24. Old Truths

The human memory is a plastic entity, composed mostly in the software space of the brain. A complicated but ultimately poorly-debugged device, the brain works with any degree of efficiency mostly thanks to redundant systems over redundant systems, such as the storage of memory. Recent hypothesis indicate that the brain creates a memory by recognising the experience, then filing that experience in the memory. Unlike plumbing, though, the memory does not need to pass through the first to reach the second – but rather, two parallel systems handle this, with the second usually slower. Usually. Sometimes, that memory is created before the experience is registered, and the brain has a moment where it tries to reconcile remembering something it had just done. This phenomenon is known in common parlance as déjà vu, and many stories were shared about how it worked, and why.

One idea was that déjà vu was the remembering of an older memory from an earlier life; to recall someone else’s memories, like a ghost. In many ways, it was a silly idea – to remember the memories of someone else feels nothing like that. The sensation is less disquieting, and more confusing, as the memory tries to hold onto conflicting information. Key details stand out, echo in the mind, but the brain has to try and reconcile possibilities and impossibilities, and that often leads to strange behaviours, and momentarily altered perceptions.

Enk would know.

Innogen was fine, by the time the morning came. Mother had spoken about how important it was to get fresh air, and, after telling the pair that school was not an immediate priority – at least, until the skies stopped doing odd things, the ocean stopped screaming, and there weren’t any more ships heading out to what seemed to be a rapidly expanding problem in the sea.

“What was it like?” Enk – wait, no, Hank – asked as he stepped out on the sidewalk with her. A shopping list tucked into his pocket, they’d been given strict orders to spend only a little of the change on maple bacon candy and if they did, bring that home, because, you know.

“What?” Innogen asked, looking down to her cousin. Knitted cap on her head, sweater thick on her body, it was easy for her to hide everything about her that made her so damn remarkable, if not for the bright, glowing eyes, the radiant smile, and of course, the fact she was head and shoulders taller than Enk. Sometimes, things were very unfair.

“The thing. You collapsed.”

“Oh,” she said, turning, guiding Enk down the street, taking the lead. It was what she did, after all. “It hurt my head. I mean, like… a super huge stress headache, you know?” she asked, looking down to him again, or rather, looking next to herself, where she expected Enk to be. “… Why are you doing that?”

“Why am I doing what?”

“Walking sideways?”

Enk looked down at the ground. Then at the pavement edge. Then at his cousin. For some reason, there was some part of his brain that threw up reasons – reasons that would make sense, but… weren’t his. Saving space on the pavement, he needed to look at her, he needed to make sure she was alright, he- none of them. Not one of them was a real reason.

“… I was?” he asked, turning, facing straight on, and trying to adjust his vest, under his sweater.

“You’re such a weirdo,” she laughed, leaning over and butting her shoulder against his. “Love you, Enk.” She said, then adjusted her cap and picked up the pace. “C’mon, what’s on the shopping list?”

*

Sometime ago, Enk had learned that fish only smelled when they were bad. The end of the day at the fish market, you’d smell a lot, but in the morning, it was actually more likely to smell of cleaning fluid and ice. Living where they did, you knew the smell of good fish, and mostly it was the absence of smell at all. There was just the smell of soft grass – and some mud – from the morning snow melt, around the cleared plastic tubs, brought from the docks, full of packed ice and still-fresh fish.

At least, that’s what Enk remembered from cooking shows, and oh god, he was such a nerd. Standing in line next to Innogen, he watched her as she smiled, laughed, and spoke so easily to the girl next to her. Someone she didn’t know. Someone who had just wandered up in the crowd, pretty and bronwhaired. Innogen had struck up a conversation with her, because her cardigan was coloured like a penguin, complete with a tuxedo-like tail, and that was, to Innogen, adorable.

Enk inwardly seethed not with resentment at his cousin, but rather with embarrassment at himself. He hadn’t even bothered to start a conversation with a stranger, and here he was, annoyed that someone else’s conversation was going better?

Huff.

Turning back to look at the racks of fish, Enkudu blinked, trying to stop himself from looking at the Girl in the Penguin Cardigan. Shifting his shoulders, adjusting his tie – why did he wear a tie? Why did he come out, in all seriousness, wearing a tie, a vest, and a collared shirt? Was he hoping to impress someone?

Years later, Enk would wonder if maybe the infiltrating memories, influencing his mind, were to blame. They weren’t. Enk just didn’t know what Enk really liked – like the satisfying feeling of a tie slipping into place, the way a vest made his chest feel warmer.

Enk’s roaming eye went from place to plaice, falling upon the deep plastic tub, in which crabs, arrayed in piles, tied up with rubber bands, rattled and creaked… and seemed, for a moment to speak to one another.

Crabs did not speak to one another. Crabs communicated through some method or other, but surely it wasn’t a conversation with language and refind tones and influence and terms like emperor and authority and magistrative. Surely not. But Enk couldn’t stop himself staring, couldn’t help himself, as that moment lurked in the back of his mind, the moment in which… the moment in which he had taken up his spear, and then, rising up to the king’s throne, bodyguard of the king, he had brought his arms forwards, and –

No.

Not arms. Not hands. No, claws. Claws, grasping, crushing claws, the outer set, for… for…

It hadn’t been a spear.

It had been a spine.

It had been… it had been…

Innogen whirled around just in time to see her cousin collapsing, face-first into the wet earth, mud splashing around Enk’s front. Arms held by his side, hands shuddered and twitched, as Enk tried to find himself in a shape that he wasn’t any more.

Innogen grabbed Enk by the arm, trying to pull him up, up off the ground, calling as if from many leagues away, up out of the water, voice coming murky and distorted:

“Enk?! Are you okay?!”

It seems everyone had a chance to collapse in this family, day to day. Arms flailing wide, Enk’s hand closed around one of the small, discarded rolls of duct tape, left after being used to fix a plastic tub, his hands in a death grip. A moment of flailing more, and Enk blinked –

Enk could see his nose.

Everyone can see their nose. It’s always there. The brain just edits it out. Seeing it, actually seeing it, is a disorienting thing, particularly because the brain knows it’s not meant to be seeing it. And he spat and sputtered, and immediately tried to mash his claw-hand-grip-spine against the thing that had become so close to his face.

It was… quite a sight, watching Enk trying to mash a roll of duct tape up his nose.

“Enk, Enk, honey, you’re kinda scaring the living shit out of me here, fuck,” Innogen said, pulling her cousin close, not caring about the mud. Hugging him, she gestured at the penguin girl. “Hey, you,” she said. “Go get…” she fished in her pocket, throwing her mobile phone to her. “Get where there’s some reception and call ‘Auntie’ on that phone. Tell her we’re –”

“No!” Gasped Enk, sitting up, grabbing Innogen’s shoulders, gasping for breath. “No, no,” he said, pushing himself up, sitting, no, standing. Staggering for a moment as he hauled himself up, he reached out, taking the phone from the penguin girl, and giving her what, at that moment, Enk hoped was something like a dashing smile.

“… Thanks…” he said. Turning back to Innogen, he swallowed, and held out his hands. “I’m fine. I know what it is, now.”

“Know… know what?”

Enk had felt, in that long moment on the ground, two minds grappling for position. He had his own mind, of which there was a lot more, and which was a monkey brain, rattling against memories, errant and drifting, imprinted on the magic around him, from the sea, old and cold. He knew the story, now, of the bodyguard. He knew the story of the king – and he knew that the king had been not human at all.

Magic was older than human people – but civilisation and magic, they were also older than human people. Maybe, just maybe, the reason those people weren’t known about was because those empires had collapsed, in part, thanks to magic.

“I know what the thing in the ocean is. And… and we should try to stop it.”

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