Energised, healthy, Czioc and Miza sped through the land oblivious to all the chaos and confusion. Fields lay untended, buildings and homes inside the land were deserted. They passed huge golems in black armour watching over assembled "battle units": motley groups of people thrown together and given a spear and told to fight. These were designers and engineers and craftsmen and drama students. No-one knew how to fight.
The Ethe was strong, back here in civilisation. This was good, but it meant they could see the whole scale – and the perfect detail – of the spreading catastrophe. Almost nothing normal remained. All the message boards were clogged up with doom and paranoia, with people appealing to the Committees and the Ethe itself to end the slaughter. Czioc wasn't sure whether to feel enlightened or terrified, knowing how powerless the Committees were.
'Czioc mate? You there?'
Czioc coughed on a mouthful of old rice he'd cooked up. They were settled down for the night on an overgrown track between abandoned vineyards. 'Pshappa?'
'The one and only,' the bear grinned back over the Ethe. But it was a hollow grin, without heart. Czioc could tell something was wrong. 'Can't believe you're still alive mate. How the hell did you survive?'
'Oh, you know,' Czioc said, 'ducking and diving, bobbing and weaving. Making my own personal army out of straw.'
'No really Czioc, I've got to know,' Pshappa pressed. 'They've got me in some stupid militia. Grabbed a whole bunch of us off the Migration when we stopped at the last town. There's about forty of us, no-one knows what the hell we're supposed to do. They haven't even given me a proper weapon!'
'You're actually joking.'
'Wish I was. Fuck I wish I was.'
'Get out of there. Run.'
'What, and get killed by some golem?' It was the first time he'd heard his friend since waking up in that ruined village surrounded by bodies. He'd seen Pshappa scared, watched him cry after puking his guts up from drunken nights out. But he'd never heard him sound like this. 'Mate I'm terrified. I'm so fucking scared. I don't care if I never have a drink again, if I never get laid to the end of my days. I just want to be out of here.'
'Pshappa, you're about – you're about two thousand miles away,' said Czioc emptily. 'What can I do?'
'I don't know,' sniffed the bear quietly. 'I don't know.'
Czioc looked blankly across the fire at Miza laying down to sleep, a blanket round her shoulders. What could he do?
He could damn well call Colonel Trimasth, that's what.
Czioc had been contacted by a whole host of friends and acquaintances, people he'd met while on Migration and had then scattered thousands of miles across the world. Hundreds of people had heard a little or a lot about his (supposedly secret) mission and the fact he was still alive, and thought if he had a sword and a horse he could save them somehow. They were vastly mistaken on that front. But he was on a mission; he had bargaining power with Trimasth.
Well, he would have, if the damn Colonel had been available.
So he spoke to somebody else.
'Principal Adviser Ing'lunam,' he said clearly over the Ethe, his brain buzzing gently with the connection. Miza watched him hazily, half asleep.
'Hello,' came the brisk response. 'What can I do for you, Czioc? Nice to know you're still alive.'
'Lots of people have been saying that recently,' he said evenly. 'Including a lot of my friends. The difference is, I don't think you're very concerned about my personal wellbeing.'
'Well, the Economic Security and Infrastructure Panel doesn't deal in personal affection,' Ing'lunam replied crisply. 'But you're our agent and naturally we like to be courteous.'
'Good. Because when I hear the word "courteous", I think, "keeping nice people alive".'
'Don't give me this cheesy action thriller dialogue, Czioc. What do you want?'
'I've drawn up a list of two-dozen people I want removed from the conscription lists,' he said.
'A great many more,' he continued, barely acknowledging Ing'lunam's predictable response, 'have asked me to help them out, thinking that I'm some magic superhero who can save people's lives. Hell, there is even – was, even – a cult who reckoned I'm some sort of prophet.'
He scooped up the last of the rice, crunching on some hard uncooked grains. 'Now, I can't save people with just a sword and a horse. And sadly for some of these people – well, I couldn't intervene in military policy on behalf of some bloke I met once in a pub. But here's my specific list of fucking amazing people I want evacuated from the front line, quickly and quietly, or you can take your mission and shove it.'
There was just silence for a few seconds, the connection still buzzing slightly. 'These people will die anyway. You know that. They're all close to the front, which is advancing on us every day.'
'Don't care.' He stuck his jaw out defiantly. Ing'lunam couldn't see, but he did it anyway. 'My payment was taking me off the Migration. But the Migration is no longer relevant.'
'The Migration is still running. People still carry the dead like you did a few weeks ago.' Ing'lunam's tone became slightly agitated, which relieved Czioc, because it showed his plan was working. 'You think we wouldn't put you back on it in a flash?'
'I'm the one in the middle of nowhere with a horse and a sword.' He waved his sword about silently and grinned at Miza. Miza gave him a thumbs up and grinned back.
'The horse you adorably call "Zero" is property of the state,' continued Ing'lunam. 'We could kill her instantly and send a pack of golems out to track you down, just like we did those crazy villagers.'
'But you won't. Oh, I know you'd be petty enough to waste time and resources chasing me when you've got a war on. That's clear. But you won't, because my mission is one of the few good cards you have in the shit hand you got dealt.' Czioc narrowed his eyes. 'You can put me back on Migration, you can send me to the front line, but you want Noksalika Chuunim. You need this mission. And I need an incentive.'
'On the contrary,' Ing'lunam replied with a smirk, 'we've been tracking your activity, your search results in Noksalika's files. You're quite keen on finding Noksalika yourself, aren't you?'
Czioc opened his mouth, and said nothing.
Yet again, someone had second-guessed him.
He'd been brought up to believe nothing was secret, and yet here he'd been, assuming no-one could hear the sound of his actions.
'I wouldn't blame yourself, Czioc,' Ing'lunam continued, as though he'd actually read Czioc's mind. 'People have culturally accepted nothing is secret any more, but they still have instincts, automatic reflexes. It's hard to behave as though you can never keep a secret. But there are no lies. Not in our world today.'
He thought about all the rebels he'd seen killed in his time, on the street, in the market, in the middle of nowhere.
There are some, whispered a firm, familiar voice. There are still some lies that can be made.
He tightened up. 'My request remains,' he said, gritting his teeth. 'Here's the list. I want them out of the militias, off conscription, away from the front line. Or I quit. And,' he added, in golden tones of honey, 'you know how important it is for the Ethe that these things are done in agreement.'
The connection went dead.
A few days later he received, of all things, an electronic receipt.
They journeyed across craggy cliffs and through dry, lazy rivers, always aware of the black tide that surged behind them. Weeks passed. Summer drifted into early Autumn. He chatted and joked with Miza, who was more amusing and better company than he'd expected. They made a pleasant bubble amongst the strange panic and packs of refugees sweeping the world; they helped keep each other's minds off the hideous torturous deaths they knew were happening every day.
Principal Adviser Ing'lunam was right – at one point, they crossed a strand of the Migration. They entered one huge cavern, with vast forests above them turning dark green and gentle brown, and cut across another trail of people trudging over the landscape, carrying the dead. Czioc watched them with pity. Numbers were low, almost certainly because of conscription. Which left fewer people to carry the same number of dead; their heads swelled slightly and glowed with the strain. The Migration had never been fun for Czioc, but there had at least been a collective spirit, a sense of camaraderie. Under the same watchful eyes of the golems, these people's grim faces had no spirit at all.
At least they haven't been conscripted, reminded a solemn voice.
They sped through the land and approached Jzilinasa. Czioc had looked at it occasionally when leafing through Noksalika's records; he knew it was quiet at the moment for a major city, with the battlefront drawing inescapably closer. The last refugees were trekking in from the surrounding wilderness, using it as a base for evacuation to the North and Northeast.
But he looked again, and looked closer. There was a large gathering of people. A very large gathering of people. They were clustered in and around the huge parkland near the heart of the city.
'Oh my god,' he whispered.
Miza looked at him. 'What is it?'
There was an event listed on the Ethe, and these people were all marked as attending. It read:
Abandon hope. Bring snacks.
Jzilinasa was a city of ghosts, refugees, and people ready to groove.
'Let's go over what we've got,' said Miza.
'We've been over it already,' said Czioc, his forehead in his hands. Among the empty streets and passageways, they'd found a curry house still open, the owner baffled and alone. Far away, they could hear the sound of bass beats and rave music. Czioc sat on a plastic chair, and Miza knelt her horse body down on the floor, which put their faces almost at the same height.
'She comes to the city,' continued Miza, hands open and forearms on the cheap wooden table. Her red-brown hair hung long and rough over her shoulders where she'd been pulling at it. 'She's here for about a month, during which time she does a few meet-and-greets with fans and screws around with some guys she knows in local government. Then she vanishes.'
'There's nothing in it,' moaned Czioc quietly. Outside, a pack of naked people ran down the street, covered in tar and brightly-coloured feathers, whooping and shouting. He looked at her. 'We've been here two days. We've been all over the city. We've retraced her steps exactly. No clues, nothing.'
'When she disappears,' Miza ignored him, 'she has a classical concert booked in four days, after which she's due to travel onwards to Djotolina.' She exhaled, and looked at her fingernails. 'What's special about this concert?'
'There's nothing special about the concert,' said Czioc wearily.
'Why here and now? It's the concert, or Djotolina, or the local government guys—'
'It's none of them and you know it!' Czioc snapped, slapping his hand on the table.
'Well I'm just trying to figure it out!' she hissed. 'I've come with you all this way because this stupid city is your only lead. And in case you hadn't noticed, we've got hardly any time before this whole place gets swamped.'
Czioc exhaled too, puffing his cheeks out. She was right, but then so was he – there really were no clues, and all they had was the rough psychological estimate that she was running away. And secretly he wasn't even so sure about that.
'I need a drink,' he muttered.
'Me too,' Miza nodded, then smiled cheekily. She fixed him with those bright leaf-green eyes. 'Let's go party.'
Czioc stared around the park, taking in the scene from Zero's saddle. He'd seen some parties that resembled anarchy, but this…
Most raves and parties were pretty crazy, but at least they had a theme. This party was insane, and had already been going for several days. Most revellers were in various stages of nakedness. True, what passed as clubbing style often covered very little, but at least it made an effort; today's fashion d'apocalypse had a sense of true recklessness, of unhinged abandon.
They wandered amongst ravers, fire swingers, carnival floats, pole dancers who'd set up poles in open air. They saw a yoga class at perfect ease while debauchery raged around them. Cheerleaders danced around a tribal drum circle. Dominatrices and their slaves, strippers and gymnasts, all performed in an improvised sculpture garden. Two centaurs calmly played chess, surrounded by a chain of cheering, sick-stained people in some vomit-related drinking game.
Weirdest of all, the music wasn't just on the Ethe – huge speaker stacks like ancient standing stones were blasting out deafening drum and bass in real volume.
A short walk away, the central crowd was so tightly packed you could screw someone standing up. And people were.
Golems stood around motionless, watching events, but clearly given instructions not to act.
'Don't you love it!' yelled Miza at the top of her voice, her face alive with joy. She could have spoken quietly on the Ethe, but clearly that didn't seem the spirit.
'I don't know what to say!' he called back. They trotted through the crowds. Below him, Zero acted as though she'd seen it all before. They approached a small crowd laughing and shouting around a barbecue.
'Do you want to dance?!' she shouted in his ear. He shook his head.
'You dance. But don't go far!'
He dismounted from Zero and wandered towards the large barbecue, enticed by the smell of meat, watching Miza trot up to a group of strangers and start grooving. He chuckled – it was always a joke that centaurs called their random shuffling of hooves and elbows "dancing". But then he saw what was on the barbecue, and stopped chuckling.
It was the dismembered body of a mantrel.
'Care for a bit of thigh?' asked a naked man on the Ethe. He had wild ginger hair and puffed on a pipe, and carried a pint glass with a coconut cocktail and a tiny umbrella.
'What the hell…?' Czioc stared. People gathered around were laughing and requesting various body parts from a broad, cheerful lizardman with a long knife. To the left lay a stack of corpses.
'Oh my, you look like you think we killed these people,' said the pipe-smoker through the airwaves. Czioc looked around edgily, hoping the man would suddenly get less naked somehow. 'These people have simply expired, like anyone would. I was on the Migration, I'm an official collector. I make sure that their accounts have definitely been closed – that they're definitely dead – and we fire them up.' He pointed with his pipe at the remains being dished up from the grill. 'You've missed out on this fellow I think, but stick around 'cos we've got a centaur up next. Which means burgers again.'
Czioc's mouth hung open as he watched people passing round mustard and slices of buttock. 'But … why?'
There was a hideous ear-splitting shriek. Czioc spun round in terror, simply to see a mantrel girl on her knees reaching orgasm as a man pounded her angrily from behind.
The pipe-smoker shrugged. 'Why not? The Migration's meaningless now. I for one can't be bothered to carry dead people to some far-off city just to get paid. You can't spend money when you're dead. The world is quite obviously doomed. These are the End Times.'
'Don't talk to me about the End Times, I've got enough to deal with,' muttered Czioc.
The man looked him straight in the eye, with careful, slightly-glazed brown eyes. Czioc looked back, trying very hard not to look down at the man's penis. 'The world is fucked, my friend. That's what this is all about. These people we have for the barbecue are the lucky ones, because the rest of us are all going to die horribly. The last few weeks have shown that's pretty much a fact. You, me, those drunk fellows over there in their fellatio competition…'
Czioc shook his head slowly, in vague defiance at the idea of dying horribly.
'…So why not go out with a drink in your hand at the most wonderful, crazy, awesome party the world ever saw?'
Too right! cut in the dead voice suddenly. You're my only eyes and ears, and like the good man says, this is the best party ever. I order you to get out there and fuck some girl!
Czioc rolled his eyes and ignored the voice. 'Why here?' he shouted out loud. 'Why hold it here?'
Oh for god's sake, the voice drawled, we've spent the last forty-eight hours going over this. Can't you just unwind and enjoy yourself for a little bit? If not for you, then for the benefit of those imprisoned in your cranium.
The ginger man looked blank. 'Don't ask me. Great venue though. I'd recommend a dirty tattoo from the crack den by the ornamental lake.' There was a small pause between them, as the debauchery continued. Looking thirty yards to the left, Czioc saw Miza had already got her breasts out and was having them covered in blue paint.
Another deathly shriek made his head snap round, only to see the mantrel girl's eyes screwed shut, mouth open, still orgasming hard.
The man suddenly looked at Czioc from the corner of his eye.
'If you're looking for Noksalika Chuunim though,' he yelled calmly, 'I'm afraid I can't help you.'
Czioc frowned, and opened his mouth to say something, when yet another high-pitched sex shriek cut through the air. 'Bloody hell,' he said turning round again, 'how many times is that girl going to come—'
It wasn't a sex shriek.
Her hands and forearms had turned black and fused with the ground, and a quick jerk backwards had torn her elbows away, crimson blood pouring from the ends. There were many shouts and cheers from people nearby. They'd turned up for an end-of-the-world party, and weren't going to be disappointed.
The arm stumps in the ground began to change shape, and the grass turned black…
Czioc and Miza locked gazes through the crowd.
They fled North to the sound of cheers, whistles and agonised screams as the music pounded on.
'So what now?' she panted, as they staggered down the bank of a river. The water flowed light blue over round, white stones; Miza waded straight in and splashed at her bare chest, washing the paint off. 'That city was the only thing we had.'
Czioc was tired just from the riding. Zero barely seemed to have broken a sweat. He hauled himself out of the saddle and collapsed at the water's edge, and found himself looking at her bare breasts. They were small but well-shaped, with gentle soft nipples. Nipples are breast punctuation, he thought.
'I know,' he said miserably.
Then he seemed to remember something.
'I mean, we've been through all her files,' continued Miza, wading back out and kneeling her horse body flat next to Czioc. She draped her shirt over one shoulder, but seemed perfectly happy to leave herself exposed. 'Well, most of them. And she's got a lot of files. And you're right, we've got nothing.' She sat down on the bank next to him.
He frowned to himself. 'Where is the Ethe?'
'Where is it?'
She frowned herself, a perfectly cute narrowing of her eyebrows. 'The Ethe is in everything. Everyone knows that.'
'Okay I mean, like, communication on the Ethe. Where does it go?'
'Well we talk on the airwaves. So it just goes from one person to another person.'
He shook his head. 'The Ethe is in everything, okay, but there has to be something directing it all. Trimasth told me about an Etheport nearby.'
'Oh really. How much "nearby"?' she said suspiciously.
'About seven, eight hundred miles North-Takwards.'
'Huh. At least it's North.'
'But I checked,' Czioc insisted. 'It's the only one I've ever seen. It channels all the Ethe communication, it's a kind of central processor for the Ethe. If we get there, we could examine all the code behind her files, all the actual software tags on her messages.'
She smiled mischievously. 'You're such a geek.'
He smiled too, opening his mouth wide in mock outrage. 'How dare you. And yes, yes I am.'
And they kissed.
First they just leant in towards each other, then Czioc propped himself up on his knees and pressed himself against her torso. She ran her fingers down the side of his ribcage, and dug her nails into his waist; he stroked the small of her back, right at the top of her horse spine, then cupped her breasts firmly. He pulled away from her mouth and moved in to kiss her neck, raising one hand to stroke the hair around her ear, and she gasped gently.
'This is wrong,' she whispered, eyes half closed as his lips worked on her smooth skin. He stopped and looked her in the eye.
She bared her teeth and ran her tongue round them. 'And I love it.'
They giggled, and she pulled his shirt over his head and started to work on his belt. His hands stroked gently, then firmly, then gently, then firmly … she felt herself become wet between her rear legs. He stopped and pushed at her, indicating that she should turn round.
'You're lucky I've got so much experience from the Migration,' he said, pulling his trousers and underwear off as she turned herself round awkwardly. He moved one hand to feel between her back legs. 'Anyone else wouldn't be big enough.'
She smiled, her torso leaning back, then breathed hard as his hand felt and stroked inside her. 'There's more than one way to dominate a girl, you know.'
'Can I call you a bitch?'
She trembled. 'I thought you'd never ask.'
He stroked his penis, using the energy of the Ethe to make it bigger, and wider, and even bigger. Then he pushed inside her.
She breathed in hard. 'Oh fuck…'
'Oh fuck,' he repeated, as if the one word was a language by itself. The sensation was insane, the furious heat of sliding in and out…
'Harder,' she said. 'Harder.'
He growled out loud, gripped her rump, started to fuck her…
'Oh fuck yes…'
And then it came back.
…Memories of taking her, breaking her…
He went cold.
…His fingers gripping her, his hands hitting her, and her just wanting to be taken…
His penis shrank inside her, then shrank again, then shrank to normal size.
…And him destroying her, angrily, furiously, deliberately.
His cock went limp and small, slipping out of her. He leant back, shivering.
'What is it?' She turned her head.
Her pale skin.
He just sat back on his heels, eyes wide, and cried.