It was about three weeks into the new school year when she joined our class. She didn’t stand by the teacher to be introduced, she just sat among us one day. I’ve always been the avoided loner kid, so there was a spot free next to my seat. That’s where I found her that morning. She had long dark hair and almost white skin. She wore a black t-shirt, black skirt and black thigh-high socks, which was an unusual outfit for this class. I sat on my chair and introduced myself.
“Hi, I’m Alexandra. Who are you?”
She looked up to me for a moment. Her eyes were blood red, with one hidden behind her hair.
“I’m Raven.” she said.
We didn’t talk anymore before the class started. She wasn’t the social kind either.
During recess my friend Eddie found me. “Dude, are you seriously sitting next to the new girl?”
“Yeah. She’s alright.”
“Dude, I’m pretty sure she’s evil.”
“What makes you think that?”
“You looked at her, right?”
“Are you worried we might start dating and I forget who my real friends are?”
“Psh, she’s too pretty for you.” he tried to tease me back.
“Is she pretty or evil now?”
“Both. Women are usually both.”
A typical Eddie opinion. I was reminded of how I won’t be friends with Eddie anymore once I’m out of here.
At the beginning of the next class Raven was reading an ugly old book that smelled kind of weird and was drinking something that looked like ruby red orange juice. It smelled metallic.
She didn’t have her books yet, so I shared mine with her. I insisted on turning the pages myself because she left weird red stains on whatever she touched. She said sorry though, so I wasn’t mad.
A few days later, she gave me a black piece of paper. It used to be white but was colored black on both sides with black sharpie, except for some text in red. It was her address and the number 18.
“Will you come?” she asked.
“Sure. Who else is invited?”
“Just you. You’re the only friend I made in time.” I could see she trained herself not to part her lips when smiling.
“Uh, you forgot the date.”
“Yeah, sorry, by the time I noticed, I already turned the paper black. It’s this Friday, the 13th.”
“I’ll be there.”
I was looking forward to Friday. I knew Eddie wouldn’t approve, but he didn’t own me. He bumped into me after school that day.
“So, what are we gonna do this weekend?”
“I’m going to go to Raven’s birthday party. We can hang out on Sunday.”
“Are you fucking with me, you’re going to her party? Did she promise a cake made of human hearts?”
“Yeah, with baby eyeballs for decoration.”
He gave me this weird look. “I’m coming with you.”
“You weren’t invited.”
“Well, someone has to save you when she tries to eat your head.”
“You know what kissing is!” I punched him in the side.
I got that he was scared of her but I was feeling desperate. I didn’t want to wait and play it safe anymore. She’s been nice to me and I was getting sick of having only Eddie to talk to. With all the other kids at school I could only chat about homework or other school related stuff before it trailed off.
Eddie insisted on following me to her house, but I at least got him to stay outside and out of sight. He didn’t want me to die but when approaching the house, he gradually lost courage, so he agreed to only step in if I signal it to him somehow. What a knight in shining armor. Why’d I have to get stuck with him?
Raven greeted me at the door and let me in. The floorboards and tapestry were ink black, with red carpet pointing out where the floor was. There were gas lamps at the door frames and a smell of burnt wood lingering in the dust visible in the rays of sunshine falling in.
“No balloons or colorful ribbons?”
“They’re surprisingly hard to get in this town. Less to clean up in the end though.”
“That’s fine I guess.”
“We do have cake though.”
Raven brought me to the dining room. A long table with my best estimate being 16 chairs around it. None occupied.
“Your family out?”
“Yeah, I only really see them at night.”
A cake covered in white frosting was easy to see on the black table, which was otherwise empty. Raven cut out a piece for me. The insides were red and dripping with a thick liquid, I’m thinking marmalade. I noticed that the knife had red stains before she had even made the first cut.
“My mom’s idea.” Raven explained and licked the marmalade off the knife. Her tongue was unnaturally long and split at its end.
She caught me looking and put the knife down. “Sorry, I just can’t help myself sometimes."
“It’s okay.” I said and ate the cake. It was good.
“So, I didn’t plan anything. Wanna play Smash Bros.?”
We sat down in the living room. There was a fireplace still burning. The charred logs inside almost looked like human bones. Three portraits hung over it, with whoever they were of shrouded in shadows, though you could still feel them stare at you. By the shape of their silhouette I could tell one was supposed to be Raven.
She had a flat TV, but not one of the super modern ones. We played for a while, the stares from the portraits throwing off my concentration a bit. What was odd was that every character in the game had their colors muted aside from their bright red eyes. There was also an additional character called RAVEN in all caps, who looked like a lovingly animated photo-realistic recreation of her. When you select her the announcer just breaks out into an inhuman shriek at top volume, which always made Raven chuckle, however playing her was rather boring because all other characters on the stage would just break down crying and couldn’t move and would die as soon as she touched them.
At some point Raven’s eyes got dull as something started to weigh on her. “Hey, Alex.” she began, “I really appreciate you hanging out with me.”
“I think you’re really cool. And I want to trust you. Because if you are my enemy, I’d have no idea how to fight you.”
“That’s an odd thing to say.”
“You get it though, right?”
“Can we be real with each other?”
“Uh, sure. What do you mean?”
“Where am I? I know I’m not… the people out there, the illusion falls apart pretty quickly and I couldn’t leave town for three weeks. Me and Eddie, we were brought somewhere. Why?”
Raven now looked thoroughly shocked. “What- What are you talking about?” She forced a nervous laughter.
“Come on, everyone could see through this, especially after leaving us in here for three weeks. Now wh-”
I fell silent.
She ducked her head next to mine and whispered: “They’re monitoring this, so keep playing along.”
“Is there anywhere we can talk freely?”
Her visible eye darted around for a moment.
“I’ll figure something out. Act natural until then. Keep your friend scared of me.”
Raven leaned away and said: “Wow, yeah I didn’t know you just moved here too. It’s a bit odd settling in, right?”
“Yeah.” I wasn’t quite sure how she wanted me to act. I supposed I should keep acting like nothing’s wrong.
We hung out until evening. She and the house did a bunch of other textbook spooky stuff, which only became more comforting now. When I left to go to the replication of my home, I found Eddie had left as well. I guess he got bored waiting outside. I wasn’t going to tell him anyway. As long as I didn’t know anything, I was going to follow Raven’s instructions.
I sat down on my bed and while I had left Raven’s house relieved to have found an ally, I was feeling dread then. She seemed to be an insider to whatever was going on but the fact she had to be so secretive meant that she didn’t have control over this situation. Attempting a breakout might be very dangerous.
I put my head on the pillow, but as the corporeal world faded away, my mind just kept racing faster through scenarios. I was asleep but it didn’t feel so, more like time suddenly accelerated with me being perfectly awake.
Then I was woken up by a scratching sound. The real world came back into view and I noticed a black puddle on the floor. I found it to be Raven’s saliva, who had clawed herself into the ceiling.
“Is this another scare or is it time?”
She gracefully let herself down and wiped the spooky spit from her mouth. “Yeah, it’s time.”
She stepped closer and leaned over me to study my eyes. Somehow I got a hostile feeling from her.
She put a clawed hand on my shoulder. “Watch.”
With that her other hand stabbed into my face. The pain jumped through my head and blurred my vision. I thought I would scream but it choked in my throat. I tried to grab her wrist but she had already pulled away. I couldn’t tell what she did until I saw the collapsed eyeball between her fingers.
“Are you watching?” she asked and placed the eye into her mouth like a delectable treat.
“What the fuck?” I stammered. Raven just laughed and slipped out the window like a shadow.
“What the fuck?” Eddie said when he noticed the big towel in my face.
I didn’t feel like saying anything.
“I’m so sorry. I thought-”
“It didn’t happen at the party. You know, I really thought she was a friend but this night- We’re fucked in here. I couldn’t even call an ambulance and my fake parents aren’t scripted to deal with this either.”
“Does it still hurt?”
“Fuck yeah it does.”
“But um… the eye is like, it’s not really a big wound right, it should heal on its own? When we get back home we can go to the hospital and have it fixed but you’re not gonna bleed out, right?”
I let out an annoyed sigh.
“Hey, I know you’re a man-hating lesbian but we really are the only ones we can trust in here.”
“Yeah, fucking point taken.”
I had just wanted to meet Eddie because he was the only human being around and then just go mope at home, but I decided to go to school with him that day. I didn’t know why we still went, not like we had to worry about grades here. Raven didn’t show up, which was good. I’d probably punch her and then she’d kill me. The jig was up now anyway. Throughout the day my nerves kept yelling at me that something was wrong with my face long after I got the idea. I was annoyed with it and I was annoyed that nothing I did in here had any meaning. The best thing I could think of is to kill Raven and hope that would dissolve this fake reality. I really doubt she could be killed that simply though.
The only good thing about this reality is that I could just steal from the stores. The personnel hadn’t been given a script on how to react to that, so they just ignored it. I stuffed myself with chips and chocolate with Eddie and then went home. He insisted to stay over, not like my parents would know how to complain. Safe to say I didn’t sleep last night, so I was tired enough that night. Raven didn’t show up.
Raven was summoned by her superior in the morning. She was a little worried what it was about, but was confident she could cover up anything they discovered. In human language her superior’s name could be translated to Cloak, but a lot of meaning would be lost in the process. The human understanding of the concept of a cloak was fairly limited. He was joined by someone of presumably equal rank and one of Raven’s colleagues, who gave her an odd look.
“Raven.” Cloak said before continuing in their native language. It’s one Raven could understand but was physically unable to speak herself. She had to communicate the human way instead, through sound.
“Raven. We’re confident in the eventual success of your project. So far, while there are still problems to solve, it has been promising work and may truly be our future.”
“However, something was brought to our attention this morning. Your relationship with one of your subjects has been questioned.” they gestured towards her colleague.
“You mean Alex? Yeah, I’m still figuring her out.”
“You are not planning on removing her from the project, are you? We recorded your conversation with her, even the part we fear you intended to be kept hidden. We are concerned about your motives.”
Raven studied her superior's body language for a moment. “I apologize, I should’ve talked this through with you to avoid confusion. You see, Alex is more clever than I first expected, she has almost figured out what is happening to her on her own. I felt the best way to deal with it was to play into that narrative and make myself out as an ally. Betraying that trust will finally make her give in to despair as well.”
Her superior paused for a moment to think it over.
“I apologize as well. I shouldn’t have assumed.” they glanced over to Raven’s colleague, who avoided their gaze.
“Will that be all then?” Raven asked.
“Yes. I look forward to seeing your project continue.”
With that Raven turned around to leave, but was stopped by her colleague. They had no name, at least not as a word. Their language was spoken in a sense unique to them and names were especially hard to translate correctly. Being unable to speak this language, Raven had learned the human tongue instead, and so did anyone working with her. However, names are something she could not translate into sound and as such was unable to address people by name.
“Hey, I’m sorry for suspecting you. I wrongly assumed you would conspire with the humans because you’re, you know.”
“One of them?”
“Well no, you’re definitely one of us as well!” they assured her.
Her colleague was patient as Raven lost herself in thought for a moment.
“Do you not feel sympathy for them though?” Raven asked.
“Well, sure… nothing to be done though. We don’t have a choice in this. I’m not mad at you if you care about this girl, I’m just afraid you might’ve lost sight of things.”
“Hey… I can’t say your real name, is it okay if I give you a nickname?”
“Well, Raven is my real name, but yeah, one I can say.”
“Hm. How about... “ they said it vocally, “Quill?”
“Sure! Hello, Quill.”
Quill did their kind’s equivalent of a smile but it soon faded. “You know… I think I look up to you. You handle all this with such composure. I’m… terrified and it makes me do stupid things.”
“Hey, we all just have to stick together.”
“I may have…”
I woke up and felt like my skull had shattered and was just held together by the skin around it. The bleeding of my eye socket hadn’t stopped yet and the towel taped before it stunk like hell. I changed it in the bathroom. It was annoying to have it in my face but to have the wound exposed felt even worse. At least this time I took the time to cut the towel to size, reducing the weight significantly. Eddie was already enjoying breakfast with my parents downstairs. I joined them, ready to just let the day happen to me.
“So what do we do now?” Eddie asked.
“Try and kill Raven.”
“Really, I mean-”
“That’s the only thing I can think of.”
“We collect all the knives and guns around and try them once she shows up again.”
“What if none of them work?”
“Then there’s nothing we can do but surrender to our fate.”
Eddie shoved a spoonful of cornflakes into a frown. “So, if this place is based on our memories, remember anyone who has a gun?”
“Then I don’t think we’ll find any.”
“Think about where we’d expect guns. On a cop, right?”
“We steal from cops?”
“I’m sure we can just take ‘em right out of their holsters.”
Eddie sucked air through his teeth. “Sure.”
Together we walked the streets to find a patrol. I didn’t remember running into many cops in general and this reality reflected that. Eddie suggested to look at the police station, but this reality didn’t link cops and the station together. Cops just walk the streets without destination or origin point, like any other fake citizen. Finally in the afternoon we found one, I just said hello to make him stop and took the gun right off him. I had no idea where cops kept their spare ammo and I didn’t feel like stripsearching the guy, so I said goodbye to send him back on his pointless journey.
“Let’s find another one for you. Then we’ll shoot our way out of here.”
Eddie eyed the gun in my hand with respect. I’ve never held one myself and it felt like it could go off any second. These things had some sort of safety so they don’t go off willy-nilly right? I had no idea where that was though and how to activate or deactivate it. Safe to assume the cop would have it in safe mode right? Shit, if this gun is constructed from my memory of guns then I’m fucked. I didn’t dare tuck it into my pocket. I’m injured enough as is. I made sure to point it away from my body until my arm cramped up. Fortunately we found a second cop soon. We then walked home, holding out the guns in front of us as people walking their dogs greeted us.
“So, if I pull back this lever up here, it turns off the safety, right?” I pointed the gun out the window. We had no bullets to waste but should at least know how to fire it before our last stand.
“Not as far as I know, it just makes it easier on the gun. You can fire it with it pulled or not.” Eddie explained.
I inspected the gun as best as I could without aiming it at anything important. I still had trouble focusing with one eye. I found a lever on its side and eventually I could read the S it was set on. I switched it back and forth, left it on S and aimed outside to try and shoot. The trigger was stuck. I switched it again and this time the trigger could be pulled. I didn’t pull it all the way through though and put the safety back on.
“Guess I’m ready.”
Just in case I put the guns on my desk pointing towards the wall.
The next day me and Eddie went to school. We didn’t have to hide the guns from the teachers and students but from Raven. I remembered that Raven mentioned this place to be monitored, so they might know we got guns, but there was no point worrying about that. We either lived or died.
We sat on the window sill, where we could see the entire classroom well. The teacher didn’t mind. However, Raven didn’t show up again. Eventually the bell rang and we had recess. We allowed ourselves to relax a bit. Then class resumed and we decided to simply go home. Raven was gone. The one plan I had won’t work. What now?
Raven couldn’t find sleep. The recent events were on her mind and she struggled to come up with a way to resolve them. Quill really messed up yesterday, but it at least gave Raven the chance to cover up her treason before it went too far. She knew she should just forget about it. The others want to be accepting of her but having a half-human do this kind of work might be a bad idea after all. No, that wasn’t it. It wasn’t like the others couldn’t empathize with humans. This was a flaw of her person, not her genetics. She kept thinking that there had to be a better way, without victims.
Then an idea finally popped into her head. It wouldn’t fix the big issue but maybe, maybe she could save her relationship with Alex. She jumped out of bed and researched her plan. There was no activity in the simulation while both subjects were asleep. It should be very easy to fake footage during that time. Enough to let her have a conversation with Alex and edit it out of the records before morning. Nobody would scrutinize the night recordings that thoroughly. It will work.
I woke up. I was used to sleeping on my side but was forced to remain on my back with the injury. I then noticed I was woken up by someone. Raven hung over me. I jumped out of bed to go for the guns. Raven followed my movement with her eyes and was surprised to find guns in our possession. Wherever she had been, she must’ve forgotten to check the backlogs of what we did. I aimed at her but forgot to unlock the security, so Raven grabbed my arm and pulled me to the floor. I managed to hang on to the gun and used my other arm to grab her neck and try to push her off. She grabbed my wrist and pinned it on the floor as well.
Our struggle must’ve woken up Eddie because he put his lower arm under her chin and pulled her off me. With my hands freed, I aimed the gun at her. The trigger refused to be pulled. I remembered the little switch. By then Raven saw what I was doing but her hands were busy trying to keep Eddie from choking her out. I aimed the gun again, ready to shoot this time, but we didn’t account for her tongue, which she stretched out to smack the gun out of my hand. I fired but only hit her in the gut. The bullet made its way through her soft intestines and lodged itself into Eddie’s femur behind her. They fell over, clutching their wounds. I forgot about the gun, about finishing her off. Firing a gun was one thing, but seeing it hit the target was another. As I crawled to Eddie, I noticed we were not in my room anymore.
“Fuck…” Raven coughed through labored breathing. She grabbed the gun in my hand and I couldn’t tighten my grip in time. She took a bite out of it, rendering it useless. “Why couldn’t you just talk to me? Now it’s all fucked.” Despite the pain she managed to push out those words uninterrupted.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“The hospital. Because you injured me.”
“Uh-huh.” I scoffed and the pain in my right eye flared up.
“It is empty right now because everyone’s sleeping but the doc will have been notified and be on their way. We have to leave.”
“Eddie is injured!” I protested.
“Yeah, so am I. I was going to explain everything to you but- You fucking-”
“You fucking plucked my eye out!” I yelled.
“That wasn’t me! They heard our conversation, they were worried that we were conspiring, so they did this to break us up. I know this is my fault, I should’ve anticipated this, but I am in pain and being angry with someone else feels more relieving than with myself. Fuck, this is all fucked anyway…”
Raven led the way out. This hospital as she called it, was completely black, yet despite there being no visible light sources, it was easy to see where everything was. Desks were the only thing I had a name for, what was put on them was perfectly alien to me. I served as a crutch for Eddie, which slowed me down to Raven’s speed. I wondered if the wound would kill her if left untreated.
“We’re still in the simulation.” Eddie groaned to me. “We should’ve woken up in some matrix chair.”
“No!” Raven turned around, “You do not get to doubt me! This is not how it works, you- the simulation is a physical place, you’ve always been awake! Just let me fix this and stop fucking it up!”
“There’s no way this video game castle is real!” Eddie insisted.
“This place is a… kind of space travel vessel made of material only found on our home planet. Of course it’s going to look alien to you! Stop spouting nonsense or you’ll get us all killed!” She took a breath. “Sorry, but this pain makes me very irritable.”
“I liked you better when you pretended to be evil.” Eddie joked.
Raven sighed. She brought us into a hallway. The ceiling was about five stories high. Still all in black. It was hard to tell what kind of structure we were in but it must be massive.
“You’re bringing us back to Earth, right?” Eddie asked.
Raven shook her head. “Sorry, it’s not so easy. There’s a good reason you were in there.”
“Just tell us what the point of all this is.”
“We needed to scare you. I was to scare you. It worked great on Eddie. But I’m not- The others wanted to be tolerant, so they let me do it, thinking I wouldn’t feel sympathy to-”
“Wait, why scare us?”
“No, I mean I’m not important enough to be allowed to know. I’m just an employee. A half human that was given a chance.”
Raven pulled us into a small room, maybe a closet or maintenance access. It was hard to tell anything from anything.
“Isn’t the doctor going to follow the blood trail and find us here?” Eddie asked as he slid down the wall to sit.
“That’s why we need to stop bleeding. We should have enough time.”
Raven pulled open a locker that just looked like the wall to me. She took out a… thing, pulled her shirt up and sprayed some stuff on her wound. It closed up on both sides, presumably fixing her insides as well.
“You just keep that here?” I asked.
“It’s not really meant for organic matter, more for fixing pipes, but it should work. Now with Eddie, I need to remove the bullet first.”
“You got some anesthesia in there too?” Eddie smiled.
She gave him some black rubbery thing. “Bite on that.”
“Only one way to become battle-hardened.” Eddie stuffed the thing in his mouth and shut his eyes. Raven knelt over him and stuck her bare fingers into the wound. There were no muffled screams from Eddie but his face looked rather pained. It’s like his throat closed up entirely, letting out no sound. A few seconds later she pulled out the bullet. I could see that her fingers had changed shape, became thinner. She explained: “We are shapeshifters, as you have seen. Though, for me only certain areas of my body I can manipulate like that. If you had shot any other of my kind, it would have had no effect. The teleportation system was just for me. Do you understand?”
“We can’t fight them.” I concluded.
She used to spray to fix Eddie’s leg. As his nerves were mended, the pain subsided as well. Raven stood up and looked me in the eye.
“I’m sorry, but it can’t fix something as complex as an eye. It will close the wound but might make it harder to put a replacement eye in there.”
“I’m not sure if we even have the technology to transplant whole eyes. Just fix me up.” I removed the bandage that had come half-loose in the struggle anyway and Raven sprayed it. I expected it to hurt, but it didn’t. “What’s the plan now?”
Raven sat down. “Yeah… You see, my people aren’t evil. Just desperate. I know something terrible will happen if we don’t keep up the fear. Logically speaking, you are a small sacrifice to prevent a greater disaster. I don’t want my kind to suffer but neither anyone else in our stead. But I can’t find a way…”
“What is it that needs this fear?”
“I’m guessing some sort of entity is being kept… harmless this way. We did not have to do this on our home planet. Only since we became a spacefaring kind. We must’ve run into something…”
“Some ancient god that feeds on fear?”
“Why not…” she considered it.
“What if we kill it?”
“Granted, that isn’t my kind’s go-to solution, but I’m sure it still got on the table at some point.”
“Couldn’t you at least scare your own people instead of kidnapping people?”
“My kind cannot feel fear. At home, there was nothing we needed to be afraid of. We were virtually invincible and immortal.”
“You are afraid of this thing though.”
“No we aren’t. Just because we aren’t scared doesn’t mean we wouldn’t mind it tearing apart the universe.”
“Well… shit then.” Eddie was disappointed. I couldn’t think of any more arguments or inconsistencies either. It seemed this was the enemy we were facing. There was no escape.
“So what now?” I asked.
“We’re approximately on a spaceship you said.” Eddy looked at Raven. “So, does it have any escape pods? I’d still like to return to Earth.”
Raven thought the plan over. She stared into the distance between us for a moment before thinking aloud.
“You see… even if I bail you out, you will just be replaced with two others. Two I wouldn’t care about as much because I wouldn’t have met them. Logically, it’d be pointless and selfish…” she shook her head, “But screw it. I can’t do this. They’ll have to carry this on without me. They don’t need me anymore… Let’s go.”
Raven opened the door and peered outside, then urged us down the pitch-black but not dark corridor.
There had been no alarm yet. Nobody roamed the spaceship and the doctor shouldn’t be able to find us so easily anymore without a blood trail. The wide hall made us feel exposed but it also left no room for others to be hidden. Granted, we didn’t know what non-mixed aliens looked like.
We made it to the escape pods without incidents. I felt like I actually would have recognized these for what they are. They resembled air mail tubes and were surrounded by green lights. Each tube held a can-shaped spaceship that could hold a small group of people. There were only ten or so launch tubes, but I assumed these could reload and basically quickfire in case of an emergency. Being for emergency evacuation, there were no tough security checks to get through. I was sure some sort of alarm went off somewhere when Raven popped the door open but by the time anyone noticed, we’d be gone.
She could turn back any time, Raven thought. She would get Alex and Eddie out of here, but she could always stay behind. Say, sorry, I bailed them out, please take me off the program, I can’t handle it, evidently. They would understand. She made a connection with Alex that she hadn’t managed with any other. But could she live on Earth? Hiding the fact she was half-alien all her life?
The door closed behind them and the dashboard lit up. There was a big green button drawing eyes to it. Raven knew this was a decision she should think over for a couple of weeks but there was no time. She punched the launch button and hoped she would not regret it.
The pod launched and a second later they were in space. The hull of the pod was entirely transparent, allowing a great view. A great darkness like inside the ship but speckled with lights all over.
“This… this isn’t glass right, It can’t break?” Eddie stammered.
“Of course not.” Raven assured him, although technically it was a kind of glass.
“Where’s the spaceship?” He looked back.
“As I said, a spaceship is just the closest concept to it you got. It’s kinda…” Raven found human languages lacking to describe the concept adequately, “...you know?”
“Is that Earth?” Alex pointed near the sun. “How do we steer this thing?”
Raven walked up to the console and put in the coordinates of Earth. The pod began to curve in response.
“Are those coordinates? You just know those?”
“Yeah. I got the brain of a- “ she could imitate the word for her kind with motion but it naturally made no sense to Alex. “Uh, we’re good at memorizing things.”
Alex smiled at her and Raven wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
Then the dashboard lit up again with a video call. It was Quill.
“Raven!” they said. “Raven, you-”
“I’m sorry.” Raven said. She was anxious about the decision, but now that it’s done, she feels calm and sure she made the right choice. “I appreciate all the faith that was put in me, but it was misplaced. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t be part of this. It’s not that I can’t empathize with you, it’s… just me as a person. I know it’s foolish but-”
Quill fell silent. They understood. They spoke in human language, presumably so Alex and Eddie could understand too.
“It’s okay, I just… I just wanna say that I’m sorry. For causing you pain. I’m sorry Alex. We’ll keep you safe on Earth from here. I promise.”
“I’m sure you can perfect my idea. You can be the head of the project now.”
“What project?” Alex asked.
“The one I came up with.” Raven explained. “In our other simulations, we kept humans so terrified that they often died as a result. With you, I wanted to work out a way that scares you, but not to death.”
“There are more?”
“Yeah, I mentioned that, right? I’m sorry- I should’ve made that clear.”
Alex’ eye did a human emotion that Raven had only known off in theory before and it scared her a bit frankly. “How many?”
Alex directed her eye into space. “That’s… not quite a subtle invasion.”
Raven couldn’t say anything to make it better.
She recognized the voice of Cloak.
“You have to turn back!” they urged her.
She shook her head. “No. I made a choice.”
“You have to- You can’t return to Earth!”
“There’s nothing there!”
“Earth was wiped out by the Icipher.”
“The subjects on our ship are the only survivors. We weren’t only desperate for your solution for ethical reasons. We didn’t let the worker group know because we feared it would- We shouldn’t have kept information from you, I’m sorry, but turn around now!”
“It’s- it’s a trap right? They’re lying to get us back?” Eddie asked.
“No… that’s not how-”
“What is the Icipher?” Alex shouted at the display. Raven was unsure how that would help. Just then, the dashboard went black. The video call was still up but anything else had become unresponsive.
“You… you went too far.” Cloak said. They could not feel fear but Raven could sense sadness welling up in them.
“Did it… get us?” Raven looked all around space but found nothing approaching.
“Are you alright?” Quill asked.
“Just finally tell us what’s going on!” Alex demanded.
Cloak sighed, at least he would if he was human and naturally had lungs. “We… discovered the Icipher not long after expanding into space.”
“That’s the space god that feeds on fear?”
“No, it doesn’t feed on fear, it is repelled by it. It is… terrified of the concept of fear. Or so we understand it. We assumed it kept away from other planets because the fear of its population kept it away but… the fear just slowed it. The humans we rescued were from especially anxious parts of the population. Humanity’s collective fear couldn’t envelop the planet, but the concentrated fear of the survivors was enough to keep our vessel safe. We had to keep them scared though, but they kept dying and our fear weakened. That’s when Raven started searching for non-lethal ways to induce enough terror. Unfortunately, even if all subjects reacted like Eddie, it wouldn’t be enough, but the project was young and we needed it to succeed...“
“Why did you keep all this secret?” Raven asked. “Not just the extinction of Earth but what the Icipher is?”
“To protect you. We weren’t sure- not sure if knowledge of the being would have harmful effects. It was foolish.”
“Is the Icipher a creature?” Alex asked.
“It might be. Possibly both. Both is and is not. We can’t contain it. As you see, it’s still roaming the space around us, waiting for our fear to weaken. We assume that it was placed where it was deliberately. A point in space where no life could come close enough to draw its attention. It was inactive until we barged in.” Cloak paused. “You should- There’s really no… good way to say this but… you should… take your own life. Once the Icipher gets to you, death is the mildest fate you could suffer.”
“...Right…” Raven said. “Please tell everyone that I love them and that I am grateful for everything.” she forced a smile. “I’ll be the first of our kind to visit whatever comes after death, so that’s exciting, right?”
“I’m sorry, all of you.”
“I’ll… I’ll close the transmission now. You don’t have to see this. Remember us like this.”
“Farwell, Raven. Alex, Eddie.”
“Goodbye.” Raven pushed a button to close the video.
“So, this is it? We kill ourselves?” I asked.
“I’ve let them believe so. It’s easiest on their conscience. Yet, I can’t find myself surrender to despair yet. If this thing was afraid of hope instead of fear, it’d be fucked. Though, the logical part of my brain isn’t so optimistic. I can only see us escape this through a miracle.”
Eddie stepped up to the now completely dark dashboard. “I still got this.” he held up a gun. “I grabbed it while you were fighting but- it’s still fully loaded.”
“Okay.” I said.
“So, unless any of you can come up with a plan in the next five seconds, I think I’m outta here. Sorry to be such a wimp but… I mean with Earth gone, what’s the point?”
Neither of us could think of anything we could do.
“Guess not then.” Eddie fumbled the hammer back. “Alex, I don’t know if you’d even still care but… recent events kind of put everything into perspective and I think… If I returned back home, I’d become a feminist.”
“Looks like you’re going to heaven after all.” I joked.
“Well, see you there.”
He put the gun to his head. Then, just like that, he pulled the trigger. It was so fast. I had expected him to take a moment to work up the courage but he did it before he could even think about it. My gaze still lingered where his eyes used to be. I had people die on me before, but I never saw it happen.
Raven knelt down to take the gun from his hand before the blood could stain it. “I’m sorry for getting you into this mess.”
She got back up and stood next to me.
“I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to be the last one. I can’t shoot myself in the head, I might survive it but I’m confident that my heart is human and lacks the regenerative abilities of my kind. The angle is a bit awkward though… do you think you can do it?”
I nodded while my head was still processing what she said. She put the gun in my hand.
“I wish I had more time with you. I think we could’ve become best friends.”
“You already are my best friend.”
Raven smiled and started crying. “I never did this before, so tell me if I’m doing it wrong.”
Raven put her arms around me and kissed me. I pulled her closer with my free hand and kissed her back. I was never sure what it was with kissing. Why was it something that people repeatedly did? Where did those good feelings come from? I still didn’t fully get it but I knew I’d do it again.
Raven pushed away to look at me.
“You nailed it.” I said.
She grinned, then looked down. “I don’t know how much time we got.” she grabbed the gun in my hand and put it on her chest.
“There. I’ll hold it in position.”
I wasn’t quite ready yet. She was patient with me.
“Alex… I don’t regret this. I wish I could’ve seen the world with you but… I think this is the best we could ever get. Maybe after this we’ll meet again in a world that isn’t doomed.”
“Does your kind believe in such things?”
“No point in an afterlife when you’re immortal. No, I got that idea from my human culture.”
I nodded. I pulled back the hammer and put my finger on the trigger.
“Wherever we end up, I’ll meet you there in a moment then.” she smiled but I couldn’t look at it.
“Now, do it like Eddie. Don’t think abou-” she was interrupted by a muffled bang. I looked up to see her still smiling.
“You nailed it.”
It took her body a moment to collapse.
I watched my friends on the floor until their blood pools connected. They both bled red. I couldn’t move. Just look into the blood. I saw it mirrored in the fluid. It looked different when looking directly at it. It was no physical body, more like looking at a memory of a dream. In the dream was a vast black swamp. There were stalks of grass and cattails, made just as black from the harsh shadow of the setting sun. I knew, if I walked up to it I wouldn’t find the sun vanishing behind the horizon but sinking into the swamp. I myself would be stuck up to my hips, but I knew the swamp was deeper. I knew there was something buried. I knew the mud would turn to water soon and I’d sink deeper, deeper...
As I kept imagining my sinking, I saw the creature below me, closer, closer. Clearer. The swamp was dead. There was no grass, no plant life. Those were its teeth. Those were its eyes. The water kept getting thinner and thinner until I wasn’t sinking as much as I was falling. The water too thin to drown in. Still so dark, but I saw the creature. It was hard to remember but I felt something cold against my head. I remembered the gun. I remembered my hand. I looked at the creature looking up to me.
“No, please!” it begged.
But my finger curled up. I wasn’t sure if I heard the bang or just felt it. If I did, then only for a moment.