Czioc tried to fight the drugs, but he was no chemist, no doctor, no bioengineer. He could use the Ethe to collect dead people on the Migration, but had no idea how to make changes to his biochemistry. He drifted into consciousness, then out again, then hung around in between. The dark horror of previous dreams had gone, but really strange dreams were ones where you couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. For instance:
'Looks like a wanker to me.'
'Yeah, proper wanker.'
'Jus' look at his hair.'
'Yeah, shit hair.'
While he was quite confident his subconscious had better things to do than criticise his hair, he wasn't in a position to decide. Blurred images mixed with groggy, sludgy sensations; he found himself making up new words, partly to convey what he was experiencing, partly because his vocabulary had simply broken and stopped working.
At one point, the wolves they were riding all stopped and played some sort of animal kiss-chase game; another time, he was back in the field of multi-coloured hats, which he would have easily dismissed as some insane dream, except it had actually been real.
He didn't really mind being thoroughly disorientated – none of this bland craziness came close to the nightmares that had plagued him at the Etheport and before. He was almost happy for them to continue drugging him, day after day after day; time itself became a blur, stretching and twisting into weeks and miles.
The only time any of these dreams came close to those nightmares was when Miza appeared to him, naked and definitely not dead, not dead like she was with that arrow in her face.
'What's the matter Czioc?' she asked softly. She cupped her breasts, and suddenly her front legs were those of a human; her horse body and rear legs froze into granite and snapped off a perfectly curved, tight behind. 'Why don't you want to fuck me Czioc? Why don't you want to fuck me?'
So he just flailed and fought deeper into the strange, banal dreams, welcoming their escape.
As time went on, flashes of reality became longer and more vivid: bumpy rides on the back of a stinking animal, mouthfuls of dirt by an evening campfire, kicks in the ribs and people laughing.
One morning – at least, he thought it was morning – he woke up to hear a voice saying:
'There look, he's like a proper princess now.'
He was sleepy but not drugged – a strange feeling. He pulled the cotton wool out of his brain and blinked it from his eyes. He shivered; the air was cold.
'Wakey wakey princess!' Someone grabbed his hair and shook his head. He mumbled something rude.
'What the fuck are you two playing at?' said another voice. Czioc remembered this voice, and thought bad things.
'Just playing around Sarge. See look, he looks like a fucking idiot.'
'Yeah Sarge, undermining his sense of self, innit.'
'He might look like a fucking idiot, but you two are the ones putting make-up on him. Get your shit together, we're off.'
He blinked a lot in one go and opened his eyes. It was a fresh, cold Autumn morning. His foot hurt. He was sitting on the ground, cross-legged, with a small pond to his left. For some reason he thought of old women.
'Hey where's that mirror,' said a man to himself, rummaging in a pack. A well-built mantrel in front of him grinned and starting laughing.
'Wha's funny?' murmured Czioc, tired.
'You look like a prick,' chortled the mantrel.
The man pulled out a grubby hand-held mirror, and Czioc saw his face was smeared with all kinds of colour: lipstick, blush, eye shadow, mascara. Lots of mascara, it seemed. He'd never been against men wearing make-up – it was just another choice for a night on the town. But in his dazed state he had to admit he did, indeed, look like a prick.
Then a monstrously large wolf came along and sneezed in his face, which really woke him up.
The wolves scampered and sprinted through fields tinted with the hints of frost, and the breeze bit into bare arms and necks. They passed skeletons of deciduous trees, abandoned orchards and eerie straight lines.
You okay? The dead voice was being quite companionable now, since he'd banished the nightmares from his head. He nodded. He was riding with the muscular mantrel, and had been promoted to "seated prisoner" from his previous position as "luggage".
That was bad shit back there. Czioc remembered a flash of Miza lying on the ground, bleeding, and felt a little sick.
Mmmm, he agreed.
But he thought of her face, and her body, and strangely felt nothing.
You've got to be careful. This lot look like savages.
'Oi princess, can you pass me up a bag of crisps?' the mantrel said without turning. 'Should be some in the pack.'
'Erm…' said Czioc, hands tied to the rudimentary blanket and leather contraption that passed for a saddle. 'No. Hands tied.'
'What?' The mantrel sounded vaguely annoyed, before realising. 'Oh right. Haha, let me guess: "Just untie me and I'll get them for you sir, please sir".'
'Um. Could give it a go?' suggested Czioc.
'Haha, nice try,' said the mantrel, leaning down and rooting around in the pack himself. 'Last one who did that took hours to catch. Had to shoot him in the end,' he added sadly. 'Want a crisp?'
'Er, sure,' Czioc said uncertainly. 'What flavour?'
'Salt and vinegar.'
One evening by the campfire, Czioc was sitting by the mantrel and the large man who'd drugged him. His hands were tied and, as usual, hammered into the ground by his groin with a stake to stop him moving. He'd tried burning through them with the Ethe, but it just made his brain hurt.
'Who are you?' Czioc asked, looking the man directly in the eye.
'Oh, I'm Kerbusson, and this is Tabbo, but his full name—'
'Kerbie you twat,' laughed the mantrel called Tabbo, elbowing his friend in the ribs. 'He means the group, all of us.'
'Right, yeah, yeah course,' said Kerbusson. He drew his breath in. 'Sarge likes to describe us as opportunists.'
'Hehe yeah,' chuckled Tabbo. 'What's the funny phrase he adds afterwards?'
'Uh, something like, "Opportunists in the most opportune of inopportune times". And then he does this mocking laughter thing, like "mwahahaha".'
'Yeah,' nodded Tabbo, 'he likes his mocking laughter, does Sarge.'
'So,' Czioc started, 'you're not some kind of military group?'
'Military? You what?'
'Nah, Sarge just likes to be called Sarge 'cos he thinks it's cool,' said Tabbo matter-of-factly. He tilted his head to one side. 'It is kind of cool.'
'Where'd you get the wolves?'
'Oh, found 'em down at the zoo,' chirped Kerbusson casually. 'The keepers all left, can you believe it. I mean, like, I know it's the apocalypse, but at least let the animals out before you go, right? Just selfish innit.'
Czioc looked across at the wolves, who were all gently snoozing. He reached out across the Ethe to one, gingerly trying to understand its identity, how it worked … and suddenly it woke up, barking, yapping, snarling at the unfamiliar. He wasn't going to escape that way.
Something jolted them all from under the ground, like hearing really loud music through a wall.
'What was that?'
They looked warily at each other. The wolves whined quietly in the dark.
'Hahaha!' laughed Tabbo, pointing at Kerbusson. 'You nearly crapped yourself there didn't you!'
'No I didn't!'
'Hahaha "oh look at me, I'm Kerbie, oh no it's an earthquake, watch me crap my pants", hahaha…'
Czioc was in the hands of thugs, and yet felt strangely at home.
The earthquakes grew as the city approached.
They stopped for lunch near some ancient temple ruins by a field of corn, wild and overgrown. "Sarge" had let them have a long break for making good progress, which apparently meant beers all round.
The flow of refugees was more apparent here, with multi-coloured people and species trudging well-worn tracks through the caverns and tunnels. They were near Rhajallington, Czioc could tell; its vast structure loomed on the Ethe. There seemed less people than there should have been, but it was still busy.
Especially the docks.
Another earthquake rumbled underfoot, shaking trees and rattling the ruins.
The Ethe's collapsing, just like Interface said, suggested the dead voice in his head.
Maybe it really is the end of the world, mused Czioc thoughtfully.
Maybe he should just make a break for it. Abort the mission. Assuming he could escape, that is.
He looked at Tabbo and Kerbusson hopefully.
'Could I have a beer?' He wriggled in his bonds.
They looked up at him from their food suspiciously. 'Don't reckon so. You're a prisoner. Prisoners don't get beers.'
'But look, he's tied up,' pointed out Kerbusson. 'He's not going anywhere.'
'Yeah,' said Czioc, flailing his tied wrists at the stake to illustrate. 'I'm not going anywhere.'
'Shit, good point.' Tabbo's face suddenly lit up, mouth open in excitement. 'We could get him really fucked on alcohol!'
'Yeah! Yeah like, so fucked that he throws up on himself!'
'Yay!' cheered Czioc.
'Let's do it!'
What's wrong with you? snapped the dead voice in his head as Tabbo dug out a half-full bottle of tequila.
Great, thought Czioc. Nice timing. Come along to pour scorn on me having some fun, have you?
Fun? the voice fumed. Since when is throwing up yourself is "fun"?
Me and Pshappa used to do it every week, we had great times.
Okay, that's just strange by itself. But you're starting to associate with your captors, which is even more mental.
Mental? You're mental, in lots of ways.
Oh thanks, that's what I get for looking out for you is it?
Czioc tried not to laugh as Kerbusson kept jabbing the bottle downwards into his throat while Tabbo chanted "down it, down it!". Sorry, but they just seem like ordinary people to me.
You better watch you don't get that syndrome.
You know, it's named after that place … it's when you start liking your captors, when you start agreeing with them. Damn, had it, tip of my tongue.
You haven't got a tongue.
Rub it in, why don't you.
Rhajallington was at the edge of the world. One edge of the world, as Czioc had learned, but nevertheless. The city was mainly built in a peninsula that jutted out into the Channelsea, where huge swirling currents swept around the surface of the world.
'Ing'lunam? Are you there?' Czioc called on a private Ethe connection. His captors either didn't notice or pretended not to; presumably their Ethe knowledge wasn't too great.
'Hello this is Samantha speaking,' a pleasant voice answered. 'I'm afraid Principal Adviser Ing'lunam isn't available right now.'
'Is he dead?'
'Principal Adviser Ing'lunam isn't available right now.'
'Why are you answering his profile?'
'We've re-routed the contact lines for civil defence.'
'Whatever. Maybe you can help. My name's Czioc, he must have mentioned me. I've been kidnapped. I need help.'
'I'm sorry, I don't have anything on file for you.'
'Are you joking? Here, look at these. Codes. Receipts. I had a horse. Bought a fucking sword.'
'I can't find anything here on our database. I'm afraid I don't think I can help you.'
'Huh.' He swallowed, flaring his nostrils. 'I see what this is. Well fuck you. Fuck you very much.'
Czioc had heard of Rhajallington. It was notable for two things. Firstly, it had a huge dock, where ships able to brave the massive tides lurked like vast slugs, with long, lazy fins.
Secondly, it had a processing plant.
'Come on,' barked Sarge as they padded around the streets and squares, 'not far now. No fucking dawdling.'
If Ing'lunam was dead, and Trimasth was dead, who could he call? Maybe those others who'd put him on the mission. What were their names? He had to look them up in his records. Chief-Lieutenant Naadlamos. Sub-Colonel-Elect Ghuhazia.
'Hello, Chief-Lieutenant Naadlamos?'
'Hello this is Samantha speaking.'
The streets were noticeably quiet, with loose crowds of hushed people hurrying around randomly. People looked nervously at the wolves and avoided eye contact with the gang. Most residents had already left; these were refugees, and the atmosphere was different.
He saw a golem, lumbering over people, and in desperation realised he had a chance.
'Help! Help me! These people are criminals!' he called.
But the golem did nothing.
'They're killers and they've kidnapped me! Help me you stupid piece of shit!'
It just looked at him through its helmet, briefly weighing up the situation in its tiny little brain. Then it looked away.
What a farce, thought Czioc bitterly. The one time you need them. The one time.
They must have been reconfigured for all the refugees, mused the voice gloomily. The world's ending. What's a little kidnap here and there?
'Oi, sharpen up mate,' said Tabbo, jabbing him in the face with an elbow. 'We're nearly at the plant.'
Most people were going the other way, further Zha-Eastwards down the peninsula to the docks – but some were going this way too.
They turned out into the open, and Czioc gaped as he looked up.
The Channelsea flew above them, mighty waves crashing on its surface several hundreds of yards overhead. There was a sound, a background roar, as waves smashed into each other and foam flew. Behind it, above it, the deep infinity stretched away, doing funny things to the eyes. Infinity appeared to be the colour purple.
Through the water to the East, Czioc could see the docks: grand hulking ships waited as tiny dots flooded onto their decks and into the promise of their safety.
But right here, in front of them, was the Ethe processing plant.
Across a broad, open square of flagstones, a large crater fell away sharply into the ground. Metal railings lined the ground like the queue lane for a theme park ride, standing ominously empty. Over the far side of the crater was a long recreational area, complete with bars and clubs and cafes and clothes shops and craft markets. Again, abandoned, empty.
Built into the sides and corners of the crater was a giant gleaming tower made of metal; legs thrust into the ground all around the crater's edge, and gangways led to a circular platform with berths and railings. The tower itself rose and narrowed and thrust high into the Channelsea, where it continued thinning to a long needle far, far above. Czioc could feel the buzz of the Ethe crawling all over his skin, could feel the muscles on the back of his head twitch involuntarily.
Czioc had been on the Migration for most of his life. He'd seen many of these. He knew what the seats and berths were for. And he knew what was waiting before they all saw it.
The crater was a hundred yards or so wide; as the wolves crept up towards the tower, they all saw a glowing pool of green ooze down at the bottom. It was lower than it should have been, much much lower – the Migration had virtually stopped, and there was no-one left to use the plant. But it was still there, a vibrant pool of green matter crackling and buzzing with energy.
Normally charged full of people, the whole space was empty – there were no Migration queues here, no golems keeping people in check, no festive stalls and wandering barmaids and crafty salesmen ready to take people's brand new earnings and spread it throughout the world. There were just a couple of loners, individuals hurrying to cash in their weeks and months of work. Czioc watched them rushing off, presumably to see which remaining officials they could bribe to get a place on one of the ships.
Czioc had quite a lot of money, technically. Maybe he could get a place.
But he was tied up on the back of some giant wolf, with this gang of opportunists ready to take it from him.
'Go on, get him up there,' barked Sarge, a sour look on his face. It always seemed to be a sour look.
'Come on mate, let's get on with it,' said Tabbo the mantrel as they all dismounted. Suddenly another tremor shook the ground as he was pulling at Czioc, sending both of them tumbling to the ground.
The wolves steadied themselves and scratched at the flagstones, whining. The huge steel tower creeeeaked.
'You sure it's stable, Sarge?' asked Kerbusson.
'It works, doesn't it?' snapped the lizardman back. 'Get him up there while it's still upright if you're so worried.'
Tabbo tried undoing the knots on Czioc's hands, then gave up and just cut them loose. Czioc made a big scene about rubbing his wrists, but with several of the gang's bows drawn, found it hard to delay any longer. He walked up to one of the metal gangways.
The edge of the crater dropped away. Of course, if he fell, he could just grab the side, turn himself sideways and walk back. But it was something about the glowing pool of energy, and the roaring infinite sea above, that instilled a sense of vertigo. In both directions…
Climbing up the gangway, his nerves sharpened. He'd done this so many times – he was, after all, an expert with living flesh and the Ethe. It even brought back memories of being paid and running out to get drunk with Pshappa. But right here and now, there was something creepy about it, the naked metal structure; something like a butcher's shop with railings. An abattoir. He walked into one of the berths and looked at the strange metal fixtures.
'Go on, do your dirty business and give us the cash,' yelled Sarge impatiently.
Another large quake shook the ground violently and threw Czioc to his knees. It lasted several frightening, anxious seconds. The wolves howled, the metal around him groaned.
'Get on with it!'
It was a simple design, like some mass-produced steel toilet at a music festival or something equally trashy. The seat allowed the user to lean back, with a cradle for their head; it always reminded Czioc of having his hair washed in a basin at some fancy hair salon. But the bottom of the cradle was open, giving a straight drop to the fizzing, glowing pool far below.
He turned round and found himself facing half a dozen drawn bows, all trained on him. Not much option then. He sat down, and carefully lowered his head into the cradle.
All he had to do was unload. Simply let go of the jelly-like cores of all the dead bodies he'd collected for weeks and months, and the money would automatically be transferred to his account. The back of his head started to pulse and twitch, a learned reaction, as the muscles prepared to do what they did every time…
Suddenly a massive pain surged through his skull. Fingers of ice gripped his brain and fixed him frozen still.
You empty your head and I will gut your brain like a fish. Go on, do it.
His body spasmed.
I dare you to send me down there. I fucking dare you.
The pain vanished and he gasped, retching, eyes wide in the seat. Geometric girders criss-crossed the view above.
Not so sure, are we? Not so easy to throw me away, is it?
He lurched forward and almost fell off the seat, coughing in the cold air, clutching at his scalp. Across the gangway, bowstrings tightened.
'What the fuck is this?' yelled Sarge incredulously.
'Don't mean to be harsh, mate,' said Tabbo earnestly, 'but get on with it eh? See, I'm aiming at your leg, nothing vital.'
'Yeah it's not a big deal,' added Kerbusson, aiming at his other knee. 'Just do as Sarge says, we'll all go for a drink afterwards eh.'
They don't convince me, said the voice.
You cunt, thought Czioc, breathing heavily. You're trying to kill me.
You're all I've got.
'I haven't got time for this, Deaf Boy!' shouted Sarge, pulling out an arrow for his own bow. 'I'll shoot you and cut all those bodies out of your head myself if I have to!'
Czioc panted, dragging himself to a standing position, looking around everywhere for a way out.
You'll just have to be creative.
He could feel through the Ethe the ground wanted to move – the tension of another earthquake was rising, and rising quickly. But he couldn't make it happen, not with his lack of Ethe skills. Maybe someone like the sword-maker Desci Rhombus or the non-person Interface, maybe they could, maybe they could move the earth enough to set it off, but his only skill was with bodies and flesh…
'Right that's it,' said Sarge, tightening his bow and raising it—
Czioc melted his fingers.
The bow wasn't fully raised when Czioc sent the code, feeling his brain burn with the power, and the lizardman's fingers buzzed with energy as the molecules loosened and the bowstring passed straight through them, sending an arrow through the back of Tabbo's leg. Tabbo screamed and let his own arrow fly with a jolt, narrowly missing Czioc's ear as he dropped to the floor. Another two or three arrows shot through the space Czioc had been occupying, while Sarge the lizardman howled throatily at the bloody stumps of fingers on his right hand. Some of the gang hadn't fired though, and they stared at Sarge while Tabbo cried out in pain on the ground.
'Sarge, what the fuck?!' yelled Kerbusson uncertainly, unsure what had happened, easing the strain on his bow.
Then the earth shook.
Czioc's body was thrown sideways as the entire platform wrenched upwards, tearing metal struts from the ground as the gang were knocked to their feet and arrows flew in random directions. The land's monumental grinding sound crashed through his head, while the metal screeched all around him, drowning out the shouts and cries now several yards below. Czioc opened his eyes, trying to grab onto anything around him and pull himself up; the platform lurched at a crazy angle. A couple of arrows flew past, missing completely, but Czioc saw the gangway was still in place and a man with a knife was trying to climb it already. He scrambled for the pillar, turning and using the tower's own gravity to climb quickly. Another quake nearly shook him free completely, also dislodging the gangway and sending it plummeting into the glowing green mass, the man scrabbling at the rockface.
Czioc clung on as the steel tower lurched and groaned, disoriented by the ground's downward gravity and the sideways pull of the tower. He could hear the continuing shouts and screams of the gang down below and behind him and clutched at gratings and broken railings, crawling quickly over the structure like a desperate spider. He looked about frantically for a way round, another way back down—
And then he saw something … impossible.
Everything slowed down, all the twisting metal and shouts around him becoming slow, irrelevant, moving ever … so … slowly.
The edge of the world was dark.
It was … a shape.
A dark shape loomed through the sea, around the edge of the world, a dark immeasurable shape.
It was a monster.
A monster the size of worlds.
Up through the Channelsea and the thousands of miles of water he saw an endless shape stretching off into infinity, a shape of brown, not stretching off to infinity but to the end of a curved edge which was the mightiest eye that stared down upon the world, flat and round and huge…
…And below that eye was the vastest mouth, a mouth to swallow wars and worlds, a mouth of blackest foulest night, a mouth big enough to swallow every sin of every species and entire laws of physics, a gaping mouth of righteousness with craggy teeth the size of continents crashing slowly into, into, into…
…into the world itself.
He lay there, mesmerised by an eye bigger than anything he'd ever known.
The world itself was collapsing.
Another mighty earthquake struck with a crash and sent him sprawling over the edge of the tower, lashing out for a handhold and cracking his face against a pole.
The world was collapsing, but it was still shaking around him, and the tower was still shaking under his clenched fingers, and the gang was still coming after him, and he was still looking for a way back so he could get to the—
He watched the gaping mouth moving, colliding with the world at several thousand miles an hour. He looked through the purple waters at the ships, at the tiny little toy ships with their tiny ants inside with their tiny tiny hopes and terrors. And he looked back at the mouth: slow, immeasurable, unstoppable.
A few moments ago his mind had been filled with escape, and the little details which, when constructed in the right way, could lead to an escape in the normal scheme of things.
But now, now there was nothing, absolutely nothing.
So he ran.
He ran up.
He pulled with every finger and pushed with every toe and heaved with every muscle and ran up the tower, ran against the pull of the world and used the gravity of the steel tower to give him motion. He fought the power of a dying world behind him, pulling him backwards, and for a moment thought that maybe there was an up, maybe here there was an absolute up and an absolute down, but realised these flimsy concepts were nothing compared to the absolute end that was coming now.
The sea itself approached like a wild heavy wall of water and he crashed with pointed arms straight into it, still running and leaping up the tower. He coughed great big bubbles and spun for a second, slowed, sucking saltwater into his lungs. But the gravity was weaker, the further and further he ran the weaker it got, and now he took big bounding steps up the tower which was thinning, platforms and girders connecting and narrowing…
Far away, the monster continued its final, languid devouring of the world.
…And he ran and he ran and the steel tower narrowed and now he ran only on a single thick mast of metal that hummed with Ethe energy and he ran and he ran and the mast narrowed to a shaft and the shaft narrowed to a pole and the pole narrowed to a wire and then he leapt into the nothing—