Chapter 8: A Gathering of Plot Threads Forces

Peter Sidwell, 13/01/2001

The sky above the port was now the colour of a .exe attatchment, leading to a corrupted file. The Vice-Master for the Widdershins Quadrant finished another glass. He steepled his fingers, gazed into the distance, sank yet deeper into his ornate chair and let out a breath of frustration.

"Your Eminem?" inquired his stand-in secretary - the normal fellow was at his mother's funeral.

"No," said the Vice-master, glancing up from his glass, "No, put on some Hendrix. It always helps when I'm at this stage."

His secretary dithered for a moment. "Sire, shouldn't you let it cool a little, before you start the engraving?"

The Vice-Master turned his steely gaze upon this dispensible flunkey - but the anger that had started to flare died away before it truly flamed, and with a weary hand he accepted the advice. "Very well, Jimi can wait. Put on the Goths On Prozac album - I need to consider carefully what we are to do about Zool."

"Zool!" scorned the secretary. "Why bother with Zool? Leave it to Unicron. Dead and destroyed a century..."

"Zool, yes," interrupted the Vice-Master icily. "Zool, death planet where the intractable criminals of ten thousand worlds..."

"Et cetera," sarcasmed the other. "A worthless lump of rock. Why, we should pay Unicron for..."

The Vice-Master frowned his irritation and with a flick of his left hand sent a coruscating wave of blue force arcing around his aide. As the charred form of his ex-secretary crumbled to the floor, he let out a heavy sigh, of the sort favoured by powerful despots just prior to times of crisis. "Would that it were that," he whispered to himself darkly and with the font in a lesser point. "Would that it were merely that."

"Right," said Dr Gonzo, dropping the other half of the pizza back in the box, "what are we up to now?"

I sighed and swigged the last of the GIN, passing the bottle to Sally to do something with - kids are creative like that. "It's a simple bloody game, Dr Gonzo. Those four buildings are the last bits of THEM left over from the big war, and you have to get the lego bastards from the tall one to the sofa." There was something in my head about a MISSION, but I guess I was too sober to think about it. It was the second time we'd played the game - Gonzo kept losing track and having to order junk food - but it was kind of compulsive - like shooting up in the eyeball. Sally made us play some space stuff for a bit, but that was weird and we'd returned to a decimated lego town scenario.

Sally watched all this patiently, too quiet for a normal child. "What is that thing?" I had to ask, waving vaguely at the white crystal she clutched.

"It's a secret," she said. "She's my friend."

"Bloody Chocky™," said Gonzo, through a mouthful of Pringles. "We've ended up in a fucking John Wyndham. I can't litigate around that, Duke."

"God this whiskey's foul," I gasped, "pass me another bottle. Who the hell's Chocky™?"

Sally held the crystal firmly and pouted. "She's not called Chocky™, she's called Saitra. And she helps me play. She made the barbarians have spaceships and she made them clever and she makes it fun and anyway you both smell horrid."

"SHIT!" screamed Gonzo, leaping onto the sofa, "What's that on the TV?"

I focussed on the screen after a bit of effort - the caption said Pet Shop Boys and underneath Can you forgive her? - which was kind of weird, but Sally had told us about MTV and we'd seen something like it on the negative world of Rhesus-B. What was scaring Gonzo wasn't just the DTs or a para. hall., but the fucking Unicron planet-eater bouncing around the screen like shit on a spring while men in pointy hats chanted. The drink was losing its effect and I had the munchies bad. The hole in my stomach you could drive a Galaxy-class starcruiser through. I couldn't think about this without food, and I wanted to get away from the creepy kid for a minute.

"Let's just head to the shops for food, Gonz. Anywhere round here we can score, Sal?"

Sally narrowed her eyes, then giggled. "You could try on Cornmarket," she said. "There's a stall on Ship Street where a man deals."

"Cheers - we'll be back soon," I said, trying to get up, which didn't work, then trying to make the floor stay down, which did. "GONZO!"

The Doc startled back awake and we headed out the house into town.

"Well," said Bhond, "for my galactic credits, we're just going to go round and round for ever. We're no nearer Carfax now than we were."

"Indeed," uttered Prince Benedict, "the mighty seat of Carfax stands still some distance off. Does this geography make sense to you, Crimson Binome?"

"Ah," intoned that Binome, "to be honest, no. I understand many things - I am a fount of knowledge on matters arcane and hidden, having wandered the Virtual Vaults of Bodley for long: I know the secret ways of many things. But a tower that is never reached has me buggered. So to speak," he added quickly.

"Perhaps," suggested Captain Zap, mindful of how many plot threads were unravelling, and eager not to be forgotten as one of the four survivors, "Carfax is not our objective. Let's try to work out what the point of this zOoL is likely to be."

The Binome frowned. "zOoL is after all only the game-engine," he shrugged, "and many quests can be fitted to it. We would need to know this game's creator, and what their desires are. By the code! - these days, it feels as though some dark force controls our world, and it seems we merely replay scenarios for the destruction of -everything." An ominous silence followed, more or less as you'd expect.

But Zap was staring intently down the road at two figures who were staggering, when upright, in their general direction, screaming abuse at random objects and one of them stopping from time to time to beat off invisible attackers. "I know these," he muttered to himself. "The two incoherent lunatics who turned up just before Unicron came to take Zool."

Prince Benedict drew his sword at once, for he had decided, being a man who went on appearances, that they looked like they served a Dark Lord. Good men walked straight, in his world. But Zap restrained him, and called out, "Well met, sirs! I see you, too, evaded Unicron the planet-eater - will you join us?"

To which Gonzo responded with an incoherent scream and passed out. I was puzzled for a moment, so I knocked back some pills I fund in my pocket and everything sort of settled down. "We in Oxford here?" I asked the bloke in the bronze suit.

"Aye," the Crimson Binome responded instead, "albeit a fictive one."

I eyed this one carefully. I don't think I've ever done enough drugs to see a guy like that before. It was like an image of how basic geometry could build a world worth living in, only in a kind of metaphorical way that nobody would ever be able to decipher. Looking good, but badly. "We met the girl that's making it up," I offered, keeping one eye on Gonzo who was inhaling cocaine off a parking meter. "But I didn't figure she'd be inside the game - we just left her house back there -"

I looked back as I pointed, but the street wasn't there. I guess she'd somehow ditched us into it as we left. "Her and her white rock thing."

- At this the others all started. "A glowing white rock?" whispered Prince Benedict in awe. "That speaks to her and makes her thoughts real? The Epiphany Stone, most powerful artefact ever made by the Dark Lords, back when they hung out in groups and held regular evil-device-designing competitions - the legendary Scraphex Challenge?"

"Never mind that," said Bhond, "The Vice-Master has mentioned such a device to me under the influence of neural disinhibitors, but it was hidden in the distant past by the mysterious Tsar Nicholas, lest it fall again into the hands of the dreaded Saitra."

"Ah," I said, shaking my head to clear away the first tinges of paranoia, "you really are in a bad way. That's what she called the thing. What the hell is it?"

The Binome thing looked horrified (I guessed). "By the Code! By the damned Source Code itself! It cannot be the Saitra I have read of in the Vaults of Bodleian! The psyche-absorbing reality-engine that seeks only to obliterate the remnants of the Great Colleges! Buried as it was deep in the heart of the most godforsaken hideous planet in the galaxy! None surely could reach it, let alone be consumed by it! For Saitra grows as a fungal thing that absorbs the minds of those that consume her, and grows stronger, ever stronger! - and it would take perhaps ten thousand minds to give her the power necessary to free herself! And many more to project herself through time! How could this be?"

Bhond gave him a level gaze. "Rather more exclamation marks than I like in my plot dumps, but I suppose that's a hazard when you have a Binomial expansion - Crimson or otherwise."

Prince Benedict stepped forward and placed one gauntleted hand on Bhond's arm. "Call it but exposition, Mr Bhond, and leave it. It is not for us to question the ways of Author."

I was getting kind of freaked out and into a bad trip, so I didn't like to get too involved in this - plus you can get too metatextual when you're trapped in multilayered narratives. Captain Zap, the man who ran COCK and who I recognised as the fascist bastard who'd messed us round near that barren godforsaken hideous planet, was clearly in no mood either for this.

"Look," he said impatiently, cutting across further exposition by any of the others, "I'm afraid I don't give a flying monkey's left testicle about any of this, I just want a big fuck-off battle, preferably with huge big-budget scary stuff and galaxy-spanning apocalypse shit all over the place. So let's ditch this game, get off our encounter-suited butts and do something!"

"Yeah," said Bhond. "Fair enough."

Meanwhile - Convocation - and Don King slowly rises from his ancient creaking seat. "So - it is confirmed. Bhond is lost for the moment, and while Unicron aims to devour the death planet, as we planned, it is too late. The renegades of Zool have been absorbed, and she has escaped."

"What are we to do?" enquired the Vice-Chancellor nervously, in the tense atmosphere of the Sheldonian Station. "Is she attempting a full frontal attack?"

"No," said King. "She aims to destroy us before we became this powerful. She has gone back...."

- But what is Saitra's plan? - Has Convocation a strategy to deal with this? -Is the death planet really to be devoured by Unicron? -What is Bhond up to? -Has Don King really organised his last big fight? - And how much time travel do we really want to get bogged down with, anyway?

- And what is / was the truly terrible secret of Zool?

Some of this will be revealed next time, gentle readers and Zool-ots...