The piano crashed like an earthquake when the bundle of clothes landed on the keys. The figure hissed at forgetting to turn it off, clicking "mute" immediately, then cringed at the sudden silence.
Calm. Stay calm.
'I'm here,' came the voice, quiet on the Ethe. The figure continued to stagger around the catastrophe of a room, snatching and discarding items almost at random.
'Great,' Noksalika whispered on the airwaves, 'give me five minutes.'
'This tower's really nicely carved, you know.'
'Will you let me get on with things?!' she hissed across the connection.
Noksalika stood over a huge mound of detritus and junk in the soft light of her boudoir-study. Her hands plunged in, grabbed handles and shook, revealing an open bag lying underneath all the mess. Hurriedly throwing most of the items away, she fastened the bag, threw it on her back, and slipped quickly out of the ornate room, along the ornate ramp, out through the ornate front doors, and away in the chilly spring night.
Glowing lights lit the gritty square passageway, which was busy for the time of night – strangers walked and staggered past with drunken cheer and friendly chattiness, mostly in ones or twos. They walked on all four walls of the passage, strolling lazily above her head or at right angles to her. She had to sidestep and duck with hurried grace to avoid them all.
Around her, people chatted on the Ethe to friends they'd met earlier, or not even seen at all that night, laughing out loud apparently at nothing if you weren't listening to the airwaves. They smiled hazily as she passed – they knew who she was, but she was here all the time; there was nothing special about it.
'Darling, how's it going?' came a smooth voice in her head. It was a close contact, marking himself "hyper urgent" to cut through the hundreds of merely "urgent" messages which she'd left hanging. 'Got a sweet dea—'
'Not now Relphus,' she hissed, keeping her face fixed in a vision of calm.
'But it's the film people sweety, you remember when you did that scene in that film—'
'I'm – I'm having sex right now!' she lied, flustered. A drunken oaf shouted something as she passed, grinning broadly, and shook her hand.
The male voice seemed surprised, as though it had never been a problem before. 'So?'
'I'm just – it's – I'm busy, alright?' she floundered.
'Huh okay, fine, whatever, well just give me a buzz some time, it's really exciting stuff, honey—'
She closed the connection, which even in her frantic rush was the height of rudeness. She was itching to close herself to everything incoming, but knew she couldn't; it would be the real-world equivalent of going to live up a tree, guarded by massive dogs, who were guarded by more dogs. People would notice – especially when it was her.
You went unnoticed by staying public.
The edges of the passageway widened suddenly, giving way to rough curves and bare rock, then soil and long wispy grass on all sides. A cavern spread out before her, roughly two miles across in all directions. Fairy lights twinkled in the blue gloom, close by and far away. And above, to the right, a tower thrust down towards the centre of the space.
Noksalika made her way out of town, the ground curving gently upwards. More and more people tried contacting her through the Ethe – old friends, long-time fans, complete crazies, and just total unknowns. She left them hanging, like all the others she would get back to later. The background sounds of clubs, parties and bars bounced all around, from open-air cafes and from beneath doors, all telling her to listen to their beats, to their cellos and overdubs and samples. It was still busy, even at this late hour; people laughed and sat and smoked and smiled all around as she passed.
She left the lights and sounds of urban life and approached the tower along a lonely pathway surrounded by heather. The cavern had turned, with the town now spread out at right angles behind her, and the tower spearing the air above. She climbed steps to a wide open courtyard and saw a woman waiting for her.
'I was saying,' called the woman's real voice, suddenly in real sound, breaking the silence. 'The tower's very pretty isn't it?'
Stone animals occupied the courtyard, prowling and rearing between the dwarf-trees planted in straight lines. She had a feeling some were real animals pretending to look like stone, but she didn't turn her head.
The tower itself really was a beautiful thing, all carvings and gargoyles and glowing runes which nobody knew the meaning of. The history was there of course, there in the scriptures on the Ethe, but no-one was interested in history – and certainly not the students who swarmed over the tower during the daytime, taking silly photos of themselves and their friends.
As an educated young woman, Noksalika really should have known about its history. But years ago she'd discovered that it had been rebuilt hundreds of times, and been given dozens of names over thousands of years. "Living history" they called it. Well fine. But these stones and tiles had been rebuilt in the modern age. They weren't real history.
'Have you never been here before?' Noksalika asked, her feminine frame breathing heavily. A pair of children crept around the courtyard off to the right, hiding behind stone animals.
'No, you?' The stranger wore a cloak, a stylish garment that matched her glossy boots and dress. She had a similar figure to Noksalika, and was pretty as well.
Noksalika shrugged. 'Once or twice. I live here.' She felt a little outdone for once, having put on just a smart t-shirt and well-cut jeans to remain low-key. She narrowed her eyes. 'Nice cloak. Is it for some sense of occasion, or just the first thing you grabbed out of the wardrobe?'
The woman giggled like a child, raising her hand to her mouth. 'A bit of both. I see you're trying to play it casual. Bit silly, though. You'll only stick out more by trying to look unimportant.'
I know that perfectly well, you stupid bitch, Noksalika thought to herself, blushing at the fact she hadn't thought of it.
'Soooo,' said the woman, dull impatience on her pretty features, 'what happens now?'
Something moved suddenly across the courtyard. Noksalika, already tense, snapped back against the tower wall like a bowstring. It was one of the stone creatures – a large fat panther had lunged out at the children hiding behind it. They ran away shrieking and laughing as it playfully gave chase.
'Funny things, children, aren't they,' said a voice out loud. She turned her head slowly.
A face had appeared in the carvings, looking as though it had been there forever and a day. A long nose and big, chunky lips protruded from the stone below tiny, piggish eyes. The eyes had no pupils, but somehow, they were looking at her. The eyebrows waggled.
'How are you both this fine evening?'
The other woman giggled again. 'It's you! I was worried for a minute, thought it might all be a joke.'
The stone face swung its eyes round and beamed a smile. 'Of course this is not a joke! This is an exchange, no more no less.'
'A discrete exchange,' breathed Noksalika, her heartbeat still slowing down.
'Oh certainly. In an age of openness, subtlety and discretion are most valuable commodities.'
'So what is your name?' asked the cloaked girl quizzically. Noksalika felt her skin tighten. This woman was truly annoying. 'You kept saying on the Ethe you'd tell us.'
The face managed to shrug modestly, which was quite impressive without shoulders. 'Technically I have no name here. But you may call me … Piarowef, if you like.'
'You're very polite for someone without a name,' the woman smiled coyly. Wow, thought Noksalika, she's flirting with a thing with no body.
How ironic, as bodies are all you seem to play with, she thought back at herself cynically. The words were a sudden stab in her mind. Had she thought them herself?
'Why thank you,' the face Piarowef shone. 'But now, without further ado, let us focus on business. This is quite an operation we are conducting here. Luckily I have the hands of a surgeon.' He grinned and gave little winks to both of them. 'Are you both ready?'
Noksalika ignored the joke and nodded solemnly. The woman nodded too, eager and keen.
'My powers are considerable, so you will not notice anything physically, nor even psychologically. However, the social shock will be quite considerable, and this may affect both your mind and health. Oh, and … I suppose I should check if you really want to go through with this. It's quite a big decision for people like yourselves. Are you both quite sure?'
'Yes!' they both hissed in unison, impatient.
'Very well, it is done. Just like that.' Piarowef clicked his tongue, in a throat he didn't have, and smiled.
Noksalika stood frozen. Her eyes raised up to the other woman, who still looked the same – just as she did.
Their eyes stayed glued to each other.
'Your body will wear its mind the same, and your mind will wear its thoughts the same,' intoned the face, blandly. 'However, your thoughts now wear the Ethe in countless different ways, and if you are to remain unseen, you must learn quickly how the other usually wears theirs…'
The strangers' calls, the perverts' sordid messages, the countless fans waiting to hear from her … Noksalika felt sudden, empty space where they used to be. A cool breeze drifted through her mind where hot pressure had pressed in from all sides.
The girl opposite her seemed to be shaking, with a smile on her lips and her eyes struck with awe. She was feeling the drug of what it was like to be Noksalika Chuunim.
And she, Noksalika, was … Tarabonitz. Tarabonitz Suhanrohan.
'What…' started the caped woman, her eyes flickering. 'What now?'
But the face had frozen in a maniacal laugh on the wall, perfectly lost in the surrounding carvings, and it said nothing.
The woman now known as Noksalika Chuunim suddenly breathed out. 'Oh my god!' she gushed. 'Oh my god, this is amazing! Is this what it's like to be you? I feel so dizzy!'
'Yeah yeah alright, shut up. People still listen with their ears you know.' Noksalika – Tarabonitz, she corrected herself – looked around; the courtyard was still thankfully empty. The sounds and even smells of city life drifted gently on the air.
'So, what are you going to do now?' the cloak-wearing Noksalika said to her. 'What are you going to do with my life?'
'I,' she said, 'am going to run away.'
The new Noksalika Chuunim gasped with her pretty lips. 'You can't do that! That's my life you're throwing away!'
'Was your life. You just traded it in to become a porn-star pianist.' She softly spat the letter 'p' twice.
'Ahhh true! Or "touché" as I bet you'd say!' Her eyes sparkled with a naiveté that was truly disgusting. 'Well, I guess I should get back to … being you. Looks great! Haha!'
'One last thing, darling,' the new Tarabonitz said. 'We should change clothes if we're going to do this properly.'
'Hmm, good point. Or maybe you just want my gorgeous cloak? Eh?!' She giggled again, and the new Tarabonitz noticed the girl's large, strong breasts under the cloak. 'This could look a bit silly. People could be watching.'
'How are we going to make it look believable?'
She shrugged. 'We could pretend we're having sex?'
Another gasp. 'How sordid! That's a great idea!' She moved a step closer. 'Although,' the new Noksalika said to her, brushing her arm gently, 'why just pretend?'
They ran their hands through each other's long, brown hair, and the stone animals turned ever-so-slowly to watch.
The animals had already turned away again when they killed her.
The two women were both shimmering in the afterglow of orgasm, lying naked on the warm flagstones, when the security golem burst out of the carved door in the tower's carved wall and pounded the girl with its club. It hit her squarely on the chest and there was the crunch of ribs. Noksalika – the old Noksalika – felt the breath pushed out of the girl's throat and over her face. She struggled quickly to her feet.
The golem was, like all security golems, huge. They were something like twelve feet tall and half as wide, like some walking wall with black armour. Noksalika was surprised it had even managed to fit through the door. The club was tipped with nails – authority's best friend – which pulled out little shards of bone and flesh when the golem raised it and slammed it into the body again twice. The body that was now Noksalika Chuunim lay twitching, retching, choking, those beautiful eyes rolling back in their sockets.
'Remember our deal, "Tarabonitz".' The face had suddenly come back to life in the wall. Piarowef's voice was now heavy, sombre. 'We keep our bargains if others keep theirs.'
'Tell me again this is secure,' Noksalika said, breathing heavily and rubbing her eyes. Shaking, she staggered into the broken girl's sexy clothes, feeling as far from sexy as was possible. She looked up at the mountainous golem. The dome-shaped helmet lowered to look back at her.
'Don't worry about it. Golem actions are never released to the public Ethe, and we have the confidential side covered. Our golem friend here works for us.'
'Well, what about her?' Piarowef seemed indignant. 'She's you, and she'll be dead soon. We've tied up the Ethe, and when she's dead we'll let her be dead the normal way, all done. We have a collector on his way right now.'
She adjusted her breasts under the tight-fitting dress, and suddenly scratched at her cheeks and eyes at the thought of the dying girl's germs all over her face. 'And the collector—?'
'He also works for us.'
She exhaled and tried to concentrate over the spluttering of the body below her. 'Tarabonitz, Tara … bonitz,' she said to herself, trying on the new name. 'I hate it.'
'Brilliant,' Piarowef beamed. 'Do enjoy.'
She had clothes. She had some possessions, none of which marked her out as the infamous and soon-to-be-dead Noksalika Chuunim. She looked out into the distance, and saw some low buildings that marked the entrance to the Eastern Passage.
'Okay,' she said. She glanced at the golem's club, dripping with blood, then back to the body. 'We should probably get this finished then.'