“Here’s the thing,” Christopher told Eudora prior to Interfacing practice. “You don’t realize how big tentaclebeasts actually are.”
“Are they different over here than over there?”
“No, or rather, not like you’re thinking. The ones we work with don’t actually change in size. But, compared to most of their kind, they’re tiny. Insignificant, even. That’s why they were losing the war, badly enough to seek any help they can find.”
“What is the tentaclebeast war about, then?”
“Same as any war I suppose. Two groups who want to rule the same patch of ground. Tentaclebeast society is all about size and strength. The big ones get to have what they want, and the little ones have to wait for the table scraps. The little guys decided they didn’t like it anymore. So they told the big ones they’d had enough. They were ignored. So they fought it out. Except, something had changed. There were of course all sorts of tussles and scrapes before. That’s how they determine rank.”
“Like wolves in a pack?”
“Precisely. But this time, instead of the loser accepting defeat, and instead of lone struggles for individual rank, these smaller tentaclebeasts banded together, and attacked in groups. And kept on attacking. They weren’t willing to accept things as they stood any longer.”
“But they couldn’t defeat the larger ones?”
“No. And when I say larger…well, some that I’ve seen, they’re the size of a house.”
“A house? This house?”
“Not so large as that. But a more modest dwelling, certainly.”
“How could something small enough to ride on our shoulders have a prayer against something like that? They must be mad.”
“Maybe they are. But they’re also the only ones who offered to help us. The larger ones, if they even know we exist or that they’re harming our world, don’t care. It’s inconsequential to them.”
“And do we do anything to harm their world?”
“Not that we’ve been able to tell, so far. But who knows? When it comes down to it, we have only made the acquaintance of very few tentaclebeasts. We of course don’t know precisely how many there are, but our allies have made us to understand there are a great many.”
Gigi entered the room, with Inky riding on her shoulders. “Reporting for training, sir,” she said to Captain Drury.
“Very good, Valentine. Since you’re early, show Wright to the tentaclebeast quarters to pick up her partner.”
“Sir, yes sir. Right this way,” she said, gesturing to Eudora.
“Uh, sir?” Eudora said to Christopher before they could go.
“I was wondering if I…might request a different tentaclebeast counterpart this time, sir?”
“Sorry, Wright, but unfortunately there are no other volunteers.”
“Sir, you mean no other tentaclebeasts will work with me, sir?”
“Correct. But I wouldn’t trouble myself about it, Wright. Better get a move on so we can begin training.” And indeed, Richard and Douglas were entering the room, tentaclebeasts at the ready.
“Sir, yes sir,” Eudora replied as she’d been taught. The military customs were coming to her slowly after a lifetime of ladylike training. Gigi nodded and Eudora followed her to the tentaclebeast quarters.
“It’s nothing personal, on their part,” Gigi volunteered helpfully.
“No, really, I mean it. The others probably just feel you’ve been spoken for. They’re very conscientious of rank, amongst themselves.”
“So my current counterpart is highly situated amongst his kind?”
“Something like that…it’s more that they feel for whatever reason that he’s a right to work with you first.”
“So glad he’s grown attached,” Eudora said under her breath, not with a little sarcasm. Gigi either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the statement, and they were soon to the tentaclebeast quarters. The creature she had worked with before was waiting, his burgundy tentacles stretched out behind him supporting that odd “cloak” he’d shown before, six eyes watching her with an unblinking stare. She pushed aside her unease.
“Good day…” She realized she had no name for him. “Good day to you. I should like to Interface with you now, if you are agreeable,” Eudora said, as she held out her arms.
The creature wasted no time, but wrapped a tentacle about her arm, snapping the other into place as he landed hard on her shoulders. She felt the discs on his tentacles sucking and releasing her skin, in a rippling pattern, going painfully up and down her arms.
She had steeled herself against making any sound, but she didn’t expect Interfacing to hit her so quickly. It surged into her consciousness like a wave at the ocean, and her mind was transported back to trips to visit her grandparents, on her father’s side, at their island home outside Listle. She could feel the sand under her feet, and then she was playing in it, making a castle she’d made when she was six. She felt the grainy, wet stuff between her fingers as she sculpted it, smiling up at her older brother, John—
John, you’re dead. This isn’t real. She imagined an enormous door slamming on the scene, much as she had with the memory of her father’s study, and seethed at the beast on her shoulders.
“Eudora? Eudora? Are you alright? We’ve got to go to training.” Gigi was looking at her with concern. As Eudora gained a bit of control over her senses, she noticed the feather-light touch of Inky, politely at the outskirts of her joint mind. Did he see what happened? she wondered.
“Eudora?” Gigi asked again, reaching out an arm, but stopping short of touching Eudora’s shoulder, conscious of the delicacy of the situation.
“Gigi, I’m sorry. How long…how long was I—”
“I’ve been trying to get sense from you for ten minutes. If you hadn’t come around soon I was about to send for help.”
“I’m fine, I’m sorry. Let’s get back.” Eudora’s awkward Interfaced walk slowed them down considerably. They returned as quickly as they could to the gymnasium.
But not quickly enough. “Valentine! Wright! You’re late,” Christopher called. “Front and center, twenty pushups.”
They made their way to the front of the room, past the other members of SPOT, each sporting his own tentaclebeast. Eudora stumbled about halfway up, and flushed with embarrassment. When they took their places at the front, she got down on the floor, feeling intensely dizzy as she did so. With the eyes of the entire room on her, she began attempting pushups, but the tentaclebeast in her mind was incredibly disorienting.
Can’t you do anything to help? she thought at it, but it said nothing. Down. Up.
“I want to hear you counting, soldiers,” Christopher told them.
“One!” Eudora called. Down. Up. The tentacles squeezed her arms tightly. Down. Up. She was bombarded with images from six extra eyes, and she shut her own eyes reflexively, trying to block it out. It was no use. Down. Up.
“Four!” Her shoulders started to lock up under the weight of the tentaclebeast sitting on them. It was as if he’d deliberately settled his weight on her, sinking in like she was a plush sofa. Down. Up. She could hear Gigi calling out twenty. She finished already? Down. Up. Down. Up. She felt her left arm buckling under her, and suddenly her next “down” was a lot less graceful, and her face nearly smacked into the floor. She shook her head, trying to clear it, trying not to feel the minds of the other trainees and tentaclebeasts in the room. The creature on her shoulders seemed to perversely wish to supply her with all this information instead, and the conversation grew in volume in her thoughts until she was certain her ears would fall off. Still, she physically heard nothing. Down. Up. Down. Up. Again and again.
“Twenty, sir!” Eudora called out. She forced herself to her feet, her head spinning.
“Take your place, Wright, and don’t be late to my training again.”
“Sir!” she acknowledged, turning to face the room and wondering where her spot might be. She saw Gigi, and on her shoulders, Inky making a discreet gesture with some of his tentacles. The room was still wobbling under her feet, and she staggered to the space beside Gigi, mercifully in the back row.
“Let’s begin with a nice warm-up,” Christopher called out. “One hundred jumping jacks, with me. I want to hear you counting.”
Listen you, she told the beast on her shoulders firmly. I don’t like this any better than you do. But you’re the only one that will work with me, and we have to make do. So just cooperate, and this can be over with a lot less hassle for the both of us.
By way of reply, the creature sent a picture of her closed door.
Fine. Be that way. I can do this without you. She pushed herself through the exercise, noting that while she didn’t seem to be getting any help from the creature, it was at least no longer actively interfering. It still had what felt like a death grip on her arms, though at least it was using its levitation talents to avoid being bounced about by her exertions.
After they’d performed a number of warm-up exercises, Christopher announced the main course. “Today, I want to see you run. Not a long, slow jog like you’re all used to. I want sprints. Line up against that wall,” he said, gesturing to his right. “You’ll notice a number of markings dividing this floor into quarters,” he said, indicating lines along the sides of the floor. “For your first sprint, run as fast as you can the full length of the gym and back. Then three-quarters, half, and one quarter. Begin!”
Eudora ran with all her might, but to her new, strange vision it seemed as if dips were appearing in the floor with every other step. Somehow she managed to get to the far side of the gym, but on her return trip, she misjudged where the floor was actually situated, and managed to trip over her own feet. She smacked hard to the floor and felt the breath knocked out of her. Furious, she pushed her way to her feet, spitting mental venom at her counterpart. She ran so quickly after that, she was able to make up for the stumble that had left her behind her teammates and actually finish close to when they did.
“Alright,” Christopher told them, “you now know the pattern for your sprints. I want two dozen complete sprint cycles from each of you. Begin!”
It’s going to be a very long day, Eudora thought.