I tried so hard to live without shame.
Shame is part of a woman's make-up. It's in her thoughts, her actions; it's a dirty black secret that everyone knows.
Men don't have it. They don't understand. They can feel shame, of course. A regrettable action, a moment of weakness; this is something temporary that any person can feel. But they don't have it built-in, this deep well of darkness that lies at the bottom of their inner selves. It's simply not part of their biology.
It is the shame of being incomplete without a man to be attached to, without a man to measure your own existence by. It is the shame of being dominated by a man and enjoying it. Enjoying the degradation. It is illogical, even farcical, and yet there is no denying the musky mesmerising power of being in the control of a man.
Shame is part of a woman's make-up, and make-up is part of a woman's shame.
By embracing pornography I thought I could empower myself and other women to rise above it; by publically embracing the wild, ecstatic cheapness of sex, I thought I could take their sins into myself. Make it banal, make fun of it, show that it's okay. I thought bringing it out into the open was a way of killing the beast, and the more it was normal, the less it mattered. I was wrong.
It's the reason women are close with their mothers, but can never be truly close, because it's a mark they both share. They are comrades who both know, victims of a disease who don't have to explain how it feels. They can never be truly close because while they both understand each other, it is a girl's father who holds her heart. He is perhaps the only one who can absolve her of this shame, this dank stain that grips her psychology. If there is anyone who can pardon her, who can hold her tight and keep the wolves and the demons and the tide of darkness at bay, it is him. This is why women seek out men who are like their father; it is the same magnetic, hypnotic power she felt as a girl. It is her one chance of saviour.
Rape is an outrageous crime. But to bring it to life, to understand the true horror of it, you need to feel it in emotion. The real crime of rape is the shame.
Chief Technical Liaison Officer Obship was giving Noksalika an informal crash course on the cult of Patogechy. She'd decided that she liked Obship, despite the fact he was clearly, evidently insane.
'Our historians have looked into many, many cultures,' he glowed proudly over a mug of coffee. 'And we've seen quite a lot come and go, being this close to the Channelsea. Ours is the pinnacle of cosmological meteorological theology – or "cosmeteoro-deism", as you might see written on the official promotional material – combining the best cosmological practices and data from the last several hundred thousand years.'
'Okay,' said Noksalika, waving her hands in frustration, 'ignoring several blatantly wrong things with what you just said, I've heard that phrase before—'
'Yes meteor-doodah, what does it mean? You're not seriously telling me this is all about weather?' Even if I really, really wanted to die, she thought to herself, I'm not getting sacrificed to a fucking weather god.
Obship chuckled. 'Yes and no, my dear, yes and no. What we believe – and of course when I say "believe", I mean this is backed up by hard Ethological data – is that things like religion, spirituality, ecological climate, they're all part of the same thing. They're bound up together, do you see? It might well be a case of dropping the meanings of words and definitions you think you know.'
Noksalika decided not to argue with him about science, and added it to the list of things she'd come back to later. It was a growing list.
'Okay, your god,' she said, taking a large swig of wine from a ridiculously over-sized glass. 'What's he about? What does he do?'
'Well, his most common name is Patogechy. But he has many names – Prince of The Nothing, Lord of Darkness, The Black Fog, Vulture of Souls—'
'Yes yes yes, I get it, King of Kings of the Kingdom of Total Absolute Death, whatever.'
'Don't scoff,' scolded Obship. 'He has many names because our language cannot fully describe him; our words cannot fully encompass his true nature. He is the essential dark side of the universe, the shade that shows us light. He takes the dead matter into himself so that he can process it into life.'
'Like a … god-shaped recycling machine?'
'That's it exactly!' beamed Obship. 'You're getting very good at this.'
'Yes, apparently I am,' breathed Noksalika. 'Can you, can you please tell me again – where do I fit into all of this?'
'We've been over this my dear…'
'I know, I know. Just humour me? Pretend I'm new to all this, and, and you have to explain it to someone who doesn't know what it's all about.'
Obship took another sip on his coffee, and placed his mug down on the table. 'The universe is in danger. You saw those things on your world – black aliens, conquering and destroying everything. Imagine if they came here!'
Noksalika's eyes widened and she choked on a mouthful of wine. 'Yes imagine that.'
'And our boys in the Biocosmological Migration Department are pretty convinced that it's not just a matter of if, but when.'
'Well so long as no-one does anything stupid, I'm sure everything will be fine…'
Obship shrugged. 'These things happen. We have seen time and time again through the history of the universe, there are waves of life and death. What we are witnessing now is a surge of death. In terms of life-force and energy, we are surfing very rapidly down the other side of the bell curve.'
'You explain it so elegantly. I can see why they made you Chief Liaison Whatsit.'
'It is only with the sacrifice of a living maiden that we can call to Patogechy to save us, to guide us through the coming tide of darkness. And it can't just be any maiden. You've been chosen because with your previous fame and your talents, you were almost a living god yourself. The gods cannot fail to notice the sacrifice of one of their own.'
'Flattery will get you nowhere.'
'A scientist can try,' he winked.
'So,' said Noksalika, 'if Patogechy is the "Lord of Death", or whatever – is there, like, a corresponding god of life?'
'A god of life?' Obship pondered, frowning in thought as if it were an entirely new concept. 'Hmm.'
'Like, you know, a positive force in the universe,' expanded Noksalika. 'Energy, light, fertility, that kind of thing.'
'Oh! You must mean Ffyørdu,' said Obship, suddenly remembering. 'Yes, he's into life and flowers and ovaries and all that jazz. But he's not important, nobody really cares about him. Besides,' he grabbed her shoulder urgently, 'the universe is in mortal and moral peril! It's a harsh god of death and nothingness we want.'
'If you say so.'
'Right. So we've got a little place on the edge of the island here,' he pointed to a spot on the coffee table, which doubled as an Ethe screen; he was using it as a map for today's lesson. 'That's where the ceremonial boat will take you first of all. Part of our wardrobe team is based there, they'll get you all dolled up in your final dress, hair, make-up, all of that stuff.'
'I'm sure I'll look wonderful when I'm dead.'
'Yes you will,' agreed Obship, her glum sarcasm completely lost on him. 'It's really in everyone's interests that you do. Anyway, as you can see by the procession route here, it's not quite a direct route to the stadium – there's a slight detour to see the Calf-Colonel here.' He jabbed his finger to a kink in the red line on the map, marked with a small dot.
'Who?' she asked suspiciously. 'I haven't met him yet, have I?'
'Oh don't worry,' Obship reassured her, 'you only see the Calf-Colonel on the day itself. His traditional residence is on the island. He's just a ceremonial figure, a figurehead – we ask him to confirm the identity of the sacrificial maiden, the "calf". It's to make sure that Patogechy will be pleased with you.'
'What if he's not pleased?' rushed Noksalika, a little too excitedly. 'Do I get to go home?'
Obship gave another little chuckle. 'Oh ho ho, well, I don't know, it's never happened before. The Calf-Colonel is played by an actor, we tell him to accept the maiden we've chosen. It's really just a rubber-stamping role.'
Obship smiled. 'If was just down to us scientists, the whole thing could be done with three large rocks and two pints of horse blood. But the public gets what the public wants, and the—'
'—public wants what the public gets,' finished Noksalika, full of wistful cynicism.
'Actually I was going to say the public wants a full-on, traditional ceremony with all the bells and whistles we've got. But I like your thinking.' He smiled and raised his mug at her. 'Spoken like a true showbiz professional.'
'Thanks,' she sighed.
'I hope you're ready. Do you feel ready?' This was why she liked him; despite the mad pseudo-science babble, he seemed a genuinely considerate person. 'It all kicks off tomorrow.'
She thought of Domatri, and really hoped he was getting somewhere.
'Ready as I'll ever be.'
She remembered this. It fitted her personality like a long-missing glove.
The next morning, the gorgeous Ms. Savolo arrived with a cohort of other beautiful beauticians and stylists. They dressed her, applied her make-up, and sculpted her hair. They buzzed around her like shipyard workers on a yacht, and she let them. She relaxed, sinking into a special place: a place that was nowhere in her files, the electronic memories of Tarabonitz, but somewhere dark and warm in the cellar of her biological brain.
When they were done, Fortino led her out through the facility to a kind of depot, where they found everyone waiting: the rest of the "team", Domatri, the Captain and a whole phalanx of guards and project organisers. And on a golden chariot drawn by centaurs with very shiny breastplates, she was taken out into the cheering crowds, screaming in their thousands on the streets.
She was a star again. For possibly the worst reason she could think of.
They toured major town and cities, just as any popstar would. Everything was a whirlwind of activity – most of the time she was thrown into situations with barely five minutes' briefing of where she was, who she was going to meet, how she was supposed to act. Only occasionally did she get brief glimpses of her schedule – worryingly, it was jam-packed for the entire three-week journey to the looming Rafla Sea.
She opened school fêtes and temple fundraising events. She announced competition winners. She had radio interviews and fashion shoots. She got drunk and trashed hotel rooms in fits of rage before being controlled by security and sedated by scientists.
And the worst bit – well, apart from the sense of her impending doom – was everyone treated her just as much as celebrity as in her old life.
She was given a surprising amount of freedom on the tour. While her Ethe abilities were still restricted, she was no longer locked up anywhere, and was generally free to wander around wherever the entourage went – inside a double-layered security cordon of guards, naturally. The rat-ogre guards were polite and could talk, which was more than she remembered of the golems of her old world, but they were also firm and said little.
The days passed. Noksalika found herself drifting into the role too much and too easily – she managed to get through entire interviews, gushing about the glory of Patogechy and how great the "team" were, without even questioning herself inside.
Fortino clung by her side most hours of the day, keeping her company and taking coffee orders. Not much further away was the Captain, always looming with his huge muscles, dwarfing everything with his size. He kept staring at her with his huge, mad, cerulean blue eyes, blowing her ugly kisses with rough-skinned lips.
And in the background she saw Domatri in his dirty blue robe, looking like he'd just got out of bed. He was always around, but rarely near her, hardly even talking to her. They couldn't afford to be caught, but surely a secret smile wouldn't be picked up?
In fact, it was only two weeks in – at the celebratory opening of a nature reserve – that he said anything at all about their plan. She'd given her performance, shaken some hands, cut a ribbon with a pair of ridiculous scissors; now she was back in the VIP section under and around several massive oak trees. Everybody else was enjoying the mid-afternoon after-party.
Domatri signalled for her to join him by a blue shrub. They stood apart, yet surrounded.
'We can talk, but people are watching,' he said, sipping punch from a plastic cup. 'Make it look like a conversation.'
'Sure, no problem,' she replied, gluing a fake smile to her face.
'You want the good news or the bad news?'
'The good news is that I've found a spot in the schedule. It's our best chance – fuck it, our only chance of getting out.'
'Oh my, that's fantastic!' she said loudly, hamming it up with hand gestures to indicate the conservation was just scintillating. From across the garden, the Captain gave her a suspicious look.
'Shh!' Domatri grabbed her elbow and turned her round. 'Just look casual, you don't have to attract attention.'
'So … the bad news.'
'It's on the last night before the big day. You're supposed to be asleep, resting after the tour, everyone else is either asleep or frantically working on last-minute details.'
'Uh-huh?' she nodded for anyone looking.
'I'll run some Ethe codes to pretend there's a big disturbance and attract the guards. Then I'll activate the script on both our profiles – it'll lock our locations, keep them fooled until we're well away.'
'Got any better ideas?'
He lifted his head and looked around airily. 'I've got to go. I love you.' He swung his arm almost carelessly so that the back of his fingers brushed her hand.
Her heart ached. Somewhere inside her, from long ago, she remembered what love felt like. He'd said it so seamlessly, so blandly: Noksalika had received more genuine declarations of love from twelve-year-old boys. But she knew he was being professional. He was just acting, like she was.
'I'll be in touch. Remember, don't say anything on the Ethe, they're tracking it.'
Then he strolled away across the grass, casually engaging Obship who slapped him jovially on the back. The scientist appeared rather drunk.
She couldn't trust Domatri. Not completely. He could be part of some bizarre plot to give her a false sense of hope. It could even be a theatrical part of the ceremony itself.
But she had no choice. Even if Domatri was lying, what could he have planned that was worse than sacrifice?
It was the last day.
Her nerves were like electric popcorn. Everything she did took ten times the normal effort in order to hide her tension, to keep it strapped down. She dropped her spoon at breakfast and nearly jumped out of her skin.
Compared to the frenetic rushing of the previous weeks, it was a relatively calm day. There was a brunch meeting with the local governor and press, followed by an afternoon concert on the seaside. She remembered glancing up as she gave her glowing, final address from the stage on the beach: the Rafla Sea looked malevolent, dark and impenetrable. On the Ethe she could see the lonely island, enveloped by dozens of miles of water on all sides, and the sharks buzzing around like underwater wasps.
Now it was late afternoon; the light outside was gently fading. She lounged in the hotel bar with a glass of water, alone, memorising every passage and every guard in the building and beyond. Domatri had given her a time.
She was insanely nervous – if she hadn't needed to stay sober, she would have been guzzling every bottle of gin in sight.
But she was also excited. If everything went right, and Domatri really did love her, and they got out, in a few hours they'd be tearing across the countryside back towards the coast. And maybe, just maybe, she could find some sort of life in this strange world (which didn't seem that different from her old world) where she wasn't a world famous porn star or hunted by pirates or doomed to sacrifice. Most people lived entire lives without being any of these.
'Hey, how's my favourite beautiful maiden doing?' Fortino practically bounced into the bar, holding his trusty blue clipboard. She gasped in surprise and nearly poured water over herself, before forcing a fake laugh.
'Fortino, hi, hello, not bad thanks,' she jittered.
'We're having a quick meeting in one of the conference rooms. Could you come along? It's just a briefing ahead of the big day tomorrow. Adara's managed to join us too.'
She got up, taking her glass with her. One of the things that annoyed her about Fortino, much like everyone around her, was the way he phrased every demand and instruction as a polite question. What he meant was, "We've got a meeting, get off your arse".
The whole team was sat round a long boardroom table when she walked in, including the rather rotund Adara at one end.
'Hello!' boomed the mantrel, standing up politely. His blonde hair still shone like gold, but today he wore a loudly-coloured shirt with jeans. 'How are you doing? I hope the rigours of touring haven't worn you out.'
'I'm fine thanks,' she smiled uncomfortably, taking a seat.
'Okay, now then, now then,' he said, sitting down again. 'I must say it's been wonderful watching the past few weeks unfold, simply wonderful. You've all done a marvellous job, and there'll be plenty of bonuses all round. But I wanted a quick face-to-face, to check everything's in order for tomorrow. Andrej, are the acts all lined up and ready?'
The Events and Publicity Project Leader nodded. 'They've all been on the island for the last five days, rehearsals have gone perfectly.'
'Excellent,' Adara nodded. 'Elliot, how's wardrobe?'
'Well, we've been communicating our maiden's body size three times a day to the team based on the island,' said the head beautician. 'They've been making micro-adjustments to the fabric to accommodate any possible fluctuations in her waist, breasts, hips, thighs and ankle measurements.'
Ankles? thought Noksalika, before shaking herself back to the present.
'Great, great. Fortino, how's the Calf-Colonel?'
'He's excellent, sir,' Fortino beamed next to her. 'He's really made the role his own.
'That's marvellous, always nice to see enthusiasm for the traditional roles. Obship, everything okay at your end?'
'Well, our meteorologists are very pleased with the forecast,' announced Obship pleasantly. 'Apparently conditions are perfect for utilising the Ethe, they're all busy triple-checking the cosmological codes for the ceremony itself.'
'Excellent, that means—'
'However, I have some bad news I'm afraid, everyone,' Obship continued sadly. 'My team has been liaising with Travis' lads in security. We believe something may be amiss.'
Her chest tightened; the rat-ogre grunted in agreement.
'Amiss?' said Adara. 'How do you mean?'
'There are some highly complex scripts running on our Ethe project systems,' explained Obship. 'Top notch software, invisible to most of our programmers. And, well, the fact that we've got entire teams with each person looking at separate sections, well, it's a miracle we even—'
'Someone's looking at the files,' rumbled Umberto's deep voice, like a heavy wooden earthquake. 'Someone's spying on us.'
'Well this isn't good,' mused the High Priest. 'Can you confirm what the threat level is?'
Noksalika opened her mouth. 'Um…'
'Well, I originally suggested we give it an orange code for the team's guidance, but Travis insisted on making it a code red—'
'The codes aren't external,' said the rat-ogre, clenching his chunky fists on the table. 'There's no problems with the mainframe. Someone is messing around,' he tapped a black claw on the shiny tabletop with every word, 'and they are working on the project.'
'Do I need to stay for this?' said Noksalika, surreptitiously easing out of her chair. 'I wanted to do some more brushing up on the ceremony…'
'What? Yes, yes of course, you need to be well-rested for the big day tomorrow, please be excused,' said the High Priest.
She walked casually to the door, nodded to the guards, and strolled along the hotel corridor. Then she turned the corner, and broke into a run.
'Domatri!' she called on the Ethe. 'Domatri!'
Fuck, they had to, they had to get out now, or they were both screwed…
She raced along the spiral passage to Domatri's room and nearly tore out her fingernails catching the doorframe.
'Domatri!' she hissed, rushing in through the door, 'Dom they've foun—'
Domatri's bulging eyes stared at her.
The colour drained from her face.
On the far side of the small room was an antique writing desk, behind which sat the Captain, casual and relaxed in an undersized chair. One hand was gently outstretched on the desk. The other was raised and had Domatri's messily-severed head jammed on, down to his thick wrist.
'"Hallo Noksalika!"' squawked the head, a mock voice from the Captain's mouth as he worked Domatri's jaw like a puppet. '"Fancy seeing you here!"'
Her tongue swelled up in her throat; a sick feeling swamped her belly, hot acid rushing up her gullet.
'"Would you like to sing a song?"' the head said, sticky blood dripping from its nose down to the torn strips of skin and neck muscle. To the side of the room, Noksalika saw his beheaded body staining the carpet. '"Ten green bottles, hanging on the wall, ten green bottles…"'
She vomited horribly, doubling up as her stomach muscles clenched uncontrollably in horror.
'Ach, I was never very good at throwing my voice,' muttered the Captain, looking at the head and testing out the jaw movement with his thumb. He waved it around with his hand, watching the vacant stare of Domatri's eyeballs bursting out from their sockets. 'Look, the eyes follow you around the room. Clever eh?'
She'd barely straightened up when he tossed the bloody head to her; she gave a gurgled shriek, desperately batting it away, and fell to her knees as she threw up even harder.
'Ah, so many mem'ries,' he said wistfully, walking round the desk and stepping over her weak body to close the door. 'It's been such an experience. Shame we had to lose some people on the way. But you'll always get some traitors.' He shook his huge bull head sadly, hauling her retching body up off the floor with a hand soaked in blood. 'There's always one person who wants to spoil everyone's fun. And we can't have that, can we?'
He pushed her chest down over the desk as she protested feebly. 'F-ffffuck you…' she growled on a throat sore with acid.
He ignored her, gripping her hair with one heavy hand while reaching under his loincloth with the other. She felt her insides begin to change shape instinctively, loosening with the energy of the Ethe, against her will…
He leant down and pulled her head back. 'I know it's yer big day tomorrow,' he whispered throatily in her ear, 'but don't you worry. I'm gonna be with you every step of the way.'