Chapter 18: Fifty Thousand Words of Drivel
Call in favors to have as much noveling time as possible in the home stretch. - No Plot? No Problem!
Vicki Smith sat on a tower roof, feeling the wind run through her fur and feathers as she looked down over the scene below. She couldn't hear anything from up here, but she could see people milling about the square. They were carrying signs, including a decent mix of the good old ones - plenty of Down With This Sort Of Things and Careful Nows, for a start, and the odd , but some others that she hadn't seen before, including one proclaiming that Things Are Pretty Great, Actually.
Maybe they were. Behind her, Kevin was gnawing at the duo's latest project. She'd been unable to stop him scratching at Brevewin's front door, but what she thought was simple distress for the loss of his best friend and giver of food turned out to conceal a simple plan. With the Pep Talker's audio equipment, they could hook up a running radio to a rack of speakers and broadcast Tildeworth's words across the whole of the Nexus.
On the other hand, she wasn't sure she could bring herself to be happy. She was, after all, a fictional character, and every fictional character knows that the time when things are pretty great comes before the point at which they suddenly stop being so. She began to pace up and down, fanning her wings in the breeze and silently urging the beagle to hurry up.
"AWWWWOOOOOOOOO! WOOOOOOO! WOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
Vicki's ears flattened. and a cold, bony hand snatched her by the neck, lifting her off the ground and holding her at arm's length, where her flailing claws and flapping wings could do no damage. Kevin was likewise trapped, still baying, until the Inner Editor shook him into silence. "You again!" snapped the Editor, steely eyes fixed on Vicki's. "Shouldn't you be leaving that to the people who know what they are doing? Because no offence, but I highly doubt a couple of household pets could set up a proper sound system."
Vicki tried to speak, to say that they had done perfectly well with fixing radios so far, and incidentally Kevin was actually an audio equipment genius once you got past the chewing, but nothing came out but a strangled mew. The Editor's hand was so cold, and it gripped her throat...
"Look at you," the Editor went on. "Look how pathetic you both are. Thinking you made sense, thinking people would really care about you! Just a pair of talentless hacks who let themselves be fooled into thinking they could do something worthwhile! Why don't you leave stories to the people who know how to tell them?"
Her thin lips split into a terrible smile... no, Vicki thought, no, that was not a smile, no smile looked like that, no smile exposed such perfect white teeth under thin lips, and she knew that this was the Editor who had attacked the studio, taking a delicious delight in tormenting the dare who had caused her so much trouble. She knew this beyond a doubt, as the Editor's consciousness filtered into her own, a grey, heavy blanket over her own thoughts. Her wings and paws hung limp, only her tail managing a few lethargic sways. Kevin wasn't baying any more. The smile was all she could see.
"You don't have a novel," hissed the Editor through those terrible, perfect teeth. "There's no story here. All you and your little friends have is words, words that did not even have the decency to be good words! Only a pile of adverbs and dreadful streams of consciousness, nonsense thrown in for the sake of a wordcount. You should be ashamed of yourself, you filthy little beast! Pushing out crap every November and daring to think you had a novel in your dirty little paws! You disgust me!"
She was disgusted, too. There was nothing else Vicki could feel. That was how Inner Editors worked. They slipped into the cracks at the back of your mind. They found the seeds of dread, all the little doubts you had every day, and they planted and tended them, smothering everything else with their wild growth... and that, too, was a dreadful metaphor.
"Thinking you could make something of yourself, because of an overrated stunt! Let me tell you a little secret, you dreadful little moggie. If you were in a real story, you wouldn't need your precious little... NaNoWriMo." She spat out the acronym with such hate that Vicki could not help but loathe it herself. "Real stories are written all year around. Real stories don't need credulous little crutches to help them along. Real stories are written no matter what. All you do is churn out rubbish every November and claim you're making art while making a mockery of it all. You think you're building good habits whilst you do that? No, you are not. You are a fad. You do a rush job and think that's good enough! Oh, maybe you could do it once, of course, but once is enough. If it's terrible for one month, it won't get any better if you try again. But I suppose you'd rather make everyone else share your delusions, wouldn't you? You're profiting from selling hope to idiots, encouraging entirely the wrong sort of people..."
That was a new voice, wasn't it? Yes, it was, but the Editor must still have a grip on Vicki's mind, because she couldn't for the life of her remember how the newcomer sounded.
"What are you doing here?" hissed the Editor.
Vicki turned her head, even though the Editor's perfectly manicured fingernails dug into her neck, and she saw him. A man who was clearly there, standing right in front of her, and yet she all she knew that he was human, and probably Asian. He was carrying a placard, upon it the words:
DO NOT READ THIS SIGN
The shock was enough for the Editor to release her grip, and for Vicki and Kevin to dart back into the air. There was one switch left, and their paws both slammed into it at the same time. There was a screech of feedback, and at last, Tildeworth.
"...so anyway, do you all want to hear my impression of an Inner Editor?" she was saying. "It's a very good one. And very funny. Let's see, it goes a little like this... Oh! Look at me! I'm an Inner Editor! Waaah, people are having fun and I don't like it! I'm going to be nasty and bitter and go on and on and on and on and on about people wasting their time, but I'm never going to do anything productive with mine! Because I reaaaally don't like it when people have fun and don't hurt anyone! I mean, like, that's the worst! Like, totally the worst! I don't like that at all! I'm mean and judgemental and my fashion sense is awful!"
"Cedilla!" shouted Vicki.
"Voice Friend!" exclaimed Kevin, tail wagging. "And Can't Remember Friend!"
"Look, ma'am," said Mr Ian Woon, still holding his placard, "is there anything these nice people have done to hurt you today?"
The Editor perched like a bird on the very edge of the roof, but she was too well balanced to fall, because an Inner Editor was the personification of perfection. She was held back by both Tildeworth's voice and Mr Ian Woon's sign, but she wasn't giving up not yet. "Listen to her," she said, pointing to one of the speakers. "Does she really think directing a silly little rebellion over the radio is original?"
If Tildeworth knew what was being said in response to her words, she might have had a nice comeback. Instead, she kept talking. "Now listen to me! You may take my money! You may turn off my microphone! But you can't steal what you can't f- oh, wait."
"Did you hear that?" said the Editor. "Now she's quoting lyrics! How unoriginal! Next thing you know she'll be using them as titles!"
"Don't talk about my friends like that!" said Kevin, his wings bristling.
"Real stories don't need friends," hissed the Editor. "Real stories are crafted in solitude, word after perfect word."
"Yeah, well." Vicki's wings bristled too, her back arched, her tail puffed to twice its size. "You're a poopyhead."
"And I don't want to be your friend!" said Kevin.
"And I don't think I can argue with either of those statements," said Mr Ian Woon.
Only Tildeworth's voice broke the standoff. "But listen," she said, "I do have some important news for you. If anyone is near my old station, then please, please, do all you can to secure it. I promise, this has nothing to do with room 7a, or my pen, or even the possibility of obtaining a decent cup of tea. Those would be nice, but the vending machines never gave good tea anyway. Oh, how I have tried to procure the perfect cup of tea, but they can simply never manage it! It is always a little right, and yet not so, and that small hint of... not teaness, that ten percent that is not quite there, it overwhelms and ruins the whole experience, and..."
In one fluid motion, the Editor slipped back into the form of a hooded robe with no wearer, hovered by the edge for a moment, and looped over itself on its way to the ground.
"Somehow I'm not sure that was a miraculous surrender, there," said Vicki. "Look, we'd better get a move on, all of us. Thanks for helping, Mr Ian Woon."
"My pleasure," said Mr Ian Woon.
Kevin, meanwhile, was puzzled for an entirely different reason. "But... but I already read the sign!"
They had been walking for hours across empty wasteland, side by side, in silence.
Random had never seen anything like this in the November Gardens. If not for Tildeworth's words, she would have thought that this was the remains of Script Frenzy, or the outskirts of a novel, maybe even her own. Perhaps it was even part of the Nexus, for who knew what would happen if you walked on and on and on, for as long as you could? But none of those were good enough hiding places, Tildeworth had said.
The Gardens had protested, she said. But they relented, because Tildeworth hadn't thought she'd want to use it ever again. She just wanted to know it was there, like leaving a vanished person's room untouched.
The rest was a matter of time. Walk long enough, Tildeworth had ensured them, and they would make it out into the square.
At least the Shovel was quiet again, returning to its dull thoughts at the back of her mind. That was good. It gave her time to think of what she could do with it.
The first trees she saw, the first indication that she was in a park instead of some alien landscape that life and warmth had never touched, were short, sparse, thin things. But they took root nevertheless in the rock and ice, and in time, they gave way to thicker, evergreen woods.
But it still didn't look like a park. When Random thought of a park, she thought of lawns and neatly trimmed hedges, of little ponds and tended flowerbeds. No lawn would ever grow on that tangled forest floor, and no ducks would paddle their way across those dark pools, even if the November Gardens were any good at ducks to begin with. Flowers were right out of the question. This was not a nice forest. This was the forest where the big bad wolf prowled, and where wicked witches did things that got cut out of the more conventional bedtime fairy tales, and there were no convenient woodcutters nearby to lend a hand.
There was still a trail, the tiniest of marks perhaps left by a scurrying animal trying not to be eaten. Nevertheless, Random and Pilcrowe followed it, Pilcrowe using the giant pencil to push branches out of the way and clear space, while the halo still dangling from Random's helmet gave a little light in the murk. Vines tripped, brambles scratched, and it seemed that the more they tried to fight their way out, the more the Gardens resisted, Pilcrowe tried telling it they were there for a good reason, but it didn't give any sign of reply. The Gardens were afraid, and defending themselves the only way they knew how.
Random didn't want to think of how easy it might be if all she did was to lift the Shovel and clear their path.
"You would not happen to have any knowledge of navigating via the stars?" said Pilcrowe.
Random looked up. "Not really," she said. In any case, there were no constellations around here that she knew, and she had seen plenty of them in multiple worlds by now. "Why, you think we've passed that rock before?"
"I am not intimately familiar with rocks, but the possibility did arise."
"I could talk to you a bit about geology, but I don't think it's going to help. Maybe we should have marked it." She pondered sitting on the rock in question while she had a think about it, but decided against the idea. Nothing coated in that much moss and slime could be any use as a seat, even if its study might reveal multiple species new to science.
She wondered if the Shovel worked on rocks.
"Random," Pilcrowe said, gripping her shoulder. "Listen."
"Don't hear anything."
Pilcrowe's fingers were tight around her shoulder as Random strained to hear, but the detective's hearing was far better than hers, and for her there was nothing but the wind in the black canopy overhead, or the plop of something unknown sliding into dark water. Then a footstep, in the dark. Voices, too far away to discern, but coming closer every second.
If that's an Editor, she thought, then all restraints be buggered, they're getting a shovel to the head.
Something burst from the trees.
It probably wasn't an Inner Editor. Random wasn't prepared to dismiss the possibility of an editor strain that would latch onto its victims face, but it probably wouldn't proclaim itself to be their new best friend in the process.
"Random, there appears to be a beagle on your head," said Pilcrowe.
"Yeah, thanks for the deduction," said Random, stepping back to see what it was that had just attacked her with friendship. In the halo's light, she could see a creature hovering at eye level on broad tricoloured wings, its face split in a happy dog's grin. Another followed, also winged but this time a cat. Thankfully for Random, who was wiping beagle slobber from her face with her sleeve, this newcomer was less interested in making connections.
"Vicki Smith?" said Pilcrowe.
"Hello, Susan," said the cat. To both of them: "This is Kevin." And to Random: "You're the scientist Cedilla sent?"
"Yeah, that's me," Random said. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," said Vicki. She looked over her shoulder. "Mr Ian Woon! We've found them!"
"Mr Ian Woon is here?" said Random. But sure enough there he was, holding a torch in one hand that gave a faint, bobbing light, and in the other, a placard instructing any reader to not read it. It had to be Mr Ian Woon. Random didn't know who else it could be, not least of which when she didn't know what he even looked like. "You're safe?" he said, but Random had no memory of what he might have sounded like, because he could have sounded like anyone. "Come on, we need you, quick. Tildeworth called us and said you were needed at-"
"The station, we know," said Pilcrowe. "And whilst I don't approve of this plan, you are clearly who you say you are, so if you know the way out of here, we'd like to see it."
The group set off through the trail that Vicki, Kevin, and Mr Ian Woon had laid out, until they walked over broader, gravel lined paths, and stood under unfamiliar stars by the gate that led out into the Nexus.
Random wondered how long it had been since that morning when she'd woken up in an unfamiliar bed and been witness to the only shovel murder that nobody was sorry about. That was the thing about stories. So much could happen in so few words, and considerations like sleep got left to one side, unless they were suitably dramatic. But that was okay. Forgoing sleep was one of the grand traditions of NaNoWriMo, and surely any grand tradition was useful for repelling Editors.
For example, the one standing by the door, pen in hand, blocking the way into the square and peering at them through thin rimmed glasses.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but this area is barred."
"On whose authority?" said Pilcrowe.
"It does not matter upon whose authority it is barred," said the Editor. "The point is that it is. There is no argument. Those are simply the rules. No flying pets, no people without readily discernible facial features, no know it alls, and no scientists who don't follow basic safety procedures."
"What?" said Random.
"Surely you see what a fire hazard all that hair is?"
"Oh," Random patted her curls, but they sprang back up again. The Editor did have a point, but buggered if she was going to tell him that. "Never been a problem so far."
"This is all nonsense, anyway," said the Editor. "I suggest you all turn back the way you came."
"We suggest we do not," said Pilcrowe, who was now brandishing the giant pencil, while Mr Ian Woon was holding his paradoxical sign right in the Editor's line of sight.
"Oh, don't shove that nonsense in my face," sneered the Editor. "Have you not been reading the headlines lately? I direct your attention to the one about how nobody gives a f*** about how your novel is going. It's quite informative, and should give you all the sense of perspective you so desperately need."
The Editor's ability to pronounce a row of asterisks was quite impressive, but Random's fingers curled around the Shovel's handle. He was outnumbered. Maybe she wouldn't have to use it.
"Yeah, well," she said, "may I direct you to the one that reads 'I don't care what some miserable old sod thinks'?"
The Editor shouldered his way through Pilcrowe and Mr Ian Woon as if they were not there, and flung Vicki and Kevin aside. "Don't try to stop me!" he said. "I have years upon years of experience in crafting the perfect lines, word by word, with none of that drivel you call a story!"
"Really?" said Random. "I have a shovel."
The Editor went pale.
Random tried to swing at the Editor, but she was too close to reach without accidentally hitting one of her friends. But it was enough, and the Editor fled back through the door. "Quick, get through!" yelled Pilcrowe, and they all ran into the Nexus, to find the Editor standing in front of them, watching.
His form rippled and he dissolved into grey, hooded robe. Random raised the Shovel again, but it was too late. In an instant he was through the doors, just before they slammed shut.
"Crap," said Random.
"Mr Ian Woon," hissed Pilcrowe, "how fast can those things move?"
"At the speed of doubt," said Mr Ian Woon.
"Then let's not waste any more time," said Pilcrowe. "Follow me. I know where the station is."
You were no help at all, thought Random, to the shovel in her hand, its tip trailing against the ground as she walked. But Pilcrowe was right. Nothing could be gained by standing around talking.
She had wondered if it would be morning yet in the Nexus, but it was not. Nor was it full day, or night as it had been in the gardens. There was light, but it was grey and washed out, and it emanated from a sky with no sun and no moon.
There were no Editors now, just wind and dust billowing across the square. But the Nexus wasn't dead. The square was lifeless, but speakers hung from every building, and from each one, Tildeworth's voice echoed.
"...the words of a song may be compared to the pages of a book, which might then be contained within the tune, or cover. One might then, with sufficient skill in bookbinding, remove the pages, or words, and insert them into a new tune, or cover, although why you would want to do that is beyond me, given that not only would it be a dreadful thing to do to a book, but it would also be a terrible idea because you would invite the wrath of a librarian, and nobody wants that. It would also be rather confusing for anyone who wanted to read the book. Speaking of terrible and confusing ideas..."
"Speaking of terrible ideas, answer your phone!" snapped Pilcrowe, holding hers to her ear. "No good. Too many people trying to call, I expect."
"At least she's still talking," said Random.
"But I don't think she knows what's coming for her."
"It's one Editor," said Random. "She can handle one Editor."
"You had better be right," said Pilcrowe.
The sound of Tildeworth's voice drowned out much of the ambient noise, so it was a while before Random could hear anything else. The first signs of life were a distant buzz, the sound of many voices raised as one, shouting and protesting. By the time they drew closer, it was clear there was a large crowd, and when the group turned a corner onto the last street leading to the station, they were met by a sea of backs, people jostling to get through, shouting and yelling at some distant, unseen foe.
"Excuse me!" Random said. "What's going on? We need to get through!" But nobody heard, or if they did, they were more interested in pushing into their own space. Random stood on tiptoes, but she wasn't tall enough to see over the crowd, and from the looks of things, neither were Pilcrowe or Mr Ian Woon. Well, Mr Ian Woon probably wasn't tall enough, anyway. It was a bit hard to tell.
Vicki and Kevin, though, were unhindered by such things, and took to the air to get a better view. "It's busy," said Vicki. "Looks like it goes all the way to the station. If you want to get through, you'd better start moving."
"Can we make it through in time?" said Pilcrowe.
But Random had seen the empty buildings on either side, and an idea formed. "Come on, let's all get a good spot." she said.
If she was right, Bob's House of Free Shrimp Dinners backed onto the minor plaza that fronted the station. She made it to the front only to find that all the lights were off, and a sign in the window read "Out Selling Free Shrimp Dinners To Angry Mob." It had been shakily handwritten, by someone who was not only in a hurry but was holding the pen with pincers, but that didn't matter. What did matter was the lock.
Pilcrowe solved that problem. She steadied herself, delivered a sturdy kick to the door, and it slammed open, hanging in the breeze.
"Do you think we should pay for that?" said Mr Ian Woon.
"I'm sure he'll understand," said Random, as she ran inside. Mr Ian Woon was probably right - it was Bob's House of Free Shrimp Dinners, not Bob's House of Free Doors. But that was something to worry about later. She ran through the darkened restaurant, past the table where she and Neo had shared their last free shrimp dinner before getting the role that had thrown her into all this to begin with, and up the stairs, as the others followed.
Bob had a small office on the upper floors. He didn't have a computer, because presumably it was even harder to type with pincers than it was to handwrite, but there were enough papers lying about to fulfil the Luddite Clause several times over. Somewhere in them was the secret to a free lunch, at least as long as it was shrimp, but Random overcame her curiosity and stared out of the window, as the others followed to join her.
"Sweet zombie BattleJesus," she whispered.
The NaNo Video studio was obscured by a whole host of characters - people, animals, dares, and all matter of fictional creatures. There were characters holding signs that demanded citations, or the downfall of This Sort Of Thing, people singing, people throwing stones, people setting up tents. But not one of them could make it into the studio. The perimeter was held by row upon row of stern faced Editors holding red pens and clipboards, while the upper levels were guarded by their silent, drifting, cloaked forms.
"They knew we were going to try taking the studio for you," said Mr Ian Woon. "She told us all to hold it, but of course, they were listening too."
"I'm sorry," said Vicki, ears held low and tail drooping as she hovered. "It was our idea to set up the speakers."
"It was my idea!" whined Kevin. "I had a bad idea. I do not like it when I have bad ideas!"
"Not your fault," muttered Pilcrowe, who had turned away from the window and was now tapping on her phone. "Would have been worse without them."
"That means we have to get creative," said Random. "Hey, Vicki, Kevin, you think you could fly us in?"
"No," said Vicki. "I'd love to, but we just can't lift you, and our flight ceiling isn't high enough."
"There's a ceiling out there?" said Kevin. "I do not see a ceiling. Is it invisible?"
"Okay, there has to be something..." Random said.
"You'd have to go in via the roof," said Pilcrowe. "You could get a hatch and go down inside. It would just be a matter of getting on to the roof in the first place."
"Yeah. Anyone know any dragons? Or helicopter pilots? Or draconic helicopter pilots?" Random paced up and down, scratching an itch under the plastic helmet.
An idea sparked, deep in her mind.
"Mr Ian Woon?"
"Yes?" he said.
"You're the president of the Trebuchet Club, aren't you?"