During a particular road trip adventure...
A new toy rolled off the production line at the Wondertainment toy factory. It was a cube. The cube was grey, and consisted of six sides, none of which were in any way differentiated from any of the other five; All six sides were completely equal in their grayness and flatness. The edges and corners were rounded, so as to remove all threatening influences from the cube and to provide a safe, feelings-appropriate environment. In addition, the cube was designed so that it was incapable of interacting with any other cubes, so as not to form unbalanced societal hierarchies such as stacks, rows, or piles. While a green dot had been included on one of the sides in the prototype, this was found to be offensive to certain obscure minority groups, and was subsequently removed. Colored shapes were written off entirely after this point.
The Executive Board nodded in approval of the focus group results, in one slow, knowing movement. A new age for Wondertainment toys, they thought as one.
Wheezing admissions of thanks rose from the board to the cube’s designer; a little old lady who stood at the far end of the table. A special guest to the Workshops of Wonder.
An outside adviser.
A tide of rotting flesh swept up around Emma Aislethorp-Brown, throwing itself at the leviathan in an orgy of scrabbling fingers, and gnashing jaws. She was ignored. The Rotting Ones found their prey by the sound of its heartbeat, by the heat in its blood, by the stench of the slow decay of life.
Emma had a heart, but it was purely decorative. She watched the Rotting Ones gorge themselves on the Leviathan's corpse. A few more had crawled out of the monster's burst stomach, shambling around, half-melted by digestive juices and torn by teeth.
The rushing sound of contracting time-space rose to a deafening cacophony midway between silence and absence that overpowered the snarling, slobbering horde. It all fell in upon itself at once, blinked, and went black. Like a station switched off.
And then Nothing.
Emma floated in-between Here and There. Somewhere around her1, the collapsed Way existed in a negative state. An inside-out space leading nowhere, arriving nowhere. The Rotting Ones would still be feasting, frozen in a moment, but they could not emerge, lest someone else flipped the negative space right side out again and stabilized it. With the map gone, and no place in the overarching directive to permit her, Emma had neither the inclination nor ability to do so. An uncommon occurrence.
Emma drifted, and while drifting, she thought. She didn’t have much else to do. The plan reorganized itself, the underlying directives planted new supporting actions. Redundancies merged together, events shuffled themselves into an abbreviated timeline. Contingencies were pruned and alternatives sprouted anew. Variables arose. The specter of attention drifted onto the stage where probability danced the tango on the back of turtles all the way down.
Unwelcome, but not unplanned for. Even this far out, a Way collapsing, especially one that had been breached by a Leviathan, would attract attention. Though not immediately. There was still time for things to work out, still time to adapt.
From this side. As for Isabel…she was on her own, for the time being. A contingency triggered long before Emma had originally hoped. She had shaped events as best as she could for the child, but uneasiness still settled like a patina on her mind. Isabel was outside her protection. Unsupported. Prepared for, but nonetheless unwelcome. Why delegate to others what you can do better yourself? Why leave a vulnerability open?
Alas, she couldn’t be in more than one place and the same time. All the threads she had woven would now be on their own. Drifting as she was.
A light opened upon the Nothing. A gaping maw of burning white, circles within circles within circles, twisting and swirling and spiraling about, on a field of gunmetal grey.
Emma looked up into it, and hoped she had chosen the right people for the job.
The Workshops of Wonder
Mister Merit tugged at his red ascot. A nervous habit of his, something to show what his face didn’t. The neatly folded note in his pocket itched to be taken out, to be revealed.
The Doctor had left to go on an adventure, and this was not unusual. The Doctor often left, and her adventures were often lengthy, but this particular time something was wrong. Somewhere down in his gut, Mr. Merit felt that some cosmic tumbler had shifted awry.
The toy factory was never this busy when the Doctor was gone. Now, misters and misses and workbots and roving hordes of Jeremies scurried about, as if the Doctor was sitting down in her office churning out blueprints until the pen caught on fire.2 The halls were clouded with swarms of Memobots, all carrying messages from the Executive Board. More messages than ever before, and Mister Merit was unsettled by them. The print was too small and the words were too big, and they all looked incredibly important, but none of them mentioned where the Doctor had gone. Or the Doctor at all.
What they did mention was that an Outside Adviser had been brought in, an adviser that did not sit well with Mr. Merit.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” he asked the little old lady standing in front of him. She had little round glasses, and a pink shawl over her shoulders, and freshly permed blueish-grey hair, and a warm, friendly smile.
“It’s nothing to worry about, dear. The Executive Board invited me in as an adviser for the new toy line. You don’t need to worry yourself at all.”
Mr. Merit glanced at the little old lady’s twin bodyguards; two tall robots with gleaming chassis and rubber faces to make them look like people. They did not look fun. They looked…wrong, to Mister Merit. He was used to Wondertainment robots, which had all sorts of knobs and dials and doodly-doos and thingamawhatzits and doohickeys and various other choking hazards. These looked like they were just popped out of the mold and fit together, without so much as a kung-fu action grip.
“I don’t recall the Doctor saying anything about you.”
“I was brought in after she had left for her trip, though I am looking forward to meeting with her when she returns.”
Mister Merit kept a brave face and nodded. Better to just let her go. He didn’t like the way her eyes twinkled, or the look of her robotic friends, and the appeal was lessening by the moment.
“All right then. Enjoy your stay here,” he said with the most genuine cheer he could fake.
“Thank you very much. Now, don’t get into any trouble now, dear. Wouldn’t want you to get involved in any messes while the Doctor is away.”
The little old lady walked off down the hall, her guards clanking alongside her. Did she know? Had she seen through the cracks of his act? Was she weighing her suspicions now? Or had she not picked up on it, and just seen the simple-natured Mister who was a bit confused at the change of pace? Mr. Merit had no idea which, but he felt himself erring on the side of fear. She was a little old lady. Little old ladies were powerful creatures. They could smell fear. And secrets. Mr. Merit had both of them in large quantities. The note in his pocket felt as heavy and conspicuous as a brick of lead.
Down more halls up some stairs, out away from the hustle and bustle of the workshops and up towards the Doctor’s tower. It was empty, at least to appearances, but that said only so much. The Executive Board was not very good at listening, but they were very good at hearing things. Horrible at seeing, but excellent at watching.
Mr. Merit didn’t trust them, or the little old lady. That alone would have been the source of his nervousness, but the note in his pocket outdid all of that.
Miss Emma had given him the note when the Doctor was preparing to leave. It read:
My quarters. 1650.
It was four-forty-six right now. Mister Merit didn’t question the directive: he had no reason to distrust the Doctor’s assistant. One didn’t doubt assistants like Miss Emma.
Four-forty-nine. He had reached the room, just down the hall from the Doctor’s office. He opened the door.
Miss Emma’s room was empty. A blank white room. No bed, no chair, no desk, no papers, no windows, no carpet, no vents, nothing but a tile floor and whitewashed walls and a vague, diffused light.
That, and a single, lavender note was stuck to the far wall, artistically out of place. Mister Merit went over and read it. The handwriting was perfect, nearly typewritten.
Go into the center of the room and say ‘Hello, are you there? I need help’ in a loud, clear voice.
Mister Merit pulled the note off the wall and walked into the center of the room. He had no idea what to expect from it. He hoped some sort of help, to set things straight. That’s what Miss Emma was there for, right? To put things in order.
“Hello, are you there? I need help,” said Mister Merit in a loud, clear voice.
A nothing sound whispered down the back of Mister Merit’s neck, as if someone was standing in the room behind him. That, of course, was ridiculous, as there was nobody in the room, and he had closed the door behind him.
He turned around, and saw that he was not actually alone in the room.
The stranger standing there looked to be a miss with very short brown hair, wearing a ratty blue t-shirt, jeans with frayed hems and a jacket that had faded from black to grey. They smelled of smoke, the old, stale kind that soaked into clothes.
The stranger had their head tilted to the right.
“You called?” The voice was bright and cheery; a bubblegum and lollipops voice.
“I did.” Mister Merit tugged at his ascot. He had had enough of strange people today. “Who are you?”
The stranger tilted their head to the left.
“Who’s the one person you can always find in an empty room?” The voice was rough and gravelly now; a two packs a day voice.
“No one, I suppose,” Mister Merit said.
Tilt to the right.
“No one important, at least! Though since I introduced myself, I should be asking you who you are, because you don’t look much like Em.”
“I’m Mister Merit. Miss Aislethorp-Brown is not here at the moment.”
Tilt to the left.
“I can see that.”
“She left a note.” Mister Merit handed it to the stranger.
Tilt to the right.
“Oh Em, what have you gotten yourself into now?”
“What? What’s going on?”
Nobody sighed, crumpled up the paper, and stuffed it in her pocket.
“Hope you like the cleanup crew. Em has some leftovers for us to mop up.”
Isabel Wondertainment looked out over the cliff’s craggy edge, at the valley choked with ancient pines. Two moons, too big, hung in the deepening blue sky above the young bladed mountains. One was grey and plain. One was made of clockwork.
“Jeremy, I don’t think we’re in the workshop any more."