Ruby and Bryce jumped from their chairs. Eddie stared up at his old friend, his uncle.
The rat creature leaped from the loveseat, approached Tim and fell to his knees. "Oh, master," he cried. "You've come back for me."
Tim frowned down at the rat as if he'd never seen it before. Then he smiled. "Oh, hey, Dennis. Didn't see you there. Yeah, I'm back."
Tim turned to Ruby. "There are two components to the time travel apparatus. There's the portal itself, and there's the temporal algorithms for locating a specific point in time. I'm unable to open the portal here, but I could still get the time location software to work." He shook his head. "Unfortunately, those algorithms only work back to the point in time when we did our first experiment—September 19th. Before that, time does not exist."
"Why would you want to go back that far?" Eddie said. "I thought you wanted to create the reality rift again."
Tim shrugged. "That's Plan B. When I built this machine, it occurred to me I might use it for its original purpose. I'd go back in time and save Lila before she died. As it turns out, that's not an option."
"So, you're going to destroy the world—the whole universe."
Tim shook his head, looking hurt. "Not at all. You think that's what I'm trying to do? I don't want to destroy anything."
"You want to be God," Bryce accused.
"Well, that's sort of true," Tim said.
"You can't have it both ways," Eddie said. "If you take over the one consciousness, then everything else in the universe collapses."
Tim scowled. "That's what that witch Gretchen says. But she doesn't know everything."
"She knows more than anyone," Eddie said. He inched towards Tim.
Tim blinked, and a row of stone columns shot up in front of Eddie like the bars of a cage. "Don't be cute," he said. "I know what happens if you touch me."
"Tim, you can't create the portal again," Eddie said, gripping the bars. "You know what happens if you succeed."
Tim put up his hands. "Look, I think I can figure this out. I'm a smart guy, right? The only one who ever made a time machine. I think I can become God without destroying the universe. How hard can it be?"
No one replied.
"Where is Gretchen Atwater?" Montrose asked.
Tim turned to her. "I don't recognize you. Are you someone I should care about?"
"I am Montrose, Knight of Truth."
Tim scrutinized her. He grinned. "You're interesting. You're just here for the fireworks, right?"
"I am here to discover the subtle truths of the universe."
Tim shrugged. "Fine. Keep watching." He turned back to Eddie. "Anyway, I didn't know you guys would be here when I came back."
"You came back for your servant," the rat said, his hands held together in a praying gesture.
"Well, yeah. I've got another machine up and running, but it's still not working. The locals make lousy test subjects, but I figured..."
He looked over the assembled group. "I would take you, Dennis, but your sister here has a lot more spark. She might be the one to make this work. And I guess the hitchhiker can come as well."
Before anyone could reply, Tim, Ruby and Montrose all disappeared.
Eddie stared, stunned. The rat threw his hands in the air and wailed.
Skylar, who had ignored the conversation, now zipped around. "Ruby? Ruby, where did you go?"
"Tim has her," Bryce said. "Tim's taken Ruby, and he's going to push her through the time portal."
"No," Eddie said, shaking his head. "This is bad. He kills everyone he experiments on."
"My sister," the rat muttered. "I remember my sister. Ruby is my sister."
"What?" Bryce asked.
"Ruby is my sister."
"That's stupid. You're a rodent."
"Not always. Once, I was called Dennis."
Bryce stared at him. "Dennis? Dennis from three apartments down. You..." Bryce swallowed. "You sold me weed once."
The rat nodded forlornly. "A miserable human then, a miserable rat now. And the master is going to kill my sister."
"Not if we hurry," Eddie said. He raced back to the car.
Skylar zipped past him. Before he reached the car, Skylar had started it. Bryce jumped into the driver's seat, Eddie in the passenger's. They were about to take off when Dennis tore Eddie's door open. "Take me with you."
"Why," Eddie asked. "So you can serve your goddamn master?"
"No. That's my sister. He's going to hurt my sister."
"What do you care?"
"Please," the rat moaned. "Please take me with you."
"There's no way we can make it in time," Bryce said.
"Don't say that," Eddie said. He turned to Dennis. "Get in."
* * *
No one spoke as they flew. Bryce aimed south. They passed over a huge mountain lake, a city on its southern shore. Eddie stared down, wondering what the people were like there. All of those lives, thousands of people, and none of them knew that the world was about to end.
Eddie kept his eyes on the horizon, willing the car to go faster. Bryce sat gripping the wheel, an open Mountain Sunrise always in his cup holder. Dennis sniffled and whimpered in the back seat.
They flew over a thunderstorm. By the time they'd passed it, they were clear of the mountains. The land below was nondescript rolling hills and rivers, grazing sheep and cattle, the occasional village.
"How are we going to find Holcomb," Eddie asked.
"I don't know. It's a big world."
"But it's this way?"
"I've been all over this land," Bryce said, "But I don't see any landmarks I know here."
"What are we looking for?" Skylar asked.
"It's a town that defies gravity," Eddie said. "I mean, gravity is bent around it. It sticks up in the air, the top of it shaped like the head of a hammer."
"That shouldn't be too hard to spot," Skylar said.
"If we get close enough," Bryce added.
They flew along a mountain range, its peaks passing by their left side. The peaks grew smaller, transitioning to low hills, then the mountains fell away, and the empty expanse beyond provided no landmarks to steer by..
"Where are we?" Eddie asked.
"I don't know. I don't think I'd be able to tell if we were flying in circles."
"What's that over there?"
"It's a deep gorge," Skylar said.
"Could that be the same one we found east of Holcomb?" Eddie asked. "Get closer."
Bryce flew low over the narrow gorge. The shadows within were deep and black. "I think so."
They traced the gorge for dozens of miles. Then they reached a broken bridge. "Is that it?" Eddie asked.
They'd been there before, weeks ago, with Kai in the back seat and Kardhoom in the trunk. Eddie remembered staring down into the narrow chasm on a very different day.
"This is it," Bryce said. "This is our road." He cranked the wheel and headed east, flying fast over the empty hills.
Hours passed. The sun sat on the horizon when they crested the hill overlooking Holcomb.
"What the—" Bryce exclaimed.
They could see only the houses on the outskirts of the town. Beyond them, instead of the hammer-shape of Holcomb's gravity anomaly, a churning ring of black clouds blew in a continuous circle, obscuring their view. Lightning flashed in the maelstrom, blasting the dark vortex with brilliant white.
"Master," Dennis whispered, staring at the black hurricane. "Master is here."