Chapter 15: Façade
Finishing is bittersweet. It's like saying good-bye to an old friend, albeit a best friend who's been living with you rent-free and eating all your food. - No Plot? No Problem!
At the same time as Random was journeying through the library and confronting the Shovel, Tildeworth was on her own furtive trail toward her apartment. Now she was rummaging through it, opening doors and drawers, pulling boxes from corners and from under the bed. She'd been around for years, longer than most of the Nexus' inhabitants, and she'd managed to accumulate more than her own fair share of junk in the meantime. A pangolin scale breastplate, lurking in a closet, went on over her pink and purple striped shirt. A plastic Viking helmet ended up perched on top of her ragged curls. In a box under the bed she found an old donor halo, which she hung from one of the horns at an angle, still faintly glowing despite its age.
Finally, she found the pencil. It was lurking in the back of a cupboard and took some effort to drag out, for it was half again as tall as Tildeworth herself and had to be held in both hands. But with it held just right, weighted so that the tip pointed upright and forwards, she could carry it with ease. It was made for running with, after all.
When she was done, she took out her phone and sent a text to the Validator, the one Personification she couldn't call and had yet to try. She had no idea if the high pitched whine, rising higher and higher until it reached an inaudible register that she was sure her phone could not produce in everyday circumstances, meant that it had arrived, but she liked to think it did.
Tildeworth wasn't like Random, or any of the dares or her other friends. She couldn't make herself into a small target. Pretending to be an accountant was right out. NaNoWriMo was infused within her in a way it simply was not with anyone apart from the other Personifications, and in there was the reason the Editors had struck first.
If she couldn't make herself no target at all, there was, logically, only one other way to go. Well, maybe there were others. But she had already established that she was no scientist or detective, so this was all she had. Armour, that was the idea. An Editor fed on irrationality, but what if you gave it too much to eat?
She had the chance to test her idea when a handful of them rounded a corner, all in their stealthy, robed forms. She stood fast, and gripped the pencil tight. "Hello."
They paused, drifting before her like a pack of confused ghosts. Already she could feel doubt creeping into her head. Shouldn't she have taken something a bit more substantial? Shouldn't she have followed up on her one time idea to install, in the station, a glass case filled with weapons, labelled 'Break In Case Of Editors'? Not that it would have done her any good, but wouldn't it be better than a giant pencil? Wouldn't anything be better than a giant pencil?
They edged closer.
It's just them, she told herself. Not you. She brandished the pencil again. They had her exit blocked now and when she looked back she noticed she was hemmed in, all around her.
Shouldn't she just stop, now, and try again when she had some idea of what she was doing?
But she had no idea. And that, above all, was the point. No plot, no problem.
She cleared her throat. This was going to suck.
"Excuse me!" she said, in perfect Comic Sans.
The Editors reeled at her voice, enough for her to make a break for it into to the square. A few of them transformed, ripping away their hooded robes to reveal sensible, grey forms beneath, sacrificing stealth for power. She ran on, holding the pencil just right under her arms, her laptop bag slamming against her side with every step. Her legs began to ache with the exertion, unfamiliar to someone whose day to day life involved sitting in a chair and talking.
The Gardens were close, just across the open stretch. The Editors were on her back, screaming about fonts and weaponry and horrible fashion sense. She pushed herself onward.
The wind was cold on her back...
The doors were ahead. She pushed, and they resisted, unwilling to give way to a pack of Editors. "It's me!" she hissed, and at last the doors opened, just enough to let her in before they slammed shut behind her.
Tildeworth let herself catch her breath as the fatigue in her legs ebbed away, and the background noise in her head faded. She was still here, still with all her stuff, leaning against the inner gates with a fresh breeze ruffling her hair. Only when she opened her eyes did she see what had happened.
The November Gardens had shut themselves out. Where there had once been fiery leafed trees lining paths that wound through the fields, now there were vines and brambles tipped with long thorns. She kept a tight grip on the pencil, and readjusted the plastic Viking helmet, the halo clattering against its side. "Still me," she said. "Come on..."
But the Gardens, willing as they might have been to let her inside, were less willing to let her pass, as if they knew what she was going to do.
"Look, I can't say this is going to work," she said. "But it's the only shot I've got, and besides, I had to walk out on a broadcast!"
A few of the vines twitched. Ragged clouds ran behind trees now stripped of their leaves, only stark black shapes against a red sky.
"You know Marni Woon's not here, don't you?" Tildeworth went on. "I don't know where she is, but she's not picking up her phone. And Macron Brevewin... I can't find him! He was the best frenemy I ever had! I mean, the Validator might still be around, but I've got no way of knowing. I sent it a text, but honestly I don't know how it even uses a phone! Anyway, I haven't heard back and I'm sure I wouldn't be able to read it if it did send me a text. I don't even know if I'd still have a phone!"
A few of the brambles pulled aside, revealing a little more stone underneath.
"So really, if you want something doing about all of this, I'm all you've got. And I did just leave my viewers hanging. I have to do something about that. And I promise you, this is the only time I'm going to pull this. Promise! And um. Um. Please?"
She took a step forward, and the vines and brambles dissipated. Not too much, not enough that she could avoid the odd scratch or trip. The Gardens weren't about to forget this. But she was allowed to pass.
Time played its tricks again, stretching and compressing with every step. The trees thinned out as it passed, the grass withering and fading. Onward and onward she walked, over a path that had turned into a trail through rock and dirt. The trees were pines now, all thin and underfed, and then they thinned out to nothing. Now all that surrounded her was rock and ice, and her breath was mist in the air.
She was reminded of what had become of Script Frenzy. It was the same empty wilds, inhabited only by small roaming bands of rebels. But there were no rebels here. She had been here only once before, and she was sure of that.
She walked on. There was no track now, only her memories to guide her.
The hours stretched on. She kept pace, not too fast, not too slow. Her feet ached, but she would not stop.
The first she saw of anything other than the empty land was the tower, reaching over the horizon, and she knew she was on the right track.
More features resolved themselves as she walked in. A main building chunks of street around it, as if someone had ripped out part of a town and set it down, which was, in a way, exactly what had happened.
She had walked these streets too many times, and each one was a memory calling her back. She could close her eyes and drift away and pretend that she was there now, but when she opened them, there was nothing more than desolation.
The metal tower loomed over her as she made it to the front door. A metal plaque, set beside it, told her where she was, as if she had ever needed to ask.
She had lost so much, back then. But it didn't matter, she kept telling herself. She had been through so much more. She had lived, and loved, and had friends.
There was a keypad on the other side of the door. Tildeworth punched in her code without thinking - U007E. Now was not the time to resent. Now was the time to breathe deeply, and to let her awareness expand, to cover this lost place, to let it run one more time...
Picture the scene now...
An abandoned reception, potted plants long gone, desks covered in dust, a place where time may as well not pass ever again, for who could say when day became night deep inside its depths?
Then a crack of light in the door, and it opens, letting in cold air and dislodging the stillness of years. The door is pushed open, dislodging piles of envelopes lying unanswered by its step, all from the same address in North Wales and all addressed to people who have never worked here.
A figure enters, wreathed by the tiniest, imperceptible light, visible only in the darkness that is now banished by the open door.
More lights come on. Circuits and computers that have lain dormant for years fire into life, all at one command. The faintly luminescent figure climbs the stairs, leaving a trail of electrical activity in her wake.
There is a recording booth on the top floor. The figure settles in, as comfortable today as they have always been, even if they aren't the same any more. A bank of instruments light up, and there is light all around, light everywhere.
She clears her throat again, and speaks.
"Hello viewers. Or should I say listeners. I suppose I owe you all an explanation, but those will come, you can be sure of that. But for now... as I was saying, before we were so rudely interrupted back there..."
"Should I give you this back?" said Rob the Rat. "It's not as if it's showing anything. Pity, really. You never get to watch a lot of television around here."
Pilcrowe's phone, which had displayed a clear picture of Tildeworth's flight from the Editor in her studio, now showed only a dead screen. She felt him slip it back into her coat pocket.
"I'm bored now," Rob went on, pouring himself another drink at the bar. "Almost regretting doing that. I mean, I had to do it. Can't have those personifications in the way, can we? But I'm a little regretful. Now I don't get to have any live coverage of the event."
"Yes, it is rather boring, I expect," said Pilcrowe. She continued to insist on not thinking. You just put all the bad thoughts on one side, and all the useful ones on the other, and listened to the useful side. It was easy on paper. In practice, the other side started pushing. She kept it down. There wasn't any time to feel bad about things now, not after all she'd seen and heard. Now was the time to think of something useful. But that, she could do almost automatically, her mind spinning the threads of reason in the background, and it left too much room for the bad things to creep in.
She was out of options, out of clever lines, and tired of looking unperturbed by everything, but she had one hope left. Rob hadn't left her side since he first pointed his gun, and neither had his friends, and that meant one possibility was still left.
There was a thud, on the door. Everyone looked up.
"Okay, I'm back. Now maybe you can explain - Oh. Okay then."
There, that was it.
"What are you doing here?" Rob snatched the gun and pushed aside his drink. "What are you holding that for?"
From her current position, it was a stretch to see the door, but if she tilted her head just right, she could see enough out of her glasses to watch as Random stepped inside, her red curls defying the rain, her white coat trailing behind her, and in her hands, the Travelling Shovel of Death, as docile as any old piece of gardening equipment she had ever seen.
At last, Pilcrowe allowed herself to smile. "I'm sorry Rob," she said, but it looks like you made a mistake. You see, your problem is that you are a villain. Normally that wouldn't be an issue. My dear Cedilla... she has always told me to never fear a villain, because they're just doing a job like the rest of us. But when you start to be a villain, there's your problem. You made a mistake, one that your own character type let you make. Do you know what it is?"
"He didn't check to see if I was really dead!" said Random, brandishing the Shovel.
"Exactly. Now if you'll excuse us all..."
"You shouldn't even be here!" snapped Rob, his gun pointed directly at Random. "How are you even touching it?"
Random shrugged. "Don't know. Hey, is someone going to explain to me what's going on? I only just got here and this wasn't exactly what I expected."
"I'll explain later," said Pilcrowe.
"That's not an answer!"
"Fine, then you're rescuing me."
Rob was shaking now, but his gun was still aimed at Random. "Put it down!" he hissed. "You don't know what you're doing!"
"I don't like people who tell me I don't know things," said Random, walking closer. "But that's the thing about being a scientist, I guess, not knowing things. But you know what the fun thing is about being a scientist? You can always find out!" She was holding the shovel ready to strike now, and though Rob could have fired and brought her down where she stood, he didn't pull the trigger. "Go on, shoot," she said. "I'm kind of interested in finding out what comes next. But look, I'm holding this thing and it's had a lot to say to me, you know? I guess if you shoot me, I'll die. But unless I'm really wrong all that'll happen is I'll come back here and I'll come back and get it, you know I will."
Random circled the scene until she stood behind Pilcrowe, who felt a tugging on the ropes. Rob was still poised to shoot, but the Shovel was safely tucked under Random's arm as she worked, and nobody wanted to come close. Even Pilcrowe could feel it calling... no, no, now was not the time. She focused on all that was around her, the ropes falling away, the trembling barrel before her. At last she was free, and Random stood beside her as she rubbed the blood back into her arms.
"Nice work," she whispered.
"Any time," replied Random.
"It'll still take you time to come back!" snapped Rob. "Don't think you're invincible!"
"Yeah, I don't. Just thought maybe we could do a little experiment here. I know you're pretty fast with a gun, but scientifically speaking, how long does it take to hit someone with a shovel?"
"You wouldn't dare. You know what would happen!"
"Yeah. But you can always use more evidence. Shall we do an experiment about that?"
Pilcrowe looked down at Random. She wanted to say something clever, and found that she had nothing. For once in her life, she had no idea of what was about to happen in the next second.
She was no scientist, either, but it wasn't too different from being a detective. They were both all about finding out how things happened, after all. But she was sure that, scientifically speaking, a shovel could not stop a bullet.
She was less sure about the force required to attempt to twist it out of someone else's hands, or the effort it would take for the first person to turn it and slam it, blade down, into the floor, as cracks spread from its point.
As for the falling and the white light, she knew nothing at all.