Random


Chapter 5: Welcome to Foreshadow City

Cue thunder. Cue lightning. And cue some big-time writerly grumpiness. -No Plot? No Problem!

 

Random made it back to to the shack, through the library's winding shelves, and into the square before she realised she had thrown away her life's dream for an uncertainty and a business card, and perhaps she should be feeling a bit stupid about that.

"Well, he thought I was doing the right thing," she said to herself, startling a passing unicorn. What else was it the white eyed hunter said? It was no use dwelling on what she could have done, when there were plenty of things she could do now. She could go back to her novel and hope the heroes came back. And if they did, then what? Then she'd never have time to return. You wrote the plot hole, you dealt with it.

She looked at the card again. Foreshadow City? She'd never been there before, and by all she knew, it was a fair walk from the central Nexus. Well, that sealed it. It was time to start moving.


The first thing to go was the light. Buildings and towers squeezed closer together, and the sky itself dimmed along with them. The golden autumn sunshine that bathed the central Nexus faded away as if drained out of the world. Low, steely grey clouds blanketed the skies in a thick cover. The streets were slick with recent rain, threatening to seep through shoes that were used to expansive squares and desert dust. The coffee shops were gone too, replaced by narrow doorways through which the only bright light in this place shone, leading to underground spaces from which emanated low and mournful music.

The banner, while it told her exactly where she was, looked a little out of place in comparison.

It was pink. It was covered in glitter that had clung stubbornly against the rain, though some of it swirled in the gutter below. The text, which looked unsettlingly like Comic Sans to Random's eyes, read:

WELCOME TO FORESHADOW CITY

"Okaaaay," said Random. Crowded rain washed streets, peppered with hidden dens of intrigue, she could handle. This... not so much. This was like wandering into another zombie battle and finding they were led by a small white rabbit.

But she'd come all this way, so she strode onward, underneath the disturbing pink banner and its dreadful typesetting, over the fallen glitter, and into the depths of Foreshadow City.

Skyscrapers crowded in around her. If there was any light left to fall from the overcast sky, it would never have made it down here. There was nothing to guide her way but a few scattered street lamps that lent a a dirty yellow cast to the rain slicked streets. A faint drizzle, light but persistent, began to fall. It clung to Random's hair, causing the usually gravity defying curls to sag under its weight. The roads were uneven and potholed, filled with puddles and waiting to snag unwary ankles.

If anyone lived here, they didn't want to advertise the fact. There was not a single light on in the whole city, or so it seemed until she stumbled around a corner and came across a single window, lit by a faint orange glow.

She checked the street sign, and ran to the door - 4291. Taking a deep breath, she knocked on the door.

There was no reply. She waited a little longer, and then tried it herself. To her surprise, it swung open with barely any input. She composed herself, and walked up the stairs to the upper floor.

It was barely any brighter. A street lamp, positioned just outside, outshone the small coloured glass desk lamp, and cast its light as a series of bars through the half opened blinds over the window. When she looked up, she saw a ceiling fan turning, so slowly she doubted that it was any use at all.

But more than this, she saw the figure at the desk, face obscured in the shadows, half hidden by the turned up coat collar, leaning back in the chair, legs resting, crossed, on the desk top. The figure spoke in a low growl, each syllable precise and deliberate, to nobody in particular.

"She walked into my office. She had the sort of hair that told me she was always on fire, even in a downpour, and her face said the same. From the cut of her clothes, she was the investigating type herself, but it seemed her leads ran dry some time ago. She had..." The figure paused, and then, in an altogether more normal voice, said: "Look, do you mind if I don't do the monologue thing? Most of the clients expect it, but it's a pain to get right on the fly."

"I... don't mind at all?"

"Oh, good," said the figure. She flicked the desk lamp onto a higher setting, pulled her chair back so she was sitting up straight, and sloughed off the heavy outer coat, revealing a tall, thin frame dressed in a brown pinstriped suit, warm dark skin, and a cascade of thick, black hair that ran to her shoulders in elegant waves. "Well, take a seat," she said. "May as well get this done with."

There was a chair in front of the desk, so Random took the offer and sat down, crossing her hands over the desk top. "Are you S. C. Pilcrowe, then?"

"Never known myself to be anyone else," said Pilcrowe. "You here for a reason then? You look like you've got a reason."

"Yeah..." Random said. She ran a hand through her hair, dislodging some of the misty drizzle. "Yeah, I got one. I had this friend, and.." She stopped again. It had been one thing to tell the white-eyed hunter. It was quite another to tell this brooding character. "He vanished. I think he did, anyway. I've been back home and everywhere he usually goes, and I haven't seen him, and nobody else has, and he hasn't called or anything. It's like he just stopped existing."

"And under what circumstances did he vanish?" said Pilcrowe.

"He got himself killed off. Well, I wouldn't say got himself, he was going to die anyway, but we all knew that. We were fighting zombies."

"Zombies?"

"Yeah, we were in this novel..."

Pilcrowe sat up a little straighter and raised one eyebrow.

"Yeah, this horror type novel? I mean, we were only secondary characters. We didn't have names or anything, but it was a good time..."

"The circumstances of his death, please?"

"Yeah. Sorry. So we're fighting these zombies and one of them kills him. And it was the Travelling Shovel of Death, so I thought to myself oh, look at that, now he's never going to shut up..." She wondered if the look on Pilcrowe's face now meant "I think I know how you feel." Better get to the point. "But I mean, it's just the Travelling Shovel of Death, isn't it?"

"Quite," said Pilcrowe.

"It's tradition! It kills loads of people every year! Look how many times it got Mr Ian Woon, and he's still going on about it on TV! The Travelling Shovel of Death doesn't just... kill kill people!"

"Indeed it does not," said Pilcrowe. "You do seem to have a good idea of what is going on. It makes me wonder why you came here in the first place."

"What?"

"What I said, scientist. You know there are many fates that might befall a fictional character, but the Travelling Shovel of Death is a temporary setback." She clasped her own hands over the desk, mirroring Random's position. "Perhaps he has intentions to override the plot and manage a miraculous survival, in which he will return to surprise you. I suggest you get back to your... novel... and see."

"But he wouldn't," said Random.

"Do you know of any other possibilities?"

"He wouldn't! You don't know him!" She felt her own fingers twitch, her hands unclasp, and clench into fists. She stood up, and discovered that to add to her irritation, one of her shoes had let in water. "You don't! If he was still around he'd be bragging about it from Club Ack! to the Spork Room! And I looked everywhere and asked everyone I found, so yes, I might be from some stupid zombie novel but I did a lot more detective work than you! What kind of character are you?"

"I did not claim to have a problem with zombie novels."

"Then you're missing the point!" yelled Random. "This is about my friend, and if you want me to go back to my novel then fine, I will! Because someone told me it was better to do what you could than nothing at all, so you can... you can just stay here, in your miserable little room in your miserable city, and be as miserable as you want!"

The dramatic effect of her lab coat swirling around as she turned and strode toward the door was a little ruined by the dampness still clinging to it, but she didn't care. Her hand rested on the latch...

"Wait," said Pilcrowe.

Very slowly, Random looked over her shoulder.

"That's how you feel?"

"This had better not be some stupid test to see how serious I am about this," Random hissed, through clenched teeth.

"I assure you it is not. I believe you're serious, and if you need help in finding your friend, even if he has gone to plot some sort of surprise for you, then I will help."

"You're really going to help me?"

"Yes."

"Then don't pull that stunt again." Random walked back to Pilcrowe's desk, but didn't sit down. Instead she wrapped her arms around herself, though it was more to ward off the breeze from the lazy ceiling fan than to look intimidating. "Okay. When do we start and what do we do?"

"We start now," said Pilcrowe, "but first, I will need to make a call. Will you excuse me?" She gestured toward a door off to the side.

"Go ahead," said Random.

Pilcrowe vanished before Random had a chance to see what was behind the door. Unable to resist her curiosity, she edged in beside it. The dark wood was set with two panels of frosted glass, enough to let a blurred, warmly lit image through. She could make out Pilcrowe's shadow standing there, but nothing else.

She probably shouldn't go so far as to peek through the keyhole, but after what had just happened, she supposed she was entitled to a look. Just a quick one. So she crouched down, careful her own shadow didn't show through the glass, and peered through.

Now she could see Pilcrowe properly, holding a sleek and highly anachronistic phone to her ear. Her voice was too low and quiet for Random to make out, so she focused her attention on the room.

It reminded her of the back rooms at her old lab, somewhere a person would never state that they lived, but nevertheless spent an awful lot of time that could have been spent elsewhere. A sagging old couch and some framed black and white photos on the wall were the only concessions to comfort. If the room wasn't dingy enough from the lighting, the thick coating of dust finished the job. It was enough to make Random hold her breath, afraid she'd sneeze from the sight of it. But at a second glance, there were two carefully cleaned objects. One was a television, even older than the one from the lab and almost certainly as black and white as the photos, but nevertheless in much better condition than the lab set. The other was an antique radio, set in a casing of polished wood. As Random watched, Pilcrowe brushed a stray speck from its surface with her free hand, a gesture of such gentleness and care that Random would never have guessed at.

She pulled away then, a little guilty, as if she'd been witness to something private that she should never have seen.

A few minutes later, as Random returned to her seat in front of the desk, the door opened.

"Apologies for keeping you waiting," said Pilcrowe, pocketing the wildly out of place handset. "I needed to fill in Cedilla."

Random, recalling the well dusted television set, took the card out from her pocket and studied it again. S. C. Pilcrowe's Inter-Novel Investigation Agency. "Wait a minute..."

"Oh."

"You're Sue, aren't you? Sue Pilcrowe? Tildeworth's Sue?"

"Yes," said Pilcrowe. "So what if I am? Susan C. Pilcrowe. Must I explain the initials? People tent to not take you seriously in this trade with a name like Susan. The only way to pull that off is to be a little old lady with a knack for stumbling upon murder scenes, and while I might be the latter, I am not the former. Yes. I was on the phone to that Cedilla Tildeworth. I assumed you'd already seen her banner."

"I... didn't know." Random nibbled at her lip and wondered if she'd stumbled on something else private. "She talks about you all the time. I just... didn't know." I thought you'd be nicer, added her thoughts, but she kept them to herself. And then: That explains the glitter.

"I know," Pilcrowe took her heavy brown coat back from its stand. "I watch her all the time. Every time she's on." She gazed at nothing in particular as she pulled he coat over her shoulders and tied the belt. "Well then," she went on, snapping back to herself, "better be ready to go now. I want to check your novel for Clues."

That meant business. Random could tell, because of the capital letter.


"I'm sure you can't go back to my novel just like that," said Random. "What about the librarians?"

"What about the librarians?" said Pilcrowe. "I'll go where I please."

No sooner had they stepped inside the library's depths than a crackling form coalesced before them. "Please state nature of nov-"

"S. C. Pilcrowe's Inter-Novel Investigation Agency and client." Pilcrowe flashed one of her cards in the librarian's face. "This lady's on her way back to her novel, and I'm on business."

"Ah," said the librarian. "Very well."

"That was... pretty cool," Random admitted, as she wound her way through the now familiar path to the Horror and Supernatural genre aisle.

"He's just a librarian," said Pilcrowe. "Nothing in the world librarians can do to you. They're pen pushers. You're a fictional character. If you want to go somewhere, you go there. Not a thing they can do to stop you."

"Yeah, well, I've only ever been to this one so far," said Random.

"Get used to it. You might be going to a few more."

If Pilcrowe was uncomfortable in the desert sun when they stepped outside, she didn't show it. Random, meanwhile, practically steamed. Her drizzle soaked clothes, hot and heavy in the heat, clung to her body, and the thought of getting inside to what Pilcrowe termed 'the scene of the crime' was even more inviting than usual.

The car was gone. Only a trail of grooves, leading out of town and back onto the road that sliced through the desert, remained. Random stopped for a moment, and followed them with her eyes into the distance, until they vanished into imperceptibility.

"This the spot?" said Pilcrowe.

"What? No. This is just..." She tore her eyes away from the road. "Nothing. We'd better get inside. Let's see, it was the old lab, so that was this way, and..."

"Hello, Red. Thought you'd left."

"And those?" said Pilcrowe, jerking her thumb back at the two approaching, white coated figures.

"Er... they're my colleagues. Or I think they are. It's a bit hard to tell." Random looked back at the two scientists, now crossing the road to reach them. "Hi, guys. How's things?"

"Didn't you leave?" said the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "Cause I'm pretty sure I saw you do the leaving thing. It was just this morning."

"I didn't say I was leaving for good," said Random. "I just said I wasn't... going... with them." She tore her eyes away from the road for the second time. "With the hunters, I mean. I said I wasn't going with the hunters."

"You didn't miss much," said the Scientist With The Moustache. "Generator packed in about an hour ago."

"I don't think it was because of plot," added the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "It's just an old generator. Oh yeah, another word counter showed up, and-"

"We're coming up close to the twenty thousand mark," cut in The Scientist With The Moustache.

"Overachieving, woo!" The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot did a quick, excited little dance, and held up his hand. Very slowly, and with more then the slightest hint of reluctance, The Scientist With The Moustache gave him what was probably a high five. It was an application of one palm against the other, anyway.

"Who's this?" said the Scientist With The Moustache, looking over at Pilcrowe.

"This," said Pilcrowe, crossing her arms, "is official business." She uncrossed them again to flourish her card at him. "S. C. Pilcrowe's Inter-Novel Investigation Agency."

"I'd love to say I know who you are," said The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot, "but I don't. Sorry." He sidled up to Random. "What's this about, that friend of yours?"

"Yeah," said Random. "You've got a problem? Look, I know she's a jerk. Just go with it. Now can we get inside before I turn into tonight's boiled dinner?"


"They're not really rude," said Random. "I think they've had just had a long day." So have I, she thought. Don't make me need to say it.

"I see," said Pilcrowe. She gazed up at the stairs. They were back in the possibly-once-a-bakery on the old lab's ground floor.. The air was still hot and still, but at least it was out of the sun. "So it's up there, is it? Is this what happened to your eyebrow?"

"What eyebrow? Am I - oh, that eyebrow," She stroked her right brow, which had, as of the last few days, existed as a few scattered clumps of red hair. That was another thing you didn't pay attention to at the end of the world. "Yeah, we were doing science. There were explosions. It's a science thing. I think." A lot of things were science things, these days. "Look, it's not important. You don't need to find that as well." She fanned herself with one hand in an attempt to get some circulation in the still air, gave up, and peeled off her lab coat.

"Good idea," said Pilcrowe, untying the belt on her own and handing the whole thing to Random. "Hang on to this while I go upstairs and look, would you?"


The sun was going down again. Random thought she'd have welcomed the respite, but all it did was serve to make the dampness all the colder. She hugged herself, trying to keep the warmth inside, and watched the sunset from the shattered window.

She was lost in her own thoughts when she heard the phone ring. Not a jaunty little tone, but the genuine sound of a phone ringing.

She looked up, The sound was coming from Pilcrowe's coat. Well, let her deal with it then. She closed he eyes, and went back to the huddle.

Wait a minute. How did Pilcrowe have a signal in a post apocalyptic novel?

She immediately set about to rummaging through the coat's pockets. Whoever was on the other end of the line must be very persistent, because the phone was still ringing when she found it. It was the the sleek black anachronistic thing she'd seen Pilcrowe using earlier, yet the detective must have spent a lot of time trying to track down the perfect authentic briing bring sound of a desk phone.

The name on the incoming screen read CEDILLA. Random's breath caught in her throat. The phone rang on.

She could answer, couldn't she? Whatever it was, Cedilla - Cedilla Tildeworth! - must think it was very important to keep ringing for so long. She could at least do the polite thing and take a message.

She tapped the screen and held it to her ear. "Hello?"

"Hello, Sue? That doesn't sound like you. Why am I looking at your ear again? That doesn't look like your ear. I told you about video calls, didn't I?"

Oh. Random pulled the phone away. Tildeworth looked up at her from the screen. "Er, sorry," she said, her legs shaking with the rush.

Tildeworth's brow furrowed. "You're not Sue," she said. "What happened to your eyebrow?" She brightened up. "Oh! You're her client!"

"Yeaaaaah," said Random. "She's upstairs now. Er, did you want me to take a message."

"Oh goodness, no," said Tildeworth. "I just wanted to know if you were doing well. If she's busy, well, that's just... that's good, yes! Very good."

"Oh. I'll tell her you called, yeah? Er, not to sound weird or anything, but how are you calling me? I thought you couldn't make calls into novels."

"Oh, that's simple!" Tildeworth nodded. "Very simple. I'm in the station, and the station can broadcast anywhere see? So all I have to do is hook my laptop up to its signal and I can ride along with it. Of course I'm sure you'd understand that, being a scientist and all?"

"Nnnot really," said Random. Was it just her mind scrambled by the fact that she was talking to Cedilla great Baty himself Tildeworth, or was that one thing her newly bestowed abilities were drawing a blank on? She leaned against the wall to steady herself. The sun was almost gone now, and Tildeworth's face was a bright beacon in the dark. Going to ruin my night vision, she thought, but no, the plot wasn't here any more. No need to worry about zombies. Far more need to worry about not looking like an idiot in front of one of the Nexus' prime celebrities.

"But enough about me!" Tildeworth said. "How about you? Are you okay?"

"Ngh," said Random.

"Oh. Do you need to talk?"

"I wouldn't want to bother you," said Random.

"Oh no, it's not a bother at all. Are you sure you're okay? You don't need to be worried about talking to me, honest. I can get you an autograph, if you want. Or one from the other personifications. I'm sure the Keeper of the Dares would be happy to oblige, and the Validator... well, I don't think it could give you an autograph as such, but I'm sure we could work something out, to be honest I've never seen it sign anything but it's a person like all of us and very nice. Does excellent cupcakes too, you really should try one. Oh, I could even get you an autograph from that dreadful Pep Talker, although why you would want one from him of all people I simply do not know. But I suppose there is no accounting for taste, and he is my brother of sorts so I suppose I'm obliged to think that way about him... oh, there I go again, talking about myself! I do apologise. Listen, I called to see how things were going with Sue, but to be honest I was hoping to speak to you as well."

"You... were?" Random found her tongue slowly, after Tildeworth's monologue. (It was obvious that she ran a talk show.)

"But of course! I think if you're going to be working alongside Sue, I should be getting to know you as well. Don't worry, it's just a friendly call. I won't bother you if you'd rather be left alone."

"Nnn... no, you can talk if you want," Random said. "Just been a long day."

"I expect it has," said Tildeworth. "I keep telling Sue to at least brighten up the office, if she's not going to move it somewhere a little less gloomy, but I think she likes it that way. I will never understand. Are you getting along okay? Not giving each other trouble, are you?"

"It's okay," she said, "She's a little... not like what I expected? Er, sorry, it's just that you've talked about her a lot." Great, she thought. You just made a stupid comment on Cedilla Tildeworth's love life. You idiot.

"She's something. Isn't she?" said Tildeworth. Her warm smile faded, replaced with the serious, furrowed brow from earlier. "Listen, I don't want to tell you to put up with anything that's making you uncomfortable, but.. Can I ask you something? Can you give her a chance? She's not really a jerk, it's just... this time of year is a bit hard on her, you know?"

"Busy, you mean?"

"Yes, busy. I wish I could be there for her more, but I'm so busy too, when November rolls around. You understand. Don't put up with anything that hurts you. But just give her a chance. There's more to her. I promise you."

"Yeah," Random's eyes flickered up to the ceiling. "Hey, should we really be talking..."

"It's okay," Tildeworth said. "No, really, it's all okay! If she's upstairs that means she's all wrapped up in investigating, and if she's all wrapped up in investigating, that means she's happy. She's doing what she's written to do. Being a detective is deep down in her text, you know, just like being a scientist is deep in yours."

"I don't know about that," said Random.

"Nonsense, I can see it all over you! Oh... are you okay? Is that okay? Oh, look at me. Supposed to personify communications in all their forms. I'm not doing a great job at communicating tonight. Oh well, I suppose I was never written to do pep talks...

"Yeah. Sure, I love being a scientist! I guess I can be one anyway. I mean, I made a zombie antidote from stuff I scavenged at the end of the world, that's pretty scientific, I guess." She twirled a bit of her hair around her finger. It was starting to fluff back up again. "It's just... well, I haven't thought about it so much, but it's really sudden. I haven't even thought about being anything else in days. And suddenly I know all these things I didn't before. I could draw you a diagram of the Kreb's Cycle on the wall right now with a bit of chalk if I had any! If you asked me a week ago I'd have thought that was a type of bike! I mean, it's great and all, but is that... is that normal?"

"What, drawing something that's probably not a sort of bike, given how you state it, on the wall?" said Tildeworth. "I don't know, but this is NaNoWriMo, so I suppose it has to be somewhere. Something's always normal somewhere. You're being rewritten. It happens to everyone. It's what being in a novel is all about."

"Have you ever been in a novel?"

"Oh no!" said Tildeworth. "I never have the time, and I don't even know if I work quite like you. What could I do, get myself rewritten and leave you all with no Communications? No, that simply would never do! But I've met plenty of people who've been through exactly the same thing, and they'll always tell you the same. You're going to be fine. I promise."

"Really?"

"Really. If I'm free to talk, I'm happy to listen. Trust me, I'm used to listening. I'm a little busy now, I'm afraid-" her eyes looked down at the bottom corner of the screen, where the clock must have been on her computer - "I should be preparing for a show soon, sad to say, but I hope you'll be okay. You will be okay, won't you?"

"Yeaaah?" Random said. "Yeah, I think I can." Tildeworth was smiling again, and despite herself and the long day, despite Pilcrowe and the rain and the heat and subsequent cold, and despite her still wet socks, Random couldn't help but return it. There was something infectious about Tildeworth. If she wished you well, you believed it. If she'd never heard of Tildeworth before, if she had no idea who she was until this moment, she would still never hesitate to believe that she was the Personification of Communications. "Thanks."

"No problem. Random Idea Number Forty Two, was it?"

"Yeah."

"I'll see you around. And... if this isn't too personal, I do wish you luck in finding your friend. It must be a lot to shoulder."

"I'll... see you too?" said Random. "And thanks, again. I hope so too..."


In an abandoned lab, above the streets of a shattered town, Pilcrowe crouched over broken floorboards and muttered to herself.

"A trail," she said. "There must be a trail. Everything leaves a trail. It is just a matter of finding it."

She stood up, gazing around the empty room, turning her attention away from the shovel's scar.

"Question," she said, to nobody at all. "How does a Travelling Shovel of Death Travel? Answer... unknown. Blast it."

Bits and pieces, all around her, and not a single one had fallen into place yet. They would, later. You had to let them percolate, like fine coffee, in the back of the mind, and then your characterisation would do the rest. A chance encounter, a song overheard, a picture, anything could tie them all together. Until it did, there was no sense in thinking too hard.

But she would try. It had all been so long since she'd tried.

She ran her finger over the shovel's scar, brought it to her lips, and licked. Nothing.

The sun was going down and the lights were dead. She felt her way around the room as much as looked. Sooner or later, she was going to have to concede defeat.

But not now. Not when everything was just getting started.


"A trace, you mean? Like a biochemical signature?"

"Don't think the Shovel's exactly biochemical, but you're the smart scientist here with all your cleverness. Sorry I left you there," Pilcrowe said. "It's a tough world out there, that's all."

"I'm sure I'm more than a coat stand," said Random. They were walking back up the stairs to the second lab. The sun had gone down, and Pilcrowe's phone lit their way as a jittery spotlight, highlighting the shadows and throwing them into relief. Random took each step slowly, making sure she knew exactly where her feet were before moving.

"I'm only saying," said Pilcrowe. "You haven't existed all that long, and-"

"What was it we said about not trying that again?" Random said, stopping in her tracks so that she blocked Pilcrowe's way. "Because I'm counting what you said there as that. No pulling that again. Got that?"

"Mmm. Is there coffee?"

"Coffee?" Random started moving again. "That'd be a great idea, if we had any electricity. I could get a fire going, toss a spoonful in, see what happens."

"Instant," said Pilcrowe, "is not coffee."

"Okay, you find better around here, I dare you. Ugh, maybe we should go back. Plot doesn't need us, we're missing Tildeworth." And now I really want a coffee, she added, in her head.

"No we're not."

"Uh, electricity? There isn't any?" Random stopped at the top of the stairs, and made to open the door. "I mean, I don't know if you noticed, but televisions generally need it. You know, to run? I'm sure that's not too scientific."

"Who said anything about televisions? I've got this, haven't I?" She brandished her phone in front of Random's face.

She blinked at the onslaught of light. Oh. The station signal. Of course. "Yeah, I suppose that'd work. You've got enough battery, though?"

"Why wouldn't I have enough battery? Is something going to happen?"

"Batteries... drain?"

"Do they?"

"What do you mean? They just do! It's a basic scientific fact!"

"Look again." Pilcrowe flipped off the flashlight, and Random was left blinking again in relative dark. She looked as Pilcrowe showed her the phone's home screen, its icons in neat rows against a backdrop of black. "Really look. What do you see?"

The battery icon was full.

"That can't happen, though!" said Random. "I mean, all the things you did... you called out, then I took a call for you, and you've had that light on all this time, and it should have lost something just from sitting there, what do you-"

"It's your first novel," said Pilcrowe. "I'll forgive you for not knowing the rule."

"What rule?"

"The battery rule, what else? No electronic device ever loses charge in a work of fiction. Not unless the plot needs it to."


"And that was the 50K Day group, here in the studio after a long and very well earned sleep! Give them all a big warm round of applause, people! And remember, don't make cheating accusations. Whether you're at five hundred words or fifty thousand or even more, what you have done matters. We would not be here were it not for the existence of NaNoWriMo and the determination of those stories to tell themselves within a month. I can't speak for any of you, of course, but I think I would find drifting in non-existence, without a hope of stories to speak out to, would be rather dull to say the least. Support your existence!"

Three scientists and a detective crouched around a phone screen, the only source of illumination in the dead desert night. Random, sitting at the edge as far from Pilcrowe as she could manage while still seeing the screen, was admittedly only half watching. She listened to what Tildeworth had to say, but her attention kept drifting back to the thought of trails, and biochemical traces, or not so biochemical traces, and phone batteries, and time and time again she found herself looking at the kitchen door. Pilcrowe's mind was not the only one to sit and allow pieces of the picture to bring themselves together with a single thought.

She also had clean socks, which helped a lot more than she thought they would. A famous fictional character once said that you can never have too many socks, and Random had to conclude that he knew what he was talking about.

"In a minute," Tildeworth was going on, "we'll be looking at the latest from Room 7a, and discuss the possibility of where... a hypothetical somebody may find a hypothetical pen. And, perhaps, some less than hypothetical tea. Later on in the show, I'll be discussing the finer points of characterisation whilst balancing pennies on my forehead.

"But not at this exact moment. As much as I would like to talk about the good things in life, and possibly pens and tea as well, I am the personification of Communications, or any communication that is not a pep talk at any rate. That means reporting.

"I have been receiving isolated reports of disappearances, and while I am no detective, a certain someone close to me is. And these reports all seem to be connected to the Travelling Shovel of Death."

Random looked up.

"Now I would love to say it's nothing to be alarmed about! The Travelling Shovel of Death is... well, I have never seen any evidence that it is exactly a living thing, but it is a valued piece of our lore regardless! But it cannot be denied that this is something that must be investigated. Fortunately, there is someone very close to me who is very good at investigating.

"I urge you, all of you, if you have seen the Shovel, if you have any information about these disappearances, if you know anything, at all, please do not hesitate to contact the NaNo Video station. Your co-operation is most encouraged. Your lack of co-operation is not, because that would be rude.

"Thank you for listening to this urgent message from NaNo Video. We now go live to a vaguely L shaped block of pixels."

Random edged closer to Pilcrowe, so that the detective could whisper in her ear.

"Please tell me she said she would call back!"