any mortal thing – 14.6

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Badger lived, but only just.

I was mercifully out cold during the mundane panic which followed the emergency brain surgery. While I was busy being unconscious and Raine was calling an ambulance, Badger slipped into a coma.

I didn’t get the whole story until that evening, when I woke up in my own bed, groggy and cotton-mouthed, feeling like I’d been run over by a road roller. But then I had to distill the events from Lozzie and Praem, two widely divergent outputs from a game of telephone, which stretched all the way across the city to Sharrowford General Hospital.

Praem had been watching over me while I slept, and she was more interested in making sure I stayed hydrated, in trying to feed me dinner, and tracking my painkiller intake, than in explaining to me what had happened or where everyone else had gotten to.

“But he’s alive?” I’d croaked.

“Alive.”

“ … and?”

“Alive is good.” She raised another spoonful of rice and soft vegetables to my mouth. “Another bite.”

“But-”

“Another bite.”

I chewed and swallowed like a good girl. It was very awkward eating while those milk-white eyes watched me chew — let alone while resisting the urge to pluck the spoon from her hand with one of my tentacles.

I’d woken up with three of them still fully manifested in rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic flesh, two on my left flank, one on my right hip. They were still drawing on the steady, unbroken thrum of power from the bioreactor in my abdomen, with one of the control rods all the way out. Invisible to normal eyes, beautiful and elegant and slightly clumsy, they almost had a mind of their own, following my will before each impulse registered in my conscious mind. They pushed the sheets back before my arms could get there, fumbled my mobile phone off the bedside table, and awkwardly patted Praem on the lap in a gesture of twinned frustration and gratitude. Praem’s milk-white eyes flickered as she followed them; she, after all, could see exactly where they were.

“But I have to get up,” I croaked. “I have to—”

“Raine said to look after you,” Praem told me in her sing-song, silver-bell voice. “So looking after you, I am.”

Lozzie, on the other hand, zoomed at a million miles an hour. I gave her a tentacle to hug, but that didn’t slow her down.

“—and then Raine called again because he woke up but he was trying to tell the doctors things that weren’t true but she had to step in but they didn’t believe him because it was all slurred and silly which was lucky—”

But then Lozzie made herself oddly scarce as soon as I came round to full consciousness and finished eating. She rattled around in the kitchen, trying to clean her blood-soaked poncho in the washing machine, and apparently teaching Tenny how to bake a cake, with Whistle trotting around at their heels, eager for scraps and very interested in random petting from Tenny’s silky black tentacles. The result, which I didn’t witness until the next morning, used no less than five different colours of food dye. Tenny informed me it was a “clown cake”, and that clowns were bad, but cake was good.

Eventually, Praem let me get up, and I wandered out into the dark corridor, propelled more by the three tentacles than my shaky legs. They reached out to touch the floor and walls; I felt like an octopus wriggling along the inside of a tube, deliciously alien and correct, for once.

Despite everything, despite the exhaustion, a small smile crept onto my face.

Evelyn turned out to be the only other person left in the house. She was having a lie down in her bedroom, in the dark, but not truly asleep. Propped up on the pillows, prosthetic leg removed, she cracked open bloodshot eyes and looked me up and down as I gently pushed her door open. In the deep shadows of the house at evening, she was just another indistinct lump on the bed.

“You’re looking less bruised than I expected,” she grumbled.

“Evee, I’m so sorry to wake you,” I said through the crack in the door. “I just … everything’s really quiet, everyone’s gone, and I’m feeling a little shell shocked here. If you want, I can—”

“No, no,” Evelyn grumbled, shifting against the pillows. “You come here, you idiot, I want to see you’re okay. Besides, you didn’t wake me, I’m too tired to sleep.”

I stepped into her bedroom. “ … that sounds like a paradox.”

“Not for me.” Evelyn sat up with a low wheeze of pain, a shadow detaching itself from the pillowy nest. “Be a dear, Heather, turn the lamp on, will you? Not the main lights, my eyes are feeling sensitive.”

I did as Evelyn asked. The bedside lamp threw soft, warm light over the hills and valleys of her piled bed covers, and revealed her tucked in the middle, squinting and blinking against the illumination. She looked so small and vulnerable amid the lilac and purple bedsheets, like a grub wrapped in protective layers of a cocoon that would never hatch. The matte black of her prosthetic leg stood next to the bed, a poor substitute for a real guard, and her mane of blonde hair was loose, badly in need of a brush. For a moment she seemed many decades older than her actual age, slow and creaky, but then she finished blinking and drew herself up as best she could, the fire of sharp intelligence returning to her eyes.

“Evee, are you okay?”

“Mmmm,” she grunted and shrugged. “That spell earlier took a lot out of me. I feel like I’m about eighty years old. Pass me that.” She gestured at a glass of water on the bedside table, and I pressed it into her hands. She didn’t take her eyes off me as she drank the whole glass and wiped her lips gently on the back of one hand.

“Evee?”

“Forget about me, Heather. The real question is are you okay? I wasn’t just being colourful, you really are less bruised than I expected, and you’re already up and moving.” She nodded at my flanks. “How are the tentacle anchor points?”

“Oh, um.” I looked down at myself. Somebody — Praem, obviously, because I couldn’t imagine Lozzie finding the requisite strength unless she was Outside — had cleaned the blood and vomit from my face, and changed me into some of my own pajamas, loose and comfortable. I pulled the top up to expose my belly, expecting to find those massive, circular, stiffening bruises like normal. But the more controlled summoning of my tentacles had left only a series of large red rings around the bases of the three I currently had manifested, raised and irritated, as if I’d been slapped, or stung by nettles. I marvelled at them for a moment.

Perhaps it wasn’t the summoning that left the bruises at all; maybe it was the loss, when they went away again.

“That’s new,” Evelyn said.

“Well … well, most of what I did was in my head. Or in Badger’s head.” I managed a terrible, weak, stupid laugh. Evelyn smiled a grim and rueful smile. “I am very tired though, I feel like I could go straight back to bed, but … ” I gestured at my own head. “Too much to think about. Badger is alive, yes?”

“Praem didn’t tell you?

“Well, yes, but between Praem and Lozzie … ” I waggled both hands either side of my head. One of my tentacles did a loop in the air too, but Evelyn couldn’t see that.

“He’s breathing. In the hospital, with Raine and Sarika. Raine’s been calling every hour with an update, but mostly just to check if you’re awake yet. And your big zombie friend is off chasing the skin-golem that climbed out of Badger. She returned about an hour ago, took one look at you and made some comment about bringing you a trophy, then took off again. You won, Heather,” Evelyn sighed. “Excepting the fact we’re going to need to repair the front door, which is currently braced shut with a piece of wood. All in all, I’d call that acceptable losses.”

“Oh. Oh, okay, that’s all … all good. I mean, except the door.” I let out a huge sigh and felt a head rush coming on.

“Mm. Your legs are quivering.” Evelyn patted the bedsheets next to her. “Sit.”

With relief I hadn’t known I needed, I climbed up on the bed and leaned into the pillows next to Evelyn, taking deep breaths and watching my tentacles wave in the air. I had the most unaccountable urge to give Evelyn a hug, or just to touch her shoulder, or pat her hair. All those long seconds of subjective time fighting the cosmic pressure of the Eye’s gaze on some utterly inhuman barren rock had me touch-starved and desperate for normal, warm, human contact. If Raine had been there, I’d have demanded to be the little spoon, and if Lozzie hadn’t made herself scarce, I’d have asked to snuggle. With Evelyn, such liberties were always more difficult, but I sighed with instinctive relaxation at the shared human scent of her body next to mine.

“How do you feel?” she asked, slowly and carefully, as if I were made of blown glass.

“ … I don’t know,” I admitted to the ceiling. My tentacles waved like fronds of seaweed in an ocean current. “Saved a man’s life. How is that supposed to feel?”

“Heroic?” Evelyn managed a single heartbeat before she let out a humourless puff.

I echoed the sound. We both knew it didn’t feel that way.

“That’s not what I’m asking about, though, and you know it,” she went on, softly and slowly. “Lozzie came out of your … trance state, about two seconds before you did. That’s according to Praem’s count, by the way, so it’s accurate. Usually with you, it’s instant, but you lingered. With the Eye. Are you okay, Heather?”

“I stared back at it.”

Silence. Evelyn swallowed, far too hard. “Why?”

“Because I realised that’s what it is, how it is, the essence of its being,” I spoke to the ceiling, concealing a shudder in my voice, of awe and wonder. “And it’s what I am, too, what it’s been teaching me all along.” I turned on the pillows, to meet Evelyn’s gaze with my own. “I looked back into it, the way it looks at us, at … everything. I looked at it, Evee. You remember what that felt like, when it stared at us before, back in the Medieval Metaphysics room? I did that, back at it. On a much smaller scale, yes, but I did it. I looked back. I … I don’t know what that means.”

Evelyn frowned. Without warning she raised one hand and cupped my chin, bringing her face far too close to mine as she stared into my eyes, first the left, then the right.

“E-Evee … ?”

“Mm,” she grunted and let go of me. “You don’t look any different from where I’m sitting.”

“But—”

“You don’t look any different from where I’m sitting,” she repeated. “Understand?”

“ … well … good. I think.”

Evelyn nodded once, carefully, and then let out a big sigh. “I did tell Praem to get me as soon as you were awake. Where is she, anyway?”

“Taking dirty plates back downstairs. I slipped out while she was gone, actually. Pretty certain she wanted me to go straight back to sleep.”

“She’s being overzealous. Raine made her promise to look after you. Should have come gotten me.”

“Praem only let you rest because she cares about you,” I said.

Evelyn sighed. “That’s what I worry about. And where’s Lozzie?”

“Making a cake. Has she been acting funny?”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me. “Do bears shit in the woods? No more than usual. She left you alone? She was glued to you, that’s half the reason Raine even agreed to leave the house in the first place, she trusts Lozzie with you. Did something happen, while you were … ” she raised her hands and did little air-quotes, grimacing as she said, “calculating together?”

“No,” I said, then, “yes. Maybe. Oh, I don’t know. She … took the initiative.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“ … I yelled at her. Badly. Screamed my head off, in fact.”

Evelyn’s narrowed eyes deepened into a full blown frown, a searching, inquisitive squint of puzzled concern. “You, shouting at Lozzie?”

I sighed and buried my face in Evelyn’s pillow nest. “I know.”

“Did she deserve it?”

“Evee!”

“It’s a fair question. She can be extremely … Lozzie.”

I bit my lip. “Maybe. I haven’t exactly had time to process events yet.”

“Yes, no kidding,” Evelyn said, the nature of her frown changing. Her eyes alighted on mine once more, and I was no longer a complex problem to be unknotted. “Also, I’m sorry, ‘yelling’? How do you shout in hyperdimensional mathematics?”

“ … you don’t,” I muttered, more to myself than Evelyn. “Nothing that happened … happened. But it did, but it wasn’t this, or here, or like … this.” I raised my hand and flexed my fingers. “It wasn’t flesh, not for real.”

“Okay, now you’re sounding like Lozzie. Please don’t.”

I managed a small smile. “It happened. That’s all I can communicate, without dragging you there too.”

“Don’t do that either,” Evelyn said.

I snuggled in closer to the pillows. Before I realised what I was doing, I made an involuntary motion with one hand, a sort of blind tugging, as if trying to pull a blanket tighter around myself — but I was only wearing pajamas. It took a moment of confused staring at my own hand, a moment of slow neural connections re-linking and firing up, to realise that I’d tried to snuggle up inside Sevens’ yellow cloak.

The yellow gift still lay about my shoulders, an invisible, ghostly sensation, light as spider silk. But there was nothing there, either visible or pneuma-somatic, nothing for my tentacles to pluck at either, as one of them flapped at my collar, trying to find the substance of the fabric. It was similar to the phantom sensation of glasses still on one’s face, when one is too used to wearing them, only to reach up and discover they are not present.

Except the sensation of the cloak did not fade.

“ … Heather!” Evelyn hissed between her teeth.

“I’m sorry, what? What?” I looked up and found Evelyn had gone very still and very pale, wide eyes flicking between me and her own lap.

“Tell me this is you!” she hissed, breaking out in cold sweat.

One of my tentacles lay across her thighs like a lazily flopped-out arm, slowly curling into a hug around her hips. The mystery of Sevens’ cloak had distracted me so much that I hadn’t been paying attention to what my other tentacles were doing, let alone the subconscious desire to cuddle with Evelyn. Practice as I might, and ram the muscles themselves full of extra-biological sources of energy, I still lacked the multi-tasking brain power of a true octopus or squid.

I whipped the tentacle off Evelyn so fast it sent a spike of pain into my side.

“Yes, yes!” I spluttered. “Oh, goodness, I’m so sorry, yes, it’s me! It’s just me! I’m so sorry, Evee, I’m so sorry.”

Evelyn drew in a shaking breath, frowning at me like I’d just goosed her side or tickled her under the armpit without warning. “I do appreciate the … the … skin-ship, I suppose, but bloody well warn me if you’re going touch me at all, let alone with something invisible.”

“I didn’t mean to invade your personal space, it was an accident, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was putting my hands. Um. Not hands.”

“It wouldn’t be half so spooky if we could see the damn things.” Evelyn let out a huff, then paused with an odd frown on her face. A tip of pink tongue poked out from between the corner of her lips, a sure sign of her mind chewing a problem. “Wait here. Actually, no, I can’t be bothered to put my leg back on right now.” Her eyes searched me. “And you need rest. Where’s Praem when I need her, hmm?”

“Probably making sure Tenny doesn’t eat too much raw cake batter.”

“Coming,” a sing-song intonation like a struck bell rang out along the upstairs hallway, and a moment later we heard the sound of Praem’s gently clicking footfalls making their way up the stairs and across the floorboards. I turned to look over my shoulder as Praem appeared in the open doorway, prim and proper and perfect in her maid uniform, hands clasped before her.

Evelyn shot her a sharp frown. “I was speaking at normal volume. How good is your hearing?”

Milk-white eyes made it impossible to know where Praem was looking, but I was certain she stared at Evelyn.

“When you need, I am there,” she intoned.

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to hang on my every beck and call, you know? You can tell me to shut up if I’m being a bitch. I’ll get it myself, I should put my leg back on anyway.” Evelyn started to heave herself up into a proper sitting position, shifting toward me on the bed. “Pardon me, Heather.”

“Oh, no, Evee, I can go,” I said, starting to get up as well, my tentacles pushing up from the bed. “You’re all comfy, just let me—”

“I am already standing up,” Praem intoned.

“Let me just get my leg on,” Evelyn snapped, scooting forward on the bed as I moved out of the way. I noticed she was staring at a point on the floor, or perhaps at the corner of my hip, unable to meet Praem’s eyes.

“I am already standing up,” Praem repeated.

I froze, feeling like piggy-in-the-middle during a family spat.

Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “I said, let me—”

“Not stopping you,” Praem said.

“I am not an invalid, I am perfectly capable of getting out of bed and going downstairs.”

“You do not want to.”

“That is beside the point,” Evelyn hissed at Praem. “Don’t try to stop me from putting my damn leg back on. Anybody would think you were—”

Praem stepped forward, dropped to one knee next, and picked up Evelyn’s prosthetic leg; for a horrible moment I thought she was going to abscond with the artificial limb in some grotesque forced-infirmity behaviour. But all my fears were unfounded. She held the limb up, angled just right for Evelyn to slot the rubber socket onto her truncated thigh.

Evelyn went still, blushing ever so slightly in both cheeks. She couldn’t look at Praem. “You know I don’t need that,” she said.

“Put your leg on; I will get what you need.”

Evelyn sighed, but her voice came out softer than before. “The magnifying glass. It’s still on the table in the workshop. That, and the red pen, and the etching tool. And give me that.” She gestured in irritation. Praem pressed the prosthetic leg into Evelyn’s grip.

Praem stood, straightened, and marched back out of the room. I watched her go, then watched Evelyn in tense, self-conscious silence, as she pulled aside her dressing gown and wriggled the stump of her thigh into the rubber socket of her prosthetic leg, still blushing, concentrating especially hard — or pretending to concentrate — on the process she’d performed at least once a day for half her life.

She finished, stomped on the floor with her artificial foot, and shot me a frown. “Yes?”

“ … she only does it because she cares about you, Evee.”

“Tch, I know.”

“She loves you.”

“And she’s entitled to a life of her own. You make life, you accept that principle. If you don’t, you shouldn’t have the right. Makes you evil.” She took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Oh, I’m so bloody transparent, aren’t I?”

“A little.” I smiled. “But if you believe what you said, then you also have to respect her choice, to spend her time taking care of you and being your family—”

Family,” Evelyn hissed, almost as if she couldn’t believe the word. She shook her head.

“I thought you were getting used to the idea?”

“Yes, but sometimes it still hits me. Is that so surprising? It’s going to take more than a few weeks to get used to the fact I have a daughter.” Evelyn shook herself, like a raven ruffling her feathers. “I’m too young for this. Too much responsibility. I have to do right by her. I can’t fuck this up, Heather.”

“You won’t. And you’re not doing it alone.”

Evelyn made a noncommittal grumble and looked away, but I was an experienced translator of all the little variations in pitch and tone and volume in Evelyn’s various grumbles and grunts and throaty noises. This was a good one, a slightly embarrassed one, and had me smiling involuntarily at the back of her head.

Praem returned a minute or two later with the requested items — Evelyn’s magically modified magnifying glass, along with a narrow-nibbed pen and a sharpened tool for scraping lines into the metal rim. Evelyn thanked her, then turned the magnifying glass on me, peering through it with one eye closed. I had to look away from the bizarre swirl of colours through the lens, and the warping effect on Evelyn’s eye; the magical circle drawn onto the glass itself already made my stomach turn.

“Do you need me to do anything?” I asked.

“Just be yourself. Oh, but don’t put the tentacles away, obviously.”

Evelyn worked for a few minutes, peering at me and the air around my body, looking for my tentacles, then lowering the magnifying glass to make tiny adjustments to the spell she’d wrapped around the lens casing, adding more angles and a few words in a language I didn’t recognise. I started to blush a little, feeling self conscious.

“There,” she said eventually, frowning through the glass, her eyes made huge by the warping effect of light refraction, wobbling and wavering under the strange optics of the spell. “I can’t see them clearly, not like we did in the castle that one time, but I can make out … mm, a rainbow strobe effect.” She puffed out a laugh. “Very you, of course. I’d forgotten.”

“You can actually see pneuma-somatic material through that?” I asked.

“No. Well, sort of.” Evelyn sighed and shrugged and tossed the magnifying glass onto the bedsheets. “At the moment it’s more like looking at the readout on a radar display. I’m just seeing the fact the object is there, and some basic qualities, not the object itself, or rather the light reflected from it. But if I keep tuning the technique … ” She shrugged again, silently evasive.

“I thought you’d be more enthusiastic about this. Has any mage ever done it before?”

“Not that I know of. But then again, I’m sure there’s plenty of mages in Britain alone who I don’t even know about. As long as they don’t come into my territory, that’s fine.”

I bit my lower lip at her. Evelyn was evading the actual question, but I had no idea why. “Evee … ”

She saw the look on my face and rolled her eyes. “Oh, for pity’s sake. It just feels stupid, all right?”

“Stupid?”

“Yes. Is there an echo in here?”

“Yes,” Praem echoed. I almost giggled.

“What I mean,” Evelyn said, “is that yes, in theory I could perfect the technique, given enough time and a lot more experimental material. I could, possibly, make a pair of glasses that would allow a person to see pneuma-somatic tissues. And you know what?” She answered her own question before I had a chance. “That sounds like an idea from a bad urban fantasy novel, that’s what, and I hate it. Trust me, Heather, if a piece of magic sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

“Oh goodness, I’d love that though. I want Raine to see my tentacles.”

“For what pur— no, don’t answer that.” Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’m not promising anything. And it’s still dumb.”

“It’s not dumb!” My turn to huff. “One must take ideas for new inventions wherever one can. Perhaps we would never have invented flying machines without Leonardo da Vinci drawing all those things that didn’t work.”

Evelyn scoffed. “Nonsense.”

“I’m serious. If you get the idea for pneuma-somatic glasses from a silly novel, so what?”

Evelyn shot me a very tired look. “So I should dedicate this invention to … oh, I don’t know, Nasu? Though those glasses did the opposite.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Never mind,” Evelyn said. “In any case, I’m not working on it right now. I’m bloody exhausted. That spell back in the workshop … ” She trailed off and shook her head, looking five decades her senior for a long, dragging moment once again.

“Was it really that bad?” I asked.

Evelyn shrugged.

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

“The whole room … darkened,” Evelyn muttered, “but it wasn’t actual darkness. It was like some vast object occluding a source of light which has always been there, some constant presence in life, in reality, that you just take for granted, the way a fish is not aware of the water. And then something blocked it.”

“ … did you rehearse those words?” I asked.

Evelyn sighed. “Yes. I’ve been thinking about it constantly since it happened. The sensation only lasted for half a second perhaps, before I started the magic, but … ” She trailed off and shrugged. “As I said earlier, I doubt I or the house did anything. The Eye was simply too big to follow through whatever pinprick hole you’d made.”

I shuddered as she spoke, her voice too far away, echoing and distant, as if the experience had taken something from her.

“Evee, I’m going to touch your shoulders. Is that okay?”

“ … mm. I suppose so.”

I wrapped an arm and a tentacle around Evelyn’s kinked, twisted back. I didn’t press too hard, or touch her spine, but she leaned into my embrace with a long-suffering sigh, awkward and unused to being touched, but savouring the contact all the same.

“So,” I said eventually, as we detached again. “What’s going on with Badger? I do want to know.”

Evelyn nodded toward the bedside table, to where her mobile phone was lying beneath the lamp. “Raine’s been keeping us updated, and it’s time we called her before she calls us again. She’ll want to know you’re up and well, so let’s find out if they’ve plugged the hole in his skull yet.”

==

Badger had slipped into a coma back there on the floor of the magical workshop, but his body had kept struggling. According to Raine — and according to the paramedics from the ambulance — he’d come round once on the journey to the hospital, incoherent and weak but fighting hard to stay in the land of the living, and then three more times in intensive care, while he’d lain under an oxygen mask and the doctors had worked to stem the bleeding. He hadn’t been slipping in and out of consciousness, but falling deeper down, right into a coma each time. He’d raved about things that nobody but I could have understood — burning sight in the land of everlasting night, and angels which were all tentacles and wings and eyes — and he cried tears of relief whenever he was fully coherent. Luckily for us, doctors and nurses saw weirder and worse all the time. Badger was just another patient suffering psychological side-effects of massive trauma.

Raine had followed the ambulance in her car, with Sarika in the passenger seat. They were at the hospital as Badger’s friends. According to Sarika he had no family worth calling to his side, except Whistle.

“So, so … ” I struggled to phrase my question down the phone to Raine, as all the little sounds of a busy hospital leaked through from the other side. “What are they actually treating him for? I don’t know what they’ll find if they MRI his brain, we don’t want to cause some kind of panic. What did you tell them?”

Raine laughed. “The truth!”

To my incredible surprise and deep concern — at least until she explained the rationale — Raine had indeed told the doctors and nurses the truth; or at least a fun-house mirror reflection of the truth.

She told them Badger had drilled a hole in his own head, with a home-made skull brace and a stolen medical drill bit.

How did she know this? Well, he was a friend of hers, and of Sarika here, and he’d been talking for weeks about drastic solutions to strange headaches. He’d been building some sort of head-clamp device; he even showed it to her once, and put his head inside the thing, very upsetting, though she was pretty sure he’d since relocated it somewhere other than his little bedsit flat, since she’d reacted with such concern. You know, concern, for a friend. So, if the police happened to take an interest, and they searched his flat, they probably wouldn’t find anything. Dunno where he did it in the end. Somewhere sterile, she hoped.

According to Raine’s inventive but carefully contained tall tale, the first we’d known of this was Badger turning up on our doorstep, head wrapped in a bloody towel, teetering on the edge of consciousness. We certainly had enough blood soaked towels to prove that part, if anybody cared to investigate the particulars.

Raine had no idea where he’d stolen the drill bit from, of course. Sarika had put in the opinion that he’d bought it off the so-called “dark web”.

How they’d come up with the lie so quickly, I had no idea. Sarika’s back up surprised me too. Perhaps they’d spoken in the car.

“But the whole ruse relies on Badger knowing what to say when he wakes up,” I hissed down the phone, as if I might be overheard.

“He’s a crazy man who drilled a hole in his own head,” said Raine. “He’ll be talking all sorts of nonsense. Plenty of time to get his story straight. Plus,” she lowered her voice to a whisper down the phone, “we’ve been here all afternoon and early evening, and the fuzz hasn’t taken any notice at all. They still keep a little eye on Sarika from time to time, so if they gave a damn, they’d be here already. I think we’re in the clear, Heather. For now. Praem got all the blood cleaned up back home?”

“Yes, but—”

“Relax. I got this under control. Cool?”

I sighed. “‘Cool,’” I echoed.

==

Badger spent three days slipping in and out of consciousness. Raine spent three days taking Sarika to and from the hospital, though I never visited. I didn’t want to see him, I didn’t want him to see me, and I didn’t want to risk being there if or when he died.

But he didn’t. He pulled through, with a nasty hole in the side of his head, a psychiatric evaluation to put to shame any UFO conspiracy enthusiast, and a place on a hopefully short waiting list to have a small titanium fixation plate installed in his skull. Three days, no police, no cultists turning up to murder him in his hospital bed, no Ooran Juh reaching for him from a dark corner — and only minor neurological damage. He had shakes and tremors, problems closing his fingers all the way, some issues with intermittent loss of taste and blurry peripheral vision, not to mention the headaches, which were to be expected. But he was apparently free of memory problems, spacial awareness issues, perception of time and so on. His personality was intact, and his higher brain functions preserved, though more by the Eye’s lack of interest than any finesse in my rescue.

Raine conveyed messages from Badger, for me; reports of his garbled private gratitude that I did not want to hear. I told her so after the first time, and she didn’t tell me anything else he’d said about me, except for the fact he was once again was master of the inside of his own head. The Eye’s crushing presence, that outsider whispering in one’s own skull, those alien drives, were gone.

I’d won the tug of war, but I didn’t let it go to my head; I’d gotten lucky, and Badger had paid for my revelation.

Freeing a single ex-cultist from the Eye, that was one thing. Doing it with all the rest? The police would absolutely sit up and take notice if we sent ten more people to A&E with mystery drill wounds in their skulls, brain damage or not.

Maybe the Eye wouldn’t grip so hard next time. Maybe now it knew what I wanted, it would let me take those people from its grasp. After all, it had been playing with me, in the manner of a mother predator playing with its young, letting me win the tug of war.

Or maybe it would force me to rip the next person in half.

And maybe I would do so, just for another few seconds of staring back into that silvery sea of awareness. For another layer of knowledge which would bring me closer to freeing my sister. For another lesson.

On the first day after the brain surgery and the confrontation with the Eye, I called my mother. My actual, real, biological mother, to remind myself that I was not only an abyssal thing, raised by an Outsider on a steady diet of impossible mathematics. I was an ape too, and my own ape mother felt far less intimidating for once, which was an interesting experience. We didn’t talk about much. I had to lie extensively, of course, though I told her the truth — that Raine and I were doing very well and our relationship was stronger than ever, and yes of course we’ll come visit in the summer, and no, the house is perfectly fine, and yes I’m eating plenty, and I’ve made lots of friends now. A mad part of me wanted to tell her about Zheng, but even if I could make her understand the strange, developing, non-sexual-but-still-romantic nature of our particular polyamorous situation, I don’t think even my solid and stoic mother could have looked at Zheng and come away with a rational explanation.

Zheng didn’t return that first night, nor the next, or the one after that. She didn’t so much as leave a dead squirrel on the back doorstep.

“For all her boasting of being such a great hunter,” Evelyn commented on Tuesday evening that week, “she certainly is taking her sweet time.”

“Maybe the weird skin-man’s a good sprinter,” Raine said.

“She wouldn’t go far,” I said, trying to convince myself not to worry. “Not far from me, not now, not after … ”

Raine shot me a grin over the kitchen table. “Missing your left-hand bed warmer?”

“Tch,” I tutted at her. “I’m actually worried, Raine, not everything is about what I want. Zheng’s done this before, vanished for days, weeks on end. I wish she’d just check in, let me know she’s okay. She did still have that wound bandaged up.”

“Mister—” Evelyn sighed, “Orange Juice is completely gone, uninterested in Badger. I doubt she’s going to run into that problem again.”

“Maybe … maybe we could ask Twil to go find her?” I asked. “Follow her nose?”

Evelyn shot me a sharp frown. “It is exam season, Heather. Twil’s got one tomorrow morning, in fact. She needs to sleep, and concentrate. I understand your fears, but don’t screw this up for her. There’s a good reason I’ve kept her away from this mess.”

“Hey,” Raine said, reaching over to squeeze my shoulder. “Zheng wouldn’t get in deeper than she can get out. She’s just being like a cat. I’m sure she’ll be home soon enough, with or without a trophy, eh?”

“Home soon enough,” I echoed. “Just wish I knew where she was.”

==

Physically, I did surprisingly well over those three days; Evelyn was right, I was nowhere near as bruised as I had been in the past. I recovered quickly, my energy returning in slow waves from the trilobe reactor in my abdomen, which I fed with cravings for meat and cheese. Raine picked up fast food on her way home from the hospital each time — thick-sauced curry, pizza enough to choke a bear, an entire package of sausage rolls — and I ate too much, all of it burned on the altar of my new body, fuel for a self-correcting, self-perfecting bio-mechanical experiment in feeling good for once.

Unlike every other aftermath of abyssal euphoria, this time I kept my tentacles.

I kept at least one tentacle manifested at almost all times, fuelled by varying the extraction depth of a single control rod in the bioreactor, like clenching or relaxing a rarely used muscle. Sometimes I treated myself to two or three, touching the ceiling and walls as I crept through the house, stifling a giggle of physical delight, though I folded them all away when we attempted to resume normality by attending classes on Wednesday. The risk of touching a unsuspecting person with an invisible appendage was too great. I gave into temptation only once, unrolling an invisible tentacle below the desk while I sat in a seminar. It felt like stretching out a cramped leg.

After experimentation, I discovered that the most comfortable single tentacle to keep permanently out was the lowest one on my left flank, down on my hip. I started to use it to touch things around the house, reaching for things in the kitchen, playing with Tenny, and trying not to spook poor Whistle. The corgi couldn’t see the limb, but he could somehow sense the motion, though I never risked upsetting him by petting him with it. That would be cruel.

I felt more energetic than I had since childhood, since I’d last been hand-in-hand with Maisie.

I didn’t tell anybody about Sevens’ cloak. Not even Raine. It felt somehow private, something that I should wait for her to request I return, a secret, just between us. Intimate, but harmless.

I could almost have felt confident — not happy, and certainly not contented, not without Maisie returned to me. But confident, yes. Terrified of the revelation, but confident I could use it. Every unoccupied moment returned me to the thought of staring back into the Eye, to the new understanding that seeing was defining, and that was how the Eye related to everything which wasn’t itself.

And I was a little watcher. An Eye in miniature, blended with savanna ape and abyssal choice and parts of all the people I knew.

“So, you gotta practice your scowl?” Raine said when I explained all this to her. “Get a real mean look in your eyes, win a staring contest.”

I laughed, but weakly, still terrified of how to implement what I’d learned. “To do what, intimidate it?”

“To make it blink first, duh.”

“Oh, Raine, the rest of me would die before I got that far. I don’t know how to survive the experience.”

Raine shot me one of those absurd grins, the ones she knew were wrong, the ones meant to make me roll my eyes. “I’ll stand in front, you can scowl at it over my shoulder.”

I did roll my eyes at that, but only a little. Maybe she was onto something.

I could have felt confident, yes — but Lozzie was avoiding me. That hurt.

She didn’t give the silent treatment or shut doors in my face or scurry out of the room whenever I appeared, but she was careful never to be left alone with me, always trotting off with Tenny whenever I turned toward her, always chattering at impenetrable high-speed so I couldn’t get a word in edge ways, couldn’t begin the subject, always sound asleep or strangely absent or currently naked and getting changed or watching Tenny do something and she’d be off again on a thousand-word ramble, both sweet and fascinating but so obviously a conflict avoidance strategy.

“You want me to talk to her instead?” Raine asked. “She doesn’t avoid me.”

I sighed. “That’s sweet of you to offer, but it would be beside the point. She caused a practical problem. Sort of. But that’s not really what bothers me, not really why I need to talk to her. I just need to … talk to her.”

Lozzie had stopped me from committing a murder, and my anger at her intervention had faded, but the issue was still there. She should have let me know. She had too much faith in me. She shouldn’t have been there if she was that vulnerable. She was sweet and I loved her and I needed to understand, but she needed to understand too.

In the end it wasn’t a matter of strategy, but of courage.

I finally cornered her on Wednesday afternoon, after Raine and I got home from university. All I had to do was peer in through the open door of her bedroom, easing it wider with a tentacle — they had more courage than my hands, clumsy fingers clasped together inside the front pocket of my hoodie — and Lozzie and Tenny looked up from the television, the latter innocently curious with her big black eyes, the former like a pixie caught stealing a baby.

Tenny had been playing a video game against herself, one controller in her human hands, another one in her tentacles, racing two go-karts against a host of computer-controlled opponents. Lozzie was perched on the foot of the bed, watching and giving commentary and praise. Tenny kept playing, not even looking at the screen, as I smiled at the pair of them and shuffled into the room.

Lozzie must have seen the look on my face. She froze with a hitching smile.

“Tenny, Lozzie, hey,” I said.

“Heath!” Tenny greeted me. A single tentacle wriggled out from under her wings and came to touch mine in a sort of hand-hold-high-five combo.

“Tenny, can I borrow Lozzie for a bit?” I asked, focusing on Tenny though I knew I shouldn’t. “I need to talk to her, about something important. Adult stuff.”

“ … ‘dult,” Tenny echoed.

“Lozzie,” I said, my throat tightening as I finally made eye contact with her. “We do need to ta—”

I didn’t even get to finish my sentence before Lozzie tried to run away.

Her eyes unfocused and her whole body flinched, a shiver passing through her like the start of a seizure. But then she caught herself like a narcoleptic after a micro-sleep, snapping to and blinking rapidly, cringing away from me.

“Lozzie?!” I jerked toward her in panic that something was wrong, but then I realised. “Lozzie, did you just try to Slip?”

“Loz!” Tenny was up on her feet, game truly forgotten now.

“Did you just try to Slip to avoid talking with me?” I asked.

Lozzie drew her knees to her chest on the bed, and looked up at me with heavy-lidded eyes filled with shame and fear.

“But I can’t, can I?” she said.

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11 thoughts on “any mortal thing – 14.6

  1. Lozzie has some growing up to do. Not sure I want her to, since she lightens up the story a bit, but I trust the author to take all the relationships to a healthy place…. Eventually lol

    • She’s quite grown up in some ways – literally raising Tenny – but in other ways she’s got some problems, things she seems to struggle to communicate. We can only hope that she and Heather can stay strong together.

  2. Hmm, I hope Heather plans to start the talk by apologizing for yelling at her. Lozzie was right! Lozzie knows stuff!
    Good job on the cover story for Badger’s hole in his head. If he’s known to be involved with a weird cult, and a drug user, it’s all too credible.
    Now it’s time to Slip to the voting page http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis

    • Lozzie was right! But also Lozzie does not like the serious talk. Lozzie’s got a lot to say.

      Raine is a very quick thinker on her feet! Though I wonder if she had some help coming up with the cover story.

      And thank you so much for all the votes!!! I really, deeply appreciate all the support, thank you!

  3. I’m seeing some ugly parallels between what’s happening and Lozzies past. I mean, someone of her family(or close enough in heather’s case) getting very mad and screaming at her, with possibilies of further punishment? Being trapped and unable to escape that person? Reminds me of her brother, and while i know Heather didn’t say it with bad intention, the we’ll talk later is something i can perfectly see the brother saying before deciding punishment.

    What i mean, i think Lozzie is reliving some pretty traumatic memories, and reacting according to that, and i hope Heather can see that instead of taking it personally and cab help her, because Lozzie has been through enough.

    • A very interesting analysis! Lozzie is carrying a lot of old, unspoken trauma, papered over as best she can with positivity and friends, but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes, she’s going to need help. Let’s hope Heather understands.

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