Three figures hurry down the white stone steps, splattered with muffins, granules of sky, and fizzled out fireworks. One of them is me, and for the first time in this story I think I probably know exactly who I am. I am Alfonso Kolinksy. Or at least a clone of little Alfonso. Maybe you’re wondering what happened to the other thirteen me’s. Some were scattered throughout the Unimerse and ended up working in little Australian indie record shops. Most of them turned into ghouls the first time Midas tried to sail a Unimerse Machine. Perhaps one of them got away and is out there somewhere, tapping away at a typewriter some story like this that nobody will ever read. With The End (Again) so close that you can just about reach out the tip of your tongue and taste it… I doubt we will ever find out.
Nor will we ever know why they chose me in the first place. I appear to have just been a little kid sailing a plasticine boat through a puddle. I never wanted to be me. So instead I was Smally. Instead I was Willoughby. It sort of makes sense that the ship split me in two. And still neither of them were me. You know, I saw a psychiatrist once… a little bald Spaniard, whose name I forget. He wiped out Willoughby for twenty three years; that’s why I had no memory from the age of 10 until the night that Smally called me up and I paddled out to the Mardi while squid chunks flew across the face of an artificial moon.
And now, as the Unimerses become one in their final hour, all the people I have been, and all the people I have never really been, they become one as well, here in this fragile dream-body. In a little while I won’t be able to remember any of this. I’ll be just like you, going quietly about my business, in and out of days, and down through the years. Maybe I’ll settle down somewhere, get married, have kids, and live in a little matchbox down by the brilliant sea. Somehow I tend to doubt it. You can wipe out everything I’ve ever seen, everything I’ve ever felt, everyone I’ve ever known and in The End (Again) I will still be me. A calamity magnet.
Beside me is Rasmussen Murphy, the time-travelling blind balloonist, THEE inventor of time-travel no less, an esteemed break-dancer, founder of the First Court of the Solar Corona, and a brilliant friend. And yet… he is not who he says he is either. He is actually a future projection of Dr. Simon Piler, magically zigzagging between the science of poetry and the poetry of science, leader of the Atom Band, Quartermaster of the Mardi, heavily responsible for all the weirdest twists in this tale, and an equally brilliant friend. And now he is the Unimerse Machine. Our epically minute and seriously silly lives are literally cupped in his hands in the shape of a bubble. THEE Bubble. Which looks like an eyeball.
On the other side of me is the Black Angel. I don’t really know who the fuck she is, but she wears a fake moustache and super-sunglasses, and has these black webbed insect wings attached to her back. While she is still around I feel like we’re in with a fighting chance of getting things done. Also at this precarious stage, it’s useful to know people who can fly when you have a tendency like I do to fall from great heights.
Buckley’s re-imagined Mardi sits gleaming in front of the football stadium as dawn suns explode beyond the horizon and suddenly I know exactly what Hemhockle meant when he said Oh, she is fast, she is beautiful! She is the finest ship in all the galaxies! The flames make her go ever so much faster and put glare into the eyes of space pirates… I think I have tears in my eyes as we climb the rope ladder onto the main deck for the very last time, even though I know that pretty soon we won’t remember, and won’t miss her at all.
Waiting for us are two women, one young, olive-skinned, hair tied back in a pony-tail. ‘Datura!’ grins Rasmussen landing in her arms. She laughs nervously and I notice that she too has tears filling up in her eyes.
The other woman is old and Nepalese, dressed in strange red robes covered in white circles enclosing the same weird symbols I saw floating around Rasmussen’s brain just after Thing killed Aia’s severed fox-head. Perched on her skull is a white chef’s hat with a bright red crescent moon on it. ‘Zheng Tharkey?’ asks the blind balloonist.
The old woman smiles and shakes her head. ‘I am Lottie’ she says, ‘Zheng’s daughter.’ The last time I saw this woman she was 3 years old and trying to steal my soup.
‘Didn’t your dad work for Aia?’ asks the Black Angel.
‘My father worked for many people’ she replies, ‘he was a great man and an icosikaihenagon agent. He knew more about the Unimerse than 679 Lumereti Hemhockle’s put together.’
‘Tharkey? Sherpa Tharkey?’ asks Rasmussen, still clinging to the mortal Madame Datura like he is afraid to let her go in case she turns into a puff of green smoke.
‘Actually his birth name was Fernando Murphy. Like Willoughby here, he was blessed with more than one personality and learned to exist as several of these at the same time’ she says.
‘The Cuban’ I tell Rasmussen.
The blind balloonist shakes his head grimly ‘Why does everybody have to be somebody else? It’s so confusing!’
‘You started it with that Porf nonsense’ I tell him.
‘That was your idea!’ he protests.
‘It was not’ I tell him. ‘Was it?’
‘I think so’ he says. ‘I don’t know about the rest of you, but this might take some digesting. You know, I have some biscuits downstairs in Cabin 5, and I’m going to assume that Buckley re-imagined our wonderful spigot system, so I’ll pour us all a strong black coffee -’
‘You’ve got what in your cabin?’ I ask him.
‘Biscuits’ he says.
‘You’ve got biscuits in your cabin?’
‘That’s right’ he says.
‘For how long?’ I ask him.
He shrugs. ‘From the beginning. An emergency supply stashed down the back of my bed.’
‘So when the rest of us were rooting around on our hands and knees for mouldy ship-shapes in Antarctica… you had a fucking packet of biscuits the whole time?’
‘Woah, steady there Chaplin!’ he says. ‘I was rooting around on my hands and knees for mouldy ship-shapes too you know! Also it’s not a packet… it’s a plate of biscuits. And remember, I couldn’t even give them away when I tried.’
We stare at each other and burst out laughing.
‘You know, I loved it when we went to the moon’ I tell him quietly. ‘Remember when I broke the toilet handle… and the Jazz Monk was felt-tip penning Nate Lowman’s face?’
Lottie coughs. ‘That was my father’s face’ she says.
‘Hee-hee’ laughs Rasmussen. ‘Also there was that time you were high on drugs and you threw the paper aeroplane map sketch out of the Pepperpot Palace window. I was flying past with the David Bowie’s and it landed up my nose!’
‘Those android David Bowie’s in flying cars were genius’ I tell him.
‘Why thankee sir.’
‘Dude, what are you still doing here? Go get the biscuits.’
‘Gentlemen, there is no time for biscuits’ says Lottie, ‘we must find Lumereti Hemhockle.’
‘Ah, Lumereti!’ says Rasmussen, pointing at his round-rimmed shades. ‘Well, that could be a problem considering he turned out to be a star. And an exploding star at that.’
‘In your Unimerse perhaps’ replies Lottie and she claps her hands. A ghostly shrub appears on the main deck and grabs the wheel. ‘Full speed ahead Mr Zoolander!’ she croaks.
‘Aye aye Miss Murphy!’ says the ghostly shrub and the Mardi takes off, zzzzzzzuuuubing towards Iliaus.
‘Wait a minute’ I whisper to Rasmussen, ‘if Fernando was Buttercup’s son… and Buttercup was Chase’s daughter… then that makes you Lottie’s… great… uh, great… great – ?’
‘Newsflash Willoughby’ says Datura. ‘Buttercup is as much Chase’s daughter as you are the captain of this ship.’
‘Noooooo!’ I say, completely flabbergasted. I just didn’t see that one coming.
‘By the way’ whispers Rasmussen, ‘uh, what exactly are we doing right now?’
‘Go get the biscuits and I’ll tell you’ I whisper back, ‘just make sure crazy moon hat lady doesn’t see you.’
But Lottie was right, there is no time for biscuits. The Mardi immediately lands with a thump at the heart of the City of the Sewer Saints, knocking us down like skittles.
‘Tichawwaaa!’ shouts Rasmussen snatching at the Bubble Eyeball as it bounces around between his palms.
‘Sorry about that guys’ says the shrub, ‘but it’s not so easy to steer with holographic hands. Uh… anything else you need me to do? Before… you know. Maybe I could call for some pizza – I have Hank’s number right here in my holographic pocket. Or -’
‘That will be all Mr Zoolander’ says Lottie, picking herself up and dusting her bright red robes down.
‘Right’ says the shrub. ‘I mean, it wouldn’t be any trouble. It could be like a Last Supper for the Flower Company or something.’
‘Mr Zoolander, please don’t drag this out any longer than is necessary’ says Lottie. ‘We discussed it at great length previously and we agreed that this was the only way forward. Now make your way downstairs, switch off SAM, and uninstall yourself. Don’t piss me off again.’
‘SAM?’ asks Rasmussen, his antennae pricking up.
‘Rasmussen, you got… uh… antennae… growing out of your head’ I tell him.
‘Can we say goodbye?’ he asks Lottie. ‘We go back a long way you know. Were it not for SAM I would never have unravelled the mystery of Keroucian Hieroglyphics.’
Lottie closes her eyes and juts out her bottom jaw impatiently. ‘If you must, but make it quick.’
‘Goodbye SAM!’ shouts Rasmussen. ‘Thanks for everything!’
‘Yeah, goodbye SAM. Thanks for not going all NIKO on us! I’m sorry I smashed you up and threw you out of the window that time!’ I shout.
++GOODBYE SIMUSSEN MORFLER. GOODBYE ALFILLOUGHBY SMALLINSKY++ shouts SAM from below.
‘What about me?’ asks the holographic shrub, pausing at the rear-hatch. ‘Isn’t anyone going to say goodbye to me?’
‘So what now?’ asks the Black Angel.
Lottie points down at a big pile of rubble where once upon a time there was a 17-storey hospital. I stare at what’s left of the familiar concrete steps, cracked and stained with rainbow-rain-blood, a weird assortment of the Chief’s hybrid plants growing out of the ground. ‘Now we find Lumereti Hemhockle…’ says the old woman.
‘I’m over here!’ croaks Lumereti, crushed beneath a big block of fallen masonry, only his head visible at one end, and his dirty grey toes wriggling at the other. Presumably the rest of him has been flattened out of existence.
‘Lumereti!’ gasps Rasmussen, jumping over the side of the ship, narrowly missing a tiny trampoline, much to the annoyance of Mme Datura who still has him wrapped around her neck and bears the brunt of the landing. Rasmussen scrabbles down to his knees at old Hemhockle’s toes and asks ‘Are you still alive?’
‘Yes… and no’ replies Hemhockle, gazing up at the re-imagined Mardi, his nose shivering with excitement.
‘Mr Hemhockle’ says Lottie, bowing deeply ‘it is time for the final transmission.’
He nods his eyebrows. ‘May I just have one more minute to feast my eyes upon the wonder of this magical ship? This infinite ship? This ship of magnitude, ill-defined and misunderstood? The last stitch in the fabric of the Unimerse? With such bold flames painted on her flanks? Ooh, she is lovely! She is the swiftest and truest of them all! She makes the sailors cum in their pan -’
A faraway gong gongs and Lottie says, ‘That’s your minute up.’
‘Ahhh’ sighs Lumereti, ‘very well then. Commencing transmission.’
He closes his eyes and his teeth begin to chatter violently. A strange cold wind picks up, blowing the torn pages of a familiar paperback book up and down the street. Lottie Murphy draws two circles, side by side in the sky with her hands, and the glyphs on her robes burst into brilliant white smoke-light. Before our very eyes she becomes a flock of red sparrows, f-f-fluttering up in a feathery ring of fire.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ shouts Datura over the howling wind, clinging to Rasmussen’s left leg so that she doesn’t blow away.
Now the fire birds make a humming sound.
‘I know that sound!’ shouts Rasmussen.
And as he does, the ring of birds explode and a solitary red flower petal floats to the earth, rocking on the suddenly wind-less sky, right down until it lands with a
on Rasmussen Murphy’s forehead.
‘YoweeeeeeeEEEEEEE!’ he yells, falling over, exhaling a plume of bright red smoke from his nostrils.
‘What the fuck just happened?’ asks an old blue-rinsed rat wearing reading glasses who was scurrying past and saw the whole thing.
‘Doreen!’ I say. ‘Is that really you?’
She shrugs and lights a cigarette, coughing hard.
‘Well… uh… it seems like Hemhockle is dead. Lottie sort of turned into this flock of birds. Well, not sort of… I mean, she DID turn into a flock of birds. And Rasmussen…’
‘EUREKA!’ shouts Rasmussen, sitting up with a smile on his face and tears pouring down his cheeks. ‘I can safely say that this time because I know exactly what I need to do!’
‘Buckley’s dead’ I tell her.
She shrugs and makes a meh-face. ‘We’ve all got to die sometime’ she says. ‘Also I’ve got me a new husband. Younger model. The strong, silent type. Old school, you know. He’s Canadian. Say, have you got any cheese?’
I shake my head. ‘He’s got biscuits in his cabin’ I tell her, pointing at a now weeping Rasmussen who is thumping his fists on his chest like King Kong silently mouthing ‘WHHHYYYYY?’
‘I think I’ll give it a miss’ says Doreen, about-turning and scurrying away.
‘What’s wrong my darling?’ Datura asks Rasmussen, holding his face in her hands.
‘I can’t do it!’ he sobs.
‘Do what?’ she asks him.
‘Leave you’ he says.
‘Maybe we should go and get those biscuits’ I whisper to the Black Angel and she kicks me in the shin.
Rasmussen holds up the Bubble Eyeball in the palm of his hand. The sun reflected in the iris, suddenly looks like a blue moon with a hazy corona of solarized tears forming around it. ‘In sixty years time, the Unimerse will be no more’ he says, wiping his eyes. ‘Everything will be sucked into Nowhere through the hole on the Seventh Isle…’
‘Yeah, we got that part already’ I tell him and the Black Angel kicks me on the other shin. ‘Hey! Would you quit doing that! It fucking hurts!’
‘It is my job’ says Rasmussen, ‘to enter this bubble, re-imagining the Unimerse back to a state of equilibrium. Lumereti Hemhockle, whose knowledge of our cosmos is unsurpassed, just transmitted to me the names of everyone who shall be saved.’ At this he glances nervously at the three of us.
‘Maybe my translator chip is fucked’ I tell them, ‘but I’m not understanding any of this. The names of everyone who shall be saved? What’s that supposed to mean? I thought you just had to transplant us all into this… eyeball… bubble… thingy.’
‘It’s basic mathematics’ he says.
‘Nope, still fucked’ I tell him.
‘I am supposed to imagine a Unimerse where none of this is possible, safe from ice-cream nebulas and flying whales, one where Earthlings still stare up at the stars and wonder if there is life out there. One where time travel and Unimerse Machines are but fig mints (of your imagination)’ – he pauses and bites his lip, ‘…one where celestial beings don’t assume human forms out of love and carry around paper hearts in their pocket.’
Datura reaches into her back pocket and pulls out a crumpled paper heart that she kisses.
Rasmussen blinks and continues, his voice hoarse with emotion. ‘The worst thing is… we are supposed to forget that any of this ever happened, so that it can never happen again’ he says, hanging his head. ‘I always wanted a happy ending. This is not a happy ending.’
‘Don’t look at me!’ I tell them. ‘It wasn’t my idea to have another adventure, it was…’
I scramble over the rubble and start digging.
‘Willoughby? What are you doing?’ calls the Black Angel.
‘He’s in here somewhere!’ I shout back.
‘Who is?’ she asks. Behind her, Datura places her head against Rasmussen’s chest and closes her eyes.
I find a foot. And then another foot. Neither are connected to a leg, so I keep digging.
‘Who keeps gonging that gong? It’s seriously irritating’ I shout, throwing bricks and bits of dismembered gods over my shoulder.
‘I have until the tenth gong’ says Rasmussen quietly, contemplative, ‘or the bubble will burst.’
‘Who makes up these fucking rules!’ I yell. ‘That’s just ridiculous!’
‘How many gongs is that?’
‘Four or five I think’ says the Black Angel.
‘What should I do?’ Rasmussen asks Datura. ‘Perhaps it would be better for us to die here together? Perhaps there is another way? We have -’
‘ – sixty years to figure it out…’
Datura smiles and gently places some duct tape over his mouth. ‘There is no other way’ she says with a wink.
‘I FOUND HIM!’ I yell, heaving the chalky body in a strait-jacket out from under an upturned metal bed.
The Black Angel flies over and looks down at W’s lifeless body as I unbuckle the straps. ‘Has he been smoking that tundra again?’ she asks.
I reach into my itchy blue sock and pull out the CD that Zoolander gave me.
‘I thought you were barefoot’ says the Black Angel.
‘I’m not wearing the sock’ I tell her, ‘the sock was in my pock- ’
‘ – Shit! I can hardly hear myself think with all that gonging going on’ I tell her, looking at the disc and looking at W. Then back at the disc again. ‘Where the fuck does this go?’
Datura lets go of Rasmussen and looks away as the corona around the Bubble Eyeball begins to pulse and the pupil starts dilating.
The Black Angel rolls W over onto his belly with her foot.
‘Eww… no way!’ I say, stepping back.
She sighs and rolls up her sleeves, plucks the disc from between my fingers and inserts it into W.
W wakes up with a mechanical whir and splutters out a small cloud of dust, his eyes rebooting, his fingers flexing, his grin appearing as he sits up and sees us. ‘Fucking hell Willoughby, what took you so long?’ he croaks.
‘Well… we had to defeat this Aia dude. He was like the ultimate end level bad guy. Even worse than NIKO. Though perhaps not as freaky as O’Flanahoonamanaman’ I say.
‘Seriously?’ he asks. ‘What else did I miss?’
‘We lost the Unimerse Cup.’
‘Coyote still got to collect it though… as a thank you from the Xoni for freeing them.’
‘The Xoni won the cup? Awesome. Did you warn Coyote about the Grey’s zoo?’
‘I tried’ I tell him.
He yawns and adjusts his hat. ‘Got any tundra?’
‘Shitcomb Whitcomb took over the Organisation. They’ve gone to Phase X?’
‘Fuck! No way! Shit-who Whit-what?’
‘Papa Bear’s dead.’
‘Fried by lightning. Fupkin too. Nail-clippers in the jugular.’
‘Hey!’ he says, his eyes lighting up as he gets slowly to his feet. ‘Is that the Mardi? Dude, that’s fucking outrageous!’
‘Buckley’s dead too.’
‘Again? Fuck. I’ve got some serious catching up to do. Where’s everyone else? Becky?’
‘Still lost’ I say.
‘Oh, Rasmussen’s right over…’ I turn around and point at Datura. ‘Hey… where did he go? He didn’t… ? FUCK!’
Mme Datura smiles for the last time and walks away, carefully folding and returning the paper heart to her back pocket.
‘Wait a minute…’ I say. ‘Why are we still here? I thought Rasmussen was supposed to re-imagine us all into this fancy new not so imaginative Unimerse of his?’
‘Look’ says W, ‘there’s old Hemhockle squashed under that rock. You know that shit for brains foiled every escape plan I hatched in the asylum.’
‘He’s dead too’ I tell him.
‘Funny looking dead’ says W, ‘with his eyes open and still breathing.’
I look again. Sure enough, Lumereti Hemhockle is still alive. But only just. ‘He’s trying to whisper something’ says the Black Angel.
I sit down beside him. ‘What is it Lumereti?’
He whispers something in my ear and then dies.
‘Tell him if he wasn’t squashed under a rock that I’d squash him under a rock’ says W.
‘I can’t, he’s dead’ I say.
‘Dead like last time, or actually dead dead?’ asks W.
‘Actually dead dead.’
‘What did he want Willoughby?’ asks the Black Angel.
‘I’ll tell you later’ I say, and head back to the ship.
‘Where are we going?’ she asks as I get behind the wheel.
‘To say goodbye’ I tell her and the Mardi begins to crawl sluggishly up into the sky.
‘I don’t get it’ says W, watching the white towers of Iliaus slowly recede below us, ‘you souped her up, but she’s slower than fucking Wanamaker with his big swollen balls.’
Something’s wrong. ‘Take the wheel’ I tell the Black Angel and hurry to the Communications Room where SAM’s big friendly pumpkin face grins back at me from the monitor. ‘SAM? I thought Zoolander was supposed to shut you down? Why are we going so slow?’
++Zoolander? What are you talking about? I’ve not seen him for ages. The last person I saw was a shrub about ten gongs ago stealing the seed from the ship’s engine and jumping overboard++
‘Fuck!’ I yell, my head in my hands.
++I tried to warn you++ says SAM. ++I set off my alarm and everything++
‘Your alarm? What alarm? I didn’t hear an alarm? I don’t even know what your alarm sounds like?’ I tell him.
++GONG!++ he says.
I sit there staring into space, thinking about Hemhockle’s last words.
‘The Not-Captain goes down with the ship’ I whisper glumly.
‘What’s that buddy?’ asks W, sitting down on a pasting table behind me with a freshly lit cone blazing between his lips.
++He said the Not-Captain goes down with the ship++ says SAM chirpily.
‘Thanks Sam’ I say, throwing an itchy blue sock at him.
++What can I say?++ says SAM. ++I’m a super-computer with super-hearing++
‘Dude, remember those bales of tundra we got from the Hezel Plantation? They’re still sitting in the War Room unsmoked. We should get to work on that ASAP’ says W.
++Ask him what he means by the Not-Captain goes down with the ship++ says SAM.
‘Shit, yeah’ says W, exhaling, ‘sorry… I got distracted thinking about that tundra stash. What did you mean by that cryptic Not-Captain stuff?’
I sigh and take the cone from him, inhale deeply and blow out every last care in my brain. ‘We’re all going to die’ I tell him. ‘Seriously. In sixty years time, the Unimerse will be no more.’ A wave of paranoia washes over me. ‘Wait a minute… you are W, right? I didn’t even hear you come into the room. You’re not like… Aia… or some other evil fucker reincarnated via some cosmic loophole.’
He smiles and motions for me to hand him back the tundra. ‘Dude, I’m W. If you can’t trust me, then who can you trust?’
‘You sure you haven’t received Organisation orders to assassinate me?’
He laughs and waves his hand. ‘As of today, I’m officially retired from all that Organisation crap. It’s time for a new generation to shine and if I’ve only got sixty years left to live then I plan on living them out in style. Personally I’m thinking about heading back to the Hezel plantation. Those dwarfs fucking crack me up. You should come too.’
‘I can’t’ I tell him. ‘Hemhockle told me that the only way to save those of us left behind… is to fly the Mardi into a hole on the Seventh Isle.’
‘Hemhockle told you that?’ he asks and shakes his head. ‘Hemhockle’s full of shit. You’re seriously going to believe that old clown?’
‘It makes sense’ I tell him. ‘It’s what’s been going on all along. Imagine the Mardi out of existence… and the Unimerse will live on.’
He thinks about this for some time, sucking hard on the tundra cone and brushing the ash off his brown-sauce stained white t-shirt. ‘And the Not-Captain goes down with the ship’ he says finally.
‘It’s how it was meant to be’ I tell him.
‘Hmmmm’ he says.
‘How long until we reach the Ilhelo moon, SAM?’ I ask the computer.
++Without the seed? 3 hours++ says SAM.
‘Fuck. We’re going to miss the post-cup party, aren’t we?’ says W.
‘And how long from Ilhelo to the Seventh Isle… without the seed?’ I ask.
++Sixty years++ says SAM.
Apparently it’s going to go to the wire again.
The Ilhelo Stadium is empty, but for a small group of sleeping figures in the middle of the pitch. Death is there, curled up hugging a pair of inflatable garden shears. Zeus is butt-naked, but thankfully lying face down on the edge of a small crater filled with flecks of broken sky. Sadie and Martha sleep either side of Buttercup, the three of them holding hands. W walks over to them and stares at Buttercup’s beard before scratching his own. ‘It’s nothing like mine’ he says.
Finally, just sort of sitting there, is Wanamaker. He is holding a bottle of grog in his one good THSE sweet metal hand. His other arm is missing and someone has tied one of his duct tape legs to his shoulder, whether deliberately or by drunken accident, I guess we’ll never know. One of his infected balls has exploded and his torso is covered in puss. Thankfully his iron lung has developed a taste for it and has crawled out of his chest cavity and is lapping it up. His other swollen ball is so big that it has been tucked round behind his back and he’s using it like a bean bag. Finally, his floating rugby ball shaped head of shit has been decorated with silver tinsel so that it looks like he’s got hair. ‘Ah Wanamaker, there you are’ says W. ‘Kid, you look like shit. I go offline for a couple of months and this is what happens to you? Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for all your hard work and to say that… hey! Are you even listening to me? He’s not even listening to me!’
‘Who said that?’ croaks The Z, rolling over. His private parts have luckily been pixelated.
‘Where is everyone?’ I ask him, looking round at the empty stadium.
He rubs his bloodshot eyes and says ‘They ran for their lives when Ubergrim morphed into Death.’
At the sound of his name, Death wakes up and holds his skeletal head in his hands before spewing up a gutload of muffins into the crater behind him. ‘You okay?’ I ask him, and he weakly waves the inflatable garden shears as if to say, ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘What about the others?’ I ask The Z.
‘The others? Well, now that was curious. They just vanished into thin air. Alexander, Jon, Moppy, Ritchie, Mal, Jim, Uberpaul, The Atom Band. Poof! Just like that.’
It hits me like a scrench in the head. ‘Fuck’ I say.
‘What is it?’ asks the Black Angel.
‘I always thought he would be able to transplant us all into the bubble eyeball…’ I tell her. ‘I should have seen it coming when he realised he couldn’t take Datura. Who imagined this shit? It’s so fucking complicated.’
‘Life… is complicated’ says The Z.
‘No it isn’t’ says W, rolling a fresh cone. You know, those cones of his seem to get bigger and bigger. The one he places in his grinning mouth just now might as well be a bubble trumpet.
At this point a naked woman, built like a brick shithouse, carrying a scythe, and covered in dust, comes staggering up the stadium tunnel. ‘Mrs Zeus!’ cries The Z and we watch, slightly disturbed by the pixelated swinging of body parts as they run in slow motion towards each other, before falling into one another’s arms. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asks.
‘I thought you were dead!’ she cries, tears of happiness streaming down her face.
‘Who’s that?’ I ask.
‘That’s Zeus’ wife’ says the Black Angel.
‘Why’s she hugging The Z?’
She looks at me and blinks. ‘Zeus IS The Z’ she says. ‘Honestly Willoughby, don’t you pay attention to ANYTHING?’
Mrs Z proceeds to explain everything. I’ll leave this bit out if you don’t mind because you’ve no doubt already read it. To be honest, I’m so busy thinking about my own imminent extinction that I hear her little naked dust-covered cameo as ‘Came down from the heavens… bla-di-bla… woke up He Who Must Not Be Named… bla-di-bla… farted and destroyed the tiny theatre in Simon Piler’s chest… bla-di-bla… went looking for Lumereti Hemhockle… bla-di-bla… big fist-fight… bla-di-bla… wasn’t pretty… bla-di-bla… buried under rubble and I dug myself out with this scythe… bla-di-fucking-bla-bla.’
She pitches the scythe to old silent Death and he catches it, seems to think twice about abandoning the inflatable garden shears, before handing them to Wanamaker, bowing, and then walking away.
‘Hey Death!’ I shout after him. ‘You should lose the orange t-shirt and yellow shorts! Go get another black cloak or something.’ He stops and looks around with a bony old grin on his bony old face, and raises a skeletal hand in the superhero pose. ‘Where I’m going, I won’t be seeing him again’ I say quietly to myself.
‘Why? Where are you going?’ asks the Black Angel.
‘Nowhere’ I tell her.
‘He’s going to sail the Mardi into a hole on the Seventh Isle’ says W, removing Wanamaker’s arm-leg and wrapping it around the intern’s neck like a scarf. ‘There’ he says, ‘much better.’
‘What’s that going to achieve?’ asks the Black Angel.
‘Well, it’ll keep him warm in the winter’ says W, standing back and admiring his handiwork. ‘Oh, you mean Willoughby sailing the Mardi into the hole on the Seventh Isle? Well, from what he told me… and I’ve got to say that I was incredibly stoned at the time… it would seem that old Hemhockle – the fuckwit that he was – told Willoughby, that wiping the Mardi out of existence is the only way for those of us who weren’t invited to Rasmussen’s funky new cosmos to survive, and that for reasons I don’t think either of them can comprehend themselves, let alone those of us who got innocently caught up in all of this, somehow it is the ship that is causing the Unimerse to collapse.’
‘Is this true?’ she asks me.
‘I dunno’ I tell her. ‘Yes… I suppose.’
She peers long and hard into my eye as if checking to see if I’m lying.
‘Aherm’ coughs The Z. ‘I’m sorry to interrupt… but if this is true, that Willoughby will be sacrificing himself so that the rest of us can live… then my job here is done, and we’ll be going. Back upstairs.’ He holds out a mighty hand to the Black Angel. ‘I think I understand now why you helped these… weirdos. All is forgiven. Plus we could do with some help rebuilding.’
She looks down at his hand and then back at me, before shrugging her wings. ‘I guess this is it then’ she says.
‘You’re going?’ I ask her.
‘I don’t belong here Willoughby’ she says, ‘we’ve both always known that.’
‘I suppose’ I say, and she takes The Z’s hand. I don’t know why I’m still calling him The Z. I mean, it’s not like he’s ever actually been an intergalactic drug dealer. Though he made an excellent one while he was.
The three of them begin to shimmer.
‘Hey!’ I say to the Black Angel, just before they disappear. ‘I never got a chance to say thanks…’
But they are already gone.
All that is left of the Flower Company is me, W, the three sleeping Murphy’s, and what’s left of Wanamaker. ‘Do you think I should wake them? Say goodbye?’ I ask W.
He shakes his head furiously and says ‘Fuck that.’
‘Apparently Chase isn’t Buttercup’s father’ I tell him.
‘So they say’ he says.
‘I wonder who her real father is…’ I say. ‘That beard of hers looks awful fami-’
‘Okay then’ he says, slinging Wanamaker over his shoulder, ‘well… that’s me. Goodbye Willoughby. It’s been… it’s been a trip.’
‘You’re leaving?’ I ask him. ‘You’re not…? I mean… never mind. Where will you go?’
‘I told you already’ he says, ‘I’m going to jump in the first taxi I can find and head back to the Hezel Colony. Figured I’d take responsibility for this hopeless lump while I’m at it. He’d be fucked without me. It’s not too late for you to change your mind you know.’
‘No… I better -’
‘Well, alright then’ he says, and winks at me.
We about turn and walk back down the tunnel. The Mardi sits resplendant at the foot of the stadium steps where the Black Angel parked her. We stop on the bottom step and W looks both ways up the deserted street, the two Ilians suns hammering down upon us. ‘Looks like I might be waiting a while for that taxi’ he says.
‘Yeah’ I say.
‘You gonna smoke all that tundra in the War Room?’ he asks me.
‘Maybe’ I say, ‘I guess. I’ll give it a go.’
He takes a deep breath and places Wanamaker gently inside a garbage can, before hauling himself up the rope ladder to the main deck of the ship. ‘Well come on’ he says, ‘you heard what SAM said. We’re going to have to get a move on if we’re supposed to be back on Earth before that sixty years deadline.’
I climb up beside him. ‘What about the Hezel Colony?’ I ask him.
‘Meh’ he says, ‘you’d never make it back alive if you tried smoking all that shit yourself.’
The Black Angel smiles and turns the wheel, lifting the Mardi off the ground. ‘Hey… weren’t you…?’ I ask her.
‘I never got a chance to say you’re welcome’ she says, and away we fly.
According to Legend, Simon Piler was born from a dewdrop.
But Legend doesn’t always get it right. In fact, half of the stuff he picks up, he hears second, sometimes even third hand, from Mrs Z when she’s hanging up her washing.
In actual fact, Simon Piler woke up in the long, long grass, when a dewdrop slipped from the tip of a late and lush green summer blade, landing on his left eyelid. ‘Wha-?!’ he cried happily, opening his eyes to the morning, and a dragonfly buzzed forward, right under his nose.
He stretches out his stiff limbs, noticing a peculiar tuft of hair on the end of his elbow. He tugs at it once or twice to see if it would come off, but no. ‘Hmmmmm’ he says, and climbs slowly to his feet. The grass on the hill-side has grown up past his chest and he wonders how long he has been sleeping for. ‘Most peculiar’ he mutters, bending down and picking up the old brown satchel that he has been using for a pillow.
He unbuckles it and looks inside. Contents of the satchel are as follows:
plastic bottle of pungent black liquid in a bottle marked “Irn Bru”
faithful battered plastic recorder that makes him smile, and he can’t help but lift it to his lips and pipe ‘toot-toot!’
a conch shell
a small hardback book called ‘The Exquisite Encyclopedia of Things’ (every page is blank)
1 large egg
‘This is an exceptionally large egg’ he says, puzzled how it managed to find its way into his bag in the first place. He lifts it to his ear and gives it a gentle shake. ‘Ostrich maybe?’ he asks himself, before returning it to his satchel.
‘Woof!’ says his dog, a smokey-coloured mongrel called Laika, and he kneels down, clapping her around the ears, while she wags her tail merrily.
‘Look at you!’ he says. ‘I bet you’re ravenous! I’M ravenous… I feel as if I haven’t eaten in… years!’
He wades through the grass, up Cha Cha Skull Hill, watching a flock of pelicans glide overhead in formation. At the top of the hill, at the edge of a jingle-jungle (actually just a simple forest, but in Simon’s head it is jungular… and jingular) where red birds and jazz monkey haggle over territory, sits a solitary wigwam. ‘Home’ he says to himself, pausing in the doorway.
He felt like you do when you wake from an incredible dream. One that just goes on and on and on and you never want it to end.
The Universe looked like a universe should. Calm and constant, but brimming with possibility, exactly like our own in every way with the exception of the flock of pelicans which now recede on the horizon.
He tips his raven hat to to the sun and exeunts.
60 years later…
I open my eyes, feel the warm soft sand beneath my toes, hear the crystal clear sea lapping against the shore. A solitary white cloud drifts by overhead. Today it looks like a tigermouse. I look to my left where the Black Angel lies belly-down, her wings shading herself from the sun’s rays, working her way through the inflatable journal. ‘What do you think?’ I ask her.
‘I don’t get it’ she says.
‘It’s a journal’ I tell her. ‘It’s inflatable. What’s not to get?’
‘It’s not the journal’ she says, ‘it’s…’
‘Spit it out.’
‘Well, apart from the fact it ends so suddenly… why DID W steal that goat?’
We burst out laughing. ‘I dunno. Why don’t you ask him?’ I say and she gives me The Look. I’ve been on the receiving end of The Look many, many times since we set sail from Iliaus six decades ago. ‘What?’ I say.
‘When was the last time he spoke to us?’ she asks me.
I shrug. ‘Sometime before the Mardi put us into suspended animation. When did we run out of tundra?’
‘2016’ she says.
‘He just needs some time to dry out’ I tell her and I reach for my smokes. ‘Shit, is this our last cigarette?’ I ask, crumpling the packet and tossing it into the sea. A bright orange shark leaps up and snaffles it in his jaws.
‘Willoughby, we’ve not even seen him for three years. He’s been locked away in that bunkroom of his doing Zeus knows what’ she says.
We take alternative puffs of the last cigarette, sitting there quietly.
++ATTENTION ALL CREW. THIS IS SAM SPEAKING. IN A MOMENT, WE WILL BE RE-ENTERING THE EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE. THE MARDI REQUESTS THAT YOU ALL REMAIN BELOW DECK UNTIL YOU HEAR THE SIGNAL++
‘What’s the signal SAM?’ I ask.
The Black Angel extinguishes the cigarette in the sand and we exit the Sales Office/Solarium, closing the door behind us in case the shark escapes again. We head downstairs and stop outside the door of Bunkroom 3. The Black Angel gives me The Look, and I take a deep breath before knocking. ‘W?’ I ask. ‘We’re here.’
‘We were thinking that you might want to… you know, come up with us and see The End?’ says the Black Angel, placing her ear to the door.
Still no reply.
‘Dude, remember that joint I hid in 2014? The night I accidentally set fire to the Bridge. And you threw that rum bottle at my head but it missed and smashed a window in the Art Gallery and all of Simon’s paintings got sucked out into space? ’ I tell him through the door. ‘Well, I’ve remembered where I hid it.’
We listen closely. A bed creaks inside and footsteps pad across the floor. The lock clicks and the door handle turns. W’s face appears, heavily bearded, gaunt, his woolly hat falling apart on his head, eyes sunk like pearls at the bottom of oysters. ‘Where is it?’ he snaps.
‘It’s here’ I tell him, ‘in my back pocket.’
I reach in and produce the fifty seven year old spliff, before holding it out to him.
For a moment I think he’s going to murrrderrr me, then he snatches it out of my hand, and slams it in his mouth, muttering something that sounds eerily like ‘my precioussss’.
The Black Angel strikes a match and lights it for him. ‘It’s good to see you’ she says.
‘Hmmmmf’ he grunts and inhales, his eyes glazing over, mouth drooping into a smile, and then he sinks to the floor deliriously.
She gives me The Look. ‘You can carry him’ she says.
Up on the main deck we hang on the rail while the Mardi floats closer and closer to the Earth, the expansive blue of the Pacific Ocean looming large in front of us. ‘So’ I say, ‘this is it. Again.’
The Mardi crash-lands into the sea and we get tossed up into the air like puppets, before thumping to the floor. W pulls himself back up on the remains of a wooden catapult, the joint smouldering away in his mouth. ‘And there we are’ he says grimly. The Black Angel helps me up and we stare at a blazing tropical island that doesn’t appear on any map. There is a small inflatable ark being paddled away from it, W pounding the surf with a heart-shaped guitar, Simon sitting on the roof singing ‘Second Garden’, Becky and Smally in fire-fighter’s uniforms, faces pressed obliviously to the port-hole window. ‘Good times’ says W.
The Mardi is caught in some sort of magnetic pull, dragging her on towards the white sandy shore. All around us, objects emerge from the sea and the sky, sucked in by the same strange magnetism emanating from the hole at the centre of the Seventh Isle. There is a cow with a man’s head. Dead. A field of white crows, all feathers and soil. A hatful of eggs. Amber and blue musical notes. Waste paper baskets filled with nostril hair. A backwards cowboy hat. Bell-adorned shoes. Big foam gloves in purple and green. A black matador cape. A blood-stained, badly burned baseball bat. A bogey the size of a tennis ball. Loads of white cassettes, their spools a-billowin. Cloudy cakes and complicated nutshells. Cousin Evick yelling ‘Crazy Bruce Willis-esque mission to save the Ear-’
We crash through the flaming trees, with even more things flying past our faces, getting snagged on magnetized branches. Crazy trinkets and damn ukuleles. Towers of seaweed collapsing into exploding confetti. A flying piano with freaky silver eyeballs. Frozen tears and funny sandwiches. Mannequins in golden hard-hats. Green bubbles and hiccuping hearts. Jammed shredders. Ininap’s blimp, stuttering, punctured, flopping between the trees. Kidney beans and lemon cactus. Magical wellies and lost white training shoes. Missing eyes and mutated rats. Orange plastic sunglasses and overgrown eyebrows torn free from a face. A paper hat made of napkins. A pathetic green plastic leaf pirouetting overhead. 8-balls and absinthe. Wanamaker’s actual eyeball. Real waffles and red flashcards. Ship Shapes and shurakins. Sombreros and space leaches. Sparkling twigs and sumptuous muffins. Bacon rolls and the ghost of Jack Kerouac hanging from the back of a fire engine.
‘FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU -’ yells W, but he is drowned out by the sound of the Unimerse finally collapsing. Stars exploding. Trees somersaulting like twirling batons torn free from the ground. Thirteen cloud coffins, splintering into whistling orbs of white light. Two-headed space chickens gawping as the great hole swallows everything alive…
I can barely hear myself think when the Mardi goes under, headfirst through the hole in the heart of the Seventh Isle, sailing out of existence so as the Unimerse can float on, a fucked-up bubble in a big bright void somewhere, sometime. The hole immediately closes behind us with an almighty flash of neon light and the last thing I see is the Black Angel shielding herself with her wings, W puffing furiously on his joint, and a Jazz Monk figurine flying past my head.
And that, as they say, is that.
But if that is that, then why am I still here?
There is no sound. All around us, for as far as the eye can see is the colour green. A familiar and somewhat luminous green. The sort of green that hurts your eyes if you look at it for any longer than is necessary. The Mardi drifts through it, lifeless, lopsided. The Black Angel unfurls her wings and blinks. W exhales and says ‘Hey, we’re inside Dr. Simon Piler’s secret lair… right? Right, Willoughby?’
What the fuck just happened?
‘I don’t get it’ I tell them. ‘We’re not supposed to exist anymore.’
‘Ha!’ laughs W, crazily. ‘Haha! Ahahaha! We’re still alive!’ The Black Angel smiles, confused, as he wraps his arms around us both, grinning. ‘Now we just need to figure out how to get out of this place!’
At this he charges off in the direction of the Communications Room, striking the victory pose on his way.
‘What’s going on Willoughby?’ asks the Black Angel.
‘I dunno’ I tell her.
‘Where are we?’
I shrug. ‘We’re… Nowhere… I suppose.’
‘It’s very green’ she says with a half-smile.
We shuffle off after W, find him sitting in front of SAM’s monitor, pummelling the keyboard with a scrench. ‘Dude! What the fuck are you doing?’ I ask him, keys flying everywhere.
He gestures at the fuse-box on the wall. ‘SAM’s gone and the ship’s out of power’ he says, and he strikes the keyboard with the scrench again, cracking it in half. The three of us stare up at the blank monitor, before W kicks back his seat and charges off downstairs. ‘Where are you going now?’ I shout after him, but he ignores me. ‘He’s freaking out’ I tell the Black Angel, ‘I should never have given him that joint.’
He emerges onto the main deck several minutes later carrying a small dead potted tree. ‘Look’ he says and he drops it at our feet with a crash, ‘even the fucking money tree’s dead.’
‘And?’ I ask him.
‘And?’ he says, flailing at the air in frustration. ‘AND? Don’t you see what just happened?’
‘Uh…’ I look at the Black Angel, ‘well… no. I’m still trying to get my head around it.’
‘I stopped off at the Sales Office’ he says, ‘you know what I found? I found a dusty old room with a big old fish tank in the corner, and a bright orange shark looking fucking baffled in it.’
‘We probably blew a fuse or ten when we flew through the hole… remember that almighty flash of neon light? I’m sure I can fix it’ I tell him.
He bangs his head against the wheel of the ship and balances there silently. ‘The Mardi is dead Willoughby’ he says finally. ‘Can’t you feel it?’ My toes wriggle on the oddly cold wooden planks of the main deck and he looks up at me through the rungs. ‘We’ve been in suspended animation for the last sixty years, cocooned by the ship. Without her… well, we’re lost. Like stick figures. Our hair’s gonna start growing. And our nails. We’re going to shrivel up like fucking prunes and our brains will turn to mush. We probably won’t even know that we don’t fucking know what’s going on. We sacrificed the Mardi and saved the Unimerse. Congratulations. The plan was an astounding success, apart from we’re not going to just vanish out of existence anymore, no. Now we’re gonna grow fucking old and die. And seeing as I’m an android – barring you accidentally killing me with one of stupid ideas – I’m going to outlive the pair of you. By a considerable distance I might add.’
He stands up and takes a deep breath, before climbing onto the rail on the starboard side. ‘W, don’t do anything stupid’ says the Black Angel.
‘Personally I’d prefer to remember us the way we are, so I’ll see you kids around’ he says, and then he steps from the ship, out into the green.
I don’t know what I expect to happen, but I don’t really expect him to just walk away, which is exactly what he does.
‘W!’ I yell.
But he doesn’t look back. He just keeps on walking, like he did that time in Rongovia, obliviously out across a minefield. He was the most human robot I ever met, pound-for-pound the greatest tundra fiend the Unimerse will ever know, a mess of contradictions, of darkness and light, and a legendary comrade in these weird, weird times.
I hold the superhero pose until he is but a speck on the horizon, and finally Nowhere swallows him whole.
‘Can you?’ asks the Black Angel.
‘Can I what?’
‘Fix the Mardi?’
‘I’ll give it a go’ I tell her, and pick up a broom, start sweeping up the remains of the money tree.
‘Scrench’ she says, a copper wire pulled tight between her teeth, hair tied back, the back-up generator lying in pieces on the Communications Room floor.
I toss her W’s scrench and she starts removing bolts, grumbling under her breath. ‘Do you think…?’ I begin, but she gives me The Look. ‘I’m just trying to help’ I tell her.
‘You can help by making yourself scarce’ she says. ‘Go and see if you can find any food.’
I hop down off the pasting table and shuffle out across the main deck. It has been nearly seven hours since W walked off into the middle of Nowhere. Meanwhile, the Mardi continues to drift lifelessly through the endless expanse of green.
I head downstairs into the Rec Room, where the ping-pong table sits beneath an inch of dust, the trap door beneath it. For a second, ghostly voices echo up through the corridors of time, p-p-ping-ing and p-p-pa-pong-ing, while a yellow plastic teapot the shape of an elephant overlooking the drama unfolding. All these years later and I still feel remarkably bitter about the whole thing.
In the Wardroom, I weave between the plastic tables and chairs before straightening the seriously out of date notice board. My foot strikes against a sorry looking cardboard box and I pick it up. On it is printed instructions concerning ‘How to Make an Invisible Box.’ I grin ruefully at the ceiling and catch my own face reflected 679 times in the glitterball, each reflection missing an eye and resolve to locate that gemstone skull eye-patch of mine as soon as I can.
Wait a minute, here it is in my back pocket.
I head through to the kitchen wearing the patch and rummage around in the empty cupboards. I find three mouldy ship-shapes, some nuggets of rat poo, and a jar of grey mushroom jam that looks about as edible as the contents of Wanamaker’s refashioned head. In the corner of the room I locate the costume cupboard door and have a look inside. Rubber masks of old Flower Company crew members hang from hooks on the opposite wall, silent and eyeless, their eerie grins leering at me, and I slam the door shut so hard that it knocks a military jacket, Chinaman’s robes, and a box of assorted hats from a shelf.
The Freezer lies empty, soup stains on the floor, and the power cord hanging down from the ceiling. I think twice about pulling it and then pull it anyway. A giant ice-cream nebula breaks out all around me -
just kidding. Nothing happens. Just a powerless click and nothing more.
In the Anchor Hold I try unscrewing Ron Burgundy’s skull, but it has been welded on by that crazy Aia dude. I shove my hands up the anchor’s nostrils, right up to the elbows, but both are empty. Not even so much as a crumb of hope.
I continue my journey through the ghost-ship. Down to the Sales Office, where our Great Orange lies dead in his little tank. Seven words spring immediately to mind: what does shark fin soup taste like?
In the bar, I kick through the empty bottles that W polished off in our first three years heading back from Iliaus. Not a single drop remains. Beyond the bar, the basement looks desolate, the little stage empty, and the notes of Bredon Hertz and Simon Piler reverberate around in my imagination. A single yellow balloon seems to defiantly refuse time’s insistence, lying wrinkled like a rubber prune in the middle of the floor.
The Moon Pool lies empty. The Engine Room engine-less. As I pass through the Machine Shop the lights on the ceiling flicker on. Guess that means the Black Angel got the back-up generator working. I pick up the wall phone to call her, and thick black coffee oozes from the handset, pattering onto the floor. Through the gushing I hear her say that we’ve got enough of this crap in the old Coffee Heart to fuel the generator for several more years.
In the Aft Hold, the portraits stare down at me from the walls. Jack Kerouac has returned to his rightful place and looks mightily relieved that he hung onto that fire engine, stuck between Charlie Chaplin and some old blues guy of Simon’s whose name I forget. Upstairs the Sick Bay lies empty, the medicine cupboard utterly ransacked, the hammock in the corner missing a guy in a furry walrus outfit. I climb up through the collapsed roof into the Quixodelic Garden, where a dirty white bathtub sits in the middle of the floor, full of pungent green water.
Along the corridor I go, sitting down in the front row of the Film Studio and pick up a bowl of amphetamine popcorn. Sitting forward, I feed a kernel mechanically into my mouth. It is so hard that it nearly breaks my teeth. On the screen:
EXT. FRONT PATH OF A SUBURBAN HOUSE – LATE AFTERNOON
Camera is focused on a little boy’s hand moving a crude plasticine ship through a puddle on the path. In the blurred background the front door of the house opens and a woman appears.
Alfonso, I’m not going to tell you again – your tea is getting cold
The little boy’s hand lingers on the ship for a second before he stands up and runs towards the blur of the house. The camera slowly begins to move towards the plastic ship, speeding up as it goes, and enters via a window at the back of the ship, the plastic interior coming to life as it does.
And I am sitting there, in the front row of the Film Studio, chewing the rock hard popcorn on the screen.
‘Hey’ says the Black Angel, leaning against the door frame behind me. She points up at the empty screen on the wall in front of me. ‘Have I missed anything?’
‘It’s just starting again. Or it’s almost finished. I’m not sure which. Amphetamine popcorn?’ I ask her, holding out the bowl, and she sits down beside me, takes one and pops it into her mouth.
And then we sit there in silence broken only by the crack of popcorn against our teeth.
Continuing investigation of the ship.
The Black Angel rolls up her sleeves and attempts to tidy the Store Room. Good fucking luck there.
I head out with my skeleton key to check the cabins and bunkrooms.
Bunkroom 1 never really recovered from the night I went mad with paint. My cloud coffin lies rather pathetically in the corner of the room, feathers flaking off. I scurry down through the wardrobe and rifle through the cardboard boxes in the Commander-In-Chief’s secret headquarters, but unfortunately you can’t eat all the doctored Pocket Guides. I curse myself wishing I’d had them printed on sugar paper and glance at the cloning tanks in the corner to see if we’ve had any success with the Black Angel’s attempt to clone Simon’s plate of biscuits. But we haven’t.
I head back upstairs and across the corridor. The wardrobe in Bunkroom 2 was my home for most of 2009, and I climb up into the hidden attic space, where a shark nearly ate me. I laugh, shuddering at the memory of the sound of its terrible teeth snapping at my ass. I lower myself back down and shuffle over to the bunks, where a Jazz Monkey figurine sits blowing an alto-sax on a pillow. ‘Wake up you mad fucker’ I tell it, but nothing happens.
To the War Room. The vast banks of computers and consoles that W amassed, lie unplugged and redundant. There are no interns masturbating in the toilet cubicles. A lilo punctured by hot rocks sits on the bottom of an empty Olympic sized swimming pool. Waste paper baskets overflow with joint ends, and a 20ft grubby golden W effigy sits cross-legged in the corner, thumbs touching together, fingers fanned out in a W-shape.
I look up at the statue. ‘Next time I see you, we should share a smoke on the old magic bench, then steal a boat. I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you? I could have two eyes again and we could jump off a big bridge to the sound of a giant tambourine being mashed really hard…’ My voice reverberates inside the big empty room and for a second I imagine that this might have actually happened in some faraway bubble that not even the gods know exists.
But in this life, in this one that really matters, I know that I won’t see W again.
‘Where the fuck did you go dude?’ I ask, slumping into a seat, picking up a rubber mask and turning it over in my hands.
Our internal camera eye flies out the War Room window and soars across the endless green miles of Nowhere, until eventually it alights upon a solitary, tiny figure staggering along.
We zoom in close enough to see that it is W, wearing only jeans and a t-shirt, pale and sweating. He is following an imaginary railway track that he thinks he can see, shimmering beneath the surface of the green, an imaginary green sun a-blazin’ overhead, with imaginary green buzzards a-circlin’.
And then suddenly he stops, his fiery android eyes glistening, in that moment unquestionably human, and he sinks to his knees before falling onto his side and ceasing to breathe.
Bunkroom 4 is all bricked up.
And Bunkroom 5 we lost, somewhere out there in the wrong worm hole, along with our Recording Studio, Sports Hall, and Simon Piler’s Secret Lair.
Bunkroom 6 is a still a mountain of mad trash and I remember sometime promising Uberpaul that I’d tidy it up for him. I pick up a bin liner and start hacking down the black stalactites from the ceiling with my scrench.
I wake up in Bunkroom 6 inside the mountain of trash, sandwiched between a dismantled keyboard and a tank of Meno ‘Grow Your Own Fish-Men’. The little foam dudes dance around in the murky water with vacant little fish-eyes. I reach in a hand, grab one and pop him in my mouth. Tastes exactly like foam.
At my feet is a bin bag half-full of black stalactites.
I yawn and stretch out all the kinks in my limbs, picking bits of a foam fish-man from my teeth, and look around. I’m resolved to locking this room forever when something shiny buried deep in the pile catches my eye. Underneath a pair of heavy-duty Mophethoan strap-on-wings, a Grongling rug that stinks of sweat, the bony remains of a long-dead Tingler, and a couple of bags of Ko-Qicling sand, I find an old ornate mirror, held together with webs of sticky tape. My hands are trembling as I lift it to my face. ‘Hey you…’ I start, fully expecting it to sarcastically boom back at me.
But the magic mirror doesn’t say a word.
‘I said hey you…’ I say again, shaking it to grab its attention, but still nothing.
The magic mirror it would seem… is dead as well.
I throw it onto the pile of trash that Uberpaul amassed during his journey around the Unimerse, and lock the door behind me.
Bunkroom 7 is Fifeclub. I turn the metal wheel on the door and duck inside. On the wall is a poster of King Kenny. On the floor is an empty sleeping bag. There is a small pyramid of shampoo bottles on the window sill, and someone has scratched on the wall above the top bunk ‘The Greasy Pole woz ere’.
I wonder what those three are doing now…
Mal wakes up with regular hair and doesn’t even realise. His daughter Christine jumps on his chest while his wife teaches the budgies to sing like Dusty Springfield. He doesn’t know why, but he knows he doesn’t want to be a cop anymore. The possibilities of alternative careers seem quite endless, but right now in this moment he’s torn between becoming a barber, or a minister. Even though he doesn’t really believe in God.
The Amalfi Glow wakes up face down in one of his paintings. His two year old daughter has been painting around his head, and has sprinkled glitter all over the back of his ears. She smiles at him and he smiles back, feeling like he hasn’t seen her in a very long time. As he picks her up with glitter tumbling all around them, he notices a whackbat lying against the wall in the corner of the room and thinks, ‘Whackbat? Where the fuck did that come from? I don’t even LIKE whackbat…’
Moppy wakes up drunk in the middle of his living room floor. His kids dance around his masked head and bang the old stolen piano in the corner of the room so hard that his brain begins to hurt. His wife appears in the doorway and she shakes her head. ‘You’ve been dressing up again’ she says. He sits up and untangles his little white cape with the thunderbolt from around his neck and grins a rueful grin. He feels like he just had the most incredible dream, but he can’t remember anything about it.
…probably something like that.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagining to figure out where the others are. A young Alexander Tokeleaf bangs the drums and a conscious Bobby does Pete Townsend star-jumps on guitar, while Jim revs a chainsaw, and Mr Khaury and Mr Landolakes leap around unvapourised.
James Redmond wakes up with all the bruises, an empty suitcase, and a spring in his step.
The Atom Band… well, who knows what happens to The Atom Band. I like to think they were real, but I’ve never really been sure. Let’s put them in identical lime green boiler-suits doing some strange silent line-dance that Simon has mapped out with inky footsteps on the back of a sheet of visible wallpaper.
Uberpaul sits at his favourite table in the Strip Club, nursing a drink, feeling like Death warmed up, humming psychedelic masterpieces under his breath.
And Jon… well Jon is just Jon.
I turn the metal wheel back, locking the door, step across the corridor and snap off the note that hangs from the door of Bunkroom 8 by a spider thread.
As for the Chief… her fate is no so simple. Perhaps it will be one of the great mysteries in our little story. Certainly her subconscious got killed by that crazy King Vaw, and her time-travelling alter-ego Becky N1000 was last seen lost with her puffer-fish-friend Oscar. But the actual Chief herself?
Personally, I like to think that people can survive without a subconscious, and that Rasmussen reimagined her back into some semblance of not-lost-ness, sitting up into the night playing computer games in a knitted woolly beret, no longer feeling like humanity is fucked.
I head upstairs to Cabin 1, which once belonged to Brendon Hertz but now belongs to the grass and moss growing up around the ceiling, and to the upright old cowboy piano choked with weeds. Without a lawnmower and two sacks of weedkiller, there’s no way of telling if there’s anything edible in there, so I shut the door on it forever.
Cabin 2 is where the Black Angel has fluttered in and out of suspended animation for the last sixty years, though before that it was Chase Murphy’s temporary residence (before he freaked everyone out, stole a silver of evil NIKO, and played the hypno-moose programme to Elvis – the time-travellin’ donkey – who proceeded to pulp poor Jonny Gallo to death inside a suitcase, though Jonny himself laterally returned from the beyond the pulpy grave to help out at the Battle of the Black Crater.*)
*note to self – how did Elvis get Jonny into the briefcase with his hooves?
I try the handle, but the door is locked, so I use the skeleton key and let myself in. It’s dark inside, but I can vaguely make out that the en-suite drawing room door is open. I’m in the process of tiptoeing towards the drawing room door when something hurtles past my head and thumps against the wall beside me. ‘Whawasthat!?’ I yell, dropping to the floor for cover.
‘Willoughby? Is that you?’
I look up, my eye adjusting to the dark and see the silhouette of the Black Angel sitting up in her bed. ‘Yeah, it’s me’ I whisper.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she yells. ‘I thought you were… well I don’t know who I thought you were, but you frightened the living shit out of me! Where have you been?’
‘I fell asleep tidying Bunkroom 6’ I tell her, picking up the sandal she hurled, and sitting down on the end of her bed. ‘Here’s your sandal back.’
‘Did I hit you?’
‘No, you’re a horrible shot.’
I lie down beside her, feel the quiet thrum of her wings in the shadows of the bed. ‘Any sign of W?’ I ask her.
‘I hope he’s okay’ I say.
‘Yeah’ she says. ‘Did you find any food?’
‘The shark’s dead’ I tell her.
‘We can’t eat the shark’ she says, ‘that thing was soaking in a swimming pool of orange kool-aid. We’d be tripping out of our heads if we tried. Anything else?’
‘There are some little grow your own foam fish-men in a tank in Bunkroom 6’ I say.
She pauses for thought, her black eyes shining in the darkness. ‘We’ll cook the shark in the morning’ she says.
‘Okay’ I say and we lie there in silence.
We lie there in silence.
‘Willoughby’ she says, ‘how come we never…?’
‘Oh, that. Uh… well, I didn’t think… I just…’
‘Is it because of -?’
‘No, it’s not that’ I tell her.
‘I think it is.’
‘Well, I don’t… and it’s my imagination… so I should know.’
She laughs and envelopes me inside her wings.
Two and a half minutes later…
‘I wish we hadn’t smoked that last cigarette now’ I tell her, and she smiles. ‘What are you thinking?’ I ask her.
‘Nothing’ she says, and we lie there in the silence again.
I wait until she falls asleep, unwrap myself from her wings and tiptoe from the room, closing the door quietly behind me. Fuck. Things are going to be awkward in the morning. It’s probably a good thing that we’re going to die of starvation sooner rather than later.
I get down on my belly in the corridor and open the ankle-high door that leads to Cabin 3, otherwise known as Buckley’s Nest. That brave little furry critter. His nest is a shit-sty. To be fair to him, it was latterly populated by loads of cloned rampaging psychotic Buckley’s… but still. More tidying for yours truly.
Cabin 4 is locked too. So I kick the door down. Just because I can. It takes me about twenty goes, in which time I sprain my ankle and wake up the Black Angel, but eventually the door caves in. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she asks me, wrapped in her duvet with bed-head and bleary eyes.
‘Door was locked’ I tell her.
She shakes her head and goes back to bed.
Told you it would be awkward in the morning.
I can’t remember whose cabin this was, but whoever it was took to drawing tally marks on the walls. I count nearly a hundred. ‘Weird’ I say and move on.
To Cabin 5.
Thee cabin of cabins.
I push open the door and step inside.
‘Rasmussen?’ I ask, staring up at his green face inside pulsing concentric circles of yellow, orange, pink, and white.
He doesn’t answer, his head just floats there in the middle of the pulsing raings with his eyes closed, like he’s lost in a dream. ‘What happened to the old room?’ I ask. ‘With the hammock and the crazy big sorta desk in the corner with all the wild shit attached to it?’
Still no answer.
‘RASMUSSEN MURPHY! WAKE UP!’ I yell.
But still he doesn’t answer, so I sit down on the floor and wait for him to wake up.
And wait for him to wake up.
And wait for him to wake up.
And wait for him to wake up.
‘I’ll come back later’ I tell him, and pick myself up.
I stop in the doorway and look back.
‘You know, I know that you already know this, but I figure I should tell you again, just one last time in case you ever forget. I could never have done all this without you. Whatever it is that we did here. It’s been… well, it’s been immense. Even when it was scrappy, or fraught, or even more gory than I imagined it might be. I could have given up so many times, but just having you around meant I had to keep going… right to this point where I’m probably going to die of starvation. It’s cool. I’ve lived a good life… a strange life, but I couldn’t have imagined it any other way, and I somehow feel like I need to thank you for that, just for sticking around right to The End, the actual End. I don’t mean this in a sentimental way, far from it… more a practical way if anything. Remember when Smally said that The Daydream Generation was the tree, and Quixodelic Records artists are the fruit, and The Utica Flower Company are those who have climbed to the highest, spindly branches, and are hanging on for dear life while the mad winds blow? Well, that’s you. Up there on the highest, splindliest branch.’
But he doesn’t move.
I throw him the superhero pose, and close the door behind me.
One cabin to go.
I open the door.
And my brain gets smashed to smithereens.
So I close it again, my heart racing in my mouth.
I open the door again and my brain gets blown away again.
So I close it again.
This changes EVERYTHING.
I run back down the corridor to Cabin 2 and burst inside.
‘What now?’ groans the Black Angel.
‘Come on!’ I grin. ‘I need to show you something!’
‘Fuck’ she says.
‘It’s important!’ I tell her.
‘Can we eat it?’ she croaks as I throw back the covers and grab her by the ankles. ‘Hey! What the fuck are you doing?’ I drag her across the floor, out into the corridor, her wings flapping like mad, and her black eyes giving me The Look.
‘I completely forgot, but Nowhere previously leaked into Cabin 6, right?’
‘I can walk from here!’ she laughs as her head thumps against the wall. ‘Ouch!’
‘Well, now we’re Nowhere it’s like it’s like everything got polarised and -