The Jan-Zombie — kink-jawed and dead-eyed, shoulders slouching like a moody teenager, naked from head to toe and covered in corpse-detritus, framed by a grilled chicken shop I barely remembered — stood still for a single clotted heartbeat, like an actress who had forgotten her lines, shoved on stage to the tender attentions of a rabid and restive audience. Vacant eyes stared into the middle of the road, clouded by decay. Stringy bile dripped onto the pavement. On the glass behind her, a brightly coloured cartoon chicken suggested we try the new four-piece family meal.
Then the Jan-Zombie swung round, muscles limp, arms swaying, a puppet held up on too few strings. She pointed herself vaguely in our direction, and took a lurching step forward.
“Um,” I said, stepping back from the approaching undead dream-phantom — though she was still a good distance away. “Jan?”
Lozzie was distraught, hand to her mouth, staring at the zombie like it was Jan herself. “Oh! Oh, Jan!” She glanced at Jan — Our Jan, Knight Jan, Alive and Rosy-Cheeked Jan. “Janny, is that you?”
Jan sighed and rolled her eyes. She did not look like a woman who had been confronted with an image of herself dead and rotting, but more like she’d discovered a bad yet curable case of gut worms. “Of course not,” she huffed — though she kept one eye on the zombie as she backed away. “I’m me. I’m here. Me. The real deal.” She tapped her armoured chest with an armoured fingertip, cushioned by the crown-and-dragon tabard. “This isn’t some piece of myself I’m denying, okay? You haven’t got to reconcile me with my own rotting corpse, alright? Lozzie, please, don’t look at me like that, this isn’t an emotional crisis, it’s a metaphysical one. And I hate metaphysics.”
Lozzie was biting her lower lip, looking at Jan like she wanted to cry. “But it looks like you. I don’t want to think of you like that.”
The Jan Zombie took another lurching step, hands hanging down, wobbling toward us along the pavement.
“Jan,” I repeated. “What is this?”
But Jan was too busy replying to Lozzie: “Then don’t! Please, make fun of it, Lozzie. I need you to make fun of it. I would love for you to make fun of it.” She raised an armoured finger. “But don’t touch it, probably.”
The Jan-Zombie’s rotting jaw rolled open; a black tongue flopped forward onto purple lips.
Lozzie was still on the verge of tears. “Was that your body?”
“No!” Jan huffed again. “No, for goodness sake. I did not look like that when— well. I just didn’t look like that, okay? This is a metaphor.” She pointed at the zombie version of herself, gauntlet knuckles curling, as if telling off a bad dog. “And a bloody unsubtle one at that. God, I hate dreams. Dreams should be fun. We should be in a pleasure pit or something. Not getting chased by prophecies.” She wrinkled her nose at the zombie and hooked one thumb into the rope which secured the sword to her back. “What do you want, hmm? You want me to cut you down? Is that it?”
The zombie shuffled forward another step. It was exceptionally slow; we could have escaped the ghoul at a meandering walk, let alone a run, even with the real Jan laden down with armour and sword.
But the Jan-Zombie was sharp — sharper than the dream had been only moments earlier. The outline of her putrid and corrupted limbs, the dried blood speckled across her skin, the delicately crafted little nose and pouty lips, each black strand of gore-matted hair: all of it was stark and clear and nothing like the rest of the dream, like a word in an unknown language dropped into the middle of a familiar sentence, like a sudden image in static, a metronome from a dead channel. For a moment I thought perhaps it was the sense of violation; we were seeing Jan naked and wounded, after all, even if it was an illusion. The zombie had no doll-joints, but it was undoubtedly her in every way which mattered. Perhaps it was sharp because it was an insult.
But the sharpness radiated out into the rest of the dream, like a single note clearing a jumble of meaningless sound. The pavement, the shop fronts, the sunless sky, the towering dome and the dark bulk of giant Tenny — they all tightened into focus. The dream rang like a bell, singing with clarity.
That strange sense of a larger self behind me had vanished; I risked a backward glance to check, but there was nobody there, myself or otherwise. My hands were empty of lemons, though I craved one like my lungs craved air.
“Jan,” I said firmly and clearly, enough to make her jump slightly and clink in her perfectly fitted armour. But my own questions felt clouded and garbled; if only I could speak through a mouthful of lemon juice, everything would make sense. “Is this something that happens often?” I said. “What do we do?”
“Often?” She laughed without humour. “No. No, this has never happened before. This metaphor has never been dragged into a fucking dream!”
“But do you know what this means?” I asked. Then I winced and shook my head — the dream was too sharp, cutting at my eyelids and ear drums. “No, wait, I mean—”
“Of course I know what it means!” Jan snapped. “But I’m not going to bloody well talk about it, alright? This is private.”
“That’s not what I— mean—” I panted. “I mean what do we need to know?”
“Nothing, thank you very much,” Jan said. “What we need to do is leave. Now. Please!”
The zombie lurched another step toward us. Actual Jan took Lozzie by the hand and backed up a step, dragging Lozzie after her.
Lozzie puffed up her cheeks and said: “Janbie. Zom-Jan. Zomuary.” She didn’t sound very amused, try as she might.
“Just Jan,” said Jan, gently. “It’s not January.”
“I know,” said Lozzie. “Janbie’s kinda slow.”
“Thankfully,” Jan huffed. “Can we really, truly not exit this dream?”
“Jan,” I repeated, feeling like I had a bolus of food lodged inside my throat. “I mean— if this zombie-you was destroyed, would it—”
“Ha!” she barked. “I wish. It’s a metaphor, not a literal ghost or the spirit of my first corpse or my embodied guilt, or any other bullshit like that. A metaphor. If we can’t leave this dream — no? Lozzie? — ahhhh,” she sighed at Lozzie’s apologetic grimace. “Then we’re just going to have to run from the thing. I refuse to touch it, I refuse to wait for this thing to catch up with me. I am not dealing with it.”
The Jan-Zombie went snort, like a child imitating a pig — not the sort of sound one expected from a zombie at all. But Jan jumped and grabbed at the sword-rope around her armour. I took a step back too. My tentacles raised as if to ward off the undead apparition, but what was I going to do? This was a dream. If Jan was right, and this was a metaphor, what would it mean to pull the zombie to pieces? I hesitated, clutching at the yellow robes around my torso, wishing I was not so alone.
Lozzie chanted in a sing-song voice: “Janbie, Janbie — go ay-way.”
“Yes, quite right,” Jan agreed, making an effort to pull herself up in her suit of armour, the weight of her sword dragging at her back. “Fuck off!”
“No,” I struggled to get the word out as I backed up another step too. The city whirled around my senses. The brass-gold dome and the giant version of Tenny towered over opposite ends of my mind. “I mean, if it was destroyed, hypothetically, would that hurt you? Would that be a bad thing?”
Jan finally glanced at me. The pale round moon of her face was all pinched and mortified inside the open visor of her medieval goat-helmet; she was doing a very bad job of pretending this was not a crisis for her.
“Hurt me?” she asked, incredulously. “No. Heather, this has nothing to do with you, this is my problem. Frankly, this is none of your business.”
Too sharp, too clear, the world was pressing too hard on my senses; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t form the right questions, I couldn’t even focus on the next step, on what we should do. It was like my brain was running on a fraction of its usual power.
Whatever this Zombie-Metaphor was, it was highly personal and intimate to Jan; some secret of her past getting aired in semi-public. Lozzie was one thing, considering the developing nature of their relationship, how close they’d become. But me? She didn’t want me to see this, and not because it was dangerous. She was embarrassed and humiliated. Her dirty knickers were up on a flagpole. That was the only thing I could get through my head, as if the rest of my thoughts had withdrawn.
The Jan-Zombie was still a good twelve paces away from us, shuffling forward on broken foot bones, squelching with pus and pooled blood inside her tissues.
Not a danger. Not going to touch us.
A nugget of thought was allowed to solidify in my brains.
“It’s not very fast,” I said, then glanced over my shoulder, up at the shining bronze-gold dome of the perfect equation, rotating and adjusting as it towered over this remembered slice of childhood Reading. I needed to get there. That made sense. “We can probably just run for the dome. Speed-walk for the dome. Walk, saunter, it’s not fast at all.”
“Oh yes,” Jan said, dripping sarcasm. “It’s so slow you forget about it, that’s the point. You forget it’s there, creeping up on you all the time, every day, every moment you exist. And then when you least expect it, the thing shuffles around a corner or bumps into a door and suddenly you have to deal with it, again!” She took another step back from the zombie, pulling Lozzie along after her — and almost tripped up on her own sword, the oilcloth-wrapped tip banging against her armour-clad thighs. Jan huffed in frustration and yanked at the rope. “And this bloody thing! Can we really not send the sword back by itself?”
Lozzie shook her head, face filled with apology and worry.
“Jan,” I said. “We should go. Just go. Get the dream over with.”
Jan rounded on me, lips pursed, one eye on the zombie version of herself. “All right. We reach your big spinning metal ball, what happens next? Does the dream end?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” I glanced at the zombie too, backing away another step along Oxford Street. “If this is the only one, we could just run for it and see what happens at the dome. Is this the only one?”
Jan looked at me like we were in a classic spooky cartoon and I’d just suggested we split up to search for clues. “Don’t jinx us. Don’t. Heather, I like you, I respect you. So, don’t.”
Lozzie made a pouty face. “Multiple Jans would be nice. Both ends.”
Jan managed to look embarrassed, mortified, and slightly interested all at once. She huffed and pulled Lozzie back another step from the advancing undead parody. “Please, Lozzie,” she said. “Please do not touch it. I don’t know what happens if you touch it.”
“What happens if you touch it?” Lozzie chirped.
“Stupid things,” Jan answered without hesitation. “I’ll disappear in a flash of light and return to my home planet.”
Lozzie pulled a face of open-mouthed awe.
“Jan,” I hissed.
Jan rolled her eyes. “Okay, serious answer: I have no idea, because this is a dream and that is a metaphor. Considering what it’s a metaphor about, I suspect I would have to literally sit still for the long minutes the thing would take to devour me. It would just … drool all over me and make a big mess. God, I could probably just wrestle the thing to the ground at this point, but I’d rather not.” I heard her swallow though I couldn’t see her throat bob inside that armour. The armoured fingers of her free hand worried at the frayed blue rope around her chest, the rope keeping the sword strapped to her back.
Lozzie chirped, “Then you’re safe, Jans! You’re in armour!”
“Mm, yes,” Jan replied, staring at the zombie as it lurched forward again. She didn’t sound very reassured. “That’s an interesting metaphor too. And by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘get me out of this fucking stupid monkey suit’.”
Lozzie giggled. “It’s very cute!”
Jan glanced at her quickly, as if it was risky to take her eyes off the zombie. “It— it is?”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded with great enthusiasm.
Jan looked back at the zombie again. “Great. Alright. Fine.”
I cleared my throat gently. “Having your girlfriend be into your metaphorical cursed destiny or whatever this is, that’s a pretty good perk, Jan.”
“Oh, shut up,” Jan snapped. Lozzie giggled again; now that the zombie appeared to be merely a shuffling inconvenience, she had calmed down considerably.
I repeated myself: “Is this the only one?”
“I don’t know!” Jan replied, shrill and irritated. “I’m not in the habit of having metaphorical magical dreams!”
“Because if it is,” I replied, trying to keep my thoughts coherent. “Then we can just out-walk the thing, very easily. Come on, we’ll make for the dome. If the dream doesn’t end there, if I have to … do things, then we can rethink.”
Jan huffed. “I’m going to be hunted down and eaten by my own metaphorical rotting self. I don’t even know where to begin. Fuck this. Fuck everything about this. I hate this.”
“Janny,” Lozzie squeaked. “It’s fine! We can just walk! Walk away! Hit ‘da bricks!”
“Yes, yes,” Jan sighed. She frowned at the zombie, beginning to turn away. “Same thing I’ve been doing my whole bloody life. Lozzie, I hope you know what you’re signing up for with me. I really do.”
Lozzie pulled on her hand. I kept pace, watching the zombie out of the corner of my eye as well.
“Janny!” Lozzie crooned encouragement.
Jan finally looked away from the zombie, ready to turn and hurry down Oxford Street. “Fine, I—”
Zombie-Jan straightened up; jerk-snap with neck, twitch-crack with shoulders, her spine going pop-pop-pop. Cloudy, vacant eyes closed their bloodstained lids, orbs rolling behind crimson shutters. Our Jan flinched, grabbing for Lozzie, staring in horror. Zombie-Jan stood stock still for a heartbeat of sluggish lead through empty veins. Then the eyes opened again, still dead and empty as smoked glass, but pointing forward.
She wore an expression so alien to Jan’s features that it was almost worse than the old wounds and dried blood and rotting decay: serene acceptance of her own doom.
“Stop running,” said Zombie-Jan, in a gurgling, black-mucus parody of Jan’s own exasperated tone.
Then it took a step. Solid, confident, without the lurching sway of the brainless dead.
“Oh, fuck that!” Our Jan said.
Jan’s free hand let go of the sword-rope and flicked into the air, digging at an invisible pocket next to her side — and found nothing. Her fingers did not vanish into thin air, into her secret pocket dimensions full of tricks, but just swiped at nothingness. Jan waggled her armoured hand as if trying to grip a zipper which was covered in grease and Vaseline, eyes wide with panic, a woman trying to draw her gun and finding the holster missing.
“It’s a dream!” Lozzie cried out. “It won’t work in a dream!”
Jan held out her hand. “Then dream me up a firearm!”
The zombie strode toward her.
“I caaaan’t!” Lozzie cried, face twisted with horrified apology. “Let’s run! Heathy!”
Dream-logic haze flowered behind my eyes, blooming purple and black and rose-petal red. I was dying for a lemon, desperate to bite into the stinging flesh and feel the juices filling my stomach. Instead I felt a full-body flush of pins and needles.
Zombie-Jan stepped right past me, ignoring me completely, going for her mirror image in tarnished steel.
Lozzie and Knight-Jan turned to flee down Oxford street, Jan struggling with her sword, her free hand pulling at the rope around her chest. Lozzie flapped and flopped like a jellyfish in a jet stream, a pastel flag on the wind.
Zombie-limbs and Zombie-head carried on past me. I watched her go.
“Heathy! Follow us!” Lozzie shouted.
Big Heather Who Was Still Behind Me gently took me by the shoulders and elbows and hips and knees and ankles, pointed me past the zombie and after my beloved Lozzie and the strange metal-clad figure of Jan, and pumped my limbs until I caught up with them.
“Run toward the dome!” my mouth said. “We can’t be that far, we can’t, I think it’s … ” My head looked up toward the great brass-and-gold dome towering over the east end of the city, but I couldn’t tell how far away it stood. Over the Kennet river? Slightly to the south, past Queen’s Road and London Road? Yes. Right about where—
“Oh,” said my mouth.
“Oh?!” Jan snapped at me. Her helmet visor kept clacking shut as she ran. She struggled with it and shoved it upward to reveal her face again, stained with cold sweat. “Oh, what? Don’t ‘oh’ us like that!”
My throat felt tight. Butterfly wings fluttered inside my chest. My tentacles wrapped close to my body. “It’s over the hospital. Royal Berkshire Hospital. I’ve … been there, before. Um. That way!”
We crossed the bridge over the motorway in a clatter of metal and slapping trainers and the sunlight rustle of Sevens’ yellow robes around my legs, plunging into a dream-summoned version of Reading city centre. The buildings grew taller. The familiar old red brick of Broad Street unfolded beneath my feet; I hadn’t been here in years. The buried logic of my childhood memories half-expected my mother to be at my side. Large Heather peered over my shoulder, staying out of the way for now.
“Where—” Jan panted, clacking her helmet visor up again, “are we? This isn’t—”
Lozzie chirped. “It’s not Sharrowford!”
“It’s Reading,” said my mouth. “It’s where I grew up.”
“Oh, wonderful,” said Jan. She slowed to a stop just beneath one of the sad, skeletal-looking trees planted along the middle of Broad Street’s pedestrian area. Lozzie stopped with her, dutifully holding on tight to Jan’s hand. I bounced to a halt as well, my tentacles springing forward as if catching me on the substances of the dream itself. I whirled around like I was underwater. “Reading,” Jan was saying. “Never been. Right.” She turned to glance back over her shoulder as she spoke: “That should buy us a few minutes, it wasn’t running too. Now, please, help me get this fucking arsehole of a sword off my back … maybe … cut the … ”
“I don’t see it either,” my mouth said, as my eyes followed the direction of Jan’s gaze. Lozzie went up on tiptoes, free hand shading her eyes despite the lack of blazing sunlight.
Broad Street was clear of both cars and pedestrians. We were the only ones here. We could see all the way back to the bridge. Giant Tenny towered over the western end of town, huge eyes closed in peaceful repose. Nothing walked the dream but us three dreamers.
Jan hissed, “Where the hell did it go? Where the hell did you just go, you little shit?”
Lozzie made a sad whine. “Janny, don’t call yourself thaaaaat.”
“It’s not me!” Jan snapped. Lozzie flinched — though she didn’t let go of Jan’s hand. Jan huffed at herself and flushed in the cheeks. “Lozzie, I’m sorry. It’s not me. Please don’t call it me.”
Lozzie nodded, bobbing up and down. “Okay!”
“Thank you. Thank you, Lozzie. I appreciate it.”
My throat cleared itself. Five tentacles levered me up to get a better view of the street, yellow robes hanging down like jellyfish membranes. But there was nothing moving, nothing hiding behind cars. “Maybe it went onto another road?” a suggestion presented itself through my lips. “Or a shop? Would it know we’re going for the dome?”
Jan huffed and gave me a pinched look. “How many times? It’s a metaphor! I don’t know what it— ahhh!”
Jan screamed, flinched, and almost pulled Lozzie over onto their collective backsides, stopped only by a sudden flutter from Lozzie’s poncho, as if the pastel clothing had caught a fully armoured woman and pushed her back to her feet.
Zombie-Jan strode right out of a bookshop to our left, power-walking toward Jan.
“Stop stalling,” said Zombie-Jan. She even sighed a little sigh.
“Never!” Jan spat back. Then she picked up her armoured feet, dragged on Lozzie’s hand, and scarpered off down Broad Street.
Zombie-Jan ignored me completely, turning toward her target as she strode on.
“Um,” I said. “Would you maybe … stop?”
She ignored that.
She won’t, Large Rearward Heather informed me.
I sighed. Biggest And Most In Charge Heather took hold of my limbs and ran me onward.
The chase turned into a farce, ruled by the logic of the dream; we fled down Broad Street, then right onto Duke, then over the river and onward toward the looming giant of the brass-and-gold dome, where the hospital should have stood. At every corner, around every turn, from every darkened doorway, the Jan-Zombie strode forth to follow us. Chin high, feet naked and bloody, trailing pus and plasma, wearing a wounded dignity and solemn pride which Jan herself would never have shown, she walked toward us from unexpected angles, appearing whenever we slowed or stopped for even a second.
“You can’t run forever,” she said, with a very Jan-like huff and little tut. “You have to deal with me eventually.” “Don’t tell yourself you’ve escaped.” “Give up and stop.” “Convincing yourself I don’t exist is is a dead end.” Jan’s voice rose from her decaying throat, wet and thick with clotted blood and dried bile, never angry or accusing, but calm and inexorable — just like her inevitable reappearance no matter how far we fled.
“This doesn’t make any sense!” Lozzie squeaked as we ran down the row of railing-fronted terraces along Queen’s Road. “Why doesn’t she just teleport right in front of you?!”
“Don’t give it ideas!” Jan yelled back, muffled by her goat-headed helmet as it clacked down again, getting in the way.
A half-remembered Reading flashed past in dream snippets, with one solid landmark bobbing up out of the waves again and again: Number 12 Barnslow Drive was keeping pace with us.
The house appeared in the place of a Chemist’s, then a corner store, then embedded in the front of an office block, then wedged into a gap between other buildings, and twice just sitting in the middle of the road, dominating the space turned alien and pointless by lack of cars. And once or twice — then three times and four — I noticed the house was blocking the Jan-Zombie.
It was neither very effective nor much of an impediment to the zombie’s power-walking progress every time she appeared, but I noticed that when the house was present and nearby, she was forced to select an imperfect entry-point to the dream-stage — a street further from her target, a corner which forced her to cross the road to reach us, a door which was not yet standing open. The house got in her way.
“Thank you!” I cried out to the house as we passed it again. Lozzie giggled and Jan looked at me like I was mad. I just shook my head. “It’s helping! The house is helping!”
Jan’s wide eyes flicked back to glance at Number 12 Barnslow Drive as we left it behind again. “Do you think we could shelter inside it?”
I shrugged. “You could. I have to reach the dome! I have to!”
Jan gritted her teeth. “Lozzie—”
“We’ll follow Heathy,” Lozzie said. “Then dive into the house!”
Jan and Lozzie were both running for real. Jan’s armour was fitted perfectly for her size and musculature, joints oiled and smooth, moving with barely a whisper of metal-on-metal, but the suit also weighed a ton and she had a sword strapped to her back, slapping against her thighs and throwing her off balance. Jan was not exactly the fittest of ladies and her lungs were pumping and gasping for air by the time we’d crossed the river. Lozzie was slightly better, running on dream-juice and wishes and her inherent suitability for this half-real environment, but even she was panting and flushed, though mostly unafraid of the ever-pursuing Janbie.
But I wasn’t fit and high-stamina either — not in the waking world. Yet as we fled down the streets of my childhood city, my limbs seemed to lift as if buoyed upward by invisible currents, my lungs pumped with perfect clarity, my bruises and aches melted away, my five — five? — tentacles galloped for me, lending me speed and athletic precision. The dream-logic seemed to shift to one side, not clouding my thoughts but directing my body along the pavement like a marathon runner with extra legs. I even considered scooping up Jan in my arms and carrying her myself; but Large Heather Behind Me vetoed that decision. We were not capable of carrying that weight.
Halfway down Watlington Street, Jan ran out of steam.
“Ahhh— ahhh—” she panted, metal boots clonking to a halt along the pavement. She almost doubled-up with effort, visor clacking shut, drooling with overexertion. Her absurd goat-headed helmet fell forward. She panted through the metal visor.
“Jan! Janny!” Lozzie pulled on her hand. “Jan-Jans we have to go!”
“Fuck— it—” Jan panted.
I skidded to a stop as well, tentacles out like a cartoon character as I turned and rejoined my friends. Jan was just straightening up and Lozzie was helping her, as the Zombie-Jan stepped out from behind a house and into the middle of the pavement, two dozen paces behind us.
“Running never works,” said the Janbie. She seemed quite sad. “I’m glad you’ve decided to stop.”
Our Armoured Lady of Jandom turned to face her pursuer — almost toppling over with the weight of the sword on her back. I glanced over my shoulder: the brass dome of perfect mathematics was close now. It filled the sky like a giant wall of clockwork complexity. One more street, one more corner, and we’d be there. Why stop now?
Jan clacked her visor back up. “Running away is my greatest skill! I am very good at it!”
My lips moved, “We’re almost there! Maybe when we reach the dome—”
“How do I make you stop following me, huh?!” Jan shouted. She was losing her temper, laser-focused on the zombie. Lozzie was pulling on her arm, trying to get her to run again, hissing her name. But Jan wouldn’t move.
Zombie-Jan was striding forward, closing the distance. “You can’t,” she said.
“Fine!” Jan spat back. “I’ve had enough of this edging, anyway. You want magic? You want me to do magic at you? Is that it?”
“Yes,” said the Janbie.
All the fire went out of Jan’s face. She took a clonking step backward. “Oh.”
The Jan-Zombie closed to seven paces, six, five. Jan still wasn’t moving. Four. Lozzie was repeating her name, physically pulling on her arm like she was a reluctant hound. Three. But some quality of her zombie mirror-image had Jan locked in place, hypnotized like a rodent in front of a python. Two paces. Zombie-Jan reached forward with one hand. Jan’s visor fell to cover her face with a clack, one final layer of turtle-shell rejection. The Zombie’s blood-stained fingers reached for her chin. Lozzie was screaming.
Bigger Heather Who Was Still Behind Me And Paying Lots Of Attention reached over my shoulder with a thousand fists.
One of them contained a lemon, for me to snatch out of the air and gnaw on like a frenzied ferret. The other nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine hands of god descended on Zombie-Jan and hit her like the spring-loaded impact of a mantis shrimp claw, multiplied to a perfect number.
The zombie exploded backward in an instant flowering of flesh and bone and viscera, a fountain of deep red, a cloud of expanding intestine like party streamers, a popped cork of brain matter and nerves and powdered organs. The sound was deafening, a meat-world noise, a thousand years of butcher back rooms compressed into one second. One moment, Jan’s mirror — the next, a bloody smear on the pavement fifty feet long, like a meat-truck overturned in the middle of Reading.
All that remained of her was a pair of feet torn off at the ankles, standing a few paces away from Jan.
If I had not been plunged beneath the abstraction of the dream-logic once more, it would have been quite a shocking sight. But with my mind stirred and sucked upward, I simply bit into my delicious lemon, spitting bits of yellow peel onto the pavement.
Jan shrieked and stumbled backward. Lozzie caught her, though they almost fell over together. Jan shoved her visor back up and stared at me — past me, above me, over me, to my roots and my supply — jaw working and eyes wide with terror.
“It’s okay!” Lozzie said, grabbing her and gently slapping her cheeks with her fingertips. “Janny, it’s okay, it’s—”
“What am I looking at?” Jan whispered. Her voice was hoarse.
“It’s not Heather! It’s fine! I know, I was shocked at first too, but it’s fine! Hiii, Heathy!” Lozzie waved at me, for Jan, like showing a small child that it was safe to wave at a large yet gentle animal.
Larger And Wiser Heather withdrew her incredible violence from the smear that had been a zombie only moments before. She wiped her thousand fists and revealed they were actually just five hands, opening and closing the fingers in a friendly gesture.
“See?” Lozzie chirped.
Jan boggled in my direction. Then she stared at Lozzie. Then Big Heather With Lots Of Food offered her a lemon as well. Jan took it, hand shaking. She dropped it on the pavement.
“Lozzie,” Jan said, voice quivering. “What— what is going on here?”
“I don’t know! But it’s okay! Heathy helped, right?”
I said, “No more Zom-Jan.”
Jan stared at me like I was a talking door.
Lozzie bit her lip. “Juuuuuuust go with it, Janny. It’s a dream, okay? And look, no more zombie!”
“Yes,” Jan said, forcing several deep breaths down her throat. She had to make a conscious effort to look away from me. Was it the lemon-eating? I was getting kind of messy, especially when Largest And Smartest Heather handed me three more. Three! I was eating well now, much better. I took one in each hand and took bites from them in order, then mixed the order up for fun, then reversed the order to see if it made any difference. It did! Jan eventually turned to look at the smear of blood and guts on the ground, but she kept glancing back at me. “Wow,” she said, slowly and carefully. “Okay. Well, I don’t know how that plays into the whole metaphor thing, but thank you.” She glanced at Lozzie but pointed at me. “Should I be thanking this? Her? What am I talking to here?”
Lozzie nodded. “Heather can still hear you!”
You’re welcome said Large But Weak Heather.
“Heathy!” Lozzie chirped. “Are you okay?”
“Mmmhmm!” I said back.
“Yes, thank you,” Jan repeated. “This likely solves the problem for now, though I still don’t want this bloody sword on my back. Oh, I’m going to have such a hangover when I wake up. I can help you with your dome-thing, I suppose, as long as that’s not also—”
Like a great wave crashing against the shore, the Jan-Zombie sucked herself back together.
Reforming from the ankles upward, dragging her viscera across the pavement as if by magnetic force, skin wrapping rotten muscle but still split by pus-weeping wounds and covered in grave-dirt and corpse-bile. Rebuilding herself cell by cell in fast-forward, a sickening process of cramming dead blood back into shrivelled veins and sealing them inside rotten meat and wrapping the whole ugly concoction in the mirror-image of the woman who stood next to Lozzie.
The Jan-Zombie opened her eyes. Not a scrap of blood was left on the floor.
She said, “You can’t pretend—”
Biggest Heather reached out again and smeared her sideways, splashing organs and claret up the front of the nearest house, speckling a hedgerow with spots of blood and draping ropes of intestine over a wall.
Sluuuurp-pop — the Zombie Jan pulled herself back together again.
Third time lucky, this time across the road, a shower of red over the parked cars and the black asphalt, staining the road markings.
Squelch, she snapped back, even faster.
Big Heather With The Many Strong Arms reached out a forth time — and Zombie-Jan turned to her.
“Stop that,” she said.
Jan was panting and backing away. Poor thing, must have been rather taxing, watching her mirror image pulverised so many times over.
Bigger Heather Who Knew Best kept reaching, but this time Zombie-Jan reached out to meet her hands.
Dream-Logic juddered and jerked, like I was trying to hold my breath, or my body was about to shut down, like two different instincts pulled me in different directions. We should be running! We could reach the dome in one more street, even if we didn’t know what might happen when we arrived! But then I had another lemon in my hands again, exploding with citrus inside my mouth, and it was okay because the dream was only a dream, and—
“Heathy, stop!” Lozzie screamed. “No touchy!”
Big Heather turned me and ran me after Lozzie and Jan. Going with plan A — reach the dome. Biggest Heather said as much, talking over my shoulder and past my head and up through my spine. My own mouth was too full of lemon.
“We don’t know what will be there, we don’t know what will be there!” Lozzie was babbling. That display had upset her more deeply than I’d realised. I wanted to apologise, but Large Heather With Many Thoughts was cramming lemons into my mouth, opening my throat with her hands, shoving them into my gullet, into the fire burning in my belly.
Jan was staring at me again, wide-eyed with terror, like she was swimming next to some unknown be-tentacled marine creature, which might snatch her up and eat her at any moment. “You can tell what she’s saying?!” she asked Lozzie.
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded. “Heathy, what do we do?”
Go into the house said Large Heather Who Stood To My Rear. We’ll deal with the dome, whatever that means. You go into the house, with Jan, and lock the door. But get the sword off her back first, leave it outdoors. Nothing is stronger than the house. The projection won’t follow. I think.
“Love you!” said Lozzie.
I love you too, we told Lozzie.
Lozzie related the plan to Jan. Jan was not happy. She wanted to leave the dream. I spat out pieces of lemon peel and tried to say it was very important that we all stay in the dream, that I would look after my friends, that Biggest Heather had everyone’s best interests at heart — but then we rounded the corner of Watlington Street and burst out into the space where Reading ended.
Brass and gold and chrome and steel and a half-dozen other metals of unearthly provenance, rising into the air as a wall of clockwork perfection, right where Royal Berkshire Hospital should have stood. The dream-remembered city simply ended there, cut off by a structure no human minds could ever build, a mechanism of such precision that one would have to observe and understand every single part at the same time in order to comprehend what it did or what it meant.
That I understood instantly, as my numb feet stumbled to a halt, as my eyes were dragged across the ever-shifting surface of many-sided shapes, their interlocking beauty spelling out words that fell on senses not designed for their message.
I understood, instantly: one would have to grasp all the parts, at the same instant.
The dome stood about a hand’s breadth off the ground, floating as if held there by its own internal logic, hundreds of feet high and miles wide, an Outsider equation towering into the sky.
Outsider equation? I asked.
Must be said Large And Clever Heather.
It was not a true dome, but a swarm of parts, brass plates gliding across each other, joining and parting again, chrome clockwork locking and unlocking, cogs of golden perfection catching their teeth on wheels of silver. From a distance it had been beautiful, but up close it made my stomach churn and my head spin with vertigo. How could anybody have created such a thing? Only a mind like the Eye could dream it. Was this message truly from my twin sister? If so, what did that say about her?
Bigger Heather Who Moved Me kept moving me, pulling my limbs forward to follow Lozzie and Jan over the open ground toward the dome.
Just where Royal Berkshire Hospital’s buildings should have been there was an opening in the many layers of the dome structure, like the peeled-back tissues of a shell, mollusc flesh and fluffy fronds in brass and gold. A way inside the mathematics of perfect expression. Waiting for me.
About twenty feet from that flower-like entrance, in the middle of a truncated road, was Number 12 Barnslow Drive, again.
We all clattered and skidded and hopped to a halt, just shy of our own front door. The house waited patiently for us. The dome loomed giant behind us. The Jan-Zombie stepped out from the road we’d just exited, striding toward us; the distance gave us a few moments to plan.
“We’re here!” chirped Lozzie, vibrating like an excited child. “We’re here!”
Armoured Jan glanced between the house and the dome, jaw hanging open inside the helmet around her head. “I … you’re going there? Alone? Inside that thing?”
Too many lemons filled my mouth. Large And Talkative Heather answered for us: We’re not alone. See? She splayed her five hands — and me, too.
Jan recoiled, blinking, free hand up as if to ward off a monster. “Okay, okay! Christ alive. Fuck me. Don’t do that!”
“It’s pretty!” Lozzie chirped.
“Yes, fine, it is, but also very, very weird!” Jan snapped back. She looked at the front door of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. “Are we hiding in there, or what?”
Drop the sword, said Me Who Was Also Me. Then hide in the house. She won’t be able to follow. I’m certain of that. And this will be over soon. When I get inside the payload …
“You have no idea what’s going to happen in there, do you?” asked Jan In Steel. “Not a clue.”
Comprehension. Insight. Hurry up. Large Heather pointed at Zombie-Jan, closing fast.
“Fine! Lozzie, help me get this—”
Zombie-Jan raised her voice to carry the distance, bubbling wet and darkly clotted: “If you flee into that home, I will pursue her instead.” She pointed a blood-soaked rotting hand — at me.
I tried to hiss, but Biggest And Wisest Heather clamped my mouth shut.
Jan froze, watching undead parody self striding toward us. Lozzie started panting with worry, tugging on Jan’s arm. “Inside!” she whined.
I can deal with her, said My Core And Purpose. Go inside the house. It loves you too.
Jan chewed on her bottom lip so hard that her teeth drew blood, crimson threads running down to meet the metal of her helmet.
“Janny!” Lozzie squeaked.
“Lozzie,” Jan said, voice shaking. “Help me get this sword off my back.”
I could only watch, reassured by Me Myself that this was fundamentally not our fight, as Lozzie tugged at the blue rope which held Jan’s sword in place. She got it off Jan’s head and held it across her arms like an injured pet, a length of metal wrapped in oilcloth, struggling a little with the weight. Jan glanced back and forth between the Zombie and the concealed sword in Lozzie’s arms.
“Janny,” Lozzie whined. “We can run, Heathy can deal with it! She said she can!” She looked up — past me, way past me. “Or we could wake up big Tenny! She’s really big! Big helps!”
Jan shook her head. “This is my problem, not Heather’s, not Tenny’s.”
“Don’t do what it’s telling you to do!”
Yeah, said Six Other Kinds Of Me. I’d rather have an extra complication to contend with than force you to accept whatever this is.
Jan looked deeply embarrassed — but then she locked eyes with Lozzie. “I’m not going to do magic at it—”
“You will,” burbled the Jan-Zombie, closing with us.
Jan ignored it. “But I can’t swing that sword by myself. I’ve never had the muscles. Lozzie, will you lift it with me?”
Lozzie lit up, crying openly, but nodding with relief. None of it made any sense to me, but Largest Heather cried a little too. Five Other Heathers helped hold her up. I did my part.
Lozzie and Jan worked together to pull the old sword from the tightly wrapped oilcloth. I half-expected it to glow as it emerged, but it really wasn’t anything special — just a long piece of polished steel with a leather-wrapped hilt. Jan held the blade itself, her hands protected by her gauntlets. Lozzie took the hilt.
“Most awkward half-swording I’ve ever heard of,” Jan hissed to herself as they turned to face the zombie.
Lozzie looked elated — like they were about to hit a jackpot in an arcade, not stab a metaphor through the neck. She giggled.
Good luck, said Me Several Times Repeated.
Jan glanced back. “And you hurry the fuck up! This might not work, so be quick about it! Go on! Go! God alone knows what’s going to happen in that bloody great dome. I do not envy you, going in there.”
Lozzie giggled again. “It’s alright, Janny! We can get dome together another time.”
Jan flushed a deep, scarlet, spluttering red. None of Me or Me or Me knew why.
Jan reached up and clacked her visor down again, then turned to the approaching zombie, now only a few feet away. She and Lozzie hefted the sword between them, tip aimed toward the ghoulish mirror like a spear-point.
Larger Heather To My Rear pulled herself together, turned me around, and ran us toward the opening in the dome of perfect mathematics.
Behind me came a shout, a Lozzie-whoop, and a crunch of bones — and I plunged on inside, swallowed up by metal lips.
Knights vs Zombies, the addictive new mobile game, coming this February from Jansoft. No, okay, Jan doesn’t run a game studio and we should be thankful for that, because it would be the worst kind. Never-finished early access asset rips full of microtransactions. She’d probably prefer that to this though. Hey, at least she got Lozzie to help with her sword. Heather is … well. She’s doing something. Hopefully all the pieces are starting to make this a little more clear. Listen to Big Heather. She knows best.
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Next week, Heather has a fight, with maths. A maths fight, if you will. And maybe with herself. And the dome. And herself!
Well, Lozzie is more perverse than I expected. Kinda makes her cuter. Was the dome together thing a burning man reference? If not what did Lozzie actually mean?
I like this side of Heather even if I’m confused as all f***.
Thank you for the chapter.
I think I just got what Lozzie meant when she said dome together. C*m together.
Getting dome is another way of saying “Receiving Head”
Lozzie has always kinda been this way, she just doesn’t get many chances to express it! And she’s got a thing going on with Jan, so!
As for the dome comment, well, ahem. ‘Dome’ is sometimes used as slang for oral sex. Lozzie is making a dirty joke.
And thank you! This aspect of Heather is very amusing to write, and I promise that things will slowly make more sense as the end of the arc approaches. Glad you enjoyed it, thank you for reading!
Huh, never heard that one before.
Thank you for the explanation and for replying.
You’re very welcome, thanks for commenting!
Gosh, this is getting so tense! I love it!
Thanks for the chapter!
You’re very welcome indeed! Glad you like it! I’m having a lot of fun with this ratcheting up of the tension across these chapters; it’s been a while since a sequence like this one!
Very nice chapter!
I hope this more eldritch horror-like Heather stays even after this dream, would be cool if they replace or enhance her tentacles.
Thanks very much, glad you enjoyed her!
Whatever is happening to her right here, it is likely to lead to some long-term changes in Heather herself. Perhaps not exactly like in the dream, but she’s going through some kind of process, indeed!
Finally all caught up! Oh I adore this series! I’ve been up late binging for ages every night to catch up to here!
I’m fascinated by this “Heather in the Rear”, and the whole Knight debacle with Jan. I can’t wait for next week and more “Useless Eldritch Lesbians.”
Gosh, thank you so much! I really enjoy hearing from readers going through the story for the first time, it reminds me why I do this, why I keep writing, for everybody out there enjoying my work. Thank you!
There is indeed a big mystery going on here about what exactly Heather is experiencing; could a few different things! Jan and her suit of armour, well, she might have to wait a little longer, but I’m sure her side of the story will find a place on screen eventually. (I may have plans for a Jan POV, in Book Two. We’ll see!)
“Convincing yourself I don’t exist is is a dead end.”
Remove extra “is”
Oops, yes, that’s a typo! Thank you for spotting that and bringing it to my attention!
I and Bigger and Dumber I enjoyed this chapter a lot!
Bigger Heather seems something like a director, overviewing the dream from the outside. Janbie seems to have a similar role…and the dream is not happy when the directors disagree.
Also in my head when Bigger Heather punches with 500 fists she’s going ORA ORA ORA!
Yaaay, thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!
Bigger Heather could be like a director – or like a player, the one holding the controller? Janbie absolutely does disagree with the direction of the dream though, haha, good way of putting it. She’s trying to rewrite the direction of the scene.
Bigger Heather is absolutely going ORA ORA ORA, yes, 100% this is now canon.
This is magnificent.
Thank you so much! I’m really glad you enjoyed it! I feel like I took a lot of risks with this part of the narrative, so I’m delighted to see it paying off so well with readers.
Bigger Heather seems to me she is Heather’s Eye-self, Observer-self. For a long time she is apart from Homo abyssus Heather. So now she is manifest, and this experience will help join those parts of Heather together so they can work together better. Like, Heather is three, she is human, and she is abyssal, and she is godling, and those parts all need to work together so she can save Maisie. If she can join her abyssal parts to her Observer-self, then it will not hurt her much when she does mind math.
I love how the House is sentient and helping them. Good House. Bad Janbie. Cute lesbians-trying-to-wield-big-sword-together.
There’s been a few theories so far about what’s going on with Heather’s perspective and Bigger Heather and such, here! You may be quite close with that one, but I shan’t say more just yet, I’ll let the next couple of chapters speak for themselves!
The House is such a good House! Very important, yes! Jan and Lozzie are very cute together and I’m so happy for them, too. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of that in the future as well!
“‘You have no idea what’s going to happen in there, do you?’ asked Jan In Steel. ‘Not a clue.’
[I answered:] Comprehension. Insight.”
Or, y’know, katalepsis.
Hehe, well spotted! I think that’s the second or third time I’ve done a sneaky title drop. Very intentionally, too!