'What the hell is it?'
'I have no idea. Why are you asking me?'
'Because I don't know, and you're the closest person.'
'Oh thanks. Not because you thought I might know?'
'Well, do you?'
'But you don't?'
'Absolutely no idea, my friend.'
'Just don't assume I don't know stuff. I know loads.'
'Hmm, if you say so.'
'Sure I do. I just don't know what the hell that thing is.'
The Migration had stopped.
Breaks were normal: the golems drove them hard, then let them rest and eat, before driving them hard again. These stops were spaced out almost mathematically, which felt strange in what looked like wilderness. Czioc took it as a reminder of just how long people had tramped along these trails. It seemed as though they'd spent the centuries working out exactly how far you could push a person before they died of exhaustion.
But here, atop a dry, alpine ridge, people had stopped. The golems didn't know what to do; individuals could usually be threatened and beaten into moving on, but now the whole Migration had stopped, and the trail was getting clogged up. Golems lurched around, mooing on the Ethe, swinging their clubs here and there – but they couldn't move the mass of gossiping, chattering people.
Out in the distance was a black blob. Nothing more could be said, because nothing more could be seen at this distance; it was black, and it was coming this way. People might not have given it a further thought. It looked less strange than a lot of things Czioc and Pshappa had seen. Far, far less for Pshappa.
But there was nothing on the fabric of the Ethe: no profile, no electronic tags, no authorisation. And yet in the physical world, there it was, a black blob clashing with both the blue-green fields and the slate-grey rocks. Pshappa and Czioc stared intently as others scratched their heads and created unlikely explanations.
It was definitely getting closer.
'Bit worrying, eh? There's nothing on the Ethe for it.'
'Mmmm. That's illegal isn't it?'
'Well yeah, although, what if it's not alive?'
'I mean what if it's like, just an object, and no-one really owns it, it's just a thing lying around.'
'Yeah mate, but it's moving.'
'Oh. Oh yeah. Hmm.'
'You'd think the golems would have dealt with it by now.'
They peered up at a golem towering over the crowds of chatting, pointing people. It noticed them looking up, and made a noise like:
Pshappa turned to Czioc and mumbled something about "useless meatheads", when the golem lazily swung its club and knocked Pshappa off his feet, tumbling into Czioc with a cry and taking several people to the ground with him. Czioc struggled on the rocky ground under Pshappa's weight and flailed his arms at the stench of his fur. Pshappa pushed himself up using three arms, making a combination of pained noises and swearwords.
'Garrrrrr it broke my arm!' Pshappa touched his limp small left arm and snarled up at the golem, which seemed to snort happily inside its helmet. 'That'll take days to heal!'
The golem swung again, another slow lazy arc with a flick of its mammoth wrist – but Pshappa was ready this time, and caught the end of the club with his three good hands, forcing it downwards and holding it there. The golem mooed in frustration, using increasing power to wrestle it from Pshappa, when…
'It sort of disappeared.'
'What the hell…?'
Czioc pulled Pshappa by the fur, pushing the club down from the distracted golem. The crowd began muttering and moving back to the trail. 'Mate, we better go.'
A quick scan across the landscape showed it had, indeed, gone. A brief look on the Ethe found nothing – but then, it hadn't before.
From the cliffs, they'd staggered along a ridge and now walked down a gentle slope, with beige-yellow plains flowing away off the right. Light filtered through the young green leaves of gnarly trees that lined the trail. Despite the remorseless trekking, the atmosphere was almost pleasant.
Of course, it wasn't really a "slope", and it didn't go "down": it became flat ground when you stepped onto it, and the world turned around you. Czioc tilted his head to the right, as he hauled one tired leg in front of the other, so that the landscape looked horizontal again. This made the trail look, indeed, like a slope falling away before him – but the trees now stood at an angle, pointing up to the left. He turned his head back, and everything was normal again, now with the background plains at an angle behind the trees instead.
It was one of these everyday things that no-one ever talked about. But there is fascination in the everyday. Czioc wondered if others found it curious too.
'So Czioc,' whispered Pshappa, leaning in as they walked together. 'This poem thing.'
'Oh for god's sake,' signed Czioc. They both made an effort of studying the trees nonchalantly, picking out the odd squirrel here and there scampering through the branches. 'I'm not talking to you about it. Not to you or anyone else.'
'Yeah I thought you'd say that. But I want to know.'
'How's your arm feeling?'
'Oi, stop ducking the issue.'
'No really, you alright?'
'Well actually it's doing okay, doesn't hurt too much now.'
'Now answer the bloody question.'
Czioc hadn't turned towards Pshappa the whole conversation, and kept looking ahead. 'Well what is the question?'
'Erm,' started Pshappa, rooting around on the Ethe for the poem he'd bookmarked. He skimmed over it again. 'I just wanted to know why you wrote it.'
'Because Noksalika was something special. And what we had was something special. What we had was something different.'
'Well maybe that's how you feel about meaningful relationships,' Czioc replied nastily.
'Whoah whoah whoah, where did that come from?' Pshappa said sharply. 'Life's short mate. Hmm okay, I guess, it's not short for some. Life's … unpredictable. I could die tomorrow. You could die tomorrow. Any particular girl I suddenly grow feelings for, she could die the next day.'
'Pshappa mate, there's a saying, "It's better to ha—"'
'Heard it mate, heard it. Big deal. I'm a realist. Maybe I'm a bit of a coward? I dunno. I don't want to face that kind of misery having just got something special. That's my choice. Look at you anyway, your ex-girlfriend's just died and you've fallen to pieces, writing gibberish.' He glanced back at the poem again. 'What is a "sky" anyway?'
'It was one of these words she had,' said Czioc, loosening a little. 'She was different back then. Not the cynical bitch everyone knows from all the Ethezines. It was like a, a metaphor.'
'Well, for what?'
'For, for something different. It meant a new way of looking at things, or feeling things, or something. I dunno, I can't quite remember.'
'So you don't know? Ha! You've got no idea. You're so full of shit sometimes.'
'Oh just shut up!' shouted Czioc, in full earshot of other travellers, who all tried to look disinterested while keeping their ears open. 'I'm so tired of arguing with you over stuff you really don't care about, or, or don't even want to understand.'
'Oh okay, here it comes,' said Pshappa as they both stopped walking and squared up to each other. 'Painting me as the useless, simple-minded drunkard again.'
'No, what I'm saying is you're always so quick to criticise things you don't understand. You're not simple-minded, you're narrow-minded.'
There was a low cracking sound off in the forest somewhere. A tree lurched.
'Me?! Me narrow-minded? Czioc mate, you're so far up your own arse it's unbelievable. Got your head in the clouds all day long, looking down on anyone who's not on "your" level!'
Others around them started slowing and looking nervously; no-one liked disturbances. A golem began lumbering over.
Through the trees a great bank of earth rose up, and an oak made a long low creeeeak. Squirrels and birds scattered through the treetops.
'Shut up mate, just shut up. You know what, I'm sick of arguing with you full stop—'
Pshappa threw his arms around dramatically, even his broken one. 'You're not though, are you! That's the thing, you've always got to have the last word. You're so weird! You're so hung up about everything!'
The ground erupted in a black shower like a swampy hurricane, pelting everyone with clumps of earth and dark slime. Pshappa clawed the stuff from his face and saw it looming before them, the black dot they'd seen in the distance: a vast monstrosity standing twenty feet or more tall. He gaped.
It was a mound of filth, a vast heap of mutated gunk, which merged with the ground and several trees it had pushed aside. Massive tentacles and limbs flailed from its base. A huge low groan filled the air, drilling straight through everyone's ears. And two vast eyes peered down from its peak, huge and unblinking.
People screamed, while Czioc settled for, 'What the fuck is that?!'
Tentacles and hinged limbs lashed out at people, tripping and grabbing, as the bulk crawled onto the trail. Sticky vents opened and closed across its body, some as large as Czioc himself. Pshappa grabbed Czioc's shoulder and stepped back. 'We sh—' he managed, before a blackened oily tree root whipped around his ankle and threw him to the ground, dragging him towards the thing.
Czioc panicked, his arms shaking uncontrollably. He saw two mantrels trying to pull back a young blonde girl being sucked into the heart of the abomination, and a screaming centaur with half his body swallowed up. The whole thing shifted, and inside it Czioc saw flashes of chains, of dirty rusty metal plates, and all the time those vast squid-like eyes staring down...
'Help!' called Pshappa, struggling and punching with all five good limbs. 'Czioc! Arrrgh god, help!'
Czioc ducked a snaking tentacle and ran towards a golem standing nearby. The golem stared at the monstrosity, the club hanging in its left hand.
Czioc pointed and yelled, 'Kill it!'
But it didn't "kill it". Czioc leapt back as another oily tentacle lashed out towards him. He caught a glimpse of the golem's tiny black eyes through the slits in its helmet, dumb and not understanding.
'Kill it you fucking idiot!' Czioc screamed through the Ethe, and in real air too. Some sort of hooked arm swung through the air, forcing him to duck.
It's not on the Ethe, he thought, rolling over and staggering upright again. That's why the stupid thing doesn't understand. It can see it but it can't find it on the Ethe. Czioc could see the gap in the Ethe, but all the golem could see was the maelstrom of chaos surrounding it, the screams and yells and – he shuddered – the pain of burnt flesh.
Then suddenly, horribly, predictably, an incoming connection.
'Czioc, thanks for dropping by, lovely to see you again old chap,' warbled Colonel Trimasth over the Ethe.
'Oh for fuck's sake!' Czioc yelled, trying to hide behind the giant golem. 'I did not drop by one of your bloody meetings!'
The beast was taller than the golem and much wider, and slapped the golem hard with two powerful tentacles; the ground shook as it staggered sideways. The Colonel, meanwhile, was speechless for a second. 'What the – how dare you? Where's your manners boy?'
'I dare sir because sir there's this massive alien blob sir and because this golem can't see it's there sir!'
Czioc dashed away from the blob to the other side of the trail, while the golem slammed its club blindly into the ground, shaking its head and mooing angrily. Czioc tried to shut his ears from the shrieks of horror behind him, and tried not to listen on the Ethe as the little blonde girl and the centaur were swallowed whole. Across the Ethe you could feel other people's pain if you wanted. He didn't want to.
A stick in the leaf litter presented itself. There was nothing else. He swept it up off the ground, frowned and threw some electronic instructions at it: the end shattered and bark scattered, leaving a sharp point. He ran back towards Pshappa.
Already the last onlookers were fleeing, further up the trail and back down. The Migration spilled into the forest on either side.
The monstrosity hauled itself towards the golem, which stamped and swung its club randomly in frustration. The club finally came crashing down on a chunk of twisted black flesh, bringing from the beast a deep, dark roar which made Czioc want to vomit. But the club stuck, and was sucked out of the mighty golem's hand as sticky limbs grabbed at its armour…
Pshappa was barely a yard from the monster, crying and exhausted. He looked up from struggling against the black tentacles with eyes of desperation. Czioc stabbed the rubbery flesh repeatedly, carefully, next to where it held Pshappa. Tiny mouths opened and hissed, but the stabbing worked – briefly, the tentacle's grip loosened and Pshappa scrabbled away, panting and staring.
The beast's limbs lashed at the air around Czioc, but he deflected and stabbed repeatedly with the sharpened stick. Black ooze splattered onto the trail's dirt.
Czioc tried to ignore the visible remains of people swallowed up under the skin, as the thing dragged its bulk closer towards him. He drove the stick inches into the flesh and another roar arose. He stabbed again, deeper, which made a satisfying hissing noise and brought another roar upon which Czioc really was sick, physically spraying his stomach contents over the ground.
Doubled up with his hands over his ears, something knocked him off balance, but the thing pulled away and shrank into itself. Its bulk of filth and the gunk deflated into the ground, followed by the trailing tentacles and those huge eyes atop its crown.
And all was still.
Everything was silent, except for the mooing of the maimed golem. It rolled around in the black-stained horror scene, thick crimson blood flowing from the dissolved stumps of its tree-trunk legs.
Czioc dragged Pshappa upright, threw himself under the bear's good main arm, and they limped away down the trail.
The rest of the trek continued without trouble. Order was strictly maintained by the golems and the clipped, cold instructions of the Committees.
But fear couldn't be so easily controlled. Seven had been killed, a golem destroyed, twenty injured, and millions terrified; the Ethe was a mess, a huge mess of gossip, rumour and panic.
They reached Thianwitz, a medium-sized town with dusty grey cobbles above and below the surface. Czioc was, as Colonel Trimasth had predicted, summoned to a secure facility, which again meant faceless walls and dull furniture. Czioc knew he was meeting high people, tough people, which was good, because he wanted answers. He drummed his fingers on the desk, watched by two chunky golems again, while three minds made connections across the Ethe.
'Thank you for coming,' a dry, dark voice said. 'I am Chief-Lieutenant Naadlamos, Vice-Chair of the Committee for Security and Spiritual Defence. Also present are Sub-Colonel-Elect Ghuhazia and Principal Adviser Ing'lunam, both from the Economic Security and Infrastructure Panel.'
Czioc nodded mentally but didn't say anything. He carried on drumming his fingers on the desk.
'We wish to discuss matters relating to Ms. Noksalika Chuunim.'
'I don't.' Tap, tap, tap went his fingertips on the desk.
'We understand—' started the Chief-Lieutenant.
'What was that thing?' Clearly, he did actually want to talk about Noksalika Chuunim. But he also wanted to know about the monster that had nearly eaten him and his friend. Noksalika would probably stay dead, or otherwise, for now.
'We do not wish to discuss matters relating to what you saw two days ago.'
'Well I do. What was it? You must have some idea.'
Instead of arguing, they simply ignored him. 'As our junior colleague Colonel Trimasth has informed you,' began Sub-Colonel-Elect Ghuhazia, 'we believe Noksalika Chuunim may still be alive. Inconsistencies in her Ethe programming suggest her death may be unverified.'
'I'm afraid we can't go into any details.'
'Oh, funny that.' He exhaled cynically, opening a drawer in the desk. It was full of white stationery, creepily blank.
'We would like you to find her.'
Czioc stopped, and looked carefully up from the drawer. The golems stared back at him through their helmets. 'What?'
'If Noksalika Chuunim has indeed faked her own death and removed herself from the Ethe, this is a crime against society.'
'But, but,' Czioc floundered, losing the thread. 'That's not possible, is it? It's not possible. You can't just remove yourself from the Ethe.' He paused. 'You want me to find her?'
'Contrary to popular belief,' drawled Naadlamos, 'it is extremely difficult but certainly possible to remove one's self from the Ethe. With the right contacts. We are following all possible lines of enquiry regarding corruption and treason in some of the senior Ethe engineers. But, right here and right now, we are interested in the criminal herself.'
Czioc shifted in the chair. 'What if she's actually dead?'
The figures all shrugged, and waited for each other to say something. 'If she truly is dead, then there is little to worry about. But you, Czioc, are off the Migration.'
Czioc's lips moved silently for a few seconds. 'Off … Migration?'
'Yes, off the Migration.' The voice was brisk. 'This task will not be a walk in the park. Noksalika Chuunim's last recorded location is several thousand miles away. We are not asking you nicely, but we are not press-ganging you either – you know how important it is for the balance of the Ethe that these things are done in agreement.'
Czioc nodded, finding it hard to concentrate on the words. He snapped back.
'Why me?' He stared at them in his mind, these dusty old officials. 'You must have agents better than me, god, nearer than me to find her?'
'Tracking down Noksalika Chuunim will take more than golems with clubs, Czioc. It will also take more than our best agents. We require somebody with personal knowledge of her, intimate details of her psyche and her life that can give a clearer picture than any of our people could. And believe it or not, you were the longest boyfriend she ever had.'
Czioc sat stunned, trying to take everything in. Meanwhile a tiny part of the back of his brain thought: Ha! In your face Pshappa!
'You have twenty-four hours before you start. We expect you'll probably get extremely drunk during this time. Tomorrow, once sober, you will be given orders and full instructions. You are off the Migration with immediate effect.'
Czioc's head swam, giddy with thoughts, before he remembered the ordeal on the trail two days before. 'But what about—'
'One last thing, Czioc,' said Principal Adviser Ing'lunam, ignoring him as the other officials disengaged. 'As you have found recently, this mission will be dangerous. There are … dark forces amassing in the distance. You will need protection. Take this, and find the best Ethe craftsman before you leave town.'
He was left with glittering code in his mind, with countless Committee seals and authorisations attached – along with a considerable amount of money.
Czioc could see the shape of the code, but could barely believe it.
It was a sword.