Chapter 17: The Shovelbearer
Once you've diagnosed yourself with this affliction, don't fight it. Embrace it. After all, you're a novelist, and we novelists have to uphold our longstanding reputation as a crazy bunch. - No Plot? No Problem!
"And the point is... the point is that I will talk all night and all of the next morning if I have to! I will, you know. I have coffee. I don't even like coffee. But I have it!
"If you can hear me, pass on the words. If you are in a novel, keep going. If you are in the Nexus, and there is an Editor close by, and statistically speaking I am sorry to say that this is probably the case from what I have heard on my phone... on the occasion I'm actually able to read these texts before the next one comes in, but don't feel bad because I love to hear from you and I know you're all trying to help, and anyway we all have infinite battery life anyway unless the plot gets in the way, so don't worry about that. Also that tapping noise you hear in the background is me updating the blog. I didn't want to neglect the rest of my duties, and you all know I'm not just a voice, right? Oh dear, people, you should never do radio, by the way. People will never stop arguing about what you look like, it's dreadful. It was quite a relief when I finally settled upon a form after going into television, but that's another story. Don't mind the typing. My hands are free, and I wouldn't be much of a Personification Of Communications if I couldn't talk and type at the same time! No, I would not.
"Anyway. I thought that I might test a little something out. If there are any of those statistically likely Editors listening, I'd like to give you all a big warm hello! Now stick with me, my story gets better. What do you think of my voice? We got on so well when we met, remember that little thing with the Comic Sans? Wasn't that funny? I'd forgotten I could do that! It's been so long since I tried something like that, so I thought I'd have a little go at some more. Let's call it a bonding experience, hmm?
"Now let's see what I can do. I know I'm quite good at italics! What do you think of a little extra bold added on to that? Ooh, that tickles! How about with underline? Oh, this is so much fun! It's like a nice party, isn't it? A nice party with friends, and things we thought we had lost but perhaps had not? AREN'T THOSE THE BEST SORT OF PARTIES?"
When it all came down to the end, writing was nothing more than a case of putting one word in front of the other.
Pilcrowe knew all about characters taking over. She'd done so more than a few times herself. The story tugged one way, the characters pulled in the opposite direction, and more often than not the characters would win. But nobody had ever gone in, word by word, and taken the story by the hands
She wrote on. It couldn't be hard, could it? All she had to do was keep putting words together. From the cloud came order and the story shaped itself as she pieced together her adventures.
But was that line of dialogue something she would say?
And endings were hard, weren't they? That was why so few stories ever won. It was easy to begin, but not so easy to finish. It took a very, very good writer indeed to do a proper ending.
And it had been so long, hadn't it? She had to do this story justice, to give it the end that it deserved, not something thrown together as a means to an end.
There was a cold sensation at the back of her neck...
She whirled around. Random was standing with her back to her, the Shovel pointed outward, pacing back and forth in a semicircle. And beyond...
They were faint, but they could go anywhere to whisper their hindering words. They were shimmering forms, visible only as a disjointed boundary between the background text and their selves, come to feed on the fat of the story being written before them.
"Hypothesis," said Random. "These guys are terrified of the Travelling Shovel of Death. Go on!" She thrust it, and the nearest forms retreated from the blade. "Yeah! You don't like that, do you? Sue, get moving!"
Pilcrowe turned back to the words, slotting them all together with a speed she'd never imagined she was capable of. It didn't matter what she wrote. It didn't have to be good. It didn't have to make sense. It just had to exist.
The words were a flurry around her as she forged on, ignoring the pain and the guilt and the grammatical nonsense. All around her Random thrust the Shovel, yelling dramatic lines at the Editors that threatened to feast upon her.
It wasn't all that bad. It wasn't good, either. It certainly wasn't perfect. But it worked. It was like that beautiful moment when a case came together. The Editors had no power! This story meant something!
But she was flagging, and Random's weaves and thrusts were a touch less dramatic. But it didn't matter. She had a thousand words left. Five hundred... one hundred...
Her hands closed on a THE and an END, and placed them together.
She sank to her knees, and stared at the quite literal wall of text in front of her.
The Editors had vanished, driven off by the Shovel and a completed novel. There was nothing for them to feed on now. But Pilcrowe and Random were not alone.
She'd felt this presence before, long ago. You didn't see it, but you knew it was there. You could feel it, close by, something old and vast and far beyond your understanding, and also rather fond of cupcakes.
There was a tingling on her tongue, a flavour that was also a colour.
It tasted an awful lot like purple.
"And now, a word from out sponsors. Who don't actually exist, because of course we are all fictional characters and as such do not have an economy, but that won't stop us. Good luck puzzling that one out!"
A few lights dimmed, and Tildeworth stood up as the prerecorded messages took over. She could definitely use a bit more coffee.
But first she checked her laptop, still sitting open on the desk in front of her. It still displayed her latest blog post, still racking up the comments. She should reply to them, or drop in a message to say she was still here. But the icon tray was flashing, and it hadn't been doing that a few minutes ago.
She clicked it, and steadied herself against the desk. Her limbs were heavy. She swung back and forth, one moment exhausted, the next awake, one moment calm and one moment shaking from the effects of enough coffee to set a blue whale flapping off into the sky... or to make her think of that metaphor, come to think of it.
There was a signal.
This was going to take time. Good thing for the imaginary sponsors, then. With the halo swinging from the Viking helmet still perched on to of her head, she closed the laptop, tucked it under her arm, and stepped out of the booth.
She left her phone behind, so she didn't hear the whine as it made sounds that it should never have been capable of, but as it soon veered off the limits of human hearing it didn't really matter in the end.
"Did you feel that?" said Pilcrowe.
"I don't know, not my novel! What did it taste like?"
"Purple. Definitely purple."
"I did hear a rumour they were going to open validation early this year but... what, purple? You won?"
"Evidently I did."
"You won! Sue, you won!" Random placed the Shovel aside and snatched Pilcrowe around the waist, leaving her arms flailing as they tried to remember how to respond to a hug.
"No!" she protested. "No hugs! I don't do hugs!"
"But you won! Er. Now what?"
"Good question, and the reason I wasn't going to celebrate too early," Pilcrowe said, disentangling herself from Random's grasp. The other reason, though she didn't say it, was that she didn't know how she was supposed to feel. This was the moment she felt she had been cheated of all her life, and yet...
"Random, your chest is flashing. It's very distracting. Stop it."
"I didn't mean to - wait, what's this?" Random lifted up the shovel detector from her chest, where its screen had been flashing. The light was pale pink, vivid against her white coat and clashing awfully with her red hair. "I didn't program it to be pink- hey! What are you doing?" She tapped frantically at the screen, while, not having any idea what was going on, Pilcrowe left her to it. She'd just finished a novel. She could afford to let other people do the work for a while.
The detector was shaking in Random's hands as if it had a mind of its own, and Pilcrowe was just starting to wonder if, perhaps, she should do something to help after all, when Random pointed it at a blank space, well away from her or the text wall.
"Okay," Random said. "I'm pretty sure it isn't supposed to do portals."
There was indeed a portal before them now, the same pink as the light that had shone from the detector's screen. It hovered in mid-air at just the right height to step through, its sides shimmering, its centre vibrant bands of pink and white. Pilcrowe circled it and it vanished, as she looked at it from behind. On walking back to the start again, it reappeared in front of her.
Random was already investigating, pushing a clumped portion of her lab coat through. It came back unharmed. "Nothing else to do around here," she said. "You coming through?"
She vanished into the portal, and Pilcrowe, out of a lack of anything better to do, followed. There was a flash of bright light, and a cool breeze on her skin, not the cold dread of an Editor's touch, but the refreshing sensation of a fan on a hot day.
And then, darkness. No, not darkness... less light than before, but still enough to see by. Lights illuminating surfaces, tables and chairs, covered with the dust of ages. A speaker in the ceiling, pumping out a long and rambling commercial for packaging materials. And in front of her...
Tildeworth was standing there, her Tildeworth, just as she was when she'd fled the studio... no, not quite. But, then again, there was probably a very good explanation for the breastplate. Or the Viking helmet, with a gleaming halo hanging at an angle from one of the horns. Or the giant pencil propped up by her side. The rest, she wasn't so sure about. She took a step forward, her whole body trembling. "Ce... Cedilla?"
"Sue? What's wrong?"
"I am fairly sure," she said, with all the certainty that she could muster, "that you are not usually luminescent."
"This?" Tildeworth lifted her hand, outlined with the faintest of yellow lights. "Oh, this! Do you... do you like it? I think it might be my second wind. I don't know if you're supposed to be able to see it, but-"
She didn't have time to finish. Pilcrowe snatched her up in a hug, resting her chin on the shorter woman's head, nestled between the horns on her helmet. Her hands stroked her cheeks, ran through her hair and twisted their fingers around the strands. Tildeworth did likewise, digging into Pilcrowe's thick black hair, leaving little kisses all around her neck and collarbone. Pilcrowe let the seconds drag out, looking away only to give Random, who was standing to one side, a don't you dare say anything clever about this sort of look. Then she closed her eyes, let herself breathe deeply, let herself relax after realising, for the first time tonight, how tense she had been.
She didn't want to move. She wanted to stand here with Tildeworth stroking her hair all day, and forget about the tiredness and the Editors and the Shovel and everything else. But circumstances got in the way, and Tildeworth stepped back. "I'm glad you like it," she said.
"It's different. Like a lot of other things about you."
Random, meanwhile, had taken to exploring the room. "Not to put a damper on the reunion," she said, "but what is this place, and why does it want me to buy packing peanuts?"
"Wrimo Radio," said Pilcrowe.
It was a guess. But she was very good at making guesses.
They were a break room. Chairs and tables scattered around, all worn upholstery and coffee stains, the odd vending machine.
"Yeeesss," said Tildeworth. "Look, I'd say if anyone asks, you were never here, but I also think all of the Nexus knows I'm here now if the texts I keep getting are anything to go by. But if anyone asks, you were still never here, okay? This is... not something that the Editors need to know about. At least they don't know where it is. Look, I need to make this quick, okay? Love to stay, but the ad's about to end, and when it does I'm needed back up there. I'll be back but... wait up on me, okay? I need to keep on talking."
"But-" Pilcrowe said.
"I'm sorry." Tildeworth picked up the laptop, which had been on the table alongside the now faded portal, and tucked it under her arms before turning to go. "Only that... I've never been more sincere when I say I'll explain later."
"And on line one, we have Tim! Welcome to the show, Tim. Well, this isn't really line one, it's just my phone, and there's only the one line anyway, but nevertheless, you made it in! Welcome!
"Thankyou," said the unseen Tim.
"Shall we begin?"
"Very well. According to the Baty Revisionist Rules, the challenger moves first. Your move."
"Ooh, daring... Piccadilly Circus."
Random didn't know a lot of things, so why Tildeworth and her latest caller were now shouting out tube stations and referring to arcane and convoluted rule sets she did not know, but it wasn't a big piece of the puzzle so she let it slide.
She was sitting in the break room after brushing away the worst of the dust from the old seats that wrapped around the wall. A coffee would be nice about now, but she wasn't going to take her chances with the vending machine. The Travelling Shovel of Death sat propped up by th seat next to her. It hadn't been a bother so far.
"I think this is starting to make sense." Pilcrowe said.
"Good, that makes one of us," said Random.
"Cedilla could never stand to throw anything away that might be useful," said Pilcrowe. She was smiling. The effect was a little disturbing, but Random supposed it was only down to a lack of experience. "It would seem that such hoarding behaviour extends to objects such as radio stations. Even after all these years, she still surprises me."
She got out of her seat as she spoke, pacing up and down the break room.
"I thought you said Wrimo Radio was closed down?"
"It was," said Pilcrowe, "but what did I just say? What if there was some way for her to keep this building safe until further use, or a copy of it, or to... create an unauthorised backup? Hmm. I suppose I should be angry at her for that, but I'm too impressed. Now the question of where we are outside of the station, that will have to wait a little longer."
"Mornington Crescent!" exclaimed Tildeworth's voice.
"That, on the other hand," said Pilcrowe, "I have no explanation for whatsoever."
"Thank you Tim, thank you very much. I hope you all enjoyed that," Tildeworth went on. "I hope, especially, that our Editor friends enjoyed that. I know how much you love puzzling out things that make no sense! That should keep you occupied for a while. I really, really hope you have lots and lots of fun!
"But listeners, perhaps you'd like a little variety in your lives? You can't just listen to me talk, much as I'm sure you'd love to hear my voice all day. Or is it night? I believe it may be night. I've been in here a while, now. If anyone could see fit to enlighten me, please do. The thing about recording booths is that they don't have windows. Well, okay, they do. I'm looking at a rather large one right now, but it doesn't open up onto the sky. I can't see what time it is by looking out onto the corridor outside. Well, I could if there was a clock there, but there isn't one, so that's that out, then.
"Anyway, to break up the monotony, you'd like a little music? I know just the thing."
And with that, Tildeworth's voice faded away to be replaced with the opening notes of the Birdie Song.
"And I have nothing on this," said Pilcrowe.
"To be honest," said Random, "I'd be worried if you did."
But now there were footsteps in the corridor outside, and Tildeworth walked back in, still carrying her assortment of oddities. "Hello," she said. "Okay, now I have a little time to myself, how would you like to go on an epic quest to save all of NaNoWriMo?"
"I suspect," said Pilcrowe, "that no matter what we say, we are going to do it. Thankfully I don't mind when it's you doing the asking."
"I kind of don't mind whoever's asking," said Random. Her fingers curled around the Travelling Shovel of Death's handle. "I'm in."
"Good," said Tildeworth, giant pencil in her hands like some ancient guardian of literature, which in some respects was an entirely accurate description. "Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once. Well, okay, I'll repeat stuff if you need me to. I just wanted to say that."
"Okay, bring it," said Random.
Tildeworth's brow furrowed. "What, exactly, is going on here?"
"I kind of thought you knew," said Random.
"Goodness, no," Tildeworth said. "I know that the Nexus is overrun by a swarm of Inner Editors, and that they may be infiltrating the library to spread to the greater novelscape. I also know that you two have been tracing the Travelling Shovel of Death, and that I managed to..." at this point she lapsed into words that Random didn't understand, before continuing... "so it was quite simple to create a portal between here and there to ascertain your location. I also know that you're holding the Travelling Shovel of Death and I have no idea how you're pulling that off. I'm not quite certain how they all link together. I'm just a reporter. What do I know about facts?"
"It transpires," said Pilcrowe, "that my former co-star has modified the Shovel so that it is capable of actually killing its victims in such a way that they do not come back - that is to say, that they are dead dead, that is to say that they are not still here. He is using the Shovel in turn to command the Inner Editors so as to get revenge over the fact that his... that is to say, our... novel was left unfinished."
There was a long pause, as Tildeworth processed the news. In the background, over the ceiling mounted speakers, the Birdie Song segued into the Macarena.
At last, Tildeworth spoke. "What an utter arse!"
Random, who was at least well acquainted with Tildeworth's televised work if not all of her personal life (those parts of it that didn't end up broadcast to anyone who might happen to tune in, that is), had the strange feeling that she had just witnessed the patented Cedilla D. Tildeworth equivalent of an f-bomb.
"Well," Tildeworth said, her fingers drumming on the oversized pencil, "it seems, then, that it is obvious what we have to do."
"What?" said Random.
Tildeworth stood firm. "We must destroy the Travelling Shovel of Death."
"What?" Random's hands closed in around the black iron handle. "But I... look, I'm not attached to it or anything. It did kill a lot of people. And one of them was my best friend. But I had to fight off Editors and this thing worked!"
"Of course it works," said Tildeworth, "And that is exactly why you have to destroy it."
"I'm waiting," said Pilcrowe.
"Well for starters, because you don't need it," said Tildeworth. "I'm doing quite a good job on my own. You see, what I found out was that they're scared of me!"
"Because, no doubt, of that ridiculous get-up," said Pilcrowe.
"Exactly! Editors are a bit of a contradiction, you see. They hate this sort of nonsense." Tildeworth tapped the halo hanging from the helmet's horn. "They can't help go after you like this, because all they want is to go around talking about how ridiculous you look, and how that pencil is a terrible choice of a weapon, and how Vikings never even had horns on their helmets. As if anyone cared." She let out a derisive snort. "But that's the thing! If you believe in yourself and you tell them to... well, to arse off, then they will. An Editor's no match for someone who's happy with themselves. Have you heard what I can do with my voice? They hate it! I can do this or this, or if I want to bring it up further I can even do this and this! And if I really, really want to drive them nuts, we're talking really, severely round the bend here, on those really rare and special occasions, I cAn Do SoMeThInG lIkE tHiS. But not too much. It hurts my throat.
"But they're still attacking, and that was what I didn't understand. If we fight back, if we all work together and stand up to them, we can see them all off. And they know that! So I was very confused, because if it was possible for them to invade like this, then why don't they do it every year? You've just given me the answer. They're attacking because if that thing gets to them, then they're worse off than what happens if we get to them. They're scared."
"Great, so we can invite them to a support group," said Random, holding up the Shovel. "So what about this? We destroy it, they go away, because suddenly we're the scary ones instead of it?"
"Yes. I... I would not normally recommend such an action. But I... am not entirely sure I am the person I was this morning..."
"You are giving off light," pointed out Pilcrowe. "Oh, for Chris Baty's sake, Cedilla, I'll be the one to judge that! What you're saying makes perfect sense! I don't care if you're... if you did what I suspect you did. The thing you keep telling people not to do. You saved us and you're still saving us, so shut up!"
Tildeworth closed her eyes, her chin resting on her chest. "Dearest Susan," she said, "I do not deserve you, have I ever told you that?"
"That's strange," said Pilcrowe, hands in her deep pockets, "I may have said something earlier about myself not deserving you."
The Macarena died away into silence, and Agadoo started up in its place.
"Not to interrupt the touching, if not musically dissonant scene here," said Random, "but how do you destroy the Traveling Shovel of Death? Are we talking a sort of lob it into a volcano set up here?"
"Oh goodness, no! Lava wouldn't do it," Tildeworth said. "It would just come back. It is a Traveling Shovel of Death after all. It was forged to survive. No, you need to counter it with its own energies, its own self, take it back to where it began. Somewhere relating to a Personification. Now you see, it was Marni Woon, Keeper of the Dares, who forged the Shovel, long ago. But she's not here now. And while I'm sure she would offer to help if she were, we can't ask, and taking any action on her behalf would be rude. And as terrible as he... is... I couldn't do anything with Brevewin without at least giving him a fair warning.
"How about the November Gardens?" said Pilcrowe.
"Oh no, that wouldn't do," said Tildeworth. "For one, I'm not interesting in vandalising our community's beautiful public spaces. For the other, we are in the November Gardens right now. Hmm, perhaps I should have told you that, but I supposed you'd find out eventually. There aren't many places around here you can hide a radio station that aren't parklands with potentially infinite interior space. No, that would simply never do. There is only one place you can destroy the Shovel that I have any right to tell you to go, and I think you know where it is already."
"No," said Pilcrowe. "You can't. You'll-"
"I will not," said Tildeworth, standing firm with the giant pencil gripped in her hands. "I made a backup, do you remember? There's more to me than the television station. I'm here, At least, I am sure I will be fine. Within a reasonable margin of error, I am sure I will be fine. But Sue. If I wasn't going to be, I'd still want you to go, don't you see? I can't have you staying here. Eventually those things are going to get in the garden, and when they do, they'll silence me. But you need to go. And you need to go now."
"But why?" said Pilcrowe.
"Because Agadoo is going to finish in a minute, and after that I'm out of annoying party songs," said Tildeworth. "What do you expect me to do, broadcast dead air? What kind of a professional do you think I am?"
When Tildeworth pushed the giant pencil into Pilcrowe's arms, Pilcrowe didn't protest. "You'll need something to help you," Tildeworth said. "Just remember what I said."
"Be the main character," Random said. "But, maybe I should keep myself down out there?" she said. "I mean, last time I pretended to be an accountant, and that sort of worked."
"Nonsense, you're not an accountant!" said Tildeworth. "Now here you go." She lifted the plastic Viking helmet, halo and all, from her head, and placed it on top of Random's curls. "That should do for you. Just do what you said there."
"I didn't come up with it," said Random. "My friend did."
"Then they were someone you ought to listen to," said Tildeworth. Without her assortment of NaNoWriMo paraphernalia, except for the pangolin scale breastplate, she looked a lot smaller all of a sudden.
"Always do," Random said.
She let Tildeworth and Pilcrowe have their own goodbyes to themselves, waiting outside of the break room for Pilcrowe to join her. She could feel the halo sway with every movement of her head, and the Shovel...
The Shovel was always there, in the back of her mind. She didn't usually listen, because after a while the whispered promises of dark and immense power over all who had wronged her became a bit same-y. But now there was a different tone, a sort of urgency in the Shovel's wordless whisperings, as if it were aware of its oncoming fate. If Random didn't know better, she might have said that the Travelling Shovel of Death, for the first time in its existence, was afraid.
She lifted it so that the handle was at eye level.
"Can it, Precious."