I had expected dimension travel to be all about swirling vortexes in midair, or intricate patterns carved into the floor, or something else theatrical and spectacular.
I did not expect eyeballs and freckles, rocks and leaves.
The truth of it was both fascinating and a letdown.
When we finally met for my first lesson, I was ready to memorize some lengthy ritual or get a rundown on the safest ways to breach a dimensional wall. Instead of any of that, my tutor said that we’d take one of the easiest routes first. She told me to look into her eyes, but not into the centers. Look at the edges. From up close. This eye in particular. She tugged her lower eyelid down like a kid playing gross-out.
After a moment to give her a chance to laugh and say she was joking, I did as she said. I held my breath and leaned in, staring at the edge of her right eye with my nose nearly touching her cheek.
It was interesting up close, I had to admit. The delicate veins traced patterns like spindly trees, and the whites of her eyes had more color than I was used to seeing. The iris seemed to bleed purple-blue from the top, while the bottom looked like a sunset forest fire from all the blood flow.
Really, it looked a lot like a forest. It was distracting me from what she was saying. Something about reaching out to touch the tree in the center, right at the first fork of a branch. Then she said something in the magic language that I was supposed to be learning, and between one breath and the next, that center vein looked much more treelike.
A gust of hot wind blew my hair sideways, smelling like pepper and utterly ruining my concentration. I exclaimed as I stood up straighter, tidying my hair and looking at the tutor.
She wasn’t there. But the closeup of her eye was. It took a confused moment of blinking and refocusing my own eyes to realize that I was standing in that impossible veiny forest, with the biggest tree twining into the sky in front of me.
I looked around in a panic, taking note of the peppery smell of the air, the flaky layer of red leaves on the ground -- odd-shaped and unsettling -- the slightly lesser pull of gravity, and the complete silence.
Then she popped into existence next to me, grinning and striking a ta-da pose. I fumbled with several obvious questions before settling on “Where are we?”
“I call it the Pepperwoods,” she told me as she gazed around the weird place with pride. “It’s been one of my favorite shortcuts ever since I was a kid. Because I have a perfect map to it in one eye.” She pulled down her eyelid again, then let it snap back. “Okay,” I said, looking at the nearest tree and reaching out a hand to touch it. The bark was thin and crispy, with a kind of waterbed softness underneath that made it even more veinlike. I wiped my hand on my pant leg and turned back to my tutor. “So, I only sort of understand how we got here. Would you like to explain how it works, or let me muddle through it some more?”
She just smiled and pulled something out of a pocket, holding it out to me. “Try this one first,” she said. “Maybe later we can go to Alpha Centauri. Did you know your freckles line up with a few stars perfectly, as seen from the far side of the universe? Anyway, have a look.”
It was a polished rock, made up mostly of brown specks with an explosion of quartz in the center. Pretty, in a strange way, with unexpected depth where the milky transparency curled around the mossy brown spots.
It looked like a river.
“Try not to get your feet wet,” I heard her say. “The crystalfish have sharp teeth.”