37. Iqlusion

The first steam engine was created in the first century, and did nothing more than spin around in place. It was seen as a minor curiosity by the philosopher who constructed it, a little toy for the entertainment of simple minds, but not to be put to any meaningful purpose. A literal steam engine rocket, the device – an aeolipile – was made, then seemingly forgotten about. The railway was invented seven centuries earlier – and the carts on that rail were pulled by human slaves.

Invention is driven by needs. The Greeks didn’t need a massive engine that hauled goods from place A to place B. They had slaves for that, and much of what they needed, they’d get from local areas.

On the other hand, when the British Empire needed to move things further than slaves could easily lug them, the two technologies came together and formed the spine of an economy. Seems that the needs were not met by what slaves they had.

On the other claw, the civilisation that gave rise to the Forever predated humanity. Many nations of the crab people, spread across the narrow band between beach and depths, building and mining the world with the tools shod about with runes.

They did not mine for iron. They did not craft engines, did not build libraries, and while they spread into new territories for new spawning beds, with high rocks and regular eddies, to ease the flow of eggs into new territories. Oh, how human biologists would love to know of them, if only to try and explain the weirdness of sacculina! They grew corals and crafted out of simple stones things they could scrip with runes, runes that were worn away and made meaningless in time, as the magic fizzed away.

In the lifespan of a four billion year old planet, humanity knew that they only existed for a hundred thousand years, give or take. They also knew another race like them emerged in that same time. What seemed so strange is how few ever imagined that someone else had happened even before that. A whole civilisation that formed, developed, rose…

When they fell it was a mere century of centuries before there was nothing left of whatever they had been.

*

It was like something out of a videogame, a zone of arbitary punishment. When the boat stemmed a little closer, the water rippled and distorted, its totally unnatural stillness discontented by even the smallest waves pushed against it. The current pushed back, and no matter how Innogen tacked – tacked was the right word, right? – the boat bounced back and stuck in place. It was like trying to boat uphill.

The military vessels were no longer there, though. With other concerns, it seemed warships were not too important to the governments who had an interest on the Forever. Helicopters buzzed by periodically. Planes may well have taken from a higher point. While Enk clung to the edges of the small stolen boat, he tried to ignore the pieces of broken flotsam, the drifting chunks of boat-and-what-else that wafted around that edge of the stillness. Adjusting his lifejacket, he huffed a sigh and tried to tune his thoughts back to Innogen’s yelling.

“It’s… like a rune!” she said.

Enk’s memory dredged up its explanation easily. A rune. A pattern into which magic flowed, and reacted in a way to influence matter outside of the rune. Enk’s own mind was a little cross-section of ancient runes, runes that had caught the shape of other, older thought patterns, and that was why he could remember… others. How they thought, what they felt. That disorientation was enough to make him seasick on land – but here on the ocean, it was so easy to think of… think of…

The guy with the spines and the claws and the hard-shelled underside, the guy who remembered moulting and preparing his dorsal package of eggs. It was easy to think of his thoughts, to think of his magic, and his ability to fight and some part of Enk knew that he wasn’t remembering things correctly but Enk had enough of his life being complicated right now and remembering having claws and four extra legs was way more disorienting than remembering having… like uterus-balls. Whatever.

It was easier to think of … that … crab-person.

Innogen swung forwards on one of the cables, leaning over the prow of the boat, planting her hand on Enk’s. “Stay with me, Crabbypants.”

“Bwhuh. Yeah, a Rune, right. You mean, the water…?”

“Flows into the runes and finishes them. It’s how it’s reacting, like, even though it’s… not really running?”

“That why it yells, y’think?” Enk asked. And yell it did. The bellowing sound that rippled across the world, the sound that had knocked Innogen over like a hammer, was not just a metaphor this close; wind seemed to build up in the depths of the massive jade structure, rippled… and blasted back out again, sounding like a vast, mournful wail.

Mournful whale.

Huh, that was an uncomfortable thing to remember, for some reason. Enk shook his head. “Yeah, like… it’s designed to work even if nobody’s doing anything to it! It’s a … a… fail-deadly!” he said. “We need to avoid disturbing the water to get any closer!”

Innogen didn’t ask or else. A bobbing piece of helicopter fan sat on the still surface not twenty feet away. It, apparently, wasn’t disturbing the water enough. “Don’t disturb the water… huh.” Innogen asked.

And then she leapt. Innogen threw herself forwards off the edge of the boat, pushing down on it as she went – and as her arcing body – thrown surprisingly high – swept over the pond-still surface of the ocean, she brought her hands down, together, held the pattern in her mind, closed her eyes and-

pop!

– the detonation of energy from between her hands was a gasp against the surface of the water, sending only the faintest ripple along its edge. A swell of motion, a bubbling in the water. Enk didn’t even realise he was holding his breath as he saw it, until the a chain of purple and red energy, crackling in lines fell down out of the sky, coring down against the surface of the water. While the mystery of the drifting ship parts was explained, Enk was too saturated with terror to do anything but watch every last detail in vivid technicolour. The way the water surface didn’t ripple with the energy coursing through it. The way the energy seemed to ripple and defray under the surface, spreading out like cream in coffee, but somehow leaving the surface glassy. The way that the coursing strands of energy seemed to cut the air, leaving behind a strange, corroded scent he couldn’t quite understand,

Innogen had no appreciation for this, though. She was twenty meters on, cresting her arc and falling once more, balling up her hands and bracing to do the exact same thing again. If disturbing the water was the problem, she just needed to keep ahead of the disturbance. It wasn’t that far…

Wasn’t this where the heroine had a moment of confidence, slipping when confronted with the terror of what she was doing? Enk was sure there was something like that. He knew that he might have been able – well, not literally, but he was sure that if he tried what Innogen was now doing without any seeming effort, he’d have tumbled into the ocean and been bolted into shark-food.

Innogen didn’t have time for that.

Landing on the jade with flat, sneakered feet, Innogen hooked her toes in a rune-wrought shape and started to climb, to no dire effect. Standing up as she reached a flat point on a crab-thing’s face, she turned, waving her arm above her head and crowed, “Okay, seems you can get out here, if…””

Enk heard “… …. ….. ..!” Which was fine, because all he had to communicate in response was embarassed frustration. His cousin had just thrown herself through the sky like some sort of rocket-jumping videogame character, and she did it so effortlessly. Trying not to fume, Enk reached up to stroke his second set of chelicerata-

Wait, no, he didn’t have those! He didn’t have … those things around his mouth or things around his hips or the ability to render the surface of water mirror-glass for hunting birds, or the ability to breath in water! He was just-

Hang on, one of those sounded useful.

Enk straightened up, looking at the edge of the boat, at that eerie line in the water where the swashing waves simply settled into a flatness, and rippled into nothing like they were embarassed. Innogen created patterns in her mind, patterns Enk had had to create with little rituals and scent triggers and all sorts of things he’d been dreadful at using. That was how things had been for Enk

But not for that crab person.

Stepping out, over the edge, Enk planted one foot on the surface of the water and felt his heart leap into his throat as it started to sink.

Then stop.

Hanging like in someone’s arms, Enk slowly lifted his other foot out of the boat… and stood on the surface of the water. It did not so much as ripple, wafting silently along with the motions of his feet; he lifted his feet, the water stayed concrete-still underneath him. He knew he had to be displacing it with each step. Scientifically, he had to know that. But …

The King’s Guardian knew this spell.

Each step came with agonising concentration. Maybe more than was necessary – but to slip up once meant either a bolt from above, or worse, to slip into the depths of the ocean where who knew what his memory would throw in his face. One meter at a time, Enk stepped, slow and steady, to reach the edge of Forever where Innogen sat, looking down, inquisitive. Too worried to say anything.

“C’mon,” she said. “I found a hatch-type thing.” Grabbing Enk by his hand, she pulled him up to stand on the platform with her.

The crab-people, they from below and before, had wanted a way to walk the water, to hunt birds.

What technology they’d needed, they’d made.

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