And then I—
If that was waking up, then I’d never truly woken up before… or have since.
There is a time in everyone’s life when they think that they are about to die. And it is true that your life flashes before your eyes. Your unconscious mind is frantically, desperately trying to match anything in your past experience to this one moment. Hoping that whatever matches will allow you to escape. To live.
If the unconscious mind is an engine, then it’s like reaching over and suddenly throwing the gearshift into neutral. It’s working as hard as it possibly can, but the wheels aren’t spinning, so it’s not going anywhere.
That’s only the unconscious mind, though.
The conscious mind is fixated on exactly one thing. The danger. The threat. It’s a fear so all-consuming that nothing else is left.
A pinpoint focus on a single thought.
A thought that becomes an indelible memory.
I remember the fire.
I remember thinking that it was watching me.
A demonfire burning brighter that I ever thought possible. Yet somehow I was not burned. Nor were any of the shapes that passed through it. I couldn’t identify any of them; there was a strange disconnect between my body and my brain. They only pulsed through levels of familiarity before fading off into infinity.
My senses didn’t seem trustworthy. It was as though no photons were hitting my retinas, but I could still see the patterns. It was as though I was perfectly still, but the universe was tumbling around me. I felt simultaneously hot and cold, wet and dry… alive and dead.
I tried to speak.
I did. I did try. I really did try. I tried to speak this: “So you’re the demons.” But I couldn’t make the thought become words. Even in my own mind, they weren’t sound. It was only a formless abstraction.
But that seemed to be enough there. Or, for them. The fire wavered into a lumpy solid and slowly turned itself inside out.
“Do you always believe that everything you see is true?”
At least, the idea of those words entered my mind.
It was a fair point, either way.
“All right. Then tell me, where am I?”
“You are on the fourth side of a triangle.”
“Anything is possible. Even the impossible things.”
“And that’s nonsense. Do you think all humans are stupid, or have you singled me out?”
“Intelligence has nothing to do with it. Even the smartest human is still thinking with electrical impulses across a liquid inside a lump of meat.”
“I’m rather fond of my head meat.”
By that point, I even missed it.
“Where do you think you are right now?”
“If you’re here, then I must be inside Imogen’s head. I like how you’ve decorated. Very abstract.”
“Oh, you are inside the other one’s head? How did such a thing occur? Were you shrunk down, and now swim along with electrical impulses inside liquid?”
“Have you carved her skull open, only to find this and us where you expected meat?”
“Then please do explain it.”
“I mean… I mean that we’re inside her mind. Someplace where you can communicate with her, as you seem to do.”
“And where is her mind?”
Having only moments to answer a question that humanity had not solved for its entire existence, I fell back onto a standard response.
“It’s nowhere. It’s an abstraction.”
“Which would explain why you perceive your surroundings to be so, as you say, abstract. In which case, where you are is an invalid question. You would be nowhere, as well.”
“It sounds as if you’re saying that I’ve become an abstraction.”
“The concept simply cannot be explained using your reference model of ‘objects in space.’”
“OK, fine, I get it. I am sufficiently cowed, O Mighty Demon.”
“Our purpose is not to denigrate. Only to prepare you for the fact that we’re not just going to explain things to you.”
“How can I learn if you won’t tell me?”
The fire burned blue, and it formed itself into a thousand spires, some of which I would have sworn went right through me. The thoughts came more emphatically.
“How do you learn anything? Shall we believe that your mind is immutable, and thus incapable of incorporating new information? If that is so, then we are disappointed by the futility of your existence. We had understood it to be otherwise.”
“One way that I learn is by not constantly adopting a position of blunt superiority.”
“Bluntly, we are superior.”
Yes, by not doing that. Excellent example.
“How do you learn anything?” they asked again.
“Through observations. Seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting… Sensory input from the outside world.”
“But you are not in the outside world.”
“And the things that I am seeing and feeling are contradictory. I don’t understand them. I have no way of knowing what’s true, especially if I’m on some fourth side of some triangle.”
“You are seeing things? And feeling them?”
“Yes. What, you don’t? Are demons as devoid of physical feeling as they are meant to be of emotional feeling?”
“With what are you seeing or feeling?”
The questions were starting to become nonsensical. I wondered if I was wasting my time. Despite interacting with Imogen so often and trying to guide her actions, her demons seemed to have no familiarity with such a simple concept as eyes.
There was nothing here to see but the demonfire and the incomprehensible shapes, anyway. I couldn’t not see them. Even when I closed—
I could still see them.
There was nothing to close. I had no eyes with which to see; I only thought I was seeing. I had no lungs with which to breathe; I only thought I was breathing. But I was thinking. So I still had my mind. Even if I only thought I was thinking, that’s still thinking.
There was only myself and the demon. And our thoughts. Which were going directly from mind to mind, and which I was interpreting as words, as concepts, as communication.
If there was no physical space there, then there was no reason why the shapes were “there” and I was “here.” And no reason why they would be shapes at all. I expected the demons to have a physical presence, so there they were. I expected them to try to communicate with me, so I interpreted those thoughts as communication. I didn’t expect anything else.
The shapes were just my mind trying to make sense of the extra mental input. Trying to match them to my reference frame of objects in space.
They weren’t objects, they were thoughts.
They carried meaning, not form.
I stopped trying to see them. I stopped trying to see anything. I simply let the thoughts be thoughts. I wasn’t constrained by physical limitations. There was nothing physical, so there was no limit.
And they were all the same thought.
Over and over again.
A chant I never would have expected from demons. I would have expected it from…
“If I recall my Madeline L’Engel books, you should have a few more wings. You shouldn’t look like… this.”
“Do you always believe that everything you see is true?”
“I guess I’ve started to believe that things I can’t see are true, as well.”
“It is the things that you cannot see, or feel, or smell, or taste that are the most true. You are constantly hobbled by perception.”
I got the feeling that they weren’t speaking of me in particular.
“We aren’t normally here, or like this. There’s no way into the mind without going through the gateway of the body’s senses.”
It felt surprisingly casual to speak as the representative of all humanity. I think everyone should try it at least once.
“And it is that body that creates the perceptions. You can only gesture vaguely at the shapes of what is real, but that you cannot directly interact with. You only know of things like justice, worth, or value by the edges of the hole in what you can perceive. Inside, you cannot see or feel what is there. You create these ideas of tangibility and concreteness to compensate for it. But then you all seem to decide that everything that you haven’t labeled thus is not actual. Is not real. Or, at the very least, is mutable based on perspective.”
“Some things must be based on perspective, though? Right?”
“Less than you think. This strange, unstable state that causes so much human behavior… We find it incomprehensible. You are made of the same material as a rock or a tree, yet there is some part of you that is very much as we are. The two are perpetually at odds with one another. It is confounding and infuriating.”
It’s worse from the inside. There’s no way of knowing whether the things we experience are real, or just shadows projected onto a cave wall. So we choose the option that lets us do things, instead of choosing to drown ourselves in solipsism.
If it’s sophistry, then at least it’s useful sophistry.
“And through your relationship with Imogen, you must have been able to experience that infuriation almost directly.”
“It is exactly so.”
“Why not directly, though? I can’t believe that you don’t have the ability to control her thoughts and actions more directly.”
“We find the suggestion offensive. Not only is forcing our will upon her personally distasteful, but there are rules in place. Some behavioral limitations are imposed upon us. Ones that we follow because they are right, not because we have no choice. To do otherwise would make us… other than what we are.”
“That’s a role I’m familiar with. It’s difficult to keep playing fair when you know that the other side isn’t.”
Especially when the other side is only bending the rules to their limits, not actually breaking them. Which is still fair play, but only in the “fairest” of ways. Behavior like that would get the rules of a game revised pretty quickly, but there are no do-overs in life.
How disgustingly inspirational.
“We do have wide discretion when others overstep their bounds. Rules are meaningless if there are no consequences behind them. This acts as a check on those with fewer limitations than we have. Fortunately, our primary role is reactionary. This affords us an advantage over a more active position. We take no action unless provoked.”
“So you wouldn’t even be here unless someone else…”
Thrown into neutral. The wheels weren’t spinning, so the thought didn’t go anywhere.
“…unless someone else…”
Even before it was finished, implications came pouring in. After all, the question Imogen and I meant to answer wasn’t “Why her?” it was “Why me?” Self-deprecating answers weren’t complete—even though they were emotionally satisfying to a part of my mind I’d come to despise.
I almost wish she had just been crazy.
We could have overcome that.
Shift into gear.
“…had a corresponding demon.”
“And now you have learned. Without being told.”