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.
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?”
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.”
“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?”
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,” 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.
“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.”
“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...”
“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.
“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:
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?”
“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...?”
No one moved.
“We need to get going...”
“Uh, yeah,” said Alex, and reluctantly reached out a hand for the door.