Chapter 4: Aardvarks
This is an unforgettable moment, and you should ride it for all it's worth. Even if you don't know exactly how you're going to fit those five ninjas into your courtroom drama, hey, they've arrived. And they want to be in the book. So put them in there. Inevitably they'll do something for the plot. -No Plot? No Problem!
Mist rose in little clouds from the surface of a still lake, the surface of which reflected a steel grey November sky. It curled over damp mud and grass, and drifted onward toward the empty cabins facing the lakeside, flanking a large blue tent whose geometrically impossible interior was currently serving as a very handy recording equipment store.
"Today," said Tideworth, putting on her best smile despite the weather, "I'm speaking to you from the Camp NaNoWriMo grounds, in the vicinity of the Midway Mountains. Now before you start wondering, no, I haven't seen the Block Ness Monster today. I don't believe she enjoys the weather.
"I'm here to speak to you today about the importance of our heritage and its unique sites," she went on. "After all, I am sure that we all remember Script Frenzy." She did. She'd done shows for it and everything, way back when Sue had just come into her life and she was getting on her feet in the television business, when she was picking herself up after what had happened before. "Now I'm sure Camp NaNoWriMo is far from everyone's thoughts right now, and so is summer itself. I know it's far away from mine, as I stand here getting my feet quite wet. But today is an important day, because..."
She stopped. Because what? Why was she forgetting it now? Wasn't she supposed to have an affinity for this sort of thing?
She shook her head again. "I'm sorry," she said. "Put that one on the Christmas reel, would you? Tell them I do mess up on occasion. Can we try that again in a minute?"
But she didn't mess up. She was a Personification of NaNoWriMo. She could no more ruin a broadcast than the Validator could give an inaccurate word count. She blinked, and a figure stood at the corner of her eye, and she turned to see it vanish. It had been grey, except for the tent, so was everything else.
"Oh, and it seems we have a visitor!" she said. "But they seem to be gone. I must be getting distracted, that's why." Or she'd been worrying about Sue again, or thinking of Screnzy's fate. She was going to have to ask Mr Ian Woon how he coped. "Anyway! Shall we do that again?"
The cameras rolled, and Tildeworth put her best smile back on. "Today," she began, the script committed entirely to memory, "I'm speaking to you from the Camp NaNoWriMo grounds, in the vicinity of the Midway Mountains. Now before you start wondering, no, I haven't seen-"
There was a loud, watery gloop. Something tugged at her hand, and was gone before she could get a look at anything more than a sleek, scaled hide as it vanished under the surface. She looked back to the cameras, and to her water (and dribble) covered hand.
But she was a professional, Baty damn it all, and she was going to keep going.
"My apologies for the intrusion there," she said. "It appears that I have seen the Block Ness Monster, and it also appears she has eaten my microphone."
They were clearing out space for their next makeshift lab, when Random felt the story dissipate around her. The sense of driving purpose, that there was a narrative taking her hands and tugging her along in its direction, slipped away. She wasn't The Scientist With The Red Hair any more. She was just Random. The story had gone, to pull its focus on the approaching heroes.
The second hint was when the door opened, and in strode the scientist who had fallen earlier that night.
"That was awesome!" she said. "Wooo! Don't worry, I'm clean. Just thought I'd drop in and see how you were all going."
Random looked past her, beyond the door, but there was no sign of anyone else.
"Hey," she said, "did you see my friend anywhere?"
"The shouting one? He wasn't around when I came back, no."
"He's gone off to brag, like you said he would," said The Scientist With The Moustache.
"Yeah, I bet," Random said. "He's probably in Club Ack! going on and on about how he got hit by the Shovel. Didn't stop to think of.." She paused, and nibbled on her bottom lip. "Hey, anyone got a problem if I... slip out of here for a while?"
"Do what you want," said The Scientist With The Moustache.
"Yeah, but the main characters are turning up tomorrow," said the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "Don't want to miss those."
"Aww, you guys get all the fun," said the ex-scientist. "Hey, you think I can sneak into the crowd? Give me the right makeup, I could totally be a zombie and you'd never know. Rawwwr."
"We kind of planned to burn your corpse for safety reasons," said the Scientist With The Moustache.
"Don't cremate me!" said Technically Dead Etc. "I'd look awful afterwards!"
"Relax," said The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "We were just going to say we did. It's not as if it's plot critical. Hey Red, what do you think?"
But Random was already gone.
This late at night, the music emanating from Club Ack! was a deep rhythmic thud that entered via the feet as you stood on the pavement outside. Lights spilt out onto the concrete and all over Random's coat, turning it alternating shades of pink and blue. The interior, as seen from the broad windows, was a mass of colour and people.
"Alright," she said, as she strode inside. "I'll teach you to go wandering off without me!" Her lab coat swirled around her almost as his did.
She debated ordering a permapersimmon cocktail at the bar, but hesitated, her colleague's words about tomorrow morning still fresh on her mind, Drunkenness was one thing that most certainly did affect fictional characters, as it was always good for a plot point. She was certain that alcohol was yet another... essential nutrient... that people would stock at the end of the world, but it didn't look good to be hung over in front of a couple of protagonists. Better stick to questions.
"Hey," she said. "Anyone seen my friend about? Tall, flowy coat, hair you could stab yourself on, got killed off by the Travelling Shovel of Death earlier in the evening and won't shut up about it?"
"Random, is it?" said the bartender. "Yeah, I know that friend of yours. Haven't seen him all night. I'd know if I had. Shovel got him, really?"
"He hasn't shown up at all?" Random turned in her seat, looking over her shoulder at the dance floor and the booths. "You think he's in The Lounge? I hate to stop by and not get a drink at least, but I haven't seen him since his last scene..."
It turned out that Neo wasn't in The Lounge either. Nor was he enjoying a celebratory pint or five at the Warm Onion, chatting in the Spork Room, or even taking a walk with anyone who'd tag along in the November Gardens. The Gardens might have been near infinite in its interior, but it knew exactly who was there and who wasn't.
She remembered to try his phone rather later than she'd have liked, but when she did, there was no reply. Well, that didn't mean anything, did it? Maybe he was back in the novel, or another one. No signal, no call. It all made perfect sense, scientifically speaking.
He was going to be fine, and, as Tildeworth would have said, the show must always go on. The jerk had probably just found another novel and forgotten he couldn't call.
The way back across the desert after passing through the library was blisteringly cold, as if the sun had never touched the land, but there was nothing to worry about, plot-wise. It was too busy with the heroes to bother her here. So she enjoyed a peaceful walk back, and heard a familiar voice as she walked up the stairs.
"...now remember that Week Two is still a long way off, so get in as much action as you can now. Who - at least who, who was around then - can forget the terrible Week Two of-"
"You've got a telly?" she said, to the assembled scientists. Sure enough, they were crowded around one on the floor - Moustache, Robots, and Technically Dead And No Longer A Part Of This Novel Except Possibly As A Zombie Extra. It was a heavy CRT that had seen better days, and the signal flickered as white snow coursed across the screen, but it was unmistakably showing The Tildeworth Hour.
"Yeah, but it's not part of the plot," said The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "We just brought it in off hours. Wouldn't run otherwise."
"Yeah, but how'd you get a signal? I didn't think things got through here."
"She can," said The Scientist With The Moustache. "How else would people watch her?"
"Oh," Random said. "I guess that makes sense."
"Shh, everyone!" said Technically Dead Etc. "It's the giraffe knitting special, I don't want to miss this!"
Random woke in the morning to the desert sun streaming on her face from a bare window and floorboards beneath her back. She closed her eyes, but opened them again when she remembered where she was.
There was nothing for it but to get up, even though everyone else was still asleep. She took to raiding the coffee stash (of which there was rather less than the previous night - how much caffeine did word count robots need, anyway?) and pottering around the half assembled lab.
This one was a little larger, and even had a proper kitchen, even if it was a smaller one hidden away in the back without even a window to give it any light. There was a microwave, but whether it would run on plot time was anyone's guess.
Out of a lack of anything better to do, she played with the dial. It was part mechanical, and fell back to place with a ding. That, at least, was comforting. The knowledge that, no matter where you went or what happened, microwaves would still go ding when they'd finished was a calming thought when the novels came calling.
She wondered, in that idle, disconnected way of someone flirting with an idea and wondering if it was worth stepping up to a serious relationship, or at least dinner somewhere fancy and a nice bunch of flowers, if there were any other uses for things that went ding.
She wondered if zombies had a distinct biochemical trail. She wondered how in Chris Baty's name she knew to think of the idea of a distinct biochemical trail, and how she knew the best way to detect one and/or make things go ding in their presence.
She also wondered why her pockets were so heavy. Standing in the doorway, in what sunlight made it through to the kitchen, she emptied them, only to find the junk foisted upon her during the Kickoff Party, with all its promises of plot alteration services and discounts. The last card was the one she'd flat out forgotten - S. C. Pilcrowe's Inter-Novel Investigation Agency, address given as 4291 Shady Street, Foreshadow City.
"There goes the plot again," she said, and put it back in her pocket.
There was still time, right?
The sun rose higher. Technically Dead Etc said her goodbyes and left, sensing both imminent plot and an imminent plot hole if she stayed around any longer, while Random, Moustache, and Robots stayed around to finish setting up the new laboratory. It wasn't a pretty picture. Too many of the glass beakers and inexplicable tubes of bubbling liquid had been smashed to pieces in the zombie attack, and glassware was never in plentiful supply during the apocalypse. They had to make do.
"Okay," Random said, heading back up the stairs with her latest finds. "I've got a measuring jug, two wine glasses, and a Fluffles The Happy Aardvark cup. If you get to the top of his eye I estimate you've filled about two hundred millilitres." The Scientist With The Moustache, though, didn't seem to have heard. He was standing by the window, gazing outside. She put her finds down on the nearest horizontal space and went to join him. "Hey, what's going on?"
"We got company," he said. "Don't think it's zombies."
The back window gave the team an impressive view of nothing. A road led out of town across rocky waste and scrublands, marking a straight line toward distant grey mountains, so far away they never seemed to get any closer no matter how far down that road you went. The view never changed, except today. Today, a plume of sandy dust rose from the road, billowing into the sky.
She could feel the plot taking hold again, taking her hand in its grasp and gently tugging her along.
"Looks like they're here."
The three remaining scientists stood at the entrance to town. There was really only one - the road sliced straight through and carried on through the desert as if nothing was there. The town was a cluster of buildings huddling around a speck of its length, marked by a few roads branching off and the sort of sign that once boasted of the local population. Someone, trying to be clever, had kept repeatedly crossing it out.
The desert sun burned against Random's skin, but she stayed. The heroes needed the cure, and if they never knew anyone was here, they'd barrel on through without a hint of plot resolution. Sweat dropped from her face as she watched the cloud grew closer, and resolve into the shape of a car, trailing dust in its wake. It was an ancient thing, that had probably been some sort of blue before the sun and sand had their way with it.
The car stopped a little way from the outskirts, the drivers apparently unwilling to communicate. Random stepped forward, her arms held out. "It's okay!" she said. "We're clean. You can come on out now."
Slowly, the front doors opened, and out stepped the zombie hunters. They were tall men, with curly pale hair, and though neither of them looked as though they'd had any sleep lately, they hid it well. One looked to the other, and they traded words that Random could not hear. At last, after an uneasy silence, they walked forward. The slightly shorter of the two held on to the other's arm as if he could not balance, but when they drew closer Random saw that his eyes were blank white. An early stage of the infection, perhaps, forging his way on and clinging to his humanity with all the strength of... well, a protagonist? Or maybe the truth was less sinister, the eyes were plastic, and he had a thing for looking strange.
"You're the lost scientist team, aren't you?" said the taller one.
"They'd better be the lost scientist team," added the possibly blind one.
"You are, aren't you?" said the other. "Because if you are... you're the last hope."
"Yeah," said Random. "We get that a lot."
The box opened, and from it, Random lifted the first vial. The other scientists were now hard at work trying to synthesise another batch. The zombie hunters stared.
"Give us a day or so, and we estimate we can have another ten aardvarks worth," she said.
"You guys taking the piss?" said the white-eyed hunter.
"Sorry. We had to go scavenging, and there was this thing with the cups and... we've been here a long time," she said. "You kind of forget there's such a thing as an outside world where people don't do science with kid's utensils."
"It's perfect," said the other hunter. "Ten aardvarks? We'll take it."
"Yeah," said the white-eyed hunter. "All the aardvarks we can carry."
With a couple of extra pairs of hands in the form of the zombie hunters (brothers, sole survivors of a devastated hometown, loaded with plot heavy issues just itching to bump up the wordcount), they soon had the required amount. None of them wanted to stay long, and the scientists had to stay around to keep watch on the nameless little town where the outbreak had begun. That was always part of the contract - they'd only been plot devices, after all. But the story tugged on.
Two days passed. The hunters were pleasant enough company, and even if they did have the odd argument, it was all for the sake of the plot, and they hid it in private as well. Random herself might have been to Club Ack! and its competitors only recently, but the plot insisted she had no company outside he team for months, and she needed someone to talk to.
Occasionally, when the plot didn't pull so hard, she looked at her phone and remembered there was no signal. But with the hunters here, the plot didn't let go. There was only time to sneak in a quick episode of the Tildeworth Hour when it let go long enough to let the TV work.
"Being a main character must be busy," she once commented to the white-eyed hunter once.
"You have no idea," he said. "Brings in the fans, though."
She peered into the main room, where Tildeworth was stressing the importance of not accusing anyone in an already completed novel of being cheaters. "Hey, can I talk to you?"
"Sure," said the white-eyed hunter. "What's your problem?"
Random led him out to the stairwell, where they wouldn't be heard over the sound of the TV. "Ever had anyone just... vanish on you?"
He frowned. "Now, you're not talking about plot here, are you?"
"No," she said. "I mean... has anyone left a novel and said they'd meet you afterwards, but then... they didn't? No calls, no messages? They weren't home, or out anywhere they'd normally be? Like they'd just... gone?"
"I do horror, monsters, that sort of thing," said the hunter. "Not mystery. This is one of them personal things, isn't it?"
"Yeah," she said. "And I'm... I'm sorry if you don't do personal. I just wondered if it had happened, that's all." She turned to leave, back up the stairs to the normal world of fuzzy TV reception and short films about giraffes.
"Hey, wait up there a second."
She turned back around.
The hunter held out his hand. "Didn't say I don't do personal."
They sat in his car and shared a flask of coffee between them. "'S'busy work," he'd said, when she told him that she'd not even had a chance to check where Neo was. "Not your fault if you couldn't go looking right away."
"Who said I thought it was my fault?" said Random.
"You kind of gave me the impression. Look at it this way." He fiddled with his seat, reclining it until he was practically horizontal. "I'm not my brother, and if I was I'd probably say a lot of nice fancy words at you because he's good at them things. And I'm not. So I'll just tell you no, I've never heard of that happening before, yeah, I don't blame you for worrying, and no, it's not your fault. Also that this is good coffee. Where'd you get coffee around here?"
She shrugged. "Plot hole?"
Coffee and a chat made it a little easier no matter where it came from, and so it was with a slightly lighter step that she went to sleep that night.
When the sun rose the next morning and her team with it, it was early, to get the cure vials packed and loaded. Bubble wrap was another thing that turned out to be in short supply at the end of the world, but nobody wanted to risk shattering one - not unless it would be suitably dramatic. But there was nothing that dramatic about loading up a car, so the plot left them alone until the heroes were ready to depart.
"I'm glad for your help and I'm sorry I can't do more," said the white-eyed hunter. "But if by some luck we get this to the right people and stop what's going on out there, then we'll do what we can to get back here to you."
"We understand," said Random. "There's too much to be done here."
"But might I say a word?" said the other hunter.
He was standing by the driver's side door, holding it open as if ready to step inside, if he could only remember what else it was he was supposed to be doing. "Listen, you and us have been working well together over the past few days. If we... I mean to say that..."
The plot took her by the hands again. It touched her, invisible, but thick in the air.
"He means to ask if you'd come along with us after all the work you did," said the white-eyed hunter.
"We could only take one," his brother said. "But if you thought it was a good idea..."
That was when she realised what the plot wanted. It had lingered these past few days, letting the brothers stay for longer than they should, focusing on their work together on the lab, focusing on their conversations. It was just as Mr Ian Woon had described. The plot liked her. It wanted to do more with her.
She could take up their offer and fight alongside them, delivering the cure to millions of desperate people, save the world... she could have a name, and be a main character. She could do all these things...
She stepped forward and something nudged her in the leg. She put her hand in her pocket to shift the offending item, and felt her fingers close around a rectangle of card.
"I..." she said, and looked around.
They were all watching her. The hunters waited for her to get inside the car. The two remaining scientists stared in disbelief.
"What?" hissed The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot.
"I have... things to do," she said, tiptoeing in a circle and giving everyone a wary look. "Yes, things. Here, and close to here. I'd like to take you up on your offer, but I can't."
The Scientist With The Moustache broke the line and strode forward. "Red," he said, keeping his voice low. "You know what they're asking of you?"
"I do," she whispered back. "But I can't go. If I do then I'll never have time to... You know what I mean. I have to find out. I have to find Neo."
"Hey," hissed the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "What are you doing now? He'll come back. And you can't go hammering on the fourth wall like that! Everyone'll hear you!"
"Yes I can," said Random. "I just did."
"You can sort it out in the edit!" She pulled away from the scientist-scrum, and looked back at the hunters. Better make this a good one. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I'm going to have to decline your offer. There's too much to be done here, and your supplies are precious. I'd love to come with you. I'd love for us all to be able to come with you. But as long as this town is still here, it needs us. It needs people to get to the bottom of what's happening. We'll stay here. And if by some luck we manage to survive, then I promise we'll be waiting for you."
The white-eyed hunter smiled, and nodded in her direction.