In her mind, Noksalika ran. She ran in circles and through fresh meadows, ran up cliffs and ran down again, ran through fire and icy waters and under the falling leaves of blue trees.
In reality she ambled along quite calmly through the narrow cobbled streets of the city. Of course she didn't want any extra attention, but she had another problem now too: she was not the infamous Noksalika Chuunim, and she was not going to get away with any unconventional behaviour. A bored, overzealous golem might kill her before even finding out her disguise and her Ethecrime.
Her disguise was based almost exclusively on three rules:
This last point she was particularly proud of – all she had to do was act in all the ways Noksalika Chuunim was famous for not being. Simple but effective.
It was only now, investigating this poor girl's rather vacant psyche, that she realised how lucky she'd been. Tarabonitz's face had looked very much like Noksalika, especially with the right eye shadow and her trademark blue lipstick. But Tarabonitz had been entirely different in almost every other possible way – bubbly, superficial, empty, useless. Vacuous.
It was the perfect cover.
Who knew what kind of pig's ear she'd have made of imitating the all-conquering media princess Noksalika Chuunim?
So. Part of her plan involved wandering around like any other young person socialising on a night out. Being three whole days after the unpleasantries at the tower, it was admittedly quite a long night out, and she'd already made it through four towns and numerous rural hamlets.
Noksalika wandered carefree, seemingly aimlessly, from each place and each moment quickly and quietly to the next. Seemingly…
She tried not to think about the unpleasantries at the tower.
Zha Bernstia, this town was called. Locals walked past her haughtily, as though they were all stuffy bureaucrats being kept away from work. Even the occasional act of public sex seemed rather quiet and respectful, which was certainly a new concept to Noksalika.
It was a small town but distinguished, or self-important anyway, with many traditional stone buildings and alleyways. However, it didn't have a surface, and existed mainly in three small connected caverns. Noksalika likened it to being inland rather than on the coast; somehow isolated, emotionally cut off. Harder to reach.
Like other towns without a surface, the light was slightly dimmer and had to be supported by artificial lights along the tight, stuffy avenues and difficult winding passages. Well, only "artificial" in a sense – they were powered by the Ethe, after all, and what was more natural than that?
Drinking coffees, watching passers-by, dancing shyly by herself; she politely declined the sexy enquiries of strangers who recognised a pretty girl under the hair over her face. They called her "Tarabonitz", because it was stuck all over her public Ethe profile. She had to remind herself several times that this was her new name.
She also had to stop herself looking at pictures and videos of Noksalika Chuunim on the Ethe media with gory fascination, like a surgery patient staring in a mirror – and then had to remind herself that everybody loved Noksalika Chuunim, and forced herself to look in passing at least once or twice.
Noksalika had spent her life pretending to be completely uninterested in various men, business deals, world politics and editors of magazine articles (who were always wrong, by the way). Pretending to be only mildly interested in something was proving to be a big challenge.
In truth, she had a strong mind, and these things shouldn't have fazed her so much. But there was something wrong, something annoying in the back of her head she couldn't see, preventing her from concentrating. She only put her finger on it at a café when leaving the town:
'Cold cranberry coffee, please.'
'No problem. Anything in it?'
'Um, snapdragon pollen and a twist of starfruit?'
'Coming right up.'
In a hilarious, primitive stunt, the calm and conservative brunette girl behind the counter was making drinks herself, and visitors had to queue up, like, like animals or something. She had thankfully investigated the cafe before arriving, and knew not to attract attention by sitting down and actually expecting service.
Noksalika wondered if she'd lived unaware in some kind of parallel universe of luxury all this time. Or maybe she was just too used to the city. Was the girl was doing it as some kind of bet? Maybe she was insane?
'There you go,' said the girl, who clearly didn't look insane. She even seemed quite nice. Her hair was tied in a high ponytail, and she wore a brown woollen dress down to her knees, and no shoes for some reason. Noksalika accepted the china goblet of chilled, russet-brown liquid and paid for it; the back of her head briefly glowed green.
'You know,' started the girl, as her own head flashing green also, 'you look really familiar…'
Oh god, she thought. She's going to chat me up.
The girl gasped. 'I know! It's that music woman, Noksalika whatsit! Oh my god, you look just like her.' Suddenly this conservative-looking young woman had the look of an excited child.
Yeah, music, and the rest, she thought with an inward grimace. 'Oh … thanks,' Noksalika replied, keeping calm, marvelling at her own ability to act mild and relatively shy. 'Someone said that the other day.'
'She's amazing, that woman. All her music, and her other stuff,' the coffee girl giggled cheekily. Then suddenly, with a darker shift and an odd gleam in her eye, she came out with: 'I'd love to be her.'
Noksalika managed to sit down at one of the tables without dropping her glass, or pitching it at the ground in fury and declaring her true identity. No-one would have her believed anyway.
But inside, behind her face – her face – her mind shivered, disturbed. She was locked in this sudden realisation, this ever-decreasing circle in her mind. With creeping, crawling horror, she realised the truth.
In her perfect disguise as someone else, she'd accidentally taken the identity of someone who'd desperately wanted to be her.
Then, upon leaving the café, she met the mantrel called Hanaman.
'So, where are you headed?' asked Hanaman the mantrel, trotting along beside her. While his horns came up to her chin, his eyes were level with her breasts, and she was fully aware of him constantly staring at them. As long as he didn't look at her face, that was fine by her.
'Oh, nowhere,' she said vaguely, melancholic and wistful.
This wasn't true in the slightest. She had a very good map of the regions near her home city, and a very good idea where she was going, and a very good idea how to hide it. Only the keenest examiner would realise she wasn't drifting at all; her haphazard zigzagging was actually cutting a curved line North-by-North-Zha-Westwards.
She was making good ground too. But she had acquired a problem.
'It's funny, I'm going that way myself,' chirped the mantrel.
They'd left behind the edges of the town and walked through a forest, in higher, wider, open spaces than before. The trees were bare, but dotted with tiny colourful shoots, fresh signs of life breaking free from the death of Winter. Dry bark peeled off the trees and lay strewn across the floor, while squirrels played and chased noisily in the pale light.
'So, what do you do?' she asked him, just to make polite conversation. A rugged, bearded man passed them the other way on the otherwise-lonely trail, and mumbled hello. She sent a nod through the Ethe without turning.
'I'm a researcher,' answered Hanaman, hopping from one hoofed foot to the other. Noksalika couldn't tell if he was anxious or excited, or if it was just his normal way of walking. It certainly was annoying.
She very nearly looked directly towards him at this statement. 'You? A researcher? I didn't know they let mantrels do research.'
'Huh, thanks very much.'
'Don't mention it.'
'Are you serious?'
'Well, I … I've just never heard of one. I thought you guys did, you know, manual stuff. Crafts and that.'
At this point he did turn his horned head to look up at her. From the corner of her eye, she saw his sad little face, slightly angry, slightly disappointed. 'Shows how much you know. I don't come from these parts.' His demeanour changed back, as though he'd almost instantly forgiven her. 'It's tech stuff, almost entirely on the Ethe, very little hardware involved. So what do you do?'
Noksalika flushed with panic. But she'd prepared for this. 'Oh, some fashion stuff, writing and that. Just little things for the zines, you know.'
She'd been exploring the psychological furniture she'd inherited. Didn't take long, she thought cynically. Tarabonitz Suhanrohan had indeed been into fashion, and by default partying and culture too, although not in the same way as Noksalika. Tarabonitz appeared to have stuck to the fringes, always behind the camera-eye, somehow rarely in front of anyone else's. From the articles, photos, videos and collected items on the Ethe, it seemed as though she'd been either unwilling or unable to put her own self forward – it was unclear which.
Of course with talents and looks like Tarabonitz's, it would have been perfectly normal for her to become a little starlet of her own – hell, Noksalika knew there were enough of them around, all trying to be like the original Ms. Chuunim. But a shy, reclusive fashionista who outwardly shunned glory and self-promotion, yet secretly harboured dreams of grandeur? That was interesting.
She hadn't had many friends – Noksalika was still basking in the emptiness of a mere three or four hundred contacts, who mostly left her alone. She easily batted away a few messages with some generic answer, made easier by a trawl through her past conversations. For instance, a message she'd received yesterday, after she'd feigned being busy and unavailable to chat:
Time: 8:21pm 32secs
'Hey Tara, how's my favourite gorgeous sexy bitch? Wondering how you're doing, it's been absolutely ages. Everything's pretty crazy over here as usual, nearly got this generator dam thing finished. Been partying with the enviro-architects, those guys are just HILARIOUS. Do you fancy coming out with us one night? I can show them I really do have some sexy friends! Oh, heard some whispers about some funny stuff in the far Southwest, do you know anything? Get back to me soon yeah, hope you're well!'
Location: Tak Tiiramanga (Outer Suburbs)
Mood: Mikka is working hard, water's tough to beat!
She'd very nearly simply replied "no".
However, she'd read through Tarabonitz's previous replies and messages, in particular her conversations with this man Miklovio, and given a polite reply that she was rather busy here thank you, and was backing out of public life for a short time and wouldn't be available.
Tak Tiiramanga, she thought to herself, brushing aside thin branches across the track. She'd been there several times. There was a nice concert hall, if a little over-decorated, and a couple of fun bar districts. It was a long trip certainly, although not unusual for a regular traveller like herself: maybe two or three thousand miles away, roughly North-Zha-Westwards.
But it would have been a huge distance for Tarabonitz, and a night out with Miklovio would have meant joining up across the Ethe – partying together over cyberspace – rather than ever meeting physically.
Noksalika shrugged. She'd had sexual relationships over further distances, with people she'd never met physically at all.
'I need a wee, could you just wait here a sec?' said the mantrel anxiously. She watched his small frame bouncing off between the bare trees and evergreen shrubs.
'Er, sure, if you really want.' Maybe that's what all the hopping was about, she thought. She stood and waited. It aroused less suspicion than running off.
Mantrels were just another species. They were like small men and women, and had majestic horns that curved up and over their heads. Sadly they often had curved spines too, and looked awfully wretched trotting around on their hoofed feet.
Hanaman was the first one Noksalika had seen wearing more than an old-fashioned loincloth (or its modern equivalent, the g-string). He wore a pair of blue three-quarter length trousers, revealing his long ankles at the bottom, and a green military-style shirt open at the chest. Gold rings hung from his horns and jingled very slightly as he walked.
Despite all this, Noksalika still found it easier to think of mantrels more as animals than people; besides, they'd only been accepted as an auxiliary species by the Committees in the last few thousand years.
'Get rid of him.'
The crusty bark of a nearby tree had formed a familiar shape, with a familiar voice; Noksalika barely had to turn round. She knew it was the face Piraowef speaking. 'He's a spy.'
'How do you know that?' she whispered, glancing at the tree.
'How do you think? Trust me.'
'It'll take more time. I'm doing my best, I can't go any faster. People will notice.'
'Alright.' Hanaman started walking back towards her through the trees, clearly more relaxed. She stood so that he couldn't see the bark.
'Just quickly,' said Piarowef, 'there's something brewing in the Southwest.'
She looked directly at his face. The gnarly little eyes stared back. 'What is it? Anything I should know about?' She scanned the margins of the Ethe, but saw nothing.
The face remained static, neutral. 'Possibly. Could be something serious, we're not sure. I'll let you know if you need to know.'
The features melted away, until just a cracked smile in the bark remained.