Mothball snorted. “You just said immediately two times in the same sentence, you lug. Methinks he gets the point without you blowin’ a lung and all.”
Rutger fidgeted back and forth on his short legs, as if he’d only spouted off to save themselves from getting deeper into trouble. “Just trying to . . . teach the young master some patience and, uh, other . . . things like patience.”
“You two are without a doubt the strangest people I’ve ever met,” Tick said.
“Try living with a million Rutgers in one city,” Mothball said. “That’ll give you weak knees.” She paused, then laughed. “Quite literally, actually, if the little folks are in the punching mood.”
“Very funny, Flagpole,” Rutger said.
“Thanks much, Bread Dough,” she countered.
Tick thought it was fun watching the two friends argue, but he was hoping for answers. “Did you guys get me out here for a reason or what? And what’s up with the phone call from Master George?”
“Been sittin’ here all ruddy day, we ’ave,” Mothball said. “’Ad to spur you a bit, burn your bottoms to get a move on.”
“Couldn’t you have just knocked on my door?”
“What, and get the detectives called in? Spend the rest of me life in a Reality Prime zoo?”
Tick held up a hand. “Whoa, time out—what does that mean?”
“What?” Mothball asked, looking at her fingernails as though considering a manicure.
“What’s ‘Reality Prime’?” His mind spun, the word reality jarring something in his brain.
Mothball looked over at Rutger, shrugging her bony shoulders. “Methinks the little sir’s gotten hit over the head, he has. Did you ’ear me say that?”
“Say what?” Rutger asked, his face a mask of exaggerated innocence.
“I’ve already forgotten.”
Tick groaned as loud as he could. “I’m not an idiot, guys.”
Rutger reached up and grabbed Tick by the arm. “We know, kid, we know. So quit acting like one. We’ll tell you what you need to know when you’re ready, not a second before.”
“So what, I can’t ask questions?”
“Bet yer best buttons you can—ask away,” Mothball said. “Just don’t complain like a Rutger when we say mum’s the word.”
“Now wait just one minute . . .” Rutger said, letting go of Tick and pointing a finger at Mothball.
“I get it, I get it,” Tick said before Rutger could continue. He thought about the list of words in his journal he’d heard from these two, framing questions inside his mind. “Okay, what’s a kyoopy? Can you answer that?”
Mothball and Rutger exchanged a long look, signifying to Tick that this was no longer a black-and-white issue—which would be to his advantage. “Come on,” he urged. “As long as you don’t tell me how to figure out the clues, what does it matter if I know a little bit about what’s behind all this?”
“Fair enough, methinks,” Mothball said. “Master George does seem a bit more willing to let on. I mean, he called you on the telly, didn’t he?” She gestured toward Rutger. “Go on, little man, tell him ’bout the kyoopy.”
Rutger scowled. “Do I look like Hans Schtiggenschlubberheimer to you?”
“Hans who?” Mothball and Tick asked in unison.
Rutger looked like someone had just asked him what gravity was. “Excuse me? Hans Schtiggenschlubberheimer? The man who started the Scientific Revolution in the Fourth Reality? If it weren’t for him, Reginald Chu would never have—” He stopped, looking uncertainly at Tick. “This is impossible, not knowing what we can and can’t say in front of you. Blast it all, I can’t wait until the special day gets here.”
Of course, right then Tick thought of his teacher, Mr. Chu, just as he had when he saw “Chu Industries” on the Gnat Rat. But just like before, he didn’t think it could have anything to do with his science instructor—it had to be a coincidence. “Who is Reginald Chu?” he asked. “And what kind of awful name is Reginald?”
“It’s not a very fortunate name,” Rutger agreed. “Downright stinky if you ask me. Fits the man, though, considering what he’s done. Started out with good intentions, I’m sure, but he and his company have done awful, awful things.”
“Well, what’s he done? And what is the Fourth Reality? What are any of the realities? Are there other versions of the universe or something?”
Mothball sighed. “This is balderdash, really.” She leaned over and put a hand on Tick’s shoulder. “Rutger’s spot on, he is. We just don’t know what to talk about with you. Methinks Master George will explain everything—if you make it that far.”
“Listen to me,” Rutger said. “Focus your mind on the clues for now. Don’t worry about all this other stuff. You can do it, and it will all be worth it—when the day comes. You’ll be taken to a very important place.”
Tick felt incredibly frustrated. “Fine, but at least . . . Can you just answer one question? Just one.”
“Can you tell me, in one sentence each, the definition of a kyoopy and the definition of a . . . a reality. No details, and I won’t ask any more questions about it.”
Rutger looked up at Mothball, who shrugged her shoulders. “Blimey, just do it. The poor lad’s mind might explode if we don’t.”
“All right.” Rutger took a deep breath. “Kyoopy is a nickname for the theory of science that explains the background of everything we’re about.” He paused. “And a Reality is a place, uh, or a version of a place, if you will, that comes about because of the kyoopy.” He looked up at Mothball. “Wow, that was good.”
Right at that very second, something clicked for Tick and he felt like an idiot for missing it before. “Wait a second . . . kyoopy. You mean . . . Q . . . P . . . right? Q.P.?”
Rutger looked confused. “Was I saying it wrong before? Yes, yes! Q.P.”
“Looks like the little sir is on to something,” Mothball said, a satisfied smile on her lips, but Tick’s mind was in another world at that moment. Q.P. He’d heard that phrase before from Mr. Chu, and he couldn’t wait to ask him about it again.