Chapter 6: The Duct Tape Chronicles
Nobel Prize Committee, here I come, right? But whatever works, works. -No Plot? No Problem!
The studio lights were dimmed, now, the cameras rolled away. Electricians batted cables across the studio and spat flames at the less co-operative of them. Tildeworth relaxed in her chair in the happy glow of another job well done. Sort of well done, anyway. Well done besides the Camp segment refusing to air, but that was just... technical issues. The show always went on. As she reminisced, a familiar tune drifted into her ears.
"NaNoWriMo... all the time-o..." sang Vicki
"That takes me back," Tildeworth said. She felt a whoosh of feathered wings, and a soft, furry creature deposited herself in her lap.
Vicki Smith was NaNo Video's lead camera operator. She was also a cat. She had turned up shortly after the studio's opening, sitting in the kitchen and staring at the fridge, but Tildeworth was under the impression that this was how cats generally propagated anyway, so she'd seen no reason to ask questions. She'd always suspected the Dare Keeper had something to do with it, but again, she didn't ask. She'd needed a friend after the Business. Circumstances had provided.
"Yes, it just came to me," said Vicki. She fluffed her wings and tail. As well as being a cat, Vicki was also a dare. Her thick, snowshoe patterned coat was complimented by a pair of fluffy, feathery wings in warm brown and white. She began to preen one, licking the shafts back into place. "Was that true? About the Shovel?"
"As much as I know," said Tildeworth. "Which isn't an awful lot, come to think of it. But Sue is on the case, and I'm sure she can do something about it." She twined her fingers through her friend's fur. "Or I hope she can. It's a bit difficult to say when something's a sure or a hope, sometimes. Maybe I hope I'm sure? Oh, here I go again. I really should call her! I don't even think I told her I was going to run that announcement!"
"That might be a good idea." Vicki flowed out of Tildeworth's lap and onto the studio floor. She stretched, front legs first, then back legs, and finally wings. "Do you ever plan anything?"
Tildeworth shrugged and got to her feet. "I'm a personification of NaNoWriMo. I think I'm incapable of not making things up on the spot."
They walked together out of the studio, into one of the main corridors. "I should call. Sue will be wanting to talk to me. I'll see you later?"
"Will do," said Vicki. She spread her wings and leapt into the air like a plain wingless cat chasing a bird, but when she reached the zenith of her leap, she powered herself higher, until she vanished through a hole in the ceiling. That had been there as long as the studio had been around, too. Tildeworth had never been sure why, but she supposed it wasn't anything to do with the Business. She'd had trouble working out what a missing ceiling tile with a printed sign beside it reading NINJA EXIT would have to do with that.
Come to think of it, she'd never seen any ninjas using it. That was odd, even more so given that she should know where it went, and it had occupied her thoughts on the more boring of nights in the past. Then again, it was a ninja exit. They probably wouldn't be very good ninjas if anyone saw them using it.
Satisfied with that explanation, she was about to leave when Vicki's head popped back out of the hole. "Oh, and tell the others! I think this calls for a meeting. And that includes the Pep Talker!"
She was right, Tildeworth thought, as she entered her office. She hoped Sue could deal with this, but if she wanted to be sure, it didn't hurt to have backup.
If Pilcrowe's office was the picture of spartan neglect, Tildeworth's was the picture of chaos, and also pink. The pale rose walls were plastered in photos, of herself and the crew, of herself and friends outside the station, of herself and any number of people she'd struck up a conversation with over the years, which also made them friends. The pictures of Sue, though, were delegated to prime position on her desk. They jostled for space amid paper clips, sticky tape rolls with missing ends, and figurines of various small cute animals, but each one was framed and clean. Her favourite, the one of them standing together on their last anniversary at the Warm Onion, took the best spot by her laptop. They were both smiling, Tildeworth with her best grin, and Pilcrowe with something that you weren't sure was a smile, unless you knew her well enough to know it absolutely was.
She flipped open the laptop, logged in, and opened up a call. (She really had no idea how someone like Sue or Random didn't know how she did it. Detectives and scientists were supposed to be smart.)
The phone rang for rather less time than it had before, and when it was answered, Sue was again staring up at her from the laptop screen. She was in darkness, lit only by the phone's light.
"Hello!" Tildeworth said. "How are you d-"
"Cedilla dammit!" yelled Sue. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"What, about the shovel?"
"Of course about the Shovel! I mean... that is not to say... I'd like to have a personal conversation, Cedilla, you know I would, but I... why didn't you say anything? I'd been working under the impression this was an isolated incident."
"It was a last minute addition," said Tildeworth. "An awful lot of the show was. You saw the technical failures we had earlier and... that last minute replacement. And I only got the message right before going on air. If I were you I'd say this was a very recent development."
"Yes, I did see that," said Pilcrowe. "I'm sorry. I should have thought of it."
"Believe me," said Tildeworth, "the last thing I wanted to do was re-air anything titled Urinal Cakes: Fact or Fiction."
"That still leaves the issue of the shovel," said Sue. "And... I do appreciate your help. I'll do what I can to live up to what you said. I only you didn't have so much faith in me sometimes."
Tildeworth sat up in her seat. "Are you having trouble?"
"Nothing I can't handle." Sue's bottom-lit face suddenly snapped back to purposefulness. "Do you have any records? Calls, letters?"
"I've had some letters through," said Tildeworth. "Excuse me for a second?" She tabbed through a list of open documents, and then back to Sue's face. "Sorry about that. Several emails, more than a few blog comments, and... hold on." More tabbing. "Oh. Oh dear. It seems the show might have prompted a few more..."
"Good. I need novels, dates, scenes, anything you have."
"Of course." Tildeworth rubbed her chin. "Do you really think the Shovel is doing these things? I wouldn't want to believe me just because of what I said on TV."
"It's too early in the story. And I don't think what we want has anything to do with what happens."
(Sometimes it does, thought Tildeworth. On occasion, it does.)
"But I'll keep it in mind," Sue went on. "It's early days. Anything I'll say now, I'll regret. Don't need any more of that."
"Thankyou," said Tildeworth. She rubbed her fingers against her headset. "What about your scientist friend, anyway? How is she doing?"
"One, she's not my friend. Two, she ran off into the lab. Haven't a clue what she's up to."
"Oh, well, I'm sure it's beyond me. Anyway, I-" Tildeworth's phone buzzed in her pocket. "Oh, give me a moment, would you?" She flicked the screen on, and read the text that popped up. "Hmmm. Seems I'm wanted in relation to that unaired segment. I'm sorry, I don't want to leave you, but there are rather a lot of exclamation marks on here, and... I'm not sure what this emote is. It might be a penguin. I have no idea if that conveys emergencies or not..."
"I think the exclamation marks are enough," said Sue. "You should go. I'll be fine."
"You will be okay, yes?" Tildeworth said, tapping out a quick reply on the phone - yes, be there in a minute. "Both of you?"
"I told you before, there's no zombies here at the moment. Of course I will be."
"I worry about things other than zombies, Sue."
"You worry too much." And, for a second, she was an eerily lit double of the photograph by the screen, not smiling unless you knew her well enough to know that she was. "Maybe this will take a little longer than I thought, that's all."
"I hope that's all," said Tildeworth. "But I'm sure you can do it."
Technically, Tildeworth didn't need to employ anyone at all at the station. When she said she didn't think that she worked in the same way as Random, or any of the other characters, it was with an amount of certainty that rivalled her faith in certain detectives. If she gave the command, if she thought hard enough, the station, the airwaves, the networks, they all obeyed her and only her. She was the Personification of Communications. All she had to do was think, and she was the station, she was riding her own waves and reaching into every set in the Nexus and beyond, she ran down optical fibres in a flash of light, to every phone and every computer.
But she preferred not to. It was tiring, it gave her no time for the important things in life, and most of all, it was terribly impersonal. It was good to have company, and what was more, so many of the dares here wouldn't have anywhere else to go. Dares were popular, but even the Keeper of the Dares herself knew there wasn't room for all of them, and so many of them ended up chopped out in the edits later, when the story decided to go in a more serious direction. This way, everyone had something to do, and nobody was overstretched. Besides, they were family, like Vicki. Some of them had been around ever since the Business, and they'd stuck by one another all through it.
It thus turned out that the penguin emote in the last text message was a signature. "Hey there," said the rockhopper, seated by a bank of computers. "I got your reply."
"Thanks for the note, Emma," said Tildeworth. "Sorry I took so long, Personal reasons, you understand. What happened?"
Emma's feathery yellow crest drooped. "It wasn't exactly unairable," she said. "I may not have been entirely honest when I said there were faults."
"What is it?" Tildeworth took a chair in a position that she hoped was out of the way of anything vital. "It's okay, by the way. I was there, and..."
"Yes, I think it was that." Emma scooted over to one of the monitors and hit a button with her beak. "Watch this," she said.
"No," Tildeworth said. "It wasn't like that. I'm sure it wasn't..."
For the second morning in a row, Random woke before everyone else, rising in the predawn gloom to work by the light of her phone in the kitchen. The ideas were still falling into place, faster and faster. Sleep wasn't an option; they wouldn't let her rest. Tildeworth's chance mention on the previous night's show hadn't interrupted her, but it spurred her into action. She'd backtracked to the old lab and stared at the mark the shovel had left in the crumbling floorboards.
A mass of metal and pipes, strung together with duct tape, sat in front of her now. She hoisted it over her shoulder on broad straps - also duct tape. It was almost done... almost.
She took her phone from the worktop. True to Pilcrowe's word, it hadn't lost a drop of charge since she'd arrived here.
She kept her shoulders steady, letting them bear the weight of the device, and, hardly daring to breathe, slotted the phone into the front.
The machine flared into life. The program she'd typed into her phone, guided by all the strange new knowledge in her head, appeared on the screen, alongside gratuitous spinning graphics.
On the worktop, by the door, there was a thick splinter, taken from the exact spot where the Shovel had fallen. She swiped and tapped over the screen, held the machine in both hands, and hovered its antenna over the wood.
"What, you've got a microwave now? Last I knew, those didn't run on plot."
"Morning," said Random. She'd given her word to Tildeworth, after all, so it paid to at least try to be polite to Pilcrowe.
"Okay. That's not a microwave."
"It is!" Random protested. "Well, it was. I think I could still make it microwave things, but I'd have to do some testing first and really, maybe I'd rather wait before I start trials on that, better stick to what I made this thing for. Anyway." She hefted the machine up in both hands, stepping out into the sunlit main room so that Pilcrowe could see better. "This is my shovel detector."
"Interesting. What does it do?"
"It detects shovels."
"I did assume that, yes." Pilcrowe took off her thick rimmed glasses and rubbed them against her coat pocket. "How?"
"It's what you said, about biochemical trails! Or not so biochemical trails! That was when I realised, look." She drew up closer so that Pilcrowe could see the screen. "I know it looks like phone jammed into a pile of chopped up kitchen appliances, but that's because it is. But it's also a lot more scientific than that! I haven't done a full scale test, but if I had this running at the scene, we could find the exact novel and jump right in!"
"And you hired me, why?"
"Don't look at me like that!" said Random. "You've got that list of novels, haven't you? What this does is tell you what path the Shovel took. Now that might not mean anything to me, but maybe it would... well, maybe it would to you?"
"Patterns, you mean?" Pilcrowe leaned over Random's shoulder, gazing down at the display showing a positive result. "Patterns, I might be able to make some use of."
"See, that's what I thought!" Random grinned up at her. "I'm a scientist, I do scientist things. But you're a detective, you do detective things."
"I've never heard such nonsense in all my life."
"I don't care, I'm off." Random made for the door. "I can't wait to go full scale!"
Colours flashed, symbols scrolled, and little wire-frame graphics spun on their axis as Random ran the shovel detector across the old lab's floor. She paced back and forth over a square, marked out by Pilcrowe in chalk, that covered the area where the Shovel had fallen after its deadly strike. Pilcrowe and the remaining two scientists stood back, none of them wanting to interrupt the process.
With another characteristic ding, a series of figures scrolled onto the screen. "Here you go," she said, walking back to her little audience. "Does that correspond to anywhere on your list?"
Pilcrowe gave the detector screen the quickest of glances before turning back to scroll down the list of novels Tildeworth had sent along. She'd barely taken he eyes from her phone all morning. "It appears to correspond with the Adventure genre," she said. "But the trail's cold. You should know that."
"It was a while ago," Random admitted, but she remembered the white-eyed hunter's words and carried on. "Okay, how much of a problem is that?"
"For you, a big one. For me, not so much."
Somehow, Random thought, I knew that was what you'd say. Maybe it was for the best. If Pilcrowe felt important, maybe she wouldn't be so touchy. All she knew was that the detector worked. It had established a trail from one novel to the next, with absolutely no intermediate library communications. That sort of thing never happened unless...
Dear Chris Baty, she'd built a prototypical crossover induction device. Pilcrowe could have all the glory she wanted as long as she left Random to her creation.
Pilcrowe herself was back to scrolling through her list, flicking the screen with one deft thumb, staring, flicking it again. The remaining scientists clustered around Random and the detector.
"A working inter-novel transfer detector," whispered the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot in awe. "That is a phone, a microwave, and some tubes, right?"
"And duct tape. You like it?"
"You're really a scientist, then," said the Scientist With The Moustache.
"So... this is really it, is it?" said the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot, who was now watching Pilcrowe work.
"Yeah," said Random. "I guess it is, unless we finish up faster than I think, but... look, I have no idea how long this is going on for. And I don't really mind, and that's funny. Not right now, anyway." (Outside, though... she thought, but that was a different story, and not one she wanted to share.) "Look, if there's one thing I do want to say... I'm sorry I left like that yesterday. But I chose, and, well, I guess I've got to follow through with it now. Sorry I just... left, though."
"Normally I'd say you're pretty mad," said The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot.
"But then we saw the TV last night," finished The Scientist With The Moustache.
"We think you might be on to something," agreed The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "We just wanted to say-"
"Found it," said Pilcrowe.
"...er, goodbye and good luck?" finished The Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot.
The Scientist With The Moustache nodded.
"I guess if I don't get back in time for the heroes, tell them the zombies got me?" She managed a little laugh. "I always did want to be more like Neo." But Pilcrowe was waiting, so after a few handshakes and well wishes, they set off down the stairs.
After that, it was going to be easy. All she had to do was cross the street. There was nothing difficult about crossing the street. Even less so when there weren't any cars to run you down, or leave long trails in the dust, leading far, far into the deep desert, until you could no longer see a thing, but you knew they went on and on, for longer than you could ever know...
"You're doing that thing again."
She was standing in the middle of the road, in the dust, gazing down at a trail that cut through the desert under a cloudless sky. "The thing. Yes. Look, I'll... I just need to... not be here, I think?"
"Right," said Pilcrowe. "Now you've very kindly told me what you won't take. So I'm going to tell you something in return. If you want to come along, I can't have you doing that thing. I need you to think of that thing, and then not do that thing, because doing that thing is the last thing I need right now. You understand?"
"Y... yeah." Random was poised to move, her feet trying to twist themselves away, but her eyes were still on the road. Just a little more wouldn't hurt, would it?
"I know it's not easy, but that's my rule. Don't do the thing."
The librarian gave Pilcrowe's business card a critical eye. "This is a little unusual," he said, looking from the card to his clipboard.
"Last time I checked, theres no rule says a scientist and a detective can't be in a pirate novel," said Random. "Actually, that would make it even cooler! Could you imagine pirates and scientists and detectives all in a novel together? Because I can, and that would be awesome." The relentless urge to follow the road had ebbed away once she'd left the desert heat. Standing in the cool dusty library interior, lit by the librarian's buzzing form, it didn't seem to matter any more. "So you have to let us in entirely on those grounds."
"Far be it for me to interrupt my client's passionate and, some might say, pressing argument," Pilcrowe added, "but there really isn't a whole lot you can do anyway."
"It's like plot ninjas," Random said. "Only with plot scientists and plot detectives. Think of the wordcount! Anyway, ninjas go wherever they want, so I don't see why we can't too."
"Yes, and they cause a dreadful mess," said the librarian. "This is highly irregular, you know."
"Woordcount..." Random sang.
"...highly irregular buuuuuut I suppose I can do something. Right this way." He dissolved into a bolt of light and zipped across the shelves, while Random and Pilcrowe followed.
"This is as far as I go," said the librarian, when he rematerialised.
"We're right at the door," said Pilcrowe.
"But it's technically accurate, isn't it?" The librarian dissolved into light, slinking back through the shelves with altogether more surliness than Random would have ever attributed to a collection of photons. As he vanished, she thought she could catch, just on the edge of hearing, "...why scientiiiiiists?"
Pilcrowe nudged the door open. It wasn't as smooth as the one leading to Random's novel, and it opened with a long and protracted groan that went on for far longer than it ought to. Only then did Random realise that it wasn't the door at all, but the creak of weathered timbers.
Pilcrowe walked inside first, and Random followed. Immediately on entry she stumbled and flailed for balance, as the floor rose to meet her feet. The door slammed behind her, and the pair were plunged into darkness.
She regained her footing on the unsteady ground. No, not ground. The floor was rolling and heaving under her, the timbers groaning all around in time. The air smelled of salt, and a little of the sort of drink they probably didn't sell in Club Ack! alongside the cocktails, at least not unless a customer showed up with his own living shoulder accessory and the accent to match. "Pirate novel," she said, hefting up the shovel detector and switching on the screen, to be greeted by shadowy barrels taking up the . "Makes sense! We're on a pirate ship!"
"Interesting," said Pilcrowe. "Now what would a shovel be doing on board a ship?"
But the both philosophical and practical discussion of oceangoing gardening implements that would have ensued from this question went unanswered, because at that moment, they were suddenly attacked by ninjas.