Protectors of the Fourth Wall: Part Two
Erik took the same seat as yesterday. Lex was already there, sitting beside him. He wondered idly for a moment if the Christmas Meepit lived nearby.
The room was now dimly lit by the sunlight that battled its way through the grimy windows near the ceiling. At least all of the creepy glowing sand from yesterday was gone.
"I'm glad that you both decided to come back. You have no idea how many seemingly promising young Meepits are scared away by the concept of the Protectors. Anyways, here are your badges." Norman handed the Meepits each a small plastic card. "These will keep you two from harming the fabric of reality when breaking the Fourth Wall. They will also enable you to travel in between worlds."
"Ooh, fancy!" Lex exclaimed.
Erik looked over his badge. It was pretty simple looking, with his name and picture. Lettering across the top proclaimed "Protector of the Fourth Wall". All in all, it didn't look nearly as powerful as Norman claimed. Magic was tricky like that.
"Anyways, we've decided that you two are going to be partners. Normally we would give you experienced partners, but everyone is actually partnered up at the moment and it just didn't seem right to separate any partnerships. I'm sure that you two will be fine, though; just think of this first mission as a test. Now, if you'll follow me, we can get started."
The white Meepit got up and led the way out of the cellar. Baffled, they exited the house. Where were they going? "Wait, isn't the house the headquarters?" Erik asked Norman.
"Well, the house isn't really our headquarters. We would like to keep the real one a secret, so we use this house when hiring new Protectors, so they don't find out about it before they decide to join." Norman explained. "Don't worry, it's not very far."
"Okay, that actually makes sense if you have a lot of money to throw around, I guess." Erik felt the need to make some reply.
It really wasn't very far to the headquarters. About ten minutes' walk from the house, they came to a small forested area. Norman prodded a few knots on one of the larger trees to open a secret door, revealing its hollow inside and the tunnel that led underground.
"There's a ladder a little ways in. Make sure you don't fall down it." Norman warned. Taking a vial of glowing sand from somewhere in his coat, he led the way. "Follow me. The headquarters isn't far now."
Erik was amazed that this even existed. A hidden tunnel to a secret Meepit organization? Lit by faint green light, no less. It was like something out of a novel. Obviously whoever was in charge of the Protectors had read a few too many of the stories they sought to defend. Still, he had to admit that it was pretty cool. Each step of the journey had been perfectly atmospheric.
Finally they came to a door. In keeping with the almost surreal use of fiction clichés, it was heavy duty, made from a sterile metal and ridiculously over-engineered. Norman typed what was presumably the security code into the keypad set in the wall beside it. The set up would not have looked out of place opening to a mad laboratory. Erik could imagine the scene behind it. A crazed Meepit with wild white hair readying his lab, which was filled with bizarre instruments and vials of strangely glowing liquids, for Science! (with an exclamation point). Or not. In truth, it was probably the lobby or something equally mundane. Though it was likely tastefully decorated.
The door slid to one side, revealing a well light lobby area, which was indeed tastefully decorated. Jarringly enough, it was filled with plush furniture and several potted plants. The sharp contrast with the secretive atmosphere of the journey was actually quite amusing. Perhaps it was intended to relieve tension.
Actually seeing the lobby made Erik realise that there was no way this was all an elaborate prank, this was real. A thrill of excitement coursed through him. A pair of Meepits strode through, apparently on their way to the receptionist's desk. The green one wore an inarguably awesome long coat while her blue companion had a strangely Virtupets-esque costume that avoided looking dorky somehow. They apparently cared as much about looking the part as whoever designed the building. The pair stopped to talk to Norman.
"Fresh blood, huh?" The green one wearing the long coat spoke, smiling with genuine pleasure.
"Yep, this is Lex, and this is Erik." Norman gestured to each. "The lovely lady is Harlene. Her spacey companion is Victor."
"Honestly, Norman, I've told you fifty bazillion times, it's a Kreludan costume. Kreludor is a moon and not part of space any more than Neopia is." Victor said this with a half smile, so it was probably a running joke between the two.
After some hello-ing and I-look-forward-to-working-with-you-ing, Harlene and Victor decided to get back to whatever they had been doing before.
"Well, I guess we'll see you guys around. Good luck and don't let Norman bore you too much," Harlene said.
"Oh ha, ha. You're hilarious." Harlene and Norman exchanged silly facial expressions before she decided to actually get back to work. Erik was surprised to see the seemingly boring Norman acting so childish. If everyone was like that, this was going to be a fun place to work.
"Anyways," Norman said, redirecting Lex and Erik's attention, "this is the lobby. Over here is the front desk, where you'll check in and receive your missions on a typical day. The red Meepit at the desk is Oswald, he handles most of the details involved with travel in between universes with the unseen help of the magitechnical staff who work on the floor below us. Today will be a little different, though. We're going to see the Director first. Follow me."
Norman led them up the double staircase behind the desk and into an elevator. It was strange that the Protectors had bothered with an elevator. It couldn't have been easy to install a petpet-sized one in their secret underground headquarters. And there were only four floors anyways, one of which opened to the surface. Stairs would have probably done the job just as well. Then again, it was probably just as much about spectacle as the rest of the ordeal. The sleek, silvery design coupled with soft blue lighting certainly gave the elevator a futuristic feel. The Director, or whoever was responsible for the decor clearly cared more about making the headquarters look cool than money.
With a soft ding, the elevator came to a somewhat jerky halt. The door slid to the side and revealed the Director's office. It was decorated with a Neovian motif that clashed with the futuristic elevator, yet still worked. Matching the fine antique furniture and dark color scheme, the ghost Meepit was dressed in a old fashioned suit and top hat. Erik wondered if he had intentionally positioned himself so that the light from the chandelier cast an atmospheric shadow across and through his transparent face.
"Welcome. I'm so glad you two could make it. I'm sure that Norman has answered any questions already, so I'll cut to the chase. You two are about to begin the most important career of your lives: saving the universe from irresponsible writers. This first assignment is a test of your problem solving capabilities and your ability to work as a team. You will appear in a world in the right time and place to stop the fourth wall from breaking. The magic just works out that way. Remember to avoid breaking the fourth wall as you complete this task. Breakings tend to be quickly forgotten by characters, so bringing attention to them causes problems. Once you finish, make sure that to go back to the place where you landed in the story. Don't worry if you get turned around; the magic gives you an instinctive knowledge of where to return. Your work will be reviewed and shown each Friday in the Master Copy of the Neopian Times, which changes each week and reflects every story in every Friday issue of the Times." There was a bit of a pause. "Any questions?"
A hesitant "no" came from Erik and Lex. Where they really going to just go into a story after only this short bit of what could almost be called training?
"Don't worry, it'll make sense when you actually get there. It's cursed hard to explain using only words, I'm afraid. Good luck on your first mission. See Oswald for your assignment. Oh, and Norman, stay here for a bit, I need to talk to you."
Thus dismissed, the pair of Meepits went back into the elevator.
"Can you believe this?" Pure excitement shone on Lex's face.
"Hardly. This is unreal; I'm just astounded!"
"I know! The elevator can't move fast enough!"
"Yeah, all of these rooms have been setting us up for something great. The stylistic choices in this place are incredible. I wonder who designed the interior."
The suspense came one step closer to payoff as the elevator doors slowly slid open. The red receptionist, Oswald maybe, smiled as he saw them come down the stairs from the elevator landing. "Ready for your first assignment?"
"YEAH!" came Lex's unsubtle reply.
Erik had to smile. Lex was so thrilled. It was impossible not to get caught up in his energy. Erik had a feeling that there wouldn't be a boring moment in sight with the Christmas Meepit around.
Oswald grinned broadly. "Glad to hear it. The flux capacitor is ready for you as well, so without further ado, let's send you off on your first mission. Just come with me into the back room."
"What's a flux capacitor?" Erik asked.
"It does whatever the plot requires; it drops you Protectors off in the right stories at the right times."
The red Meepit's easy attitude put all of Erik's half formed fears that he had been hiding in the back of his mind to rest. This was just another normal day, other Protectors had done this countless times before. No big deal, they were just going into a fictional universe. Soon this would be daily routine.
Oswald allowed the two behind his desk and led them into a small hidden room behind it. It was simplistic in that there were only a few objects in the space. It was extremely complex in what the objects were, however. An impressive array of machinery and wires engulfed the room. It seemed doubtful that such a mess could actually accomplish anything.
"Just stand on the tape here," Oswald instructed, pointing out the only relatively clear spaces in the room with red tape placed in hasty X's. Once Lex and Erik were in position, he turned to leave. "I'll go back to my desk and fire up the capacitor. Good luck you two."
Erik's doubts became to return with a vengeance. Did any of the petpets here know what they were doing? What if something went horribly wrong with the capacitor? And he wasn't exactly sure what to do when they got into a story. Distract characters to prevent them from breaking the Fourth Wall. What did that even mean? How was he supposed to know which ones to distract? What if he completely botched this and got fired? Where would he find a new job? The Protectors seemed to be going to great pains to keep their project a secret, would he be allowed to just leave? Or would he have to continue working for them as a janitor until the end of his days? Where had these important questions been earlier when someone could have answered them?
Just as Erik thought to start voicing these problems, he felt a strange sort of tingle. It was a bit like he was looking down from a great height with little sparks of electricity coursing through him. It only lasted for a second, and when he regained his bearings he was somewhere completely different.
To be continued...