I crawl commando style through the shadowy metallic veins of the ship, my hand clamped firmly over Herman Melville’s plastic mouth, while up ahead Buckley scurries along with his nose to the ground. I have a horrible sense of deja-vous that I’ve been here sometime before – on my belly in the ventilation shaft, something about those weird cartoon dragonflies that every so often you see going zzub, drifting backwards around neon lights, or passing quickly across the face of the ocean moon; but I can’t for the life of me remember when or why. A pungent and all-too-familiar aroma blows down the popcorn coated tunnel and we turn a corner, almost colliding with one of the cardboard mask-wearing W cult followers.
‘Fuck Smally! You really shouldn’t be so quiet when you’re sneaking around in the air vents’, says the guy, and I realise immediately that this is no cult member. This is the guy the cult is forming around, my former room-mate and arguably insane friend W, pointing curiously down at Herman Melville’s head that I am holding, cone of tundra crackling between the knuckles of his hand. ‘Cool head on a stick by the way. Is that…?’
‘Herman Meville, yes’, I whisper frantically. ‘Listen W, we’re in some serious shit. There’s a guy back there shooting at us. We need to keep -‘
‘You’re trashed again, aren’t you?’ he asks me, grinning, then turns to Buckley. ‘Hey Buckley, is this true? There’s some guy shooting at you?’
Buckley looks up at Warchalking and then at me, then back to Warchalking again before lowering his masked head. ‘Weeeell… I couldn’t honestly say that I definitely saw someone shooting at us -‘
‘Buckley!’ I cry, quietly shocked.
‘Nice mask by the way’, says Warchalking.
‘Thank you oh mighty one’, pipes the little rat, bowing to the floor.
‘Seriously, I’m being serious’, I tell him. ‘It’s that linguist… Molineaux. Chase’s friend. The one with the speedboat…’
W looks back at me blankly and takes a giant draw of the tundra, allowing the heavy smoke to pool around his nostrils, eyes glazing over like ice across fucking duck ponds. When he speaks, his voice is contorted and abnormally high pitched, cranked up several octaves by the drug like he has been sucking on helium balloons. ‘Chase who?’ he asks.
‘Chase of the Seven Isles’, I tell him. ‘Big black guy… with a toilet roll on his chest and a roof… uh, moon hat. You know?’
He shakes his head. ‘Are you sure it’s not fucking Interpol again. Those dudes are really starting to get on my tits. I mean, half of them are closet W-ists anyway… I’m shifting these cardboard masks like crazy man. I even got a letter from the American embassy in Rongo telling me that these things are flying off the shelves faster than Rongovian Buzz Lightyear. At this rate I’m going to have to build another mask-making factory on top of my existing mask-making factory. Hey… and apparently some crazy fucker was on a television show over there saying he was going to test out some kind of giant death ray on their country. Fuck. They’re throwing street parties on Christmas Eve there to celebrate the apocalypse you know. I’m getting like twenty sacks of fan mail from the Rongovian president BEGGING me to put in an appearance before they get blown up. Incidentally between you and me, that machine isn’t even a death ray… it’s a strangeness generator. You know that, right?’
‘Cool. Okay, well you fellas seem to have your hands full with imaginary guys shooting at you and Herman Melville there, so I’ll not keep you… you’re sure this Molly fucker isn’t Interpol? Or Kosack? Man, those Kosacks are still breaking my balls about some assassination attempt…’
‘Never mind Smally. Keep up the good work. Just remember there’s only so many places on my imaginary space bus, but this kind of dedicated behaviour is keeping both of you guys at the forefront of my mind’, he says, sliding to one side to allow us to crawl through. We’re just about to disappear up the ventilation shaft beyond him, to head upwards through the belly of The Mardi, when he calls out ‘Oh shit, I almost forgot. Either of you lose a sandal down here?’ holding up the solitary brown battered leather sandal in his free hand.
A stiff south westerly wind whips across the main deck and the sky looks grey for as far as the eye can see. I shiver in my flower company shirt and walk head down across the ship to where Simon Piler and various members of the Atom Band are assembling a giant sugar cube, fastened to the wooden deck with mooring ropes. Upon seeing me carrying The Oracle and sandal, and Buckley trudging along behind looking anxiously over his shoulder, he breaks out into a big solarized grin and points up at the enormous cube. ‘One giant sugar cube as promised!’ he shouts over the whistling wind, clapping his cold blue hands together and blowing into them for warmth. ‘Although technically speaking it’s actually one hundred and twenty two thousand, five hundred regular sized sugar cubes painstakingly stacked together. Quite the feat if you ask me!’
‘It’s fucking amazing Simon!’ I shout back. ‘Any sign of that donkey yet?’
He shakes his head, ‘No donkeys I’m afraid… although Elvis there seems mighty taken with it…’ He points over to the ship’s elk on the far side of the cube, lifting his mighty moose head to lick and nibble at the colossal structure. It is actually quite shocking to see Elvis somewhere other than the Quixodelic Record Store, where he seems perpetually bent over the hot-tub lapping at the hideous green prune flower bathwater.
I stand there staring at the crazy elk, watching its long muscular tongue licking the cube and suddenly it hits me like a lightning bolt, straight down through the tip of my skull, travelling the length of my spine, before finally exploding into my toes causing me to do a strange little victory dance of amazement on the deck. ‘Hey! You’ve been learning Fu Jung!’ shouts Simon, pointing at my feet. ‘Or maybe it’s just that strangeness generator again… in the last few days I’ve found myself spontaneously bursting into cowboy song. No wait, I actually do that anyway…’
‘Simon, it’s not the Fu Jung. And I don’t think it’s the strangeness generator either. I jumped because that elk is not an elk.’
‘Well yes. I guess you could also call it a caribou’, he says.
‘I always thought Elvis was a moose’, says Buckley.
‘Elvis’, I tell them, ‘is actually… a donkey. In disguise.’
Everyone (with the exception of the elk) stops what they are doing around the cube and looks at me. And then they burst out laughing, before slowly returning to whatever they were doing before. ‘What an ass!’ says Buckley, lifting his mask and wiping the tears away from his eyes on the back of a paw.
‘Ahahaha, Chaplin’, laughs Simon, throwing his arm around my shoulder and shaking the laughter from his helmeted head. ‘Ahohaha you are… you are legendary sometimes.’
‘Simon, I’m being serious.’
‘Aha- wha? Oh… you are?’
He stares at me quizzically and with a poker straight face says, ‘Smally. How many donkeys do you know that have antlers?’
‘Just that one. And I’ll prove it to you if someone can distract him for a minute. He fucking hates me…’
‘Elvis hates everyone except the Chief’, points out Buckley.
Simon shakes his head, lost in thought, looking down at the little rat. ‘I have an idea’, he says.
[Several agonisingly hilarious moments later]
Buckley is dressed in a trench-coat of sugar cubes and is stomping around with miniature clogs on the main deck, clopping and whooping some old Russian folk dance, while Simon Piler blows a conch shell that he has fetched from the Sound Laboratory. After a good minute of piping and tiny clog clunking (barely audible above the whistling wind), where Elvis looks up once disinterested, something strange begins to happen…
…thought bubbles begin to blow from the conch shell.
The first one says (MY GOODNESS THIS CONCH SHELL SOUNDS INCREDIBLE!), followed closely by (I WONDER IF ANYONE ELSE CAN HEAR IT OVER THAT WIND?), then (WHERE ON EARTH IS MATTHEW THE MIGHTY?), before finally (OH THIS IS RIDICULOUSLY SUBLIME! A DONKEY! HAHA!).
Perhaps even more bizarrely, is that as if sensing the word “DONKEY” has been bubbled up, Elvis lifts his mighty head from the sugar cube, opens his mouth and grunts a thought bubble of his own that says (IS SOMEBODY TALKING ABOUT ME?).
Buckley stops dancing mid hop, plucks a cube from his coat and pops it in his mouth, grimacing ‘I just did a fucking clog dance for nothing. I’m so ashamed.’
I watch dumbfounded as the thought bubble conversation between Simon and the donkey-elk drifts around on the wind. Simon blows (WOW ELVIS! I CAN SEE YOUR THOUGHTS!)
Elvis grunts back (WHO THE FUCK IS ELVIS?)
Simon bites his lip and blows back (UM, YOU ARE… SAY, DO YOU MIND IF I ASK YOU IF YOU ARE AN ELK?)
Not-Elvis grunts (AN ELK? AHAHAHA. DO I LOOK LIKE A FUCKING ELK TO YOU? I’M A DONKEY YOU TWIT!)
I clap my hands together and let rip a peal of hiccuped laughter. ‘I fucking knew it!’
Not-Elvis swings in my direction bellows (OH NO, NOT HIM – THAT ONE DRIVES ME NUTS. IN FACT YOU ALL DO. EXCEPT FOR THE ONE THAT SMELLS NICE)
‘Hey!’ I shout, ‘Smells nice? Are you kidding? She didn’t wash for like-‘
(TELL HIM TO SHUT THE FUCK UP) grunts Not-Elvis.
(SMALLY COULD YOU PLEASE BE QUIET? THANK YOU) blows Simon, and turns back to the pissed-off looking donkey-elk. (I DON’T MEAN TO BE RUDE, BUT YOU DON’T LOOK ANYTHING LIKE A DONKEY) he blows, tipping the floating bubble from the end of the conch.
(WHAT? YOU HAVE A TALKING RAT WITH MECHANICAL WINGS, A SUGAR CUBE COAT, CLOGS AND SOME STUPID MATCHBOX MASK STANDING THERE, AND YOU’RE QUESTIONING MY DONKEY-NESS?) – This particular bubble is rather big and nearly knocks Scarytoes off the top of the giant sugar cube where he is diligently fastening down a sheet of polythene.
(UM) blows Simon – In contrast, this bubble is rather small indeed and pops on one of Buckley’s outstretched metal wings showering the rat in a muddied white liquid. He squeals of course.
(BUT TO ANSWER THE QUESTION HE IS ABOUT TO ASK ME) grunts Not-Elvis, nodding his antlered head in my direction, (YES, I WILL GO WITH THE OTHER TWENTY SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE… IT IS, AFTER ALL, WHAT I WAS DESIGNED FOR)
The conch shell sits between Simon Piler’s grinning lips. ‘A donkey all this time’, he mumbles. ‘It all makes such perfect sense, and yet absolutely no sense at all…’
I smile and point at the conch. ‘I think I need that Simon -‘
‘ – and those golden boots you’re wearing. I need them too.’
He reluctantly throws the conch shell over to me, and after a few seconds thought, shoulders hunched, he kicks off the boots as well. How he ever ended up with Geshe-Las golden boots is anyone’s guess. The last time I saw them I was hurling them into the Plum Island jungle several months ago and hundreds of miles away. ‘Those were nearly as comfortable as the helmet’, he says wistfully, hopping from one bare foot to the other on the cold wooden floor. On the horizon, the rain clouds are falling rapidly into formation.
I pick up the boots and Buckley, shaking the milky thought crap off him and nestle him shell-shocked (haha) inside the conch, salute in Simon Piler’s direction, before heading downstairs, the donkey lumbering gravely after me. ‘Oh by the way Simon, there’s a madman running loose below deck with a gun!’ I shout to him, before ducking down the stairs. It is unclear whether he heard me or not over the rising wind, but he salutes back nevertheless.
Nervously I crouch on the landing and peer along the bottom corridor, Buckley cowering in the shell muttering Hail Mary’s beneath his breath, and Not-Elvis balancing on the stairs behind us, snorting impatiently. The coast it would appear is clear, so I tiptoe along to the War Room, Elvis clomping along in my wake. ‘Buckley, what’s with the praying? I never knew you were religious’, I say.
‘Neither did I, until now’, he says, crossing himself and getting muddled up with his paws.
I knock quietly on the door of what was formerly Bunkroom 3, but was very recently converted into some kind of secret Black Ops laboratory, complete with communication stations, three old farts in military uniforms (one apparently a trained masseuse), and an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with fizzy orange kool-aid and two great white sharks who have hangars of popcorn asteroids in their bellies. Believe me, I’ve been there. Inside the farts are busy, but instead of their previous battle fatigues, they are now dressed in garish luminous lycra jump-suits, blinking behind cardboard cut-out W masks. The fart in a turquoise and amber caped costume nearest the door, coughs to grab my attention and beckons me forward to the desk closest to the door. ‘Name?’ he barks.
‘Uh… Smally’, I say, scanning the piles of cardboard boxes on the floor behind the desk, spilling over with polaroid portrait photographs hand-labelled with numbers and more cardboard W masks.
‘The rat and moose? Are they with you?’ he asks, etching my name into a great leather ledger.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t -‘
‘Have you been, are you presently, or do you intend to join any other cults other than the Cult of W, anytime in the past, present, or immediate unforeseeable future?’ he asks me.
‘I think you’ve got the wrong end of -‘
‘Do you know anything about plumbing or Eastern European architecture?’
‘Uh… no… but -‘
He shakes his head and gives a little ‘tut’ beneath the mask, pushes a yellow four page form across the desk to me with a pen. ‘Sign here’, he says, pointing to a box at the foot of the page. The writing is so minuscule that I can barely make it out other than a healthy scattering of W’s here and there.
‘I was only here to ask if you’ve come across a golden bullet, I didn’t realise that -‘
‘All in good time sir. All in good time’, he drones and taps the page again. Oh fuck it. I scribble my signature in the box and he flips the page, points at another box, ‘Sign here as well please.’ So I sign that box too. ‘And here… and here as well, here, here, here, here… and finally, here… and here. Oh and here as well. Thanking you.’
My hand races across the page scrawling Smally’s with increasing frustration at the bureaucracy of yet another ridiculous situation. ‘Okay, about that golden bullet? Someone left it for me a few weeks ago -‘
‘Would sir care for a massage?’ asks the old fart. ‘Hilda here’ (pointing to a rotund old man stamping his way through a paper tower of application forms) ‘… is fully trained and raring to go.’
‘I’m full trained and raring to go’, confirms Hilda with the cartoon voice of a sales executive on the brink of jumping off an impossibly high cliff.
‘Ugh, no thanks’, I say, ‘about this golden bullet…’
‘Ah yes. The golden bullet. Hilda, have you seen that golden bullet?’ asks the old fart at the desk.
‘No Pauline, I haven’t’, says Hilda, leaning back to shout at the third old fart who is suspended upside down from a high-wire, cheese-grating a purple sleeved decapitated arm into the fizzing orange shark pool beneath him, ‘Hey Wendy, have you seen a golden bullet kicking around?’
The upside down old man, pauses to think, murmuring ‘Golden bullet… golden bullet… oh yes! Yes indeed! Pauline, did you not give a golden bullet to that charming young man with the long hair and shades? You know the one, spoke a little French, was waving a pistol around?’
‘Oh THAT golden bullet?’ says Pauline on the other side of the desk from me, shaking his head and looking down his nose at me. ‘I didn’t realise you were talking about THAT golden bullet. Sorry, we’re all out of golden bullets. But we do have some pretty cool cardboard masks and this brainwashing cassette recording by the great man himself.’
All three of them bow gently in unison making W shapes by connecting their thumbs in front of them. ‘All hail W’, they murmur. ‘Everything is totally cool.’
‘Fuck. Molineaux’s got the golden bullet and we need it’, I say to Buckley, fur spiked up from the solidifying (UM). ‘Come on, let’s take what we’ve got back to Simon’s Secret Lair and have a think about setting some kind of trap for him.’
At the word ‘trap’, Buckley visibly flinches.
‘Wait sir’, pomps Pauline, sitting forward and staring me up and down through a monocle. ‘Where shall I forward your W mask, and complimentary cult robes to?’
‘Bunkroom 1’, I tell him, making it to the door, Not-Elvis wearily u-turning to follow.
‘Bunkroom 1 where exactly?’ Pauline asks.
‘Bunkroom 1, right next fucking door to here’, I say.
He puffs indignantly. ‘And where would here be exactly?’ he asks me.
I kick the War Room door closed behind me, looking down at the graphic DO NOT DISTURB sign still swinging on the handle, and the SMOKING poster I pinned up with bubblegum oh so long ago. Behind the door I hear fat Hilda drawling ‘I think he’ll fit in perfectly, but I’m not so sure about the donkey’, and the high wire snapping with a twang, Wendy falling with a shriek and a splash into the kool-aid swimming pool.
Dr Simon Piler’s Secret Lair: I am standing at the entrance to the flume trying to figure out the logistics of getting a donkey inside. Not-Elvis just stands there shaking his head, while Buckley hops out of the conch shell and lands on the strangeness generator, carefully navigating his way around the many switches and levers and flashing push-buttons. ‘I’m not going back in the flume’, he pipes, ‘Uh-uh.’
‘Mais non. Nobody is going back in the flume. Je suis tres desole’, says the voice behind me, stepping from the shadows of the giant circular saw.
I blow a hopelessly defeated breath. ‘Molineaux is standing behind me, isn’t he?’ I ask Buckley.
The little rat nods.
‘Fuck. He’s pointing a gun at me as well, isn’t he?’
Buckley nods again, wide-eyed.
‘And you still haven’t thought to fire the strangeness generator at him, have you?’ I ask him, nodding at the pulsating control panel.
An action-packed moment follows. In unison, Molineaux fires the gun and Buckley slams a paw on a big green circular lit button shooting a ring of strangeness directly at the Linguist. I turn in slow motion, see the malevolent leer behind the dark sunglasses, the golden bullet exiting the barrel of the gun chamber, the colourless ring rocketing across the room and surrounding him, and the bullet freezing in mid-air, before falling to the ground with a reverberating clink.
Molineaux is not there anymore. In his place is a ham sandwich, on a clean white porcelain plate, lying upon the ground. Buckley jumps off the strangeness generator and flaps across the room, lifts his mask again and starts sniffing at the sandwich, while I let out another endless breath of relief. ‘Can I… you know?’ asks Buckley. ‘I’m fucking starving Smally.’
I shrug my shoulders, tossing the boots and the conch shell down the flume, and picking up the bullet, wondering why this thing is even remotely “magical”.
‘Just one bite’, he says. ‘I’ve read the magical artefact list and it doesn’t say anything about it being a WHOLE ham sandwich.’ Picking it up between his jaws and flying back over towards me.
‘Just do what you’ve got to do Buckley’, I tell him, depositing Chase’s golden bullet down the flume and turning to the donkey. ‘Okay there Mr Donkey with the smell issues, are you going to squeeze yourself into that transcendental flume on your own, or am I going to have to put Simon’s giant circular saw into action?’
Not-Elvis rolls his bright eyes and sticks his antlered head into the tunnel.
‘How many of the twenty one is that we’ve got now Buckley?’ I ask the rat, hovering around while the plate with the sandwich slides off through the donkey’s front legs stretching forward into the flume.
‘Mmmfffen’, says Buckley, picking a bread crumb from a whisker.