'What's this bit of code mean on this message?'
'How many times did she visit the Mantrel Substate?'
'Did any of her boyfriends have links to rebels?'
'Guys, guys,' interrupted Interface, throwing his hands up. 'This is absurd. I can't answer both of your questions at the same time.'
Miza glared at Czioc, who cold-shouldered her perfectly.
'I could form two mouths, and thereby talk to you both that way?' And without waiting, the bear's jaws widened and split, both sets moving round his head; a blank patch of fur was left in the middle between them, where independent sets of muscles met.
For Miza, her friend's lips spread sideways across her cheeks and closed in the middle. She glimpsed a mash of teeth and tongues as the face changed.
Her own single mouth hung open, utterly revolted. 'That is disgusting.'
'Hmm, okay,' mused Interface with both mouths, speaking in stereo. 'Okay, how about I form a doppelganger? After all, this is only an avatar, a representation of me; another one wouldn't hurt.'
Again before they could respond, Interface tugged at a hand and pulled it clean off; blue crystals glistened and sparkled on the stump. He tossed the hand on the ground, and immediately it sprouted and morphed into the shape of a young female centaur. Miza, confronted with two identical centaurs, blinked – and suddenly Interface had turned into a large grey bear with four arms, a crafty smile, and thankfully only one mouth.
'Wow,' she said, breathing out.
'So…' started Czioc, slowly, turning from bear to centaur and back again, 'do we need different names for you, or what…?'
The bear and the centaur both chuckled. 'Not exactly, I think we can manage.'
'Indeed,' said the centaur in a playful, silky voice, 'seeing as we—'
The two Interfaces smiled and high-fived each other flawlessly.
'I'm surrounded by children,' muttered Czioc, shaking his head.
Now you know how I feel.
Pshappa died that next night. The real Pshappa. But Czioc didn't wake with a start, not this time. He wasn't sleeping properly. And after Trimasth's last desperate call, he'd been almost expecting it.
Pshappa had run North as far as he could; there wasn't much else anyone could have done, it seemed. There were no horses left, none that could carry a bear anyway. He had a kitchen knife he'd stolen from a deserted restaurant, and had found a comfortable spot in a tree to call Czioc from. It was a frank conversation on the Ethe, blunted by the morbid facts. No way out. Not going to be okay, not this time. Thanks for everything, sorry for everything, no that's okay, don't worry about it mate, love you. Better go, don't want you to see me turn to mush. Haha, do you see what I did there. Yes, yes, very funny.
So … that was it.
And then the nightmares really had their reign over Czioc.
Awake or asleep, it didn't really matter – Czioc was haunted by both mutated women and helpless bears, smashing and breaking his soul down, down, down. Carnivorous women chased him, taunted him and held him close, only to burn him with searing breasts of lava. Meanwhile little grey bears with four arms and gaping holes in their bellies sat around, bored, as their entrails left them and crawled away like sticky red snakes.
The bears kept asking him the time, they kept saying excuse me, do you know the time, kept asking if he knew the goddamn fucking time…
The fever burned; he felt the rampant fever in all the blood in his body, and the worst part was knowing he wasn't actually sick, it wasn't actually real. The Ethe knew his biological make-up. Like everyone else, it didn't allow him to be sick. The fever was in his mind.
Every now and again, he'd find himself alone on the cool grass with another crate of delicious beer, feeling a bit tired but wondering what the problem was. And then a pond would appear, and mermaids without arms would slither out of it, old hags with grey skin and mad eyes and rotten fish tails. They'd beg for his cock, demand it, cry out for his sex and then cackle as he tried to run away in slow motion. And then the small grey bears would dance in a circle around him, and the guilt would rush up through his feet, burning, burning in his bones…
At his very core, at the back of his brainstem and in the muscles operating his heart, his very being starting speaking automatic words there must be a solution there must be a way out there must be something to stop this stop this end the madness end this crazy darkness and bring light and bring light what is it what is there what brought you solace where did you feel kindness how did you achieve peace achieve peace yes okay found it are you sure yes yes yes.
The horrors froze; the harpies, the hag-mermaids, the little grey dancing bears with their flowing entrails, all stock still and motionless. Czioc tapped at them each with a finger, one by one, and watched them all crumble to dust. They were just clay models, and badly-painted ones too, gently disintegrating and seeping softy into the ground. After a few moments, all that was left was the lush green grass under his feet and the creeping light of dawn.
Dew glittered around him.
He knew what he had to find.
'Noksalika Chuunim,' said Czioc, staring up levelly at the bear-thing with sore eyes. The avatar was a good representation, he had to give the machine that much credit. It had even done some research, apparently, and added beer stains down its front.
Czioc had to bite his lip, knowing this thing which looked like his friend was not actually his friend, who had died a few hours ago.
'Porn star. Musician woman. Very famous.'
'I know the one,' replied Interface, pleasantly.
'Wanted to make sure we were talking about the same person. You're a machine, after all.'
'Not quite, but I see your point.'
'I need to find her. I need to find where in the world she is.'
'That's right,' said Interface. 'You're on a mission to find her and help save the world.'
Czioc didn't move a muscle. 'I need to find her.'
Interface paused, and scratched his cheek. 'Well, to be fair, there's not much world left where she could be.' He shrugged down at Czioc. 'A lot of people are dead already. If she is still alive, which I'd like to point out is less likely every day, there aren't many places she could be.'
'Good. That'll narrow the search down.'
'Hmm, since you put it that way…'
'Yes, I do put it that way,' said Czioc firmly. He paused, and looked down at his feet, thinking. 'Actually…'
Interface waited patiently. 'Actually?'
'How big is this world?'
Interface gave him a cautious look from under dark grey eyebrows. 'The world is infinite in all directions.'
'Not the world, this world,' Czioc pressed. 'There's the Channelsea out there, and other places beyond. I mean this one.'
Interface frowned, as if giving in to an insistent child, and closed his eyes. 'This world is approximately two hundred and sixty thousand miles across at its widest point, and one hundred and ninety thousand miles at its narrowest.'
'And how big is the Channelsea?'
The eyes snapped open; for a split second, Czioc thought he saw a flash of green in the back of the pupils. 'No-one has mapped the universe that far; the geographical distance is too great, and the Ethe will not tell us. It is well over two billion miles to the other side. That is all we know.'
Czioc tilted his head and leaned closer. 'What do you mean, the "other" side?'
The bear sighed and hung his head in boredom. 'Our world has been drifting closer and closer to a vast barrier for as long as the Ethe records can tell. It stretches in two dimensions as far as anyone has been able to study it. From what cosmologists can tell, to all intents and purposes it is one side of the Channelsea.' He raised his head and gave Czioc a frank stare. Shivers went up Czioc's spine as flashbacks of Pshappa came back to him. 'Whatever the case, the survivors of this world will find out soon. Large-scale evacuations have been leaving from major ports for the past two months.'
That's what Ing'lunam was referring to, the brittle voice in his head spoke for him. Wonder if the arsehole is still even here?
He sighed and sat down on a spongy rock that appeared beneath him, reaching out for a fresh bottle of beer by his hand without needing to look.
He'd asked all the boring questions, they'd been over the existing records. He looked up at the grey bear towering above him.
'Do you think she could have cut herself off from the Ethe by herself?'
'Well like I said, I don't really "think" anything. But in trying to answer your question, I can confirm she didn't have any specialist technical know-how. Except for special biological techniques for pornography, naturally.'
'The ability to expand her vagina in order to take extremely large penises inside her for sex, such as those from animals.'
Czioc paused, frowning and mouth open with his train of thought derailed. You did ask, the dead voice pointed out with a snigger.
'Anyway,' he said loudly, 'that means she probably had an accomplice, right? So she could still be in contact with someone else. Somehow. What about her Ethe nodes? Have you scanned for communications with her Ethe nodes in the code, even if her name's not actually on it?'
'We really have tried everything,' sighed Interface apologetically.
'Huh, a machine telling me how to do things.'
'I keep saying, I'm not actually a machine…'
Czioc had stopped listening, sipping gently on his beer. The bear-thing was right, in a way: this was an extraordinary situation. It needed creative thinking. He needed to think outside the box.
'What is a "sky"?' he asked.
Interface looked at him and frowned. '"Sky"?'
'Yes, what is a "sky"?'
'I'm scanning all public messages, communications, photographs, recorded audio and video. And there's very little mention of this word "sky" except for instances directly connected to yourself. Which leads me to believe it has no origins beyond you and Noksalika. It's made-up.'
Czioc smiled sardonically. 'It's not made-up.'
'Well what is a "sky" then?'
'I don't know, that's why I'm asking.'
You, sir, are a genius. The dead voice in his head made a point of yawning with a mouth it didn't have.
'Look, I need a reference,' shrugged Interface simply. 'I know you got the word from Noksalika, I have all your conversations on record. But I can't do the thinking for you, I can't make interpretations myself.'
Czioc bit his lip in thought, casting his eyes over the grass. 'It's like … an idea, or a place.' He frowned to himself and looked up. 'Is that possible? Can the same word describe a place and an idea?'
'It's more than possible, I've got a whole list of examples. Do you want them?'
'No that's alright. So the idea is like … something between "freedom" and "expansion", or "space".'
'Okay. What about the place?'
'Erm…' Czioc paused, clutching at concepts. 'It's like an open space, er, but, like, so open that it's endless.'
'Endless?' Interface raised an eyebrow. 'As in "infinite"?'
'Yes – but no – not really – just, just the sense of being endless. That there is an endless space in front of you, or, or, above you.' Czioc summoned up the conversations he'd had with Noksalika, recorded audio and video through his eyes and hers. 'Yeah, an open, endless space above.'
Miza and her centaur version of Interface came trotting over, both holding cocktails and giggling together. The Pshappa version of Interface looked rather severely at Czioc.
'It could, I suppose, be some sort of rebel metaphor,' he mused. 'This would explain why your poem appeared to gain such attention from rebels and spiritualists. I can't find any specific mention on any of the Ethe, but that's not to say it couldn't be a concept from an external society, or a folklore idea handed down from some old civilisation.'
'Sounds like some sort of nursery rhyme,' said the centaur Interface, she and Miza sitting down neatly on the grass beside them.
Czioc and Miza glanced at each other. 'Aren't you two the same person, or thing, or whatever? Don't you know the same things?' Miza said to her Interface.
The Pshappa Interface smiled with an air of patronisation. 'Yes, but we're doing this for your benefit. Showing the thinking-through of ideas in the form of discussion between two people.'
'Nursery rhymes and fairy tales deal with imaginary, impossible places that are actually poorly-disguised ideas,' continued the girl centaur in her golden voice.
'But—' started Czioc.
The bear Interface looked unconvinced. 'It seems far more a direct political idea than some general children's story. You can see the way it spread so quickly from Czioc's original note—'
'What about—' Czioc said ineffectually.
'But that says more about the gossipy, connected nature of society than the idea itself,' argued the she-centaur. 'It's not focused or direct enough to be of political value—'
'This is all very well,' said Czioc abruptly, his hands up and fingers splayed in frustration. The two Interfaces stopped their play-arguing and turned to him. 'But what about as a real place? Do you know where it could be?'
The Pshappa Interface gave a brief snort, and Czioc felt a tearful pang behind his eyes at the attention to detail of Pshappa's character. 'You are joking, right?'
'Yes, you're not serious are you?' backed up the centaur Interface. Czioc felt both their stares coldly burning into him, before both avatars burst out laughing.
'This is an idea we're talking about,' Pshappa Interface went on. 'Maybe the idea of a place which represents an idea, fine, whatever. But a real actual place? An actual thing?' He shook his head.
Czioc felt his gut drop inside him. He felt the flush of guilt, of shame, at being made to look stupid by a machine. And he felt the sting of moisture swelling across his eyes.
'Why are you him?!' he yelled angrily, leaping up and slamming fists at the bear-avatar ineffectually. 'Why him? Why my only best friend I ever had? This world is hundreds of thousands of miles big with millions of cities and billions of people and you … you…'
He trailed off, breathing heavily, pushing less hard at the bear.
Miza had stood up at the outburst and taken a couple of steps towards him. She stopped. 'What is it, Czioc?' she said carefully.
Cities. That was it.
The city. She loved the city, she felt she was the city. She was the life, the soul, the risks taken, the reckless mistakes and the intoxicating opportunities. She was the face on a magazine and the colours in the kaleidoscope. She hated being in the wilderness. She couldn't even bear the travel between major cities. It was a part of her being, part of her make-up.
So if she was running away from her old life, from all the problems of fame, there were two choices – she would either go away from the city, hide somewhere rural and deserted where no-one would find her.
Or she would hide amongst it all, amongst the people and the bustle and the huge buildings and the cafes open all hours. Because when the world is full of beautiful people, the face on a magazine is just another face in the crowd; when anyone can start a clothing line and be in a rock band and write an online journal and design jewellery, the difference between a star and a nobody is how many hits you get on your profile.
And Noksalika had reset her hits to zero.
'Where's the biggest city?' said Czioc.
'The biggest city,' repeated Czioc. 'Where is it?'
'Well … where?' shrugged Interface.
'In the world!'
Interface pinched his nose. 'The largest and coincidentally most concentrated city in the world,' he breathed, 'was Arca Toupolou. Its location is fifty-seven thousand miles roughly Tak-Southeast, and has unfortunately been destroyed by the invaders. As far as I can tell, the current population is zero.'
'Okay okay okay,' Czioc snapped his fingers several times. 'Where's the nearest big city? Like, the biggest, nearest city?'
Interface flashed him a rare nasty look. 'You don't ask logical questions, do you,' he sniffed unhappily. 'If I was to lower myself to your low, generalising¬ level—'
'Yes?' said Miza, joining Czioc in excited impatience.
'—I'd say the "biggest nearest" city is Rhajallington, about nine hundred miles Zha-North.'
Czioc's eyes sparkled, and he turned to grab Miza by the shoulders, smiling at her. 'Pack some supplies, get your stuff together, we're off. Now.'
'Okay,' she said, smiling back.
'Are you sure she's going to be there?' said the Pshappa Interface.
Czioc shrugged, summoning Zero over the Ethe. He was still smiling, drunk on more than just the beer. 'If she's anywhere she'll be there.'
They stepped back into reality, crossing the invisible barrier between luscious grass and dusty dirt. Czioc walked Zero by the reins, stroking her neck and talking to her like a person. Miza padded alongside, smiling at his new bright mood.
Both Interfaces had come up to the edge of the Etheport zone to see them off.
'Just beware, okay?' called the Pshappa Interface as they left. 'The Ethe is sick. It's damaged. We're trying to keep the energies and communication flowing as best we can here, but it could be too late.'
'Too late?' Miza replied. 'Too late for what?'
'For the Ethe to survive. The Ethe is flexible, it's very flexible and it's changing the very structure of how it works, but … but so much of the land has been broken and destroyed, it's possible there might be some sort of collapse.'
'Right,' shouted Czioc. 'So how do we "beware" the Ethe collapsing?'
'Don't ask me,' shrugged Interface. 'I'm just warning you. If the Ethe becomes too unstable and implodes, we're all in trouble.'
'Well cheers for the warning,' smiled Czioc merrily, waving as he walked backwards. 'For now though I think we'll just worry about things we can contraaaaaaarrrrrrrfuck—'
The arrow landed in his foot, pinning him to the ground.
Miza spun round, and was met by a flash of arrows across her front and flank, piercing her front legs and her torso. She screamed, collapsing forwards. Zero whinnied and raised her head, eyes wide and staring.
The arrow had torn straight through Czioc's shoe, leaving a bloody mess. He struggled to keep his eyes open as he yelled in pain, head flailing around. Large dark shapes came out of nowhere; he drew his sword, then bent down to yank at the arrow, which caused him more pain.
What is this? the dead voice snapped.
'Czioc!' shrieked Miza, clawing at herself on the ground. Blood pumped from her body. 'Czioc!'
There were foreign yells and cheers, and other sounds too, growls and barks. He looked up and focussed, and almost wished he hadn't. The dark shapes were wolf riders – men, women, mantrels, lizardmen, all riding huge, dirty, muscular wolves.
'Interface!' he screamed back behind him. 'Do something!'
'Sorry,' shouted the bear Interface, shrugging across the thirty yards or so. 'You're outside the zone. I can't do anything.'
He doesn't look bloody sorry, snarled the voice in his head.
'We would have told you, but you didn't ask,' called the centaur Interface innocently, as Miza sobbed in horrific pain, back legs kicking spasmodically.
'Fuckers!' bellowed Czioc, snapping the arrow with one hand and yanking his foot from the ground with a splatter of blood. He spun round on one foot brandishing his sword, but suddenly found four wolves padding round in a circle, all the riders with shortbows drawn and pointed at him.
'Yeah yeah drop the cutlery,' grunted an ugly lizardman on another hefty wolf.
'Good shot wasn't it Sarge?' said one of the men, smiling happily. 'Got 'im right in the foot!'
'What the fuck do you want?!' yelled Czioc, pointing the sword from one to another.
'I said put the cutlery down, Deaf Boy,' snapped the lizardman. 'That means the sword.'
Czioc growled, shifting his weight and wincing, and dropped the sword on the floor. Zero neighed next to him,
'Thank you kindly,' the lizardman said without feeling. 'Kerbusson, one of your delicacies please, he looks like a lively one.'
'What about the centaur Sarge?' Another three riders stood over Miza's crying, bloody body. She turned her face upwards, snivelling, making gurgling noises in her throat.
'Fuck 'er, she's got no money,' said the lizardman off-handedly. 'This is the one we want. We'll take him to Rhajallington and wring the cash out of him.'
Fuck. An icy chill flashed through his brain.
'No!' screamed Czioc at exactly the moment a mantrel loosed an arrow, point blank, into Miza's face. Suddenly from behind Czioc a hand grabbed his neck while another smothered his face with a strong-smelling cloth.
As he lost consciousness, the last thing he heard was, 'And kill the horse too. I fucking hate horses.'
It took several of them, because as government property, Zero was built to last and put up a fight; she even killed one with a kick, smashing a hoof through his face and leaving fragments of skull in his brain. But after a few dozen stabs with knives, she succumbed to the inevitable. The party slunk off with the unconscious Czioc tied up, leaving the bloody bodies of a dead centaur and a dying horse.
'Oh dear,' said the bear Interface, having watched the whole thing. 'That wasn't ideal, was it.'
'No,' agreed the centaur Interface. 'But hey, at least they're taking him to Rhajallington. So that's lucky, eh?'