We sat huddled together on the wooden floor of a familiar railcar. The darkness was alleviated by a dim yellow light in the hands of Sente. I had seen the other traders using similar devices, which were much weaker than the magelights in our gloves. The benefit of the traders' lights was their very small aether supply could be easily replenished by vigorously turning a hand crank. The cranking was noisy, but it was not as loud as the rhythmic clanking of the railcar rushing through the night, pulled at the highest possible speed by the High Energy Low Load steam engine.
"So it's hand-powered magic?" I asked, trying to understand what I was seeing. "It's that easy to create magic?"
"Yes," said Skids.
"No," said Sente.
"Huh?" I asked.
"What?" Skids added.
Shenks was not so interested in this topic. "Can we talk about something else? Like how easy it was to convince that Carlos guy to take two exiles and a mage to Deepbloom? Or maybe how dangerously fast we are going right now?"
Sente ignored him. "There's no such thing as magic."
With the wiggle of a finger, Skids activated dro's magelight. "What's this then?"
"I have definitely seen a lot of magic over the last few days," I said, wanting to be supportive. Sente was an experienced leader, but he did not get to deny obvious realities.
"What you have done and seen is not magic," Sente declared.
Skids waved a hand around her body, indicating dro's self. "I'm a mage. I do magic. That's how it is."
"But what is magic?" Sente asked, clearly trying to lead Skids into a logical rebuttal.
"Magic is a method of manipulating the world through invisible means," I said, using a definition from the Codex.
Sente clapped his hands together. "Is sound magic?"
"Sound is merely the air moving," I said.
"And yet the air is unseen. Is the air magic?"
"Air is not hidden, rather it is a natural object which is simply too small to see," I argued. "When Skids' magic crashed a train and bent a bicycle, was that done only using the natural motion of natural objects? Was it performed using a hidden gas in any way comparable to air?"
I cut off his argument. "Then it is magic."
Sente sat silently for a time, considering his response. Shenks was looking around the railcar for anything that might catch his interest, while Skids was silently fuming. I waited curiously, wondering where Sente would take this discussion next. Obviously he was wrong, but arguing with him about it was fascinating.
"When you drop an object it falls, yes?"
That was simple. "Yes."
"Objects are attracted to one another, depending on their mass. The greater the mass, the greater the attraction. The earth has a very large mass, so everything near the earth is attracted to it." This was not the most common knowledge, but I found it easy to understand.
"Hey!" Shenks interjected, kneading his hands together and wrinkling his brow. "How do you know about such things? That is an advanced topic of study. It is not something you should be concerning yourself with."
I knew because I had peeked at my brothers' textbooks. More than just peeked, actually. But I did not care about explaining myself to Shenks. "Sente, what does this have to do with magic not being real?"
Sente answered, while Shenks made noises of disapproval and frustration. "What causes objects to be attracted in this fashion, and how does it differ from magic?" He had a satisfied smile, as if he was pleased at having trapped me. He was wrong.
"It does not differ, in a broad sense. The motion of falling objects could be said to be 'magic', but it is natural, safe, and permitted by the Great Maker."
Sente laughed. "Safe? Falling objects can be far from safe."
"Oh. But that is not what I meant. Unlike the natural attraction between the earth and other objects, magic is inherently corrupting." Even as I spoke the familiar words, I knew that I doubted them. And yet I spoke them as I saw them in my mind.
"Have you seen evidence of this?"
I had not. "No... but I might have a brain abnormality. I am waiting on some test results to find out what is wrong with me."
"What kind of tests?" Sente asked, a little more gently than before.
"Magical tests," I admitted.
"Then perhaps you do not truly believe that magic is inherently corrupting."
"Perhaps it is not." What were we arguing about again? "But that does not mean magic is natural."
"What do you mean by 'natural'?" Sente asked.
I took some time to form a complete and convincing explanation. "Things that can fall, will fall. We have no control over this. We cannot make things fall faster or slower than they ought. We can use the existing attraction. For example, we can make falling water turn a wheel — or flowing water, which is merely water falling down a very slight, long incline — but we cannot change the attraction. We can stop the movement, such as using a rope or a shelf to hold an object above the ground, but the amount of attraction is always in direct relation to the mass of the object. Always, with no exceptions. But with magic, mages can manipulate attractions and repulsions at will. They can manipulate the order of things on a deeper level than mere normal, natural motions of objects. Magic can send sounds across distances without vibrations, and turn wheels without storing pressure."
"You are a very observant and logical person," Sente said.
I could not help but smile, pleased at the praise. I was especially pleased that he had not qualified the praise with 'for one of your people' or 'for a girl' as I had feared he might.
"You could be a seer," Skids said. I was not sure how dro meant that, but I decided it take it as a compliment.
"However," Sente added, to my disappointment, "I must ask you what the range of use and usefulness of a thing determines whether or not it is natural."
"Er... I mean, mages can manipulate the world in ways that would not be possible without magic."
"And your people can manipulate the world in ways that would not be possible without mirrors, lenses, steam engines, and so on."
"Only in ways that are visible and involve mere manipulation of visible objects. And those are all gifts from the Great Maker. Besides, those simply extend and accelerate what is already possible naturally. If I left a metal sheet in direct sunlight for long enough, it would get hot enough to begin to cook a small crumb of food. With enough metal in enough sunlight, a whole meal could be cooked. The use of mirrors simply makes that far more efficient and practical. But something like the mages' ventril is not possible naturally."
"Oh? What about your heliograph?"
"It does not reproduce voices."
"Can a non-magical machine not reproduce voices?"
"Well, voices can be recorded on resin platters and played back," I admitted. But that was different.
"Could some mechanism be designed to combine a heliograph with this method of storing and recreating voices?"
I supposed that the process for causing tiny vibrations in a cutting needle could be altered to cause extremely rapid flickers of light. But how could those be converted back into vibrations by a receiver? And so much light was lost over distances. If only there was a way to keep the light from spreading out in all directions. Oh, a lens could do that. But we still needed something that would respond rapidly, precisely, and mechanically in response to very tiny flickers of light. "Perhaps. It may be possible, but I do not know what the mechanism might be. Hmm... I suppose with a spinning photographic plate and some moving arrangement of mirrors it might be possible to produce a photograph of sound, but I do not know what purpose that might serve. Oh! Never mind the sound, we could possibly use the heliograph to reproduce photographs. Well, not a detailed reproduction, but at least a reasonable facsimile." Now that was a brilliant idea! "Sorry, where were we?"
"I believe we were in a disagreement as to whether 'magic' offers possibilities which are merely quantitative improvements over that which is possible without it, or radically new," Sente said.
That summed it up quite nicely. "Oh, yes. But since we are arguing about what can be done with magic, that does not give you any room to say that there is no such thing as magic."
"No, what I mean is that what you call magic is not actually magic."
"How can magic not be magic? A thing is always itself, and not something else. If magic is not magic, then what is?"
"Yes?" Skids said, rather forcefully.
"You must know the most about 'magic' out of anyone here."
"Yeah. Now you choose to consult me."
"I apologise for appearing to exclude you. Miss Wilison was the one who provided a definition of magic, so most of my argument was with her."
"Charity's definition of magic doesn't matter. Or would you like me to explain to you what 'trade' is and how you're doing it wrong?"
Skids shrugged. "I dunno, that was just an example. Look, the mages call what they do magic. So that's what magic is. You seem to have some different idea of what magic should be. I don't care."
"What if I told you that it was not mages' decision to call it magic? Or that they did not even choose to call themselves mages?"
"Technically, it was the Great Maker who named magic," I interjected. "The mages sto... er, started using magic and became known as mages because of that."
"The Over Seer gave us the gift of magic," Skids said, punctuated with a defiant headshake.
"No, the formation of the mages predates the ascendancy of the Maker or the Seer or whatever you want to call him."
"Prove it!" Skids said, almost spitting the words.
"Do we really have to?" Shenks tried to interrupt.
"What would you accept as proof?" Sente asked Skids.
Skids' face contorted through a variety of perplexed arrangements. "Uh..."
"What could prove such a thing?" I asked. "Such an event would be prehistoric. Even if the world is more than a few hundred years old, even if the stories of the fallen world the Great Maker destroyed are meant to be taken literally, we have no record of them."
"Of course the old world is real," Skids said in clear disbelief that I could think otherwise. "You saw the relic."
"How do I know it is not just a device built by mages? An advanced scryer, perhaps."
"No, I've seen what mages can build," Skids said, retrieving the still-attached relic and scryer from dro's backpack. "This is beyond what we can make, and it's very different in style. And the manner in which it operates and... How do I describe this? The way it presents the steps for interacting with it and manipulating it. These are quite different to how mages make our scryers operate. I'm not saying this well. A seer could explain it better. Or maybe a hexmage?"
"What else can it do? Besides the singing and the, uh, dancing?" I asked Sente.
Sente stalled by unnecessarily clearing his throat. "That's an excellent question. Alas, the knowledge regarding the specific contents of this relic has been lost to time, only partially remembered in legends and tales since it was stolen by the raiders. So we'll have to discover anew what treasures it contains."
"You mean the previous Sente did not pass that information down to you," I said.
"Something like that, yes. Skids, would you care to pass the relic to me so I can examine its contents?" Sente reached for the relic, but Skids held onto it.
"Do you mind if I take a look for myself?" dro asked, in a way that did not leave much room for a negative answer. I wondered whether Skids might suspect that Sente had something to hide.
"I suppose not," Sente conceded. "But please take care to avoid reorganising or removing any of the contents."
"Sure, I'll be careful," Skids said, poking at the artifact with dro's right pointer finger. Skids was seated to my right — my blind side — so I had to lean over and crane my neck to see.
"Can you read those words?" I wondered aloud.
"It's similar to a very old script which... is used on certain arcane objects," Skids said rather vaguely. "The dialect is very old too. I don't know the meanings of a lot of the words. But many of the interaction points are marked by pictograms rather than words, which makes their function easier to infer. Or it might. Er... so that's some kind of wirecutters, or at least some kind of cutting tool. And that one's some kind of basket. And there's a couple involving rectangles with lines in them," Skids said, sounding more and more lost.
"Those could represent sheets of paper with lines of writing on them," I guessed. "That one has two such sheets, and the other one has a sheet on a clipboard. The shape of the clipboard is what makes me think it could be writing on paper."
"I've seen you writing on paper, so I understand what you mean by that, but what's a clipboard?"
"I suppose you would not have any use for them, what with using your scryers to store all your writing," I figured. "A clipboard is just a board with a clip held down by a spring, to secure sheets of paper in a way that you can conveniently write on them and either retain or remove them. So... there's one image representing storing notepaper, one with scissors for cutting paper, one with two sheets of paper suggesting duplication, and the basket could be a wastepaper basket, suggesting discarding sheets of paper. I suggest you avoid poking that one particularly."
"Yes, that would be wise," Sente said, nodding slowly and deeply. "Poking such a pictogram would indeed discard irreplaceable information, while the others would assist in duplicating or reorganising it. I think none of these features would assist you."
"What information would these pictograms manipulate?" I wondered. "Obviously not actual paper. I suppose it is a metaphor. A representation."
"Precisely," Sente said, sounding pleased at my words, while looking worried about Skids' occasional pokes at the relic. "How would your people store large amounts of information in an organised fashion?"
"Hmm, do you mean like books on shelves? Or perhaps a filing cabinet? The clerics keep related records of various transactions and decisions in cardboard folders, which are arranged in marked sections in drawers. Oh, cardboard is just paper that's extra thick and stiff," I added for Skids' benefit. Perhaps Sente's too, though I had a feeling that he might already know what I meant. "And a folder is basically just a piece of cardboard that's twice the size of the sheets of paper being filed, folded in half to hold them," I added, demonstrating with my hands. "Though often one side is longer so a part sticks out where to add a label."
"Ohh, a lot of these pictograms could be folders, I suppose," Skids said, angling the relic so I could see better. "If this means what I think it does, then it's a whole lot more convenient than my scryer. I think the seers and hexmages might have something like this for their scryers. Sall and hall look down on the rest of us who get stuck with the basic or 'straighforward' designs. That really means 'dumbed down' so we can't mess up too badly.
I felt a pang of guilt as I realised that I had often had similar thoughts about other people. Most other people, to be honest. "You seem smart enough to me," I said, though I had not always thought that. Many of Skids' decisions had not seemed clever to me at the time. Many still did not.
Shenks ran out of patience. "Hey, can you save this for a time when a city is not in danger of being wiped out by demons? For all you know, touching the relic could be what angered the demons in the first place! By continuing to poke at it, you could be making the problem worse. The Great Maker commanded that all relics be given to him, remember? They are too powerful for us to play with."
I remembered that directive in the Codex very clearly, but had ignored it in favour of fulfilling my curiosity. "It is a device for displaying images and reproducing sounds. How could it summon demons?" I argued, but inwardly I was worried.
"It clearly has some connection to the demons. It showed us where they are, remember? That's why we are on our way to Deepbloom!"
He had a good point, but I hoped his concern was not warranted. "It showed the demons because Sente specifically instructed it to do that. I do not think it would summon them as a result of doing something unrelated." I turned back to Skids. "Have you figured anything else out?"
"Yeah, that part up the top shows the time. And I suppose that's a date next to the time, but I don't understand their calendar."
"Those are numbers, right? Why does that one have four digits? Perhaps it's the number of days since or until something significant," I suggested
"That would be the year," Sente said, startling me.
"But that would mean... thousands of years?"
"Yes. The world is older than you know."
"But... thousands?" I repeated, my voice cracking. I could not even begin to imagine what that meant. Looking again at the relic, I considered the advancements the Pure had made in construction and machinery over a few generations. After thousands of years...
The relic started buzzing. Skids almost dropped it. "Whoops."
I stared at the bizarre angular caricature of the world which was presented to me. "What did you do, Skids?"
"I poked the item with the longest name in the list, to see what happened! It started another picture song!"
"I can see that!" This one was not made up of photographs. It was more like a child's drawing, but profoundly unsettling. I was not sure what was the worst part: the weirdly shaped bodies, the repetitive boxiness of everything, or the casual presence of flames in many of the scenes. Perhaps it was the horrifically uncanny expressions on the faces of the unreal 'people' who were parodying humanity. "Make it stop!" I shouted, unable to look away. As before, the shifting images were accompanied by music and a singing voice, but I did not give much of my attention to the sounds.
I used my best glare on Skids. It was not as good as my father's, but it was good enough. In response to a couple of finger-pokes, the relic ceased producing sounds, and the image stopped changing. I was left staring at a red-eyed, mottled green monster which was chasing an approximation of a man through an approximation of a cave. "Make it go away."
"Fascinating," Skids said softly. "It's like something out of the tales carers tell children to scare them so they don't wander into mining sites." Dro poked again and the image vanished, leaving the previous list of items visible.
"Did you read the name before poking it?" I asked.
"I think the first word means something to do with payback."
"That's not very helpful. Neither of the picture songs have been helpful, or meaningful."
"Oh, I think that word near the end might be something like 'music'. Several of these have the same word. And the same thing is up here in this rectangle."
"Yes, and there's an open folder pictogram beside it. I think that might serve as a folder label. Everything in this list is probably music with moving pictures."
"If I may make a suggestion," Sente said, "there should be a way to see the list of the contents of different 'folders'."
"Maybe if I poke that arrow..." Skids said, poking it. "Yes!" The list changed to a much shorter list of words, many with folder pictograms. "Now what? I'll just pick the top one."
Skids poked the top folder in the list, and we were presented with a new list of its contents. Dro poked the first item in that list. A new series of moving pictures accompanied by sound began, but this one had no singing, dancing, or monsters. There was only a man standing behind a bench, talking and gesturing. He was wearing a big white hat.
Unlike the first singing man, this one did not look like a photograph. This was clearer and more detailed than the very best photographs I had ever seen. This was as clear as looking into a mirror. It was as if I was actually seeing the man before me, except that he was smaller than real life. Though it was like a photograph in that the focus was fixed in place. It seemed flatter than reality, and my reality was already flatter than I was accustomed to, owing to my loss of an eye.
I recognised several items on the bench. "Is that... Yes, that's a kitchen! Oh, he's beginning to prepare a meal."
Skids dragged dro's finger across the relic and we saw the man move in extremely fast motion. Indeed, he was preparing some kind of soup or stew. "I think this is instructional."
"He... he's cooking over fire!" I realised, almost choking on my words as I tried to gasp at the same time. "Fire!" I instinctively shrank away from the image and recalled where the closest container of water was. My conscious mind caught up before I could do anything rash. There was no real danger.
"How is the kitchen not burning down?" Skids wondered. "That's extremely dangerous."
"I doubt many of the surrounding materials can burn easily," Sente said, looking inordinately cheerful. "I don't think you'll find any answers in a cooking folder."
Skids tried out a few more items in the same folder, and they did indeed all feature people cooking. Some were the same man as the first, while others had other men, women, or even multiple people. I was not used to seeing men cook, but that was only a minor detail to add to an enormous pile. Most of their clothes were different again from any I had encountered, and many of their implements and methods were strange to me also. They spoke in a variety of unrecognisable dialects, some so different that they seemed like completely unrelated languages. For all I knew, that could be a real phenomenon. Some of the dishes cooked and ingredients used were familiar, but many were not.
"Yeah, that's all cooking," Skids said, having proven Sente's words. "And it's definitely not how mages would cook, and it's very different from what I've seen of the sunfolk, and there's no way the raiders or traders could make anything like this."
I nodded, agreeing that it had been worth persisting with the rather unexciting subject matter. I understood cooking, while dancing was entirely new to me.
"Let's try another of these folders. Maybe that one with the short name? Sente, do you know what that means?"
"News," Sente translated. "Those would be of more use to you if you could understand the language."
"It's worth a try," Skids said, shrugging and starting a new... moving picture with sound. We really needed a word for that.
This... relic experience had a lot more going on than the previous ones we had watched. It changed between showing a variety of formally dressed people talking — usually just one, sometimes two or three — and a variety of esoteric scenes. I could not even begin to process what was going on. A solid blue bar obscured part of the bottom of the screen, along which a stream of words filed past.
"This is... a lot," Skids muttered.
"Yeah," I agreed breathlessly. "What even is that? Those are buildings, and streets, but... that can't be right."
"That was a city," Sente said. "A real city, with millions of residents."
"Millions? In one city?" There were not even half a million people alive in all the Pure cities put together.
"They could build as far as they wished," Sente said. "And they did."
"No demons, no exclusion zones," I whispered reverently. "If such a thing were possible... What a world!"
While we were distracted in wonder, Shenks snatched the relic away from Skids. "Can we please get on with planning how we're going to save Deepbloom?"