Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.
That was Evelyn’s terminology; I had learned it from her lips. Human terminology, in English, a beautifully flawed and messy and often imprecise language, for something so far beyond human experience that no words could do it justice. Would German have done any better? Chinese? Dutch? I doubt that very much.
Evelyn had picked up the phrase from a pamphlet five decades old: Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology, by Professor Wilson Stout. The pamphlet was tucked away with my belongings, on the desk in my bedroom, of little use now that I’d come so far. According to Evelyn, Professor Stout had eventually gone missing under strange circumstances: vanished from inside a locked office. I suppose he thought about numbers too hard and decohered out of reality. Sometimes, in my lonelier and darker moments, when I thought back to how life might have been had I never met Raine in that greasy Sharrowford cafe, I wondered if that would have been my eventual fate. Vanished in a puff of smoke from inside a padded cell, after scrawling equations on the walls in my own blood.
Where was Professor Stout now? Languishing in Wonderland, rendered down into flayed nerves and stripped neurons under the Eye’s gaze? Maisie had never mentioned anybody else alongside her, locked in neighbouring cells, shut away in the Eye’s oubliette. But the sum total of our communication to date was: a single one-way message, written on a decade-old pajama top; one conversation carried out in the language of the abyss, in starlight and photons and magnetism and metaphor; a lighthouse pulse of awareness, a call to Lozzie to whisk me away from the Eye a second time; and now, finally, the contents of Mister Squiddy’s mind, a labyrinth of metal and meaning which I was incapable of understanding.
Was Maisie one of many, one among a vast house full of prison cells? Or was she a reverse chosen one, a sacrificial child, the only one alone in the echoing dark?
Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics: technical terminology for technical minds. Sanitised, sanitary, sane. It did sound like the kind of terminology a professor would invent. Words you could put on a research proposal. Words you could speak to an academic colleague. Words you could publish. Perhaps that’s why I’d never really liked the phrase. It didn’t even try to capture reality.
‘Brain-math’ wasn’t much better; I’d settled on that out of sheer convenience, not because I thought it was accurate. What did that even mean? Maths which one performs with one’s brain. Brain math. Maths, in the brain.
One plus one equals two. Two plus two is four. Four and four is eight. Three and five are prime numbers separated by a non-prime number. So are five and seven. And so on and so on, out to infinity.
Mathematics is true, in the brain or out of it. But adding one and one with greasy grey meat does not make two of anything — only of thoughts.
But it was not with my brain that I performed hyperdimensional mathematics. ‘Brain-math’ was not correct. Neither was ‘magic’, ‘magecraft’, ‘wizardry’, or any other human terminology one cared to use. Sometimes I groped for words as best I could — screaming hell-math, bloody-minded burning corrosion, toxic waste in my soul.
Terminology did not matter. No words could define and limit the universe, because none of this was meant for human minds and human hands and human eyes.
But I knew a secret.
It wasn’t really a secret, it just wasn’t spelled out in human words; it had taken me a long time to figure it out, to see what was right in front of me.
Hyperdimensional mathematics wasn’t meant for the Eye, either.
The Eye didn’t create any of this. It — he, she, they, who knows, not me, not yet — was merely a little bit more suited to the manipulation of reality than I was.
A little? Yes, that’s correct. Only a little. The distance between myself and the Eye was an infinitesimal blink compared to the distance between the Eye and the whole truth of hyperdimensional mathematics — the underlying principles of the universe itself.
We were like a canary and a vulture; both soaring, the canary infinitely lower than the vulture, but both of us dwarfed by the void of space beyond the false blue ceiling of the wide carnivorous sky.
If the Eye had truly mastered hyperdimensional mathematics, it would have been able to do anything. It could have reached across dimensions and plucked me from Number 12 Barnslow Drive without so much as a breath. It could have compacted all my friends into a single metaphorical entity and crammed them down my throat. It could have swallowed our world, observed every single piece, every person, every blade of grass, every atom, judged and weighed and regurgitated us in its own image. It could have unmade and remade all reality, all spheres, every dimension of Outside. It could have drained the abyss and left it an echoing infinite void, empty of life. It could have unmade everything, observed everything, known everything.
But it couldn’t. Because then it would be God, rather than merely a god.
Lucky for us, no?
The human mind was not designed for what I had been taught to do — and neither was the Eye. It had passed down to me its own set of tricks and techniques, bespoke and custom machinery for manipulating the substrate upon which reality was built. Why? Well, I didn’t know, not for sure. I didn’t seriously believe the Eye intended to torture me with otherworldly knowledge. Was I a chosen protege, a surrogate child, a beloved cuckoo, or a god-seed planted in fertile soil? It didn’t matter. Whatever purpose, the Eye had given me what it thought I needed. But the Eye wasn’t perfect. Neither was the machinery it had built.
Did the Eye feel pain when it performed hyperdimensional mathematics? I’d never considered that before.
Whenever I plunged my hands into the ocean of black oil pooled in the bottom of my soul, when I dredged up those lessons and pulled on those greasy, dripping, burning levers, I was not touching reality itself. I was using the tools I had been handed.
And the Eye had taught me to use both hands, two hands.
But now we had eight.
My bioreactor, still sitting hard and knotted and bruised in my gut, could not draw on truly infinite power, even when pink and healthy and thrumming away in perfect harmony. Eight hands were not a thousand, whatever poetic miracles the dream had summoned to aid me. But the power of the abyss pulled through a plastic straw of acids and enzymes was better than the unmodified furnace of the human body.
And eight was six more than two. How’s that for some mathematics?
In that frozen split-second of brain-math operation, in the wake of the dream and meeting myself face-to-face — or face to tentacle-tip, as it were — sitting on my bed surrounded by my friends, my found family, and at least two of my lovers, with the room bathed in rain-ripped sunset orange, I wrestled and struggled and pulled and hauled and got myself coated in stinking toxic black ooze, burning my eyes and face and eating through the flesh of my fingers and—
And I dredged up a fragment of the Eye’s vast machine, up and out of the black swamp of my soul.
My teacher’s greatest folly was giving me a machine meant for a million manipulators when I had only two. Eight hands were not enough either, not to control the whole thing, not even to keep it surfaced for more than a few seconds, before it sunk back down into the oily black depths, bubbling and hissing, burbling with the whirring secrets of all the hidden, drowned, lower parts of the god-machine.
But eight hands was enough to re-orient some cogs, to rip out old cables and string a few of my own, to clean the levers and dials and knobs — and coat them in a protective sheathe of biological grease.
Eight hands made light work of an impossible burden on two.
This is all metaphor, of course. There was no machine, no black swamp, no levers, no hands, no grease, no toxins. The Eye’s lessons were pure mathematics, interacting with a deeper level of mathematics which neither myself nor the Eye could touch directly, not without burning our souls to a cinder of charred consciousness.
“Like a programming language and a compiler, to interact with binary.”
That’s what Felicity said to me later, when I tried to explain what the experience had felt like. I had no idea what that meant. She’d been absolutely fascinated, made lots of notes, then had to apologise to a very angry Evelyn. Evee had snapped something about how the universe is not a computer program, that reality is not code. I’d agreed with her, as best I could; all of this was a metaphor. The map is not the territory.
This was merely the closest I could approach with human language, the best words I could find — later — to explain myself to Evelyn and Raine, to splutter through a mouth full of bile and a nose full of blood, to tell them why it didn’t hurt as much anymore! It burned my mind and rocked my stomach and made my tentacles coil and ache like they’d hauled me on a marathon, but it hurt so much less than before! The pain was bearable! And if the pain was bearable — then watch what I could do. Watch me.
The first thing I did with that modified and corrected machinery — modified for eight hands, by seven of us, with six little helpers — was reach down into my abdomen and fix my bioreactor.
That was the point of all this in the first place, wasn’t it?
Out in reality, less than a second had passed. Evelyn was finishing her sentence: “—until we understand what happened—”
Expressed in the language of hyperdimensional mathematics, the trilobe bioreactor in my abdomen was a thing of terrifying beauty. An interlocking machine in its own right, abusing biology and chemistry to achieve an effect that had no place inside a human body, using friction and fluids and muscles and metals and timing and tension to synthesize a pinprick connection to the energies of the abyss.
Messing with that was like opening up the containment torus of a fusion reactor, hoping not to get blown apart in the process. That was beyond me, even then, even with my rapidly increasing competence. That was for abyssal biology alone, not conscious tinkering. That would have turned our victorious little bedside gathering from an orange sunlight-wash to a blood red explosion of my guts all over the walls.
But the flesh. The flesh! The flesh was mutable, and I had eaten a lot of lemons, a lot of fish, a lot of soy sauce, a lot of proteins and grease and tight-packed lipids. I had everything I needed.
Muscle and membrane and tendon and tissue peeled back under the gaze of hyperdimensional mathematics – my gaze, my eyes, my observation seeing through cell wall and mitochondria and DNA. I crammed the fibres with protein and shored up the structures with stem cells and wrapped the whole lot with protective layers of fat and ablative meat and capillary-dense mats of throbbing flesh.
Out in reality, my right flank flared like a fragment of star embedded in my flesh.
Apparently I screamed — according to literally everybody else in the room, and several people in other rooms. So, I must have done. Only the action of the bioreactor itself saved me from burning a hole in my side or cooking my mundane organs or just denaturing half the enzymes I required for homoeostasis; it roared to life, booting up, control rods jerking free as it pumped our body full of things that had no place in a human circulatory system. But then again, we weren’t really human any more.
Homo-stasis, don’t wanna break that, Raine quipped later, mirroring the way I smiled at her, manic and panting through a mask of blood all over my face. I think she smiled half from panic — but half from the living proof that I had broken the mathematical ceiling.
I may not have heard myself scream; but I did hear myself choke.
With the first equation complete, we surfaced from the mathematics with a wheezing gurgle. Snorting and spluttering, blood running down my face from a terrible nosebleed, clothes glued to my skin by a sudden flash-sweat, tentacles coiled and aching each in their own way, head throbbing, gut churning.
But so much less pain.
“Whoa, whoa, nobody touch her—”
“Holy shit, is that glowing!?”
“She’s always glowed, this is nothing new. I mean, not exactly—”
“Yellow! Sevens! Get in there and stop her, before she does herself an injury—”
“She knows what she’s doing, Evee. Let the girl cook.”
“How can you trust that?! Raine, she’s sweating blood! She looks like she has fucking ebola!”
“Tenns no! Evee-wevee, she’s fine! I think!”
“I can’t do anything. It’s up to her.”
“Big H’s never fucked up bad before. She won’t hurt herself. Right? Right?”
“Wrong! Somebody stop her, stop her doing this, this is mad—”
I breathed, ripping my own windpipe back open with an audible slurrrp of meat. We — my tentacles and I — had briefly become a conduit for pure mathematics, forgetting our shared reality as a thing of meat and muscle, forgetting how to breathe. But Praem knew what we were doing. Praem had come up from the abyss too, hadn’t she?
“Heather, Heather. Heather!”
Brain-math always hurt, always burned, was always like handling molten pucks and rods of glowing-hot steel with my grey matter, turning me into a bubbling mass of melted flesh. All the way back to the very first time I did this on purpose, the first intentional calculation I ever performed, brain-math had drawn vomit from my throat and forced icepicks through my skull. I hated it.
And oh, it hurt still, it did hurt. The human body was not meant for this — but neither was the Eye. It didn’t matter how far I wandered from my human origins, how many extra tentacles we became, how many parts we added or modified or adjusted, how far we changed into an instrument of what we had been in the abyss, it would still always hurt.
But now we could all pull in the same direction. Now, the pain was distributed. Now, I had help.
My tentacles ached like they’d been run through a clothes press, twitching and throbbing, muscles complaining. My head pounded like I’d been brained with a frying pain, by Zheng. My eyes stung and burned and filled with pink froth. But I didn’t vomit. I didn’t double over and struggle to stay conscious. I rode the pain upward, pulling my tentacles with me, teaching them all the little tricks I’d learned to soothe the burning in their own distributed neurons, to salve the pain in our shared nervous system and get ready to—
Raine’s voice was like a whipcrack. That familiar tone sent a jerk through all seven of us, more important than any level of pain. I could have been gut-shot and bleeding to death and I would have responded like a puppy to that voice, that tone, that firm hand on the back of my brain.
We turned to her: an outline of bronze and chestnut brown glowing in the dying sunset, blurred by bloody tears and my own panting breath. Somehow, despite my obstructed vision, I could still see Raine, see too much of her, the angles of her body reflecting upward upon the surfaces of my mind.
“Raine!” I said, elated.
For just a moment, Raine could not respond. At the time I didn’t understand why; only later on did I discover that I was sweating blood into my own clothes and grinning like a maniac.
Everyone was shouting suggestions, telling everybody else to stop me, whatever I was doing, or calling out to me like I was a distant swimmer racing away from shore.
But Raine just took a breath, steadied herself in a way I’d never seen before, and said: “Heather, do you know what you’re doing?”
It wasn’t a rhetorical question. She was just checking if I needed help.
I nodded. I did! I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I had help, I had so much help, all right there alongside me.
“Second part!” I croaked through a throat glazed with my own blood. “Here I go!”
Me and six other Heathers hauled ourselves to the lip of the marine trench that was the abyss, and stuck all our hands into the Eye’s machinery, and pulled one more time.
I had to find Edward’s house.
And I had to do it then, right then, because a tiny voice in the back of my head was speaking low and level sense, barely concealing her panic and worry; was that one of my tentacles or just an aspect of me I didn’t listen to enough these days — or just a metaphor becoming reality as I slipped between the waves of starlight and photons and subjective meaning?
That tiny voice in the back of my head, Cautious Heather, Sensible Heather, Good-Girl Heather, she knew that once this ride was over, I was going to be out. Pain was distributed and my bioreactor was running hot as a steam engine, but none of us — not me, not Lozzie, not the Eye — were truly built for hyperdimensional mathematics.
We could do more now, more easily than before, but we were screaming toward our limit like a ballistic missile without any guidance.
Edward Lilburne’s house, then; what was the easiest method?
Normally such a question would have taken minutes of thinking out in reality. Probably a bit of pacing up and down or wiggling one leg until I hit upon a good method. I’d had lots of good methods in the past, hadn’t I? Trying to define the entire space between Manchester and Sharrowford, sectioning and separating it until we found what we were looking for. But what personal connection did I have to that landscape? What questions could I ask it, in the language of mathematics, which would make any sense? I could barely speak with the house we lived in, let alone the open countryside. The map was not the territory.
But I could use an anchor, a reference point.
And Zheng was still out in the woods.
I knew Zheng, every little part of her body, her glistening red-brown skin and muscles like steel cables, her thatch of dark hair and sharp-cornered eyes, her maw of shark-teeth and the shape of her smile, the spiced scent of her sweat, the rumble of her voice inside her chest. I span her up in effigy, in miniature, described in heaven’s language of three-five-seven.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when I described it to Evelyn later, she said I was doing magic.
No, I told her, very sore and very tired and not sure if I was concussed. I was doing maths. It was just brain-math.
That’s what I said.
Zheng in effigy, tiny but precise, sent spinning across the landscape with me at her heels, to join the real thing, the definite article, miles and miles distant from the house.
Defined in the infinite limitations of hyperdimensional mathematics, Zheng was beautiful: grey-scaled and sharp all over, a shark of the deepest waters, built for tearing apart little squid like me.
Zheng, seven feet tall and wrapped in her long coat, boots cushioned by the springy loam of the woods. Sunset hid beyond the treetops, light a ghostlike memory between the trunks. My shark, hidden in shadows, radiating cold thoughts, slow thoughts, hunter’s thoughts which ebbed low to match her prey.
She looked over her shoulder when I passed, as if she’d heard something in the woods behind: a snapping twig, an unwary footfall. I tried to tell her that it was just me, but that would have terrified even Zheng.
Then I catalogued everywhere she had stepped and everywhere she had not stepped. I unravelled the history of her boots in mathematical perfection. Spinning out across the countryside, across the rolling hills and little dales, up to Stockport and down to Sharrowford, over to Brinkwood and the Pennines and—
Out in reality I was bleeding through my skin. Bleeding too much.
According to Raine’s detailed explanation later on, I was sweating blood from my armpits, the insides of my elbows, all down my chest and back, my groin, the rears of my knees, and around my fingernails and toenails — not to mention my scalp, my nosebleed, and the frothy pinkish tears in my eyes. Good thing I’d stripped off my t-shirt and my beloved hoodie. The butcher’s bill, by the time this was all over — twenty one seconds of real time — I had ruined one bra, one pair of underwear, my pajama bottoms, and one bed sheet. Could have been worse. In the reified astral projection of active hyperdimensional mathematics, I had no idea that was happening.
But my body knew I was losing blood. Growing weaker. I was yet to take the most important, final step, and I could not afford to flounder.
My trilobe bioreactor presented a novel solution, the kind of solution only a living miracle would think of.
Make more blood!
Re-purposing enzymes and shifting membranes and flooding fluid sacs, in an instant the bioreactor gave over a portion of itself to imitate bone marrow, speed-growing and nurturing and ejecting red blood cells, platelets, and macrophages, flooding me with fresh claret, replacing what I was losing.
Hotter and hotter the reactor ran, flushing my flank with heat; I was sweating buckets, dumping more fluid, more heat — more blood. I didn’t know it, poised as I was over a mathematical map of the landscape Zheng had trodden, but out in reality my body had entered a positive feedback loop. A fever with no upper limit.
Upon reflection, I don’t think I would actually have hurt myself; my reactor, my tentacles, my abyssal side, they would have all worked together to realise what was going wrong. I would have been okay. I wouldn’t have given myself brain damage or organ damage. But I probably would have crashed out of the brain-math. It would have taken days to recover — days we might not have. And I had promised no self-sacrifice; I was riding higher than I ever had, unaware of the potential damage, but if I crashed out, aching and bleeding and in need of a week’s recovery? I could not have pushed on. I would have to keep my promise.
Lozzie came to the rescue. She, of all people present in that room, understood bodies better than anyone.
She leapt up from where she’d been crouched on the bed, next to me. She ignored everybody else shouting and panicking. She grabbed Praem by the wrist and said, “Water!”
A few seconds later they had us off the bed and in the bathtub, tentacles lashing under the cold spray of the shower head. That’s how Praem’s nice blue jumper got blood all down the front, and why Raine had to throw away one of her tank tops. Lozzie helped too, apparently, but her poncho was spotless the next time we saw it.
I witnessed none of this, of course. Myself and all six of my tentacles were wrist-and-eyeball deep in hyperdimensional mathematics.
In the end, the logic was very simple: take all the ground between Sharrowford and Stockport; trace where Zheng had been and where she had not been; then, find the gap. Find the missing piece. Stare down into the void where a house hides.
But I wasn’t looking at an image on Google Maps, or the cross-hatching illustration of a ordnance survey, or a glossy estate agent photograph of a mansion in the woods. I was looking at slices of the mathematical substrate which defines reality itself.
What does a house look like, mathematically speaking? I had no idea.
At that exact non-second of realisation, that moment where I came up against an obstacle for which I was unprepared, I felt a presence at my back. Peering over my shoulder. Offering a suggestion.
It wasn’t a tentacle; they were at my front, helping me, distributing the effort.
It was like nothing I had ever experienced. Slow, solid, still, with its own mathematical rules and systems and interior reflections.
We knew what a house looked like. Yes we did.
And there it was, tucked away in a gap that Zheng had passed on all sixteen sides. Sixteen sides? We didn’t have time to think about that. Wedged deep in a scrap of long woodland, far from the main roads, down a rotting ribbon of water-damaged, fifty-year-old asphalt, was a house.
Red bricks and brown bricks and thick, weather-proofed beams; tiny latticed windows with glass older than the trees; the roof a slate slope, leading to ancient gutters and draping the building in shadow; a squat and crooked construct from another age, another place, another form of life, sprouted from the ground like a mushroom amid rot, but without any of the healthy terrestrial identity of a humble fungal cup. The presence peering over my shoulder did not like it; the presence left, retreating in the way only a thing that never moves can leave a busy, whirring biological lady to her scrying business.
Woods all around, tall and dark and leafless until the canopy itself. Sunset a ghosting memory between thick, summer-fat leaves. A perimeter wall which was not a wall, but the memory of a wall, full of holes and fallen sections. A gravel driveway, so badly in need of replenishment that it was halfway to a dirt road. A back garden, rambling and wild and turning to forest at the edges. In the front stood a dry fountain, all dust and fallen leaves about the feet of a grey stone statue of a naked woman. Two cars in the gravel front: one expensive range rover, dirty with mud and hand prints, stinking of corpses and pain and confinement; the other was a low and anonymous black machine, many-seated, clean, spotless both inside and out, with spaces where weapons once lay. This second car was not a permanent resident. Somehow I knew, somehow I could see the tracery of its history in mathematical precision.
The range rover hadn’t moved in three years. It belonged to Edward Lilburne.
The house, the location, the positive identification — I took a split-second of thought to place them properly, to fix them in place, to place them to place, so that I would not be confused upon completion of the work.
We withdrew, sliding back past Zheng. She was a mere five miles from the house, now striding through the dark of the woods — towards the secret I had finally uncovered.
“No! Zheng! Come back! Wait for the rest of us!”
I tried to speak words, but words are not maths, or if they are then they are the mathematics of the human mind. In the deep woodland gloom I saw Zheng pause and glance over her shoulder. Her sharp-edged face pinched into a frown.
But then she turned and strode on, and I could not stop her.
Unwinding, unravelling, surfacing from the ocean between realities like a beaching whale — I opened my eyes, gasping and spluttering and flailing in the bathtub, back in Number 12 Barnslow Drive.
Water was running down us, soaking bloodstained clothes, shockingly cold; the bioreactor spooled down instantly, killing the heat, leaving me a suddenly shivering, tooth-chattering mess. Raine was cradling my head in her lap, cross-legged in the tub beneath us. We gripped the bathtub sides with six tentacles, ourselves soaked in blood-sweat. Lozzie was hugging one to her chest, smears of me all down her poncho. The others crowded behind, peering at me in the tub, rushing about in panic. Evelyn was shouting orders, something about fetching ice, calling Jan back, arguing magical biology with Felicity in tones of rising panic.
“Heather!” Raine said. She looked up. “She’s awake! She’s back!”
“She’s back!” Twil shouted.
Everyone was so worried. I was covered in a sticky film of my own blood and frozen to the bone. But we smiled. Oh, we smiled. We all smiled in panting, ecstatic victory.
“Call—” I gurgled, then coughed out a mouthful of blood. “Call Zheng. Call back.”
“Found house. Call Zheng. Call off.”
Evelyn pushed past Lozzie and Praem, walking stick banging against the side of the bathtub. Her eyes were blazing with anger and fear, golden blonde hair in disarray.
“You promised, Heather!” she thundered down at me. “You promised not—”
“I found the house!”
“You promised no more bloody self-sacrifice!”
“It barely hurts,” I said. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face, wide and joyous and with my own blood smeared on my teeth. “I can do it! We can do! Brain-math doesn’t hurt so much anymore!”
All tentacles rose up, as if to show how little we ached. We were trying to show Evelyn that we were okay, that we had conquered this tiny portion of the Eye’s lessons, at long last.
She just sighed. “Bleeding through your skin is not much of an improvement. Are you done?”
I just smiled to myself, to her, up at Raine — upside down above my face, right-ways from the sides, straight-on from tentacle tip pointed at her face. This was the greatest piece of hyperdimensional mathematics I had ever performed. And it barely hurt at all.
“Call Zheng!” I croaked. “Now. Promise. Raine.”
Raine nodded. “I’ll call her back. I promise. Heather, breathe, come on, just breath—”
“Now.” Raine looked away, up at somebody beyond the bathtub, beyond my line of sight. She said something about getting her phone, asked somebody to fetch it.
We sighed in relief. Tentacles relaxed. I relaxed.
But I was still me. Six more of me, yes, but we were still us. And sometimes that meant we were seven little fools, instead of just one.
With my task complete, and Zheng being called back from a potentially disastrous solo assault, my bioreactor fell into post-crisis dormancy, sliding control rods back into their biochemical channels, closing valves and ducts, flushing out imitation bone-marrow.
And I — we, all seven of us — passed all the way out.
“I do want to make one thing very clear: this isn’t what I normally do, returning to the scene of the crime like this. Though, ah, I wasn’t responsible for any of that mess, I hope you know that. Frankly I don’t even understand what I witnessed back there. And I suppose this isn’t where it happened, either. Goodness, that’s a lousy turn of phrase I decided to use, wasn’t it? Ah, never mind. Point is, I don’t generally make a habit of sitting down for tea with large and dangerous beings who I’ve met inside unknown dreams. I hope this isn’t the start of a new trend; I suspect I wouldn’t last very long if I make this a regular thing.”
V.B. let out a big sigh — a real old woman sigh, heavy with the weight of age and experience.
She leaned back in her chair — which was made of strange white metal sculpted into a delicate filigree that couldn’t possibly have held her weight in the waking world. She lifted her dainty little teacup to her lips, took a sip, and gazed out across the sparkling marble city below our teatime terrace.
We blinked several times as the dream settled on us, fighting for lucidity and focus. Tentacles gripped our own chair, the edge of the matching white-metal table, and reached down to touch the cool marble flagstones beneath our feet; tactile sensation anchored the dream, kept us here, kept us real.
“I’m not dangerous,” we said, automatically following the conversation, still groping for presence.
Miss V.B. lowered her teacup and raised her eyebrows at us. “Oh, I think you are. What you mean to say is you’re not hostile. You don’t wish me any harm. That goes without saying. I wouldn’t have invited you for a quick cup of tea otherwise. I would have run off, or set some Zoogs on you, though no doubt you would have skinned and eaten the poor things regardless.” She smiled, a crinkle in her crows-feet eyes and around that kind mouth. “No, I understand what you mean, ‘Heather’.”
“Heather’s our name. Stop putting quotes around it.”
V.B. nodded graciously. “My apologies. It is … difficult. Heather is such a human name.”
“I am human,” we said.
VeeBee nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, you do look a little different now. Though … human is a stretch, but I won’t argue. Your accent is unmistakable though, that much is impossible to fake. I know you British are very exacting about your tea. I hope it meets with your approval? I was a little confused about adding the drops of lemon juice, but there you are.”
She gestured toward a second little teacup, sitting on the table in front of me, cradled in a saucer with golden trim around the edge.
“More of a coffee drinker,” we said. I screwed my eyes up tight, trying to hold onto my senses.
“Really, now? Things have changed since I last waked, I suppose.” V.B. sighed again. “So, Heather, as I was saying, I don’t make a habit of this, but I—”
“Stop it,” we hissed. “Stop. Let me … let me … ”
Keeping my eyes screwed up tight was not helping; I flung them wide instead, filtering the dream through seven different sets of neurons.
Miss V.B. and I were sat at a little metal table with matching metal chairs, spun from sugar glass and cobwebs. The table and chairs stood in the middle of a wide marble-floored terrace, which was set on a hillside draped with deep, dripping, rainforest greenery, thick and verdant, buzzing with hidden insect life under the beating sun. White-fluted columns stood at seemingly random intervals around the edge of the terrace, as if this had once been some kind of temple, now ruined amid the jungle. Marble pathways led off both up and down the hillside, meeting other terraces and walkways and long flights of sweeping stairs, half buried by overgrowth here and there, sometimes clean and clear, obscured here, shining there, a great jumble of fallen beauty.
At the foot of the hills was a city built from the same white marble, filling a wide estuary until the land met the sea. Nothing moved in the empty sun-baked streets but a few stray dogs, the occasional bird, and the salt from the ocean. The sea was flat and still. A dark lump moved on the horizon.
“This isn’t … this isn’t the Squiddy dream,” I said. “Where is this?”
“Oh,” said V.B. “An old place, that’s all. A nice quiet place for a friendly chat. Doesn’t mean much to anybody still around. Nobody to bother us, at least for five minutes.” She cleared her throat, awkwardly. “It had a name, once, but I’d rather not share.”
V.B. herself looked no different to how she had appeared in Mister Squiddy’s dream — old and lined but full of vigour and energy, eyes like smirking storm clouds, dressed in sensible trousers and a padded vest, for hiking. Her loose bun of grey hair, streaked through with red, seemed much brighter in the dream-sunlight, rather than stuck in the false brass illumination of the dome of perfect mathematics.
Her backpack sat on the marble floor, comfortably beyond arm’s reach. Her hiking stick lay against it.
“You’re doing what Lozzie does,” we said. All my tentacles raised slowly in a posture of subconscious menace. “This is a dream. Your dream. Or Outside. You’ve hijacked my natural dreams and brought me here. You—”
“Excuse me!” V.B. set down her teacup and raised a hand. I noticed her fingers were shaking. “Hijacking? I extended you a private invitation and you accepted it. Yes? Yes? Please, you’re free to leave, if you’ve changed your mind.” She gestured up the hillside, along the rambling pathways and terraces.
My tentacles dipped again. This old woman, this experienced dreamer, she was terrified of me. We nodded slowly, swallowed, and looked down at our own cup of tea. Milky, warm brown, steaming gently.
“I don’t think I can drink this,” we said.
“You’re under no obligation to do so.” V.B. sighed, glancing along the hillside. “A pity, but it doesn’t look like we have more than five minutes to talk, anyway. You’ve got some very dedicated and powerful friends, Heather.” She nodded past me. “And I’d rather not meet them, I’m afraid to say. I wouldn’t want to wake up, after all.”
I twisted in my chair, or perhaps the dream twisted around us, or perhaps I merely pointed some of my tentacles behind me, or perhaps they did that themselves.
A glint of deep yellow and a pentacolour pastel bloom were flittering and fluttering amid the marble maze along the hillside.
“Oh,” I said. “Lozzie, and Sevens. They won’t—”
“Ah-ah-ah,” V.B. tutted. “Heather, you really must learn to stop sharing real names in dreams. It’s frightfully dangerous. You’re lucky that I’m just a passing rambler instead of a queen or a god. Or worse. Conceal your friends’ names, please.”
We turned back to her with a huff. “My friends won’t hurt you.”
V.B. shrugged, shoulders thin and old beneath her padded vest. “Be that as it may, we only have a few minutes.” Her eyes roved us, up and down each tentacle. “And you are very … complicated.”
“There’s seven of us.”
“Yes, well. That answers … nothing, really.” V.B sat up straighter. “Heather, as I was saying, I don’t make a habit of this, but I’m making an exception for you.”
“Why? What do you want to talk about?”
Vee sighed and pulled a sad smile. Her lined old face was inherently trustworthy, but something curdled inside my chest. “Honestly?” she said. “You looked like you needed help. And, damn me for an old fool, you remind me of myself at your age. Oh, well, no, that’s a lie. You remind me of one of my granddaughters, when she was your age. When I was your age I was chasing some fool poet, my head full of academia and romance, my first dream still twenty years distant. You deserve better than fumbling in the dark, that’s why I returned.”
“We’re okay now,” we said. “Well, mostly. In the dream — the other dream, with the metal and the dome and the giants — we were having a bit of a crisis.”
Vee’s smile turned indulgent. “Yes, I could see that much. And you’re feeling better now? All better, hm?”
I could detect the hint of sarcasm in her voice, like a surprise chilli pepper in the middle of a doughnut. I frowned and said, “We’ve found ourselves.”
Vee’s eyebrows shot up. “Really now? Have you?”
“Really. What are you insinuating?” I tutted. “I don’t have time for this. I was in the middle of … being … hosed down with cold water?”
V.B. politely ignored the implications of that. “I thought I found myself five times before I really did. The first time was about your age, Heather. But the real discoveries didn’t come until my forties. And that was only a beginning, though it looked a bit like an end at first. We never stop growing, even at my age.” She nodded across the table, toward me. “You seem to have done a lot of growing, very rapidly. That can be very dangerous. Especially in dreams.”
“We can’t slow down,” we told her.
“You’ll have to, sooner or later, or you’ll burn out.” V.B.’s eyes crinkled with sudden sympathy; she knew that pain. “Whatever changes you’ve been going through — and I won’t pretend to know them — you have to stop and think, sooner or later. You need to sit, with yourself, alone, or perhaps with a loved one, and … have a think. Several thinks, probably.”
“There’s no time for thinking. I’m on a rescue mission. My twin sister.” I sighed sharply. “She’s on a time limit. This all has to happen.”
V.B. pulled a pained smile of mingled sympathy and concern. “Perhaps it does have to happen, then. But still—”
“Why are you telling me this?” we demanded. “It’s one thing for my friends to tell me to look after myself, but you, I don’t know you. You’re acting like it’s your place to give me … grandmotherly advice?”
V.B. sighed and glanced over my shoulder. Lozzie and Sevens were closer now, two shades filtering through the overgrown marble. “Well, yes,” V.B. said. “I’m trying. Heather, somebody like you, blundering around in dreams — or in the waking world? gosh — you could do an awful lot of damage. To yourself, to others, to places. And we’ve met. You recall me now. That can’t be taken back. So it’s in my best interests, entirely selfish and all that — to do what I can to tell you it’s going to be alright, to get you to slow down just a little. So maybe if you get any bigger, you’ll remember that kindness. Remember that some old woman you passed in dream, she was a person too.” V.B. smiled, but I could see the terror of duty behind her crinkled old eyes.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly embarrassed, blushing. All my tentacles flushed pink. “I’m not trying to become a god. I’m not. I only care about rescuing my sister, I’m not trying to … I don’t know, ‘ascend’, or anything like that. I’m not dangerous.”
V.B. nodded in a way I hated, acknowledgement without belief. “Very well, Heather. But, will you grant an old lady a single indulgence before she has to leave?”
“I’m not a god!”
“Yes, you’re not. But I’m curious. What are you going to do next, when you wake up?”
“Kill a mage.”
V.B. froze, swallowed her surprise, and nodded. “Ah. Well then. Really?”
“Yes. Well, first I’ll have to get used to the tentacles, and probably we’ll make a plan, and—”
“Well! This has been very nice, but I really should get going. Best of luck, Heather. Try to remember what I said; take a break, eventually.” V.B. tapped the table top, scooted her chair back, and stood up.
Which revealed what she’d been hiding this whole time.
Behind her on the marble floor of the terrace, lying in an untidy pile, glinting in the beating, unreal sunlight, was Jan’s suit of armour. The goat-head helmet was unmistakable. The tabard with the trio of broken crowns and the winding dragon was laid out across the jumble of metal, as if somebody had been inspecting the design.
I shot to my feet, which made V.B. stumble as she stood up. We didn’t want to actually hurt an old lady, certainly not by shocking her into falling over, so we reached out with three tentacles to steady her.
V.B. swallowed a scream. We withdrew once she was standing safely. Sweating, wide-eyed, pale, she nodded a thanks and forced a smile, then stepped quickly toward her hiking stick and backpack.
“Wait!” I said. “That armour, that was from the dream — the other dream, I mean! You took it off Jan? You said you don’t know her, but—”
V.B. hauled her pack on her back with all the strength of a woman fifty years younger, without the slightest hint of a stumble in her step. Her hiking stick jumped into both hands. She turned to face me, a twinkle in her eyes.
“I didn’t,” she said. “But I suspect ‘Jan Martense’ is not a real name, at least not in a dream. I suppose I’ll find out in good time, if she’s got any courage in her—”
“You leave her alone,” we said. “She’s one of us. Sort of.”
“I doubt that very much.”
We reached toward V.B. more out of instinct than intent, but she tilted her hiking stick with full knowledge that she could repel us with ease. She took a step back, toward the opposite exit from the marbled terrace.
“Good luck with your twin sister, Heather,” she said — and she meant it too. “I best be gone before your friends arrive. Put in a good word for me, will you?”
“How do you know Jan?” I said.
But V.B. turned and stepped off the terrace, down a flight of white steps, descending out of sight. With the kind of logic that only makes sense in a dream, I knew we couldn’t follow her.
Lozzie and Sevens burst onto the terrace a moment later. But we caught them both in our many hands, giving them both a hug. There was no sense following one who had already left.
And we had more pressing concerns to attend than an old dreamer, back in the waking world, back together at last.
Edward’s house: located. Tentacle-neuron coils: online. Evelyn: very worried. Dreams: still wacky. VB: ?????
Heather’s been through a lot here. And you know what? So has the story! I’m very glad this extended dream sequence and associated consequences worked out well, it was a big narrative and stylistic gamble and I’m so happy with where it went. I probably could have split arc 19 into two though, things were getting a little unwieldy for a while there. Still! Now the spookycule has everything they need, to murder a wizard. Zheng will be happy about that.
And we’re back! My apologies for the 1-week break in chapters, everyone. I’m much better now and back to writing!
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Next week, it’s onto arc 20! Mage war preparations are underway. But Heather’s got a lot to deal with too, a lot to get used to. Perhaps she’ll have five minutes to breathe before events catch up with her.
Where’s Amy? Amy Stack who, if I remember right, is about 6’6 with metal piercings in her ears, a tattoo on her neck, and has a shaved head. Also said to have affectless eyes. And I’ve been wondering about this one part: what is the color of everyone’s irises? From how Amy’s are portrayed, it makes me think they’re black, and I think it’d be very fitting. And what would her hair color be if she grew it out? Will she be appearing soon? Is it bad that I kind of miss the woman? And how’s little Will (Amy’s boy)? Has Amy ever smiled before? With how her personality is, I’d say it’s just about never, at least in her adult years. Is it possible to know how she became an assassin/mercenary? Was she always a psychopath? How old is everyone right now (including Stack, Will, and the father)? And how’s the little girl Heather and the other’s saved?
Also, thanks for the chapter and I’m very happy you’re back!
The last we saw of Amy Stack was when Raine called her before the big spell at Geerswin Farm; she put the phone down without saying anything, but she’s probably still out there, hunting Edward in her own way.
Stack has grey eyes! If she grew her hair out it would be a deep, rich brown.
As for her appearing soon, don’t worry, she’s around! She has very specific plans of her own, and I’m sure she’ll be intersecting with the main cast soon enough.
It’s not bad that you miss her! I really like Stack, too. She’s actually one of my favourite character and possibly in consideration for a POV of her own, sometime …
Evee is keeping tabs on her boy, in case of Edward, so we can be sure he’s doing fine. Amy smiling? I’m sure it’s happened! As for finding out how she became a merc, sure, I suspect we’ll find out more of her backstory sometime. Was she always this way? Probably. One doesn’t go into clandestine/illegal special forces if one doesn’t have at least a bit of a taste for murder.
Stack and Shuja are in their mid-to-late 30s. Will is quite young, maybe … 8 or 9.
Heather hasn’t had a chance to contact Natalie again yet, but she will eventually. She’s probably doing fine for now!
And you are very welcome for the chapter! Glad you enjoyed it! Good to be back, thank you so much.
Amy is definitely a favorite character of mine (or THE favorite here), and I’m glad she seems to be a favorite for you, too! I also hope to see from Amy’s point of view in the future. Is it possible to get any artwork of the characters in the future? The fact that Will is so young but was patient and so still during the twenty minutes Evee did her thing is definitely impressive and rare. I’ve also been curious how Amy and Will interact with each other.
There’s a ton of artwork of various characters over on the fanart page, if you haven’t seen that already! I don’t think anybody has drawn Amy Stack yet, sadly, but there’s plenty of others. I’d love to commission some more ‘official’ artwork of the various characters sometime.
Will is a very serious little boy, yes. Very strong, very smart. We might see more of Stack and him in the future, perhaps.
This dream sequence was interesting and well done. Nice job Author.
……Everyone gots secrets……will they be revealed, hopefully.
Glad to see you back Author and thank you for the chapter.
Thank you very much! I’m really happy with how all these dream sequences turned out in the end, they were a lot of fun to write.
Many secrets! And yes, in the future, I’m sure we will learn all about them.
It’s good to be back! Thank you! And you are very welcome, glad you enjoyed the chapter too.
Thank you for replying.
You’re always very welcome!
Love it. Yay stronger Squid Girl! Yay Heathers!
Yay! Thank you! Glad you enjoyed this chapter! Heather got seriously stronger here, yes. A big and important leap.
Such an amazing chapter! Lots going on for Heather, and Eddie boy has been located!
Thanks for the chapter!
You’re very welcome indeed! Really glad you enjoyed this one! Thank you! And yes, Heather finally takes several big steps, and Edward is now within her sights. It’s only a matter of time now.
“you passed in dream”
in A dream
Oop, thank you for spotting that error! Well spotted, I appreciate it.
Well this was a fun chapter, Heather should take a break but like just push it to the next year, honestly what could go wrong
Also lots of math!
Thank you very much indeed! Glad you enjoyed this one! Heather really does need a break, indeed. They all do, kinda. But they have to keep going. Big risk of burnout, never good, especially for mages and monsters.
But math helps, yes!
Very fun chapter!
And I think VB is quite right to be concerned. Heather is growing rapidly, and even if she meets her goal, who’s to say she won’t find a new one that requires more growth.
In fact, I just went back and re-read the stinger at the end of chapter 1, and it sure sounds like her concerns will be justified!
Thank you very much! Delighted you enjoyed it!
VB has a point, yes. Heather is rapidly expanding beyond human limits. It’s good, she’s made something good of it, and heart is in the right place, but … where’s the limit? Is there one? Would she cross it, to save Maisie?