any mortal thing – 14.5

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Observation defines reality.

We — human beings and other people-creatures, in our small bodies, with our crude senses, and our physical constraints — we like to think that observation is a passive act. We imagine that absorption of information does not affect the observed. This is a lie, fed to us by the limits of our perception. It is also not important; ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine-recurring percent of people will never, ever have to think about any of this. It will make no difference to their lives. Those few people who experience the strange warping of synaesthesia have tasted the very edge of what this implies, but even they are still working within firmly grounded, human, mortal boundaries.

All those limits go out the window when you deal with gods and monsters, from the wilds of Outside or the deep dark cold of the abyss.

And what greater source of observation than an intelligence which is all eyeball?

The Eye’s observation, its attention, its awareness, poured from that tiny visible slit of silvered sea beneath the dark ridge of eyelid, hanging just above the mountain range.

Observation blasted that barren grey plain in a wave of scorching heat to rival the corona of the sun, already burning through the outer layers of my new defences. The deep red light was both void-dark and yet blindingly bright, forcing me to speed-grow new layers of thick ultra-violet protection over my vulnerable senses. Hurricane-force cosmic winds slammed into me like a million atomic bombs all detonated at once, grinding my heels into the grey soil, prompting me to lash myself to the ground with anchor cables of thick muscle, themselves plated with bio-ceramic heat armour in order to last more than a split second under the force of the Eye’s gaze.

It saw me and it knew me. I think I was screaming.

Deep inside, a buried part of me was wailing with a child’s panic. I’d been forced to replay this trauma once before, months ago when the Lozzie-thing had dragged me to Wonderland, but back then I’d been confused and in shock, and the Eye had taken precious moments to focus a fraction of its attention on my physical body, sprawled in the black ash of Wonderland. But here, in Lozzie’s dream metaphor, the Eye was fully aware, already hunting for the source of the unexplained tickle at the edge of its peripheral vision. It already knew what it was going to find, because it had recognised my touch when I’d freed Badger.

A voice hissed through clenched teeth, “No no no no no, not again not again not again, no please please no—”

Nobody else was left, so it must have been me.

I was a sobbing, shaking, hysterical child once again, transported back ten years to utter incomprehension in the face of a cosmic truth I couldn’t possibly understand. There are things no child should ever see, things that evolution has not programmed us to endure, for which all our responses are inadequate, counter-productive, inappropriate. Part of me was nine years old again, and all she wanted was for this to stop.

But I was more than the sum of my evolutionary history now. I was Homo Abyssus. I cradled that nine-year-old Heather deep in a protective core of pneuma-somatic armour and padded chitin and shock-absorbing pressurised gel. I reinforced her bones with steel in the osteocytes, pumped her lungs full of oxygen-rich gill-fluid, armoured her grey matter with specialised membranes, and cleaned the vomit and blood and tears from her face. I wrapped her in Sevens’ yellow cloak, a gift I still didn’t understand.

I coaxed her into facing the Eye, and I showed her we could do it, we could stand here, and not be reduced to dust.

So when I stared into that light with tears rolling down my cheeks, and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay, look, look, look,” I was only talking to myself.

I had five or perhaps six seconds of subjective time before my fortress would collapse. The Eye’s burning attention tore through my armoured plate tentacles like a blowtorch through tinfoil, reducing them to blackened stumps, then to ash, the limbs snapping off and tumbling behind me in the whipping gale. I speed-grew replacements and slammed them into place in the petal-work lattice, though I couldn’t keep up, forced tighter and smaller with each plugged breach. The heat boiled the super-cooled fluids between my specialised protective membranes, and I ejected the ruined liquid in gouts of bubbling black, manufacturing more to pump into my cells before they cooked. My ablative fat crisped and burned, sloughing off in great slabs of ruined flesh. I sweated protective mucus, covered myself in a dense layer of light-reflecting white, and sprouted neural spines from my back, webbed with vascularised tissue to shed heat into my own meagre shadow. The Eye’s observation chewed inexorably closer to my core, where I was still wrapped in Sevens’ cloak.

My biology could not out pace the Eye. But I didn’t flee — and I didn’t look away.

I stared back into the Eye. I observed the great observer. That was the trick.

There is a famous thought experiment which almost everybody has heard of these days: Schrödinger’s cat. I’m not a physicist, but I understand it is intended to illustrate the observer principle in quantum mechanics. Well, I only understand this because I read a book or two about it; I had to ask Twil for recommendations, she knows some of this better than I ever could. I do apologise to poor Mr Schrödinger, because I am about to torture his metaphor to fulfil a purpose he never intended.

You take a cat and put it in a box. In the box is a device which will kill the cat — poor cat. The cat-murder machine is linked to a Geiger counter, and in front of the Geiger counter is a very small piece of radioactive material. If the Geiger counter detects atomic decay, then the machine triggers, and the cat is killed. If no atom decays, the machine does not trigger, and the cat lives.

Until an observer opens the box to check, the cat is both alive and dead, at the same time. The position of the quantum particle is both a and b, until observed.

Of course, the cat is not actually a cat, and the box is not actually a box. This is all a metaphor. At the quantum level, right down at the building blocks of reality, things do not work the same as up in our rarefied, higher strata, with our heads in the clouds of electromagnetism and gravity, obsessed with causality.

But then again, everything on that grey plain was a metaphor.

Observation defines reality. It is not possible to observe an object without light hitting the object. It is not possible to record the behaviour of marine trench creatures without first illuminating them, and therefore changing their behaviour. It is not possible to stand distant from any system and observe it from outside, because there is no position truly outside of everything, not even Outside. And at the most basic level, right down there in the dripping black guts of reality, to observe is to affect.

This is a truth which the Eye had come to understand, down in the abyss where it had been born. It had used that truth to dredge itself from the dark waters and into being, and that is the truth which it had become.

As my defences smoked and burned and my extremities caught fire, another tiny part of me was laughing like a maniac.

That’s why you’re a giant eyeball? I thought. Because you learnt how to see so bloody well?

But that’s what I had been doing all along, as well — to Raine, to Sarika, and now to Badger, every time I’d defined a human being in hyperdimensional mathematics. I’d been observing, and through observation, I gained the power to change. It was what I’d been doing with every hyperdimensional equation. Observing reality, and therefore changing it. All those lessons the Eye had ever had fed to me, all the buried knowledge it had spent ten years cramming into my subconscious, until a reeking, sucking, fetid swamp lay like a bottomless pool in the sump of my soul, all of it was about teaching me how to observe.

“I see you too!” I screamed out loud into the gale and the heat and the burning red light, with a mouth that was not remotely human anymore.

But I could only look into the Eye because I wasn’t doing it with my actual, biological, human eyeballs back in reality. That would have blinded me and cooked my brain, not to mention given me terrible sunburn. This was only possible via metaphor, here in the dream, and I had Lozzie to thank for that.

Enduring the nuclear storm until the last moment was not enough; winning a staring contest with the Eye was not possible.

No, I had to observe, for as long as I could.

A rational part of me was still thinking in literal terms, and wanted to jump into the muddy, shadowed hole left behind where I’d pulled Badger out of the barren grey soil, but the rest of me knew that was pointless. I had to stare back, right into that curve of silvered sea beneath the Eye’s lid. So I dug my feet in and redoubled the efforts to shore up my defences, with my plate-armour slats burning away and my fluid insulation boiling and my darkened layers crisping around me.

The Eye did not rise any further above that mountain range, but hung as if peering over them, as if up on tiptoes and able to stretch no further. I realised, with the sort of recognition that one has upon finally resolving an optical illusion, that it couldn’t go any higher, because those mountains were the membrane between our reality and Outside, crossable only by the likes of me and Lozzie and other trans-dimensional travellers. Whatever else the Eye was, it could not brute force its way in, not yet. It could only peer over the lip.

I started to grin, to laugh, almost hysterical — and then I discovered I was wrong.

Like a coronal mass ejection made of darkness, a vast tentacle of awareness reared over the mountains and slammed down into my bulwark with the force of an asteroid impact. Not an actual tentacle, not something I could see with my eyes, even in this realm that was all metaphor, but a tendril of pure thought, a focusing of gaze, a squinting of eyes and a narrowing of attention.

A dozen of my tentacles were pulverised instantly, into pulped meat and skinned muscle. Membranes burst and spilled their fluids onto the grey soil, organs ruptured and stopped working, and the trilobe reactor in my abdomen ran red-hot to compensate. Chitin shattered into a million shards, exploding outward in reactive defence, then turned to ash and blasted into my face, clogging my already besieged senses. The last of my ablative fat bubbled away, leaving me with ragged stumps and seared flesh and hanging sheets of blackened tissue.

I was naked before the Eye. Except for Sevens’ cloak.

As my skin steamed and began to crackle, I pulled the yellow fabric tight around myself, and discovered a hood deeper than space, sleeves enough for more than just my arms, and layers of yellow truth just as thick as the Eye’s own nature.

I huddled inside the cloak, screaming myself hoarse and bleeding all over, but still staring back into the Eye for one more heartbeat.

As it focused on me, as it wrapped its grip about my soul, I finally understood — even through the relative gentleness of touch which it applied to its own progeny. Insight finally exploded into my mind like a supernova, and I understood the nature of the Eye’s grasp.

Sevens’ gift had bought me the extra second I needed.

Before the Eye’s grip closed tight, I began and ended the only hyperdimensional equation I could have executed under such stress. The one that came naturally by now, the one I’d unconsciously been using for half my life, the one trick of perception it had successfully taught not to my conscious mind, but to my nature.

The cloak came with me, an unbreakable embrace.

Out.

==

I crashed through the membrane and back to reality. It felt like diving into the sea ahead of a pyroclastic flow.

For half a second, all was noise and meat — ape hooting, warm flesh flapping, ugly jagged shapes of plant fibre and organic polymer at angles that made my head scream and my senses recoil. My mind was still working on that other, deeper level, closer to the truth of reality, and it rejected these shadows dancing on the cave wall, despite the sweet relief of the shade.

My own meat-flaps flickered over blood-slick orbs and I shuddered in disgust. I resolved to rip them out, but my hands got caught up in Sevens’ cloak.

That gave my senses the moment they needed to catch up. I stopped trying to pull out my own eyeballs, and realised that there was a lot of shouting going on.

Some of the shouting was distinctly Evelyn, intoning Latin in a terrified, shaking voice. Lozzie’s arms were still tight around my middle, her head on my shoulder, her weeping apologies flowing in one long chain of sorry sorry I’m sorry Heather I’m so sorry. Then my vision throbbed black and I passed out.

According to Praem — the only person present in the workshop that afternoon who kept her head — I was only unconscious for about ten seconds, long enough for Lozzie to lay me on my side in the recovery position, and for me to regurgitate what little I’d eaten that morning. Consciousness dribbled back as a thousand hammers pounding on the inside of my skull, a headache accompanied by the acrid stench of my own vomit, and the taste of treacly nosebleed. Snatches of voice dug the cotton wool from my ears, and I believe I let out a sound like a beached dolphin.

“Heathy! Heathy! Heathy!” Lozzie was chirping my name through tears. Behind her, Evelyn’s Latin chant trailed off into panting, followed by the sound of her thumping back down into a chair.

“Mmmmm … here,” I managed to grumble.

Everyone spoke at once. Total chaos.

“Lozzie, is she all right? Is she conscious, is—”

“Nathan? Nathan? He’s not breathing, he’s not—”

A soft bark, a gentle whuff of canine curiosity. Hello there, Whistle, that must be you. Glad you made it, at least.

“Heathy, here, here, sit up, upsie-doooo, upside-get, wheeeeeee!”

Footsteps slammed back into the room, heavy boots not far from my head.

“Heather?” That was Raine, unable to hide her concern. I whined in my throat as Lozzie dragged me up into a sitting position. She did not find it easy, she wasn’t quite strong enough, and had to wedge her shoulder under my armpit to apply all her weight.

“She’s fine!” Evelyn snapped. “What about that bastard thing?”

“It’s out,” Raine said. “Zheng’s after it, and we need a screwdriver for the front door.”

“Sounded like it needed more than a screwdriver.”

“What about—”

“She’s fine,” Evelyn repeated. “She even spoke. Heather, you with us?”

“Heathy is here!” Lozzie chirped.

“Did it work?” Evelyn asked, hard and cold. “Heather, did it work?”

“Mm’fine,” I grumbled. My eyes were gummed shut with blood, and I tried to wipe at them with clumsy, numb fingers. My single manifested pneuma-somatic tentacle joined in, but all I managed to do with that was slap myself across the forehead hard enough to hurt. Somebody gently took my face and dabbed at me with the corner of some fabric, and I held still as best I could, wheezing and ravenously hungry, suffering the worst headache short of a swollen brain.

Somebody else touched my shoulder and squeezed. “Heather? I’ll get you some chocolate in a sec, yeah?” Raine, but her voice sounded wrong, fatalistic and rushed. “Evee, what about—”

“Did it work?” Evelyn repeated, hard enough to make me wince.

“Found the Eye,” I croaked. “Got him … out. Yes. Worked. It let me.”

“Let you?” Evelyn echoed, incredulous.

“Evee, look at him,” Raine said.

Lozzie managed to wipe my eyes enough that I could crack them open on the unfolding madness filling the workshop.

“Pay attention!” Sarika screeched from the sofa, heaving for breath. “Can none of you reprobates see that Nathan isn’t fucking breathing!?”

She wasn’t wrong.

Badger was sprawled on his back on his side of the complex magic circle, hands twitching in front of his chest, as if he was trying to raise them but couldn’t find the strength. For a split second I was intensely confused — my brain had expected the burned, malnourished wreck from inside the dream-metaphor, but Badger looked just as he had before we’d begun. His head was rolled back, eyes open just a crack, but he wasn’t really there. Whistle was down on the floor next to him, flagrantly disobeying the ‘no dogs in the magic circles’ rule, nosing at his side and whining.

“Evee, circle?” Raine asked, quick and all business.

“Yes, yes! The circle doesn’t matter, we’re done, scuff it all you like.”

Praem whirled into action and descended on Badger in a flutter of maid dress and white lace, thumping to her knees by his side. Deft, strong hands took his head and tilted his chin back, one of her fingers against his throat for the space of a pulse or two — or not, as it turned out. Before anybody could ask if he was okay, Praem wound back a fist, paused for a fraction of a second to adjust her aim with far more accuracy than any of us could have achieved, and slammed it down into the centre of Badger’s chest.

A solid, wince-inducing crack shot through the room as she broke his sternum.

It didn’t work. Badger just kept twitching. Praem placed a finger against his throat again.

“No,” she intoned.

“Then do like we practised!” Raine said, going for the defibrillator. “Come on, Praem, break some ribs!”

Praem didn’t need the reminder. She linked both hands together, placed them against the centre of Badger’s chest, and began pumping both arms in a steady, unceasing rhythm. If you wanted a person with limitless stamina to do something that absolutely needed to continue without being interrupted, Praem was your woman. It was only later that we discovered Raine wasn’t being dramatic — she and Praem had discussed this possibility, along with about a dozen other potential medical emergencies that might have befallen Badger, if I did manage to rip him from the Eye’s grip.

So I sat there on the floor with Lozzie propping me up, caked in my own sticky sweat, exhausted beyond words, still confused and feeling alien in my own body after the glory on the other side, and watched as Praem did indeed crack two of Badger’s ribs, forcing air into his lungs. Raine rushed to crack open the portable defibrillator.

I clutched at my own chest, expecting to find Sevens’ cloak, still feeling that yellow embrace around my shoulders. But my quivering fingers closed on thin air.

“Heathy?” Lozzie murmured.

“ … it’s nothing,” I croaked.

The next few minutes did not unfold like I expected, with my vague, pop-culture notions of what it took to restart a person’s heart function.

“Whistle, off, off, that’s it boy, off,” Raine said as she knelt next to Badger, opposite Praem. She tried to nudge the worried Corgi away from his best friend, as she opened the yellow clamshell of the portable defibrillator. “Somebody move the dog, please,” she said quick and clear, no nonsense. “He can’t be touching Badger when we do this.”

Lozzie scuttled forward, leaving me to heave for breath and lean on my shaking arms. Then she returned to support me again, with Whistle hugged in her lap. The dog was whining. He had no idea what was going on, but he still understood.

There were no big metal paddles, no rubbing them together, no Raine shouting clear!

The portable defibrillator started talking the moment Raine pulled out a bundle of rubberised wires, and for second I thought the voice was just in my head, another sense-confused artifact of my imperfect abyssal transition. But then I realised it was walking us through the process — peel one pad from plastic liner, place pad on patient’s upper chest, and so on. Raine pulled her knife from the back of her jeans and slit Badger’s t-shirt open, then slapped the pair of adhesive electrode pads on his pale, flabby chest and side before the machine could finish reciting the instructions.

“No, no, Nathan you fucking idiot—” Sarika was hissing through her teeth, one hand pressed tight to her eyes.

Do not touch patient,” the machine said in its bland, polite, female voice recording. Badger was still barely twitching.

“That means you too,” Evelyn said, nudging Praem’s hip with her walking stick. “Even if you don’t have a pulse.”

Praem stopped doing chest compressions, raised her hands, and turned milk-white eyes on Evelyn.

Evelyn frowned. “ … or, do you?”

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

“Fair enough. And, good job.”

Analysing heart rhythm,” the machine was saying. “Shock advised. Charging.

Raine raised both hands, as if we were all raring to get in the way. “Everybody hold up. Hold up.”

Stand clear. Press flashing button to—

Raine pressed the big red button with the flashing heart symbol. Badger twitched.

That was it. No convulsive jerk, no failing limbs, no thoomp of electric shock. Like a flinch. The machine started rattling off fresh instructions about continuing chest compressions, but Praem was already on the task.

“Wake up, wake up you stupid fuck,” Sarika hissed down at Badger. She’d uncovered her eyes, raw and red and angry.

Analysing heart rhythm.”

“Heather,” Evelyn grunted, gone quite pale in the face herself. “You don’t have to sit here through this. Lozzie, get her some water, at least, some—”

“No,” I croaked. “It’s mine.”

I didn’t possess enough eloquence right then to express myself clearly, but Evelyn got the point. She swallowed, nodded, and squeezed the head of her walking stick with both hands, flesh creaking against the wood.

Shock advised. Charging.

“What happened?” I croaked up at Evelyn, as Raine and Praem went through the process again.

Evelyn nodded at Badger. “A man climbed out of his throat.”

“ … sorry?”

Evelyn huffed, and I could tell that her frustration lay with her own incomprehension. “A man. Climbed out. Of his throat.”

“Yeah it was weird shit,” Raine said with an odd grin. “Even for us. Dude was made of all skin, empty, like a rag doll.”

“He, it, whatever,” Evelyn said, “went straight for Sarika, oddly enough. Some remnant of mister Orange Juice, probably. Zheng caught him, of course, but he wriggled out, nothing to grasp, slippery bastard. The bloody Spider-Servitors barely reacted until he was halfway to the front door, too slow and senile to—”

Stand clear. Press—

Raine jammed her thumb down on the button. Badger twitched again. The machine demanded more chest compressions. A lump started to grow in my throat, and a sinking feeling took hold in the pit of my stomach. What if he didn’t come back? What if he couldn’t come back?

“W-what was the Latin for?” I croaked again, trying to distract myself and reboot my lagging mind. “The spell?”

Analysing heart rhythm.”

“Shoring up the house’s defences,” Evelyn said, then sighed heavily and rubbed her eyes. I noticed her hand was quivering. “Or not. As much as I can affect something on that scale.” She gestured with a flick of her wrist, at the house itself. “I doubt I did anything more than add a layer of paper mache to castle walls.”

“ … why?”

“When you came back, something was trying to follow you. No prizes for guessing what, I assume?” Evelyn’s eyes found me, shaken and a little wild. A shiver passed through my core. We both remembered what the Eye’s distant attention had felt like, the first time we’d blundered into it like idiots, back in the Medieval Metaphysics Department.

“Oh. Oh, yes, well.”

Evelyn forced a shrug, awkward with her kinked spine. “I don’t even know if the house did anything. I suspect the Eye was simply too big to follow, whatever … appendage it may have tried to worm after you.”

“Yeah, got kinda dark in here for a sec,” Raine said. “Like something was peering in the windows. Creepy, hey?”

“It’s gone now,” Lozzie murmured, stroking Whistle behind the ears. The dog was focused entirely on Badger, whining softly in his throat.

Shock advised. Charging.

“Come on come on come on—” Sarika was hissing under her breath, in a rasp like her throat was lined with sandpaper and acid.

Stand clear. Press flashing button to—

Raine pressed the button a third time. We all watched Badger twitch and fail to start, like a broken engine with a missing spark plug. Praem slammed both hands down on his chest again before the machine had time to even begin the bland instruction about apply sixty more chest compressions. Up until that third shock, we’d been forcing our voices into a semblance of normality, trying to pretend we were all sitting around and recovering in the aftermath. But the operation was not over yet. Badger was dying, and we couldn’t seem to stop it happening.

None of us spoke into the silence that followed, filled only by the soft wheezing of air in and out of Badger’s mouth, forced by Praem’s hands manually pumping his diaphragm. The machine squawked out identical instructions again.

Shock advised. Charging.

Praem let go, allowed the machine to do its thing.

“Hey,” Raine said to nobody in particular. “Sometimes, you bump-start a motorbike, it takes a few goes for the engine to catch.”

“You’ve never ridden a motorbike,” Evelyn hissed. “Shut up.”

Raine shrugged.

My throat felt like it was closing up. Couldn’t get enough air. Sympathy with the man whose soul I had bruised and burnt? What if his stopped heart was not the root cause? What if Badger was like a man crushed between two train carriages, alive and breathing for the few minutes of false life, but dead the moment the rescuers pulled the crushing metal off his ruined body? What if I’d pulled a dead man out of that muddy grey hole?

Stand clear—

Red flashing button. Raine’s thumb. My vision blurring with sticky crimson blood and clear guilt. Lozzie shaking next to me, starting to cry softly. Whistle’s whimpers, lost and confused.

Badger twitched as the electric shock passed through his muscles. Nothing.

Time seemed to stretch out into a never-ending moment of horror. He’d volunteered, and he was dying free, with no more Eye in his brain, but I’d killed him. Hadn’t I? Thirty more chest compressions, the machine said. Praem obeyed. Evelyn passed her hand in front of her eyes; no love lost for an ex-cultist, but she couldn’t bear this either. None of us were that cold-blooded.

“We keep trying,” Raine said, loud and clear, raising her voice. “Just because we try it four or five times and it doesn’t work, doesn’t mean he’s dead, not yet, not as long as we’ve got—”

“Get up!” Sarika screeched. She struggled to her feet, fumbling her crutches, and almost went flying before she managed to get the supports beneath her armpits. Tears were rolling down her face as she staggered the few steps toward badger.

Analysing heart rhythm.”

“For pity’s sake, keep her out of this,” said Evelyn.

“Kinda got our hands full right now,” Raine said. “Sarika, hey, don’t touch him.”

But to Sarika, there may as well have been nobody else in the room except Badger.

“Get up!” She shrieked at him again. In a feat of bitter frustration, she kicked Badger in the shoulder — no small matter when she could barely stay standing unsupported, wobbling on her crutches, half curled up around her stomach as if in pain. “Get up! You’re not allowed to come back from the fucking dead and then leave again, you worthless bastard, you shit! You promised me! You promised we’d both make it! Wake up!”

Sarika broke down completely, sobbing and retching. I reached out a weak hand toward her, but she didn’t even see, and I didn’t know what I would have done anyway. What could I say? Sorry for killing your only remaining friend?

He’d done terrible things. And he’d volunteered. But my hands were shaking.

Raine pressed the button for a fifth shock. Badger — no, Badger’s corpse — twitched, weaker than before, as if the machine was running out of battery.

“I think it’s time to stop,” Evelyn muttered from behind her hand, a choke in her voice.

“No,” Raine said, “we keep going until there’s no more charge.” She glanced at me with a furtive look in her eyes. She knew exactly what was happening inside my head. “We do our due diligence, if there’s any chance of keeping this man alive. We have to … ”

But Praem stopped pumping Badger’s chest. She sat back and just started down at him. His arms had stopped moving, stopped twitching, gone limp. His eyes were open slightly, but all the light had gone out of them. Glassy, empty, nobody home. Lozzie buried her face in Whistle’s fur, whimpering worse than the dog. Sarika couldn’t stifle her crying. She turned away from us, bitterness fallen into sorrow. A lump in my throat stopped my voice.

“Praem, come on,” Raine said. “Come on, we’ve got another couple of jolts in the shock box here.”

Praem just stared at the corpse.

“Screw it, I’ll do it myself.” Raine sat forward, linked her hands together, and pressed the heel of one palm against Badger’s sternum.

“He’s dead,” Evelyn snapped. “Not every story gets a happy ending. The man is dead.”

Sarika let out a terrible sound, a wounded-animal noise, trying to bury her face in her elbow.

“Come off it, Evee,” Raine said as she started administering chest compressions, breathing deep with the steady effort. “If you know one thing about me, it’s that I never give up. Right?”

“We’re not giving up,” Evelyn spat. “We did what we set out to do, and he gets to die without the Eye in his head. He knew the risks.”

“He ain’t dead yet.”

Evelyn grit her teeth, real anger flashing behind her eyes. “Stop giving Heather false hope. Stop, Raine.”

When Raine glanced at me, her eyes asked a silent question, asked for permission, asked which way now? And for the first time ever I realised all the implications of the way she looked at me. Badger had looked at me with the growing worship of a cultist toward an object of sublime fascination, a thing to be put on a pedestal, an inhuman entity to be decoded and begged and sacrificed to.

Raine looked at me with actual faith.

“It’s not his heart,” I blurted out, my voice croaky and broken. I spat to clear my mouth, and wiped my lips on the back of my hand, feeling disgusting and wretched, but none of that mattered right now.

Evelyn frowned. “Heather?”

“That’s my girl,” Raine said. “Come on, what are you thinking?”

“I mean, it might not be his heart. I don’t know. The heart is shut down but the damage is in the soul, in the mathematics that makes him function, in his … in his brain.”

Sarika turned and stared at me, eyes red and raw. I stared back.

“Then what are you waiting for?” she hissed.

“I don’t know if I can do this.” But even as I spoke, my single tentacle arced through the air to cup the side of Badger’s head. I’d prepared for this, I’d planned it, I’d gone through all sorts of different ways I might have to open him up for real. “And it could be very … ” I winced. “Very grisly.”

“You can do—” Raine started to reassure me.

“I don’t fucking care!” Sarika screamed. “Cut his head open!”

Sagging with exhaustion, still raw and bruised inside from a close brush with the Eye, I slammed one full biochemical control rod all the way out of my trilobe reactor organ, and felt my body flush with heat and energy to make up for the hunger and glucose crash. I summoned every scrap of concentration I could muster, and turned the tip of my single tentacle into a pneuma-somatic diamond drill bit.

I’d done my research. I hadn’t wanted to read about lobotomies and intracranial pressure, but I’d forced myself to learn the basics, and to attempt a copy of a modern trepanation tool in pneuma-somatic bio-diamond. Perfect for cutting bone, but smooth to flesh, and totally sterile at the microscopic level. I’d not expected to need it, but I also hadn’t expected Badger to break in this specific way, where we might just be able bring him back. The bone-saw I’d kept beneath the surface of my tentacle earlier, that had been for me, for our safety, in case of Eye-related emergency. But the drill was for Badger.

“Stop pumping his chest,” I said, voice shaking with adrenaline. “I need him to stay still, I think—”

I manifested two more tentacles before I finished my own sentence, perfect pale strobing flesh reaching out to clamp around Badger’s head and neck, strong as steel, to hold his skull perfectly still. The others saw him twitch. I just stared, starting to shake.

“Heather, talk to me,” Raine said. “Talk us through it.”

“Talk,” Praem echoed.

“O-okay,” I tried, swallowing too hard. “Keep up with the chest compressions, I’ve got him held still now. I’m going to … drill … a … oh, please don’t look. Don’t watch this.”

Praem took over from Raine, forcing air into Badger’s lungs with both hands. She closed her eyes.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, solid and steady — or at least, trying to sound solid and steady, though the cold sweat on her face gave the lie to her voice. “What exactly are you going to do?”

I rolled my eyes, shaking and shivering with adrenaline and anxiety, my teeth chattering as a hysterical hiccup forced its way from between my lips. “I’m going to drill a hole in his head, Evee. I’m going to drill a hole in a person’s head, make a very small tentacle, then branch it down very very small, and see if I can define the problem. Please, just let me—”

“Are you certain?” Evelyn asked.

“Well, no! Obviously! I’m not a brain surgeon, and I’m going to do maths in his head. This is insane, but I have to try, I’m not … I will not be responsible for giving up.”

Lozzie hugged me tight around the middle — a featherweight anchor rooted deeper than I.

“Tell us what you need,” Raine said. “Heather, anything. What do you need?”

Another hysterical hiccup-laugh escaped my throat. “Towels, probably!”

Raine was on her feet and out of the room faster than I could add actually yes that was serious, and back in less than twenty seconds, her arms full of old towels from the downstairs bathroom. She put one over Praem’s side, presumably as splatter protection, and laid the rest around Badger’s head. My core of true flesh was shivering like a leaf, and the shiver passed up my tentacle and into the drill bit; I could not afford the same level of clumsiness that I’d displayed all week, I could not risk fumbling a chess piece here, not with a human brain. So I slammed two more control rods out of my trilobe reactor, the heat ramping up like atomic fire in my belly, and overcame the shiver in the tentacle with sheer muscle power, tensing and locking until it hurt.

“I’m going to start,” I said, voice quivering. “Look away, please, please look away, don’t— don’t watch me do this. This might not work, I might slip up, I might—”

“It’s not as if you can kill him any more dead,” Sarika croaked, no longer crying.

“Hm,” Evelyn grunted. “Point.”

I wasn’t sure who turned away and who watched the process, except for Sarika. She was glued to the whole thing from start to finish, eyes wide open.

The pneuma-somatic drill bit was steady as rock, held perfectly level by the dozens of layers of muscle inside my tentacle, powered by the churn of energy in my abdomen, as precise and delicate as any surgical robot — but the moment I relaxed even a fraction, it would quiver, and this would all be for nothing. I used the tip of one of the other tentacles to make a tiny incision, about an inch diagonally upward from Badger’s right temple, slicing through scalp until I hit skull. Then I wiggled the drill bit in, until it scraped against bone. I gagged and wanted to vomit at the awful sensation, but I held on.

I resisted the urge to close my eyes as I clenched the muscles to spin the drill.

Visually it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. No spray of flesh and bone dust — the drill bit tentacle was too well designed to allow that. When I felt the point of the drill pop through the other side of Badger’s cranium, I quickly pulled it back out. Bright red blood flowed from a wound no wider than a piece of pencil graphite, soaking into the towel below his head. But the tactile sensations made my stomach turn; bone shredded, flesh pushed aside, and the soft pressure of the meninges cradling his brain.

Evelyn made a retching sound. I hoped she wasn’t watching.

The drill melted back into my tentacle, cells folding away their specialisations, and I pressed the pale tip against the bleeding wound — then pressed in.

The slimmest, tinniest, most narrow offshoot of my tentacle wormed through the hole in Badger’s cranium and split itself a dozen times, then a dozen more, smaller and smaller with each division. Each one bifurcated even further, until my eyes fluttered shut with instinctive concentration as I wielded thousands of mono-cellular filaments. Each one found a separate path through the protective folds of his meninges, penetrating through the blood-brain barrier and stopping up the route behind them.

I could not consciously control them all, not even one of them, not with the precision required to avoid inflicting brain damage, not even with three control rods all the way out and my head overheating with the effort. So I let them slide, I let them find their own way deeper, slipping between the wrinkles of a human brain, then inside the grey matter itself, to entwine with the neurons, like blind fingers sliding over unknown topography.

Neurons were still firing, electrical activity still going; he was technically still alive. For now.

I let instinct guide me until I was connected with as much of Badger’s grey matter as possible, and then I fired up the maths.

I did not need to see all of Badger, not the full equation, the burning star of infinite complexity like any human being; I only needed his brain, the physical structure. I needed to find whatever broken neuron had stopped his heart and was blocking the reboot. There was no way I could have done this by actual knowledge, by touch and guesswork, but I didn’t have to rely on that; I will never be a brain surgeon, but I am very much the daughter of the Eye.

I defined what I was touching — a human brain, this human brain — in hyperdimensional mathematics.

Another control rod popped free, like a heat sink firing off in anticipation of greater need. Out in reality, I think I flinched, I may even have cried out, and I certainly bled from my eyes all over again.

In that frozen second of time I observed his brain laid out as a simple equation — well, relatively simple, speaking from my frame of experience — and I found the damage, plain as day.

His lower brain functions formed a smear, like damp newsprint dragged out of a sweaty grip. All the higher stuff was intact, personality and memory and ego, but it was no wonder his heart had stopped. I suppose the Eye wasn’t interested in Nathan as a person, just as meat, a puppet to be commanded. So that’s where it had grasped.

I did the best I could, weaving new mathematics into the broken gaps, pinching off loose ends and tidying up ragged edges, re-stringing broken connections between clusters, the functions of which I could not guess. I did not know what I was fixing, which parts of the equation were heart-related, which were his digestion, what governed the ability to sweat, or feel pain, or stand straight. Would he be deaf for the rest of his life, or be unable to recognise faces? Would he lose control of his bowels, or spend his final years in an iron lung?

I didn’t want that. I told myself it was because I wanted Badger to serve his punishment in a way that did some good in the world, not just languishing in pointless pain. Retribution is pointless if you’ve already permanently disarmed your foe.

He was no Alexander.

So I redoubled my efforts. I pushed the hyperdimensional mathematics to the screaming, bleeding, quivering edge of reality. I modelled replacement equations for his brain, patched him with semi-human processes, plugged the gaps with guesswork based on the only reference I had — myself, abyssal and all.

And then I was done.

I resurfaced with a coughing splutter of nosebleed, a desperate gasping for breath, and a sense of horrible claustrophobia; I had, after all, been inside a person’s skull. Such a small space. My vision throbbed black as gentle hands held me steady, but I was so exhausted, so spent, that even Lozzie’s grip couldn’t keep me up, and I collapsed onto the floor, thumping down on my side.

Barely enough thought left to breathe. I felt my tentacle retracting from inside Badger’s brain, recombining filaments as it sucked back out of his grey matter, and finally it popped free of the trepanation hole in his cranium. I let go with all three tentacles and let them flop to the ground, like a beached squid.

“More blood!” Raine’s voice. “She’s out, that must mean she’s done.”

“Get some fucking bandages on that,” Evelyn spluttered.

“He’ll have to go to hospital, even if this works,” Raine said, rushed but trying to sound confident. “Heather? Heather, are you done? Heather?”

A gentle hand touched my face. I lay at the edge of oblivion, but I put everything I had into cracking open my eyes. Raine was right in front of me, blurry through the haze of blood and the darkness closing in.

“ … shock him,” I wheezed.

“You got it!” Raine moved back, and I could see Badger lying on the floor, still a corpse. A corpse with a hole in its head, and Praem rapidly trying to apply gauze and bandage.

Shock advised. Charging.

Praem let go. I closed my eyes, completely exhausted, beyond thought.

“Magic number, magic number,” Raine said. “Lucky sevens, magic number.”

“It’s shock number six, you fool”, Evelyn grunted.

I heard Badger twitch against the floorboards.

Then nothing.

Sarika, trying to hold back a sob. Lozzie, biting her lip. Evelyn’s fingers tightening on her walking stick. Somehow, I heard it all.

And I heard a breath like a mummified ancient, drawing air into parched lungs.

Badger made a sound of pain, small and mewling.

“Pulse,” Praem intoned.

“Nathan?” Sarika said. There was a sudden clatter of crutches and the sound of Raine catching her as she fell to the floor too. “Nathan, you fuck, say something. Speak! Tell me you aren’t brain damaged, not any more than usual. Say something!”

Badger took another hissing breath.

“ … free,” he managed. I’d never heard a voice so weak.

I’d won.

Lozzie gave me a hug, and brought her lips close to my ear. “We did it! Heathy! We did it!”

“Get Heather some water, and chocolate, and probably painkillers,” Evelyn was snapping. “And call an ambulance. An actual ambulance, because we do not have the resources to deal with that head wound. Now, Raine!”

“Lozzie,” I murmured.

“Heathyyyyy!” she hissed back.

“We need to talk,” I muttered, and felt her go stiff, before I slipped off into triumphant oblivion.

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14 thoughts on “any mortal thing – 14.5

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it so much! That is, after all, why I do this; it’s always a delight to know that readers out there are enjoying the story.

  1. Evelyn nodded at Badger. “A man climbed out of his throat.”

    “ … sorry?”

    Evelyn huffed, and I could tell that her frustration lay with her own incomprehension. “A man. Climbed out. Of his throat.”

    I thought all British food does this?

  2. Literally shaking reading this, so very invested in what is happening as I read it.

    Thank you.
    Thank you so much for this story.

    • You are very welcome! Thank you, it’s always a delight to hear from readers enjoying the story so much. Being able to tell a story for people to enjoy is, after all, why I do this!

  3. “We need to talk,” I muttered.

    THE WORDS!… the Words… the words
    alien, you have spoken the Words. You have spoken them rightly.

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