“Holy fuck,” Peter breathed.
“Indeed,” Kora murmured.
“I second that,” Eun whispered.
The three of them were staring at a human brain suspended in soft blue liquid, contained in something that looked like an oversized plasma ball. Energy bolts—with symbols and designs spiraling around them—were dancing from the brain out to the surface of the ball. Nordic runes, Buddhist mandalas, Greek symbols…they were all shifting and morphing, changing in color and size. Amazingly, the brain was the least interesting part of the whole setup.
Peter closed his eyes, flexed his will, and downshifted his perception. He opened his eyes and gazed at the brain with “normal” vision.
“Hey—guys.” He leaned forward, staring at the circle of candles ringing the six-foot pentagram beneath the brain’s containment chamber. “Check it out.” He pointed at a grimoire—one of seven that were arranged throughout the pentagram. “The Necronomicon. It’s not even a real book. Lovecraft invented it so he could use it in his stories.”
Kora squinted at it, then shook her head, irritated. “How do you deactivate the zen zaps?”
“Visualize a downward spiral, as if you were right above it and looking into its center.”
Kora did so, then studied the grimoire. “When I was at the Forge, we had to take classes about the Old Ones. No one took them seriously because they hadn’t been seen for several millennia…”
“Wait—” Peter threw her a disbelieving look. “H.P Lovecraft wasn’t writing about real shit.”
Kora shrugged. “One man’s fiction is another man’s truth. If existence is infinite, that has to be true. Somewhere, some when, all of it’s expressed. If it were any other way, you’d be placing limits on an infinite existence. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean it’s not ‘real.’ ”
“How could Batman be real?” Peter argued. “He’s just a—”
“Peter, we’re already living in a hallucination,” Eun said. “Our eyes only account for three percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our ears, nose, tongue, and skin can’t detect the full breadth of what they’re touching. Back at the dance, you told me that life is an illusion. Why are you disputing it now?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that—” he looked back and forth between Kora and Eun, then down at the ground. “Never mind,” he muttered. He nodded at the brain. “What now? Spell of translation, right?”
Kora intoned: “Lyshalian Uhl-Nagio.” Then she uttered three noises that made Peter and Eun flinch in surprise. The first one sounded like the purr of a muscle car, the second like the roar of an angry tiger, the third was a piece of vocal artistry—a series of notes that would make Mariah, Christina, and Leona Lewis turn green with envy.
They looked expectantly at the brain. Nothing happened.
“Let’s try it Slideways.” Peter snapped his fingers and flexed his will.
Just like before, the brain was surrounded by symbol-threaded lightning, but now it was all swirling together, condensing into a nexus of energized data—a gyrating circle of intensifying light.
Peter stepped back. “Hey guys, maybe we should—”
Before we could finish, the glaring locus shot toward them—SHOOOOOM!—like a real-life hadouken. Kora yelled, “GUARD YOURSELF!” at the same time Eun shouted, “WATCH OUT!”
The sparkling discharge stopped a few feet away…then morphed into a glowing slat of cool blue light. Waves of incandescence rolled across it, then its innards filled with a busy scramble of fluxing characters. It looked like Matrix code, only it was three dimensional, and also a helluva lot cooler.
“Whoa,” Peter whispered. “It’s like an interface from Iron Man’s workshop…but it’s made out of psychic mind-stuff.”
Eun scrutinized the holographic display. “I think it’s…I think it’s some kind of control panel.”
“A control panel for what?” Peter asked uncertainly.
“Only one way to find out.” Kora reached out. When she touched the construct, a jagged spike of energy blazed from its surface. She snatched her hand back, but a long, luminous strand extended from center, keeping her hand connected to the slat.
“You’re attached to it!” Peter blurted. “Holy shit—what if it plants an egg in you?” He threw a panicked glance at Eun. “Have you seen Aliens? If we don’t do something soon, then—”
“Peter—would you calm the hell down? We don’t know what it is.”
Peter regarded Kora with and suspicion. “If I see any sign you’re growing a chest-burster, I will take you out. Nothing personal—just saying.”
“You’re welcome to try, meat,” Kora replied dryly.
“Look.” Eun pointed at the construct. On either side of the strand, the symbols had begun to bubble and roil.
“Not sure of what to do here,” Peter murmured.
“I think…” Eun looked at the characters, then at Peter. “I think we’re supposed to touch them. All three of us.”
“What?” He violently shook his head. “No way. No way. There is no way in hell I’m gonna touch that sh—”
“So what do you suggest?” Eun asked.
The question stopped him in his tracks. Eun and Kora waited patiently for his answer.
“I guess…fuck.” He hissed through his teeth. “Yeah…okay. Fine.”
“We’ll do it together,” Eun said. “You ready?”
He took a deep breath, steeling himself. He didn’t know why the interface scared him, it just did. He was dimly aware of the piercing irony; he’d spent his entire life trying to break through the restrictive membranes established by society, but now, when he was faced with the possibility of reaching out and actually touching another dimension, he was goddamn terrified.
“Peter?” Eun prodded.
“Right,” he muttered. “Let’s do this.” He made himself take a step forward. His knees were shaking. So were his hands.
“Come on, Peter. You can do it.” Eun strolled up to it without hesitation.
He gritted his teeth and kept going, consciously forcing himself to take another step. He wanted to snap at her, but he was too focused on the brute mechanics of placing one foot in front of the other. After what seemed like an eternity, he was standing before the interface.
“Ready?” Eun asked.
“Ready.” A slight quaver ran through his voice.
The three reached out for the glowing slat. As they did so, the roiling characters leapt toward their fingers and engulfed their hands. Light crawled up their extended forearms, sketching out fantastic patterns as it twined and wove around their shoulders. An Elven-Protoss-Steampunk-style suit began forming around each of them, coating the teenagers in cascading chains of designs and numbers.
Holy fucking shit, Peter thought.
Outlines of helmets materialized over their heads, then filled in with color. Visors clunked down over their eyes; their sight was now filtered through a flat section of glimmering light. A sheen of purple, green, and indigo was flashed across it, then—
“Whoa.” Peter’s vision was now tinged by auric haze, all of it speckled with intricate streams of fast-moving data. He felt a clutch of tendrils slithering across his scalp, and—
—hook into his brain, connecting his thoughts with the luminous information encasing his body.
“I know kung fu,” he whispered.
Eun grinned at him through her holographic helmet. “Same.”
Flashing spirals—they were comprised of symbol-formed tentacles—snaked up their legs and their torsos, whirling around their heads and arms. It felt like harmonious music was pouring through their veins, flooding their bodies with anticipatory delight. The light built and peaked, then jumped off their bodies, surrounding them in a hurricane made of blazing information.
Then their eyes rolled up and they crumpled to the ground.
Peter was sucked into a giant, radiant tunnel. The end of it shone with pure white light, and it was drawing him in with breathtaking speed. Technicolor haze flew past his body, surrounding him in a fog of undulating hues.
[YeeeeeeHAAAAA!!!] Eun screamed.
Kora brought her knees up, steadying herself (due to the energy rocketing past them, it took an act of will to keep her thought-form steady) and pushed to her feet. Golden threads materialized beneath her and began tracing out a long, golden oval, sketching out a network of right-angled lines.
Kora, barbarian valley girl, was now standing on a psychic surfboard.
She lowered into a crouch, surfing the aetheric slipstream with the languid expertise of a big wave surf champ. Eun had formed her own board, only hers was made from cool, soothing blue.
[Fuck!] Peter yelled. [How the hell do I—]
[Relax!] Eun yelled back, climbing a crest of purple fractals. She dipped down, gripped the edge of her board, and launched into a 720-degree spin. [It’ll form on its own!]
[Don’t you have to channel your will or someth—]
[You’re overthinking it!]
A snippy retort flashed through his mind: Overthinking it…how is that even possible? This place is MADE of thought. But he bit it back, closed his eyes, and did his best to let it all go. The military-industrial complex, Kora, Bitefighter, Holly…it was all just…all just…
And then he felt something solid beneath his feet. He looked down, and watched as a board started to materialize, forming from traces of emerald scrollwork. Unlike the clean-angled stuff that had made Kora and Eun’s, his was forming from rippled furls of light-saber green. Color flooded its center, then a bright glare slid across its length, locking it into solid “reality.”
[WHOOO!] Eun launched off another wave, trailed by sparkling dots and strobing curlicues . When she reached the apex of her flight, Kora streaked under her in a long, sinuous slalom. She threw a devilish grin over her shoulder.
[Race you.] she projected to Peter.
Peter grinned back and crouched lower on his board, slicing its edge across a stream of imagination. Quick-winking data slipped past his face, ruffling his hair and caressing his cheeks.
The three teenagers settled into an unconscious rhythm, cutting across pixelated valleys of cognition and wit, imagery and feeling. Data hissed up from the backs of their boards, marking their passage with incandescent fantails. Up ahead, the core of white light abruptly lurched inward. Half a second later it did so again, then bounced outward into a giant dome made of silvery strands. They couldn’t see into it; there was a milky haze between its polyhedral sections.
[LOOK OUT!] all three of them shouted.
And then they were inside it.
Peter, Eun, and Kora tumbled across an alabaster floor, their surfboards disintegrating into wireframe scatters. A second later they slid to a stop.
Peter sat up. [What the hell?] They were on a floating platform, maybe fifty yards across, ensconced in the silvery, webby haze they’d seen from outside. Whirling radiance was visible through the membrane, but it was muted by the polyhedral barrier.
[Look.] Kora pointed at the center of the platform. Protruding from the floor was a plain, elegant table, made of the same alabaster material that comprised the platform. She pushed to her feet and walked toward it. Peter and Eun did the same.
A holographic construct flared into existence above the table. It was trying to take shape but clearly failing—it was a disjointed mess of crackling, fritzing vertical lines. For a brief instant, it formed into a crystal-clear picture of the Timekeeper, then broke apart in an erratic series of interrupted blips.
[Holly is—] the Timekeeper’s expression conveyed urgency, but his broken speech was unintelligible. [—she’s still—] BZZRT. [—sync with—] ZZRCH. After a few more seconds of inaudible garble, the holo disappeared.
Peter said, [Do you think that—]
Before he could finish, another construct materialized above the table: a pair of slow-flashing words—OPEN and CLOSE. They were gyrating and orbiting, tracing out the rough shape of a sphere as the axes of their rotation shifted with each revolution.
The three teens exchanged a glance.
[Do you think we should touch it?] Peter asked.
[I don’t know.] Eun ventured. [Something about this doesn’t feel right.]
[What do you mean?] Kora asked. [What, specifically?]
[I don’t know…] Eun chewed on her lower lip. [Something.]
Kora shook her head. [I’m sorry, but ‘something’ isn’t a good enough reason.] She reached for the word OPEN. It was upside down, in the middle of a sluggish somersault.
[Wait.] Eun grabbed Kora’s hand.
[What?] Kora raised an eyebrow, mildly irritated.
[It’s just…just that…]
Kora looked stern. [Eun, if you can’t give me a good reason not to activate this gate and restore the…the…] she turned to Peter. [What did the Timekeeper call it?]
[Interplanar spin.] he offered.
[Thank you.] She nodded at him and turned back to Eun. [If we aren’t proactive about setting things right, then things are gonna keep getting worse.]
[I know that!] Eun snapped. She closed her eyes, took a breath…opened them again. [But shouldn’t we figure out what he was trying to say before—]
[Eun,] Peter projected. [There’s a lot at stake here. We can’t give in to fear, okay?]
She was instantly pissed. [I’M not the one giving in to fear, dumbass! All I’m saying is that—]
[Enough.] Kora declared. And before Eun could say another word, the barbarian princess reached out and laid her hand on the word OPEN.
The geodesic enclosure began to disintegrate. The lines at the top started fading downward, and the haze faded with them. The environment outside turned from harmonized iridescence into a dark, slow-moving soup, interspersed with giant blotches of lurid red and sinister green.
Above the table, holographic imagery blazed into existence, flickering through a confusing jumble of scenes: Indashi warriors assaulting a mountain range, then Holly astride a war-raptor, grinning broadly as she observed the carnage.
[She’s in my body!] Kora raged. [That BITCH!]
But before she could do or say anything more, the construct sizzled and hissed, lighting with the brilliance of a magnesium flare. A bolt of pure blue light shot down from above, breaking the table into a thousand pieces. Kora—who was standing nearest to the impact—tumbled back from the violent discharge. Eun and Peter turned away, shielding their faces with raised forearms. After the wind died down, they looked toward the center of the platform and saw the Timekeeper. Not just his image—he was fully embodied. His handsome face was fraught with desperation.
[Get out of here!] he shouted. [RIGHT NOW!]
[Hold on.] Peter brought his hands up, palms out. [Why don’t we just—]
[THERE’S NO TIME!] the demigod yelled. [GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!]
[Guys—look!] Eun pointed at the sky. The swirling mess had congealed into something that looked like black-and-purple static. Tentacles began to grow from its center, slithering toward the three teenagers.
The Timekeeper got to his feet and swung his right arm skyward in a slashing backhand. A flock of mechanical eagles—all rendered in glowing wireframe—erupted from his gesture and flew toward the static, their eyes glimmering with spark-fire light. When they touched the tentacles, they exploded in spectacular bursts, sending waves of color rippling through the air.
The shadow-thing’s tendrils lurched backward with each detonation, but no more than a few feet. After a hanging second, they began crawling down again, accompanied by a sick boom of horrifying laughter: Joker-like cackles, mingled with beastly growls and the wet crack of snapping bones.
[Time to go.] Kora hissed. She broke into a sprint toward Peter and Eun. When she got close, she extended her arms in a double clothesline and—
[WHOOF!] they exclaimed.
—hooked both of them around their waists, taking them with her as she leapt off the edge of the platform. As they plunged downward at breakneck speed, a terrible roar shook the aether, turning everything hazy and dim for a gut-wrenching second.
Peter barfed. The vomit took form as a leering matryoshka doll that gave birth to an endless series of smaller dolls. A whirl of dreamscape rushed by.
[KORA!] Peter screamed. [WE NEED TO HELP THE TIMEKEEPER! WE NEED TO GET UP THERE AND—]
Eun’s eyes widened with fear. [KORA! IT’S CATCHING UP!]
[Hang on.] Kora hissed.
She roared out a melodic syllable; it lit her chest with star-core glimmer, then flashed up her throat and through her mouth, lighting her cheeks and transforming her eyes into blazing supernovas. The radiant discharge pulsed from her lips and shot a hundred yards down, forming into a swirling nexus lined with a symmetrical chain of runes and glyphs.
[THAT’S OUR EXIT!] Kora shouted. [HELP ME PUSH!]
Due to the Bloom’s auto-empathic properties, Peter and Eun instinctively knew what she meant by “help me push.” They extended their arms and gathered their will. In the space before their spread-fingered hands, rainbow motes materialized in the air. They began to draw inward toward their palms, and—
—shot outward in a corona of energy, simultaneously accelerating their descent and blasting their pursuer with a concentrated discharge. A titanic roar erupted from above.
Goddamn, Peter thought dazedly as they reached the portal.
Just like Naruto’s Rasengan.
Peter’s first impression was of the linoleum floor, its cold surface pressing against his cheek. His second was of the pulsing brain, shaking and quivering in its nutrient-rich suspension.
“FUCK!” He scuttled over to Kora and Eun, who were both blinking groggily. He shook them by their shoulders. “We need to move! NOW!”
The two girls staggered toward the door. Peter was right behind them, pressing his hands against the small of their backs and pushing them forward. As they piled through the door, he cast a panicked glance over his shoulder. The brain’s frontal lobe had bubbled up like a slick, veiny balloon. It began splitting open, giving birth to a shiny, suckered tentacle. Each sucker was lined with gnashing sets of teeth.
[SOMETHING’S COMING THROUGH!] Peter screamed. [AND IT ISN’T HOLLY!]
The three teens crashed into the hallway, slapping drunkenly at the walls to keep their balance. Peter cleared the door, spun on his heels, and pulled it shut. Through the narrowing gap, he saw something straight out of a horror movie: unblinking eyes, a tooth-lined maw that puckered and wrinkled like a desiccated anus, jagged, yellowed fangs…
The door slammed shut with a resonant CLANG. He took off running.