Chapter 168: Entrenched PositionsAlexandraErin on July 22, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Gets Defensive
I didn’t wake up, and the place I didn’t wake up in was dark and with a high vaulted ceiling. The chamber was roughly cylindrical, though actually some flavor of polygon with straight walls set at a wide angle to each other. They were mostly made of brick and stone, built up over sheets of metal… only “mostly” because there were places where I could still see the metal. Following the theme of being impressively but incompletely reinforced, there were buttresses set at semi-regular intervals, though some of them were incomplete or missing completely.
In the middle of this scene was a pedestal in the shape of half a classical-looking column, and on that pedestal perched… it.
I wasn’t totally expecting a full-fledged visit from the ridiculous owl-turtle thing that night, but it made enough sense that it would check in that the surprise didn’t last long… we still technically had four or five days before it would be necessary for me to be able to walk into the design building without any borrowed shielding, but tomorrow would be my last day of class there before the deadline.
Judging by the state of things… well, it was hard to judge by the state of things, both because I had nothing to compare it to and because it kind of looked like a mixed bag. My mind looked a lot more impressively fortified than it had the last time I’d seen a visual representation of its integrity, but there was a lot of stuff that was clearly not done.
But then, it was a work in progress… if we’d managed to accomplish all of this since the night-training sessions began, it didn’t seem impossible that we’d get the uneven parts up to scratch in the remaining time.
“So… how am I doing?” I asked it.
“Oh, I’m fine, and all the better for having been asked,” it said.
“I’ll never understand how something that sprang from Two’s mind could be so sarcastic,” I said.
“Oh, she understands the idea of sarcasm just fine,” the owl-turtle thing said. “And to answer your question, I have been doing as good a job as I can, under the circumstances.”
“What circumstances… is that a knock at me?” I asked.
“The circumstances is that you’ve asked me to do something entirely unprecedented and I’ve only had a week and a half to do it in,” it said.
“But you’ve got another half a week to go,” I said. “Unless this is some kind of dream logic thing, like time being different…”
“Yeah, well, you’ve got the circlet for two weeks, but I’m telling you that if what we’re doing doesn’t pay off tomorrow, then we’re done,” it said. “We tried, and we’re done… because if you aren’t there yet, I can’t see how a few more nights of work will help, not enough to offset the risk.”
“What risk?” I asked. I literally saw red… or maybe the dim lighting shifted, becoming a touch more fiery. “You didn’t mention any…”
“Excuse me, but I happen to have perfect recall,” it said. “Certainly better than you do, as I am, in many regards, a memory myself.”
“You’re the one that told me that memories are unreliable,” I said.
“Because of how you store and access them,” it said. “I’ve got direct access to the filing system, though, and I can tell you that I specifically told you there was no way of knowing the risks since it had never been done before. Well, now it has, and I’m telling you: the risks are there, they’re real, and they’re not worth it.”
“Since I’m taking them, maybe I can judge that?” I said. “What exactly is the danger?”
“You haven’t been sleeping right,” it said.
“I’ve been sleeping better than ever,” I said. “Eight or more solid hours every night… there probably isn’t anyone on campus who’s slept as well as I have in the past week and a half.”
“Yeah, there’s your problem, kid,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Solid… sleep isn’t supposed to be solid. It’s supposed to be sort of all swirled up with different sorts of layers. Like… ice cream. Ice cream’s not as good if it’s all one homogeneous thing, and it’s useless if it’s completely solid.”
“Sleep is like ice cream?”
“What do you want from me?” it said. “I’m a semi-anthropomorphic free-willed dream figment… I don’t exactly have a huge frame of reference to work with here. If I was going to compare a sleeping mind to something I have direct experience with, it would be… a sleeping mind. Though that’s how about half of your analogies end up, anyway.”
“But you’ve had access to portions of at least three people’s experiences,” I said.
“How do you think I came up with ice cream?” it said. “I was born from the mind of someone who defines her individuality mostly in terms of dessert and matured in the mind of someone with an unhealthy attachment to dairy products. Listen, you’re giving me attitude because you don’t like me and because you don’t want to quit before we’re done, but you know what I’m saying is true. You’ve been worried about it yourself.”
“It’s true I’ve been feeling a little… frayed around the edges… and it’s true that I’ve thought it might have something to do with my sleep sessions. But I also thought it could be from lots of things.”
“It is from lots of things,” it said. “One of them is the fact that you’re not sleeping right, and that makes all the other things worse.”
“Okay, but I can make it through a few more days like this,” I said. “Especially since we’re almost to the weekend, when I can catch up on regular sleep during the day if I have to.”
“The damage is cumulative,” it said. “It was tiny, almost unnoticeable the first night, and the night after that… but it adds up. It all adds up.”
“And you think I can’t take a few more tiny, almost unnoticeable cracks in my psyche?”
“Who said they’re still tiny?” it said. “You’re not getting it… every night you go without really sleeping, without really dreaming, your mind is that much less resilient in the face of the strain.”
“I don’t see any damage,” I said, looking around.
“You aren’t looking in the right place,” it said. “What you’re seeing isn’t the totality of you, it’s just the mental defenses you’ve been learning how to build… and they aren’t cracked because you’re maintaining them subconsciously. That’s not to say they won’t come tumbling down if things go badly enough… and in particular, they’re a lot less substantial during the day when I’m not here reinforcing the pattern. They’ll be firmer if you’re firmer.”
“So where would I see this so-called damage?” I asked.
“I’m looking right at it,” the owl-turtle thing said, looking at me with eyes that were both large and beady.
“Mirror,” I said out loud, willing one into existence. It was my dream, after all, even if I couldn’t dictate the actions of the special guest stars. My own reflection greeted me, and as I’d expected, there was nothing wrong. “I don’t see anything…”
“That’s because you’re dreaming about seeing yourself in a mirror,” it said, winging its way around towards me. It had a way of not-quite hovering in the air, like it was treading water. “You’re not going to see what you actually look like, for the values of ‘you’ and ‘look’ that are relevant here… that’s your self-image. One of them, anyway. Notice that you have last year’s hair.”
It was right, my hair was still short, almost as short as it had been when I left my grandmother’s. I reached up and touched it and felt it hanging down by my shoulder like it did now, then looked back at the mirror, where it now reflected my current style.
“If I told you that your skin was all pale and cracked and veiny-looking…” the owl-turtle thing said, and I took a step back from the mirror as that image greeted me.
“That’s what you see?” I asked.
“No, just making a point about the nature of perception as it applies to this situation,” it said. “The more sure you are that you’re fine, the harder it’s going to be to see any evidence of it… but believe me, you’re far from fine. Like I said, each night your mind gets more fragile, and the shielding we’ve built up becomes that much less useful during the day. That’s why we’re going to wrap this up early so you can get a good night’s sleep… real sleep… before you face the Em tomorrow.”
“I’m not even getting any training tonight?”
“Hey, I’ve done what I can, and for what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure you’re where you need to be,” it said. “Believe me, I factored that into my decision… I’m not abandoning you. I’m making the call that’s best for you. I would have had you test the waters tomorrow anyway, so we could make any course corrections that need making.”
“And what if it turns out there are adjustments to make?” I asked.
“Then we can mark this down as close, but no cigar,” it said. “Remember that I was reluctant to do this.”
“And I remember that you asked for something in return,” I said.
“Your part of the deal was never contingent on success,” it said.
“But it was contingent on you keeping your part of it,” I said. “That’s what a deal means. Which was trying for two weeks. If you give up halfway through, then I’m pretty sure the deal’s nullified.”
“It’s not halfway, it’s more like three-quarters of the way,” it said. “Time-wise, anyway… in terms of progress, I think we’re even further, like I said. If you’re not over the finish line, then it’s at least in sight.”
“That just makes it worse!” I said.
“I’m pointing out that this whole conversation might be moot,” it said. “There might not be any need to do anything further.”
“And that’s great, if there’s not… but what if there is?” I said.
“Then it hasn’t worked out,” it said. “Would I be keeping my end up if I ran your mind into the ground? If I let you run yourself so ragged that you lose your self-control? Being a little peeved isn’t that bad… from where I’m perching, it’s even helped you stand up for yourself a little… but I know you’ve lost control before, and I’d say I know you didn’t enjoy it, except… well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? There’s something lurking there that does enjoy it, in the moment… and the fact that you’re not already more worried about this is kind of scary.”
“Bastard,” I said.
“I take it from the succinctness of your rebuttal that you know I’m right,” it said.
“Okay, maybe,” I said. “But I’m right about the deal.”
“I’m not going to change my mind just to get you to run my errands for me,” it said. “As much as I need a research assistant, I’m not going to risk your mental health for it… I hope you remember that, the next time you’re thinking about whether you can trust me.”
“Except if you’re so sure I’d go round the bend from lack of ‘real’ sleep, you wouldn’t get much assistance out of me either way,” I said.
“It’s not a guarantee,” it said. “I might play those odds myself, if I were only gambling with myself.”
“Then let me play them!”
“Nuh uh. The fact that you’re willing to risk it is a bad sign,” it said. “You’re being way too stubbornly single-minded about this. It’s a strong sign that your judgment is clouded.”
“Okay,” I said. “Then how about this? Nothing says sober clarity like compromise… you let me sleep the rest of the night, I test things out tomorrow and then sleep normally the next night. You pop back in on Saturday and if there are any little adjustments that need to be made, you can do them then.”
“Sunday,” it said. “That’s where we’re going to end up. Because if I say Monday, that’s what you’ll say, and then we’re out of days.”
“So, you agree?” I asked.
“…if only because I don’t think you’ll get any rest if you’re fixated on the idea that you’re being cheated,” it said. “I’ll see you Sunday.”
“Which means we’ll have Sunday and Monday to work on any remaining issues before I have to walk into the building without the circlet,” I said.
“I don’t really foresee any circumstances where a problem that can’t be wrapped up in one night will be solved in two,” it said.
“I can,” I said. “A problem that takes twice as long to solve as a one-day problem. If we wind up with something that seems completely insurmountable in two days, tell me and we’ll skip it… but if it seems doable and even close and you don’t work on it right up until the last day, then I’m not going to regard you as having kept your part of the deal. You’re already taking like three nights from me, I’m not about to let you take another one.”
“There’s a difference between not giving you everything you want and taking something away from you,” it said. “And later, when you’re feeling more yourself, you might thank me for taking your health into consideration over your grades.”