“Evee, do I seem different?”
Evelyn furrowed her brow into one of those exasperated frowns she always adopted before delivering some witheringly sarcastic answer to a very stupid question. She even got as far as wetting her lips and opening her mouth, but then she must have seen past the surface of my words, or perhaps she recognised the earnest need in my eyes. She relaxed her weight onto her walking stick and considered me carefully for several silent moments.
“It’s a serious question,” I explained. “I’m not being silly, or rhetorical, or messing you around. Or trying to illustrate some obscure point. To you, do I seem different?”
Evelyn sighed. “Be precise. Different compared to when?”
I shrugged. “Compared to before Monday, I suppose. Or earlier. Or earlier this week.”
Evelyn turned her head to consider me from a different angle, half-closing one eye in a squint, studying my expression. She wasn’t an idiot, she must have known what I was really asking; so she was weighing up one of two things — either how different I had become, or how much to tell me, how much to soften the blow, how much I could take.
In the months since I’d become friends with Evelyn, I’d also become intimately familiar with her scrutiny, all the different ways she looked at and examined and judged people, even those closest to her. If her mind was already chewing over a problem, especially a strategic one, then she would frown straight through the person in question while really thinking about their potential, their position as a game piece, or how they fit in with what she wanted to do next. Or how to remove them from the equation entirely. On occasion she adopted that amoral hunger which I suspect she had learnt from her mother, though I would never say that out loud. But she could be tender as well, at least in private, though that implied no less frowning intensity from her big blue eyes, so deceptively soft and welcoming when at rest, so harsh when thinking. More recently I’d noticed a new form of examination in her looks — at Praem, almost gentle, certainly appreciative, often vulnerable.
But this was new. Evelyn’s gaze hovered halfway between analytic and gentle. That made me nervous.
“Or … or since I met you?” I added, heart rate climbing, palms going clammy. “Or since … Evee, I know this isn’t an easy balance for you. Just give it to me straight. That’s why I’m not asking Raine, she never gives anything to me straight.” I managed a weak laugh at my own stupid joke.
“If you know what I mean, but—”
“Heather, shut up.”
I shut up. Evelyn frowned gently at me again, then frowned out of the back window, then frowned at her walking stick, then frowned over her shoulder at the half-open door back to the kitchen. Frowned at everything, in fact, a big three-sixty bubble of frowning, that’s our Evelyn. An elemental frown in human form.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” she said slowly. “For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
“ … good thing we’re not men, then.” I squeezed out a terrible fake laugh, barely more than a tremor on the final word. Evelyn gave me a look. “Sorry,” I added.
“You know what I mean. You’re not the only one who can quote literature at people. Of course you seem different, Heather. You’re more confident. Especially compared to when I first met you.”
“But I’m still me?”
Evelyn’s full-on frown roared back, blasting me like a thunderclap. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped. “Of course you’re still you.”
That was more like it. Most of my anxiety melted away. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding, and lit up with an involuntary smile. I almost leaned forward to give Evelyn a hug without asking permission, but caught myself at the last moment, eyes searching hers for acknowledgement and recognition. She was utterly perplexed, but huffed and nodded, opening one arm to accept the hug. I kept it soft, hands away from Evelyn’s kinked spine, but I did bury my face in her shoulder for a moment, in the blanket she was using as a shawl.
When we separated, she was frowning at me in a whole new way — utterly baffled. “That was all you needed?” she asked. “For me to shout at you a bit? That’s why you asked me back here? Don’t tell me you’re developing a masochistic streak.”
“You treating me the same is all the proof I need,” I said. “I hadn’t realised that. You’re very consistent, Evee.”
“Mmmm. Not sure how I feel about that.”
“You’re a rock, Evelyn. You really are.”
“Pfffft, I’d hate to have to rely on me as a rock. You should find a better one.”
But Evelyn didn’t really mean that. She turned to look out into the garden with a self-conscious huff, terminating the line of conversation before I could embarrass her further. Beyond the windows, the early afternoon sunlight danced across the tree leaves, drawing tiny insects out to clamber along the overgrown grass and verdant weeds and thistle-heads and mossy patches. The bright day seemed so at odds with what we were preparing to do.
Evelyn and I were alone in the utility room behind the kitchen, as the others bustled about in the rest of the house, getting ready for what I was increasingly thinking of as ‘the operation’, though I would not be scrubbing up, and it would not be performed in a sterile environment.
Badger had eaten what might be his last meal — bangers and mash with Bisto gravy — and Sarika was half-asleep on the sofa in the workshop. Zheng had been staying out of the way at my request, so as not to complicate matters with Badger and Sarika, due to her justified hatred of mages, but now she was standing guard in the workshop, though had totally refused to exchange even a single word with Sarika. Raine and Praem were gathering together the last few odds and ends we would need. Lozzie was off being Lozzie somewhere upstairs, but she was to be involved as well, that was the plan. Evelyn had finished her own preparations days ago, the set-up was ready to be used. But I’d stepped away from the hustle and bustle, and asked her to join me back here for a few moments.
I followed Evelyn’s gaze out into the garden. British springtime was in full flow for once, even here up North, drawing perennials out of their hidden winter bulbs. A yellow riot of wild daffodils had erupted along what had once been orderly flowerbeds, and joined by a surprising miniature cluster of bluebells beneath the shade of the tall right hand fence, punctuated by thistles and random wildflowers and rambling weeds. I spotted a trio of butterflies beneath the tree branches, though I squinted when I realised one of them was a very distinct shade of yellow.
“This is because Sarika said you seem different, isn’t it?” Evelyn asked.
“Hm? Oh, well, I suppose so.” When I looked back at the butterflies, there were only two. The yellow one had vanished into the sunlight. “Hmmm.”
“You shouldn’t listen to the opinion of somebody who hates you. She may have said it just to get under your skin. Or to knock Badger’s admiration of you down a peg, which is frankly creepy in the first place. That man is raring to start a new cult, around you. Careful with that. If he lives.”
“She had a point though,” I said, slipping back into my anxieties. “My life has changed so much, so fast, over the last … how long has it been? Eight months?”
“Give or take.”
“Eight months. Maybe seven. It’s been a whirlwind, Evee. I can’t believe how much I’ve changed, and now I have all these extra body parts, even if they’re tucked away most of the time, and I feel like I’m beginning to fray. Emotionally, I mean. It would be so good to just stop for a month, even a couple of weeks, to take stock, to slow down, to adjust. But I can’t. Maisie has a deadline. Four, five months at most.”
“Why are you thinking about this now?” Evelyn asked. “Trying to justify what we’re about to do?”
“No, I’ve already found my justification.” I sighed. “I need to understand the Eye, as much as possible. No. If I’m going to do hyperdimensional surgery, I need to be completely comfortable with what I’m becoming. I don’t need any of this on my mind.”
“Heather, you are not a different person because you’ve got some extra limbs. In fact, you’re more you than ever. You know how I can tell? Because you’re doing this.” She gestured at the utility room and the pair of us. “This is what you do. It’s extremely you.”
“I suppose. That’s not it, I—”
“Are you afraid of losing yourself? Jumping into the abyss again?”
I shook my head. “Not anymore. I’m anchored now. I found my anchor. Anchors, I should say. I won’t sink down there by accident, I think I may even be able to sip from it. Metaphorically speaking. Oh, I’m sorry, Evee, this is all metaphors.”
“You afraid of change?” Evelyn asked. “I’m afraid of change, I’m fucking terrified of change.” I blinked at her in surprise. She shrugged, adjusting herself around her walking stick. “It’s true, believe it or not. Raine’s right about me in that respect, at least. I know I’m weird like that. I like the same things to happen, I like routine, and I don’t like it when people disrupt my routines and screw up my plans. I don’t like my life changing, because for most of it, change was extremely bad. That’s why I get so damned grumpy. Fear of change is normal, Heather. I resisted it for long enough, but I thought you were leaping headfirst into it. Turns out I was wrong. Sometimes I forget we’re quite similar.”
“What were you resisting?”
Evelyn frowned at me in mild disbelief. “Something that was already changing and which I couldn’t stop. Do keep up, Heather.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t … ”
Praem chose that exact moment to knock on the half-open door of the utility room. She pushed it wide enough to step over the threshold, the skirt of her maid uniform rustling against the door frame, milk-white eyes locating us with a flick. Her hands returned to clasp together in front of her. Perhaps she’d been listening.
“Speak of the devil, and she shall appear,” Evelyn said with a wry little smile, then cleared her throat and added more seriously, to Praem, “No offence, you are not a devil. Turn of phrase only, understand?”
Praem unclasped her hands, stuck out her index fingers, and held them either side of her forehead. Like horns. “Devil,” she intoned.
Evelyn sighed. I put a hand over my mouth.
“I … I see, yes,” I said with a smile behind my hand. “Change that you were resisting. Hi, Praem.”
“Good change,” Evelyn said, adjusting her weight on her walking stick and rubbing her hip. “Change that has made my life immeasurably better, in ways I never could have imagined.” She cleared her throat and looked away. “Don’t have time for getting emotional right now. We all need clear heads for this. Is that why you’re here?” she asked Praem.
“All is ready,” Praem said, in the sing-song of snowflakes and ice winds.
“Then go wait with the others. We’ll be right there. I need to finish talking with Heather.”
Praem bustled back out without complaint, and pulled the door almost closed behind her. Evelyn turned back to me, but I was already babbling out my thoughts.
“I don’t know what change I’m afraid of,” I lied, trying to avoid it even though I was the one who’d wanted to get it off my chest. “I want this, this body, this pneuma-somatic truth, everything I’ve become, but … but … maybe I’ll change too far,” another lie. “Maybe … ”
Evelyn sighed. “You’re not afraid of that.”
“You’re afraid of how far your twin might have changed.”
I blinked away the beginning of thin tears, wiped my eyes on my sleeve, and nodded. “You know me too well, Evee.”
“It’s hardly rocket science,” she grumbled. “You’re thinking about Badger, about what you have to do, and this is all practice for Maisie, in the end. Isn’t it?” I nodded, but Evelyn kept talking. “And you’re thinking about the state Sarika was in when we found her, beyond humanity, beyond mortality, barely a person anymore, just a … memory, smeared across the surface of reality like roadkill.”
“Evee,” I said, throat thick. “I-I … please don’t—”
“And you’re wondering what Maisie will be like. How much will be left of her. What will be left to save.” Evelyn spoke without looking at me, staring out into the sunlight of a warm day that felt a million miles away. Her eyes did not see what she looked at. “Because this has taken too long, and she has been in the Eye’s grip for ten years already, far more closely than either of those idiot cultists waiting in my workshop. And none of us can even imagine what that has done to your twin. And more than being afraid we’re going to be too late, or that we’re going to fail, you simply do not know what you are going to discover, when we find her.”
Tears rolled down my cheeks now, barely held back by my scrunched eyes and my sniffing. “E-Evee—”
“Maisie is very likely not a human being anymore,” she said, plain and straightforward. “Perhaps not even a person.”
“Evee … ”
Evelyn turned to me, eyes hungry and intense, with a power I’d not often seen her wield. She reached out with her free hand, her maimed hand, and grabbed one of mine, awkward and clumsy and clammy too, and held on hard.
“But she is still your sister. She reached out to you, Heather. You still have her message on the child’s t-shirt, I know you look at it every day, don’t you?”
I nodded, blinking as my tears fell.
“The fact you are afraid of what we might find,” she said, “rather than the possibility we might fail … ?” Evelyn shook her head, but a smile crept onto her face. “You are completely insane, Heather Morell, and not in the way that you once thought. And I adore you for it. We are going to do this thing, this insane, dangerous thing, this thing that no mage in history would have considered doing, and I will resurrect my mother just to laugh in her face and tell her it’s possible. Understand? Whatever is left of your sister, we will bring back here. Fuck knows how we’re going to do it, but you have made me believe it is worth doing. That it can be done. If you cannot have faith in yourself, then have faith in that.”
I nodded, my tears of a very different flavor now. I took long, slow, steady breaths, and to my incredible surprise, Evelyn reached up and helped brush my hair out of my face. She wasn’t very good at it, fingers clumsy, not used to touching other people, and quickly returned to her habitual position of leaning heavily on her walking stick, but I held onto her hand, until she cleared her throat.
“Here,” she said, digging a handkerchief out of a pocket. “Dry your eyes.” I accepted the handkerchief and did as she suggested, already feeling much relieved. “Better?”
“Much. Thank you, Evee.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Had to … push you.”
I laughed awkwardly. “Was all that just to make me cry, to get it out of my system?”
“Partly.” Evelyn frowned. “But not a word of it was a lie, understand?” I nodded. “You feel better now, catharsis, yes? No longer all bottled up? Good. We both need clear heads for this.”
“We do,” I admitted, glancing at the door behind Evelyn, to the kitchen.
“Ready to cut a man’s head open?” she asked.
I nodded and took a deep breath as I folded the handkerchief back up. “Metaphorically. Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Will I feel anything?” Badger asked. “When you begin?”
He was trying to conceal the shudder in his voice — bravado in front of Sarika, or resolve in front of me, or perhaps a forced acceptance that he deserved his fate — but he wasn’t doing a very good job of that. His voice shook, despite his best efforts to steady his breathing. Raine had just removed Whistle from his lap, at Evelyn’s instruction of “no dogs allowed in the circles”, and Badger had nothing else to do with his quivering hands. He’d hugged the Corgi one last time, handed him off to Raine, and Whistle now sat placid but alert in Sarika’s lap instead, on the sofa, another member of the audience for our operating theatre.
But Badger showed far more courage than he had a week ago. He didn’t try to back out at the last moment. He didn’t plead. Didn’t run. Perhaps paradoxically, that made this all harder for me. If he’d screamed and begged and had to be dragged back into the circle, then at least he would have been the same coward and idiot he’d been last week, a cheap monster who’d tried to kidnap Lozzie, unwilling to repent or pay for his sins.
It seemed unfair that he’d finally developed a moral compass and located his spine, when I was about to do something that might end his life.
“You may feel a small prick,” Raine answered for me, with a huge, shit-eating grin. She flourished the latex gloves on her hands, snapping one rubbery wrist cuff like a parody of a mad scientist.
Evelyn didn’t even roll her eyes; Raine had made four different variations on that joke in the last twenty minutes, complete with the same glove-snapping gesture and cheesy grin. I knew she was trying to take the edge off, but it wasn’t helping, even if it did make Lozzie giggle.
“You may feel the same, soon,” Praem intoned at her. Raine put her hands up and shut her mouth, suppressing a smirk.
Badger ignored both of them. He waited for me.
“I don’t know,” I said, my mouth gone dry. “It’ll probably be over too quickly for you to feel anything. One way or the other.”
He nodded. From behind, I saw his throat bob as he opened his mouth, but he had nothing left to say.
At least I didn’t have to see his face.
We were gathered in the cave-like darkness of the ex-drawing room, the magical workshop, with the bright sunlight shut out behind thick curtains. Almost all of us were present, except for Tenny, who was upstairs, because nobody felt like making a literal child potentially watch a man die. Zheng was stalking up and down the rest of the house, in case Ooran Juh took offence to my meddling with Badger’s contract and decided to risk assaulting the house after all. Kimberly had not joined us. In fact, she had requested to be far, far away while we did this, and was currently visiting one of her friends from the Wiccan coven.
Badger and I were sat inside a pair of magic circles, though his was considerably more complex, with inward-facing collections of Latin and Sanskrit text surrounding esoteric symbols, pointed like spikes in the throat of a deep sea fish, to stop food escaping back up a slippery gullet. My circle at least didn’t make my eyes water, but it was a triple-layered affair, a multiple buffer of protection and warning and bastion.
He sat facing away from me. A small mercy. His circle was large enough for him to collapse onto his back without breaking the boundary.
The two circles sat inside a larger circle, a full five layers of interlocking rings painted on a massive piece of white canvas, which now dominated the workshop floor. Evelyn had purchased it specifically for this working. She’d had Praem push back the table and clear up the other debris — even shunting our long-forgotten clay-squid friend into a corner under a tarpaulin, to roll and slop to itself in peace. She’d spent most of the week constructing these circles, element by painstaking element, in charcoal and bull’s blood and crushed seashell.
It was, according to Evelyn, the most secure creation she’d ever made. A veritable star-fortress of magic circles. But it all faced inward.
“Blunt and brutal,” she’d said to me earlier. “Absolutely nothing subtle about it. Ugly as hell, too, but it’ll get the job done.”
“The job?” I’d asked.
“Protecting us. Protecting you, if something goes wrong.”
Because of course, this was nothing like fixing Sarika. Badger was still in the grip, no matter how remote, no matter if it was across the membrane between here and Outside, no matter that I’d be interfacing with him via hyperdimensional mathematics.
We had learnt, from our first brush with the Eye, that no contact was safe.
Evelyn herself was on standby, perched in a chair, ready with yet another magic circle, along with her scrimshawed thighbone and three large glass bottles full of rather grisly pieces of bull anatomy, ready for the ‘big guns’ in case Ooran Juh got shirty with us. Praem waited by her shoulder, ready for any task that might be tackled in a maid dress.
Raine was there too, of course she wouldn’t leave me alone for this, though for once her speciality probably wasn’t required. Instead of a knife or a gun, she’d carried in our first-aid kit. She’d said, “In case Badger bangs his head”, and then like a magician producing an entire tractor from beneath a top hat, she’d dug out a large yellow clamshell box from the mess on the sofa, and added it to our supplies of painkillers and emergency bandages.
“Raine,” Evelyn had said slowly, “since when do we have a portable defibrillator?”
“A defibrillator?” My voice had risen about two octaves.
Raine shrugged. “Since we’re gonna do something that might stop some poor bugger’s heart?”
“It might do more than stop his heart,” I murmured, wringing my hands. “We don’t have the equipment for this. Raine, the best thing you can keep to hand is your phone, to call an ambulance.”
Raine waggled her mobile phone at me. “Way ahead of you.”
“No,” Evelyn sighed. “I mean where did you get it?”
“Stole it from a train station. Wall-mounted, aren’t they? You can just pick them up and go. Don’t worry, I did it without being caught on camera, and I was even a very, very good Robin Hood and called them afterward to let them know some downright anti-social scoundrel had stolen their portable defib.”
“Good idea,” I’d said, before Evelyn could argue.
Sarika had watched us with heavy-lidded, exhausted eyes, ringed with dark bags, saying nothing since she’d expended almost all her energy by arguing with Badger in the kitchen earlier. She was on the sofa, and she seemed like an old woman, weak and collapsed into herself. But when Whistle was deposited on her lap, she looped deceptively strong fingers through his dog collar.
“Good boy,” she’d murmured, stroking him with a finger.
Lozzie was here too, in the circle with me, her arms wrapped around my middle from behind, her head resting on my upper back. She was here as an emergency ripcord, to pull me out if something went wrong, to lend her powers to mine. She didn’t have the ability to go rooting around editing people’s mathematical definition, and she couldn’t rebuild pneuma-somatic flesh in anybody except me, but she’d insisted on joining all the same.
“Just in case,” she’d whispered into my ear. “I can pull you out, the other other way.”
I linked my fingers with hers, against my own front. Our breathing synced up. Her weight felt invisible.
There was no more reason for delay.
“What I mean is,” I said out loud, “this might take only a split-second. Hyperdimensional mathematics usually happens at the speed of thought. Though this is complex, it might take … I don’t know. A second or two.”
“Because there are multiple things to do,” Evelyn said, soft but firm.
I nodded, trying to focus on the plan, but trying to not yet allow my eyes to wander down to the notebook of hyperdimensional mathematics that lay in my lap. “Yes. First, I’m going to rip up the Big Man’s contract. Flex my legs, as it were. If that hurts too much, then I might come back for a moment, to catch my breath. But if I don’t need to, if I’m in full flow—” What a joke, full flow? With brain-math? Full flow of pain, more like. “—then I’ll move straight on to … finding the Eye’s grip, and examining how it … yes.”
Everyone had fallen silent. In the corner of my eye, I saw Zheng had appeared in the workshop doorway, to watch or protect or just to be near me. Even Raine wasn’t trying to grin any more, but she shot me a confident nod when I met her eyes.
“I’m ready,” Badger said.
“Any last words?” Raine asked him.
“ … thank you,” he said, but didn’t seem to know why he’d said it.
“Get on with it,” Sarika wheezed. “Before he says something he’ll regret when he wakes up.”
I got on with it.
With a sensation like relaxing a muscle that I’d held tense for too long, like uncurling a fist, or finally stretching out a bent knee, I eased one of the biochemical control rods out of its channel inside my trilobe reactor organ. A shudder of slow pleasure and sharp pain rolled through my core — the latter quick and gone again, the former lingering as heat in my belly, turning my muscles to butter, easing the remnants of my bruises. A shuddering gasp escaped my throat, and Lozzie hugged me tighter. I slid the control rod out far enough to power one tentacle, then summoned that limb into brilliant, rainbow-strobing life with a flicker of hyperdimensional mathematics, arcing out from my left flank in a smooth, pale tube of flexible muscle. No teeth or hooks or toxins. Not yet.
It felt wonderful. Even though I’d proven myself clumsy and inexpert, the sheer physical euphoria of my extra limb would have made me purr, if I was summoning it for any other purpose but this.
“Oooooh,” Lozzie murmured, eyes wide over my shoulder. Zheng rumbled approval.
I slid the control rod out further, enough to run two or three tentacles, but I didn’t summon any more, though it took an effort of will to hold myself back. The extra power was another safety buffer.
My chest felt tight, mouth dry, hands clammy as Lozzie held onto them. I swallowed and nodded, mostly to myself, as I lowered my single tentacle toward the back of Badger’s head, toward his curly brown hair and the scalp and skull beneath. A large enough target, and I did not fumble.
He froze and stiffened as I wrapped the tentacle around his skull. His breath stopped in his throat. I didn’t squeeze or grip very hard, the point was merely to make the connection. I’d done this thrice before — defined a human being via hyperdimensional mathematics — once with Raine, and twice with Sarika. Raine had been miles away and the effort had almost sent me tumbling out of my body and into the abyss. On the time she wasn’t trapped in the Eye’s grip, Sarika had been sitting across the kitchen table, and I’d damn well near passed out and bled from my eyes. Physical contact was going to make this easier.
For a given definition of easier; this time, the Eye was right there.
Physical contact also provided rapid access to the inside of Badger’s skull, in case everything went terribly wrong. I prepared a sheathed, razor-sharp band of bone, just beneath the surface of my tentacle, ready to flick out and slice through scalp at the speed of thought.
“Ready?” I whispered.
For a moment, Badger just panted in fear. Then he whispered too, “Do it.”
I looked down the notebook full of hyperdimensional mathematics, and plunged headfirst into the black sump at the bottom of my soul.
Ripping up Ooran Juh’s contract on Badger was surprisingly straightforward.
Badger — Nathan Sterling Hobbes, as I knew instantly, as I knew everything else about him, from the split second I carried out the trick of perception of defining him via hyperdimensional mathematics at close range — was no less complex than Sarika had been, no less complex than any human being. An equation like the nuclear furnace of a star’s core, dense with roiling layers of overlapping meaning, jagged fractal possibilities, memories and events and physical structure like sedimentary layers, all penetrating and entering and co-mingling with each other, in a matrix of creation beyond any mortal mind.
I saw the old scar on his leg where he’d fallen off a bike at age nine and walked home alone to call an ambulance because his parents were out; I saw him in Sharrowford University Library as a student, poring over mathematics textbooks, hair short and clothes neat, clean of drugs for once, his eyes drawn inexorably to the very non-library book the stranger had left for him; I saw Alexander Lilburne, debating philosophy as Badger failed to counter his points, dragged deeper and deeper into negating his own beliefs; I saw Badger’s girlfriend, the one the cult hadn’t known about, the one Sarika still didn’t know about, dying of a heroin overdose in a Manchester bedsit.
Too much information. Like before. If this hadn’t all happened in the instant of frozen time afforded to me by the brain-math, I would have collapsed from the strain.
Ooran Juh’s contract was wrapped around Badger like a greasy layer of filth, a thin membrane sac of cloying, infectious claim on everything inside. Like a reverse womb.
I ripped it apart, slicing through the tissue with barely a flicker of mathematics, a claw-touch, and out came the equation that was Badger, flopping and heaving and wet with foul fluids. I let him flounder by himself, weak and mewling, as I picked up the contract and ate it, shredded it with razor teeth, melted it with acid, broke it down with specialised enzymes, rendered it into proteins, and destroyed any trace of what Ooran Juh used for DNA or ink or a signature in blood.
Then I regurgitated it onto the ground, as bile and acid and nothing else. That had been the easy one.
One down, one to go.
I slammed back to reality in a tidal wave of pain. Head flaring with bursts of supernovae explosion, face smeared wet with blood streaming from my nose, gut roiling and clenching in an effort to hold back a torrent of vomit. I keened through my teeth, gasping and kicking. Lozzie held on tight.
The bioreactor had helped. I was still conscious and had more than enough energy to keep going. But defining a human being was still almost beyond my pain threshold. I’d had to surface before I could dive deeper again.
And I surfaced to screaming chaos.
Everyone was shouting. Zheng and Raine were nowhere to be seen, but I could hear Zheng growling from the kitchen or the front room — how was that possible? I’d taken a second, two seconds at most. Praem had Evelyn by the shoulders, to stop her from rising, and Evelyn had gone white in the face. Sarika was wide-eyed with terror, clutching her crutches. Whistle was up on his paws, barking.
Badger was curled up in a ball, on his side, but still inside his magic circle. I’d tightened my tentacle’s grip on his skull. He was mewling softly.
Lozzie’s arms tightened around my middle. “Heathy, Heathy it’s okay! It’s okay, we can keep going, it’s okay!”
“It is very much not fucking okay!” Evelyn shouted. “Raine, get that bastard out of—”
Zheng made a sound like an angry tiger, and I think the crash which followed was the front door getting knocked off its hinges.
“Don’t stop now,” Lozzie whispered. “We have to finish!”
Lozzie was right. The others would keep me safe, whatever we’d triggered. I blinked the blood out of my eyes as best I could, slammed the pieces of the equation back into place, and gripped the slick, black, dripping levers of reality once more. I spun hyperdimensional mathematics into a glove made of scalpels, reached into the equation that was Badger, and began to peel him apart, to find the Eye’s hidden tendrils embedded in his soul.
Imagine you have crept into a torture chamber.
You are there to rescue a prisoner, an abused wreck kept in a dark corner, weeping softly to himself. But upon raising your shaded lantern you discover the problem, you discover why he has not been able to free himself, despite the strength of his cries for help, and the current absence of the torturer. The torture machines are so complex that they demand hours of study just to comprehend their controls, and they have so pierced and invaded and ruined his body that he cannot be extracted from them without dying, not unless the rescue is performed with incredible care.
To draw back the black iron would be to let forth torrents of his blood, to unscrew the bolts and rivets and turn the little nozzles would break his bones all over again, to lessen the pressure of the vice would crack his skull.
You’re here to understand those machines. And as a by-product of understanding, through knowledge, you can get him out, with the minimum of damage.
Except the machines don’t make any sense. They rake his flesh from angles they could not possibly have reached, they have left him with wounds that should have killed him ten times over, they dose him with drugs that should have rendered him unconscious, but every time you make an adjustment, he has to swallow a scream.
And the torturer is returning.
Down the steps at the front of the dungeon, from the opposite route you took, a great darkness heralds the one thing that might reveal how the machines work — the attention of the one of whom they are a part.
But then the torturer will know you are here too.
Imagine a dolphin caught in a net.
The net is steel cable, it cannot be cut with the few hand-tools you have. The dolphin is desperate, thrashing in the water, straining against the lines of the net, but the more the creature thrashes, the deeper the lines cut. They have cut so deep now, sawed through skin and flesh and into the organs, leeching bright red blood into the seawater.
And you’re down there in your flimsy, vulnerable diving gear. No sturdy shark cage to hide inside. Dead fish clog the water, blood clouds your vision.
You keep rolling the dolphin over, but the net seems to have no end, no tears, no breaks, no weak spots or frayed cables, nothing to give you a way to begin freeing the dolphin. To get it out, you’ll have to start digging into the poor creature’s flesh. There is no other way. The netting is beyond your comprehension.
But down in the water far below you and the dolphin, something is rising. Something that is watching the dolphin struggle. Something that cast the net in the first place, from an organ you cannot even imagine.
If you wait for it to arrive, maybe you’ll understand how the net works. You’ll see the first principles behind the construction. You will understand.
But then you will be in the leviathan’s maw too.
Imagine you are hanging in space in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant, and the planet itself has somehow snared your fellow cosmonaut in tendrils of cloud and gravity, and is dragging him down into the crushing pressure.
And you can do nothing, because the gasses have invaded his suit and the gravity has broken his limbs. He is wrapped with invisible force and yet somehow not dead, cradled in the outer grip of something so utterly inimical to human life, which your senses cannot even process.
You reach out to touch him, to anchor him, but you cannot understand how he is being pulled down.
But the planet itself is turning below you, faster than any celestial body should rotate. A giant, two dozen times the size of Earth, banded in ochre and red-orange and a million shades of crimson, against a backdrop of cold interstellar space. It is turning toward you and your companion, attention shifting on a scale your mind cannot endure.
If you let it turn, it will see you. Both of you. But then you’ll know.
The relationship between Badger and the Eye wasn’t like any of those things, of course. It was like all of them at once, and a million other tortured metaphors, the only way my fragile brain could process the information. And it was still a brain, no matter how abyssal I’d become. I was still so very small compared to the Eye, compared to even one tendril, one lash, one cell.
This was nothing like freeing Sarika. She’d been disembodied by then, turned into pure information, and I’d been trying to ignore the Eye as much as possible, only comprehend as much as I needed to rip her from its grip.
Badger still had flesh. Ripping him out would kill him.
Every part of the equation that was Nathan was wrapped in counter-equations, poised negations, additions and addendums and expansions, like tentacles that had penetrated him through every pore. A violation more complete than any rape, any invasive surgery, any infection. The Eye owned everything that defined him, was wrapped tight around every part of him. And those were only the outermost of the outermost layers of the Eye’s attention, the bits that were possible to understand because they were interfacing with the equation that described a human being.
Lucky for me, that wasn’t the point. I was here to understand.
But comprehension was nearly impossible.
I dared not look too closely at the Eye’s tendrils themselves. Each one was infinitely more complex than a person, an ever-shifting riot of impossibly complicated fractal equation that I kept firmly at the limit of my awareness, even as I tried to work on them, to understand how they operated, how they had invaded Badger so totally. With a sinking feeling I came to realise that the only reason I was safe was because they were so remote from the Eye’s real core, away across the membrane between here and Outside. Badger had been invaded by the equivalent of the Eye’s subconscious attention.
And I was burning up just trying to look back.
Even the slightest movement of hyperdimensional mathematics was leaving Badger shredded and raw, pulling bits of him off, leaving them snagged in the Eye’s trillion fractal hooks or spinning off into necrosis and death. I would have had more luck trying to unwind a physical parasite from the wrinkles of his actual brain. Never mind comprehending this; even trying to reveal the junction between Eye and human would kill Badger by the time I was done.
And as I tried, so clumsy and bloody, to pare away the human from the Outsider, I felt the Eye become aware of me, in the way one becomes aware of furtive fumbling in a distant room.
Panic, blind panic, the animalistic panic of knowing the predator is coming. If I lingered too long, I would be seen.
But I sensed, on some level, that if the Eye turned its attention fully on Badger, the connections would finally make sense. Or at least, a kind of sense, if I could bear to watch.
But I could not stay here.
I dived deeper, to sip from the abyss, to anchor myself on that submarine shore of barren silt and dunk my head into the deeper waters to draw strength from the dark. Maybe I could hide until the Eye’s attention passed over us both. Maybe I could drag Badger down here. Or maybe I could come back as something more suited for the task, and endure fleeting seconds of the Eye’s attention as it played over the inside of Badger’s mind, and by watching him disintegrate, I would finally comprehend, I would be granted insight.
The idea was seductive. Would it be murder?
Halfway down to the abyss, playful hands snagged my ankles, and pulled me sideways.
Calm haze settled on my mind like a warm blanket. I blinked clear eyes up at a night sky, devoid of clouds and blanketed with stars, bright as diamonds in the void.
“Heather! Come on, up, up, up time, up time! We have to really seriously super-duper mega-hurry!”
“ … Lozzie?”
I sat up slowly, and found myself on a vast plain of bare grey earth. Cool night air hung still and soft around my face and head, like dusk after a hot day. No light but starlight fell on me. I felt unhurried and safe, not menaced by nocturnal predators or vulnerable and alone after dark. The grey plain stretched off forever in three directions, but right in front of me, perhaps miles away or perhaps only a few hundred meters — I sensed that distance was difficult to judge because the atmosphere was so thin — stood a rampart of mountains that scraped the heavens.
The mountains were dark too, though I thought I could see a hint of dawn at the line of sharp summits.
“Upppppp!” Lozzie repeated, and grabbed my arms to pull me to my feet.
“Lozzie, what— I was—”
“I would question what I’m doing here,” my own voice said, from off to one side, “but apparently I don’t have a choice. The little one didn’t ask my permission.”
I turned and blinked at myself, at a vision of me, standing a few feet away on the grey soil. She — the other Heather — was dressed in my pink-scaled hoodie and triple-layered skirt, with blonde highlights in her hair and LED light-up shoes on her feet.
Seven-Shades-of-absolutely-not-Heather sighed and gave a little shrug.
“I had to invite disco you too!” Lozzie chirped. “We have to find him quick! Super quick!” Lozzie was at her absolute worst, shaky and jittery, all but vibrating on the spot as she glanced left and right across the endless plain. She was in her pastel poncho, wispy blonde hair flying everywhere, and I realised I was in the same clothes I’d been wearing back in the house for the—
“Vivisection,” I murmured. “Lozzie, Lozzie, stop. I was in the middle of the vivisection. I was doing brain-math. I don’t—”
“You still are!” She whirled back to me. “Don’t think about it too hard!”
“ … we’re in a dream? The dreams? Like we used to?”
“I don’t know why I’m here,” Sevens said. “This is not my area of expertise, not at all.”
“Pleaseeee don’t think about it too hard, Heathy,” Lozzie went on at high speed. “Yes and no. But don’t think about it or it’ll stop working and if it stops working Badger will die. Die-die. Dead-dead, not getting him back dead. You can’t do it alone so I’m helping but I can’t help like you do so it’s this or nothing!”
“But saving him isn’t … important?”
Lozzie bit her lower lip.
With my emotions blunted by what I quickly recognised as dream-logic, I glanced around the grey plain again. There was no sign of Badger, or anything that might stand in for him.
The mountaintops seemed a touch lighter.
“That’s bad,” Sevens said, my own shaking fear leaking into her version of my voice. She hiccuped softly.
“You … made this? Lozzie?” I asked.
“I’m making it all right now, but it already exists, but it’s not a place but it is a place but only while we’re here. But it’s okay, we can get him and get gone before the peeper comes up! We need to be reeeeeal quick. Like five minutes quick.”
“I would estimate,” said Sevens-as-me, “that we have four minutes and twenty three seconds of subjective time. And I will be leaving before then, believe me.”
That washed away some of the dream-logic calm. I had a sinking suspicion about what exactly was rising on the other side of those mountains.