The offices of Tor were in an uproar, assistants and assistant editors and assistant editing assistants and Hans the janitor running around every which way, cleaning and hiding offensive sticky notes and making sure everything was in its place.
Today was a big day. Today, rather than sitting at home and writing half a page of his next novel, Mister James Oliver Rigney, Jnr., was coming for an inspection tour. And that meant that everything had to be just so.
Hans and his minions were mucking out editors’ booths. Usually this was an easy task, since editors were a tidy subspecies given to meticulosity of nature and regular routines which allowed them to rearrange their little kingdoms and groom one another frequently. At Tor Publishing, however, the editors had gone feral. Long neglect, year upon year of being left to their own devices without so much as a pamphlet of written material to cut down, had driven the editors to slovenly and disgraceful degeneration. They were slobby, half-dressed, encrusted with burritos and their own filth. Only the Grand High Editor, the Almighty Harriet, had any input in the editing process, and that was usually along the lines of a rumbled, “this is too good to touch,” or “what are they wearing? The readers deserve to know.”
“I need a mop over here!” one of the sub-janitors cried, trying to fend off a rabid editor with his standard-issue squeegee. The bedraggled academic was slavering and ranting about adverbs, clothing descriptions as the backbone of civilised society, and closed-circuit Email. One of the embattled man’s comrades threw him a mop, which he snatched out of the air and used to push the yowling apparition back into his booth, where a third janitor hurled a bucket of soapy water to the accompaniment of piercing reeeeeees.
Wilson Paperclip made his way serenely past the battlefield and into quieter, calmer parts of the building. The cafeteria was gleaming in a way he doubted it had gleamed even when new. The corridors leading up to the office of the Head Publisher were vacuumed and shampooed in preparation, and the entrance to Paperclip’s modest private office had been liberally scrubbed, even though he kept it habitually clean.
He stepped inside.
The filing cabinets gleamed, the computer tower hummed softly and the monitor glowed with a screensaver featuring the Tor and Wheel of Time logos bouncing back and forth like Pong balls. The modem, all the intricacy and power of Paperclip’s True Masters contained within its neither eldritch nor gibbous (and entirely unbatrachian, although occasionally as it dialled up it did sound somewhat like a whippoorwill) beige plastic casing, displayed a row of green lights. Everything seemed to be in place and, Wilson Paperclip thought, it all looked innocent enough to the foolish passer-by.
“Ah, Paperclip,” the huge, ruddy face of the Head Publisher popped around the doorframe in an amusingly timely manner. “I was just passing by.”
“Of course you were, sir,” Paperclip said, folding his hands and smiling expectantly. “Is … Mister Rigney, is he on his way?”
“We’ve got a few minutes,” the Head Publisher stepped into the office and closed the door behind him. “I left him in Sweet’s studio with one of those foam-rubber baseball bats my son got from the fun park last summer.”
“That was unnecessarily cruel, sir.”
“Yes, I know, but we don’t want to lose Sweet. Did you see those new covers?” he shuddered. “Black, with a logo. The latest edition looked like a Prince album.”
Paperclip, who had employed Darryl K. Sweet from an especially-molten echelon of his own family with the express intention of sapping the will to live from all readers of fantasy fiction, merely shrugged. In his opinion, the Sweet version of ‘Winter’s Heart’ in which only a Holmesesque exercise in deduction could identify the characters portrayed on the cover – and then only hesitantly – was an unqualified success. Indeed, every cover in which Rand al’Thor appeared to be a different person tipped millions of nerds a few Hail Marys closer to damnation.
The Head Publisher got right to the point.
“How are we going to play this?”
“Oh come on, Paperclip! The re-write of the series. The new characters. The altered plot. How are we going to sell it to him?”
“We sold the whole Far Madding idea to him without any problems, sir. And a lot of the events that took place there directly contradicted information from earlier…” Paperclip trailed off, realising the Head Publisher had only pretended to read the books. “You should leave it to me, sir. Mister Rigney will be pleased with the developments we have made to his story. It will demonstrate to him how solid and realised a world he has created, and the new inputs will offer character stimulus.”
“In English, Paperclip.”
“He’ll think it’s mint, sir.”
The Head Publisher glared at Wilson Paperclip for a long moment, scanning for sarcasm or condescension. He came up negative, as Paperclip had known he would. The Head Publisher was American, after all.
“Ah! So this is where the magic happens!”
The hearty, booming voice preceded its source into the office by several seconds, then James Oliver Rigney, Jnr. burst into the office like a huge, feather-hatted, hand-beringed, ebony-cane-with-silver-knob-bearing battleship entering harbour. Paperclip and the Head Publisher spun and stared. Ridiculous as it was, the sight of Robert Jordan in the flesh never failed to amaze. The man was a parade float.
“Only the lesser magic, Mister Rigney,” Paperclip clarified smoothly. “By which I mean-”
“God, who invited that Darryl Sweet guy in?” Rigney interrupted in his usual graceless shout. “What a clown! I can’t believe you’re still letting him make my covers!”
“The contract was for the series, sir. We didn’t realise the series would run to over eleven-”
“I should make my own covers! Tolkien made his own cover designs, why shouldn’t I?”
The sheer volume of potential replies to that one rendered Paperclip momentarily speechless. Surprisingly, the Head Publisher came to his rescue.
“Show him the new material,” he said. Rigney turned from one to the other with a suspicious expression on what little of his face was visible. The Head Publisher turned a very similar expression on Paperclip from a very similar face, and for a moment the lone clean-shaven man in the room felt like a pygmy being menaced by a pair of angry hedges, one of which was also a pimp for some reason. The moment passed.
“We have undertaken to develop a new range of characters-”
“New characters? I like new characters!”
“We’d noticed that,” Paperclip murmured as he led the other two across to his computer. “We’ve also researched into a new set of plotlines-”
“I like them too!” Rigney’s brow lowered, resulting in a momentary but frightening disappearance of his face altogether. “But who’s writing these new characters and plots? God knows it’s not me.”
“Indeed,” Paperclip jigged the mouse and turned happily to his employers. “You might say it’s writing itself, sir. It’s a roleplaying simulation, specialising in placing reactive agents into the environment you have created, and recording their interactions with-”
“It’s downloading something.”
Paperclip blinked, and turned back to the screen. Sure enough, in the little graphic box where a badly-rendered version of the Wheel of Time PC game should have been .gif-ing, a download bar was almost completely concluded. Even as he watched, a final digitised scrap of paper drifted across from one folder icon to the other, and the counter reached 100%.
Cooper Two blinked in the sudden light, and shook his head to clear it of the ringing, warbling noises crashing through his mission protocols. When his skull cleared and returned to its normal state of militaristic crystalline clarity, he suddenly realised something astonishing.
The seasickness was gone. It had faded, of course, when he’d escaped the violent ta’veren swirlings that surrounded the fat merchant woman, but the queasy feeling was always around. Wherever there was a Pattern, there was a certain degree of predestination, and accompanying tummy upsets. It was one of the things that made gholam perpetually cranky. Now, it was gone entirely.
Almost as if there was no Pattern.
And that wasn’t the only thing that was gone. His uncertainty and confusion had receded to an impossible distance, the clashing demands his mission had made on his inner being were all gone. Upon his awakening in the stasis pod and finding that the Dragon was thousands of years dead, and already reborn as somebody else, Coop had found himself immersed in a metaphysical quandary that was as disastrous to his mental wellbeing as ta’veren were on his digestion. But now it had just … gone. His mark wasn’t dead, wasn’t alive – his mark didn’t even exist.
It was bliss!
Cooper Two’s delighted reverie was interrupted by voices.
“Brubble blub,” one of the voices said, in a deep, rolling baritone.
“Bleeb,” replied a second, in a lighter, obsequious tone that at once grated on his nerves and filled him with a faint apprehension. “Breebleweeble blib blib blibbb-”
Coop tried to focus his eyes, and eventually three human figures swam out of the mist. Two were heavyset and bearded, the third lean and delicate and narrow of face. He stood between and before the two larger men, and Cooper Two realised he was in the presence of some sort of weird no-Pattern-universe Chosen and his two Dreadlord bodyguards.
Only he couldn’t detect the ability to channel in any of them.
He couldn’t detect the One Power at all.
“Blipple-lipple blepp bleebleweeble wee,” the smaller man said, tilting his head and looking at Coop with intense curiosity. Coop realised the man was wearing spectacles. Some of the Tech-Dreadlords in Aginor Bio-Weapons had worn things like them. He wondered if the whole horrifying experience since being awakened in the desert had been some sort of fantasy. A test-run of some sort. To measure stress.
Yes … yes, that made sense. He’d never been assigned to kill the Dragon at all. He’d been put through a combat simulation, and the program had involved ridiculous twists and changes and obstacles, like his mark dying and being reborn thousands of years later, and civilisation itself reverting to a medieval feudal type of arrangement, to test his adaptability to circumstances. Yes. Of course he hadn’t been put into stasis and coincidentally woken up just at the right time to try to kill the Dragon’s reincarnation. Of course, that stupidly extreme ta’veren effect had been induced to test his endurance under pressure. The simplest explanation was often the correct one. He was back in the lab, they’d just run a test on him, and now everything was alright.
“Bweebie weebie wibble blib,” the little man went on, turning and deferring to one of the hairy ones. Coop did his best to look cool and casual and ready to discharge his next set of performance tests, easing himself into parade-ready and eyes-front. “Bwibble. Blip blipple-”
“Blob,” the big furry man interrupted, and frowned mightily at the gholam. “Bob burlob.”
Of course, it had all been a simulation, hadn’t it?
And that was when Cooper Two looked down, and saw the Seal in his hand.