‘Where am I?’ asked Cub.
‘The Mardi,’ said the man.
‘That’s impossible,’ said Cub. He picked up a handful of sand and let the tiny grains trickle between his fingers as he stared out to sea. There were miles and miles of endless blue ocean stretching off towards the horizon.
‘You’re not how I imagined you,’ said the man, looking him up and down.
‘You’re not my dad,’ said Cub. ‘You’re him, aren’t you? You’re Willoughby Toad.’
The man gave a wry laugh again, the sunlight glimmering on the gentle waves, reflected in his good eye. ‘That was a name I chose, yes.’
‘Where’s Black Cloud, and the lady with the blue hair? Moss?’
‘Oh, they’re around,’ replied the man with a vague wave of his hands.
Cub heard footsteps crunching across the sand, and he saw the winged ghost-woman from the bottom corridor, emerging from the treeline and walking towards them. She sat down on the opposite side of Cub from Willoughby, and smiled warmly.
‘Sibyl, meet Cub. Cub, meet Sibyl,’ said Willoughby.
‘Hey,’ said Sibyl.
Willoughby cupped his hand over his mouth. ‘She’s an actual angel,’ he whispered.
‘Was an angel,’ said Sibyl, correcting him. As she spoke, there was a glitch, the smallest fraction of a moment where everything around them – the sand, the sea, and the palm trees, even Willoughby and Sibyl – all stopped, frozen in time, falling out of sync with reality. Cub wondered whether perhaps it was he who’d fallen out of sync, given that ten minutes ago he was only able to squawk like a bird.
‘Sorry about that,’ said Willoughby.
‘What was it?’ asked Cub. He felt the breeze on his face, and smelled the salty ocean, hearing the waves as they lapped against the sand like nothing had happened.
‘The ship’s last breaths,’ explained Sibyl cryptically.
Cub drew a circle with his finger in the sand, mulling things over. ‘You’re not real, are you?’ he asked eventually, but neither of them replied. ‘Are you?’ he asked again, more forcefully this time.
‘Real… not real… there’s a fuzzy old line between the two,’ said Willoughby with a weary grin.
‘What are you?’ asked Cub. ‘Ghosts? Computer programmes?’
‘He’s a bright one,’ said Willoughby to Sibyl behind Cub’s back. ‘A lot smarter than his father.’
‘We’re like… echoes,’ explained Sibyl, carefully choosing her words. ‘We’re part of the Unimerse Machine. She exploded six years ago with the two of us on board.’
‘Some fucking idiot planted a bomb beneath the Basement,’ added Willoughby, ‘then they programmed it to detonate at a random time.’
‘Fortunately we don’t remember much about the explosion,’ said Sibyl.
‘Speak for yourself!’ snapped Willoughby. ‘It hurt like fuck! Getting blasted into a billion pieces…’
‘Sof…’ she said, raising her eyebrows and nodding at Cub.
‘What?’ asked Willoughby.
‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ said Cub. ‘The ship didn’t look like it exploded.’
‘You see?’ said Willoughby. ‘What did I tell you? He’s bright, this one. A bit too bright if you ask me.’ There was another minuscule glitch again, Willoughby’s voice distorting as he said “me”.
‘We don’t have long left,’ said Sibyl. ‘The Unimerse Machine is dying, and when it does, it will take whatever is left of us with it.’
‘There’s not much to be honest,’ said Willoughby. ‘All that’s left are some lines of computer code in a virtual solarium, like ripples fading forward through time. This version of me…’ He pointed to himself. ‘He’s much nicer than actual me. I wouldn’t have trusted actual me with…’ He paused again, his brow crumpling. ‘Well, I wouldn’t have trusted actual me with anything really. Your father was different. He could see the bigger picture. And I think… I think perhaps that was because of you.’
‘Where is he?’ asked Cub.
Willoughby shrugged. ‘How could we possibly know that? I might have imagined him into existence, but he was always a law unto himself.’
‘Imagined him?’ Cub’s head was starting to hurt listening to his dad’s one-eyed doppelganger speak. He wanted to just run into the sea and keep swimming until he reached the end of the programme. He figured the Solarium had been scripted to continue in an infinite loop, and he wondered if you could drown in the virtual waves. The two adults sitting either side of him seemed as real as Black Cloud and Moss. Were it not for the glitch every few minutes, he wouldn’t even have noticed.
‘Alfie Kolinsky was originally a character in one of my books,’ explained Willoughby. ‘I tried my best to be a good human, I really did, but the Nagaziim are relentless. They still found me. To escape, I fused myself with a character I’d created and vanished into a new Universe I’d imagined with one of these.’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bubble of light, about the size of a tennis ball. ‘Here, take it,’ he said, holding it out to Cub.
The bubble of light nestled in Cub’s palm. It weighed nothing at all. He stared into it and saw it was filled with billions of tiny glimmering constellations, faraway planets and moons. It reminded him of Post and Gffrikirik’s eyes. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘It’s called a Seed,’ said Sibyl. ‘You must keep it safe, Cub. This Seed is the last of the Nova energy on the Mardi. Only use it when all hope is lost.’
‘How does it work?’ he asked, unable to take his eyes from the shimmering weightless bubble as he spun it slowly in his hands.
‘You’ll just have to figure that out when the time comes,’ said Willoughby.
Cub looked up at him. With the exception of the eye-patch instead of glasses, Willoughby looked and sounded identical to his dad. At the same time, he knew the man sitting beside him wasn’t Alfie. He wasn’t even human. ‘You’re one of them,’ he said quietly. ‘One of the Nova.’
‘Ah,’ said Willoughby, smiling sadly, ‘once upon a time, perhaps.’
The glitch happened again, longer this time, the whole beach fading until Cub saw that he was actually sitting inside a cold, dark metal room on board the Mardi. There was a small ceramic statuette of a monkey playing the saxophone, sitting on top of a shrine in the corner of the room, with dead flowers scattered around it. Cub blinked and he was back on the beach again. ‘Time’s nearly up,’ said Sibyl.
‘This Seed…’ began Cub, ‘…is it part of the virtual programme too?’
Willoughby and Sibyl exchanged glances. Eventually Willoughby spoke. ‘Who says this is the programme?’ he asked. ‘Perhaps we are real, while you are the one who is just a dream.’ He grinned. And with that, they were gone.
Cub stared up at a projector on the wall opposite him, some strange alien tech, the white of the beach and blue of the ocean flickering to black in the lens as the room fell dark and silent. He looked down at the Seed in his hand, glimmering just as brightly as before, and then he placed it into a side pocket of his black armour.
‘Hello?’ he asked, relieved to no longer be squawking like a dumb bird. There was no answer, so he headed back up to the main deck where he was met with the most amazing sight. Black Cloud was inside a large fishing net, dangling from the main mast, several metres off the ground.
‘Number Two!’ he called. ‘You’re awake!’ He tried to rotate inside the net, but he was thoroughly snagged, making it almost impossible for him to move. The net revolved slowly, the rope creaking as it turned. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Better,’ said Cub. His hand went to his pocket, feeling the smooth, cold skin of the Seed, just to make sure it hadn’t been part of the hallucination.
‘Yeah,’ said Black Cloud with a weary laugh, ‘that hot-tub water is nasty stuff. We put you in the Solarium to dry out. Say, is there any chance you could get me down from here?’
‘What happened?’ asked Cub, looking around for something to cut him down.
‘Oh… nothing really,’ said Black Cloud, coughing nervously. ‘Just, I, um, ran into a spot of trouble.’
‘Unfortunately for W, he taught me everything he knows,’ said Moss, stepping out from behind the squid catapult. She had the box of Ship Shapes from the Galley, and was rummaging around inside until she got what she was looking for, a small kernel shaped like a skull and crossbones. ‘I used to be his Number Two, you know,’ she said, popping the Ship Shape into her mouth and ambling across to Cub before perching herself on the ship’s railing. Oscar was still tied to her wrist, and she reached up and fed him a corn lifebuoy. ‘Although,’ she said with a sigh, ‘now I’m Number One.’
Cub noticed the assassin’s vaporiser hanging from the belt of her cloak. Her hood was back, revealing the black woollen beret. She placed the box of Ship Shapes carefully on the lopsided rail, before reaching into her cloak pocket and pulling out Black Cloud’s list of names. ‘Any idea what these are?’ she asked him.
‘Don’t tell her!’ shouted down Black Cloud, kicking and thrashing as he tried to turn and see what was going on.
‘Somebody paid him to kill everyone on the list,’ said Cub.
‘Not true!’ shouted Black Cloud. ‘Nobody’s paying me to do shit! I’m doing this for the benefit of mankind!’
‘Pelicanshit,’ said Moss. ‘Since when did you ever do anything for the benefit of mankind?’
‘Since I started working my way through the list,’ said Black Cloud.
‘Moss,’ read Moss. ‘That’s me. Would one of you please tell me what the frick I am doing on this list?’
‘Apparently, you know too much,’ said Cub.
‘Shit,’ said Black Cloud, giving up struggling.
‘Know too much about what?’
‘Everything!’ shouted Black Cloud. ‘The Mardi, the Unimerse Machine, Alfie Kolinsky, Willoughby Toad, the Organization, Doc Piler, the moon mission, Plum fucking Island. Everything!’
Moss looked confused. ‘Since when has that ever been a problem?’
The assassin hung silent for several seconds. ‘Since we killed Awrel Crow,’ he said finally. ‘Since the Nagaziim figured out Willoughby was alive, and that we all had Machine powers.’
Moss looked at Cub. ‘Do you have any idea what he’s babbling about?’
Cub shook his head.
‘Good,’ said Moss, reaching into her cloak pocket and pulling out a long white bone.
‘What’s that?’ asked Black Cloud, trying to look back over his shoulder. ‘That’s not what I think it is, is it? Please tell me that’s not your fucking bone!’
‘It’s not my fucking bone,’ said Moss, jumping down from the rail and scaling the mast.
‘No!’ shouted Black Cloud. ‘Not the bone! Please! Not the bone!’
Moss waited until she was level with the net before she reached across and whacked Black Cloud repeatedly with the bone.
He yelped and squealed, trying in vain to cover his head.
‘Just – get – unconscious – already!’ said Moss through her gritted teeth.
After about thirty more blows with the bone, Black Cloud finally fell silent. Moss reached up and untied the net, letting him fall to the floor with a thump. She moved fast, climbing back down the mast, only she tripped on her cloak tail and fell the last metre, landing with a loud crack. ‘Damnit!’ she said, picking herself up. ‘I broke my bone.’ She held up the splintered bone and tossed it over the side of the Mardi into the green. ‘Alright,’ she said, nodding to Cub. ‘Give me a hand tying him up, will you?’
They bound the assassin’s arms behind his back with a coil of sturdy rope, before Moss lit a cigarette and sat down against the bullet-riddled wall of the two-storey wheelhouse behind her. ‘Those leftover plates of nicotine salad came in mighty handy,’ she said, watching Black Cloud slowly regain consciousness, groaning. She stubbed the cigarette out underfoot and walked across to him, lifting off his helmet and swapping it with her beret. ‘Holy crap!’ she cried.
‘What is it?’ asked Cub.
‘This helmet…’ she said, her eyes open wide. ‘…it’s… I… I can’t… holy crap!’
‘That Helmet of Power is not a fucking toy!’ grunted Black Cloud, moving himself into a sitting position with some difficulty and glaring at Cub. ‘Some Number Two you turned out to be!’
‘Sorry,’ said Cub.
‘Don’t be sorry,’ said Moss. ‘He was going to kill your dad.’
Cub nodded. ‘We had a deal,’ he told her. ‘If he could by some miracle find my dad, I was going to kill Black Cloud first.’
Moss smiled. ‘That sounds like a pretty shitty deal to me.’
‘It is what it is,’ said Black Cloud, looking round. ‘So, what are we going to do now? Just hang around here with you and the fish-balloon and hope for… for what exactly? For someone to rescue us? For a god in the machine?’
Moss’s eyes narrowed. ‘I can gag you too, you know.’
‘Or are we going to just sit around here and sing kumba-fucking-ya until we run out of Ship Shapes and then eat each other?’ asked Black Cloud.
‘You left me,’ said Moss quietly.
‘Left you?’ asked Black Cloud with an incredulous laugh. ‘You fucking wandered off in the middle of a game of Battle Golf!’
‘I got lost,’ she said.
‘I didn’t understand what was happening.’
‘Nobody understood what was happening,’ said the assassin.
Moss looked up at Oscar as he revolved in the air. ‘It’s all my fault,’ she said. ‘I had a dream Oscar was a fish-balloon, and when I woke up, he was.’
Black Cloud’s face crumpled under the knitted beret. ‘So he’s part-fish and part-balloon, with teeth like machine gun bullets? Big deal.’
‘It’s all my fault,’ she said again.
‘Boot,’ said Cub. He was standing beside the rail and pointing out across the green. ‘It’s a boot.’ There was a speck amidst the green – a solitary old brown boot, just sitting there with its laces undone, about fifty metres from the Mardi.
Moss walked over and leaned on the rail beside him. ‘I think I would have noticed if there was a…’ She stopped and blinked. ‘Shit. You’re right. There’s an old brown boot just sitting there.’
‘Come on,’ said Cub. He climbed over the balustrade and shimmied down the rope ladder on the outside of the ship.
‘You heard him,’ said Moss, pointing the vaporiser at Black Cloud.
‘Careful with that,’ he said, nodding at the gun. ‘I know how clumsy you can get.’
She lifted it and looked down the sighter at him.
‘Fine,’ said Black Cloud and he sighed, getting to his feet with some difficulty before climbing up onto the catapult and then onto the rail. He balanced on the narrow wooden beam, turning around and holding his bound hands out to Moss. ‘Do you want to untie me?’ he asked. ‘Otherwise there’s no way I can climb dooooooooowwwwww-’
One nudge in his back with the vaporiser was all it took. Cub looked up as Black Cloud hurtled past him, landing on the green ground with a shuddering gasp. ‘Are you alright?’ Cub asked him, reaching the bottom of the rope ladder and jumping down.
‘I’ll live,’ croaked Black Cloud, face down.
There was another shriek and Moss toppled from the rope ladder, getting her foot snagged. She hung upside down, Oscar billowing around on the end of his string. ‘Shit!’ she cried. ‘Help me!’
Black Cloud turned his head and looked up at Cub. ‘Now’s our chance,’ he whispered. ‘Untie me, Number Two, and let’s get as far away from this madwoman as possible.’
‘Cub!’ called Moss, blinking as the blood rushed to her head. ‘Don’t listen to him! This plan of yours is madness! Look!’ She reached into her cloak pocket and dropped down Black Cloud’s folded list of names.
Cub picked it up and read the uncrossed names at the bottom.
And at the very bottom in loopy black biro handwriting was printed a fourth name:
He stared at the list.
‘It wasn’t me!’ protested Black Cloud, nodding back up the rope. ‘It was her! That’s not even my handwriting!’
Cub looked back up at Moss, struggling to free herself from the folds of her billowing cloak as Black Cloud’s helmet with the giant headphones slipped down her head. As she reached up to keep it on, she dropped the vaporiser and it discharged when it hit the ground, the stream funnelling towards Cub. ‘Go left,’ said Post, suddenly materialising, and Cub jumped left, the vaporiser blast missing him by inches, but obliterating the old brown boot on the horizon. ‘Aww crap!’ said Moss. ‘Sorry about that.’
Cub looked up at Post and picked himself off the ground. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
‘You’re welcome,’ said Post. ‘Hopefully this goes some way towards redeeming me for the bathtub incident.’
‘Some way,’ said Cub.
‘Some way?’ asked Black Cloud, rolling onto his back. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It means you two are as bad as each other,’ said Cub, picking up the vaporiser and hooking it over his shoulder. And without another word, he marched off in the direction of the vaporised boot.
‘Great,’ said Black Cloud to the still dangling Moss. ‘Now look what you’ve done!’ He struggled his way up into a sitting position.
‘Me?’ shrieked Moss. ‘You were the one who was going to kill his dad, and who had my name down on that stupid frickin’ list of yours! We’re supposed to be friends, W! No. We’re supposed to be more than friends. We’re supposed to be The Utica Flower Company!’
‘Times change,’ said Black Cloud, turning and watching the boy go.
‘To think I used to love you,’ said Moss quietly.
‘To think I used to love you too,’ said Black Cloud with a grim shake of his head.
‘And now we’re probably going to die like this,’ said Moss. Tears splashed from her eyes down onto her forehead and pooled around the helmet brim.
‘Speak for yourself,’ said Black Cloud. With a great push, he got himself into a kneeling position and then onto his feet. ‘Ha!’ he cried.
Moss blinked. ‘Help me,’ she said.
‘Fuck that,’ said Black Cloud. And he sprinted off after Cub, leaving Moss still stuck on the rope ladder.
‘Why do I always have to be so frickin’ clumsy?’ she asked Oscar, who was silently revolving and watching her. She sighed and closed her eyes, sniffing, and feeling sorry for herself.
‘Alright, quit crying,’ said a voice, and she looked down at Black Cloud who’d returned and was standing right underneath her. ‘I’ll help you.’
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Just… do as I say, alright?’
‘And you have to untie me once I get you down,’ he added.
‘Deal,’ she said. ‘Flower Company honour.’ She made a W shape with her hands by touching her thumbs together.
‘Alright,’ said Black Cloud. ‘Turn your left foot to the right.’
‘I can’t, it’s my left foot that’s snagged,’ she said.
‘Just try it,’ said Black Cloud.
Moss grimaced. ‘Fine,’ she said and she turned her left foot to the right. It immediately broke free and she dropped from the ropes with a yelp, landing directly on top of the assassin, her legs straddling his waist as he gasped.
‘That really hurt,’ he squeaked. His voice sounded like he’d been smoking fong.
Their noses were just an inch away from each other, and Moss’s eyes narrowed. ‘Get up,’ she said, rolling off him and helping him to his feet before walking after Cub.
‘Moss!’ called Black Cloud, turning around to show her his still bound hands. She ignored him. ‘Moss, come back! We had a deal!’
‘I changed my mind!’ she shouted over her shoulder, hurrying to catch up with the boy.
‘I fucking knew it,’ said Black Cloud, and then he ran to catch up with her.