A drifting spaceship. An alien attacker. A peculiar man who knows more than he should. And the perfect time for some jam sandwiches.

 

*

Bullets whizzed through the narrow corridor. Lights flashed and alarms blared.

‘It’s coming out of the walls!’

Chaos swept through the corridor. There was a scream of sound and another man fell, his head split open like a cracked egg.

‘Go! GO! GET OUT!’

People backed up towards the door, clambering over the fallen bodies, most mutilated beyond recognition.

‘We don’t stand a chance, just get out!’

Bullets streamed in the fitful darkness, awful shapes twisted and unfolded like a great mass of shadows chasing the break of dawn, raw screams punctuated the pummelling guns.

Something slithered along the ceiling, dodging the broken pipes and rupture holes in the grimy metal, and snatched another victim from the tightly packed squad.

His strangled roar ascended into the rafters and was quickly silenced. There wasn’t much time for mourning – the group aimed high and unloaded another barrage into the impenetrable shadows.

Escaping was a careful process. Turning their backs would leave them open for attack, and given how ruthless their shadowy assailant was, it would be a fatal mistake to make. Bullets did very little in the way of real damage, but they could slow it down, buy them some precious time to manoeuvre.

Bodies tumbled backwards through the open door, and then scrambled forward as one to press the close and lock mechanism. Those lucky enough to have escaped first lay prone at the back and sprayed wildly into the open portal.

The door slowly closed, two halves slotting together with little urgency. Something moved on the other side of the shrinking gap, hissing and spluttering, and lunged desperately towards the waning crack.

The portal slammed firmly shut.

Those on this side caught their breath and tended to their bloody wounds, wrapping crude bandages where they could, and comforting those whose wounds would soon be the last thing on their mind.

‘How many did we lose?’ said the sergeant, resting against the wall.

‘Seventeen,’ said Corporal Adams, after a count. ‘Seventeen…’

The sergeant groaned. ‘That’s three quarters of what we had left!’

Adams gave him a sympathetic look, then stopped herself falling. The rest of the group was in a sorry state. Two more had died in the past minute, and the stragglers clung to weak threads of life.

‘We have to keep moving, Sarge,’ she suggested. ‘That thing’ll work out a way round the door.’

Sarge nodded glumly, then shouted at the group. Most were just civilians swept reluctantly into the madness, and took no stock with guns and military discipline, but if any of them were to make it out alive – and that hope was dwindling quickly – then they’d have to learn the ropes fast.

Then they were skulking single-file through the cluttered hallways, jumping at every hiss of steam from the ventilation pipes, running from every wiry shadow, and almost firing at the indistinct sounds seeping in from the distance.

‘What do we think, Adams?’ the Sergeant said, as they approached an intersection. His voice was lower than a whisper.

‘Left takes us to the mess hall,’ she said, matching his tone. ‘Right takes us around to the crew’s quarters. If we go left, there’s a maintenance hatch that leads down to the other levels… Right promises an elevator.’

He looked down both hallways, the light fleeing from the channels, as if it too had heard what was loose aboard the ship.

‘Not much cover in the mess hall,’ he muttered. ‘But a cramped elevator… Stuck in one place. And we wouldn’t get everyone in one trip.’

‘The maintenance tunnels are small, too,’ Adams explained. ‘If it attacked while we were in there, there’s zero cover, and basically no room to move. It’d be over in seconds.’

Sarge nervously fidgeted with his helmet.

‘The frying pan,’ he glanced left, ‘or the fire?’ he glanced right.

Lieutenant Cardon sidled towards the front of the pack. He was a small man, especially compared to the Sarge. He was a little scrawny, more bookish than brute. Sarge hadn’t expected him to survive this long, and he certainly hadn’t expected the Lieutenant would be among his two surviving soldiers at the end of it all. He now had a soiled patch over one eye, and bloody gouges carved his cheeks and neck.

‘We could do both,’ he suggested quietly. ‘Split into two groups, one goes left, the other goes right. That way at least somebody might make it.’

‘That thing moves fast,’ said Sarge thoughtfully. ‘Faster than anything I’ve ever seen. If it gets to one group, there’s no guarantee it won’t get to the other.’

‘We have to make a choice,’ Adams urged. ‘It’ll find us!’

‘Sarge?’ said the Lieutenant.

The sergeant peered down his limited options, hesitating. Sweat started to bead around his eyes.

‘Sarge?!’ Adams hissed.

Which way to go? Which path to survival?

‘You have to choose!’ the Lieutenant pressed, checking over his shoulder.

‘We…’ Sarge began, then paused. His head was swimming with choices, yet it felt as though some agency had been stolen from him… As if there was some other authority taking away the choices, switching off the signs that might’ve guided him down the correct path, and leaving him with pathetically few options.

He couldn’t put his finger on it, couldn’t quite figure out why the world suddenly felt very different, like something far off had changed, why he felt like a puppet pulled on invisible strings.

Something was meant to happen here – something important, he could feel it.

‘We…’

Someone pushed out of the huddled group and started towards the right path.

‘Cardon!’ Adams shouted, then lowered her voice. ‘What are you doing?!’

‘Someone has to make a choice!’ he shouted back, banging on the pipes.

‘No, get back here! You won’t survive!’

‘Don’t need to, miss,’ he said, grinning. ‘Got nothing to go home to. You guys make a run for it, hopefully I’ll keep it busy for a while.’

He turned and sprayed into corridor.

‘Come get it!’ he screamed. ‘Come and find me, you little bitch! I won’t make an easy meal!’

Adams looked desperately at the sergeant. He was lost in thought.

‘Cardon, don’t!’ she shouted. ‘We can figure out-’

‘Leave it, miss,’ he shouted back. ‘Find the way home. Just forget about me. No sense in us all dying.’

‘Sarge!’

The sergeant looked troubled. His mouth had the words ready, but they were lodged in his throat. Cardon giving his life to open a sliver of a chance of survival hadn’t seemed possible before. He wasn’t what you’d call the heroic type.

But as he silently watched the Lieutenant disappear down the hallway, spraying hoses of bullets at the walls and generally making an absolute nuisance of himself, he wanted to say how proud he was. He wanted to tell Cardon that he had truly made himself a hero, and that if they ever made it out of here on the back of his sacrifice, he would be dutifully remembered, and revered as the selfless man he had become.

But he couldn’t say this. His mouth shut off its own volition, like someone was purposefully and cruelly sewing his lips together.

He stood rigid and unmoving as Cardon vanished down another corridor, the lonely, horrible sounds of bullets and hammering chasing him, until even those finally disappeared.

‘You could have said something!’ Adams hissed.

Sarge rubbed his head. He felt a migraine coming on.

‘We have to go left,’ he mumbled, then grimaced.

Did he mean to say that? The words had tumbled out of his mouth without the brain really explaining its intentions. It felt like there was someone inside his head with a direct route to his vocal chords that completely bypassed his brain, and they were sitting cosily in there typing his next sentence.

And the migraines… had he been prone to them before? He felt he had been. That he must’ve been. In the past. Yes… maybe.

‘Let’s go,’ he said confidently. ‘Or Cardon’s sacrifice is for nothing.’

They moved quickly and quietly along the corridor, dragging the group behind them. There were only a handful left, all civilian. If they were attacked now, the best thing they could do is make a run for it. But as had been proven several times before, it would doggedly follow them and pick them off one by one no matter how fast they could move.

Adams carefully turned on the lights in the mess hall, then moved to upturn a nearby table for cover.

‘Don’t,’ said Sarge. Again, the word left a bitter taste on his tongue.

‘What?’

‘Don’t. Just keep moving forward.’

‘But… If we get attacked…’

The sweat clouded his eyes and the migraine’s dull stab was sinking deeper.

‘No,’ he said uncertainly. ‘Keep moving.’

He was just a passenger in his own body now. Something else was parroting the words and piloting the limbs.

It was difficult to describe, this sudden feeling of helplessness. It was the tug of the current in otherwise calm waters that pulled you in the opposite direction.

And whatever it was, it was building to something. There were things moving around him, pieces on the board gradually slotting into place. But what was the play? And who was playing it?

All he could do was mentally brace for the peak of it. He was sure he’d know when the pivotal moment had come.

‘Forward,’ he wheezed.

The world was conspiring, rubbing its grubby little hands, steepling its fingers, flashing a wide, toothy, zealous grin. What made it worse was that he could see it. He could see it in the grimy pipes, reflected in the tiny pools of dirty water bathing the equally dirty floor, physical in the shadowed veils cloaking the corners of the room, drifting in the dim light like dust particles, catching your eye and working its way into the retina, and there it lingered menacingly, cackling away in the mind’s cavernous depths.

‘No…’ he began, fighting off the urge to move.

‘Sarge?’

‘It’s not right…’

His migraine bloomed.

‘What isn’t?’

‘This.’ He rubbed his temples. His vision went hazy.

‘What’s wrong?’ said a woman’s distorted voice.

It had to be Adams… but who was she? She didn’t seem real any more. Just a figment of his imagination, an old memory resurfaced to plague him with doubt.

‘You’re not… right,’ he mumbled, then groaned as the migraine hammered directly and suddenly into his skull.

‘Sarge, keep it together!’

‘Stop…’

Then he moved. He didn’t want to – he knew instantly this was a mistake, and that it was the pivotal moment, that point of no return.

His legs lifted off their own accord, as if tethered on puppet’s strings, and firmly met the ground. He was moving forward.

‘No…’ he stuttered.

‘Sarge!’

His mind should’ve been screaming, it should have been roaring and tearing itself apart trying to stop this nameless momentum suddenly carrying his body forward, but it was quiet and calm, as if it knew this was fated to happen.

His other leg planted firmly. Then the first. Then the second. Then his whole body lurched forward, dragging him to the door on his left.

Adams was shouting. One of the civilians moved to stop him but found him unmovable as a mountain. It would be like trying to stop the river by splashing about in its path.

Then his hand – or whoever it now belonged to – reached up shaking and pressed the button to open the door.

Arms wrapped around his waist – Adams’, he guessed based on the hands – and heaved him back. Or at least, tried to. His feet were suctioned to the floor, and it would take something considerably stronger than an ordinary person to unstick them.

The door opened. Blackness spiralled before him.

‘In,’ he muttered.

‘No!’ Adams screeched. Her voice sounded hoarse – she’d been screaming non-stop for the past few minutes, he just hadn’t heard her. ‘Stop! The maintenance tunnels are the other way!’

‘In,’ he repeated in a voice that sounded similar to his own, minus the personality and the character. This was a hollow voice, emotionally void.

‘NO!’

There was a noise behind them. Sarge felt the air change. He’d been wrong… This right here, right now, this was the pivotal moment.

The loomed conspiracy unfolded, and the scattered pieces slid to their correct positions.

Behind them, an unnatural shadow seeped out of the corner like oil escaping from a broken pipe.

Too much noise. They had inadvertently broadcast their position and now the thing, having finished off Cardon, was upon them.

‘Get in,’ Sarge moaned.

Somehow he knew that only he and Adams would make it. The others were… What was the word? It was on the edge of his periphery, taunting him. When he made to snatch it and understand the concept, it teetered just out of grasp, but lingered mockingly on the edge.

‘Get in!’ Adams shouted, turning on her heels and firing blindly at the moving shadow.

The screams circled his ears and swirled down into his skull. The shadow was on the others.

The sounds of tearing flesh and the whizz of stray bullets filled the room.

Now the word came to him: immaterial.

He tumbled through the door. It wasn’t him moving forward – it was that same formless momentum carrying him to this point that was forcing him onwards, forcing him to forget, forcing him to abandon the others. This was their moment, his had yet to come.

Adams gave a roar of defeat, then followed him into the spiralling blackness, not for a single second stopping the hail of bullets streaming into that ghastly shadow.

Then the door slammed close. This was usually a painfully slow ordeal, but this time it closed firmly and solidly, like they too were terribly eager to lock out the prowling thing.

Through the tiny slit between the door and the frame leaked the last strangled sounds of the group Sarge had meant to protect. Adams cupped her ears and scrunched her eyes.

It lasted for a minute or so, endless screams and bloody gargling, banging on the door and begging for help, someone cursed the two soldiers and swore them down, flesh and bone cracked and split… And then there was silence and darkness, unmovable and untouchable.

Sarge nearly broke down in tears. He had failed. Failed to protect. Cardon’s sacrifice had been for nothing, the thing had found them. But he wouldn’t break down, it wasn’t meant to happen. Even if he tried to shed a tear, the world had other ideas.

‘This is our fault,’ said Adams’ voice. ‘We let them die. If we’d just tried to… I mean, if we’d set up cover and prepared…’

‘It’s not our fault,’ said Sarge confidently. His voice buzzed strangely and hit his ears all wrong. Was that really his voice? He was sure he hadn’t sounded like that before.

‘How isn’t it our fault?!’ Adams hissed. ‘If you hadn’t just stood there with that empty look in your eyes, thoughts a million miles away, we could’ve saved them! We trained for this!’

‘No, we didn’t.’

‘What?’

‘We… didn’t. Train, I mean.’ He looked up into the omnipresent darkness. ‘Time to move.’

‘Hold on!’ Adams urged. ‘What about that thing?!’

‘It won’t come in here,’ he said. He didn’t know how he knew this, but he was confident it was true. ‘We have to keep moving.’

‘And those people?’

‘Meaningless,’ he said automatically.

‘You can’t say that!’ she exclaimed.

‘No… But something can.’

He edged into the darkness. There was a clicking noise and his eyes suddenly burned. He brought his hands over them and defended against the sudden shriek of light.

They were in the kitchen. Dirty utensils crowded the many busy shelves. Nests of grime-ridden pipes curled in the junctions of the walls. Streaks of blood were smeared across the surfaces and seemed to gravitate towards the ventilation shafts running along the ceiling.

There was a sudden clatter, like someone rummaging through basins of cutlery, and Adams jumped to attention, adopting a threatening stance.

Didn’t she know what he knew, thought Sarge? If he were honest with himself, he didn’t really know what he knew other than he knew it, and he knew it comfortably. Whatever the source of the noise was, it wasn’t a threat. It couldn’t be.

‘Hello?’ he said.

A head appeared from behind the cooker and bobbed giddily. Bread crusts hung from its mouth.

‘Yes, yes? Can I help you?’ it tittered.

‘Uh…’ Adams began. ‘Who the hell are you?’

‘Big question. I’m not sure you have the required intelligence to understand. Unless you’re someone who breaks the mould?’

‘Uh… What?’

‘Didn’t think so,’ he sighed. ‘Right, I’ll come around.’

Adams kept her gun trained on the man as he jaunted around to them.

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked suspiciously.

‘Making a sandwich,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise my part would be coming up so soon. You got here quicker than I thought you would.’

‘A sandwich?!’ hissed Adams. ‘A sandwich?! This ship is under attack!’

‘The threat is no more real than this sandwich is tasty,’ he muttered. ‘Would you kindly not point that thing at me? It won’t help in a conversation.’

He was a short man, messy brown hair pushed to one side, dressed in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, wide-lens glasses poked up the bridge of his nose which he fidgeted with while mumbling under his breath. He was maybe mid-twenties or so. All things considered, not the type of person you’d expect to meet in the middle of a crisis on a spaceship.

He munched unhappily on the last few pieces of bread.

‘That’s gone stale, that has,’ he said glumly. ‘Surprising really, it’s only existed for about twenty minutes.’

Adams moved forward, pushing the gun to his forehead.

‘You start explaining what’s going on here,’ she threatened, ‘or I’ll open your skull.’

The man grinned.

‘I really wish I could explain,’ he said calmly. ‘But I’m a bit out of sorts, you see. The last thing I remember is being in this big, beautiful mansion in the middle of an empty field, my only friends were cobwebs and dust and spiders. And a rather unfortunate young man who came in and disturbed the lot, but that wasn’t really his fault. He was just playing his part. So, wherever we are now, it’s nothing to do with me. I assume I’ll get my marching orders soon enough. Until then…’

He thrust the crusts into her face.

‘Would you like some jam sandwiches?’

She batted the bread violently away.

‘This isn’t a joke!’ she shouted, then lowered her voice. ‘People have died. Good people. We’re the only two people left on the ship… At least, I thought we were until we came across you. I know who was left on the ship, and you aren’t one of them. Who are you? What’s your name? And what are you doing here?’

The young man looked offended and pointed solemnly at his discarded crusts.

‘That’s a waste of perfectly good food,’ he said. ‘They’re not stale anymore, they’d have been fine!’

Adams couldn’t help but follow his finger.

The bread was fresher than virgin dew on the first day of spring.

She shook her head. ‘No, no, I’m not getting involved in that. Explain what’s going on here.’

The man sighed. ‘I’m here because there has to be something comparable to a plot, preferably one that has something to do with evil and monsters and the cruel things that lurk in the corner of your eye, and I’m here in the kitchen because the plot hasn’t kicked in yet so I’m not really needed, and I had a craving for jam, then I saw the bread and I thought, ‘Why not? Why not treat yourself to a nice little jam sandwich?’, and now here we are on the summit of plot kick-startiness, I’m one jam sandwich down and there’s a bloody soldier pointing a gun at my head, and if any of that doesn’t make sense to you I’d complain to your writer; it’s his fault you’ve got the brains of an underdeveloped sausage.’

He gestured broadly at Adams, the kitchen, and his crestfallen sandwich.

‘And the sandwich is fresh when it wasn’t before because continuity isn’t quite as continuous as you’d like to think. And my name is Parricid.’

He puffed out his chest, oddly proud of the name.

‘Why wouldn’t I be? It’s a ruddy good name!’

‘What?’ said Adams.

‘Nothing. Just forget about it.’

She looked desperately at Sarge, who had been very quiet up until now.

‘You’ve been very quiet up until now,’ said Parricid. ‘Or has he been talking this whole time and I’ve just not heard him because of that stupid helmet?’

Sarge reluctantly removed his helmet. It was all he could think to do. Parricid glanced sideways at him.

‘Have I met you before?’ he asked. ‘You look familiar. What’s your name?’

‘Sarge.’

‘Not your title, your name. Unless he’s getting really, really lazy with his naming conventions. Your name, man.’

‘Corvin,’ he replied.

The reaction was instant. Parricid backed away from the man, mouthing noiselessly under his breath.

‘Corvin, eh?’ he snorted. ‘Well… Maybe he really is getting lazy. Stupid name, Corvin, it means raven. Did you know a group of ravens is… it’s called an unkindness. An unkindness of ravens…’

He recovered. ‘Right, let’s get to it then. What’s been happening? What’s the story so far?’

Adams’ mouth opened against her will.

‘There’s an alien creature aboard this ship,’ she blurted out. ‘It’s been hunting the crew, and now we’re the sole survivors. We’ve no idea what it really is, but it’s fast and brutal, and it seems to react to human sound, it can tell the difference between the ordinary sounds of a spaceship and the ordinary sounds of humans. It’s a keen predator, no-one’s left but us.’

Parricid considered this.

‘Another monster… in my story?’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t share top billing!’

‘We’re trying to find a way to the escape pods, they’re on the lowest level,’ she continued. She was unable to stop. ‘But the creature is still hunting us, picking us off, tearing us up. It’s able to find us wherever we go.’

‘Except here,’ said Sarge, who had rediscovered his voice.

‘Won’t bother us here,’ Parricid grinned. ‘Can’t have anything interrupting important exposition dumps. How would the audience keep up?’

Adams wasn’t sure what to say.

‘And what is it, exactly?’ said Parricid.

‘It looks like… like shadows. Like the corner of your bedroom in the middle of the night. Like the darkness that hangs over-’

‘Spare me the poetry,’ he huffed. ‘It’s terrible. It always is.’

It struck Corvin that he wasn’t talking to him or Adams, but rather to some unknown entity apparently present at the conversation.

‘Call me confused,’ said Parricid thoughtfully, ‘but I’d rather thought I’d be the one chasing innocent victims around, playing the heartless monster, the evil force swimming about the place, toying with the lumpy bags of brain and brawn. Now I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here…’

‘We should go,’ said Corvin suddenly.

Parricid’s eyes narrowed.

‘Should we?’ he said. ‘Should we really? Plot’s moving forward, I suppose we should too. How about through that door there?’

He pointed at a door that should have been a wall. It was a wall, Sarge remembered clearly, just seconds ago, smeared in blood and holding shelves filled with utensils. Now it was clean, entirely sans shelves, and most notably, a door.

‘Unless you want to go back the way you came,’ said the odd man. ‘But that’s your prerogative, and no good story involved people going backwards.’

‘Story?’ groaned Adams, who was at a complete loss.

‘Just come with,’ said Parricid impatiently. ‘The kitchen is boring me, and it’s so poorly described I can barely see anything. It’s like looking at PlayStation One graphics!’

He made for the door.

‘Hold on!’ shouted Adams. ‘What about the alien?! It could be waiting for us right outside that door!’

‘Engage with logic for a second,’ sighed Parricid. ‘This alien – which by the way, doesn’t sound scary in the slightest, I mean, who’s scared of bloody gangly, pink-headed freaks from the stars? – it moves about the ship unhindered, yes? You’ve no idea how it gets about so quickly?’

‘Yes…’ Adams admitted.

‘And this is a sci-fi story, a futuristic setting. Consider the tropes: an alien menace aboard a spaceship picking off the crew one by one, ignoring the various coloured alerts blaring around the place – there’s only one place you’d find it.’

He gestured to the pipes.

‘The ventilation shafts!’ Adams gasped.

‘Obviously it takes someone with even mild intelligence to figure that one out. Brilliant intelligence doesn’t exist without someone brilliantly stupid around to hear it.’

Corvin followed him to the door. The man glanced over his shoulder at the sergeant, eyeing him up, seemingly considering a detail overlooked, then ranted to himself under his breath.

He looked at Corvin as though he were an old friend, grown up and unrecognisable to those who knew him only as a child. It made Corvin uncomfortable.

‘Of course it would,’ Parricid muttered. ‘Just copying and pasting your own work, it’s the height of laziness. I take it you have a dreadful backstory, too?’

‘Hm?’ said Corvin. ‘Oh. My past. Yes, it-’

‘I’m sure it’s terrifically depressing but I’ll pass. Let’s move, shall we? I’d like to find out why I’m here, and you’re both giving me a metaphorical headache.’

‘Metaphorical?’ said Adams.

‘Well, it’s not like you can give me a literal one,’ he replied sourly. ‘A literary one, yes. Not a literal one.’

He pressed the button and opened the door.

‘Corvin,’ he said, and grimaced as the name left his tongue. ‘Would you kindly go first?’

The Sergeant inched through the portal, gun raised, checking the corners and ceiling.

‘Clear.’

‘On you go then,’ said Parricid, grinning. ‘There will be a way down to those maintenance tunnels, you’ll see it. It’ll be lit up like bloody Hogswatch.’ He shook his head violently. ‘I mean Christmas. Now you’re stealing from other writers? At least that might mean you’ll offer better material.’

‘Who are you talking to?’ said Adams.

‘Oh, be quiet, cardboard cut-out.’

‘What?’

‘Two-dimensional,’ he said slowly, to let the insult’s poison properly sink in.

‘I’ve lost all hope,’ she wailed, ‘of ever understanding the smallest glimmer of the smallest fraction of what could possibly be happening.’

‘That’s life for you,’ he winked.

Then the cloaked corridors opened like a maze before them, and they the lab rats hunting for the exit. Corvin was at the front, methodically checking the random connecting hallways that spun off the main path in that obsessive soldier way. Adams kept Parricid moving between them, holding the gun to his back. She sensed this was about as useful as lighting a fire with wet paper towels.

‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ the odd man said as they threaded through the delicate light. ‘I mean, you don’t need two monsters in the same story, it’s redundancy in motion! Unless the plan is for us to team up and take on the mighty morphin’ space marines and their amazing leader Captain Common Corvin, but villain team-ups never go well. You end up with a bloated, cramped non-sensical plot that sort of wavers between good concept and poor execution.’ He paused. ‘Mind you, that’d be right up his street. Good ideas don’t hide poor writing.’

‘Would you stop talking?’ Adams whispered carefully. ‘You’ll attract that thing’s attention.’

‘Worry not, Stock Soldier number two. That thing’ll keep its distance until the plot demands it. It won’t hear us until somebody says it should, and that’s not due to happen for a while.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Because stories are like music,’ he explained softly. ‘There’s a beat to it, a rhythm, and once you find and settle into it, you can feel where it’s going to go. That’s why stuff like Prog music is so underground and different and interesting, it takes those established beats and warps them. This,’ here he gestured levelly at the ship, ‘is not a Prog song. It’s not a jazz song. This is the literary equivalent of pop music; it’s nothing we haven’t heard or seen before, the voice is slightly different but the progressions are all the same, it’ll never venture out of its comfort zone or be brave and try something entirely new and fresh, and it’ll end on the same bittersweet cadences as all the rest. Even you and him, you’re just notes on a stave, only here because there couldn’t be a song without you.’

‘I think,’ Adams began, ‘a song is there to be enjoyed. It might follow the same rhythm, or tread on familiar territory, but it can still be artistic and bring joy to its listeners.’

Parricid looked horrified.

‘Come up with that all by yourself, did you?’ he said angrily. ‘How impressive. It’s like your IQ just grew to the same size as his ego.’

‘You mean Corvin’s?’

‘You know fine well I don’t,’ he huffed. ‘Call me a bike, because I’m getting too tired for this.’

Ahead of them, Corvin stopped in the middle of an intersection, and gestured at the floor. Sure enough, as Parricid had claimed, there was a small hatch embedded there, big blue flashing lights around its rim, and a giant, deep blue arrow on the wall beside it pointing downwards.

‘Subtle,’ mumbled Parricid.

‘I don’t remember seeing this before,’ Adams claimed.

‘You haven’t. You have to triage brain power appropriately so you’re not overwhelmed imagining an entire spaceship at once. Partitioned reality, you could call it. Things existing as they’re required.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Adams admitted.

‘Nor would I expect you to,’ said Parricid simply. ‘Down we go. We have a plot to unravel.’

Corvin’s foot suddenly found the bottom of the ladder.

‘But I didn’t…’ he stuttered. ‘I haven’t…’

‘Unnecessary details will be deleted,’ explained Parricid, beside him. ‘Down here is where the story is, the ladder is just the means to an end, you won’t remember it because you don’t need to.’

‘But I didn’t climb down it,’ said Adams, looking up at the hatch that had somehow relocated above her.

‘Think what you will. It won’t change anything. It’s like real life that way; you can believe harder than anyone has believed before, you can pour your heart into that belief, that belief could be stronger than titanium and harder than diamonds, the world is a nasty, stubborn bugger, it won’t change to accommodate that belief. In time, your belief, that strong, unmovable thing, it’ll change because the world asks you to change it. You can go on believing you didn’t climb down the ladder, or you can accept it doesn’t make a difference if you did.’

‘That’s nice,’ said Adams, rolling her eyes. ‘You should give speeches at church about the power of belief.’

‘Oh, you’re misunderstanding, terribly misunderstanding,’ Parricid shook his head. ‘I don’t believe in belief anymore than it believes in me. I’m just repeating the words transmitting into my brain. I’ve no control over it, and neither do you.’

‘One day I’ll understand what happened here,’ she murmured miserably.

‘You don’t watch a lot of sci-fi movies, do you?’

‘No…’

‘Then you might be in for a bit of a surprise,’ he said cryptically, then gestured to the new hallway.

It was certainly new, Corvin noted. It couldn’t be any newer unless it was still under construction. It was spotless down here, whereas the upstairs had been painted fresh shades of soldier, here and there spotted with civilian. It even smelled fresh.

‘How droll,’ said Parricid as he gently pushed Corvin forward.

‘What is?’ said Corvin.

‘Fresh shades of soldier,’ he laughed. ‘I think he’s used that one before. I must say, this whole space gig thing is a little surprising. I thought he’d gotten space out of his system with the whole Vanguard bla-bla-bla, but here he is, exploring the same terrain he’s been over a thousand times.’

‘You’re wrong,’ said Corvin.

Parricid drew to a halt.

‘Excuse me?’

‘You’re… wrong,’ he repeated uncertainly, the words finding him before he could find them. ‘I’m… I don’t know where that came from. But it’s true. You’re wrong.’

‘It’s hardly unexplored territory,’ Parricid huffed. ‘Call him a pioneer and he’ll definitely get lazy.’

‘The narrative of the self,’ Corvin mumbled.

‘Say that again?’

‘The narrative of the self. The self-driving plot. We make our own stories.’

‘Do we now?’ Parricid grinned wolfishly.

‘We make our villains and we worship our heroes, we tie the plot twist and then let it unravel.’

‘Masters of our own destiny and all that.’

‘Look at the world,’ Corvin said. These weren’t his words, they were just using his mouth. ‘People are so afraid of taking control, seizing what’s theirs. They’ll abandon their control and give it up to someone else, someone who can be the author, write their lines and develop their character, playing to the charade that their life has some sense of direction that they themselves chose. They become puppets in someone else’s story.’

‘So, some look up to heroes.’

‘And others find their villains. The self-driving narrative.’

Parricid considered this.

‘You’re saying people are just… just secondary characters in their own life.’

‘I don’t know what I’m saying,’ Corvin confessed. ‘And I don’t know how I know it, but I know it’s right.’

‘Succinct,’ Parricid mused.

Sound thundered above them, like something was moving through the pipes at alarming speed.

Corvin whipped around on his heels and flung his gun high into the air, preparing for an assault. Adams copied him.

‘No need to be alarmed,’ said Parricid calmly. ‘It’s just a friendly reminder to keep us on our toes. We haven’t forgotten! Alien, spaceship, death looming over our fragile bodies, etcetera etcetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.’

‘Who do you keep talking to?’ said Adams.

Parricid opened his mouth to reply.

‘Best not to answer that,’ said Corvin. ‘Some things are not meant to be known.’

Parricid glanced sideways at him.

‘Very wise,’ he muttered. ‘If a little on the boring side.’

Another ladder brought them out of the tunnel and deeper into the dark, sunken bowls of the ship.

The area was a huge circular platform, beneath which swarmed endless darkness, sporadically broken by specks of distant flashing lights. Rising out of the middle of the platform and burying into the obscured, messy ceiling was a large metal contraption, thick as four trees and just as tall. Pulses of horrible orange light throbbed up and down the circuited shaft. Wires hung down like Christmas lights and burrowed into the central tower.

Ventilation tracks pocked the walls surrounding it, each disappearing into darkness.

‘We’re in the core,’ said Adams. ‘But I thought – isn’t it supposed to be much lower down? This should be the dock for the escape pods. I’ve been there hundreds of times, this shouldn’t be here.’

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Parricid. ‘I feel like you’re really not getting this. Continuity isn’t as continuous as you’d like to think. Things happen because the story demands it, things move because you need to streamline the narrative. Get with the program. Now, how about over there?’

He pointed to a narrow bridge that crossed over the bottomless divide.

‘Hold on,’ Adams whispered. ‘There’s a computer over here. Maybe we’ll get something from that.’

She turned on the screen and instantly a familiar face appeared.

‘That’s the doctor,’ she said suspiciously. ‘But what’s he doing…’

The doctor’s static-covered image turned to face her.

‘What I say now,’ it said, ‘I say with hope, but under the thumb of fear.’

The old man shivered.

‘This ship will never reach its destination and it’s all my fault.’ His voice trembled. ‘I was awarded free reign here, to do as I pleased, to take as I wanted… It wasn’t an easy task I set myself, but scientific progress is seldom simple. Roaming this ship is the experiment that in my madness I sought to create. By all accounts, it has been successful.’

‘Experiment?’ said Adams slowly.

‘Dark matter,’ said the doctor soberly. ‘For aeons we have sought to understand it, control it even. How it is such an unknown variable so preciously imbedded across the stars, that is what I tried to understand, to give humanity a grasp on the cosmic… and I succeeded. Where others failed, I succeeded. Its atomic behaviour is not so dissimilar as to ignore the usual rules governing matter, and that’s where I created the bridge… between man and the cosmic. Most of the test subjects succumbed to the pressure of surgery, but one man, my shining knight, he survived and became-’

There was a flash of electricity and an outstretched leg. The screen flew whimpering off the side, electrically whining, then tumbled down into the sickening darkness below. From the distant echoing sounds, it bounced critically off the walls and descended into a bottomless nothing.

‘What did you that for?!’ Adams screamed. ‘We were finally getting somewhere!’

‘Oh, no one cares,’ Parricid grumbled. ‘Man’s grasp exceeding his reach, yada yada yada. Yawn. Experiments gone bad. Evil creatures summoned at man’s scientific behest. Behold the cosmic power wielded by human minds!’ He faked a yawn. ‘Blah, blah, blah. Nothing new, nothing different. Pulling up old buried tropes and giving it a shiny new coat, thinking no one will notice. If you really wanted the power cosmic, just grab an old gold glove you’ve got lying around and fill it with stones. You’d be nigh on unstoppable that way. This is just messy.’

Adams hand moved for her gun. Then it was by her side again, seemingly without passing through any intermediate stage. It just wasn’t where she had meant to put it.

‘You’ll find I’m less destructible than normal people,’ Parricid claimed, grinning his wolfish grin. ‘Unless I allow it to happen, you’ve no chance.’

‘You’re evil,’ said Adams.

‘A bit late to the party, aren’t you?’

She edged towards the bridge. ‘We have to stop that thing… We can vent the core and it’ll suck out everything that isn’t human and send it howling into space. And you’re standing in the way.’

‘On the contrary,’ he replied, gesturing to the metal shaft. ‘Go right ahead, dear. I’m not in the way of anything, I assure you. Frankly, I couldn’t care less. In fact, I should perhaps apologise, I haven’t been very forthcoming about my intentions, and this has felt sort of like I’ve been playing with my food. Yes, there’s an evil creature roaming about this ship. But…’

That delicious evil grin split his face in two. Shadows played across his sharp features, like light gleaming across the knife’s edge.

‘It’s nothing compared to me.’

Adams made a dash for the bridge, checking drastically over her shoulder for a would-be pursuer hot on her heels, then relaxed slightly when she saw Parricid was not to be that pursuer.

‘So you’ll let us… you’ll let us got on with this then?’ she tried.

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Until I know what I’m supposed to do with the two of you, you’re free to do whatever and go wherever.’

‘Why do I get the feeling you’re going to kill us?’

He shrugged.

‘Because you’re very intuitive? Because your grandmother was a psychic and passed down her fancy genetics to you?’ He waved her worries away. ‘Try not to think about it. Just go on, play your role, finish the story as you see fit. I’ll involve myself when the time is right and the stars give the go ahead. On you go.’

Adams treaded uncertainly, looking to Corvin for some support. He was standing rooted near Parricid, sending his gaze far from hers.

‘Sarge?’ she called.

No answer.

‘Sarge!’

He turned slowly.

‘Come on!’ she shouted. ‘We have to find a way to stop that thing!’

He nodded slowly, then as she carefully made her way across the narrow bridge, he turned to Parricid, throwing his chest out and his head high, towering over the small, glassy-eyed man.

‘This ends one way,’ he growled.

‘That it does, that it does,’ Parricid agreed.

‘And it’s not the way you think.’

‘No?’

‘No.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ he said and winked impishly. ‘Just because you like a character doesn’t mean they’re safe – hell, it might send ‘em to the grave quicker!’

Corvin’s head inched closer, so that his face was now fully in Parricid’s. He could feel the man’s hot breath on his skin.

And when he spoke next, he spoke carefully and dramatically, his words slipping out of his mouth like a snake’s tongue.

‘You are absolutely correct,’ he thundered. ‘And you have no idea how right you are.’

Then he was with Adams crossing the bridge, charging headlong at the core. He was like a man demented, so obsessed with one herculean task that the rest of the world faded into an obscure annoyance. He walked with the sort of determined gait one would expect to see in a front-line soldier facing an insurmountable army.

Parricid dawdled at the bridge’s opening, waiting and watching carefully. Now they’d see. Now they’d know. Destiny is written word, fate is the writer typing each letter with reckless abandon, and conclusion is what brings them together in resounding finality.

Right on cue, there was a grating sound like an iron sword dragged across a steel shield, and a black mass of writhing shadows unfurled out of one of the nearby ventilation tunnels, spilling outward like a cloud of smoke.

Corvin saw it first and immediately opened fire, throwing Adams forward and barking orders. He demanded she vent the core. She disagreed.

Rippling shadows curled up to the metal ceiling like feelers checking for danger, then lurched upwards and forwards as one great body.

Bullets zipped in and out of the thrashing cloud. Corvin was still arguing with Adams, who had joined him in attacking the creature.

‘There’s no point in us both dying,’ he shouted. ‘Vent the core!’

‘No! We’ve come too far together! I’m not letting you die. Either we both vent it, or we both die standing.’

With his free hand he shoved her away. A mistake, he knew at once. He’d taken his eyes off the thing, and he could feel it slithering above him.

He ducked and somehow dodged a wispy arm that had swung to grab him. He rolled, not dwelling on where this sudden instinct had come from, and managed to dodge another.

‘Get to the core!’ he roared.

This time the message sunk in. Adams, a little teary-eyed, realised Corvin had no intentions of surviving the battle. This was the heroic death most soldiers would only ever dream of.

She ducked under a swinging vine of smoky feelers and darted at the control panel.

Corvin, still on the bridge, was part-wrestling with the creature and blindly firing where he found an opening. The creature had almost entirely enveloped him, so that from afar he was an occasional flash of skin and rage in a slowly-closing membrane of darkness.

The creature wrapped around his wrist and squeezed hard enough to break the bones. He cried out, there was a blood-curdling snap, and his pistol was flung out of his now shattered hand.

More feelers curled around his neck. There was another horrible snap – his other hand had been broken. He guessed this based on the sudden release of the pressure he had felt there moments ago; he’d become numb to the pain.

He was drowning. He was losing. The last of his strength was being suctioned out by the impossible creature – this must be what mice felt like in the death-grip of a constrictor, suffocating with plenty of air, helpless against the ravenous beast coiled around them.

He just had to hope Adams would vent the core…

Parricid watched, a little confused. Here he was, the defining villain of the story, and there was another in his place, effortlessly causing havoc, pain and chaos, strangling the last few drops of life from the powerless Corvin. Adams was at the control panel, furiously pressing buttons and typing in what was undoubtedly the self-vent program.

What was his purpose here? To stand and watch helplessly as he was robbed of his dignity?

‘I won’t be doing that,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m the villain here. I do the bad things.’

He tossed that word around in his mind – villain.

‘No, he didn’t. I don’t toss things around in my mind.’

He stretched his fingers like a musician getting ready to play.

‘I’ll admit that’s an excellent simile,’ he beamed. ‘Because I’m about to play with your song here. Let’s make this a bit more exciting, shall we? So far it’s been easy. We need another obstacle.’

He clicked his fingers. The snap travelled to the far walls, looped around the central shaft, and echoed madly in the dome.

Adams stared shocked at the control panel. Seconds ago it had been very simple, the panel had been a compact, user-friendly device bending to her will; and now, suddenly, it was a mess of wires and flashing lights and extra keypads locked tight under pin-passwords and voice-recognition. Burly wires seemed to lead nowhere in particular as they dipped and curled along the brimming panel. The lights seemed to indicate nothing important as they flashed and faded and flashed and faded.

Panic bit her.

Behind her, Corvin was locked in the creature’s cold death-grip, life fluttering away like leaves in the wind. His skull was softening under the vice-like pressure of the creature’s shadowy limbs; he could feel it starting to crack in places he never knew existed.

Then suddenly, gravity.

It pulled on his legs. The world was suddenly rising and rising above him, weightlessness ballooned in his chest, the pressure of the creature’s grip had loosened and his broken limbs flopped wildly in the empty air as he tumbled and tumbled, the sickening spin of darkness shooting out above him.

Then he stopped, caught mid-fall. Smoky black tentacles lanced out violently and impaled themselves through his wrists, holding him aloft. If he could have felt pain, he would’ve screamed, passed out, but as it was he felt nothing but two dull throbs.

He ventured a quick look down. The bridge was gone. Ravenous darkness and hungry gravity awaited below him.

He ventured a quick look up. The creature was suffering the effects of gravity, too. It was stretched like soft taffy, noosed around Corvin and latched to the ceiling.

Now the writhing mass looped around his neck and started to crush. It was a desperate sort of action, Corvin felt. It knew gravity would win in the end and make fools of them both, it was just trying to steal one last victory in its final moments.

Corvin, now hanged like some old pirate, took stock of his limited options, and if he could have laughed, he would have cackled manically until the last breath was choked away.

There was the seductive darkness beneath or the vicious creature above.

He tried to grin. Blood seeped out of his cracked lips.

The frying pan… or the fire?

Adams volleyed the now enormous control panel over the side of the platform and battered the layer underneath. She was frantically pushing buttons and typing in every code she had ever been told, rewiring to bypass the layer upon layer of noose-tight security that had magically appeared to stop her progress.

Sweat poured down her forehead. She thought she could taste blood in the back of her mouth – she told herself she was imagining things and focused. It was difficult to do with that horrible gasping, strangled sound filling the air behind her. It howled in her ears, it stole away the senses, it drilled and drilled into the brain until it was all she could think about, that constant rhythmic gasping, like the gradually slowing thud of a failing heartbeat.

Parricid grinned. More obstacles, more to do, more story. And this was his doing. The shadow creature could enjoy the fruits of its labours, but it would never enjoy being the top-rate, Machiavellian villain that he was.

Corvin was dying, Adams was failing. Yet again, he would win. Last man standing. Head honcho of the narrative script.

It was approaching that pivotal moment he relished as the wolf relishes the wounded pig. Corvin’s shattered limbs dangled out of the mouth of the black snake and thrashed wildly and helplessly. He’d been getting slower and slower, softer and softer. His death gasps were farther apart now and were voiced laboriously.

The crux of the moment was fast approaching. Parricid gripped the barrier in anticipation.

Corvin’s hanging body jerked horribly. Adams screamed. The creature started to slip off the ceiling, losing its grip, ready to plummet into nothingness, having claimed its predatory victory.

Parricid loomed closer, grinning like a shark.

And then the world stopped. It froze. Corvin’s body was suspended in the unmoving mass of smoke. The creature’s writhing tendrils juddered to a halt. Adams’ face was a solid, unblinking mask of terror.

The whole scene winded down like a carousel come to rest. Nothing moved, flinched, breathed, not a dot of light or sound…

Except Parricid. He could move freely. He hung off the end of the platform, studying the freshly immobile creature with Corvin in its grasp. The doomed soldier was caught on the edge of his death, perhaps seconds away from fully passing on; the tiny spider scrambling at the drain’s lip as the water rushes it down.

‘Well, this isn’t fair at all,’ Parricid grumbled, examining the frozen picture. ‘You can’t just hit the pause button when you don’t like what’s about to happen! What are you, a child?’

What do you think you’re doing?

‘I was in the middle of the coupe de grace until you rudely interrupted!

Consider the scene.

‘I am!’ he argued. ‘I bloody well am!’

And?

‘And this is my moment, yes? Where I inject my will into these… cardboard soldiers and whatever the hell that thing is hanging from the ceiling like stretched chewing gum. This is where I get to do things!’

It certainly is.

‘Then why did you pause it?!’

Because this is the wrong thing. This isn’t why you’re here.

‘You’re making this up as you go along.’

Consider the scene. And I mean really look.

Parricid looked out at the paused image.

‘I’m looking,’ he said grimly. ‘And I’m looking.’

Tell me what you see.

‘So, I’m doing your job for you. You are getting lazy.’ His brow knotted. ‘I see… I see an idiot space marine getting constricted, I see another idiot space marine standing there screaming, I see a big stupid smoke monster just kind of hanging out, not doing much. Did I miss anything?’

I think I did, actually. The two space marines, what are they?

‘Pretty bland characters about as deep as an unmarked grave.’

No. Again.

Parricid groaned. ‘Fine. They’re primary character and supporting character.’

The monster?

‘Antagonist,’ he said dryly. He looked up suddenly and checked his view. He checked it again just to be sure, then he backed off from the scene, as if about to sprint away, noticing something in the immobile scene. Or, more accurately, it’s what he didn’t notice.

‘Oh… No, that can’t be right…’

Forgive me, I think I’ve forgotten something. There’s something missing here, isn’t there?

‘You can’t be serious… You’re joking, right? This is all a big joke?’

I’ve got a primary character locked in a death-grip, I’ve got a panicking supporting character, I’ve got a suitably menacing antagonist… So, what am I missing?

‘A decent plot? This isn’t right. You can’t change the script mid-story.’

I can. It’s my right. What am I missing?

Parricid exhaled slowly.

‘A hero,’ he said. ‘A goddamn bleeding-heart hero.’

You don’t look like you’re doing anything. Maybe you could-

‘No. Absolutely not!’ He stamped his foot. ‘I’m a villain, not a hero! I’m the bad guy!’

You had reservations about killing Corvin before.

‘I had reservations about doing what you told me to do. I’m not like these puppets, I don’t have to do what you say.’

And yet Corvin was dead. You did what was expected of you, and here you will do so again.

‘But a hero?’ he whined. ‘An anti-hero, maybe. That’s all the rage these days. Morally complex characters challenged by their inner demons.’

That would work if you were morally complex, but regrettably, you’re not.

‘Why not?’

Because I didn’t write you that way.

‘You also didn’t write me as a hero. Is this what passes for character development in your stories?’

This is what passes for shut up and get on with it.

He scratched his head. ‘What am I supposed to do? Tickle it?’

Every monster has a weakness.

‘So… tickle it?’

If that’s what you think its weakness is. But that doesn’t sound much like a sci-fi monster weakness, does it? Whoever heard of the Alien film where Ripley tickles the Xenomorph to death?

‘Helpful as always,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m really not sure how this is going to work. I have to say, I’m not overly happy about this.’

How about an incentive?

‘I’m listening,’ said Parricid suspiciously.

He held his breath as the world shifted around him, metal walls melting away like burning wax, the monster, Corvin, Adams, and the towering core vanished behind a slowly expanding ball of white-hot light hungrily eating away at vison.

It cascaded over him, swallowing him whole. Then it retreated out of his eyes and a new image appeared behind the blinding light.

‘What in the…’

Swirly candy-floss clouds floated like sparkling platforms, pink bubbles the size of birds swarmed in the scarce emptiness between. A forest of pink lollipops twirled and swirled in the distance.

He was sat on one such platform. Bubbles inquired thoughtfully at the air around him. The cloud felt soft beneath his fingers, but solid enough that he wasn’t afraid of falling through.

He’d never seen so much pink in his entire life. The clouds were pink, the sky was pink, the bubbles were pink, and the small things moving in the corners of his eyes as a single undulating pack were pink from button-nose to fluffy feet.

The things came up to him and stopped, floating in mid-air.

One rubbed its unbearably cute nose into his leg and looked up out of huge, shiny eyes that sparkled like gems in moonlight.

‘Will you be my fwend?’ it squeaked in a soft voice that could only be described as a helium overdose.

The bunny pawed him gently. The others behind the first queued for their turn with the newcomer. They all looked the same – cute and innocent and fluffy and squeaky, like children’s toys created by Santa on a cocaine-fuelled toy-making binge.

Parricid stared down at the squeezable rodent.

‘Get – the hell – away from me,’ he wheezed.

The bunny laughed. It was like the jolly chiming of Christmas bells, the lyrical passage of fairy –

‘That’s enough! I get it! I’ll do it!’ He scrambled backwards. ‘Just get me out of this morphine-addled nightmare!’

You’d get to do whatever you want here. You’d be happy here. Nothing but friendly bunnies and clouds and pink bubbles and candy-floss and muzak and just whatever promises niceness and gentility. You wouldn’t have to be a hero or a villain. You wouldn’t have to play the part I gave you. Just sit there, chill, and enjoy the loving voices of your wittle bunny friends as they gently –

‘Jesus, man! Switch it back! SWITCH IT BACK!’

You’ll do as you’re told?

‘I’ll do it! Take me out of this pink hell! It’s like being trapped inside Dr Seuss’ head!’

There was a faint tinkle, like a fairy was ringing its tiny bell, and the pink clouds and swarming bubbles and tiny innocent bunnies swirled suddenly together as one messy vortex; it turned and eddied and churned, draining like thick pink butter, mashing up like it had been sent through a blender, and Parricid saw with relief that the cold steel of the dark spaceship was starting to edge out the ubiquitous pink.

Little by little and piece by piece, he was back on the spaceship. He checked the solidity of the metal with his foot. It stayed rigid, not moving like a floating, malleable candy-floss cloud. He wiped his brow, relieved.

‘Never again,’ he moaned. ‘God, never again.’

He looked out sullenly at the statues frozen in time.

‘Okay, start it up again. The quicker we get this over with, the quicker everything can go back to normal.’

The creature’s shadowy mass squirmed like a branch of leaves caught in a gale, Corvin’s dangling legs jerked and trembled, Adams’ permanent mask of horror moved ever so slightly. The orange light travelling the length of the centre tower stuttered an inch or two.

There was a whoosh of air and sound, a sonic boom like the clap of ancient stones upturned, and then there were screams and electrical throbbing, the smell of damp metal, the thrumming of fate, the gargled death rattle shaking amidst a smoky black cocoon.

Parricid grinned as the world spun into time. Seconds passed again, starting up unsurely, like they were questioning what had happened and if they had actually stopped in the first place.

But now time was moving forward again. Those precious few seconds Corvin had left were spiralling away. If Parricid was to act, he would have to do it now.

‘I get the point,’ he mumbled.

He clicked his fingers, smiling. A simple fix, he thought. The world was his to shape, it was a certain privilege of his to mould the script as he saw fit, to change the things he viewed as undesirable or questionable. In this case, the guilty party was the monster.

‘Have a safe trip!’ he cried, laughing.

The snap rebounded – the scene stuttered like an old cassette tape stuck between play and pause. Nothing happened.

He tried again. The monster stuttered but Corvin remained enveloped in its thick black wings.

‘Well, that’s not fair. Changing the rules because you want me to find a challenge, that’s low. That’s really low. How do you expect me to be a hero if I can’t-’

Something dropped noisily at his feet, something hard and metal. Parricid picked it up and turned it over in his hands.

‘Fair enough, but not very futuristic,’ he said. ‘This better work or I’m calling my union.’

He turned to the edge of the platform, glaring at the monster and the helpless, dying Corvin trapped in its suffocating grip.

‘Let old bygones be bygones,’ he muttered, and took a few steps back to get a decent run at it.

He charged forward, throwing his weight into his leaping feet, pushing and pushing forward, pushing and pushing his muscles to their extremes, then he raised the sword above his head, brandishing it madly and wildly, feeling the rush of wind pull at his sides and fling his glasses off their perch, a sudden surge of adrenaline swelled in his senses, and he dived off the platform, swinging blindly at the monster, making huge wild arcs.

The sword severed the creature’s hold over Corvin. Parricid heard the young soldier gasp for air. The creature bellowed and screeched.

He grabbed Corvin with his free hand as he torpedoed like a rocket, using his airborne momentum to ferry them to the other platform. He realised too late they were going to come up short.

Bridge, he thought. Bridge! BRIDGE!

They landed with a thump and skittered across the metal surface, tumbling over one another. Parricid held the sword above his head to avoid accidentally skewering the dying soldier.

Then he lay there, laughing. He had a couple of seconds of this before the screeching, feral creature released from the ceiling and poured itself onto the newly appeared bridge.

‘Come at me,’ said Parricid, jumping to his feet and bringing the blade to his cheek. ‘I’ve got a ruddy sword! This thing’ll cut you like an ex-wife on Christmas!’

He admitted to himself that he was enjoying this. He didn’t often get the chance to wield swords and face space monsters and… and save people. It sunk in that he had actually saved someone’s life. He had done a good thing, he had been a hero.

He was being a hero.

Corvin groaned weakly at his feet. He took up a wide-legged stance in front of the soldier.

Now it was just him, the bridge, and the writhing creature.

‘Let’s dance.’

The creature bellowed. Its shifting black core unfurled like oiled wings, like a spider raising its legs and exposing its underbelly right before the fatal strike, and lurched towards him, smoky tentacles striking and lashing and whipping.

Parricid swung a tight arc that sliced diagonally across the creature’s exposed core. Then he brought the blade around, looping it around his head, and with a neat little twirl unleashed a fatal whirlwind.

The creature stooped back, screeching brutally. Parricid kept the assault going and swung again, and again, and again.

Parts of the smoky creature dropped and fizzled out like matches. Lopped pieces spiralled off the side of the bridge and became one with the waiting darkness.

On its last legs, the creature took one final attempt and rushed forward suddenly, lashing out madly, its reaching tentacles a blur of dark, violent movement.

Parricid side-stepped, then remembered he was on a narrow bridge.

‘Oh, shit.’

He caught the edge of the bridge as he fell and clung desperately to the thin lip.

‘This isn’t what you’d call ideal,’ he muttered, looking down. ‘But it’s a nice place to hang out.’

The creature’s tendrils zipped forward as a nest of serpents and struck his tightly gripped hand.

He grinned wolfishly as needles of pain stuck his fingers, then brought the sword up in a wide swing and…

His fist ran through thin air.

He looked at his empty hand and grimaced.

‘Can I have another one, please? I don’t see this ending well without one.’

Bullets cut through the screeching. Corvin must’ve recovered, Parricid thought, and tried to pull himself up. He spread eagle on the bridge as the creature moved its attention elsewhere.

He had been wrong. It was Adams that had recovered. She was firing at the creature, screams punctuated each heavy shot as they impacted the curling shadows.

The distraction provided a small window. Parricid ran behind the mass of writhing smoke, then stopped. He didn’t have a weapon or a tool or anything, what exactly was he planning to do?

But he had to do something. He was the hero; the one everyone expected to have some sort of plan, a way out, to find the road to victory.

‘Do something!’ Adams shouted over the creature’s roars.

He thought. And he thought.

The revelation came to him. It was an obvious one.

‘I know how you think,’ he said, shining a beaming grin at the largely empty room. ‘I know you like to plot and plot and calculate and calculate, you work out every tiny little detail before you sit down and actually start writing. And I know you like to hide clues. You love a good clue! In fact, I’m pretty sure if you combed the multi-verse series with a fine mind and picked out all the tiny details and put them together like jigsaw pieces, there’d be an entirely different picture there, something you’d see only if you were really searching for it. Sadly for you, I know where to look. Because I know how you think. This creature…’ He regarded the mass of lashing tendrils in front of him. ‘It has a weakness. And I think I know what it is.’

He approached the thing from behind and readied his hands. Adams was still firing desperately into the squirming core of it.

Parricid’s fingers danced. Then he struck with serpentine speed.

‘Tickle, tickle, tickle!’ he cooed.

It was like waving your fingers through smoke. There was something hard beneath the wispy blanket, he focused on that, wiggling his fingers like his life depended on it, trying to find that precious sweet spot that would work like a dog’s belly and send the creature into a pleasure coma.

So, he stood there, arms wrapped around the vicious beast, hands sunk into the black cloak of thrashing shadow, waggling fingers searching for their target.

Adams had stopped firing. She could only stare in disbelief, wondering if what she saw was really happening or if she had already died and this was hell.

Parricid felt the movement before he saw it; the creature rounded on him slowly like a snake checking the annoyance at its tail.

‘Ah.’

He retrieved his hands.

‘Ah,’ he said again.

The creature’s great body rose above him, loomed over him, black wisps curled across its ever-shifting surface like mist across the deserted snow plain.

‘Ah,’ he said.

It crossed his mind that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, in the loosest, vaguest sense of the word, against all odds and careful calculations, he had been fatally wrong.

‘Well, bollocks.’

Adams fired as the creature’s swirling mass started to unfurl. It swivelled around to face her.

‘You have to help me!’ shouted Parricid. ‘I can’t do this alone!’

‘I am helping you!’ Adams shouted.

‘Not talking to you!’

The creature slowly approached Adams, gliding over the unconscious Corvin, eating up the space between. Adams was screaming, shooting and backing up, shooting and backing up, knowing that if the creature got to her, it would all be over.

Parricid saw the defeat in her eyes, the weariness, the fire spluttering out. Her retreating feet hit the control panel.

‘Come on!’ he tried. ‘Help me! Give me a happy ending!’

He stopped and thought about what he had just said.

‘I don’t mean like… I don’t mean like that. Just… This doesn’t have to end badly, for once in your…’ He coughed, rolled his eyes. ‘Career, give the story a happy ending. Just this once!’

Smoky spines and tentacles unwrapped from the black mass.

‘It doesn’t have to be like this!’ Parricid screamed. His voice was hoarse. ‘All I’m asking is that we get the happy ending we deserve, we’ve done the trials, we’ve jumped the hoops, we’ve walked through the fire and the flames and we’ve done what you’ve asked, this isn’t fair!’

Adams had stopped firing. Her arms hung limp at her side.

‘Pause it again! You don’t have to do this! Pause it!’

Rising like a snake, the creature eclipsed the defeated soldier.

‘That’s it, then,’ Parricid said quietly. ‘The bad ending. You really thought this should be the ending for my first heroic outing? You’re seriously disturbed.’

He shook his head and the thoughts jostled around his skull.

‘I get it,’ he confessed finally. ‘As smart as you think you’re being, I get it. No-one knows how sweet victory tastes until they’ve swallowed down a bitter defeat. Heroes should learn to lose before they figure out how to win.’

The creature’s fully unfurled mass began to envelop Adams like a bear trap. It may have been wishful thinking on Parricid’s part but, maybe, possibly…

Was it slowing down?

‘She saved my life,’ he continued. ‘I mean, she was doing what you made her do, but… she did save my life. After all I said to her, I basically threatened her, and she still saved me. And Corvin, giving his life to make sure she’d have a chance. They’re the heroes, aren’t they? This was all one big trick, punishment for being a sarcastic little prick. You set this up so I’d know what they felt. Well, congratulations, you succeeded. If I may ask for one small favour from you, just one thing you could do for me since you won’t help… I’d prefer not to watch this.’

Adams had now fully disappeared behind the flailing black wall.

‘And make it quick. A hero deserves a hero’s death. She deserves better than what you’re giving her.’

He still couldn’t be sure if it was a trick of the light or if his brain was savouring the countdown to fatality, but it did seem that the creature’s violently lashing tentacles were moving in slow motion as if struggling through jelly.

‘If I can’t change your mind,’ he said, ‘then I accept it. You win – again. A puppet can’t be a hero.’

True. But that’s where you come in.

The tentacles creeped across Adams’ face like poison ivy on a wall. Her mouth was open, she was screaming silently, the creature’s searching feelers invaded the opening, the awful light throbbed and pulsed and rose and fell.

And it all happened slowly, as if time had reduced its speed by just the fraction of a second.

‘What -’

His hands gripped something cold, heavy and metal. He didn’t have to look down to know what it was. This was meant to be a sci-fi story, after all. The sword had been the training wheels, now he was about to ride the real thing.

‘Very nice,’ he grinned, then looked up at the creature’s slow-motion attack. ‘Ey! Smoky!’

Black tentacles whirled around, lashing wildly at nothing in particular. There was menace in the movement, you could feel it.

Time snapped back to its usual arrangement with a thundering boom.

Adams’ face was an island of skin floating in an oily, black ocean.

‘I don’t take kindly to this sort of thing,’ said Parricid, trying out his hero voice. ‘Let her go.’

Confidence oozed out of every word. Each syllable had a little extra bite to it.

‘This is about me and you. Fight the right fight or don’t fight at all.’

The creature screeched and dropped down like a dog on all fours, then charged.

Parricid grinned. He really ought to have his glasses for this part. Actually, he should have sunglasses. Sunglasses would be the perfect fit for this occasion. Black aviators would be the crowning glory.

The dark ball of rage and shadow whipped across the bridge, straight towards him. He didn’t move. Not even a flinch.

He tightened his grip on the thing in his hand, searching for the button. He found it.

Now the creature was metres away.

He really wanted his glasses.

Then his free hand opened. He looked down and smiled. Absolutely perfect timing, and precisely what he had wished for.

He was about to put them on, then hesitated. It wasn’t the right time for them. This was like a coronation, you don’t want to rush to the pivotal moment too quickly and miss all the build up, people were here for a reason. You had to drag it out and make it painfully slow, just so when the moment finally arrived it would taste all the sweeter.

The creature was about a foot away.

He pressed the button.

Blue light cascaded out of the hilt, there was a whooshing pop and the blade hummed like a car at rest. The light crackled and fizzed and whined.

Suddenly seeing this blade of light shoot out of his hand made the creature stop, it careered to a halt, using its tentacles to slow it down, and there it paused, calculating. It looked afraid – as afraid as humanoid masses of shadow can properly look.

Parricid raised his hand. The blade sliced through the air with a vicious whine. Now was the moment.

‘I prefer my monsters like I prefer my toast…’ He put the glasses on. ‘On the dark side.’

He brought the lightsabre down hard, as hard as he could, willing the blade down in a clean cut. The blade approached the shadowy membrane, then hissed as it cut into the writhing flesh, smoke billowed out of the fresh clean slice.

The blade kept true and howled through the screeching creature, more smoke poured out of the splitting beast until the once menacing creature was a pathetic hissing pyre, burning as the humming blue light carved its way into the wretched thing, leaving behind a reddened trail that cauterised almost instantly.

It went straight through the middle. The creature gave little fight, the blade found purchase. It screamed through the dark mass and sizzled as it exited the underside, the gash bubbling and boiling and burning, the creature’s last few screeches pierced his ears, and then the bubbling mess collapsed in two perfectly equal dead heaps, fizzling away on the stained metal.

Parricid tested the flopping remains with his foot. They disappeared in plumes of black smoke at his touch.

‘Easy,’ he grinned.

Adams nervously tiptoed across the bridge, avoiding the blackened stain.

‘You did it, you killed it,’ she said, in disbelief. ‘What… What is that thing?’ she asked, pointing to the lightsabre.

‘Depends on who you ask,’ he said. ‘Could be a weapon, could be a tool. Only an idiot deals in absolutes.’

‘Corvin!’

She crouched over the unconscious soldier and pulled him upright. He managed to sit but couldn’t stand. His neck was deeply bruised, a thick band of black and blue had raised on his skin.

He tried to open his eyes.

‘Sarge?’ Adams said, checking him for other wounds. ‘Sarge, can you hear me?’

He looked like a drunk propped up against a closed shop in the small hours of Sunday morning. Blood and saliva dripped from his mouth.

‘Sarge!’

She turned his head. It moved too easily in her hand.

Parricid switched off the lightsabre and moved behind him, letting the soldier rest his back against his legs.

‘Corvin?’ he tried. ‘Corvin, if you can hear me, wiggle your fingers.’

They stared at his fingers. The pinkie twitched, the others remained deathly still.

‘He’s still with us!’ Adams cried. ‘Help him up!’

Parricid looked down at the tired bundle of pain. He’d seen Corvin like this before, he remembered. That time it had been his doing.

‘I don’t think he’s getting up,’ he said quietly.

‘He has to!’

She yanked at his chest. The largely lifeless body flapped to one side, head loosely cocking with it.

‘Leave him be,’ said Parricid. ‘These are his last moments, they should be honoured and remembered. It’s the best thing we can do for him right now.’

Corvin’s lips trembled. Breath seeped out.

‘He’s trying to say something,’ Adams said.

Parricid leaned closer, aiming one ear at the soldier’s mouth. He could hear laboured breathing and a very faint, thudding heartbeat, whose rhythm was like the clack of a train on the rails slowing down at the station.

‘This…’ said the man. ‘This…’

He coughed. Blood sprayed out.

‘This… could have been… worse…’

A limp hand pulled itself from the floor and searched above him. It found Parricid’s shoulder.

‘You… won. You did it. After all that… you’re the hero.’

‘We don’t have time for big goodbyes,’ said Parricid coldly. ‘Come on, up you get. Plenty more mischief to sow!’

Corvin shook his head miserably. Parricid offered his hands to his neck, afraid the whole thing might collapse with the effort.

‘You won’t be doing any mischief now,’ Corvin wheezed. ‘Heroes do as a hero does. Doing the right thing isn’t easy, but you have to do it anyway.’

‘Ah, the right thing is boring.’ Parricid’s voice wobbled, there was uncertainty growing in him. ‘The wrong thing, now that’s the meat of life. That’s where good stories begin.’

‘The best stories… start with weakness. They begin where there must be change.’

‘And?’

‘A bad man… can become a good hero. He just needs the right character.’

‘A drawn-out death scene,’ Parricid mumbled under his breath. ‘Another trope I won’t be having. Give the man his peace.’

‘Stop talking like that,’ Adams snapped. ‘Hoist him up and we’ll carry him to the escape pods.’

‘He’s not going anywhere. There has to be a heroic sacrifice and it looks like the burden falls to him. He’s become a cliché.’

‘I’ve always hated clichés,’ Adams murmured.

‘Clichés aren’t that bad. They’re narrative bedrock, there wouldn’t be a story without them.’ He paused. ‘And if we’ve hit the bedrock…’

‘What?’

‘Well… Once the mine has been tapped, you’ve gotten everything you could out of it, and you start hitting the bedrock below…’

‘That’s the end of the mine,’ Adams concluded. ‘You mean we’ve hit the end of the story.’

‘And all that’s left is us,’ said Parricid.

He looked around and confirmed the surrounding dome was beginning to fade, like a dark velvet curtain was being pulled across the scene.

‘Literally closing the curtain,’ he mumbled.

‘What happens now?’ said Adams. Her voice trembled.

‘We say goodbye, I guess.’

‘You don’t really know, do you?’

‘I’m usually the last one standing at the end of it all,’ Parricid admitted. ‘I’m not used to having someone to say goodbye to.’

Adams considered this.

‘That must be very lonely,’ she said.

Corvin’s hand drifted off Parricid’s shoulder and flopped lifelessly beside him. His breathing had crawled to a stop.

‘A story finishes…’ he said, voice hoarse and frail. ‘But the narrative continues. It’s not an end… but a break on the page.’

Parricid glanced down. ‘What are you on about?’

‘Your story…’

The soldier’s head dropped to his chest.

Adams wept, clinging to the newly hollow body and rocking gently back and forth. She paid no attention to Parricid as he got to his feet and shook off the bad feeling brewing in his stomach.

There was something wrong. This should be the ending, he thought, but it didn’t really feel like an ending, it felt like the misty dusk before the dawn shatters it.

‘I have to go on,’ he said suddenly. ‘Wait, do I? What am I going on to?’

He had another sentence prepared – a short retort to Adams’ missile of a sentence, no doubt another question about the narrative path they were taking – when he looked around and found himself alone.

Corvin was gone, Adams was gone, the creature’s sizzling remains were gone, the bridge wasn’t there, the core had vanished, and all that he was left with was a painfully bright light swallowing the darkness. It hung there like a white sun, burning away at the profound emptiness, spearing his retinas with bayonets of light.

The time has come.

‘Very dramatic,’ Parricid mumbled. ‘What happened to the cardboard soldiers?’

The same thing that happens to every character when their story has ended.

‘Sweet oblivion?’

Precisely.

‘That wasn’t much of a good death for Corvin. He deserved better. He was willing to die for us.’

And much more. But this isn’t his story.

‘No, I got that. As subtle as you’ve been.’

He turned to face the gilded sun.

‘So I’m going in there?’

Pretty much.

‘What’s on the other side?’ He winced. ‘It’s not the bloody bunnies again, is it? Cos I’m not going there, I’m never going there again!’

It’s not the bunnies. It’s something else, something new. Something you haven’t done before.

‘I don’t like the sound of that.’

Tough. We all have to do things we don’t want to do, it’s part of life.

‘Like… Like doing a job you hate just because it’s money?’

The sun flared. White sparks arced across its watery surface.

If you’re going to go th –

‘Only teasing, keep your hair on. Pretty sound advice, I’d say, since you’re starting to run out of it.’

In your own time.

Parricid approached the sun and tested its skin with a nervous finger. It dipped into the burning ball and was retrieved unharmed. If anything, he thought, it’s a little cold.

‘You won’t tell me where it goes?’

That’s part of the fun.

He hesitated.

‘What about Corvin and Adams?’

What about them?

‘They’re gone. Vanished. Disappeared.’

And?

And you made me a hero, I’m supposed to care about these things. What happened to them?’

If you really want to know, and I don’t think you do, then you’ll go through to the other side. This part is the question, the other side is the answer.

‘You’re just saying that to get me to do it.’

Consider it a promise. If you want to know, enter the portal.

He looked up at the fiery orb.

‘I’m not so sure about this,’ he admitted. ‘That looks like it’ll kill me.’

So did that monster, yet here you stand.

‘Well, that was just a two-bit player, it didn’t stand a chance against me. I had a ruddy lightsabre! This thing… it looks like what lightsabres are made from.’

You can stand there in absolute darkness preaching to the emptiness about how important you are and feeding your little ego, or you can start a new adventure, discover new things, explore new worlds.

‘That’s all well and good but why do I get the feeling you’re lying to me?’

Go through.

He stayed rooted to… well, to the utter nothing beneath his feet.

Think about it – why would I leave you here when everyone else is gone? I could have deleted you too. But no, I saved a greater fate for you.

‘It is rather lonely here,’ Parricid said, looking around. ‘A bit miserable, really. If I don’t have any other option…’

You’ve always got the choice. But it’s sort of like choosing between a fish salad or a chicken salad, you know you’re going to be disappointed, it won’t fill you, and later you’ll have to have some proper meat to satisfy the taste buds.

‘You’re saying rock and a hard place?’

I’m saying do you want chicken or do you want fish?

‘Does it matter?’

Precisely.

He inhaled sharply. Rock and a hard place. Frying pan or the fire.

‘I guess I’ve no other choice,’ he said finally. ‘If I see even the smallest hint of a cute button nose or a pink fluffy tail, you and I are going to have words.’

Isn’t that all we have?

He groaned, then started towards the flaming ball. It seemed to be aware of his intentions and opened like a blooming flower. Fiery white petals yawned and fluttered.

Parricid put his leg in first. Still cold, he noted. Then his other leg followed the first, then his hands. The sun gulped them down.

Now all he had to do –

‘I know, I know!’ he stammered, half in, half out. ‘You don’t need to go into every tiny detail, I’ve got this.’

Then he entered… and screamed as white-hot light swallowed and surrounded him, snapping at his skin and burning away at his senses.

And he was gone.

*

 

Raven’s Stars

 

Bullets whizzed through the narrow corridor. Lights flashed and alarms blared.

‘It’s coming out of the walls!’

Chaos swept through the corridor. There was a scream of sound and another man fell, his head split open like a cracked egg.

‘Go! GO! GET OUT!’

People backed up towards the door, clambering over the fallen bodies, most mutilated beyond recognition.

‘We don’t stand a chance, just get out!’

Bullets streamed in the fitful darkness, awful shapes twisted and unfolded like a great mass of shadows chasing the break of dawn, raw screams punctuated the pummelling guns.

Something slithered along the ceiling, dodging the broken pipes and rupture holes in the grimy metal, and snatched another victim from the tightly packed squad.

His strangled roar ascended into the rafters and was quickly silenced. There wasn’t much time for mourning – the group aimed high and unloaded another barrage into the impenetrable shadows.

Escaping was a careful process. Turning their backs would leave them open for attack, and given how ruthless their shadowy assailant was, it would be a fatal mistake to make. Bullets did very little in the way of real damage, but they could slow it down, buy them some precious time to manoeuvre.

Bodies tumbled backwards through the open door, and then scrambled forward as one to press the close and lock mechanism. Those lucky enough to have escaped first lay prone at the back and sprayed wildly into the open portal.

The door slowly closed, two halves slotting together with little urgency. Something moved on the other side of the shrinking gap, hissing and spluttering, and lunged desperately towards the waning crack.

The portal slammed firmly shut.

Those on this side caught their breath and tended to their bloody wounds, wrapping crude bandages where they could, and comforting those whose wounds would soon be the last thing on their mind.

‘How many did we lose?’ said the sergeant, resting against the wall.

‘Seventeen,’ said Corporal Adams, after a count. ‘Seventeen…’

The sergeant groaned. ‘That’s three quarters of what we had left!’

Adams gave him a sympathetic look, then stopped herself falling. The rest of the group was in a sorry state. Two more had died in the past minute, and the stragglers clung to weak threads of life.

‘We have to keep moving, Sarge,’ she suggested. ‘That thing’ll work out a way round the door.’

Sarge nodded glumly, then shouted at the group. Most were just civilians swept reluctantly into the madness, and took no stock with guns and military discipline, but if any of them were to make it out alive – and that hope was dwindling quickly – then they’d have to learn the ropes fast.

Then they were skulking single-file through the cluttered hallways, jumping at every hiss of steam from the ventilation pipes, running from every wiry shadow, and almost firing at the indistinct sounds seeping in from the distance.

‘What do we think, Adams?’ the Sergeant said, as they approached an intersection. His voice was lower than a whisper.

‘Left takes us to the mess hall,’ she said, matching his tone. ‘Right takes us around to the crew’s quarters. If we go left, there’s a maintenance hatch that leads down to the other levels… Right promises an elevator.’

He looked down both hallways, the light fleeing from the channels, as if it too had heard what was loose aboard the ship.

‘Not much cover in the mess hall,’ he muttered. ‘But a cramped elevator… Stuck in one place. And we wouldn’t get everyone in one trip.’

‘The maintenance tunnels are small, too,’ Adams explained. ‘If it attacked while we were in there, there’s zero cover, and basically no room to move. It’d be over in seconds.’

Sarge nervously fidgeted with his helmet.

‘The frying pan,’ he glanced left, ‘or the fire?’ he glanced right.

Lieutenant Cardon sidled towards the front of the pack. He was a small man, especially compared to the Sarge. He was a little scrawny, more bookish than brute. Sarge hadn’t expected him to survive this long, and he certainly hadn’t expected the Lieutenant would be among his two surviving soldiers at the end of it all. He now had a soiled patch over one eye, and bloody gouges carved his cheeks and neck.

‘We could do both,’ he suggested quietly. ‘Split into two groups, one goes left, the other goes right. That way at least somebody might make it.’

‘That thing moves fast,’ said Sarge thoughtfully. ‘Faster than anything I’ve ever seen. If it gets to one group, there’s no guarantee it won’t get to the other.’

‘We have to make a choice,’ Adams urged. ‘It’ll find us!’

‘Sarge?’ said the Lieutenant.

The sergeant peered down his limited options, hesitating. Sweat started to bead around his eyes.

‘Sarge?!’ Adams hissed.

Which way to go? Which path to survival?

‘You have to choose!’ the Lieutenant pressed, checking over his shoulder.

‘We…’ Sarge began, then paused. His head was swimming with choices, yet it felt as though some agency had been stolen from him… As if there was some other authority taking away the choices, switching off the signs that might’ve guided him down the correct path, and leaving him with pathetically few options.

He couldn’t put his finger on it, couldn’t quite figure out why the world suddenly felt very different, like something far off had changed, why he felt like a puppet pulled on invisible strings.

Something was meant to happen here – something important, he could feel it.

‘We…’

Someone pushed out of the huddled group and started towards the right path.

‘Cardon!’ Adams shouted, then lowered her voice. ‘What are you doing?!’

‘Someone has to make a choice!’ he shouted back, banging on the pipes.

‘No, get back here! You won’t survive!’

‘Don’t need to, miss,’ he said, grinning. ‘Got nothing to go home to. You guys make a run for it, hopefully I’ll keep it busy for a while.’

He turned and sprayed into corridor.

‘Come get it!’ he screamed. ‘Come and find me, you little bitch! I won’t make an easy meal!’

Adams looked desperately at the sergeant. He was lost in thought.

‘Cardon, don’t!’ she shouted. ‘We can figure out-’

‘Leave it, miss,’ he shouted back. ‘Find the way home. Just forget about me. No sense in us all dying.’

‘Sarge!’

The sergeant looked troubled. His mouth had the words ready, but they were lodged in his throat. Cardon giving his life to open a sliver of a chance of survival hadn’t seemed possible before. He wasn’t what you’d call the heroic type.

But as he silently watched the Lieutenant disappear down the hallway, spraying hoses of bullets at the walls and generally making an absolute nuisance of himself, he wanted to say how proud he was. He wanted to tell Cardon that he had truly made himself a hero, and that if they ever made it out of here on the back of his sacrifice, he would be dutifully remembered, and revered as the selfless man he had become.

But he couldn’t say this. His mouth shut off its own volition, like someone was purposefully and cruelly sewing his lips together.

He stood rigid and unmoving as Cardon vanished down another corridor, the lonely, horrible sounds of bullets and hammering chasing him, until even those finally disappeared.

‘You could have said something!’ Adams hissed.

Sarge rubbed his head. He felt a migraine coming on.

‘We have to go left,’ he mumbled, then grimaced.

Did he mean to say that? The words had tumbled out of his mouth without the brain really explaining its intentions. It felt like there was someone inside his head with a direct route to his vocal chords that completely bypassed his brain, and they were sitting cosily in there typing his next sentence.

And the migraines… had he been prone to them before? He felt he had been. That he must’ve been. In the past. Yes… maybe.

‘Let’s go,’ he said confidently. ‘Or Cardon’s sacrifice is for nothing.’

They moved quickly and quietly along the corridor, dragging the group behind them. There were only a handful left, all civilian. If they were attacked now, the best thing they could do is make a run for it. But as had been proven several times before, it would doggedly follow them and pick them off one by one no matter how fast they could move.

Adams carefully turned on the lights in the mess hall, then moved to upturn a nearby table for cover.

‘Don’t,’ said Sarge. Again, the word left a bitter taste on his tongue.

‘What?’

‘Don’t. Just keep moving forward.’

‘But… If we get attacked…’

The sweat clouded his eyes and the migraine’s dull stab was sinking deeper.

‘No,’ he said uncertainly. ‘Keep moving.’

He was just a passenger in his own body now. Something else was parroting the words and piloting the limbs.

It was difficult to describe, this sudden feeling of helplessness. It was the tug of the current in otherwise calm waters that pulled you in the opposite direction.

And whatever it was, it was building to something. There were things moving around him, pieces on the board gradually slotting into place. But what was the play? And who was playing it?

All he could do was mentally brace for the peak of it. He was sure he’d know when the pivotal moment had come.

‘Forward,’ he wheezed.

The world was conspiring, rubbing its grubby little hands, steepling its fingers, flashing a wide, toothy, zealous grin. What made it worse was that he could see it. He could see it in the grimy pipes, reflected in the tiny pools of dirty water bathing the equally dirty floor, physical in the shadowed veils cloaking the corners of the room, drifting in the dim light like dust particles, catching your eye and working its way into the retina, and there it lingered menacingly, cackling away in the mind’s cavernous depths.

‘No…’ he began, fighting off the urge to move.

‘Sarge?’

‘It’s not right…’

His migraine bloomed.

‘What isn’t?’

‘This.’ He rubbed his temples. His vision went hazy.

‘What’s wrong?’ said a woman’s distorted voice.

It had to be Adams… but who was she? She didn’t seem real any more. Just a figment of his imagination, an old memory resurfaced to plague him with doubt.

‘You’re not… right,’ he mumbled, then groaned as the migraine hammered directly and suddenly into his skull.

‘Sarge, keep it together!’

‘Stop…’

Then he moved. He didn’t want to – he knew instantly this was a mistake, and that it was the pivotal moment, that point of no return.

His legs lifted off their own accord, as if tethered on puppet’s strings, and firmly met the ground. He was moving forward.

‘No…’ he stuttered.

‘Sarge!’

His mind should’ve been screaming, it should have been roaring and tearing itself apart trying to stop this nameless momentum suddenly carrying his body forward, but it was quiet and calm, as if it knew this was fated to happen.

His other leg planted firmly. Then the first. Then the second. Then his whole body lurched forward, dragging him to the door on his left.

Adams was shouting. One of the civilians moved to stop him but found him unmovable as a mountain. It would be like trying to stop the river by splashing about in its path.

Then his hand – or whoever it now belonged to – reached up shaking and pressed the button to open the door.

Arms wrapped around his waist – Adams’, he guessed based on the hands – and heaved him back. Or at least, tried to. His feet were suctioned to the floor, and it would take something considerably stronger than an ordinary person to unstick them.

The door opened. Blackness spiralled before him.

‘In,’ he muttered.

‘No!’ Adams screeched. Her voice sounded hoarse – she’d been screaming non-stop for the past few minutes, he just hadn’t heard her. ‘Stop! The maintenance tunnels are the other way!’

‘In,’ he repeated in a voice that sounded similar to his own, minus the personality and the character. This was a hollow voice, emotionally void.

‘NO!’

There was a noise behind them. Sarge felt the air change. He’d been wrong… This right here, right now, this was the pivotal moment.

The loomed conspiracy unfolded, and the scattered pieces slid to their correct positions.

Behind them, an unnatural shadow seeped out of the corner like oil escaping from a broken pipe.

Too much noise. They had inadvertently broadcast their position and now the thing, having finished off Cardon, was upon them.

‘Get in,’ Sarge moaned.

Somehow he knew that only he and Adams would make it. The others were… What was the word? It was on the edge of his periphery, taunting him. When he made to snatch it and understand the concept, it teetered just out of grasp, but lingered mockingly on the edge.

‘Get in!’ Adams shouted, turning on her heels and firing blindly at the moving shadow.

The screams circled his ears and swirled down into his skull. The shadow was on the others.

The sounds of tearing flesh and the whizz of stray bullets filled the room.

Now the word came to him: immaterial.

He tumbled through the door. It wasn’t him moving forward – it was that same formless momentum carrying him to this point that was forcing him onwards, forcing him to forget, forcing him to abandon the others. This was their moment, his had yet to come.

Adams gave a roar of defeat, then followed him into the spiralling blackness, not for a single second stopping the hail of bullets streaming into that ghastly shadow.

Then the door slammed close. This was usually a painfully slow ordeal, but this time it closed firmly and solidly, like they too were terribly eager to lock out the prowling thing.

Through the tiny slit between the door and the frame leaked the last strangled sounds of the group Sarge had meant to protect. Adams cupped her ears and scrunched her eyes.

It lasted for a minute or so, endless screams and bloody gargling, banging on the door and begging for help, someone cursed the two soldiers and swore them down, flesh and bone cracked and split… And then there was silence and darkness, unmovable and untouchable.

Sarge nearly broke down in tears. He had failed. Failed to protect. Cardon’s sacrifice had been for nothing, the thing had found them. But he wouldn’t break down, it wasn’t meant to happen. Even if he tried to shed a tear, the world had other ideas.

‘This is our fault,’ said Adams’ voice. ‘We let them die. If we’d just tried to… I mean, if we’d set up cover and prepared…’

‘It’s not our fault,’ said Sarge confidently. His voice buzzed strangely and hit his ears all wrong. Was that really his voice? He was sure he hadn’t sounded like that before.

‘How isn’t it our fault?!’ Adams hissed. ‘If you hadn’t just stood there with that empty look in your eyes, thoughts a million miles away, we could’ve saved them! We trained for this!’

‘No, we didn’t.’

‘What?’

‘We… didn’t. Train, I mean.’ He looked up into the omnipresent darkness. ‘Time to move.’

‘Hold on!’ Adams urged. ‘What about that thing?!’

‘It won’t come in here,’ he said. He didn’t know how he knew this, but he was confident it was true. ‘We have to keep moving.’

‘And those people?’

‘Meaningless,’ he said automatically.

‘You can’t say that!’ she exclaimed.

‘No… But something can.’

He edged into the darkness. There was a clicking noise and his eyes suddenly burned. He brought his hands over them and defended against the sudden shriek of light.

They were in the kitchen. Dirty utensils crowded the many busy shelves. Nests of grime-ridden pipes curled in the junctions of the walls. Streaks of blood were smeared across the surfaces and seemed to gravitate towards the ventilation shafts running along the ceiling.

There was a sudden clatter, like someone rummaging through basins of cutlery, and Adams jumped to attention, adopting a threatening stance.

Didn’t she know what he knew, thought Sarge? If he were honest with himself, he didn’t really know what he knew other than he knew it, and he knew it comfortably. Whatever the source of the noise was, it wasn’t a threat. It couldn’t be.

‘Hello?’ he said.

A head appeared from behind the cooker and bobbed giddily. Bread crusts hung from its mouth.

‘Yes, yes? Can I help you?’ it tittered.

‘Uh…’ Adams began. ‘Who the hell are you?’

‘Big question. I’m not sure you have the required intelligence to understand. Unless you’re someone who breaks the mould?’

‘Uh… What?’

‘Didn’t think so,’ he sighed. ‘Right, I’ll come around.’

Adams kept her gun trained on the man as he jaunted around to them.

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked suspiciously.

‘Making a sandwich,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise my part would be coming up so soon. You got here quicker than I thought you would.’

‘A sandwich?!’ hissed Adams. ‘A sandwich?! This ship is under attack!’

‘The threat is no more real than this sandwich is tasty,’ he muttered. ‘Would you kindly not point that thing at me? It won’t help in a conversation.’

He was a short man, messy brown hair pushed to one side, dressed in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, wide-lens glasses poked up the bridge of his nose which he fidgeted with while mumbling under his breath. He was maybe mid-twenties or so. All things considered, not the type of person you’d expect to meet in the middle of a crisis on a spaceship.

He munched unhappily on the last few pieces of bread.

‘That’s gone stale, that has,’ he said glumly. ‘Surprising really, it’s only existed for about twenty minutes.’

Adams moved forward, pushing the gun to his forehead.

‘You start explaining what’s going on here,’ she threatened, ‘or I’ll open your skull.’

The man grinned.

‘I really wish I could explain,’ he said calmly. ‘But I’m a bit out of sorts, you see. The last thing I remember is being in this big, beautiful mansion in the middle of an empty field, my only friends were cobwebs and dust and spiders. And a rather unfortunate young man who came in and disturbed the lot, but that wasn’t really his fault. He was just playing his part. So, wherever we are now, it’s nothing to do with me. I assume I’ll get my marching orders soon enough. Until then…’

He thrust the crusts into her face.

‘Would you like some jam sandwiches?’

She batted the bread violently away.

‘This isn’t a joke!’ she shouted, then lowered her voice. ‘People have died. Good people. We’re the only two people left on the ship… At least, I thought we were until we came across you. I know who was left on the ship, and you aren’t one of them. Who are you? What’s your name? And what are you doing here?’

The young man looked offended and pointed solemnly at his discarded crusts.

‘That’s a waste of perfectly good food,’ he said. ‘They’re not stale anymore, they’d have been fine!’

Adams couldn’t help but follow his finger.

The bread was fresher than virgin dew on the first day of spring.

She shook her head. ‘No, no, I’m not getting involved in that. Explain what’s going on here.’

The man sighed. ‘I’m here because there has to be something comparable to a plot, preferably one that has something to do with evil and monsters and the cruel things that lurk in the corner of your eye, and I’m here in the kitchen because the plot hasn’t kicked in yet so I’m not really needed, and I had a craving for jam, then I saw the bread and I thought, ‘Why not? Why not treat yourself to a nice little jam sandwich?’, and now here we are on the summit of plot kick-startiness, I’m one jam sandwich down and there’s a bloody soldier pointing a gun at my head, and if any of that doesn’t make sense to you I’d complain to your writer; it’s his fault you’ve got the brains of an underdeveloped sausage.’

He gestured broadly at Adams, the kitchen, and his crestfallen sandwich.

‘And the sandwich is fresh when it wasn’t before because continuity isn’t quite as continuous as you’d like to think. And my name is Parricid.’

He puffed out his chest, oddly proud of the name.

‘Why wouldn’t I be? It’s a ruddy good name!’

‘What?’ said Adams.

‘Nothing. Just forget about it.’

She looked desperately at Sarge, who had been very quiet up until now.

‘You’ve been very quiet up until now,’ said Parricid. ‘Or has he been talking this whole time and I’ve just not heard him because of that stupid helmet?’

Sarge reluctantly removed his helmet. It was all he could think to do. Parricid glanced sideways at him.

‘Have I met you before?’ he asked. ‘You look familiar. What’s your name?’

‘Sarge.’

‘Not your title, your name. Unless he’s getting really, really lazy with his naming conventions. Your name, man.’

‘Corvin,’ he replied.

The reaction was instant. Parricid backed away from the man, mouthing noiselessly under his breath.

‘Corvin, eh?’ he snorted. ‘Well… Maybe he really is getting lazy. Stupid name, Corvin, it means raven. Did you know a group of ravens is… it’s called an unkindness. An unkindness of ravens…’

He recovered. ‘Right, let’s get to it then. What’s been happening? What’s the story so far?’

Adams’ mouth opened against her will.

‘There’s an alien creature aboard this ship,’ she blurted out. ‘It’s been hunting the crew, and now we’re the sole survivors. We’ve no idea what it really is, but it’s fast and brutal, and it seems to react to human sound, it can tell the difference between the ordinary sounds of a spaceship and the ordinary sounds of humans. It’s a keen predator, no-one’s left but us.’

Parricid considered this.

‘Another monster… in my story?’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t share top billing!’

‘We’re trying to find a way to the escape pods, they’re on the lowest level,’ she continued. She was unable to stop. ‘But the creature is still hunting us, picking us off, tearing us up. It’s able to find us wherever we go.’

‘Except here,’ said Sarge, who had rediscovered his voice.

‘Won’t bother us here,’ Parricid grinned. ‘Can’t have anything interrupting important exposition dumps. How would the audience keep up?’

Adams wasn’t sure what to say.

‘And what is it, exactly?’ said Parricid.

‘It looks like… like shadows. Like the corner of your bedroom in the middle of the night. Like the darkness that hangs over-’

‘Spare me the poetry,’ he huffed. ‘It’s terrible. It always is.’

It struck Corvin that he wasn’t talking to him or Adams, but rather to some unknown entity apparently present at the conversation.

‘Call me confused,’ said Parricid thoughtfully, ‘but I’d rather thought I’d be the one chasing innocent victims around, playing the heartless monster, the evil force swimming about the place, toying with the lumpy bags of brain and brawn. Now I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here…’

‘We should go,’ said Corvin suddenly.

Parricid’s eyes narrowed.

‘Should we?’ he said. ‘Should we really? Plot’s moving forward, I suppose we should too. How about through that door there?’

He pointed at a door that should have been a wall. It was a wall, Sarge remembered clearly, just seconds ago, smeared in blood and holding shelves filled with utensils. Now it was clean, entirely sans shelves, and most notably, a door.

‘Unless you want to go back the way you came,’ said the odd man. ‘But that’s your prerogative, and no good story involved people going backwards.’

‘Story?’ groaned Adams, who was at a complete loss.

‘Just come with,’ said Parricid impatiently. ‘The kitchen is boring me, and it’s so poorly described I can barely see anything. It’s like looking at PlayStation One graphics!’

He made for the door.

‘Hold on!’ shouted Adams. ‘What about the alien?! It could be waiting for us right outside that door!’

‘Engage with logic for a second,’ sighed Parricid. ‘This alien – which by the way, doesn’t sound scary in the slightest, I mean, who’s scared of bloody gangly, pink-headed freaks from the stars? – it moves about the ship unhindered, yes? You’ve no idea how it gets about so quickly?’

‘Yes…’ Adams admitted.

‘And this is a sci-fi story, a futuristic setting. Consider the tropes: an alien menace aboard a spaceship picking off the crew one by one, ignoring the various coloured alerts blaring around the place – there’s only one place you’d find it.’

He gestured to the pipes.

‘The ventilation shafts!’ Adams gasped.

‘Obviously it takes someone with even mild intelligence to figure that one out. Brilliant intelligence doesn’t exist without someone brilliantly stupid around to hear it.’

Corvin followed him to the door. The man glanced over his shoulder at the sergeant, eyeing him up, seemingly considering a detail overlooked, then ranted to himself under his breath.

He looked at Corvin as though he were an old friend, grown up and unrecognisable to those who knew him only as a child. It made Corvin uncomfortable.

‘Of course it would,’ Parricid muttered. ‘Just copying and pasting your own work, it’s the height of laziness. I take it you have a dreadful backstory, too?’

‘Hm?’ said Corvin. ‘Oh. My past. Yes, it-’

‘I’m sure it’s terrifically depressing but I’ll pass. Let’s move, shall we? I’d like to find out why I’m here, and you’re both giving me a metaphorical headache.’

‘Metaphorical?’ said Adams.

‘Well, it’s not like you can give me a literal one,’ he replied sourly. ‘A literary one, yes. Not a literal one.’

He pressed the button and opened the door.

‘Corvin,’ he said, and grimaced as the name left his tongue. ‘Would you kindly go first?’

The Sergeant inched through the portal, gun raised, checking the corners and ceiling.

‘Clear.’

‘On you go then,’ said Parricid, grinning. ‘There will be a way down to those maintenance tunnels, you’ll see it. It’ll be lit up like bloody Hogswatch.’ He shook his head violently. ‘I mean Christmas. Now you’re stealing from other writers? At least that might mean you’ll offer better material.’

‘Who are you talking to?’ said Adams.

‘Oh, be quiet, cardboard cut-out.’

‘What?’

‘Two-dimensional,’ he said slowly, to let the insult’s poison properly sink in.

‘I’ve lost all hope,’ she wailed, ‘of ever understanding the smallest glimmer of the smallest fraction of what could possibly be happening.’

‘That’s life for you,’ he winked.

Then the cloaked corridors opened like a maze before them, and they the lab rats hunting for the exit. Corvin was at the front, methodically checking the random connecting hallways that spun off the main path in that obsessive soldier way. Adams kept Parricid moving between them, holding the gun to his back. She sensed this was about as useful as lighting a fire with wet paper towels.

‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ the odd man said as they threaded through the delicate light. ‘I mean, you don’t need two monsters in the same story, it’s redundancy in motion! Unless the plan is for us to team up and take on the mighty morphin’ space marines and their amazing leader Captain Common Corvin, but villain team-ups never go well. You end up with a bloated, cramped non-sensical plot that sort of wavers between good concept and poor execution.’ He paused. ‘Mind you, that’d be right up his street. Good ideas don’t hide poor writing.’

‘Would you stop talking?’ Adams whispered carefully. ‘You’ll attract that thing’s attention.’

‘Worry not, Stock Soldier number two. That thing’ll keep its distance until the plot demands it. It won’t hear us until somebody says it should, and that’s not due to happen for a while.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Because stories are like music,’ he explained softly. ‘There’s a beat to it, a rhythm, and once you find and settle into it, you can feel where it’s going to go. That’s why stuff like Prog music is so underground and different and interesting, it takes those established beats and warps them. This,’ here he gestured levelly at the ship, ‘is not a Prog song. It’s not a jazz song. This is the literary equivalent of pop music; it’s nothing we haven’t heard or seen before, the voice is slightly different but the progressions are all the same, it’ll never venture out of its comfort zone or be brave and try something entirely new and fresh, and it’ll end on the same bittersweet cadences as all the rest. Even you and him, you’re just notes on a stave, only here because there couldn’t be a song without you.’

‘I think,’ Adams began, ‘a song is there to be enjoyed. It might follow the same rhythm, or tread on familiar territory, but it can still be artistic and bring joy to its listeners.’

Parricid looked horrified.

‘Come up with that all by yourself, did you?’ he said angrily. ‘How impressive. It’s like your IQ just grew to the same size as his ego.’

‘You mean Corvin’s?’

‘You know fine well I don’t,’ he huffed. ‘Call me a bike, because I’m getting too tired for this.’

Ahead of them, Corvin stopped in the middle of an intersection, and gestured at the floor. Sure enough, as Parricid had claimed, there was a small hatch embedded there, big blue flashing lights around its rim, and a giant, deep blue arrow on the wall beside it pointing downwards.

‘Subtle,’ mumbled Parricid.

‘I don’t remember seeing this before,’ Adams claimed.

‘You haven’t. You have to triage brain power appropriately so you’re not overwhelmed imagining an entire spaceship at once. Partitioned reality, you could call it. Things existing as they’re required.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Adams admitted.

‘Nor would I expect you to,’ said Parricid simply. ‘Down we go. We have a plot to unravel.’

Corvin’s foot suddenly found the bottom of the ladder.

‘But I didn’t…’ he stuttered. ‘I haven’t…’

‘Unnecessary details will be deleted,’ explained Parricid, beside him. ‘Down here is where the story is, the ladder is just the means to an end, you won’t remember it because you don’t need to.’

‘But I didn’t climb down it,’ said Adams, looking up at the hatch that had somehow relocated above her.

‘Think what you will. It won’t change anything. It’s like real life that way; you can believe harder than anyone has believed before, you can pour your heart into that belief, that belief could be stronger than titanium and harder than diamonds, the world is a nasty, stubborn bugger, it won’t change to accommodate that belief. In time, your belief, that strong, unmovable thing, it’ll change because the world asks you to change it. You can go on believing you didn’t climb down the ladder, or you can accept it doesn’t make a difference if you did.’

‘That’s nice,’ said Adams, rolling her eyes. ‘You should give speeches at church about the power of belief.’

‘Oh, you’re misunderstanding, terribly misunderstanding,’ Parricid shook his head. ‘I don’t believe in belief anymore than it believes in me. I’m just repeating the words transmitting into my brain. I’ve no control over it, and neither do you.’

‘One day I’ll understand what happened here,’ she murmured miserably.

‘You don’t watch a lot of sci-fi movies, do you?’

‘No…’

‘Then you might be in for a bit of a surprise,’ he said cryptically, then gestured to the new hallway.

It was certainly new, Corvin noted. It couldn’t be any newer unless it was still under construction. It was spotless down here, whereas the upstairs had been painted fresh shades of soldier, here and there spotted with civilian. It even smelled fresh.

‘How droll,’ said Parricid as he gently pushed Corvin forward.

‘What is?’ said Corvin.

‘Fresh shades of soldier,’ he laughed. ‘I think he’s used that one before. I must say, this whole space gig thing is a little surprising. I thought he’d gotten space out of his system with the whole Vanguard bla-bla-bla, but here he is, exploring the same terrain he’s been over a thousand times.’

‘You’re wrong,’ said Corvin.

Parricid drew to a halt.

‘Excuse me?’

‘You’re… wrong,’ he repeated uncertainly, the words finding him before he could find them. ‘I’m… I don’t know where that came from. But it’s true. You’re wrong.’

‘It’s hardly unexplored territory,’ Parricid huffed. ‘Call him a pioneer and he’ll definitely get lazy.’

‘The narrative of the self,’ Corvin mumbled.

‘Say that again?’

‘The narrative of the self. The self-driving plot. We make our own stories.’

‘Do we now?’ Parricid grinned wolfishly.

‘We make our villains and we worship our heroes, we tie the plot twist and then let it unravel.’

‘Masters of our own destiny and all that.’

‘Look at the world,’ Corvin said. These weren’t his words, they were just using his mouth. ‘People are so afraid of taking control, seizing what’s theirs. They’ll abandon their control and give it up to someone else, someone who can be the author, write their lines and develop their character, playing to the charade that their life has some sense of direction that they themselves chose. They become puppets in someone else’s story.’

‘So, some look up to heroes.’

‘And others find their villains. The self-driving narrative.’

Parricid considered this.

‘You’re saying people are just… just secondary characters in their own life.’

‘I don’t know what I’m saying,’ Corvin confessed. ‘And I don’t know how I know it, but I know it’s right.’

‘Succinct,’ Parricid mused.

Sound thundered above them, like something was moving through the pipes at alarming speed.

Corvin whipped around on his heels and flung his gun high into the air, preparing for an assault. Adams copied him.

‘No need to be alarmed,’ said Parricid calmly. ‘It’s just a friendly reminder to keep us on our toes. We haven’t forgotten! Alien, spaceship, death looming over our fragile bodies, etcetera etcetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.’

‘Who do you keep talking to?’ said Adams.

Parricid opened his mouth to reply.

‘Best not to answer that,’ said Corvin. ‘Some things are not meant to be known.’

Parricid glanced sideways at him.

‘Very wise,’ he muttered. ‘If a little on the boring side.’

Another ladder brought them out of the tunnel and deeper into the dark, sunken bowls of the ship.

The area was a huge circular platform, beneath which swarmed endless darkness, sporadically broken by specks of distant flashing lights. Rising out of the middle of the platform and burying into the obscured, messy ceiling was a large metal contraption, thick as four trees and just as tall. Pulses of horrible orange light throbbed up and down the circuited shaft. Wires hung down like Christmas lights and burrowed into the central tower.

Ventilation tracks pocked the walls surrounding it, each disappearing into darkness.

‘We’re in the core,’ said Adams. ‘But I thought – isn’t it supposed to be much lower down? This should be the dock for the escape pods. I’ve been there hundreds of times, this shouldn’t be here.’

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Parricid. ‘I feel like you’re really not getting this. Continuity isn’t as continuous as you’d like to think. Things happen because the story demands it, things move because you need to streamline the narrative. Get with the program. Now, how about over there?’

He pointed to a narrow bridge that crossed over the bottomless divide.

‘Hold on,’ Adams whispered. ‘There’s a computer over here. Maybe we’ll get something from that.’

She turned on the screen and instantly a familiar face appeared.

‘That’s the doctor,’ she said suspiciously. ‘But what’s he doing…’

The doctor’s static-covered image turned to face her.

‘What I say now,’ it said, ‘I say with hope, but under the thumb of fear.’

The old man shivered.

‘This ship will never reach its destination and it’s all my fault.’ His voice trembled. ‘I was awarded free reign here, to do as I pleased, to take as I wanted… It wasn’t an easy task I set myself, but scientific progress is seldom simple. Roaming this ship is the experiment that in my madness I sought to create. By all accounts, it has been successful.’

‘Experiment?’ said Adams slowly.

‘Dark matter,’ said the doctor soberly. ‘For aeons we have sought to understand it, control it even. How it is such an unknown variable so preciously imbedded across the stars, that is what I tried to understand, to give humanity a grasp on the cosmic… and I succeeded. Where others failed, I succeeded. Its atomic behaviour is not so dissimilar as to ignore the usual rules governing matter, and that’s where I created the bridge… between man and the cosmic. Most of the test subjects succumbed to the pressure of surgery, but one man, my shining knight, he survived and became-’

There was a flash of electricity and an outstretched leg. The screen flew whimpering off the side, electrically whining, then tumbled down into the sickening darkness below. From the distant echoing sounds, it bounced critically off the walls and descended into a bottomless nothing.

‘What did you that for?!’ Adams screamed. ‘We were finally getting somewhere!’

‘Oh, no one cares,’ Parricid grumbled. ‘Man’s grasp exceeding his reach, yada yada yada. Yawn. Experiments gone bad. Evil creatures summoned at man’s scientific behest. Behold the cosmic power wielded by human minds!’ He faked a yawn. ‘Blah, blah, blah. Nothing new, nothing different. Pulling up old buried tropes and giving it a shiny new coat, thinking no one will notice. If you really wanted the power cosmic, just grab an old gold glove you’ve got lying around and fill it with stones. You’d be nigh on unstoppable that way. This is just messy.’

Adams hand moved for her gun. Then it was by her side again, seemingly without passing through any intermediate stage. It just wasn’t where she had meant to put it.

‘You’ll find I’m less destructible than normal people,’ Parricid claimed, grinning his wolfish grin. ‘Unless I allow it to happen, you’ve no chance.’

‘You’re evil,’ said Adams.

‘A bit late to the party, aren’t you?’

She edged towards the bridge. ‘We have to stop that thing… We can vent the core and it’ll suck out everything that isn’t human and send it howling into space. And you’re standing in the way.’

‘On the contrary,’ he replied, gesturing to the metal shaft. ‘Go right ahead, dear. I’m not in the way of anything, I assure you. Frankly, I couldn’t care less. In fact, I should perhaps apologise, I haven’t been very forthcoming about my intentions, and this has felt sort of like I’ve been playing with my food. Yes, there’s an evil creature roaming about this ship. But…’

That delicious evil grin split his face in two. Shadows played across his sharp features, like light gleaming across the knife’s edge.

‘It’s nothing compared to me.’

Adams made a dash for the bridge, checking drastically over her shoulder for a would-be pursuer hot on her heels, then relaxed slightly when she saw Parricid was not to be that pursuer.

‘So you’ll let us… you’ll let us got on with this then?’ she tried.

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Until I know what I’m supposed to do with the two of you, you’re free to do whatever and go wherever.’

‘Why do I get the feeling you’re going to kill us?’

He shrugged.

‘Because you’re very intuitive? Because your grandmother was a psychic and passed down her fancy genetics to you?’ He waved her worries away. ‘Try not to think about it. Just go on, play your role, finish the story as you see fit. I’ll involve myself when the time is right and the stars give the go ahead. On you go.’

Adams treaded uncertainly, looking to Corvin for some support. He was standing rooted near Parricid, sending his gaze far from hers.

‘Sarge?’ she called.

No answer.

‘Sarge!’

He turned slowly.

‘Come on!’ she shouted. ‘We have to find a way to stop that thing!’

He nodded slowly, then as she carefully made her way across the narrow bridge, he turned to Parricid, throwing his chest out and his head high, towering over the small, glassy-eyed man.

‘This ends one way,’ he growled.

‘That it does, that it does,’ Parricid agreed.

‘And it’s not the way you think.’

‘No?’

‘No.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ he said and winked impishly. ‘Just because you like a character doesn’t mean they’re safe – hell, it might send ‘em to the grave quicker!’

Corvin’s head inched closer, so that his face was now fully in Parricid’s. He could feel the man’s hot breath on his skin.

And when he spoke next, he spoke carefully and dramatically, his words slipping out of his mouth like a snake’s tongue.

‘You are absolutely correct,’ he thundered. ‘And you have no idea how right you are.’

Then he was with Adams crossing the bridge, charging headlong at the core. He was like a man demented, so obsessed with one herculean task that the rest of the world faded into an obscure annoyance. He walked with the sort of determined gait one would expect to see in a front-line soldier facing an insurmountable army.

Parricid dawdled at the bridge’s opening, waiting and watching carefully. Now they’d see. Now they’d know. Destiny is written word, fate is the writer typing each letter with reckless abandon, and conclusion is what brings them together in resounding finality.

Right on cue, there was a grating sound like an iron sword dragged across a steel shield, and a black mass of writhing shadows unfurled out of one of the nearby ventilation tunnels, spilling outward like a cloud of smoke.

Corvin saw it first and immediately opened fire, throwing Adams forward and barking orders. He demanded she vent the core. She disagreed.

Rippling shadows curled up to the metal ceiling like feelers checking for danger, then lurched upwards and forwards as one great body.

Bullets zipped in and out of the thrashing cloud. Corvin was still arguing with Adams, who had joined him in attacking the creature.

‘There’s no point in us both dying,’ he shouted. ‘Vent the core!’

‘No! We’ve come too far together! I’m not letting you die. Either we both vent it, or we both die standing.’

With his free hand he shoved her away. A mistake, he knew at once. He’d taken his eyes off the thing, and he could feel it slithering above him.

He ducked and somehow dodged a wispy arm that had swung to grab him. He rolled, not dwelling on where this sudden instinct had come from, and managed to dodge another.

‘Get to the core!’ he roared.

This time the message sunk in. Adams, a little teary-eyed, realised Corvin had no intentions of surviving the battle. This was the heroic death most soldiers would only ever dream of.

She ducked under a swinging vine of smoky feelers and darted at the control panel.

Corvin, still on the bridge, was part-wrestling with the creature and blindly firing where he found an opening. The creature had almost entirely enveloped him, so that from afar he was an occasional flash of skin and rage in a slowly-closing membrane of darkness.

The creature wrapped around his wrist and squeezed hard enough to break the bones. He cried out, there was a blood-curdling snap, and his pistol was flung out of his now shattered hand.

More feelers curled around his neck. There was another horrible snap – his other hand had been broken. He guessed this based on the sudden release of the pressure he had felt there moments ago; he’d become numb to the pain.

He was drowning. He was losing. The last of his strength was being suctioned out by the impossible creature – this must be what mice felt like in the death-grip of a constrictor, suffocating with plenty of air, helpless against the ravenous beast coiled around them.

He just had to hope Adams would vent the core…

Parricid watched, a little confused. Here he was, the defining villain of the story, and there was another in his place, effortlessly causing havoc, pain and chaos, strangling the last few drops of life from the powerless Corvin. Adams was at the control panel, furiously pressing buttons and typing in what was undoubtedly the self-vent program.

What was his purpose here? To stand and watch helplessly as he was robbed of his dignity?

‘I won’t be doing that,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m the villain here. I do the bad things.’

He tossed that word around in his mind – villain.

‘No, he didn’t. I don’t toss things around in my mind.’

He stretched his fingers like a musician getting ready to play.

‘I’ll admit that’s an excellent simile,’ he beamed. ‘Because I’m about to play with your song here. Let’s make this a bit more exciting, shall we? So far it’s been easy. We need another obstacle.’

He clicked his fingers. The snap travelled to the far walls, looped around the central shaft, and echoed madly in the dome.

Adams stared shocked at the control panel. Seconds ago it had been very simple, the panel had been a compact, user-friendly device bending to her will; and now, suddenly, it was a mess of wires and flashing lights and extra keypads locked tight under pin-passwords and voice-recognition. Burly wires seemed to lead nowhere in particular as they dipped and curled along the brimming panel. The lights seemed to indicate nothing important as they flashed and faded and flashed and faded.

Panic bit her.

Behind her, Corvin was locked in the creature’s cold death-grip, life fluttering away like leaves in the wind. His skull was softening under the vice-like pressure of the creature’s shadowy limbs; he could feel it starting to crack in places he never knew existed.

Then suddenly, gravity.

It pulled on his legs. The world was suddenly rising and rising above him, weightlessness ballooned in his chest, the pressure of the creature’s grip had loosened and his broken limbs flopped wildly in the empty air as he tumbled and tumbled, the sickening spin of darkness shooting out above him.

Then he stopped, caught mid-fall. Smoky black tentacles lanced out violently and impaled themselves through his wrists, holding him aloft. If he could have felt pain, he would’ve screamed, passed out, but as it was he felt nothing but two dull throbs.

He ventured a quick look down. The bridge was gone. Ravenous darkness and hungry gravity awaited below him.

He ventured a quick look up. The creature was suffering the effects of gravity, too. It was stretched like soft taffy, noosed around Corvin and latched to the ceiling.

Now the writhing mass looped around his neck and started to crush. It was a desperate sort of action, Corvin felt. It knew gravity would win in the end and make fools of them both, it was just trying to steal one last victory in its final moments.

Corvin, now hanged like some old pirate, took stock of his limited options, and if he could have laughed, he would have cackled manically until the last breath was choked away.

There was the seductive darkness beneath or the vicious creature above.

He tried to grin. Blood seeped out of his cracked lips.

The frying pan… or the fire?

Adams volleyed the now enormous control panel over the side of the platform and battered the layer underneath. She was frantically pushing buttons and typing in every code she had ever been told, rewiring to bypass the layer upon layer of noose-tight security that had magically appeared to stop her progress.

Sweat poured down her forehead. She thought she could taste blood in the back of her mouth – she told herself she was imagining things and focused. It was difficult to do with that horrible gasping, strangled sound filling the air behind her. It howled in her ears, it stole away the senses, it drilled and drilled into the brain until it was all she could think about, that constant rhythmic gasping, like the gradually slowing thud of a failing heartbeat.

Parricid grinned. More obstacles, more to do, more story. And this was his doing. The shadow creature could enjoy the fruits of its labours, but it would never enjoy being the top-rate, Machiavellian villain that he was.

Corvin was dying, Adams was failing. Yet again, he would win. Last man standing. Head honcho of the narrative script.

It was approaching that pivotal moment he relished as the wolf relishes the wounded pig. Corvin’s shattered limbs dangled out of the mouth of the black snake and thrashed wildly and helplessly. He’d been getting slower and slower, softer and softer. His death gasps were farther apart now and were voiced laboriously.

The crux of the moment was fast approaching. Parricid gripped the barrier in anticipation.

Corvin’s hanging body jerked horribly. Adams screamed. The creature started to slip off the ceiling, losing its grip, ready to plummet into nothingness, having claimed its predatory victory.

Parricid loomed closer, grinning like a shark.

And then the world stopped. It froze. Corvin’s body was suspended in the unmoving mass of smoke. The creature’s writhing tendrils juddered to a halt. Adams’ face was a solid, unblinking mask of terror.

The whole scene winded down like a carousel come to rest. Nothing moved, flinched, breathed, not a dot of light or sound…

Except Parricid. He could move freely. He hung off the end of the platform, studying the freshly immobile creature with Corvin in its grasp. The doomed soldier was caught on the edge of his death, perhaps seconds away from fully passing on; the tiny spider scrambling at the drain’s lip as the water rushes it down.

‘Well, this isn’t fair at all,’ Parricid grumbled, examining the frozen picture. ‘You can’t just hit the pause button when you don’t like what’s about to happen! What are you, a child?’

What do you think you’re doing?

‘I was in the middle of the coupe de grace until you rudely interrupted!

Consider the scene.

‘I am!’ he argued. ‘I bloody well am!’

And?

‘And this is my moment, yes? Where I inject my will into these… cardboard soldiers and whatever the hell that thing is hanging from the ceiling like stretched chewing gum. This is where I get to do things!’

It certainly is.

‘Then why did you pause it?!’

Because this is the wrong thing. This isn’t why you’re here.

‘You’re making this up as you go along.’

Consider the scene. And I mean really look.

Parricid looked out at the paused image.

‘I’m looking,’ he said grimly. ‘And I’m looking.’

Tell me what you see.

‘So, I’m doing your job for you. You are getting lazy.’ His brow knotted. ‘I see… I see an idiot space marine getting constricted, I see another idiot space marine standing there screaming, I see a big stupid smoke monster just kind of hanging out, not doing much. Did I miss anything?’

I think I did, actually. The two space marines, what are they?

‘Pretty bland characters about as deep as an unmarked grave.’

No. Again.

Parricid groaned. ‘Fine. They’re primary character and supporting character.’

The monster?

‘Antagonist,’ he said dryly. He looked up suddenly and checked his view. He checked it again just to be sure, then he backed off from the scene, as if about to sprint away, noticing something in the immobile scene. Or, more accurately, it’s what he didn’t notice.

‘Oh… No, that can’t be right…’

Forgive me, I think I’ve forgotten something. There’s something missing here, isn’t there?

‘You can’t be serious… You’re joking, right? This is all a big joke?’

I’ve got a primary character locked in a death-grip, I’ve got a panicking supporting character, I’ve got a suitably menacing antagonist… So, what am I missing?

‘A decent plot? This isn’t right. You can’t change the script mid-story.’

I can. It’s my right. What am I missing?

Parricid exhaled slowly.

‘A hero,’ he said. ‘A goddamn bleeding-heart hero.’

You don’t look like you’re doing anything. Maybe you could-

‘No. Absolutely not!’ He stamped his foot. ‘I’m a villain, not a hero! I’m the bad guy!’

You had reservations about killing Corvin before.

‘I had reservations about doing what you told me to do. I’m not like these puppets, I don’t have to do what you say.’

And yet Corvin was dead. You did what was expected of you, and here you will do so again.

‘But a hero?’ he whined. ‘An anti-hero, maybe. That’s all the rage these days. Morally complex characters challenged by their inner demons.’

That would work if you were morally complex, but regrettably, you’re not.

‘Why not?’

Because I didn’t write you that way.

‘You also didn’t write me as a hero. Is this what passes for character development in your stories?’

This is what passes for shut up and get on with it.

He scratched his head. ‘What am I supposed to do? Tickle it?’

Every monster has a weakness.

‘So… tickle it?’

If that’s what you think its weakness is. But that doesn’t sound much like a sci-fi monster weakness, does it? Whoever heard of the Alien film where Ripley tickles the Xenomorph to death?

‘Helpful as always,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m really not sure how this is going to work. I have to say, I’m not overly happy about this.’

How about an incentive?

‘I’m listening,’ said Parricid suspiciously.

He held his breath as the world shifted around him, metal walls melting away like burning wax, the monster, Corvin, Adams, and the towering core vanished behind a slowly expanding ball of white-hot light hungrily eating away at vison.

It cascaded over him, swallowing him whole. Then it retreated out of his eyes and a new image appeared behind the blinding light.

‘What in the…’

Swirly candy-floss clouds floated like sparkling platforms, pink bubbles the size of birds swarmed in the scarce emptiness between. A forest of pink lollipops twirled and swirled in the distance.

He was sat on one such platform. Bubbles inquired thoughtfully at the air around him. The cloud felt soft beneath his fingers, but solid enough that he wasn’t afraid of falling through.

He’d never seen so much pink in his entire life. The clouds were pink, the sky was pink, the bubbles were pink, and the small things moving in the corners of his eyes as a single undulating pack were pink from button-nose to fluffy feet.

The things came up to him and stopped, floating in mid-air.

One rubbed its unbearably cute nose into his leg and looked up out of huge, shiny eyes that sparkled like gems in moonlight.

‘Will you be my fwend?’ it squeaked in a soft voice that could only be described as a helium overdose.

The bunny pawed him gently. The others behind the first queued for their turn with the newcomer. They all looked the same – cute and innocent and fluffy and squeaky, like children’s toys created by Santa on a cocaine-fuelled toy-making binge.

Parricid stared down at the squeezable rodent.

‘Get – the hell – away from me,’ he wheezed.

The bunny laughed. It was like the jolly chiming of Christmas bells, the lyrical passage of fairy –

‘That’s enough! I get it! I’ll do it!’ He scrambled backwards. ‘Just get me out of this morphine-addled nightmare!’

You’d get to do whatever you want here. You’d be happy here. Nothing but friendly bunnies and clouds and pink bubbles and candy-floss and muzak and just whatever promises niceness and gentility. You wouldn’t have to be a hero or a villain. You wouldn’t have to play the part I gave you. Just sit there, chill, and enjoy the loving voices of your wittle bunny friends as they gently –

‘Jesus, man! Switch it back! SWITCH IT BACK!’

You’ll do as you’re told?

‘I’ll do it! Take me out of this pink hell! It’s like being trapped inside Dr Seuss’ head!’

There was a faint tinkle, like a fairy was ringing its tiny bell, and the pink clouds and swarming bubbles and tiny innocent bunnies swirled suddenly together as one messy vortex; it turned and eddied and churned, draining like thick pink butter, mashing up like it had been sent through a blender, and Parricid saw with relief that the cold steel of the dark spaceship was starting to edge out the ubiquitous pink.

Little by little and piece by piece, he was back on the spaceship. He checked the solidity of the metal with his foot. It stayed rigid, not moving like a floating, malleable candy-floss cloud. He wiped his brow, relieved.

‘Never again,’ he moaned. ‘God, never again.’

He looked out sullenly at the statues frozen in time.

‘Okay, start it up again. The quicker we get this over with, the quicker everything can go back to normal.’

The creature’s shadowy mass squirmed like a branch of leaves caught in a gale, Corvin’s dangling legs jerked and trembled, Adams’ permanent mask of horror moved ever so slightly. The orange light travelling the length of the centre tower stuttered an inch or two.

There was a whoosh of air and sound, a sonic boom like the clap of ancient stones upturned, and then there were screams and electrical throbbing, the smell of damp metal, the thrumming of fate, the gargled death rattle shaking amidst a smoky black cocoon.

Parricid grinned as the world spun into time. Seconds passed again, starting up unsurely, like they were questioning what had happened and if they had actually stopped in the first place.

But now time was moving forward again. Those precious few seconds Corvin had left were spiralling away. If Parricid was to act, he would have to do it now.

‘I get the point,’ he mumbled.

He clicked his fingers, smiling. A simple fix, he thought. The world was his to shape, it was a certain privilege of his to mould the script as he saw fit, to change the things he viewed as undesirable or questionable. In this case, the guilty party was the monster.

‘Have a safe trip!’ he cried, laughing.

The snap rebounded – the scene stuttered like an old cassette tape stuck between play and pause. Nothing happened.

He tried again. The monster stuttered but Corvin remained enveloped in its thick black wings.

‘Well, that’s not fair. Changing the rules because you want me to find a challenge, that’s low. That’s really low. How do you expect me to be a hero if I can’t-’

Something dropped noisily at his feet, something hard and metal. Parricid picked it up and turned it over in his hands.

‘Fair enough, but not very futuristic,’ he said. ‘This better work or I’m calling my union.’

He turned to the edge of the platform, glaring at the monster and the helpless, dying Corvin trapped in its suffocating grip.

‘Let old bygones be bygones,’ he muttered, and took a few steps back to get a decent run at it.

He charged forward, throwing his weight into his leaping feet, pushing and pushing forward, pushing and pushing his muscles to their extremes, then he raised the sword above his head, brandishing it madly and wildly, feeling the rush of wind pull at his sides and fling his glasses off their perch, a sudden surge of adrenaline swelled in his senses, and he dived off the platform, swinging blindly at the monster, making huge wild arcs.

The sword severed the creature’s hold over Corvin. Parricid heard the young soldier gasp for air. The creature bellowed and screeched.

He grabbed Corvin with his free hand as he torpedoed like a rocket, using his airborne momentum to ferry them to the other platform. He realised too late they were going to come up short.

Bridge, he thought. Bridge! BRIDGE!

They landed with a thump and skittered across the metal surface, tumbling over one another. Parricid held the sword above his head to avoid accidentally skewering the dying soldier.

Then he lay there, laughing. He had a couple of seconds of this before the screeching, feral creature released from the ceiling and poured itself onto the newly appeared bridge.

‘Come at me,’ said Parricid, jumping to his feet and bringing the blade to his cheek. ‘I’ve got a ruddy sword! This thing’ll cut you like an ex-wife on Christmas!’

He admitted to himself that he was enjoying this. He didn’t often get the chance to wield swords and face space monsters and… and save people. It sunk in that he had actually saved someone’s life. He had done a good thing, he had been a hero.

He was being a hero.

Corvin groaned weakly at his feet. He took up a wide-legged stance in front of the soldier.

Now it was just him, the bridge, and the writhing creature.

‘Let’s dance.’

The creature bellowed. Its shifting black core unfurled like oiled wings, like a spider raising its legs and exposing its underbelly right before the fatal strike, and lurched towards him, smoky tentacles striking and lashing and whipping.

Parricid swung a tight arc that sliced diagonally across the creature’s exposed core. Then he brought the blade around, looping it around his head, and with a neat little twirl unleashed a fatal whirlwind.

The creature stooped back, screeching brutally. Parricid kept the assault going and swung again, and again, and again.

Parts of the smoky creature dropped and fizzled out like matches. Lopped pieces spiralled off the side of the bridge and became one with the waiting darkness.

On its last legs, the creature took one final attempt and rushed forward suddenly, lashing out madly, its reaching tentacles a blur of dark, violent movement.

Parricid side-stepped, then remembered he was on a narrow bridge.

‘Oh, shit.’

He caught the edge of the bridge as he fell and clung desperately to the thin lip.

‘This isn’t what you’d call ideal,’ he muttered, looking down. ‘But it’s a nice place to hang out.’

The creature’s tendrils zipped forward as a nest of serpents and struck his tightly gripped hand.

He grinned wolfishly as needles of pain stuck his fingers, then brought the sword up in a wide swing and…

His fist ran through thin air.

He looked at his empty hand and grimaced.

‘Can I have another one, please? I don’t see this ending well without one.’

Bullets cut through the screeching. Corvin must’ve recovered, Parricid thought, and tried to pull himself up. He spread eagle on the bridge as the creature moved its attention elsewhere.

He had been wrong. It was Adams that had recovered. She was firing at the creature, screams punctuated each heavy shot as they impacted the curling shadows.

The distraction provided a small window. Parricid ran behind the mass of writhing smoke, then stopped. He didn’t have a weapon or a tool or anything, what exactly was he planning to do?

But he had to do something. He was the hero; the one everyone expected to have some sort of plan, a way out, to find the road to victory.

‘Do something!’ Adams shouted over the creature’s roars.

He thought. And he thought.

The revelation came to him. It was an obvious one.

‘I know how you think,’ he said, shining a beaming grin at the largely empty room. ‘I know you like to plot and plot and calculate and calculate, you work out every tiny little detail before you sit down and actually start writing. And I know you like to hide clues. You love a good clue! In fact, I’m pretty sure if you combed the multi-verse series with a fine mind and picked out all the tiny details and put them together like jigsaw pieces, there’d be an entirely different picture there, something you’d see only if you were really searching for it. Sadly for you, I know where to look. Because I know how you think. This creature…’ He regarded the mass of lashing tendrils in front of him. ‘It has a weakness. And I think I know what it is.’

He approached the thing from behind and readied his hands. Adams was still firing desperately into the squirming core of it.

Parricid’s fingers danced. Then he struck with serpentine speed.

‘Tickle, tickle, tickle!’ he cooed.

It was like waving your fingers through smoke. There was something hard beneath the wispy blanket, he focused on that, wiggling his fingers like his life depended on it, trying to find that precious sweet spot that would work like a dog’s belly and send the creature into a pleasure coma.

So, he stood there, arms wrapped around the vicious beast, hands sunk into the black cloak of thrashing shadow, waggling fingers searching for their target.

Adams had stopped firing. She could only stare in disbelief, wondering if what she saw was really happening or if she had already died and this was hell.

Parricid felt the movement before he saw it; the creature rounded on him slowly like a snake checking the annoyance at its tail.

‘Ah.’

He retrieved his hands.

‘Ah,’ he said again.

The creature’s great body rose above him, loomed over him, black wisps curled across its ever-shifting surface like mist across the deserted snow plain.

‘Ah,’ he said.

It crossed his mind that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, in the loosest, vaguest sense of the word, against all odds and careful calculations, he had been fatally wrong.

‘Well, bollocks.’

Adams fired as the creature’s swirling mass started to unfurl. It swivelled around to face her.

‘You have to help me!’ shouted Parricid. ‘I can’t do this alone!’

‘I am helping you!’ Adams shouted.

‘Not talking to you!’

The creature slowly approached Adams, gliding over the unconscious Corvin, eating up the space between. Adams was screaming, shooting and backing up, shooting and backing up, knowing that if the creature got to her, it would all be over.

Parricid saw the defeat in her eyes, the weariness, the fire spluttering out. Her retreating feet hit the control panel.

‘Come on!’ he tried. ‘Help me! Give me a happy ending!’

He stopped and thought about what he had just said.

‘I don’t mean like… I don’t mean like that. Just… This doesn’t have to end badly, for once in your…’ He coughed, rolled his eyes. ‘Career, give the story a happy ending. Just this once!’

Smoky spines and tentacles unwrapped from the black mass.

‘It doesn’t have to be like this!’ Parricid screamed. His voice was hoarse. ‘All I’m asking is that we get the happy ending we deserve, we’ve done the trials, we’ve jumped the hoops, we’ve walked through the fire and the flames and we’ve done what you’ve asked, this isn’t fair!’

Adams had stopped firing. Her arms hung limp at her side.

‘Pause it again! You don’t have to do this! Pause it!’

Rising like a snake, the creature eclipsed the defeated soldier.

‘That’s it, then,’ Parricid said quietly. ‘The bad ending. You really thought this should be the ending for my first heroic outing? You’re seriously disturbed.’

He shook his head and the thoughts jostled around his skull.

‘I get it,’ he confessed finally. ‘As smart as you think you’re being, I get it. No-one knows how sweet victory tastes until they’ve swallowed down a bitter defeat. Heroes should learn to lose before they figure out how to win.’

The creature’s fully unfurled mass began to envelop Adams like a bear trap. It may have been wishful thinking on Parricid’s part but, maybe, possibly…

Was it slowing down?

‘She saved my life,’ he continued. ‘I mean, she was doing what you made her do, but… she did save my life. After all I said to her, I basically threatened her, and she still saved me. And Corvin, giving his life to make sure she’d have a chance. They’re the heroes, aren’t they? This was all one big trick, punishment for being a sarcastic little prick. You set this up so I’d know what they felt. Well, congratulations, you succeeded. If I may ask for one small favour from you, just one thing you could do for me since you won’t help… I’d prefer not to watch this.’

Adams had now fully disappeared behind the flailing black wall.

‘And make it quick. A hero deserves a hero’s death. She deserves better than what you’re giving her.’

He still couldn’t be sure if it was a trick of the light or if his brain was savouring the countdown to fatality, but it did seem that the creature’s violently lashing tentacles were moving in slow motion as if struggling through jelly.

‘If I can’t change your mind,’ he said, ‘then I accept it. You win – again. A puppet can’t be a hero.’

True. But that’s where you come in.

The tentacles creeped across Adams’ face like poison ivy on a wall. Her mouth was open, she was screaming silently, the creature’s searching feelers invaded the opening, the awful light throbbed and pulsed and rose and fell.

And it all happened slowly, as if time had reduced its speed by just the fraction of a second.

‘What -’

His hands gripped something cold, heavy and metal. He didn’t have to look down to know what it was. This was meant to be a sci-fi story, after all. The sword had been the training wheels, now he was about to ride the real thing.

‘Very nice,’ he grinned, then looked up at the creature’s slow-motion attack. ‘Ey! Smoky!’

Black tentacles whirled around, lashing wildly at nothing in particular. There was menace in the movement, you could feel it.

Time snapped back to its usual arrangement with a thundering boom.

Adams’ face was an island of skin floating in an oily, black ocean.

‘I don’t take kindly to this sort of thing,’ said Parricid, trying out his hero voice. ‘Let her go.’

Confidence oozed out of every word. Each syllable had a little extra bite to it.

‘This is about me and you. Fight the right fight or don’t fight at all.’

The creature screeched and dropped down like a dog on all fours, then charged.

Parricid grinned. He really ought to have his glasses for this part. Actually, he should have sunglasses. Sunglasses would be the perfect fit for this occasion. Black aviators would be the crowning glory.

The dark ball of rage and shadow whipped across the bridge, straight towards him. He didn’t move. Not even a flinch.

He tightened his grip on the thing in his hand, searching for the button. He found it.

Now the creature was metres away.

He really wanted his glasses.

Then his free hand opened. He looked down and smiled. Absolutely perfect timing, and precisely what he had wished for.

He was about to put them on, then hesitated. It wasn’t the right time for them. This was like a coronation, you don’t want to rush to the pivotal moment too quickly and miss all the build up, people were here for a reason. You had to drag it out and make it painfully slow, just so when the moment finally arrived it would taste all the sweeter.

The creature was about a foot away.

He pressed the button.

Blue light cascaded out of the hilt, there was a whooshing pop and the blade hummed like a car at rest. The light crackled and fizzed and whined.

Suddenly seeing this blade of light shoot out of his hand made the creature stop, it careered to a halt, using its tentacles to slow it down, and there it paused, calculating. It looked afraid – as afraid as humanoid masses of shadow can properly look.

Parricid raised his hand. The blade sliced through the air with a vicious whine. Now was the moment.

‘I prefer my monsters like I prefer my toast…’ He put the glasses on. ‘On the dark side.’

He brought the lightsabre down hard, as hard as he could, willing the blade down in a clean cut. The blade approached the shadowy membrane, then hissed as it cut into the writhing flesh, smoke billowed out of the fresh clean slice.

The blade kept true and howled through the screeching creature, more smoke poured out of the splitting beast until the once menacing creature was a pathetic hissing pyre, burning as the humming blue light carved its way into the wretched thing, leaving behind a reddened trail that cauterised almost instantly.

It went straight through the middle. The creature gave little fight, the blade found purchase. It screamed through the dark mass and sizzled as it exited the underside, the gash bubbling and boiling and burning, the creature’s last few screeches pierced his ears, and then the bubbling mess collapsed in two perfectly equal dead heaps, fizzling away on the stained metal.

Parricid tested the flopping remains with his foot. They disappeared in plumes of black smoke at his touch.

‘Easy,’ he grinned.

Adams nervously tiptoed across the bridge, avoiding the blackened stain.

‘You did it, you killed it,’ she said, in disbelief. ‘What… What is that thing?’ she asked, pointing to the lightsabre.

‘Depends on who you ask,’ he said. ‘Could be a weapon, could be a tool. Only an idiot deals in absolutes.’

‘Corvin!’

She crouched over the unconscious soldier and pulled him upright. He managed to sit but couldn’t stand. His neck was deeply bruised, a thick band of black and blue had raised on his skin.

He tried to open his eyes.

‘Sarge?’ Adams said, checking him for other wounds. ‘Sarge, can you hear me?’

He looked like a drunk propped up against a closed shop in the small hours of Sunday morning. Blood and saliva dripped from his mouth.

‘Sarge!’

She turned his head. It moved too easily in her hand.

Parricid switched off the lightsabre and moved behind him, letting the soldier rest his back against his legs.

‘Corvin?’ he tried. ‘Corvin, if you can hear me, wiggle your fingers.’

They stared at his fingers. The pinkie twitched, the others remained deathly still.

‘He’s still with us!’ Adams cried. ‘Help him up!’

Parricid looked down at the tired bundle of pain. He’d seen Corvin like this before, he remembered. That time it had been his doing.

‘I don’t think he’s getting up,’ he said quietly.

‘He has to!’

She yanked at his chest. The largely lifeless body flapped to one side, head loosely cocking with it.

‘Leave him be,’ said Parricid. ‘These are his last moments, they should be honoured and remembered. It’s the best thing we can do for him right now.’

Corvin’s lips trembled. Breath seeped out.

‘He’s trying to say something,’ Adams said.

Parricid leaned closer, aiming one ear at the soldier’s mouth. He could hear laboured breathing and a very faint, thudding heartbeat, whose rhythm was like the clack of a train on the rails slowing down at the station.

‘This…’ said the man. ‘This…’

He coughed. Blood sprayed out.

‘This… could have been… worse…’

A limp hand pulled itself from the floor and searched above him. It found Parricid’s shoulder.

‘You… won. You did it. After all that… you’re the hero.’

‘We don’t have time for big goodbyes,’ said Parricid coldly. ‘Come on, up you get. Plenty more mischief to sow!’

Corvin shook his head miserably. Parricid offered his hands to his neck, afraid the whole thing might collapse with the effort.

‘You won’t be doing any mischief now,’ Corvin wheezed. ‘Heroes do as a hero does. Doing the right thing isn’t easy, but you have to do it anyway.’

‘Ah, the right thing is boring.’ Parricid’s voice wobbled, there was uncertainty growing in him. ‘The wrong thing, now that’s the meat of life. That’s where good stories begin.’

‘The best stories… start with weakness. They begin where there must be change.’

‘And?’

‘A bad man… can become a good hero. He just needs the right character.’

‘A drawn-out death scene,’ Parricid mumbled under his breath. ‘Another trope I won’t be having. Give the man his peace.’

‘Stop talking like that,’ Adams snapped. ‘Hoist him up and we’ll carry him to the escape pods.’

‘He’s not going anywhere. There has to be a heroic sacrifice and it looks like the burden falls to him. He’s become a cliché.’

‘I’ve always hated clichés,’ Adams murmured.

‘Clichés aren’t that bad. They’re narrative bedrock, there wouldn’t be a story without them.’ He paused. ‘And if we’ve hit the bedrock…’

‘What?’

‘Well… Once the mine has been tapped, you’ve gotten everything you could out of it, and you start hitting the bedrock below…’

‘That’s the end of the mine,’ Adams concluded. ‘You mean we’ve hit the end of the story.’

‘And all that’s left is us,’ said Parricid.

He looked around and confirmed the surrounding dome was beginning to fade, like a dark velvet curtain was being pulled across the scene.

‘Literally closing the curtain,’ he mumbled.

‘What happens now?’ said Adams. Her voice trembled.

‘We say goodbye, I guess.’

‘You don’t really know, do you?’

‘I’m usually the last one standing at the end of it all,’ Parricid admitted. ‘I’m not used to having someone to say goodbye to.’

Adams considered this.

‘That must be very lonely,’ she said.

Corvin’s hand drifted off Parricid’s shoulder and flopped lifelessly beside him. His breathing had crawled to a stop.

‘A story finishes…’ he said, voice hoarse and frail. ‘But the narrative continues. It’s not an end… but a break on the page.’

Parricid glanced down. ‘What are you on about?’

‘Your story…’

The soldier’s head dropped to his chest.

Adams wept, clinging to the newly hollow body and rocking gently back and forth. She paid no attention to Parricid as he got to his feet and shook off the bad feeling brewing in his stomach.

There was something wrong. This should be the ending, he thought, but it didn’t really feel like an ending, it felt like the misty dusk before the dawn shatters it.

‘I have to go on,’ he said suddenly. ‘Wait, do I? What am I going on to?’

He had another sentence prepared – a short retort to Adams’ missile of a sentence, no doubt another question about the narrative path they were taking – when he looked around and found himself alone.

Corvin was gone, Adams was gone, the creature’s sizzling remains were gone, the bridge wasn’t there, the core had vanished, and all that he was left with was a painfully bright light swallowing the darkness. It hung there like a white sun, burning away at the profound emptiness, spearing his retinas with bayonets of light.

The time has come.

‘Very dramatic,’ Parricid mumbled. ‘What happened to the cardboard soldiers?’

The same thing that happens to every character when their story has ended.

‘Sweet oblivion?’

Precisely.

‘That wasn’t much of a good death for Corvin. He deserved better. He was willing to die for us.’

And much more. But this isn’t his story.

‘No, I got that. As subtle as you’ve been.’

He turned to face the gilded sun.

‘So I’m going in there?’

Pretty much.

‘What’s on the other side?’ He winced. ‘It’s not the bloody bunnies again, is it? Cos I’m not going there, I’m never going there again!’

It’s not the bunnies. It’s something else, something new. Something you haven’t done before.

‘I don’t like the sound of that.’

Tough. We all have to do things we don’t want to do, it’s part of life.

‘Like… Like doing a job you hate just because it’s money?’

The sun flared. White sparks arced across its watery surface.

If you’re going to go th –

‘Only teasing, keep your hair on. Pretty sound advice, I’d say, since you’re starting to run out of it.’

In your own time.

Parricid approached the sun and tested its skin with a nervous finger. It dipped into the burning ball and was retrieved unharmed. If anything, he thought, it’s a little cold.

‘You won’t tell me where it goes?’

That’s part of the fun.

He hesitated.

‘What about Corvin and Adams?’

What about them?

‘They’re gone. Vanished. Disappeared.’

And?

And you made me a hero, I’m supposed to care about these things. What happened to them?’

If you really want to know, and I don’t think you do, then you’ll go through to the other side. This part is the question, the other side is the answer.

‘You’re just saying that to get me to do it.’

Consider it a promise. If you want to know, enter the portal.

He looked up at the fiery orb.

‘I’m not so sure about this,’ he admitted. ‘That looks like it’ll kill me.’

So did that monster, yet here you stand.

‘Well, that was just a two-bit player, it didn’t stand a chance against me. I had a ruddy lightsabre! This thing… it looks like what lightsabres are made from.’

You can stand there in absolute darkness preaching to the emptiness about how important you are and feeding your little ego, or you can start a new adventure, discover new things, explore new worlds.

‘That’s all well and good but why do I get the feeling you’re lying to me?’

Go through.

He stayed rooted to… well, to the utter nothing beneath his feet.

Think about it – why would I leave you here when everyone else is gone? I could have deleted you too. But no, I saved a greater fate for you.

‘It is rather lonely here,’ Parricid said, looking around. ‘A bit miserable, really. If I don’t have any other option…’

You’ve always got the choice. But it’s sort of like choosing between a fish salad or a chicken salad, you know you’re going to be disappointed, it won’t fill you, and later you’ll have to have some proper meat to satisfy the taste buds.

‘You’re saying rock and a hard place?’

I’m saying do you want chicken or do you want fish?

‘Does it matter?’

Precisely.

He inhaled sharply. Rock and a hard place. Frying pan or the fire.

‘I guess I’ve no other choice,’ he said finally. ‘If I see even the smallest hint of a cute button nose or a pink fluffy tail, you and I are going to have words.’

Isn’t that all we have?

He groaned, then started towards the flaming ball. It seemed to be aware of his intentions and opened like a blooming flower. Fiery white petals yawned and fluttered.

Parricid put his leg in first. Still cold, he noted. Then his other leg followed the first, then his hands. The sun gulped them down.

Now all he had to do –

‘I know, I know!’ he stammered, half in, half out. ‘You don’t need to go into every tiny detail, I’ve got this.’

Then he entered… and screamed as white-hot light swallowed and surrounded him, snapping at his skin and burning away at his senses.

And he was gone.

*

 

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