Eun charged across the gym, chopping the air like the T-1000. She grabbed Cole Johnson across the chest and bucked him 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 mouth dropped open 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 spat a curse, drove his knife point-first into the table by his hip, and aggressed her with a series of ham-handed punches. She dodged them easily, flitting from side to side in lightning-quick twitches. She deftly bobbed beneath a hook, then pushed him back at the exact right moment—when the momentum of his swing squared his body with hers—causing him to bumble into another jock.
“PETER!” Eun wrapped her arm around four sets of limbs, cinching them all tightly together. “SAVE REPTAR!” She twisted her waist, sending a quartet of douchebags rolling across the floor.
Her words snapped him out of his daze. Peter ran to Reptar and peered into his eyes. The right pupil was larger than the left—a clear sign he’d been concussed.
“Motherfuckers,” Peter hissed. “Come on, buddy.” He squatted down, looped his friend’s arms over his shoulders and chest, then pushed to his feet and piggybacked the chimp.
Peter shuffled into the hall and began loping forward. A second later, he felt Reptar rummaging around in his lower right pocket. From the corner of his eye, he saw the chimp holding up a baggie of double O negative.
Too late. The chimp gulped down a handful of pills—enough LSD to send him rocketing into hyperspace astride a rainbow-scaled unicorn. He jumped down off Peter’s back, and the teen took a reflexive step back.
Reptar grinned and shook his head, as if he’d just remembered something completely obvious. “Ook.”
“You okay, buddy?” Peter asked tentatively.
Reptar threw him a cheesy grin along with 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 a close eye on his simian friend. Other than some bumps and bruises, Reptar seemed fine. Every so often he’d giggle or snicker, as if he was privy to a delicious secret. They took a left—into the science hallway—and he slipped into a darkened classroom.
“Hey!” Peter hurried to catch up to him. “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 possible 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 blurted. “Don’t mess with—”
The chimp wasn’t listening; he was clicking some chalk across the slate, filling the blanked-out 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 widened.
“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 were 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 to the side. Another commando shuffled forward, locking its steely fingers onto Reptar’s elbow, and looked at 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: “Just got word—put it down.”
“NO!” Peter writhed in the grip of his mechanical captor.
“Find a tarp.” the team leader said. “Don’t make a mess.”
“Check.” The commando holding Reptar dragged him towards the door. Before it could grasp the knob, the door swung inward, causing the machine-man to take a step back.
Holly Dent stood tall in the entrance. She assessed the commando with a narrow, suspicious gaze.
“Out of the way.” The team leader jerked his rifle to the right. “Now.”
She gave Reptar a slow once-over. “Why have you beaten this hairy half-human?”
One of the commandos grabbed her shoulder. Her response was instinctive; she brought her hand up, over, and gripped its palm. Her other hand rose, ready to brace against the pinkie-side and place her attacker in 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…” It thudded onto its side, jiggling and twitching in fitful jerks.
Guns snapped up, sighting squarely in 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, 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 glowing with blue lightning. Holly sank onto her left haunch and kicked out with her right leg, and collapsed a metal knee with her incandescent shoe-sole. 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.
“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 the 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, cutting a sparking gash into the team leader’s head.
The robot stumbled sideways, banged off a desk, then crumpled to the floor.
Holly loomed over her fallen enemies, the light slowly 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 looked down, studying her chest with a furrowed brow. “Akanax’s balls,” she murmured. “Why am I contained in 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 taken control of her mind.
“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 in his tracks 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, and 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 such as these?” She picked up the skull of a robo-commando. One of its eyes had been knocked completely out—the socket was lighting with fitful sparks.
“ANOS,” Peter said. “They stopped using real mercenaries and shifted over to—”
She cocked her head. “Anus? These machines 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 for their demon overlord?”
“Yep.” He nodded at Reptar. “Come on—we 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 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 had to make sure that no one could use it as an excuse to hurt his friend.
“Gimme a minute,” he muttered to Holly. “Gotta wipe the cams.”
The Holly-thing gave him a puzzled look. “Is that a device inside 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 persona, deep-mind hypnosis—but he pushed them 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 straight out of World of Warcraft. When she fought those robots, her hands and feet were coated in light.
“Where are you from, Kor’Thank?”
“I was born on Elithia, in the Seventh Age of the Fourth Epoch, in the northeast corner of the Highholder Wilds. I’ve answered your questions, youngling, now answer mine: what do you call this realm?”
Peter couldn’t speak. His mouth had gone dry. Five 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 responded with a dull stare. “The manufacturer? Securis, I think.” His gaze dropped 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 teach me how to do that?”
She stood up, cocking her head. “The vorpal storm? ’tis a basic movement. Your warrior-priests should be able to—”
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, though, I’m not a wizard—I just know my way around uh…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.
Peter rubbed the back of his head. “Look, we can’t call you Kor’Thank, okay? Make sure you answer to Holl—”
“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 your—”
“As a king and a warrior, shouldn’t you understand your enemy and terrain, and navigate them accordingly?”
She straightened up. Her mouth opened and closed, then she 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 hundred foes. Age is but a number.”
“I’m sure you had,” he replied. “But as long as you’re here, you have to go by Holly, okay? Holly Dent.”
Her gaze narrowed. “No. I will not.”
Peter rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “Look: you’re wearing Holly’s body, so 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! 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. “That is not to my liking.”
He sighed again. “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. “Doesn’t matter. Anyways, we gotta think of a name. ‘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. “Yeah…that’ll work.” A slow nod. “Okay…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, I believe.”