Eun charged across the gym, chopping the air with her hands like the T-1000. She grabbed Cole Johnson across the chest and bucked forward, hip-tossing the meaty jock as if he weighed just as much as a five-year old schoolgirl.
Blake pointed his knife at her. “FUCK HER UP!”
A mass of jocks surged toward Eun. Peter’s jaw dropped as she locked arms, twisted spines, and wove a horde of simpletons into a tangled mess. It was like watching a female version of Kwai Chang Caine.
Blake aggressed her with ham-handed punches. She dodged them easily, flitting from side to side in lightning-quick twitches. She bobbed a hook and pushed him at the exact right moment—when the momentum of his swing squared his body with hers—causing him to bumble back into another jock.
“PETER!” Eun wrapped her arm around four sets of limbs, cinching them tightly together. “SAVE REPTAR!” She twisted her waist, sending a quartet of douchebags rolling across the floor.
Peter ran over to Reptar and examined the chimp’s eyes. The right pupil was larger than the left—a clear sign he’d been concussed.
“Motherfuckers,” Peter hissed. “Come on, buddy.” He squatted, looped his friend’s arms over his shoulders and onto his chest, then pushed to his feet so he was piggybacking the chimp.
Peter walked into the hall and began loping forward. A second later, he felt Reptar pull back his arm and rummage around in Peter’s lower right pocket. From the corner of his eye, he saw the chimp withdraw a baggie of double O negative.
Too late. Reptar gulped down a handful of pills—enough LSD to send him rocketing into hyperspace astride a rainbow-scaled unicorn. The chimp jumped off, and Peter took a reflexive step back. Reptar grinned and shook his head, as if he’d just remembered something completely obvious.
“You okay, buddy?” Peter asked tentatively.
Reptar threw him a cheesy grin, then a double thumbs-up. Peter took another step back—the chimp’s pupils were the same size—they’d both evened out.
The double O negative—somehow, it cured his concussion.
As they continued down the hall, Peter kept an eye on his simian friend. Other than some bumps and bruises, he seemed perfectly fine. Every so often he’d giggle or snicker, as if he was in on a delicious secret. They took a left—into the science hallway—and Reptar slipped into a darkened classroom.
“Hey!” Peter hurried to catch up. “That’s not where we’re supposed to—”
Automated lights clicked on, illuminating rows of desks and a trio of roller-mounted blackboards. Reptar walked past the desks and stared intently at the boards.
On the rightmost slate, a mess of data funneled into a giant question mark ringed by a pair of bold, chalky circles. Peter wasn’t sure, but he thought he was looking at a solution for dark matter alongside a lapse of causality within a region of sufficient density…
Reptar grabbed an eraser. He rubbed out the question mark, then the circles.
“Hey!” Peter yelled. “Don’t mess with—”
The chimp wasn’t listening; he was busy clicking a piece of chalk across the slate, filling the just-erased space with a complicated scramble of numbers and letters. After a few seconds he redrew the circles, bounding his contribution with a pair of thick, strong lines. Peter examined the math, his eyes widening.
“Reptar,” he whispered. “Did you just unify quantum physics and general rel—”
“ON THE FLOOR! ON THE FUCKING FLOOR!”
Gun-toting robots burst into the room. They looked a bit like the ones from the movie “Chappie,” but markedly sleeker and more segmented. Peter stepped in front of Reptar and stretched his arms out, shielding the chimp from certain death.
“He’s not a threat! He’s not—”
“He’s not dangerous!” Peter shouted. “He’s just scared!”
The robot on the right retracted its shotgun, clacking it onto a magnetic holster affixed to its spine. It tromped forward and shoved Peter aside. Another commando shuffled forward, locked its steely fingers onto Reptar’s elbow, and turned back to its team leader.
“What should we do with it?”
“Stand by.” The team leader became unnaturally still. Peter guessed it was receiving orders. A second later, his suspicions were confirmed. “Put it down.”
“NO!” Peter writhed in the grip of his mechanical captor.
“Find a tarp. Don’t make a mess.”
“Check.” The commando holding Reptar dragged him towards the door. Before the robot could grasp the knob, the door swung inward, causing the machine to step back.
Holly Dent stood tall in the doorway. She assessed the commandos with a narrow, suspicious gaze.
“Out of the way.” The team leader jerked his rifle to the right. “Now.”
She gave Reptar a quick once-over. “Why have you beaten this hairy half-human?”
A commando grabbed her shoulder. Her response was instinctive; she brought her hand up and over, and gripped its palm. Her other hand rose up, ready to brace against the pinkie-side and execute a painful compliance hold. The commando, however, wasn’t subject to human weakness; it held her firmly in place despite her struggles.
“Boss, this is Holly Dent. Her dad is—”
“I know who she is.” The team leader extended its off-hand, palm out. “Look, kid: we’re trying to get Fido to his—”
“UNHAND ME!” she roared. “YOU WILL RUE THIS DAY, MACHINE-SPAWN!”
The robot holding her asked, “Why’s she talking like she’s from ‘Game of Thrones?’ ”
The team leader shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Take care of the chimp and—”
“RUUUAHHHH!!!” Holly’s eyes crackled red. She punched both thumbs into her captor’s eyes, gouging the robot’s optics with her glowing fingers.
The commando fell to its knees, emitting a loud series of buzzy squawks. “Servos offline! I caaAAAAAAANNNnnnn’ttttttttzzzzz…” Then it thudded onto its side, jiggling and twitching in fitful jerks.
Guns snapped up, sighting squarely on Holly’s face.
“NO!” the team leader shouted. “She’s just a kid! Safe your weapons and—”
Holly grinned. “Is that what you think?” Her eyes blazed with sorcerous energy. “Prepare for a lesson in manners, ye clockwork daemons.” She muttered something sibilant, then speared through the commando on her right with a glimmer-lit hand.
“FUCK!” the team leader yelled. “Nonlethal! Take her down!”
The robots surged forward, their palms aglow with blue lightning. Holly sank onto a haunch, kicking out and collapsing a metal knee. She shot up and threw a double crescent kick—outside with the right, inside with the left—and decapitated two commandos with her magically charged feet. She kept spinning; as her torso angled down, her straightened leg came around in a vicious wheel-kick, shearing completely through a robot’s neck column.
“Holy SHIT! Sonics and microwaves, right the fuck—”
Before the team leader could say now Holly blurred forward and ripped apart three more commandos, breaking their high-grade armor into a scatter of fragments. Reptar, still in the throes of double O negative, punched the air and hooted encouragingly. For her coup de grace, Holly jumped into the air and twisted into a 720° spin kick. Her light-limned heel carved a flashing contrail into the air, slashing viciously through the team leader’s head. The robot stumbled sideways, banged against a desk, then crumpled to the floor.
Holly loomed over her fallen enemies, the light fading from her hands and feet. After a lengthy pause, Peter cautiously approached her, his sneakers crunching over a mess of circuits.
“Holly? Uh…you okay?”
She locked eyes with him. “Who is this ‘Holly?’ ”
Peter halted. “Um…what do you mean?”
She studied her chest with a furrowed brow. “Akanax’s balls,” she murmured. “Why am I inside a female’s body?”
Holy shit. Peter suddenly understood. Maybe not the why and how of it, but the what. Whoever he was looking at wasn’t Holly. He (or she or it) had somehow managed to possess her body.
“Who are you?” he asked roughly. He took a step forward, intending to grab her by the shoulders and shake the shit out of her. “What’s your name?”
She stopped him cold with a murderous glare. “Address me in a civil tone, meatling, lest I rip your tongue from your insolent skull.” Something in her voice went a step beyond bluster; the anger drained from his face. It was replaced by dread.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he stammered.
She knelt down, inspecting her kills with a speculative eye. “Who would summon demons like these?” She picked up the skull of a robo-commando. One of its eyes had been knocked completely out—its socket was lighting with fitful sparks.
“ANOS,” Peter said. “They stopped using real mercenaries and shifted over to—”
She cocked her head. “Anus? These were spawned from a rectum?” She lifted the skull, examining it in the harsh glow of the classroom lights. “Hard to believe, but I suppose it could be—”
“Not anus—ANOS. Although you just touched on the source of a billion jokes.” Peter chuckled nervously.
She dropped the skull and rose to her feet. “ANOS—that’s the name of their demon overlord?”
“More or less.” He nodded at Reptar. “Come on—we need to move. I need to get him back in his cage.”
After they returned Reptar to his enclosure, they raced over to Peter’s house. He fired up his computer and went to work, using NSA-derived software to hack into Atherton’s cameras. He had to alter the security cam footage of Reptar’s escape. The chimp hadn’t hurt anyone, but still—wrestling with high-schoolers wouldn’t put him in a positive light. Peter wanted to make sure that no one could use that as an excuse to hurt his friend.
“Gimme a few minutes,” he muttered to Holly. “Gotta wipe the cams.”
The Holly-thing gave him a puzzled look. “What is a ‘cam?’ Is that a device on your scrying machine?”
Peter punched a few more commands into the keyboard, then turned in his chair and studied her closely. Dozens of possibilities ran through his mind—retrograde amnesia, subsurface personas, deep-mind hypnosis—but he pushed them all aside and asked a single question:
“What’s your name?”
“Kor’Thank,” she replied. “What is yours, wizard?”
She thinks I’m a wizard. She calls herself something out of World of Warcraft. When she fought those robots, her hands were coated in glowing light.
“Where are you from, Kor’Thank?”
“I was born on Elithia, on the Seventh Age of the Fourth Epoch, in the northeast corner of the Highholder Wilds. I’ve answered your questions, now you answer mine: what do you call this realm?”
Peter couldn’t speak. His mouth had gone dry.
Ten seconds later, he found his tongue.
“Earth. It’s called Earth.”
He cradled his head in his hands.
What the fuck have I done?
Kor’Thank strode around the room, surveying piles of Axe Body Spray, yellowed comic books, and dirty laundry. She kicked a mound of smelly clothes, uncovering the head of a tactical tomahawk. She picked it up and hefted it approvingly.
“A bit small…but well-fashioned. Who is your blacksmith?”
Peter directed a dull stare at her. “The manufacturer? Securis, I think.” He dropped his gaze to the floor. “How the hell could—”
Kor’Thank spun the weapon, dancing it around her body a dozen times. She whirled into a tornado kick and landed in a crouch, the weapon held before her in coiled guard.
“Whoa!” Peter bolted up from his chair. “How did you—can you show me how to do that?”
She stood up, cocking her head. “The vorpal storm? ’tis a basic movement. Did your warrior-priests not teach it to you?”
He chuckled disbelievingly. “ ‘Warrior-priests?’ I learned some jiu-jitsu off YouTube, but that’s about it. I’m not sure how they do things where you’re from, but—”
“What is your name, Wizard?”
“Chongha Peter Lee. Just to be clear, I’m not a wizard—I just know my way around ‘scrying machines.’ We call them computers. My friends call me Peter, by the way.”
“I see.” She examined the tomahawk’s black-steel head.
“We can’t call you Kor’Thank, okay? Make sure you answer to Ho—”
“Why not?” she asked irritably.
“It’s not normal. Not around here, anyway.”
A dismissive scoff. “I am a warrior-king. I care little for—”
“As a king and a warrior, shouldn’t you understand your enemy and terrain, and navigate them accordingly?”
She closed her eyes, sighed, opened them, then wagged the tomahawk at him. “A canny sentiment, Peter of Clan Lee. You say you’re not a wizard…a strategist, then?”
“A strate—” He shook his head. “Dude, I’m fifteen years old.”
“When I was fifteen, I had slaughtered over a thousand—”
“I’m sure you had,” he interjected. “But as long as you’re here, you have to go by Holly, okay? Holly Dent.”
Her gaze narrowed. “No.”
Peter rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “Look: you’re wearing Holly’s body; if anyone asks—”
“If anyone asks, they would do well to watch their tongue, lest I rip it from their—”
Peter threw his hands up. “That’s not how things work here! You have to play along to get along, if you want to—”
“ ‘Play along to—’ ”
He voiced an exasperated sigh. “You have to compromise.”
A mistrustful stare. “This is not to my liking.”
He sighed again. “Look—this isn’t a world where might makes right; you have to use your brain. Which means don’t shit on other people’s traditions.”
“I will respect your ways,” Kor’Thank replied stiffly. “But I refuse to answer to ‘Holly.’ It sounds deceptive. It sounds…”
“Two-faced?” Peter grinned. “Couldn’t agree more. I used to joke she was Harvey Dent’s twin sister.”
“Who is Harvey—”
He cut her off with a wave. “Never mind. Anyways, we gotta think up a name for you. ‘Kor’Thank’ doesn’t really blend with ‘Marissa’ or ‘Paisley.’ ”
“I care little for your sheep-minded titles,” Kor’Thank grumbled. Then her eyes lit with cautious hope. “What about Kora?”
Peter raised a finger—he was ready to shoot down whatever crazy-ass suggestion she came up with—but then he lowered it. “Kora.” He stroked his chin. “That’ll work.” A slow nod. “Yeah…Kora it is.”
“Good. ‘Holly’ sounds evil and tricksy.”
Peter laughed. “Like I said: couldn’t agree more.” He wrinkled his brow. “Where is Holly? The real Holly, I mean.”
Kora’s expression turned grim and foreboding.
“In the desert.”