It took a week of trudging up the beach to reach the outskirts of Issica. Czioc didn't know which was more annoying: the dead voice's sardonic sneers, or Desdromina the seagull's inane chatter about battered fish and "stinking immigrant tourists".
As he trekked between the shoreline and the dense bush, Des would occasionally circle over the jungle looking for fresh water and food. Then she'd return to helpfully inform Czioc that she couldn't see any streams through the jungle canopy, and that she'd seen several tasty-looking animals but they were probably long gone by now.
'…so then, another ship turns up, and the city was like, "Craak! We've got enough cheap immigrant labour thank you", but they come in anyway…'
He'd asked her about the evacuation ships coming in from his world. Much to his regret.
'…and of course, like, loads of 'em landed further up the coast, craaaak, they didn't have any navigation plans, 'cos they're dirty panicking foreigners like you, right? Prob'bly biologically more stupid, y'know, not your fault o'course…'
Czioc was unsure if Des talked strangely because she was a seagull, or because she was simply crude and ignorant.
'…anyway, it turns out though that a whole bunch of 'em had seen Issica on the Ethe and headed straight for it, and there was another seven ships coming in behind this one! Craaaak! Can you believe it?'
He'd looked at her presence on the Ethe, carefully when she wasn't looking. It was a small electronic profile, most of it regarding food. She kept, for instance, entire online journals dedicated to chips and the finer points of vinegar.
'Des,' he said, the sand scratching around inside his worn shoes. His throat was dry and salty.
'You know you said you're a "lady"?'
Des ran alongside him on the ground with her little orange legs, flapping her wings sometimes to catch up. She regarded him suspiciously with a shiny black eye. 'Yes?'
'Were you,' he said, 'talking bollocks?'
Des stopped and seemed to choke with incredulity. 'Do you,' she coughed, 'do you doubt my heritage?'
Is it joking? The voice still hadn't accepted Des as a "she".
'Well you don't sound like one.'
'Pah!' Des declared. Suddenly she shrank her head into her shoulders, making her neck disappear – and emitted a series of the loudest, ugliest shrieks Czioc had ever heard an animal make.
He clenched and waited for something to happen, but nothing did. There was just the cawing of other seagulls overhead.
His nerves jangled; he felt like several months had been taken off his life. 'Was that really necessary?'
Something wet struck his face. He flinched and dabbed at the cold wet streak on his cheek, which turned out to be white and brown and sticky. Bird shit.
He turned to Des. 'Ha ha, very fu—'
'Cawwwww! Cawwwwwwwww! Sqqqrrrrrawwwwk!'
The maelstrom of birds descended almost without warning, and Czioc suddenly found himself surrounded by a whirling mass of screaming, flapping seagulls.
'What the – what – what's going on?' he cried.
'What am I?' said Des smugly, preening herself.
The birds' beaks jabbed at his nose and eyes and mouth, while their shrieking was deafening. Czioc tried to throw them off but they kept battering him, dozens of them, turning the world into a noisy angry blur of white wings and little orange legs.
'Get them off me!' he pleaded.
'Do you give in?'
'Okay okay, fine, I give in!'
'That's "I give in, yorrrr ladyship".'
'I give in your ladyship! Now get them off me!'
Des made a dismissive yawning noise and snapped a couple of lazy instructions. Just as quickly as they'd descended, the birds lifted, vanishing up into the space between the beach and the sea. Czioc stood, covered in scratches and bird faeces, mouth open.
'There'll be no more doubting going on here,' Des said smartly.
'Thanks. Thanks very much,' yelled Czioc angrily, covered in bruises and faeces. 'You couldn't have just convinced me verbally?'
Good thing I don't have a face, piped up the dead voice, or it'd be covered in shit like yours!
Czioc muttered something rude and continued trudging through the sand.
It looked like an ordinary city, both to the eye and online.
He'd cut inland and avoided the main roads to keep a low profile, weaving between the outer suburbs to get as close as he could to the central city. Truth was, he was absolutely desperate for real food and a wash, but he reasoned it was better to be cautious – you couldn't un-show yourself if the locals turned out to be cannibals or, indeed, the flagrant racists Des seemed to suggest. Not that "race" was the right word, but he couldn't think of a better one right now.
It appeared to be a perfectly normal city, with cafes, bars, offices and theatres. The biggest chunk of the city was inside the ground, with inner-terranean parks and canals. Maybe it was too normal? This was, after all, a different world.
'Craak,' cawed Des softly, perching on a low tree branch next to him. 'You gonna get me my chips then?
'Shhh! I'm just checking it out first,' he hushed her.
'They're an alright bunch, I s'pose,' mused Des, preening herself. 'Although they don't do anything about those surfers who come to my beach and make a horrible mess. My beach! Sqraaawk!'
He stood on the edge of a forested ridge looking over a bowl-shaped hollow in the land where the surface of the city was built. Across the space to the right, a huge lip of land rose into the sea, bristling with docks and boatsheds and hundreds of people working the harbour. He looked down. At four spots in the bowl itself, he watched pillars of water streaming up from the ground, hurtling into the sea from canals that wove through the city; of course, "up" or "down" depended on which way you were standing.
It was late morning. He watched people on the Ethe buying bread and nursing hangovers, swarming in and out of offices, lounging around parks doing crosswords. There were people doing everything – except partying, strangely. Hardly anyone seemed to be drinking. Everything seemed perfectly normal, but how could they be really normal if no-one was drinking by lunchtime?
'Better go and say hello then.'
There was a rustling sound behind him and he felt a huge, cold hand place itself on his shoulder.
He turned round and saw two golems filling his view of the sea above. Their armour was brown instead of black, and their helmets looked a different shape – but here, in a coastal jungle outside a foreign city on a different world, their purpose seemed horribly familiar.
'Halt!' said a voice across the Ethe, waking up connections in his brain that he'd forgotten still worked. 'My name is Brigadier Zhouland, I am the Chairman of the Issica Physical and Cultural Security Committee. Please find yourself reporting to our Aliens Immigrants and Refugees Office immediately.'
Before he could move his legs, the golems picked him up and crashed forward through the trees with Des flapping around them.
'Oi, where are you taking him? What about my effing chips?'
Czioc was escorted into the city and into the ground and into a prison. It had to be a prison, because it was a bit dark and there were six walls with no windows and a metal toilet and a metal door on big hinges that wouldn't budge. Worse still, his Ethe identity appeared to be locked. He could see everything, navigate around the electronic landscape and the websites and forum topics. But he couldn't post anything, couldn't engage with anything.
Then again, as a newcomer to this land, he didn't have anyone to interact with anyway.
And at least he was shielded from Des' squawking about chips.
He stood, then he sat, then he lay down. Then he sat on the toilet. Then he lay down again. Then he actually used the toilet, and found it didn't flush.
He sat in a corner and looked through newsgroups and science bulletins, scouring them for information on his old world…
His prison stay was thankfully limited to a few mind-numbing hours. The golems came back and dragged him out, then manhandled him through a large portion of the city with people staring and pointing. Some even laughed. Czioc didn't really care, although it would have been far more comfortable if he'd just been allowed to walk.
He found himself taken to a grand majestic building and transferred to uniformed troll guards, who were much smaller than the golems but still big enough to carry Czioc around. They took him through marble corridors and grand chambers, transferring him to other guards who dragged him through more corridors and chambers, before finally depositing him on some cheap waiting chairs at the end of a corridor. Stern-faced officials zoomed about like wasps in suits; occasionally he caught a glance or a whispered comment, but the bustling bureaucrats either didn't know or care what he was there for.
More troll guards stood to attention, two on either side of him, alert. Another pair stood by the wooden door where the corridor ended.
He sat up, then decided to lie down on the chairs. No-one said anything to him, but judging by the look of the building and all the people rushing around, it seemed to be pretty big stuff. He wondered what Des would say if he saw a "dirty immigrant" being taken to such an important building. Whatever they had in store for him, they wouldn't have bothered if it wasn't important.
That didn't mean, of course, that it was going to be good…
Mathematically it was a shorter wait than he'd had in his cell, but somehow it felt longer; maybe it was the sense that he had an appointment which was drastically overdue. The wooden door opened, and he was ushered inside.
It was a spherical room, brightly lit and covered in old wooden panelling and polished marble. A kaleidoscope of flags hung from poles, their designs unclear in the folds.
Nine figures sat behind an imposing, curved judicial bench.
In the centre, an old moustachioed man coughed and looked directly at Czioc.
'You are standing in the Superior Chamber of the High Council of the Ministry of Issica,' he declared. 'We are the uppermost governmental cabinet of Issica, excluding particular quasi-autonomous agencies responsible to the Greater Issica Area.'
It all sounded horribly familiar to Czioc. Words like "council", "ministry", "cabinet" and "agency" made him feel more at home than ever. He remembered one-way conversations with Colonel Trimasth, listening to the old buffer yarn on while he pretended not to be drunk.
On the other hand, while the stuffy bureaucratic atmosphere felt familiar, he was unused to being in the actual presence of possibly-elected politico-military leaders. Didn't they use the Ethe? It seemed a lot of effort to actually be in the same place.
'I am Wisegeneral Muttisien-Weldourf,' continued the old man. 'Presiding today are Chief Inspectator Gilliem, Communications Executive Darfolini, Brigadier Zhouland and Lieutenant Mrakazo…'
Czioc instantly forgot the names, although noted Brigadier Zhouland's dark features brooding over a light business suit with military patches on both arms.
'…on my right are Majoress D'Lunaciil, Chief Judge Arcosu, Ethe Chaplain Estrelhunt and Lieutenant Beffelio.'
'Hello,' nodded Czioc.
'You are here because your files are very unique, Mister Czioc,' said the Majoress. Czioc turned to face her. She was a narrow, middle-aged woman with grey hair but perfect skin; she wore a tight-fitting purple and black uniform, topped by a peaked cap in the same colour. She puffed on a nut-brown pipe, which gently expelled blue smoke-filled bubbles.
'Err, you mean, just "unique",' said Czioc uncertainly.
'What?' she said, one eye snapping wide open, the other squinting shut.
'Something's either unique or it's not,' he mumbled, feeling himself start to sweat under their glare. The dead voice burst out laughing in his head at his awkwardness. Look at you! Geek!
'So,' he concluded, 'you can't … um … have something … that's "very" unique.'
'What I mean is,' she said, stretching her arms and sitting up in her chair, 'you are the last survivor of your world. We have others here, other immigrants—'
Ha! Such welcoming people, chimed the dead voice.
'—who have slowly been integrating themselves into society. But the last ship arrived months ago. We had no idea anyone could survive the elements you escaped from. Your visual files have provided us with very interesting information for our cosmological scientists.'
'Oh.' Czioc felt uneasy.
'When your world ended, what did you see?' urged the Wisegeneral, leaning on the desk with his elbows.
'Umm…' Czioc recalled the sight of the hugest eye he'd ever seen, and tried to think what to say. 'A monster.'
'Pretty sure it was a big monster.'
'What kind of monster?'
'Like … the biggest monster ever.'
There was a pause. In the corner of his eye, Czioc noticed Brigadier Zhouland deflate with a frustrated sigh.
'I'm not sure what—' he started.
'Damnit boy, what was it like?' snapped the Wisegeneral.
'I told you, he can't tell us anything,' said Zhouland, shaking his head.
'He must be able to tell us something,' insisted the Majoress, 'he was there for god's sake!'
'Oh come on,' said the grey-suited Chief Inspectator, 'eyewitness testimony has been irrelevant and defective for millennia. We've got his records, right? We know what he saw better than he does.'
The Wisegeneral continued to stare at Czioc, moustached lip twitching. 'I suppose so. Keep an eye on him though! Must be some use.' He frowned suspiciously, flashing glances at the gathered Ministry. 'Like a spare thingy down the back of the kitchen drawer.'
The Majoress nodded seriously, while an exasperated Brigadier Zhouland made a face to himself.
'Can I ask a question?' said Czioc.
'What?' snapped the Wisegeneral gruffly.
'Where does this world end?'
The Wisegeneral looked blankly at Czioc, baffled, as though he'd just been asked for three dozen herds of triangles.
'I'm sure our local Ethe can give you an explanation of Issica's borders and boundaries,' he said dismissively. 'Now—'
'No, I mean the world,' Czioc pressed, even more self-conscious. 'The whole world. My world was a round lump of rock, but this world—'
'Does this really need to continue?' said Brigadier Zhouland to the Wisegeneral. 'We all have important matters to attend to.'
'Yes, of course, send him to BEEVA and whatever else needs doing,' blustered the Wisegeneral.
Czioc shifted uncertainly. He still had sand in his shoes.
'Welcome to the Bureau for Employment, Education and Visas Agency,' explained Agnes sweetly. Agnes was an agent – his agent, to be specific. She wore a trouser suit and a frilly blouse which looked modern in a horribly old-fashioned way. Both her made-up face and her manner seemed impossibly sterile. 'Everyone gets processed through here – immigrants like yourself, and real people too.'
'But you've got both the words "bureau" and "agency" in there,' Czioc pointed out.
'First I'd like to ask you,' she said, seamlessly ignoring him, 'what did you do back on your home world?'
He frowned. 'Didn't they send over my files?'
'Yes, but we have a firm policy on asking people so they feel consulted,' smiled Agnes. 'So, what did you do?'
'I was on the Migration,' he said. 'Do you have the Migration here?'
'Of course we have the Migration here,' she replied primly. 'Unfortunately, I've already checked and there aren't any spaces available on the Migration at this current time. What skills do you have?'
Carrying dead people, the dead voice sniggered.
Agnes tapped a manicured nail on the desktop slowly.
'How do you mean?'
'What I mean is,' she said, huffing to let Czioc know she was being ever-so-patient with him, 'what kind of transferrable skills have you picked up in your previous employment that could be applied to a new, different job?'
Booze hound? shrugged the dead voice.
Czioc chewed his lip uncertainly. 'I dunno, I'm good with people I guess…'
'Ah, so you'd say you have strong interpersonal skills?'
He nodded enthusiastically. 'Yeah, yeah sure.'
'Great, that's just you and the other nineteen thousand, eight hundred and sixty-one clients we've dealt with…' Agnes smiled at him patronisingly. Then the smile dropped from her lips. '…this week.'
He frowned defensively. 'Words,' he said, more firmly. 'I'm good with words.'
'Oh excellent,' she said, updating his brand new BEEVA profile on the Ethe. 'That's something. Anything else?'
'Well don't worry, leave that with me. I'm sure we'll be able to find you some processing role where you get to deal with … words.'
'This role mostly deals in numbers,' explained his new boss stiffly, walking him around the office. Her name was Ms. Bloemsson. Czioc's male instincts had been distracted by her tall, slender figure, and he was only now finding out she seemed like quite a bitch. 'We receive Ethe transcripts for communications from the Husk River Engineers Task Force…'
'…which we have to calibrate for the High Council, the District Council, the Regional Council and all affiliated partners…'
'…the calibration requires double-checking, proof-reading and converting into the correct formats, which are three different file types…'
'…which is your job. You look at the new formats and check the numbers in the first column of the second-to-last page match up with column four on the first page of the original transcripts.'
The rapid tour of what was a rather miserable grey office ended in the cube-shaped room where he was working, Ms. Bloemsson presenting him with an empty seat at an empty desk. The room was slightly cold, without windows, and filled on all six walls with people working dejectedly at cheap wooden desks. To Czioc it resembled his prison cell very closely, the only difference being these other workers slumped in chairs all around. Or "inmates", depending on your point of view.
Two sad potted plants lay dying in opposite corners of the space.