Protectors of the Fourth Wall: Part One
It was a dark and stormy Halloween night, much to Erik's annoyance. The dark wasn't so bad; it was night after all, and Halloween was one of his favorite holidays. It was the stormy part that got him. For one thing, the Meepit was out in the middle of it. The cold, driving rain had long since soaked through his supposedly waterproof jacket and drenched his pink fur. Each nearby clap of thunder made his teeth rattle. All in all, it was completely miserable. Also, a storm on a Halloween night was such a clichéd way to begin a story. After all, he was on his way to what might turn out to be a new career. If that wasn't the beginning of a new chapter of his life, he didn't know what was.
Well, at least he was almost there. Erik could make out the silhouette of the abandoned house in the intermittent flashes of lightning. There was no one on the street, even the promise of free candy could not coax young Neopets into the ferocious weather. A little light made it through shuttered windows of nearby houses. The occupants were almost undoubtedly warm and dry. How he envied them. He hurried towards the house. It was odd that such a derelict building existed in an otherwise nice neighborhood. Most of its windows were covered with broken glass and rotted wooden planks. Tall weeds grew in the few window boxes that managed to cling to the house yet, though the high wind apparently wanted to pull them off. The weeds also broke through the paved path to the front door and choked the scraggly grass. There wasn't a chip of paint on the entire property.
Not that he could really see the house that well. He was just remembering it from the job interview he'd had earlier that week and had recreated the scene in his head to add to the atmosphere. It was a habit of his, developed by years of night time walks. The world was still there at night, he just had to imagine it to get a good look. Or bring a flashlight along. Whichever. Anyways, the abandoned house was another cliché. Yeah, a secret Meepit group meeting in a dilapidated old house that the locals assumed was haunted. On Halloween. How original.
While tired and overused fictionally speaking, the house did make a lot of sense as a headquarters. People tended to avoid it and any sounds from within were chalked up to ghosts or wild petpets, which was actually basically the truth. The rent was at an unbeatable price: free, and they had all the space and relative comfort they needed. Erik was sure that there were other upsides that he didn't know about that would be revealed if he got to stay on. His employment wasn't certain at this stage, but being invited back in the middle of the night couldn't be a bad sign.
Hopefully tonight he would actually learn what the job was. It hadn't been clear from his interview. It was obviously something very secretive, but what? Hopefully it wouldn't turn out to be too illegal. Erik was tired of the bad reputation that Meepits were burdened with. While, yes, basically every villain or criminal could be linked back to one of the various Meepit syndicates, only most groups were composed of evil masterminds. The silent minority just had to live with the reputation and societal shunning. It would be nice to be part of a helpful and good Meepit organization for once. Well, judging from the questions they'd asked him, this could possibly be productive to society.
Finding himself already at the door, he rapped three times in quick secession and then twice slowly. If he remembered correctly that was the secret knock. Apparently he had gotten it right, because a gruff voice on the other side said, "The storm covers the moon and stars."
"But they still shine above the clouds?" Hopefully that was the correct response. Now that he was under pressure, his memory was a little wishy-washy despite the effort he'd made to memorise the numerous code phrases.
The clunk of several locks sounded through the thick wood of the door before the petpet flap opened to reveal a buff starry Meepit. "Come in and follow me. We were beginning to think you weren't going to show."
"Surely I'm not that late?" Erik was slightly alarmed; he didn't want to make a bad first impression.
"Not really, but you did say that you live on the other side of town and I figured that the weather would keep you away if nothing else did. But here you are."
"Here I am indeed."
The two continued on in awkward silence. It was a very short walk, just through a hallway and down a flight of structurally dubious stairs which led to a large room that may have once been a cellar. It was lit eerily by several jars of glowing sand. The green light gave everything a pale, sickly hue and the effect was at once unsettling and headache-inducing. Not the best choice in Erik's opinion. Would it really be too difficult to rig up something less creepily atmospheric?
A white Meepit with a long brown coat and a Christmas one occupied the room. The white Meepit smiled warmly as Erik entered. "I'm glad that you made it. Here, you can sit next to Lex." He gestured to a small chair beside the Christmas Meepit.
"I'm Norman, by the way. I take care of the new recruits and provide exposition." There was a slightly awkward pause. Was Erik supposed to say something to that? Norman already knew who he was. "Anywho," he continued, "there are a few others who may still come, so I'll give it another five minutes before we start."
Five minutes passed uneventfully; no one else arrived.
Norman began to speak. "First off, I must warn you that what you are about to hear may forever alter your perception of reality and life in general. I avoid insanity by simply not thinking about it too much, so this may be something you wish to forgo if you want to continue your current understanding of the universe." He paused, waiting to see if either of them would leave. Not that it was likely considering how intriguing the white Meepit made everything sound.
"Well, there really isn't much chance of us leaving after you say something that interesting," the Christmas Meepit--Lex--pointed out.
Norman chuckled, "I suppose not. I just thought it would be better to warn you. Anyways, did you know that our world is just one of many? Hundreds of alternate realities exist beside our own. Only a few things connect them. For one, they all share Neopia as well as the objects and creatures that inhabit it. And many of them are created by the Neopian Times. Each story, short or long, well written or with an inexperienced author, is a different world. Either stories mirror the worlds, or authors bend reality and create new ones. We aren't really sure." There was a long silence. "Any questions? I know this is a lot to take in, but try to bear with me."
Yeah, that was an understatement. Erik had never really given much thought to the prospect of different worlds and he'd never imagined something like this. He wasn't really sure he believed it, but the prospect was intriguing; especially if... "Is there some way to travel in between worlds?"
"Of course. This would all be rather a moot point if you couldn't actually go to any of the different worlds. More on that later, and if you decide to stay and work for us, you'll probably get to travel to one as early as tomorrow."
Now that was interesting. Traveling into fiction! If this was all true, Erik couldn't wait for tomorrow.
"Is our world real, or are we just another story?" Lex spoke up this time. It was an interesting question, with the potential for a very disturbing answer. What if Erik was actually fictional? That would have some philosophical ramifications.
"No one knows which world is the original. Some stories have elements that don't exist here and others lack elements of this world, so really, the original could be just about any story," Norman answered. It was reassuring to know that Erik had a possibility of being real.
After a few question-less moments, Norman spoke. "I suppose I may as well break the suspense. Are you familiar with the concept of the Fourth Wall?"
Lex's no clashed with Erik's yes.
"I'll explain then. The Fourth Wall is the separation between the audience and the characters. Like the screen on a Neovision show or the invisible wall that is the edge of the stage in theater. The Fourth Wall separates fiction from reality. Are you following?"
Both Meepits nodded, so Norman continued. "There is, however, a practice called 'breaking the Fourth Wall'. Simply put, it is when characters acknowledge the fact that they are fictional or become aware of the audience. It seems like an innocent enough gag, but it has a minute negative effect on the fabric of reality. Something about the paradoxical effects of acknowledging one's nonexistence, coupled with the tendency for characters to completely forget breaking the Fourth Wall just rips a small hole in reality every time it happens."
"Aren't we breaking the Fourth Wall right now?" Lex interrupted while Norman paused for breath.
"Only if we're a story. Well, actually breaking may be possible in reality, depending on your view point, but let's not get into just now. In the event that we are breaking, there is a spell on this building that keeps us from doing the Fourth Wall any real damage, just to be safe. The badge you will receive if you join us has a similar charm on it. Anyways, as you may have guessed, we are an organization that exists to stop the fabric of reality from becoming torn. The Protectors of the Fourth Wall. A few small rips can repair themselves and only strengthen reality, but too many people break and are causing unintentional harm. The universe could be destroyed if we don't slow this process down."
"Well, I wasn't expecting that," Lex muttered. Erik was inclined to agree. The end of the universe was pretty heavy. This was hard to take in all at once.
"We would like your help saving the worlds," Norman continued, "Our agents go into stories and prevent characters from breaking the Fourth Wall without breaking it themselves. We can't just tell people that it's a problem; who know what would happen if everyone know they were fictional and we broke the Fourth Wall in such a spectacular fashion." He paused to let this sink in. "So, will you join us?"
"I sure will!" Lex put in excitedly, "This sounds like the best and most interesting job EVER!"
It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Erik couldn't pass it up; he had to at least try this job. Once again the Christmas Meepit much echoed his thoughts. "Count me in, too."
Norman beamed. "Wonderful! Here are your badges. Come back here at 10:00 am tomorrow for your first assignment.
Erik had trouble falling asleep that night. For one thing, the universes Norman had described left him with plenty of food for thought. For another, he was actually really excited to start at the Protectors. He'd always wanted to travel to fictional worlds, and now the opportunity presented itself. His boring existence as an unemployed Meepit with no aspirations of world domination might be at an end. Well, at least the boring and unemployed bits. He wasn't really sure whether or not this was all true, but the possibility was thrilling. Erik might have a chance to help save the universe! How many people got that? Few. And then, there was the matter of the fabric of reality tearing and the universe being at risk. Yeah, that made him a little nervous. Who would have thought that something as seemingly harmless as Fourth Wall gags would have such enormous consequences?
He must have dropped off to sleep eventually, because the next thing Erik knew, he was awake and the alarm clock he had taken years ago from a moving van read 9:16. He really should have set an alarm. It took about a half an hour to reach the house, leaving him with barely enough time to nibble several pieces of Neocrunch. His coat was still wet from the night before, so he went without. Few people expected Meepits to wear clothing after all, so he didn't own much. After a quick cleaning, he was out the door. Happily, it was still before 9:30, leaving him with plenty of time to get there.
The path out of his hidden petpet neighborhood (petpets couldn't very well live on their own with Neopets around; they would inevitably be caught and sold) was still damp from last night's storm. Erik took care to avoid several muddy puddles as he passed through the bushes and onto the street of a Neopet neighborhood. Excitement quickened the Meepit's steps. Today was going to be interesting.
The abandoned house looked out of place in the bright sunlight. Everything around it was bright and cheerful. To further the strangeness, an assortment of flying petpets sang in the scraggly trees around the house, as well as their better groomed cousins in near by yards. Showoffs. Each one sang louder than the next, trying to out do each other.
Rapping the secret knock out and answering the password, Erik was met with a gruff "Hello" from the starry doorman.
"Hi. I'm guessing I should go to the cellar or basement or wherever I went to yesterday." Now that he was here, Erik actually felt a bit nervous. What was going to happen?
"Yes. I'll take you down there." Erik got the feeling that it was less about preventing him from getting lost and more about keeping him from snooping around and potentially taking anything. Not that he really minded, he wanted to get down there as quickly as possible.
"Greetings, Erik. Glad to see you," Norman said cheerfully when Erik entered the room. "We can start now that you're here. Please, sit down."
To be continued...