Czioc sat in a house. It was white, pure white, full of postmodern furniture sitting on the floor.
'Darling, I'll be right there, I'm just setting the kids off to school,' called Noksalika from the next room.
That was the crazy thing. All the furniture was on the same wall as he was; pictures were not just stuck on the wall but hanging, as though gravity was pulling in one direction only.
The pictures, like the furniture, were pure monochrome.
'Hello dear,' said Noksalika suddenly. He blinked. She was suddenly sitting in front of him, on the other side of a glass coffee table.
'Hi … darling?' he said uncertainly. There was an awkward pause. An awful howl came from outside an open window to the right, where it was dark. Night time.
Noksalika was wearing a moderate, black and white dress – it certainly wasn't the wild or fabulous stuff she usually wore. She looked at him attentively, and cleared her throat.
'I resent you for holding me back and not recognising my inner strength,' she said crisply.
What? He'd always recognised her inner strength. But instead of saying this, he came out with: 'And … I resent you for ignoring my passions and not letting me express myself.'
She nodded primly, as though he'd said the right thing. Despite this, he still had no idea why he'd said it. Another chorus of terrible howling continued outside the window.
The clean, soulless furniture was really bothering him. A single light over his head shed light around the room. Was light itself pulled down by this strange, one-directional gravity?
'That's why it never worked the first time,' Noksalika went on wistfully. 'Modern couples need healthy communication if they are to have even just a little connection with each other,' she appeared to sniff sadly, 'no matter how … unromantic.'
What? Everybody was honest with each other. Openness was the whole point of the Ethe. And since when—
His voice cut off his own thoughts. 'Yes, you're right. But it's so tricky to be completely honest and keep the romance alive.' What was this stuffy crap he was saying? They weren't his thoughts. He frowned openly, looking around anxiously at the square edges of the furniture.
On one wall, two large black and white photographs showed generic images of some city, fake and insincere.
Yet another bout of mournful howling came from outside the window.
'Did you hear that?' he said, standing up.
'Oh isn't it just,' smiled Noksalika wistfully, ignoring him. 'Of course, much of our lives are spent chasing after the things these glossy magazines tell us we want…'
'I'm sorry, I can't hear you very well,' Czioc said, walking over to the window. She talked to the white sofa as though he was still sitting there.
'…and, ahaha,' she gave a nervous laugh, 'it's so funny because we know that they're only magazine dreams, but we still chase them anyway…'
Czioc stuck his head out of the window, and immediately ducked as a glowing jellyfish drifted past. Outside was pure blackness, with numerous random, floating jellyfish giving off an eerie yellow glow. He looked down and saw five foxes in bowler hats sitting on a well-kept lawn below. Their heads were raised as they yowled away, holding playing cards in their paws.
'Excuse me!' he yelled. Noksalika continued to talk bland nonsense behind him. The foxes stopped howling and looked up. 'Could you keep it down?'
'I say!' declared one in a posh accent. 'We're just having a jolly time, what what!'
'You're making a massive racket!' Part of Czioc wondered why on earth they needed to make so much noise playing cards.
'By crikey,' said another fox, 'the old boy wants us to keep the noise down. Wha'dya say?'
'I'm sure we could do something if we really are bothering the good fellow so much,' said a third.
He was suddenly back in the sofa, with Noksalika still yapping away at him. He frowned at the window, which was now shut.
'—so I guess basically, we're stuck between chasing artificial dreams that we don't really want, and settling for blind security and comfort where we aren't challenged. That's what I think, anyway. How do you feel about it?'
Czioc wasn't really sure what she meant.
'Is this hell?'
She smiled, with teeth. 'No, but this is.'
Czioc woke up in hell.
There was pain everywhere, and his face was sticky, and some god-awful noxious smell poisoned the air he was breathing. He coughed, and felt the biting taste of vomit in his throat and the back of his mouth. Someone was talking to him, but he couldn't make out the words.
He opened his eyes. It was dark, but there was some light ahead of him; stained grass blew in a gentle breeze. His right eye stung – he matched this to the taste in his mouth, and worked out his face was surrounded by vomit. There were other darker, more suspicious smells in the air.
He tried moving his head, which hurt immensely, and realised he could barely move anything. His arm lay awkwardly in front of him. Thankfully he could see his fingers wiggling gently, although he was only half sure it was him making them wiggle.
The voice spoke again, clearer now.
Thank god you're back. I was terrified of being stuck here 'til you starved to death.
Czioc opened his dry, sore mouth. 'Who … are you?'
Oh shit. Have you lost your memory?
Czioc decided to ignore this complication for now. Ahead of him, he could see two red pillars sprouting from the ground, then realised they were legs. There was a snorting sound from somewhere above.
That's your horse. It's been here for ages, god knows why. I would've run off a long time ago.
Blocks of memory were starting to fall into place, except badly, leaving annoying little holes. A battle. His horse. The dead person inside his head.
He started to wonder if it had been worth waking up.
Nuh-uh-uh, a-bub-bub, the voice in his head chided, as if wagging a finger to a small child. You're not going to sleep again that easily. You've recovered well enough. And I'm pretty sure this guy on top of you weighs less. He must have dissolved a bit more by now.
Czioc coughed a bit more, retching on an empty stomach. His crushed chest made his breathing wretched and shallow. He was lying on his other arm, which, with alarm, he realised he couldn't feel. This sudden flash of panic sent a tremor through his aching body, and there was a tiny movement in the massive weight above. So he pressed the palm of his free hand into the dirty ground, tensed every aching muscle in his body, and heaved.
Czioc had never really experienced massive pain before. His benchmark was usually his worst ever hangover: after eighty-seven and a half drinks, he'd lost two weeks of memories and gone blind for three days. The rush of pain coursing through his body now, as light fell on his face and the filthy grass around him, made that hangover look like a dance in a paddling pool.
The enormous weight shifted, allowing himself to free a leg and move over by several inches, before collapsing and getting trapped again.
You're rubbish. If I had a body I'd be out of there in no time.
'If you're so bloody clever, where's your body now?' Czioc wheezed painfully.
Got an answer for everything, haven't you. That's the last time I try and help.
'Well thank god for that.'
After another couple of monstrous efforts, Czioc heaved himself out into open air, finally freed from the twisted black metal of the melted golem's armour. He panted on the ground in agony. The horse whinnied softly and began licking the vomit off his face, which was endearing and yet quite disgusting at the same time.
Even if some of bones hadn't been broken already, they probably were by now – his ribs felt like a sack of jigsaw puzzle pieces. During the crawling his trousers had come unstuck from his legs, and with murky dread he realised that he'd soiled himself while he'd been unconscious. The stink mixed with vomit and a further alien stench which caused another bout of coughing and rasping, bringing up only drool from his empty belly.
Aaaaaand relax, beamed the voice in his head pleasantly. Czioc murmured something inaudible. After another rest, he hauled himself up to sitting, then standing, leaning on the horse for support.
The scene was carnage. All around the clearing were decaying bodies; even the salty sea air couldn't mask the smell of rotting flesh. Bodies of centaurs, mantrels, tetranids and others littered the ground, corroded and mouldy. Between them lay vast bodies of golems in broken armour. And scattered around were pieces of hideous black biology, offcuts from disgusting alien beasts that Mother Nature herself had rejected.
Look. Even the flies are dead from eating that black stuff.
Czioc turned this way and that, resisting the urge to cry at the pain in his body and the awfulness of everything. The horse neighed and pawed at the golem's dead body behind him, and Czioc suddenly remembered his sword. He pulled it out from underneath the huge body with some effort. The blade was covered in sticky black goo and filth, but otherwise appeared fine.
Then he peeled off his shit-stained trousers and underwear, and walked out across the shingle to wash himself in the sea.
The Ethe hadn't gone, but it was very faint. Czioc's journey had brought him out into the middle of nowhere, to a village miles from anywhere, and now he could barely sense the airwaves that connected him to the world. It was especially bad considering all the villagers had been killed. He and the horse were the only living things left.
What about me? said the dead voice inside his head.
'You're not alive,' he mumbled.
You're so harsh.
The whole region had been devastated. With his eyes, Czioc could see the trees and landscape dying with the black poison that had overrun the seaside village. The Ethe was weak, almost non-existent, for hundreds of miles; he could only guess it had been devoured in the same way.
He looked up at the sea. The cavern stretched long and far away from him, and the sea curved upwards into the distance with it. He remembered seeing it before the battle with the black demons. It appeared similar, but there were no fishing boats now. The surface didn't glitter any more.
'How long was I unconscious?' he said quietly, staring at the waves. He shivered in the bright, warm air. His clothes were soaking wet, but at least they didn't have blood and shit in them any more.
Three, maybe four days.
'Right.' He bit his lip. 'So what's happened?'
Don't ask me. I've got your eyes and ears, not a crystal ball.
But it doesn't look good. These things have poisoned the land.
'And therefore the Ethe itself.'
It was early Summer. The trees should have been glowing with vitality and flowers. Instead they lay twisted, stunted, lifeless. Or maybe even with a life of their own. Things seemed to be moving, slowly shape-shifting under the bark…
It wasn't just the local area. Czioc scanned the weak Ethe connection, looking to the South, and found nothing but the same blank desolation for thousands of miles. You couldn't see the destruction on the Ethe, but the utter lack of life spoke for itself. He scanned East and West, Tak and Zha, and couldn't see anything different. But to the distant North, there were lights, people, activity…
To the North was panic and terror. From the border of the advancing darkness, people were fleeing in their tens of thousands. The entire Ethe was under an All-Committee state of emergency – and the Committees rarely agreed with each other, never mind acted in unity.
'It's martial law,' he whispered, reading the details of the state of emergency declaration. 'They're arresting anyone who even says anything questionable.'
But no-one cares, mused the dead voice. Because everyone thinks it's the end of the world. Look at the message boards.
It was maybe seven hundred miles to the nearest undamaged land, and further to what Czioc would call "civilisation".
'So, if this is the end of the world,' said Czioc slowly, 'do I still have to find Noksalika?'
He sat there on the shingle, wrapped in his cloak. His horse knelt down next to him. He looked at the blue ring-shaped mark on her rump, and suddenly remembered he'd called her Zero. More flashes came back – random friends, drinking on the Migration, laid-back bars and crazy nightclubs…
You know we've got a problem, warned the voice. The Ethe's weak. It's almost not there. This means you'll take much longer to heal.
Czioc winced, because he knew it was true. He tried imagining how long it would take his own body to heal him by itself, then realised he didn't know.
And then there's food. Nothing in this land is edible. You can't even eat the soil because there's no Ethe in it.
He made a frightened hiccup sound at the prospect of starving to death.
Check the huts for food. Maybe there's some supplies stored away that haven't been damaged.
He put his hand on his knee and was about to heave himself up, when the Ethe sparked. Something connected with the back of his brain.
'Czioc? Czioc lad, are you there?' The voice was quiet but unmistakably stuffy, a little bit posh.
'Colonel?' he shouted both on the Ethe, and out loud to the sea. 'Colonel is that you?'
'Czioc thank the heavens you're alive!' Trimasth trumpeted in his head. 'We thought we'd lost you. Are you okay?'
'Could be better,' he sniffed. 'What's going on, Colonel?'
'It's absolute mayhem,' the colonel wheezed. He sounded genuinely alarmed. 'None of us saw this coming. And the blasted Committees in the South never told us it was this bad. We're on red alert everywhere, Czioc. If there was a more urgent colour we could invent, we'd be on that instead.'
'I saw there's a state of emergency,' Czioc muttered quietly. 'Is it you torturing people who could potentially be rebels? Or is that a different Committee?'
'What else can we do?' the Colonel blustered. 'We don't know what these things are, where they've come from, what the hell they want, anything. If there's someone out there who has a connection with these barbarians, we need it.'
'How could anyone connect with these things? They're not even on the Ethe.'
'Well when you get an answer Czioc, you let me know,' Trimasth snorted. 'In the meantime we have evacuation programmes going from East to West and Tak to Zha, we're arming and training battle units, and we're co-ordinating golems to defend our most important locations.'
Czioc coughed, making his whole torso hurt. 'Golems? They can't see anything that's not on the Ethe! I saw them killing people while these black things were killing everything.'
'Right now Czioc, we're prepared to let them off their electronic leashes and run riot if it might cause these things some damage.' The colonel paused, before speaking more darkly. 'These … things … they dissolve living creatures and infect the land. We suspect they have their own version of the Ethe which allows them to communicate.'
Czioc exhaled, putting one hand on Zero, who turned and licked his face again. Her tongue was rough on his skin. He batted her away. 'Whatever. This evacuation program. Tell me more.'
Trimasth displayed a shocked expression across the weak connection. 'Evacuation? I don't think so lad. Your mission is still on as before.'
Czioc made a quiet growl in the back of his throat. 'You're telling me the world is fucked, and you still want—'
'Listen here Czioc. Noksalika Chuunim, your ex-girlfriend—'
'It was quite a while ago,' he mumbled.
'—is one of our prime suspects. Put it this way: she fakes her own death, as we believe, then disappears just before this alien invasion. It's not a coincidence we can overlook. We need you and this mission to succeed more than ever.'
Get him to give you some food then, whispered the dead voice.
Are you always listening? Czioc hissed back in his mind. He paused. 'It'd be good if you could get some food to me, Colonel.'
'And how do you suppose we do that? Carrier pigeon?'
'I'm hurt, Colonel,' Czioc groaned. 'Real life is a thousand miles away. I need help.'
'Hmmm. I see.' Trimasth paused again. 'I'll ask if we can amplify the Ethe projection in your direction. You're not so far from the regional Etheport. If the engineers can focus energy in your direction from there, maybe it might help.'
'In the meantime, we need her history, Czioc,' he continued. 'You've got the codes to her files. All of them. Her last reliable location was Jzilinasa. We need to find out why she's disappeared.'
'It's a long shot, but our backs are up against the wall. You just might be the one who saves the world. Glad you're still alive boy, and good luck.'
The connection vanished, and Czioc was left alone again, staring out over a poisoned sea. Well, nearly alone.
Jzilinasa's only about seven thousand miles, chirped the voice cheerily. Better get going!
He searched through the ruined huts, picking through the shattered grey bricks and creepy remains of cellars. Luckily there were some tins and bottles, precious food from the city that the villagers had kept stored away – it was enough for a couple of weeks, maybe three. He packed up what he could in Zero's saddlebags, mounted her, and began to plot a course through the blackened land back to reality.
It was then, and only then, that he saw the signal.
Someone else was alive.