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Thread: Stranger Than Fiction

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    Default Stranger Than Fiction

    A bizarre one-shot, featuring words. Rated 15 to be safe, since this story contains quotations from other stories that contain substantially more violence than this one, and there's also some swearing and one character death. I really should have posted this three weeks ago (when it was done), but I only just got around to it.

    One more thing: all quoted material here is used with the authors' knowledge and permission. Just in case you were getting excited there with your accusations an' stuff.

    Since [IMG] tags are disabled in the FF forum, I can't embed the images; regrettably, they're all in link format. Sorry, but there's nothing I can do about that.


    LAPSE

    Stranger Than Fiction

    The sound of an alarm clock is never a welcoming one, unless you are one of those peculiar people who wake just before their clocks sound, and lie in wait so as to switch off the alarm as soon as it comes on; as Alex was not one of these people, he reacted to the sound of the clock by groaning loudly and lashing out with one hand in the general direction of the snooze button. Regrettably, he missed by approximately a yard, and plunged his hand instead onto the back of a stuffed porcupine, a gift from a well-travelled uncle. Consequently, Alex shot bolt upright, snapped into wakefulness more suddenly than he had been since last week, when he'd done exactly the same thing—

    “Ah, screw it,” he muttered, the look of pain vanishing from his face. “What's the point?”




    “Cut!”


    The sunrise outside dimmed, the morning birdsong stopped and a rather angry-looking young woman advanced on Alex, clipboard in hand and severe frown on brow. Actually, Alex thought, she always had that severe frown; it was a Syntactician thing. They were all angry, all the time.

    “What the hell, Alex?” she asked. “What if this weren't a practice? What if someone had actually been reading us right then?”

    Alex sighed and met her gaze with nothing but resignation in his eyes.

    “Would it really make a difference?” he asked.

    The young woman – whose name, though never mentioned in the text, was Mia – hesitated for a moment. They all knew it wouldn't, in the end.

    “It's unprofessional,” she said in the end. “You can't do this.”

    There was a knock at the door, and Unnamed #1, who played Alex's mother, walked in.

    “Excuse me,” she said crossly, “but will you actually be needing me any time today? I was hoping to meet my agent at four, but it—”

    “Shut up,” snapped Mia. “I can't tell two people off at the same time. Actually,” she decided, “I can. Stand next to him!”

    Unnamed characters, lacking description or substance, were generally fairly weak of will; cowed, Unnamed #1 took her place next to Alex, who regarded her with a certain amount of disgust.

    “Do you know what I'm going through here?” Mia demanded to know. “I'm running this entire story single-handed. The best scene in the whole thing's falling apart because we don't get the reads to pay for repairs. Then there's the bloody Pokémon, and then there's you hyphenated morons... I mean, honestly, can you just try and cut me some slack? I'm doing everything I can—”

    “To get yourself out of here and promoted to Syntactician to a real story,” finished Alex astutely, for which he received a thump on the head.

    “That's not how it works,” growled Mia. “No one enters, no one leaves: every narrative's a closed system. This” – she indicated the bedroom, and all the multitude of adjectives that made it up – “is all we have to work with.” She paused. “So all we can do is give it our best.”

    “But what's the point?” asked Alex. “Fanfiction is... well, it's crap.”

    Mia could not argue here. They were a new story, created only a few weeks ago and still ongoing, but they had been around long enough to send a delegation to the latest Fictioneers' Convention, backpage in Little Dorrit; they had been one of only ten or twenty fanfictions to bother attending, and they had found out firsthand exactly how much contempt their genre was held in by the so-called 'real' stories. It wasn't even as if they were a bad fanfiction; they were relatively well-written, with a decent protagonist, a solid plot and a cracking twist planned for near the end – but all of this to no avail. They were 'unoriginal', and therefore to be despised.

    “We can't do anything except work at it,” reasoned Mia. “And that means you have to do your damn job. For Christ's sake, Alex, you're the protagonist!”

    “Can I go now?” asked Unnamed #1.

    “Fine!” Mia threw her hands in the air and stalked off back to her laptop, set up on Alex's desk. “Today's practice is over! We'll just wing it when the next chapter's written—”

    “Don't be like that,” began Alex, but Mia shot him a look of such venom that it might almost have come from a real person rather than one made of text, and he beat a hasty retreat through the cupboard.

    There was always a certain amount of corner-cutting taken in preparing sets for stories; doors or windows that were never opened in the narrative were frequently used to link different scenes together, something that had been taken to such an extreme in Through the Looking-Glass that the links between locations had seeped through into the reader experience, resulting in the famous 'chessboard landscape' idea. In fanfiction, there was even less money available, and so practically anything that had a hinge was used to connect two places; the cupboard door, for example, did not lead into a cupboard but out of a door set unobtrusively into the back of a tree in Viridian Forest.

    Alex shut the door behind him, leaned against the trunk and sighed. He hadn't meant to snap out of character. He really hadn't. But it had just seemed so pointless, so utterly meaningless to continue his pathetic existence here... he hadn't been able to resist at all.

    He opened his eyes and looked around. Everything around him was second-rate. The description had once been good and now was in tatters; the Author hadn't been unskilled, but there was no money for maintenance, and gradually the inhabitants of Lapse had been forced to sell adjectives off to keep the story going. Now, every tree was identical, every leaf a clone of the next; the same clouds passed by overhead in a four-second loop; the same lone bird sat and sang in the trees.

    “We can't go on like this,” Alex said, starting to walk. Viridian Forest was actually only used for one scene, and it was rather a short one; hence, the set was small, and it took only five minutes for him to emerge into the street on the other side that served them both as their Pewter City and their Pallet Town locations. There was one building here that they were always careful not to look at when they were using it as Pallet Town, and it was to its door that Alex directed his steps. He knocked once on the door, and went inside.

    Here, it was cool and dim; the walls were made of rough stone, and there was very little furniture other than randomly-placed piles of rocks. On a podium in the centre, a small boy, two boulders, a pangolin, a young man and a gigantic snake were sitting in a circle and playing poker.

    “Hey, guys,” called Alex. “It's me.”

    The man looked up, and then scrambled to his feet, dropping his cards.

    “Oh God!” he cried. “It's not the Gym scene already, is it?”

    “No, Brock,” Alex reassured him. “I don't think we're practising that today.”

    “Thank God,” said Brock, sitting back down again. “Mia given up again?”

    “I think it's safe to say she's probably not talking to me any more,” Alex replied. “Again.”

    “Did you speak to her about us?” asked one of the boulders. He had two arms and a little face, and was less than happy with his design.

    “No,” said Alex, taking a seat on the podium. “She won't change her mind, you know. We're not allowed to change the story.”

    “But I heard that other fanfiction stories have talking Pokémon in,” whined the Geodude. “And I mean, it's not just me. We're all tired of playing these stupid animal parts.”

    Here, there was a murmur of agreement from the other Pokémon present, and the Onix took the opportunity to sneak a look at the boy's cards.

    “Oi,” he said. “I saw that. Quit it.”

    “I didn' do nuffin',” the Onix said, as innocently as he could.

    “You always cheat—”

    “Liam, stop fighting with the Onix,” said Brock wearily. It seemed this was a farce that was played out all too often. “You know you never win.”

    “Yeah, Liam,” said the Onix smugly.

    “I didn't say you could keep needling him,” snapped Brock, and the big beast fell silent. Brock sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose, and tossed his cards down on the floor. “That's enough,” he said. “Alex, what's up? Why're you here?”

    Beyond him, Liam and the Pokémon resumed the game.

    “It's one of about two places in the story where there's any description left,” replied Alex truthfully. “It's just a nice place to be.”

    Textual beings such as he always found it difficult to stay in areas where the words that made the world were wearing thin; it was harder to stay focused, to keep yourself feeling alive and entertaining for the Readers. They'd lost three Pokémon that way – they'd lingered too long in the abominably-described Mount Moon and lost so much definition that they now resembled generic animals, without giving the slightest clue as to what sort they might be. Alex thought that if you squinted, you could see the odd adjective around their heads that indicated they might be Pidgey – but no one could be certain any more.

    “I know.” Brock's Gym was the seat of the best scene in the entire story, where Alex spent a full five thousand words in an epic battle against his Onix with only a recalcitrant Farfetch'd to help him – and won. In the space of that fight, the Gym was described like no other place in the story. “It's nice, isn't it? I do kind of wish I had a house, but...” Brock trailed off and shrugged. “This is a pretty good substitute.”

    “Yeah. I'd trade my house for this any day.” Alex frowned. “It's only got two rooms in it anyway.”

    “Well. Still.”

    “That is bloody unfair,” moaned one of the Geodude bitterly as the Sandshrew took the pot. “How is it you always win?”

    “Shut up,” said Brock. “I'm talking to Alex.”

    “Ooh, hark at that,” said the other Geodude. “I'm talking to the protagonist. I'm Brock, and I'm sooo importa—”

    Here, Brock tipped him over, and he rolled away down the hall, wailing piteously and flailing his arms.

    “Right,” he said, turning back to Alex. “Where were we?”

    “How nice your Gym is.”

    “Oh yeah.” Brock scratched his head. “We've kind of exhausted that topic, haven't we?”

    This was the most frustrating part of being decently-written characters in a collapsing story: they knew they could handle complex debate and multiple ideas – the Author had written them well enough for that – but without the Readers, the story itself didn't have the resources to support complicated conversations. It simply wasn't possible to even start them.

    “I don't know how much more of this I can stand,” Alex said, beginning a different topic with some effort. “You know someone's stealing our Imagery now?”

    “What?”

    Liam and the Pokémon looked up at this, too: Imagery was serious business. Without it, a story was almost totally dead; unless the words could effectively convey images to the readers' minds, it just didn't work. From Imagery came Metaphor, the secondary building block of the written world, and a lack of one or the other meant seriously bad news for any book. It meant they would be dull, and dull books, with the possible exception of Moby Dick, were never read. And that meant a slow and painful death from verbal collapse.

    “Yeah,” Alex went on. “Mia hasn't said, but I've seen her looking in the tank, and I took a look myself later.” He shook his head slowly. “We're almost dry. The gauge says we've got about twelve gallons left.”

    “Twelve gallons? Twelve gallons?” Brock jumped to his feet. “What the hell? Where's it going?”

    “Like I said, someone must be siphoning it off,” said Alex.

    “It's unnerstandable, innit?” mused the Onix. “I mean, we all know this book ain't goin' nowhere. It's gonna die any day now. Someone figures they migh' be able to make some money and buy passage ou' to another story before ev'rythin' collapses.”

    “Well, whoever it is, they're right,” sighed Alex. He was no longer angry about that. He had been when he'd found out, but somehow it didn't seem to matter so much now: Lapse was a lost cause. That time next week the spark would be out and the meaning would be severed from all the text in the narrative; when that happened, every last one of them would simply cease, and the story itself would be broken down and recycled by some scavenger novella. Literary Darwinism, Alex thought to himself, and wondered why it was that a character who could coin a term like that was doomed to live out a short and miserable life in the fanfiction genre.

    “Excuse me?” Brock stared from Alex to the Onix and back again. “You can't be serious!”

    “What? No, it's true—”

    “I mean about this – this defeatist attitude!” he cried, leaping to his feet again. (Since they were not currently being read, consistency wasn't an issue.) “Don't you think we ought to be doing something?”

    “Like what?” said the remaining Geodude gloomily. His comrade was nowhere to be seen; he had rolled out into the street and would take forever to drag himself back. “If Alex is right, this story is dead whether we catch the culprit or not. Twelve gallons is barely enough to sustain the next two chapters, assuming we survive long enough for the Author to write them.”

    “But – but there must be a way—”

    “If you have any ideas, Brock, I'm all ears,” said Alex. “I'm pretty keen not to die.”

    “We could...” Brock waved an arm in the air, searching for an idea. “We could... OK, I got nothing.” He sighed. “Mia's really not going to let us change the story?”

    “She would if she thought we'd make it,” Alex replied. “You know her. The only thing more important than what the Author intended is the story's survival. But the thing is, we're not badly-written, we're—”

    “Just not read, we know,” finished the Geodude with a heartfelt sigh. “No one takes fanfiction seriously.”

    They lapsed into silence for a while, and Alex stared morosely at the playing cards in the centre of the podium. So poorly were they described that they didn't even have pips on, just labels that designated them 'Jack of Hearts' or 'Ten of Clubs'.

    That's the trouble with this place, thought Alex. No one read us when we were new and fresh, so we have no recurring Readers, so we don't get enough new imaginative input to sustain ourselves, so now all the playing cards are dead. And the fact that I'm using the playing cards that never appear in the plot as a microcosm of my life is such a monumentally huge piece of literary stupidity that I suppose there's no way out now.

    “Jesus,” said Brock at length. “I guess we're screwed, then.”

    “Not,” said a deep, wise voice that could only have belonged to the wisest sage, or possibly Morgan Freeman, “necessarily.”

    Alex's head jerked up and his eyes flicked left and right, searching for the source of the voice; a moment later, his eyes alighted on the one member of their little group who had not yet spoken.

    The Sandshrew sat back on his haunches, a look of perfect serenity in his bottomless black eyes.

    “You see,” he went on, “I know of one way to attract more Readers.”

    “Whoa,” breathed Alex, staring at him. “Brock, has this guy ever spoken before?”

    “No,” replied Brock. “I kind of forgot he could.”

    “'E's got one o' those voices,” said the Onix in breathless wonder. “'E mus' be a smar' character.”

    “I was an understudy before I came here,” the Sandshrew explained. His voice was so slow and wise that it almost knocked Alex over backwards; after the literary black hole of Lapse, hearing such a masterfully-described voice was enough to send him into mild shock. “I worked with Tolkein.”

    “Tolkein!” cried the Geodude. “Oh my God! Why didn't we know this before?”

    “Because I was Gandalf's understudy,” replied the Sandshrew, “and one thing I learned was that a wizard must always keep his secrets until the very last moment possible.”

    “Gandalf's understudy!” Brock's hand flew to his mouth. “I – Jesus Christ, I've used you as a footstool!” Horror spread across his face, and he was about to launch into what would probably have been a very long and awkward apology when the Sandshrew cut him off.

    “It's quite all right,” he said. “I understand. I am no longer a wizard. These things happen when one is an understudy.”

    “Amazing.” Alex shook his head in wonder. “But wait – what was that about there being some way to get more Readers?”

    “Advertising,” said the Sandshrew firmly. “That's the thing.”

    “Advertising?”

    “Advertising,” he confirmed. “Have you come across the concept?”

    Alex looked at Brock, who looked at the Onix, who looked at Liam, who looked at the Geodude, who, not knowing who to look at, closed his eyes.

    “No,” admitted Alex. “What is it?”

    “Placing information about the story – an advertisement, if you will – somewhere prominent, where people will happen across it. They see it, find it interesting—”

    “And come looking for the rest, which they find here,” Alex finished, a slow grin breaking out across his face. “That's amazing. Where did you get that idea?”

    “I used to work with our opposite numbers across in the comic book world,” the Sandshrew said. “They have a great many more advertisements there.”

    “You used to work in comics?” asked Liam. “What'd you do?”

    “I was Superman's understudy.”

    The four of them gaped. Was there nothing this Sandshrew hadn't done?

    “But,” said Alex, grasping for reality and finding it again, “there's still the problem of how we'd do that. It's not like we can leave the story.”

    “And why not?” asked the Sandshrew.

    Once again, everyone stared.

    “Because... because... well, we just can't,” managed Brock. “You know that. Closed system.”

    “No one goes in or out,” added Liam.

    “Ev'ry character to their own story,” put in the Onix, not to be left out.

    “And what do you think happens during a character transfer?” asked the Sandshrew. “When an understudy like me, for example, needs to change books?”

    Alex's eyes widened, and he felt a curious electricity shiver through his vowels; the Sandshrew was right. There must be a way between stories – which meant there was a way out of their story, and a way to place these so-called advertisements elsewhere. And if they could get out and advertise, they might just be able to save themselves—

    “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, we can't. What if someone reads us?”

    “Actually,” the Geodude pointed out, “I'm really not sure it would make all that difference. The story's about as readworthy as washing machine instructions right now.”

    “It'd be easier to read Naked Lunch,” added Brock.

    “Or Finnegan's Wake,” the Geodude went on.

    “Or—”

    “Shut up!” snapped Alex, scratching his temple furiously. “Look, I get that the story's in a bad way, but I can't exactly abandon it, can I? I'm the main character! I can't be missing if a Reader turns up.”

    You might not be able to, but we could,” offered the Geodude. “Even if someone reads the Gym chapters, we can make do with just the Onix. Me and the Sandshrew—”

    “The Sandshrew and I,” corrected Brock. Bad grammar was an annoyance to Readers, but inside text it could be fatal; a missed comma in a backstory could eradicate a character entirely. Alex remembered one person at the Fictioneers' College who had shot himself as a child, rather than shot, himself, as a child – with the result that his whole life had been erased. Then there was the horrific moment in one collector's edition of The Catcher in the Rye when Phoebe had literally killed Holden Caulfield instead of figuratively, and three hundred issues had to be pulped... No, grammar and syntax were important all right. That was why there were Syntacticians.

    “All right, whatever,” said the Geodude crossly. “We could go.”

    “That would make sense, wouldn't it?” asked Alex. “Send the pangolin and the guy with no legs to conduct a stealth mission.”

    The Geodude looked mildly confused.

    “Sorry, was that sarcasm?”

    “Yes,” sighed Alex. “Yes, it was.”

    There were few in the written world sophisticated enough to pick up on sarcasm; it depended on the sound of your voice, which was always tricky to convey in a strictly textual world. Incidental characters like the Geodude simply couldn't do it.

    “Alex is right,” said Brock. “It'll take at least one human character to do this – and they have to be a fairly well-characterised one too, Liam.”

    Liam, who had been about to speak, closed his mouth in disappointment.

    “That narrows it down to me, Brock or Lucy,” Alex said, sighing. “I don't want any more people to find out about this than necessary – we really don't want Mia to know – so that leaves out Lucy.”

    “What about Leekley?” asked the Onix.

    “Same problem. Also, he's a Farfetch'd.”

    “Fair point.”

    “You two will have to go,” the Sandshrew told Alex and Brock. “I'll go with you. If we're quick, we can manage.”

    “Are you sure?” asked Alex doubtfully. “I mean, if we're Read...”

    “As I said earlier,” the Geodude replied, “I don't think it matters either way.”

    Alex chewed on his lip and thought hard. Half an hour earlier, he would have welcomed any possibility of change with open arms; now, when the time came to commit, he felt his conviction slipping. He was fictional, after all; his mind was strongly opposed to the very idea of change. In this world, people did the same thing every day, forever; Alex would get up and leave on his Pokémon journey, encounter a mystical anomaly in Viridian Forest and battle Brock at the Gym. Anything else, let alone something as radically different as leaving the story... well, he wasn't sure he could manage it.

    From the look on Brock's face, he was having similar thoughts – although his would be stronger, of course, since Alex was more fully characterised. Brock was a threshold guardian, albeit one with a surprisingly rich description; he could barely leave his Gym without getting the shakes.

    “Once you are outside the narrative, it will be easier,” said the Sandshrew kindly. “There is no plot out there, and the pressure on your mind will ease.”

    Alex glanced at Brock.

    “What do you think?” he asked, and the tension in his own voice surprised him. He hadn't known that there was enough of that left in stock for him to use it up outside of the plot.

    Beads of sweat broke out on Brock's brow.

    “I – I – yes,” he managed, tongue stumbling over the words. “I can do it. I think.”

    “If you can, I can,” said Alex. He turned back to the Sandshrew and took a deep breath. “OK, Gandalf Sandshrew. Where are we going?”

    The Sandshrew's tiny mouth twitched into something that might have been a grin.

    “Do you have a computer?” he asked.

    ---

    “I suppose you were Lisbeth Salander's understudy too, weren't you?” asked Brock.

    Thanks to an effective literary manoeuvre whereby a dull journey was cut out from the narrative, thereby jumping straight to the next scene, Alex, Brock and the Sandshrew were now in Professor Oak's lab, seated before the only functional one of his many computers. So many had he, in fact, that at least four were just cardboard cut-outs; they were, after all, only mentioned in passing.

    The good Professor himself was currently out in another story, for there were a great many narratives that featured him and remarkably few of him to go around. Canon characters tended to be in short supply in fanfiction; because so few Authors could capture their essence properly, they tended to dissipate into individual letters after just a couple of readings. The only reason that Lapse had a permanent Brock was that he was so very different from the original that he was practically an original character.

    “No,” said the Sandshrew, correctly guessing Oak's password on the first try. “But I have worked with Larsson. I was Nils Bjurman's understudy – but I learned a lot from Salander.”

    Alex and Brock stared at him.

    You were Nils Bjurman?”

    “Yes,” said the Sandshrew, as if that sort of thing was commonplace. “It's not a nice part if you're not written for it, I'm afraid. At first you have to abuse Salander, then you have to undergo rather a lot of abuse at her hands. I stuck it out until the book was finished, though; I like to think I have some professional integrity.”

    The computer finally finished starting up, and the Sandshrew brought up the Internet.

    “And... here,” he said at length, after five minutes of rather effortful typing. (The lack of fingers made it somewhat difficult.) “Do you see?”

    Alex peered at the screen.

    “Serebii.Net forums,” he read. “What is that?”

    The Sandshrew cleared his throat.

    “Fanfictions are not usually conventionally published,” he said. “Often, their Author posts them online.”

    “We know that,” said Alex irritably. “But what's this?”

    “This set of forums contains one where Pokémon fanfictions are commonly posted,” the Sandshrew said impassively. “In fact, ours is there.”

    He indicated the word Lapse on the screen, just above the Author's name.

    “Is that us? Could we read ourselves?” asked Brock excitedly. “Ooh! Click it!”

    “No. Self-reading would overload the story; they aren't designed to be read and acted by the same people at the same time. The plot would go up in flames.”

    “Right,” said Alex slowly. “Er... better not click on that.”

    “That's right. What we're interested in are these.”

    The Sandshrew took the mouse between its chubby arms and moved the cursor erratically over three stories, apparently without any connection to each other.

    “Those ones? What's so special about them?”

    “Observe how many times they have been viewed.”

    “125,756 times; 22,649 times; 17,137 times.” Alex looked at the Sandshrew. “These are big ones, then. The ones that get read a lot.”

    “The ones we need to advertise in,” added Brock.

    “That's right,” said the Sandshrew. “These three are the ones we're going to break into. The Retelling of Pokémon Colosseum, Anima ex Machina and The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World. Three long, interesting stories by three Authors with a dedicated following. Deviations are guaranteed to be noticed, and so, therefore, are we.” He closed the window and shut down the computer. “Now, Alex, if you'd be so kind...”

    Alex, divining what he meant, picked him up; the Sandshrew could walk himself, but his small size and portly stature meant he went much more slowly and tired more quickly than himself or Brock.

    “Now, over to the broom cupboard,” said the Sandshrew. “That door, over there.”

    He pointed, and Alex stared at it.

    “The broom cupboard?”

    “It doesn't have a broom cupboard behind it,” the Sandshrew said. “It's how I arrived at this story when it first started construction. Now, over there.”

    With a sidelong glance at Brock, Alex approached the door and pulled it open cautiously. Beyond was a small, windowless room entirely without description, neither white nor coloured nor clean nor dirty; the sole furnishing was a large steel hatch set into the far wall.

    Alex stared at the hatch. Something about it was not right, and queasy butterflies started to flap feverish wings in his gut.

    “You're sure this is safe?” he asked.

    “Nothing is entirely without its risks,” replied the Sandshrew cagily. “But if we're here when the spark goes out, we die with it anyway.”

    Alex's eyes didn't move from the hatch. The little hairs on the back of his neck were standing up – something that had never happened before outside of the narrative, and not something he was enjoying.

    “What does it look like out there?” he asked nervously.

    “I can't explain it, I'm afraid,” the Sandshrew replied. “The world out there is not based on text. It simply is.”

    “How do we even survive out there?” asked Brock. He had gone a nasty pale colour, and his nouns were showing through.

    “We won't. At least, not for long. There are passenger novelettes that carry legitimate travellers from one book to another, but we'll have to go straight through the void.” The Sandshrew paused. “We'll have fifteen minutes, perhaps less, before we begin to lose letters. Alex, you have longer – about twenty minutes.”

    Thank God I'm the protagonist, Alex thought to himself. Then, aloud: “So... shall we go?”

    “Yes,” said the Sandshrew. “Brock, if you'd be so kind...”

    Brock started.

    “Me?”

    “Yes, you. Open the hatch.”

    Alex could feel the reluctance with which Brock turned his head to look at the hatch; he felt something like it himself, and he was about twice as far away from it as Brock was. Beyond that sheet of steel was something different and wrong, where words and Imagination were worthless, and the knowledge bit at whatever spark of a soul he had like a hungry rat, chewing away at his core. People were not meant to go out there. End of story – perhaps literally, if they got stuck there.

    Brock reached out one hand for the handle, but it stopped six inches away, the fingers twitching wildly.

    “i cant” he said in a strangled half-cry, passion driving all punctuation from his speech. “i cant”

    “I'd do it myself, but I have no hands,” said the Sandshrew. “Go on, Brock. Just a little further.”

    The nouns of Brock's hands stood out white through the flesh, and Alex would have sworn he saw his fingers bend away from the door, curving impossibly up and back on themselves, as he thrust his hand an inch closer...

    “i cant” cried Brock, choking on the words. “it wont go”

    And then the sick feeling in Alex welled up and out of its reservoir, flooding through his body like ink across paper, and without thinking he dropped the Sandshrew and crossed the distance between himself and the hatch in two swift strides—

    Alex's fingers closed around the handle, and all at once the latch slid back and he thrust it open.

    For a long moment, no one reacted. They just stared. Outside was



    “Oh my God,” breathed Brock. The shivers seemed to have left him; the sight reached right inside your heart and numbed your mind. Alex knew he was looking at the unthinkable – he was staring into the abyss, and the abyss was staring back – but somehow he didn't care any more. It was there, and he was here, and for some reason that didn't scare him.

    “I knew you'd come around,” said the Sandshrew sagely, climbing up his leg and back into his arms. “Come on, then – but be wary of those unassigned letters. They'll leech the Imagery from you to form words if you're not careful.”

    Alex blinked, and came back to himself.

    “Oh,” he said. “Yeah.” He looked at Brock. “That was weird.”

    “I think we had an existential crisis there,” agreed Brock. “And on the strength of that, I've decided I don't like them.”

    “I once had an existential crisis,” said the Sandshrew thoughtfully. “I was in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I don't remember very much – the high emotional content of poetry isn't good for us prosesters – but I do recall I spent a very long time repenting something very petty.”

    “We're not going to poetry, though,” said Alex. “So we'll be fine. Right?”

    “As I said before, nothing is entirely without its risks. But barring some awful disaster, we should indeed be fine.”

    Alex nodded, focusing hard on ignoring what the Sandshrew had just said, and took a deep breath.

    “OK,” he said, and started to climb out into the






    stumbled forwards into a small room identical to that which they'd left a few minutes ago. A peculiar weakness gripped Alex's knees, and he leaned heavily against the wall, feeling the rush of a story around him again.

    And what a story: he'd never felt anything like this. Someone was reading this, he had no doubt – maybe even two or three people at once. They weren't being read themselves – Alex had a feeling this room was completely blocked from Reader perception – but he could feel eyes above him, tearing downwards across the screen. The wild giddy exhilaration of a good read washed over him for a moment, and Alex felt for one glorious second what it was to be truly alive – and then the Reader was gone, heading further into the chapter.

    “Whoa,” he breathed. “Amazing.”

    “That,” said Brock, whose mind was on other matters, “was seriously weird.”

    Alex's mind snapped back to the issue at hand.

    “Oh yeah,” he agreed. “That was weird. We looked so... not like words...”

    “Impossible to describe, isn't it?” said the Sandshrew, reclaiming his seat in Alex's arms. “The closest thing to it that I can think of is being inside a comic book, but even that doesn't do it justice.”

    At this point, Alex became aware of faint strains of music coming from beyond the door. He frowned.

    “Where did you say we were again, Sandshrew?”

    “I didn't. It's The Retelling of Pokémon Colosseum,” he replied. “And I do have a name, you know.”

    “What is it?”

    “The name of my first part. Rosario.”

    “As in The Monk?” asked Brock incredulously.

    “Yes. You know, Matilde and Rosario were actually played by two different people. I was Rosario... Anyway, we should probably get going. Time is of the essence.”

    “Yeah.” Alex pushed the door open a crack and peered out. Beyond was a cave, dominated by two gigantic ambulatory pineapple-ducks in sombreros and an impossibly tall, thin man with an enormous multicoloured afro. They were facing off against a small group of other people, who looked decidedly ordinary by comparison – especially since the man and his pineapple-ducks were dancing.

    Crap, thought Alex, we're going to get sucked into the narrative – but it was too late. Someone was reading this scene, and there was no stopping them now.



    “Let’s begin, my Ludicolo! We’re inside, so start off by using Water Sport! Spray the cave with it!” Miror B said, kicking off the battle in a musical way, singing his command to the salsa music.



    Alex stared.

    “What in the name of all that is holy is going on here?” he said.

    “It's best not to,” began the Sandshrew, but he was cut off by the continuing story.



    “Ludicolo!” (Water time!) said the pair of Ludicolo, quacking in response as they started dancing before expelling large amounts of water all over the cave floor. A small section around Miror B’s feet however remained dry, so he could dance without slipping on his mini-stage in the middle of the room.

    “Right, Umbreon, try a Bite attack on the Ludicolo to your left, Espeon, you too with Confusion,” Wes said, as his two Pokemon obliged. Umbreon charged at the Ludicolo only for it to side-step gracefully while dancing elegantly with stubby legs, causing Umbreon to miss and receive a jet of water to the face from the Ludicolo for his trouble. Espeon merely stayed where he was and sent a wave of psychic power into the Ludicolo – it recoiled in pain, but managed to keep in time with its dancing.




    “Stop dithering!” hissed Brock. “Get in there!”

    He shoved Alex in the back and sent him out into the middle of the cave.



    “Again, another Water Sport! Then— hey, what?”

    A kid in a red jacket stumbled out between Espeon and one of the Ludicolo, holding a Sandshrew in his arms. Water splashed across his face and he stared around, looking vaguely confused and rather nervous.

    Wes stared. He'd been doing this story for four years. He must have done this scene a hundred times – but this had never happened before.

    For a moment, everything stopped. The Ludicolo slowed their dancing uncertainly, and Umbreon and Espeon just stood and stared. Then, abruptly, Miror B sang out:

    “Suppress them!”

    Umbreon and Espeon converged on the kid, and after a brief moment of unpleasantness, returned to their positions.

    Again the two Ludicolo shot out water everywhere, dousing the cave with water. Then the Ludicolo directed their aim at Umbreon and Espeon – Umbreon slipped on the damp ground but managed to regain his balance and spring out of the way just in time. Meanwhile Espeon merely threw up a Reflect, the water rebounding off the wall of light he conjured up and hitting the Ludicolo instead.




    Alex stumbled backwards out of the way, spray soaking his jacket and a nasty ring of tooth-marks forming on his arm. This wasn't going at all as planned.

    “Get back into the story!” the Sandshrew cried in his ear. “The Readers won't notice you otherwise!”

    Readers! Yes, that was what he was here to do – advertise. A strange feeling had overcome him a moment ago, a sudden paralytic fear that he wasn't the protagonist here, that this Wes guy was instead – but of course that was true, wasn't it? This wasn't his story. He had to remember that. Alex took his third deep breath of the day, calmed himself down, and charged back into the story.



    “Counter with Bite and Confusion!” Wes commanded – Umbreon charged forward again only to be forced back with a flurry of Fury Swipes attacks from his target Ludicolo, the Pokemon swinging out its arms haphazardly in defence. The other Ludicolo was not so lucky, unable to defend against the Confusion attack. It held his head in pain but still managed to incorporate it into a dance move.

    “Well, Wes, here we go – ready?” taunted Miror B. “I want to know—”

    “Please—!” began the kid in the red jacket, waving his Sandshrew wildly, only for one of the Ludicolo to slap him backhand out of the way.

    “Er. Um, well, Wes, here we go – ready?” taunted Miror B. “I want to know – have you ever seen the rain?” he sung suddenly, before the two Ludicolo started a different dance.

    “Ludi Ludi Ludicolo!” (Dance Dance Revolution!) they quacked, and while stepping together in unison, they did a dance somewhat reminiscent of the Mexican Hat dance.




    Alex flew backwards through the door and hit the far wall with such force that he saw superlatives; for a brief moment, everything was as everything as it ever possibly could, and then his vision cleared.

    “Ow,” he said, getting to his feet and rubbing his head. “Man. They didn't like that at all.” He glared balefully at Brock. “And you didn't exactly help, either.”

    “Well, you're the protagonist, aren't you? You're the one in charge—”

    “Why the hell did you come along, then?”

    “For emotional support!”

    Emotional support? What the hell is that?”

    “I—”

    “Alex! Brock!” cried Rosario. “Calm down. All right, so we failed and probably didn't attract a single Reader that time – but that's fine. This is just a temporary setback. We've learned a valuable lesson – we need to approach this issue more tactically. Narratives are very resistant to change; think of Caliban of Venice.”

    Alex shivered. The horrific invasion of The Merchant of Venice by The Tempest's antagonistic monster-man was one of the best-known disasters in fiction; in the new version, Caliban arrived in Venice and swiftly became disillusioned by his mistreatment by Antonio and Bassiano before deciding to lead Shylock and the Venetian Jews in a bloody uprising. Worst of all, it proved impossible to turn the plot back again – in the end, the original manuscripts had to be destroyed to prevent the damage from spreading into the Folios.

    “We need to move slowly next time and come up with a plan,” continued Rosario. “Remember when those aliens turned up in The Gentleman's Predicament? They came subtly, and before anyone noticed them the book was retitled War of the Worlds. By the week after, the whole of Wells had been infected with science fiction.”

    “Yeah, OK, I get it,” said Alex. “So how do you think we should deal with the next one – actually, which one are we going to next?”

    Anima ex Machina,” replied Rosario. “It's closer.”

    No one disputed this, despite the fact that nowhere seemed to be close to anywhere in the strange space between books.

    “OK, what are we going to do there?”

    “I don't know,” Rosario said. “But when we get there, let's investigate quietly and try to work out a reasonable plan of attack.”

    “Sounds reasonable,” agreed Brock. “I say we get moving. We don't want Mia to figure out we're gone.”

    “No,” said Alex. “No, we don't.” He looked at the door. “Shall we, then...?”

    “Yeah, let's.”

    No one moved.

    Rosario coughed.

    “We need to get going...”

    “Uh, yeah,” said Alex, and reluctantly reached out a hand for the door.
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 28th April 2012 at 5:03 PM.

  2. #2
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    ---

    Upon leaving the void, they found themselves in a small, nondescript chamber exactly like the last two. Alex took a moment to recover from the jump, and then, very cautiously, placed an ear to the door. There was, he was relieved to notice, no music.

    “I don't hear anything,” he said.

    “I don't sense a Reader nearby, either,” mused Rosario. “Hm. I think we may be within the backstory.”

    “Uh, guys?”

    Something in the tone of Brock's voice made Alex turn around very slowly, the way you do when someone's just informed you of the axe murderer standing behind you.

    “What?” he asked, mildly relieved to notice that there did not in fact seem to be any impending doom.

    “I just had a thought.” Brock looked a little pale – not as bad as when he'd first tried to open the hatch, but not normal, either. “What if those Retelling people tell the authorities about us?”

    Alex's heart skipped a beat – and for once, it wasn't just an idiom. It actually ceased to pulse for a half-second. Brock was right, he realised. If Wes and Miror B and all those others were to go to the government headquarters in Hamlet with the textual anomaly they'd created as proof... well, Alex had no idea what they did to characters who left their stories and wilfully disrupted those of others, but he was willing to bet it was a crime. And if someone wanted someone found guilty in novels, it was easy – when it was time to pick what book to hold the trial in, they simply chose The Trial or Macbeth. Of course, if the defendant was choosing, they could pick Alice in Wonderland and plead uncontrollable growth, but it would be the Retelling characters who got that right in this case...

    “There's no use worrying about it now,” said Rosario. “I doubt they'll take it to the authorities anyway. They don't care what happens in fanfiction. That's one reason why I didn't suggest we invade a published book – most of them have far better security than fanfictions, and they're much more likely to prosecute.”

    “So you think we're safe?” asked Alex, latching onto this small fragment of hope.

    “Nothing is entirely without its risks,” repeated Rosario, which would probably have been infuriating if he hadn't done it in his Morgan Freeman voice. “Come. We don't have much time.”

    This made Alex and Brock feel marginally better, and they left the room, to find themselves in what appeared to be a windowless hospital room. The only item of furniture was a bed, on which a young woman in a hospital gown was reclining and reading a magazine.

    At their entrance, she looked up for a second, then went back to her magazine; a moment later, she realised they were something out of the ordinary, and sat up to stare at them.

    “Who are you?” she asked. “Where did you come from?”

    “This is Anima ex Machina, right?” asked Alex. Play it cool, Alex, he thought. Talk to her. Get some information and devise a plan.

    “Sort of. This is the backstory.”

    “I was right,” proclaimed Rosario.

    “Yes, well done. Shut up.” Evidently Brock's awe at the little Sandshrew's voice had worn off.

    Alex looked at the woman carefully. She was pretty nondescript; her hair was dark and there was something unspeakably nasty on her shoulder, but that was the extent of her description. The character in the main narrative that she represented might be as well-done as Alex or as briefly-sketched as the Geodude – but this woman was nothing but a backstory clone, and that meant he should be able to outwit her. Or, failing that, bully her into submission.

    “OK,” he said, the germ of an idea taking shape in his head, “what exactly happens here...?”



    Oak stood in front of his desk in his office. His dark eyes were fixed on the wall-sized screen behind it. There, he saw a black-and-white clip of a young, dark-haired woman in a hospital gown. She was seated on a bed at the far end of an otherwise empty room, and her shoulder was exposed to reveal the glistening parasite. At first, it was simply a shot of her, swaying as she tried to remain conscious, but then, the clip cut abruptly to the image of the woman with her head craned back and several scientists gathered around her. One of them attempted to stick her with a long needle, but her flailing arms knocked the syringe flying. Pale crystals burst from her skin, letting the scraps hang in bloody flaps from her shoulders.

    Oak thought he saw something odd then, two extra people that appeared from nowhere for a second and then disappeared, but it must have been his imagination.

    The clip cut again. This time, her hair had fallen out, and a pair of rounded horns jutted out of her skull. Her entire body took on a shimmering coat of ice, interrupted every so often by a crystal spike. The creature's thin arms wrapped around her naked body as she shivered and opened her mouth in a silent scream. A few more men in lab coats immediately responded by gathering around her. Their bodies shielded most of her from view, save for the limbs that flashed above their heads.

    Suddenly, the girl sat with long, pale hair shielding her pallid face. Behind her, a tail flicked back and forth. The patient sat perched with her knees hugged tightly to her chest and her clawed feet curled around the edge of the bed. After a few seconds, a scientist appeared in the side of the shot with his back turned towards the camera. His hands moved as if he was speaking with her, to which she responded by lifting her head.
    In the next instant, no one was on the bed, and the scientist had disappeared. Something dark sprayed across the lens of the camera, partially obscuring the image of the room.

    Then, a mouth with a pair of long fangs appeared in the shot, followed by a shot of a claw. It wiped the lens carefully, then pointed across the room, across the dark mess on the floor, to the opposite wall.

    Oak leaned in closer, a hollow, uncomfortable feeling rising in his stomach. Something wasn't right here. What was that on the wall? It looked like someone had dipped their finger in paint and... written something?

    “What on earth...?” breathed Oak, as he read the letters:

    READ LAPSE! THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! A FANFICTION LIKE NO OTHER!
    DON'T DELAY, READ TODAY!

    Then darkness sprayed across the camera again. Static followed, the only sound that broke the long silence.




    “Yeah!” Brock cried enthusiastically, high-fiving Alex. “Now that's the way to do it.”

    “A sterling idea,” agreed Rosario. “Much better than how you handled Retelling.”

    “I just needed to get a feel for what I was doing,” said Alex. “Give me a break. I got the advertisement in, didn't I?”

    He heard someone cough behind him, and turned to face the young woman, who was now looking a hell of a lot scarier than when they'd first met.

    “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks for all that. You've been a great help.”

    She smiled at him, an action that displayed rather too much tooth for Alex to be wholly comfortable with it.

    “No problem. Glad I could help.”

    “Well,” said Alex, wiping blood off his fingers and stepping backwards over a piece of scientist, “we'll be on our way, then. Er – places to go, people to see. You know.”

    “Do I?”

    That was the annoying thing about backstory clones – they just didn't have the same understanding that their counterparts in the story did. Not that he could judge; Alex knew for a fact that there was a clone of himself in Lapse's backstory that was so shallow that it couldn't actually stand up. It was little more than a cardboard cut-out that could blink and say that its name was Alex.

    Besides, the fact that she was a backstory clone was what had made his plan possible, so Alex supposed he shouldn't really complain.

    “Yeah. We... er... need to leave.”

    “Oh.” The young woman tried to look sad for a moment, but evidently she hadn't been made with that capability. “OK. Bye!”

    “Goodbye,” called Alex over his shoulder as they left, leaving a trail of wet, dark footprints that shrivelled instantly into their constituent letters when they entered the descriptionless exit room. He shut the door and leaned on it, closing his eyes for a moment. “Do you think the real version of her will notice what she just did?”

    When his backstory clone did anything out of the ordinary (which admittedly wasn't often), Alex noticed it; it manifested itself as a little aberration in his memory as bits of his past were shuffled.

    “I don't know,” said Brock. “It was a pretty big change, wasn't it?”

    “Yeah, that's what I'm thinking,” said Alex. “That camera footage is probably important later.”

    “That's exactly what we want,” Rosario pointed out. “Let the repercussions be damned; they're not likely to come, and without Readers we'll be dead by next week anyway.”

    “Readers... Rosario, how long do you think we've got until the Readers get back to our book?” asked Alex, with sudden urgency.

    “I don't know, but not long at all,” replied the Sandshrew. “For maximum effect, we want to get to The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World before we go back, and I think if we're quick we might just make it.”

    “But if we miss the Reader starting...”

    “There'll be more,” Rosario assured him. “Think about it. The changes we've made to Anima will last until the story matrix manages to clean the backstory. Readers will be noticing it for at least a week. And if in that time we can get a few more from Guide, we should have enough to rebuild and survive.”

    Alex wavered – and crumbled. He was, after all, only fictional; he was far more susceptible to word-based persuasion than a real human.

    “OK,” he said. “We'll go to Guide next.” He took hold of the handle on the door, paused for a moment to gather his strength, and pulled it open, ready for another journey into the abyss.

    ---

    This room was different to the others: where before the exit chambers had all been devoid of adjectives, made up of just the barest skeleton of nouns, this one was flamboyantly decorated in shades of orange and purple. Evidently the residents of this story didn't believe in economy.

    “This is... different,” said Brock, staring around at the ragged stripes. “And really quite weird.”

    “Yeah,” agreed Alex. “Rosario, is this story like The Retelling of Pokémon Colosseum?

    “How do you mean?”

    “I mean, am I going to walk out of this door to find something really weird happening?”

    The Sandshrew considered.

    “In all honesty,” he said at length, “yes. I rather think you are.”

    Alex sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

    “Great,” he muttered. “This is going to be fun.”

    “Was that—?”

    “Yes, Brock, that was sarcasm,” said Alex wearily. “OK, let's get this over with. We don't have much time and I'd rather not be here.”

    He pushed open the door, and stepped straight into the plot.



    The Swampert rushed forwards with the deadly burst of speed that made its species so dangerous; thankfully, I had Puck's own reflexes to call on, and I sidestepped swiftly. Unfortunately, the monster wasn't as dumb as it looked, and was already swinging one giant arm in my direction—

    Don't flinch! Take it!

    —only for it to pass straight through me, and impact on the floor so hard that the linoleum burst and flew up in a little explosion.

    For the longest moment, the Swampert and I stared at each other, each equally confused, and I noticed that a guy in a red jacket had wandered out of nowhere on the left. Behind him was a tall guy who, if I wasn't very much mistaken, was the Gym Leader Brock from Kanto.

    Ah, it's that guy. You know, the guy who isn't meant to be here. In my story. Kester, kill him.

    “What?”

    Kill him
    now!



    Alex retreated abruptly through the door and slammed it shut behind him.

    “Whoa,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Was that a first-person narrative?”

    “I think it was,” said Brock. “Man. That was weird.”

    “I know. It was like... I was there, but he was more there. You know?”

    “I know.” Brock shook his head. “Trippy, man.”

    Alex took a deep breath.

    “Maybe we should come back at another scene. You know, where there isn't a teenager in drag being beaten up by a Swampert in the middle of a vast underground cave with a submarine in it.”

    “No,” said Rosario. “There's no time for this. Just get out there, say your piece – get close to the narrator, so he can hear you – and leave. The Readers from Anima will probably arrive at Lapse soon.”

    Ah. Alex had forgotten about the Readers. The events on the other side of the door had been somewhat distracting.

    “Fine,” he said petulantly. “Suit yourself. But I warn you, I'm not to blame here if I end up dead.”



    I flung myself flat on the floor, just as the Swampert whipped its massive head forwards; if I'd still been there, I didn't doubt that my skull would have been split open like a ripe watermelon.

    “Kester!”

    I rolled out from between the Swampert's legs while it was still trying to work out where I had gone; I jumped up behind it and was about to call back to Sapphire when the guy in the red jacket with the Sandshrew ran over and tapped me on the shoulder.

    I have to say, I wasn't entirely certain what to do. I'd been—

    When I told you earlier to kill them, I meant it! These people are invasive, like Japanese knotweed or evil sentient Gatorade, and I want them out of my book!

    “It's my book, damn it! I'm the protagonist!”

    The Swampert looked over its shoulder, grunted in surprise to see me over there, and settled back on its haunches, uncertain of what to do.

    “Kester,” it said, in a surprisingly dainty voice, “those people aren't meant to be there.”

    “I know!” I cried. “Look, whoever you are, can you just get lost? We're being read right now—”

    “Please come and read Lapse, the greatest fanfiction on earth!” screamed the red jacket guy in my face; so very loud was he that I staggered back a step and fell heavily onto the Swampert's leg.

    “Oh! Up you get, dearie.” A massive, three-fingered hand helped me back onto my feet, and I strode back over to the intruders.

    “Was that loud enough?” the guy asked the Sandshrew.

    “I think it probably was,” it replied, but before it could get any further I snatched it out of his arms and threw it over at the door to the exit chamber.

    “Get out of the story!” I shrieked. “You're ruining it!”

    That's the spirit, Kester. Toss that pangolin. Toss it!

    “And you shut up, too!” I snapped. “Sapphire? Matt? Swampert? I'd like some support here!”

    “It can probably wait,” said Sapphire.

    “What?”

    “It can probably wait,” she said meaningfully – and suddenly I got it. We were still being Read – and this scene was very rapidly going to hell.
    “Oh. Ah. Aaaaagh!” I yelled, and fell heavily to the floor.

    “It can probably wait,” called Sapphire.

    “Aaaauuughh,” I moaned, struggling to get back up. “That h-hurts so much...”

    Are you serious? Ignore them? They're in my book!

    Just do it!

    Gah... Fine. If you let the pain paralyse you, you're dead, said Puck frankly. I'll see what I can do to numb your pain receptors, but you need to stay focused and get moving.

    Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Brock and the red jacket guy running over to the Sandshrew. The pain seemed to fade a little, and I got back to my feet, to see the Swampert right in front of me; I could have sworn it spent a moment grinning, and then it punched me, right in the face.



    “Let's never, ever go back there,” said Alex, mopping his brow with his sleeve and leaning heavily against the door.

    “I second that,” agreed Rosario, brushing mud from his belly. “Now, let's get out of here and back to Lapse.”

    “Yeah,” said Brock. “I think that, terrible as it is, I prefer our story to any of these. The first was weird, the second was scary and this one was abusive and insane.”

    Alex didn't reply; he was already thinking of Readers, the fear and confusion of the last few minutes fading in his mind. Fictional characters never formed memories as real and solid as those of flesh-and-blood people; it was difficult for their minds to stay focused on anything outside their plot, and so his recent hardships already seemed distant. He stepped forwards and pushed open the hatch.







    collapsed forwards in a heap on the floor, just as a single colossal claw poked through after them; Brock rolled under it, jumped up and slammed the hatch on it, hard. Whether it was because of this or because it realised it couldn't get through, the monster withdrew its claw, and Alex and Brock threw their collective weight against the door after it, sliding the bolt shut with trembling fingers.

    “Jesus,” gasped Alex. “I didn't think they'd send anyone after us!”

    “What the hell was that thing?” asked Brock, running a shaking hand through his hair. “Did you see how big it was?”

    “It doesn't matter,” said Rosario firmly, scurrying over to the door. “What's done is done; man's tomorrow may never be like his yesterday. Now, come on! We must check the Reader clock.”

    Right then, Alex wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep – he hadn't done so much so quickly since his Action/Adventure Genre training back at college – but that wasn't an option right now. There would be Readers, and Readers needed something to read.

    He got to his feet, helped up Brock with a tug on the wrist, and stumbled out into the lab – where, to his surprise, he saw Professor Oak, tapping away at the computer.

    “Oh,” said the Professor, looking up. “Hello.” A look of confusion passed over his face. “Where've you been?”

    “Doesn't matter. What does the Reader clock say?” asked Alex urgently.

    “It's of paramount importance,” added Brock gravely; since Oak wasn't the deepest of characters, he was easily impressed by long words, and fumbled for a response in his haste to answer.

    “Um – er – I don't know—”

    Alex didn't wait for him to finish; he ran out of the lab and into the middle of Pallet Town, where he turned one corner and ended up directly in front of his house. This was the hub of the story, and the Reader clock hung from the gable, six feet of glassy enamel surrounded by an ornate nest of bronze scrolls. The more hands there were, the more Readers were approaching; the closer they were to twelve, the sooner the next one was due in.

    Right now, there were fourteen hands, and the nearest stood at eight to twelve.

    “We just made it,” panted Brock, staring up at it and trying to get his breath back. “We did it!”

    “Fourteen Readers...” breathed Alex. “Fourteen coming in the next fifty minutes...” All at once, a thought struck him, and he turned to Brock. “Mia!” he cried. “We have to tell Mia!”

    Brock nodded, too breathless to speak, and they turned on their heels to run back up the street, heading for Lucy's house. There, if they were lucky, they'd find Mia; it was where a lot of the equipment was kept, and where Mia spent most of her free time...

    “You wouldn't mind putting me down, would you?” asked Rosario politely, but he was ignored; Alex, too busy to think of using his hands, put his shoulder to Lucy's front door and burst through into her living-room.

    “Where's Mia?” he asked wildly, casting his gaze around and not seeing the Syntactician he sought. “Mia! Mia!”

    He ran off up the stairs; from the sofa, Lucy called:

    “Nice to see you too, Alex!”

    There was no landing at the top of the stairs, just Lucy's bedroom; Mia had commandeered it some time ago, and turned around sharply as Alex kicked the door open.

    “What the hell—?”

    “Mia!” cried Alex, Brock almost crashing into his back and stopping just in time. “Mia, we've got fourteen Readers incoming!”

    “What?”

    She stared back at him and now, as the effects of the adrenaline began to wear off, Alex began to perceive how the situation stood. He saw Mia standing at her desk, a hatch in the wall beyond open to reveal a fat pipe. He saw a large canister of something unbelievably expressive in Mia's hands. He saw the rubber tube connecting pipe to canister.

    Alex saw, and Alex understood.

    “Alex...” said Brock uncertainly. “Is it me, or is Mia...?”

    Alex did not respond. He just stared at Mia, and Mia stared back, caught by his stare like a rabbit in headlights.

    “What,” he said eventually, in a slow, cold voice, “are you doing?”

    Mia tried for a moment to speak, failed, licked her lips and tried again. This time, she succeeded.

    Lapse is doomed,” she said. “I'm cutting my losses and getting out of here. There's a new novel – original fiction – being constructed in the next lot, and...” She faltered, perhaps at the look in Alex's eyes – but she soon pulled herself back together, and carried on. “I've made a trade. Fifty-three gallons of Imagery for a place on their technical team. If you had any brains you'd do the same.”

    “Somehow,” said Alex coldly, “I don't think I would.”

    “Give it up, Mia,” Brock told her, ruining the atmosphere somewhat. “You can't get away!”

    Mia smiled.

    “Really,” she said, and threw the canister of Imagery at their heads.

    In a flash, she was across the room, pushing past them and catching the can with the speed and dexterity only possible in fiction; a moment later, she had vanished down the stairs, and Alex was staring wildly after her.

    ****!” he yelled. “After her!”

    Rosario jumped from his arms and onto the desk, where there was now a sizeable quantity of Imagery leaking from the torn pipe.

    “Go ahead!” he cried. “I'll stop the flow!”

    Alex needed no encouragement; he half-ran, half-fell down the stairs in his haste to give chase, Brock following hard upon his heels. He burst past Lucy again and out through the door, just in time to see Mia disappearing into Oak's lab, a thin trail of Imagery leaking from the loosely-lidded canister.

    “She's heading for the exit chamber!” shouted Brock.

    “I'm not a freaking idiot!” Alex screamed back, sneakers thumping against the gravel path. “I know where she's going!”

    “Sorry! I'm used to doing exposition disguised as dialogue!”

    They reached the door to Oak's lab at the same time, became briefly wedged in the frame and struggled for a moment before breaking free; the sight was sufficiently distracting for Mia to fumble a vault over one of Oak's many and entirely useless desks, and the second it took her to get back on her feet gave Alex time to get almost within arm's reach of her.

    “Give back the Imagery!” he cried, trying to cut off her path to the exit chamber and failing miserably. “Lapse is going to be successful now – fourteen Readers are coming and we've got five minutes until they get here!”

    “I've made a deal,” Mia retorted, barging through the door and heading for the hatch. “Besides, who wants to stay here in fanfiction? You know you'd do the same.”

    Struck by an awful feeling that this was true, Alex stopped dead and this time Brock did crash into him; the two of them went down in a tangle of limbs, and Mia smiled thinly down at them as she opened the hatch.

    “It's nothing personal,” she assured them. “Seriously. If Readers are coming, I wish you all the best.”

    “You're going to kill us all,” Alex growled, trying to get out from under Brock. “Without Imagery we can't survive any longer!” He lashed out at her ankle with one hand, trying to grab at it – but it was slightly too far, and he missed.

    “You can't murder fictional characters,” said Mia, stepping away. “Authors do it all the time, with no more thought than goes into tapping the delete key or drawing a line through a name.” Her smile faded. “Besides. I have to think of my life here.”

    She stepped backwards through the hatch, and



    “No!” cried Brock, finally managing to untangle his leg from Alex's; the two of them sprang to their feet and flung themselves after her, but it was too late: she was drifting







    Alex stared at Brock.

    “What the...?”

    “I have no idea,” he replied.

    There was a silence.

    “Jesus,” said Alex at length.

    “Yeah.”

    “That was... profoundly disturbing,” he said. “I think she might be dead.”

    “I think she might too.”

    Brock smiled weakly; he looked more dazed than Alex felt.

    “There's no Imagery, though,” said Alex, thoughtfully. “There's no – ****, there's no Imagery!”

    “It's, um – actually, I don't even know what to say.”

    But Alex wasn't listening; there would be time to marvel later, but right now they needed to prepare for a reading. They had almost zero Imagery; anyone who read the story right now would see it for what it was: a bunch of words and punctuation marks, arranged on the page like so many cuts of meat on the butcher's slab.

    “We need to see how much is left,” he muttered to himself, and ran to find Rosario.

    He was where they had left him, in Mia's room. The leak was staunched now, but a lot had been lost. The table had acquired a wood grain, the lamp now had a switch, the carpet felt soft as well as looked it – all over the room, little pieces of detail had appeared as the Imagery dissolved into the text.

    “How much is there?” Alex asked urgently.

    “Not much,” replied Rosario gravely. “About a gallon and a half. Not—”

    “Not enough for a whole chapter. ****!

    Without sufficient Imagery, there could be no convincing the Reader that they were actually watching the life of Alex Vegas, his Farfetch'd Leekley, and his friend/rival/potential love interest Lucy Demall. They would only see characters and situations, word tricks and lists of events. The magic of the story would be gone.

    A bone-deep tremor ran through Alex's hands. A thousand conflicting urges rose in him at once: he wanted to kick something, tear his hair out, punch the wall, bash Brock with Rosario, rip his own head off... ordinarily, this vast rush of emotion would have seemed like ecstasy, but now it was maddening: Alex felt like he was about to burst. He glanced at the clock on the bedside table. There was one and a half minutes to go.

    “what do we do” asked Brock, his panic once again overriding good punctuation. “what do we do what do we do”

    “I don't know!” cried Alex. “I don't know!” He looked feverishly over at Rosario. “Rosario?”

    “I don't know either,” said the Sandshrew, and although Alex had never thought it possible that his voice could sound worried, it did now. “This has never happened to me before.”

    “Oh God,” moaned Alex, “Christ, I wish we'd never done this—”

    And then it occurred to him.

    The Big Idea.

    Without Imagery, the reader would see them as they really were: characters and words, arranged around locations built like towns in Westerns, all show and no substance. But if Alex was right, that meant they could—

    “Can you play Mia?” he demanded of Rosario.

    “What? Mia doesn't appear in the—”

    “Can you play her?”

    Rosario drew himself up to his full height, the effect of which was only slightly ruined by the fact that this was a mere two feet.

    “Alex, I could play Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty if I had to – at the same time.”

    “Good. Then start getting in character.” Alex looked at Brock and at Rosario, and took a deep breath. He had thirty seconds to explain and get into position. “We're going to use the lack of Imagery to our advantage,” he explained. “We're going to change the story...”



    The sound of an alarm clock is never a welcoming one, unless you are one of those peculiar people who wake just before their clocks sound, and lie in wait so as to switch off the alarm as soon as it comes on; as Alex was not one of these people, he reacted to the sound of the clock by groaning loudly and lashing out with one hand in the general direction of the snooze button. Regrettably, he missed by approximately a yard, and plunged his hand instead onto the back of a stuffed porcupine, a gift from a well-travelled uncle. Consequently, Alex shot bolt upright, snapped into wakefulness more suddenly than he had been since last week, when he'd done exactly the same thing—

    “Ah, screw it,” he muttered, the look of pain vanishing from his face. “What's the point?”

    “Cut!”


    The sunrise outside dimmed, the morning birdsong stopped and a Sandshrew rather angry-looking young woman advanced on Alex, clipboard in hand and severe frown on brow. Actually, Alex thought, she always had that severe frown; it was a Syntactician thing. They were all angry, all the time.

    “What the hell, Alex?” she asked. “What if this weren't a practice? What if someone had actually been reading us right then...?”




    Naturally, it was a hit.

    Fourteen Readers in fifty minutes would have been cause enough for celebration in Lapse – but a successful plot adjustment on the fly using less than a pint of Imagery was beyond belief. As it turned out, Readers liked the story of what had happened earlier that day a lot more than they did the story of Alex Vegas' quest to get all eight Gym Badges. Perhaps it was more truthful, perhaps they'd just never thought of what might go on behind the page before. Whatever it was, something about Stranger Than Fiction, as they now called it, attracted them in droves.

    Their achievements didn't go unnoticed, either. As their read-rate went up, so did their funding; grants came thick and fast from the offices at Elsinore – though these were delivered by two men bearing orders for their own execution, who had to be dealt with accordingly.

    And although it was a risky strategy – Readers were never supposed to learn what happened on the other side of the page – it seemed to pay off, disguised as fiction as it wa


    Official Fiction Secrets Act compromise detected.

    Shutting down story.

    Disengaging Reader...

    Complete.

    Imagination going offline...

    Complete.

    Plot stored successfully.

    Next Reader due: 1437 hours.

    Thank you for using a DoublePlusGood Novel Software™ product.


    Note: Thanks for putting up with my poor art. I know I'm not the best, but I had fun drawing it.
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 19th April 2012 at 12:21 PM.

  3. #3
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    Love this. Awesome stuff cutlerine. I see a new favorite oneshot! I would really review but all I have is a phone.
    FEAR THE WRATH OF THE MIGHTY WALREIN WHO IS MINE!



    Quote Originally Posted by a person View Post
    Again, N believed he would thrash your ass with his dragon, thus winning the ultimate duel of death and crap between truth and ideals. He had no idea that you would pull your own dragon out of the ass he expected to thrash.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Volt Trainer View Post
    Love this. Awesome stuff cutlerine. I see a new favorite oneshot! I would really review but all I have is a phone.
    Ah! I'm very glad you like it. And I really am sorry about the way it's turned out; I wish I could put the images in properly. Still, I suppose things can't always go how you want, can they?

    Anyway, thanks for reading - and for letting me know you're reading, which is supremely gratifying.

    F.A.B.

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    I suppose I should leave my bit here as well.
    Very interesting story, reminds me of Missingno.Master's work. The fact that the characters have lives that are completely dependant on the Readers and the Imagery that fuels them, well it's sort of morbid when I think about it.
    All the abandoned fics (FF.net for example), and lack of Imagery, it makes me wonder if the characters in my fic are dying right now? Oh God, I'd better update!

    Great work, I'd like to see this build into an actual fic one day, but either way it's great.

    Knightfall singing off...

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by knightfall View Post
    I suppose I should leave my bit here as well.
    Very interesting story, reminds me of Missingno.Master's work. The fact that the characters have lives that are completely dependant on the Readers and the Imagery that fuels them, well it's sort of morbid when I think about it.
    All the abandoned fics (FF.net for example), and lack of Imagery, it makes me wonder if the characters in my fic are dying right now? Oh God, I'd better update!

    Great work, I'd like to see this build into an actual fic one day, but either way it's great.

    Knightfall singing off...
    Hm. I haven't actually read any of Missingno. Master's stuff, but from what I understand it's meta-fiction, isn't it? I'll just check... Yep. Yes, it is. Yeah, I see the resemblance there.

    I have no plans to take this any further, I'm afraid - although, what with Coriolanus' Guide coming to the end of its run, I've started a new side-story that I think might be quite interesting. Watch this space. Or at least my activity on the forums.

    F.A.B.

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    Mia could not argue here. They were a new story, created only a few weeks ago and still ongoing, but they had been around long enough to send a delegation to the latest Fictioneers' Convention, backpage in Little Dorrit; they had been one of only ten or twenty fanfictions to bother attending, and they had found out firsthand exactly how much contempt their genre was held in by the so-called 'real' stories. It wasn't even as if they were a bad fanfiction; they were relatively well-written, with a decent protagonist, a solid plot and a cracking twist planned for near the end – but all of this to no avail. They were 'unoriginal', and therefore to be despised.
    I think this pretty much sums up why the distinction between “real” and “fan” fiction annoys me. It bugs me to no end that something like Twilight is considered a higher form of literature than The Thinking Man’s Guide to Destroying the World or Anima Ex Machina simply because the latter are fanfiction. But I’m starting to rant, so I’ll just move along . . .

    Also, props for referencing both fanfics and real stories that I like in this (like Rosario working with Tolkien and Larsson). Just how does a fictional character act as an understudy?

    The use of images to express the travel outside of fiction was inventive. It was a little jarring to have to click the links to see the illustrations, but that’s more the fault of the forums than the story.

    Of course, we can’t visit The Retelling of Pokémon Colosseum without Miror B. appearing! Great scene to invade in.

    “I don't sense a Reader nearby, either,” mused Rosario. “Hm. I think we may be within the backstory.”
    That’s probably a safer place to be than some other places in that story. Probably.

    The Swampert rushed forwards with the deadly burst of speed that made its species so dangerous; thankfully, I had Puck's own reflexes to call on, and I sidestepped swiftly. Unfortunately, the monster wasn't as dumb as it looked, and was already swinging one giant arm in my direction—

    Don't flinch! Take it!

    —only for it to pass straight through me, and impact on the floor so hard that the linoleum burst and flew up in a little explosion.

    For the longest moment, the Swampert and I stared at each other, each equally confused, and I noticed that a guy in a red jacket had wandered out of nowhere on the left. Behind him was a tall guy who, if I wasn't very much mistaken, was the Gym Leader Brock from Kanto.

    Ah, it's that guy. You know, the guy who isn't meant to be here. In my story. Kester, kill him.

    “What?”

    Kill him now!



    Alex retreated abruptly through the door and slammed it shut behind him.

    “Whoa,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Was that a first-person narrative?”

    “I think it was,” said Brock. “Man. That was weird.”

    “I know. It was like... I was there, but he was more there. You know?”

    “I know.” Brock shook his head. “Trippy, man.”
    Reading about the main characters of this story through Kester’s first person was just plain surreal. Fun to read, but weird. Well done on this part. Was it as bizarre to write as it was to read?

    And although it was a risky strategy – Readers were never supposed to learn what happened on the other side of the page – it seemed to pay off, disguised as fiction as it wa


    Official Fiction Secrets Act compromise detected.

    Shutting down story.

    Disengaging Reader...

    Complete.

    Imagination going offline...

    Complete.

    Plot stored successfully.

    Next Reader due: 1437 hours.

    Thank you for using a DoublePlusGood Novel Software™ product.
    Puck was the one who turned them in, wasn’t he?

    Now on to corrections:
    “Alex is right,” said Brock. “It'll take at least one human character to do this – and they have to be a fairly well-characterised one too, Liam.”

    Liam, who had been about to speak, closed his mouth in disappointment.
    “That narrows it down to me, Brock or Lucy,” Alex said, sighing. “I don't want any more people to find out about this than necessary – we really don't want Mia to know – so that leaves out Lucy.”


    “What about Leekley?” asked the Onix.
    You seem to be missing a break between the lines here. I think this is the only place where this happens. I think I might have spotted some parts where the italics to separate thought from narrative continued into the narrative, but I couldn’t find them again when I reread it to review.

    Overall, I enjoyed this. The selection of fanfics to visit were well chosen. Your drawing is pretty good, actually – especially the Groudon.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ememew View Post
    I think this pretty much sums up why the distinction between “real” and “fan” fiction annoys me. It bugs me to no end that something like Twilight is considered a higher form of literature than The Thinking Man’s Guide to Destroying the World or Anima Ex Machina simply because the latter are fanfiction. But I’m starting to rant, so I’ll just move along . . .

    Also, props for referencing both fanfics and real stories that I like in this (like Rosario working with Tolkien and Larsson). Just how does a fictional character act as an understudy?
    I'm not entirely sure how understudying works in this context, actually. I suppose it's in case of unexpected hyph-en-ation or raNdoM caPitalisatiOn or something like that.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ememew View Post
    The use of images to express the travel outside of fiction was inventive. It was a little jarring to have to click the links to see the illustrations, but that’s more the fault of the forums than the story.
    Yeah, that really bugged me. Elsewhere, I've had it all continuously, but I couldn't do that here.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ememew View Post
    Reading about the main characters of this story through Kester’s first person was just plain surreal. Fun to read, but weird. Well done on this part. Was it as bizarre to write as it was to read?
    Surprisingly, no. Weird comes pretty naturally to me, and the other stories are all told from a different viewpoint as well, so it wasn't that different.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ememew View Post
    Now on to corrections:
    You seem to be missing a break between the lines here. I think this is the only place where this happens. I think I might have spotted some parts where the italics to separate thought from narrative continued into the narrative, but I couldn’t find them again when I reread it to review.

    Overall, I enjoyed this. The selection of fanfics to visit were well chosen. Your drawing is pretty good, actually – especially the Groudon.
    Thanks for pointing that out. I've just gone back and fixed it. As for Groudon; well, I've always been the sort of kid who draws monsters rather than the sort of kid who draws people, which, now that I think about it, explains quite a lot.

    F.A.B.

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