Chapter 9: I've Been Around
Suspend judgement and give yourself plenty of room to play, explore, and make interesting messes. -No Plot? No Problem!
The librarian crackled into form.
"Please state nature of- oh, it's you again. What do you want now?"
The doors around here didn't look like the ones from before. Those had been battered old wooden things. These were gleaming metal, or other materials that Random couldn't put a name to, slick white or black barriers. The one she wanted opened with a faint whoosh of dispelled air as she stepped up.
"Wow," she said, as she looked around. There really wasn't anything else to say.
The space they'd walked into was as big as a hanger - no, bigger, stretching off so far into the distance that she could barely see either end. Through a lattice of crystalline glass many stories high, she could see the vista of space. The investigators stood amongst a riot of stalls and shops, lurid advertisements and insectoid vehicles skittering over the ground and through the air.
"I hope this doesn't mean you're going to lose any more meals," said Pilcrowe.
"I'm seasick, not space sick," said Random. "Can't you be a bit happier?" She held her hands close to her chest and started hopping up and down on the spot. "This is so cool! We're in space!"
"Yes, I had assumed as such," said Pilcrowe. "I do happen to be observant. It's a requirement of the job."
"But we're in space! And look, if I was going to lose any more meals, I'd have to eat some first." Mixed in with the filtered, slightly lemon scented air, she could smell cooking. "Let's get food! What kind of food do you think they serve in space, anyway?"
"I'll be happy if they have coffee."
They walked on, ducking an owl shaped vehicle that swooped in the air over their heads, and soon found themselves at the nearest stall. No matter where humanity went, it was evident that a need for caffeine and prepackaged sandwiches would always follow.
"Bob's Awesome Coffee Shop," Pilcrowe said, reading from the smiley faced sign overhead. "Part Of The Bob Corp Family. It'll have to do." She strode over to the till, brandishing a brown travel mug that she'd pulled from the depths of her coat. Random caught a glimpse of a helmet and shield crest on the side, with the word AUTHOR printed below it. "You there. One coffee, and I'll take it in here."
"Hello!" said the perpetually smiling attendant. "We offer a wide range of Bob's Awesome Coffee drinks, themed to suit your needs! What cam I offer you today? We do Bob's Awesome Americano, the Bobbachino, and our special, the Bob's Espresso Experience! There's no need to sleep when you've been stung by the BEE!"
Pilcrowe slammed the travel mug on the counter. "Coffee. Black."
"...Yes, of course. Right away."
Minutes later, Pilcrowe was drinking her plain black coffee with what Random had to assume was a smile, and now it was her turn at the till. "Hi. Got a bacon sandwich? Need something to wake me up today."
"Excuse me?" The attendant wasn't smiling any more, but that was just Pilcrowe's doing.
"Bacon? You got like, a roll or something?"
"I'm sorry, what's bacon?"
"What do you mean, what's bacon? You know, bacon. Comes from a pig, great with everything, really tasty due to the presence of certain key food group molecules?"
"I'm sorry, what's a pig?"
"...I'll just have the chicken, then."
It was filling, she had to conclude, but it just wasn't bacon. "That," she said, as they sat around a round little table, getting jostled by passers-by, "was weird. Least you're happy."
"Mm," said Pilcrowe, who was still taking slow, controlled drinks from her travel mug. "Listen, I think I've found something."
"The Shovel?" Random looked down. Nothing on the detector, not the slightest hint of a ding.
"No, those two." Pilcrowe pointed into the crowd. "See them? Do you see how spiky his hair is, and how bright that blue streak on hers is? They're main characters, for sure."
Now Random could see them, two people chatting together by one of the immense columns that held up the dome. The male character caused a pang in her chest - with that slim build and spiky pale hair, he looked so much like Neo, though instead of a flowing coat he was dressed in a rather more sensible jacket and jeans theme. The female was lean, dressed in black trousers and a matching jacket, and her gleaming black hair was pulled in a braid shot through with a vivid blue streak.
"Excuse me, are you busy?" she said. Behind her, Pilcrowe was already fishing for the business card.
"Hello!" said Spiky Hair.
"S. C. Pilcrowe, etc, etc," said Pilcrowe, and pocketed the card.
"Can't say I've ever seen you before," said Blue Streak.
But they were happy to listen as Random and Pilcrowe explained about the recent shovel related disappearances. "I've seen all about that!" Spiky Hair said. "Are you from TV?" Even learning that this wasn't a sudden interview on behalf of NaNo Video did nothing to dampen his spirits, though he didn't know of any incidents. "Shovel murder, though? I haven't seen a shovel since Earth."
"Sure there was!" said Blue Streak. "The other day? In Card Wing?" She grinned at her friend. "So, what price do you think we'll put on taking them out there?" she said, in a quieter voice.
Pilcrowe held up the travel mug. "The secret of good coffee."
"What?" exclaimed Blue. "What kind of payment do you think-"
"We'll take it!" said Spiky.
Not for the first time that day, Random was reduced to saying "Wow."
They stepped through another one of the whooshing doors, and into a proper hangar. Two gleaming forms stood over them, styled in much the same way as the animal vehicles Random had seen on the main concourse, but far, far bigger. The nearest, a sleek metal dog made of shining plates and pistons, towered over her. The second was a magpie, its iridescent wings poised ready to take off.
"You like them?" said Spiky.
"This is... you have giant robots in your novel?"
"You should see what happens when we stick them all together!" said Spiky. From his pocket he took something that looked like a set of car keys and fired at the dog mech. It sank in a slow crouch, plates gliding over one another, until it laid with his head against the floor and the translucent shield over its head popped open. Spiky stepped inside the modest sized two seater cockpit, and behind him, Blue had done the same with her magpie. "Come on in! It's just like riding a giant metal animal shaped car!"
Once she was inside, with the shovel detector in her lap, the shield lowered itself again. Her view was somewhat obscured by the protagonist in front of her, but when he tapped at a few buttons on the dashboard, the cockpit exploded into a panorama of displays. Readouts, temperature, pressure meters, maps, and little spinning graphics that may or may not do anything but certainly looked cool danced across the translucent surface in cool blue and green tones.
The engines whirred into life, and Random could feel them as a faint vibration that ran throughout the cockpit, surprisingly gentle for something this size. The bay doors ahead opened, revealing a landscape of grey craters under a perpetual night sky.
"Thank you for visiting Adams Wing!" said a perky, tinny voice piped in from the hangar. "If you have enjoyed todays visit, why not come again soon and spend even more of your money? This message was brought to you by Bob Corp! Have a wonderful day!"
The dog leapt forward, and gravity shifted. Random felt herself turning lighter, and the dog mech sailed over the pitted landscape, landing with a light touch of all four paws.
Spiky, meanwhile, had opened communications, and a screen on the dashboard now showed Blue in her counterpart cockpit, Pilcrowe riding in the seat behind. "Hey," Random said, after they had exchanged greetings, "where is this anyway, the moon?" (Not the other moon. She was no second moon denier in the Nexus, but if you were in anything real life based in the novelsphere, it was best to assume there was only the one unless otherwise stated.)
"Oh no," said Spiky. "This is Ganymede."
"Good thing too!" said Blue, over the comm link. "The Moon's a dump!"
"Shut up, it's my moon!" retorted Spiky. "I'm the only one who gets to call it a dump! Even if it is!"
"Is this some sort of battling rivalry thing that you two have going on?" said Pilcrowe.
"Oh no!" said Spiky. "We're best friends."
"Yeah, but don't go around telling anyone," added Blue.
Random, meanwhile, was too busy staring out over the surface of an alien moon for the next few minutes to comment, but it did bring up a question. "So... you don't have bacon on Ganymede, then? Only they didn't know what it was when I went to get a sandwich."
"They were just being in character," said Blue. "In this setting, pigs are extinct."
"Wow, tough gig."
"You're telling me. Hey guys! Who wants a race? First one to Card Wing?"
"Yeah!" said Random.
"Will it help us get there faster?" said Pilcrowe.
"It's a race, what do you think?" said Blue.
"Very well. If that's what you want, I suppose it is, as they say, on."
Spiky didn't need any more clarification. His hands flew over the dashboard, the readouts flickering and shimmering in response. The dog mech practically flew across the surface alongside the magpie. Random felt herself pinned to her seat as they ran. Which one of them was ahead? It was impossible to tell, even after trying to study the readouts, but she forgot about those as the red, striated face of Jupiter rose over the horizon, the two mechs chasing it across the sky.
It was over all too soon. The dog skidded into place, the magpie following behind. "Hah!" said Spiky. "We won! In your face, birdie!"
"You cheated," protested Blue.
"Oh come on, you enjoyed it," Random said.
The two mechs entered the dock one after the other, and laid down their heads as the riders disembarked. This time there was no cheery message imploring her to give any more money to Bob Corp, only silence. When the shield opened, the first thing to hit her was the smell.
"Aw, you get used to it," said Spiky, who must have seen the look on her face.
"Do you?" It felt like a solid force in the air, deep and rotten, the smell of decaying flesh and old vegetables. Even the hangar walls were duller, as if they'd been coated with a visible, grey and brown application of the same smell. "Okay, the sooner we get this one done, the better."
Random slung the shovel detector over her shoulders again and started inputting the primary sequence into the phone. It began to dance under her fingers, and a tiny radar style screen told her she was close. But the protagonists knew this place better, so she let them lead her and Pilcrowe inside.
She didn't think it would be possible, but the smell was even worse inside. Gigantic vats, taller than the tallest building in the Nexus, towered over her, their dark sides streaked with old runoff. She had never felt as small as she did now, a tiny speck of a person walking across a dimly lit floor, the ceiling so dark and tall that she could barely see it. Steel walkways criss crossed the vault, like tiny threads from a spider's web inside this bizarre cathedral of stink.
"People don't live here, do they?" said Pilcrowe.
"What?" Spiky said. "Oh no, nobody lives here. Just a few people show up to fix things sometimes. Card Wing's all set aside for sewage processing."
"-and need I remind you that your appearance on my show depends on my generosity? Come back and say that when you have a TV station of your own!"
"TV stations are for people who don't know how to do a real show!"
"You're just jealous. Jealous because your pep talks are terrible and you are terrible and you should feel terrible. Need I say any more? And if not for me, remember you'd be doing your pep talks outside!"
"I still do!"
"Well then I suggest you get on with it, Macron Brevewin."
"Maybe I will!"
"Thankyou." Tildeworth turned back to the cameras and smiled. "And that was my brother, the Pep Talker, with his words of encouragement for all of you as Week Two progresses! Everyone give him a big round of applause!"
She watched him go, from her studio chair. "And now, some words for all of you. The continued Travelling Shovel of Death issue presses at all of us this NaNo season. How I'd love to say we knew more about it, but sadly, investigations are still ongoing, even though I have some very special and very talented people on the case. How special and talented they are! Why I could simply tell you all about-"
From behind Camera One, Vicki hovered in place and flattened her ears.
"-but I won't. Because there are things to do! So on behalf of all of us here at NaNo Video, let me assure me we are doing all we can. In the meantime, let me offer these words of advice. I realise that it may be tempting, during this Week Two, to include the Travelling Shovel of Death in your novels. Believe me, not so long ago, I'd have agreed with you. The Travelling Shovel of Death has long been a valuable tool in this battle we all embark upon to reach the mystical fifty thousand word peak. Who amongst us has not died at its mighty blade, or known someone who has? Who can forget the sensation of adding much needed words to our count when we most needed them with its wonderful, plot inducing powers? Whether serious or silly, the Travelling Shovel of Death has always been there when we need it the most.
"But this year, I can't say the same. Stay safe! Don't use the Travelling Shovel of Death. Use a gun, or a knife, or a pack of bears, whatever works for you. All accounts show that those items are still working properly.
"It has also come to light that the Travelling Shovel of Death has been appearing unbidden. Again, I wouldn't say that was anything to worry about most of the time. Sometimes these things happen, and you just have to let the story do what it wants. But this year... ahem." She cleared her throat. "Do not approach the Travelling Shovel of Death. The Travelling Shovel of Death may attempt to whisper its dark secrets to you. Do not listen to the Travelling Shovel of Death. Do not, under any circumstances, give in to the dark promises of infinite power that the Travelling Shovel of Death will impart to you. If approached by the Travelling Shovel of Death, run. If approached by the Travelling Shovel of Death whilst in company, grab your companion by the hand, whisper 'run!' into their ear, and then, run. It will lend your scene a touch of drama, and we could all do with a bit of that in November.
"Now in a minute we'll be going live to Mr Ian Woon, who will be taking time out from his very busy schedule to talk to us about his latest escape from our aforementioned rogue gardening implement. But now, your letters." She took a dark blue envelope from the table beside her, and put on a pair of glasses. They didn't really help her read any better, but they did mak her look clever. "We've been hearing more and more from you, our viewers, regarding current affairs, and thank you all so much for it! Now let's see what the black and white cat's brought in..."
She tugged one finger under the flap, and slit it open. Inside, she caught a glimpse of something huge,coiled up and tucked inside the envelope's dimensions...
Her last thought before she was engulfed in letters was this is the last time I buy stationary from the fanfic people.
Eventually, she clawed herself back into the glare of the studio lights. "Excuse me for that little technical glitch," she said. "Now, let's see about..." She looked around the studio, or rather, what little of it was left and not covered in paper. "Oh. Oh my."
One return journey and two very long showers later, Random and Pilcrowe were back on the main concourse, going through the results of their investigation. The sewage and shovel murder had been part of an as yet unresolved sideplot, so there weren't a lot of conclusions to make, but enough for Pilcrowe.
Random wasn't sure what time it was, or if time even worked the same on the Jovian moons, but the concourse was as bright as ever. She stared at the results on the shovel detector's screen, while Pilcrowe scrolled through Tildeworth's list, which had, from her muttered comments, gotten a lot longer in recent hours. They sat outside the coffee shop with the smiling sign. Pilcrowe had a refill of her travel mug, while Random had decided to be a little more adventurous and try a Bobbachino. The two protagonists had left them to get back to their own plot, but Random had made sure they knew just how grateful she (and Pilcrowe, "she just doesn't show it, honest," she'd said) was, not only for the lift but the experience of riding in a mech over the surface of a distant moon.
It was just a shame about the data quality. "We're still a few days behind the trail," she said. "I still haven't gotten to see what this thing can do with something fresher."
"Exactly, that's where I come in." Pilcrowe didn't look up from her phone. "You do your... science, and I do the thinking."
"Science is thinking," said Random. "I'm pretty sure that's the whole point of science."
"Yes, but sometimes you have to rely on it and nothing else. Something's going to come together. It'll be more than... that."
"You got a problem with my shovel detector?"
"It's forensics," said Pilcrowe, in the same tone she usually reserved for talking about instant coffee. "Forensics is cheating."
"Thing, remember? Don't do the thing."
"Well..." Pilcrowe finally looked up. "Still pretty impressive."
"Is that a compliment?" Random said, looking down at the machine in her hands. She turned the dial to test it, and it let out another clear ding.
"If you want it to be. You haven't been a scientist long, have you?"
"Just over a week."
"Hmm. Then yes. Forensics or not, that is impressive."
Random went back to her testing, making sure the machine was properly calibrated for the next jump. "It's funny, how quickly it comes on you. I was saying this to Tildeworth, when she called the other night. One moment I think I really want to be a pirate, and then I'm a scientist and I know all these things I didn't before."
"You're being rewritten It happens. Sooner or later you'll have a backstory and a family, or different hair. You don't know. Hmm, looks like we might have something in the Literary genre this time."
"I guess it worked out. I mean, rubbish pirate I'd make, now I know. It's just weird, you know? I mean, I think science jokes are funny! Like the one about why you can't trust atoms. Go on, ask me why you can't trust atoms."
"Why should I do that?"
"Because it's better if you do!"
"Very well." Pilcrowe glared over the top of her glasses. "Why can't you trust atoms?"
"Because... they make up everything!" Random paused for thought. "Actually that's not really true, at present knowledge they make up only a small proportion of all known matter. So I suppose it's not a very good joke after all. But it's still funny!"
"Now some might say that is taking things a little too far."
Random looked up from her work, and took a deep breath. "Watson, you idiot," she said, "someone has stolen our tent."
And then Pilcrowe was trying not to laugh, Random was sure. She just wasn't doing a very good job of it.
Over the next few days, the librarians didn't say anything anymore. It was easier that way.