In his lab, deep in the tangled heart of PPC HQ, Hornbeam the Ironwood was writing a plothole.
It was trickier than it sounds. He had been forced to invent three new devices just to allow him to hold the pen, but there were more problems than that. A spatio-temporal plothole was strongest when it was unique; if the PPC used the same explanation every time, the plothole became simply plot. Then it would be fully exposed to the sheer momentum of the Word World's storyline, and collapse in short order – along with all other plotholes in that world which used the same wording.
So plothole creation was an art, not a science. Leafing through an increasingly thick book (with plastic pages – the Flowers weren't monsters, after all), Hornbeam compared several previous formulations, mixing and matching sentence fragments, and only after several standard time partitions did he finally set pen to paper.
In Hornbeam's laboratory, he wrote carefully, a freak collision between a high-energy photon and an inert plothole sustainer created a gateway through time and space. Where it led, it was impossible to tell without passing through…
With the plothole thus prepared, Hornbeam opened the side of the Sustainer. It had been heavily modified since the original prototype; this design could not only hold open a plothole – natural or artificial – indefinitely, but could take a written description and inject it into the Words. The sheet of paper fitted neatly into its slot, allowing Hornbeam to close the hatch, lower the lab's shields to allow the Words to filter in – and flick the switch.
The lights in the lab dimmed as the Sustainer rumbled to life. It was one of the quirks of the technology that, while a plothole could be sustained on internal power alone by simply running a moving belt through it, it took vast amounts of energy to actually open the things. As part of the ongoing compartmentalisation of the PPC, Hornbeam had set one of his subordinates up as Head of the Department of Generation (Infrastructure Division) to find a suitable power supply for HQ's needs. To date, there had been no progress.
The plothole manifested itself in the usual manner – the air contained in the Sustainer's metal frame simply changed, becoming a view of another location entirely. With open-ended portals like this one, Hornbeam never knew what his light sensors would detect – it could be a forest, a desert, or the depths of the sea.
In this instance, it was briefly a lattice of metal trusses, then a hurtling, limbed shape, and then, after the shape grabbed at and tore away the endless belt, simply the far side of the laboratory.
The intruder lay on the floor, draped over one of Hornbeam's roots, apparently unconscious. Even without its mind to go on, Hornbeam could see the four-limbed design of the creature, the fragile-looking head, the closed eyes and partially-open mouth.
A Merry Pseudo! he exclaimed. Whipping out a branch, he activated HQ's communications system. This is the Department of Technology attempting to contact the Department of Action, the Ironwood announced. Is there any Weed present who can hear my words?
I'm here, Captain Dandy replied instantly. What's the problem, Hornbeam?
A Merry Pseudo has entered my laboratory through a now-closed plothole, Hornbeam explained. Since I cannot return it to the world from which it came, I request that you undertake some action to remove it.
You could just step on it, Captain Dandy pointed out. But no, wait… we've been wanting to test out the new Reality Room.
Since we found that written plotholes only work in Word Worlds, Captain Dandy explained to Hornbeam as they looked in through the window, we have been slowly abandoning the sections of HQ in any other kind of world. It's no hardship – most of those sections were old, badly-constructed, and damaged during the Civil War regardless. We've kept a few, though, and repurposed them as these – Reality Rooms.
I do not detect any significant difference between this location and any other, Hornbeam pointed out.
No, you wouldn't. The shields are up, for one thing, and besides, you make sense. You aren't a creature of plotholes – not like a Merry Pseudo.
Hornbeam studied the creature in the Reality Room. So you remove them from their Word Worlds, he mused. No, from any Word World. That renders them incapable of creating their natural plotholes – correct?
Correct, the Dandelion confirmed. But most Merry Pseudos can't survive without their plotholes. They build themselves on lying and twisting the world around them – taking that power away will usually kill them.
I believe I comprehend the theory, Hornbeam agreed. But I am afraid I still have one question I desire an answer to. He pointed a branch at the creature behind the glass. If all that you have said is the truth – then why does this being not exhibit signs of physical distress?
Captain Dandy studied the creature. It was annoyed, certainly – he could read that from its mind – and it appeared to be scared in equal measure. But there were none of the signs of plothole withdrawal which he was used to. … good question, he admitted at last. Shall we go and ask?
When the Plants entered the Room, their captive was facing the far wall. "At last," it said, apparently hearing the door. "I was beginning to think I'd been forg- oh."
The 'oh' came as it turned and saw the Plants. Its eyes, protected behind circles of glass in a wire frame, tracked from one to the other and back. Disbelief/terror/curiosity, Hornbeam read from its mind, and then, Hypothesis.
"I see," the creature said. "This is some form of hallucinogen test. Since I can't imagine cooperating will make things more difficult for me, I might as well tell you that I see you as a large flower and a tree of some description."
When Captain Dandy responded, he sounded distinctly nonplussed. You see us that way because that is what we are, he said. I am Captain Dandy, and this is Hornbeam.
"Also I hear your voices inside my head, though I don't think what I'm hearing corresponds to what you are actually saying – if you are saying anything at all." The creature glanced around the room, then shrugged. "In the interests of experimentation, I will attempt to cooperate with the hallucinations." It rose on its lower limbs and faced the Plants. "Greetings. I am-"
A flow of air passed over the Flowers' leaves, vibrations varying as with other words, but the mind-sense did not match the sound. Instead, Hornbeam received an overlapping sensation of self/identity/family/heritage/culture. He shook his leaves, trying to make sense of it.
Captain Dandy was having similar difficulties. He flared his petals, creating a brief sunburst of yellow. I am sorry – you are a what?
The thing's eyes opened and closed rapidly. "Er, a technician," it said, and laughed. "Like flowers would know what that means… I'm someone who makes things."
Well, then, One Who Makes Things, Captain Dandy said, you seem to be operating under a false illusion. We are not hallucinations – we are real. You fell through a plothole into Hornbeam's laboratory – and yet you don't seem to be a Merry Pseudo. It's quite vexing.
"You're telling me," the creature muttered. "Wait – a plothole? Like in a story?
You are familiar with the phenomenon? Hornbeam asked, surprised. We had believed we were the only ones to have discovered their existence.
The creature's mind filled with bewilderment. "Surely everyone who's ever read a bad story knows about them. But you said I fell through one… do you mean to say they physically exist? And you, what, you can make them?"
Well, yes, Captain Dandy replied, taken aback. But how did you know that?
The creature snorted. "Well, I know I didn't make it, and I think I'd've heard if they were a natural occurrence. So how do you do it? Do you extract them from stories somehow?"
That's a security- Captain Dandy began, but Hornbeam sent a silencing pulse of thought his way.
One Who Makes Things, the Ironwood said, you seem to be an intelligent and adaptable individual of your species. Would you be interested in accepting a position in my Department of Technology?
"A position? Like – a job?" The creature scratched its head. "Well, if you're hallucinations I lose nothing, and if you're not, you can't be worse than my boss… sure."
I am pleased that you accept, One Who Makes Things, Hornbeam said.
The creature nodded. "Thanks. But… look, if you're going to call me that, can we drop the pretentious 'one' business?"
Who Makes Things? Captain Dandy asked. I suppose it works…
"Sounds like a bad poem," the creature laughed. "No, we'll drop the 'who' as well… just call me Makes-Things."
To the confusion of the Flowers, Makes-Things never learnt how to navigate HQ. It seemed he lacked the capacity to sense probability that was essential to long-range plothole travel, and he would always be dependent on the crudest forms of consciousness-control, such as distracting himself from his journey. Equally bafflingly, his mind never grew to the point where it could transmit full sentences: the Flowers spent their time with him reading his surface thoughts and attempting to reconstruct his meaning.
On the other hand…
It took him a day to learn everything about the PPC, its structure, history and purpose.
He learnt the basics of plothole technology in an hour.
And he needed only a minute of study to find a way to improve it.
A week passed.
"Most of the bulk is the computers," Makes-Things explained as he led Hornbeam into the lab. "I might be able to optimise the coding a little more, but honestly, it's going to need advances in computing tech to shrink it by much. Then there's the… well, you'll see."
Hornbeam studied the machine taking up the majority of the room. But where is the hatch? he asked. How does one insert the plothole?
"Ah, that's the trick," Makes-Things grinned. "Those computers are programmed to write it themselves. It took a bit of work, but they have natural-language processing power you wouldn't believe. They can write one plothole a second, and… well, I tried to work out the total number they were capable of, but my calculator ran out of zeros."
But that is impossible, Hornbeam said, bewildered. There is insufficient space in all of HQ for the gears and shafts that would be required.
"Not magic – just technology. Sufficiently advanced technology." Makes-Things patted the machine. "This thing is silicon chips all the way, sir. And it's ready to go. Would you do the honours?"
Hornbeam shook his branches. How might- he began.
Makes-Things held up a metal device about the size of his arm. "I call this a Remote Activator," he said. "I've set the destination world – all you need to do is push the big friendly button."
Hornbeam took the Activator gingerly and pressed a twig to the red button. The vast plothole generator whirred softly to itself, and then a dot of blue light appeared in the air. It stretched itself horizontally until it reached the width of a door, then swept up and down, opening into a glowing rectangle.
"As you can see, I've made a few changes," Makes-Things said into Hornbeam's awed silence. "The blue light was suggested by the Health and Safety Department before that unfortunate incident with the bees shut them down – it outlines the gateway so those of us not gifted with Flower perception don't accidentally chop our own arms off. And, as you've noticed, it's free-standing. I've set up a thermo-electric current across the plothole – or portal, as I like to think of it. The gradient actually produces the power needed to keep the portal open, and it means you can open them literally anywhere. And… let's see." He bent over the generator and tapped a few keys.
Through the blue light, Hornbeam could see what seemed to be a beach. A short distance over the sand, another blue point appeared and expanded into a second portal – beyond which another point of light was already forming.
"The self-powering effect means the portals are able to open as often as the generator can write them," Makes-Things explained, "with no significant drain on HQ's power. There's an element of distributed processing built in, too, so I theorise that after a certain number of portals are chained, they won't even need the generator to continue creating."
That is extremely impressive, Hornbeam admitted, and bent his leaves to gather the light from the portal. Then he glanced down at the Remote Activator, with its single big friendly button. But before that occurs, might it not be an excellent idea to turn it off?
"… ah." For the first time, Makes-Things looked uncertain. "Would you excuse me a minute, sir?" And he lunged for the portal generator.