Czioc itched in the chair. He wanted to scratch himself all over.
There were no straps or bindings, nothing was physically holding his wrists down. It was more the constant glare of two giant black golems in this tiny room. They were almost bigger than the room itself; Czioc hadn't actually seen how they'd got in.
He'd been escorted from the stadium, surrounded by the massed chatting of thousands at the funeral and hundreds of thousands on the Ethe. And he had been escorted– not dragged, like dissidents usually were, or being beaten to death in public like a rebel or criminal. They'd just taken him down a passageway into the ground, past bars and through a small market, to a dark little room in a dark little government complex. So at least the gossiping multitudes didn't have the stain of criminality to chew over as well. Or maybe if he'd been killed there and then, perhaps they'd have talked less, either from disinterest or hushed fear.
Pshappa had cheerily waved him off.
The room was a cube. He stared across the table at the bare wall opposite, then around the corners and edges. There really was no need in the modern world for corners; the world had enough space for everyone, and most surface towns and underground buildings were designed with curved, flowing spaces. But the government liked to be efficient – so, corners. Greenish lights buzzed gently in all eight of them.
A familiar voice made itself felt in Czioc's brain.
'Czioc lad, you alright?' Colonel Trimasth coughed. Czioc marvelled at how someone could cough over the Ethe.
'Physically, I'm fine,' he replied, flashing glances at the crouched golems either side of him. Sitting hunched on the floor, their shoulders were above his head. 'Obviously a little concerned. What's going on?'
'Had to do things by the book, my boy.' Trimasth sounded a little wary and official. 'Couldn't have a discussion out there in front of everyone.'
'Not even on a secure connection?'
'Not even that. This stuff is fairly high up. Needed you somewhere official.'
'Is Noksalika alive?' Too sudden, too eager; one of the golems twitched, he was sure. He still itched enormously. The six walls glared down at him.
'I'm not saying anything, Czioc.' The Colonel's voice was firm. 'We only know what we know. We don't know what we don't know. If we could only know exactly what things we don't know, it would be a whole lot easier.'
'You don't say?' Czioc wasn't in the mood for philosophy.
'Noksalika Chuunim expired, quite normally. She'd had a short life but a busy one, so it's not that unusual. But – but.' An unusual pause. 'There are irregularities in her Ethe records.'
Somewhere under his anxiety and the sweat on his skin, Czioc was intrigued. He wiped his face with his sleeve. '…Irregularities?'
'That's what I said.'
'I thought the Ethe was impenetrable?'
Trimasth gave a blustery snort. 'By and large, yes. To people like you and me it is. But remember two things. The Ethe is vast and wild, it's – it's pure. It's far bigger than even the boffins over in Technical Infrastructure Tectonics will ever fully understand. And yet,' his voice became almost a whisper, a conspiracy, 'the Ethe is also in everything, it's in the rocks and this table, it's in our blood and in our words. If someone were to have friends in high enough places, well … let's just say in theory, old chap, anything's possible.'
Czioc mused. Noksalika Chuunim certainly hadn't been short on friends in high places. You just had to look at all the "accidental" photos of her splashed across the trashy Ethezines, staggering out of glamorous parties with directors' sons, business magnates, military personnel. But surely not that high?
'Why am I here?' Czioc remembered Pshappa's mocking statistics about their relationship. 'What do you want me for?'
Another peculiar pause.
'Again, can't say now, boy. Our lads in the Engineering Concerns Task Force are working on the tech side of things. Plus we can't keep you too long. You've got to get back on Migration.'
Czioc nodded firmly.
'Just giving you a heads-up before the big boys speak to you. I don't know if you had anything to do with Noksalika's death, and frankly, I don't much care,' the Colonel spoke briskly. 'Jumped-up tart in my opinion, and her music was flagrant tripe. But that's neither here nor there. There are some people over my head who think you're connected, and they won't go easy on you. And what the hell was that poem thing about?'
Czioc's mouth dropped open, despite not using it all conversation. He struggled for words. 'I … I just…'
'Whatever, I'm not interested. Just stop fucking around, Czioc, or you'll end up like all the others. Have fun on Migration. We'll be in touch.'
The connection abruptly stopped, leaving Czioc in the room with eight corners and two golems, solemnly staring at him as he finally closed his mouth, and started to scratch the itch on his arm.
Pshappa was listening to "Noksalika Unleashed: Serene Postmodern Ecstasy Anthems" when he got back, swigging alcohol from three brightly-coloured bottles. Czioc was surprised it was only three.
Pshappa was a bear, technically. He had mottled grey fur all over, except for a white patch down his front which was frequently stained with whatever food or drink he'd been aiming at his mouth. And he was big. Not big like the golems; after they'd escorted him back to the main cavern, Pshappa looked like a small cuddly toy in comparison. But he was something like seven feet tall, which was definitely quite tall enough.
He also had four arms – two large and rangy, two short underneath – but he didn't like to make a big deal about this. Unless drunk or showing off to girls, which was fairly often.
'Mate what are you listening to that for?' said Czioc, sitting down next to Pshappa's large frame in the brown dust. They were on bare ground between a shack-like tropical bar and a grand outdoor massage parlour made to look like ancient ruins. One of the girls wearing a golden headdress, and very little else, flashed them a wink.
'Hey you're back!' Pshappa switched his music off and hugged Czioc close to the alcoholic grime on his chest. Czioc grappled to escape, coughing desperately. 'What did they want? Just a chat? Or maybe one of those golems gave you a private lap dance?'
'Nah, was just … about that poem,' Czioc said. He didn't want to mention the uncertainty over Noksalika's status as a dead person. He frowned to himself. 'I'm not sure they actually told me anything. But apparently some top people want to speak to me.'
'Huh. Managers eh.'
'What you been up to?'
'Not much. Made a couple of collections.' Czioc looked again at Pshappa's filthy chest fur, and realised patches of it were black or burned away.
Noksalika's funeral had apparently finished normally, with the figures and the altar dissolving back into the ground, leaving nothing but the bare dusty ground again. Then the audience had split into two main factions – those who'd wanted to respect the dead, and those who'd wanted to party.
According to Pshappa it had looked hilarious, with both groups mixed evenly throughout the stadium: thousands of zoned-out individuals locked in their private vigil on the Ethe ("weird, weird killjoys", he'd called them) interspersed with countless revellers who insisted on drinking their drugs and drugging their drinks and dancing to pounding techno music that only they could hear.
'What's in the red bottle?' Czioc asked absently.
'Not actually sure. Try it.' Pshappa held out one of his stubby lower arms.
Czioc was, he realised, confused. He hadn't seen Noksalika Chuunim in the best part of three decades. Not in real life anyway. It was nearly impossible to get by without seeing any of the countless videos, pictures and interviews of her that littered the Ethe, and he'd certainly not gone out of his way. And yet in twenty-four weird little hours, he'd found out she was dead, and he'd cared deeply; then he'd found out she might not be dead after all, and he'd cared again, but not so deeply, and with traces of irritation.
What he'd seen in the stadium had been obviously un-real on so many levels – a transmitted copy of an outdated ritual, with government interference stamped all over it. The body hadn't even been real. The funeral had been no more than a symbol, and a cheap symbol at that. But surely it still had value, if it could make him feel? He pondered on the power of cheap music.
At this point, his throat caught up with him and he dropped the bottle, making low strangled noises like a dog giving birth to a horse.
'Kind of garlicky, kind of like … burning rubber,' mused Pshappa, as if his verdict on the drink was still undecided. 'So, when do we set off tomorrow?'
Czioc choked for a bit. 'Half seven,' he croaked quietly, when his tongue was back under control.
'And where are we going again? I forget.'
'Thianwitz. About eight days, not far.'
'Huh, that's what you say. Eight days without proper drink or women is long enough.'
'Well I'm sure you'll find your own things to do.'
'Mmmm.' Pshappa finished the remains of the larger brown drink in his main left hand, and pressed the bottle down into the hard dusty earth. He looked at it intently, and focused his thoughts through the Ethe. The dust vibrated and the bottle seemed to soften at one end, melting an inch into the ground, then got stuck. 'Damn,' he said, 'I'm rubbish at recycling stuff.'
'Pshappa, you're just drunk.'
'No really I've always been rubbish at it, you know that.'
'I know you're always drunk.'
'Fair play. Do you think someone else will sort it out?'
'I'm sure they will, Pshappa.'
'Good.' He dragged his heavy frame upwards, swaying ominously, and pulled Czioc up too. 'Because we've got one night before we go, and I want to let this town know that I've been here. Let's make it … messy.'
'Are they still talking about your poem?'
'Talking, asking, writing, bitching,' sighed Czioc, dragging his tired body along the trail in the hazy dawn light. He'd stopped answering people about it. This had made him seem aloof and eccentric, which had gotten everyone even more excited. He was desperately trying not to be a minor celebrity, and was failing very badly.
They trudged on towards the hole in the South-Tak side of the vast cavern's wall. It was neat, like a punctuation mark in the untidy rock face. Pshappa's hangover was mighty, and was told by the heaviness of his footsteps. 'Last night was immense,' he said after a while. They followed other groups going the same way, and passed a variety of excited, chatty people heading back towards the town.
'Agreed,' Czioc replied. 'I actually had a really good time.'
'There you go, just needed a night out to clear up this Noksalika stuff in your head.'
'Maybe. That aquarium treehouse bar was brilliant. How the hell did we end up there?'
'Don't ask me mate. All I can remember from there was you trying to get into the pants of that girl dressed as a mermaid.'
'That's such a lie! She had no pants to get into.'
Pshappa threw back his head and laughed out loud.
The weary trek continued, and the ground turned through nearly ninety degrees before they reached the hole. They looked back here, and saw the bars and tea shops and botanical gardens on the surface of the town, all making use of the quiet shift, cleaning and resting and having a drink themselves. Even in this day and age there was a quiet shift. Otherwise how would anyone know when it was fashionable to party?
The link tunnel was a perfect form, a long, smooth tube about a hundred feet across. This wasn't a natural passage, or if it was, it had been widened and altered; footsteps and real voices echoed and clattered off the smooth surface.
It was busy and crowded on the near end of the tube, a mass of people tightly packed and all chatting and laughing and discussing their own antics the night before. Golems stood dotted around amongst people, staring down, bored but suspicious. Occasionally they kicked someone with their massive feet. Maybe it was by accident, but you never knew.
Gates formed a ring about halfway along the tunnel, processing people and creatures in both directions. Pshappa looked diagonally up ahead to those coming in off the Migration. He saw the hungry, excited looks on genuinely tired faces and returned a satisfied grin. 'Oh yes,' he called to them across the Ethe, 'you're gonna have a good time here.'
Czioc wasn't really paying attention. He'd smelt the soft breeze carrying the scent of foreign plants and rivers; he could almost taste it. His legs hadn't the stomach for trekking again, but nobody had their stomach in their legs, so he reasoned it wasn't really a problem.
The queue slowly churned them towards the front. Uniformed officers at kiosks looked at them suspiciously, silently asking on the Ethe for their details. They demanded travellers' upturned palms on the surface of the desk, then passed their own palms over the top like some cheap magic trick. But it was nothing more than the officers checking that everyone was truly who they said they were. Czioc couldn't imagine being anyone else.
They passed through with smiles on their faces, trying not to giggle, still tinged with the inexactness of drunkenness.
The end of the link tunnel flowered into open space. As it expanded in all directions, Pshappa and Czioc turned the corner to see a savannah that stretched hundreds of miles in all directions, with fruit trees and long grasses and strange mooing animals.
High, high above, the sprawl of surface cities glared down from the other side; cities half-hidden by mist, and dwarfed by the colourful birds that swooped and zigzagged in the air close to. Cities that were probably looking back at them, high, high above.
People streamed in from one side of the hole, a constant flow of fatigued travellers in need of rest, fun, entertainment. In the opposite direction, a wide lazy trail led through waves of long grass out onto the plains, carrying a hundred thousand people on their journey into the distance. This was a moving trail, a living, breathing trail. This was the Migration.