They'd given him a horse too. Of course they had.
There was a government agricultural unit away from the surface of the town; Czioc dragged his hungover body to a government office with the usual bare grey walls and rather sad-looking potted plants. Typically, he was re-directed five times between people who didn't know what the correct procedure was. Then he signed several forms on the Ethe and was vaguely shoved in the direction of the stables: a completely spherical grassy space with bales of hay and a herd of healthy, alert horses. He identified his allocated steed – a short, mottled red-brown animal – and spent half an hour chasing it round and round and round before collapsing from post-drunken exhaustion. The creature then trotted up and started licking the back of his neck.
'At least it can't talk,' he mumbled to himself.
I heard that.
He felt naked. Or, even worse, trussed up in some kind of costume, sent to parade the wilderness all by himself. Open landscapes passed him by, trees waved, new young animals shivered in the fresh Spring air … and he was all alone.
The Ethe chattered away in the background, but it wasn't the same, not without the mindless sound of physical people around him babbling about sport, drinking, their latest sexual adventures, how hard the Migration was, and just a million other things. He was neither in the city nor on the trails between them. And you couldn't live just on the Ethe.
He thought about keeping a diary, some kind of Ethe-log about his experiences on this mission to track down his long-lost ex-girlfriend who may or may not be dead. He composed a few first lines in his head, then re-composed them, then realised the whole idea of keeping a log made himself look like a self-important idiot. And then he remembered the whole operation was top secret anyway.
The horse seemed perfectly friendly. It was a mare; he'd called her Zero, after the circular blue stamp on her rump that marked her as Committee property. He liked to think they'd started to bond well. Then again, when practicing badly swinging his new sword in some open field in the middle of nowhere, he'd sworn he could hear a sniggering sound somewhere nearby.
Hey, don't look at me.
The sword was a work of mastery; he'd left a post on Desci Rhombus' Ethe profile full of praise and recommendation for others to see, without mentioning what the job was for. The sword seemed a little heavy at first, but Czioc knew full well his arms simply weren't used to it – the weighting was good, the blade was straight and sharp, and even the thorniest of bushes he'd practiced on hadn't managed to scratch it yet.
Equally, Zero seemed to be a small force of nature. He'd ridden a horse several times, but it had been years ago, casual trips with casual girlfriends on casual ponies. Zero was small but perfectly built and absolutely tireless; he tried galloping several times through open savannah and bare highways, and it seemed to leave him more exhausted than her. This horse was highly trained, and yet held a strong dignity that Czioc had only heard of in wild horses before.
Girlfriends. Noksalika. Hmm.
He rode through villages, towns, farms, even a few small cities. He sometimes made little detours to visit them, and tried to hang around longer than he needed to, desperate for company and the buzz of people. But he discovered urban living wasn't the same as life on Migration; he craved company, but he couldn't sit still. After two or three days at each place, he'd get itchy, and push on again.
He was destined for Jzilinasa. If Noksalika was alive, eight thousand miles was a lot of ground to catch up.
Czioc looked up the codes they'd given him. Her public profile had been archived on the Ethe, but he had the key to her personal details, the inside view. He logged in carefully, as though actually touching her body after death.
Her Ethe profile was bold and strong, much like Noksalika herself. Her details were up front about her fame, even taking sideswipe jokes at the reader ("You've probably heard of me, for all the wrong reasons…"), jokes that made some people laugh and rubbed everyone else up the wrong way ("…and if not, why not? What took you so bloody long?"). She'd been like that. After a certain level, fame was something you couldn't throw away quickly enough, when each controversy brought it back twice as fast.
Underneath, well – the photos, videos, reviews and musical masterpieces went on and on, not to mention her correspondence and conversations, both private and public. This was his project while he travelled: to trawl the hundreds of thousands of items left behind, like cutlery from every meal ever eaten, echoes from every sentence ever said.
He settled down in a secluded spot by a lake with a bottle of beer from the last town, watching a flock of swans splashing down in the evening light. He let Zero wander without tying her up – as a Committee steed, she wouldn't run off, and could be called on the Ethe. He settled in to examine some of Noksalika's records around her death, when a girl poked him across the Ethe suddenly, without warning.
He physically jerked around and mentally tightened, wary of strangers.
He eyed her cautiously and asked who she was, looking at her profile. She was rather attractive, whoever she was. She said she'd heard of him from dating Noksalika Chuunim; he shrugged – who hadn't? Until a couple of weeks ago, that's all the world had known him by. He remembered the constant rumours and pictures of Noksalika's countless lovers, and reminded himself warmly that he'd been her longest one.
They chatted flirtatiously, and Czioc was pleased to find himself sought after in a sexual way – until the hole he'd managed to plug up or ignore for the previous two weeks caved open again, and the thought of Noksalika's face made the inside of his chest ache.
But this girl was pretty, and did have a great arse.
They swapped tasteful nude pictures of each other, then laughed uproariously as they shared less than tasteful pictures of themselves in various brazen sexual positions – and, unsurprisingly, an erection quickly grew between his legs.
He remembered Noksalika's wild bouts of spontaneity, her girlish charm and fascinating cynicism. He remembered her wondering in their many conversations in bed what life was about, and if there was anything beyond "this ordinary life". He'd just laughed and accused her of ungratefulness for her "ordinary" life of stardom.
And yet, he'd loved her hunger for the unknown, her endless hunger and dissatisfaction.
The light faded as he chatted and masturbated in cyberspace with this girl, this stranger, while yearning for Noksalika.
He rode Zero with vigour towards the coast for three weeks, through mossy cave tunnels and temple ruins. Broad blue lakes and ice-blue rivers lay surrounded by evergreen trees; he passed tiny villages with blue flags fluttering from huts and stone mounds, until even the villages disappeared. He was alone in the landscape, the large caverns and open spaces inhabited only by the deer, wolves, and odd wild bear he could sense around him. He thought fondly of Pshappa and mentioned the wild animals to him on the Ethe; Pshappa seemed impressed, but advised against offering them a drink.
It really was barren here. Not the beautiful landscape, which he'd become accustomed to; without the hustle and bustle of people's never-ending thoughts and worries, he could hear every mouse, smell wildkittens playing, even feel the daylight come and go on the Ethe. It was socially barren. There really was no-one around. According to the Ethe, he'd got nearly five hundred miles off the Migration, and it certainly felt that way. Even the dead person in his head had stopped talking to him.
To the South, on the Ethe, he could make out horrible things happening.
The usual hubbub that he longed for held an edge of anxiety. The far away buzzing like a swarm of locusts had grown closer, and revealed itself in details: people fleeing, people dying. Something terrible was ravaging the land and no-one knew what it was. Hundreds were being recorded as killed, even thousands … and in the places these things were happening, all the Ethe recorded was an emptiness. Nothing left.
Czioc could appreciate this, out here in the middle of nowhere. Zero was friendly enough for a horse, but without personal contact Czioc felt he was going slightly mad. At night he saw shapes moving in the darkness, and flashes of that huge monstrosity on the Migration loomed in his dreams. Zero slept without fear and rode on, carrying him half awake, unclear and sleepy.
He felt himself becoming angry with his situation. The one time you actually wanted the stupid dead person in your head to keep you company—
Two centaurs came into view on the track ahead, holding out their hands in warning for him to stop. Or was it a greeting? He tried to get a grip and focus as Zero slowed and came to a halt.
'Greetings, traveller,' said the male, holding up his right hand and right hoof in the traditional centaur welcome. The other was a female. Both had dark, well-groomed hair over broad faces with narrow eyes, decorative patterns of beads draped over their horse bodies.
Zero snorted happily and trotted up between them before Czioc could do anything, nuzzling both the strangers. They smiled and stroked him back. Czioc eyed them uncertainly up close. 'Hi. Erm. Hello. Sorry, she's got a mind of her own.'
'You are Czioc,' said the female.
'Yes. I am.' He felt confused, but happy to meet real people, but then wary, but happy again too.
'We must escort you to our home on the coast. We have hoped for your coming. You are most welcome here.'
Czioc shrugged tiredly and followed, asking for a beer as they lead him off the track.
He'd heard of the Curved Sea of Chaalyine before, but the spectacle was breath-taking. They'd stopped at the peak of a hill overlooking a small settlement by the long shingle beach, from which the the blue-green inland sea stretched far away. Then in the mid-distance, it began to curve upwards to the right, in keeping with the cavern they stood in. And it curved up, and up, and up, until in the far distance a pair of tiny white fishing boats could be seen hanging above.
Wow. That's pretty nice.
Oh, you're back now? Czioc thought.
Yeah. Thought I'd let you know. There's something wrong with the Ethe around here.
What do you mean? I haven't noticed anything.
That's because you're sleep-deprived, you're not picking up what your senses are telling you.
Well look, I've got Zero with me. Animals can … you know … sense stuff.
Not "stuff" that's not there they can't.
They began trotting down a path through densely-packed trees towards the settlement, Czioc still looking out at the curved sea. He looked back at the photos he'd taken of the black bloated monster, and remembered the chilling horror of seeing something real that wasn't on the Ethe.
Okay, fine, he thought. Let me know if you see anything.
Will do. Who are all this lot?
Don't know. Let's find out.
It seemed as though all the inhabitants of the village had come out to meet him. There were a wide variety of about a hundred people, including mantrels, tetranid lizardmen, some small bird-like creatures he didn't recognise, an imposing cave troll, and even some two-armed, two-legged people. He guessed the centaurs had gone out to meet him because they could run. Warm smiles adorned every single face, even the haggard troll.
They all stood in the mostly-flat clearing in the centre of the huts and bungalows, with a backdrop of the huge curved sea rising behind. The ground made small grassy banks before fading into a wide stretch of pebbles and stones. The tide was out.
Czioc dismounted, and was suddenly much shorter than the centaurs.
'Friends,' said the female, raising both arms up, 'his travels have brought him close to us, and we have brought him to you. Let us all welcome our brother Czioc.'
There were murmurs of appreciation, and the smiling grew in intensity. People spoke his name quietly, even the bird-mammals chirping his name, 'Chee-ok, cheeee-ok'…
Czioc tensed uneasily. 'Who are you people? What do you want from me?'
A lizardwoman stepped forward, clasping her hands eagerly, wooden bracelets knocking together. 'Don't be alarmed. We're a small community, a collective really. We all prefer the quiet to the bustle and the noise of the mainstream. We live here according to the Ethe, as the Ethe allows us.' She stood up straight, smiling proudly.
'That's really nice, but—' started Czioc.
'And you are our honoured guest! Please, we must make you welcome. Can somebody get some chairs?' Various people rushed to huts to fetch a variety of rickety chairs and stools. The lizardwoman turned back to him. 'I heard you wanted a beer?'
These guys give me the creeps, said the dead voice in his head. And that's me talking.
Hey, give them a chance, and let me have my beer.
A number of the villagers sat with him in the centre of the space, explaining themselves and their settlement, while others went back to their huts or hurried about in the background. By the edge of the clearing, a black dog limped up on three legs and sat to watch them.
Czioc relaxed, listening keenly to their personal stories about dissatisfaction with city life and how they'd met on the Ethe, hundreds and thousands of miles apart, and travelled to build this place together. What he'd had taken as a slightly unhinged welcome had been just genuine warm-hearted hospitality. He chatted back and told stories of being on Migration, avoiding his current circumstances and the subject of his mission.
The other villagers began to emerge from the huts, dressed in simple dark blue robes and holding more for the others. Those surrounding him suddenly got up and took their chairs inside, including his, leaving him standing next to the male centaur with a half-drunk bottle of beer as everyone rushed around them.
He watched some of the robed villages carrying drums and other percussion instruments.
'What's going on?'
The centaur smiled broadly, slipping a robe over his torso that someone handed him. 'We must show you our performance, now that you're here.'
'Erm…' I think you're right, this all looks a bit weird.
Something's seriously wrong with the Ethe.
Look at the Ethe! I can't see anything if you don't focus!
The villagers had formed a circle around them, and the female centaur and a couple of mantrels had joined them in the centre. There was a moment of silence, then a hummmm arose from the circle. Czioc turned this way and that, trying not to panic. Everyone still had smiles on their faces.
The percussion instruments started up, creating a simple beat at first, then higher-pitched ticks and tocks randomly improvised over the top. The humming was multi-layered in pitch, and the villagers had started to dance gently. And then the female centaur sang.
'A thousand billion networks!' Her voice was melodic and eerie, but strong and loud.
'But all with borders!' sang the male centaur.
'We dream a network that we breathe!' chanted half the villagers, the others still humming.
Czioc's jaw fell open. 'What the hell…?'
He heard a cold gasp inside his head. It's your poem. They're a cult. They're a bloody cult.
'…And it breathes us!' rang out the shrill voice of a mantrel by his side.
They've taken your poem as a sign or something. Oh great. What was I saying? Nutters. Get out of here, now.
The female centaur, bouncing gently up and down to the rhythm, saw the look on his face and leant down. 'It's your poem! It came to us as a sign!'
Czioc's mortified look remained. In the background, the black dog yawned. 'Are you rebels?' he shouted over the noise.
She threw her head back laughing. 'We're not rebels! Do we look like rebels to you?' She reached down with her hands, encouraging him to dance as well. 'We are spiritualists! Your poem has shown us there is another way!'
Underneath the rhythmic drumming, Czioc felt vibrations in the ground through his toes. His own words rang around him, sung by these strangers all smiling joyously at him. He called to Zero on the Ethe.
The black dog's jaws didn't close, but kept widening slowly.
The tremors in the ground grew. Czioc looked around for any obvious gap in the circle, and noticed some dark creatures had joined the dog by one of the huts.
The dog! the voice shouted at him. Shit it's the do—
The golems came crashing out of the trees all at once, branches and foliage scattering around them as they swung their clubs. The villagers turned and looked, and instantly the humming and the drumming became panicked screaming as they ran for the other edges of the village. But the golems came from all sides, seven, eight, nine of them. The villagers were closed in. The shore and the sea were the only exit.
Two golems smashed into the clearing, one of them obliterating the black dog with its giant foot, spraying thick ooze over the ground. They slammed their clubs down with tremendous speed; one completely crushed a mantrel, the other tore off the lizardwoman's arm. On the clearing's other side, golems had the villagers cornered, with just the largest hut and thirty yards of grassy space between them and the shore. A villager ran and fell at Czioc's feet, screaming with open eyes at him, 'Save us! Save us!'
The male centaur reared on back legs as villagers panicked around them. 'How did they find this place?' He looked at Czioc with eyes of fury. 'You brought them here! You led them here!'
Czioc opened his mouth and backed away from the centaur, before remembering he was on a Committee-sanctioned mission – the golems would not attack him. They'd been ordered out here into the middle of nowhere, and they'd been ordered to kill these misfits, not him.
'Stop!' he yelled up at one, striding up towards it. The golem froze in mid swing, while four or five others continued around him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the troll wrestling with a golem's club, as a couple of villagers climbed its back. 'These people have done nothing wrong!'
The golem grunted angrily, wavering. Czioc threw up his Committee codes to show he had some authority. 'These people are just—' He broke off when he saw the steam coming off the golem's leg, as a tar-like liquid bubbled and ate away at his armour. He looked at where the dog had been sitting—
A mighty gut-churning groan tore through the air as the walls of the major hut behind him blew outwards, and through the rubble rose a monstrous pile of black flesh and slime.
Giant, melting eyes stared down at him again, as tentacles and limbs flew out everywhere and started dragging its bulk across the ground.
Outside the village dark shapes drew themselves in, while black creatures clawed their way up through the earth beneath their feet. There were shambling zombie-like figures, wolves with scorpion tails, mouths and suckers and eyes shifting in their skin. Some villagers fleeing out to sea met demons rising through the waves, climbing up through the pebbles. They dragged the blue-robed cult members down into the water, and latched onto the legs of the huge golems.
The golems couldn't see any of it, and continued crushing and kicking the villagers.
Czioc fumbled to draw his sword out of his poorly-made scabbard and gripped it tightly in front of him. To his left he saw a translucent tube-like limb sucking a screaming mantrel inside it; he heaved the sword up and brought it down with a yell, cleaving the tube open and pouring black gunk onto the ground. The mantrel made a horrific gurgling noise as his lower half dissolved away inside the tube.
Czioc ducked and weaved under the tentacles as he had before on the Migration, but now he had a sword, and clumsy swing after clumsy swing brought black limbs dropping to the ground. He managed to stave them off, but the abomination advanced towards him like a wall of filth. Czioc raised the sword in an arc and slashed the thing open, which brought stinking guts and faeces and body parts pouring out upon him in a pile of filth that rose up to his thighs.
A hundred mouths opened on the thing's body and shrieked a hundred different pitches, and Czioc felt giddy, but kept stabbing and slashing away as he backed away from the monster. Inside the gaping hole, again, he saw strange pieces of chains and rusty metal…
The scene was insane. Blood mixed with filthy tar across the ground, bits of bodies lying between the black demons who now greatly outnumbered the living. Czioc ducked and lashed out as something with a decomposing bat face lunged at him. Two golems mooed in panic and smashed clubs at their own legs as dirty vines melted their armour and the flesh beneath it.
Twenty yards away the troll and some villagers had succeeded in overpowering a golem and taking its club, only to find the monsters all around were too numerous. The female centaur staggered through it all with something fleshy moulded into her neck and face; black wings sprouted from her horse body and tried to flap uselessly before she crashed to the floor.
Czioc stared at the carnage, between dodging and cutting and slashing – he could feel his soft palms starting to blister but clung to the sword in terror. There were too many of them, too many things. He was surrounded, and the creatures pushed him back towards the massive beast.
By one of the outer huts near the trees, he caught sight of Zero, pawing at the ground frantically as dark creatures approached her.
'Get out!' he shouted across the Ethe to her. 'Run! Run!'
He found himself standing with his back to a golem's legs, trying to fend off the nightmares all around him as tentacles grappled with the golem above. But the filth continued to gush from the gash in the huge monster's side, spreading out in wriggling, stinking pieces across the grass.
Its movement slowed, the limbs went limp – and with air rushing out of its many mouths in a deathly hisssss, the thing collapsed in on itself.
Czioc's mouth hung open and his heart pounded in his ribcage.
They could be killed. They could—
The steaming golem swayed, head bubbling and dissolving, with tentacles still wrapped around its limbs.
Then it fell, and crashed down on top of Czioc.
He heard bones in his body snap, and the last thing he felt was his skull cracking.