Far in the ocean depths, a cluster of tiny fish swam in the purple waters. They clung to rocks, keeping away from the churning ocean currents. They sniffed around coral and played in swirling reeds. Bigger, solitary fish passed through them without trouble.
And it, they, the whatfish, talked amongst itself…
She is special.
We are special.
Many are special.
But. She is more special.
She needs our help.
She requested our help. Not same.
She needs some help. Not ours.
She is not one of us.
She is one of Them. She is an Individual.
No. She was with a group. A pod.
She was with her pod.
But her pod wished her harm.
It is not her pod.
She has no pod. She is an Individual.
She, the others, they are not like us.
They are different. But they are similar.
Maybe it is not her pod.
Maybe it is a different pod.
A striped octopus suddenly lunged from its cave, before realising what the fish were – they exploded apart, surrounding the octopus in a matrix of equidistant shining fins and scales. Then they lunged back in, striking the octopus' eyes and gills. It fled back into its cave hurriedly.
She was trapped.
What if she was separated from her pod.
What if she was taken by another pod.
What? This is not possible.
This is unthinkable.
Absorbed into another pod?
This is not tolerable. Amongst our kind.
Amongst any kind.
She needs help.
She should have our help.
What can we do.
Where is she.
We do not know where she is.
But we do.
Her signal is faint. She is very far.
But we can find her.
Even so, what can we do?
We are a small pod.
The Individuals are bigger than us.
The Individuals are on land.
They are never far from water.
There was electronic silence, as the fish merely hung together, equidistant from one another. The group mind pondered.
We can send a message.
We can ask the network.
We will send a message.
We will ask the network.
We will find those who can help.
Something about the waters had changed. No longer was the ship pulled by thick, heavy currents of the Channelsea. While there was still very little gravity, the churning of the waters around them became smaller and sharper as they neared land. The crew had more than estimations and rough sailwork to guide the ship now. The ship was no longer a plaything of the vast ocean – which meant a lot more actual work.
Noksalika watched vaguely as the crew scurried around the ship. She couldn't stop touching her freshly-healed cheeks and eye sockets; it was almost enough to make her smile. Her nose was doing quite well too.
'Nothing to do baby?' came a gruff voice from behind her. A pair of rough hands grabbed her neck and her left breast from behind.
She sighed. Even with the extra work, it didn't take all the crew to work the ship…
Without looking, she knew who it was – she'd been groped by those hands before. It was Jared, a tall and muscular mantrel with a pot belly and an anger problem. Today's quiet time was officially over.
'Oi, Jared, it's my turn with her.'
She saw Domatri approaching down the wooden passage, still wearing his blue robe. Always wearing his blue robe.
'Oh whatever,' Jared laughed, breathing over her ears. 'Go back to yer cubby hole and yer magic tricks, geek.'
He turned to go, but something stopped him. Noksalika watched from Jared's grip as Domatri made quick signs in the air with his hands, muttering quietly through yellow teeth. The hefty pirate turned to look at him, then loosened his grip on Noksalika. All the colour had drained out of his face.
'What the f…?' was all he could manage, before clutching his stomach and doubling up to vomit on the wooden floor.
'I said, it's my turn with her,' snapped Domatri, grabbing Noksalika's arm and yanking her towards the ramshackle dormitory. He shoved her through the doorway and shut the door behind him.
She stood nervously, resting her backside against a table. He stared at her hungrily. Then he walked up close to her, so close she couldn't escape his musky, dirty smell – and grabbed her face to kiss her.
She let herself be kissed by him and his thick tongue, even pushing back and making some moves herself. He brought his hands up to cradle her head and stroke her face; she pulled him closer at his waist, rubbing the soft fur on his back muscles.
Eventually she broke the kiss off and they both stood there, alone, breathing. She looked him in the eyes.
'What's the situation?' she said quietly.
'We can't escape while we're still on the ship,' he whispered, almost apologetically. 'There's no way we could swim fast enough before getting caught. Plus it's dangerous this far out from the coast. But I'm already looking at what happens when we land, weak points in the procedure.'
'And what then,' she asked urgently. 'What do we do?'
'I've already found somewhere we can go. There's a place run by Committees, kind of – they'd protect us. It's called Issica.'
'Where is it?'
'Further down the coast, Zha-West. It's kind of like your world, only a bit less liberal. You'll like it! Well, most of it. Well, some of it. Maybe.'
She smiled, cheeks still flushed with the colour of raw flesh under the skin. 'Sounds great. That was a neat trick back there, by the way. I forgot you were a magician.'
'Huh, well,' he shrugged, 'science, magic, maths, it's all on the same spectrum.'
They looked into each other's eyes.
'I love you.'
Her mouth hung open for a second. 'I love you too,' she lied.
'I'm going to get you out of this. I promise.'
He pulled her close for another kiss, and then it really was his turn with her…
She let him believe it wasn't rape like the others.
That night she couldn't sleep. Or that's what she'd say, if anyone caught her.
Most of the crew was asleep, having brought the ship to quieter waters. She crept silently on the wooden boards, watching Domatri on the Ethe up ahead.
The secret room had two doors. They were both locked almost all of the time – except lately, she'd noticed, Domatri was getting careless when bolting it behind him. During the last week, she'd been watching him creeping through the quiet ship to do – well, whatever nerdy science stuff he got up to in there while everyone else slept. And now she crept two corners behind him, trying to appear casual with her movements.
She saw him unlock one door, enter, and watched it close. Unlocked.
She paused, waiting as long as she dared, then skipped silently down the passages and turned the handle.
'What have we got in here?' Noksalika whispered to the room, a mischievous smile on her face. She saw him by the far wall, looking at her, mouth open in surprise. Then she saw what else the room held.
Her feet turned to stone, the muscles around her ankles grinding slowly to a halt.
The wooden bench was covered in notches, scratches, burn marks and graffiti. Her initial impression was of a science class for bored schoolchildren, messing around and damaging things. But upon the bench stood a wooden rack with five clear glass test tubes.
Each test tube was corked, and contained a black, oily liquid. Behind the glass, the substance shifted and moved by itself.
Domatri looked at her, unflinching. 'The tubes are made from a special glass, made chemically resistant by the Ethe.'
'I don't give a flying fuck about the tubes,' whispered Noksalika, face calm despite her terror, or maybe because of it. 'I want to know what that stuff is inside them. How did you get it?'
Domatri took a step around the bench. 'It's scientific material,' he said carefully.
'If it's what I think it is,' she said slowly, 'then you're insane. You're actually insane.'
'Think about it,' reassured Domatri, taking another step. 'This stuff is something else. It's nothing our world, or your world, or anybody's world has ever seen before. The Ethe is all we've known, but this doesn't function in the same way—'
'It'll kill everyone,' she hissed. 'You, me, the Ethe. We left it back on my world and you've brought some with you?' She blinked at him incredulously. 'Like a fucking souvenir?'
'No you listen,' she said, jabbing a finger, 'I know you're some kind of pseudo-scientist, but you're also – hopefully, anyway – not completely mad. This stuff's like, like a metamorphic virus. It melts anything it touches.' She stood there breathing, watching one of the glass phials bubble gently. 'You've got to get rid of them before they get to civilisation!'
The mantrel looked down for a second, before looking back at her from under the hoods of his eyes. He said nothing.
She shook her head. 'But you won't, will you,' she said coldly, pulling some hair back behind an ear. 'You've been employed to get this stuff. That's part of your contract.'
There was anxiety in his eyes, and she could see his fingers tensing. 'Get out of here before the Captain wakes up and sees you.' A heavy sound and a grunt in the corridor made him turn round. 'Shit that's him, get out!'
She looked around the room confused, not quite sure what to do. Then she backed out of the door, the oil-filled test tubes haunting her vision.
They landed at night, two weeks later, with little fanfare.
Noksalika was handled like a cross between a prisoner and some rare scientific specimen; on reflection, she guessed she was both. The ship had moored up to a pier, nose out of the water, so that the crew could exit without having to swim. With leather bonds tied around her wrists, she paused on the gangplank, sniffing at the cold air with a nose that had only just re-grown.
'Get a move on,' sniffed a mantrel menacingly, shoving her in the back.
Smart mantrels dressed in white waited on the damp docks for them. Noksalika stared: they were wearing big black goggles, and the white was the pure clean colour of scientists' coats. Behind and flanking these strange figures were taller, heavy-set mantrels, almost approaching the Captain's great size. Approaching in the gloom, she realised they weren't goat-men but rat-ogres, huge hulking things with ugly pointed faces and thick dirty tails.
She was hauled off towards a carriage – although "carriage" was a grand word for just a wooden box on wheels. Instead of horses, it was fixed to the backs of two armoured centaurs. Their tails twitched and hooves padded irritably, but their torsos didn't move.
There was a commotion back at the gangplank. She turned to see the goggle-faced scientists rowing with Domatri and the Captain over something. She couldn't hear what it was about, but clearly the scientists in white coats were angry. The Captain turned on Domatri with fury, who in turn pointed across at Noksalika. She felt their horrible accusing stares for long, hot moments, before she was bundled away into the carriage and the hatch locked shut.
The ride was long and uncomfortable; she could barely sit upright in the dark space. Eventually the carriage jolted to a stop, and she was hauled out and taken inside a building full of bare concrete corridors and empty rooms.
They searched her, physically, which somehow was worse than rape. Both involved deliberate humiliation, but at least violent sex had some other purpose about it, and the distraction of energetic action. Being examined, like a dirty criminal in a petri dish … Noksalika had undressed herself for her porn career more times than she could count (and occasionally, of course, for her pop music career too), but it was only being strip-searched that made her feel humiliated and ashamed. The clinical process, the claws scraping around inside her. Her mind felt ugly. She wanted to scratch her brain.
If they were after something, they couldn't find it.
She was hosed down with freezing cold water and scrubbed by more mantrels in white coats and black goggles. Maybe they were the same ones. The hose was powerful, at one point blasting her into the wall when her foot slipped and she fell down. The hose stopped. Weak, wincing and still dripping, she was picked up again and carried down more corridors. A door squealed on its hinges as it was pulled open and she was literally thrown inside, throwing her hands up to protect her fragile face. A flimsy gown was thrown in after her, and the door shut.
The cell was dank, with moss growing in the corners. Noksalika put her hand out to push herself up, and pulled back instantly after half-crushing a slug and covering her palm in cold slime.
So she crawled into the gown lying down, and fell unconscious where she was.
Powerful hands attached to powerful creatures dragged her up by the arms, dragged her back into consciousness. She kicked her bare feet, trying to find some grip on the floor, but the tips of her toes barely scraped the stone. Doors opened; she caught glimpses of her carriers, gruff mantrels with thick fleshy goat-faces—
She was suddenly thrust onto a chair, her arms pulled behind its back and tied with coarse rope. She slouched, panting, and squealed as a bright light exploded into her face.
She sensed others in the room, cold, unyielding figures. The Ethe told her nothing. They were examining her. There was just the sound of her breathing as she tried to adjust to the light. She desperately fought the urge to sneeze, having taken months to grow back one nose.
'What is your name?'
The question was abrupt, coming from nowhere.
'Noksalika,' she whispered, a touch hoarse. 'Noksalika Chuunim.'
A heavy pause.
'That's not what your profile says.'
She gulped. 'My name is Noksalika Chuu—'
'Your profile says your name is Tarabonitz Suhanrohan,' said the voice. All she could see was an outline, all the Ethe showed was a tough figure who dealt in getting answers. 'Either way you're lying.'
'I made a deal,' she said more firmly, 'to change my identity.'
'So you're a fugitive.'
'No. Well, yes—'
A mantrel guard to her left gave her a world-shaking smack to the face. She reeled, hair all over the place, delicate skin grazed.
'I wasn't asking, Miss Chuuhanrohan. We've done our homework. If you really were this glorious Noksalika woman, why become someone else?'
She blinked painfully, still feeling the sting at her temple and the corner of her eye. 'I did a deal to get something more. I was offered a position in power.'
'Power?' the voice mocked. 'Power?' The figure paced around behind the light. 'Some would say the adoration of an entire population is power. Millions hanging on your every word? Entire industries desperate to see what you wore in every photograph? And you say you traded it all on a whim for "power", tra-la-la?'
'That wasn't what I wanted,' she scowled bitterly. 'I never set out for fame.'
'You enjoyed every second of it.'
'I got bored.' She flung her head left and right in her self-created silence. 'Fame is alright, but what then? When you hit the top and have to stop … what then? The, the sex and the music, and the success, and the money, yeah, whatever, I loved it, I loved it all. But political power?' She stared around at the darkness, snarling with an empty grin. 'Now that's fun.'
'You encountered an entity,' said the voice, ignoring her sad little monologue. A silent video was thrown up in her mind, showing a monster emerging from stone. 'What do you know about this creature?'
She flinched at the video, unable to escape it in her mind. She tried to focus on the figure behind the light. 'N-nothing. Nothing.'
'It attacked me, it, it was like this shape-changing thing,' she panted. 'It could melt, it could move through rocks and, and stuff. It followed me, followed me to South Maurisetza.' She narrowed her eyes reproachfully. 'Where you lot took me.'
'I don't know!'
The hand came back, this time as a fist. She tensed her raw facial muscles quickly this time, tough against the pain of the blow.
'What else do you know?'
She thought back to her conversations with Piarowef, the face in the tree trunk and bare wooden wall. They hadn't asked about him. Yet.
'It was, it was like a scout or something,' she gasped. 'There were more of them, they were taking everything over in the South, destroying it.'
The air was silent again. She sweated in her dirty gown under the hot light, feeling it run down her arm to her elbow.
'There was an item missing from the ship. What have you done with it?'
She stared at them, confused, shaking her head in exhaustion. 'I don't know. What item?'
The voice repeated: 'What have you done with it?'
'I don't know what you're talking about!' she yelled into the light.
Her muscles tightened again but too late, as another fist struck the side of her face. And more hands grabbed her this time, and she struggled instinctively as a mask was placed over her face and she smelt fumes, some kind of chemicals. They beat her as they held her, hard blows to her skull and raw face. She saw herself fighting, lashing out with all limbs, drifting and drowning as the bright light became a sea of white heat flooding her senses…