Chapter 3: Don't Try This At Home
Here it is: Day One. We're standing together on the precipice that overlooks the vast, uncharted territory of your novel. It's quite a view. -No Plot? No Problem!
If there is one thing in the world that fictional characters are not exempt from, it is the awkward waking up scene. There is simply too much plot and word count potential to let such a thing go to waste. Many good characters have experienced a hazy return to consciousness and the questions it brings. Who am I? Is this my bed? Okay then, whose bed is it? And what in Chris Baty's name is this plastic Viking helmet doing here?
Random got to the second question before concluding that this was her own bed, there was nothing to worry about, and there were no stray items of anachronistic headgear in the immediate vicinity. This was good for a few moments of relaxed if not headache filled waking up as the sunlight crept across her face. After they had passed, though, she had the sneaking suspicion there was somewhere she needed to be...
Of course, the novel! She crept out of bed and made her slow, still decaffeinated way to the kitchen, where Neo was waiting.
"Morning," he said. "Still not going to tell you what we're doing, if you were going to ask."
"Shut up and give me a coffee."
"Sure thing, princess," he said, dodging a slow swipe from her hand. "What do you fancy?"
"So long as it's coffee, I don't care." She settled herself in by the kitchen island. Behind her, the delicious scent of roasted beans arose. "How long do we have?"
"Long enough for a good breakfast," turned out to be the answer, and a good thing too, because Neo had assured her there might not be much to eat when they got there. "First no nailpolish, now no food?" Random said. "What sort of a story is this?"
That was how she and Neo found herself on the library steps, part of the flow of hopefuls on their way to their respective novels.
The library dominated the square's skyline, but only when she stood at the foot of its broad stairs did she see how vast and imposing it really was. Several stories high, fronted by a vaulted archway, it loomed above all. Even the steps themselves made her feel tiny, each one taking a couple of strides to cross before the next. The dark wooden doors, carved with the helmet and shield emblem of NaNoWriMo and the older symbols of NaNos past, were flung open to let in the crowds.
Inside, she felt tinier than she ever had in her life.
Dark wooden shelves rose underneath a domed glass ceiling that let in golden autumn sunshine as it fell in mote-strewn shafts to the floor. People mingled and chatted, and all around them were flickers of white light, darting from shelf to shelf and coalescing into humanoid shapes that served to gather and herd the characters. "Are those... librarians?" said Random.
"I'd bet on it, yeah," said Neo.
"What do we do, talk to one?" said Random. But before they could do anything, one of the librarians answered that question for her. It crackled like a tiny bolt of lightning, before assembling itself before them into the shape of a glowing man wielding a book.
"Please state the nature of novel," said the librarian.
"I hear this bit's a right pain," hissed Neo in Random's ear. "Here you go!" He produced the two tickets from the depths of his coat with a flourish, and brandished them at the librarian. Random, looking closely, could see little sparks jumping from the librarian's fingers to her friend's.
"Hmm, I see," said the librarian, handing the tickets back. "Right this way."
"Where are we going?" said Random. But Neo just shrugged. Random fell silent. She had never, ever been in a place where Neo didn't know the answer, or at least couldn't provide a confident bluff.
She distracted herself by trying to read the book spines as she passed by, but not one of them was in a language she knew, if there was anything written at all. The librarian led them deeper and deeper into the shelves, but instead of showing them a book, he brought them to a door. "This one should be yours. Now if you'll excuse me, I have places to go." And with that, he was gone, zipping back through the bookshelves as a flash of light, bouncing from spine to spine.
Random had spent some time before in the little bookshops that dotted the back streets of the Nexus, far away from the bustle and glitter of the main square. They were the sort that consisted of rather more space than should by all rights fit into such a small property, as if it had been rolled up around itself in order to fit in the maximum amount of dusty, faded old books. And there would always be a proprietor, maybe an old man, or maybe a man who looked young, but was not. This, she thought, looked like exactly the sort of door that he would walk out of. It was sunken deep into the wall, so low even she would have to duck and climb down a couple of stairs to get inside.
Neo tested it, and it swung open. "Come on, let's see what's out there!"
The first thing Random was aware of, as she followed him, was the heat. Not even on the hottest day in the Nexus had she felt such warmth and dryness. The second was the light, from a harsh sun high in the sky, obscured by no clouds. Dust rose under her feet as she stepped forward, and then sank to the ground, as if the heat had sapped all its energy. She shaded her eyes and looked ahead. They had exited from a falling-down shed, its timbers bleached and crumbling under the sun's rays. Ahead there lay a town, lost amid the desert sands, all patchwork wood and boarded windows.
"Welcome," said Neo, "to a town with no name. Not any more. Not since... the incident..."
"What incident?" said Random. Sweat was already beginning to run down her forehead. "Is it a get inside as fast as you can sort of incident? A get inside where there is air conditioning as fast as you can sort of incident?" She could see wires roped from building to building, and could only hope that the inhabitants - if there were any - had their priorities straight. Maybe I could fix some up, she thought. Maybe... The thought ground to a halt right there. She'd never considered doing anything like that before.
Something was in her head. But she could still use a cold breeze. "I'm going."
"Whoa, whoa, not so fast! You can't run in there dressed like that!" Neo ran to overtake her, skidding to a halt in front of her. "You've got to get in character! Show this novel what you are!"
"Okay, so what am I?"
"Got to get yourself rewritten."
"Rewritten? Is that what happened to me when I... hey, what's going on?" Her arms were bare no longer, her t-shirt and jeans covered up by something long, and white... and more than that, ideas flowing ever faster into her head. She could get something up and running, if she could find a generator lying about. But she had a job to do. Something to investigate, to track down, to stop before it spread across the world... "I'm a... scientist?"
"This," Neo said, "is where it all began." And now she saw that his own coat had changed to a white lab coat just like her own, though in accordance with the laws of Neo it still billowed and flowed with every movement. "Just a little town, in the middle of nowhere. They tried to seal it off, but it was too late." He placed his hands on his hips, staring off into the deserted streets. "Now they threaten the whole world. Only you and I, and our small team, were stupid enough - no, brave enough! - to return! Because in our hands lies the hope of humanity! The last chance of civilisation against the all encroaching hordes!" He stabbed at the sky with a finger. "We are the ones who will-"
"Wait, what was that about encroaching hordes?"
Neo whirled around, a delightful grin on his face. "You'll see!"
"Can we see inside? This coat isn't exactly helping with the heat issue."
"I didn't want to tell you until we got here," Neo said, as they walked on. "But we're lucky. This might be where it all began, but they held out here."
"Looks like it wasn't much fun for them," said Random, as she followed him through the debris and glass strewn streets. If anything of value had been there when the end came, it was gone now. A few abandoned cars dotted the main road, but most had vanished with their owners in a desperate attempt to reach safety. If Neo's words were correct, they mustn't have had much much luck. She licked her lips. The sun's rays felt heavy on her shoulders, as if trying to push her down onto the burning asphalt.
And then, at last, sound. Faint at first, then louder as they approached, until she realised that they were coming from a second storey window. There were voices raised in debate, calm orders, and the crackle of a radio trying in vain to pick up a sign of life in this wasteland.
She checked her phone, by instinct more than anything else, but the screen showed no signal. Of course, she remembered, even if they worked here, they'd never connect to the Nexus. Phones never could, this far away. They were truly lost in their own faraway world.
The lower storey might have been a coffee shop or a bakery before, but the glass counters were smashed and the food long gone. Random could hear more from upstairs now, not just the talk and the crackle of dead air, but the deep thrum of a generator, felt as much as heard. Up the back stairs - creaky, splintering, but still intact and weight bearing - she ascended, with Neo following on behind.
What was happening upstairs was, without any doubt, highly scientific. The scene had wasted no time in its loving descriptions of bubbling flasks and curling tubes, of low humming electronics hastily strung together and hooked up to the last generator, itself cobbled together and patched up with scraps. Not a piece of it made any sense. None of it had to. This was not a scene that relied on accuracy, but on looks. This was science, in its most pure, literary form, all style and no substance, yet capable of great things, and it was ready to move the plot onward.
"This is the end," Neo said, as he strode in beside her. "This is the last laboratory, the last hope of humankind. This is where you and me, and them people over there-" he waved his arm to indicate the trio of characters already hard at work, who looked up on their arrival - "will work tirelessly, day in, day out, though burning days, and freezing nights, and concoct the last cure..."
"Oh great, we've got a dramatic one," said one of the assembled scientists. But Random didn't care.
"Okay, you've made your point! The last cure for what?" The scene was waiting for them. She was transfixed by the sunlight striking the beakers and tubes, gleaming through the grimy casing of the generator, bleaching the stripped bare walls. She had to begin, now. The plot wanted it.
"The zombies, of course!"
They weren't the main characters. They were there to research zombies and give out a little exposition as to how bad things were. The real main characters would be the big, bad, tough, and probably very sexy zombie hunters who would desperately race to get the cure out of the danger zone, all while fighting off the undead hoards and their own personal issues.
But first they needed a cure, and that was her team's job. The whole world changed, when you were being written, and you could do no more than be swept up in the story's currents as it drew you along. None of them had any names, though her colleagues dubbed her the Scientist With The Red Hair. It didn't matter. There was a texture and a weight that had been missing for as long as she could remember, and she drank it all in. The world felt real, in a way that it had not before.
She knew her way around the lab. She knew what all the nonsense equipment was for. The team listened to her, looked up to her. Had Neo swung this much for her? Or was it the story, curling around her, expressing unexpected fondness just as Mr Ian Woon had described?
Fluids bubbled. The generator churned. Things exploded, and the occasional eyebrow was lost, but the scene flowed on.
The scientists watched as she pried open a vat and lifted its contents from within - a severed hand, withered and rotten and twitching. They held their breath as she sliced off a sample of mouldy tissue and pipetted a minuscule droplet of pink, bubbling formula upon it. They crowded around as she slipped the sample under the microscope and adjusted the lens. And she knew, though she had never seen a cell up close before, what was happening.
"It's working," she whispered. "The deterioration is reversing, slowly, but... it's working. This could be it. This... this is going far better than I hoped..."
She let the rest of the team take turns at viewing the sample. The man who had commented on Neo's dramatic entrance earlier (who had since become known as The Scientist With The Moustache) congratulated her on her work with the warmest words he'd ever given anyone. And Neo, lounging in the corner, simply smiled.
"You did swing this for me," she whispered, as the scene drew to a close. The story deposited her back on her own feet with a gentle sensation of letting go.
"Some of it was my doing, some of it was the story."
"You're going to tell me this is what being the main character is all, about, then?"
"Yeah, well... something tells me I don't need to."
Night fell. At first it was a blessed cool relief, though the team worked on through the dark, the lab lit by a single bulb strung from the ceiling. The scene took a solemn turn. Random had only a short while to stop and take heed of the influx of knowledge and backstory. It was not quite a shift in personality, more a change from the inside - no, an expansion. She was still herself, but herself and a little more. She had only just arrived at the lab this morning, yet she had also been here for weeks, working day in and day out with nothing more than what she and her team could scavenge.
Night was when the world grew dangerous. They didn't like the sun, as a rule. It dried out their flesh and tendons, forcing them to crawl across the landscape - still deadly, still near indestructible, but easy to outrun. But night was a different story. As if the moon and stars themselves lent them their strength, the undead hordes destroyed whole towns. With each death, their numbers grew. She remembered spending many a night huddled with her team in the dark behind barricaded doors, hoping for the sun's return.
There are many things that a fictional character need not worry about unless the plot dictates they are important, or at least remembers they exist. Economics, to give an already discussed example, or going to the toilet. But the rule of drama cannot be avoided. When you're on a scene, ready and waiting for the plot to move, you can bet this won't be one of those evenings where you lock the door and all have an early night.
Random remembered being here many, many times before. But the plot dictated that this was going to be the night everything went wrong.
The moon - only the one this time - cast its pale light over a lightless town. More stunning to Random, as she kept watch by the window, were the stars. When humankind's presence had been pushed back to a handful of scientists huddling around a generator powered bulb, they were free again to shine. The stars were never this bright in the Nexus, but here, they dusted the sky with colour and light.
The scene told her that perhaps this would be another peaceful night. Her anticipation told her otherwise.
There was a thump in the distance. Maybe it was downstairs. Maybe, if they were lucky, it was a scavenging animal hoping that maybe a bagel or two had survived the apocalypse. The assembled scientists exchanged glances, and gripped tight to their makeshift weapons. All the bullets were long gone, and guns were of little use anyway. The only way you brought down a zombie was to bludgeon it with the nearest heavy object and hope it stopped moving enough to keep it contained. Even the severed hand rattled in its container, sensing its kin nearby.
"What about the cure?" she suggested. "Would that work?"
"Isn't enough of it," said the Scientist With The Moustache. "We do things the usual way."
"When in doubt, blunt instruments?"
"They'll never take it" said Neo (now the Scientist Who Shouts Dramatically). "Not while I'm around!"
"Quiet, you want them to hear?" said The Scientist With The Moustache.
"They're going to anyway," muttered Random. "This.. being the scene, and all that. Good luck, by the way."
"Don't need good luck, just got to look good," said Neo. They knew only the barest details of this plot, but this was where it all got serious. This was the scene where he'd die. She wondered if he'd been planning it all day - knowing him, most likely.
"They're coming up the stairs now," whispered another of the team. (He'd been previously dubbed The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot, despite the lack of robots in the story.) There was another series of thumps, and then a hollow, slamming noise against the door.
"Guess soufflé night's off," said Random. Her fingers gripped the plank so tight, she'd get splinters if the narrative remembered them. "Unless these are guests."
"I doubt it," said the Scientist With The Moustache.
The door shook. Every night, the scientists piled everything they had in front of it - all the tables and benches, all the chairs, even, as the heaviest thing in the room, the generator itself. Nothing was left unmoved. Yet, as she watched it shake, Random knew it wasn't going to be enough. It's just a story, she told herself, to calm the tremors that ran through her body. We'll all be fine when the story's over. It's just a story. It isn't real. For all you know, the zombies are all really nice people when they're not acting.
That was all she was doing, wasn't she, acting? But surely it was okay to be afraid? Surely even Mr Ian Woon was afraid, when he was first killed off. Just because he could talk about it on air as a minor inconvenience didn't mean it wasn't terrifying the first time around. There, that made it all better, didn't it?
Besides, being afraid would make it a far more convincing performance, right?
Long cracks formed down the door's length. The generator shuddered, and the light flickered. With each thump, the huddled group were plunged into darkness for a fraction of a second. With each instant of light, the cracks grew deeper. Random blinked, and the door split open.
The scent of rot, sweet and rancid and left to putrefy in the desert sun, flooded her senses, and her eyes watered.
The horde peeled the door as if it was paper, clambering over one another in an attempt to get through. They poured in, swarming over tables and chairs and each other. One of the scientists jumped forward, brandishing her weapon, only to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Random felt her muscles tense up at the sight of it, not sure if it was for better or worse that the fallen scientist was now covered in a mass of rotting flesh. It's only a story. It's only a story.
"Get back!" roared the Scientist with the Moustache. His voice spurred her into action - the cure! They couldn't afford to lose their only precious vial. She darted to the end of the room, as behind her another voice complained that this would all be going so much better if someone had been allowed to build a zombie dispatching robot.
The horde advanced, but the scientists held them off. The Scientist with the Moustache was a stout man, who hurled them from his shoulders and onto the floor as they tried to bite and claw, while Neo and the roboticist were lean and fast, able to dodge and deliver their killing blows unseen.
But as brave as her scientists were, there were simply too many of the undead. With all their night-granted speed they poured in, coursing over the fallen bodies of their fellows that, even now, tried to snatch at anything still living. "Look out!" she yelled, as one of them tried to sneak up on Neo. He whirled around and, despite his fate for this scene, this was not the blow that would fell him. He dodged and delivered a swift return blow, and the zombie fell to his feet.
He was laughing, too, as if this was all one big game. She'd forgotten that it was. It was just a-
She felt something move beside her, something warm and breathy. Time slowed down as she turned around. The story had her in its grip, and it was determined that she see every little detail.
The creature's lungs, though long since dead, still rasped in a mockery of life. Withered eyes, set in skin drawn taut over bones, regarded her as she crouched, clinging to the box and its precious contents. She caught a whiff of decay, of sand and sun and flesh left out in the burning desert. It stood over her and raised one hand.
It was holding a shovel, as if the man it had once been had died with it in his hand and had never let go since. The fingers had rotted to bone and exposed sinew, yet they never released their grip on the blackened implement.
Deep in Random's thoughts, a flash of understanding sparked.
"And what are YOU doing?"
Time snapped back. The zombie lurched, and was caught off-guard as Neo slammed his makeshift weapon into its side. Its hand shattered, little splinters of bone showering the floorboards. The shovel launched itself into the air...
..and time slowed again, the scene lingering on every little detail once more.
The shovel arced its way across the room, spinning in mid-air. Neo moved like the frames of an animated image, slowed down and fading from one to the other as he flashed her a grin.
The shovel struck him in the side of the head, and he crumpled to the floor.
One again, time returned to normal. Of the shovel there was now no sign, but then again, it hadn't been given its name for nothing.
"You jammy bastard!" she said, at the still body of her friend. "I'll never get you to shut up about that!"
But there was work to be done, plots to be written, and zombies to be slain, so she took up his weapon, and launched herself into the fray.
"Get the bodies out and secure, then initialise decontamination," said Random. "Then we get all the valuables out of here and find somewhere else to base ourselves, because I'm not sticking around. And neither are you." The makeshift lab was littered with flesh and shattered bones, misshapen forms still trying to drag themselves across the floor. They were as close to harmless as they'd ever be, but they still strove to push themselves onward. They'd just have to deal, Random thought. Learn to step around them. This place wasn't going to be any safer without the application of fire.
They set to work gathering up the remains of their colleagues. Random stood to one side and directed the action, trying not to look too closely. Even continuing her mantra of this is all just a story, I really should calm down, this is all just a story, when the Scientist with the Moustache walked past with Neo slung over his shoulder, the instinctive lurch she felt at seeing his body flopping with every step was too much.
"You did well back there," said the Scientist with the Moustache, once he returned. As per story rules, bodies were to be kept locked up in the event that they rose again. He moved closer, bending over a little and speaking in a low voice, so that what he said was off the story's records. "They'll come back when they're done," he added.
"Thanks," she said.
With the bodies gone, the rest of the supervision wasn't so bad. She was standing outside the shop door, watching as the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot scouted the area with a handheld torch, when a voice by her feet made her jump into the air.
"Hey," it said. "Is this that walking lumps of flesh type novel I've been told to count?"
She caught her breath when she saw what it was - a word count bot. Oh, yes, of course... the scene was nearly over. They'd need to know what the word count was.
Like all word count bots, he was built in the shape of a small woodland creature, in accordance with ancient and unknown NaNoWriMo traditions. This one looked like a perpetually disgruntled rabbit. Of course most rabbits looked that way anyway, but being made out of metal didn't help matters. In the background, Random's colleague stopped and watched as his torch fell on the creature's shiny back.
"Only the Validator says I need to get out and do some. Counting, that is," said the rabbit robot. "Hey, is there anywhere a robot can get a drink around here?"
Random was confused for a moment, until she remembered that wordcount robots, in accordance with rather more understandable NaNoWriMo traditions, ran on caffeine. "Upstairs, first on your left," she said. All scientists knew that coffee must always be stockpiled in the event of certain disasters such as the shops being closed, severe weather, or the end of the world. That was an important part of being a scientist. "Hey, if you're not going to do anything with that, can I take it?" she said, to her colleague. "I still have to scout out where we're setting up shop tonight, remember?"
He handed the torch over, and she walked off into the dark. Over her shoulder, she heard a faint "So... are you doing anything tonight?"
A little later on, she felt darkness envelope her again as the Validator passed through, leaving a taste in her mouth that was a little like twelve thousand words, and a lot like blue.
Neo was never going to shut up about this.