'Czioc, thanks for coming, glad you could spare the time. How is everything?'
Czioc cursed openly to everyone outside the picturehouse. It was Colonel Trimasth's favourite greeting: thanking people for coming, knowing damn well that nobody could avoid one of his "meetings".
'Colonel, to what do I owe the pleasure?' He sat cross-legged on the ground, casually ignoring the crowds around him.
'Czioc, you know how much I value your opinion,' continued the old buffer inside his head. 'As do all of us here on the Public Standards and Improvements Committee. Although I must stress that there are others less trusting than myself, if you catch my drift young lad.'
'I thought it was the Upholding Standards in Public Life Committee?' said Czioc, as innocently as he could.
'Public Life? The Committee was restructured over six months ago, boy! Don't you keep up? My word, I'm already reconsidering my decision to see you.'
Czioc knew full well about the name change – he simply enjoyed winding the Colonel up in the little ways he knew how. The Colonel knew that he knew, too. It was just one of the games they played.
He noted the way the old bore always said "see", when neither of them could actually see each other. He watched people and various creatures ambling to and fro around the old picturehouse.
'So what's happening?' Czioc said. 'Sir?' he added, straightening his back a little. 'I've been pretty good lately. On form, you might say.'
He heard the Colonel sigh a little inside him. 'Much as we all love giving you a little slap on the wrist for your misdemeanours,' breathed the old man, 'this is more a formal visit. In an informal way, of course, old chap. You remember a girl – hmm, let me get her name right – a certain Miss Noksalika Chastity Elastia Chuunim?'
Czioc's heart stopped. The world zoned out.
'She's dead. The powers that be thought you should know. Wanted a friendly face, ahem, as it were, to tell you.'
His chest and scalp burned with pin pricks of intense heat. The world seemed to lose its colour. 'But … she was barely older than me?'
'Aye, that's correct.'
Trimasth, you stupid old prick, he thought, that's not what I meant. 'What happened?'
'Not sure, looks pretty innocent though, the boys at Legal Policies and Procedures are putting everything together. Just wanted to let you know. I'm sure you'll be fine, of course, these things happen. Lovely to see you, catch you soon.'
And the Colonel was gone, with a merry "beep" ending his call.
Czioc sat staring into a dark world, watching the crowds dozily stumbling around, opening their mouths and making sounds. They might as well have been cattle. Idiots. All of them. Useless idiots.
Did you know her well?
This wasn't Colonel Trimasth.
This was the other voice in his head, the cold one.
'Yeah. I knew all of her.' His words were bitter, and true.
Shit. You seem pretty upset.
Well I guess I'll leave you alone then.
Czioc didn't say anything for a few moments. Then he blurted out angrily, 'Couldn't you just fucking leave me alone full stop?!'
But there was no-one there. Even passers-by on the steps didn't pay attention to his outburst; they bumbled around, ignoring him. They didn't care.
He threw his head back and exhaled, looking at the ceiling of the cavern, where far away, upside-down, other idiots walked and chattered. Somewhere in the airspace, the birds seemed to tweet his name: 'Chee-ok, cheeee-ok'…
Thankfully Pshappa returned at that moment, making Czioc sit forward and bringing him back to the present. Pshappa had a big grin on his face. Pshappa always had a big grin on his face.
'Look, I got ice creams!' He grinned triumphantly and presented two of his hands towards Czioc. 'Did you want cherryscotch and apple, or banana mint chocolate? You know, the funniest thing happened, some centaur was really drunk and wet himself in front of a bunch of kids, I couldn't stop laughing…'
Czioc stood up and they walked off, Pshappa chatting away amiably, leaving behind the milling crowds carrying dead people in and out of the picturehouse.
Spring had arrived, finally, and the smell of plant pheromones in the air was bewitching to Czioc. The air was warm, and felt soft and sweet like a woman's hand stroking his back.
They sat together on the bench of an outdoor restaurant, but he felt no appetite.
'So what was so special about her then?' munched Pshappa, chomping his way through a leg of meat.
Czioc's eyes were fixed on the distant walls of the cavern, where he wished he could stay. Somewhere far away, on the edge of melancholy, with traces of joy… His attention returned with a shiver. 'She was, she was just something else.'
'Huh, "something else". Please be more des-crip-tive with your lang-ger-ridge,' Pshappa said through a maw full of dead animal, leaning forward to rap Czioc gently on the head.
'Pshap,' breathed Czioc, batting him away, 'you know why she was important. Go and look on the Ethe.'
'I've already looked on the Ethe,' Pshappa sprayed bits of meat indignantly. 'I know all about Noksalika "porn-star-classical-genius-politician's-daughter" Chuunim. How many years have we been doing the Migration together? And how much have you told me about her? Bugger all, that's what. I want to know why she was special to you.'
Czioc stared at his friend's mouth in mild disgust. 'She was amazing.'
'And now she's dead.'
'People die all the time. That's what we're here for.'
'Seriously, I don't understand. According to the Ethe you were seeing each other for—' Pshappa's eyes glazed over briefly, then he snorted a laugh, '—eight and a half months, and that was twenty-six years ago. You've not even seen each other since!'
Czioc nodded glumly, gritting his teeth.
Pshappa looked at him accusingly. 'And you've seen other women since?'
'And you've fucked other women since?'
Czioc nodded, smiling weakly.
'Right then. People come and go. Things change. Especially for us.'
Czioc itched on the seat. He put his arms down to rest on the table, and pulled them up again, and fidgeted. He raised his feet on tiptoes.
'Mate, seriously,' continued Pshappa, 'you're not even eating anything. Look, I don't care how hung up you are about this girl, just eat something, will you?' He signalled to the kitchen, a blue igloo in the centre of the restaurant, to send food via one of the servants.
'I'm not hungry.' Czioc held his gaze.
'You'll waste away, mate. Your favourite fish is calmtrout, right?'
'I don't want any!'
'Well I've ordered some anyway!'
Czioc growled at his friend, and – gripping the table – tore a piece away and put it in his mouth. Pshappa's eyes widened. 'What the hell are you doing?' he hissed. Nobody was looking, but others had noticed, and the unseen chitter chatter was suddenly about them.
'We can all live off the Ethe,' replied Czioc steadily, chewing the chunk of table. Dark blue liquid glistened for a second where he had torn the piece away, then crystallised quickly. In his mouth, the chunk broke up easily, melting as he gulped it down. The sticky warmth spun round in his stomach.
'Are you twelve years old or something?' Pshappa shook his head. 'It's not what you do in polite fucking company! You'll mark yourself out to the Committees with crazy stuff like this.'
Amongst the multi-shaped crowds eating at the restaurant, one of the shell-like servants came scuttling up to their bench holding cooked dishes aloft, skilfully dodging other servants and the wild gestures of drunken customers. It stopped at their table and, instead of laying their food down, glared at them with the beady eyes set in its smooth shell.
'Arruta's Restaurant is a decent establishment and will kindly not tolerate delinquent behaviour from its guests,' it said in their heads.
'I completely understand, I apologise for my frie—' started Pshappa.
'The Committees will not provide currency to repair damage like this. Arruta expects customers to pay for such damage in full.'
Czioc exhaled and turned to face the servant creature. 'It's okay, I'll—'
A sharp stabbing pain suddenly split his head, pitching him forward onto the table, making him cough and gag and squirm.
'Shit, Czioc, are you alright?' Pshappa put hands on Czioc's head, and turned his face to the servant, who sat unimpressed. 'Don't worry, I'll get it, I'll pay for it.'
Pshappa's eyes glazed again, and the back of his head glowed gently green.
'Thank you. Your food as requested.'
Czioc's head spasmed gently on the table.
The funeral attracted quite a crowd to the town's sports stadium, the obvious place to hold a funeral.
Everyone had heard a little or a lot of the prodigal wildchild Noksalika Chuunim, notorious on two counts: for scandalising the political establishment with her public pornographic career, and scandalising popular society with her affection for politicians. Several senior colleagues of her father had been dismissed for their physical exploits with her, viewed far and wide across the Ethe, while Noksalika remained unconvicted, unarrested, uncageable. Then again, political figures seemed to be dismissed and reinstated at random anyway.
'How're you feeling?' Pshappa looked at his friend, as others piled into the stadium, up steps and along tiers. Technically the pair should have left the town that morning, but a special notification from the Public Standards and Improvements Committee had made sure they could stay another day to see it.
The field below them lay quiet, blank. A species of yellow grass grew thinly across the dusty ground. Three figures, two male and one female, were engaged in quite physical sexual behaviour in the centre of the open space and had to be shooed away by a steward with a broom. Pshappa smiled to himself as they skipped off, still trying to touch each other. Czioc just stared at the ground where they'd been screwing.
'I said, how're you feeling?' Pshappa gave him a light clip round the ear; Czioc turned on him, an ugly look on his face. 'I'm okay,' he replied. 'I'd be much happier if you left me alone.'
'I'm being a mate and checking how your head is.'
'The Ethe says everything's fine. I even saw a doctor, she said everything's fine too. I dunno. Could be anything. Not bothered.'
'You're not bothered.'
'No, you're only bothered about Miss Underpants-Grand-Piano.'
Czioc grunted dismissively.
The ground itself was still bare and empty, the midday stadium basking in the light of day. But the stands were nearly full though, and – despite the relative silence on the soft breeze – the electronic chatter on the Ethe had risen to excited noisy levels.
'Where did they say she died again?' Pshappa mused, scouting out some friends across on the far side.
'Jzilinasa, maybe a town nearby.'
'Whoah. I was near Jzilinasa once, that's a good six thousand miles away.'
'Eight thousand, nearly. Pretty much due East-Takwards from here.'
'Shit, wow. You looked that up, didn't you.'
'Sure I did.'
Czioc looked up and slightly to his left and stared through the distance to the far cavern wall, light brown and slightly hazy, in the direction of the distant city.
'You know, they're talking about you.'
'People. Around. You're like a little mini-celebrity, an old boyfriend turning up to the funeral.'
Czioc broke away from his own melancholy, and realised he hadn't even tried overhearing any of the electronic chitter-chatter that buzzed all around. He suddenly heard his name in snatches of conversation; looking around at the large and small creatures, he saw many eyes staring, many silent mouths smiling.
'Gossip. So bloody childish,' he said out loud. He sent it to his Ethe profile too, sullenly, for the hundreds and thousands watching.
'Whatever. Everyone loves to be the centre of attention. Don't pretend you're any different,' Pshappa grinned.
Suddenly there was a loud moan, both as a sound in the air and a rumble across the local Ethe. The vast buzzing of a thousand opinions hushed and died – and left a leaden, eerie silence, as the ground began to move.
On the field far below them, shapes moved like worms under skin. Forms pushed and thrust their way upwards while grass shoots withered and died. Dark colours flashed and shapes shifted. Everyone watched intently, not just Czioc.
Figures appeared in the shapes. The ground rose to become, slowly, blocks and circles and spheres; then, slowly, angles and dots and details; then, eventually, objects, people, and things.
Czioc recognised Noksalika's features before her face had even formed.
Far below in the centre of the stadium, the field had formed a scene – a funeral scene. Rings of silent figures sat on magisterial benches which had sprung from the ground, made from the living earth itself. Yet the angles and colours were so precise that even a critical eye would think they were real objects and real people. The figures wore bizarre mixtures of grand uniforms and torn rags, gleaming polished medals and bare dirty skin, but all ultimately wore sombre faces – certainly much more sombre than the tantalised crowds in the stadium.
In the centre of these rings, an altar had formed, smooth blocks of stone carved with runes and sigils and other fancy meaningless symbols. On the altar's surface lay the pure naked body of Noksalika Chuunim, colour swimming gently beneath her skin. It was a perfect form of a perfect form; her hips, her breasts, her lips, her eyes. Even her hair was fine and smooth. And above her, tall and brooding, stood the priestmarshall – a bald man of indeterminate age in sombre dark robes.
The last of the pale colour arrived in his cheeks and his eyes, and he came alive.
'Friends, comrades, brothers and sisters; citizens, children and fellow believers,' his voice boomed out across the Ethe, his mouth remaining closed. He dictated his severity not through speech but the motions of his head and the gestures of his hands.
'We are gathered here not to respect the dead, whom we respect each day – in our lives, in our work, in our minds – but to mark a life different to ours, notable and stronger in so many ways. Today we mark the end of the life of Noksalika Chastity Elastia Chuunim.'
Czioc recognised various figures in the seated audience: her father, in a rather stuffy semi-military suit; her mother, wearing some sort of elaborate dress made from fruit and vines; other friends or relatives he'd seen on the Ethe. There were even one or two he'd met in the physical world. Despite the distance he could see their forms itching, swaying, crying or smiling in perfect detail.
'In everything Noksalika did, she shone brightly. Her passion for life, and her talents in music and the arts, were matched only by her love for the Ethe and the strength of her faith…'
Pshappa wondered if by "the arts" they meant her five-man, five-day marathon video shoot she'd filmed for a pornographic magazine.
Czioc wasn't really listening, despite the words booming around his head like a basketball in a mortuary. He was watching her face. Mere moments after the final touches of colour had blossomed on her gentle skin, he watched her body begin to fade gently, the pigment starting to simply waste away. Her features were losing definition, her innards slowly merging, her brain becoming softly translucent…
Of course none of these things were really happening. After so many grand semi-state funerals, Czioc still laughed at the irony: this was a perfect physical depiction of her body, which wasn't her body at all. Upon death she would have been found, recorded, investigated and collected. No matter her glamour or status, in death she was worth the same as anyone. Thousands of miles away at the "real" funeral, a model of her body had been made for appearances. What was being shown here in the stadium was a presentation of a presentation, an illustration of an imitation.
'…a life as intense as it was controversial, she was nevertheless…'
Czioc engaged with the funeral in his mind, flagging his presence before the thousands gathered around.
'Mate, what are you doing?' whispered Pshappa on the Ethe in the open electronic silence.
Czioc breathed softly to himself, and placed an item on the local Ethe. It was only small, just some rows of words placed underneath each other. The priestmarshall's words continued to flow, but a few watchers found the item, and more began to switch their attention to the lines of text.
What they saw was a poem.
a thousand billion networks
but all with borders.
we dream a network that we breathe
and it breathes us
we carry its dead until we are dead.
we carry its dead until we are the dead.
horizon and sky for a father and mother
she had a dream
of something other.
we, the heavy metal behind the glitter
we, the trauma inside the tragedy
we, the word and inside your bible.
these are our dreams
and we are fused to our dreams
by our wrists.
'What … what is this?' Pshappa had the expressionless face of someone genuinely concerned and a little frightened. 'What are you playing at?'
Czioc smiled blankly, and sighed. 'I just wrote it yesterday. It's a poem.' Others gathered in the Ethe, reading the piece, chattering about him, poking him, asking him questions. He batted them away in his mind.
'It's fucking subversive, that's what it is,' breathed Pshappa as low as he could, off the Ethe. People could still be locked up for saying things offline. But there was a difference between whispering to your neighbour, and posting crazy notes that would get you noticed.
The figure of the priestmarshall continued to boom emphatically and motion sincerely – even, Czioc noticed rather smugly, lifting a foot off the floor at one point. It was a neat trick. The lavishly-dressed figures on the ornate benches placed around the altar continued to cry, fidget and roll their eyes as though genuinely watching a funeral.
But thousands, now dozens of thousands of people across the world were jabbering about this poem, wondering to each other what it could mean about Noksalika Chuunim and pestering Czioc on their long-dead relationship. It was only a matter of time before the authorities got in touch…
On both the Ethe and in reality, Czioc simply looked bored. Noksalika's body had faded rather more rapidly than a genuine dead body would – this was for show, after all – and her shape had softened too, leaving merely generic female features. Even from this distance, Czioc could make out the tiny black bead inside her vaguely translucent skull.
One concerned and rather persistent bystander was Pshappa.
'You'll get us both arrested,' he snarled quietly, still watching the funeral scene earnestly, but itching frantically in his head. From the corners of his eyes he could see the large dark bulks of nearby security golems, felt their heavy glares. 'What did I tell you? What did they say in school? You don't mention the system – and yet right now you've got ten thousand people here looking at us, never mind anyone else on the Ethe. And you don't talk mysterious bullshit either! What the hell is a "sky" anyway?'
'Czioc, may we have a word?' The thin voice of a Minister hissed in his mind. Czioc snapped up involuntarily and saw a birdlike man in a casual suit several rows to his left, looking straight at him, smiling.
He gulped, his eyes went dry. It was a private message, on a secure connection – no-one around had heard what had just been said.
'It's regarding Noksalika Chuunim. We have reason to believe she is still alive.'