Chapter 20: No Plot, No Problem
You're not done until 11:59 p.m. on the 30th. You are a champion, not a quitter, and every word is another victory. - No Plot? No Problem!
And then a hand snatched her up from the brink and pulled her back over the edge, and she found herself looking into Pilcrowe's eyes.
"Never needlessly risk your life for people again!" she snapped. "I don't care how dramatic it looks!"
Random blinked, and realised it was not light that irritated her eyes now, but dust. "How did you get past the Editors?"
Pilcrowe helped her to her feet. "Did you really think I cared so little about you that I'd let those pen pushers stop me? Besides, I had just completed a novel. It occurred to me that I can do what I want."
Random rubbed the dust from her eyes with one hand and leaned on Pilcrowe's shoulder with the other. For the first time, she saw what had happened. "Whoa."
The building had been split in half down the middle of the studio, pink insulation handing out like torn guts. The light was gone. In front, empty air and the streets of the Nexus below. Though many faces looked up at them from the streets, not a single one was an Editor, and they stood under a bright and pale November sky.
"Studio went away," she said.
She didn't know what else to say, so Pilcrowe picked up the giant pencil, which had been propped in a corner, and led her downstairs through what was left of the station. "We got everyone out in time," she said, as they descended. "I had Vicki and Kevin spread the word that Mr Ian Woon was doing an autograph session. I wouldn't want to have his wrists after today, but he did volunteer."
"What about Tildeworth?"
"I'm sure we'll find out soon enough."
When they finally stepped outside, it was through a shattered door. Even the front entrance had been ripped in half, right down to the rainbow NaNo Video sign overhead with its wires protruding and lights dimmed.
There was already a crowd of people waiting. Either they'd already procured one of Mr Ian Woon's autographs, or they thought this was more interesting. "Er, hi," said Random. "Look, I don't think we've really got the facilities to do any interviews right now, but..."
Thankfully, Pilcrowe could handle things better. "Stop bothering the lady," she said. "Don't you all have novels to go to?"
They found Vicki and Kevin in the upstairs office of Bob's House of Free Shrimp Dinners, and once again, Pilcrowe demonstrated that her hearing was better than Random's, when she smiled at a sound Random could not hear.
As they walked up the stairs, Tildeworth's voice resolved into words, coming from a little portable radio perched on the desk. Kevin looked especially pleased with himself.
"...and I assume from the sudden flood of text messages that Mr Ian Woon is having a free for all autograph session. Good on him! Also that it appears we defeated the Inner Editors, although... oh. Oh dear. Well, I'm sure we can live with that, and construction workers do exist for a reason. Good news for everyone, unless you are an Inner Editor, but even I can't be charitable all the time. And I have even more good news! Do you remember my lucky pen, you know, the one I left in room 7a? It was here all along! And what a good thing too. It came in very handy for fending off that nasty grey visitor I had just now. Anyway..."
"Do you think we should go and tell her she can stop now?" said Random. Now the sun was up, now it really was morning, she could feel the exhaustion creeping into her limbs, but it was just another walk across a hopefully more co-operative November Gardens.
"Probably," said Pilcrowe. Her hand rested with a gentle touch on the radio.
"Let's go see Voice Friend!" said Kevin.
"You go. I think I'd better tell Mr Ian Woon he can stop now," said Vicki, taking to the air. "Someone has to." And with that she was gone, wings spread and soaring out of the window.
The three remaining characters descended back onto the street, where already a sizable crowd was gathering to stare at the devastation. They left them to it. Some people didn't have anything better to do.
It was while they were on the walk back to the square that Pilcrowe froze. "Don't move, any of you."
"What now?" said Random. But she was answered when someone stepped into the street before them, a woman with a long and elegant dress, and yet others that Random remembered from Pilcrowe's novel.
"Any reason you're still here?" said Pilcrowe.
"Well..." said the woman.
"Is it because, after Rob the Rat fell into a gleaming light filled void, along with the Travelling Shovel of Death, and the Inner Editors have all gone now, your plans don't amount to a whole lot any more?" Pilcrowe's fingers tapped on the giant pencil.
"And that you might be regretting things a little, because, if we are all honest, when a man is wielding a permanent lethal weapon, you tend to listen to what he says? And that perhaps, you are wondering where to go next?"
The assembled abandoned characters nodded.
"Well, we're a little busy right now," Pilcrowe said. "Kevin Jones?"
"Yes?" Kevin said, his tail wagging faster than his wings could flap as he hovered in place.
Pilcrowe jerked her thumb at the characters. "These people are your new best friends."
The rest of the journey was less eventful. The Gardens had let out their own sigh of relief, and were back to the lawns and paths of before. There still weren't any ducks, and the trail led through trees that thinned to a rocky and icy wasteland, but it let them pass.
Pilcrowe punched in the code that Tildeworth had given them should they need to return (U00B6), and the doors opened again. The speakers were silent.
No, not quite silent. There was something there, dead air interspersed with breathing. Pilcrowe picked up pace as she ran up the stairs, Random and Vicki struggling to keep up.
When they burst into the booth, Tildeworth was slumped over the desk, a pink patterned fountain pen clutched on one hand. She was still a little luminescent, but fading fast.
"Cedilla!" exclaimed Pilcrowe, immediately rushing to her side. "Random, get over here!" She shook Tildeworth, who responded with a barely aware groan, and waved her free hand in the air to ward them off.
"I'm a scientist, not a doctor," said Random. "But I think she's just asleep."
"...g'way..." murmured Tildeworth.
"I'll take that as a yes," said Pilcrowe. "Come on. There have to be more comfortable places than this."
She hauled Tildeworth (still holding the pen) out of the booth, and Random was left alone.
The microphone was still there. Was it still on?
"Uh, hello?" she said. She settled into Tildeworth's chair. "I don't know if this thing is still on. I'm a scientist, you see, so I don't know what any of these switches and lights do. I'd like to touch one to see what it does, but I don't think Tildeworth would like it if I did that. Okay. Er. Look, I think someone ought to be talking, just in case any of you were wondering what was going on?
"So. Um. We showed those Inner Editors, didn't we? And... wow, we're barely out of Week Two. No wonder all that happened! But... I guess if I was Tildeworth I'd talk to you about how that's a good thing, because Week Two is over now. I mean, you can all go and work on your novels now. That's really cool!
"I kind of had a few thoughts about winning, and not winning, but I don't really know if it's my place to tell them. I've never... not won. So I don't know if I should be talking?"
Random looked over her shoulder, to see Pilcrowe standing in the doorway.
"You're a terrible radio host," said the detective. "But you're the only thing we've got so you'd better keep going. If you say anything wrong, I'll make sure you know about it." She sat down next to Random.
"Okay, did you all hear that?" Random said. "I was thinking, you know? About getting our novels done. But... it's okay if you don't. It's okay not to win."
She looked over at Pilcrowe, who nodded at her to continue.
"We've always been saying that, haven't we? Right? I just think... well, I don't know about all of you, but I think maybe we should say it more... or maybe we say it enough, but I don't think we believe it enough? Um look, this really isn't my thing, but I went into one of those that didn't win, and it's a long story, but I saw all the locks on the door, and I wanted to smash them."
"There's no locks on the inside, only them that's on the inside of you," said Pilcrowe. "But she's right. You've got to do something about those locks all the same. Even if you don't win, there should be somewhere here for you."
"Yeah," said Random.
The lights were fading now. Whatever power Tildeworth had put into this place was fading along with her consciousness.
"Looks like we're low on power," said Pilcrowe.
"Did we say enough?" said Random.
"I hope so." Pilcrowe leaned closer, so as to be sure the microphone picked up her words. "Listen everyone. I don't have fancy words for you. But if you're all safe, and you're all doing what you can, then keep at it."
The lights were nearly gone now, just faint embers in the dark.
"That was goodnight from me," Pilcrowe said.
"And it's goodnight from her," said Random.
And that, at last, was the end of Wrimo Radio.
The hours ticked by. Morning faded into noon and afternoon and slipped into evening, but only colour and texture of the light that made it inside the break room reflected the time of day.
It wasn't a bad place to sleep. Random had fallen asleep almost immediately on one of the couches that circled the room, curled up under her white coat. Pilcrowe had taken off her own heavy tan coat and draped it over Tildeworth.
She sat down, next to Tildeworth, and waited. Sometimes she would look at her phone, or sit back with her eyes closed, on the border of sleep but never quite there. At one point she broke open the locks on some of the vending machines that Tildeworth's presence had briefly brought back to life, and was rewarded with coffee and a few cheap sandwiches. One could not survive on cut rate vending machine produce alone, but it certainly helped.
It was nearly evening when Tildeworth stirred, pushing herself upright from underneath the coat.
"Morning," said Pilcrowe. "Even though it is not."
Tildeworth opened her mouth, and said nothing. She paused for a second, held up one hand, and ran out of the room.
"Cedilla?" Pilcrowe had barely enough time to get out of her seat before Tildeworth was gone. She stepped out into the corridor, not sure if she should run after her, but as she was pondering things, Tildeworth reappeared with a notebook and pen. Not the lucky pink fountain pen, since that had given its life and a fair amount of ink in the service of NaNoWriMo's anti-Editor forces, but a cheap ballpoint. She let Pilcrowe see as she scribbled. In the gloom of the corridor, she could make out:
Seems I've lost my voice. That is most annoying.
"You're okay, though, aren't you?"
The pen flew over the paper some more.
Yes. It's a shame, but I suppose one has to move on some time, no matter how late.
"Yes. I believe we do." Pilcrowe snaked an arm around Tildeworth's back, resting her head on the smaller woman's shoulder. Tildeworth wrote on.
Incidentally, do we have any tea? Come on. We ran out ages ago. This is turning into a terrible farce.
They left in the morning, after a night of sandwiches, coffee, and something that might have been tea, though Tildeworth insisted, in the most frantic handwriting she could manage, that it was most certainly not the real thing. Outside they crossed the boundary from torn streets to rocky plains as the sun's rays began to shine.
None of them spoke. Tildeworth wondered if they wanted to be polite, or if they simply didn't have anything to say. Even with the pen in her pocket and the notebook tucked into her pangolin scale breastplate, she too was at a loss for words.
But she was not at a loss for actions. She counted her steps, guessing at how far they had gone. When she was satisfied, she raised her hand and snapped her fingers.
In the distance there was a crash, and a cloud of dust.
Tildeworth didn't look back, even as Random and Pilcrowe jumped in shock. There was a protocol to be followed in such events. Never flinch, keep on walking, and definitely don't look back at that really cool explosion.
A few days later...
Tildeworth sat outside the NaNo Video studios, enjoying one of the milder of the autumnal days' sun with a cup of tea in her hands. Real tea, not the crap that you got from a vending machine. She would have done something about those, but even her powers only extended so far.
People had been very quick to offer help after the studio's destruction, but, touched as she was, there were plenty of other deserving people. For now, she was content to let everyone else return to their novels while the building work got underway.
It had been Vicki who recommended the builders to her, so Tildeworth had not been surprised when they turned out to be cats. It turned out that even if they didn't have wings, cats were natural repair people. If you really needed repair work done on a dimensionally transcendent television studio that had been blown in two, you called someone with excellent climbing skills. It wasn't always as easy to get them down once they were up there, but an open tin of tuna on the ground usually helped. Besides it meant to got to keep all the tea for herself.
She was watching one of them now, a little black and white fellow carrying a giant golden hammer in his mouth, when a small red van pulled up outside of the station. Out popped another black and white cat, this time holding a large dark blue envelope, which he passed over to Tildeworth. Even if she was still unable to say thanks (her voice would recover soon enough, so said all the best doctors in the Nexus, and you knew they were good because they were all massive jerks) a stroke and scratch behind the post-cat's ears said it all.
She turned her attention to the envelope as the van drove away. The front was addressed to her, the back bore the return name of simply Marni Woon. She and Brevewin had reappeared after the business with the Editors. Nobody knew where they had been or what had happened, least of all themselves, but Tildeworth hadn't been surprised. It took a lot more than a few miserable grey buggers to take out a Personification. At least, so she had hoped.
She slid open the envelope, and braced herself as she caught a glimpse of the massive spaces inside. There was a handle poking out of the top, and she held it with one hand whilst holding the envelope with the other. In a topologically impossible move, she found herself pulling the Travelling Shovel of Death from its sleeve.
Of course it could never really go away, could it? Even if the original Shovel was lost, there would always be another on to forge. This Shovel was lighter, its black iron surface fresh and unscarred, ready to kill... but not for good, not this time.
She held it for a moment, admiring its form before, with a puff of dust, it faded from her hands to do the job it had been forged for.
Today wasn't a bad day, then. They never were, in the end. She took out her phone and began typing.
Dear readers, some of you may be interested to know...
Pilcrowe would never dream of giving up her detective agency at 4291 Shady Street. Despite everything that had happened, that place had a lot of memories attached to it, and if she was honest with herself, she was not the best person to be helping out lost characters.
But she could still have ideas. "I had thought of somewhere people could go, to ask for advice?"
"Maybe," said the woman in the elegant dress. "But it lacks a certain something. There needs to be warmth. Somewhere you want to go, not somewhere where you pull out a ticket and wait to be seen."
So they talked on, and reached a consensus. A little later, they reached one on the name.
"Club I Hate Myself And Want To Die?" said the woman in the elegant dress. "No, that simply won't do."
"It's historical," said Pilcrowe. "You know that as much as I do."
"At least trim it down a little!"
And now that the bar was ready, with little lamps fitted with warmly coloured glass shades, and the ribbon was strung up outside. There were thousands of locks yet to break. Yet a small crowd waited outside now, people she didn't know, people who had never seen the Nexus in years. The word would spread.
"I'm not one for speeches," she said, "but I'm told there has to be one. You've come a long way. You probably all want a drink. Well, you can have one. I proclaim Club IHMAWTD open." She held out her hand, and the women in the elegant dress passed over a pair of scissors. Pilcrowe began to cut, and they sliced about halfway through.
"With blunt scissors," she added.
They'd get there in the end. That was the important thing.
A long way from the Nexus, in a desert town with no name, a long figure strode down the main street in the light of the setting sun.
She was unarmed. Once, she had carried a potent weapon, but she had cast it aside. It had been too dangerous to wield, too dangerous to be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Besides, the damn thing had been heavy.
Two people waited at the end of the street, where the town gave way to empty wastelands and a road, one last trace of humanity that sliced through the desert on its unerring course toward the horizon. One of them turned at the sound of her footsteps, and tapped the other on the back.
"You?" said the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "We didn't think you were coming back!"
"A few moments back there, I was pretty sure I wouldn't," said Random. "I hope it's okay, only after everything Neo went through to get me here in the first place..."
"If you weren't welcome," said the Scientist With the Moustache, "I'd be ashamed of myself."
"So what's happening now?" said Random, joining her old co-stars on their evening vigil.
"Out there," said the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot, "a battle for the fate of humanity is waging. Out there, two brave men are struggling to get the cure we formulated to those who need it the most. The future of civilisation is at stake, and we..."
"We wait," said the Scientist With The Moustache. "Plot's going along, nice and steady. But we don't know how it's going to end, not yet."
"Until then, we wing it?" said Random.
"Yeah," said the Scientist Who Likes Robots An Awful Lot. "We wing it."
Random watched the desert sun sink closer to that distant road. "It's like they say," she said. "No plot, no problem."