044. Say Less, Seymour

Sheridan had read everything that David Arnover had ever written, and even some of the things that he had never let escape from his skull. Super-positional Libraries were an amazing thing.

How were you supposed to feel when you met a person that was writing about your life in a way that was more than likely creating the riptides under the surface that pulled you left right and centre? Well, you had to get used to it, didn’t you? How long had it been since they had broken reality, and how long had it been since they had started trying to unbreak it?

Travel to The Time Slot and you could see how the place where time travel had originated and how it had fared since that point, when the entire weight of existence had come crashing down on one single notional point and caused the entire multi-verse to buckle from the pressure.

A single sad Chanticleer sat there nursing a broken egg timer that never emptied because it was something that could never be fixed and in some superpositional sense was never really broken. They called the town Start’s Top, and they called the man Saa the Swahili word for clock. Saa had trained for a while with the Burundi drummers so that he might take his drum and be the heartbeat of Start’s Top. Sheridan first went there when he and Quint Essential were setting up The Quantum Elements, as part of The Quint Essential Directive.

He knew that he had entered a breakdown loop. As soon as the thing with Ardenti In Mundo had happened he saw his mirror image Dying Element fold in through a conjunction tesseract, and his compressed Bardo Thodol unpacked through a hovering Vector Flower.

They had all moved on. He sat there in that bar all alone. A jammed picture disintegrating in the gate. Life didn’t flash before the eyes of a Living Element. Death was a door slamming in the wind, smiling with a face you knew was the opposite of you. The Dying Element sat opposite him.

‘Greetings, brother, I am the dark hand come to clasp yours in friendship as I take the name Sheridan from you, and give you your new mask’

‘What is the word in the mouth of my new face?’

‘I am Death, father of your new self, and I shall call you Phelim.’

They shook hands, and Sheridan fell backwards off his chair, arms flung outwards, and he landed, posed like Christ on the floor. This death was necessary – his energy was recompense for the damage done to the universe by the havoc that Spay had wrought.

No one stepped near him. Everyone knew that when the green light shone from the eyes of a Living Element that death was upon them, and that birth would soon arrive. The entire bar was lit green, like an underwater grotto, and his face began to change – the visage of Sheridan faded, and the visage of Phelim settled into place. His back arched like a surge of electricity had passed through him and the force pushed him upright.

‘I have my mask, now I bid my shadow farewell.’

Death gripped the brim of its fedora span on its heel, and left the bar.

The bar was silent. Not many outside of The Living Elements were ever privy to the ceremony of death, though many had heard of the births. Death as a part of the cycle of the eternal life of a Living Element was not something that many people thought about. There were many people with tear tracks down their face. Phelim, who had been Sheridan was smiling widely. He knew it would be raining outside because the world always wished to lick a reborn Living Element clean.

He stepped through the doorway and the street was liquid.

Seymour, The Twisted Prophet had watched it all. It was always interesting for him and his kind – to travel alongside the Living Elements that they were bound to, and to see such change, and to not undergo such a drastic change themselves. Here, outside their own time, his Living Element had gone through such a profound change, he had to wonder what the ripple effect would be where they came from, when Phelim stepped into the world that Sheridan had left.

He followed close behind this new man as he stretched his legs.

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043. Get Carter

Carter sat opposite Quint Essential talking about Spay and talking about the fractured entity that was Coran Andress, his timeline fragmenting and realigning like the twist of colour in a kaleidoscope.

Carter was here and there, but in a different way to Quint – Quint was pretty much a straight line, whereas Carter was both the collapsed wave and the uncollapsed wave at the same time. A line bouncing around from spot to spot. Wasn’t his life a series of slot experiments

When one trained as a Reality Engineer one had to be used to the notion that when they fixed something it was both always fixed and never fixed. Time was elastic, logic was elastic, and reality was likewise … elastic.

Carter Brecht unboiled eggs. Unboiled them and in a sense reinserted them into hens – Bloop Hens. An endless series of iterations and echoes What did it all mean? Some days he truly believed that it meant nothing – that all their whole war represented was a symbolic enlargement of a process that was reflected throughout every layering of fractal echoes from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic. Reality Engineers were an extrapolation of the technology that people daily employed to live their lives. Immaculate Authors were architectural structures rising up out of the collective consciousness of every person as an author in their own lives.

He did not often smoke but something about it attracted him today. Something demanded smoke rings. Something demanded the smell of burning tobacco.

Quint looked at him – he realised that something interesting was happening with this man who he felt more and more comfortable calling a friend. Some days Quint was very aware that things were being broken down and built up within the very quite space that these Reality Engineers constructed around themseleves, and that if there were one Engineer who was better at constructing this cocoon about themselves, it was Carter.

Carter may have never actually sat down in front of a chessboard, and he may have never sacrificed a pawn, he may never have castled a rook, and he may never have taken a king, but Quint knew that he was a Grandmaster more than anyone else he had ever met. To say that the universe was an exploded diagram to Carter did not capture the complexity of what he was able to see and what he was able to perceive.

Quint had visited those who worshipped The Uncollapsed Wave and it surprised him that he had never really stopped to truly consider what it was that the wave represented – the Uncollapsed Wave was a map of the decisional flows that made up a person’s life – it was a codified expression of movement through the physical universe representing the intentional push of an individual as they lived their life. Why had he always thought that it was always something that edged into science, when it was so clearly something that spoke of the spirit. In a moment, seeing his friend sat their wrapped in ribbons of smoke, he understood both the beauty of everything, and the integral divinity of the universe and his friend, and by extension, himself.

They were each sparks that set this burning world alight. Their burning world was their position as the heart of stars burning brightly in constellations set in place in their past to light the passages they would take in their future.

The integrity collapse of Coran Andress, the failure of the story of David Arnover, the intrusion of those from The Unscripted Realms, and the ever-present interference of Spay — all that represented was the negative space between the brightness The darknesses were islands in a sea of illumination, and in comparison to the truth of the incandescent whole, the shadows were such small broken fragments that he finally wondered what exactly it was that they were all scared of.

Tendrel Plaint watched the blooming of the lotus flower of his consciousness and he slammed it hard with a redial edit that pushed it back into the bud; reversing the explosion into the heart of the grenade, and then he rammed home the pin. Why? Because it wasn’t time for them to wake up quite like this right now. It would happen in time, but at this moment they needed to solve these problems and put the other genie back in the bottle of his role as Immaculate Author, and push back aggressively at Spay.

Carter Brecht inhaled and the smoke cleared. He stubbed out the cigarette. He looked at Quint and saw an understanding he did not often see. He looked across the room at Plaint, and he wondered what he had done.

A man popped up in front him and said I have to close the loop, and shot him through the chest. What was the point? If bullets really did have people’s names on them then it was a fact that not a single one of them ever had a Reality Engineer’s name on it. It dissolved inside him like a bad idea – a rejected edit. He both did not recognise, and did recognise his assailant – at some point backwards or forwards he would hunt the man down.

Quint threw down the tequila he had been staring at for a while and silently toasted the Reality Engineer.

042. Playing Chicken With The Blue Pen

Tendrel Plaint dropped some words into his Bloop Hen’s feed and watched as its eyes rolled back into its skull and it began to rattle like its brain was boiling in its skull. The localspace was sick; most of the underpinning logic broken … fallen into disrepair in ways that he hadn’t seen in too many places.

The Bloop Hen spat out a chicken’s tooth and he caught it as it arced out over the marbled surface of the table. If he fed it enough and it spat out enough teeth to fit an adult head he could build himself a dream engine and use it as a metaphor anchor to control the space with a self-proliferating correction protocol.

He felt like half of these people that he had to deal with were over-invested in this whole game of the universe in motion. As he looked at it, it all seemed frozen. Hokusai Freeze Frames hung everywhere – deep paint in need of new strokes pushed through it.

He joked and called the Reality Engineers he dealt with, and everyone else, Player Pianos. He was jazz, and this Bloop Hen was his instrument. He had toyed with naming her, but it seemed a little perverse.

He put a little bowl in front of her and he waited as she delicately spat out tooth after tooth. 32 links in a bitemark necklace. Good girl – churning all that crap up inside her and making it into something he could use.

It wasn’t always teeth – some days it would be eggs – impossible eggs like those dropped from one of those machines you turned the handle on in the arcades. He was always surprised, and he wondered at the pop art sensibilities of the people who designed her.

Quint Essential – you had to write robust code to move the universe around that particular logical speed-bump. Could Tendrel complain about the man though? Sure, he could, but who would look at that hero’s resume and listen to him? Not many.

Sheridan – most reputed of The Living Elements, now a huge fucking magnet for Dying Elements, and the rock upon which the Quantum Elements had been built. He was a tricky one – add some kind of narrative tide in for him and he swam through it.

Carter Brecht resisted edits, as all well-seasoned field operatives from the Reality Engineers did. You could put them in place and the bastards would wriggle out of all the binding logic, and might even turn a headitor’s world upside down instead.

Then you had Coran Andress, and a part of him called David Arnover, and something they created as a control mechanism called Ardenti In Mundo, and all the complexities an Immaculate Author was capable of creating.

Where did you strike with the blue pen to make the most effective edit and craft the best story?

Some days he wondered what it might be like to be like Spay – to go around cutting lines, and changing meanings left right and centre. It were almost as if he were an embodiment of the Unscripted Realms.

He took a sugar skull and he plugged the teeth into, and then he gave it a line of dreamcode to chew on. The Bloop Hen pecked the air – it never said anything, though it could if it wanted to, but he always knew. It wasn’t just that they were bonded either, because that kind of thing didn’t preclude listening to someone … you still had to let the conversation play out as it needed to, or you might end up with the person feeling like you really didn’t value their conversational contribution at all.

He’d done what he said he would do, and he had made the edits that he thought were best. Would they stick? Who knew? It was a dynamic text that he was editing, and there were so many other cooks there to spoil the broth, that you had to make your peace with it at some point, or you might be driven insane.

The Bloop Hen flapped its wings and pointed upwards. Time to leave. He nodded. Let the chips fall where they may.

041. Quince Essential

For a second Carter took on the aspect of the fly-eyed God Yarcuba, a role he had played some three lifetimes back, which had qualified him as having enough experience being omniscient to cope with the data-streams a Reality Engineer had to handle. Quint really saw quite how alien his friend was.

Quint existed in the place, but the place was built by Carter Brecht and his kind, and what were Carter Brecht and his kind, except concrete forms given to abstract concepts. Quint felt his whole reality warp and destabilise when he was around this man.

They were in a restaurant, The Knowledge Of Salmon, being served by Finn MacCool, from the Tir Fo Thuinn Menu, prepared by one of the greatest of the Nephillim, going by the name Lob. It was a quince, and it had been prepared like a baked apple.

‘You get it right? Some get the Sangreal, and some get the salmon, and some get the quince.’

‘Is there any logic to it, Finn?’

‘Not really. He basically goes into the backroom, has a word with the Oracle of Delphi, and then comes out here and starts cooking. There are a number of master sauces to choose from, started in different places across the globe, and brought here to be continued until they find their terminus in the purpose assigned to them.’

‘So this dish is only for us?’

‘In this iteration of the collapsed wave – yes, it is.’

‘Great.’

‘What’s up, Quint?’

‘The significance isn’t lost on me – attainment of knowledge before a fall, but who is going to fall? Where does the thread lead to, and where will the stitch be placed?’

‘That is always the question, isn’t it? And isn’t there more significance in the landing than the falling?’

‘Maybe so.’

‘A fruit signifying the fall, prepared by an creature that was the result of the first fall, what fall can they be talking about?’

‘I see the tower reversed.’

‘Reversed or falling?’

‘I think it’s The Pinnacle?’

‘Does that have something to do with Coran Andress?’

‘I think it might – I believe it’s the same as The Tower Of Full Stop; David Arnover’s home at the end of everything. Haven’t we also heard it talked of as Coran’s Spine?’

‘The universe, or reality, or the multiverse – everything – seems to be falling apart, and perhaps worse now than it even was when we started out.’

‘Can’t the reverse tower also signify delaying inevitable destruction?’

‘You’re right – all of this was meant to happen.’

‘Do you recall when The Pinnacle fell? Some of it’s denizens moved out into the world and hid themselves inside the shells of others. What if all this was caused because they built themselves inside the hollowed out shell of Coran Andress?’

‘What would hollow him out?’

‘A cuckoo.’

‘The Nest is behind this?’

‘And Spay. This may be a situation like Caesar, where more than one blade is being buried in the back.’

‘Blades in Coran’s Spine.’

‘Word Swords.’

‘Vorpal blades and gae bolgas.’

Finn sat down and plonked a tankard of mead in front of each of the men.

‘You enjoying the food? Unpacking the truth?’

‘Surely.’

‘Good – Carter Brecht and Quint Essential, I was going to give you a layer cake, but instead, for you, I have prepared a marble cake.’

‘I don’t really do desserts,’ said Carter, and Finn smiled.

Quint ate his piece of cake with relish.

‘Out back there’s a stone. Danu’s navel, or somesuch, and it will grant you the gift of the gab – it’s been drained a little since the Ard Ri was here, but it will allow you to chat up The Sphinx two doors down, and fold through the inverse pyramid into the story you need to be in. Don’t worry about paying, the bills on me.’

‘Thanks, Finn.’

‘No sweat.’

The Stone Of Tara cast as a stepping stone seemed an insult to the High Kings Of Ireland, but sure enough it gave Carter the ability to pour honey in the Sphinx’s ear, and they folded out through the tesseract gate at the tip of the nipple on the inverse pyramid.’

Quint wondered some days at how far he had come since he had lived in Inn Essential.

040. Blinding Oversight

Levels above the playing field, pocketed out of sight, Geraint and Xent in the Operations Room. They sat there staring at each other, and each of them could read in the other’s face that where they were was not where they wanted to be.

‘I did not realise that an Immaculate Author would be just as problematic as one of those mundane creatures in the real world that wants to write books. I mean, I have heard of getting involved in your work, but letting yourself get sucked into the thing.’

‘Well, then why did we build the Wormhole Prologue Protocols into these universes? Why did we give them a buffer zone into which they might step? What was the thinking behind that?’

‘Well, we built ourselves a Reality Engineer and then we had them consult on the project, and they said it was a necessary failsafe to prevent the magnitude of what they were doing from damaging the equilibrium of their minds in such a way as to precipitate a schizoid break.’

‘Well, that worked out great, didn’t it, Geraint? Is Carter going to be able to fix this? Even if he pulls our author out of the nosedive, do we want to put them back in a position where they might be able to corrupt the reality again?’

‘That one we’re going to have to put to the vote.’

‘Yes, with a whole bunch of idiots who don’t take the time to actually observe what is going on.’

‘What do you want to do? Disregard precedent? Pull rank? Declare a state of emergency and bring down The Edit Mechanism on us?’

‘Not really, but isn’t that likely to happen anyway? They had dispatched an Inviolable Editor from The Overtext, and someone shot him through the head.’

‘I could say it’s all gone to shit, but you know what, why would we have Reality Engineers if there wasn’t some expectation of the system breaking down?’

‘If we didn’t tell them would they even know?’

‘I remember now reading how close comedy is to tragedy.’

‘You don’t want to just see if there is a writer a level up from us?’

‘That would be ridiculous wouldn’t it?’

‘Kind of, but kind of my point. If there are editors above are there not, most likely, writers?’

‘We know there are writers, but all this is supposed to be compartmentalised. We don’t just go to the level above and ask them to handle our shit – that’s a bad recipe for something destined to kill us.’

– * –

‘What did you do to them, Carter?’

‘You know, trapped them in an illogic loop – it just gets stupider and stupider for them from here on out.’

‘Why?’

‘So they don’t interfere.’

‘So they’re going to sit this one out? Seems a little odd given the stakes.’

‘Makes total sense if you know them.’

‘And they never predicted this possibility?’

‘Sure, but they aren’t as brilliant as the people they employ, are they?’

‘Who ever is?’

‘Exactly. So, back to the game then Sherlock.’

‘Yes, Quint.’

039. Burn Outs Bar

He sat down in the bar. This was turning into something of a pub crawl He’d been here before, or was it that he was due to be here soon? This was the most confused he had been in a long time, and perhaps some of that was due to what he had just helped occur.

Halley stood there and Spay smiled at him. Halley was like a lighthouse for a lot of the lost souls that washed up on the shores of this place. Halley never asked any questions, and why should he? He knew what he was here for, and his reality was hardly likely to be rocked by much of anything that went on outside the four walls of his public house.

Spay was burned out only for a small while, and he always rekindled. What did it say when someone or something like him was able to survive and keep going when other more worthy souls perished? Just that the universe didn’t really operate in that way. No Anubis sitting there with weighing scales and a feather.

Carter sat down next to him. Carter took out an electronic cigarette and sucked on it.

‘Hope it’s not me that it’s driving you to that.’

‘Seems unlikely you’d care.’

‘Does it?’

‘Took me a second to recognise that laugh you know.’

‘All that Alice In Wonderland training, right? Being able to remember forwards?’

‘Well, you know of course – having been other people, and all that. Travelling in time. Destroying memories. Hacking reality. What was this about? We knew about Ardenti In Mundo, but we didn’t want to introduce him into the mix until we had put Coran Andress back together.’

‘You’re the weft and I’m the warp, isn’t that some of it?’

‘Me? I’m just an Engineer – not any kind of decision maker.’

‘If you couldn’t make decisions, what kind of engineer would you be?’

‘Fair point. You have to know you can’t win, why do you keep persisting?’

‘Well, we’ve been doing the back and forth long enough that you must see I’ve been making as much of a dent on the shape of the universe as you, Mr Brecht.’

‘I won’t win this argument, will I? Look, knowing who you are, and who you were …’

‘Knowing something of me, yes, but not all of me …’

‘OK, with what I know of you, I know you were once a Reality Engineer, so with all this effort to change things, why not work with us?’

‘Oh, well, of course, I am diametrically opposed to you, Mr Brecht. You follow a script, and the larger part of what I am is informed by the Unscripted Realms. You are order and I am chaos.’

A giant louse shuffled up to them and asked it could buy them a drink.

‘Erm, sure, how come?’

‘Oh, my name’s Jeffgar Proop, and it’s a tradition in Nitcomb City, where I come from.’

‘How did you end up here, Jeffgar? Seems a long way from home.’

‘You know Nitcomb City, Mr …?’

‘Carter Brecht, Reality Engineer at your service.’

Spay watched the exchange with bemusement, and he could read in Carter’s face that the insect’s presence was cause for concern. It was, of course, totally fine for a Reality Engineer to flit around all over the place.

‘Excuse us, Mr Proop, but we’re having something of a serious conversation.’

‘Of course.’

‘Not sure,’ interjected Halley ‘That I like the sound of that.’

‘With all due respect, Halley, you have to know that the fate of the entire quantum reality is regularly discussed in this place.’

Halley squinted at him.

‘He kind of does and kind of doesn’t at the same time,’ said Carter ‘We built him that way.’

‘He’s a construct? A tulpa?’

‘Kind of. We Frankensteined him out of what the old owner was, and what we needed this place to be.’

‘Jesus, how much of reality is like that, with you guys installed behind the scenes pulling the strings?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Doesn’t surprise me. But look, I have a big pair of scissors, and I intend to cut as many strings as possible. This is a lull in the storm. This is a pause between battles. And look, while you get away by being behind the scenes, I draw fire by being out front, but do you think I do all this on my lonesome? There are other people on my side. I’m not the villain in my own story, Mr Brecht, you are.’

‘Moral relativism doesn’t work when talking about what you do, Spay.’

‘Of course it does, you simpleton. I am exactly the kind of creature for which moral relativism was created. I don’t know how much you read, but you should never have a problem getting your books back on time – so go and learn about the systems that run the world, and then come back afterwards and tell me if you still feel so sure about me, and what I am. I’ll be seeing you around.’

‘I’m sure.’

Spay laughed, even though he wasn’t sure that Brecht knew he had said something funny.

038. Coran And David, AIM

When was this? Sheridan has shepherded David into the space and it felt like it was going to collapse. The floors weren’t buckling, and the walls weren’t bending, but you could feel something happening, something in the tight knot where your heart dreamed heartbreak into a myocardial infarction.

Sheridan noted Tendrel Plaint and his oversized chicken companion and he briefly wondered what kind of perceptual filtration was necessary to cruise over that narrative speed-bump.

Carter Brecht was guiding Coran Andress around by the elbow, and the man looked ill. White as snow, or perhaps a sheet of newspaper. What was written beneath this frail surface? He realised that he knew so little watching this of what went into making an Immaculate Author. He figured that they were made rather than being born and being groomed into what they became – because that opened the door to so many errors, didn’t it? Reality Engineers turned, didn’t they?

He’d breadcrumbed this whole thing so that Ardenti In Mundo turned up here. It had been easy. Most people failed at manipulation because thought that it was all about getting people to do things that they didn’t want to do, whereas it was all about finding that thing they wanted to do which would serve your purpose and leveraging that. The interesting things about groups and organisations was that the myth of the key individual was mostly a story device – if you failed with one you might succeed with another – machines were cogs and had mny working parts that might providean in into the organisational structure.

He watched Quint Essential moving around with the arrogance that he and his kind often fell prey to. Was there no connection between what had happened with their Engineer Station being attacked and what was happening with their Immaculate Author now? Why would Belwether, who they had handled, be any kind of problem now?

Their short-sightedness baffled him, given the nature of what they were. Perhaps they did not expect something or someone to come back to a place where he had been defeated? No, that had to happen all the time. Did they not expect some other iteration to come back and correct whatever error had occurred? That, he believed would be more than half the traffic in time travellers, and weren’t those who wished to hack reality just slightly more advanced time travellers?

He sometimes found himself a little confused about where he was in his own story – as if he had flicked forward a few pages. Burn Outs Bar, Eschaton, here? Maybe. What was he calling himself now? He wondered if, after having deposited a slightly altered version of Ardenti In Mundo to the scene he should, he should go and test Carter Brecht and see if he was tracking. He knew that Reality Engineers could juggle multiple timelines and realities in their minds – a stream of ribbons all flowing in the same direction. Might not an individual swim against the current, amongst those brightly coloured lines, and remain invisible?

He found himself threading through the crowd here, smiling at this intricate tapestry of collapse, and he wondered – would this be as it were if it were not for the people working to unravel it as much as the people working to enlarge it? Were the embroiderers really so self-determined or were they reliant upon the urge forced on them by those working to damage their masterpiece? He suddenly realised that he was pitching himself as a necessary evil and he let out a laugh.

Carter turned around at that moment, recognising the sound, but not quite able to place where from. It would be thrown into the hamster wheel of his continual analysis devices and something would get spat out the other end.

The man upended a salt shaker near the bar, which he supposed was something to do with tequila, and he used his finger to write four letters in the salt: S-P-A-Y. Yes, he had remembered, that was what he was calling himself now.

Coran Andress reached out his hand to shake the proferred hand of David Arnover. Ardenti In Mundo, suddenly struck with a vision of what might happen if the two men touched, interposed himself.

How does one translate what it is like to be at the center of an explosion? How does one explain when that explosion has no obvious ball of flame, but is something that is detonating deep within the engines of the very fabrics and dimensions that hold everything together?

Reality flies apart. Doesn’t just buckle – but splits and breaks like a mirror someone fired a bullet at.

Carter Brecht suddenly realising something is very wrong. Sheridan looking his counterpart, his Dying Element, in the eyes. Ardenti In Mundo nothing more than an explosion. Coran Andress a cut-up dream of shrapnel narrative. David Arnover a disembodied eye, trying to hold onto a sense of I. Quint Essential holding onto himself purely because he is everywhere already, but wondering what this meant.

Spay, a distance away, smiled, as he felt the eddies of a reality bomb washing over him.

037. Hen Gauge, Pen Gauge, When Gauge, Then Gauge

Carter popped a black olive in his mouth. He was hogging the bowl. Quint smiled at him and sucked down another whiskey.

‘Slow fucking war, eh?’

‘Well, what do you expect? We’re dealing with pens not guns – these bastards roll up slowly on a kill.’

‘You’ve been baby-sitting writers for an age, eh, Carter?’

‘Yeah, not my favourite part of the job by any means – I’d rather be working with a hack-rig and breaking down and building up reality.’

‘It seems like the reality eddies are destabilising everything – none of my equipment seems to be working very well.’

‘We’ll have to sit down with you and help you calibrate everything at some point in the future. Quantum Elements are starting to be the go to guys for spatiotemporal work.’

‘There is so much work to do, it’s hard to know what tool you’re going to have to pull out of the tool box. We’re not the only ones handling this, are we?’

‘Of course not – this fragmentation is manifesting in multiple levels of reality, and it is pulling in all kinds of people with all kinds of skills. Anything you can think of that appears to be a manifestation of reality not behaving as it should is something that traces back to this. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and nothing could be more true of Immaculate Authors. Sad to say this is not the first instance of something like this happening. I am not sure we have worked out what the issue is, but there is something these guys seem to be prone to that someone on an external level knows about that they have not communicated to us.’

‘I heard that there have Surreality Engineers abroad.’

‘Rogues, those who think they know better – all manner of alterations and problem makers, sure … doesn’t every field attract that kind of thing?’

‘I suppose. I know that there is something a little surreal about me.’

‘Hmm, not sure I ever thought of you and the other Essentials as surreal, more that you are the extension of a logical progression of the physical matching the spiritual.’

‘You make us sound like the word made flesh.’

‘Didn’t the word make flesh?’

‘I suppose so, but you know what I mean.’

‘Yes, I do. Of course.’

‘So, we are just going to observe this guy and see if there is something we can understand.’

‘How long has Sheridan been in place?’

‘I’m not honestly sure, because he’s on a Stutter Protocol, so he can be in two places at once, and his Seymour is floating through the space too. I have an idea that we might just want to sit down and ask Coran some questions until we find the right answer.’

‘And David Arnover too. And Ardenti In Mundo. And the Musehick, up there in the overtext.’

‘I heard there was something called the Insomnihack too.’

‘Yes, have you ever heard of a flick book?’

‘Sure, where the pages are allowed to flick and it makes it look like the images are moving.’

‘Imagine every book in a super-positional library were assembled into a vast flick book …’

‘That’s a lot of pages.’

‘Yes, and that’s where we are.’

‘Is that Tendrel Plaint in the corner with his Bloop Hen?’

‘Of course, we’re pulling out all the stops. What better way to bring a writer to the end of the story than to have a really good editor there watching him and providing editing suggestions.’

Tendrel waved at them to come over, and offered his hand in friendship.

‘It’s a mess. A non-sequitur mess. We kind of went stream of consciousness via self-indulgence, and ended up with an over-emotional, and non-logical whitenoise, instead of the literary jazz I think we were aiming for.’

‘Ah, that good old entropic slide towards that final cymbal crash.’

‘Final symbol crash?’

‘Bit of both, all told.’

‘OK, well that’s where one part of the story ends, right? There is always a new chapter.’

‘I suppose Well, with a story. And although this is a story, it kind of isn’t as well, right? Don’t worry Quint.’

‘Not worried, Carter. Well, I am, but not completely feeling hopeless yet. How about you Tendrel?’

‘I’m fine. Don’t speak to Sheridan though.’

‘Why not?’

‘Talking about a Dying Element being somewhere around.’

‘Did we pull him too close to his rebirth?’

‘Maybe. You know how it is, Carter – the Crooked Wombs these Living Elements use aren’t exactly running on the orderly programming that a normal Reality Womb employs.’

‘It is what it is. For all the damned engineering we’re supposed to do, half the time we’re playing catch up. Karmachanics aren’t deployed as much as they should be.’

‘I would say this is frustratingly confusing, but apart from not knowing how to piece Andress back together, this is pretty run of the mill for us.’

‘Yes, I am doing this kind of thing all over,’ said Quint, smiling.

Tendrel wrote something down. The Bloop Hen pecked space. Carter adjusted his watch.

036. Immovable Editor

Time was stuttering in a hang-frame. The narrative ceased to unspool, and a figure stepped into the room from somewhere that was not immediately visible. He touched each of the people in the scene on their elbows and unstuck them from the freeze.

Quint Essential, Carter Brecht, and their visitor stood in silence for a moment.

‘An unexpected visitor who somehow managed to step right through all my security measures, and pause reality. it seems.’

‘Yes, Mr Essential. Forgive me, I need a second to adjust my perceptual filters to accommodate for the speed of narrative unspool.’

‘Any idea who he is, Carter?’

‘It’s like a variation on a theme – his garb; if I didn’t know any better I might say that he was an Immaculate Author.’

‘Immovable Editor.’

‘Sorry? Never heard of one of those.’

‘Why would you Engineer, there is more to all of this game than we ever told you. And given that this game is far from over – it is not something that is likely to be revealed yet. Call me Tartarus Unk, if you must call me anything. I am, like you, but a pawn.¬† You know that editors walk in the shadow of owners, and boards of directors. You have what you call Oversight, and so do we, and they have told¬† me that i must come down here and tell you to let this chapter play out. Let Coran Andress do what Coran Andress must.’

‘The fragmentation serves a purpose?’

‘Doesn’t everything? Isn’t everything a kind of narrative device affecting the way that the story is told and experience?’

‘Will this reality and others being affected by it survive without us doing something to help put him back together?’

‘Let me tell you a story. There was once just us, the storytellers, and we all told them, and they were received happily by an audience who understood that they were stories. They were just words, and when they were spoken and heard, they were alive; and when they were unspoken they were nothing. But there was a listener there – a man with a pen and with paper, and he wrote it down.
‘They called him Iblis, a man who was only know for slaying a great storyteller, and here he was, the inventor of a Mirror Technology, first seed of The Metaphor Tech on our level of reality, and we fell into the mirror.’

‘He’s just repeating the pattern?’

‘We all do. He fell, and the mirror broke, and it must break further. There is something in the collapse of reality around its creator that gives birth to something new.’

‘But we fought to protect this. We fought against that creature from the Unscripted Realms, and now you tell us we must let it all be taken apart from within by its creator?’

‘Not taken apart. Instead, try to think of it as a reboot within to reinvigorate the architecture without.’

‘Great. And will everyone survive?’

‘Has everyone survived thus far? Do all the characters in a story ever survive? Does it matter? I know you have studied this world’s Harlequinade – are all these identities not mere masks?’

‘And how do we know you are not just a well-spoken distraction?’

‘You don’t, of course, Mr Essential.’

A figure assembled behind Mr Unk, aimed his rifle, and fired.

A big bang.

A hanging frozen red wave.

A bullet with a name on it. Murray smiled, and then he evaporated.

‘Oh,’ said Quint.

‘Huh,’ said Carter.

‘Immovable but not invincible.’

‘Apparently so.’

‘Didn’t expect that.’

‘That’s going to have repercussions.’

‘Did you see the guy behind the guy?’

‘No. You recognise him?’

‘You would have to. If you want to know what he looked like, go and find a mirror.’

‘Oh, hmm. That must be a futureself, seeing as I don’t recall anything about hiring an assassin to kill this guy. I don’t know why I would be motivated to do such a thing – for a Reality Engineer to think that bullets are the answer is more than a little odd.

‘And so, time seems still hung. How are we to proceed?’

‘Observe more closely, Mr Brecht – the engines are moving, though they are slow to power up. As we don’t yet know what future you is doing behind the scenes, and we have no clue what Mr Unk was all about, I suggest we proceed as we had already decided. Adn go hunting for those we suspected beforehand.’

‘Sounds as good an idea as any I have.’

‘Would you like some tea while we wait for reality to recommence?’

‘You think you can make tea with this going on?’

‘I have few odd reality wombs dotted around, which one might step into, and have that always necessary cup of tea.’

035. Pack The Essentials

‘I am going to have to have my Mormon friend over there do your family tree at some point, Carter.’

‘And why would that be Quint?’

‘Well, apart from us Essentials, you yourself seem to pop up all over the damned place. If one were to sit down and try and diagram your timeline they’d get a bloody headache.’

‘No doubt. Big difference is, I’m bouncing around and you are just rolling along not getting any older as far as I can tell.’

‘Oh, I get older. I just don’t age.’

‘I don’t understand the difference.’

‘I am sure in your own way you do.’

‘Yes, maybe. Anyway, I know since you put together the Quantum Elements that you have been dealing with super-positional realities, and we wondering if you might have some kind of insight that would help us to deal with an Immaculate Author who has suffered a total identity collapse and fragmentation, and it seems to have polluted the whole reality.’

‘Wow, that seems like a tall order. I take it we are talking about Coran Andress, or whatever he is calling himself.’

‘How did you know?’

‘Come on Carter, why are you even asking that? You know who I am and what I can do, or you wouldn’t be here; besides he’s a Reality Lynchpin.’

‘Ah, OK, good, we have it established – we both know a lot of shit – look, I don’t like having to ask outside of my own group, which should have the expertise to handle this, but we are reeling after an attack –‘

‘I heard about that …’

‘And we need some help.’

‘OK, well you have Sheridan on the ground I think, and he would be a great source of ideas. Otherwise, I have some people up here that I can re-task, and set to thinking about ways to help with this. I also, because of the nature of what I am, can’t get anywhere near this situation physically, but I have what I am calling the QEDs, or Quint Essential Dopplegangers, one of which I can send down there to plug into the flows and see if it can decipher what is happening with subtext governing this space. What the QED then does is create a Mathspace Adjunct, and within that MA it will be able to run simulations and will be able to plot out for us some possible courses of action.’

‘That sounds good. I hope it goes without saying that i appreciate what you are doing.’

‘It does, but Carter, you have to remember that with something like this you aren’t asking for some selfish thing – you are actually trying to save a section of reality, and I am all down for that, obviously.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Do you ever find it hard keeping it all in order when you try to gauge from the other person whereabouts they are in terms of their chronology regarding you? Like, have we met before – did they do something bad to me, or me to them? Are we the friends we were, or enemies, or friends again? How do you keep it all straight?’

‘Practice.’

‘I can never tell if you are being humorous.’

‘Would it be funny if you could?’

‘Maybe not. I can’t tell when I am supposed to laugh any more, since the whole thing got so damned ridiculous.’

‘I never thought about that – how ridiculous the whole thing seemed to be getting …’

‘What are you getting at?’

‘I am wondering whether we still have tabs on Munchausen, because this smacks of his brand of insanity.’

‘Shouldn’t be that hard to uncover his kind of interference, should it?’

‘Well, we haven’t uncovered it thus far, have we? But with a pattern to look for we might be able to dig in at all levels and route the bastard out.’

‘Can you ship us a couple of your encounter suits and I’ll shoot some of my guys down to you immediately.’

‘Sounds good.’