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By: Placeholder McDPlaceholder McD
PUBLISHED: 01 Mar 2021 12:11
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rating: +49+x

A pair of glossy black dress shoes are firmly planted on one side of a lab bench. It's evident that they've been shined recently, as one could nearly make out the researcher occupying them in the resulting glare. "Alright, the alignment system's calibrated."

A pair of well-worn Converse step up to the opposite side of the bench. Faded reds and blues are accompanied by a lack of laces, as Place finds Velcro much more pragmatic (though he'd love to rant about knot theory if the topic came up). "And the narrative field distribution?"

"It looks like it's reading the inputs properly." Saxon stares intently at a small square screen, attempting to parse the various readouts and settings it displays. The screen is inset on the base of a cylindrical machine; above it, an unsolved Rubik's Cube gently rotates, suspended in mid-air. He huffs, taking a step back and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Remind me, again: why we can't use a more standard object for testing?"

Place places his elbows onto the bench, rolling his eyes and donning his glasses. Usually ecstatic to be in the lab, his movements are lethargic and his voice seems drained. "Because, Zach, it's easy to move this object between ordered and disordered states in a way that can be clearly viewed from a narrative perspective."

"Place, if you just keep saying the same thing to me, I'm not going to understand it any better — "

"God, just — alright, look." He gestures animately with his hands as he speaks. "The whole goal of this process is to take an object, stop it from moving through one narrative, and shunt it into another narrative, right? If we can do that, then we can transport ourselves to a narrative where we can study the STORYHOLE."

"Right."

"To get something to stop moving through a narrative, we have to do something narratively-unsatisfying with it to counteract its current plot-velocity."

Saxon nods patiently, waiting for Place to bridge the gap between what he knows and what he doesn't.

"In satisfying story-structures, a protagonist wants to pursue some ideal, so they leave their zone of comfort and enter some new region. Eventually, they find out that their ideal is flawed, and so their ambitions become more realistic as a result. This movement from ordered to disordered states reflects the law of entropy: the universe, and everything in it, tends towards being more chaotic and disorganized."

"I've read your paper. Please, just get to the damn Rubik's Cube."

Place stares at him, a few unprofessional remarks running through his mind before he shakes his head, continuing his explanation. "So, if I start solving the thing, it builds up a whole bunch of narrative momentum, because I'm starting to pursue the 'ideal', ordered state of it being solved. What would be narratively-satisfying is if I solved it, had some realization because of it, then mixed it up again and put it down, changing as a character as a result."

Saxon smirks. "You mean, like the realization that there's more to life than solving Rubik's Cubes?"

"I have the power to fire you, and it'd be pretty damn narratively-satisfying."

"Point taken. So, what are we going to do instead?"

"Simple. I won't finish solving it, which will create a contained pocket of 'malignant narrative'. The Engine uses this pocket as a temporary shield from our universe's narrative structures, and harnesses that energy to eject the Cube into another narrative."

"And you're fine parting with it?"

Place stands up straight, pressing his palms to the lab bench for support. "I've got plenty at home — can we just get to it, already?"

"Yeah, let's." Saxon leans forward once again, focusing on the screen. He flips an adjacent switch, deactivating the machine's safety mode and readying the experiment. Soon, his finger hovers above a bright red button; he looks up to Place for confirmation.

"On my mark." Place reaches into the space above the machine, taking hold of the colorful toy. His fingers press to specific spots on its surface, calling on decades of experience to avoid rolling up the corners of its well-worn stickers. He makes moves in quick succession, occasionally pausing to rotate and examine new areas. "Ready…" Groups of like colors come together, nearing completion when, suddenly, Place's hands pull away, leaving it only a half-turn from completion. "Mark!"

His partner's finger comes down on the button, and a mechanism within the cylinder whirrs to life, producing a translucent purple sphere surrounding the Cube. The toy begins spinning, accelerating and causing the field around it to wobble, growing and shrinking irregularly.

Saxon takes a step back. "Is that… is this supposed to be happening?"

"Er, I-I'm not sure… by now, it should've — "

Place is interrupted by a high-pitched whistling, not unlike a tea kettle. Not a second passes before the narrative field swells up and pops like a balloon, sending the Rubik's Cube high into the air. He and Saxon pursue the common instinct to duck, but neither of them hears the anticipated crash of the toy shattering against the floor.

Warily, Place peeks up over the lab bench. Saxon follows suit, meeting his gaze before they glance upwards. As before, the Cube hovers above the machine, now completely solved.

BLANK

"I don't get it, McD. What the hell happened in there?"

Saxon, a man of short stature, struggles to keep up with his superior as they move through the halls of Site-87. As they round a corridor's corner, he nearly crashes into another researcher; he has to contort backward just to keep from spilling coffee over the both of them.

Place seems to be on a different planet, his mind racing as he marches down his warpath. As he follows the all-too-familiar route to his office, he fiddles with the Rubik's Cube still, as if he'll gain some deeper understanding from solving it again.

Saxon skips ahead of him, standing in his way. "Place, come on, talk to me."

He stops in his tracks, pocketing the unsolved puzzle with a frustrated sigh. "The Engine reported a shortage of malignant narrative. Not enough to stabilize the story-exclusion field around the Cube."

"Yeah, I know, I was there — but why?"

Suddenly, a P. A. system speaker crackles to life. "Paging Doctor McDoctorate on personal line oh-thirty-three. Doctor McDoctorate, personal line oh-thirty-three." Place stares daggers into the speaker, resisting the urge to direct his frustrations towards it. Instead, he continues the steady march towards his office, approaching a door a few meters down the hall and pressing his ID card to an adjacent gray panel.

"Place? Why didn't it work?"

He turns back to Saxon, and utters his least-favorite three-word phrase to say. "I don't know."

With that, he leaves his concerned associate to speculate, entering his office with a huff. Place pulls his arms out of his labcoat's sleeves, hanging it next to his leather jacket on the inner side of the door. The blinking blue light on his office phone catches his attention, prompting him to wonder, for the first time since he'd been paged down from the lab, exactly who was calling.

Place steps over to his desk, taking a seat and picking up the phone. He dials the extension for his personal line, simultaneously realizing that the Cube is causing an uncomfortable pressure in his pocket. He brings the phone to his ear, absent-mindedly pulling the toy out of his pocket as he waits to be connected. He sets it on his desk, appreciating the simplicity of a solved Rubik's Cube.

Wait a second… He does a double-take, eyes widening as he leans forward to examine it. He knows for a fact he hadn't solved it before putting it in his pocket. What in the hell…

"Place? You there?"

A nondescript voice brings the obsessed researcher back to reality. "Yep! I'm here, sorry — who's this?"

"Hey, it's Eight."

Right, of course. The lack of anything distinctive should have reminded him he was speaking to an Overseer. "Ah, good to hear from you. I heard that a few Sites have started the narrative exams?"

"That's what Site-01 is telling them. We've actually rolled out the program to any North American Site with more than a few hundred personnel."

"Oh, uh, wow. That's pretty extensive."

"Well, again, the more densely-populated Sites are likely to have employees that fall between the cracks, narratively-speaking."

"Right. Have you got any results back?" Place eyes the toy on his desk. The cube seems to stare back at him, taunting his attempts to rationalize its behavior.

"I've got a list of potential candidates compiled for you, separated by personnel class and ranked by narrative potential, lowest first. Should be in your inbox momentarily."

"That's fantastic — I hadn't anticipated having it so soon. I'll have a look and see if I can't set up an information session with the crew for later this week."

"Glad to hear it. I'm pulling for you with the Council; they're a bit cautious, but I've made it clear that you know what you're doing."

"Uh, right. About that — "

"Sorry, Place, I've got to get to another meeting. Let Helen know if you need anything."

"Wait, so will I need to submit the crew list to the Council, or…?" Place glances over to his desk to see the call has already ended. Drat. He sets the phone down on the receiver, glancing at the confounding puzzle. In a bout of frustration, he grabs it and applies algorithms indiscriminately, twisting and turning the thing into an unsatisfying mess, then sets it aside again.

After a deep breath, Place turns his focus to his laptop. Logging in quickly, he opens his SCiPmail to find the aforementioned list, downloading it and scrolling through. He knows Saxon likely won't be on it — the kid'll have to hold down the fort while I'm gone. He'd need a number two, someone who could keep pace with him in dealing with the technical aspects of the mission.

The smallest section of the list, by far, is Administrative Personnel, which makes sense; it's hard to end up in a high-ranking position without some substantial narrative potential. Listed are primarily secretaries and assistants to high-ranking employees, whose jobs were only technically administrative. One catches Place's eye, though: a Site Director.

Looking into Site-43's Dossier file, he finds that it's not too far from Site-87; Lake Huron is closer to Wisconsin than many other Foundation-controlled areas. He reaches over to pick up his phone once again, but stops halfway through the motion.

Cube.jpg

The Rubik's Cube beams at him sarcastically, each side exactly one solid color. Sometimes, he hated working in Pataphysics. With some effort, he pushes the failed (?) experiment into the back of his mind, picking up his desk phone and pressing the usual three-key help extension, calling up Site-87's mainframe AI-conscript.

"Yes, Place?"

"Hey, Moneta. Could you patch me to the Director's office at Site-43?"

"On it."

After a few seconds, the click of a new connection is heard, followed by a low, disgruntled voice. "Hello?"

"Hey, Director Blank, this is Doctor Placeholder at Site-87. I was wondering if you'd be free to meet for lunch…"


Two silver-haired gentlemen are seated at opposite sides of a square table in the near-center of a nearly-empty rest stop, just outside the Sault St. Marie Canada-US Border. They'd agreed that heading north to meet halfway would be most convenient, though Place suspects this was because the Director didn't want to have to deal with crossing the border (typical Canadian attitude, really).

At present, Place is halfway through a Simon's Prime cheeseburger — a Canada-exclusive luxury — and a modest amount of french fries. He wipes a wad of ketchup from the corner of his mouth with his wrist, which is perfectly sanitary as he's tucked napkins into the sleeves of his long, leather jacket. Occasionally, one hand diverts from the act of chowing down to take hold of his soda; the 'COLA', 'DIET', and 'WATER' bubbles on its lid have each been depressed, out of habit.

Meanwhile, Dr. Harold Blank stares curiously at Place, who seems blissfully unaware of his presence. He's mainly just glad that Place remembered to wrap his mess of a hairstyle into a ponytail before digging in; Blank idly scratches his beard to ensure nothing's caught in his own hair, either. A neatly-partitioned red tray rests in front of him, upon which an empty poutine container and exactly three tidy quarters of a Wendy's Pound sit. Blank does not seem to be disturbed by the notion that he's now half a pound heavier than when he left the Site, and only a third of the way through his meal.

"So… is this an eating contest?"

Place freezes midway through his trajectory, which, uninterrupted, would have resulted in his next bite. He looks up to Blank apologetically before sitting up straight, covering his mouth with one hand and setting his sandwich down with the other. "No, sor'y. I wan'ed to, um…" He pauses and finally rids his mouth of food. He starts to speak again, but reaches for his drink instead, following the sounds of an empty straw with the clearing of his throat. "Sorry. I wanted to speak with you about a special project I'm heading over at the Pataphysics Department."

"Really? Because it seems like you wanted an excuse to order from Simon's." Blank smiles conspiratorially as he picks up one-quarter of his burger, the quadruple-patty beast standing taller than it is wide, and brings it cautiously to his lips. "Slow day at the Site anyways, and it's a beautiful drive, so I don't quite mind."

"Ha, well, I'm glad I've caught you on a good day, but I'm not just looking for a friendly chat. Director Blank — "

"Call me Harry."

"Sure. Harry, I deal with stories for a living, and, from what I can tell, so do you."

"Mhm." He takes another bite and, in doing so, eliminates the first half of his sandwich.

"And I don't think it'd surprise you, as a historian, to hear that you and I are part of a story right now."

"Not a particularly interesting one, so far."

"Yeah, well that's not exactly our fault. See, you and I are a rare type of character called an archetypical."

Blank raises a brow, setting down his drink. "Come again?"

"In Pataphysics, there are three types of characters. There are generics, the standard lot of people, who aren't exactly interesting enough to show up in most narrative structures. Then, there are protagonists and archetypicals. Protagonists have anomalously-high narrative potential, which means that they often end up being, well, protagonists. Heroes of their own stories, free to act upon the narrative structures around them. Members of royalty, heroes from folklore — it's a form of low-level reality-bending."

Place gestures towards himself and his lunchmate. "You and I, on the other hand, are archetypicals. We have anomalously-low narrative potential, and so the narrative structures of the universe act upon us, instead, shaping our lives in ways that end up being good for other nearby stories. This means we have a tendency to be side-characters and fall into common archetypes. I'm a mad-scientist archetype, for example. I kind-of wear it on my sleeve." The eccentric researcher smiles warmly, a speck of food poking out between his front teeth.

The scruffy old man across from him leans back in his chair, arms crossed. "…sorry, are you for real?"

Place's smile dissipates. "Uh, well… yeah? This is the kind of stuff that we research over at Pataphysics — "

Blank leans forward, holding up his palms. "Okay, first of all, I thought it was 'Pataphysics."

Place blinks at him. "What?"

"I thought it was 'Pataphysics. With an apostrophe."

"How are you even — "

"You said it yourself, it's not news to me that we're in a story, nor is its medium. Point is, you're saying Pataphysics, not 'Pataphysics. Which is it?"

"Yeah, uh… we dropped the apostrophe, like, a while ago. Didn't really want to be associated with the French cover story, anymore."

"Okay, fine. Second of all, what's with the fake identity?"

For fuck's sake. Place leans back, reaching under his glasses to rub his eyes. His voice comes out a bit muffled by his hand, combining with that morning's exhaustion to convey how annoyed he is with this category of inquiry. "It's not — I'm not — my name is Doctor Placeholder Mc-god-damn-Doctorate, P. H. D., alright? It has been as long as I can remember — even though I know it couldn't have been. I know I wasn't named Placeholder as a child, despite the fact that I have fucking memories of my mother calling me Placeholder. And, trust me, it's in your best interest not to ask why."

Blank seems taken a bit aback by his outburst, as do the nearby rest-stop employees. He glances over to them — how does one end up working at a rest stop, anyway — before refocusing on his colleague. "Er, sorry, I seem to have struck an unpleasant chord. I'm aware of INTEGER, I just, uh…" he chooses his next words carefully. "I was under the impression that the sequence of events implied by the FILE was manufactured to serve as an EXPLANATION for some embedded O5-Council agent, or some shit."

"It is all. Too. Real." Place picks up his burger, starting to stress-eat. The napkins have since come untucked from his sleeves, not that it matters; he's wiping his mouth on his jacket, anyways.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, letting the tension percolate as Doctor McDoctorate veritably inhales the rest of his food. Blank takes this as an opportunity to do the same, neatly but quickly shoveling away the rest of his meal. After it's clear they've both finished, Blank attempts to rebuild bridges. "So, you and I are archetypicals. That explains all the narrative potential exams at my Site recently. However, it also seems to imply that we aren't useful for much."

Place huffs, crossing his arms. "On the contrary; just about every story needs side characters that fulfill clear roles. Without them, it's unlikely that a protagonist would interact with other characters in a way that would cause them to change, and change is crucial to our universe's narrative structures because of entropy."

"Right, but how are we of use to the Foundation?"

"Well, it means we can deal with anomalies that don't want to be written about; anomalies that repel protagonists. It's like gravity; protagonists are compelled to pursue other protagonists and change them in some way, and a protagonist that doesn't change for a long time is more and more likely to be portrayed as a villain and not a hero. A black hole is a star that has refuses to die; essentially, it's gone into a state where it's refusing to change, and so heroes are compelled to go and 'defeat' it by somehow changing it.

"Archetypicals can deal with anomalies that have anti-gravity, narratively speaking. Things that repel heroes; things that change frequently, and push narratives out and away from them." Place seems to loosen up as he discusses something he's interested in, leaning forwards on the table. "An example of this would be the anomaly I came to tell you about today — the STORYHOLE."

Blank lets out a snort at that, covering his grin with one hand. Place smirks. "And yes, I'm the one who named it. It's an anomalous whitehole with some strange narrative properties: it emits projections of our universal narrative — the infinitely complicated story that our whole reality imitates — to an anomalously-accurate degree, implying that it's somehow related to author-entities. Second of all, there's this old sci-fi show that had its 70th anniversary a few weeks ago — "

"Oh, Doctor Who?"

Place glances up at him, gradually breaking into a smile. "Yeah, you watch?"

"Oh, yes. I mean, I didn't keep up with Tennant Junior, but aside from that."

"Well, you didn't miss much." Place stands up from their table, grabbing his tray by its edge and gesturing for Blank to follow suit.

"Ha, good to know." They each deposit their garbage and trays in their respective receptacles, walking slowly towards the doors.

Place continues. "So, anyways — "

"Listen, I'll be coming back to 87 with you to check some of this out, so you can explain when we get back on the road." Harry takes a step to the right, gesturing towards the smell of over-sugary coffee. "Tims?"


A familiar pair of custom Velcro Converse are situated on one side of a lab bench. Opposite them is a pair of rubber-and-leather workboots, which have somehow stood the test of time against all manner of anomalous waste. "Quite the lab you've got, here," Blank observes, his head swiveling around as he examines the array of unfamiliar technology.

"Thanks, though it's not as extensive as some of your facilities." Place adjusts a few switches and dials on the base of a cylindrical machine, which begins to emit a steady hum. "This, here, is our prototype of the Engine. Or, at least, the transporter-component — the actual search-component is currently housed in the Site's mainframe."

"Right. You do something unsatisfying, that creates a narrative vacuum, and then the machine channels that vacuum to send an object into another narrative. Which, if I understand correctly, means that you're poking a hole in our story, then sending something through that hole so it lands in a different story."

Place blinks blankly. "Huh… that's a rather good way of putting it."

"History involves quite a bit of synthesizing information." Blank places his palms on the countertop. "So, what are we trying to send, and where are we trying to send it?"

"We're trying to send it across the Canon to a pretty high-energy narrative reality; a version of the Foundation where most A-Class personnel are really prominent protagonists, and they've sort-of taken over their universal narrative. They're more or less an easy target, and the Engine is still in development, so we're not looking for incredibly precise results, yet. As for what we're sending…"

Place produces his solved Rubik's Cube from his pocket, placing it next to the machine. "This… thing. You never happened to learn to solve a Rubik's Cube, did you?"

"Doesn't really fall under the umbrella of anomalous history or esoteric waste management, so no."

"Right, well, as I mentioned in the car, the idea is that, because humans like things to be ordered, and the universe likes things to be disordered, this serves as a good tool for building up narrative energy and then really quickly releasing it. What would best represent the universal narrative is if I set out to solve it, I did so but learned some flaw in my goal along the way, and then, after achieving what I wanted, I scramble it again, showing that I've grown as a character and I no longer need to solve it."

"Yes, and so you, instead, didn't finish solving it, and stopped just before the climax of your narrative structure, which should have poked a hole in your story."

"And then it solved itself anyways. And now, every time it's not being observed — " Place grabs it as he speaks, quickly rearranging the puzzle into a chaotic array of colors. "— it orders itself, like it's a protagonist." He shows the messed-up toy to Blank, for good measure, before bringing it out of view, only to place it back on the table in a solved state once again. "When Pickman said the narrative had a sense of humor, he really wasn't kidding."

Blank eyes it warily, gears seeming to turn in his mind. "Right. So we've just got to keep an eye on it, then."

"Well, who knows? Maybe it's built up so much narrative energy now that we can't not solve it, somehow."

"Just let me watch the experiment, I want to see if I can catch anything."

Place glances between the scruffy, silver-bearded historian and the deceitful toy, eventually picking it up with a huff. "Fine. Get ready to press the big red button, on your side. It has to be immediately after the narrative is interrupted."

Blank's gaze wanders down to the PLACE button, which pulses dimly. "Ready when you are."

"Okay, let's give this another shot." Place raises the Cube into the air above the machine, letting it hover gently as he begins mixing it up. He tries to blink as little as possible, though he's confident that he and Blank likely won't blink simultaneously. Once thoroughly scrambled, he takes his hands away, pausing for a moment before bringing them back to it. Carefully, he starts to solve it, finishing the first layer, then the second —

Blank breaks his concentration. "I'm assuming the fact that you're willing to send this to another narrative reality means you're not too attached to it."

Place huffs. "Yeah, that's the case. Now get ready to press the — "

"NOW!" Blank swiftly takes the Cube from Placeholder and tosses it, full swing, at the linoleum floor. The puzzle shatters into its constituent twenty-one pieces which fly across the room, bouncing off of every conceivable surface that cheap plastic can bounce off of.

Place's jaw nearly follows the Cube to the floor, his fists balling up as he turns to the man whom he thought to be his new friend. "Harry, why in the hell — "

Before he can make any headway, however, the Engine sputters to life, the narrative exclusion field glowing a bright red as it expands to the size of a basketball. It remains stable at that size, before the vortex within suddenly opens up into a whirlwind of narrative vacuum, the space between stories. One by one, the freshly-smashed bits of the Rubik's Cube fly into the air, rising to the same level as the Canon-gateway before zipping through it, exiting this story.

The two scientists watch in awe as the last piece is ejected through the vortex, after which Place starts to notice the field expanding, growing dangerously close to the base of the machine itself. He leaps over the lab bench, reaching forward and shutting off the machine. The field shrinks back into nothing, and the room is silent.


In the adjacent hallway, Drs. Saxon and Stern discuss their eating habits with regards to the Site cafeteria. Their simultaneous walk had gradually slowed into a long, stationary conversation. Eventually, they're interrupted by a muffled chorus of cheerful hoots and hollers, followed by a cadential high-five. "Yeah! Holy shit, man, that was awesome!" Saxon hears that all-too-familiar enthusiasm, and can't help but peek into the lab.

"Shoot, I've gotta go — let me know later, okay?" Stern turns away before Saxon can respond, eliciting some unspoken disappointment in him before he enters the lab. "McD? What's going on?"

Place freezes mid-dance, caught in Saxon's gaze like a deer in headlights. "Er, hey Zach."

Blank's arms are crossed victoriously, and his pleased smile is only embiggened as he snorts at his new companion.

Place chuckles, shaking off his excitement and standing normally. "This is Director Blank from Site-43. And he just did the most unsatisfying thing ever."


rating: +49+x

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