He ran through a desolate landscape, grey and bleak. For days and weeks the whole world was grey and dead. Plants lay limply on the ground with the colour drained from them, left hanging in some state between life and death. The Ethe was weak. The earth was dry. Aliens had blazed a trail of filth across the world, and even they had deserted it.
He'd been here before. Not really here, but he'd survived this landscape, and this time he had something unholy driving his limbs and his brain day after day. He abandoned his chainmail and shield. He had nothing left except his sword and his clothes and boots. And his mind.
Far ahead on the flickering Ethe, he saw something.
He crawled through tunnels between caverns and crossed stinking rivers, all the time thinking of Noksalika. He had his sword and his clothes and his boots and his mind and Noksalika.
He knew it was obsession, and everyone and everything had always told him obsession was a terrible thing. Before the world had ended, everyone had partied every night of the week and hooked up with strangers and fucked in public, because there was a whole world of excitement and only a short uncertain life to taste the universe in. To become fixated with anything was to deny yourself everything – not every thing, but the possibility of everything, the concept of rich fulfilment. Even his own life on the Migration had been part of it, moving from town to town to city to town, never in the same place twice, never fixed or standing still. But he'd done that, he'd lived it, and the only thing that stood out was this fiery woman, this blazing ball of wondrous genius that everyone had known but no-one had known, that everyone had seen but no-one had understood. Obsession had got him here, obsession had kept him alive. Obsession was all he had left. And his sword, and his clothes, and his boots, and his mind…
In a desert of grey sand, he saw an oasis of colour. This was what he'd seen on the Ethe. There were two figures kneeling or crouching, examining something.
The sand turned yellow as he approached; desert trees grew tall and dry, waving thick waxy palms in a gentle breeze. But there were also leafy shrubs with bright flowers, which certainly didn't grow in the desert…
He saw two mantrels standing in what looked like ancient ruins. They wore tough denim and had strange features, for mantrels, features Czioc had never seen before: their faces were broad, with flatter, narrower eyes. They took one look at his filthy hair and face, his sword and his torn blackened clothes, and ran. Czioc opened his mouth to shout, but didn't know what to say, watching them run off across the grey sand in terror.
He could have stopped them, but he felt nothing any more, not even the need for company.
He looked around him, walking through the bizarre oasis of life in a blank landscape of undeath. What he'd taken for ancient ruins were numerous shallow trenches with organic-looking pipes and tubes emerging from them. Some oozed with a thin, white gluey substance, while others held blue liquid that glittered.
On the Ethe, there was a mess – there were outlines and shapes and zillions of digits everywhere, but none of it made sense. It looked like a virtual edifice under construction, with programs left unfinished and electronic scripts running in loops.
He saw a well-kept lawn of lush green grass and dug up some earth with his hand, examining it. When he realised the Ethe flowed through it – unlike everything else in this wasted land – he shoved the dirt and grass down his throat, feeding a body that was starving. He hadn't even noticed.
Then he looked back at the lawn, and suddenly recognised that particular emerald green shade of the lush grass. He knew what they were doing here. They were building an Etheport.
He looked back at the tubes in the dozens of mini trenches. Long ago at the Etheport with Miza and Interface, he'd searched in vain for telltale signs of hardware, only to find that like everything else it was a virtual construct. But everything had some physical presence, it seemed…
He prodded the various signals and blinking lights on the Ethe, and hooked up a few connections that seemed to make sense. To his right, a shrub flashed silver and contracted into a lump about a foot tall and wide. Then it grew and morphed into a three-foot goldfish, flapping about on the ground.
'Hello,' said the goldfish in an electronic voice. 'Nostril Bamboo Squid?'
He tried some more connections.
'What do they like in breakfast?'
He gave up, stuffing as much Ethe-dirt in his pockets as he could and leaving the fish kicking around on its own.
'Please turn screw backward nostril?'
He ran some more.
Two more weeks and he stood on the edge of the sea. Any evidence for the black things had vanished, but the landscape was still bare; the soil had no nutrients, there were no seeds. Above him the dark sea loomed, waves foaming over murky red depths. The Ethe was weak, but he couldn't see any sharks, or anything else at all for that matter – just the island floating eerily by itself. He found a cliffy ridge that met the water, scrambled upwards over rocks and boulders, and plunged into the sea.
The island was deserted. There was no-one on it.
He passed burnt-out seaside cafes and cracked playgrounds. He wandered down desolate avenues and saw derelict buildings standing idle. There were ruins everywhere, smashed lumps of concrete and stone and scratched shards of glass strewn across the roads. One hunk of concrete caught his eye. Stooping down to pick it up, he saw it was in the shape of a child's outstretched arm with talons for fingers. An open mouth and staring eye had formed on the bicep. He dropped it with a shiver, but saw more shapes and forms of living things trapped in stone and tarmac and wood. The aliens had been here too.
He wandered through parks of fossilised trees, distorted faces and limbs fixed in the bare bark. There was a giant rock surrounded by a dried-up moat with a rickety old drawbridge leading inside. He crept slowly down the dark passage, finding a dark chamber with broken furniture and a tarnished throne. It was empty.
He found the stadium. The gates held rusty metal turnstiles; they didn't move when pushed. He carefully ducked underneath to enter.
The stadium was an impressive sphere, with a field of dusty earth before him and bare rough rock far overhead. Seats and stands ran all the way around the vast chamber, but huge sections had collapsed and lay in dusty fragments; it looked like the inverse of some giant mechanical apple. Two rivers ran around the dusty flat and met on the far side, while a dry wooden structure stood in the centre of it all. He crossed the near river on a small metal bridge and stood on the stage, dropping his sword with a blunt clatter. He looked all around in the deathly silence.
This was it.
The island had become a museum of death and suffering, echoes of agony trapped in amber. And the trail ended here.
No people. No Noksalika. No nothing.
His eyes saw something and sent the image to his brain. His brain recognised the image but couldn't process it, and sent it back to his eyes.
Across the river was a large wooden hut built into the rock, and over the door, in little red letters, was a sign that read: BAR.
It was an island dedicated to bloodthirsty sacrifice. Of course there was a bar.
His nostrils gaped and his skin prickled – on the Ethe, he saw someone inside.
Czioc crossed the other river on another rusty little bridge and ran up into the open doorway, skidding to a clumsy stop on the bare floorboards.
He stared around the bare wooden walls, panting. Dirty sheets were draped over mismatched chairs and across the floor. A rickety bar had been erected down the long room, and standing behind it was a mantrel, polishing a pint glass.
'Who…' said the mantrel, slowly, '…are you?'
Czioc gave a throaty bark and ran forward, vaulting the bar. The mantrel dropped the glass and turned with a yell, but found himself pinned against the wall with Czioc's hand round his neck.
'Where is everyone?' he growled at the mantrel, squeezing his fingers.
The mantrel coughed and choked as he squirmed. 'Who?'
'Everyone! People! Where are they?'
'I don't know what you mean!'
Czioc loosened his grip and took his hand away, but then slapped the mantrel across the face. The mantrel squinted in pain and said, 'Ow. Ah, ow, shit, that hurt.' His big goat-like eyes focused on Czioc. 'Wait. Do I know you?'
Czioc flared his nostrils. 'What?'
The mantrel slowly nodded, copying Czioc's frown. 'I dunno, you're really familiar.' He turned his head awkwardly, Czioc still pressing him against the wall. 'Could you get off? Please?'
Czioc gave a vague snarl and backed off. He looked around at the makeshift construction of a bar and kitchen. 'Do those pumps work?'
The mantrel paused rubbing his face and nodded. 'First thing we put in,' he said, with a nervous grin.
'Get me a pint.'
He slunk back around the bar, hauling his aching body up onto one of the bar stalls. The adrenalin was fading now, and his shoulders and knees needed rest. Probably weeks of rest. He slumped over the unpolished bar, promptly putting a splinter in his forehead. The mantrel stepped up cautiously, eyeing Czioc like he might explode at any time. He pulled out a shiny pint glass and started pouring a frothy lager, because sports arenas never served ale, as he looked over Czioc's Ethe profile.
'I know where I've seen you before,' he said carefully. Czioc looked up, eyes worn, lines across dry skin. 'You're that boyfriend of Noksalika Chuunim, aren't you? Had that poem thing.'
Czioc sat up, his face scrunched in confusion. 'And how do you know that?'
'I was on one of the ships,' said the barmantrel with a slight but genuine smile. He slid the glass across the wooden top to Czioc. 'I got out. They posted me here, fixing this place up.'
Czioc nearly downed the beer in a single gulp. 'Who did?'
'The, uh, the mantrels did, Zha-East,' said the barmantrel, pointing vaguely.
Czioc fixed the mantrel with what he hoped was a steely look, and simply said 'Ha!', before deflating again on the bar.
He thought of all the distance he'd come, all the space that he'd run, just to end up in a half-built bar with a goat-man serving him beer.
'Hopeless,' he mumbled. 'Fucking hopeless. I thought I could … I really thought I could make it.' He guzzled the rest of the beer and stared at the froth in the empty glass. 'This is the arsehole of the world,' he muttered, 'and I'm just passing through.'
The mantrel brightened for a second. 'Hey, that's what your girlfriend said when she visited Arognastia.'
'You mean South Tatransko.'
'Nope, I remember it clear as day, it was Arognastia. One of her best concerts in my opinion, they had these blue lights and everything…'
He had to be wrong.
The mantrel had to be wrong.
He found himself picking at the records, the files, bit by bit – before plunging back into them, pictures and videos and quotes and reviews…
She'd gone to Tatransko, and said those words. He knew that. It was at her first early peak as a young composer, years before she'd even met Czioc. But then here – thirty-two years after that – she'd also gone to Arognastia and said those words. Exactly the same words. The press had been scathing about her use of the same poor joke, but also given credit for another astonishing performance, not seen since…
'…"her legendary performance at South Tatransko",' he said, reading the words slowly. '"Where, coincidentally, there was also a malfunction in the strings section".'
He looked up at the barmantrel, eyes wide.
'Did you go to the concert?' he said.
'Yeah, sure I did, I remember it clear as day—'
'No, did you go to the actual concert?' said Czioc loudly, leaning across the bar.
The mantrel looked scared again. 'Well, well no, I was in Klimisto at the time. I saw an Ethe copy at the stadium, just like everyone else—'
Czioc yelled and hurled his pint glass against the wall and was out of his seat before the first fragments hit the ground. He ran out of the open doorway and down the path, staggering to a shaking stop in the stadium, panting and seething.
He stood, clenching his fingers, a crooked pillar of rising fury.
'She's dead!' he screamed. 'She's been dead for years!'
All the concerts, all the tours, all the videos and the reviews … they were just … copies. How many actual photos of her were there? Actual new photos, ones that hadn't been picked from offcuts of early photoshoots, or entire shoots that hadn't made the cut?
A small crackle echoed softly in the empty stadium around him.
Cut. Her Ethe records had been cut, copied and pasted, over and over and over and over. All those live concerts and public appearances, they, they hadn't just been transmitted, they'd been recorded like everything else. Sure, these concerts had actually happened, and all the millions that attended them could show you pictures and videos of their own experience of the show, which by definition made it a new and different performance. Everyone knew they were Ethe copies, that they were watching animated versions of a real concert that was happening somewhere else, maybe even from a different time. It was the difference between a play and a film. When you saw a film, you knew it wasn't real people acting inside a screen.
But who'd actually been at a real live concert?
Who'd actually fucked her real body with flesh and blood in it?
Who'd actually seen her?
Inspired, detective, said a cold, familiar voice. There was a slow clapping sound in the back of his head. You worked it out all by yourself.
He found his lip shaking.
'Who are you?'
The voice was flat, static, emotionless.
I'm Noksalika Chuunim.
His eyes welled up. 'All this time?'
Oh yes. I've been with you all this time. I've seen everything.
The space around him seemed to increase, swell, push.
I've seen you fight, struggle, scream and cry, the voice said softly. Then suddenly it reverted to the sound of granite. And I saw you fuck that girl.
Moisture ran down the crack between Czioc's nose and his cheek. Images of that cold, dead body flashed back to him.
'I … I…' he murmured.
'I didn't mean to kill her.'
There was silence. A breeze blew across his face, making his tears feel cold.
'I only did it because she looked like you…'
Awww, of course you did, cooed the voice gently. Of course you didn't mean to kill her. But you carried on when you knew she was dead. And I felt it when you came inside her dead body.
He felt both his hands trembling. A sudden crackle of electricity flashed over the brown soil between the rivers.
I've been guiding you here, Czioc. I've been your little talisman.
He shook his head slowly, heart pounding.
We need you Czioc. You're special.
The blood in his hands felt thick and heavy; veins bulged. Bile rose in his gut. He'd heard of vertigo but never really understood it, not when there was no up or down – but now, now he understood, now he felt like he was standing on the top of a very high building and the only way was down down down…
The forces of darkness are strong. We are no match for them, not us, not this part of the Ethe. All the iron in the world won't stop them. But you're different. You're special.
He shook his head again. 'You're dead. You died.'
The voice seemed to relax, to spread out somehow. I'm not dead Czioc, I'm alive! To live without a body, to be part of the very Ethe itself … you can't begin to imagine it! I've been, I've been called, I've been summoned! I'm part of the elite now. I'm free, much more than I ever was with those trinkets and the desire of a million idiots.
'Your freedom is power,' murmured Czioc helplessly. 'It's not … they're not the same.'
Ha! If only you knew, if only you could understand. The voice softened again. That's why I brought you here, Czioc. We want you here, with us. These aren't stuffy generals or backwards bureaucrats. This is something else. There is an "up", Czioc. You've been looking for a "sky", the "sky" I dreamt about – this is it! It's a higher space, a wider space, a place made of pure energy. This is freedom, this is the sky!
The voice stroked his mind, deep, long stokes; cold strokes.
And I knew you were something else too. I saw the potential in you, the strength, the determination you had… We need you Czioc.
He felt sick, moisture welling up in his eyes, still automatically shaking his head. 'Why…? Why me?'
Haven't you noticed, Czioc? These aliens destroy everything they touch – except you. They melt everything except you! You have something in you, something genetic, something amazing. We can't defend our part of the universe by ourselves, Czioc – but with your power, we can fight these – these bastards, these aliens. We can copy what you have and send it far and wide through the Ethe.
Sparks sizzled across the dirt in front of him; a narrow bolt of lightning flashed up from the ground to the bare rock high above.
Join us. Join me.
The breeze picked up, swirling around him. He gulped air, as though he'd forgotten how to breathe.
'You fucking bitch!' he screamed, clutching his head. 'Get out! Get out you fucking bitch!'
The Ethe raged inside him, boiling inside the back of his head, and his skull split into plates; his upper body thrashed wildly as gently-glowing blobs were thrown out, ejected through a gash in the back of his brain, wriggling and jelly-like as they hit the dusty ground in twos, threes, dozens…
Czioc you idiot! We need you! The whole universe needs you. Where I am, this place, I'm talking about fucking immortality!
…All the dead he'd collected for months and years, all the dead he'd swallowed since his last station, strewn across the dirt. The black beads inside them stared at him like eyes. But still the voice spoke to him.
Czioc, I want you. Do this for me.
The last of the dead spewed onto the ground, and the mess of raw flesh and bone closed up over his brain. He staggered for a few steps, confused, looking around at the flashes of electricity in the air above him. Then he took one last look at the barmantrel, staring open-mouthed by the door, and ran.
Where is he going?
Somewhere high above – somewhere upwards, because there was an up, here in the Ethe – voices spoke.
What is he doing?
What is this?
Don't worry, she assured them. He'll come back.
He'd got six hundred miles before they realised he wasn't coming back.
He swam through seas and down rocky rivers. He ran through deserts and alpine forests. He stole horses and swords and lost them and stole some more. He fought men and mantrels and centaurs and monsters, and ran from trolls and golems and bigger monsters. He hurtled down ancient lava tubes and stowed away on ships in bizarre, unknown lands.
He knew where he was going.
As accents changed and people's faces changed, and as the Ethe itself changed around him, the world got colder. The centaurs and monsters grew more fur, and the people wrapped themselves in fur clothes; skin became pale and hair became dark. Accents changed into different languages, until he couldn't understand any words, and he could only communicate on the Ethe.
The voices chased him; they called to him, both the dead person and other voices, ordering him to stop, begging him to come back, screaming threats and promises at him. They plagued his dreams, haunted his days, drowning his thoughts at crucial moments in escape or battle. He ignored them, blocked them out.
He knew where he was going.
He wore finely crafted woollen clothes under furs, and he was still cold; he spent weeks and months learning and training his Ethe skills to stay warm and change his body shape. He grew extra fat under his skin, and he was still cold.
The air grew brighter and brighter; Czioc's eyes adjusted as best they could. Around him the native creatures had grown skin over their eyes to shield them against the light. He clawed his way on, nearly blind and always cold, fighting off silver bears and ice beasts and worse.
The voices faded over time – either they no longer called, or he had shut them out, or he had simply put too many worlds behind him. New forces probed him, shaped him, as the Ethe mapped strange new places and new peoples.
Eventually he reached it. His eyes had shut down, irrelevant now against the purest of white light all around. He travelled through nomadic settlements of creatures with large tusks and tiny bodies that stood on thick, long legs. They were more fur than flesh. Czioc could only communicate with them on the most basic level; they helped him, assisted him in his wintery voyage. Up a long, long track, through craggy icy caverns, Czioc felt the space open out around him.
The world stretched onwards, left and right, in front and behind. But not for Czioc. The Ethe showed him at the bottom of a colossal valley – a vast cone of empty space. His eyes were useless, but with his mind he saw a vast space of blue-white, more of the same single colour than any living person had ever seen in the same place. Into this space rose landscapes of mountains and cold, of ice and isolation. There were no more questions – not here, on the edge of existence, the edge of everything.
He looked up, probed the expanse above him, and felt nothingness.