A new world! A whole new world!
Issica was … dull.
Issica was dull.
Czioc sat in lifeless chain cafes, and drank coffee that tasted of plastic. He took long walks through parks that were more mud than grass. He joined social groups on the Ethe and pretended he cared about the inane chatter of idiots. He spent his miniscule earnings on clothes that weren't fun or outlandish or inventive, but … mainstream.
Everyone around him seemed one-dimensional. Plastic princesses wrapped up in themselves, threatening thugs ranting about immigrants, young people desperate to get into the housing market. The women weren't even that attractive. The beautiful girls were slathered in make-up and callous overconfidence, the cute girls seemed insipid and weak. Arrogance abounded, the residents of Issica taking great patriotic pride in their nation, which was ironic because Czioc had never seen such anywhere so dull and superficial.
BEEVA had sent him to ALERT (Accommodation and Living Environments Regional Team) who had placed him in a flat which, like his office, had no windows and only basic plastic furniture. Having worked the Migration so long, he had difficulty living in the same place all the time. Crapping in the same place every day? What? He felt like a student who'd left home for the first time, with no idea how to clean the toilet.
He roamed the city and fell asleep drunk on the street, rekindling his Ethe skills to make a soft bed from the concrete or the bare paving slabs. Then he'd return to the flat to find his stuff scattered everywhere, because he'd never owned anything before, and never needed to organise all the stuff he'd never had.
The boredom pushed his mind in directions he'd never considered before. One day he left work and walked several miles to an inner-city Ethe processing plant. Just as they had the Ethe here, so they also had the Migration. Of course the energy needed to be processed. But where did it go? How did the Ethe work? Who put it there? He'd never asked these questions before, yet now they gripped him.
Sitting on a bench, he watched as eager crowds of collectors finished one leg of their endless trek and queued up to receive their earnings. He stared blankly at the men, women, lizardpeople, mantrels, centaurs and trolls as they patiently lay back in the metal structure and released all the collected dead people from their heads into the glowing green soup below. He saw them charge down the ramp to be met by the same circus of drug salesmen and DJs and music promoters and fashion designers, eagerly hawking their wares to people whose new riches would have to last them months or years. He remembered the buzz, but he couldn't feel it. He remembered the joy, but he couldn't join in, not with these people. He felt cold.
Maybe it's you and not them, came the dead voice, like the engraving of a tombstone.
Czioc sighed and let his head hang. 'Don't I ever get some peace? Just five minutes when you're not listening?'
You should be so lucky. Humour me, I'm curious – why do you hate this place so much?
'Because it's a dump, that's why,' retorted Czioc quietly.
How was your relationship with Noksalika? The sudden sentence jarred Czioc's mind. You think about her a lot.
'So?' challenged Czioc. 'How's that connected? What does it matter to you?'
Everything seems black and white in comparison. I understand.
'You don't understand anything,' snapped Czioc. 'This place is terrible. Categorically, objectively, a hole. You'd find more culture in a petri dish.'
A white bird flapped around in the open space, circling the giant metal spire of the Ethe plant. It swooped down, and with large amount of fuss made a clumsy landing on the opposite arm of the bench to Czioc.
'Craaak! Wotcha. Where's my chips?'
He pulled a greasy packet from under his jacket and opened it on the bench beside him. Des pecked away, rooting out the shrunken brown chips that had been soaking in vinegar too long.
'Pah! Call this vinegar? We had real vinegar back in my day…'
Naturally Des had gotten her chips; they'd fallen into the habit of meeting up and sharing fish and chips every few days. Czioc found it sad that his only soulmate was a talking bird, and had the nagging feeling that his new life of drudgery was somehow her fault.
Soulmate? I've got a soul!
Shut your face, Czioc replied.
Get me one first. Then I'll shut it.
'…vinegar fit for a laydee, which is wot I am, like I have to keep telling you…'
He looked at the seagull with a pained, aggravated look on his face. 'Why are you still here?'
Des looked up, half a chip sticking out of her beak. 'Wot?'
'Haven't you got a beach to run?'
'Weeellllllll, technically I own all this place…'
Czioc thought about this place she "owned", and how its inhabitants made her seem normal.
He'd found people from his own world, and was dismayed to find they were no help at all. Czioc recalled the Inspectator's comments about the uselessness of eyewitness testimony. These people had seen no more than he did, or even less if they'd got on the boats early enough. They recognised him, of course – oh hey, you're that ex-boyfriend of Noksalika Chuunim who published that weird poem thing, blah blah blah. Yeah, black things taking over the world to the South, horrific. This place isn't too bad though. Eh? World-eating monster? What world-eating monster?
The job was worse. It wasn't difficult enough to be interesting, but it was complicated enough to be difficult and get Czioc in trouble every time he forgot minor details. What really annoyed him was the completely useless nature of the work; it was irrelevant, pointless. Nobody needed the products of work he was forced to get stressed about.
That wasn't actually true. There may well have been a lot of people out there – engineering crews or hydrological captains or whoever eventually received the documents – who sighed in relief every time they saw the tiny column of figures he'd checked, the meaningless buckets of data he'd entered. But the point was he didn't know. Ms. Bloemsson had explained the details of the work, eventually, but no-one had explained what the larger purpose of his job was. Czioc suspected there wasn't one.
His colleagues seemed nice enough, if a bit dull. And that was defining "colleagues" as the people he shared his windowless office with. There was Tualli, a large guy who didn't say much except the odd cheesy joke. There was Vanisi, a short giggly girl who didn't really say much either. There was Solamiu, a middle-aged lizardwoman with a kind smile who actually seemed vaguely intelligent.
Then there was the albino troll Sebastien, who tried to eat Czioc on his first day.
'Hi, how are youaaarrgghhhfuckoff—'
'Sebastien no!' shouted Solamiu, pulling him off Czioc's face. 'Sebastien has learning difficulties,' she explained.
After his heart rate had lowered, Czioc was astounded to see the troll had a malformed Ethe profile.
'But … the Ethe has a genetic map for everyone?' he asked, cautious yet intrigued. He'd never seen a living person like this; it was like something out of the history records.
Solamiu shrugged. 'You can see where they tried fixing him,' indicating both the scars on his head and the mental code-fixes on the Ethe. She shook her head sadly. 'No-one could do anything, neither the programmers nor the surgeons. Nobody knows where he came from. But he's really nice when he gets to know you.'
Sebastien yawned and blinked, his huge warty nose dribbling fluid.
Czioc blinked too. 'And they placed him here?'
He sent regular messages to Agnes back in her glass-walled office at BEEVA, asking for any other positions that might be going. Something. Anything. But each time he got the same robotic, automated response:
'Hello Czioc, thanks for your message. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid there's nothing currently available that matches your skills and abilities.'
He wondered what her skills and abilities were. A deft ability to patronise people, clearly.
One night she came to him.
He slept uneasily in his single bed with cheap sheets – children's sheets, blue with colourful dinosaurs printed on them. He wasn't sure if it was a healthy reaction to his life of torturous boredom, or if the monotony was driving him to childish madness.
He saw spotlights and colours, and a stage made entirely of mist. In fact mist seemed to feature heavily in this dream. Shapes flowed and melted: he saw a fleet of unicorns merge into a flock of battle ships, all gently drifting along the stage in the background. And in front of it all, hovering, she turned slowly in the air. Her hair was golden and floated all around; her skin was the glow of electric peaches.
Noksalika's ghost smiled at him, eyes half open. He stared back.
'What are you doing here?'
'It's a dream, right?' she said. 'I'm appearing to you in your subconscious.' The apparition rotated gently like a ballerina in a music box. She looked around herself. 'It's a bit small isn't it?'
'But … what are you doing here?' Czioc repeated dumbly.
'I am bringing you a terrible message of woe!' she said in a dramatic voice. The mist that made up her forehead bunched into dark lines. 'I am going to be sacrificed! Oh woe!' The apparition followed this by flailing its wispy arms even more dramatically.
Czioc bit his lip. 'But I thought you were dead.'
Her shoulder spun slowly back to face him, and she frowned with transparent eyebrows. 'Sorry, let me spin back a bit. Rejoice, for I am alive, blah blah blah!'
'That's amazing! I knew it!'
'But woe, yes now woe, for I am to be sacrificed!'
'Oh no!' Czioc found himself staring at fantastic colours and light glowing through her form, and all he could think of to say was: 'That's pretty shit.'
'What?' the ghostly Noksalika snapped. 'Yes it is indeed "shit", and more besides! Woe!'
Czioc battled with his loose consciousness to say something practical. 'How can I help you? Where are you?'
Her apparition suddenly seemed more faint and distant. 'I would tell you, but oh no, I am fading now…'
Czioc sighed and shook his head with a sneer. 'Typical. Don't tell me anything useful will you?'
'Sorry but I must fade,' continued Noksalika, 'I'm fading now, having given you my mysterious message but nothing more…'
'Yeah, that's right, disappear without giving specific instructions.' Czioc's vague dream-like grip on his words had suddenly turned into sarcasm. 'You're rubbish, you know that?'
'…byyyyyeeeeee, bye, goodbye cryptic final clue about an island, byeeee.'
'…nothing, I said nothing, island, byeee…'
He'd met a girl.
'So, what did you think then?'
'Mmm?' he said, staring out of the window. His ice cream was melting; she was staring at him with a gentle smile.
'The film last night?'
'Oh.' He stuck his bottom lip out. 'It was alright I guess. It got a bit confusing, I didn't really understand what was going on.'
She sighed. 'Czioc! You said you wanted to see something interesting. Something "cultural" you said. You complained about only seeing boring films, so I chose something different.'
'Yeah, but that was just a bit, I don't know, dull and complicated at the same time…?'
'Oh whatever.' She looked up the movie's information on the Ethe and read it slowly. '"One dyslexic lizardwoman's historic struggle to keep her daughter against the forces of tradition, over-development and an invasion of robot laser monkeys." You don't get much more cultural than that.'
Her name was Rosie; it was, like her, pleasant enough. He'd met her online on some social networking site – she'd seemed one of the few people who talked sense and wasn't ranting about something or other. She was small and maybe a little curvy, but with a tiny waist, and cute blonde hair down to her shoulders.
'So how come you came to our world?' she said. People chatted in the gelato bar around them, the sound clattering noisily off flat surfaces. 'Did something happen? Or just looking for adventure? You seem the travelling sort of person.'
'Erm,' he blinked, not sure what to say. He wondered why she didn't know about his world's apocalypse, what with all the refugees landing here. Then he realised, that nobody here cared. 'Adventure. I am an adrenaline junkie. I went swimming in the Channelsea for fun.'
She gasped in awe, his playful sarcasm clearly lost on her. 'You never!'
'Oh yes. Then I arm-wrestled a colossal squid and stole his tape measure.'
'Yep. You should see how big their feet are.'
'I tried having a look at your pictures,' she said shyly. 'But you've got them all hidden.'
He gulped down a lump of ice cream. He'd hidden his pictures and videos from public view online. He would have deleted them but simply didn't know how; he'd never had to before. Not that you could hide anything from the authorities – not here, not anywhere it seemed. But he had no desire to let people see his traumatic exit from his home world.
'Yeah, well it's all top secret isn't it,' he said with false bravado, bluffing with his emotions. He smiled deviously. 'I'm actually a secret agent, sent here by the authorities on my home world to investigate your below-intelligence society.'
'Yes, and while I'm here I've been given permission to waste all the men and ravage the women!'
'Ha whatever, they'll send you to the Without with that attitude!'
'Eh?' The rather lame joking atmosphere died.
'I said, they'll send you—'
'I heard what you said, what do you mean?'
'Oh, sorry, it's just an expression here,' she continued casually. 'I guess you're still fitting in eh? Getting used to our funny phrases and accents.'
'Without what?' he asked persistently.
'Not "without" anything, just "the Without" with a capital "Wuh",' she explained. 'Like the opposite of "within". I think it's an olden way of saying "outside".'
'What is it?'
She shrugged. 'It's like an expression for "hell", or something. I dunno. It's supposed to be really cold and empty. So I guess it's a double meaning, like literally "outside" and a metaphor.'
'Okay,' he said, a serious look still fixing his face. 'But … outside what?'
She shrugged. 'Who knows? It's more of a nursery rhyme really, or a fairy tale. Like, really vague. I looked it up on the Ethe, it's only even in one or two slang dictionaries.'
Czioc sighed and hung his head. 'More fucking fairy tales,' he mumbled to himself.
He looked up. 'Nothing, I didn't – I mean, never mind.' He chewed the inside of his cheek, looking out of the window again.
'Well, the idea is it's far, far away to the Zha-North somewhere.'
He snapped back, alert. 'So it's a real place?'
She paused before speaking. 'I heard the stuff about your poem.' Her face became sad. 'You really want to find something else, don't you?'
Someone else, more like, whispered the dead voice cynically.
'What if it's real?' he said earnestly. 'What if it – this Without – really exists, somewhere out there?'
'Well, you believe what you want to believe,' she said dismissively. 'But I wouldn't try looking – they've mapped pretty much the whole universe.' She sipped her coffee, leaving a small foamy moustache. 'There's just stuff, Czioc. I know you really want to believe in something, or, or nothing, but the universe is just full of hundreds of thousands of miles of stuff.'
Czioc suddenly jumped as something hit the window hard with a thud. He looked around and saw Des flapping her wings on the street outside, demanding chips and calling him names.
'Anyway, what are you doing tonight?' she asked, leaning towards him, seeming not to notice the bird's squawks outside. She gave a cheeky smile. 'You could come over to mine, help me drink a bottle of wine or three.' Her arm crept up to his. She ran glossy, painted nails over his bare skin—
—and at once he was transported to another place, his pupils snapping open with a flash…
…a world of flesh, of naked pale skin and dirty animal sounds…
…a small world of bad, desperate emotions, everything distorted by violent desperation…
…a world of tears, of dirt, of shame and fury…
And then the flesh was suddenly cold, just cold meat in a cold sweaty skin, loose and broken.
But the violence wouldn't go, wouldn't leave him—
'No!' He snapped his arm away, giving her a dirty look, before realising what he was doing. 'I mean, no, I'm busy. I'm busy.'
They sat there in silence for a few long horrible seconds. She looked at him with a mixture of fear and disappointment; he looked away, watching Des' sad attempts to gain his attention.
'Well.' She leaned back, a hurt look on her face quickly giving way to feigned indifference. 'Well I, er, I better be going. Only wanted a short lunch today. See you later.' She grabbed her bag quickly and walked out.
He didn't look.
Mate, what is wrong with you? said the dead voice. You've got a problem.
Shut up, he said forcefully in his thoughts.
No really, normal guys don't have a problem with girls touching their arm. You need to see someone again, like a head-doctor or a psychiatrist or something. When was the last time you even had sex?
Czioc left the gelato bar and was immediately mugged by Des, pecking his feet and flapping her wings.
'Sqrraaak! D'ya fancy fish today mister, nice big battered cod, maybe you could get me some—'
He ignored her and marched straight on, across the street, down several passages and into the park. It was a long oval-shaped space with rings of water all the way down its length, like some kind of inverse botanical wasp. He sat down on the bank of the nearest ring-pond, peering over at his morose reflection.
He shut out the attention-seeking cries of the seagull behind him, and the know-it-all mutterings of the smug ghost in his head, and the dark memories that kept flashing back and terrorising both sides of his consciousness. He pushed it all to one side, and thought about the world.
What if the world was alive?
His brain struggled with the concepts.
What if the world – scrap that word, "universe" was more useful – what if the universe was a living thing?
Some vast, unimaginable creature, lumbering through existence with vast, slow, wise thoughts, taking aeons to say words like "yes" or "coffee, please".
It wasn't inconceivable. It made a lot more sense than a lot of garbage religions he'd heard about.
He checked the time, and realised his lunch was over. Back to the grind.
He wandered in and sat down, trying to contain all his speeding thoughts and put them in some kind of order. However, he didn't have much chance to ponder.
'Czioc can I see you in my office please?' said Ms. Bloemsson as she walked past, loud enough that everyone could hear.
He exhaled, a sour look coming over his face. 'No.' He swivelled round, eyeing her smart narrow figure. 'What is it? Why can't you say it here in front of everyone?'
The office suddenly quietened. Ms. Bloemsson stopped and retraced her steps back towards him.
'I just wanted to talk about your time-keeping,' she said airily. 'Please come into my office so we can discuss it.'
'Pfffft,' Czioc struggled to contain himself, clearly not moving from his seat. 'You don't want to "discuss" anything. What's the matter with my time-keeping?'
'Czioc, it's one-forty-five!' Ms Bloemsson hissed sharply, her professional demeanour suddenly revealing something ugly. She struck Czioc as a cat hissing, arching its back. 'Your lunch is only half an hour just like everyone else.'
'Well I left at one-fifteen, so I don't see what the problem is,' he replied coolly.
She coughed with a small measure of disbelief. 'You can't just come and go as you feel like, Czioc! I can't run the lives of everyone here in the office—'
'As much as you do try,' he offered.
'—so I entrust you with a certain amount of freedom and maturity not to take the piss with your working hours…'
'Oh, is that the freedom to work exactly the hours you decide, or the freedom to ask when we need to go to the toilet?' he asked.
'Whoah, guys, guys,' interjected Tualli, standing up and putting his arms out. Across the room, Sebastien also lumbered to his feet and made towards them. 'Don't you think you should sort this out in private?'
'Who do you think you are?' frowned Ms. Bloemsson haughtily, ignoring Tualli.
'Come off it,' replied Czioc, at last getting to his feet. 'You're the one giving everybody a hard time for the smallest crap over things that really, really don't matter. This job doesn't have any deadlines! It's just stuff that needs to be done. We have to sit at the same desk all day long – what's the bloody point of the Ethe if you have to stay in the same place? And we all get paid by the hour. And yet somehow you're still getting upset about which hours I do my work?'
'I think Czioc has a point,' bravely struck up Solamiu.
Sebastien approached behind Ms. Bloemsson.
'Exactly, thank you,' said Czioc gratefully to Solamiu. 'Sebastien, something you want to add?'
A black claw tore through Ms. Bloemsson's torso sending blood everywhere as Sebastien marched right past her, bearing down on Czioc. Except it wasn't Sebastien, because it suddenly had a crooked black limb where his arm had been, and his eyes and tongue started to melt out of his face…
Solamiu shrieked while Czioc threw a chair in its path and ran behind the room's central tables. Tualli's eyes widened and a number of curse words made it out of his lips before an oily tentacle wrapped around his leg and pulled him to the floor.
Czioc turned and paused open-mouthed at the nightmare as the others yelled in horror. The beast tried to follow him but found itself slowed as it absorbed the bodies of Ms. Bloemsson and the still-screaming Tualli. It seemed to be inflating, growing in size to fill the tiny room with malformed limbs and black growths…
Czioc turned over one of the tables and scrambled for the door.