Things were frosty, to say the least.
Autumn swept across the land with an auburn chill, but that was nothing compared to the cold between Czioc and Miza. She tried asking him what was wrong for two or three days, then gave up. He retreated into himself and wouldn't say anything, dark and unresponsive.
'We've not got much food left,' she said, poking through Zero's saddlebags. They sat by a shallow pond surrounded by heather; it was early afternoon. When he didn't reply, she looked up, and saw him staring into space.
They travelled through spacious tunnels, where the rock was stained with rainbow-coloured sediment at crazy angles. Miza assumed rivers or lava floes had flowed through here, probably millions of years ago. Both her hooves and Zero's clattered off the smooth surfaces, echoes coming back seconds later, distorted and stretched. Occasional trees and ivy found cracks to hang onto, but the stone was otherwise eerily bare.
'We've not got much food left,' she repeated sharply. Czioc's head snapped back and he fixed her with empty eyes. 'We can eat the rock but it's hard to break up. So we'll, uh, we'll have to start collecting some of the plants and stuff.'
They travelled, but Miza felt like she was dragging him; Czioc languished like a dead weight, like a corpse, cold and grey-faced.
Miza missed people. Since fleeing from the end-of-the-world party, she longed for, for normal life – for anything. But her only company was withdrawn and useless, and she was left looking out across the Ethe at a society brutalised and running for its life. All her distant friends had either died or been conscripted and would be dead soon.
She'd wanted to talk to him – after all, she was young, and young people talked about everything except politics. Young people definitely talked about sex a lot.
But this was different.
No-one had sexual problems, and certainly not psychological ones. She was young but knew enough to know this kind of thing just didn't happen. But she didn't know how to ask, and he didn't want to tell.
Czioc gazed at her with tired eyes and said nothing. Then he turned away again.
She clenched her teeth and pulled at her long hair. 'What's wrong?' she growled. 'What is wrong with you?'
The words "wrong" and "you" echoed all around them. But he just hugged his arms and stared.
Nightmares gripped Czioc's soul whether his eyes were open or not.
One night he saw women in uniforms tying him up and poking him with sharp claws, popping his flesh like red balloons. Another night wild black horses chased him and chased him forever. The small part of him alive and conscious begged for them to catch him, to trample him into the dirt, so that he'd die and it would all be over, but they never did. The chasing went on and on and on and the terror never stopped.
One night he woke in a panic and sweat, only to hear the sweaty gasping of Miza touching herself. Because he refused to touch her.
Zero soldiered on beneath him, clip-clopping on the bare rock, but she'd stopped nuzzling him before setting off every day, stopped licking his face to wake him up.
Even your horse doesn't like you any more.
It was true: now Zero was as unresponsive as he was, almost like he wanted it that way, the same as Miza. Part of Czioc deep inside was screaming for warmth, for some understanding, to let it all go and offload the horror from his soul. He could just switch it off and everything would be back to normal. And yet he was surrounded by this grey hurricane, this cyclone of icy cloud that he couldn't see out of.
You're in a bad way mate. What the hell's going on? The cold, dead, familiar voice sounded like a wedding party compared to the blackness that surrounded him.
Can't say. His own internal voice wasn't as gloomy as he felt, which cheered him up a little.
Oh come on, you can tell me anything. I mean, I can see everything you do.
He shook his head in his thoughts. Can't say.
Wow, you're really uptight aren't you. The voice hummed inside his head. You repel your girly friend's advances, you even reject compassion from your horse, fine, whatever. But you won't let even me help you out?
Czioc said nothing.
Huh. You're an arsehole. A proper shithead.
Czioc knew the real reason the voice was annoyed: it saw and heard everything he did, and this was the only thing it couldn't see. But he didn't care.
He drifted in and out of consciousness as Zero followed Miza instinctively. Shapes and dreams and real things all merged into one. He'd see the strange layered rock that surrounded them, but instead of riding Zero, he'd be strapped down with harpies thrashing and screeching all around; then a sneeze would make his red raw eyes snap wide open, and there'd be nothing there. But flashes of those harpies' grey, veiny faces would appear to him whenever his eyelids closed.
In fact, he saw so many things that weren't real, he was surprised when there really was something there.
The gentle bobbing of Zero's walk stopped, and it took several moments for his brain to work this out. Miza had stopped and dropped back, shaking his arm uncertainly with one hand.
'Look,' she hissed, pointing. He scowled at her, batting her hand away, and looked ahead to see three large trolls directly in their path. Each was taller than Czioc sat in the saddle, and several feet wider. He stared at them hazily through half-closed eyes. They were brown, awkwardly dressed, and thoroughly boring compared to his other nightmares. It was only when one of them spoke that he fully opened his eyes and focused.
'Fuck off,' rumbled the one to the left in a deep gravelly voice. 'You don't belong here.'
Miza's eyes widened in fear, and they both looked at each other, expecting the other one to talk. In exasperation, Miza spoke up. 'We haven't got a choice. We need to go this way.'
'You don't need to go anywhere except fuck off,' grunted the middle one. He scratched the thick hide on his bare, dirty belly with big, broken fingernails. 'Turn round.'
Miza's breath was suddenly short. She could tell something wasn't quite right, but she wasn't thinking straight. 'Look, it's no trouble, we're not trying to cause a problem—'
'You are the problem,' said the third one. He flared the nostrils in his lean, scraggy face. 'Go away or we'll make you.'
'Czioc?!' she hissed, grabbing his arm. Or at least, she tried – her hand swung through empty space where he had once been. She turned to see he'd dismounted and was approaching the trolls with his eyes narrowed, mumbling to himself.
She watched him walk up towards the troll on the left, all their heads turning to watch him. He'd pulled his sword out and let it hang lazily in his right hand, heading as if to simply walk round them.
'We ain't lying,' said the middle one again. 'This ain't your place. If you don't piss off, we'll have to do something bad.'
And yet they don't move at all, thought Miza to herself. Her fear lessened slightly, as she realised something definitely wasn't right. They just stand there, on guard.
As Czioc stepped within spitting distance of the trolls, she realised what was bugging her. They had no Ethe identity. The Ethe ran through them, but only like it did the air they breathed and the rock they stood on—
'If you two know what's good for you you'll—'
Czioc lunged to his right and swung at the troll's head, but feinted and dropped in mid-swing, instead slashing the full weight of the sword through its knee. Miza gasped; the troll remained standing in long stretched-out moments. Then she looked at the sword's blade and the troll's severed leg, also still standing: blue crystal fluid flowed gently down his calf, sparkling and crystallising as it made contact with the air.
'Fuck. Now looked what you've done!' The troll gave him an angry look, while the others folded their arms. 'Fucking unhelpful.'
Then their skin and clothes flashed various browns and greys and dark greens, and they melted quickly into the ground, swallowed up as if they'd never stood there.
Czioc didn't even look at her as he walked back and mounted Zero again, before plodding along again as before.
As they closed in on the Etheport, they faced more apparitions, each more bizarre than the last.
They turned a curve in the tunnel and found a field of hats, waiting.
Broad-rimmed, furry hats. Waiting for them.
Czioc gave a bored, cursory look, and directed Zero forward as if he didn't care. Miza followed. The hats warped and lunged at their hooves, but didn't actually do anything; Czioc didn't even need to draw his sword.
One morning they woke up and found the rock had disappeared and they were hurtling through a fast-flowing river, with frothy water all around – Czioc's bleary eyes sprang open in startled panic and Miza leapt up in terror, before she stood still with her mouth open and instantly failed to drown. There was no water. They watched the image of dark, hurtling currents play over the cave rock all around them, flashing at several hundred times a second.
'We just need to push through it,' spoke Miza carefully, staring around. She looked at Czioc, who mumbled something to himself and pretended to ignore her.
There were sights, sounds, crazy sensations – everything, it seemed, the world could throw at them to deter them from the Etheport.
This even included a life-size phantom of Pshappa.
They emerged from thick scrub in a small cavern to see lush bright green grass growing at the feet of a large four-armed bear. It appeared to be a perfect, gleaming little garden. Colourful butterflies fluttered all around, beyond the invisible barrier.
Czioc was crazed and sleep-deprived with bloodshot eyes, but he knew it couldn't be Pshappa. This had nothing to do with Pshappa being thousands of miles away. The real giveaway was the fluffy, clean white fur down his front, with no alcohol stains whatsoever.
Fixing his face with a scowl and gripping his sword with dry fingers, Czioc dismounted and staggered across the stone towards this strange bubble of brightness and green grass and this smiling phantom of a four-armed bear. Behind him, he didn't see Miza's mouth hanging open, also staring at the Pshappa-thing.
'Hi!' waved the bear. 'How's it going?'
'How's it going? How's it going?' Czioc glared and bared all of his teeth, before yelling, 'I've had enough of these damn bloody tricks—'
He swung mightily with all his strength, and then slammed forward into the ground as the bear stopped the blade dead with his paw. Czioc pulled his face from its imprint in the soft turf, and frowned uncertainly at the bear holding the sword by his paw-tips.
'Please, please,' said the bear apologetically, stepping back and bowing slightly, 'I'm afraid I'm not a trick. Not like those you have seen recently, anyway. Sorry about all those.'
'But you're Pshappa?' Czioc panted. Miza drew up behind, stepping carefully across the invisible line onto the grass.
'What?' she said, looking puzzled. She looked at him, then at the bear.
'I'm afraid not,' said the bear, spreading his four arms. 'Welcome to Etheport Ø861. I am just an avatar, a representation of the programs that make up the Etheport. I am not a "real" person in any sense – but as my job is to let you communicate with the Etheport itself, I have taken on the form and character of someone familiar to you both…'
Czioc and Miza both stared.
'…Which is why you, Czioc, are seeing a representation of your old friend Pshappa. A four-armed bear,' he added to Miza for her benefit. 'And you, Miza, are seeing an avatar of your childhood friend Angelica, also a centaur. However, I am one and the same thing. I represent the Etheport and the combined information and energy channel it provides.'
'So are you, like, some genius that knows everything the Ethe knows?' said Miza in awe.
'No, you're not listening,' said the bear-centaur apparition. He – or she – didn't appear frustrated, and yet the words were spoken with obvious irritation. 'I'm not a real person, I'm just a physical representation of the Etheport you are visiting. I have no character of my own, I'm just here to guide you and answer your queries in the most suitable way possible.'
'Oh. Oooooo-kay.' Miza tried to process its words. 'So what's your name?'
'I am not a real person, and thus do not have a name.' The bear-centaur beamed in satisfaction that they'd at last understood. 'But you should call me Interface.'
The Etheport was a zone, a series of calm, interconnected spherical spaces. The air tingled with a background energy, the intense humming of the Ethe itself, but Czioc couldn't find any tell-tale technical or spiritual equipment. There was just green grass, fragrant wild flowers, picnic benches and magical crates of cold beer that grew out of the ground on request. Interface had explained that the Etheport liked to be hospitable, hence reading people's Ethe records for their desired refreshments. Miza barely had to open her mouth before a multi-coloured tropical cocktail suddenly appeared. In a pint glass, naturally.
But even the light and the sparkling energy couldn't stop the nightmares, and not even getting trashed on high quality beer could bring the peace of sleep. Now Czioc had the added frustration of being surrounded by picturesque birds and flowers while dark menaces haunted and degraded him.
He wandered and drank, sat down and drank, curled up into a little ball with his eyes screwed up tight and drank. Somewhere Miza was asking Interface bland, boring questions … he wasn't interested. Even if she was asking about Noksalika, only he knew the right questions that needed to be asked. Only he knew. He'd talk to Interface tomorrow, talk to that thing pretending to be Pshappa. Right now he needed to drink…
He was woken in the middle of the night by a familiar voice.
He coughed on the rank taste of last night's beer in his mouth. It was night time, the grass lit up by gentle amber lights all around.
Was it familiar? Yes, it was, but he hadn't heard it in a while.
'Czioc boy, wake up!'
It was Colonel Trimasth.
Czioc closed his eyes again. 'What is it?' he mumbled on the Ethe, mostly asleep and still very drunk. But there was an urgency in the Colonel's tone that started bringing him round.
'Czioc you've got to do something! It's carnage!'
'This, here, everything!' Suddenly a video appeared in Czioc's mind, hazy and strange from the beer and because he was still half-asleep.
As it cleared, he realised it was a live image of what Colonel Trimasth was seeing. And the Colonel was right, it was carnage. There was a field, surrounded by forest on high ridges, and a kind of swampy blackness in the near distance. All around were people shouting, screaming, herded by golems – while strange black creatures emerged from the ground and stumbled nearer…
'They're ordering everyone to the front now!' Trimasth wasn't wailing, or moaning, but Czioc could sense the terror in his voice. 'Everyone! Even me!'
'What about the militias?' said Czioc, eyes open now, waking up rapidly.
'There are no militias! Not any more! The Committees are just throwing people at the battle front!'
'It's insane! They're not even arming anyone, they're just literally herding thousands of people to their deaths! Even me!'
Czioc winced as an audio feed suddenly started, blaring sounds inside his head along to the video. They weren't pleasant. He turned it off.
'Czioc you've got to do something!'
'What can I do?'
'Speak to the Committees! Call Ing'lunam, call anyone! You got those other people off, you saved them, right? You've got to help me! Please!'
The image swung around as the Colonel looked for somewhere to run. Everything was tinged red with panic.
Czioc saw glimpses of black things approaching, just several feet away – a giant bird skeleton with oily innards hanging in the ribcage, a huge bat head on tiny legs baring its fangs…
He switched off the connection.
'Ing'lunam. I know you're there.'
Early morning light shone all around. Everything was silent. But there was a slight background buzz that told him Principal Adviser Ing'lunam was listening.
'Where are you guys? Where do you live?'
'We live in the world, just like you,' came the dry response. He sounded weary, which made two of them.
'Come on. You guys have to live somewhere. Have meetings, look at slideshows, talk shit over coffee.'
'What do you want Czioc?'
'Trimasth died last night. It was probably horrible and disgusting, but I didn't watch.' He paused. 'Have you guys run out of options? Have you still not found out what these things are, or why they're here?'
'Haven't you found out where Noksalika Chuunim is yet?' came the nasty reply.
Czioc was surprised by the man's bitterness. 'It's a work in progress,' he said grimly.
'We didn't enlist you to paint a fucking picture.'
'I'm trying the best I can.'
'Try harder. Try faster.'
'Whatever. When you gave people weapons and sent them to fight these aliens, it was a joke. Sending them without weapons is just plain murder. Why are you killing people?'
'Because there is no iron left in the land!' Ing'lunam snapped. Czioc heard a long sigh, like a lecturer explaining things for the hundredth time. 'Why do you think weapons are government-sanctioned? There was hardly any metal in the land before these things invaded, let alone now. How's your knowledge, Czioc? Did anyone teach you classics, or ancient history?'
'Uh, no, not really.'
'People scoff at mantrels for having no history. But the truth is we all come from a time before the Ethe.'
'We're talking tens of thousands of years ago. It was a time of chaos and uncertainty – according to some historians, it was complete luck that civilisation even survived.'
'Hang on. How did they get anything done without the Ethe?'
'They built machines, great machines to do everything.' Ing'lunam sounded sad, as if he was taken in by his own tragic telling of the story. 'Agriculture, industry, communication. War. Machines of metal drove everything, and did everything we take for granted today.'
'Sounds alright, if a bit … weird.'
'It couldn't last. Machines need energy, they need fuel. And civilisation was run on a system based on growth, economic expansion – population expansion. Ha, can you imagine! A whole society based on its own lack of sustainability!'
'That's more insane than you are. What happened?'
'Resource wars. Can you believe the population density in cities was half a million people per cubic mile? Sometimes more!' Ing'lunam sounded almost personally angry at these criminals long buried in history. 'No land can support this. So they conquered and exploited new land until there was no more land to take, then they fought each other. People died in their hundreds of thousands, almost on the scale you're seeing today.'
Czioc bit his lip, thinking.
'This was the introduction of the Ethe,' continued Ing'lunam patiently, 'and the start of the world we know today. There were always a few people on the fringes, people dismissed as spiritualists, mystics, peddlers of snake oil and nonsense. But with the radical need for change, for a new system, serious attention was paid to their ramshackle studies of the energy in the land. What they discovered was there was a science behind it.'
'And this brought us Committees, golems, random executions?' retorted Czioc. 'Bureaucracy and fascism. Very spiritual.'
'Fuck, Czioc, it brought us balance. Between you and me, facing the actual possible end of the world, yes there are stupid things with our society. But it's a damn sight better than the alternative. We manage our society without the need to control people's personal lives. Everyone lives luxurious, comfortable lives with minimal work and all the food, culture, fashion and sex they want. Everyone!' Ing'lunam puffed on the other end of the line, clearly impassioned by his rhetoric. 'By listening to the Ethe, by utilising and accepting it, by channelling it through the Migration, we restored life to the world and eradicated inequality. The Ethe knows things. The Ethe understands balance. These creatures,' he indicated Miza, on the edge of Czioc's vision, 'centaurs and mantrels and tetranids and the like, are a direct result of the change it brought the world.'
'Are you telling me centaurs and mantrels are, are holy or something?' Czioc frowned, casting eyes over Miza's horse body. He remembered gripping those young muscles strongly, and shuddered. 'I've met mantrels. Some of them are wankers.'
'I mean these creatures are symbolic of the Ethe. The Ethe knows the right combinations of animals and creatures to create people. That's why you don't see centaurs with the legs of a person and the head of a horse.'
'I did wonder.'
There was a long sigh. 'There is no metal left in the land. So we can either leave people to die, or send them into battle with at least the hope of fighting.'
Czioc shook his head slowly. 'I don't think "hope" is the right word.'
Ing'lunam shrugged. 'We await your report. No rush,' he added sarcastically. 'Between you and me though, there's not much world left to save. I'd run for it.'
The connection closed.
Czioc shook his head again, a baffled look crippling his face. If there was no world left to save, where could you run?