Discussion of DID/plurality
One reference to suicide
“So, Heather — what does it feel like?”
Raine purred the question, allowing it freedom to hang in the cool air of the kitchen. The breath of her words swirled tiny dust particles caught in the thick beam of honey-rich, midsummer sunlight pouring in through the window. That sunlight caught the condensation on a glass of orange juice at my elbow, picked out the chestnut glow on stray strands of Raine’s hair, fingered the wood grain in the old kitchen chairs, and dusted the floor tiles with the proof of their age. But the summer heat stayed beyond the walls, beating against brick and tile.
Feeling playful, my top left tentacle reached up and flicked at the sun-kissed motes of dust, to make them dance. She was followed by the slightly less agile coil of my bottom right tentacle — the firewall tentacle, still tinted purple in the light of a terrestrial sun. She bobbed into the light, her own glow briefly joined to the blazing summer, then dipped back down into the shadows.
Not for the first time, I wondered if pneuma-somatic flesh was vulnerable to sunburn. Praem never seemed to tan, after all.
Raine didn’t repeat her question. Neither did she rephrase it, or add some superfluous conditional; she gave it room to wander the air and my mind alike, trusting that we would get to it when we were ready, or accepting that we didn’t want to answer. For the last three days since the dream, Raine had not pressed once. We loved her all the more for that. We all loved her. We agreed.
I tried to consider her question, but most of our shared cognition was already occupied by the thorny problem of the next chess move.
Top Right was already reaching for my queen — the white queen, a metaphor I did not care to pursue. But that mere gesture made Tenny sit up straighter on the other side of the kitchen table. Her big black eyes darted rapidly between the remaining pieces on the board, recalculating the implications of the move I might be about to make; I had learned that was a bad sign. It meant I was making a move so unoptimal that Tenny had not previously considered the outcome. Her own tentacles were constantly wiggling and whirling, two of them locked in a sort of repeating rotational pattern above her head. Like a human twiddling her thumbs as she thought very hard, except Tenny was sitting on her own human hands, quite firmly.
Eventually we went with Top Right’s move: queen two spaces forward, threatening Tenny’s remaining bishop. The piece made a satisfying clack of solid wood.
The chess set was brand new, all hand-carved pieces, designed to look like stylised animals, but with a minimalistic focus so as not to diverge too far from a classical look. An expensive present for Tenny — from Jan. One third apology, one third bribe, and one third Jan buying Tenny’s giant protection should an unexpected dream ever inflict itself upon her again. Tenny had spent the last two days inviting everyone and anyone to play against her. Most had taken that invitation in the spirit it was intended — even Evee, despite how grumpy and busy and stressed she was right now, and Zheng, who played a single game but no more, mostly because Tenny played from behind a door frame the whole time, tentacles only, hissing softly whenever Zheng moved too fast. Upon victory, Tenny had puffed herself up with disappointment that Zheng was still taller than her.
So, armed with a new chess set, Tenny was more than happy to spend six hours helping me introspect and integrate my new distributed decision-making powers.
My top right tentacle uncoiled her tip from around the white queen; Tenny descended like a bird of prey, whip-slash fast with three silken black tentacles, click-clack-clock.
“Check,” she trilled, grinning with joy.
She was also more than happy to beat me. She never got bored of that.
I sighed, but I smiled too; my first lesson had been in gracious defeat. One could not get frustrated with Tenny, she was the world’s most polite and encouraging winner.
Evelyn’s voice interrupted us from the open door to the magical workshop, calling as if from deep in the hidden stacks of a shadowy library. She did sound rather far away: “Twenty seven nil,” she called out. “Unless I’ve lost count.”
A mumble joined her in agreement. Felicity, also hidden away in the magical workshop, head down over some inscrutable work: “Mm. Twenty seven.”
“Twenty seven,” Praem echoed — also deep in the workshop, voice ringing like a distant bell.
“Check!” Tenny repeated, calling back at the open workshop door. “Not checkmate. Heathy’s still in the game.”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed a little, mostly at ourselves. “That I am, Tenns. Um, I think you’ve got me though. Well done, again.”
Evelyn called out: “Six additional brains have not made you any smarter, Heather!”
I sighed again, significantly less amused. Tenny was almost bouncing back and forth on her seat with excitement, tentacles vibrating, eyes flicking across the board at high speed. She looked wonderful in the high summer sunlight, her whorls of white fur all tufty and fluffy, her black skin healthy and bright, her wings hanging down from her shoulders. She loved this feeling, this high-speed calculation and mental mapping, especially when she could share it with others. She was preparing herself in the same way she had after every victory: cataloguing all the possible moves I could have made differently, listing and organising them so she could show us exactly where we’d gone wrong and how we might beat her in the future.
But she wanted me to keep playing, too. She wanted me to try. She understood how important it was that we tried our best to think.
“Tenns, I’ll think it through, okay? Then, if I still can’t figure it out, you can show me again. I’m looking forward to it.”
She nodded, silken tentacles all a-wiggle. We looked back at the board and chewed my bottom lip, allowing our thoughts to flow outward and relax in the way we’d been trying to practice for the last three days. My tentacles drifted, looking at the board from different angles, processing different moves we might make — but we struggled to hold onto every possible permutation, let alone see three or four variations ahead and remember all of them and consider their implications for future board-states.
Evee was right; six additional coils of tightly packed neurons had not made me a genius. We were still bad at chess, just six times quicker.
“Ahem,” came a familiar cough from the doorway to the magical workshop.
I looked up. So did Tenny and Raine.
Evelyn had appeared before us, the cave-dwelling mammal strayed into the blinding dawn, blinking and squinting her sapphire-blue eyes. Praem was at her shoulder, impassive as always — but I thought I could detect a hint of worry or concern on her face. Evee was still dressed in her pajamas, leaning heavily on her walking stick, tired from overwork but fully fed and watered and caffeinated and painkiller’d. Praem and I would accept no less. Evelyn squinted at me with a deeply uncomfortable expression.
“Auntie!” Tenny trilled. This managed to short-circuit whatever was going on in Evelyn’s brain, because she nodded to Tenny and gave her a supremely awkward smile, one she had not prepared for.
Before she could recover, we said, “Evee, do you want to join us? You could play against Tenny, once I’ve lost.”
We all agreed on that. One tentacle — bottom-left — even bobbed toward her, seeking a touch or a hand-hold.
Evelyn cleared her throat again, then spoke stiff and starched. “No. Thank you. Heather, I insulted your intelligence, you didn’t deserve that. I apologise.”
“Oh, Evee, no, it’s fine. You’re correct. Our neural architecture might be larger, but I haven’t gotten smarter, I’m just—”
She talked right over me, cheeks flushed: “And it sets a bad example for Tenny, as well. Tenny, it’s very rude to call your loved ones—”
Evee stopped dead, just staring at Tenny, like a sleepwalker who had blundered into a wall. She couldn’t see Raine’s face from that angle, so Raine caught my eye and pulled a comedy grimace. Over Evelyn’s shoulder, Praem stared at me, impassive and immobile, but I could feel the eye-roll in her soul. I could practically feel Felicity cringing back in the depths of the workshop. Evelyn was trapped between two truths: I was her loved one, but right then she wanted to have a very big shout at me.
“Rude,” Tenny trilled.
“Yes,” Evelyn said. “It’s very rude to call your loved ones stupid. I should not have said that. It was bad behaviour.”
“Auntie Evee being naughty,” Tenny confirmed.
Evelyn sighed and ran a hand over her face. “Exactly. Well. Sorry, Heather.”
She turned away without another word, about to disappear once more into her magical workshop, amid the massive jumble of papers and photographs and plans spread out across the table, not to mention the pair of experimental circles under construction, one of them physically blocked off with hazard tape and chairs at the back of the room. Every time I’d ventured in there over the last three days, that circle had made me physically ill just to look at.
The workshop was only the next room over, close enough to call back and forth; one could even see Evee in there, if one stood up and went over to the sink, to get the right angle into the workshop, the ex-drawing room, the long and cluttered space of magical secrets. But as she turned and retreated back into the shadows, it felt more like she was walking down a long, long corridor, going away from us, sinking into the deep.
It had felt the same way for the last three days; Evelyn was angry and frustrated with me, but very bad at expressing herself. And she didn’t want to interrupt my tentacle based euphoria.
If we had been anywhere but inside Number 12 Barnslow Drive — my own personal safest place in the universe — then I would have hurled myself after her, tentacles or not.
Instead, I hurried to say: “Evee, are you sure you don’t want to join us? Do you want Praem to make more tea? Fliss could play against Tenny, you could—”
“No, thank you.” she shot back over her shoulder. “The sooner we finish this, the better.”
Raine called after her too. “Want another pair of eyes in there?”
Evelyn stopped, half turned toward us. “New batch of photos from Twil and Zheng, twenty minutes ago. Last batch, I think.”
“That close, huh?” Raine asked. My heart climbed toward my throat.
Praem answered for Evee, “Almost done.”
“No change?” Raine asked. “Still nothing?”
Evelyn’s lips pressed together, sour and angry — but not with me. Her anger for me was wet and soft. Her anger for this stakeout process was hot and sharp. “Nothing,” she said. “Not a peep. Not a single change in that blasted house. I’m starting to suspect we’re being fu—” She glanced at Tenny. “That we’re being hoodwinked.”
Raine shrugged. “Maybe he’s just not home.”
Evelyn retreated back into the magical workshop. Praem swished away after her. Raine caught the look on my face and shared a sympathetic sigh. She mouthed: “She’s better than yesterday.”
I pulled an awkward smile and glanced at Tenny, thinking that maybe we shouldn’t have this conversation in front of her. But Tenny was even smarter than she let on, and that really was saying something; she was watching me and Raine with that very specific look older children get sometimes, when they know exactly what the adults are talking about, but also that the adults are more comfortable pretending that children are deaf.
I mouthed back to Raine: “She’s still angry with me.”
Raine blew out a long sigh. “She’ll come ‘round.” Then Raine winked at Tenny, which encouraged Tenny to try winking back, alternating with both eyes.
I screwed up my anxieties and turned our attentions back to the chess board; another downside of having seven of us in here, anxiety was multiplied as well. We were all self-conscious and worried and more than a little guilty. And riding high on nerves.
Evelyn was still furious with me. She couldn’t argue with results, or how happy I was, but it takes a very strong constitution to watch somebody you love bleeding through her own skin and cackling like a madwoman, and accept that was a good thing. My tentacles, the six other sub-Heathers blended into the periphery of my consciousness — our consciousness — were more than a little shy and hesitant about Evelyn. They loved her too, very much, but they were also part of the cause of her barely suppressed, awkward anger.
She had spent the last three days pouring that anger and frustration and fear into the project to murder Edward Lilburne. She rode the others like she had a whip instead of a walking stick: Felicity was worked to the bone making those circles alongside her; Twil and Zheng were staking out the house; and Evee herself poured over the photographs, looking for some kind of minute change in the exterior of the structure, some kind of sign, a magical tell, anything. She produced reams of notes, theories about what we were looking at, and more theories about how to deal with it.
“It’s not a house. Not really,” she had said on that first day after I’d identified the location, and Twil had returned with a single grainy phone camera snapshot of the old place.
“Eh?” Twil had squinted at her, then at the picture, then back at Evee. “Looks like a house to me. What is it then?”
“A bear trap. Trust me. It’s in the layout of the beams, I can see it plain as day. This fucking vermin has turned the exterior of his own home into a sigil; I don’t even know what this means, but if he wants me to break it, I’m going to do it from a distance, with a bomb. Absolute bastard. This is going to take days. Where the hell is Felicity? I need hands, I need eyes. I need a fucking ICBM! Where is she?”
Evee prepared for war; I climbed the walls.
We tried to turn our thoughts back to the thorny problem of the chess board — not as one, because that’s not how it worked, but in a loose agreement that this was probably a better use of our thoughts than dwelling on Evee, at least right now. One tentacle went high, another went low. Another wrapped around my middle in a self-hug between the two of us. Another drifted over to Raine. Another bobbed over the chess board itself, thinking thoughts about position and pieces and priority and persistence.
We were still terrible at chess.
“—and if you wink like this,” Raine was saying to Tenny. “And do a little point, like this, it’s like you’re saying ‘good job, friend, I got you now’. Now you try. Yeeeeeah, that’s it! You’ll be knocking ‘em dead in no time, Tenns.”
I wet my lips. We sighed. My mind went back to Evee while other Heathers concentrated on the chess board; that was something new, intentional bifurcation of thought processes. So many thoughts pulled toward Evee. We agreed on a compromise.
“Raine,” I said.
“To answer your question: not very different to before.”
Raine took less than the space of a single heartbeat to catch back up with the conversation I had attempted to resume. “Ahhh. What it feels like. Right.”
Raine had asked me that same question over and over again for the last three days — What does it feel like?
Each time she meant something slightly different. What does it feel like, Heather, waking up from a dream with all your tentacles collapsed back into pneuma-somatic invisibility? What does it feel like, now you’ve cried yourself empty in the shower while I scrub dried blood off you? What does it feel like, re-summoning them back into flesh the following morning? What does it feel like when I stroke one of them, and cup her in my hands, and kiss her smooth, pale length with my lips, because she’s you and you’re her and I love all of you? What does it feel like when Zheng gathers you up like a beached squid and carries you downstairs? What does it feel like? What’s it like?
And we rarely had to ask what exactly she meant; we just told her what it felt like, each time. She even asked it when she pinned us down in bed — well, almost all of us. She made a valiant attempt, with her mere four limbs.
She gave us exactly what we needed, a space to think out loud, but also the physical re-grounding of my own body. We hadn’t even discussed it beforehand. She hadn’t stopped and asked me what I planned to do with the tentacles, or if things were going to get weird. She just touched me.
She hadn’t even made a tentacle sex joke. Lozzie had, on the following morning, which implied that Lozzie knew what we’d been doing. I tried not to think about that. But then again, Lozzie knew everything.
But this time, sitting at the kitchen table and losing twenty seven consecutive games of chess against Tenny, I knew Raine was asking something more cerebral.
She was asking how it felt to think.
I kept our attention on the chess board as I answered, chewing over the next move: “Not very different, yes. I’m still me. We’re still us. We’ve always been here. The … six others, I mean. They’ve always been here, I think, at least since the abyss.” We shook our head. “Nothing about me actually changed, inside that dream, I just … found pieces that I hadn’t realised were present. I mean, look at me, doing this.” I sighed, my left hand wandering forward to poke at my now blind-sided white queen. “I’m still terrible at chess. You deserve a better opponent, Tenns.”
“Love playing with you, Heath-er,” she fluttered.
I looked up and smiled across the board. “Tenns, you’re far too sweet, thank—”
“Think fast!” said Raine — and whipped her arm back.
The ping-pong ball left Raine’s hand with a flick of her wrist, far too quick for me to actually see with anything but the most delayed of peripheral vision, a whip-crack motion of white blur. Two tentacles twitched upward to defend me — the two which had been waiting for this all day.
But thinking was faster.
Down in the oil-and-grease-slicked sump of our soul, the Eye’s borrowed machinery clicked and whirred under eight hands, burning and searing and corroding through flesh and thought alike. But eight hands made light work. With an equation that had no right to exist in our reality, I bent the laws of physics around a single microscopic point, a single atom worth of change ready to rubber-band back in my face.
The ping-pong ball went tock! as we deflected it, three inches from our left shoulder.
“Ahhhhh!” I groaned as the pain washed over me.
I screwed up my eyes, tentacles going stiff, muscles cramping from roots to tips, the pain radiating down into my trunk and pelvis. My right flank burned where my bioreactor had powered up for a split-second. My sides ached as all six tentacles throbbed and spasmed with the effort of distributed hyperdimensional mathematics. My nose started bleeding.
I doubted the nosebleeds would ever go away. I had started to wonder if the Eye got nosebleeds. If not, maybe we should give it a nose, see how it liked that.
The ping-pong ball hit the wall — hard and quick, deflected with far more kinetic force than I’d intended; I didn’t have much fine control over this technique. I wasn’t certain if I ever would. It bounced so hard it hit the opposite wall too, before Tenny reached up and plucked it out of the air with one of her own tentacles.
Raine was on me instantly, pressing tissues into my hand so I could stem the nosebleed, checking my pulse with two fingers on my throat, asking if I needed water — yes — and if I wanted painkillers — also yes — and if I felt sick — no, glorious beautiful no.
“Tentacles alright?” she purred as she shook chewable ibuprofen tablets into my free hand. “How you doing, girls? Still with us?”
I felt several of me nodding and waving and bobbing at her. Raine touched three of them briefly, then made sure I sipped my water and took my painkillers. Tenny watched with attentive fascination; we hadn’t even attempted to hide my changes from her, or what they meant. She’d seen me bleeding and thrashing in the bathtub. She knew what was going on.
“Heather, hey,” Raine was saying. “Well done, well done. That was even faster than last time. You barely needed the warning. How do you all feel?”
“Sore all over,” we croaked.
“Tentacles are stable, though?”
We grumbled, feeling very put-upon and pathetic, even though this entire training thing was our idea. We forced each tentacle through a long process of uncoiling and stretching; tubes of muscle complained and ached. Neurons burned with a pain deeper than mere nerve receptors. Thought and sensation were one.
Deflecting ping-pong balls was one of the first systematic teaching tools I’d ever used, back when I’d first gotten serious about learning how to manipulate the Eye’s unwanted lessons. Raine and I had been through this before, flicking balls at me until I could swat them away with a thought. But back then even the most minor of manipulations had led to hour-long nosebleeds and up-chucking everything in my stomach. Now, Raine was correct — that was faster than last time.
“Yes,” we croaked eventually. “They’re all still here. Stable. But, ow.”
Raine nodded, taking me seriously. “Think you could go again, right away?”
I respected her for not making the obvious sex joke about refractory periods; I could see it in her eyes regardless. Not in front of Tenny, that was a good rule.
“Mm. Maybe.” I sighed. “We’ll have to do away with the warnings sooner or later though. I can’t expect to always—”
A tiny ball of white flicked free from a tangle of black, spinning in my peripheral vision.
We were so surprised that we forgot all about brain-math, just turning to Tenny in time for the ping-pong ball to bounce off my forehead. One tentacle had jerked up to swat it away, but muscle soreness made her clumsy, and she just baffed me in the face instead.
“Ahh-pffft!” I reacted like I was slightly drunk and being slapped with a wet fish: an ungainly flap of hands, too slow to deflect even a mosquito, let alone a ball thrown with perfect accuracy by a now-giggling Tenny.
The ping-pong ball hit the floor that time, unpropelled by deflection either hyperdimensional or tentacle-based.
I wasn’t above laughing at myself, even with a lingering nosebleed and six different kinds of tentacle-ache. Tenny was giggling, rocking in her seat; she scooped the ping-pong ball off the floor and fluttered her apologies all the same.
“Sorry-sorry Heath! Auntie Raine told me to! Told me to! Pffffft!”
“I did,” Raine confirmed, also laughing. “That was all me, Tenny was just doing what I told her, giving you a little surprise.”
“It’s fine, Tenns,” I said from around the tissues wedged against my nose.
“Sorry! I am!”
“You are forgiven. I love you,” I said. Tenny beamed, her attention already wandering back down to the problem on the chess board. “Besides,” I carried on, “it rather does prove the very point I was just trying to make.” I glanced at Raine; she was doing a good job of pretending not to laugh at me getting thwocked on the forehead with a ping-pong ball. “I still struggle without a warning first. And there’s no way I can do it in quick succession. And it hurts.” We huffed and grumbled. We all ached.
Raine nodded along; one of Tenny’s silken black tentacles uncoiled towards her, carrying the ping-pong ball while Tenny’s primary attention was absorbed in the exciting prospect of showing me all the correct chess moves. Raine held out her hand, accepted the ball, then flicked it in the air and caught it again with a side-swipe of her open palm.
“You never know,” she said, making it sound so easy and light. “We keep practising like this, you dunno how skilled you could get. Remember that time with the, uh … ” Raine mimed a finger-gun, then winked.
That was a subject most unsuitable for Tenny’s ears: Raine was referring to one of my single greatest feats, so many months ago now, last year, which felt like a previous lifetime. She was talking about the time I had used hyperdimensional mathematics to deflect a bullet. A single bullet, from a rifle fired by Amy Stack, aimed at Raine’s back, down the impossible repeating stairwell of the cult’s looping pocket-dimension trap in Willow House.
It felt like ancient history, but it really wasn’t so long ago; with the distributed neuron-webs inside my six tentacles, we were relatively confident that we could — in theory — repeat such a feat. Reliably? No. In rapid succession? Absolutely not. If somebody took a shot at Raine again, and wanted to overcome my meagre powers of protection, all they would have to do is pull the trigger twice.
We didn’t want to think about that. I just cleared my throat and indicated Tenny with my eyes: don’t talk about murder in front of Tenns!
Raine nodded at my silent complaint in total acceptance. I felt slightly ashamed for dodging the subject. She tossed the ball into the air and caught it again. “Seriously though, Heather, I got faith in you. Practice, keep at it, keep improving. You never know how far this could go.”
I sighed with irritation, despite Tenny’s presence in the room. Our sweet little moth-puppy must have picked up on my tone, because one of her tentacles pointed right at me, even though her eyes stayed glued to the chess board.
“I have no idea if this is even what Maisie wanted us to learn,” I blurted out, repeating the same anxiety we’d circled around for the last three days. My tentacles joined in with the huffing and puffing, bobbing up and down in a wordless display of unreleased tension. One of them even coiled up as tight as possible, like she was clenching a fist and digging nails into flesh. “Was this actually what Mister Squiddy was intended to communicate? I don’t think so, Raine. I think this is just a … a coincidence. I couldn’t understand Maisie’s message. I couldn’t.”
Raine considered this for a moment, nodding seriously. “But you still got something good out of it. Right?”
“So if you could rewind time by four days, would you go back and choose not to do it?”
“What? I mean, pardon?”
Raine was being entirely serious; I heard it in her tone of voice. She wasn’t mocking me or making fun. She may have been trying to make me see the error in my attitude, but if I had answered ‘yes’, she would have accepted and integrated that answer. She would have listened.
She repeated, “If you could go back in time before the dream, would you choose not to, you know, make friends?” She gestured around my core of mortal flesh, at my six tentacles, bobbing and weaving and slowing to a stop. They untensed, uncoiled, relaxed. We felt such a wave of denial, all together, all very uncomfortable at that idea. Raine just sat and waited, half-lit by the glowing honey-soft sunlight, her hair raked back over her head.
“Of course I would still do it,” we said. “We would do it. I wouldn’t be … I don’t regret it, I just … ”
“You just wish you’d understood your sister,” Raine added gently.
We nodded, feeling a little moist in the eyes. Raine handed me another tissue. Tenny politely did not comment, though she wrapped one sneaky black tentacle around one of ours. Like holding hands under the table.
“So,” Raine said, leaning back, once she was sure I wasn’t crying. She tossed the ping-pong ball in the air and caught it again. “You got something important out of it regardless. Real important. Now, I don’t know Maisie — not yet, but I’m looking forward to meeting her — but I would bet any money you like that she’d be happy you figured yourself out a little, even if her own words got a bit lost in the process. Right?”
“Right. Yes. Yes.”
Raine tossed the ball, caught it quick. “And you can use this, Heather. Hell, you already are! You’ve already proven it.”
“Helllllll,” trilled Tenny. Her big black eyes darted up from the chess board, looking to me for approval. “Swearing?”
“Um, technically that’s a swear word,” I said. “But it’s so gentle. I don’t think Lozzie would be angry.”
“Lozz-mums,” Tenny trilled, then looked back down.
Raine flicked the ball up toward the ceiling, then caught it in her fingertips. “I believe in you, Heather. I believe you can do whatever you put your minds to. Including deflecting a whole barrage of ping-pong balls.”
Blushing, feeling a little hot in the cheeks, deeply flattered, I reached down and flapped the sides of my triple-layers of t-shirts. I gave Raine a silent, questioning look.
“We’ll find a solution to that,” she said — and she really believed it. Almost made me believe it.
“I don’t see one, Raine. I’m sorry. I can’t walk around in public like this.”
I didn’t mean the tentacles themselves, of course; Evelyn and Felicity had spent three gruelling hours debating the relative probabilities of the psychological censor effect applying to my tentacles, if witnessed by people who weren’t In The Know. They had played devil’s advocate back and forth against each other in a frankly tiresome and exhausting argument which neither of them really believed. In the end we’d come to the conclusion that we simply didn’t know what might happen if I walked the streets of Sharrowford with six very fleshy and real tentacles poking out from my flanks. Mundane people might have found their eyes sliding off me, as they once had with Praem’s former blue skin and empty, milk-white eyes. Perhaps a squid-girl was simply too much to believe. Or perhaps any random bystander might scream and call the police, or have a breakdown, or attack me. We simply couldn’t be sure. Testing was too much of a risk. The only time I’d been outdoors in the last three days, I’d had to collapse the pneuma-somatic flesh back into their prior state of humiliating invisibility and quasi-insubstantial -spirit-matter, so they could pass through the sides of my hoodie and t-shirts.
No — I was talking about the necessary wardrobe adjustments we required, when we were fully manifested in solid flesh.
We were currently wearing three t-shirts layered on top of each other, all borrowed from Raine, all old and on their way out; we’d cut slits in both sides, long slashes in the flanks, holes for the tentacles to poke through. We hadn’t worn either of our favourite pink hoodies indoors for the last three days; they were too dear to modify with a pair of scissors.
I was hardly going to walk around outdoors with open slits in the sides of all my tops, in case I needed to manifest my tentacles on short notice.
And why would I need to manifest them on short notice?
Raine and I had figured that out on day one of seven different Heathers, the first time I’d asked her to throw a ping-pong ball at my head.
Distributed and decentralised hyperdimensional mathematics only worked when all of us were manifested in true flesh. Neurons had to be real to calculate. Phantoms could not do maths.
So, if I was surprised on the street by the machine-gun toting assassins of Raine’s wildest imagination, I needed slits in my clothes if I wanted to do brain-math with all my-selves present.
“Velcro,” Raine said, yanking me back up out of bitter thoughts.
“I— I’m sorry?”
“Velcro,” she repeated, cracking a huge grin. “I’m thinking velcro strips on both sides. We wouldn’t even have to modify all your t-shirts, just a couple of hoodies, maybe a jumper or two. Could hide that easy enough, make them look like part of the stitching. Probably have to do some testing, make sure you can pop them open from the inside real quick, with your tentacles, not your hands. Or, hands from the exterior?” She gestured at her own flanks, pulling a thinky-frown that I wanted to kiss off her furrowed forehead. “Mm, might be kinda fiddly like that. We wanna make it as natural as possible for you.”
“ … Raine?” I blinked at her in surprise.
She turned to me and chucked. “You surprised? I’ve been thinking about this all day. All night really, too. Kim knows her way around a sewing machine, believe it or not, but I think this would be more hand-made needlework style stuff. Don’t wanna use glue. Proper stitching. Maybe we could talk to Praem? I think she knows how to sew.”
“I do,” came the bell-clear voice from deep in the magical workshop. Raine cracked a grin.
I just stared in amazement. Top-Left reached out and brushed Raine’s hair back in a strangely intimate gesture.
“I … Raine … I didn’t realise you’ve been thinking about it so much. I-I haven’t even had time to consider much … ”
Raine winked at me, then turned and planted a sneaky kiss on the tentacle which had been touching her. We all squirmed in surprise, which made her laugh. “Course I have!” she said. “You’ve been busy figuring yourselves out. Let somebody else handle some of the practical questions, yeah? So, velcro.” Raine pointed a finger-gun at me. “Give it some thought. Lemme know what you think.”
“Oh, Raine.” I could have melted into her arms.
She tossed the ping-pong ball into the air again, caught it — then flicked her hand outward, slinging the tiny white payload at my face.
Slick black machinery clunked and clicked down in the pit of my psyche; eight hands and seven minds spread the load wide; burning white-hot solutions scrawled themselves across the surface of reality. I let go, like a rubber band snapping.
The ping-pong ball went tock! six inches in front of my face, right back at Raine.
She caught it neatly. I scrabbled for tissues, whining and spluttering, tentacles like six entire bodies worth of pulled muscles. Raine fed me water, handed me fresh tissues, helped me recover.
“Thank— thank you,” I croaked. “That was— no warning. Good. Better, even.”
“You did amazing, Heather,” she purred for me. “Well done.”
When I was recovered again — feeling like I’d just been forced to sprint the hundred meters, twice, backwards — Tenny looked across the table at me, her patience worn thin by endless excitement.
“Heath? Give up? Conceeeeede?” she trilled.
I nodded. “Yes, Tenny. I concede the game. Sorry, we’re all— too much— too much thinking. That’s your twenty-seventh win.”
“Brrrrrrrrrt! Show you? Show you?” All her tentacles wiggled and waved, going wild with the prospect of her favourite part.
“Of course.” We bent our attention back to the board as Tenny’s own tentacles descended. Perhaps if we concentrated harder, we might learn something. “Show me what you’d do, in my position. Show me all the right moves. Please, Tenns.”
“Helping!” Tenny trilled.
And she did. She really did.
We — as in us, my-selves — had spent the last three days since the dream in a sometimes euphoric, sometimes painful combination of recovery, rediscovery, and rehabilitation.
But I wasn’t the source of our tense waiting anymore; we didn’t need a ‘fully armed and operational squid Heather’ — as Raine phrased it — for the next step of our plans. Playing chess with Tenny while Raine flicked ping-pong balls at me was merely a way of filling time with something useful, while Evelyn did the real work.
That first night, after the blood-sweats and making our selves real — and locating Edward Lilburne’s house and the surprise dream with the mysterious VB — I had awakened once again in the bathtub, seconds later, covered in cold water and surrounded by my friends.
And my tentacles were gone.
Well, not gone gone — not like the bad times where a loss of energy could turn them to wind-blown dust and rob us of what we really were. The six other Heathers which shared our body and mind, they had collapsed back into purely pneuma-somatic flesh, no longer visible, hovering on the frustrating border between real and unreal. I would have been inconsolable if I’d been coherent, but I was exhausted beyond words, and besides, the tentacles, the other shards and reflections of our mind, they were still present inside me, just dulled slightly.
Metaphor can’t do justice to that feeling. It was like partitions had been raised between us, between myself and myself, like parts of my mind were dim and distant.
Raine got me cleaned up, warmed up, towelled off, and tucked into bed. I fell asleep for about twelve hours, dreamless and empty, aching all over, the echoes of brain-math etched into my muscle fibres.
The first thing I did upon waking the next morning was sit bolt upright, pull off half my clothes in a hyperventilating panic, and manifest all my tentacles again.
The second thing we did was curl into a ball and cry for half an hour while Raine stroked my hair and told me it was alright. And it was alright; we hadn’t lost ourselves again, we were all still there. I suspected I could have allowed the tentacles to collapse entirely, turned off my bioreactor, slipped all the way back down to plain old singlet Heather Morell, with no abyssal biology whatsoever — and upon firing everything back up again they would all have been present and correct, because they were me. I was them. We were.
I wasn’t in a hurry to test that theory. I had a suspicion it would be extremely unpleasant.
The third thing we did was go downstairs and find Zheng.
She wasn’t as angry as Evee, but she was halfway there.
“I saw his hiding place!” She greeted me in the kitchen, haloed by grey light, stripped down to her own underwear as if in sympathy with my near-toplessness; Raine had draped a blanket over my shoulders, but it kept getting in the way of my tentacles. We hadn’t worked out the slit-sided t-shirt technique yet. “I saw the wizard’s rotten snake-hole with my own eyes, shaman! And you called me back. Here I am.”
Zheng, flint-eyed and dark-faced, had towered over me in the grey morning light filling the kitchen. Nobody else was awake yet — well, Zheng’s thundering voice might have woken a few. Raine stepped forward, as if to intervene, but top left waved her back. The others — my other selves — were levering me up against the floor, pushing our diminutive height upward in a very futile attempt to match Zheng.
“You promised not to fight alone, Zheng,” we said. “We don’t want to lose you. How many times do we have to say this?”
She blew out a breath like a steam engine gathering power. “Shaman.”
“And … there’s been some … some changes … I … I wanted you to come back, because … well, because we’re very selfish girls. We wanted you to know. To see.” A lump hardened inside my throat. Why was Zheng so determined to leave me behind? “If you must insist on throwing yourself into a suicide charge, we would like you to see this about us first.”
Zheng tilted her head, as if my words made little sense, but Raine spoke up: “Actually, you know what, big girl? You’re not allowed to throw yourself into any kind of suicide charge. Nu-uh. Not just ‘cos Heather says, either. I say it too. You wanna do that, I’m going with you.”
“Raine!” we squeaked.
But that seemed to have done the trick. Zheng’s fury ebbed down. She took several deep breaths, rumbling and unhappy, but her face was more like a machete being slowly slid into its sheath, no longer a bared blade in the pre-morning gloom.
“Little wolf,” she rumbled, showing all her teeth.
“I know, it’s unfair,” Raine said. “But I’ll use every trick I’ve got.”
Zheng grunted. “Huuuurrrn.”
“Hey,” Raine said. “If it matters, if there’s any chance at all of us lining things up right, you’ve got first dibs on Eddy boy. Can’t promise, first casualty is always the plan and all that, but I’ll try to make it happen. I know you’re sore that you didn’t get to pull Alexander’s head off his spine in the end.”
Raine cracked a grin. Zheng blinked slowly, a grim pleasure behind her eyes. A bloody red understanding passed between my two lovers, an understanding that made me shiver and swallow, which did not include me, but which I could not help feeling drawn towards.
“Mm,” Zheng rumbled eventually. “You understand me like few others, little wolf. But if you corner the wizard, do not wait, for me or anything else. Kill him quick. Rip out his tongue. Cut off his hands. Even if he appears dead.”
“That’s the plan,” Raine sighed.
My tentacles levered us upward even further, as if trying to show off. “Zheng. Zheng I have to … I went through something, inside the dream, inside—”
Zheng reached out and placed one hand on the top of my head, her massive palm cradling my skull, her favourite gesture of affection. Instantly all my unspoken, subconscious worries about her regard melted away into nothing, removed with a touch. Then, without warning, her hand slid down and grasped the root of one of my tentacles — top right. We gasped and shivered, instinctively wrapping the tentacle around her arm in response.
“Z-Zheng?” we breathed. All together now.
Slit-dark eyes stared back into mine. A shark’s gaze, sighting a squid, recognising me for what I was.
“My shaman is one, or she is many,” Zheng purred. “Did you not know yourself, shaman?”
I just gaped at her. Zheng knew? Zheng knew all along? But this made no sense. “You— what? I— you—”
“I know you, shaman. Come, show me how you climb now.”
Raine chuckled. “Wait ‘till she tells you about the kaiju fight in the dream. You would’a loved that.”
Sometimes it was too easy to forget that Zheng had come from the abyss in the first place. She’d been here a lot longer than any of us, a marrying of flesh and soul forged by will. She knew me at a glance. That was all which really mattered.
We spent the rest of that day — and almost the whole of the next — embracing the simple joy of motion.
My tentacles were technically no stronger or more capable than they had been as purely pneuma-somatic flesh, when invisible to regular human sight. But something about bringing them into the visible spectrum — or perhaps making their neurons real — gave us the most difficult and strange impulses.
We used them much more than ever before, to pick things up, to open doors, to touch others, no different than our human arms. But that false normality quickly gave way to unexpected extremes. We started to pull ourselves along the upstairs corridor, or balance on tentacles instead of legs, or jump up to our feet with the extra muscles provided by six more limbs. I was never going to be athletic, or quick, or strong. But for the first time in my life I had so much more to work with. Though, that only led to biting off more than I could chew.
I startled Kimberly terribly that first evening and I felt so guilty afterwards; she was at the top of the stairs the first time I decided to shoot up them with tentacles instead of my feet. The attempt only half-worked and I collapsed in a heap at the top, but I gave her quite a fright. I had grazes and a couple of bruises afterward, just what I needed.
But none of it was quite enough.
“We need to swim.”
Evelyn had sighed at that. “I think you’d cause a panic in a public pool, Heather. No.”
Raine said, “Maybe we can go when it’s empty sometime. There’s gotta be some time or day, or something, right?”
“Or … ” we had said. “Maybe the sea? The sea. Right. I could swim … swim. I need to swim. We have to swim. We have to.”
None of it was enough. We needed to swim — through air, through water, through anything we could reach.
We needed to swim.
Tenny was halfway through showing me all the ways I had failed in our twenty-seventh consecutive game of chess, when Evelyn came raging back into the kitchen.
“No change!” she shouted, stomping out of the magical workshop and across the kitchen tiles, waving her walking stick like she wanted to brain somebody. “That’s three days with nothing! Not a single adjustment to the exterior of that building! This is nonsense! Zheng is probably ready to come back here and bite my entire head off!”
“Brrrrt!” went Tenny, waving a rook around in sudden agitation. None of us had expected Evelyn like this; she’d been so calm and controlled for the last three days.
Praem and Felicity both appeared in the doorway to the magical workshop as well. Felicity looked very worried, but Praem clicked after Evelyn, to make sure she didn’t fall over or start knocking objects off the table.
“Evee,” I said, all tentacles suddenly up, as if to help catch her. “Zheng is fine. She was fine with this. I told her, she was fine. She’ll be grumbly, but she wants this over, too.”
Evelyn whirled around to face us and Raine, already onto the next subject. “That house is like a bear trap and it’s not bloody moving!”
“Bloody!” Tenny cheered.
Evelyn gritted her teeth. “I want this loose end answered — now.”
I winced. Raine puffed out a long breath.
“Now,” Evelyn repeated. “It’s high time we did this.”
I stood up, frowning but sympathetic, reaching out with one tentacle. “Sevens and Lozzie both said—”
Evelyn whacked the table leg with her walking stick. All the chess pieces wobbled. “I don’t care what Lozzie said!” Evelyn instantly cringed, eyes going up to the ceiling. “God, she didn’t hear me, did she? If Aym is listening and relates that, I will murder that little—”
“Calm,” said Praem — instantly shaming Evelyn into shutting her mouth.
“Sevens and Aym are occupied with each other,” I said, gently but firmly, trying to sound like Raine. Raine was also up on her feet now, as if Evelyn was an unexploded bomb and we might have to evacuate quickly. “Nobody—”
Evelyn held out a hand, her free hand, her maimed hand. She forced a long, slow, deep breath. “I trust Lozzie. Alright? She saved your life, more than once. So I trust her. I do not trust ‘Jan Martense’, not after she has introduced the only potential wild card in this situation that I had not accounted for.”
“You talk to Lozzie.” Evelyn pointed at me. “Make her understand. Get Jan in here, now. She’s been avoiding this question and this is the only lead I have on why this house is not acting as expected.”
“Evee, it’s not—”
“We’re going to ask her about that mystery old woman. Who the hell was VB?”
Evelyn’s question hung in the air like bitter salt wind washing away the sunlight. Tenny trilled an echo: “Hellllll.”
A gentle breather after so much blood and stress, a game of chess with a very clever girl, and some complex deliberations on clothing choices. But, as always, Evelyn can’t help but keep moving forward. They’ve got a mage to kill and a book to secure. She’s got her mind on the target. But … who was VB? Does it even matter? Jan might not want to talk. And Heather needs to get her head(s) back in the game.
This chapter also happens to have inspired a wonderful piece of fanart which had me in stitches, based on a rather famous little comic.
No patreon link this week, since it’s the last chapter of the month! Feel free to wait until next week if you wanna subscribe. In the meantime, go check out some of the other wonderful, deserving stories out there! If you’re looking for more Katalepsis content, there’s always some … interesting fanfiction.
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Thank you so much for reading my story! It is you, the readers, who this is all for, who keep me going and keep me writing every week. Without you, there would be no Katalepsis. Thank you!
Next week, it’s time for a friendly little chat, right? Just a chat. A little talk. Tying up a loose end before an assault. Right? Right. Come on in, Jan, nobody here bites …
Tenny was so cute in the is chapter!
Thanks for the chapter!
Tenny is starting to do things even I don’t plan or expect, I love it. I’m really looking forward to exploring her more in the future, too.
And you are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!
“Top Right was already reaching for my queen — the white queen, a metaphor I did not care to pursue” I didn’t understand this line, can you explain please?
What does Heather mean when she says Sevens and Aym are occupied with each other?
I love how Heather and her tentacles are now a we. How Queenly, hahaha.
Will Maise find love when or if she is rescued? ( Do to how it might lead to spoilers I understand that this question might not be answered 😉 ) I assume it might be weird for the twins to share.
Zheng and Raine are very perceptive, although Zheng’s deathwish is kind of worrying for Heather and Raine emotionally.
Edward is always up to something, he seems to embody the values of a magi, hahaha. Felicity is like a runner up in the category. Which makes her very frightening.
Jan never wants to talk, which is kind of annoying actually.
Thank you for the chapter.
About the queen chess piece: well, Heather has all that stuff going on internally about being a queen, or maybe an angel, and the responsibility or power or implications that come with it. She’s still figuring those things out, and doesn’t really like the image of her tentacle reaching for and grasping the queen. That’s all! Just a little visual metaphor.
Sevens and Aym are just off somewhere, talking or playing games or doing something vaguely abyssal that nobody else can understand. Heather just means they’re not around right now.
Maisie and love! Now that’s a huge question, and one that will perhaps have to wait until the lady in question has been liberated, yes!
Mages, mages, mages, yes, they are very troublesome and tricky. At least Jan and Fliss are on Heather’s side. Edward must be cooking up something, indeed.
And you are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed the chapter! Yay!
Thank you for answering and for replying.
You are always very, very welcome!
“all the way back down to plain old singlet Heather” NEVER. But I love that you used that word.
Yeah, Heathers can’t go back, because this is the way they are!
And thank you; Heather herself has a little bit of knowledge about these things. I wanted to make that as clear as possible in how she interprets and relates to her own new state of being.