy production."

"You've sort of talked this up before," Heidi said, sighing. "I mean, I believe you dad. You've been working on this a long time, and I know you really think this could turn into something. I guess I'm just wondering if it will work out this time."

"Well, I wouldn't be bringing you along if I didn't think this was going to be the day we had our breakthrough, Heidi. That's how confident I am. In fact, the whole department is so sure that today's the day, that we've got corporate board members coming to observe the results of the test. President Geoff has been working very closely with us on this version of the project."

Max leaned forward slightly, gripping the chair in front of him, looking confused. "Wait, what? The president of your company works with you on these experiments?"

"That's right he does. The president is a genius, a masterful scientist. He was one a long time before he started the company. The whole theory behind the project is his, actually. We're all sort of just working on his dream."

Heidi couldn't help but smile, hands clutching themselves as she listened to her father. "I'm really rooting for you, I just hope it works this time."

"Never doubt, my dear!"

It was easy to say, but proof was needed at this point. Manuel had a habit of making proclamations of coming technological breakthroughs, only to have everything fall apart. His tone was confident though, and he continued to discuss the project until they were pushing into the heart of Dallas, passing through the security gate of a large tower that rose to the heights of the city. At its pinnacle, the tower bore a massive "S" within the framework of an atom. The company had established itself through a series of innovative technologies dealing with energy and robotics, evolving into one of the largest weapons developers in the country while also developing new ways of producing energy. It was no small player, and security at its headquarters was tight.

Her father drove into a parking garage on the campus of the facility, forcing them to walk a few minutes to the entrance of the towering building that served as the central office as well as laboratory facility. As they went deeper into the building, Max realized it was impossible to tell, from the outside, just how mammoth Singularity Tower was. At ground level it was just a series of doors leading in several directions, the front desk manned by a few receptionists stationed in the main lobby. Large televisions silently demonstrated several products in the background, their looming LCD screens casting a mixture of hues onto the polished white tile floor. People in business suits walked along, left and right, on their way to destinations unknown. Through all of that, Max just tried to stick close to Heidi, the father and daughter team leading him deep into the bowels of the building.

At some point the normal trappings of the facility vanished, as they emerged into a circular white room at the center of which was an unremarkable white elevator, its tube apparently running directly upward through the middle of the building. As they stood before it, Max couldn't help but feel a small sense of pride. Only the rare few could have ever expected to be privy to this inner sanctum and now, after yet another swipe of a security card, the trio was boarding onto an elevator, the interior of which most would never see. Nothing inside seemed especially notable though, as everything was a sterile white, whiter than the white he'd seen in a hospital hallway. They made small talk as they rushed upward, the floor numbers being announced in a series of rings, the lift moving with such silence and smoothness that Max could barely tell the elevator was rising at all.

Then, suddenly, a final ring erupted before the doors slid open as smoothly as before, a clean whish of air filling the silence and giving him his first look at the laboratory floor. They stepped into a similarly white space, all the walls and floor composed of clean nothing, cool light emanating from above even though he could see no visible light sources. Max trailed just a short distance as their group wound their way past office doors marked with the names of scientists and administrators, names adorning the top of the entrances with small symbols to indicate their role on the project. He assumed the book icons had to do with administration, while the atom icons indicated scientists. Nothing was too clear about any of this.

After a series of winding turns they finally came to a pair of doors that Manuel had to open via a keycode. He tapped into a security panel at the side, entering a ten digit code that opened the doors, their small group entering into a large observation area. It was a room surrounding a room, a lengthy and wide circular corridor with glass panels that rose up to block entry onto the actual ground of the lab itself. All along the outer corridor, panels and consoles were set up on which the scientists worked. Meanwhile, beyond the glass paneling, another set of scientists interacted with a different set of instrumentation. At the very center of the inner chamber was what looked to be cannons, one rising up from the floor and the other descending from the ceiling. A glass tube contained the space between the barrels, a pulse of yellow energy circulating up and down between the devices, its light putting a tingle into Max's spine as it spilt out through the laboratory. The glass panels separating them from the interior facility provided only a small comfort. Manuel guided them around to a nearby control panel that faced inward onto the inner laboratory, settling himself into a rolling chair as the two friends came to a halt on either side of him.

"This is where the miracles happen, while inside is what we call the testing floor," he announced, waving around the outer corridor and then toward the cannon ahead of them. Directly to their right, a set of sliding doors provided entrance to the interior floor. "From here I'll be monitoring the energy output of one of the cannons as we try to pull apart the tiniest bits of existence itself."

Heidi moved toward the observatory glass, laying a hand on it as she strained to get a better look. "Can you explain it a bit more? What are those machines we're looking at?"

"Particle strippers, basically, but more than that. Also, magnetic containment units. Once we start tearing up reality, we've got to contain the resulting energy wave without letting it collide with the walls of the containment tube. We do that with electromagnetic cannons. See, both ends of the device actually have several cannons built into them that activate at different stages of the process. All I have to do is hit the right buttons at different stages and let the machines do their magic."

"So, you're not really doing anything."

Manuel smirked, staring at his daughter with a grin. "Ha ha, very funny. For your information, we've already done all the hard work of the calculations and construction of the strippers. By this stage, yeah, it should be easy."

She turned, playfully rolling her eyes, wearing a smile of her own. "I know, dad. I'm just kidding."

"You better be," he said, though his eyes shifted over to Max. "How about you? Any questions on what's going on?"

Max shook his head, thumbs stuck square in his jean pockets. "No, I got it, pretty much. You're about to rip the universe apart at the seams, and then try to keep the world from splitting apart." The boy shrugged, his face twisting up as he thought of everything that could go wrong. "Pretty straight forward."

"Well, yes and no. The project is of too small a scale to do anything like that. Do you think I'd invite you to something if I thought it was dangerous?'

"You're a scientist. So's Heidi, sort of, and she once almost blew my hand off with an explosive."

Her dad's eyes shot over to his daughter, flying open. "You did what now?"

"Nothing dad, he's joking," she said, feigning a laugh as she turned her back to him, glowering at Max. Although she said nothing, he could make out her wording the phrase shut up, which Max immediately complied with.

"Yeah, sir, I'm joking," he said, also faking a laugh as he tried to redeem himself, hand rubbing at the back of his moppish hair. "She's really careful about that sort of thing."

Manuel looked between the two of them, his features betraying at least slight suspicion, but they were cut off as a tall, thin figure in a white coat rushed by, stepping into the central lab. He immediately wheeled back in his chair, eyes moving toward the new scientist that was now prowling along the lab grounds, walking from panel to panel and inquiring among the various scientists that were working around the device. It was obvious this was someone important.

"President Geoff," Manuel said, pointing at the gray head of hair. Max and Heidi turned to look, watching as the man settled at a control panel at the front of the device, though they had to settle for a view of the back of his head. "Looks like we're getting ready to start."

The pair settled around her father, watching the interior of the lab as the lights began to dim, the cold yellow light intensifying until it flooded both the inner and outer lab. All around them, people began to type away into the consoles, eyes darting among a dozen readouts and more. Before them, a thin purple pulse blasted from end to end on the particle stripper, the yellow light suddenly dancing as it was excited and forced into a chaotic frenzy. "Acceleration instigated," Manuel said with a smile, hands jumping around on the controls. "Next comes the magnetic field." Even as he said this, a half dozen red beams fired off, circling around the lights within. Now a rainbow of otherworldly light was mixing and filtering out, washing over them as the yellow beam collapsed back into something cohesive.

"Now we get to the exciting stuff," her father said with a grin, eyes still on the displays before him, his fingertips dancing away on the surface of the keyboard. "Let's make history!" With a final punch of the entry key, a pair of beams, blue and green, fired up and down through the tube, the lights inside suddenly pulsing in blue green as all other hues were washed out. Throughout the corridor there was an air of excitement, chatter starting to resound through the hall as the energy pulse began to fluctuate, the light becoming ever more intense. Soon it was growing so powerful that the scientists within the interior lab were starting to become difficult to see. Max could only barely make them out, their eyes covered with specially designed goggles, leaning in on their control panels.

"Is it supposed to be this bright?" he asked, putting a hand over his brow as he took a step back.

"Oh I don't know Max, have you ever tried ripping the fabric of existence into shreds?" Heidi shot out, masking her concern. Still, she was looking away and at the floor, her hands tightly wrapped around her eyes as the light grew incredibly intense. "Dad?"

Manuel didn't immediately respond to the call, his hands instead frantically darting all over the controls as he began to shout out percentages, other scientists calling back to him. What had only just been excitement a moment before was quickly escalating into panic as the tensions began to rise, and neither Heidi nor Max knew exactly what was going on. Their faces shot around the laboratory, watching as men and women began punching at their keyboards, the pace of their footsteps quickening as they launched themselves from control panel to control panel. The voices were growing louder as the shouting intensified, red emergency lights bursting alive along the rooftop, the corridor bathed in a diabolic hue. From within the interior lab, the green blue light was growing so strong that it was flooding the exterior corridor, sending the scientists inside running from their keyboards. With a rush of air the glass doors flew open, men and women in laboratory coats flying out of the interior in a desperate sprint as warning alarms began to blare.

"We've got to go!" her father shouted, bolting from his seat and grabbing the both of them by the collars. He yanked them along, legs carrying him at a hurried pace, the pair falling alongside as they moved with the crowd of scientists to the exit door. The blue green glare from the interior had now grown so intense that it was impossible for them to see even a few feet in front of one another, overwhelming the red warning lights. Within seconds the light was so intense that they couldn't make each other out, even though they were separated by only a few feet. People tripped and stumbled, hands groping ahead in a panic as everyone tried to struggle ahead as best they could. Still, a faint red hue was still visible along the floor, marking the distance to the exit. Only the vaguest forms could be made out as they drew within a few inches of each other, the light taking on an almost foggy appearance as it soaked through the glass and shone as brightly in the exterior lab as within the interior.

Though the situation was a mess, Max could tell he was at the rear, just alongside Heidi and her father, and so there should have been no one else behind. Yet, as they moved along, ears ringing with the sound of the alarms and eyesight blurred by the overwhelming light, he hesitated. Glancing right, through the glass panels and into the interior laboratory, he could make out a figure. Standing there, near to the wall, was a solitary individual. Hands working on the console before him, the man seemed uninterested in leaving, or of even attempting an escape. Max came to a complete halt, feet shuffling to a stop in his confusion, hands outstretched to press against the glass. He staggered, almost tripping, his palms slapping hard against the panel with enough noise to catch the man's attention. He glanced up from his work, and for one moment there was a clarity in the light, enough for them to make out one another. Max realized, with shock, that he was staring at the same man he had seen in the bookstore. The man, likewise, seemed stunned to see Max.

A sudden slamming of steel caught both of their attentions, both quickly shooting a glance at the laboratory exit, where a mammoth metallic barrier buried into the floor, sealing the pair of them inside. Max looked back to the stranger, whose eyes were locked with his, the older man taking a deep breath as he took a step back from the console, shaking his head. Then he was swallowed up as the light grew so incredible that it seemed to eliminate all other color. Even as Max closed his eyes, the light grew with such radiance that it passed through his eyelids, everything before him a swirling mix of green and blue.

Wind rushed upward from a bed of clouds pillowed on top of one another, crashing into his form as he tumbled head over heels, whipped about by winds that swept like ocean currents, carrying him through a sea of empty air. What he thought he could see made no sense, endless stretches of towering trees and grasslands, high mountain ranges whose peaks were encircled by beams of yellow light, and an island that floated through the air as dark clouds raged all about it. He was yanked downward into the jungle, his frame barreling headlong toward a waterfall, his hands covering his head in fear as he plunged through the waters and into a long, rocky tunnel, a distant speck of light quickly rushing at him. As quickly as he'd entered the cavern he was erupting from its exit, pulled toward what seemed to be a distant city. Decaying structures, like those made by mankind's ancient ancestors, flew by him as he was torn through forests and ruined cities, pulled along at neck breaking speed. Carved faces were frozen in laughter, or in screams of anger, sitting atop towers of stone. These ruins were cut and broken by beams of silver metal that flashed with light, tubes wrapping down their lengths until vanishing into the sides of what might be computers, glowing screens forming a wall on both sides of him as he was ripped along close to the ground. Finally he was torn back upwards, thrown through the canopy of the trees and into midair, his body straightening as he began to fly like an arrow, straight on toward a light unlike anything he'd ever seen. His eyes squinted as he fought to see, staring at a tower of blue green light that descended from the unknown abyss above and passed directly through the center of the land below. Then, he was rushing, flying, tossed with no care into the blue green beam before he felt himself going unconscious, engulfed by light.