'Fucking funny if you fink about it,' remarked Des. 'They gave you loads of shit about not having any skills, and yet they had a bleedin' monster working for 'em! Craaak! Don't say much for their interview process eh? Ha!'
They sat on a plastic bench – Desdromina, Czioc, and the dead voice inside his head – in a large shopping plaza opposite Czioc's office, casually watching the monster devour the building. The sound of smashing windows and masonry were joined by frequent screams of various tones. Underneath it all, the monster roared and shrieked, dozens of mouths singing a strange alien chorus.
'Why,' Czioc started, shaking his head, 'why, why, why. Why does – why has – what do –' He ran out of words, and shook all over with bitter frustration. 'Why don't they just fuck off?'
It had an Ethe profile, he thought. That was the most worrying thing.
Before, of all the monsters he'd seen and fought and killed, none of them registered on the Ethe – not even the marauding beast he and Pshappa had spied from the Migration all that time ago. But this alien had learnt about the Ethe. It hadn't just travelled into the heart of the population. It had replicated the same electronic colours and characteristics that the population believed in, and then infiltrated their society…
'Couldn't say, but you've got my sympathies,' commented Des.
Maybe they fancy you, sniggered the dead voice childishly.
'This isn't funny!' snapped Czioc out loud without thinking.
'Craaaawwwk! That's the last time I'm nice to you!' flapped Des angrily.
'Sorry, I wasn't, I mean I didn't—'
'So,' continued the bird, as if she'd already forgotten his outburst, 'they're here as well. Your world and ours.'
It. One thing. The voice was suddenly serious. We'd have noticed if there were more.
'True. But how did it get from our world to this one?'
'Cawww cawwww! Maybe it didn't!' said Des suddenly.
Czioc looked down at her. 'What do you mean?'
'Eeeescrawwwq maybe they all live everywhere?'
It's got a point, mused the dead voice, still refusing to acknowledge Desdromina as a "she". I've got it. It's religious. It's a religious thing.
Well they're demons, right? There was almost an excited edge in the voice's cold tone. Think about it. You saw the way they homed in on that cult by the sea.
'Hmmm.' Czioc watched larger parts of the roof collapse; a thick black tentacle lashed out from under the wreckage. 'Never was the superstitious type myself.'
'Maybe, craaa—' Des paused, trying to catch her voice and stop herself from squawking. 'Maybe, maybe, maybe now, m-maybe now's a good time to start skrrraaaaaaakkkkgissachip!'
'Shut up!' yelled Czioc, batting her off the bench arm. 'Fuck you're so annoying!'
And then something happened which did surprise Czioc.
Into the plaza came the clanking sound of metal, and when he turned he saw dozens of shiny metal men running into the square. Czioc blinked, and realised they were wearing armour – heavy suits of plate armour, or chainmail, or both. They came running slowly but with force and rough shouts, a herd of gruff men carrying swords and shields.
Soldiers. Czioc had never seen soldiers. He'd never seen so much metal either, but at least he knew metal existed. Golems were the ones that herded people around and crushed rebels and took orders from the Committees. There'd been rumours of "Ethe soldiers"—
Just like me, beamed the voice in his head.
—highly trained individuals with the skills and talents to do the fine-tuning of society's dirty work. But they were more like cultural scouts, marketplace assassins – they were intelligence soldiers. Not these men. These looked like tool-people, clockwork fighters; part-men part-machines, built for a purpose.
What made them seem really serious was their bare metal shields. Czioc had seen pictures of soldiers in the olden days – fluttering banners and grand heralds, wild plumes sprouting from pompous helmets. Not these men. Their helmets were round. They had no heralds.
Czioc watched as they charged up to the ruins covering the monstrosity, leaping up collapsed masonry and yelling to each other as a unit. They flooded in from random little lanes, suddenly tooled up and equipped, ready to defend the town.
A scream caught his ears; he looked up to see a man cast through the air by a giant tentacle from the rubble and mayhem. The yells and shouts increased in intensity as casualties materialised. Men were crushed under crashing stonework, or sucked bodily into the black mess, and some were ripped into pieces by the monster's alien limbs.
But none of this brought Czioc out of his suspended awe.
They were fighting.
This town was ready and it was fighting back.
Open-mouthed, Czioc could only watch, until something tapped him on the shoulder and said:
Czioc looked round to see Brigadier Zhouland himself standing behind the bench, backed up by more soldiers. Who were backed up by golems.
'Czioc, we need another talk.'
Czioc again stood before the Ministry's curved bench of power, but slouched this time. He was nervous but felt familiar here, felt he could relax a little. Being at the centre of a semi-circle was a position of weakness, but also of strength – all their focus was on him.
'Boy,' began the Wisegeneral, 'we have been surprised by these events.'
Czioc's eyes widened as he remembered being lunged at by the monster. 'You were surprised? I was more than a bit su—'
'But not entirely surprised,' continued the Majoress, arching her fingers carefully.
He paused, looking over her trimmed brows and smooth skin. 'What do you mean?'
'This is a port city, boy,' said Brigadier Zhouland. 'But not just that. We're right on the Channelsea. Issica is a "hyperport", if you will.'
"If you will" what? said the dead voice. Stupid phrase.
'So?' said Czioc. 'My world was surrounded by the Channelsea. Big deal.'
'Your world, boy, moved with the Channelsea,' frowned the Wisegeneral gruffly. 'Issica has been on this site since before anyone can remember—'
'Maybe even before that,' nodded one of the Lieutenants firmly.
'—and for tens of thousands of years we've been receiving what the Channelsea brings. Explorers. Travellers from other worlds. Immigrants. Refugees. And…'
He trailed off. Czioc raised an eyebrow. 'And?'
'And all the bloody shit the universe can throw at us!' the Wisegeneral barked angrily, banging his fist on the desk. He looked up at Czioc. 'Our world has had barbarian hordes and legions of pirates, monsters, you name it – the flotsam and the junk of the universe has passed through here. That's why we have a standing army, and that's why Issica is still standing after all this time.'
Czioc nodded solemnly. 'I was impressed,' he said honestly.
'Were you now,' replied the Wisegeneral dismissively, looking away and swinging back and forth in his swivelchair.
Czioc sensed something wasn't right.
'But you killed it,' he said. 'I saw it. It was awesome.'
'Czioc.' The Majoress looked firmly at him, fixing him with glassy eyes. 'Today our troops sustained a loss of thirty-seven casualties in killing the beast. Thirty-seven!' She took a sip of water from her glass, throat dry. 'Its slime is acidic. Its DNA – hell knows what its DNA is made of, but it can morph with objects and living people. We've never come across anything like this before.'
'Why have you brought me here today?' Czioc asked darkly.
'You've seen these things. We're all familiar with your files – you've battled these things before. You killed many yourself.'
'Including one like the beast today,' enthused the other Lieutenant uselessly.
Czioc became flustered and bit his lip. 'Yeah, but,' he floundered, waving his hands, 'but, but that doesn't mean I know anything about them! Your soldiers are more than well-equipped for something like that.' He felt his skin prickle, pores oozing sweat. 'And anyway, the thing is dead, right?' He looked around from face to face slowly. 'So it doesn't matter any more. Right…?'
Brigadier Zhouland cleared his throat and leaned forward.
'There is currently a large-scale force of aliens roughly five thousand miles Tak-East spreading in this direction—'
'Oh for fuck's sake,' shouted Czioc to the whole room, biting his knuckle in frustration.
'—very similar in nature to the monster we destroyed today—'
Czioc clenched and unclenched his fists in anger. It was happening again.
The world was going to end. Twice.
'—our forces are mobilising across the region. But we aren't confident that…'
Zhouland trailed off. The Ministry and Czioc looked at each other, blankly.
'We need your help.'
'Anything you know can be of use.'
'But you've seen all my files.'
The Ministry all paused. 'He has a point,' offered the Majoress.
Czioc interlocked his fingers and opened his mouth.
'I was wondering something.'
The Wisegeneral's bushy left eyebrow rose. 'Yes?'
'My world was a big round lump of rock,' started Czioc, pushing on before they could say anything, 'but this world has a flat surface, okay, which borders the Channelsea—'
'Oh be quiet, boy,' said the Chief Inspectator, shaking his head.
'—so what's in the other direction?'
'By the power of the Ethe, give it a rest!' The Majoress had a look of furious frustration distorting her face. 'No wonder the authorities on your world couldn't stand you! Does it matter? Only to you, you, the little ant with so many questions. I don't know where the universe ends, I don't really care. If you really wanted to know, maybe you should have become a scientist?' She took another gulp of water from her glass. 'I've got a good mind to send you to the frontline just to get rid of you, we've got enough stupid foreigners here as it is. If you can't or won't help us fight these things in the here and now, then take your questions and piss off back to your desk job.'
Czioc refused to go back to work, largely because the corpse of a huge alien monster was being cleaned from his workplace.
'What's the bloody point?' he complained loudly to the open plaza. Emergency clean-up crews in creepy white jumpsuits gave him odd looks like he was the crazy one. 'Why bother?'
'Beats me!' agreed Des, preening herself.
'I might as well go back to the bloody beach and live off the Ethe!' he ranted.
'Oi, not my beach you don't.'
'They've shoved me in some stupid job, in a stupid flat, for a peasant's wage,' he complained to everyone and no-one, 'and I'm stuck here, in this shit city, with morons all around—'
'Crawwwq! Up yours, mister!'
'—and these black things are coming, again, and the world's going to end, again, and the only girl I ever loved is going to be sacrificed on the small off-chance that she's still actually alive,' he stamped his foot like a petulant child, 'and there's nothing I can do about any of it!'
'Sacrificed? Oh, they'll be having another one of those big parties again.'
Czioc turned his head, very slowly, to the bird. 'What?'
'You want the Sacrifice Island Resort,' continued Desdromina matter-of-factly. 'It's in mantrel country.'
Czioc's face didn't move, but his stare intensified.
Desdromina looked up at him with nervous, beady black eyes. 'Wot?'
'Why didn't you say so?!' he exploded, making claws with his hands.
'Eeeecraaak!' Desdromina shrank back defensively, then started strutting about sarcastically in an impression of Czioc. '"Why didn't you say so?" "Why didn't you say so?" Crawwwwwwk! Why didn't you bleedin' ask!'
We should burn it, said the voice slowly. Burn it and eat it.
Czioc was suddenly breathless, feeling his heart rate pounding faster and faster.
'How far is it?'
'Lots of thousands, lots. Kind of North-Tak-East from here, look it up.'
He took a hurried glance on the Ethe and saw she was right: dozens of hundreds of miles away, there was a small island, hanging in the middle of its own sea. His chest rose and fell quickly with his lungs. 'I can get there. I've got to get there.'
Huh, whatever, the dead voice yawned. It's a mad idea and you know it.
'A, a horse, I need a horse. I've got to steal a horse.'
They'll catch you.
'You'll never make it out of the city, mister!'
Czioc gnashed his teeth knowing full well they were right. 'There has to be a way,' he said, more to himself than the talking bird or the bodiless ghost.
Doubtful. Even if you get a permit to leave the city, you'll have to fight another horde of those black things to get…
The voice trailed off. Czioc's face started to change shape; Des regarded him suspiciously.
'Craak! You okay?'
Oh no. You've got an idea, haven't you, said the dead voice, with an unhelpful amount of gloom.
Czioc wasn't listening. 'I've got it,' he said, and actually punched his palm with his fist. The corners of his lips tugged upwards excitedly. 'I've got it!'
'Got what craaakgissachip?'
Give it back when you're finished.
Czioc called Brigaider Zhouland on the Ethe.
'Hello, Brigadier Zhouland's office,' answered a secretary in a bored, flat tone. 'How may I help?'
'I need to speak with the Brigadier,' said Czioc, breathing quickly.
He felt the secretary checking out his status on the Ethe. 'Is this that foreigner Czioc? Because I've been left a message, hang on, where is it … ah okay, it says I'm not to "accept any questions regarding the size or nature of the universe, you annoying little shit".'
'It's not about that!'
'Oh okay. Well in that case I'll put you through. One moment please.'
There was a small electrical hum, then the voice of a man.
'Brigadier,' said Czioc quickly, breathing fast. 'What if I said I knew something? About, uh, Issica's "security problem".'
'Erm, the monsters.'
'Ah. Go on…?'
'I think I can help. But I need to know – can you help me?'
'Hello Czioc,' beamed Agnes condescendingly from behind the dark wooden desk. 'How are you today?'
Czioc said nothing as he marched across her office.
'I received your message,' she said sweetly, making no mention of the day's monstrous events, 'but I'm afraid there's nothing we can do to change your current placement, you simply don't have the sk—'
Czioc brought his hand down in an almighty swoop to slap her and she shrieked and recoiled in her chair – but opened her eyes to see his hand bare millimetres from her skin. She quivered, leaning on the chair arm, feeling his sweaty palm with the tiny hairs on her cheek. Suddenly he pinched her face between thumb and forefinger, shaking it vigorously as if she were a child.
Her breathing trembled as she looked up into Czioc's playful grin.
'I am a good person,' he said crisply, directly, firmly. 'I am creative and I am clever and I have lots of talents. I am a bright, wonderful person, and I have lots to offer the world, and—' he leaned down really close into her face, '—I don't need to take shit from people like you about "words per minute" and "transferrable skills".'
He stood up straight, beaming, as soldiers marched in through the doorway. She waited for them to attack him, to punish him. But they just towered there, standing to attention.
'I've made some new friends,' he smiled happily. 'And with their express support, I'm going to join the army.'