38. The Needs Of Forever

You develop the technology you need to solve the problems you have. When you have a problem with breaking rocks and cutting bronze armour, you tend to develop iron. When you have problems of inadequate archers and large labour forces, you will probably develop muskets. When you have enormous huge piles of money and a military-industrial complex, maybe it’s just natural to develop unmanned drones.

The Forever’s jade exterior gave way to a dark, polished green corridors. Each corridor was almost circular; flat on the bottom, with a ridge running along the middle about elbow-height for Enkudu. Innogen had to duck slightly in the passage.While the walls had every reason to be wet, they instead felt strangely dry to the touch. When Enk laid his fingers on the surface – nervously at first, then more confidently when it failed to yield, despite its seemingly organic feel.

Why are you even here, he wondered. It was only a moment after he thought that that he realised he wasn’t thinking about the Forever, but about himself. This was some Famous Five stuff. Somehow, no adults had been involved in this story, somehow it was just Innogen and himself, and … and it just happened because Innogen had had the confidence to make it happen. That was still strange, to him. That she had the confidence at all, really.

Why didn’t he?

The corridor was never, as far as Enk could tell, straight. The whole of the Forever was circular from the outside, and the path they walked seemed to curve off in either direction once past the hatch. When Innogen stepped forwards, her sneakers squeaked like she was stepping on fine sand. Enk followed, but without the same firmness – gentle steps like he was afraid he’d sink down in.

“Innogen…?” he asked, looking back behind himself, nervous at the deep, inky blankness that filled the hall behind them. “Is this the right way?”

She laughed, brash as ever: “We’ll make it the right way.”

Good grief, she was enjoying this so much!

The tunnel, grim as it was, did breathe with a strange, lazy light, glimmering under the green of the passageway. The light seemed to brighten as they walked on, drawing them onwards and inwards. The passage curled up – then down again, as it belled outwards. The belling expanded further – and then as the pair rounded a corner, a chamber the size of a large room, nearly spherical… in which dozens of shells, the size of Enk’s chest, lay scattered across the floor in pools of slowly smoking liquid.

“… The heck…” Innogen murmured, standing in the doorway – unconsciously putting her arm back behind her, protecting Enk with her body. “Hey, Enk, you know these guys…” she said, swallowing, and looking down at the prone form of whole crab-like people. “… Why are there still some… like… is this… should they-”

Enk leant around Innogen, swallowing nervously as he surveyed what was, without any doubt, something… dead. But fluid didn’t sit like that in the ocean, and every sign of the people who had been the crabs had faded away, hadn’t it? Without things like iron they’d been claimed by the deep seas, lost to forever, and eroded into the tiniest pieces the shoals could render. Without magic to sustain them, they’d died out…

Why then, these… fresh forms?

Enk stepped forwards to look the forms over, trying to swallow what fear he had. The figure was like a crab – well, it was like the crabs in his memory – but it wasn’t a crab. It wasn’t even like one of the crabs in his memory. As he tilted the shell, and watched a complicated collection of spiralling coral fall from within. Runes glimmered on their surfaces, punctured and torn by some… some thing.

“They’re not crabs…” Enk said, poking a piece of coral – watching as it tumbled into the hissing liquid pooling on the floor, foaming along its edges, dissolving into a scummy film atop the fluid. “They’re, like…”

Enk would have to get used to a life of being interrupted. A spine the length of his arm shot over his head, and he ducked forwards after it streaked past. Balance upset, he waved his arms behind him, flailing backwards, trying to avoid falling from his precarious toe-weighted perch into the fluid. It could dissolve coral, after all, and Enk’s imagination was so fertile a place to imagine what else it might do to his skin.

The moment of material dread as Enk leant back, back, back, flailing his arms and trying to not tumble face-first into oblivion, was so palpable he didn’t really hear what happened behind him. He didn’t hear Innogen wheeling on the guard that stirred; he didn’t see her in those short few seconds, running up the side of the curled wall, throwing a blast of force down underneath her – a crackling charge of lightning that filled the air with sound and ozone – and land atop the green guardian as it lumbered mindlessly forward. Enk didn’t her plant her hands atop the spines of the not-crab, the guardian drone, and fill the air with such a crackle of ozone as to make eyes water.

He just saw his own panicked, terrified face, reflected in still, corrosive waters… before he slumped back onto his butt, while Innogen, spine in hand, slid off the creature she’d just… well, slain. Destroyed? Wiping green goo off her hands – her hands! – she ducked back while the form sunk down into a prone helplessness and spurted fluid all around. It sure as hell didn’t seem to phase her.

Enk’s lifejacket, on the other hand, didn’t seem very comfortable with the goo. The hissing sound hit his ears only slightly before the positively toxic scent filled his lungs. Gripping buckles and stripping it off quickly, Enk managed to hold himself back from a swoon, swinging the chemically-burning composite of plastics and foam away from himself against one of the dull-lit walls. Gasping for breath, he slumped down by the doorway, hands on the floor, head down, and tried to breath a breath that didn’t feel simultaneously too wet and not wet enough.

Would this stop her?

As quickly as that thought bubbled up behind Enk’s eyes, the response flooded back: Who?

“You okay, there…?” Innogen said, hunkering down on one knee, brushing her hair out of her eyes. A scrape along her cheek was red and showing the signs of a truly impressive bruise, but it didn’t stop her from giving him a grin like a tiger.

“… Yeah…” Enk said, slowly pulling himself up and trying to suppress the tiny song of resentment that played in the back of his mind. The reminder that it was just so easy for Innogen to, to, to… to just be. “I’m ok-” and the gun interrupted him.

“That’s…” Enk said, looking down at his foot.

“That’s a gun.”

“That’s a really, really fancy gun.” Enk continued.

“Would you… would you like to stop standing on it?”

Enk hopped backwards like his foot was on fire. Innogen, ever cautious, leant forwards and poked it with the chunk of torn-off spine. “Did… did the crab people make…” she squinted. “Handguns with the word ‘Desert Eagle’ written on them?” Pause. “In English?”

“No…” Enk said. “No, I don’t think that they did…”

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