Eun charged across the gym, chopping the air with her hands like the T-1000. She grabbed Cole Johnson across the chest and bent forward, hip-tossing the meaty jock as if he was a five-year old schoolgirl.
Blake pointed his knife at her. “FUCK HER UP!”
A mass of jocks surged toward Eun. To Peter’s utter astonishment, she started rag-dolling them—locking arms, twisting spines, and weaving 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 easily dodged each one, flitting lightning-quick from side to side. After she bobbed beneath a hook, she pushed him at the exact right moment—when the momentum of his swing squared his body with hers. He folded inward and bumbled back into another jock. They both careened into a nearby refreshment stand.
“PETER!” Eun wrapped her arm around four sets of limbs, cinching them snugly together. “SAVE REPTAR!” She twisted her waist, sending a quartet of douchebags rolling across the floor.
Peter shook his head, snapping himself out of his wonderstruck daze. He ran over to Reptar and examined the chimp’s eyes. Reptar’s pupils were different sizes: a clear indication he’d been concussed.
“Motherfuckers,” Peter hissed.
“Ook,” Reptar muttered.
“Stay with me, buddy.” Peter propped the chimp’s arm around his neck.
They walked into the hall and began loping forward. After a few minutes, Peter felt Reptar rummaging around inside his pocket. The chimp withdrew a baggie of double O negative and started thumbing it open.
Too late. Reptar gulped down a handful of pills—enough to send him rocketing into hyperspace astride a rainbow-scaled unicorn.
“Ook.” The chimp grinned and shook his head, as if he’d remembered something obvious. “Ook awk ook.” He took his arm off Peter’s neck.
“You okay, buddy?” Peter asked tentatively.
Reptar threw him a cheesy grin along with a double thumbs-up. Peter took an involuntary step back; Reptar’s pupils had evened out.
The double O negative—somehow, it’s cured his concussion.
As they continued down the hall, Peter kept an eye on his friend. Other than some bumps and bruises, the chimp 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 Reptar slipped into a darkened classroom.
“Hey!” Peter called, hurrying to catch up. “Reptar! That’s not the right—”
Automated lights clicked on, illuminating ten rows of desks and a trio of roller-mounted blackboards. Reptar walked past the lectern and stared intently at the boards. On the rightmost slate, a mess of data funneled into a giant question mark. Two bold circles had been drawn around it. Peter wasn’t sure, but he thought it was describing a possible solution for dark matter alongside a lapse of causality within a region of sufficient density, paired with—
Reptar grabbed an eraser. He rubbed out the question mark, then the circles.
“Hey!” Peter yelled. “Reptar! Don’t mess with—”
The chimp wasn’t listening; he was busy clicking a piece of chalk across the slate, filling the blank space with a complicated scramble of numbers and letters. After a few seconds he redrew the double circle, 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 mechanics 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—”
“STAND ASIDE, KID!”
“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 locked steely fingers onto the chimp’s elbows and turned to the 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 arms of his mechanical captor.
“Find a tarp. Don’t make a mess.”
“Check.” The one holding Reptar dragged him towards the door.
Peter screamed in long, wordless howls. Spittle flew from his lips, and a network of veins pulsed on his forehead. Before Reptar’s executioner could open the door, it swept forcefully inward, causing the commando to take a step back.
Holly Dent stood tall in the entrance, eyeing the robots with clear suspicion.
“Out of the way.” The team leader jerked his rifle to the right. “Now.”
She gave Reptar a pointed once-over. “Why have you beaten this hairy half-human? He’s covered in blood.”
A commando grabbed her shoulder with its carbon-fiber digits. Her response was instinctive; she brought her hand over and across and gripped its palm. Her other hand rose up, ready to brace against the pinkie-side and put 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 said. He took his off-hand off his gun, spreading his fingers at Holly in a cautionary gesture. “Look: we’re just trying to get Fido back to his—”
“GET OFF ME!” she roared. “YOU WILL RUE THIS DAY, MACHINE-SPAWN!”
The robot holding her asked, “Why is 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 forward, gouging her captor’s optics with their glowing tips. 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.
Holly glared at the others. “Flee.” Dark red light bled from her fists.
Guns snapped up, sighting squarely in on her glowering face.
“NO!” the team leader stepped in front of his squad, arms outstretched. “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 a robot with a glimmer-lit hand.
“FUCK!” the team leader yelled. “Nonlethal! Take her down!”
The robots surged forward, their fingers arcing 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.
“Holy SHIT! Sonics and microwaves, right the fuck—”
Before the team leader could say the word now Holly blurred forward and dispatched three more commandos. Her hands ripped through their armor in crimson bursts, breaking high-grade alloy into a scatter of fragments. Reptar, who was still in the throes of double O negative, punched the air and hooted encouragingly.
She jumped into the air and twisted into a 720° spin kick. Her light-limned heel carved a flashing contrail into the air, then slashed apart the team leader’s head. The robot stumbled sideways, banged against a desk, then crumpled to the floor and shut down.
Holly loomed over her fallen enemies, the light slowly fading from her hands and feet. After a pregnant silence, Peter cautiously approached, his sneakers crunching over a mess of circuits.
“Holly? Uh…you okay?”
She locked eyes with him. “Who is ‘Holly?’ ”
Peter halted. “Um…what do you mean?”
She studied her chest with a furrowed brow. “Akanax’s balls,” she murmured. “Why am I trapped 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 somehow managed to possess her body.
“Who are you?” he asked roughly. “What’s your name?”
She responded with a cold glare. “Address me in a civil tone, meatling, lest I rip your tongue from your skull and roast it for a snack.”
Something in her voice went a step beyond bluster; the anger drained out of Peter’s face and was replaced by dread.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he stammered.
She knelt down, inspecting her kills with a professional eye. “Who would summon demons such as these?” She picked up the skull of a robo-commando. One of its eyes had been knocked out; the socket was lighting with fitful sparks.
“ANOS,” Peter answered. “They stopped using real mercenaries and shifted over to—”
She cocked her head. “Anus? These soldiers are borne of a rectum?” She lifted the skull, examining it in the harsh glow of the classroom lights. “It’s hard to believe, but I suppose it could be—”
“Not anus—ANOS. Although you just touched on the source of a billion jokes.” Peter voiced a nervous chuckle.
She let go of the skull and rose to her feet. “ANOS—that’s the name for their demon overlord?”
“More or less.” He nodded at Reptar. “Come on—I need to get him back to his cage.”
They returned Reptar to his home, then 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 footage of Reptar’s escape. The chimp hadn’t hurt anyone, but still—wrestling with high-schoolers didn’t paint him in a positive light. Peter wanted to make sure that no one used that as an excuse to hurt his fr—
His eyes narrowed. He fast-forwarded through clip after clip of digital footage.
They were all blank.
“The security cams have been wiped clean…” he fast-forwarded through them again, making sure he wasn’t mistaken. “How in the—”
The Holly-thing wrinkled her brow. “What is a ‘security cam?’ Is that a device on your scrying glass?” She looked pointedly at his computer.
Peter turned in his chair and studied her closely. Dozens of possibilities ran through his mind—retro-grade amnesia, subsurface personas, deep-mind hypnosis—but he pushed all that aside and asked her a single question:
“What’s your name?”
She smirked condescendingly, as if the answer was incredibly obvious. “Kor’Thank. 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 were coated in glowing light.
“Where are you from, Kor’Thank?” He asked this in a slow, areful voice.
“I was born in Elithia, on the Seventh Age of the Fourth Epoch, in the northeast corner of the Highholder Wilds. I’ve answered your questions, so now answer mine: what do you call this realm?”
Peter couldn’t speak; his mouth had gone dry. A moment later he found his tongue.
“Earth. This realm is called Earth.”
He cradled his head with both 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 lifted his face from his hands and stared dully at her. “The manufacturer? Securis, I think.” He dropped his gaze to the floor. “How the hell could—”
Kor’Thank spun the weapon through the air, dancing it around her body a dozen times. She jumped, twirled, whirled into a tornado kick, and finished 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, favoring him with a curious glance. “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 title?”
“My name?” He waited for her nod. “Chongha Peter Lee. I’m not a wizard, though, I just know my way around computers. My friends call me Peter.”
“I see.” She examined the tomahawk’s black-steel head with an appraising eye.
“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—”
He raised both hands, palms turned out. “As a king and a warrior, shouldn’t you understand your enemy and terrain…then navigate them accordingly?”
She met his eyes, wagging the tomahawk at his face. “A canny sentiment, Peter of Clan Lee. You say you’re not a wizard…are you a strategist, then?”
“A strate—” He shook his head. “Dude, I’m fifteen years old.”
“When I was fifteen, I’d already slaughtered—”
“I’m sure you did,” he interjected. “But as long as you’re here, you have to go by Holly, okay? Holly Dent.”
Her gaze narrowed. “That name…it leaves a foul impression upon my mind.”
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 insolent—”
Peter threw his hands up. “That’s not how things work, Kor’Thank! You have to play along to get along, if you want to—”
In a questioning tone, she asked, “Play along to—”
He voiced an exasperated sigh. “You have to compromise. No one’s strong enough to stand up to governments and corporations.”
A mistrustful stare. “I do not believe you.”
He sighed again. “Look—this isn’t a world where might makes right; you have to use your brains. Which means don’t shit on peoples’ traditions.”
“I will do my best to respect your ways,” Kor’Thank muttered. “But I refuse to be called ‘Holly.’ There is something about it…something that…it sounds deceptive. It sounds…”
“Two-faced?” Peter grinned. “Couldn’t agree more; I used to joke she was Harvey Dent’s twin sister.”
Kor’Thank cocked her head. “Harvey—”
He cut her off with a quick wave. “Never mind. Anyways, we gotta call you something else. ‘Kor’Thank’ doesn’t really blend with ‘Marissa’ or ‘Paisley.’ ”
“I care little for your sheep-minded names,” Kor’Thank grumbled. Then her eyes lit with cautious hope. “What about Kora?”
Peter raised a forefinger—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, okay…Kora it is.”
“Good. ‘Holly’ sounds evil and tricksy.”
Peter laughed. “Like I said: Couldn’t agree more.” Then he cocked his head. “Where is Holly? The real Holly, I mean.”
Kora’s expression turned grim and foreboding.
“In the desert.”