Mathematics was never our strong suit.
Not in the half-remembered prelapsarian years before Wonderland, nor during the decade of half-dead unlife after Maisie had been taken away from us. We didn’t hate maths. We were not innumerate. We didn’t dread school lessons or have trouble with homework or counting out coins. We never spilled tears over mathematical frustration; our tears were already spent on more terrifying and intimate matters, the reservoir always dry. Oh, we could do percentages and algebra, we achieved a C grade during our GCSEs, we never had trouble figuring out simple daily tasks with numbers — well, no more than we had trouble with every daily task, in those days. But mathematics held little interest for us, and not only because so many nightmares were already crammed with mathematical lessons, which one could not escape by simply looking out of the classroom window. Perhaps that was the Eye’s ultimate mistake; perhaps it should have selected a pair of little girls destined to grow up to become mathematicians or physicists, instead of twins who liked to read fairy tales and imagine friendly monsters lurking at the end of the road. Perhaps none of this would have happened if the Eye had chosen a pupil more suited to learning the syllabus it wanted to teach.
Perhaps it had done; perhaps that’s why we escaped, and Maisie didn’t. Perhaps our suffering was simply a by-product of her perfect education.
But, when Largest And Most Wise Heather squeezed me through the entrance to that ever-shifting dome of brass and gold and chrome — as lips of feathered silver and frond-like steel closed over me from behind, as fractal branching passageways opened up in lace-like clockwork — we agreed in private and breathless awe that mathematics could be quite beautiful.
This was still a dream, though; perhaps all the sums were made up.
First: a hallway, a corridor, a smooth and irregular organic cavity through ever-shifting machinery, winding through clockwork delicacy and sliding plates and interlocking teeth of gold and titanium and solid mercury. We took a step, one pace forward; the pressure on the plates beneath our feet changed, and so the hallway reoriented itself in response to these new variables, these me-variables: parts unlatched and adjusted, clockwork slowed down here and sped up there, the hallway pointed in a different direction — and the way was blocked by plate and rotation-shape and cogwheel.
Another step changed the orientation again. A third reverted. A fourth ruined.
Terrible symmetry, beautiful equation, perfectly expressed; but this was no place for an unprotected human form.
Larger Heather made us stop. The danger was obvious; this place would mangle us, rip us to pieces, dream or not. She — me and me — reached out with five fists and touched a corner of gold leaf, and the edge of a giant cog, and a sprig of chrome, and a specific spot on the floor; the hallway folded back by one step, admitting us a single pace deeper into the briar of metal thorns and snagging teeth and crushing plates.
Within five steps we all agreed this was bloody impossible.
Large Heather Who Was In Control said, This wasn’t what I expected. She sounded very worried. That made me worried too.
“What had we expected?” I asked.
I didn’t receive an answer for several minutes as we navigated three more steps down the hallway, using tentacles to touch pressure points, to add values here and subtract them there, completing equations with the span and weight of our own body. We inserted ourselves into the guts of the dome, into the equation, modifying it with our very presence. Every errant twitch, every adjustment of finger, every flexing muscle changed some value, corrupted some perfect meaning, introduced something the machine did not have a place for and did not wish to permit.
I don’t know, said Large Heather. Part of me thought — or maybe hoped — that the dome might be hollow inside, that it might open up to reveal some special equation etched on the inside surface. Or maybe we’d find Mister Squiddy in the middle, at the core, on a throne or in a bucket or something, like this is his thought-shell around a real self. Or maybe that the dome would sweep me up and teach me … something.
Like the Eye?
Yes, she said. Like the Eye. Only now I’m almost certain that this didn’t come from the Eye at all. I think Maisie sent this. I think the Eye set up a trap, but she hijacked it.
How can you be sure? Evelyn wouldn’t like that, Evelyn would tell us off, Evelyn would say it’s a dangerous assumption.
She probably would, I’m right about that. But we’re already inside and this is … well, I won’t lie to myself, this is not safe. I feel like if I let go with even one tentacle, I’m going to get crushed. Like an industrial accident. But no, I think this is from Maisie. It’s the only thing which makes sense. It has to be from her. It has to be.
Because it doesn’t hurt.
That made me feel much better. Larger Heather was probably right. This didn’t hurt, not like the Eye’s lessons did — but it was exquisitely difficult, exhausting, taxing on body and mind and muscle and tendon and skin. Each step through the dome-maze took us minutes of experimentation, adjusting a cog here, pulling on a piece of clockwork there, so delicate and fiddly so that I itched and jerked and wanted to run my hands all over my skin and peel it off, wanted to roll around on the ground and bite and thrash and shake off this feeling.
But I didn’t. I was a good girl. Large And Clever Heather reached over my shoulder with five other hands and braced us against the inside of the mathematical lesson, pulling us along step by step, solving the new equations with every hard-won inch. I didn’t complain — though I made suggestions, lots of suggestions, reaching out to touch things on my own along with my other sisters as we all tried to help. We all pulled together, all in the same direction.
All for one and one for all, Large Heather tried to laugh, but she was starting to hyperventilate. Noble sentiment. Hard to apply to myself, but, yes. Yes, that’s right. That’s the only way. All pulling in the same direction, all in our way. Raine would probably say something like ‘from each according to their strength’, or something.
“She would,” I said. “We love Raine.”
Oh, Raine. Oh, I can’t do this alone. I can’t think so sharply in a dream. I can’t. I needed this to stay unreal, abstract, freaky. Horror movie silliness was fine. This isn’t. Oh, oh, I’m going to develop claustrophobia from this. Oh, fuck. Fuck. Largest Of All Heathers whined in her throat. Pardon my language. Oh, but there’s nobody here to apologise to. Ahhh, God. She swallowed, too hard, hurting her throat. This feels like it’s going on forever. Please, it’s just a dream, just a dream, just a dream. Keep pulling, keep pulling.
The route took us upward, worming through cramped tunnels of golden joints, locking and interlocking and unlocking from each other, squeezing through chrome perfection barely wide enough for shoulders or hips; Largest Heather had to pop pieces of herself free, screaming as she did, banging them on surfaces to pop them back in. Then we slid down through blind dark voids, surrounded by sliding pistons and whirling blades and a million cutting, puncturing, searing, burning, bruising hazards. Biggest Heather kept stopping and waiting, shaking and panting; we wrapped her tight and held on for her. At the bottom of these voids, we burrowed into the floor once more and plunged through clockwork majesty which forced constant motion, lest we all get trapped between the teeth.
More than once I got pinched between plates, or snagged on cogs, or dragged into the guts of the machinery; I was a good girl, I didn’t panic, I had been trained not to panic, to accept that I might have to be detached and lost, or torn off, or left for dead. But Bigger Heather and her five other hands had changed their mind about that detail; I was not to be discarded to fortune or wounding or risk or damage. Bigger Heather braced herself and dragged me back out of clinging chrome and grinding gold and bold brass pincers, as she did for any sister who might be lost to the lesson.
This isn’t worth it. This isn’t worth it, she had started to hiss. This doesn’t mean anything! This doesn’t lead anywhere! It’s torture for the sake of torture. This … this has to be from Maisie. It has to be! But I made a promise. No more self-sacrifice. That means every part of me.
“We’re going to be okay,” I said. “We’ve got your back. We’ve always got your back.”
I can’t go on like this. I’ve been in here for hours. Hours. Time … I can’t keep track of time. Lozzie and Jan, what happened to them? What’s happening to my body, out in reality? Has it been seconds? Minutes? Hours? She was talking to herself, not to us. How long is it taking me to say these words? I feel like I started speaking an hour ago. I can’t do this.
We had no idea what was happening with Lozzie and Jan, with the Jan-Zombie and the sword; the rest of the dream had been sealed off instantly when we’d entered. All I remembered was a whoop and a crunch.
Don’t worry about them, Bigger Heather said, trying to reassure herself. Lozzie is an expert dreamer. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what she’s doing. You just concentrate on yourself, Heather. You have to find the meaning in this. Keep going. One step at a time.
But there was no centre, no core, no meaning that we could find.
We went around and around and around, burrowing through an equation which exhausted us and ground us down; every step was a struggle to move plates of metal aside, to coax the clockwork to open, to integrate our body with the mathematics so that it did not pinch or tear or rip or burn. But it did. We were not a creature of perfect mathematics. We were flesh and thought. Such things did not conform.
Every angle and junction and confluence held at least some meaning — but it was all jumbled together, all pure data without context, numbers without purpose. It was like wading through a library built from the books themselves, with aisles and walkways filled with tomes; the only way to progress was to lift each volume from the stacks and read it cover-to-cover before re-inserting it somewhere else.
I like that metaphor, said Large And Exhausted Heather. But we’re getting nowhere. None of this means anything. My concentration is … we’ve been going in circles … there’s nothing in here but density. There is nothing here. Nothing! What is all this?!
Are we inside Mister Squiddy?
When I asked that question, Large Heather stopped us in the middle of a kinking corridor made of polished steel and smooth brass; the surfaces were jerking and flickering with every step we took. When we stopped, the equation stopped too, like a room full of fun-house mirrors pausing along with their fleshy original. The dome-mathematics froze with us.
We reached out, all tentacles to the walls, all tips touching. Bigger Heather opened us out for a moment.
“Mister Squiddy?” I said. We waited.
The dome did not move.
It did not move because we did not move. It did not reply because it could not reply because it could not move. Expression was impossible without motion.
What does that mean?! Largest Heather spat. I can’t go on like this, I can’t! I’ve been in here for days. Days and days. I’m going mad in here. I don’t care anymore. Inside Mister Squiddy, inside a lesson — what does it matter?! It’s pure mathematics and there’s nothing here and— and— and it hurts. She sobbed once. It wasn’t supposed to hurt, it was supposed to be from Maisie, it was supposed to be right, and human, and—
“What if we all work together?” I said.
“What if we all work together?”
We … are? We already are, we’ve been pulling together! I’m using every piece of brainpower I have. I’m utilizing you to your absolute limit. You don’t feel it because I’m cramming you full of lemons, but you’re so bruised, you’re so damaged. I promised not to self-sacrifice. And I won’t. There’s no further to push. There’s no deeper meaning here except dashing us against the rocks over and over. This was a waste. It means nothing.
“No, I mean—”
I was never meant for this, she said, and sounded so very sad as she started to sob. I think this is from Maisie, I think it is, and … and I can’t understand it. I can’t even begin to comprehend this. It’s too beautiful, too complex. And not for me. I was always terrible at maths! But this? This is impossible! All I can do is beat myself black and blue on the inside of this thing, looking for meaning that I’m not smart enough to grasp! And she … my sister … my twin, she made this. She made this. Not the Eye. I’m certain she made this. What has she become? I can’t follow. I can’t follow. Why did I do this? Why did I come in here? I can’t follow her. Maisie, I can’t follow you. I can’t.
Biggest Heather Who Mistook Herself For Being Alone hugged me to her chest — but her five other hands peeled us free and stood apart.
Oh, she said, tears drying on her cheeks. But I’m already using my tentacles. You’re not independent, you’re—
“Let me take some of the weight,” I said. We all agreed.
And I reached out with my tentacles — with Heather’s hands, myself and my sisters, and our core and our purpose — and pulled at the perfect metal equation of the dome. We took over from Large Heather At The Rear, we interpreted her wishes, we translated and tingled and burned and itched so that she had to do less.
We all pulled in the same direction; this time, she didn’t need to direct. She joined in.
Gold leaf and chrome machinery blossomed outward; clockwork hurried out of the way; shifting plates pushed at our feet rather than block our path; the dome-equation, the perfect mathematics, the complexity only dreamable in the spaces of the abyss — parted like water. With the effort distributed, the effort became bearable.
And we swam.
Bloody and bruised and battered, torn and tortured, exhausted — but swimming free at last.
Bigger Heather was sobbing again, with something akin to relief. There’s seven of me? she kept repeating. Seven of me? What is it with the number seven? Oh, I need to ask Evee about numerology. This can’t be a coincidence. Sevens will be besides herself. Seven of me?
We still didn’t know what we were looking for; brass and gold and steel and chrome slid aside with all the softness of rose petal or cherry blossom. Thorns still lurked, stabbing into vulnerable flesh, but they were only thorns, a fraction of the size of the equation itself. We all pulled together, effort distributed, working in concert, looking for a place where the thorns thickened or the water darkened or the machinery opened out. We looked for meaning, we swam for a core, a centre, a message in the bottle.
But it was all just more mathematics. Machine all the way down.
This can’t be right, Heather whispered. There’s nothing here. I’m doing it right and there’s nothing here, there’s—
Just when we were about to jackknife and turn and do another circuit of the inside of the dome, there was very much something here.
Bigger Heather went away in a snap-flash instant, gone like a ripped-out cable.
And I was just me again, falling through a pocket of open air.
I landed painfully on my backside in a long, egg-shaped chamber, lined with brass clockwork and dense circuitry on the walls. I caught myself at the last moment with my tentacles, bouncing slightly so I didn’t break my tail bone. But the landing was ungainly with surprise, with pain, and exhaustion. I hit the floor hard with a resonant clang of metal.
“Ahhhh,” I groaned, curling up in pain, eyes screwed shut with sudden tears. “Ow. Oh. Ow. Oh no. Ahhh.”
The dream was once again razor-sharp real, hard and physical and undeniable. I was not floating in memories or flying through mathematical machinery or confused about how many of me inhabited the inside of my head; I was Heather Morell, twenty years old, dressed in a hoodie and pajama bottoms and Seven’s yellow robes, rolling on the floor of a weird machine-room and clutching at my aching body.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” I hissed. “Oh, oh, why— ah—”
I hurt all over — and not with the slow healing process of small bruises or the pain-pleasure muscle-satisfaction of a day’s walk. Knees, elbows, shoulders, knuckles, hips: all were badly grazed, as if I’d come off a mountain bike and skidded across gravel. I was bleeding into the fabric of my clothes from a dozen of those shallow surface-wounds. My shoes were missing, along with one sock; the other sock was bloodstained from several wounds on the sole of my foot. The other ankle felt twisted and wrong. One wrist was stiff and throbbing. My right eye socket was bruised as if I’d been punched in the face, my jaw clicked when I moved it, and my head was ringing with a pounding headache.
I felt like I’d gone a round in a boxing ring with Zheng, with knuckle dusters and a knife. A distant part of my mind screamed that I needed medical attention, I needed help, right now.
But this was a dream.
“It’s not real,” I hissed through clenched teeth. “It’s not real. Ah … ow. It’s a metaphor. It’s a construct. It’s not real. Not real. Ahhh, but it does hurt. It hurts, it hurts. Ahhhh. Not real.”
I pulled myself up into a sitting position and wanted to swear very badly. I wanted to say words that only Raine said. I think I muttered one of them. Perhaps twice. I wrapped my arms around my bleeding, bruised body and said many bad words.
Then, quite distinctly, somebody else said, “Oh. Oh my.”
With my vision lurching and my heart racing, I jerked my head up, tentacles flaring outward to make myself look big.
The egg-shaped chamber was not large, perhaps twenty feet across, made from the same interlocking clockwork and sliding metal plates as the rest of the interior of the dome, laced with circuit patterns and strange tiny machines crawling inside the walls. The floor was at least solid, composed of a few large sheets of humming brass. Large spikes covered the walls of the far end of the chamber, big enough to impale a human being. The spikes were pointing inward, toward another figure, but not toward me.
A woman stood at that end of the cavity-chamber. I’d never seen her before in my life.
She was old, but impossible to place, anywhere between fifty and ninety, somehow both extremes at once, as if unanchored from the true weight of the ageing process. Her face was soft and lined, but without any loss of acuity or expressive power. Her eyes were deep grey, arrestingly bright sparks like lightning behind storm clouds. Yet somehow all this electricity and intelligence translated the whole effect into warmth and kindness. She had long grey hair streaked through with swoops of bright red, tied up in a loose bun. Straight-backed, steel-spined, fit and healthy. She was dressed for hiking, in sensible trousers, big boots, and a padded vest with lots of pockets. She carried a long hiking stick in one hand, of unadorned dark wood, and had a large backpack strapped over her shoulders. She looked like I’d just interrupted her in the middle of a woodland stroll.
She also looked like I was a lost nightmare from the depths of the forest, slipped out from around a tree in the deepening dusk. She stared at me with a strange mixture of awe, caution, fascination, and fear; she was so out of place that all I thought to do was stare back.
Almost on automatic I peeled back my left sleeve, slowly and carefully so as not to startle her. My grazed flesh stung and blood clung to my skin, but I held up the Fractal to her, just in case.
She didn’t recoil or run away or scream, so I assumed she wasn’t anything from the Eye.
“Hello?” I said — croaked, really. My throat was raw and parched. How long had I been crawling through this structure?
The woman averted her eyes, quickly and carefully, keeping me in her peripheral vision. She stayed very still, as if I was a wild animal she’d encountered on the trail. She said nothing.
Deeply confused, I picked myself up. I winced hard and struggled to straighten my back. My stomach muscles were all bruised and strained. Blood was seeping into the front of my hoodie. My joints screamed. A dozen sources of bleeding pain complained at me from all sides every time I moved.
Once again, I reminded myself this was a dream. “Pain’s not real pain’s not real pain’s not real,” I whispered to myself.
The older woman at the other end of the chamber swallowed quite hard, unable to hide her mounting fear.
I croaked again, “Are you … Mister Squiddy? Miss Squiddy? Sorry if we got you … wrong?”
Without looking directly at me, the older woman raised her eyebrows, and said, very carefully and very precisely, as if I might not speak her language very well: “I’ve never heard that name before. My apologies.”
Her accent was American, which threw me off instantly; it also seemed somehow antiquated, an old-school Mid-Atlantic anachronism. Out of date. Out of time. Her outfit gave the same impression: sensible hiking clothes, but from another era. Trousers, not jeans. A button-down shirt beneath her vest. Her backpack was canvas, not modern materials. Then again, this was a dream.
I said, “Why are you avoiding looking at me?”
The woman’s glance flicked to me, then past me, above me, then down to me again. She averted her eyes once more and swallowed too hard. “My apologies,” she said. “I assumed you would consider it polite for me to avert my gaze. Your culture practices the opposite, then? You consider it more polite to look directly at one’s conversational partner, even to make eye contact?”
“ … yes? You can look at me,” I said, deeply confused. “Unless it hurts you or something.”
The older woman finally lifted her eyes and met mine; her expression twinkled with cautious curiosity. Suddenly I knew exactly what it felt like to be a large and dangerous animal before the adoring yet fearful gaze of a naturalist discovering you for the first time. She was equally fascinated and terrified of me.
Then she looked past me again.
She bobbed her head and lowered one knee by about an inch: the merest sketch of a curtsey. “I do apologise,” she repeated. “I’m not quite sure where to look. Please forgive me if I offend. I do not believe I have ever met one of your kind before, nor one of your station. I am unaware as to the proper terms of address I must use for you. Please, enlighten me.”
I just stared, blinking, and blurted out, “Heather.”
The woman raised her eyebrows. “Heather?”
“Heather. That’s me. Uh, my name. Um, there are no terms of address for me. Miss, I suppose?”
The older woman put up a very stirring effort of trying not to look sceptical. “Miss Heather.”
I glanced around the chamber again. The metal perfection was almost throbbing toward the strange woman, menacing her with spikes of gleaming steel, as if the structure itself ached to crush her and spit her out, but was held back by some invisible forcefield. She didn’t give the spikes a second look, as if she was standing on a loamy woodland pathway, not in the middle of some god-machine mathematics puzzle that had left me bloody and exhausted after hours of effort.
“Look,” I said. “I’m looking for … um. I’m sorry, who are you? Or, what are you? What are you doing here?”
The older woman wet her lips with a flicker of her tongue, watching me with great care.
She was trying to decide if she needed to run.
I huffed and said, “I’m not going to hurt you or anything. Sorry, I know I entered in kind of a … weird way. I fell through the ceiling. We’re in a dream. This is all deeply confusing and I’m just trying to find the squid-thing which made this place. I’m not dangerous or anything, I’m just … confused. Are you real?”
The warm older woman smiled a warm older smile. “Would it make any difference if I wasn’t? I would still answer in the same fashion.”
“I suppose so … ”
I didn’t like that.
Largest And Most In-Chargest Heather peered over my shoulder, flexing five hands, and dropping a lemon into my open mouth to occupy my teeth. She said, Well, I am dangerous, and I would like to know who or what you are. Quickly, please. You interrupted an important search.
The old lady shivered like a cat confronted by a lobster, eyes going wide and face flushing white, knuckles tightening on her long stick. But she stood her ground and bowed her head.
“I apologise, o’ great one, though I know not your name or your station or your manner of—”
Stop it, please. Stop that. Don’t call me silly names. I’m kind of in the middle of something and I had to pause the process in order to figure out what you’re doing here, or what you are, or if you pose any danger to me. You don’t belong, you’re not like the rest of this. And I’m so very tired.
The old lady straightened up again — with a twinkle in her eye. “You’ve caught me. Again, I apologise. I’m … shall we say … a passing dreamer?”
Bigger Heather Who Needed A Target For Her Frustration clenched and unclenched her fists. I gnawed on my lemon. The old lady in the hiking gear swallowed again, but said nothing more, standing by her answer.
“An old and very experienced one,” said the lady. She hesitated, then stuck out her left hand. “Veebee,” she said.
“Vee. Bee. My initials. Though I do like the sound of turning them into a word. Feel free, of course. “Pleased to make your acquaintance … ” She hesitated again. “Miss Heather.”
I appreciate the gesture, said Large And Scary Heather. But you wouldn’t enjoy the experience of a handshake with me. Not like this.
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Veebee withdrew her hand, unoffended. “I’ve shaken hands with all manner of Outsider and dream-god. I would be honoured, but thank you for your consideration of my comfort.”
I’m neither of those things. I’m just a human being.
Vee’s eyebrows shot up her forehead in polite interest. She didn’t believe that. “Indeed?”
“I’m just me,” I said around a mouthful of lemon-flesh. Juice was dripping down my chin and leaving acidic stains on the floor around my feet, the chemical composition of the juice slowly etching the brass plating. Vee kept glancing at my mouth and teeth, then back to Largest And Most Eloquent Heather.
It’s a long story, said Biggest Heather. And we don’t have time for it right now. You’re sure that you’re nothing to do with Mister Squiddy?
Vee smiled with genuine warmth, yet slightly confused. The corners of her eyes crinkled up with a lifetime of quiet amusement. “Quite sure,” she said. “Again, my apologies, this is not my dream. I have intruded where I have no business. Just a passing dreamer.”
Vee sighed gently and leaned a little on her long hiking stick. She suddenly looked a little older, but we knew she was putting it on.
“I was drawn in by an old flame. Or the illusory glimmer of an old flame, perhaps, one I never expected to see in a dream, even from a great distance. But it probably wasn’t real.” Her smile turned a little sad.
Old flame? Does the name ‘Lilburne’ mean anything to you?
Vee shook her head. “No, I’m sorry.”
How about ‘Jan Martense’?
Vee wrinkled her nose. “No, certainly not. That’s a name in poor taste. But, no, I’ve never known anybody by that name. And I’m sorry to say that I doubt it was yourself stirring my memories, I’ve certainly never met you before. I will admit, I did have to fiddle with a few locks and maybe force a few doors to get in here. I expected to find a familiar old face, but all I see now is … this.” She raised her eyes to the spiked walls which so desperately wanted to crush her. “I’m obviously not wanted here.” She dipped her head to me. “I apologise for interrupting your dream quest, ‘Heather’. I’ll take my leave, if you—”
Vee raised her eyebrows.
You’re standing inside the dome, inside the message, the … the lesson. Maisie’s lesson. Squiddy’s … brain, mind? I don’t know. And you’re …
Biggest And Most Thoughtful Heather raised my eyes to the long wicked spikes all pointed inward at the mysterious Miss Vee.
The mathematical structure of the dome was vibrating with a desire to collapse the equation, to complete the circuit, to fill this anomalous gap with interlocking metal. The logic of the structure itself longed to crush this intrusive variable out of self-definition. The machine-solution was aching and quivering to expand itself into the space occupied by flesh and thought.
And here I was also, bruised and bloody, panting with pain, my shoes gone, as if I’d been rung through the machine against my will; Big Heather turned my eyes to the floor at my own feet. Cold metal cupped me from below, held me in a grip which could turn hostile and dangerous at any instant. The machine could cut my soles open with jagged metal edges and squeeze my blood between pressure plates and leave me to bleed out, lost inside a maze of perfect angles. I could swim in this medium now — but it was swim or drown.
If this had been a regular dream, I would be pinching myself in an effort to awaken, before the nightmare could devour me.
My feet curled up, tucking in my toes; my wounded foot ached and throbbed and I knew there would be no walking on that foot for a while. My heart rate climbed. Blood stuck my clothes to all my angles. Largest Heather coaxed me to accept another lemon, but I could only nibble at the skin. Fruits were not enough. We needed to leave.
“Yes?” Vee said.
You’re interacting with the mathematics of this place. You’re holding it back, rejecting it. Which means you’re like me, you’re doing hyperdimensional mathematics. Right?
Vee raised her eyebrows and blinked several times, an old schoolteacher confronted with a genius yet naive child. “Hyperdimensional mathematics? My dear, I’ve never heard that term before.”
Then you’re a mage? You must be a mage.
Vee’s surprise turned to incredulity, spiced with polite distaste. “Goodness me, no. Horrid creatures. Well.” Her expression softened just a touch. “Horrid for the most part. Some aren’t so bad, some of the time, when they’re on their best behaviour. But no, I am neither mage nor monster nor mathematician. Just a dreamer who took a wrong turn. This I swear to you, Miss Heather.”
Biggest Heather shook my head. That can’t be right. You must be doing something. You— you’re lying. Or holding back. Or—
“Just a dreamer,” said Vee, a touch harder than before. Her grip on her walking stick slid downward, to the middle of the shaft of wood. “A pleasure to have made your acquaintance, Heather. I will be taking my leave now.”
Vee started to turn away, toward the eggshell-curve of the metal wall. The spikes curled away, as if they dare not touch her flesh. The surface of the wall blurred and fuzzed, like static overlaying reality as the dream peeled apart.
No! Large And Desperate Heather cried out. Please! Please!
She reached forward with all five of her other hands, leaving me alone cradled in her tender grasp, licking at my wounds. Five fists raced to restrain Vee by shoulders and knees and even neck if need be — but the old woman turned and lashed out with her hiking stick.
Bonk—bonk—bonk—bonk—bonk went five raps of the stick against five unwary hands. Bigger Heather hissed and yelped and recoiled in surprise. We had not expected an old woman to move so fast.
Vee gave Biggest Heather a pinched frown, very disapproving. But she couldn’t quite hide her fear, breathing too hard, knuckles white on her hiking stick as she held it ready to strike again.
“That was exceptionally rude. As I said, I will be taking my leave—”
“Please!” we all cried. Bigger Heather whipped us all back and cradled us tight. I’m sorry, I just … I have to understand how you’re doing that! This dream, it’s a message. The structure is a message, and a lesson, a mathematical lesson, for me. I think my sister sent it, but I can’t understand what she was trying to say. And I have to. I have to! I have to understand, or me, my friends, my sister, we’re all going to die. I have to get better at … at this. She waved at the walls, at the hostile perfection of heavenly mathematics. Please. Ms V.B. Please. How are you resisting the sphere? The maths? Anything, anything you can tell me. Please.
Vee looked like she was about to turn away again, but as she studied us for a long moment, her frown creased with deep concern. She placed one end of her stick back against the metal floor of this abscess-like chamber.
“Are you truly a human being?” she asked. “Because if you are … ” She tutted softly.
I don’t know if I count, but yes. Or at least I started as one. Out in reality I look perfectly human, unless you have the pneuma-somatic sight, and then I have a bunch of tentacles.
Vee looked us all up and down. “In that case, you are quite wounded, though not fatally or lethally. You should really be awakening from this.”
I can’t afford that.
She tutted again, as if about to scold us — but then paused, wrinkled eyes squinting at us. “Heather,” she said, gently but firmly. “How old are you?”
Vee’s eyebrows climbed. “Twenty? Is that years? Years on Earth?”
We nodded. Up and down.
“Oh. Twenty. Oh my gosh. Oh, you poor thing. I have a great-great-great granddaughter who’s twenty, and I wouldn’t trust her to navigate five minutes in a dream like this. I wouldn’t trust her to dream at all. Poor thing works two jobs and spends all her free time looking at cartoons of dashing young men. Twenty! You shouldn’t be here, not in a dream like this. Oh, you poor little thing. What do you think you’re doing? In this?”
I don’t have a choice.
Vee sighed, breath full of pity. “You really must awaken. You’re experienced enough for this..”
“I can’t give you the experience of a century’s dreaming, Heather, however sympathetic I am to a young woman in trouble. I’m sorry.” She pulled a sad smile. “But … ” She cleared her throat and glanced up at the metal ceiling. “If you want an old woman’s advice, sometimes the lessons we intend to learn are not the lessons we end up internalising.”
What do you mean?
Vee looked at me, then past me. She swallowed, containing an obvious distaste behind a polite exterior. “I can see you’re going through a lot. Whatever this lesson is intended to teach, perhaps it’s not the one you require right now.”
But if I don’t learn—
Vee raised her free hand, soft and pale and liver-spotted on the back. “That’s not to say you won’t reach your goal. But sometimes you have to take a different route to get there, not the one you expected. And sometimes you don’t even know the goal until you walk the road.” Vee’s face brightened at that. “That’s how I dream. That’s how I’m doing this.” She pointed at the metal spikes and lances, held back with seemingly no effort. “This place, it’s simply not for me. I choose not to walk this way. Sometimes one cannot find meaning in a dream. Sometimes they only mean anything to other people. This one, your dream, or your sister’s, whichever, it means nothing to me.”
You’re as cryptic as Lozzie. Are all dreamers like this?
Vee laughed, a rich tinkling sound. “Usually, yes. Heather, I can see by the look of … you, that you’ve been walking a hard road in here. You’re bleeding. Rather a lot. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said you’re injured.”
“And you said this place was a lesson, for you? Well, perhaps that’s the lesson. You’ll get injured if you walk this road.”
How does that help me? How does that help me understand even a fraction of this? I can’t comprehend any of this and you do it with barely any effort. ‘Walk this road’? Going even a few feet left me bloody and bruised, did so much damage that I couldn’t carry on — but I can’t stop!
“You didn’t walk into here. You fell. I believe you were swimming. Or perhaps flying.”
That didn’t help! I need an answer! I need to know what this means! I need to reach the centre, the core, the meaning, the—
Vee cleared her throat, and said, “Heather, I am sorry, but sometimes there’s no meaning in dreams except that we make ourselves.”
I don’t know what this means! Biggest Heather was screaming, raving, her temper lost, beyond frustration, past desperation. I don’t know what this means! I don’t know!
“We do,” we said.
I spat out scraps of lemon peel, scrubbed my mouth clean, and turned with all the others to look Biggest Heather in the face.
She was crying, and lost, and very alone. No you don’t, she said. You’re just an illusion. You’re just something I’m dreaming up. You’re a metaphor for a tentacle.
I tutted and huffed and gave her a look, a telling-Evee-off-for-not-eating-anything-today look. Bigger Heather blinked all her eyes in surprise. Behind us, I heard Vee flinch and swallow a whimper.
“No,” I told Heather. “I am a tentacle. Hello, Heather. It’s Heather here. Time to start listening to us, okay?”
Sniffling, snuffling, tears of acid and soot running down her face, Biggest Heather said: This doesn’t make any sense. I haven’t learned anything in this dream. What was this all meant to mean? We’ve failed. We didn’t find a thing.
“We found each other,” I said. “Even though we’ve always been here.”
Biggest And Not So Clever Heather stopped crying, staring at us in wonder. But you’re just a … you’re not … real.
“What if there was no centre of the dome? What if walking the road was the point in the first place? And now we’re all bloody and bruised, but we learned how to do it, didn’t we?”
But I was supposed to learn more hyperdimensional mathematics, how to do it myself, without the Eye’s lessons, without … without …
“You can’t do it yourself,” we told her. “Don’t be silly. We all have to work together. On the maths.”
Biggest Heather just stared, tears drying in her eyes, her stare going right through me — through us, through herself.
Behind us, Vee cleared her throat softly. “If I may make a suggestion, I suspect it’s your time to wake. Once a revelation has been attained, dreams rarely retain their coherency long, unless you’re willing to step from one dream to another. If you like, I could assist with—”
The machine-dome of perfect mathematics shook as if struck by an earthquake.
We whipped around, all of us and Bigger Heather too, all acting in perfect concert to steady ourselves against the shaking dome. Vee looked up in shock and horror. The noise was incredible, like a giant wind-chime in a hurricane; the dome was struggling to correct the million interrupted variables all at once.
“What—” I started to say.
Krrrrrr-uuuuuuun — krun — krun.
“Are those footsteps?” we asked. “Is that Tenny? Did she wake up?” We raised our voice, shouting up through the dome, through the deafening din. “Tenny! Tenny! Tenn—”
Krun—krun-krun came the footsteps — and the dome began to split.
The vibrations were too much for the mathematics, introducing too many wild and uncontrolled variables. Plates parted and cogs unlatched and entire strata of machine ripped free above us and around us, splitting the dome like the shell of a nut.
Slivers of blue sky appeared far overhead, the top openings in a series of vast canyons, with us at the bottom. A squid wedged into a crack of rock. Suddenly we felt so very tiny.
Dark fronds hove into view, blotting out that sky like an airship draped in black and streaked with red. A pair of huge glassy orbs stared down into the crack, down at us. Rotten eyelids blinked over a pair of empty moons. A pus-encrusted fingernail scraped at the canyon mouth so far above. A giant, trying to drag us out of our refuge.
It was the Jan Zombie, but very big.
“You’re ruining the sphere! Stop!” we screamed up at her, but she was so large, so far away; our tiny voice did not even carry. “Stop it! Stop!”
We knew the truth: Vee was correct, the dream must be losing coherency, turning into nonsense around us. But still we shouted.
The Jan Zombie leaned back, seen only as a series of slivers sliding across the punctured sky of a distantly recalled Reading. She pulled back a fist to strike the sphere, to crack it open for the meat inside.
A single black tentacle as thick as a bus and as long as a river whipped out from the opposite corner of the cross-cut sky and caught the Jan Zombie’s wrist.
“Tenny!” we cheered.
Tenny replied with a fluttery trill — loud enough to break worlds. Our eardrums burst, the jelly in our eyeballs vibrated, and our lungs quivered. The inside of the ruined sphere rang like a bell.
A mass of fluffy black velvet slammed across the glimpse of sky and swept the Jan Zombie away beyond my line of sight.
The crash of impact shook the ground far worse than a footstep. We only avoided picking up even more bruises because we all worked together, bracing against the metal as one, with Bigger Heather in the middle, no longer constrained by the need to direct us.
“Vee—” we said — but the old dreamer was gone.
She’d probably run off as soon as she’d seen that the dream had become a nightmare about a giant monster fight. We didn’t blame her. This was rapidly getting very silly.
The dream was clearly ruined. All around us the dome was coming apart in a series of ear-splitting cracks and landslide roars. Bigger Heather said something about how she really hoped this wasn’t hurting Mister Squiddy. We all agreed; but there wasn’t time to check that or get our bearings or do anything except cling on to any nearby handholds, because the kaiju battle outdoors was apocalyptically noisy.
Crashing and smashing and rolling and roaring, shouts like wind-storms and trilling like a solar flare; the Jan Zombie and Big Tenny were going at each other with fist and tentacle and maybe worse.
We had to end this dream, we had to end it now.
“Lozzie!” We shouted. We needed her to pull us out, to put a stop to this. Clearly this had all gone far past Evelyn’s stipulation of avoiding danger. The purpose of the dream was a lost cause. “Lozzie! Lozz—”
Tenny cried out in pain, a high-pitched panic noise of taking a punch to the nose, translated through giant-moth lungs and fluttering vocal chords, loud enough to wake sleeping gods.
“Nobody punches Tenny!” we all shouted.
The logic of the dream fell away, like a sandcastle crumbling into the surf; our previous goals simply did not matter; prior constraints, sustained and endured and upheld for the sake of meaning, did not matter. Nobody punched Tenny in the face.
Bigger Heather Who Was As Big As She Pleased burst us from the sphere of perfect mathematics, standing up, unfurling limbs, shaking off this brass eggshell. Fragments of steel and brass and chrome flaked away, pushed free by lashing tentacles, to crash down into the blurred remains of dream-Reading.
We burst forth in a cloud of tentacles, towering over this dream-remembered patch of where we’d grown up, free and clear and working together.
“Heath!” Tenny trilled.
Reading unrolled beneath us, a tiny toy-town spread out across the canvas of the dream. Buildings had been crushed to rubble, knocked over, squashed flat by errant footfalls and rolling bodies and ungainly stumbles; we were suddenly very glad this dream did not contain simulated people.
The Jan Zombie stood with her feet planted in two different roads, fists raised like an overconfident amateur boxer. She was still naked, still covered in dried blood and black corpse bile and wounds as big as houses. She was panting with effort.
Somebody — I suspected I knew who — had cut open her chest and carved out her heart, leaving behind a mess of broken ribs.
Tenny — or rather, a giant moth which was probably Tenny’s dream-projected self — stood on twelve legs, her own mass of black tentacles whirling in the air above her. Her snout-like nose was bleeding. But she was so very happy to see me.
Oh this is absurd said Biggest Heather. This really is nothing more than a silly dream now. This has ceased to have meaning. Can we wake up?
“I think this is waking up,” I said.
But we were already surging forward, the dream turning to a blur of ruined memory and absurdist giants. Meaning dropped away as pure subconscious took over.
We hit the Jan Zombie in the face with a hundred arms. Tenny let out a vreeeee! and joined me, grabbing flailing zombie limbs with her silken black tentacles.
“Heath! Heath! Heath!” she trilled
I don’t get it, Heather was saying. I don’t get what we learned. I mean, I think I do, but what does this have to do with—
“That’s why we have to wake up. Dreams never make sense until you wake up. At least, that’s how it always seems. Until you wake up.”
Moth-Tenny, standing next to me and grappling with Zombie Jan, opened her blunt-snout mouth to reveal row after row of dripping black teeth, pointed inward as if to stop prey escaping her gullet. We really needed to talk to Tenny about her self-image, sometime. Then again, if she was having fun, maybe this was fine. Maybe.
The Jan-Zombie struggled to free her wrists, kicking at Tenny until I held her legs in place.
Oh, this is grotesque, said Heather.
Lozzie said: “Sometimes dreams are like that. Hi, Heathy!”
Giant Moth Tenny closed her jaws around the zombie’s head. We closed our eyes and looked away. Meat sounds filled the air.
“Oh yes,” said Actual Jan, muffled by the weight of her helmet. “Because that’s really not traumatic to witness. That’s going to haunt my dreams. Thank you so much.”
Sorry, said Heather.
“Not your fault.” Jan sighed. “Can we end this now? Is this done?”
Lozzie giggled, and said, “Done!”
And then we all woke up.
Dreams sure are strange places, especially when they belong to things not even remotely human. Who was VB? A mystery for later, perhaps. At least Heather finally figured something out; perhaps this was the lesson she was meant to learn all along, though how exactly is she going to put it to good use? The waking world will have answers. Well, answers better than “have a kaiju fight”, at least. Hey, Tenny was enjoying that!
No patreon link this week, because it’s almost the end of the month! If you want to subscribe for more chapters, feel free to wait until the 1st. Meanwhile, I’d like to show you all one of the best pieces of Katalepsis fanfiction written so far: Steamed Praems. Ahem. Enjoy!
In the meantime, you can still:
Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!
This helps so much! A lot of readers still find the story through TWF! Only takes a couple of clicks to vote!
Thank you so much for reading my story! It’s all you readers out there who keep me going and remind me why I do this. Thank you!
Next week, it’s back to the waking world, the aftermath, the consequences; maybe Heather really has figured out something about brain-math, amid all this dream logic.
That was epic!
Thanks for the chapter!
Gosh, thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it! Yay!
Well that was a delightful twist! And I’m oh so curious about V.B, and if we’ll hear from her again or not.
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! V.B. is quite a mystery indeed, but rest assured that this is certainly not the last we’ll be seeing of her.
Big Tenny is best Tenny.
Big Tenny is amazing and I am so delighted she finally got to be large on screen!
VB = Vellitt Boe?
I replied to this over on patreon already, but – maybe! You’re the only reader so far to draw that specific connection.
So ever since the dream started we have been following the POV of one of Heather’s tentacles?
Also please let us find out who VB is, please.
There are already so many mysteries in this series that have yet to be revealed. I understand that is the nature of these kind of series, but I want to know so bad, hahaha.
Thank you for the chapter.
We have indeed! Heather’s tentacle was passing information back to her, via a heavily protected and many-gated collection of nerves. So! This was the result! I tried some very experimental writing here, glad it paid off.
VB! Indeed! A mysterious lady, to be sure, but this certainly is not the last we’ve seen of her, I can promise that. She’s a mystery for the future, but I promise she’ll be back.
And you are very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!
What puzzled me was how Lozzie kept saying “That’s not you!”
Actually that was bothering me as well. Did Lozzie not recognize that Tentacle Heather was not Original Heather? Is this weird dream logic?
Consider how Lozzie’s own perspective might work; we know that Lozzie is not human, that she sees and senses things which other people do not, that she ‘saw’ or ‘recognised’ Heather’s abyssal side waaaaay back. So when Bigger Heather peeked over “Heather’s” shoulder, Bigger Heather was just one piece, one fragment, of the whole Heather that Lozzie is used to seeing. Imagine if somebody you’re talking to had like, a disembodied version of their own face suddenly peer over their own shoulder, but without any facial features. That isn’t exactly what Lozzie saw, of course; what Lozzie sees may not be possible to render in human language. What she saw in that moment was a fragment of a person she knows, without the usual context of the rest of Heather. Lozzie calmed down once she figured it out. Lozzie is pretty good at that.
What Jan saw, of course, was likely completely different.
That makes sense. Thank you for replying.
You’re very welcome! And thanks for commenting in the first place!
So, Heather learned something about her tentacles, but the attempt to communicate directly with Squiddy seems to have been a failure.
I think this underlines that, as difficult the communication with Hringewindia is, he is actually well practised in communicating with humans, for an Outsider. And then there’s Sevens and her family, who appear to have some human ancestry, and have been observing and intervening in human affairs for centuries, but even they can only communicate in the form of masks. They are outliers. Squiddy is a whole other level of incomprehensible.
Very well summarised, indeed! Has ‘true’ communication actually happened here? It doesn’t seem that way. If Mister Squiddy was sent by Maisie, perhaps she’s changed so much that she can’t communicate this concept; that is certainly one of Heather’s fears about all this. However, she has learned something, even if it wasn’t the original intent.
No one punches Tenny in the face!
I think there’s 2 important lessons Heather can learn from this.
1) Her tentacles are her, they can manage themselves and she can offload maths to them, very cool.
2) A powerful dreamer can be near untouchable within a dream, even against a construct made of brain math.
I think the point of the dome is to teach these two lessons. It can’t be navigated without learning to manage brain maths better, and I think it acted as a “lure” for VB. What is the function of this mountain of math? I think it generated an image of VB’s “old flame”, to get her to show up exactly when needed.
Nobody hurts Tenns and gets away with it!
Lesson 1 is absolutely a boon for Heather! She’s learned something very important about herself, and potentially about her ability to distribute the effort of brain-math to her tentacles, her other ‘selves’/
Lesson 2 may not have been intentional, but it’s an important lesson all the same. In dreams, Lozzie is almost unstoppable, and it appears that VB is the same. Good thing both of them are friendly, at least …
Thank you! Really glad you enjoyed this.