It wasn’t until five days later that I felt confident enough to perform the vivisection.
After our fight with Ooran juh — who Raine insisted on calling ‘Orange Juice’, much to Evelyn’s eye-rolling exasperation — I took the rest of that week off university classes, to heal and recover. I even officially and formally ‘called in’ with flu symptoms, which wasn’t far off the truth. Every muscle in my body ached, from the thick slabs of quadriceps and gluteus, through my underdeveloped abdominals and weak arms, right down to the tiny muscles that controlled my eyelids, the slow squeezing tube of my oesophagus, and the delicate muscles between my fingers and toes. Even my tongue and jaw ached, along with the narrow anchor muscles up the sides of my skull, which made eating difficult for the first day or two.
But I still felt terribly guilty for skipping class. My well trained, good girl upbringing did not relent for anything, not even abyssal euphoria.
“I could still go to class,” I protested in a raw voice that next morning. “I’m not weak, I can stand and walk.”
“Yeah, sure, while wincing and shaking with each step,” Raine said.
“It just hurts. Alright, it hurts a lot. All over. But pain is just pain. I feel pretty good in every other way.”
“Regular people get sick too, Heather. Plus, hey, imagine how we’d look. We’d make a right pair in one of your lectures, me on my crutch and you wobbling like you’ve just been screwed six ways to Sunday.”
“The shaman can do what she wants,” said Zheng.
“Any divinely appointed monarch needs good advisers,” said Raine. “And I ain’t advising, I’m making an executive decision. Heather needs to take it easy. You wanna fight me over that?”
“I’m not a monarch,” I croaked, blushing. “Raine!”
Zheng rolled one shoulder and blinked a slow blink of silent acquiescence.
The muscle soreness did not fade quickly, but transmuted down the ladder from spiritual concern to material reality, from omnipresent full body ache into a more discrete series of very impressive bruises. My flanks blossomed black and blue where my tentacles had been anchored, and my skin broke out in dozens of tiny short-lived contusions wherever I’d sprouted spines. My knees and ankles grew stiff and creaky as the muscles recovered from my hasty pneuma-somatic reinforcements and exoskeleton frames, and my skin was raw and red and oversensitive, an aftereffect of how I’d flushed myself with warning colouration and defensive toxins. At least that last effect faded within twelve hours. It would have been torture otherwise, even dragging on a fresh set of clothes was like rubbing myself down with a cheese grater.
Raine went to class as normal, because I made her go, but she hurried back as soon as possible; Zheng stayed slow, stayed indoors, stayed close to me, like an injured bear in her den. She was still wrapped in bandages that Praem insisted on changing for her. My emergency field surgery had been a success, but even Zheng’s post-human body took over forty eight hours to close the supernatural bite wounds. She lingered at the windows, watching the streets at dusk and dawn, like a jungle cat waiting for a glimpse of her territorial rival.
Tuesday I vegetated all day, after a night of sleeping like the dead. I lay in bed until noon, eating whatever was put in front of me, visited by Lozzie and Tenny and little stubby-legged Whistle in rotation. Whistle didn’t seem to mind Tenny. She even turned up once carrying the dog in her arms, with one of her silken black tentacles wrapped around his rotund belly.
That was a good sign, if we did end up adopting the dog. But I wasn’t up to thinking about that yet. If we did have to adopt Whistle, that would mean I’d failed. It would mean responsibility for another death.
When Tenny offered Whistle to me on the bed, I had to turn her down.
“Pet,” she trilled, trying to place the cuddly dog in my lap, lowering him in a clutch of her tentacles. His little legs waggled and he seemed confused but not alarmed. “Stroke. Feels good. Good touch.”
“Thank you, Tenny,” I croaked. “But … but no, thank you, it’s too much. I can’t.”
“Can’t pet?” Tenny blinked those huge black eyes at me.
“I mean I can’t … get too attached. Um … ”
I didn’t mind the dog. I’d never been much of a dog person, always vaguely afraid of them as a child, but since Wonderland, they’d rather paled in comparison to what I saw every day, and Whistle was a very well-behaved, well-trained ambassador for dog-kind, never barking or slobbering or nipping with his teeth. But I was not to up to explaining the moral and emotional intricacies of potentially growing attached to the pet dog of a man whose brain I was about to peel open, certainly not to Tenny. She was too young, still seemed like a child, no matter how fast she was learning and how quickly her speech patterns were maturing. Lozzie jumped in to save me.
“Auntie Heathy needs space!” Lozzie chirped, and plucked Whistle out of Tenny’s arms, giving the dog a quick hug before placing him back down on the floor. “Lots of space, she’s sore alllllll over, up and down and in and out and no touchy-touchy, okay? Not without special permissions.”
Tenny blinked at Lozzie, blinked at me, and blinked at the dog as he trotted back out of the room. I don’t think she entirely bought it. She was getting very perceptive lately.
Lozzie then undermined her own lesson by having me turn onto my front so she could rub my back. I grumbled and complained and couldn’t get comfortable, especially with my once-again-phantom limbs trying to help steady me. Lozzie weighed so little as she clambered up to straddle my backside, but as soon as she started squeezing and kneading the large, bruised muscles down my back, I felt such relief I had to groan into the pillow. It was still painful. Her hands hurt. But that was the point.
Painkillers worked too, strangely enough.
“I can get you stronger stuff than the codeine, if you need it,” Evelyn said to me in the kitchen that evening.
I’d been working my incredibly slow way through dinner — homemade chicken casserole with rice and lots of soft vegetables, spiced with paprika and cumin, one of Praem’s increasingly complex forays into unsupervised cooking. Between the jaw pain and stiff bruising in my fingers, it had taken me an hour and a half to eat, even dosed with pills from Evelyn’s secret stash.
“ … I could put it in a blender and drink it,” I said.
“No,” Praem intoned from behind Evelyn’s shoulder. Her new maid uniform had finally arrived in the post, and she’d been wearing it all day. Evelyn refused to divulge how much the outfit had cost, but there was no way it was a standard off-the-rack imitation ordered from Amazon. Even the packaging had looked expensive. Between the high collar and the understated bust framing, the crisp, sleek skirt and the smooth lace at cuffs and collar and hems, Praem managed to look extremely pleased with herself even without an expression on her face.
I sighed. “Maybe I’ll be better by tomorrow. What other painkillers do you have?”
“I’ve got prescriptions for all sorts,” said Evelyn. “Tramadol or vicodin at least. Or we could go ask Kimberly to share some of her special crop.”
“Oooooh yeah,” Raine said, feet up up one of the chairs. “Getting high’ll help out with that sort of pain.”
“I think I’ve had enough of altered states of consciousness lately,” I said.
“What you’ve done to yourself this time is undeniably biological,” said Evelyn. “Inflammation, soreness, muscle strain. Which I for one find much preferable to you vanishing Outside or bleeding from your face holes. Take some painkillers, Heather. Take it from me, there’s no dignity in suffering needlessly.”
Evelyn was right. This wasn’t spiritual, not another untouchable bruise or ghostly abscess inside my chest, not some mystery ache behind my sternum that medical science couldn’t help. I wasn’t exaggerating about the lack of weakness either — I felt strong, vital, and healthy, in a way I hadn’t since the very first time I’d used hyperdimensional mathematics to force a Slip, so many months ago now. Every time I’d used brain-math since then, I’d come away with an aching void inside my chest, which never truly closed. The trilobe bioreactor had operated on more than a purely physical level, and finally filled in that void. I felt it all the time now, a brimming cup in my core.
But this omnipresent pain was debilitating for the mind. I wanted to just sit or lie in a heap, not moving, and switch my brain off.
I accepted a vicodin.
“And we do need you capable, ASAP,” Evelyn added. She glanced past Raine, into the utility room where the door to the cellar stood ajar. “That idiot can’t live down there forever.”
“Hey, Evee,” said Raine. “Give her some time, she fought a giant monster, yeah? I wouldn’t throw Godzilla at you and then expect you to seduce Twil two days later.”
Evelyn glared at her, unimpressed. Raine pulled an innocent smirk.
“I could do it now,” I murmured, mostly to myself. Why did that prospect make my chest go tight? “The longer I wait, the less time Maisie has.”
“Heal,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, yes, heal up. That’s not my point,” Evelyn huffed. “Look, it doesn’t make any difference to our plans. Even if you extract the Eye’s embarrassing diary entries and incriminating phone logs from that fool’s mind, it doesn’t speed up our schedule any. Nicole needs to find Edward’s house, and we need to steal our book back.”
Raine raised a confused eyebrow at Evelyn. “Why the rush then?”
“Because there is a condemned man in our cellar. He is waiting to die.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I may not be happy with what you’re going to do, Heather,” she said. “But while I accept the necessity, it doesn’t matter how well he understands the risks, or how disgustingly enthusiastic he seems about it.”
“Yeah, no joke,” Raine muttered.
“It’s the only way,” I croaked. “It might help him, and it’s better than the Big Man. Better than the Eye.”
“Yes, and I agree,” Evelyn sighed. “I understand. I get it. But you wouldn’t let me be cruel, Heather. You taught me otherwise. I won’t let you, either. Don’t make him wait too long. Get it over with.”
Wednesday morning I woke up with six tentacles wrapped around my lovers.
Zheng and I had fallen asleep while spooning, with my backside tucked tight against her lap and one of her arms cuddling my tiny frame against her front. It was like sleeping with a giant hot-water bottle which could also autonomously wrap around you, which was basically the best thing ever. We’d figured the heat might help soften my bruises, so Zheng had gotten the lion’s share of me that night, and Raine had cuddled up in front of me, beneath the covers, holding my hands.
I wasn’t aware of what I’d done until the early sunlight started to filter through the curtain, grey and heavy with the threat of dawn showers. I’d blinked barely conscious, bleary-eyed and heavy-lidded as Raine had stirred and attempted to turn over in bed.
Then she’d discovered far too many limbs holding her in a gentle embrace, and had shot wide awake, frozen and tense right in front of my eyes.
“R-Raine?” I croaked in shared panic, not understanding.
The tone in my voice must have woken Zheng as well, because suddenly my big cuddly water bottle was levering herself up, ready to fight off monsters or eat an intruder.
“Woah woah woah, slow down, big girl,” Raine said, one arm out. But she didn’t look up, eyes fixed down on her own body below the covers.
“Shaman? Little wolf?”
“It’s okay, I’m fine, it’s just us. I think.” Raine rummaged below the covers. I felt her hand on my arm, first hesitant then firm. She squeezed and rubbed. “Heather, that’s you, right? This is you?”
“I— I’m sorry?” I tried to clear my eyes, deeply confused as I wriggled my arm away from her. “What’s wrong? I don’t … ”
Zheng was chuckling low in her throat. She was touching one of my arms too. “The shaman has sprouted in the night.”
Raine was holding one of my hands, and my other was under the pillow — but Zheng had one of my arms as well, and raised it to her lips to kiss my skin; but Raine was holding yet another arm, and somehow I was hugging her with two more and had one around around her backside and this was far too many limbs to account for.
“Oh.” My eyes went wide. Realisation dawned like a bucket of cold water over my head. I was suddenly very awake. “Oh, oh shit.”
I yanked my free hand out from under the pillow and patted along my face and shoulders. Had I sprouted spines in my sleep and hurt Raine? Was I covered in armour plating and toxins?
I wasn’t. Apart from the tentacles, the rest was just a vague phantom feeling on the edge of my conscious mind.
“Hey, hey, it’s fine,” Raine said, right up close to my face. “Heather, it’s fine. It’s just you. It’s only you.”
“I’m not meant to … in my sleep? I don’t— I didn’t— are you hurt?”
“You cannot see them, can you, little wolf?” Zheng purred.
“Sure can feel ‘em though.” Raine flashed a smirk. “Especially the one between my legs.”
I blushed beetroot red and withdrew that particular tentacle with a slither across the bedsheets, though Raine playfully clamped her thighs around it as I wiggled free. I hid behind my hand, blushing and cringing.
“They are beautiful,” Zheng purred. “They deserve to be seen, little wolf.”
“I’m sure they do. Guess this is a new perk of sleeping with Heather, huh?”
“Please don’t,” I whined.
When I concentrated, I could feel the trilobe organ in my abdomen humming away with a steady pump of energy, to keep these pneuma-somatic additions fresh and healthy. It was spreading a subtle yet deep heat through my belly. A single biochemical control rod from the shutdown array had slid upward in the metabolic channel it occupied within the reactor, allowing the reaction to ramp up just enough to manifest my tentacles, but no further. I’d done it in my sleep, by instinct, because I’d wanted to hug Raine as well as Zheng.
I wriggled one tentacle free and poked it out of the covers. Rainbow fluorescence cast slowly shifting colours over my pillow and Raine’s face and the walls, brightening the room in the grey dawn static, the colours sleepy and heavy beneath the pale flesh. What a strange paradox, that I was casting bioluminescence that Raine couldn’t see. I ran a human hand over it to be absolutely certain.
“Oh. Oh, okay,” I panted, heart thudding in my chest.
I could only thank God and Maisie that my tentacles were in their smooth configuration, not a barb or hook in sight, and no necrotizing or paralytic mucus smeared on Raine’s vulnerable skin. Even fast asleep, my body knew to never to hurt my mates. When I’d been staggering home from the fight on Sunday night, unable to fold away my sharp edges and toxic spines, I’d still been flushed with adrenaline, ready to drive the Big Man off a second time if I had to.
In fact, I’d only ever manifested my tentacles before in panic and self-defense, or for euphoric combat problem solving. This was the first time I’d done it for a purpose other than fighting.
The roots, buried deep in my flanks and anchored in already bruised tissues, ached like pulled muscles whenever I moved them.
“Here, little wolf, here, feel.” Zheng guided Raine’s hand, to touch what she couldn’t see.
I let out a little gasp and a not unpleasurable shudder of surprise, as Raine drew her fingertips down to where one of my tentacles thickened. “U-um, maybe not … not right … ”
“Hey, it’s only us three in here,” Raine purred. “Are these erogenous, or what?”
“No! N-no they’re not, not like that.” I blushed so hard my throat turned red. I did my best to sit up in bed and push the covers down, airing out my pajamas, no matter the aches and sore muscles. My tentacles followed me up and out, spreading either side of me, drawing out the deep aches in my flanks. “I-I’m very, very, very sore. I really don’t think I would survive a … double.”
My eyes flicked from Zheng to Raine and back again. They shared a knowing look. Raine laughed.
But I really was too sore. For now.
Evelyn got me in a magic circle in the workshop two hours later, half-naked and shivering in my pajama bottoms and bra, though by then I’d shut down the bioreactor and folded the tentacles away.
“But why?!” Lozzie asked from the sofa, both hands planted between her spread knees as she rocked back and forth, wispy blonde hair floating everywhere. “They’re so pretty, you don’t have to hide them away, it’s not like anybody’s going to see if they wouldn’t already be seeing them!”
“Well … it does hurt,” I said. “The bruises, I mean.”
Evelyn huffed an unimpressed laugh down by my belly. “Not surprising. You do look rather like a bad Jackson Pollock painting right now.”
“Oh, thank you,” I muttered.
Lozzie pouted and puffed her cheeks out. “That’s not fair, even the bruises are pretty. They’re proof! Of good things!”
Evelyn straightened up, putting her weight on her walking stick and lowering the magically modified magnifying glass she’d been using to examine my flank, where the bruising was most coherent and regular, from the anchor-points of the tentacles themselves. The magnifying glass was a recent invention of her own, the lens itself painted with a magic circle of her own design and the lens frame covered in tiny eye-watering script. I caught a glimpse of the swirling, headache-inducing view through the lens, a vision of the floor behind her cast in psychedelic shifting neon, and had to look away. She winced and rubbed her hip, not used to bending over like that, but apparently unbothered by the effect of staring through the glass for several minutes.
She wasn’t exaggerating about the bruises. My torso and hips and most of my legs were covered in a patchwork quilt of visible bruising, busy turning dark purple, stiff and painful, though a few areas were already going green and yellow with the healing process. I looked like I’d been beaten. Get me in front of a doctor and Raine might get arrested on suspicion of domestic abuse. Which was no laughing matter.
“Yes, but they’re also causing Heather considerable pain,” Evelyn said to Lozzie, then added, for me, “but you do look better. I don’t think sleep-tentacling Raine has pulled anything loose.”
“And the bioreactor?” I asked.
Evelyn wet her lips, meeting my eyes with an expression I’d seen on her too many times before, hungry curiosity and cold fascination. But this time it was softened by frowning concern.
“I’ve never heard of anything like it before,” she said slowly. “But then again, you keep doing things I’ve never heard of before. It’s a true, actual, real biological organ, Heather. You grew it. And I’m neither a doctor nor a surgeon.” She waved the magnifying glass. “This isn’t an MRI machine, it’s not going to tell us anything medically significant. The best I can say is the organ isn’t doing anything magically dangerous to you. You can probably activate it if you want, just keep it gentle. Don’t go all the way. Don’t pull a muscle.”
I glanced over to the table, where the far more medically significant device still lay, a yellow box with a glass dial and an adjustable tube. Evelyn saw the direction of my gaze and sighed.
“You heard it as well as I did,” she said. “There was nothing but regular background radiation.”
“But that wouldn’t pick up alpha particles through my skin. I Googled it.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. She actually snapped at me. “Heather, if your new appendix mark two-point-oh was shedding alpha particles into your fucking bloodstream, we would know, because you would be dying of radiation poisoning by now. Stop it. Stop worrying yourself.”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Sorry … I … just sorry. It’s like part of me doesn’t believe I deserve to feel good about any of this, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to go wrong.”
“Impostor syndrome for your own body?”
“That’s why I turned the reactor off and put the tentacles away, I’m worried it’s going to fall apart again.”
“ … why do you have a Geiger counter, anyway?” I asked.
Evelyn shrugged. “It was in the house. God alone knows what it was for.”
“Get one out!” Lozzie urged. “Get a tentacle out! They’re prettyyyyyy. I wanna touch one again!”
I sighed and awkwardly crossed my arms over my chest, feeling self-conscious. “You sound like you’re asking me to get my boobs out or something.”
Lozzie giggled, flapping a sleeve. “Heathy! No!”
“You do need to keep the bruises flexible,” Evelyn said. “Work the muscles a little bit. It’ll help. She’s not wrong.”
“Doctor’s orders!” Lozzie chirped.
“They feel clumsy,” I huffed, telling the full truth at last. “Clumsy and less dexterous. In bed, when I woke up, when I was moving them around, they didn’t feel the same as before. At first I thought it was because I was half-asleep, but then I … I kept knocking things over in the bathroom. Like suddenly I can’t use them right.”
“Not an emergency,” Praem intoned from by the door. We all stared at her.
“ … that’s a good point,” Evelyn muttered. “Thank you, Praem.”
Praem nodded her head ever so slightly.
“Look, are we done?” I asked. “Can I put my shirt back on now? I’m cold.”
“Of course,” Evelyn said. She tossed the magnifying glass onto the table and eased herself into a chair, while Lozzie passed me my t-shirt and hoodie. I slowly and painfully tugged both on over my head and snuggled down inside the warmth, hiding my bruised body and my embarrassment.
“Whenever you’ve manifested your tentacles before,” Evelyn spoke slowly, thinking with each word, “it’s always been in a crisis. Correct? Unless you and Raine have been up to some truly degenerate activities behind closed doors.”
I think she was trying to soften the seriousness of the subject, but I didn’t laugh. I blushed and hid behind a hand.
“Oh,” Evelyn said, voice gone hollow. “Okay, no, I don’t need to know that. That was a joke.”
“We haven’t!” I blurted out. “But you saying it as a joke is bad enough!”
Lozzie was giggling so hard she had to fling herself back onto the sofa and bury her face in the cushions. Evelyn cleared her throat and held up both hands, but embarrassment at her own joke had ruined her composure, and she couldn’t locate the start of her next thought.
“Only in a fight?” Praem said, coming to the rescue with her sing-song silver-bell voice.
“Yes, yes, exactly.” I nodded, fighting down the blush that had risen at the unspeakable yet intriguing suggestion. “Every time I’ve made my tentacles real, it’s always been in a fight, or a crisis, and I’ve used them right away. The most I’d gotten out of them in the past, before Sunday, was perhaps a few minutes. And on Sunday it was all fight and then aftermath. But this morning, I don’t know how long they were active. It could have been hours.”
“You may not be used to them,” Evelyn said, “when you’re not using them on instinct.”
I nodded. She had a point. When I’d woken up with my tentacles all manifested, it had felt very right to be that much closer to the shape my abyssal memories said I should be able to adopt. But a hand can feel right to possess, yet still be clumsy.
“Then you do need to get them out!” Lozzie bounced to her feet and wrapped her arms around my chest from behind, in a hug. Somehow she didn’t aggravate a single bruise.
“Are you going to use the tentacles on Badger?” Evelyn asked.
I blinked at her in white-faced incomprehension, mouth agape, almost offended. “ … E-Evelyn, excuse me?”
Evelyn gritted her teeth. “I mean to perform the vivisection, not whatever you were thinking.”
“O-oh. Oh. That makes much more sense. I’m sorry.”
At the word ‘vivisection’, Lozzie had let go of me and flopped back into the sofa. She began humming loudly, and buried her head in the cushions again, swinging her legs back and forth.
She didn’t want to hear this. Didn’t want to think about it. Neither did I, but it was my responsibility.
I glanced over at the open door to the kitchen — we hadn’t sequestered ourselves away for this, Raine was at class and Zheng was napping and Tenny was playing video games upstairs — and then beyond that, to the utility room at the back of the house. I couldn’t see the cellar door from here, but I knew it was standing open too. Down there beneath the floors, Badger was asleep or reading a book, or perhaps watching the old television we’d dragged down there for him.
We weren’t keeping him tied up and handcuffed in the cellar; he was no Amy Stack. We’d only kept him confined for the first day, until Evelyn had a chance to make sure he wasn’t carrying the magical equivalent of a cranial bomb, and Raine had decided his earnest awe of me was not an act. He’d seen me fight Ooran Juh and watched me bite out Zheng’s infection, and in a way, I had rescued him. That had changed something about his priorities, but I didn’t yet understand what. Perhaps I would never know. Perhaps I would flay his mind before he got a chance to tell me.
But he’d requested to stay down in the cellar, sleeping on the camp bed Raine had dragged out of storage, petting Whistle and awaiting my inevitable attentions. Perhaps it was penance.
More likely it was fear. He’d seen something out in the streets beyond the house, twice — once as a vague impression and the second time as an actual fat man who’d been standing and watching the house, not headless, just a very obese human. It could have been a coincidence, but as soon as we’d opened the front door, the fat man had vanished.
Ooran Juh, waiting for him. The Big Man was not bothering with the rest of us, but he was waiting for Badger.
Though I had my suspicions. If I stepped outdoors, it might follow me or watch me — but not challenge me. This was my territory, I’d made that clear, but this rival predator would wait forever for his target.
Zheng had taken to shadowing Badger whenever he emerged to use the bathroom, and Raine and Evelyn had both spoken to him multiple times. Kimberly made herself exceptionally scarce. She informed us she’d not had much contact with Badger while they were both in the cult. He’d been several levels above her, not a real mage but somehow important, but she still didn’t want to see or meet or even hear anybody who had been involved in the Sharrowford Cult ever again, as long as she lived. I had a mind to grant her that safety, as much as we could.
I had not been downstairs to see Badger either.
I’d heard him, though. We’d all heard him. Badger suffered the most unimaginable night terrors, full-on screaming fits and somnambulant flailing and falling out of bed, though no actual sleepwalking. He needed constant mental occupation when awake, which is why Zheng had carried the old telly down there, and we’d given him a pile of books and let him keep his mobile phone. Any unguarded mental moment was another opening for the Eye to torture him, trying to get him to do something he couldn’t. Last Raine had told me, he was watching the whole of Dark Shadows from beginning to end, some American soap opera I’d never heard of.
We’d ruled out drawing the Fractal on his skin, even as a compassionate measure. After what had happened to the Cult, when they’d used the Fractal to attempt negotiation with the Eye, we thought it too risky.
“Well?” Evelyn prompted when I didn’t reply. “Are you going to use the tentacles on him or not?”
“Maybe.” I gathered my wits, then hugged myself through my hoodie. Wished Raine was here. “Honestly, I don’t know. I won’t know until I begin.”
“You don’t know?” Evelyn asked, then sighed heavily. “Heather, how long is the man supposed to wait? He’s on death row.”
“I could do it right now, if I was hurting less,” I said. “A few more days, at most. Plus, we still need to convince Sarika to come see him. Don’t we?”
“Maybe we should respect her wishes,” Evelyn said.
After two short phone calls, Sarika had made it abundantly yet laconically clear that she did not wish to see “that fucking idiot coward Nathan.” But I was using that as an excuse, no matter how sore my muscles. I didn’t need muscles to do brain-math. Not with the reactor organ in my belly.
“We keep using the word ‘vivisection’,” I said, in a naked attempt to avoid the actual problem. “But that’s only a metaphor. What I’m going to do to him is primarily hyperdimensional mathematics. Very similar to what I did with Sarika, in fact, but with the added complication that the Eye is technically still in him. Connected to him. Somehow. I’ll need to be ready, for contact, maybe. My tentacles are a secondary issue.”
Evelyn raised her eyebrows in sardonic disbelief. “Need I remind you this all started when you got your tentacles out in the middle of the park? What were you going to do with them, tickle a cultist into submission?”
As if roused by thinking about them, my six phantom limbs rose up from my sides, forcing a wince from me as the muscles inside my torso adjusted to support structures which were not there right now.
“Of course not, Evee.”
“I’m serious. You got the tentacles out. You were going to trepan one of them.”
“That was only instinct! I’m not going to crack open his skull and root around in his brain, not literally. The tentacles might just provide some … I don’t know. Some kind of catalyst component. A stronger connection. I know they can pass through flesh if they have to, Tenny did that once, with a person’s head, but—”
“So maybe you will have to get physical,” Evelyn finished for me.
“Why are you so insistent on this?”
Evelyn gave me a deeply unimpressed look, hunched over the handle of her walking stick like a gargoyle, sour and squinting. “Because I’m a horrible bitch who can’t help but torture my closest friends and loved ones, by forcing them to think about horrible impending tasks they would rather avoid.”
“Liar,” Praem intoned.
“Yes,” I agreed. “That is very transparently a lie, Evee. And you’re not a bitch.”
“Yes I am.”
“Don’t use that language for yourself.”
Evelyn stamped with her walking stick. “I want you to be prepared for this, Heather. Doing everything last minute, running on instinct, that might work in a fight, but not for this. If you have to stick your fingers into his actual brain, whether you’re reaching through his skull or boring a hole in it, I don’t care which, I want you to be ready. I do not want you to be consumed by guilt if you kill this man and then blame yourself for being under-prepared. Stop avoiding the practicalities.”
I averted my eyes. Behind me, Lozzie had stopped humming, hiding beneath the cushions like a burrowing ferret. But I could tell she was listening now.
“I don’t know if I could do that part,” I muttered. “I can do the brain-math, but … ”
“Then I suggest you get some practice in,” Evelyn said.
I puffed out a humourless laugh. “Practice brain surgery? On what? You? Whistle? Myself?”
“Not brain surgery. Basic dexterity. And we do have somebody you could learn from.”
“Cheeeeeeck,” Tenny trilled.
Raine drew a sharp breath through her teeth. “Ooooh, she’s got you dead to rights there, Heather.”
I frowned at the board, holding my hands clasped in my lap. On the other side of the kitchen table, Tenny started to bob and weave in her seat, rocking like Lozzie sometimes did. A playful smile spread across her mouth as she watched me think, those huge pelagic eyes fixed on my face rather than the board and the pieces between us.
“It’s check, not checkmate,” Evelyn supplied.
“Shhhhhh!” Lozzie scolded, a finger to her lips. “Let Heathy think!”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and hid her mistake behind a long sip of post-dinner tea. But she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. “Watching Heather lose to a child over and over is like pulling teeth.”
“You don’t have to watch,” I muttered. “And this was your suggestion in the first place.”
“I didn’t suggest playing a game you have no hope of winning.”
“Hope-ahhhh,” Tenny said in her fluttering voice, leaning toward Evelyn’s chair. Two extra tentacles slid from their hidden sheaths in her shoulders, beneath the white fluffy layer of her flesh-cloak wings. Black and silky, they waved through the air toward Evelyn, who made a valiant effort to stay still and calm.
“Yes?” Evelyn said, somewhat strained.
But Tenny stopped short of patting Evelyn’s shoulder with the tentacles, making a sort of blinking, tilting expression which meant she’d remembered or realised something.
“Auntie Evee, not touching,” she announced, and mimed patting the air instead, much to Evelyn’s visible relief.
“Good girl, Tenns,” Lozzie stage-whispered.
“Thank you, yes,” Evelyn said. “But what was your point?”
“Heath can win,” Tenny trilled.
“Exactly my point too.” Evelyn cleared her throat. Then, in the way one would indulge a precocious child, she pulled a very awkward smile and raised her cup of tea to Tenny. “Great minds think alike.”
“Great minds,” Tenny echoed. One of her tentacles was still close to Evelyn after the air-pat, and it quickly dipped into the mug of tea to steal a sip. Evelyn blinked and pulled the mug back, leaving the tentacle dripping brown tea, but Tenny was already making a weird trilling feathery sound that was probably a giggle.
“Wonderful.” Evelyn pulled a face at the remaining liquid in her mug.
“Tenns is clean!” Lozzie chirped. “It’s fine!”
“Of course she’s clean,” Evelyn huffed. “That doesn’t mean I want to share her mouth … gut … tentacle? Tentacle flora. Assuming she has any. Oh, sod it.” Evelyn threw back the rest of the tea.
I’d been frowning at the board the whole time, trying to ignore the peanut gallery. As Evelyn downed the rest of her tea, the pieces on the board finally stopped conspiring against me and gave up their secrets.
“I can see the way out,” I muttered — and promptly banged my hands on the underside of the table. “Ow.”
Raine started laughing. “Are you okay? Heather?”
“I’m fine.” I tutted, and manoeuvred my hands from beneath the table, my wrists bound together with the soft fabric belt from Evelyn’s dressing gown. “Is this still really necessary?”
“Until you stop trying to move your hands before your tentacles,” Evelyn said. “Try again.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes, replaced my hands in my lap, and concentrated on moving a tentacle instead.
It was after dinner that same Wednesday. Night was struggling to fall out in the garden, over the streets and houses of Sharrowford in spring. Sunset gripped the horizon with tendrils of orange and rose larger than anything I could ever hope to summon. For the first night since I’d started living at Number 12 Barnslow Drive, we had the heating turned down to barely a trickle, the old iron radiators lying dormant and quiet. The first feelers of summer were still perhaps a month away, but this house had been built back in a time when people still cared about proper insulation. Despite the missing roof tiles and cracked brickwork and old windows and creaking floorboards, it was still strong in its bones, still determined to shelter its human charges. I was still wearing my pink-scaled hoodie, but I’d gone down to only one t-shirt beneath.
We’d pushed aside the dinner detritus of dirty plates, and set up the chessboard in the middle of the table. Then I’d sat there for twenty minutes, making everybody else simultaneously very bored and a little worried, as I’d closed my eyes and concentrated on easing a single biochemical control rod out of its metabolic channel inside my reactor organ.
I could have just slammed the whole thing onto full power. As instinctive as taking a deep breath; but half the purpose of this exercise was to consciously discover the breakpoints.
I’d edged the trilobe organ into throbbing, pulsing life — an operation which felt like trying to pluck a single eyebrow hair freehand, with a pair of kitchen tongs, in the dark. But I’d stuck with it, until a faint blush of heat spread through my abdomen, enough to make me purr with pleasure. Summoning the two tentacles had been easy by comparison, a simple flicker of hyperdimensional mathematics, not even complicated enough to cause a nosebleed. Though I had experienced a brief stabbing headache behind my eyes.
The pain was worth the euphoria, as they had arced out either side of me, beautiful and strong and perfect.
Lozzie had ooh’d and ahh’d at them, wide-eyed and smiling like she was watching the sunset out in the garden. Zheng had nodded silent approval, then stalked off to watch the street from the windows. Praem had acknowledged nothing, and Tenny had watched my movements like a squid meeting another squid in the dancing ocean sunlight, trying to follow along with the motions of my tentacles.
I’d positioned one above the chess board, concentrating hard on the action of curling the smooth flesh and the muscle inside.
The other had gone into Lozzie’s lap, so she could massage it. A little deal we’d made, to help alleviate the deep-bruise pain in my sides. She had to let off after a few minutes though, I couldn’t concentrate on the chess board; having the tentacle kneaded was like getting a foot rub, it felt too good and made me want to go to sleep.
Tenny made the first move, inching a pawn forward. I watched very closely as her tentacle-tip curled around the chess piece, then attempted to mimic her.
We’d chosen chess specifically to distract my conscious mind between each move; it was one thing to prioritise my tentacles in a fight or a crisis or in a moment of fear, when abyssal instinct was concerned with pure survival, but it was another thing entirely to use them for delicate, complex motions when I was relaxed and safe, while considering a difficult problem. We couldn’t do brain surgery, but this was the next best task.
After all, to last even a few moves against Tenny did require exceptional concentration. I was no strategist — that was Evelyn’s department — and I had not exactly played much chess before, so I had to do a lot of concentrating.
It must have been a strange experience for Evelyn and Raine. Whenever I made a move, to them, the chess piece seemed to float.
“I recommend never doing this in public,” Evelyn muttered as I made my first move. “You look like you’re using telekinesis. You’ll freak out the whole country.”
I had since lost five times in a row, and bashed my hands and wrists into the table about quadruple that number.
And I kept knocking the pieces over.
“Tch.” I tutted as the curling tip of my tentacle fumbled the rook piece I’d been trying to move to block Tenny’s check. It fell on its side and rolled away. I tried to grab it — whacked my hands on the table again — and not only did I not catch the piece, but also managed to knock over two pawns with the flailing end of my tentacle. “Oh, bum!” I swore, losing my temper.
The rook rolled off the board and off the edge of the table. Raine caught it before it hit the floor.
“Hey, hey, Heather.” She held the fallen castle piece out to me, smiling a comforting smile. “Relax, take a deep breath. Here, try to take it out of my hand instead.”
“I can’t do this!” I whined, then felt terribly guilty, because Raine didn’t deserve my anger. I rubbed my face with both my hands, still trailing the belt from my wrists. “I keep trying to copy what Tenny does, but it’s not working, I don’t have any fine control. And I’m still sore all over, doing this hurts. My tentacles aren’t meant for this human scale stuff, they’re apparently only good for beating up monsters and hurting people.” I huffed. “Not that I mind. Still feels right to have them.”
Raine smirked. “I wouldn’t class that one between my legs this morning as ‘beating up monsters’.”
“Raine!” I squeaked.
Evelyn rapped the table with her knuckles and gestured at Tenny. “There is a literal child in the room, Raine. I will hit you with my walking stick. I will.”
Lozzie wasn’t exactly setting a good example either, giggling like mad behind the ends of both her sleeves.
Raine cleared her throat. “Sorry. I forgot. It’s alright, Tenns, Heather and I were just cuddling this morning. Tentacles are good for cuddles, you know that already.”
“Cuddle!” Tenny trilled. Four of her tentacles snaked over to Lozzie and gave her a hug, all while Tenny was looking the other way. I had to avert my eyes, fuming with unreasonable and irrational envy of her easy dexterity.
“Heather,” Evelyn said, in a much softer tone than the one she reserved for Raine. “Do you know how long it took me to learn to walk again?”
My envy faded with sputtering shame. “No? No, I don’t believe you’ve ever told me that, Evee. I’m sorry.”
“Two years,” Evelyn said quietly. “And I had to re-learn periodically as I grew up, whenever I needed a larger replacement.” Her free hand wandered down to where the socket of her prosthetic leg cradled her thigh, beneath her comfy skirt. I noticed Lozzie staring with innocent, blinking interest. “This will not come quickly, and it will not be easy.”
I took a deep breath. “I know that. But I only have a couple of days, yes? The point of this is to be ready for— ahh!”
A surprised squeak escaped my throat and a sudden embarrassed blush rose up my cheeks. Tenny had wrapped one of her tentacles around my own, curling around and around as if braiding them together. She was gentle, but it was still like linking arms without warning.
“Here. Here here. Here,” she trilled, and guided me toward Raine’s hand.
She acted as a living crutch for the direction and support of my own tentacle, the equivalent of a person reaching over from behind my back to correct my grip. Together, we plucked the rook from Raine’s waiting hand, and placed it back on the chessboard, blocking Tenny’s check attempt. She smiled at me and waggled her head side to side, her feathery antennae twitching.
“ … thank you, Tenny. Thank you. I … maybe you can show me how.”
Tenny nodded, and set about picking up the two toppled pawns as well.
Over on the kitchen counter, Evelyn’s mobile phone rang suddenly and softly. She frowned at it, but Praem was already picking it up and handing it to her.
“Answer,” Praem intoned.
“Hey, is it Nicky?” Raine asked. “She found anything?”
“No,” Evelyn said at length, frowning at the phone screen. Tenny and I were concentrating together on moving another chess piece, but something in Evelyn’s voice made me look over at her. She pressed the answer call button and held the phone to her ear. “What do you want?”
A long pause. Raine and I shared a look. Lozzie fussed about with two of Tenny’s tentacles.
“Calm down,” Evelyn said eventually, rolling her eyes, not sounding very placatory at all. “No, he’s still alive.” Another long pause. “Oh, that changed your tune, did it? Like you deserve to. Mmhmm. Saturday then. Alright, alright, no I don’t care, I’ll put her on.”
Evelyn held the phone out to me, looking very unimpressed.
“Me?” I asked.
“It’s Sarika. She’s changed her mind, wants to see Badger. Preferably before you operate on him, I assume.” She pursed her lips down at the phone. “Careful, she’s doing crocodile tears.”