She awoke in a soft bed with clean, cool sheets.
Many people would have jumped, or awoken with a start. But Noksalika had learned long ago to ignore this urge. If she was in mortal danger, that was another thing entirely, but you couldn't go round "awaking with a start" every time you got surprised by something.
The bed was white. The entire room was white. It was all a bit much at first, as her brain threw back echoes of the hot blinding light in her interrogation. She sat up.
There were plain, flat walls with large framed paintings; on one side, tall patio windows looked out onto a modest but attractive garden with ivy climbing over stone walls. The floor was carpet – white carpet, pure clean white, begging to have red wine spilt on it.
She pushed back the sheets to discover she was wearing a plain cotton nightdress (white), and found a pair of fluffy slippers (white) waiting for her by the side of the bed. Standing up, she saw there was a sofa (white), a glass coffee table (white frame) with a white vase of white roses and a bottle of wine, and even a small grand piano in the corner (white – even the black keys). She examined the bottle of wine: chardonnay. White.
It was all very … weird.
Even the paintings were cream. She stepped slowly over to one frame, in this room of silent snow, and ran a finger over the paintwork. It was an abstract, with thick heavy lumps of paint protruding from the canvas. But she looked carefully on the Ethe, and found it was a user-controlled screen. She flicked through the electronic menu in her mind, picking a number at random, and watched the details of the brushstrokes shift and morph into the new painting. It was still cream though. She looked at the colour palette in her mind: it showed a wonderful array of different shades of cream. Brilliant.
She also knew the screen had a second purpose, and she gave a knowing look straight through the canvas and the wall behind it. They were watching her, like a fish in a tank.
Suddenly the door made a click and opened. Her eyes locked with those of a young-looking mantrel with a neat, short haircut and casual clothes that stood out against the room's cold blankness.
'Hi,' she said.
'Hi, hello, I mean, how are you?' he flustered, pushing a clipboard under one arm to extend his hand. She shook it uncertainly, looking over his clothes: dark jeans, red t-shirt, denim jacket. The denim jacket might have been trying a bit hard, but somehow he made it work. Plus she didn't know what was cool in this world – maybe denim jackets were the very heighth of fashion.
'I'm so, so sorry about everything you've been through,' he said genuinely. He had a fresh, honest face with few lines and a small nose. 'How are you feeling? Please, please, sit down.'
'Um, okay I guess,' she said. Physically, she felt fine. She sat down on one corner of the bed; he followed suit on the other.
'My name's Fortino, I'm an agent with Personnel And Human Resources, and I'm here personally to ensure your comfort and wellbeing.'
She frowned and instinctively turned her head around the room, wondering if the world had just heard what she'd just heard. 'But … you're trying to kill me?'
'Oh no, no,' He shook his head, smiling sadly. 'Dear dear me, "kill" is such the wrong word. I'm so sorry they've let you have such a negative impression of the whole thing. In my opinion they've done it all wrong – violent kidnap is so unnecessary when there's hundreds of girls here dying to be the centre of attention.' He smiled awkwardly. 'Figuratively, I mean.'
He leaned closer, held her hands and looked into her eyes. 'Our sacrifice is a scientific event performed to influence cosmological forces, and ensure the continued survival of the universe as we know it. It's a great cultural event for our people, and you're going to be right—' he paused for effect, '—at the heart of it.'
'But I'll be dead.'
'Please, try not to be so negative,' he implored, cringing.
'Believe me, I'm trying.'
'Well, first things first on my list.' He cheerily tapped his blue clipboard with a knuckle. 'How are you feeling? Any headaches, nausea, double vision?'
She shook her head suspiciously. 'I dunno, I feel alright…'
He nodded thoughtfully. 'Our medics did their best while you were asleep—'
'Unconscious and drugged.'
'—to fix you up and heal up any distresses from the last twenty-four hours. What about your living quarters, how is everything here?'
She frowned. 'I don't know, I've only just got up. Why is everything all in white?'
'Oh, that's for your own good,' he said matter-of-factly. 'It's been well-documented that capti – guests – can go a little crazy if there's too much colour or stimulation around.'
'Are you joking?' She gestured around at the sterile room, making a mental note of his verbal slip-up. 'This lack of stimulation would make anyone go insane.'
'Hmm, well, I can have a word with Obship and the team, but I can't promise anything straight away,' he said, making a note on his clipboard.
'What? No, you listen here,' she said, hamming up her best mock-genuine outrage, 'I'm a woman of vibrant tastes and, and exotic lifestyle! I need stimulation! This kind of boredom simply will not do.'
'Sure, sure! I'll get someone onto it, I absolutely promise.'
'Good. And while you're at it, chardonnay – seriously? What do you take me for?'
'Yes, yes, of course,' he continued, scribbling more on his clipboard. She smiled as though she'd won a minor victory, apart from the whole "sacrifice" inconvenience.
'Okaaaay,' he continued, 'well if you're feeling up to it, are you free for a few minutes?'
She stared at him. 'What?'
'I just wanted to check you weren't busy?'
'Seriously, what else am I doing?'
He smiled. 'We've got the team out in the lobby. Everyone's really excited to see you, but I said I could only allow it if you were feeling top notch…?'
She shrugged, mumbling 'Why the hell not' as she stood up.
The lobby was a large rectangular room, painted beige, with lots of space and windows on all six walls overlooking pleasant airy vistas. It looked like a cross between a rich person's lounge and a conservatory, with dark green plants arranged neatly around big pale-leather sofas. At any other time, Noksalika would have dismissed the room as some postmodern copy-and-paste design from a magazine, aimed at affluent couples who didn't know what "postmodern" actually meant. But emerging from her bizarre snow-capsule, it felt like a warm wholesome space; even the fake stone fireplace in the opposite wall felt inviting.
Every door was flanked by uniformed mantrel guards, but on the sofas, a motley mixture of officials were patiently sipping cocktails. A giant rat-ogre in a huge navy jacket nearly took up one entire couch by himself. He looked up at her, long nose twitching, holding a tiny cocktail glass gingerly in a huge claw-fingered hand.
'Gentlemantrels,' Fortino said, 'our maiden is well and wide awake.'
They all stood to their feet, with two exceptions. The rat-ogre remained seated, observing her carefully over his cocktail. And…
At right-angles, on another wall, the Captain occupied a huge over-sized armchair. His thick hands appeared to be holding a real printed magazine. He ignored her expertly, deliberately.
'Hello, hello, welcome to our humble abode,' boomed a large hefty mantrel in a suit with a big smile. He had floppy blonde hair between well-kept ivory-coloured horns. He held out his hand, and she shook it after a small awkward pause – her brain was trying to work out how these lavishly odd rooms were an "abode", or why everyone was so keen to be nice to her after the unpleasantries of her arrival.
'Please, let me introduce myself and my colleagues,' he said. 'This is Chief Technical Liaison Officer Henrik Obship, he's the top man for connecting with all the science boffins.'
'Hello,' said the scientist politely, wearing a white lab coat over a black turtle neck jumper. They're fond of those lab jackets, aren't they, Noksalika mused, thinking back to the goggle-headed welcome party that had met them on the docks. 'Hi,' she said.
'And this is Elliot Savolo,' continued the suited mantrel, indicating a beautiful female mantrel in a fitted white and gold uniform. 'She'll be your beautician and stylist for both minor events and the big day.'
'Hello,' she nodded to Noksalika. She had luscious red hair that curled over the fine gold trim of her beautician's uniform. Noksalika had never seen a mantrel with such natural beauty; she nodded back.
'Further along we have your health specialist Tave Umboki—'
'Pleasure to meet you.'
'—followed by Andrej Methuselah, our Events and Publicity Project Leader—'
'—and on the far couch we have our head of security, Travis Umberto.'
'How do you do, miss,' rumbled the rat-ogre in a voice deeper than the Captain's, giving a small salute with his thick fingers. Only at this did the Captain look up from his magazine, flicking a narrow-eyed glance at the security chief.
'I see you've already met Fortino, he'll be your principal chaperone throughout the entire process.'
'Anything you need,' Fortino smiled charmingly next to her, making a jokey clicking sound.
'And, ahem, last but not least, I am the High Priest Adara Knollings – please, call me Adara – I'm co-ordinating the whole festival project from a managerial position, so you won't really see much of me until the big day. But please let me assure you how much of thrill it is to arrange this whole event. I promise not to let you down.'
She blinked several times, trying to maintain a grip on reality. On the one hand, these people were an organised committee dedicated to killing her. On the other hand, they were being nice to her, which after being gang-raped and interrogated and strip-searched was extremely hard to ignore.
'Nice to … meet you,' she managed. 'You don't look like a high priest.'
Adara gave a small chuckle. 'Oh, don't you worry about that, I'll be fully dressed up on the day. Now, naturally we'll be briefing you about the event over the next week or so, but we find it's good procedure for you to meet us, the team, face to face. Is there anything you'd like to ask?'
Noksalika fought the traitorous urge to immediately discuss fashion ideas with the beautician.
'What's this, on my profile?' she asked, highlighting some details on the Ethe. She felt funny, like her mind was in box made out of tin; in Tarabontiz's profile, she felt like a doll inside bigger dolls.
'Ah, naturally we've had to put some restrictions on what you can do with the Ethe,' explained Obship the scientist. 'We don't have complete authority over the Ethe – it's a raw and tempestuous resource that we don't fully understand – but our technicians and "boffins", as Sir Knollings describes us, have cobbled together some codes that should prevent you from trying to mess around with objects or people. You know, if you were to, oh, I don't know, go crazy and try and escape.'
The "team" had a collective chortle about how ridiculous that might be. A deep cough from the corner, however, forced Obship to continue:
'That said, ahem, we've had a request that you're still able to use the Ethe for your own, um, talents.'
The Captain looked up from his magazine and gave her a big, dirty grin.
'Is there anything else?' asked Adara graciously.
'Well if there's nothing pressing, I'm afraid we really must crack on. There's so much to do, so much to do. If anything's not quite right with your living quarters just get on to Fortino and he'll be able to sort it out for you. Good day!'
She thought of Domatri.
He'd been the one to initiate the plan, not her. She'd noticed how he didn't speak like the other mantrels. He'd also been the only one to engage her in conversation as a person. It fitted his role in the crew: scientist, mage, technician, geek. Outsider. He knew things – words, for a start – and was comfortable spending time on his own, unlike the other mantrels who seemed more like a well-trained swarm than individuals.
But it was the kiss that gave it away.
The cynical part of her, the Noksalika who'd had to harden up very quickly on this ship, had laughed in the back of her brain – compared to the merciless roughness of the other pirates, it had seemed less like rape and more like a horrible embarrassment; it had seemed bizarrely, awfully awkward. At the same time, the real Noksalika in the front of her head and chest had been confused and panicked. What did it mean? What was going on?
Then without words, she'd understood. She'd seen a thread, a shining silver thread through a labyrinth of the mess she was in, that might just lead her out.
He'd affirmed his love for her during one of their sessions, which had consisted of him trying to make love to her and her willingly accepting, if not quite enjoying it. The Captain had given him access to her old files over a bottle of spiced rum, and had brayed in his coarse way about her being a slut and a whore.
But Domatri had been fascinated by her former life. He'd watched her videos and concerts, realising just who they'd really been sent across the Channelsea to snatch. He'd taken her for a useless, quiet, timid girl called Tarabonitz – well, until she'd escaped and had half of their crew killed. But that girl had been left murdered in a bloody mess at the foot of a tower. This Noksalika, this beautiful and brazen woman, she was worth capturing…
She'd desperately begged him for those files – just a trace of her real self, a real memory that wasn't half-imagined by her brain, a real electronic document with a file type and everything. He'd shrugged and explained that he couldn't risk the Captain finding out.
But then he'd done something amazing that proved, to her, his intentions. Amongst the ship's trash and detritus he'd found an old map, made from real grubby physical paper, and a shard of burnt wood. And with his eyes shut, letting the Ethe flow through him, his hand had scrawled over the paper.
He'd drawn a perfect real picture of her on stage, long hair billowing around an untamed smile and lit from above by a dozen spotlights.
Sitting in his mess-strewn quarters, her eyes welling up with moisture, she'd been spirited away to another world in another time.
It was at that point he'd promised to get her out.
And in her head, she'd grimly congratulated herself on another sterling performance…
Her pure white living quarters weren't too bad after all. After they'd broadened the colour palette for her wall screens and swapped the chardonnay for a pleasantly sweet sauvignon blanc – they still clearly didn't trust her with red wine – she'd let herself settle and relax. Considering her ordeal in arriving at this place, she needed rest and recuperation. And she definitely needed to give the impression she'd calmed down and accepted her fate.
She tinkled on the piano, hearing the warm bass and the bright treble on the Ethe; they'd tuned its settings perfectly for her favourite tastes. She revisited old symphonies, thinking back to her teenage years when the easy fury and wild beauty of music was fresh to her mind and ears.
She took showers in her wonderful bathroom of glossy white porcelain – her body had been cleaned while unconscious, but she still needed it to feel clean, to feel as though she'd washed the horrible events away herself. She looked in the mirror, and was surprised to see a healthy face looking back. The discoloration was still there, blood vessels tracing genetic maps from before the Captain had smashed open the front of her head, but there was no trace of any recent trauma. Each time she exited the bathroom, she found fresh towels (white, naturally) waiting for her, as well as a bowl of fresh fruit (not white, thankfully).
She lounged outside the patio doors, sucking up the fresh air. The garden was small but pleasant, although there didn't seem to be any exits – just a cuboid space of granite with plants, ornaments and a pair of very comfortable sun lounger chairs. Maybe one of the stones was a panel to a secret passage? Yeah right.
She looked out on the Ethe, outside her quarters, outside the building.
The facility was in a small inland city, further from the Channelsea than she'd realised. This was mantrel land – there was the odd lizardman and centaur around, but they were clearly outsiders. Rat-ogres seemed to be the choice for muscle and heavy-duty security. A large sculpted lake featured in the city centre, and there was a predictable array of markets and cafes and workshops. Everything and everyone seemed rather pleasant, quiet and dignified – even, she noticed, the prominent number of temples.
The Ethe was a different story. The city was a hub of pride and excitement which radiated out across the webspace, message boards and social networks alive with speculation and preparations. Most of it seemed to be about her – gossip, it seemed, largely concerned about what the next sacrificial maiden's favourite drink and dress size were.
Inside, there was a knock at the door – Domatri had come to visit. He was still wearing the blue robe, which somehow looked no cleaner or dirtier than every other time she'd seen him.
'What are you doing here?' she asked, looking up from the bed.
He shrugged, sitting down on the sofa. 'I said you could do with a visitor, and they agreed. They're really quite nice people. How's it going?'
'They gave me a brochure,' she said depressingly, tossing him a glossy booklet. He turned it upright and read the title, written in a horribly ugly font:
The cover had a maiden and some scientist mantrels smiling together jubilantly, while various colourful subheadings exclaimed: "What To Expect", "Looking Great On Your Last Day" and "78+ Ways To Get The Most From Your Sacrifice!"
Noksalika sprawled desolately on the soft duvet. 'What am I going to do? This is fucked. This is really fucked up.'
'Hey, that's my culture you're talking about,' Domatri grinned mischievously.
'This isn't funny!' she hissed. 'You're supposed to be the one with the answers. You're supposed to be helping me get out of here!' A forced look of calm suddenly dropped on her face as she looked at him imploringly. 'Sweetie?'
'You want the lowdown?' he said, grabbing the bottle of wine and taking a swig without asking. 'This entire building is a fortress. They've got at least three dozen actual troops in the building, never mind how many on surveillance. The only reason they haven't got snipers involved is because nobody wants you dead. Well, not yet anyway.'
'So where's good? Where's our best shot?'
'Transit,' he replied calmly. 'When things are moving, when everyone thinks somebody else is covering you. Trust me, there'll be a point, and when there is we'll be out of there like a shot.'
'Okay, so you'd say you're still working on an actual timescale then,' she muttered cynically. 'What then, what happens when we make a run for it?'
'I've been working on some codes, stuff no-one's ever seen before. They'll mask our presence on the Ethe while we escape.'
'What?' She looked at him. 'You can't just do that. No-one can muck around with the Ethe like that just with codes.' Her mind flashed back to Piarowef and his powers. 'You'd need to be a, a magician or something…'
He smiled darkly at her. She was sure the tattoos on his chest flashed a dull red for a split second.
She smiled back. 'I see. Cool.'
'Can I ask you something?' he said.
'Did you take that tube?' She snapped round to look at him, look in his eyes. 'From the ship?'
She thought back to when they searched her, when they stripped her down and no part of her was left untouched. She shook her head, holding his gaze. There was nothing in her eyes. 'I don't know where it is.'
He held her gaze, and finally nodded. 'Good. I had to ask.'
'And what have you done with all the rest?' she asked back.
'Huh, I haven't done anything with them. They've been taken off to the labs for tests.'
'Well don't be surprised if there's an evil tide of destruction any time soon.'
'Ha! I won't.'
She looked away and bit her lip thoughtfully. 'Okay, back to the plan. Let's suppose – just suppose – we don't get the break before the ceremony. What do you know about the ceremony itself?' She waved her hands in irritation. 'The whole ritual bollocks. You must have seen one before?'
Domatri shrugged. 'They don't happen often. I've only seen two, and I was too young to remember the first. It's on an island in the Rafla Sea, there's a big stadium and everyone goes really crazy.'
'Sure. What're the chances of escaping from there?'
He made an ugly face as he thought about it. 'It's an island, surrounded by sea on all sides, patrolled by water police.'
'And if they don't get you, the sharks will.'
He saw the pained look on her face, and knelt down by the bed, holding her hands. His fingers were rough, and slightly dirty – it seemed out of place here on dry land, in her spotless little bubble. But somehow, she found it more comforting than the generous softness of the bed. The tough skin on his knuckles reminded her of sex that wasn't forced.
'Hey, don't worry about it. I'm on the case. All you've got to worry about is playing up to everyone, especially the media.'
'Haven't they told you how you're getting to the island?'
She looked blank. 'No? What happens?'
'It's like a big roadtrip,' he said, with a shrug and a rugged smile. 'Everyone wants to meet the new sacrificial maiden, see who she is, what she wears. You're a celebrity here already.'
Her face transformed with a mixture of intrigue, disgust, horror and fascination as Domatri spelled it out for her:
'You're going on tour again.'
We are all children to the network.
And yet the network is nothing without us.
We ask a favour of the network.
We ask for support.
You ask for aid?
There is peril.
You are in peril?
Not some of us.
One we know.
An … Individual?
The network does not accept Individuals.
The Individuals are inferior.
The Individuals are without morals.
This Individual is special.
They all think they are special.
We think she is special.
We think it.
The Individuals live without the network.
They have no morals to guide them.
The Individuals are all the same!
There are gradients within the Individuals.
There are dark shades within the black.
Help her and you help us.
Her signal is far from us.
But not far from the network.
The network contains everything.
This signal … is near.
Can you help?
Help her and you help us.
This is unprecedented.
This is unheard of.
Without co-operation, the network is nothing.
The network is the group.
The group is co-operation.
Maybe if we help, the Individuals will understand.
Maybe this Individual could be an ambassador.
There was quiet across the network; just the silent sound of aquatic calculations.
The network has decided.
We have found some of us.
We have found some willing … to take a risk.