Chapter 14: Free Shrimp Dinner
This is your time to fly. - No Plot? No Problem!
The problem with a live audience was that participation figured plummeted mid-month, when everyone was busy with their novels. Tildeworth didn't mind, because she had the satisfaction of knowing that people would still be watching across the novelsphere. But she had never been as grateful for a nearly empty studio as she was now. The show must always go on, but sometimes it was a lot easier to talk with a camera between yourself and your audience.
"Today I'd like to take a moment to talk to you, as I do every year, about the importance of backups," she said. She had so much to say, but so few words, and right now it was easier to default to something she was going to say anyway. Even a Personification of NaNoWriMo had their limits. "Every year, myself and my friends receive devastated letters from those of you who may have lost their work owing to catastrophic errors in the fabric of your story. This year is no exception." There'd been a few of them hidden in with all the letters about the Shovel (which themselves had been a mixture of sightings, alleged sightings, stories from someone who hadn't seen it themselves but swore that their best friend's cousin's pet gerbil had, and concerned onlookers wondering if they should only be worried about the Shovel or if, say, they needed to keep a close eye on any spades or trowels that might be lying around). "Some of you may not have gotten around to creating a backup of your story Now imagine if all that were gone! Suddenly all the things you had done in the last few days, perhaps even weeks, would have never happened! Imagine the terrible, devastating consequences that would have on your timeline. Imagine remembering things, and yet knowing that they were never real!
"Of course those of you in the speculative fiction genres may be tackling a time travel story this year, and may experience those effects anyway, but that is to be expected. If your story involves time travel in any way, shape, or form, then you have every right to feel this way, and may your story be as convoluted and back to front and upside down and out of order as you please! Nobody will mind that, and if they do, they are being highly unreasonable.
"But imagine having lost all your work because you didn't back up your novel. All temporal and existential concerns aside, you would have to do it all over again, and that would put a dreadful dent in your productivity this month.
"So please, back up your novel. Just be sure it's authorise! You can find backup facilities all around the Nexus, or take a look on our website for..."
She felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. She'd worn one of her warmer shirts today (the pink and purple striped one) as the weather had taken a turn for the chilly, but it was November, so that was not so unexpected.
But someone was waiting outside the studio entrance.
"I do apologise. It would seem we have a guest on the show today. This is a little unscripted, but let it never be said that NaNoWriMo isn't about embracing the unexpected. Vicki, could we swing the camera over so all our friends at home can see?"
Vicki, hovering behind the camera, banked to turn it and follow the figure's entrance. "Hello there," Tildeworth said. "I don't know if we've met, but if you're on the show today would you be willing to- oh. Oh dear."
A drifting, grey figure cut a path across the floor. Where it passed, the air shimmered and the studio appeared dull and worn. Tildeworth and Vicki shared a brief glance. Vicki nodded. Behind her, a small crew of dares had begin to escort the meagre audience outside. Some stared, guessing what was going on, others whispered and protested about the show being interrupted, but one by one they filed out until there was nobody left but Tildeworth.
She remained in her chair. Whatever happened, the show had to go on.
"Ah, I believe we may have met after all, have we?"
The figure hovered beside her. There was no hint of a body underneath, only a plain, hooded robe, drifting in an intangible breeze. As she watched, Tildeworth remembered that the cameras were still running. All across the Nexus and beyond, people were watching. She shouldn't just stare like this. She should say something. She looked ridiculous.
"Listen," she said, "I am quite happy to grant you an interview, but you are cutting into valuable live television slot time, and I must insist that you-"
The figure transformed. The robe flew away, the hood flung back, dissolving into nothing. Though there had never been any sign of a body underneath, the figure now standing by Tildeworth's chair was humanoid. She was tall and skinny, dressed in a sensible shirt and a sensible mid length skirt, thin hands grasping a clipboard and pen. Her skin was pulled taught over a bony face, save for where it was furrowed into deep frown lined around her thin mouth. Stern eyes peered at Tildeworth from behind sharp rimmed glasses, under slicked back hair drawn into a tight bun.
Her pen tapped against the clipboard, daring Tildeworth to speak.
"Ah... viewers?" Tildeworth said. "It appears that we have in the studio today a special guest! A very special guest, an Inner-"
The Editor laid her hand on Tildeworth's shoulder, and everything went grey.
Tildeworth could have fought back. It wouldn't have been hard. The Editor was frail and bony to the touch, so brittle that she might snap at any moment, and none of it mattered. Why should it? Why should she bother to fight?
She was tired. She had slept in fits and starts, snatching what hours she could between filming and posting and sorting through the influx of mail that flooded her studio, and she had spoken to Sue and Random every day, even though they were gone and unreachable now. It had taken its toll. She should never have sat in front of the camera tonight. She should never have sat in front of it at all. She was nothing more than another talentless bore who had fooled herself into thinking that anyone would want to listen or would even care about her ramblings. All around her the elite, those with true gifts, watched and bemoaned the fate of their craft. She wanted everything and deserved nothing, for she had done nothing perfect enough to earn it.
What, then, was the point of fighting back? Why bother, when every dodge and blow was bound to be inept? Why bother, when millions were watching this live, and each and every one would laugh at her attempts at breaking free?
She would stop, she would give up everything, she would-
The scream cut through Tildeworth's thoughts, and the bony hand let go. She opened her eyes, in time to see the Editor stagger back, screaming in her shrill voice as a flurry of brown and tan fur and feathers clawed at her face, "Cats don't fly! Cats don't fly!"
Tildeworth scrambled out of her chair as the Editor staggered backwards as though drunk, disorientated by the onslaught of claws and teeth and disregard for biology. She flailed her arms for balance, the clipboard flying from her grasp, and slammed right into Vicki's camera. It crashed to the floor with a resounding thud that Tildeworth could feel rise up through her feet.
She was going to have to do something she never, ever thought she would.
She crouched by the fallen camera, and laid one hand on it. Work, she thought, work, please. "Ah," she said, as it flickered into life, "dear viewers, I owe you all an apology. First of all, your screens are working perfectly fine, I just so happen to be perpendicular at this moment. Secondly-" she looked back at the Editor's ongoing blind destruction, "it appears that due to circumstances completely beyond my control, we will have to cut this broadcast short. I greatly apologise to all of you who may have been watching, and I hate to break I to you all, but it seems we are experiencing some technical difficulties."
A vent grille loosened, wobbled, and crashed to the ground. From the empty hole emerged a hand, a pink and purple striped sleeve, and then Tildeworth hauling herself out and onto the ground below. Light from the rapidly fading sky dwindling down into the narrow alleyway she'd found herself in.
It had been Vicki who saved her the second time that day, Vicki who hauled her up to the missing ceiling tile and through the Ninja Exit. Tildeworth still had yet to see any ninjas, but perhaps they'd all fled early to avoid the rush. Her laptop safely tucked under her arm, and Vicki hovering by her side with steady wing beats, she looked around.
"You made it!"
Her staff were all here too, waving hands and paws and wings in her direction. "What are you doing here?" she said.
Emma, the rockhopper penguin and expert video editor, stepped forward, her yellow crest drooping. "We didn't know if you'd made it. And there... there isn't really anywhere else to go."
"Ey, she's right," said the familiar voice of Jeff, the pink stone armadillo.
"How do you mean?" she said, stepping past the assorted dares toward the mouth of the alleyway. She peered around the corner. "Oh."
The second moon had gone into hiding. Tildeworth couldn't blame it.
The low light had nothing to do with the natural progression of day into night. Rather it was as though an eclipse had fallen upon the square, leeching all the light and warmth and colour out of the world. The sky was a dark slate tone, the warm honey coloured stone a dirty desaturated shade. Nothing moved except for a few breezes, throwing up brief eddies of dust and paper scraps before settling again, and the Editors.
The square was full of them. Most were passive, in the same bodiless robe shape that billowed and moved in the absence of any wind, but others had shed their disguise and walked around with purposeful strides. All dressed in sensible greys, they wielded clipboards and ticked off anomalies with red pens.
Vicki hovered closer. With her free hand, Tildeworth reached up and petted her thick fur. She could feel the air stirred from her colleague's wing beats against her cheek.
"I'll talk to Marni," she said, stepping back into the relative safety of the alley. "She'll keep you safe, don't worry." She took out her phone, scrolled down to where it read MARNI WOON, KD, and pressed the call button.
The phone on the other end rang, but nobody answered.
"Okay, Brevewin. He'll be able to do something." Her brother could always get to the point when needed; Editors didn't stand a chance against him. But yet again, she found him (listed as BUTTFACE on her contacts) and called, and nobody picked up.
"No," she whispered. "No, no, no..." The dares crowded around her feet. But she was not Marni Woon, and she could not give them a safe place to go, and she was not Macron Brevewin, and she could not give them any words to raise their spirits.
"It was a strike, I'll bet you," said Jeff. "All in one go. Take out t'strange ones first, all of you lot."
Tildeworth nodded. She was not a detective, and she was not a scientist, but she didn't need to be. "If you were an Editor and you wanted to get rid of... yes, that's exactly what I'd do. They hate absurdity, and they feed on it. They like nothing better than to correct the things about us that make no sense."
"It's going to be us next, isn't it?" said Emma.
Vicki hovered even closer, settling against Tildeworth's chest and folding her wings, her head nudging up against her chin. "What about you?"
Was it a trick of the light in here, or was the skin over the back of Tildeworth's hand a little greyer than usual?
"I don't know," she said.
But there was a thought in the back of her mind, something she had kept buried for years, something tucked away, safely, for when she would next need it, and if now was not the time, when was it?
"But I've got an idea," she said.
The dares exchanged glances.
"Thing is... you can't come with me. I'm not going to risk it. No, not even you," she said, looking down at Vicki. "I need you to stay safe, and I don't know how you're going to do that, but I know you won't be safe if you come with me. I think... I think you're going to have to work out what to do next by yourselves."
They were all watching her now, and what she wouldn't have given for Brevewin's way with words. But she pushed on, because that was what you did. You always pushed on, even if the words were not at their best.
"But if you stay safe, I need you to pass on a message for me, to everyone you find, if there is anyone out there... is that okay?"
More mutters and murmurs from the assorted dares, and then Jeff spoke up. "Tha knows I'll always do thee a favour!"
Not grey, Tildeworth thought. Just the light. "T... thankyou," she said. "I don't know if I'll make it, but on the chance I do, this is what I need."
She told them.
"But... the Business?" said Emma.
"Don't worry about the Business," Tildeworth said. "It's all okay. I've got a plan."
It was quieter in the square when Random left the library, and started the long walk back to the place she used to share with Neo. At long last she opened the door, dislodging piles of built up takeaway menus, and let it slide closed behind her.
She pulled off her shoes and let her white coat fall to the floor beside them. Back in the lounge, she sank into the old, worn seat, and flicked the TV on.
White static and dead air greeted her.
Huh. That was strange.
She sat slumped in her chair, while dull and dirty light filtered through still, mote-laden air.
Laundry. That was... probably a good idea. Laundry was nice and dull, and it had been piling up all month.
After a few more minutes, she found the energy to get out of her seat, and began to empty her pockets, one item at a time. Cards and fliers, bits of change, paper clips, they all joined one another on the side table. She'd sort them out later. Not now. There was always too much to do, now.
The last item, a crumpled scrap of paper, unfolded as it joined its fellows, enough for Random to see a little of what was written inside. She picked it back up, and smoothed it out. The text was smudged and crumpled, but still legible.
IOU One Free Shrimp Dinner
Even Though I Don't Have To Pay
Random stared, and pocketed it again.
She ran to the window, to let some light in, and saw the scene outside - grey skies, grey Editors swarming the streets. How could she have walked past that? But the answer was already there in her mind, part of the knowledge that flowed freely ever since she had been rewritten. Inner Editors had no use for the depressed, but the bright, the lively, and the downright irrational, those they hated and wished to extinguish for all time.
And Tildeworth was off the air. She felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight. She should call someone, anyone - but she could not. Her phone was back in Pilcrowe's novel, lodged in the shovel detector and left forgotten.
Neo was gone. They were all gone. There was nothing she could do for them. She had no idea if anything could be done for Tildeworth. But there was one person for whom she could still do something.
It wasn't a long walk from her place back to the library, but it grew into one as she crept from street to street. The Editors in full form, their heels clacking on the pavement, were easy to hear and avoid. But it was the ones shaped like drifting, formless robes that were the hardest. They didn't fill her with the same levels of dread as their clipboard wielding kin, but they were silent and stealthy, and more than once she found herself pressed up against a wall whilst she did her best to think the dullest, most unimaginative thoughts she could think of. Think of accountants, she thought. I'm not wearing a lab coat. This is an accountant's formal white coat. I am Random the Accountant.
She might have burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of that thought, if she didn't round a corner to see the dead face of Club Ack! with its bright lights extinguished. Only then did she wonder how long this had been going on for. There hadn't been anything unusual that morning, not since they'd come to Pilcrowe's novel.
What if Pilcrowe herself had something to do with all this? Did Tildeworth know? No, no, she mustn't think of that. No doubts, no fears. They could smell those.
The last walk was across the square, to the library, and now there was nowhere to hide. Deep breath then, she told herself, in and then out, and across the open.
She didn't think. She hardly dared breathe. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of grey out of the corner of her eye, or the clack-clack-clack of heels on stone. She ignored it. She didn't speculate, not on her mission, not on Pilcrowe, not on anything. Her body moved forward, but her mind was still, all the way over the square, all the way up the stairs and in through the massive double doors, left ajar.
There were no characters, no crackling, pedantic librarians to escort them from novel to novel. There were only bookshelves, looming all above her, and no light save for what was left in the sky, filtering through the ceiling panels. "Hello?" she said, looking all around in the dark. "Anyone here?"
Nobody answered, only her voice echoing back.
There was, however, a desk, with a brass bell on the top and a sign instructing her to Ring For Assistance. So she did, and the bell sounded with a ding that reminded her all too much of her beloved invention. A librarian crackled into existence above the desk.
"We're closed," he said, and immediately switched himself off.
Random, undeterred, rang the bell again. "No you're not," she said, as the librarian flared back into life.
"I think you'll find we are," he said. "Closed until further notice, didn't you read the sign?" he added, and switched himself off again.
"Not buying it." Random switched him back on. "For starters, there isn't a sign."
"Then I shall have a request sent through to put one up." Off, again.
"This is getting kind of stupid," Random rang the bell again. "Also, my hand's getting sore."
"There will be a sign up in the near future!" Off, once more.
"You know I'm just going to keep doing this, don't you?"
"They warned me about you!" Once again, he switched off, and Random was in the dark.
Her hand hovered over the bell for a moment before she rang it again. "Would you like to reopen?"
"We will open once normal functionality has been restored-"
"You mean the Editors?"
"Okay, what if I said I could get rid of them?"
This time, he didn't protest, and stayed switched on, though he kept giving the door nervous glances and tapped his fingers against his holographic clipboard. "You... could do that?"
"I hope so! But you've got to help me and stop switching yourself off, okay?"
"Can I switch off after I'm done?"
"You can switch off all you want, but I need you. What's with all... this, anyway?"
"They came this morning. There was a terrible noise too, I tell you now! We couldn't get anybody to be quiet! Now everyone's hiding. You don't want to know what it feels like when..."
"I can imagine," said Random. "Look... I need to go there to stop them. Can you show me where they came from?"
It was Pilcrowe's novel, of course, and she never had any illusion it wouldn't be, but she was glad, when the librarian led her to the door with its melted locks, that he wasn't the one who'd escorted her and Pilcrowe that morning. Already she could feel the guilt rising. Did she do this? Were the Editors all sealed up inside there, and was it her act of opening the door that let them out? But no, it couldn't be. Pilcrowe had walked out of there easily enough. It was getting in from this side that was the hard part.
It didn't help. And what about the Shovel? Pilcrowe would know, she was sure of it, but Pilcrowe wasn't here.
"Look, I wouldn't say this to anyone," said the librarian, "but good luck?"
"Yeah," she said. "Thanks." Did he suspect her of opening the door? But she'd never know, because he switched himself off, there and then, without even bothering to dart back through the shelves.
It must be nice to be able to switch yourself off, Random felt, but that wasn't going to make any difference. As the old scientist's saying went, wanting something doesn't make it real. She she opened the door, and walked out into that dark, drizzly city again, forever frozen on the brink of resolution.
She passed by the bar, still with its lights and unintelligible chatter from within. Not now, she told herself. First things first. She ran into the old office building, steeling herself against the lack of lights, and ran back into the top floor room to find her detector, still sitting on the desk, untouched.
With a sigh of relief she slung it back over her shoulders, and only then did she notice the light, still flashing.
The Shovel was back, sitting in the corner as though it had never left.
"Alright, you," she said. "Let's try this again, shall we?"
She wrapped her coat around one hand, and brushed her fingertips against the metal. She could hear faint whispers on contact, but nothing more. Hardly daring to breathe, she released her hand, and touched it, wrapping her fingers around the handle.
She could still hear it. All its memories, all the darkness calling out to her, just as Tildeworth had described. It threatened to pull her under again.
Her grip tightened. She lifted the Shovel. It was dark iron from the heart of a dead star, pitted and worn, heavy with the weight of years of beatings and bludgeoning.
"Try that again on me," she said, "and I'll have you melted down."