As it turned out, the Burning Ones didn't burn. They didn't even smolder.
Soon after getting away from the sheep, Aline found a couple dozen people sitting in a circle around a campfire, which was in fact the only burning thing in sight. She approached them warily. They didn't seem to have the loose, maniacal nature of the Hub's loudest residents, nor the creepy hive mind of its most unnatural. Perhaps they were just normal authors? A group of realistic fiction canons? Then why were the sheep so terrified of them?
But then again—sheep.
They seemed completely oblivious to her presence until she was within several yards of them, at which point a girl with curly red hair and a face that was mostly freckles turned around and waved to her. "Hey!" she called. "Come sit down!"
In a small flurry of movement, they made a space for her, and after a moment of hesitation, Aline joined them. "Are you the Burning Ones?" she ventured.
The curly-haired girl's smile didn't waver, though it seemed slightly faker than before. "We don't like calling ourselves that, but yeah."
"What's going on here?" Aline asked.
"Ooh, you haven't been to one before?" the girl said, giggling. "You'll find out. It's super-fun. I'm Rebecca."
Aline shrugged, deciding to go with it. Looking around, she found that this was probably the most normal group of people she'd encountered on this thrice-damned plane. They wore clothes that did not hurt your eyes. They sat normally. They didn't raise their voices or hit each other or anything. There were balding, bespectacled men and bubbly teenage girls alike. They were calmly talking to each other—most of them seemed well-spoken.
The only thing they seemed to have in common was a strange air of always being on the verge of an extremely long-suffering sigh and the rueful admittance of the fact that the whole world did, in fact, rest on their shoulders, and that they would endure for the sake of the greater good.
She wasn't quite sure how you could have an air that communicated all that, but somehow, they did.
She stuck out her hands to warm them by the fire only to find that the fire had no heat. It flickered cheerfully, but felt as empty as a hologram. She supposed this was normal.
Suddenly, the group hushed, conversations trickling to an end. "It's starting!" Rebecca hissed excitedly.
"What's it?" Aline asked irritably, but was shushed in short order.
An austere older girl with her black hair in twin braids stood up, clearing her throat. "Welcome, fellow critics and flamers alike, to the daily Burning!" A cheer went up, along with some applause.
Oh, thought Aline. Them.
"Today," the girl continued. "The horrible monstrosities on the face of literature that must be eliminated immediately," she paused for dramatic effect, displaying a sheaf of papers, "is a triple-play. We start today with a little fanfiction called 'Bleeding Love' and egad is it awful." A chorus of agreement, a few boos directed at the work, a man throwing himself in the middle of the circle and babbling incoherently for a few seconds—the very same man who had seconds earlier been quietly discussing the finer points of literary criticism with a pair of college students. Aline leaned back, blinking in alarm.
"This fanfiction," the girl with the braids continued angrily, "has committed many an unforgivable atrocity for which there is no redemption. It uses the word orbs to describe eyes. Cerulean replaces blue—twice! I counted no less than five misplaced commas. A character who normally doesn't use contractions uses them three times in this! Quote grammar is misused every single time." A gasp went up at this. "Yes! Capital letter and a period instead of lowercase letter and a comma! But that's not the worst of it!"
"There's worse?" a teenage boy asked, horrified.
The girl nodded solemnly. "Yes," she confirmed. "In addition to all of the above…it's a songfic."
Many of the teenagers looked quite green. Quite a few of the older critics snorted softly.
"I vote we burn this abomination to cinders, find this miserable excuse of an author and write her a strongly-worded letter!" one yelled.
"Burn the witch!" another agreed.
"All in good time," the girl assured. "This next one is a book, which rids it of its pathetic excuses!" she shouted, holding up a paperback volume so quickly Aline didn't get a look at the cover. "It's got vampires in it! And romance! And it came out after 2005!"
"Unforgivable," a college-age young woman gasped.
"Vampires are stupid and overused, and romance is icky. All in favor?"
"Aye!" was the rousing chorus.
"I thought so. And finally, we have this sixth grader's poem for a school assignment. The rhythm is off, she rhymed 'love' with 'dove' and then 'love' again, and the use of figurative language is extremely clunky at the very best! I mean, tch, look at this drivel, my kid sister could do better."
"But I thought—" Aline began, and was shushed immediately.
"This is terrible and the author must be informed! I don't think we need to vote on that!"
The group agreed that they did not.
The papers and book were burned in short order, after which marshmallows were distributed.
"So what'd you think?" Rebecca asked. "Cool, huh?"
"I guess," Aline said blandly, snatching a few marshmallows from the bag as it was passed around.
"I'm not really a flamer, though," Rebecca assured. "I only stay with these guys because they're the only reasonable people around."
"Really now." Aline found to her annoyance that attempting to toast marshmallows on a fire that didn't exude heat was something approaching impossible. And marshmallows were terrible untoasted.
"Yeah," Rebecca said nonchalantly, "I'm just an honest reviewer, really. I'm not like all those sheeple who just sugar coat everything—I give my honest, straightforward opinion, with all the insults directed at the author's mother and sexuality included, and you know what? They're thankful for it, because they finally get some honesty in a review!"
"Really?" Aline enquired, her mouth full of untoasted marshmallow. Even wonderful, gooey marshmallow heaven was deprived of her, she though gloomily. Her misery just never ended.
"Of course! So many have come crawling back, begging for my help. We help so many lost, untalented souls that way. Really, we're the only hope literature has. Without us keeping things in check, it'd be much worse."
"But like I said, I'm not really a flamer. Just an honest person who refuses to be put down."
Quite unexpectedly, a coconut flew past on white angel wings. Aline shot up, craning her neck around to stare at it.
"Was that a coconut?" she asked.
"Oh yes," Rebecca said, nodding. "I expect it's flying south for the winter."
(The Handbook of Legitimate Humor Writing states in chapter five, page seventy-two, clause four, line five that 'all humor stories not written by professionals must contain no less than three tasteless references to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Three shall be the number of the references, no more, no less. Four shall not be the number of the references, nor two, unless you proceed immediately to three. Five is right out. Er, sorry. Ahem.' The Cliché Compendium notes that this is a regulation rarely followed, as numbers of tasteless references to Monty Python in a given comedic work usually far exceed three.)
"You have winter here?" Aline asked.
"Well no, not as such," Rebecca admitted. "But it's flying south, so it must be winter."
Aline's interest was sparked. "Which way is south?"
Rebecca's brow furrowed. After a moment, she replied, "The direction the coconut is flying, of course."
"Ah," Aline said. "In that case, I better follow it. Nice meeting you, goodbye." The Burning Ones did not seem particularly troubled to see her go.
The coconut was clipping along quickly, and was already almost out of sight. Aline was supremely unathletic and had a muscle consistency similar to pudding, but long spindly legs helped immensely as she ran after it. Maddeningly, it always remained slightly out of her reach as she snatched at it. She was breathing heavily and cursing before long. In a last-ditch burst of energy, she leapt, and miraculously caught it, trapping it against the ground.
"Hah! Gotcha!" she panted as its wings beat fruitlessly. It was only then that the absurdity of the situation hit her. It wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't also hit her that she wasn't finding it nearly as absurd as she should have been.
"So," she said to the coconut, whose escape attempts were waning in ferocity. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Why are you talking to that coconut?" Aline stared at the coconut. Another anomaly of the Hub was that it was often difficult to tell from which direction sound was coming from.
"Over here," the voice said. It was a light, dreamy sort of voice that you would imagine a cloud would have. Aline let the coconut fly free in her distraction. It gave a squeal of joy and flew off into the abyss.
A vaguely smiling girl was waving slightly. Her hair was light blond and braided, a lime green beret resting askew on it. At her feet lurked a stout green creature that came up to her waist. It was covered in warts, its face was mostly nose, with uneven yellow teeth and piggy black eyes, and it wore a filthy loincloth around its waist.
"Hello," Aline said. "I was chasing this coconut, see, because they fly south in the winter and I was trying to get my bearings.
"That's nice," the girl said sincerely, nodding. "I see that you're insane, but that's okay. I'm Elisa. This is Jeremy."
The short green thing darted out from behind Elisa's legs and sniffed at her. Then it darted back. "Tits or GTFO," it warbled.
"Don't mind him," Elisa said. "He's only a troll. Completely harmless, really."
"Everything you like sucks," said Jeremy.
"I'm Aline, and I am not insane," she said. "Honest."
"I believe you," Elisa said, smiling broadly. "Are you lost?"
"A little, yeah."
"It's hard to get lost out here. Nothing to get lost from, huh?"
"Actually," Aline tapped her pointer fingers together, "I'm looking for a trench. I had to leave for…a good, totally legitimate reason and I can't get back."
"Only I am right!" Jeremy shouted, frothing.
Elisa's visage darkened, and her smile faded. "Oh. You're one of them."
It dawned on her. "So that means you're one of them!"
"I am not," Elisa said indignantly, placing her knuckles on her hips.
"Well, neither am I," Aline scoffed. "They dragged me along against my will."
"I only just escaped. Were you escaping, too?"
Aline dug a toe unsuccessfully into the featureless 'ground'. "Well, yeah. I just don't have anywhere else to go."
"So we can be friends!" Elisa brightened up immediately.
"I guess so, yeah."
"Your opinions are all invalid!" Jeremy shrieked, collapsing on the 'ground' and spinning wildly on his head. "All of them!"
Elisa had a few sandwiches. They had an interesting quality of either being delicious or indigestible, depending. Elisa thought this odd, because they'd all been tuna when she packed them, and they'd metamorphosed into either turkey-and-cheese or egg salad.
"You haven't spent much time on the Hub, have you," Aline stated, eying the egg salad suspiciously.
Elisa hadn't. They swapped stories. Elisa's was much the same as hers. Wrote something. Ended up here. Ran away from the faction she'd ended up with. They chatted, the stream of time as pointless as waterproof towels.
"Thanks for the sandwich," Aline said eventually, standing up. "But I should probably go. Maybe someone will open a plot hole for me." She sighed. It didn't seem likely even to her.
"Okay," Elisa said. "Buh-bye now."
"Lurkmoar," Jeremy wailed, waving his pudgy fists in the air.
"Cool story, bro," Aline said, patting him on his lumpy, horned head.
"Oh, and by the way," Elisa said. "Watch out for Them. They were breeding last I was there."
Aline knew better than to ask. The pair went on, and were soon lost in the ocean of featureless white. Aline was left alone. After some time, she picked a random direction and followed it.
An indefinite period of time spent walking—everything was indefinite here, especially time—Aline came to the edge of a sheer cliff.
She looked right. She looked left. It extended in either direction, uneven and rocky, for as far as she could see. It occurred to her that if she came back to this exact same spot later, very probably the cliffs wouldn't be there. Unearthly winds howled about them. She dropped to her hands and knees for fear of being blown over and crawled. Inching forward, she slowly extended her neck over the edge, clinging with numb fingers to the edge.
People were hanging there by little more than their fingertips. Hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe more. They moaned and wailed, calling out mournfully. It was hard to hear over the winds, but soon Aline started making things out.
"But how does it end!"
"Do they make it out?"
"But does this mean she really does love him?"
"That explosion must have been a hoax…right?"
"Tell me! Please!"
"I have to know!'"
She sat back, a little disturbed. The fierce winds whipped at her hair, making it stand up in a dishwater blonde cloud around her head.
Was this the end of the world? she wondered. Out beyond the sheer cliff face there was nothing…but a different sort of nothing. It was vaguely blue.
A bony hand shot up from beyond the drop, long, unkempt fingernails clawing into the unground. Aline gasped slightly as a woman's head appeared after it, pallid skin stretched taut over a face made mostly of angles.
"Please…" she whispered. "Tell me…what happens in the last episode? I had to leave…before I found out."
Her heart twinged slightly. "Sorry, what are we talking about?"
"Does he live?" she gasped. "Does he? I must know!"
"Er…" Aline said. "Yes. Yes, he does."
The woman's eyes glazed over peacefully. "What…a…copout…," she breathed, and let herself go falling backwards into the different-sort-of-nothing with an expression of utter tranquility.
Aline scrambled back from the edge far enough to not hear the winds anymore. She wasn't answering any more questions.
She sat and stared at the different-sort-of-nothing for a while.
How very blue it was.