As Ablendan Blake came slowly to his senses his overtaxed mind struggled to process his new situation. He was sprawled out across a cramped and uncomfortable surface, his hands seemed to be bound in front of him, his cloak billowed violently; buffeted by a constant stream of wind coming from somewhere above him. Every so often the world around him seemed to quickly shift in one direction or another and he would be thrown into a metal surface. People were talking, and occasionally snickering nearby. They were talking rather loudly to be heard over a slew of unfamiliar noises, the most irritating of which was some kind of constant wailing noise.
“Ugggh.” He mumbled groggily. “What’s going on?” There was no response to this question, whether intentionally or because they just hadn’t heard him was unclear and not a distinction that Blake could make at this point in time.
It took him a while but eventually he managed to pull himself together. Using his newly reacquired motor control he attempted to climb to his feet, only to bang his head on a low ceiling. He collapsed into an uncomfortable seat and took a good look around. He was in the back of one of the motor vehicles like that which had been at the wheel of previously, only this one had a fine mesh separating the front and the back of the vehicle. A pair of metal loops were locked around his wrists, connected to one another with a short chain. This and the mesh created an impression of intended restraint which ran contrary to the fact that all the windows were wide open; the cops had hoped that leaving the window open might get rid of some of the flies that buzzed around Ablendan when they had shoved him into the back of the police car.
Blake stuck his head through one of the windows and took a look around, his hood billowing behind him. The car was barrelling down a narrow strip of road vast desert. Behind the police car in which Blake had been bundled was an entire convoy of identical police cars. Their sirens wailed as they sped along the road, throwing up clouds of dust and sand in pursuit of their target. Ablendan, being unfamiliar with the concept of motorcycles, could not really make out what the thing was from this distance and angle, but he did recognise the shape of Alaster head and shoulders over Darren and Sara.
He looked down at the road rushing past him. The car was moving very fast, but that wasn’t really much of a problem for Blake, any parts of him that might be disconnected in the impact could easily be reattached. However it was the dispiriting thought of traipsing up and down by the side of the road looking for these parts that dissuaded him from jumping out there and then.
“Hey Frank, that hobo’s woken up.” The voice came from one of the police officers in the front seat. The police car swerved wildly as the driver turned to get a good look at Ablendan sticking his head through the window. He chuckled to himself at this sight, casually leaned over to the console and with one of his sausage like fingers he hit the button to close the window in question. Ablendan felt the window rising up underneath him and for a moment he panicked, thinking he had triggered a trap designed to slice him in half. He threw himself backwards, landing in an awkward heap half on the seat and half on the floor of the car. It took him a moment to recover and then as quickly as he could he was at the other window, only to find that it too had closed. Blake threw himself at the grill that separated him at the police officers and began raking at it with his claw-like fingers.
“Hey calm down back there.” The one addressed as Frank called back to him.
“Let me out!” Ablendan demanded.
“Listen,” the first police officer turned around, according to his badge his name was Hank “though you’re going to have to serve some hard time for this, you should just be thankful you aren’t those guys.” He gestured to the swerving motorcycle on the road ahead of them. Ablendan was about to snap back with another mindless demand for release, when what he was being told registered with him.
“Why?” he asked, a sort of black curiosity creeping into his voice.
“Static infection.” Hank replied. “Standard procedure is to quarantine and then eradicate upon first signs of infection…” Ablendan sensed a but.
“But?” He prompted.
“Innocent people never run, at least not from a static quarantine.” He produced a shotgun from on the seat next to him. “So we eradicate at the first opportunity we get.”
Saint slid a bolt into her crossbow and breathlessly aimed it at the main door into the dining room. Her heart was pounding fast now, faster that it had ever done when she was out amongst the flesh-eating zombies. They were harmless enough really, they wanted to eat you and would shamble at you and proceed to do so if you let them, but they were simple and predictable and they made sense. This didn’t make sense. She’d tried to wake up the sleeping couple and there had been no response. She hadn’t hung around after that. She’d dashed down the hallway, down the stairs and into the dining room, her bare feet thudding upon the wooden floors. He must have heard her. She should have taken her time and walked slowly. This was a disaster; an unmitigated disaster. Any minute now he was going to burst in here and… well she didn’t know what he was going to do, murder her probably.
Saint had known there was something slightly off about him from the moment she’d met him. Hell before she’d found the sleeping couple she’d been making jokes about how mysterious he was. It suddenly occurred to her that she’d very nearly slept with him. Maybe that was why he’d turned her down; maybe he could only get off if the other person was already asleep… Yeah that was exactly what she should be thinking about here. Saint cursed herself and resolved to conveniently forget that had ever happened when she got back to the rest of the survivors.
She held the crossbow with one hand as she hopped around, attempting to pull her jeans on. She passed the weapon from hand to hand as she shrugged on her jacket. She decided she didn’t really need to wear her gloves and that tying her bandana around her face was not worth letting her guard down. She slipped her backpack on over her shoulders, grabbed a knife from the kitchen for good measure and prepared to leave. It was when she was at the door, contemplating the possibility of navigating the ruined city and avoiding hordes of zombies in the dark that was seized by indecision. It didn’t make sense. It was like she’d had a tooth out and she kept prodding at the gap it had left with her tongue. No matter how much she wanted to stop poking at that gap, it was almost a compulsion, something she couldn’t let lie.
When she’d turned up he was threatening the life of the sleeping woman and the guy had fled. A couple of minutes later he had returned and then they’d spent most of the rest of the day together. So if he had done this then how? If he’d drugged the guy then why would he make such a scene, wouldn’t he just wait for the guy to pass out before murdering his girlfriend and speaking of which if he wanted to do that why hadn’t he done it? That was beside the point, she decided. She guessed he could have knocked the guy out, but she suspected that would have left some kind of visible wound on the guy and she had seen nothing. He might have had a tranquiliser gun he wasn’t showing her, but even then she doubted he would have had the time to drag two unconscious bodies up the stairs before he returned. And if he’d let them get away and then returned for them later after they’d had their awkward encounter before she’d tried to get some sleep, no that didn’t even bear thinking about. There was so unlikely that both the guy and the girl would have survived in the zombie filled city and that Mister O would have been able to find them incapacitate them and get them back to the hotel and up the stairs into the bed without her noticing.
The only explanation that seemed to make any sense was that they had been there the whole time, which of course made no sense at all.
“Damn it.” She said, stepping away from the door. She walked down the hall to the foot of the stairs and looked up. She knew that sticking around here was probably dangerous, and that what she was doing was probably suicidal… but she had her crossbow and a knife; she was not defenceless, and she just could not let it lie.
She made her way up the stairs, her gait careful, her gaze darting from one shadow to another, her aim steady. At the end of the hallway there was a heavy door with an O upon the door. She approached it with caution, placed her hand upon the door and pushed it open.
The motorcycle was as massive and bulky as the clockwork knight who rode upon it. Alaster looked somewhat anachronistic; a suit of armour atop a motorcycle. Looking less out of place, but more out of his comfort zone was Darren and the unconscious body of Sara. At some point since leaving the hospital, it was not exactly clear to anyone involved how this had happened, they had reshuffled into a more tenable position; Darren was now sat directly behind the suit of armour, clinging onto it for dear life. Sara was sat behind him, her arms locked around him in a surprisingly sturdy grip, her unsupported head lolling to the side. They were also inexplicably wearing motorcycle safety helmets. The whole thing could likely be blamed on executive meddling. Timothy was still sat in Alaster’s lap, though he had now awoken from his paint induced nap. He’d quickly discarded the incongruous safety helmet (Don’t Try This At Home, Kids). His reaction to the scene unfolding was one of confusion, but also of awe.
“Alaster, what is going on?” Timothy asked.
“I Am Here To Protect You.” Alaster replied. It glanced at the police cars following them, in its drug fuelled haze they were not cars but machines, clockwork robots built just like him. Some moments it would seem like the only difference between them and it was on which side of the conflict they stood. At other points Alaster imagined that they were better, faster, bigger, stronger. That they were gaining on him. That they were churning up the earth itself in their efforts to get hold of poor defenceless Timothy. It gripped the handlebars so tightly they almost split.
“Well yeah I know that.” Timothy replied dismissively. “I meannn like what is this thing and where are we going?” Timothy rapped a hand against the motorcycle casing to indicate exactly what thing he was talking about, as though it wasn't obvious.
“We Are Fleeing The Forces Of The Magic Guardians.” Alaster replied, its voice was low and level, all matter of fact and serious. “You Are The Only One Who Knows How To Stop Them.”
“The what?” Timothy asked. “I am?”
“Not Today, But One Day.” Alaster replied. “I Must Keep You Safe Until Then.” Timothy didn’t reply to this.
“Kid!” Darren’s shout caught Timothy by surprise. The kid hadn't figured there was anyone else on the bike with them. “Your robot got dosed with the same thing that you did.”
“Oh.” Timothy replied, understanding what was going on a little more. He'd seen some strange things under the influence of Tschichold's paints.
“As for the motorbike and the police cars…” Darren shrugged, then after a second remembered that Timothy couldn’t see him and continued: “I don’t know.” There was a stirring from behind him, the quiet noises of someone waking up from a pleasant sleep.
It was a meadow.
It was a field of long tall grass blowing in the breeze. In the distance there was a shining blue lake surrounded by tall green trees stretching up into the cloudless blue sky. The mid afternoon sun beat down upon Saint as she stood in the doorway. But it was more than that. There was someone’s room, the walls barely showing behind a slew of posters of video game characters or women with very little on. There was a street somewhere, someone’s favourite coffee shop, an old fashioned school classroom with the alphabet hung over the blackboard and uncomfortable wooden desks. There was a sitting room in a sewer and an entire pile of empty boxes of pizza. There was a desolate highway in the middle of a desert. There was a slew of images, more than could be reasonably processed at once. All of them completely empty, well almost all of them. There was a balcony overlooking a darkened desolate land, the sky overhead was a dazzling shade of violet and standing there was a familiar figure in a suit with a mess of black hair.
It was only a second before he rounded upon Saint, a look of panic evident upon his face.
“What is this?” She demanded.
Mister O stood in silence for a moment, his mouth opening and closing as he mentally tried out different responses to that question. Before he could respond, there was a flash and all that his room was was gone, replaced with static.
“Sara?” Darren asked.
Slowly, she removed one hand from his waist and lifted off the safety helmet. Darren was overjoyed for about a minute. His stomach turned as he saw her eyes, filled with static.
“Darren.” She responded with a wide smile.
As the room was enveloped in static Mister O collapsed, clutching at his head. Saint dithered in the doorway for a moment. She believed in the channel that she lived in, she’d never had any experience with the static or the world beyond her world before, but even so the static called to some part of her. It was primal, it was fear. It made her stomach turn. She discarded her crossbow into the hall and darted into what could hardly be described as a room any more. She knelt down by Mister O and put her arm around him. With her help he was able to get to his feet and out of his room, into the hallway. The moment she let go of him he collapsed again.
“What is it?” she asked, kneeling down next to him.
“Sara.” He said.
The static was chaos and it was order.
It was the gentle prod that would be administered to the wayward to convince them to comply with their narrative function and it was the all consuming chaos that would destroy a channel that had gone too far from its stated purpose.
It was not a malevolent force by any stretch of the imagination.
In the world where narrative was imperative it was balance.
But today, just this once, it was pissed.
Plots had been derailed, characters had been prematurely killed. Inter-channel crossovers were abundant. Elsewhere a pair of channels had been smashed together with little care for the consequences of such an action. The balance had been tipped too far too fast.
But now, in the mind of one of the contestants, the static finally had the information required to make sense of these intrusions and to reply to them appropriately. Should one of the combatants of this battle to the death die the rest would be moved on to pastures new. It was a bit of a gamble, but it was the best hope for salvaging the balance and what remained of TV Land.
The static was good at making people play their roles, now it would make them play the roles that had been theirs all along; the role of contestant in a Grand Battle.
The world shook and the sky darkened.
“What the fuck?” The cop called Frank muttered to himself. Ablendan who had been sulking in the back seat of the car stirred at this. It did not take long for him to see what the cop was talking about. He pressed his face to the window at his side and stared out at what had until recently been a desert. Suddenly there were wrecked, burnt out and abandoned buildings rising from the sands. Disgusting rotting shapes shambled through the narrow sand filled alleyways that passed for streets. His attention was drawn up into the sky where massive zeppelins bearing the © symbol hung outlined against the sky. It was no longer the perfect cloudless afternoon. It was no a harsh sea of crackling static, ominously pressing down upon them.
“I… I’ve never seen this happen before.” Hank said. It was not a particularly helpful comment.
“Should… should we get out of here?” Frank blubbered indecisively.
“No.” Hank replied. It had taken him a moment to make this decision, but he sounded pretty sure of himself. “It’s them.” He nodded at the motorcycle they were pursuing. “They’re responsible for this. We eradicate them it all goes away.”
“Are you sure about that?” Frank asked. There was a longer pause than the driver would have liked.
“Yeah, pretty sure.” Hank replied in a tone that said he was not.
Maria had heard the gunshots. Only her own impotence had stopped her from running back there and trying to save the avian. For a good moment she had stood there, refusing to move forwards, then she realized that they would be heading this way, and the group of copyright refugees were moving on with or without her. It had happened minutes after that, as they moved down an otherwise non-distinct sewer tunnel and suddenly there were copyright agents in front of them.
Maria couldn’t stop running; she could hear the pounding feet of the copyright police chasing her down. She could still hear the sound of gunshots echoing in her head, and the sight of so many people getting killed one by one; only the fact that she was at the back of the group saved her. Indecision had gripped her like a vice. Master Fragment was shot three times before he went down, circuitry sent flying across the tunnel. She could still see them; still see the look of cold indifference upon the faces of the copyright enforcers.
She didn’t stop running when the world shook, nor when metal screeched so loudly it was almost too much to bear. She stumbled slightly as she suddenly felt like she had the wrong number of legs for no perceptible reason and suddenly before her the tunnel opened up on, well for a moment she wasn’t sure what it was. There was enough sand for it to be the middle of a desert, but there was also buildings all around and what appeared to be alien zombies? She stopped running. She didn’t want to but… copyright enforcers behind her, alien zombies in front of her… what was a receptionist to do?
Suddenly a nearby engine roared to life, and what Maria had at passing glance taken to be a building was revealed to be some kind of massive fortress on enormous tank tracks. Part of the vehicle opened out and with a satisfying click folded down into a ramp. A moment later a three people in heavy futuristic armour, which was covered with Mediapolitics branding, emerged from the side of the vehicle. They blasted the alien corpses that shuffled in Maria’s direction and beckoned her over. The coast clear she darted towards her saviours, pausing only to duck below laser blasts aimed at the chasing copyright enforcers. Maria stumbled up the slope, one of the armed figured offering her a hand. He had short and incredibly tidy brown hair and a dazzling smile. He helped her inside as the other two watched for any other hostiles. Once she was inside the heavy metal door slid back up and closed.
“Wesley Cockburn, Mediapolitics News and Private Security.” Her saviour introduced himself. “I’m reporting live from the ground floor of the Mediapolitics Mobile Fortress, with me is my special guest, the receptionist at the Traveller’s Rest Inn, Maria. Tell me Maria, what is your opinion on this dramatically altered world, the economy and the handsome reporter who just saved your life?”
“Sara…” Darren trailed off. The world around him was shaking and all kinds of crazy things were going on, but his attention was fixed firmly upon what was once his love.
“I have had enough of you already.” Sara snapped. “You’re pathetic. Not just you, all of you. You’re all pathetic. You’re in a battle to the death, your entire purpose is to battle to the death. And yet, not one of you has so far made an earnest attempt to kill one another. Well let’s see about that.”
Alaster skidded to a halt, coming to a stop just in front of a massive metal building on tank treads that had not been there moments before. The name printed across its side in block capital onyx letters was ‘EMF PYRENESS’. The heavy metal doors of the Pyreness began to open making audible the sound of the open warfare taking place inside. A ways behind them the chasing cops began to slow and reach for their weapons. Robot spider women and copyright agents poured from the mobile fortress locked in intense battle with one another. Plasma shots filled the air as the group dismounted the motorcycle.
Alaster hadn’t wanted to abandon the motorcycle but the entire road was taken up with the Pyreness ahead of them, and the motorcycle wouldn’t drive on the sand. It was the end of the road so to speak.
“Get Behind Me.” It said, raising its blade towards the oncoming ‘magic guardians’ that seemed to surround him.
“Sara?” Saint asked. “The girl?”
Mister O struggled to respond. He just about managed to force out a choked, ‘yes’.
“What about her?” Saint asked.
But there was no response. He was in too much pain.
Saint got to her feet, her mind racing. There was only one conclusion that she was able to arrive at. She fumbled the knife from her pocket and sprinted down the corridor.
“I’ll fight!” Darren pleaded; he glanced at Alaster behind him. “I’ll fight anyone but the suit of armour. Just give me Sara back.” Sara wheeled around upon him.
“You don’t get it do you?” she asked. “Sara isn’t in here any more. She’s dead. She’s gone forever. All that is left is a puppet for me to talk through.” Sara smiled a coy half smile. “Darren, do you know why it took me so long to wake up? It’s because she was fighting so hard. Desperately trying to stay alive. Desperately trying to come back to you. An entire week of agony; struggling to keep control of her own mind. You ought to have killed her there and then. Put her out of her misery.”
Darren punched her. She didn’t even flinch.
Saint pulled open the door. No wait that’s not Sara. She frowned at the old woman asleep in the bed and moved quickly on.
“You really shouldn’t punch girls Darren.” Sara responded with a punch of her own, knocking Darren to the floor. He landed hard against the road, the impact knocking the breath out of him, the punch bloodying his nose. Sara kicked him over and then straddled his sputtering frame. “You know what Darren. This isn’t something I usually do. Normally I am all about balance and keeping things on the correct narrative track.” She wrapped her hands around his neck. “But all of you have messed everything up so much that I’ll make an exception. And even better I’ll enjoy it.” And she squeezed.
As Saint pulled open the door she could hear Darren already sputtering for breath. He thrashed against the sheets while the sleeping body of Sara lay peacefully next to him. Saint wasted no time. Two quick strides and she was at the bedside. The kitchen knife raised and brought down upon Sara’s sleeping body.
It was a close run thing. Darren sputtered and coughed for breath under Sara’s crushing grip. He buckled and thrashed, his arms felt so distant as they tried to force her up and away from him. Everything went black just moments before Sara vanished. One moment she was atop Darren squeezing the life from him and then a flash of pain and she was gone as though she had never been there at all. A moment later Darren and was gone as well.
The police cars pulled up to a stop some feet away from the magical suit of armour and his ward. The two named police officers opened the doors and climbed out. Frank had a shotgun and a sweat on. Hank had a megaphone and the look of someone desperately trying to take care of a situation that was clearly out of their league. Behind them generic looking overweight policemen were getting out of their cars, their generic looking weapons in hand.
“Where did…” Hank hit a button the megaphone and for a moment it fed back. He grimaced and then managed to get it working correctly. “Where did the others go?” Neither Alaster or Timothy responded, and before anything else could be said, the back door of the police car flew open. And when I saw flew open I mean the door was thrown from its hinges by a swarm of flies. Ablendan Blake stepped out of the vehicle. He held his arms out before him as the flies flew back into the darkness beneath his cloak. The handcuff loops hung loosely from his spindly wrists, the chain beneath them had been shattered. “How did…?” Hank tried to back away from the terrifying abomination but tripped over his own feet and fell to the ground.
“I don’t know how long I was out…” Ablendan muttered, more to himself than anything else. “…or quite what it was that I must have been smoking…” He looked the overweight police officer up and down and smiled. “…but I feel a little peckish…”