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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’