South Maurisetza was built on two sides of a thin shell of rock, barely ten miles thick. On one side, a large cavern with the city's arts, cultural and bureaucratic quarters; on the other, its harbour. And the sea.
They sat in an outdoor restaurant on a broad city avenue, mulling the situation. The surface of the city rolled away with the cavern, above and behind them. In the distance Noksalika fancied she could see the highway with its mighty stone arches, now just tiny white croquet hoops.
Even in an age when most things seemed ageless and faceless, South Maurisetza's architecture breathed heritage. Carved stone from a hundred centuries had been piled on top of itself to make homes and workshops, public kitchens and sacred gardens, elite offices and meditation lounges. Shocking red ivy grew in ancient carved graffiti, which was itself millennia old. Where old spaces had become difficult or redundant, engineers had welded the slabs of stone into new, more useful shapes; the foot-high signatures and logos of long-dead clans littered the streets and tunnels at crazy angles. The Ethe pulsed through the very rock.
Hanaman eyed her carefully, drumming his fingers on the table. His usual light manner had dried up, presumably from tiredness and ill feeling. She wondered if this was what marriage felt like.
'So. You're going to sea.' He looked straight at her, and grinned humourlessly, baring his large, square yellow teeth.
'I never said that.' She tried appearing dismissive, aloof.
'You've been making a well-disguised beeline for the coast for the last three weeks. Where are you going?'
She looked back into his tough glare. 'Any boat that takes my fancy. I don't care.'
'Really. The one with the prettiest colours. Fuck it, anywhere.'
There was a moment's silence as they sized each other up in sight, smell and on the Ethe too.
'Well, we'll see about that.'
Suddenly the seat of her chair changed shape under her buttocks, little ridges – maybe letters? – but she couldn't tell what they said.
'Miss Suhanrohan?' Two golems appeared out of nowhere and loomed behind her. The voice on the Ethe was a local official. 'We need to ask some questions about recent events. Will you step this way?'
Without missing a beat, the golems hoisted her up by her arms and carried her down the street, before she had a chance to look down at the chair. Hanaman smiled to himself, following behind.
The questioning had made her skin crawl, her skin, Noksalika's, not the skin of this stupid puppet Tarabonitz Suhanrohanrohanrohan.
But she'd never lost her nerve as an actress, and with no-one physically in the room with her it had been especially easy. She'd showed them all the pictures and videos she'd saved on the Ethe of the beast-thing. Her manner was innocent, confused, scared. She was grateful for their protection.
On the way out, she'd asked the receptionist if there were any secret exits to the secure facility.
'Well, obviously,' replied the young girl over the desk, as if talking to an infant, 'but they're not to be used by the public. Otherwise they wouldn't be secret, would they?'
'Oh right, okay, thanks anyway stupid bitch,' she muttered as she left the building.
Noksalika rushed out of the front gate and found Hanaman leaning casually by the wall. He causally stroked the handle of his knife through the front of his shirt. 'Going anywhere?'
She made a small growl, spinning round on the spot and stamping in frustration. She looked at the ground, the trees, the blank walls of the building. No signs. No options. 'I think I would like,' she declared loudly, 'to go to the docks.'
Hanaman nodded. 'Let's.'
They set off at a brisk walk through the city.
The Bay of Maurisetza didn't disappoint, in real life or online.
Emerging into natural daylight, Noksalika pulled the curved handrail to turn ninety degrees over the edge of the dim passage, planting her feet squarely on the ground.
She stood in a huge hemisphere, thirty miles across, stretching off to the left into the distance. It was coated in fields and forests and new vegetation like some fragrant green carpet, and thick rivers gushed in blue and white. Far, far ahead, she could see the dark grey blot of North Maurisetza, the sister city on the other side of the bay.
And away to her right, the sea stretched from floor to ceiling, a vast vertical surface of choppy purple water.
On this side of the bay, the harbour bordered the sea in a mighty straight line of well-crafted stone and wood. Thousands of people milled about on clean white stone, chattering about in the shops and restaurants, with excited travellers and new arrivals going both ways through security and customs.
She could just see the jetties disappearing into the surface of the sea, and the bizarre variety of ships that seemed to hover, bobbing in and out on the waterline, in and out of the vertical skin of the water. The jetties were long to cope with the tide. Even here at this distance, she could see the tiny figures of people disembarking and breaking the surface, coughing up liquid and learning to breathe with their lungs again.
'Shall we?' Hanaman asked, extending an arm towards the departure lounge in the open air complex.
She mumbled an agreement.
'You okay? You look a bit nervous.'
'Always looking around. Like you've lost something.'
'Oh, no, just, well…' She murmured something non-committal. People milled around, coming from many tunnels and passing the two of them in a rush to reach the queues. Security golems stood around bullishly, swinging their arms. Where the hell is Piarowef's agent? They joined one of the queues to the many kiosks.
'I suggest that you buy a ticket for Thanodolina,' said Hanaman looking up at her, hand inside his shirt.
She glared back. 'Mantrel heartland. What a surprise. What do you want from me? Are you,' she gave a little laugh, 'are you kidnapping me?'
'Don't be stupid. You're dead, remember? What value does a dead girl have?' The mantrel snorted, flaring his nostrils. 'We want your services. Voluntarily or otherwise.'
Just then an incoming signal flashed in the back of her head. She couldn't make out its identity – there didn't seem to be one.
'Indeed. This is a completely secure line, but we've got sixty seconds, no more, so listen carefully.' The queue moved forwards, mainly made up of couples and groups, laughing and chatting.
'Where am I going?' she asked. 'Where is this place?'
'Rhajallington. Get a ticket for Rhajallington.'
'Rhajallington. Got it.' She looked ahead, watching people checking themselves in through the security desk. 'Are you changing my palms? I need them switched for security.'
A negative answer. 'Not at all. Can't be done.'
'What?!' She forced the muscles in her face to stay neutral under Hanaman's stony look, as her throat hollowed in panic. 'You can switch Ethe nodes, you can make your little face appear in the wall, but you can't change someone's handprints?!'
'It's not that simple, you stupid girl.' Piarowef seethed through the red mist of her own mind. 'Ethe nodes are built on the Ethe, they're actually part of it. The skin on your own hands is yours. Do you have any idea how hard it is to change biological matter with any kind of precision?'
'The collectors on Migration—'
'The collectors on Migration take dead people inside themselves, that's it! And they've been doing it since for-ev-er!' He said "forever" as though speaking to a child. 'The natural force of the Ethe does the hard work. But changing someone's handprints? Keeping a biological map of every living cell? Would you want just any old clown messing around with your molecular DNA?'
'Nice to know you're just "any old clown".'
'Just shut the hell—'
And he was gone, the connection closed, sixty seconds gone and done. She drew mental energy together to call after him, then stopped herself. The connection was closed. Her communications weren't safe.
'Confident?' whispered Hanaman behind her, as the security official called her forward. She ignored him and stepped forward to the polished wooden barrier.
'Good afternoon, Miss Suhanrohan,' said the official with a smile. He was dressed in a smart, clean navy uniform in a specific modern style which dated it by several centuries. 'Where are you heading?'
She paused. 'Thanodolina,' she said after a moment. The back of her head glowed a gentle green as she paid the money.
'Palm upwards, please.' The official had a kind of plastic gaze; the smile stayed, but it was superficial. She held out her left hand on the desk, palm upwards. Her palm, Noksalika's palm. The one she'd been born with.
He ran his hand over it like some kind of magician, and his eyes misted over for a second. He checked her details on the Ethe.
Her teeth clenched, fingers tensing. Ready to fight or flee.
She was sure she could hear Hanaman chuckle behind her.
'Thank you Miss Suhanrohan,' the official smiled, still bland and professional, waving her through. 'Thanodolina is Pier Twenty-Seven. But I'm afraid the ship is leaving soon,' he looked at her meaningfully, 'so you'll have to hurry. Have a safe voyage.'
Then he buzzed a virtual ticket over the Ethe to her, which read Rhajallington: Pier #39.
Her eyes widened; Piarowef's man. This was her signal.
Her nerves jangled as she walked briskly into the broad shopping plaza amongst the buzzing people and noisy arcades. She didn't turn back to see Hanaman at the desk, and when she heard the words—
'I'm sorry sir, there's something wrong with your details…'
—she broke into a run.
Hanaman waited in the queue and glared at her, trying to be as menacing as you could be when you were fourteen inches shorter and considerably lighter than your quarry.
'Combat unit, state your position.' There was no answer.
Noksalika would no doubt have something arranged to get her through security – anyone who could fake their own death in this world would surely have no problems here.
He checked the contact details Elder Svokia had given him. 'Captain? Combat unit, state your position now.' Still no reply. In the near distance, the great wall of the sea reared above; up along the main concourse of the harbour, he could see mantrels loading goods and supplies onto various ships, but none looked like they belonged to a stealth combat unit.
That was probably the point, he reasoned.
Unsurprisingly, Noksalika passed through without problem. He stepped forward and threw his hand against the desk impatiently. 'Thanodolina please.' The back of his head and the base of his horns flashed the same dull green.
The security man smiled at him and waved his palm over Hanaman's, stared into the distance for a second, then frowned. 'I'm sorry sir, there's something wrong with your Ethe details.' A golem nearby groaned and loomed in his direction; he saw Noksalika start running through the crowds beyond.
'What?' he snarled. 'There's no problem.' He sent his official Ethe details and authority codes to the man behind the desk, including the permit for his knife.
'No sir, I can't find any entries for you on the system—'
'My name is Freegeneral Hanaman rLodo Gidan and I am on state business regarding that young woman,' he hissed, leaning in. The golem moved closer, raising its club. 'I can give you all the clearance you want.'
The official seemed uncertain for a second, pausing to look around and then back at the details in his mind. Then his cheap, professional smile broke out again. 'I'm so sorry sir, I'm not sure what happened there. Thanodolina is Pier Twenty-Seven. Have a safe voyage.'
Receiving the Ethe ticket, he threw himself ahead and pelted through the crowds, following the trail of slightly disturbed people Noksalika had left on her way to the gate.
'Combat unit! Target must be taken alive, repeat alive!'
The airwaves remained silent.
He reached the steps marked PIERS #20-40 and launched himself up them two at a time, hooves clop-clopping on the bare stone. For a moment the sea was invisible, and the sound diminished, until he reached the concourse—
The vertical sea whooshed above him, just fifty yards away, small waves frothing on the surface. All along the lengthy stone concourse, piers plunged forwards into the water with a variety of ships and boats docked, arriving or leaving. Some were great constructions of wood and even stone, while some were lightweight and slim. But all were based on the same oval shape, like eggs covered in fins, their rudders and sails floating in the waves.
Along the dry side of the concourse were open seating areas, various fast food stands, and Noksalika – still running and heading for Pier #39. He sprinted after her, and nearly caught up; she tipped over a plastic chair behind her, making him stumble forward, but an outflung arm caught one of her legs which made her crash to the ground. People were shouting now, but he was oblivious as he took out his knife and walked up to her.
'Rhajallington?' he snarled, pulling his arm back and smacking her in the head with his fist and the hilt of the knife. Her head bounced against the stone floor. 'Nice try. What's so special abou—'
The crossbow bolt thrummed into his shoulder and threw him back several paces. He cried out in pain and juddered to a halt on the floor; people along the concourse and jetties began to scream and run. Boat crews and passengers began packing up hurriedly, and golems lumbered towards the scene from both directions.
A hand put itself on her shoulder. Noksalika grimaced in pain as she raised her head and looked at a well-built man with short clipped hair holding a small crossbow. 'It's okay. I'm a soldier. Your contact said I was to make sure you made your journey.'
She looked around, dumbfounded and in shock, then gasped, 'Great.' The bulk of a golem towered behind him looking confused. The man turned and flashed his Ethe credentials at the beast, before pointing down at Hanaman. He helped her up and they walked quickly towards Pier #39.
Suddenly the ground began to change shape in front of them – a large crab's claw emerged from the stone, and a man's head…
'What the hell,' breathed the soldier.
A high-pitched whine came from Noksalika's throat, before she screamed, 'It's not fair!' The figure of a large man dressed in dark clothes melted upwards from the stone floor.
Hanaman lay on his back panting as blood pooled under his back from the wound. A golem loomed over him like a bulky black tower, wielding its club. But golems knew better than to lash out at employees of the state. Hanaman threw up his authorisation codes; the golem gave a low growl and mooed in confusion.
He rolled over and pushed himself up, gritting his teeth in pain as his left shoulder moved around the crossbow bolt. Giddy, gripping his knife, he staggered towards where Noksalika and the man both stood, then swore as the shape of the beast-thing emerged from the ground.
The soldier stepped back and hurriedly tried to restring the small crossbow. The thing's eyes seemed even looser now, several horrifying inches wide in a face that was now warped and distorted. Noksalika looked up the concourse – Pier #39 was only a couple of jetties away. She turned her head and cursed as she saw Hanaman behind them, and hurriedly stepped back as one of the thing's limbs lashed out towards her.
She bolted for the nearest pier, running in a kind of daze, her head throbbing and angry. Hanaman saw and pushed himself to chase her; the soldier turned to look at Noksalika as the drawstring snapped into place, then screamed as the beast's claw closed over his neck and chest, clenching and snapping his bones. He raised the crossbow and fired into its head, which the bolt ripped open to reveal no bone or skull, just thick veiny black flesh that sprayed gunk everywhere. A murky bubbling roar came from the hole, and a tentacle wrapped around one of his legs…
Noksalika stood in front of the surface of the sea, bits of spray splashing in her face. She hadn't been to sea in a long time, and it would be uncomfortable. But there was no other way round. She took several breaths, deeply in, then deeper out – and with one last full breath out, expelling all the air from her lungs, she stepped forwards into the water.
She opened her eyes, and saw the sea beckon ahead of her with boats coming in and departing. People floated and swam about the large boat moored to the jetty, giving her fearful and panicked looks. Her clothes waved gently about her with the water. She opened her mouth, and the sea coursed into her mouth and throat; she fought her gag reflex (easy for any half-decent porn actor), and it flooded her lungs. Large chaotic bubbles poured from her mouth. She felt her pores open automatically across her body, as she let the Ethe breathe for her.
She turned right and pushed herself slowly off the jetty, and started swimming for Pier #39. Back out on the concourse, she could just make out the beast devouring the Ethe soldier as golems stood idly by.
Hanaman entered the sea behind her, blood oozing from his shoulder in the water. With one arm out of action, he had little chance of catching her, but he could still make it onto the boat for Rhajallington. He swam ungainly, his left arm dragging behind him. He gripped the knife in his teeth.
Noksalika never made it to Pier #39. Hanaman watched as figures emerged from the boat tied on the next jetty and swam towards her – mantrels. They wore a variety of faded shirts and tunics, but all had the look of tough sea-farers. She tried to dodge them but found herself surrounded. They grabbed her thrashing limbs and pulled her away through the water, towards a small dark vessel floating a little way out.
'Hanaman!' she called through the Ethe. 'Hanaman, get your men off me—'
He saw one of them make several punches to her head, slowed by the water but strong enough. She went limp.
On the Ethe, he felt a body move behind him in the water.
'Combat unit?' he called to them, kicking his tired legs. 'Combat unit?'
A searing pain tore through his body, centred in his back. He felt weak and watched a mantrel swim gracefully overhead, holding a jagged knife in one hand which leaked a trail of more blood before him. It swirled all around him now, thick and crimson. His vision started fading; the last thing he saw was Noksalika's body being dragged aboard the craft.