'There's two kinds of currency in this world, my boy. Glamour, and the dead.'
And I picked the dead.
I never realised how true the Colonel's words would be. Oh, I believed in them, sure – but believing in something and knowing it to be true are very different things.
The Migration was long. It was work. It was ridiculous. It could be fun. It was sometimes fatal. But most of all, it was long.
'What about her?'
'What about … her?'
'Her? Are you kidding?'
'Okay, what about her?'
Pshappa pointed through the Ethe to a girl some way ahead. 'That one.'
'Pshappa, what the hell does it matter?'
'I want to know!'
'Fine, yes, I would do her!'
'Well, a lot, or just like, a little bit? Would you do it really hard, or soft and slow?'
'Or maybe just as a functional thing before saying "Urgh, damn you're ugly, on yer way love"?'
'Pshappa, you are one dirty fucking bear. And for the record, that one, I would do very hard.'
'Ha! I knew it! I've got your type nailed down, mate.'
'What about that one?'
'Her? Czioc mate, I'd crush her, she's tiny!'
'Well yeah okay, she's got a nice face. So long as I didn't have to do any medical stuff afterwards, mind.'
Czioc grinned back at his friend.
They walked with the motley crowds – mostly men and women, but mantrels were visible and the odd bear and centaur trundled past. The pair of them were overtaken by strident youngsters, who either weren't used to Migration or hadn't been worn down by it yet; and they overtook others, usually older people who ambled along at their own pace. A few struggled wearily as they neared their life's end.
Or didn't. Age was a funny thing. There were only two certainties: children didn't expire, that was pretty certain; and Czioc knew that mantrels didn't last quite as long as normal people. But beyond that, it seemed utterly random. He'd met friends who'd lived messy, outrageous lives until they needed someone else to hold the wine bottle to their lips. And he'd watched young men and women in prime strength just fold up as though they were going to sleep.
Pshappa often mentioned, when drunk, which was often, that his own mother had lived so long she'd outlasted several hundred committees and a few geological features as well. In return for her services as a veteran of the Migration, she'd actually been given a house of her very own, which she'd converted into a bar. (Czioc wondered if this was a largely fictitious account, but wouldn't have been surprised.)
Three certainties. Political leaders lived much longer than everyone else.
I like the one in red.
Shit. The voice was back.
What do you mean? Czioc thought, guardedly.
That girl to the left, in the red dress with the blue trim. She's hot.
I am not talking to you about sexy girls, said Czioc firmly in his head. Not you, not any dead person.
Oh come come, don't deny me one of life's simple pleasures.
Ha ha, very funny. The ghost's voice might have been brittle, dry and lifeless, but Czioc had learnt when it was cracking a joke.
Thanks, thanks. But really, it's much more about the mind than the body. I think you underestimate sex just like I used to.
Oh did you.
Sure I did. When I was alive, I thought it was just physical juices needing an outlet, or an inlet, you might say. There was a pause. You know, with girls.
I got the joke.
'How're you doing, mate?' The large, fuzzy face of Pshappa peered down at him. 'Seem a bit anxious. It's only been two days!'
'I'm fine,' replied Czioc, his neck muscles twitching. He fought the urge to constantly look over his shoulder, to see who was talking to him.
Your friend's pretty hot too. Big, strong. Four arms. Nice.
I'm dead, too.
They rested that night in the lee of a wooded hill. Golems had herded them at dusk into a secure area – both to keep them in, and to keep nasty things out Other travellers sat around nearby in the darkness, and Czioc heard them chatting and laughing about the day as he looked upwards.
Tiny lights sparkled in strange shapes high above, the parties and clubs and carnivals of cities he'd never see. Czioc worked out it was roughly Zha-Eastwards, if you drew a straight line up in the air to the cavern wall above. They were heading generally South-Tak-East towards the next stop, Thianwitz – a couple of days in a quiet town.
Pshappa had lit a small fire, god alone knew how, or why – the depths of winter had passed, it wasn't even cold any more. In return Czioc had, as always, created beds in the ground using the Ethe. Shaping things like soil and rock was easy, but he had a special knack of summoning bubbles up to the surface to make it soft and comfortable. Together they could sleep comfortably just about anywhere, any time of year.
They had acquired a new friend: an older woman had approached from another group, chatting away and claiming to be cold. She now sat by the fire to his right. Even in the poor light of the fire Czioc could tell she wasn't his type; he lacked the energy or desire for any extra-curricular activities anyway. But she seemed completely taken by him, making lots of eye contact and suggestive looks. She talked about places she'd been, some story about a golem or something. But Czioc hardly listened, resting his tired body at full stretch and catching up with old friends across the Ethe.
'…and then, well I laughed so hard, I thought I was going to cry all the water out of my body,' she chattered. 'Hey, where's your big friend gone?'
Czioc had barely even noticed, already engrossed in two online conversations while she'd been talking. 'He's off over there,' he waved his hand, 'doing something unspeakable with a girl half his size.'
Sex wasn't encouraged on Migration, particularly the longer, more tiring routes. But as long as you didn't disturb the golems they generally didn't mind. Czioc wondered where Pshappa got the energy.
He spoke to long-lost drinking companions and comrades from former travelling days, who were now on some other branch or arm of the Migration, and made bets about who would reach the end of their section first. He didn't expect to see them in the flesh again, but who did? You met people, you had fun, you moved on.
He'd met her on long-term leave at one of her video shoots; Czioc still couldn't remember how he'd wrangled that from Colonel Trimasth, despite regularly scouring his Ethe records for clues that might get him another six months' leave.
He'd been part of some geeky Ethezine community that covered music and board games. The city's resident group had invited him on a night out, some guy mentioning some music video shoot in some little club he knew. So they'd got drunk and drugged themselves up and found the dark, dingy club full of camouflage netting and other people also drunk and drugged up. So far, so predictable.
But then there she was. The centre of attention, all ankle boots and blue lipstick, brazen jewellery and tasteful electronic tattoos.
It had been hard to tell what was filming and what was party – the music and sexual choreography had just seemed like a normal good time. But he remembered being proud he could tell she was drunk, while he was drunk, no matter how hard she'd tried acting sober.
Were they innocent times? Or was he just more innocent at that time? He suspected it was him; people had been drinking and fucking and talking rubbish on drugs for centuries before now, and probably would for centuries to come. Images ran through his mind of a technological society that had found a hedonistic groove and stuck to it; a vast society stuck in stasis, untouched like a pagan village on an undiscovered island full of superstition and malaria. Superstition, malaria and great parties, that is.
He'd become aware of the older woman's talking becoming a low mumbling, but he was too absorbed in conversations on the Ethe (the finer philosophies of feminism in sport, and whether or not a narwhal would win in a fight with a tiger), when she suddenly collapsed forwards into the quiet fire.
'Shit are you okay?' He scrambled up and dragged her back, flapping at her flaming hair to put it out. He scraped up loose soil from the bed he'd already made, and dusted it over her face. She didn't flinch. Her eyes stayed closed.
He checked her on the Ethe, and found all processes had stopped. Her profile was frozen. Public messages of surprise and condolence were already coming through.
She was dead.
Ugh, he thought, tired. Oh well. This is what we're here for.
Strangely, he felt much more comfortable now that she was dead instead of trying to pull him. This was mildly awful, he knew, but still true. He was a fan of sex – but right here, right now, he felt far more familiar with this, his job, his forte.
He laid her out on her back and spent a few minutes removing her clothes, dumping them in a pile. She hadn't been wearing much. Her colourful furry boots seemed to take the longest.
Collecting her would be difficult, because the body hadn't had time to loosen and soften. Despite his skills, Czioc had trouble with freshly dead people. But he was damned if he was sleeping next to a corpse all night.
Kneeling down behind her head, he logged her details on the Ethe, linking her now-frozen files to his collector records. He ran his fingers and the backs of his hands over her skin; over her navel, her breasts, the delicate stretch of her neck. Over her ears.
He closed his eyes and breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth, a couple of times more … slowing his heart rate down.
He stripped off himself, and they were both completely naked.
He pulled her up onto his thighs, cradling her head against his chest.
He whispered half a prayer, kept his eyes shut, and took her into himself.
The power of the Ethe welling up inside made his skin split with a thousand tiny cracks down his front and belly. Electricity flashed between their bodies and her skin melted, becoming warm, and she began to slide into him.
This was something only they could do under strict licence as collectors – nobody else could make the Ethe work this way, or was even allowed to try.
First the shoulders, then her arms and her chest, the rest following. Czioc kept himself in his own dark little space in his mind, calm against the sore prickling sensation in his swelling flesh. He breathed deeply through his nose. Eventually her ankles and the soles of her feet were swallowed up, the skin of his stomach breaking through them, leaving only her head. He breathed in, straightened his back, and slowly her head melted into his chest, skull, brain, throat, eyes, skin.
His glowing skin closed up, cutting off curls of singed hair which fell off his chest. His swollen body pulsed, he breathed furiously through his nostrils; his internal system pushed the black bead from inside her head up through his chest and neck.
Ah, I see I've got a visitor! Somebody new to chat to.
Czioc collapsed sideways to the floor and rolled over. Shut up.
Haha, just kidding. I can't talk to any of these guys, they're long gone.
But Czioc was already asleep.
The state of the Ethe affected your dreams. Czioc knew this, but didn't really think about it when the girl with the red dress woke him up. She had one finger over her lips and the other hand over his mouth; he made a muffled protest, but stopped when he saw the naughty look in her eyes, flashing with the embers from the fire.
She took her hand from her mouth and stroked his genitals, which were already excited, and lowered herself down onto him. After the cracking soreness from just a few hours ago, Czioc felt a wonderful glow spread across his body as her wetness covered him and she rocked back and forth.
He sat up, still with her hand over his mouth. He looked at her narrow, smoky eyes and her razor sharp features, and pulled her hips towards him.
Then her hand strengthened like a vice over his jaw, over his face. And her mouth opened two feet wide.
She lunged and tore out his shoulder with huge mutant teeth. There was hardly any pain, probably from the shock, but he saw a gaping hole and blood and bone where his right shoulder should have been, his arm hanging limp by some strands of muscle, the fingers still gripping her dress. He desperately tried to scream but couldn't as she lunged forward again, her body still bouncing but now with horrible giant jaws where her head had been…
In the corners of his eyes, he could see the dark trees were actually men, dark shapes of men, cheering, sneering, goading her on.
…He felt the teeth rip through his face, and he could see with only one eye, and felt warm blood flow down over his chest to their sex organs still thrusting together…
Czioc yelled, and Pshappa woke with a sudden start.
'What what what is it?' Pshappa's voice was hoarse with lack of sleep. Everything swam blurrily in the grey dawn light. He saw Czioc lurch up off the floor, wide-eyed and shaking.
Czioc lay there panting with drops of sweat on his face. 'I … I…'
'What is it, you twat?' Pshappa liked to use swearwords in times of trouble to shake people out of shock. Most of the time it worked, too. Other people looked up groggily, frowning, cursing in croaky whispers.
'Dream,' Czioc said, looking around himself, dazed.
'Was, was having sex with some girl.' Czioc thought back, and saw sudden flashes of the girl in red. The one pointed out by the dead voice in his head, the day before. 'And, and she ate me.'
Pshappa chuckled. 'I had a girl eat me last night. Certainly wasn't a dream though!'
Czioc shook his head. 'She ate me alive.'
'Oh. Oh right. Not as good.'
They sat in silence for a few moments. Then the golems rounded them up and got them on the move again.
They trekked on through rivers and across fields, watched by the farmers and horses who groomed the land. Pshappa engaged them in conversation over the Ethe, even shouting greetings once or twice. Czioc ignored them, and found their silent figures eerie. He held himself in a numb little void as they travelled. He was still a little fuzzy from the collection of the dead woman, as he normally was after collections, and his skin felt raw all down his torso and thighs.
Something had happened during the night. He knew this because very few people were now hassling him about his poem. The public chitter chatter had been dropping a little anyway, but now … no-one was asking him, no-one was bugging him, nobody wanted to know. He was curious at first, almost disappointed.
Then he heard the whispering.
It wasn't anything particular, more like a distant swarm of locusts. They could both hear it from afar on the Ethe. Everyone could hear it. Forty, fifty thousand miles to the South … something dark was happening. Something big.
'Pshappa,' he whispered quietly online, as they waded through another river at waist height. He had a quick look around him. Travellers were certainly quieter than normal. 'What's going on?'
Pshappa didn't turn either, slowly moving his broad hairy legs through the cold waters. 'Don't know. Doesn't look good though, eh.'
The buzzing continued, far away. A new local buzz had started, those of people guardedly chatting on the Ethe about what it could be. There was always the usual gossip, the usual semi-conspiracies opinions of any gathered crowd. But there was something else too, underneath. A constant humming of unease.