Random


Chapter 16: End Paragraph

And whether you're at 14,000 or 40,000 words, there's probably a part of you that's asking: Haven't I written enough already? - No Plot? No Problem!

 

Crouched behind the bar of the Warm Onion, Vicki watched as a pair of dragon winged kitten electricians swatted their paws at an old radio. She'd found it in the cellar, after persuading the people in hiding there that they badly needed it. A few other characters crowded around, watching.

"Aren't you the one who fought that Editor?" said one.

"Yes, but I don't make a career of it." Already Vicki had learnt that her stunt had still made it over the air, but without Tildeworth's influence, the bar television set showed dead air. She was under no impressions that the same wasn't true of every screen in the Nexus and beyond. The electricians were doing their best, but nobody in the Nexus had listened to the radio in years, and this set lay gutted on the floor, wires pointing every which way as the electricians swatted them into place with tiny needle clawed paws. One of them mewed and breathed a little jet of flame in frustration.

"I wish I could help," said Emma. "But I only do things with video. I wouldn't know where to start with this."

"It's okay," said Vicki. "I'm useless with anything that doesn't have a lens."

"Why don't you just go and claw at a few more of those things?" said someone from the audience. "That worked better than this!"

"Quiet, t'lot whole bloody lot of you!" snapped Jeff. "Tha'll be talking different when t'radio's working!"

And then: "I am hiding under the bar because I can hide with my friends!"

Vicki looked up. From under the bar she saw a slobbering tongue set in a face fixed in a permanent doggy grin. A pair of tricoloured wings fanned out, and the beagle leapt into the air, to hover in front of the watching crowd. "Are you being mean to my friends?" he said. "You should not be mean to my friends! That way you can't be my friends, and I don't want to not be friends with you!"

"...Kevin?" Vicki exclaimed.

"Hello!" Kevin landed by her side, and gave her a big slobbery lick on the cheek. "These people were saying mean things to you, so I told them not to, because you are my friend!"

"Er... yes. Yes, you're my friend, sure!" Vicki shook her head and tried to smooth down her fur. "I mean, I've never met you before, but Tildeworth told me all about you... aren't you with the Pep Talker?"

"My food friend is gone," said Kevin, and his head and wings drooped. "The Editors came. I wanted to be friends with them too, but he said they weren't friends and I should run away. Now I am sad. But I have more friends here!"

"Sure. Hey, Kevin, aren't you a sound engineer?" She pointed a paw at the radio. "Could you fix this?"

"Yes!" Kevin said, "I will fix the sound box!"

He dove upon the radio, tail wagging, pawing and chewing. It didn't look like fixing to Vicki, more the opposite, but she sat back anyway, even when she wondered if she'd made the right decision. The electricians sat beside her, huddled under her wings, letting out little snorts of embers.

Nobody said anything. If Kevin was good at one thing, it was making people shut up. Nobody wanted to disappoint him.

The radio crackled. Vicki fluffed her wings.

"...listen, we have made mistakes. We have done so much. But perhaps in some ways we have not done enough."

"Cedilla?" Vicki exclaimed.

"I fixed it!" Kevin started prancing around the radio. "My voice friend is in the sound box!"

"But listen, everyone. We can do better than this, can't we? We made mistakes, didn't we? Well, can't we fix them? Isn't that the point of mistakes? Do we all walk into our novels every November expecting perfection? No! No we do not! We are terrible! Our stories are dreadful! We fall down plot holes, often literally! But that is not the point! What doesn't matter is how good the story is. What matters is that we are all there when the stories need us.

"Listen... I don't know what is happening right now. I am trying to find out, but as I'm stuck in a... ahem&... top secret location right now, which I am not at liberty to disclose thanks to very strict rules laid down by... well, myself. But you all have my phone number, don't you? So please call, or text, or try to get a message through with a couple of tin cans and a bit of string if you want! Please, please let me know you're there!"

Immediately, all around the Warm Onion's bar, phones came out of pockets, people texting quick messages to the station, all the people Tildeworth had met once or twice and given her number to, because basically, when it came to friendship, she was just a more intelligent version of Kevin. Even Emma was texting, quite a feat for someone with flippers.

"Hey, Kevin!" said Vicki. "Do you want to make more friends?"

Kevin's ears perked up as far as they would, his brow furrowing with intense interest. "More friends? More sound boxes?"

"Yeah, all the sound boxes! Come on, let's go!"

She touched the radio with her nose on one of the bits Kevin hadn't maimed. Turn on the radios, Tildeworth had said. And now, with the best sound engineer in the Nexus, they could do just that.


Pilcrowe was walking, walking through a white void.

There were no walls, no floor or ceiling. Her feet paced over a formless plane. Here there was no beginning or end.

Random walked by her side, still holding the Shovel. Pilcrowe was glad it was on the opposite side. She'd heard enough earlier, she didn't want to listen to any more. Not now, not ever. She only wanted to walk.

"What is this place?" Random said.

"I don't know," said Pilcrowe.

Dark shapes floated around them, like comets in an inverted night sky. They drifted and swayed in breezes that Pilcrowe could not feel, and there was no end to them.

She looked closer, and saw that it was a word, in perfect serif font, floating in mid-air by her side. Murder, it said.

"They're all words."

She remembered the flash and the noise and the sharp smell of a gun going off. She remembered Random, leaping forward. She remembered an impossible deflection, and the Shovel coming to rest with its blade slammed into the floor. Then there had been the cracks, long snaking things winding over the floor, and from each one emanated a light that flooded her eyes.

And after all that she was walking, as if she had never done a single other thing all her life. Something was about to happen. Something was always about to happen. But it never did, not anymore. Nothing would happen, ever again. All was still, and silent, and the world was empty.

"That one's your name," said Random.

She looked where her client was pointing. There it was, Pilcrowe, as if a page had been torn and scattered to the wind.

The invisible wheels inside her mind turned, and clicked.

"This is the text," she said.

"Text?"

"It has to exist somewhere. Stories are written down. It makes sense that there's such a thing as the text."

She touched the word. It resisted a tiny bit and then drifted away at her push, floating over and over until it bumped into another. They repelled like magnets and came to a standstill.

"You mean... we've discovered something nobody's ever seen before?" Random too was playing with the words, observing how they moved and interacted.

"That would seem to be the situation, yes."

"Cool! We've discovered something! But... wait, what's going on? I went back there and there was all this stuff with these Inner Editors all over the place and... Tildeworth!" The world was coming back to her now, just as it had to Pilcrowe, no doubt. "Oh crap, I tried turning her show on and there was nothing and I was going to tell you!"

Pilcrowe's hand slipped inside her pocket, feeling the cool, smooth shape of her phone. "I know," she said.

"Oh... crap, Sue. I'm sorry."

"You don't need to be. We've got that." She pointed to the Shovel in Random's hand, its tip trailing against what, for lack of a better term, she thought of as the floor. "I don't think he can do as much harm without it."

"Yeah, I, um... " Random held it up, turning it over. Pilcrowe chanced a look at its pitted, black iron surface. "If you don't mind me asking, what's happening here? What's with all the Editors?"

Ah, a question. Pilcrowe liked questions. She could answer them, and she didn't have to think too hard about the messy things in life. Everything was so much easier when there were questions to answer.

"They're linked, yes," she said. "It was easy enough to unravel, once I'd spoken to him, and I had plenty of time to do just that." She wasn't even sure if she was talking to Random any more, or if she was just giving out a monologue to the void. "When you're tied up like you're a turkey with a major winter celebration looming over the horizon, you get a lot of chances to think. He's modified the Shovel. Don't know how he did it, but he's had the time. I'm guessing he made a deal with the Editors. Or maybe he threatened them. Fine line, between deals and threats."

"It's a threat," Random said, rubbing her fingers over the Shovel's handle. "I know. It... told me."

"I imagine so. He threatens the Editors, makes his deal with them. They swarm everything. The Nexus, the novels, everywhere. Stories grind to a halt. Nobody dares do a thing because nobody thinks they're good enough. There's no stories, ever again, because everyone's too afraid to even begin."

"But why?"

"Same reason everyone does things like that. Revenge. He was always one for flashy plots, was Rob the Rat. Led me in circles over that one murder. I'm guessing he thinks if nothing happened to him, then nothing ought to happen to everyone else. Suppose I understand his reasoning, even if I wish I didn't."

"I'm sorry. Really, I... I am. I... the last time I was there and I found the shovel, that's when I found out they were all gone. Neo and all of them..."

"I'm sorry too." How was she supposed to be genuine? She felt it, deep inside, but her voice was flat, her face blank. Tildeworth could have told, but Tildeworth was so good at those things, and she... no, no no, she was not going to think of Tildeworth now, she was not... "I promised I'd find him."

"It's okay. It's not your fault."

They walked on, through the endless waiting words.

"Sue?"

"Yes?"

"You wouldn't happen to know how to get out of here?"

"No."

"I thought you were going to say that."

They walked on some more.

"You know, given the average human neurological make up, we've probably walked in a spiral now," said Random. "And my feet are hurting. Do you think we can sit down on this... whatever it is?"

It was like sitting on a very smooth floor, so smooth that you could barely feel it. It was neither hot, not cold. It was simply there. They sat cross legged, side by side, the Shovel laid out by Random's feet. It wasn't too close, not so close it could listen in to all her regret and fears, and yet... "How did you touch it?" Pilcrowe said.

"I don't know. The first time I tried, that was when... that was when it talked. But the second time, I don't know. I think Neo wouldn't have wanted me to just stop, you know? But at the same time, even if it weren't for him, I think it's a stupid idea to do nothing when you could do something. Er. Unless it's got anything to do with unleashing murderous gardening equipment all over the place. Then you probably should do nothing instead. But not if you can do something good, I mean."

"I think I grasped that, yes."

"I mean, what's different to you and him is you don't do those things, yeah?"

"I might have considered it, but only as a passing thought."

"Close enough."

There was silence for a little while longer, as Pilcrowe asked herself why she was allowed to talk to anyone, ever.

"Look, I er... I'm sorry about Tildeworth. She was so nice, and..."

"She ran. She might still be somewhere."

"I hope so." Random hugged her knees.

I don't like hoping, Pilcrowe thought. Perhaps it would be better to be in Random's shoes, knowing what had happened, but she wasn't about to say it. That was what tact was meant to be, wasn't it?

But she could feel the phone by her side, and she pulled it out, gazing at the glossy black screen. "She called. Called while I was having that chat up there with Rob. Never got to pick up, because it's rude to do that when you're in the middle of a conversation with someone you haven't seen in years. It's also a bit hard to answer the phone when you're tied up. But I know it was her. Nobody else rings that long. And she left me a message."

Her long fingers slid open the screen, and hovered over the voicemail icon. It must have been very important. But that was just like her, wasn't it? Everything was very important, to Tildeworth.

"If you need some space, I can go away." Random got to her feet, and picked up the Shovel. "I mean, if you wanted to listen. Er, I don't know where there is to go, but I could try and leave you alone?"

Pilcrowe's finger hovered over the icon. She looked up, and Random's back was turned.

"Wait!" she said.

Random looked back.

"Don't go. Please."

Random, for all the love of Chris Baty himself, didn't ask questions.

"It's okay," Pilcrowe said, when the message was all over. "I knew what she'd say."

"It's not weasels, you know," said Random.

"What?"

"That coffee thing. They're not weasels. They're civets."

"Aren't those the same thing?"

"No! They're completely different branches of Carnivora! Also, ew. Also, um. Er."

"It's okay," said Pilcrowe. "She shouldn't have been there. She should have gone to sleep. But she wouldn't ever miss a show, not for anything."

She'd promised herself she wouldn't think of Tildeworth. It was so much easier not to. Caring hurt. But she couldn't not care, not now. Not after it all came back in one crashing heap in her head, breaking down the barriers, shattering the fragile wheels of thought that turned, day and night, in search of answers. There were no answers now. The case was closed, and it had gone on without her.

She shut it away, when Rob showed her the live broadcast, pretended it was all a game, that it wasn't Tildeworth on screen, not really. All so he wouldn't see, because she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing. But now, there was nobody but Random, and... and it didn't matter if she saw. Her head was in her hands, her glasses pushed up over her forehead, her thick black hair cascading over her face and her long fingers rubbing her eyes.

"I wasn't even there," she said. "I was too busy being clever!"

It was her Cedilla on screen, nobody else, and she had been terrified, determined but so very afraid, so very tired. How could she not feel anything anymore? She hadn't been there for her. She hadn't even been there for Random.

Her fingers were wet. She ignored them. Cedilla might be out there now, but equally, she might not, and there was nothing Pilcrowe could do to deduce things either way. Even the absolute certainty of the worst possible outcome, such as had been imparted to Random, had to be better than this.

What would happen if she were to touch the Shovel? She opened her eyes, looked down at the innocuous dark shape by her clie- no, by Random's feet. She wasn't her client any more, she'd stopped being that the moment she found out. What would it tell her? What would it see in her?

But Random knew what she was doing, and Pilcrowe immediately felt a hand on her shoulder, pushing her back. "No. It's not going to help. It never touched her."

"Then make it stop!"

"Uh ...I don't know if I can?"

"Then..." Pilcrowe was sitting in a crouch, her hands in fists, nails digging into her palms, her long brown coat draped in a heap behind her. "Talk to me, then!"

"What about?"

"Anything! I don't care! Tell me about... tell me about that friend of yours, that one I was supposed to find. I never knew anything about him. Or something else if you don't want to talk about him! Just talk about something!"

"Neo?"

"Yes."

"You sure?"

"I need something to listen to."

"Okay, I'll try." Random sat back down, taking up her cross legged position again, and scooting the Shovel a little further away. "There's so much. You ever had a friend you really looked up to? Someone you wanted to be just like? That was him. Neither of us had been around for really long. He was so cool, and funny, and loud. I think a lot of people thought that was annoying. Not sure if you'd ever have liked him. Actually, you'd probably have ended up shouting at one another... uh, that's not much help, is it?"

"No," said Pilcrowe, "please, keep going."

"He was my best friend, that was why we ended up moving in together. We always said when we'd find a novel, we'd go in together. Well, I guess we did that. Hhe was like... like my brother or something. I mean, I've never been written with a brother, but I guess that's how it felt to have one. And we didn't think it mattered so much that we weren't written to be related. I mean, that's not so important, is it?

"What was so great about him was that didn't matter what happened to him. He'd always come back, smiling or laughing, and he'd have another go. Nothing stopped him. Nothing, except... well, you know.

"This was going to be our first NaNo and we knew there had to be a story for us somewhere. There were people off at Camp in July, and meanwhile we were trying to get a novel for November, because we wanted something really special. Anyway, I went in the first few thinking 'this is great, we're going to get a story together,' and we didn't. I got really discouraged, started thinking maybe it was better to not keep going, but I did, because well, that was what he'd do.

"I didn't know how he did it, how he kept smiling and throwing himself in every day. So I asked him how he never let anything get to him, when every day he had to to go back in there and face another rejection slip.

So he said to me... he said it was because of me. Because he was scared, and he didn't think it was worth going again, and he was shouting and laughing and telling stupid jokes just to keep on going. But he did, anyway, because he'd look at me, and he'd think, 'well, she keeps on going. And when November comes, she'll get into a novel and she'll keep on going until she hits the finish line and I don't want to disappoint her.'

"After that, I don't know what he'd have made of me walking out and not finishing that novel. But I think he'd have understood."

"Yes," Pilcrowe said. If truth be told then yes, Neo would probably have annoyed her so much she'd have personally hit herself over the head with the Shovel rather than be in a room with him. But that didn't matter. What mattered was that the flood of thoughts had subsided. The guilt was still there, the fear and the pain, but it was quieter now, no longer crashing over her thoughts. It would be a long time before it went away, but... well, she had all the time in the world now.

No, she wasn't going to think of that. There would be a way out. One of them was bound to find it. It was, as always, a matter of letting the pieces fall into place.

"Do you mind if I talk too?" she said. "About Cedilla. I suppose you've heard the story so many times before... Chris Baty knows she never shut... shuts up about me."

"Will it help?"

"Can't see how it's going to hurt."

"Go on, then. I've never heard it from your side."

Nobody has, Pilcrowe thought. But someone might as well. "You know how I left that novel," she said. "Though I suppose it's this novel now. Well now, I told you all about that. I left, and came back to the Nexus.

"You have to understand, it had been a long time. I'm hardly one of the ninety nine crowd, but when they wrote my novel, the Nexus was small. Not a city, not like you see it now. Just a town, really. Used to crash and freeze over a whole lot too, every November, when everyone tried to start at once and it couldn't handle the pressure. Cedilla probably talked about that. She's not been around as long as me, but she's lived through a few crashes herself.

When I came back, walked into a city. I thought I was going home, turns out I couldn't. So I went to Foreshadow City instead. Somewhere that was like what I lost.

"That was where I started my agency. I wasn't in a story any more, and I didn't know if I ever wanted to be, and to tell you the truth, I still don't know. But I thought, maybe there's things in the Nexus need looking into, and the Nexus needs someone to do it. Could sit at my desk, listen to the rain, compose monologues in my head for when someone walked in, you know the sort."

"Yeah, like with me."

"Yes. The first night I was setting up shop and I didn't have much to do. But there was this old radio in the back room, so I turned it on. And there was Cedilla, talking away."

"Tildeworth did radio?"

"You didn't know... Of course, the young ones never do. Can't say I blame you; she doesn't talk about it these days. Not because of any bad experiences, don't go thinking of that. She loved that old show of hers. Wrimo Radio, it was called. Every night, she'd come on and talk about anything, everything. Not so different to today. You could hear it every time she spoke, that little station was her life. And then...

Well, when I tuned in that night, it was her last show. The station was closing down. They were moving on to television, so she wasn't in any danger. Couldn't have been, not with her being the Personification of Communications, she'd never really go away. Sometimes you can hear someone's life in a voice, and it wasn't hard there.

"So I sat there and I listened to her talk about it, and I... thought. I think a lot. Thinking is an important part of being a detective. But I was thinking about things that didn't have anything to do with finding out who committed the murder.

"The day after I brought in a television set. Nothing special, just an old black and white thing. I had to keep the look going. She always moved funny in those days, and I don't mean the picture. It was like she wasn't used to her body or something.

"I kept watching. Didn't think anything of it. She was just another lost person, and when you look deep down, everyone's lost.

"A few weeks after, I thought I should get myself out of Foreshadow City. Didn't want to. But there was all this talk about this new place that had just opened, the Warm Onion, you know the one. I thought at the very least, I could drum up a little business if I sat in the corner and drank to keep up the look. She was there, at the bar. She looked at me, just once. I knew it was her. Nobody else would wear shirts like that. They look bad enough in black and white, never mind seeing them in full colour like that. Then she had her back to me, and she was talking to her friend, that Vicki Smith... you know, the cat? I didn't know what they were saying, only it sounded urgent.

"Then she gets up off the bar stool, all slowly, like she doesn't have a clue what she's doing, and turns around, and next thing I know, she's walking up to me, and I remember what she said when she reached my table. 'I love you,' she said, 'and by that I mean hello.'

"You're looking at me with your eyes doing that thing now. That thing where they look like they're going to fall out of your face. Don't do that, I'm not clearing up the mess. I know what you're thinking. I was thinking the same. I know she makes friends with everyone in the immediate radius, but that's not the point. I'm not saying there wasn't something on my side of things. But I'm also not saying there was anything else. Only that I'd heard her, and seen her, and thought that person, that's someone I might have something in common with. But for her to do that? Couldn't have been real.

"I didn't know Cedilla, in those days. Not as a person, anyway, just as someone on the TV. I thought it was a wind-up. I talked anyway - didn't want to storm out just like that - and acted like it was the most normal thing in the world, but I didn't say anything about what I was thinking. I went back to Foreshadow City and I turned the television back on.

"And there she was, talking about how she'd had this conversation with the most fascinating person she'd ever met, and I thought...

"Well, if truth be told, I thought it was an even bigger wind up. But it turns out that when Cedilla Tildeworth walks up to you and says she loves you, she's being more honest than she has been in her life. And she's always been a damn honest type.

"Took me a long time, but I decided to trust her. And I suppose it worked. Look, if there's one thing I've learnt it's that no matter what stories say, falling in love doesn't solve all your problems forever. But I'd never have traded her for anything. Never deserved someone like Cedilla, but she thought I did."

"I thought she was exaggerating. No wonder you thought she was having you on."

Pilcrowe shrugged. "It's a broadcaster thing. Best not to ask."

But Random wasn't looking at her any more. Instead, she seemed focused on a point just behind Pilcrowe's head, "Uh, Sue, the words..."

"What about them?"

"I think you should look."

The words, which before had drifted aimlessly in meaningless currents, now clustered around her like a cloud of birds drawn by her voice. "They didn't do that for you."

She touched one of them, took it in her hands. It didn't resist. It felt near weightless in her palm, held only by the force of her loose grip, the serifs pressing gently into her skin.

She plucked another word from my butt, and held it close. Just as before, it felt like pressing magnets together, but this time they didn't repel, and when she let go, they hovered together as one.

"This is how we get out!" Pilcrowe spun in place, her arms outstretched, her coat billowing and swirling around her, and gestured toward the floating phrase. "We write the novel!"

"Yes!"

"There were only five thousand words left," Pilcrowe said, turning back and studying the cloud for the next word. "I can put together five thousand of these. I know everything that was going to happen, I only have to reveal that Rob did it. And after that... after that I admit I don't know what comes next, but I'll figure that out later." She slotted another word in, and another.

For years, something had been about to happen. And now, it would.