In Which Mackenzie’s Mind Is Made Up

When Steff didn’t come back to the suite that night, I chalked it up to the day out having gone so well that she felt sufficiently distracted from her issues, even if she wasn’t magically over them. Amaranth agreed, mostly… though she said something about checking in with her before she left for the evening to make her weekend rounds.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t at all concerned for Steff, but I had an extremely limited ability to do anything to help her… my skills pretty much stopped at “being there for her”. If Amaranth found Steff at Harlowe in need of more than that, she could give it to her. If Steff just needed reassurance that she’d still be welcome, Amaranth could give her that, too.

While I would have welcomed Steff, though, there was something to be said for being able to shut myself up in an empty room at the end of a long day that had been full of other people. It had been fun, but I needed some time and space to recharge my inner powerstone.

It didn’t help that my mind hadn’t exactly been my own. During the odd moments of the morning when I might otherwise have lost myself in thought, the owl-turtle thing’s dream teaching had been unspooling itself in the back of my head. That had evidently played itself out sometime in the afternoon when I’d been occupied with other things, and now I was well and truly alone within myself.

It was a nice feeling to be alone and at peace with myself, especially when so many things had been pulling my life in so many directions. There weren’t any signs of life from the other suite. Two was probably over in Hazel’s room. Dee might have been in, but she didn’t have much of a presence when she didn’t want to. With no sounds coming through the walls and no light coming in from under their door, I could stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom and try on my new things in perfect privacy and security, then take a long bath and let the hours in the marketplace melt away.

The inevitable sounds of a Saturday night in the dorms began to filter in from all directions during my soak, but they served only to remind me of how glad I was to be in a dorm with private bathrooms.

At some point during my freshman year I’d pretty much given up on baths, since they were almost guaranteed to be interrupted. The worst thing that could happen to me while I was bathing in our shared bathroom was that one of the two politest people in the world might have to pee. That could get awkward, but awkwardness was something I could deal with.

Would it even be that awkward? As I thought about it, it occurred to me that in some ways, awkwardness was nothing more than the anticipation of itself. If I was afraid that a situation would turn awkward, it would affect how I acted… the things I would say or do, the things I wouldn’t say. Ignoring all social niceties or the potential implications and ramifications of a weird situation could create worse problems than awkwardness, but there had to be a better way than just surrendering to the inevitable.

That’s not to say I would be in a hurry to test out my ability to be cool about being on the other side of a semi-opaque curtain from where someone else is urinating… but in other situations, I’d try to keep an eye out for any traps involving the self-fulfilling nature of awkwardness.

I went to bed that night feeling not exactly like a changed person, but like a changing one. New year, new dorm, and now new clothes… I was still me, but I could work with that.

Dreams involving the owl-turtle thing were never subtle, but I had never been as intensely aware of the fact that I was dreaming as I was that first night that I went to sleep after its subliminal training regimen began.

Special guest stars aside, the whole of every dream I’ve ever had was restricted to the confines of my head. Every wall, every object, every detail was something that my mind conjured up and something that only existed in my mind. Never before had I ever been so fully aware of this, though.

Never before had the whole of the dreamscape felt like it was a part of me, not even so much an extension of myself as it was an inclusion within me.

“Well… that worked better than I’d hoped,” the owl-turtle thing said, startling me as I suddenly noticed it was perched right in front of me..

It might have just popped into visible existence that very moment, but I had a feeling it had been there the whole time. I could see it, but I couldn’t feel it… at least not the way that I could feel everything else. Once I was aware of it, I thought I could sense its presence as a small, gentle pressure in my mind… but since I already knew it was there, it was possible I was fooling myself.

“I’ll say,” I said. “You made it sound like it would take multiple nights for you to do anything… but there are definitely results already.”.

“I’m sure you can feel a difference, but trust me, actual results will take time,” the owl-turtle thing said. “This is just the groundwork. Awareness has to precede control, but awareness isn’t control.”

“I don’t know, I feel in control,” I said. I reached out my hand towards the nearest wall of the dream-fortress, then stopped… I didn’t need to touch it.

I was touching it.

In a very real way, I was it.

I flexed, and the wall… well, it sort of rippled a little. Sluggishly, though, like cold pudding that’s just had the serving spoon pulled free of it and is now settling back in place.

I frowned. That wasn’t at all what I’d expected. There was a lot more resistance than it seemed like there should have been.

“Let me put it this way,” the owl-turtle thing said. “You have control in the sense that you and only you are holding the reins, but the horses are strong and you have no idea what to do with them.”

It was extra disappointing because I’d been able to do more to manipulate the environment than before, but I supposed that it made sense that with a new approach I’d be starting from scratch. If the end result was stronger or more useful than what I could do on my own before, it would be worth it.

I pushed away the unfamiliar sensation of oneness with everything and instead tried to focus my senses on the walls the way I had before, using my magic-manipulating abilities as a sort of analogy. The walls felt stronger, more solid than before. They not only felt dense in a physical… metaphorically physical… sense, they positively thrummed with the sensation of power.

As soon as I touched on that power, the sensation of connectedness returned. I could no longer feel an individual spot on the wall, I was the wall.

I tried again a few more times, ignoring the owl-turtle thing while I tried to get a handle on what was happening. I couldn’t get much further in terms of latching onto any one thing, or making it sit up and dance, but the feeling of interconnectedness with it all only got stronger the more I tried.

“So, this is me?” I said. “I mean, I’m holding up these walls now?”

“It’s a joint effort,” the owl-turtle thing said. “I don’t think you could yet get them going on your own, but if I left now you’d be able to keep them going, though they’d get a bit wobbly over time. The pattern is running through you now, with some minor corrections from me.”

“The fact that you’re holding up one end of them, so to speak… is that why it’s so hard for me to change them?”

“In part,” the owl-turtle thing said. “The fact that you’re holding the other end is a big part of it, too. Your ‘hands’ are busier than they were last time. Once you have the technique down better, though, it will all be easier. You will be completely in control.”

“And when I wake up?” I asked. “Will the walls stay?”

“They might for a while,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Though they’ll start to degrade pretty quickly. Your attention will be too far outside your head.”

“That will be a nice change of pace,” I said.

“Your introspective nature might help a little, but the outside world is going to demand attention,” the owl-turtle thing said. “If I had money, I’d put it down on them crashing pretty soon after you wake up. You’ll feel it, if you’re fully awake.”

“If you weren’t here… if I were just dreaming normally… would I be feeling anything different?” I asked.

“I believe so,” it said. “The awareness you have now, it wouldn’t be as… absolute. But you’d be more likely to be aware that you were dreaming, and have more of a grasp on what’s going on. Tonight I’ll give you a booster… with a bit of a lighter touch than before, now that I know my strength… and then tomorrow night I think I should leave you on your own, to give you a chance to rest up for real.”

“Rest up from sleeping? Why would I need to do that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” the owl-turtle thing said. “But there’s a natural rhythm to the life of a dreaming being, and we’re interrupting it. I think we should tread carefully.”

“This was your idea,” I said.

“And it was a good one,” it said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be taken too far.”

I closed my eyes and found that I could still see things… I could still see everything. Once I’d done that, I could blank out my vision by deciding not to see. It was a little thing, and the sort of thing that if you thought about it should be child’s play for someone inside a dream because it was easy to imagine, but it wasn’t something I’d ever done in a dream before.

Instead of returning things to normal, I brought back my awareness of the owl-turtle thing while leaving the walls hidden. We hung there in darkness, which then became my bedroom.

It was easy, once you knew how… and I did know.

“You’re learning,” the owl-turtle thing said.

“Remembering,” I said. “I can’t alter the substance right now, but…”

“Dreams are so much more and less than substance,” it said.

I raised a hand… aware that it was a superfluous gesture but not caring… and a fiery golden shield appeared in front of it, almost as solid as the walls around my mind. If there had been something coming at me… some presence or force from another mind… the shield would have intercepted it.

It might not have stopped it, but it would have interfered.

“Your mind took to that faster than I expected, based on Dee’s experience,” it said. “But your mind is more… reactive… than hers. More defensive.”

“This is cool,” I said. I relaxed my mind and felt the things that had passed through it during the day settling into place.”I hope I don’t have to use this, but even knowing that I know it… and more, knowing that the principle works. Sleep learning, dream learning. I mean, I actually know things tonight that I didn’t know when I went to bed last night. Even leaving my immediate problems aside, this is huge.”

“Well, I’m certainly excited by the implications,” the owl-turtle thing said. “But I’m not sure they’re as far-reaching as you might think they are.”

“Think about it: we’re in a school,” I said. “Well, I’m in a school… an institution of learning. People give up years of their life and a ton of money for knowledge and skills that could be conferred with a few nights’ sleep. Or even if it takes more than a few nights… well, that still leaves their days free, and it’s not like there are a lot of things competing for the time we spend sleeping.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Again, there’s a rhythm to things. Ordinary dreaming serves functions that are probably necessary in the long run. And anyway, knowledge has to come from somewhere. If I tried to bestow upon you all the skills necessary to be an enchanter, it would be about as useful in practical terms as if you had a dream about being one.”

“It could still speed things up, though,” I said. “I mean, it takes time to internalize knowledge, right? I can read a whole book about advanced magical techniques in a few hours if I’m just absorbing the text. It would take a lot longer if I’m stopping to digest what I’m reading… picking it apart and putting it back together, testing my understanding. If we could skim a book and then have some way of putting that raw information together while we sleep…”

“The ‘raw information’ would still be coming from the mind of someone who didn’t comprehend the material,” the owl-turtle thing said. “You wouldn’t want something in your head constantly reinforcing those kinds of glancing impressions. You’d be internalizing the mistakes and wrong assumptions that normally get worked out as part of the process of really learning something.”

“But if the book’s actual contents were in my head…”

“It wouldn’t be, though,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Not in the sense that you mean it. Memory is so much more malleable, more inexact, and more fragile than you think it is.”

“I understand that, but I’m not talking about weeks later or anything like that, though,” I said. “I mean, what if I plowed through a book and then started the process right after? That wouldn’t give any time for anything to happen to alter or damage the memory…”

“Nothing has to happen,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Memory comes pre-altered and pre-damaged. If you people… that is to say, people… realized exactly how your brains store the memories you rely upon to make sense of your lives, you’d give up trying.”

“Trying what?”

“Living,” it said. “If you read a whole book from cover to cover, you’re not going to have a perfect image of every page buried in your brain waiting for some mental magic to unearth it. If all you have is a general impression, some key points, and some passages that really stuck with you… that’s all you have. There might be some other tiny fragments bobbing around under the surface, but that’s all they are: fragments.”

“How do we not realize this?” I asked.

“Because the brain stores but the mind recalls,” it said. “You never see what’s jumbled up and jammed inside your brain, because your mind won’t accept it. It insists that it’s all very solid and makes perfect sense, and so that’s what you see. The bottom line is that we have to work with what we have to work with. There are no shortcuts here, kid.”

“Then what are we doing?” I asked.

“Taking a shortcut,” it said. “You have to understand that they don’t exist in order to fully appreciate how awesome it is to have one. I can do this with purely mental skills… particularly dream skills… because I have my own perspective and expertise that I can apply to this. Even if I could dip my beak into a master enchanter’s psyche long enough to view how the relevant knowledge and skills are laid out, I wouldn’t have a chance of making sense of them in a way that I could translate into your mind.”

“How can you be sure of this?” I asked.

“Listen, you need to understand that there is nothing in your head that’s hidden from me,” it said. “And then you need to understand how little that matters. Imagine trying to read a book when every word is written over the next one, and they’re not even in the right order. Your enchantment skills aren’t exactly what I’d call ‘masterful’, but I can barely see them, much less make sense of them. Not because they’re hidden, but because when you see everything none of it matters that much. It’s all a jumbled mess of habits and practices and instincts and the things you’d call ‘knowledge’… I can pick out a rule of thumb like ‘It’s easier to enchant objects that you’ve had a hand in creating,’ but what am I supposed to do with that?”

“You know I wasn’t just interested in this as a way of skipping ahead in my own education,” I said.

“I do know that,” the owl-turtle thing said. “But that’s the example that jumped into the front of your mind.”

“Despite all that ‘words on top of each other’ stuff… you can read me better now, can’t you?” I guessed.

“Natural consequence of putting you more in tune with the rest of your sleeping mind,” it said. “It means you’re more in tune with me, which as a matter of course means I’m more in tune with you.”

“I can’t pick out your thoughts, though,” I said.

“Of course you can,” it said. “You think I have a voice box or something? What I think is what you hear.”

This seemed like a pretty deliberate evasion… the owl-turtle thing was capable of thinking and planning on a level that went beyond the remarks that I dreamed came out of its mouth. I figured that if I called it on the untruth it would just dissemble about the nature and meaning of “thinking” when we’re talking about a creature of pure thought to begin with.

So instead I filed it away as a piece of evidence that the owl-turtle thing might be less honest than Dee had first believed, while also noting that if it was more attuned to me it was probably aware that my trust in it was growing a bit more conditional.

“It’s for both our protection that there’s a small amount of separation between you and me,” the owl-turtle thing said. “I have to maintain a separate existence, or… well… I don’t exist. If you pay attention, you might catch yourself picking up on things here and there, but don’t you think it’s a good thing to have clear line between where you end and I begin?”

“When you put it that way… yes,” I said. “But since you put it that way, now I have to wonder… you couldn’t create knowledge where none exists, but you could implant an idea in a mind, whether it was right or wrong… or one where factualness was completely irrelevant… couldn’t you?”

“Obviously,” it said.

“How drastically could you change a person, in that way?”

“No more or less drastically than a new idea could,” it said.

“Have you changed me?” I asked.

“No more or less drastically than a new idea could,” it repeated. “You’ve already worked this out for yourself, but you’re changing all the time. Slowly, one thought at a time. I dumped a lot of thoughts into your head, and that can’t help change you… but you do the same thing when you read a book, or let a new person into your life.”

“So, today… in the market…”

“That was you,” it said. “It’s possible that things might have gone a bit differently if you didn’t have all these new ideas about awareness and control bouncing around in the back of your mind, but really, was how you acted today that far removed from how you’ve acted in the past? You ended up with a leather jacket and maybe the thirtieth or fortieth resolution to have a new view of life since you left your grandmother’s house, but was the path that led you there so radically different?”

“No,” I said. “Not that different.”

“You trusted me enough to let me try this in the first place, and that means a lot,” the owl-turtle thing said. “I’m not going to go changing anything inside your head that you don’t want to be changed.”

The knowing way it looked at me after it said that, I knew it hadn’t been trying to slip the implications of its phrasing past me… or maybe I knew that, and so I saw its look as knowing. There was some trickiness there, but it was making a sly offer, not leaving itself a loophole.

Still, I had the feeling I’d extended enough trust the owl-turtle thing’s way for a while. It was the first one to point out that we were venturing into unexplored territory to begin with. Why would it want to complicate things, if it didn’t somehow advance its own agenda? I didn’t believe that agenda was harmful, but I trusted the owl-turtle thing’s sense of caution more than its eagerness.

“One thing at a time,” I said.

“Fair enough,” it said. “That might be a change for the better all by itself.”

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17 Responses to “Chapter 92: Night Shifts”

  1. Oni says:

    “maybe the thirtieth or fortieth resolution to have a new view of life since you left your grandmother’s house”

    Hah. I love you, ROTT. Never stop.

    Interesting chapter. I’m always curious about subjects that brush against the topic(s) of lucid dreaming, since that’s one of my earliest topics of serious education (long story. let’s leave it at the fact that me and my family could write one heck of a clinical study on Night Terrors).

    Still, looking forward to the (in-world) days to come.

    Current score: 0
  2. HiEv says:

    This bit:

    settling into place.”I hope I don’t have

    should look like this instead:

    settling into place. “I hope I don’t have

    Thanks for the story. I’m eagerly awaiting reactions (if any) to/based on her new look, plus her next enchantment class.

    Current score: 0
  3. Zathras IX says:

    Dreams involving the
    Ridick’less Owl-Turtle Thing
    Are never subtle

    Current score: 0
  4. MistyCat says:

    “… I dumped a lot of thoughts into your head, and that can’t help change you… but you do the same thing when you read a book, or let a new person into your life.”

    “and that can’t help BUT change you…”

    Or maybe something else is missing- from either the story or my understanding?

    Current score: 0
  5. pedestrian says:

    I like the author’s point, that our persona’s have to meticulously even infinitesimally construct/assemble/navigate the conscious personality/public image we each wear over our internal mishmash of conflicting sub-conscious thought processes.

    Current score: 0
  6. Lunaroki says:

    Well, two of the three typos I spotted have already been reported so I guess that just leaves one more, the most minor one.

    Typo Report

    “I’ll say,” I said. “You made it sound like it would take multiple nights for you to do anything… but there are definitely results already.”.

    The period outside the last closing quotes is not strictly needed. It’s probably not technically wrong though so… *shrug*

    Current score: 0
  7. Computer Mad Scientist says:

    A new idea can change someone quite a lot, depending on the idea and the person…

    Anyway, interesting that she still has to think to realize that the meat isn’t her in dreamland.

    Current score: 0
  8. Kevin Brown says:

    I am extremely surprised that Mack did not ask about photographic memory…

    Current score: 0
    • Oni says:

      Without getting into a debate on the topic of what photographic memory actually means, in this context I think that would be like trying to watch your 1080p copy of the extended Lord of the Rings on your PC from 1997. You know, the one with 512mb of ram and Netscape.

      Current score: 0
  9. William Carr says:

    I just had a thought.

    What is the Ridiculous Owl-Turtle Thing’s attitude toward sex?

    Icky, icky, the things meat-based people do?

    It exists. But it doesn’t eat, or sleep, or procreate. It only exists.


    How do we know it doesn’t have some devious secret motive?

    Like spreading copies of itself into everybody’s heads?

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      A meme does, what a meme does, reproduce and colonize or a more aggressive meme will eventually consume it. The ROTT is the most basic assembly of a self-aware idealization.

      To an AI, biological reproduction would be a tediously irrelevant distraction engaged in by lifeforms. In my opinion, Alexandra has depicted the most accurate, early generation Artificial Intelligence characters in fiction.

      Amaranth is a sexualized avatar of a deity, divine perfection cannot change. While biological organisms are always, remorselessly changing. Amy has to balance these two contradictory states and that internal confrontation is what develops her persona.

      TWO was created with limited biological functions for the convenience of her creator, who used her for a backup energy generator. Not specifically programmed for sexual services, she has no innate desire or libido to compel her to engage in sex.

      Perhaps Alexandra has future plotline intended to change this situation for this character. Perhaps not. What development of character would the readers want or be repelled by?

      Current score: 0
  10. JS says:

    I’m intrigued by the line “If you people… that is to say, /people/… realized exactly how your brains store the memories”.

    Current score: 0
  11. Ermarian says:

    “When you put it that way… yes,” I said. “But since you put it that way, now I have to wonder… you couldn’t create knowledge where none exists, but you could implant an idea in a mind, whether it was right or wrong… or one where factualness was completely irrelevant… couldn’t you?”

    I just realized; this whole dream-arc seems sort of inspired by Inception, doesn’t it?

    Current score: 0
  12. anon y mouse says:

    “It was extra disappointing because I’d been able to do more to manipulate the environment than before” – do you mean “I’d been able to do more to manipulate the environment before”? I’m trying to figure out why it’s ‘extra disappointing’ written as is.

    Current score: 0
    • Markas says:

      Read:”her ability to alter the dreamscape had lessened, compared to what she had accomplished earlier”

      Current score: 0
    • Elxir says:

      The way I read that, was that it was ‘extra disappointing’ because she thought she would be able to manipulate the environment more than she was able to, even though it was still more than she could before the montage/training session.

      Current score: 0
  13. JN says:

    I have to wonder if you’ve read ShadowofMoonlite’s Sleepwalker series. In it they come up with a way of studying by just flipping through there books quickly during the day and just taking care of the actual studying at night. Also, all of the “conscious” dream activity seems to still take care of what regular dreaming does for the brain and mind. This chapter almost reads like deliberate de-bunking, lol.

    Current score: 0