My name is Noksalika Chuunim. I'm a famous porn star and equally famous classical musician.
Okay, good start. Background.
My father is a general in the military and various security Committees, my mother also heads a Committee related to theatre and drama. I had a stable upbringing but rebelled from an early age.
Childhood often has some answers. More.
It was more a personal rebellion, a petty matter with my parents. But it's hard to rebel when the world is so liberal. After all, what better way to fit into modern society than becoming shamelessly involved in the pornography industry.
Why the angst as a child? There's more to this.
From the earliest age I knew I was going to be something big, something important. I'm not sure if I was born with an ego or brought up with it. But either way, arrogance has been part of my life from the very beginning. This self-importance has actually been a stabilising force in my life and given me a solid psychological centre.
I like it, a bit arty but nice flourish. Focus though.
This brought difficulties when I was growing up, with the barriers and constraints of real life.
Barriers, constraints. Promising.
There was a brief period, when I was about ten years old, where I ran through a whole host of schemes that would make me famous. I settled on classical music, believing – as I would articulate in greater detail in interviews throughout my career – that composing a vast symphony is the closest thing to having god-like control over your work. So regardless of how famous or obscure I would become, I could always feel like the biggest architect, a god inside my own work.
Boundaries. She's straining against boundaries all the time.
The pornography had already started, but this was seen by others as childish misbehaviour and by myself as a vague hobby. It was only as a teenager that this changed from being expressed as a child, where I didn't really understand it, to a strong and well-defined sexuality.
The pornography is accidental?
The success of both grew and fed off each other. Fame led to travel and naturally making some pop music albums and videos, although these were always just for fun. However, like most incidental things I did, these ended up simply adding to my fame.
Everything she does is picked up on. She's so famous she feels suffocated … just like when she was a child.
My last recorded location was Jzilinasa, where my Ethe log simply cuts out. Outwardly it may appear that I have simply expired, which happens to most people, but the internal Ethe records give no suggestions that this was due to happen.
She's running away.
I'm not sure.
Her name was Miza. She was a centaur.
He found her in a bar in a small town – the first town he'd seen in weeks – sprawled under a pile of rotting furniture and rubble. She was unconscious, weak and bruised but otherwise seemed unharmed. He, on the other hand, was still in bad shape, and decided to ransack the bar for supplies. Her signal hadn't changed; she wasn't going anywhere.
The bar stank of alien slime and corpses. But there was bottled water and, far better, beer. With the grin of someone seriously unwell, he saw there was even some hearty thick dark beer that hadn't been damaged. Nutritious. He could live on this stuff for months.
He'd left Zero on the street. Outside, dark skeletons of trees melted and bubbled. Everywhere was silent. He'd nearly had a heart attack when the body of a sparrow with no head fell out of the air a dozen feet away from him.
The travel had been tough. Czioc felt awful, with cracked bones and too little to eat. Zero was somehow still healthy, but Czioc knew with the land poisoned she couldn't even eat the grass. Solid ground was safe, but just one step in the black remains of some alien creature, and that would be her leg gone.
So he'd tried to conserve his energy while travelling, and looked through Noksalika's files and records, often talking with the dead voice about possible motives for her disappearance. The voice was still cold and strange, but he was grateful for the company in this empty, desolate, dead land.
But the landscape wasn't quite empty. Clearly the demons had advanced well into the normal world, and their forces had all surged forward at once. But some things remained behind. Stones changed shape, growing stumpy limbs and pushing themselves around. Tiny mouths with legs ran through long grass in packs.
The land was empty, but things remained, and when he turned round behind the bar, he found his exit was blocked by a blue-black zombie with no arms and a decaying shark-like face. Czioc swore loudly and nearly dropped the beer, before throwing several bottles of spirits at its head with little effect, and then drawing his sword and chopping it into numerous large chunks. He considered stepping over the remains, but they still writhed around disturbingly on the floor. So he hauled his body over the bar itself and walked back to where the centaur lay, his pockets stuffed with packets of salty pub snacks.
At any other time he would have taken her for dead and tried collecting her like all the other expired bodies on the Migration. But even through the weak connection, he could see her profile on the Ethe. And her status was still active.
She was pretty. Like most men, Czioc was an expert on identifying pretty girls, and despite having the strangely strong cheek bones of a centaur – and the body of a horse – she was clearly very attractive. Then again, her hair and clothes were covered in dirt and filth, which was less attractive. Pale and undernourished, she looked weak, vulnerable.
It took about an hour to pull her out; even a large shot of cranberry vodka couldn't give him strength that he didn't have. Then it took another half an hour to bring her round, using a combination of channelling his last reserves of Ethe energy into her body and pouring beer over her face. By this point the body parts had squirmed halfway across the messy bar floor towards them.
She opened her eyes, squinted up at him, and smiled.
He didn't. 'We have to go.'
Her name was Miza Scarlett Trabalho and she was a young pony centaur, with a small horse body covered in fine brown hair. She was also weak and malnourished, but they managed to help each other along – or rather, Zero carried Czioc and let them both progress in their fragile state. They didn't talk much at first. So Czioc looked through the Ethe at her profile – and he felt her looking at his.
Recently, her profile … her profile resembled Czioc's. Black things coming out of nowhere. Videos of deaths that wouldn't pass broadcast decency standards, except no-one seemed to be auditing them. But before the invasion, there wasn't much to look at – she was barely more than an adolescent, her profile filled with silly online Ethe games played with other youngsters and videos of drunken partying. Then again, Czioc's was filled with drunken antics too. Everyone was a teenager these days, even with the hardship of the Migration.
They travelled slowly, through fields with strange patterns cut into the dead crops and tundra littered with flocks of birds that had just fallen to earth dead. The whole world felt bizarre, with bright Summer light flooding through an oily, poisoned land.
They exchanged basic words regarding things like eating and keeping safe, but it was only after a week of moving that they had a real conversation, hunkered down by some boulders over some food. Bacon-flavoured crisps, to be exact.
'So where are we going?' Despite the lack of unspoilt streams or rivers, she'd managed to clean herself up. Czioc was right – she was gorgeous, in a peculiar centaur kind of way. She had shiny, round eyes that sparkled emerald green, and her long messy hair was bright auburn. Her skin was soft and pale, and merged smoothly with the gentle light brown of her horse body. On her small torso, she wore a fitted blue shirt that was casual, yet showed off her breasts remarkably.
'Out.' Czioc flapped his hands. 'Real life.'
'Well right,' she smiled weakly. 'But do you have a, a route? A plan?'
He nodded, keeping her gaze. 'I'm on a kind of mission. We're going to Jzilinasa.'
Her forehead made cute lines as she raised her eyebrows. 'Bloody hell, some mission. That's miles away. Why there?' She tilted her head. 'And what makes you think I'm following you all that way?'
''Cos me and you are—' He stopped. He couldn't think of anything. 'Just because.' He sighed and lowered his head. 'It's a government mission. My ex-girlfriend from ages ago has disappeared, and Jzilinasa's the last place they know she was. They reckon she faked her own death.'
The girl's eyed widened again, prettily. 'Is that even possible?'
He shrugged. 'Apparently. I didn't think so either, but, apparently. Anyway, now all this has happened,' he waved around them at the filthy dark landscape, 'they think she could be connected. So they've got me trying to find out why she did it, and where she is. Unless she's already dead. Which, considering the death toll, gets more likely every day.'
'Mmmmm.' She nodded, still looking at him. 'So what do you think happened to Noksalika Chuunim?'
He smiled at the mention of Noksalika's name. 'Been looking at my profile, eh.'
She nodded, and smiled back. 'I'm a big fan of hers. Even her early stuff. I love her "Eight-And-A-Halfth Symphony". And that music video for "Copycat Deicide" is amazing.'
He chuckled a little. 'I met her at that music video. Apparently took a week, but we were drugged up for most of it. Felt like a couple of hours.'
'Are you sure it was just the drugs?' she suggested with a cheeky smile.
He laughed, and scratched the back of his head. 'I guess not. She was pretty amazing.'
They ate in silence. Then he looked at her, looked over her kneeling horse body, and spoke heavily.
'They didn't kill you then.'
She looked up. 'No, you're right.' She made a small, quiet giggle. 'I'm glad they've got you on this mission, clever detective man.'
'Well some of us have to be smart,' he replied wryly. 'Seriously though. You're intact. How come you're not black soup like everyone else?'
She shrugged, the pointy bones in her shoulders rising and falling. 'Don't ask me.' She lowered her face and looked up at him darkly. 'If I knew maybe I could've saved my mum and dad.'
You fancy her, said a familiar voice.
Czioc's eyes suddenly widened instinctively. Shut up, please.
You really fancy her.
She's the hottest living thing for several hundred miles, fine. But she's a centaur.
She could give you a blow job? the voice said, without missing a beat.
Oh drop dead.
Can't any more, said the voice sadly. But I watch when you do.
Czioc talked with Miza, and he talked with the dead person. But he also looked at Noksalika's files by himself; he wanted to learn more about the famous hyper-celebrity the rest of the world knew, instead of just the girl with blue lipstick he knew from his memories.
Her career was prolific. There were symphonies and micro-concertos. Public appearances at food festivals and film premieres. Magazine articles, photo shoots, interviews. And she'd travelled – a lot. She always seemed to be on the move; generally she would return to her home city, but she would tour regions for years at a time, simply writing and recording wherever she went.
She toured with a sense of humour. There was one time she'd been conducting the Federated Mantrel Substate Symphony Orchestra, quite athletically, and her costume had broken and fallen off. So she'd continued to conduct the rest of the symphony – about an hour and a half – completely naked. In a video log afterwards, she'd joked that "it's nothing the public haven't already seen anyway". It was completely true, and yet deliberately, cheekily, missed the point.
Then there was the time she'd held a pop concert in South Tatransko, a city miles and miles from anywhere on an isolated peninsula in the Tak-West. Drunk in a recorded interview, she'd jokingly declared it the "arsehole of the world", to which a critic had written in response, "Yes, and you're just passing through". Apparently she'd found it so funny, she'd taken the critic out for dinner after the show.
All of this documented in detail in fans' journals, on sites all over the Ethe for him to trawl through, years after it happened…
All this travelling, all this work.
Why? Did she enjoy it that much?
'She's trapped,' said Miza firmly, clip-clopping her hooves down a passage between caverns. With the Ethe so faint, it was dark; things gurgled around them. 'She's recorded all the time, every single thing she does is examined by everyone. Imagine that.'
He thought about all the videos she'd made, and wondered if she'd ever felt that they were just a pastiche of the real footage of her that already littered the Ethe.
'Yeah, but we all get recorded,' he replied. 'The Committees are watching us all the time, and the Ethe is online all day. What makes her different?'
'What makes her different is people choose to watch her. No-one chooses to watch you.'
'I mean you, me, your mum, anyone else. Just because anyone can watch us doesn't mean they actually do. That's what gives us freedom, which she doesn't have.'
'Hmm. Fair point.'
She grinned. 'Ta-da! Next question.'
'Alright, here's something. Why did she go out with all these bureaucrats and military types? It can't just be coincidence.'
'Well, her dad's a military man, right? It's not uncommon for girls to date men like their father. It's a, a security thing maybe?'
'Hmm. Maybe. But then out of all those men, she went out with me the longest.' His cheeks went a little red with embarrassment and misplaced pride. 'Me, some guy on the Migration.'
'Who knows. I mean you're nice enough, but you're not relationship material.'
'Oh, you spoil me with these kind words,' he mocked in the dark.
'You'll live,' she replied calmly, giving him a playful poke. 'How about this. What if she associated her father with the problems of being a child? Being ordered around and told what she could and couldn't do. Maybe you're the only guy who didn't remind her of it.'
Czioc thought, and saw his relationship in a different way, twenty-six years too late.
Getting to "dry land" took the best part of a month. Progress was slow, but they gained pace as they both gradually recovered their health. The light and warmth of Summer grew stronger, and yet around them they watched the land get more oily as they approached what was laughingly called the "battlefront".
It wasn't a battle. It was a massacre.
Czioc watched faint, grainy pictures on the Ethe of monstrous slugs devouring people whole and mutant dogs spitting acid, of black zombies fusing with living creatures and poisoning them until black slime dribbled from their living eyes and mouths. Thousands of people were being armed with spears and swords and knives and being sent to their own suicide. Those who wouldn't fight were crushed by mighty golems who couldn't even see the enemy.
There were surges and lulls in the aliens' advance – Czioc and Miza spent sleepless nights watching the emptiness of the land on the Ethe rush forward and then slow, like the tide. When a good time came, they ate the last of their good food and pushed forward, through the front of demons and monsters. It took two whole days; Czioc just remembered frantic flashes of hacking with his sword at brainless mutants and steering Zero around bubbling pools and fleeing from giant black toads.
Then they suddenly burst into grassy fields and green forests, blue heather and golden sands. It felt strange to Czioc to think of anywhere as "home", having spent so many years on the Migration. But home was somewhere that could support life. Home was where the Ethe was.
On a grassy sand dune they gasped and rolled around, Miza kicking her horse legs and laughing hysterically, Zero prancing about neighing, Czioc just burying his face in the warm ground. They stuffed grass and sand in their mouths, feeling it melt down their throats; they basked in the luxurious glow of the Ethe flooding round their bodies.
'Well,' said Czioc with a giddy smile on his face. The dull ache in his torso that he'd grown used to had virtually vanished. 'What now? You don't have to follow me around.'
She looked up at him. 'I dunno. What else am I going to do? I'd rather follow you on your weird mission than get called up for conscription.' She gave him a small, sad smile; her pale cheeks flushed with a pink glow he'd not seen before. 'That, and I have no home and my family are dead.'
A patch of dirty oil spread in the sand to his right, followed by black spikes pushing up through the ground. He looked at her.
'We have to go.'