Dawn was breaking, behind the mountains.
Except those weren’t really mountains, and that wasn’t the sun — or any other star — casting the first touch of deep red illumination against the far side of those towering peaks. Waves of dirty crimson light seemed to lift from the rock around the mountaintops, like thousands of translucent ribbons fluttering slowly under invisible pressure, in a medium too thick to be normal atmosphere. I realised, with growing horror, that I was looking at streamers of superheated air.
Whatever medium Lozzie had used to construct this place, this metaphor, this dream, whatever substrate or thought-matter, it was not strong enough to withstand the crushing attention of the Eye’s observation.
Even beneath the blanket of artificial calm imposed by the dream-logic brain-haze, my mouth went bone dry, my stomach clenched up hard, and my heart began to race. That was the Eye, rising around the curvature of this globe, and there was no escape on this featureless grey plane of bare earth, not even a rock to hide behind. Every direction was blasted, baked, scoured clean of anything larger than a grain of rice, right to the horizon — which seemed oddly close and visibly curved, as if this planetoid was too small. Last time I had confronted the Eye, back when the fake-Lozzie thing had whisked me away to Wonderland, I vaguely recalled throwing a rock at it. A futile gesture, certainly, but here I couldn’t even do that.
Dream-logic formed a dam, holding back the headwaters of actual terror, keeping me from falling to my knees and curling up in a ball.
But my hands shook uncontrollably, adrenaline flooded me like a tidal wave, and I almost started to hyperventilate. This wasn’t Wonderland, this was a dream, but that was the Eye, for real, metaphorised through whatever Lozzie had built here, and I was no longer a expression of executed hyperdimensional mathematics, thinking in ways that would allow me to slip between definition and reality in a heartbeat of real time. I was fully conscious, I was tiny, and the Eye was approaching like a slow-motion shock wave from a nuclear bomb.
Sevens had said four minutes and twenty three seconds.
“No … no … ” I murmured, throat closing. “We have to—”
My mind began the equation, spinning up the necessary mathematics to get us out of here, wherever or whatever here was. Dream or reality, Outside or Earth, I didn’t care. That was the Eye, and I was not staying to meet its gaze.
“Heather, no! No!”
Lozzie grabbed my hands and ripped my attention back down to her, disrupting my concentration with the urgency and panic on her elfin little face. The equation fell apart. I winced with headache pain and a sudden sharp nosebleed.
“Ah, ow. Lozzie.”
“If you go then we all go and it’ll all collapse and it won’t work,” Lozzie rattled off at high speed. “So you have to stay, okay? We can find him, we can, we can do it!”
“That’s all well and good, little one,” Sevens-Shades-of-Disco-Me said, visibly swallowing a pale echo of my own fear, “but I don’t see him anywhere.”
Lozzie bit her lip and turned left and right, wispy hair flicking out as her poncho twirled after her. “He should be right here, we should be right on top of him, he—”
“Why?!” I suddenly shouted in her face. “I had it under control!”
Lozzie flinched like a struck cat, a full-body shudder angled away from me; that was one of the worst things I’d ever seen, but I was too scared and in too much panic to care right then, goaded into anger by fear and confusion.
“H-Heathy it’ll be fine it’ll be fine, it’ll be quick, very quick—”
“Four minutes, two seconds,” said Sevens.
“I had it under control!” I repeated, raving at Lozzie, crying softly now with sheer overload. Lozzie shrank back. “I was diving, I was away from it, I had a plan — multiple plans! All sorts of different things I could have tried. And now we’re here, and that—” I glanced skyward at the mountain peaks. The red sunlight had brightened, the streamers of superheated air thickening in the upper atmosphere, the darkness burned away under an attention that imposed its own conditions.
I couldn’t think. Not with that approaching.
“I find myself in enthusiastic agreement,” Sevens said quickly, struggling to control the quiver in her — my — voice. “We should not be here. The only reason I haven’t already left is because you, little one,” she addressed Lozzie, “have an absolutely fascinating play of your own, and I would very much regret letting you retire from the stage before you find your feet.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight looked absolutely absurd against the backdrop of grey earth and interstellar darkness, with the blonde highlights in my hair, that beautiful pink hoodie, and the LEDs flashing on her shoes. She’d modified the raver-Heather outfit even further, added a pair of rainbow-striped tights, a white-and-pink belt loose around her waist, and three finger-strokes of bright yellow face paint across one cheek. She was like a bioluminescent squid in the depths of an ocean trench.
She was also terrified, or at least channelling my terror. That, combined with the absurdly pretty outfit, helped snap me out of the worst of my panic. Did I really look like that when terrified? Wide-eyed and shaking, gone pale all over, sweaty and twitchy like a spooked field mouse?
“He was gonna die … ” Lozzie said, eyes wet and quivering.
“He volunteered!” I snapped, anger not quite quenched. “The whole point was that he might die! This wasn’t the plan!”
Lozzie’s quivering shock suddenly screwed up into tiny, defiant, puff-cheeked outrage. “Yes it was! I’m helping! You asked me to help and I’m helping because you’re gonna let it look but that’s what it wants you to do because that’s what it is and when it does—”
“Yes! And when it looks, I’ll understand, that’s the point. It’s a giant eyeball, that’s what it does. It looks!”
“We’re running out of time,” Sevens said. “Here.”
She clicked her fingers.
I was absolutely certain she didn’t need to click her fingers, she was just being dramatic. At least the gesture let me know that she was responsible for this.
It was like switching the lights on in a dark room in the middle of the night, after you’ve woken up but your eyes haven’t adjusted yet, and all the shapes of familiar furniture form strange terrain in the gloom, odd humps and hanging shapes which fill the imagination with ghosts. When you switch that light on, it turns out you’ve been navigating with a mixture of memory and shadow, a projection created more by the inside of your head than by external sense data. The room is real, in either light or darkness, but not the same.
The plain, the mountains, the Eye’s rising attention chewing at the peaks like the shock wave of a supernova, it was all abstracted away into mathematics.
So was I. For a glorious, beautiful moment — almost pleasurable enough to wash away what was actually happening here — I was top-to-bottom Homo Abyssus, far more extensively than I’d ever managed in reality. I was right. Completely.
I wish I’d experienced that under different circumstances, preferably ones in which I could stop to enjoy the sensation.
Instead of Lozzie — little Lozzie as short as me, dressed in pastel poncho and comfy layers and with her great long mass of blonde hair — I was looking at a collection of shining starlight globes, like bubbles, curled into each other like conch shells. Their surfaces were oil on water but infinitely more beautiful, a riot of fractal colour which revealed more layers the deeper one looked, a work of evolutionary art from an order of being even the most psychedelically inclined naturalist could not have imagined. The starlight globes were a kind of flesh, organised into a shape a little like a nautilus. A cute little protective shell cupped the rest of her, with yet more patterns across it, swirling and changing and melding; dozens of tiny eyes and a collection of miniature feelers poked out of the front, like a kitten peering from inside a box. There was something playful and fey about that shape. Something self-selected. Something joyful, even in panic.
Seven-Shades-of-Heather had been replaced by a beauty I had glimpsed once before, through the truth of abyssal senses, a creature of infinite frills in butter-soft delicacy, a grace beyond the sharpest lemon, flesh so smooth it was akin to sunlight on one’s face.
Next to her, Lozzie and I seemed like twisted, malformed children; ugly ducklings.
Of course, I wasn’t actually seeing any of this, not with my eyes, not with sight, not even with the metaphorical sight of Lozzie’s dream-imposition. All of this was abyssal truth, filtered into the best metaphors that the human mind could manage under the massive strain.
“If you must have this argument now, do it like this, it’s quicker,” Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight said — or thought, or projected, or injected into our minds. Her communication was like the singing voice of a planet. It was not words, but impulse, pure meaning, uncluttered by language.
Lozzie and I were too overwhelmed. For long minutes — though time was irrelevant to this state of being — we just flailed and clung to each other. Lozzie let out a few half-notes of attempted communication, but they died under the sheer intimidation, like trying to sing into a hurricane.
Seven-Shades-of-Stupendous-Underestimation let out a sigh like a galaxy collapsing, and clicked her fingers again.
Grey plain, dark mountains, red-hot rising sun—all back again. Lozzie and I, comfortably human-shaped once more, hugging like scared children. Seven-Shades-of-Disco-Heather rolled her eyes.
“Argue later, then!” she snapped, imitating me at my huffing, outraged worst. “Perhaps don’t waste precious seconds? Don’t doom yourselves to the mother of all suntans?” She pointed at the line of mountains with a shaking hand.
Lozzie and I glanced at each other. Lozzie shrank back slightly at the look in my eyes, and I let go of her, but I held onto one hand.
“We still need to get out,” I said quickly. “And I can go back to what I was doing, let it look at him and—”
“It wants you to let it look at him so it can do that while you’re close!” Lozzie said.
“Not this again,” Sevens sighed.
“It’s a trap! And he’ll die and you won’t get anything!”
“It is turning its attention, yes,” Sevens agreed. “And it will likely obliterate him, completely. Like Sarika. There won’t be anything biological, anything physical left to examine. I don’t care how good Evee thinks her circles are.”
Lozzie paused, sleepy-eyed yet panicked gaze flicking to Sevens. “ … yeah!” she added.
I gave her the tiniest, most affectionate, yet disapproving frown. That was a retroactive justification. “Lozzie,” I sighed.
“And this way you can do it with your body,” she said. “With your hands and your tentacles and eyes and stuff, you can see how the Eye does it for yourself and then just go — go! And it’ll be safe to do it, I swear, I promise, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. He said sorry, Heather.”
“Badger,” Lozzie said, voice quivering behind one sleeve, forcing herself not to look away. “He … he came upstairs to talk to me. At night. He said sorry. For being in the cult. Nobody’s ever apologised before. Not even Flowsie.”
I sighed, exasperated but beyond solutions right now. “Lozzie, you should have said something.”
“I thought you’d be really good at this,” she said in a tiny voice. “I thought he wouldn’t die. I didn’t think.”
“It’s the Eye, Lozzie,” I said. “I’m not that good.”
“I’m sorry … ”
“It’s okay, little one,” Seven-Shades-of-Superior-Me said in a soft voice. She gave Lozzie a quick hug, then glanced up at the mountain peaks. Lozzie clung to her, crying soft tears of confused shame. “Three minutes, five seconds. If we’re going to find Badger, we best do it right now.”
“Wait, wait,” I said. “I still need to understand how I’m supposed to watch the Eye … interact with him. I don’t understand, what’s actually going to happen, when … ?” I glanced up at the mountains too. “When it arrives?”
Sevens let go of Lozzie and stepped back. “Just meet its gaze, Heather. You’re the only one who can.”
“He should be right here!” Lozzie said, panic in her heavy-lidded eyes. “I don’t get where—”
Without warning, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight exploded into a riot of amber and gold, a fractal expansion of ruffled butter and lemon shavings, Homo Abyssus Heather with Sevens’ mask slipping. With a motion like a jellyfish bobbing through the waves, she gathered skirts of satin-smooth pneuma-somatic flesh and launched herself into the air like a kite from a slingshot, scattering loose grey dirt, puffing Lozzie and I with a blast of air like from a helicopter take-off.
She flew in a sudden, shallow arc away from us, parallel with the mountains. It was like watching a woman in an elaborate ball gown complete a low-orbit manoeuvre on a moon. Which, I suppose, was exactly what she was doing.
At the apex of her flight, her ruffled yellow form seemed to bunch up toward one side, like a cephalopod preparing muscle groups for a burst of speed. I saw bits of me still in there in the core of the mass, LED light-up shoes trailing behind her on rainbow-clad legs. Sevens unleashed all that kinetic energy in a slam of air or force or ejected propellant, and her flight path took a ninety-degree turn away from the mountains.
“What is she doing?” I murmured, awestruck.
“Flooping!” Lozzie chirped.
Sevens completed two more rapid changes of direction, then let her final arc carry her further away. A single yellow ribbon-like structure flashed out behind her, like a finger beckoning to us, just before she vanished over the too-close horizon. A split-second later, a spray of dust and grey earth plumed up into the air.
“Come on!” Lozzie yipped, and grabbed my hand. “I’m so sorry, Heather, I’m sorry, but let’s go!”
“Right.” I nodded, squeezed her hand, and picked up my feet.
We ran hand-in-hand, feet kicking up little sprays of grey earth, Lozzie’s poncho fluttering out behind her, my lungs heaving with effort. It was clumsy, stupid, and inexpert, because neither of us were very good runners, though at least Lozzie was fitter than I. To our right, the great dark range of mountains reared toward the sky, but their tips had brightened further, the light beginning to stream far above our heads in horizontal shafts of burning air. The sky itself was turning red and orange, dark and heavy, and deepest blue in the far distance. Heat-haze wavered and flickered above us, and when I glanced over at the mountains themselves, the source of that noxious light was peeling flakes of ash and black sand from the rock, like a wave of physical pressure.
Somehow, in a feat of compacted space and mind-bending physics, we reached Sevens’ landing site about twenty seconds later.
This ball of rock and dirt we were on was impossible. How could it take only twenty seconds to reach the horizon? Gravity felt like it did on Earth, but it was like standing on a tiny moon.
“Hey! Hey hey!” Lozzie was calling as we skidded to a halt. I had to bend forward and put my hands on my knees, heaving for breath as Lozzie danced from foot to foot.
Sevens was folding away the shade of her true form which she’d extruded to achieve flight, wearing my appearance like a mask again, but with ruffles and tendrils and membranes of yellow butterscotch sucking back into her flesh like parasitic mollusks. Here and there, parts of that yellow brilliance had turned black, the flesh cracked and steaming, bleeding pale fluid, burned by grazing the awful light during the apex of her flight.
“Ahhhh! Tch,” she hissed through her teeth, like me after a paper cut or a stubbed toe, as she tenderly folded those damaged parts back inside herself.
I tried not to watch; seeing a mirror copy of yourself sucking in extra parts like a slug retracting its eye stalks was a little much, even for me.
“Sevens, are you … okay … ?”
My voice trailed off between gulps of air, as I realised why Sevens had landed. Lozzie was already dropping to her knees. She tossed her poncho over one shoulder and started to dig. Her slender, delicate fingers scrabbled at the grey, compacted earth.
It was Badger.
Or at least, I assumed it was him. The lump of flesh was barely recognisable as a person, let alone a specific person.
A human head was sticking out of the barren plain which stretched in all directions. The owner of the head was buried up to their neck, and still alive, but probably not for much longer. Every inch of skin had been burned as if by direct exposure to the most powerful ultraviolet light possible, red and crisped, weeping and bleeding, covered in massive blisters, the hair and eyebrows and lashes seared away. His lips were open, sucking down thin, slow breaths like a whisper of distant wind. He was blind, eyes turned white, sight burned out by a previous pass of the impossible light.
Lozzie raked away the loose earth around Badger’s buried neck, but the ground was too hard, unyielding, and all she did was bend her nails and bloody her fingertips.
Of course, he wasn’t really buried. This was real, but interpreted through dream metaphor. The ground was the Eye’s unconscious grip, and we mere apes had not the strength to break it.
I stared in horror at Badger’s burned face, then glanced back up at the mountain peaks. Dark red light blasted over them now, the rays creeping downward through the air above our heads. The source of that light would rise above the mountains soon, and I could not bear the thought of seeing even its utmost outer rim. I hiccuped and straightened up, panic making my hands shake. Lozzie scratched in the dirt, but she was getting nowhere.
“We can’t do it … ” I murmured. I felt like I was nine years old again. “Don’t make me, don’t make me … ”
“We have barely a minute before that attention will start to touch the ground,” Sevens said, then hiccuped in perfect imitation of my fear.
“Can’t you … ?” I gestured at Badger with my eyes, at Lozzie trying to dig.
“I don’t know,” Sevens said. “I don’t—”
Lozzie whipped around. “Please! Please please please! Please we can’t let him go, we can’t let him die, Heather won’t learn anything and— and— he did—”
Sevens held up a shaking hand — and I realised she’d painted her nails too, my nails, in neon pink. “All right, all right, little one. I will try, once, and then we all have to get out of here.”
Lozzie nodded. Sevens didn’t wait for her to stand up or back away, but simply exploded into extra-human appendages again, like a squid jetting from a crevasse, so much more complex than anything I had achieved with Homo Abyssus, and somehow much more alien, a whirling mass of yellow tentacles and tendrils and feelers, and limbs which hurt to look at, things that Lozzie’s dream-space could barely process into metaphor. I actually yelped in surprise and almost stumbled back. Sevens slammed cutting claws and yellow tentacle-fists into the earth around Badger’s exposed head, engulfing him like an octopus preying on a crab. For one horrible moment I assumed she was going to decapitate him and save only his head, but her human face — my face — scrunched up with strain. She levered herself backward, pulling on her extra-human parts like a tug of war.
She reared up and slammed the ground again, and then a third time. The nuclear sunlight crept lower. I saw it touch the horizon far to our left, caressing the curvature of this globe with burning attention. The ground began to steam.
Sevens whipped her extra parts back into herself again, heaving for breath. The earth around Badger was marked with scrapes and shallow divots, but none more than an inch or two deep.
“I’m sorry … ” Sevens shook her head, cringing.
“We can’t,” I said, starting to hyperventilate, my own eyes filling with tears. “We’ve lost. Lozzie, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Don’t make me stay here.”
“We can’t just leave!” Lozzie hopped to her feet, taking my hands in hers. “Heather can’t you brain-math all the ground away or take him back to reality or something, or burn the ground, or delete it or—”
I shook my head too. “Lozzie, this isn’t real ground. If it was, then yes, I could just teleport him out with brain-math, but this is the Eye’s grip, it’s not … none of us are … ”
None of us were really there. This was happening, but not how our minds were processing it.
Badger drew in a long, horrible wheeze down his burned throat. He exhaled a single word, barely more than a breath. I don’t think Lozzie or Sevens heard. It was my name.
He was praying. To me.
Except I wasn’t a god — but I was the adopted child of one.
I don’t know if that convinced me to do as I did next, or if it was Lozzie’s pleading, or a determination to preserve the usefulness of my volunteer test subject, or perhaps it was just simple bloody-minded defiance of the Eye, of this vast uncaring intelligence which had tormented me half my life.
“Heather?” Lozzie said, eyes as wide as they could go with her damaged extraocular muscles. She must have seen the look on my face. I let go of her hands and stepped back, turning toward Badger, planted in the earth like a seed of flesh.
“If this isn’t real, I don’t even need the bioreactor here,” I murmured, mind working a million miles an hour. “It’s all metaphor.”
And so when I blossomed with tentacles — not six, but three dozen, from flanks and back and shoulders — when I cut into the earth with digging claws and melted it with injected enzyme slurry, when I pumped it out with specialised syphons as liquid mud, when I jammed support braces of rapid-growth bone and chitin against the outer wall of the hole I was digging, when I blasted Badger’s shaking, emaciated frame with jets of antibiotic mucus, and wrapped him in spider-webbing strong as steel, it was all metaphor. There were no bruises to suffer here, no reactor to overheat, no biological complications to get in the way.
There was only the Eye’s attention, edging closer, the light burning the air less than fifty meters above our heads.
But still, I shuddered with pleasure. The transformation was incredible, a work of art on the canvas of the mind, unconstrained by the limits of real flesh and the throbbing heat of the bioreactor in my abdomen. I could have gone further, melted into something not human at all, embraced abyssal reality — but I had to work fast. The mud turned caustic and toxic against Badger’s exposed flesh, and I was trying not to damage him further.
Lozzie gasped in delight, hands to her mouth. Sevens frowned, but didn’t disapprove. Neither of them understood how I was doing this.
In a very real way, I was made from the same stuff as the Eye. It had adopted Maisie and me, and tried to make us more like itself by teaching us how to think. Malice? Probably not. I doubted it experienced anything as crude and ape-centric as malice, even in analogy. No, it had taught us how to think because it had tried, very briefly, to raise us, and had kept trying to raise me despite my departure. Distance learning. The ultimate helicopter parent.
So when I dug into that earth, I was speaking the same language. The Eye recognised my touch, my methods, my style. I suspect the same would have happened if I had dug with my actual hands — but speed was of the essence.
As I dug and wrenched and pulled Badger out of the wound I’d made in the ground, I had the spine-creeping sensation that I was being allowed to do this. Even unconsciously, at the very limit of its distributed attention, the Eye was not going to let some unfamiliar hand peel open its fingers and pry out something that belonged to it. Lozzie and Sevens were not allowed. But as I pumped the liquid mud out from around Badger, and pulled his legs from the sucking swamp I’d created, and hosed off his burning flesh before he lost all his skin, I felt like I was being allowed to win a playful tug of war. Playful, over a human soul.
I was a young predator, being taught how to hunt.
I finally pulled Badger free, got him swaddled in biological bandages to soak up his blood, and dumped him next to the hole, mewling and broken. I whipped all my extra, ad-hoc parts back inside myself before I stumbled, sweating and panting, light-headed from the effort, throbbing all over.
“He’s out—” I panted. “Get him— up— get out before—”
Lozzie was already on it. She wedged a shoulder beneath Badger’s arm, and heaved him into a sitting position. None of his muscles seemed to work, twitching and shaking, shivering inside the cocoon I’d woven for him.
“Here!” Lozzie held out her other hand toward me. “Let’s gooooooo! It’s quicker when I do it so let’s go!”
I stared at her outstretched offer, then looked away, up at the shafts of noxious, nuclear sunlight slicing through the air overhead, rapidly descending toward our shadowed redoubt. A line of dark red sunlight steadily advanced toward us from the left, as if to drive us deeper into the shelter of the mountains’ shadow. The ground steamed and popped where the light touched, burning away impurities under the pressure of pure observation.
“I can get out by myself,” Sevens said quickly, with a tremble in her voice. “And I am just about to do so. But, Heather, what are you doing?”
“ … Heather?” Lozzie squeaked.
“I’m staying,” I said. “A few more moments.”
“Oh no,” Sevens sighed.
“You said it yourself — I’m the only one who can meet its gaze.” My voice quivered and my throat was closing up. I felt a terrible weight on my chest. I’d rarely been so afraid before. But I had to do this.
Sevens gave me the exact same look I’d often given Raine in the past, a cocktail of wide-eyed incredulity, exasperated disbelief, and more than a little fear. Did I really look that gormless?
“That was rhetorical,” she said. “Sarcastic, even! Heather, you can’t stand up to that, not as you are. I know I couldn’t.”
“But you’re not actually me,” I said.
Sevens rolled her eyes — my eyes — and I decided yes, I did actually look that gormless. “You’re rationalising.”
She was right, I was trying to rationalise what I was about to do. The line of burning sunlight crept ever closer.
“You’re not actually the Eye’s adopted daughter,” I said. “It will go differently for me, because I am. That’s the point. And I only need to stay for a second or two. I need to understand how it does this,” I nodded at Badger. “And he’s out now, I might not have another chance. Maisie is on a time limit and I may never get another chance to do this, to understand. It does this via the act of observation itself. I need to see it observe, I need to see how it sees.”
I hiccuped, loudly and painfully. I was shaking all over.
“Heather nooooo,” Lozzie whined, eyes pleading.
I frowned at her, then tried to soften my expression. If I got this wrong, it might be the last time I ever saw Lozzie. “I’ll only be a second behind you. I promise.”
“Is free now,” I spoke too hard, shaking all over, fear running into anger. “Which means this is my only chance to understand. Go, go! Don’t distract me, Lozzie, please.”
Lozzie’s lower lip wobbled. Badger, wheezing for breath through blackened, blistered lips, managed to flop a hand in my direction. Blind eyes rolled in search of my voice. He struggled to fill his lungs, and hissed actual words, paper-thin and scratchy across burned vocal chords.
“—leave me with her—” he wheezed. “No— point other— wise. No point to— me.”
That almost broke my resolve. Badger was free of the Eye, sort of. All Lozzie had to do was translate him back out of this place, and he was refusing. For me.
Volunteering for possible death in a dangerous experiment was one thing; but willingly laying down one’s life in service of a leader’s goals, when personal salvation and rescue was right there, right next to you, ready to whisk you away from danger, that was something else. I had reason to believe I could survive a moment or two of the Eye’s direct attention, considering what I had become since my last brush with that penetrating, cosmic sight. But Badger would not live. He was offering himself with blind devotion, to yet another entity he had elevated to godhood in his mind.
I froze up with the knowledge that if I took that step, I could never take it back.
I screwed my eyes shut, and whispered, “I will not be a monster when I next see my sister.”
“Heather?” Lozzie squeaked.
“Get him out of here!” I shouted at her — but I was really shouting at myself, at my own temptations. Lozzie flinched and swallowed a squeal. “Just go! I will be right behind you, Lozzie, I promise, okay? I love you, I do, and I won’t leave you alone. I promise, just go, right now, before I change my mind, please, please!”
Lozzie vanished and took Badger with her. She was still shaking. Didn’t even nod at me.
The burning sunlight was barely thirty meters up now, and falling every second as its source rose on the other side of the mountain range. The high peaks were almost impossible to look at, back-lit with searing fire that was somehow both white-hot and void-dark at the same time; the Eye was too much a paradox for any dream to contain. Light flooded the firmament above us with heat haze thick as steam, backed by violet and ochre and orange. The line of illumination on the ground was so close I could feel it like an open furnace.
I turned to Sevens, but she was already shaking her head, wide-eyed with mirrored fear.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “We have seconds, at most. I can’t stay, Heather. A life pulling strings and walking the boards does not prepare any director for a theatre fire, even me.”
“I’m not asking you to stay.” I paused to hiccup. “Go, so I can concentrate.”
I was already sprouting fresh sets of tentacles from my flanks and back, straight through my clothes like true pneuma-somatic flesh, a clustered forest of new designs that out in reality would have taken hours of concentration and sweating pain, and would have earned me bruises deep enough to cause organ damage; flat spades of bone and chitin wrapped in leathery skin as shielding, thrown in front of me in overlapping layers like the petals of a flower; thick ablative fat beneath speed-grown armour plates, shock absorbers to cushion my core like biological suspension; supercooled fluids manufactured by impossible glands, pumped into the spaces between my cells and used like insulation between layers of alternating membrane; dark protective films flickering shut over my eyes, triple layers of new eyelid to hold back the worst of the light.
In reality, this would have felt glorious beyond imagination, but here in the dream, still wavering on the edge of lucidity, it wasn’t real; it was metaphor for my limits. Deep in the part of my brain that still believed I would live through the next minute, I felt sort of sad about that. But it was very good practice. Though I struggled to imagine a situation out in reality where I would need any of this. I wasn’t about to throw myself into a volcano any time soon.
“I’ll be right—”
“—behind me,” Sevens finished my sentence with a huff. “No, you won’t, stop lying.”
“I can’t ask anybody else to do this alongside me,” I said. “I don’t think anybody else can.”
“Don’t say things like that!” Sevens snapped at me, my own voice a screechy mess. “You spent enough time teaching Evee she doesn’t have to do everything alone, don’t you start thinking like that too.”
“I’m not. I need you to help the others. Out in reality. Can you do that? I think something happened out there, it was chaos. I know time isn’t technically passing, but … ”
“I can’t.” Sevens huffed, and cast an increasingly nervous glance at the creeping line of light. We had thirty seconds, maybe, unless we sprinted for the shadow of the mountains. “I’m already damaging myself just by being here, but … ” Suddenly, Sevens took a deep, cleansing breath as she straightened up, and opened her eyes on me with an expression I never would have made, a look more Evelyn than me, confident and old and slightly bitter. Even under the present circumstances, it was enough to confuse me into a frown. Like looking in a mirror and finding something else looking back. “But sometimes the greatest director must learn when to save her leading lady from backstage accidents. Here.”
With a spinning flourish that would have sent the real me tumbling onto my backside, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight peeled away part of her self.
It came off like a membrane, a single translucent layer lifted from skin and hair and clothes alike, a yellow shimmer in the air as fine and light as spider silk, fluttering down into one hand as she completed the spin.
She held it out to me, flushed with pride that I recognised only partly as my own. The membrane in her hand became a yellow cloak.
“A final mask,” she said. “For when all others are removed.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was, for the first time I’d witnessed, failing to accurately imitate me. Alien intelligence looked out from inside my own eyes, and struggled to remain down here on the ground floor of humanity. Micro-expression changes in her confident pride were nothing like myself, but drawn from a dozen different sources, all of them authentically human, except for those eyes. It was like looking at my own body inhabited by a preternaturally experienced version of myself, a thousand-year old immortal slipped back into her own younger skin.
I glanced at the cloak. It looked like silk. “ … what is this, really?”
“Take it!” She tutted. “You think we have time to explain? Five seconds, Heather, and we are making like a banana, and splitting.”
“ … I would never say that,” I huffed, but I took the cloak. I needed all the help I could get.
The fabric was warm as sun-kissed skin, light as buttercup petals, yet thick as alpaca wool, and strong as iron. Even with my body changed beyond human recognition, the cloak slipped about my shoulders without so much as a shrug, a mantle that felt like an embrace.
What was this a metaphor for?
Sevens hiccuped. The line of burning sunlight was less than ten meters away, the light itself pouring down in a straight line from the mountain peaks, lowering toward my head. Behind those great jagged dark teeth, a black rim was rising, so distant and yet so large it seemed to dwarf the world.
“Make sure you are right behind me,” Sevens said. I’d never heard myself so serious.
“Because the whole play will fall apart without me?” I laughed on the edge of hysteria, terrified out of my mind. Only the lingering dream-logic haze kept me on my feet as I turned my shielding, my ablative meat, my cooling vanes, my membranes and bone armour and bio-bunkering toward the mountain range, toward the Eye rising beyond them.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight laughed like me, an irritating laugh like a particularly clumsy bird. “No, of course not. That’s the great pity, Heather. You’re not the centre of the universe, no matter what that thing over there thinks.” She nodded at the mountains. “If you die here, life goes on. People will miss you, terribly and deeply. They will hurt. Some of them will never stop hurting. But life will go on.” She sniffed, crying real tears.
And then she was gone too, seconds before the searing light of the Eye’s attention swept over the spot where she’d been standing.
I turned to stare into the nuclear dawn rising over the mountains of the mind.
A dark rim stood behind the peaks, infinitely distant yet close as one’s own iris; it rose inch by inevitable inch, revealing bunched flesh, mountain ranges of its own, the edge of a lid larger than the universe.
The lid lifted higher, and I spotted a sliver of silver sea.
And then the wash of blinding red light, the shock wave that drove my braced heels into the grey soil, the burning heat already tearing through my outermost layers.
A void, pouring with light, with attention, with observation.
A thought hit me like a lash of cosmic energy — perception, awareness, recognition.
Yes, I thought, and I see you too.