'We will sacrifice you to Him. To Patogechy. To Him and His glory!'
Wait. Spin back.
'We know who you are. We've been searching for you.'
No, further than that. Rewind.
She swayed with the water currents. They were in open waters now. Visibility was good, but she'd seen nothing for days. There was nothing on the Ethe for dozens of miles, not on dry land, not in the sea.
And here she was, strapped down.
Let's start again.
She coughed herself awake in panic, retching on the seawater. It took several agonising seconds to realise she was underwater. She relaxed a little; her pores breathed for her.
There was a dull throbbing across her head, and definitely a cut too. Her hands were tied – even through the water she could feel the hessian rubbing against her sore wrists. She blinked as the saltwater initially stung her eyes, and tried to focus.
Everything was purple. All around, she could see through miles and miles of water. All of it purple.
Her name was Tarabonitz Suhanrohan. Tara for short. She was a writer, designer, craftswoman – basically, a personality. Because these industries were based on your identity, where you sold your self as a brand. She was happy with this, and did it modestly. Well, modestly compared to the excesses of mainstream society.
She'd grown up with pleasant, balanced parents near a town on the Migration. The constant flow of people, at a distance, had given her a pleasant, balanced upbringing. She looked through hazy photos of herself as a child, smiling and relaxed. Of course the originals were perfectly sharp – the haze was just added artificially afterwards. And a little bit by nostalgia.
She'd had a bright and promising education, but declined offers of apprenticeships in the Committees, which was perfectly acceptable. She'd forged a small but stable career in the trade of crafts and words. She had strong circle of close friends, and a healthy sexual career with a decent level of indecency.
But none of this was true.
Noksalika rolled her head back and left, then right; lights flashed in the far distance. She could make out vague shapes of land, but took some time to realise they were all large expanses and far, far away. Her eyes loosened and focused. Her nose stung. Her head hurt. In more ways than one.
Noksalika. Her name was Noksalika Chuunim.
Raw, biological memories battled against the images and videos that made up her virtual identity, her electronic personality on the airwaves. Pieces of her brain fired up and made connections, looking for things that made sense. And they fought back.
She'd been kidnapped. Shit. This didn't happen. This was like something from the middle ages, or, or whatever – no-one got kidnapped in this day and age. Crime barely existed. The crimes of today were political crimes, treason, thinking outside the lines. And hey, the lines were drawn pretty generously. Who the hell wanted to kidnap her?
A tiny blue fish swam up to her foot. It was strange, seeing her foot tied up but not in slutty heels. The fish sniffed at her toe, and started nibbling.
Her name was Noksalika Chuunim, and her brain cells were angry. She wasn't some insipid girl from the sticks, from the countryside. She was a star from the city – she practically was the city. She was just pretending to be this "Tarabonitz" person. She had disposed of this girl, taken her identity and run away.
Who would want to kidnap her? No-one could possibly want the stupid wannabe slut Tarabonitz Suhanrohan. And no-one could possibly know that underneath the electronic pictures and virtual tags it was her, the world-famous porn star and classical musician Noksalika Chuunim. Only someone with an intimate physical knowledge of her could know that. And who paid attention to the physical, when the virtual was so much more believable?
More tiny fish gathered around her bare toes, kissing and sniffing and nibbling at her toes. She swore at them and wriggled against the ropes.
She turned to her right, and saw a goat-like face grinning at her.
Who'd want to kidnap her?
Oh, shit. Fuck. More rude words.
'Ahhh, yer awake now,' the mantrel said across the Ethe. His tough hands grabbed the metal rails bolted into the boat's deck, and he hauled himself along through the water. She looked at him, fixing her eyes, emotionless. 'How was yer sleep? Comfortable eh?'
He fingered a gash on the side of her head, and she felt her hair was matted with blood. She flinched and snorted seawater towards him. 'I feel like shit. Who are you?'
'Oh wouldn't you like to know,' the face grinned back at her. His face was broad for a mantrel; she didn't recognise the type. Lengths of chain floated around his long hair, but not in loops around his neck – she noticed the links fixed into his muscular shoulders, just like the rails bolted into the deck of the boat, in the way of most seafarers. She saw scars from where previous links had been torn out.
The itching around her feet grew, and she looked down to see a whole swarm of little blue fish devouring her exposed feet. She made an instinctive gargled yelp and thrashed about – but instead of them fleeing and darting everywhere, the swarm shrank into a single shape, and darted towards her face. Wide-eyed, she saw dozens of little eyes staring back at her, as tiny silver-blue bodies floated in synch with each other.
The mantrel laughed over the Ethe, still grinning dirtily. 'I see you's met the whatfish. Say 'ello, girl.'
Noksalika stared at the thing, which eyed her back – not just as separate, tiny fishes, but seemingly as one large thing. She examined its electronic presence, and saw dozens of tiny identities closely connected, working together…
'What the hell is it?' she said. Her hair floated around and between their tiny fins.
'Huh, damned if I know, right? Do I look like a, a fucking marine biologist?' The mantrel pulled himself closer and poked a finger between their bodies. Without losing their larger shape, the fish nibbled at his knuckles playfully. 'One day this thing turns up, out of nowhere, in open water. I wanted to turn it into dinner but the Captain said no. It's kind of like a dog, but made from lots of little fish.'
Calmer now, she gently blew water over the nearer fishes. 'So why not call it a dogfish?'
The sailor looked at her like she was an idiot. 'Are you, are you stupid or sumfing? Dogfish are called dogfish 'cos they look like dogs, not cos they act like 'em. Dunno what this is. So we's call it a whatfish.'
Without warning, the fish near her face darted forwards and bit the sensory parts of her face – her lips, eyelids, edges of her nostrils – before the whole swarm darted away as one. The nerves in her face sang, without pain.
She looked back to the mantrel. 'What do you people want from me?'
He stopped grinning and narrowed his eyes at her, before gripping her hair and forcefully kissing her cheek with large, rough lips. Then he threw her head back down against the deck.
'That's for the Captain to decide, ain't it?'
He swung himself back and disappeared inside the boat. And she was alone again, staring out at unfamiliar land shapes. Far away. She scanned the Ethe for people, buildings, anything, and found an abandoned lighthouse about four hundred miles on the coast to the Northeast. She called out. There was no-one there.
'Bit of an awkward situation we've got here, isn't it.'
She heard the words muffled and watery, but they definitely came through her ears – not the Ethe. She swung her head around to the left and saw a rough wooden face had appeared in the boards of the deck, looking as though it had always been there.
' !', she said on the Ethe, catching herself before someone – anyone – heard her talking on the airwaves. Piarowef, she wanted to say, Piarowef you arsehole. Instead she just opened her mouth and forged an alarmed, angry look on her face.
Through her trailing hair, the face looked sad. 'I'm sorry you're here,' it said. Beady, wooden eyes looked at her from under a heavy brow. 'This was certainly not part of our deal. I'm working on it.' Then, as an afterthought, added: 'Are you okay?'
She rolled her eyes and tried to swear at him through the water, but the sounds were incomprehensible.
'I'm working on it,' the face repeated, wooden eyes wide and apologetic. 'The good news is you're headed not too far from Rhajallington, in the grand scheme of things…'
Oh, just a few thousand miles then, she thought bitterly, the wound on her head burning.
'…so if you can make it to there, my people will sort everything out.'
She made a louder gargling noise and banged her fist against the deck. And how the hell am I supposed to do that? she thought angrily, glaring at the face. Piarowef you're such a prick. You're the reason I'm in this mess.
'I know I'm the reason you're in this mess,' said the face, as though he'd actually heard her. 'Don't worry. I'm tracking your location. Try and stay calm.'
And then, the face she knew as Piarowef disappeared.
Her eye stayed wide and furious for a second, then relaxed. Then she turned her head back to the right, and saw the leering sailor had returned. With others.
She gasped for breath on the table, coughing up saltwater from the depths of her lungs.
The purple sea swirled around the small black boat, pulling at the sails and rudders. It was shaped like a long capsule, although the various masts and pulleys made it look like some kind of dirty mechanical pineapple. A rusty lump of metal thrust from the front, not so much cutting through the water as pushing it aside clumsily.
She knew just about where she was. Kind of. She'd looked on the Ethe to check her location, and the local map told her nothing; she'd had to zoom out five times before it even showed any land. Craggy cliffs, abandoned fields, derelict lighthouses ... it was only examining the details of barely-used shipping lanes that told her roughly which places she was between.
She was Noksalika Chuunim! She'd been on tour from the jungles of Tor Antholos to the ice plains of Paraparachu. She'd fired up the disco in the lava tubes of Men-an-ScŚria, and she'd fucked princes in the pinnacles of Bung Eslur. (Quite possibly all of them. It had been a hobby for a few weeks.) And she'd never looked at this part of the world – neither through the Ethe, nor with her own eyes.
This was the Outer Thano Sea. And they were in the outer, outer part.
The mantrels had unstrapped her and carried her inside. The boat was only sixty feet long or so, but had a strong crew, both literally and in numbers. The Ethe told her there almost two dozen mantrels with hammocks for beds – no wonder, the gravity was so weak out in open sea that it was hard to keep things stuck to the floors. Rails lined the walls and boards inside the boat, just as they did outside, so people could stay where they were and stop floating around.
'Corrrrr,' breathed a mantrel to her left, pinning down her wrist and breathing in her face. 'She's not 'alf bad. Even with that massive bruise on 'er head.'
'Just discolouration, ain't it,' said another. Her flickering eyelids couldn't see much, as she retched and spat out the last drops of seawater. But she could feel them all around. Gathered here, around her, after they'd dragged her inside. 'I've seen stranger make-up on some girls.'
Her skin felt tight as her pores closed up; she was back to breathing by herself, through her lungs again. She thought of dolphins, for some reason. Are they the only animal to breathe consciously? Imagine having to remember to breathe in and out. Imagine forgetting.
An ominous presence loomed on the Ethe behind a wooden door.
Her eyelids stopped clenching and stayed open. She saw mantrels standing over her, goat-shaped heads looking down, teeth first. For a second, as her vision cleared, they reminded her of someone she'd known – an enemy, a friend? – and she shivered and shuddered on the table.
'Got pretty eyes, aintcha,' one grinned down at her.
The ones she could see, about five or six, were a motley bunch similar to the one she'd seen out on the deck – dark brown skin, solid wiry muscles, worn black jackets and badly-inked tattoos over their arms and chests. She saw more chains stitched into the shoulders of their jackets, trailing gently behind their backs.
One was different though. By her feet stood a male, dressed in a dark blue robe that was open at the front and looked like a dressing gown. He had the same black tattoos over his chest like the others, but they seemed better-drawn, maybe even technical. She caught his gaze briefly. He smiled broadly at her.
'Got pretty tits, too,' barked one from behind her head. They burst into coarse laughter, looking down at the way her soaking clothes stuck to her body.
'Thanks.' Her reply was blunt, neither angry nor pleasant.
The other mantrel to her left nodded. 'Yer lucky though. There'll be some sort of ration. We might get our, wha'dya call it—' he snapped his fingers, '—tax, but we're not allowed to damage the goods.' He gave an immature snigger.
'What do you want from me.' It was a flat statement, a series of words; you couldn't jazz it up, but you had to ask the question.
'Can we tell 'er, Domatri?' The mantrel grinned at the one in the blue robe. 'Wha'dya reckon?'
He smacked his thick, goat-like lips, and leaned over the end of the table. 'We know who you are. We've been searching for you.'
'You're not the first,' she said darkly. Did they really know who she was?
'Oh really, Tarabonitz.' Either they don't, or they're pretending they don't. She realised something. This other guy speaks properly, not like the rest of them. 'Somebody wants you very, very much. There's a big price on your head.'
'Me?' Noksalika coated her expression in a thick layer of innocence, and realised too late that it just sounded sarcastic. 'What are you going to do with me?'
'We will sacrifice you to Him.' His voice lowered and took on a mock melodramatic tone. 'To Patogechy. To Him and His glory!' The others sniggered and chuckled around her.
She gave him a glare. 'Oh brilliant, rape and sacrifice. I was beginning to think you guys were just amateurs.'
'Hahaha, well, we won't be doin' the sacrificin',' the first one laughed. 'Yer such a drama queen Domatri.'
'Aye aye,' chuckled the mantrel called Domatri. 'And that price on your pretty little head will go down after we've had to do the tax and the invoices for our delivery services.'
'Invoices?' It was the first moment she'd expressed anger since waking up on the deck. She lurched up, far too soon, and had a bout of agonised coughing on a tongue still sore from seawater. 'You're bloody pirates!'
Domatri chuckled. She saw his face; he was younger than the others, less worn and wrinkled. She eyed the marks on his chest and belly.
'What do we prefer to call ourselves, Kurrika?'
Kurrika grinned warmly, almost pleasantly, and made quotation marks with gnarly fingers. 'We are "naval business opportunists"!'
They laughed heartily together, and there was much banging of ringed hands on the heavy table.
'What's her name again?' chuckled another male, putting a thick, warm hand on her leg. 'Tarabonitz. Tara-bonitz.' The hand moved up her leg, pulling up her skirt, to the smirking of the other sailors. A face with a dirty beard and yellowed teeth grinned at her. 'I think we should give her our own na—'
'Wha'dya think yer doing yer big fat shower of shitbags?!' roared a voice as the door opposite her slammed open, crunching painfully on someone's foot. And with a throat still burning with saltwater, she gasped.
The Captain was a minotaur.
Muscles bulged under ragged leather armour, with gleaming studs of silver and brass. His nostrils gaped, dark black holes blasting jets of hungry hot air. Tendons tensed under tough, thick skin; black tribal tattoos crawled over more muscles. Noksalika's jaw hung open in terror, looking over thighs as wide as her waist, shoulders bigger than her head, and an ochre loincloth that hid very little. Black hair had been shaved from both sides of his head, leaving a scraggy mohawk. And two long, obsidian horns sprouted from his scalp – well, one and a half. The left horn had been broken off halfway, crowning his bull head with a blunt crescent silhouette.
But most of all, Noksalika was stunned by his eyes: dazzling, bright blue irises, surrounded by bulging, scary whites. They rolled left and right in some tenths of a second, then focused on the mantrel with his hand up her skirt. And swinging himself from the doorway, he swung a huge hand and smacked the mantrel flying across the room with the sound of chipping bone.
The crew drew back, respectfully, warily.
'I said no-one touches 'er. Do some of you,' came the rumbling growl as he leant across her body, 'have a problem understandin' that?' She stared up at his chest, trying not to breathe in his stinking bull-like scent.
'Jus' examining the goods, boss,' murmured the mantrel in the corner, limbs splayed gently against the walls. His eyes blinked rapidly, then focused in narrow slits. His cheek was clearly damaged, a blood bruise swelling up over the bone.
The minotaur turned his head. 'Aye Kurrika, I know 'xactly what you're talking about. But I told you all,' he slammed a fist into the heavy wooden table by her hip, making her shiver, 'no-one touches her.' There was a couple of nods and murmurs in agreement.
She relaxed, exhaling. At least, for whatever reason, they weren't going to rape her after all.
He swung his huge head downwards, the single black horn pinning down her hair. He snorted hot air in her eyes.
'Until I've had my turn.'