“Made it, you did!” Mothball yelled into his ear as
she grabbed him by the shoulders, helping him across the unstable raft and toward the opening. “You’ll be speaking directly with Master George in a moment. Up ya go!” With a playful roar she picked Tick up and half-threw him through the open doorway.
He landed with a squishy flump, scrambling to stand up. Every inch of his body drenched, Tick rubbed at his arms, shivering from the uncomfortable, cold feeling of wearing wet clothes. His scarf drooped off his neck, soggy and seeming like it weighed a hundred pounds. He swung his backpack off his shoulders and placed it on the metal grid that made up the hallway floor.
Mothball crawled inside and closed the heavy door behind her. It slammed shut with a loud boom that rattled the entire structure. “Nasty business, that,” she muttered as she climbed to her feet, stooping to avoid hitting her head on the low obstacles that ran along the ceiling. “Don’t you worry, Master George is sure to have a roaring fire lit. Come on, now.”
She started down the hallway and Tick followed, barely able to contain his anticipation of meeting the man behind all the mystery.
Mothball rounded a corner and came upon a stout wooden door. Tick thought it seemed out of place inside a huge metal box floating on the ocean. She paused, then rapped three times with her large knuckles. “Got the last one, I did!” she yelled through the dark oak.
Muffled footsteps sounded from the other side, then the click of a latch. The door swung wide open and Tick’s five senses almost crashed and burned trying to take in everything at once.
Beyond the open doorway was an enormous room that looked like it had been plucked out of an ancient king’s castle and magically transported inside the metal building. Fancy, fluffy, comfortable-looking furniture sat atop lush carpets and rugs; the walls were covered in dark wooden bookshelves, complete with hundreds of leather-bound books; a massive brick fireplace cast a warm and flickering glow upon the whole room as the fire within it roared and crackled and spit. Several people were in the room, scattered amongst the plush furniture.
Tick recognized Sofia at once, sitting on an overstuffed chair next to the fire; when their eyes met, she stood and waved. Next to her was a couch where a tall, dark-skinned boy sat, grinning from ear to ear. That had to be Paul. An Asian boy sat next to him, short dark hair framing his angry, scrunched-up face. Tick thought he looked like he’d just been told he hadn’t passed a single one of his classes at school. Rutger was there, too, his little round body perched atop a pile of cushions. He leaned back, clasping his stubby hands behind his head like he owned the place.
And finally, standing by the door, his hand still on the inside handle, was a man dressed in the fanciest suit Tick had ever seen, black and pinstriped, a long golden chain marking where his pocket watch hid for the moment. His face was puffy and red, like he’d just walked ten miles through a freezing wind. A round pair of glasses perched on his nose, making his dark eyes seem two times bigger than they were. His balding scalp was red and slightly flaky. Tick thought he looked a little odd and a little anxious, but somehow nice all the same.
“Master George?” he said, wincing when it came out more as a croaky whisper than anything else.
The man smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth. “Indeed, my good man. Master George, at your service.” He bowed his head and held out a hand, which Tick accepted and shook, his confidence and ease growing by the second.
“Nice to meet you,” Tick said, remembering his manners.
“Likewise, boy, likewise.” He stepped back and swept his arm in a wide gesture, as if revealing the warm room as the grand prize on a game show. “Welcome to our first meeting with new members in more than twenty years.”
“Members?” Tick asked.
“Why, yes, old chap—or, should I say, young chap?” Master George chuckled, then turned it into a cough when no one else laughed. “Ah, yes, well—welcome to your future, my dear boy. Welcome to the Realitant Headquarters.”
Tick entered the room, knowing he would never, ever be the same.
Have a sit-down,” Master George said as he ushered Tick toward a chair between the fire and where Rutger rested on top of his pile of cushions. “The fire should dry your clothing in no time. We’re simply delighted you could make it. We were beginning to worry a bit. The rest of these poor chaps had to listen to Rutger’s interminable stories and recollections all day—quite a tasking thing to do, I assure you.” He winked at Tick as he gestured for him to sit.
Tick sat down with a squish, looking over at Sofia. She waved again, then shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “What in the world have we gotten ourselves into?” Tick smiled back at her, wishing they could talk, but it seemed as though their host had a specific agenda and was eager to begin.
Master George stepped in front of the blazing fire, rubbing his hands together as he took in each person there with a lingering gaze. “We’ve got quite a lot to do in the next few hours, and more explaining than I daresay I look forward to. I haven’t the faintest idea where to start.” He pulled out a silk handkerchief and wiped his brow. “Look at that, would you? Already sweating and I’ve yet to say anything of importance.”
“Maybe that’s because you’re standing in front of a
fire,” Rutger quipped, the simple effort of talking throwing his balance off. He tumbled off the pillows and flopped to the floor. “Ouch.”
“’Tis going to be a long night, it is,” Mothball muttered from where she stood in the back, arms folded.
“Rutger, behave yourself,” Master George commanded, his face reddening for just a second before he replaced his irritation with a forced smile. “Now, let us begin, shall we? First things first—a quick go around the room for introductions.” He motioned to Sofia. “Ladies first?”
“Okay,” she said, seemingly pleased by the attention. She stood up and waved at everyone staring at her. “My name is Sofia Pacini, and I’m from Italy. I’m almost thirteen years old, and my family is famous for making spaghetti and several sauces. It’s the best in the world, and if you haven’t heard of us, you’ve got real problems.” She looked at Master George. “Anything else?”
“Oh, no, that’s very nice, thank you very much. Next?” He motioned with his eyes to the boy who must be Paul.