"How much further?" yelled the tall man who walked in the middle of the group.
"There is a little cave up ahead," came the reply from the small dark man who led the party, "We can take shelter there until this storm has passed."
But it was at least another twenty minutes before the cave swam into focus through the whirling snowflakes, and by that time the three travellers were near exhaustion.
The small dark man pointed excitedly, and led them inside, out of range of the clawing wind. The others followed.
Forcing the last few ounces of strength through tired muscles, Philip Frogmore pumped his long legs and followed their guide into the cave. He sighed with relief. It was so wonderful to be out of the freezing wind that at first he hardly noticed how he had to cramp and bend his tall body to fit within the diminutive proportions of the cave.
As he was undoing the straps that tied the heavy bag to his back and shaking the worst of the snow from his hair, the third man made his way inside. He was as tall as Philip, though somewhat broader across the shoulders and his belly was rather round.
Philip Frogmore opened his thermos flask and drank the last of the tepid tea he had made before they had left base camp, several hours and a million years ago. The climb had been taxing, more taxing than he had anticipated. Perhaps too taxing.
No, he told himself sternly, I have come too far to be defeated by this blasted mountain. Not now. Not when I'm this close...
"Tell me, Iqbalis," he said in a stern, commanding voice, "How much further until we reach the ruins?"
The guide, who had already begun rummaging around in his own pack and was trying to start a fire in one corner of the cave, turned at the voice of his employer.
"Oh, not so very far, my master," he replied, "We have nearly reached the Eastern plateau; after that it is only an hour's good march to the ruins."
Philip frowned at that. They had picked the guide up two weeks ago when they had first arrived at the base of the great mountain, and had long since grown tired of his vague descriptions and platitudes.
He opened his mouth to ask for more specific information, but the third man spoke before Philip could.
"'Not so far' is what you say every time, Iqbalis," drawled the big man, scorn dripping off his words, "And we are fed up with your endless put-offs. How do we know you're not leading us on some wild goose chase around this bloody mountain? You're just trying to get more money out of us, forcing us to employ you longer than we need, that's what I think!"
The big man had lumbered to his feet and towered over Iqbalis. He shook his fist threateningly in the smaller man's face, and kicked the stone wall of the cave for good measure.
"Not now Robert, please," he said to his brother, who had a terrible temper, "Just let him get the fire going and we can dry out a little while the snow gets on with it."
Robert Frogmore, rogue, gentleman, and three times bare knuckle fighting champion of Tunbridge Wells, glowered down at the cowering guide, before snorting in disdain and walking away.
Philip nodded his relief and pulled out the creased map from within a deep recess of his coat. He unfolded the tatty piece of paper and stared at his notes, as if he hadn't stared so long and hard at it already that the markings and landmarks were burned into his mind.
Yes, the Eastern plateau is very close to the ruins, if our sources are to be believed, he said to himself, If only this damned snow would stop, we might even be able to reach it before nightfall...
That was a sobering thought! To imagine that the fruition of five years of painstaking research might be so close...Five years of being told he was crazy, that his theories were crackpot, impossible, the workings of an unsound mind...
Only his brother had stuck by him this long. And that was only due to the desperation of that man's finances, and the (somewhat exaggerated) picture of monetary reward Philip had painted for him in the last few days before they departed on their journey.
Robert Frogmore was not a pleasant man. Everybody who met him commented on how thoroughly unpleasant he was, often after only meeting him briefly. Philip Frogmore had, of course, grown up with him, and so had a very much better than average understanding of exactly how unpleasant he was. It was a mark of the extremity of his situation that he had found himself turning to such an unpleasant man for help...
In the end, the snow only lasted for another forty minutes before fading down to a gentle whisper.
Philip warmed his hands one final time in front of the dying fire before strapping his gloves on and gesturing to his guide.
"Come on Iqbalis," he commanded, "It's time for the last leg..."
And soon we will be at the ruins, he said to himself as they left the shelter of the cave and started again up the steep slope of the mountainside, then we shall find the proof I need...and they will listen to me once again!
Philip Frogmore took a deep breath and trundled after their guide.
Behind him, bringing up the rear, Robert shook snow off his broad shoulders and curled his lip into a cruel sneer.
* * *
Philip Frogmore was a gentleman academic. At least, that was how he always introduced himself at parties. At least, that was how he had always introduced himself at parties, back in the days when he used to be invited to any.
His aristocratic descent was due to the fact that his great great great grandmother once indulged in a spot of fumbling behind a rosebush in the royal gardens of a highly respected house in London. The fact that the fumbler in question was twelfth in line to the throne had led to some awkward questions, a hasty marriage, and a rather nice estate in the South of England. But Philip Frogmore had grown up haunted by the spectre of never accomplishing anything off his own back, which had led to him, at the age of seven, giving himself over to the life academic. The problem was, there was a dearth of academic respect for the subject to which he had resolved to devote his life.
It was to his dismay, to his very great dismay, that Philip Frogmore learnt that there was not a single university in the whole of the United Kingdom that offered courses on UFOs as an undergraduate subject.
And so it was that he had read and researched and toiled away endless hours in the study of a subject that was looked upon with disdain by the very community he wished for the respect of.
A few years ago, things had started looking up: he had popularised a new theory that involved a hitherto unsuspected link between aliens and the lost kingdom of Atlantis. Oh, there were some weak points in his ideas, he would have been the first to admit it...but the theories had caught the imagination of the community for a single, golden summer. For that short, wonderful space of time, Philip Frogmore had been a hit. Then, as quickly as his newfound respect had waxed, it was cast aside. New ideas were proposed, new theories eclipsed his own and relegated him to the realm of the has-beens, which was only marginally more bearable than the realms of the never-were.
How he had longed to regain the respect of that community! But it had all seemed hopeless...until...
...until he had stumbled upon an old manuscript in his family's extensive library...
At last, he had a new idea, a new theory.
And he had something even more valuable, too.
He had a map.
* * *
By the time they had reached the Eastern plateau, a vast flat expanse of glorious whiteness, the snow had stopped completely, and the sun had poked out from behind the clouds, shining bright and cold on the mountainside.
Philip Frogmore wiped a thin film of sweat from his brow – the climb had been quite steep – and realised that his heart was hammering from more than simple exertion.
The moment they had topped the rise of the plateau, he had seen them in the distance, sparkling like forgotten gems in the freezing sunshine.
The ruins, he thought.
They were real.
"You see, master!" exclaimed Iqbalis excitedly, "The ruins of my people! We will be there before the sun has even started to set!"
Philip allowed himself a rare smile.
"I see them, Iqbalis," he said, and he turned to his brother, "There, you see, Robert – our fortune...and our reputation!"
"You can keep your reputation and stick it where you like," growled Robert indifferently, "I'll take the fortune, thank you very much."
"Yes, well..." muttered Philip, "When we find the technology left by the Atlanteans, I am sure we shall all be very rich men..."
Iqbalis grinned back at them, and led them across the open, windswept plateau.
* * *
The distance was deceptive.
An hour went by, then two, and still it seemed they were no closer to the ruins in the distance. Broken structures and decaying towers glinted back at them, teasing them, daring them to rush in and discover them. The landscape to either side was empty apart from an occasional rocky outpost or windswept tree.
At last, Philip called a brief halt to have a bite to eat and a moments rest. They ate some of the cured meat wrapped in foil they had brought with them from base camp. Philip only had a small amount, and put the remainder carefully back in his pocket.
"You know, Robert," he said conversationally, "I wouldn't be surprised if we find the ruins to be inhabited, after all. I have some interesting theories involving the sasquatch, that is, the Abominable Snowman. In fact, my research has led me to speculate..."
But Robert, who had finished scoffing down the whole of his portion of cured meat, idly threw the foil wrapping away and lumbered to his feet.
"Time to go," he cut in, "The sun's sinking, and I want to see this fortune with my own eyes before we have to pitch a camp."
Robert took a few steps, paused, and peered back over one enormous shoulder.
"The Yeti is the abominable snowman. Or the Skunk Ape. It's not the sasquatch. Sasquatch is just sasquatch. You've always been weak when it comes to details."
And then he was walking onwards, giving Philip no chance to defend his choice of words nor his honour.
On they went.
They walked and they walked and they walked, and still the distant ruins refused to draw any closer.
Suddenly, Robert let out a terrifying roar, grabbed Iqbalis by his coat and hefted him up in the air.
"You little maggot!" he was shouting, shaking the smaller man like a rag doll, "You vile sneak! I'll dash your brains out!"
"Robert, no!" yelled Philip, running over to his brother, "What on earth are you doing!"
"Tell him, you slimy little toad!" demanded Robert, "Tell him how you've been tricking us!"
"I...have...been...good...masters, I promise!" Iqbalis squeaked, fighting to get the words out past all the shaking.
Disgusted, Robert heaved the guide up in the air and sent him careening away to land in a heap in the snow.
"Look!" shouted Robert, and pointed a quivering finger at the ground.
Philip followed the shaking digit.
There, on the ground ahead of them, were three sets of tracks, heading off in single file towards the ruins.
Philip narrowed his eyes and followed the footprints.
Something glittered in the snow and caught his eye.
It was the little foil wrapper Robert had thrown away when they had last stopped.
"He's been leading us in circles," Philip muttered to himself.
But we've been walking straight towards the ruins, he thought, how could we have been going in circles?
Philip looked up.
Robert had advanced once more on the cowering figure of Iqbalis.
Philip hurried after him.
"Wait, Robert," said Philip, making a grab for his brother's massive arm.
The bigger man growled and shrugged him off.
He pulled back his arm, ready to deliver the shattering punch for which he was rightly feared throughout all Tunbridge Wells.
"Hoy, there!" came a shout from behind them. The voice sounded familiar.
Philip turned around to see who was hailing them.
Three figures were coming towards them rapidly.
One was tall and thin, one was short and dark, and the third was huge and imposing.
"Oh," said Philip Frogmore, quite, quite shocked.
* * *
"So you three are looking for the ruins, too?" asked Philip Frogmore, one hand held to his throbbing head.
"Yes, that's right," replied Philip Frogmore, smiling uncomfortably, and wondering if his nose really looked like that.
To one side, the two Roberts eyed one another warily.
The only pair who seemed really to have hit things off were the Iqbalisis, who were exchanging jokes in their own language and intermittently bursting into howls of laughter.
"So how on earth do you think this has happened?" asked Philip Frogmore.
Philip Frogmore considered the question.
"Well," he said at length, "It seems to me that the Atlanteans have obviously left some kind of strange, time-distorting technology designed to stop anyone from approaching close to the ruins..."
"Ah, I see!" interrupted Philip Frogmore, comprehension lighting up his face, "So we activated it when we approached too close, and were sent backwards both in time and space..."
"Yes, precisely!" said Philip Frogmore, delighted to have such an intelligent companion for once, "Well, what shall we do next, do you think?"
Philip Frogmore considered the question.
"Well..." said Philip Frogmore at last, "It seems to me that any such defence mechanism would require a great deal of power to operate. It stands to reason that such power as exists within the ruins would be depleted and of limited operational use..."
"So all we have to do is keep going," broke in Philip Frogmore, "And sooner or later, they equipment is bound to run out of juice, and then we'll reach the ruins!"
The Philip Frogmores beamed at one another.
"Come on, chaps!" they shouted in unison, "Let's go!"
There was a brief pause while the Roberts made it quite clear that neither one was willing to turn his back on the other, before they compromised by walking exactly side by side a few feet apart.
The Iqibalisis led the way, cackling and laughing like hyenas, while the sun slid slowly down the horizon and turned the flat ice into a sheet of crimson fire.
* * *
The sun had nearly set and they were no closer to the ruins when they came again on the familiar footprints and the discarded piece of foil.
"Oh dear," said Philip Frogmore gloomily, casting about, and wondering if they were soon to be joined by a third set of travellers.
But there was no one else to be seen; and they were just about to shoulder their packs once more and carry on walking when, "What's that?" exclaimed one of the Roberts, suspiciously.
"What's what?" replied both the Philip Frogmores, who had rather poor hearing.
"It came from over there," hissed the other Robert, pointing to a large snow-covered boulder a little way away.
Moving like silent panthers in the gathering twilight, the Roberts advanced on the offending rock.
They disappeared behind it, and a moment later there was a squeal.
One of the Roberts emerged carrying a stranger slung over his shoulder.
"Unhand me, you vile piece of fiction!" shouted the stranger, his voice muffled.
Robert flung the man down on the snow.
"Ouch!" he exclaimed, and the others all gathered round to get a look at him.
The newcomer was a youngish man, slightly overweight with scruffy-looking clothes and a short, dark goatee on his untidy face.
He straightened a pair of purple glasses, and looked up at the people who surrounded him.
"Now that was most irregular!" he said crossly, brushing snow off his trousers and retrieving a pen from behind his ear, "It will not happen again, do I make myself quite clear?"
The Robert who had carried him from behind the rock laughed loudly.
"Oh, yes?" he said sarcastically, and reached for the newcomer.
But quick as a flash, the newcomer whipped a pad of paper out of his back pocket. He scribbled something down.
"Urgh," said Robert, clutching his chest.
He fell down in the snow, stone cold dead.
Philip Frogmore peered over the newcomer's shoulder. In the gathering darkness, he could just make out what was written on the pad. It said:
"Urgh," said Robert, clutching his chest.
He fell down in the snow, stone cold dead.
"Oh," said Philip Frogmore, taking a step back.
The remaining Robert eyed his departed doppelganger warily.
"Who are you?" asked Philip.
The newcomer looked up at him with a glint in his eyes.
"I'm the author," he answered, haughtily.
"What?" said Philip.
"I'm the author," repeated the author, getting to his feet with a great dignity that was only somewhat spoilt by the fact that the zip on his trousers was undone.
"What do you mean, the author?" demanded the other Philip Frogmore.
"Oh, this is all simply an experiment," said the author breezily, "I'm just trying out a new machine I have for generating plots, you see. Meant to make this whole tiresome process a little easier."
"But I'm not just a...just a character in some third rate story!" shouted Philip, "I'm real! I have dreams, goals, ambition!"
"Oh, really?" said the author, innocently, "And what are they, exactly?"
"Well," stuttered Philip Frogmore, caught somewhat off balance by the whole affair, "I...I want to find the ruins, of course!"
"Yes, yes!" put in the other Philip Frogmore, "I want to find the remains of the great Atlantean civilisation, and reveal to the world how it relates to the aliens, that's why I came to this blasted mountain in the first place!"
"I see, I see," cut in the author with a silky sharpness to his voice, "Tell me, where exactly is this mountain?"
"Um," said Philip Frogmore, feeling suddenly a little silly, "Kent, if I remember rightly."
He did have a clear memory of the first day's climb. He remembered how pretty the sea looked as it sparkled besides the chalk cliffs of Dover.
"Kent, is it?" the author smiled nastily, "Lots of snow-covered mountains in Kent, are there?"
"I suppose there must be..." mumbled Philip Frogmore.
Now that he came to talk to someone else about it, the whole thing did sound a bit...well, far fetched.
"And this map of yours," continued the author, "The one that brought you here in the first place. What does it show, exactly?"
"Oh, that's easy," said Philip, brightening at the prospect of a question he could answer comfortably, "It's a map of how to get to the ruins! It shows all the hidden paths through the mountain! It was drawn by my great grandfather when he first..."
The author cut him off.
"It's just a simple plot device," he said coldly, "Just a small word on a page to hook the audience and try and trick them in to carrying on reading."
Philip Frogmore shook his head, disbelieving.
"But my great grandfather..." he began.
"Twenty minutes ago, you didn't even have a great grandfather!" the author said sharply, "Face facts you facetious piece of fiction! You're nothing more than a small dream, an experiment, a squib, floating briefly through a ridiculous plot designed purely to test drive my new story-generating device!"
The author laughed and spun around, arms outstretched.
"I mean, how unbelievable is all of this?" he advanced towards Philip Frogmore, "Aliens and Atlantis! Mountains in Kent and Abominable Snowmen and time travel! What nonsense! Do you know, you're not even proper fiction, either?"
Philip Frogmore was shaking his head, trying to deny the awful words.
"You're not even fiction!" the author continued, "You're just a stupid parody of a friend of mine who gave me a starting point for a story as a bit of fun! Look!"
And with that, the author scribbled something down on his pad, before brushing aside a sheet of snow from the ground.
Below the snow, a window was visible.
Philip Frogmore peered down.
Through the window was a view of a comfortable looking room. In the room was a chair, and on the chair was a man. He was rather tall with a pleasant-looking face and a set of pyjamas that were a little too small for him. He was reading a stack of printed pages and smiling.
"See!" mocked the author, "That's who you're based on! That's the real Philip. He's reading this right now."
At that moment, the tall man in the room below looked up, but it seemed he could not see the others looking down at him. Then he smiled, as if at his own foolishness, and went back to reading the story.
"Oh, no," said Philip Frogmore, shaking his head, "I'm not just a character."
"Oh, yes!" contradicted the author. He kicked snow back over the window in the ground, obscuring the view.
He straightened up and looked around.
"This experiment has been interesting, but it seems the machine needs a little fine-tuning..." he declared, rubbing his hands together in a businesslike fashion, "It transpires there are a few faults I need to iron out. And now the time has come to put you all back in the box."
He glanced over at the Iqbalisis.
"You first, I think," he said. He marched straight up to them, took out his pen, and with two quick thrusts, marked them each on the forehead.
"Ouch," said Iqbalis.
But he had already begun to change, the thin fibres of characterisation that had bound him together fraying and coming apart at the seams. His smallness and his darkness wavered, his form and shape and borders all swam and melted and swelled, until, with a small popping noise, he vanished in a puff of vaporised ink and floated away with the wind.
"Lovely," said the author, before turning to face the two Philip Frogmores, "Now it is your turn..."
He sprang forward and stabbed the nearest one.
"Oh, that wasn't very nice..." said Philip Frogmore as he fell back into the snow and melted into the background.
The single remaining Philip Frogmore faced the author.
"Wait a moment," said Philip, backing away, "Let's not be hasty..."
"Now, now," said the author, advancing menacingly, "You know the sign of good fiction is that it knows when the story's over,"
"But...but there's so much I want to learn," stammered Philip, desperately trying to buy time, "I mean...um, well, you said I'm based on someone you know, right? A friend of yours?"
The author was nodding, but he was still coming closer.
"Well then, what about Robert?" whimpered Philip, "Is he really my brother?"
"Oh, no," the author shook his head, "The Philip I know doesn't really have a brother. But every hero needs an antagonist: that's what Robert was there for. He was going to be the villain, if this story had ever gone anywhere, that is. Sadly, it was not to be..."
Philip realised his back was pressing against a rock. There was nowhere left to go.
The author advanced.
"Say goodnight, sweet little fiction," said the author in a nasty, singsong voice.
A shadow loomed behind him.
A huge hand wrapped around the author's neck and lifted him bodily off the ground.
Robert gave a quick twist.
There was a horrible snapping noise.
The body of the author lay still on the empty tundra.
The wind howled.
"What kind of a self-absorbed idiot writes himself into a story, anyway?" snorted Robert.
Philip let out a sigh of relief and knelt down to catch his breath.
Something sparkled on the snow by his feet. It was the author's pen.
He picked it up and examined the object. It was a fine, a very fine and ornate fountain pen. It was inscribed with a name, but Philip could not quite make it out; and on the tip was a single drop of ink, crimson as blood.
He staggered to his feet and looked up.
Robert was glaring down at him.
In one huge hand he held the author's notepad.
"Give me the pen, little brother," said Robert, softly.
There was a moment's pause, while time stretched out to forever and the whole world seemed to hold its breath.
I'm the hero, thought Philip Frogmore, I'm the hero...and he's the villain.
Philip jammed the pen into his pocket, turned on his heel, and began to run.
* * *
As he topped a small rise, he realised with a mounting sense of horror that the snow was starting to decay. It was not melting, simply retreating, falling apart and away into non-descript white nothingness. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Robert was lumbering after him, breath no longer steaming in air that was no longer frigid.
The author's dead, thought Philip as he struggled onwards, The author's dead, and now the whole story is coming apart around me!
Suddenly, he realised he must have strayed from the path. He could no longer make out any shape in the landscape that he recognised. The distant ruins which had been his single goal since...well, since as long as he could remember (since I was first written, arose the treacherous thought) had faded away to nothing, and could no longer be found on the darkening horizon. He glanced up to try and get his bearings, and realised that, one by one, the stars were fizzling and going out.
He ran a few steps further, gaping upwards...and that was when he tripped.
He fell sprawling into a substance that was as soft as snow but had far less solidity.
When he tried to push himself back up, his hands sunk into the cloying stuff as if it was moonshine.
"Ah, so you've stopped running at last, little brother," said an all-too-familiar voice.
Robert loomed over him. There was no visible source of light anywhere in the world, but still a ghastly illumination seemed to stream from everywhere and nowhere, sketching out the crude face of his brother above.
"Here, you can have the pen," moaned Philip, "Here, take it!"
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the fountain pen. It seemed to be the only thing in the whole fading world that retained any sense of solidity.
Robert leaned down and snatched it out of his hand.
"I don't want to die," whimpered Philip miserably, "I don't want to be just a character in a little story that someone read once and then forgot about forever."
Tears were streaming down his face. But no sooner had they left his cheeks than they sparkled in the emptiness and vanished.
"We're not even going to be that, soon," said Robert, grimly, and he held out his arm.
Even as Philip stared on, he could see that the outlines of Robert's body were wavering, becoming less substantial, mixing in with the broken components of the hollow world.
He looked back at his own arm. It was flickering a little, but it still seemed more...solid somehow than his brother's.
Robert had noticed this, too.
"He said you were based on someone real," Robert muttered, as if talking to himself, "He said I was just made up, but you were based on someone real...maybe that means you're intrinsically more real than me, somehow...I wonder..."
With a casual flick of his wrist, Robert drove the fountain pen down towards Philip's chest. At the last moment, Philip managed to raise his arm.
The pen stabbed into the pad of muscle around his shoulder.
The pain was excruciating. Philip screamed.
But worse than the pain was the terrible sensation of leaking.
It was as if all his strength, all his will and energy, even his sense of self, everything was leaking out through the wound in his arm.
Philip stared down. A thick blood, black as fresh ink, was oozing up into the air out of the stab wound. It rose into the darkness, and drifted towards Robert. Even as he sank back and felt himself fade, Philip could see that his haemorrhaging life force was creeping into Robert's flesh, filling him out, rejuvenating him. Already he looked much more solid than he had done a moment ago.
"No," croaked Philip desperately, pulling the pen out of his arm and letting it drop to the ground.
Robert advanced after him, cackling delightedly.
"I'm sorry that things must end this way, my brother," gloated Robert, sounding not a bit of it, "But you know how it is...survival of the fittest and all that..."
Philip dragged himself backwards, skidding over white ground that seemed as light and empty as air...
...and felt his back nudge into something more real.
His head whipped around.
He had run into something that was rather solid. Totally solid, in fact. Almost preternaturally solid, one might say.
He looked it over, disbelieving. It was a small metal box with lots of exciting-looking flashing lights scattered all around it and a big keyboard covered with hundreds of strange letters.
And on the top was a single large button.
The button was labelled:
Robert raised the pen above his head once more.
"Goodbye, little brother," he screamed.
"Goodbye," agreed Philip, and slammed his hand down on the button.
There was a flash of intense light.
Robert was alone in the emptiness.
* * *
Philip fell through an eternal tunnel of words. They encased him and caressed him, they shot past him on every side, moving too fast to be read, before streaming away again into the void.
Suddenly, after what seemed like a million years, the tunnel stopped.
Philip was standing in a dusty room lit by flickering candles. He was balancing on old floorboards that creaked with every slight movement he made. Outside, he could hear the wind howling and shaking the leaves of trees unseen beyond the window.
He looked down at the little machine, which appeared to have come with him from the mountain.
A small screen he had not noticed before blinked up at him.
It displayed the message:
Default plot setting activated.
Standard plot #276 engaged: haunted house.
The plot machine, Philip thought to himself, I've got his plot machine!
He remembered that his arm was hurting.
"Ouch," he said, and looked down.
He was not bleeding any more.
Something far worse was happening.
It was as if the wound he had received had broken the cohesive field of fiction that held his body together. Colours and shapes were leaking out of his arm, blending and merging with the floor and the wall and the other objects in the room.
Even as he looked on, a slither of skin peeled off his forearm, was contaminated by the narrative resonance of the story around him, and turned into a marginally spooky spider, which scuttling away in a cloud of existential angst and hid under one of the floorboards.
"Whoooooo!" said a rather un-enthusiastic voice by his ear.
Philip was a reasonable man, or at least, until he had found out today that he was simply a somewhat two-dimensional character in a cheap story, he had always considered himself to be reasonable. But in the last three hours he had climbed a mountain, seen his guide ruthlessly written out of reality, been chased and brutalised by his brother, and finally catapulted out of his world into a somewhat lacklustre attempt at a scary old house, not to mention that he was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he did not, as it happened, actually exist.
There is only so much a man – or a character – can take.
Philip spun round and thumped the owner of the voice.
"Ow!" said the ghost, clutching its ghostly nose, "You didn't have to go and do that, you rotten bugger!"
"Sorry," said Philip, "It's just, it's been rather a long day. You rather startled me."
"I scared you?" said the ghost, hopefully.
"Um, no," said Philip, honest to a fault, "I said, 'you startled me'. I wasn't scared. Not even for a moment. Sorry."
The ghost sagged.
"Oh," the ghost sounded desolate, "I thought I'd managed it this time. I was never very good at scaring, me."
"That's, um, that's a shame," hazarded Philip, who was feeling a bit out of his depth, "Look, you don't know how to operate this machine, do you?"
The ghost peered at the rows of little flashing lights, and shook his head.
"Sorry mate," he said, shrugging translucent shoulders, "That's not in my characterisation, see. Scaring – yes. Haunting – definitely. I fancy I might even stretch to a spot of possession, if push came to shove. But fiddly little machines with lots of flashing lights? Sorry, that's a no."
Philip leaned forward to investigate, but at that moment there was a horrible ripping noise.
He looked up.
The side of one wall was tearing open.
A familiar ornate fountain pen was being stabbed through the crumbling plaster, opening a rift between this place and an empty, white nothingness beyond.
"Philip..." came the awful roar from behind the tear.
Moving desperately, Philip prodded and poked the machine.
Robert had just shouldered his way inside when Philip managed to prime the keyboard in a way that seemed to make the machine happy.
It made a pleasant little pinging noise.
The haunted house vanished in a blur of words.
* * *
This time, Philip found himself in a run-down bar in the old west. Mean looking cowboys in big hats and dusty blue jeans stared at him incredulously while he looked around and tried very much not to appear like someone who it would pay to shoot.
His arm was worse now. The wound had spread further up his shoulder. A drop of ink dribbled out of the cut and fell to the floor, where it immediately turned into a bar of music that complemented the jaunty tune coming from a dusty old piano in one corner of the room.
But almost at once, the already familiar flash of rending light cut through a wall, and here he was again: Robert chasing him, his own personal antagonist, his own personal villain.
Is this how it would be forever? Chased across a landscape of hackneyed plot devises, a fictional hero pursued by his fictional brother, for ever and ever until all the pages that ever were had run out and every drop of ink had turned to dust?
No, thought Philip, narrowing his eyes.
He would not be beaten.
He was not written simply to vanish in a puff of narrative.
There was still one place he could go.
He turned to the machine, and began earnestly prodding buttons and pulling leavers.
Robert had nearly got fully inside the room by now. He seemed very big and real and imposing.
At last, Philip worked out how to input text to the machine.
He typed in one word.
Robert reached for him.
Philip slammed his hand down on the big button.
The bar around him vanished.
* * *
Philip got out of his shower, dried himself off with a towel and donned his comfortable furry dressing gown. He yawned a tired yawn. It had been rather a long day. He had gotten up early and gone to work. When he'd got home, he had started studying – he had some important exams coming up soon – and he'd barely had a moment to himself all day.
Oh yes, and after all that, he'd had to read the silly story his friend had wanted to show him.
A smile flitted across his face as he thought about it. He had not asked to be written into the story – although he knew his namesake within the story was hardly based on him, anyway – and had found the characters little more than caricatures, the plot a self-indulgent mish-mash of ideas that other authors had already expressed more elegantly in the past. Still, it had been diverting so far. He was nearly at the end now. He had decided just to have a shower and get ready for bed, and then he would read the last few pages before he turned out the light.
He opened the door to his bedroom and went inside.
Something was wrong.
The cupboard door was ajar, and the pages of the story had been thrown about the room, as if a strong wind had blown through and scattered everything to chaos.
And there was a strange-looking machine sitting on his desk.
Intrigued, he walked over to it.
The machine was roughly box-shaped, and was covered in lots of little leavers and exciting-looking flashing lights. There was a big inviting button on the top.
There was also a little screen. Philip peered closer to see what was written there.
It was a single word.
Philip frowned and reached tentatively for one of the levers. He pulled it, and immediately the read-out on the screen changed. Now it said:
Brutally realistic post apocalyptic nightmare
Slowly, inexorably, Philip reached out a hand towards the single large button on the top of the machine.
He pressed the button.
There was a brief whirring noise, a flash of bright light, and Philip and the strange box both disappeared in a black vortex of ink.
Silence filled the room.
There was a creak.
Philip Frogmore stepped out of the cupboard and examined the room that used to belong to the man he had been based on. He looked down at his arm. Already the scars were healing, the wound smothered by the soothing influence of reality.
He slipped into a coat that seemed to fit him rather well, spared a single thought for the poor man called Philip who was probably even now meeting Robert for the first time, and walked out of the open door into the real world.