Dark, powerful currents swept at his body – and yet he was weightless, pulled nowhere by nothing.
Behind him the Ethe broke up, interference carving up the frequencies. Fragments of recordings cut in and out: memories of random places, lumps of code from forgotten photos, distorted music from another time.
He floated and spun as the universe flashed in and out of his brain…
'What are you thinking?'
Space. Beautiful emptiness. The scent of a thousand women lying in a hundred billion flowers…
'Just … stuff.'
'Stuff?' she snorted, frowning. 'That's a copout. A lie. And a bad one.'
…He dreamt of birds and gleaming white castles, of trees, of light and shade side by side…
He smiled nervously. 'You wouldn't understand. I can't explain.'
'You mean you won't try.'
…And, drowning in her accusing, gorgeous eyes, he realised there was no way to really know someone. You could never truly be inside their head. Even their voice and their face and their touch and all those things that make them them to you, are just a tiny, tiny part of who they are.
'I love you.'
She stared at him for a split second, her irises flashing through a matrix of colours as he watched her processing the words. She laughed out loud. 'No you don't. But I know what you mean.'
He was pretty certain she had absolutely no id—
He was suddenly surrounded by green, everywhere, his entire vision filled with an emerald blanket.
'Drinking in the park! Now that's my style!'
He couldn't see anything, just this suffocating green everywhere. Meanwhile voices spoke in the background. He had a feeling one of them was him.
'You seem nice.'
'I am nice.'
'You're also a fucking big bear.'
'Yes, I am. Awesome, eh?'
After a few moments, he could see shapes in the green, patches of dark oil and light syrup. The disembodied voices continued in the background:
'A bear with four arms. Where'd you get them from?'
'I stole them. From my enemies! Mwahaha!'
'No you didn't.'
'Aw no, okay, I didn't. Wouldn't it be cool though?'
'So where did you get them?
'Same place you got yours.'
'What, my mum?'
'Ha! Yeah, from your mum. And more besides.'
He saw pulses in the green – energy being pushed around. And suddenly he realised where he was.
He zoomed out, and out further, and out further, and saw the green was a close-up of a giant, monumental blade of grass. It stretched off for miles left and right, cutting into infinity itself above.
'That whiskey's not bad.'
'I'm quite fond of it. Got it at some town a few weeks ago.'
'What, from a centaur with an eye patch?'
'How did you know?'
'I got some amazing vodka from the same guy!'
He zoomed out, further and further, and now the blade of grass was surrounded by other vast blades of grass, a whole entire forest, with massive insects flying between them…
'I'm on the Migration.'
'Me too, just here for a brief stop off.'
'When do you check out?'
'Tomorrow. Mind if I join you?'
…and finally the forest shrank to a lawn, and he could see people and trees and a pond, and
Images attacked him, blocky distorted images, frames of digital pictures with the colours gone wrong. Czioc imagined this was what someone might see if they were on drugs. Then he remembered he'd tried lots of drugs, and it was nothing like that at all.
And then the monster was everything, hideous flashes of something so horrendously big it offended his imagination and filled him with nausea. Through dark space, he saw those teeth, those mighty teeth on a collision course with his entire world and everything he'd ever known. He saw its eye, the gaping black hole so wide that existence itself might fall in. And the most terrifying aspect that gripped his soul was that that was all he could see of the monster, it was too big for vision itself—
Sometimes the light would burn his eyes when he woke up after a late night, and on one such morning, he found himself in a girl's bed. This wasn't unknown to happen, but there was some instinctive terror lurking in the front of his brain, so he froze still, waiting to wake properly and for his vision to clear to see if she was as ugly as he feared.
She wasn't ugly. She was very attractive. Attractive … and horribly, worryingly familiar.
She didn't move.
Had he ever had sex with an ugly girl?
Did ugly girls even exist?There must have been ugly girls. But he couldn't remember any. There were plain girls, sure … but they always had their own prettiness or cuteness, in their own way. But wasn't ugliness relative? Ugly girls in the ancient past would have been really ugly, teeth and moles sticking out everywhere. So didn't that mean just ordinary girls, in these days, would get called ugly?
The more he handled it, the more the word seemed like an alien concept, a nugget from a foreign language that didn't quite make sense in his culture.
The girl's hair started breaking up, her shoulder buzzing into large pixels, each one several inches across.
Then again, not much was making sense right now.
The pixels blinked and flashed, random noises cutting in and out, sound samples from other video recordings getting mixed up, audio channels burning up and colours turning into smells and each tiny pixel flashing through digits and code it could be, and even his thoughts were disappearing, the whole world was cracking into the oblivion of white noise and distortion, reminding him that his own brain was just a mechanical device, maybe complicated maybe organic but still a machine with lots of inputs and outputs and could be broken, undercut, torn up, rewired, shut down, dried up, and the currents drove him further and faster and wilder and he felt like a drunk robot slipping into apocalyptic unconsci
Again? Why again. Why can't I just stay here.
Because it's not your choice. You're a survivor.
Says I. I know you. I understand you.
It's so hard. I can feel the pain coming already. I just want to stay here. Here in this nothing, here without trouble. Don't make me go back.
It's not me making you. It's you.
The sand tasted wrong.
He awoke with the usual symphony of pain and discomfort; his face was half buried in the ground and his limbs were bent the wrong way. But he'd been in pain before, and the horror had somehow become boring; his body knew how to deal with it. The first thing he thought when he woke up was that the sand tasted wrong.
He scrunched his eyes up, feeling hot light on his cheek not buried in sand. The skin on his face burned – the pores felt as though they'd been raped by gravel, and his muscles were tired and sore. And that was just his face. He didn't dare open the catalogue of his body's other pains yet.
But still, the most pressing issue echoing in his brain was that the grains of sand, half filling his mouth and dissolving down his throat, didn't taste right…
It was a beach. Another beach. A different beach.
Czioc dragged his face from the sand and spat what he could from his mouth before rolling onto his back. His body cried at him, cried in pain, but it wasn't torture – nothing felt broken. It was slower pain, if that were possible, burning up his muscles; the desperate ache of exhaustion.
He lay splayed on his back, breathing hard and heavy.
The golden beach hit the sea at right angles like a wall, the ice-blue waves sending chunks of foaming water pounding up the sand.
He felt damp; the tide was going out. Salt itched across his face like a rash. He propped himself up on his elbows, to better see where he was.
To his right was the vertical sea, a deep blue flecked with white foam. To his left, the sand curved upwards – well, "up" was a relative term – and became muddy, rocky, and green. Rich green. His brain flashed back to the giant blade of grass. He shook himself mentally, and realised he was looking at jungle: dense, lush, thick forest. In front of him, between the vertical sea and vertical jungle, were dozens and dozens of miles of space.
His toe twitched as something pinched it – an opportunist crab, it turned out. He hadn't the heart or the energy to kick it away. There were worse things you could get nibbled by than crabs.
He expected the dead voice to start speaking to him. It was usually about now, when he was fully conscious and felt absolutely dreadful, that the voice would be snide and patronising, with a tone that pretended to be wise but just sounded smug, and it would talk about the good old days when it was alive, people living today never had it so good, rah rah rah.
But the voice never came. His head was quiet – bruised and aching, but quiet.
So. This was where you went after the world ended.
He sat back against a coconut tree on the edge of the jungle, melancholy and despondent.
When the sand had dried out and become too hot to lie on, he'd scrambled to his feet and staggered up towards the treeline where the ground was earthy and cooler.
Above – overhead – whatever – the glittering sea splashed playfully with crisp white edges. He looked one way up the hot, deserted beach. It stretched endlessly into the distance, making his eyes go funny. Then he looked the other way. Nothing.
Could be worse.
Could be a damn sight better though.
Czioc shuddered. He'd forgotten how cold the dead voice was in his head. Each word was its own brittle song of stone.
'Fine thanks,' he replied, with no emotion. He looked down at his clothes. They were virtually destroyed – not exactly ripped or torn, but simply worn through, which was somehow more distressing.
'Still in one piece, if that's what you mean,' he said.
I can see that, snapped the voice. What about the Ethe? What about your memories?
And that was the crazy thing. Here, there was Ethe. Here, after plummeting through the torrents of the Channelsea and winding up on this empty beach in the middle of nowhere, the Ethe still tingled in the background. He was broken and exhausted but he could feel its warm electronic cushion, softly glowing in his head and his heart.
Except … it was a different Ethe.
Even in good times, conditions on the Migration had required them to eat bare earth or bits of wood for the Ethe energy they contained. It was simply how the Migration worked – sooner or later there was a four-week trek to the next town, and no amount of gourmet sandwiches were going to last that long. He'd travelled along windswept beaches, living off their sand and shingle. The sand here tasted different because it had a different Ethe flowing through it, a different electrical energy.
In answer to the dead voice's question, he still seemed to have all of his electronic identity. The old world was gone, vanished in the far distance through the ocean. Thousands of tiny changes had been made as his system attached itself to this new Ethe, like some symbiotic, biological leech. But he had his pictures, his videos, his files and his profile.
To his surprise, he even had the copies of Noksalika's records that the government had given him.
'Seems okay,' he shrugged, and winced at his shoulder muscles. He looked out over the sand, rubbing his rough skin. Seagulls cawed somewhere in the middle distance.
Everyone's dead, the voice mused sombrely.
Czioc nodded slowly.
Colonel Trismath's dead. Pshappa's dead.
'Yeah, I know,' agreed Czioc.
Miza's dead. That prick Ing'lunam and all the Committees, they're dead.
'Bloody hell, yes they're dead!' he shouted, voice cracking. 'The world ended! Just shut up, will you?!'
Czioc could see some seagulls swooping overhead in the space between the beach and the sea. He had a horrible feeling they'd spotted him, and were homing in like vultures of the seaside.
To be fair, the voice continued, they all died before the world ended. So even if the world hadn't ended, they'd still be dead.
Czioc made a threatening noise in the back of his throat. 'You're going from an embarrassment to an irritation.'
Promotion! High-five! The voice held up a hand it didn't have. Anyone? Anyone want to high-five me?
'Anyway,' said Czioc, ignoring him, 'Noksalika didn't.'
The voice snapped back into a sober mood. What do you mean?
'She didn't die before the end of the world. Well, I mean, we don't know she died.'
Truuuuue, said the voice, as if talking to a small child. Those words, in that order, are technically correct. But the thing is, you see, the thing you need to remember is, well … the world ended.
'Yep.' Czioc bit a sore lip.
So even if she wasn't dead, she's dead now.
'Maybe … she got out?'
The voice was right, Czioc knew. It was just hard switching off. He'd decided she was everything, she was the one who could rescue him from his misery. Saving the world had become almost irrelevant, a distraction. And now, like everything else, she had to be struck from reality.
He watched lazily as a seagull broke off from the swarming gang far above and swooped down towards him. It came in close, flapping its wings to slow itself and landed on the ground next to him. It had feathers of white and grey, with bright orange legs and a dirty yellow beak.
They looked at each other.
'Wotcha,' it said.
Did that, said the dead voice carefully, did that seagull just say something?
'Er. Hi,' said Czioc uncertainly. A talking seagull was one of the less weird things he'd seen, but he wasn't exactly familiar with them.
'What brings you, craaaak,' squawked the seagull, 'to my beach?'
This is brilliant. The seagull "owns" the beach. Let me write this down.
Czioc ignored the voice. 'Erm. My world kind of, er, ended.'
Oh no wait, I don't have a pen. Or a hand.
The bird raised an eyebrow dramatically. 'Ended, you say?'
Czioc nodded vacantly. 'Yep.'
'Sounds a bit shit.'
'Yeah. Yeah it is a bit. So I've, erm, rocked up here. Didn't realise I was trespassing on your beach though. Sorry about that.'
'Huh, no-one ever does,' sighed the seagull with sadness. 'I try my best, explain it to them, but do they listen? Do they bollocks. Always have to crap on their heads. Works, but hardly dignified for someone of my calibre.'
'Well I'd shake your hand, but you don't have one,' Czioc looked at his own bruised and battered arm, 'and mine might fall off. I'm Czioc. What's your name, mate?'
The seagull suddenly looked outraged.
Uh oh, you've upset it now.
'"Mate"?' the seagull screeched. 'How very dare you! I am a laydee.'
Outwardly, Czioc paused. Inwardly, he and the dead voice looked at each other, braying with mental laughter.
'I am the Lady Desdromina,' the bird continued haughtily, 'daughter of the mighty Masdromina the Great, King of the Sea, Lord of the Cliffs.' She sniffed indignantly. 'You may call me Des.'
Other seagulls circled and cawed overhead, but none came close. Czioc looked up and down the beach again, as if looking again might suddenly reveal a café, or a fully-functioning health spa. Still nothing.
'I was wondering actually,' the seagull Desdromina said softly, sidling up to Czioc carefully, 'just, on the off-chance…'
Des looked around cautiously, eyeing the gulls above with suspicion, before whispering: 'Have you got any chips?'
'No I haven't. Actually I was going to ask, is there anywh—' Czioc did a double-take. 'Have I got any what?'
'Go on!' hissed Des, flapping her wings, gently pecking at his ragged clothes. 'Gissa chip, go on.'
'I haven't got any chips,' Czioc said firmly, brushing her away. 'Look at me! Where do you think I'm hiding them? I've been swimming in the Channelsea!'
'Dunno, you might have, y'know, picked some up by accident,' persisted the bird, pecking at him insistently. 'Love chips I do. Can I check your pockets?'
'I do not have any chips!' shouted Czioc angrily.
'Skrrraaaaaaaaak! Fine then!' replied Des, turning her back huffily.
They both fell silent. Czioc tried looking up the beach again, but alas, it remained free of health spas and cafés.
'Look,' said Czioc, turning round, 'if you can tell me where I can get some food, a beer and a proper bed, I'll get you some chips.'
Des turned her head a fraction. 'Really?'
'Absolutely. Loads of chips. Buckets of them!' Czioc waved his arms grandly, then winced in pain horribly. He wondered if he was laying it on a bit thick, especially with the gesturing, but pushed on anyway. 'Big golden chips, fresh out of the fryer!'
'Don't want loads of chips,' muttered the seagull. 'Don't want fresh chips.'
Think about it, interrupted the dead voice. It's a seagull.
Czioc thought, and it dawned on him. 'What I meant was,' he said, lowering his tone a few notches, 'I'll get you a bunch of really greasy, horrible chips.'
Des whipped her small white head round. 'The ones at the bottom of the bag?'
'Yep, right down the bottom, all kind of … brown and soggy.'
There was a look of wonder in Des's beady black eyes.
'Deal,' she said smartly, snapping out of it. 'You'll probably want to be heading up the coast to where all your friends landed.'
'Friends?' Czioc's stomach lurched as he remembered all his friends were dead. Or so he'd thought.
'Yeah, all your lot from your world,' continued Des. 'Come in by the shipload, calling 'emselves "refugees".' She suddenly had a malevolent twinkle in her eye. 'Ha! Dirty immigrants is wot I calls 'em! Bleedin' scroungers!'
Of course. The evacuation ships.
'Where did they land?' asked Czioc urgently.
If he could find someone, anyone, maybe they knew what happened…
'I already toldjooo, up the coast,' repeated Des impatiently, in a distinctly unladylike manner, jabbing her head over his shoulder up the beach. 'It's a town called Issica. That's where you'll be getting my chips from. Come on, I know a great place. They even leave the bins open!'