Noksalika was learning more about Tarabonitz.
Tarabonitz had been healthy, lovable, jealous, sexy, bitchy, childish, demure, outrageous, nostalgic, and modern. She'd been reserved in many ways, but her hopes and dreams had been as strong as anyone else's. She'd had worries, if not actual fears. She'd had talents, and a range of subtle jokes that even Noksalika found rather funny. People had respected and admired her.
And she wasn't a patch on Noksalika in any of these things.
Noksalika had thought her difficulty would be learning Tarabonitz's character and keeping her alive.
But her main problem was not trying to fake being someone else. It was struggling to keep her own identity from this dull dead wannabe.
She sat by the evening campfire, cycling through the photos and videos of the monster she'd taken. They were frantic shots, the colour and sound distorted. She stuck on the last one, a dark hazy image of the demon's head crawling towards them on multi-jointed crab legs. Hanaman saw the expression on her face, and saw her looking through the Ethe.
'I'm still surprised you had enough time to take some pictures,' he said. His voice was still bright and chirpy, even when laden with cynicism.
'And I still can't believe you didn't take any. We're not cavemen, you just look at stuff and hit "record".'
Photographs and videos were recorded through people's eyes. You simply used your mind to click "on" and "off" to record the real world, exactly as you saw it through your own eyes and heard it through your own ears.
This meant the Ethe was virtually made of dirty videos.
Along with being a profound concert pianist and the most famous porn star from East to West, North to South, and Tak to Zha, Noksalika had become something of an amateur photographer. She'd had enough snaps taken of her for an interest to rub off, whether attending premières with some new lover, leaving hotels drunk or outrageously sober, promoting some new film, even just chewing gum (there were bizarre fetish groups on the Ethe for anything). And that wasn't even counting all the photoshoots and videos. There was something curious, something secretive, about creating footage of other people. It felt dirty, but also held a hidden power.
The fear of the demon had faded behind them as they'd travelled. Somehow, there was no discussion of it on the Ethe – all mentions, photos and videos had mysteriously disappeared. The Committees were apparently as good at supernatural coverups as they were at supressing rebels.
Neither of them asked questions. They seemed as keen as each other to avoid attention.
Noksalika and Hanaman travelled onwards, neither rushing nor slowing. They didn't ask where they were heading, merely trading suggestions like 'We should go that way' or 'I think this way's better'.
Both were suspicious of the other. Neither wanted to give themselves up.
Nobody really forgets anything, because there's no need to remember it. The Ethe does it for you.
Noksalika tried to cope with reverse amnesia.
The Ethe stores anything you've ever seen and wanted to keep; even the bad memories stay there, my dad said, 'cos the Committees don't let you erase anything that easily. Everything's recorded, so storing memories in your mind is pointless, like some hobby for mental athletes. Ha, "mental". But I guess there's all sorts of people out there.
They trekked down a huge avenue, a highway really, under magnificent giant stone arches inscribed with ancient runes. Other walkers and the occasional rider passed them in both directions, with dirty roadside cafés cheapening what was clearly supposed to be a historic monument.
Intrigued, she looked up on the Ethe what the arches were there to celebrate. It was some disappointingly dull trade agreement between two cities, long long ago.
And now all my memories have been taken away. Every time I look up my past, I see different events, photos of people I never met, videos of me with a different face. People calling out a name I still don't quite recognise.
Now, I have to remember things myself.
She eyed passers-by and occasionally glanced behind her. The decapitated demon still played on her mind.
At first she'd looked on the Ethe, scouring the cyberlandscape between her and the town behind them. But she kept having to remind herself that it wasn't on the Ethe – she was looking for a gap, a space, a physical thing with no spiritual equivalent.
At least we're heading towards South Maurisetza, she thought to herself. Whatever Hanaman was up to, they were heading in the right direction. Piarowef had instructed her to rendezvous at the city, and she was actually quite looking forward to it. The great cities of North and South Maurisetza overlooked opposite sides of a great beautiful bay, and she hadn't seen the sea in years.
Maybe Piarowef had arranged a boat, to go down along the coast. Maybe even to a ship, maybe even out to the Channelsea itself. It had been a very long time since she'd seen the Channelsea.
Her brain wouldn't work!
She cursed the neurones in her head, entire biological subsystems that were too lazy to work, too lazy because they'd never been exercised in the first place. What had she done on her sixteenth birthday? How many sexual partners had she had? (Well, okay, to the nearest dozen?) The Ethe recorded everything, the damn Ethe could do it. But she'd actually been there! She'd seen these things, met these people. The memories hung in the lower reaches of her brain, isolated, groups of colour pixels and sound recordings hiding in different brain lobes.
'Stop for lunch?'
She turned and looked down at Hanaman. He'd been suspiciously quiet recently. Just like he'd been suspiciously chatty before. Did she like mantrels generally? She hardly knew any more. It was as if she'd lost part of herself. She nodded slowly.
'Great, my feet have been dying for a rest. Look at the state of my hooves, they'll need a good seeing to at the next town…'
They stopped under one of the great white stone arches. Forests surrounded the road on both sides, with trees showing bright young leaves across their branches. They'd taken supplies from the last town, and had agreed to eat packed lunches rather than stop at any cafes or eateries if possible. Hanaman lay down instantly and stretched himself on the grass, making a satisfied groan very loudly.
'It is so important to have a good stretch, isn't it?' he said, as if to justify his noise. His curved horns propped his head off the ground, just less than an inch.
'Mmm,' she agreed, leaning back on her hands.
'Very important to look after one's body properly.' He turned his head away from her.
'Agreed. The Ethe looks after us as best it can, but it cannot be a crutch for our laziness.' Fucking profound statements. I'm hungry. I want my lunch.
Something moved under her hand. Horrified, she nearly gasped and looked down to see the soil writhing like it was crawling with worms. But they made shapes. Letter-like shapes.
She gritted her teeth. Suddenly the grassy, earthy letters shifted and changed, pieces of soil rising and flattening like some cheap animation.
You okay? Write here.
A panel flattened itself out in the earth under the letters, the grass disappearing into the ground. She looked the other way to see Hanaman still turned away, subtly shifting herself to hide the words, before pointing a finger and clenching her fist like a child. She traced letters gently on the soil.
She'd only written a few letters before the words shifted again.
Yes its me.
She noticed the apostrophe was missing from "it's".
She hesitated, then softly prodded the ground to add a full stop.
Going South Maurisetza?
Mantrel spy. Will kill at SM.
She looked at Hanaman's calm body, eyes shut, shirt open, furry ribcage exposed.
The old words remained for a few seconds, "kill" staring up at her. Then they became just one word.
Aliens. Barbarians in South.
'What have we got food-wise?' said Hanaman suddenly, gently turning his head back to face upwards. His eyes stayed shut.
'Errrrr,' said Noksalika, eyes flitting from the mantrel to the grassy letters. She shoved her other hand inside her bag, rummaging around. 'I think we made cheese and crayfish sandwiches, right? You said you liked the crayfish at that last place.' She looked back over her shoulder to the ground, which said:
Not much time.
A-L-L-A-L-I-E-N-S-S-A-M-E? she painstakingly wrote out.
'We saved some of that stuff? Great, throw one over.'
Probably. Many dead. Little time.
For all. You ok. Get to SM.
The letters faded and didn't come back. A real worm, drawn by the vibrations, squeezed its pulsing body up through the surface. She wiped her finger on her sleeve and pulled out food for herself, as Hanaman sat up to eat his. They munched on sandwiches that really were quite nice.
Then something moved in the stone arch.
At least we're heading towards South Maurisetza, reflected Hanaman. Whatever she was up to, they were going the right way.
He checked up on things with some of the clan elders. "Elders" were just other senior mantrels on the Committees – it was a cultural thing, a label more than anything else. Hanaman wasn't sure if the mantrel class system was a genuinely historic custom, going back to before the Committees, or if it had been invented as some sort of "retro" fashion. Then again, he supposed, all customs and traditions were artificial once.
'Freegeneral, how goes it?' greeted a familiar voice over the Ethe. It was female, calm and mature. The connection was secure. 'How is the quarry?'
A sandwich landed squarely on his bare chest and bounced off onto the grass; he reached out with a hand and took it. 'Goes well, Elder Svokia, thank you.' He lazed on the ground, dozily eyeing the few travellers on the wide road. 'The quarry is well. Very shapely, in fact.'
'You mean in good shape?'
He turned his head to see Noksalika eating a sandwich with one hand, and scraping dirt from between her toes with the other. He took some photos with his eyes, focusing in on her breasts, and showed them to Elder Svokia.
'Good grief Freegeneral. I didn't think you were the interracial type.'
'I'm not usually, but she is such a magnetic creature. Even more so in real life than on the Ethe.' He frowned as she yawned absently, still with a mouthful of food. 'Well, most of the time.'
'Well whatever happens, don't let it delay you to South Maurisetza. Troops are ready and waiting. Please accept comms details for the combat unit.'
He sat up and took a bite from the sandwich. 'How do things fare at home?'
'Badly. The Cultural Harmonisation Committee has withdrawn funding, and there is talk of re-routing the Migration away from our lands.'
'What? On whose authority?' Hanaman visibly bristled, bushy eyebrows frowning. 'They would need to justify that with dozens of Committees. Not to mention the Infrastructure Projects and Tasks Commission.'
'Wheels are in motion, Freegeneral,' came the sad reply. 'The Federated Mantrel Substate grows increasingly unpopular.'
'Huh, you'd think they knew we wer—'
'Fuck fuck fuck it's back!' shrieked Noksalika, jumping up and pointing at the stone arch behind him. Hanaman just had time to look over his shoulder and pull his knife out of his shirt to see a tall shape emerging from the stone, with a familiar tentacle snaking quickly towards him. He twisted and swung his arm in a slash, and his jaw dropped when the knife bounced off the tentacle and clanged out of his hand, vibrations flooding his arm bones. He snatched it up in a ducking roll, while Noksalika frantically put her shoes back on, and the tall man-thing became dark against the white stone. Hanaman stood, eyes flicking back and forth watching the tentacle, before lashing out with a slice – and again the knife bounced off, still in his hand this time, as a couple of sparks flew off.
'What the hell—' began Noksalika, picking up her bag and backing away to the road. The demon's dark eyes opened, wider than they should have, loose pools of white with swirling black patches in the centre. An old couple on the highway stared in horror, then turned and fled.
'It's part of the stone!' snarled Hanaman. 'It's still mixed up with the stone!' He picked up his satchel with his free hand and backed away as well.
'How did it find us?' she yelled. 'It's not on the Ethe!'
'Smell? Fuck, I don't know!' They stumbled onto the road as the mutated humanoid broke free of the stone, looking at them. Its left arm, the non-tentacle, was swollen with heavy claw-like fingers. Its jaw hung open, as though it had no bones.
'Look, it's away from the stone now. Try again.' She looked at him sideways, breathing hurriedly, calculating.
'Ha, if you're so confide—'
She made a failed grab at the knife in his hand and shoved him hard in the back, making him stumble and fall on his side mere feet from the monster. She turned and ran for her life up the highway. Hanaman launched himself back from the beast, lashing out with the blade left right and centre, finally lopping chunks off the now-rubbery tentacle.
'You bitch! I will fucking kill you!'
He gave chase up the highway shouting obscene threats, while the creature groaned and slowly strode in the same direction. Its amputated pieces sprouted tiny legs and mouths and chased each other like blind, chirping insects.
The knife pressed against her throat.
'What do you want?'
'Freedom,' she gurgled. 'What do you want?'
'I'm the one with the knife.'
'Fine, be like that.'
Two days of nervous walking and frantic running took them to the suburbs of South Maurisetza. There'd been no further sign of the beast-thing since they'd left it on that highway, alone under those white arches.
Once again, panic and gossip had been eliminated from the Ethe. But after this second incident, even in the middle of nowhere, whispers and rumours were harder to wipe out. Noksalika even found one or two individuals asking her, Tarabonitz, what she'd seen. She ignored them.
Hanaman was obviously far fitter than she was and had caught up after five minutes or so, finding her lying in the road making throaty rasping noises; he'd virtually dragged her onwards for another twenty minutes or more before pinning her down with his tiny arms and threatening her with the knife. Clearly he hadn't been that impressed with her betrayal, but he hadn't actually killed her yet, which was promising.
He hadn't killed her, when it would have been easy. He was plainly following her, but why? Hopefully Piarowef would be able to get rid of him in South Maurisetza, down some tiny alley or deserted little corner.
They were sleeping rough again, under a tree in a large park. Open spaces – harder to get trapped. It wasn't pleasant. He lay nearby, half-asleep with one hand on the knife handle inside his shirt. Despite exhaustion she could barely sleep, head full of giddy thoughts.
She tried remembering again, forcing the images of Tarabonitz away so her brain could breathe.
Without the Ethe, Noksalika's parents had become exaggerated in her mind. Her father was a direct force of nature, full of rights and wrongs and self-belief and respectable clothing; her mother had faded into what she'd always been, an insipid bundle of nerves always wittering on about the arts. Noksalika had shown her what the arts were.
She gratefully remembered what she'd always classed as her first pornographic incident. Her parents had muttered things about her being cheeky as a toddler, but that first golden moment lay in her first week at school: she'd bullied some nervous boy to take pictures of her exposing her bum, then made him pay her for it. The mental images were hazy but that sense of relish, of excitement, of innocent satisfaction, was as sharp as ever – it was the same feeling that had driven her on through her sordid, glorious career.
She remembered her mother dragging her along to concert halls as an older, pre-pubescent child. There were sleepy recitals at first, booooooring … then one electrifying night, with pounding drums and sweeping strings and crazy musical diversions between big, mighty choruses. And all the time, at the centre of it all, a small white-haired man with a wicked smile behind a mighty blue piano. Or was it green? He had been the power of that night, that little old man, he had been the one in control.
She sighed softly as the cool dusk air made her skin pimply.
The pornography and the music all seemed to merge together after that. Flashes of music video shoots made to look like orgies merged with porn video shoots which really had been orgies … the hot feeling of taking on three, four, even five men at once, often forgetting she was being filmed and just getting lost in the moment.
She'd tried using both professions to slip into the world of the Committees, enticing men from military and trade backgrounds, and only ending up getting the unfortunate wretches demoted in the process. Her father had said they'd never let her into a position of authority with such a tarnished reputation. She'd argued the Committees should be damn grateful for some of her popular reputation. The sting of her mother's ringing slap came slicing through the confused memories, and the dank, alien feeling of shame that came with it.
God, she'd been hot in those porn films. She'd been good at what she did. And now she had to pay to watch herself on video.
Noksalika stretched, sitting against the tree.
She tried to think back to when she'd been happy.
It was hard. At least with the Ethe, she could have browsed through her own photos, videos, notes, memories … now she had to look at other people's pictures of her, at bits of magazine footage scattered across cyberspace. She found photos of her smiling and laughing, mostly at parties – was she happy in this one? What about this one? It was no good, it was just a guess. Every now and again some picture or video would spark a memory, but it was futile. It was all someone else's life.
Then she saw a photo of her with someone she remembered. A guy called Czioc. They were by a riverbank somewhere, under a tree; he had his arms around her, and they were both smiling quite honestly. Well, as honestly as she'd ever smiled. It must have been a long time ago – she was pouting blue lipstick with pride, as if it was something new, rather than yet another horrific stereotype she'd been lumbered with her whole career.
All these memories were fuzzy but in the middle of it was this warm glow where she remembered this man called Czioc. They'd shared – how long? Weeks? Years? They'd shared time. Time is strange in memory, she thought, it shifts and stretches and changes. Details came flying back at her like pieces of grit in the wind: the smell of his neck, the Autumn days running through carpets of dead leaves, the way he tickled her on the Ethe as they had sex.
The way he'd tried to know who she was, when no-one could ever truly know her. The way he'd been the one person she'd never fully understood. Mmmm.
She lay back into the ground and reached out across the Ethe, far, far, searching, and found he was still there. It shouldn't have been surprising, but after so many years, she was amazed to see him still there, hundreds, thousands of miles away. He was a familiar tiny rock on the landscape of the Ethe – stubborn, hard, unchanging. She shook her head slightly and smiled. Men never change.
She came close and was about to make contact, when she caught herself. With an awful dull ache in her heart, she remembered he would not know her. Not as this girl, not as Tarabonitz.
She exhaled, and decided it didn't matter.
His attention turned suddenly, unfamiliar. She remembered that defensive flinch, sizing her up immediately through the Ethe. 'Hi, how's it going? Who are you?'
She was astounded to feel herself blush, from her chest up across her neck to her face. 'I've heard of you. You're, umm,' she fumbled for an excuse, 'you're that guy who dated Noksalika Chuunim, right?'
He shrugged. 'One of many. It was a long time ago. What's your name?' She could feel him looking at her profile – at Tara's profile, at Tara's pictures, pawing at her through Tara's details and past like a second skin.
'Tarabonitz. You're Czioc, aren't you?'
'Nice name. And yes, that's me. Ha, I feel like some kind of second-hand celebrity.'
She gave a girly giggle, forced but not uncomfortable. 'Well if it means anything, I followed you more. I always liked the way you looked. And still do,' she said, laying the charm on thick and obvious.
Where was she going with this? This was some kind of theatre, surely. She felt like a character in an old-fashioned comedy farce.
'Hmm. Thanks,' he replied, warily. 'You know, you're not that bad yourself. Nice hair. Great arse.'
'And they say romance is dead.'
'Didn't you hear? They sold it for bigger breasts. There was a vote one day, everyone just decided good breasts were better than romance.'
'Oh really?' She frowned at him through the Ethe, smiling broadly. She was in a strange place, with an itchy moistness growing between her legs, and warm, hazy, homely memories running through her mind. In the real world, leaning against the tree, she settled her lower back into the ground. Hanaman was fast asleep, or looked it at least. Maybe he never slept.
They talked more; Czioc was on Migration of course, which she knew anyway. She lied, saying she was into crafts and fashion – the lie came out naturally, which disturbed her, but she could worry about that later. She flicked through recent photographs of him, tracing new lines on his older face. They suited him, although none of the smiles in these pictures seemed quite as genuine.
They joked and laughed, and she sunk further into the ground, rubbing herself. She smiled as they fed each other dirty pictures, and as the wonderful warm feeling flooded through her body. They talked more and she drifted off, allowing herself to curl up on the floor, falling asleep somewhere else in a different time.