For the rest of the day, Kora regaled Peter with tales of war-raptors, enchantments, and what it meant to be an Indashi barbarian. Peter gave her a crash course on Earth, the Bay Area, and twenty-first century socioeconomic structures. As they conversed, they wandered over to the Hawking Gymnasium. It was completely empty.
Peter picked the lock on a storage closet and grabbed a basketball. They shot hoops and continued to chat. Kora was describing Melthos’s Theorem of Interconnecting Worlds when Eun Yin walked into the gym.
“Got your text. What’s up?”
“Not much.” Peter went for a jump shot. The ball bounced off the rim. Kora snatched it, shot, and missed. Eun was next; she arched the ball into an easy hook, swishing it through the netted hoop.
“Nice.” Peter said. “We’ve been talking about Earth and Elithia. I never realized that—”
“—despite a slew of differences, your worlds are eerily similar?” Eun finished.
Peter and Kora stared at her.
Peter recovered first. “How did you—”
“How else could it be?” Eun gave him a sly grin.
Peter shook his head. “Whatever. Anyways, we gotta get Kora back in her body.”
“ANOS, right? Their interdimensional research division.”
Peter nodded. “They’ve lost their way. They went from defending Earth against the Xictacti to subjugating them for experimental—”
“ ‘Xictacti?’ ” Kora bounce-passed the ball over to Peter.
“Insectoids.” He shot again. The ball circled on the rim, spun off the edge. He ran toward it, caught it, and transitioned into a layup. This time, it went in. “After ANOS fought them off, they started dissecting them. Trying to weaponize their hive-mind comms.”
Eun elaborated. “Insectoids communicate amazingly fast—faster than our best quantum tech. The richness of their data surpasses ours by orders of magnitude.”
“I’ve hacked into ANOS’s files,” Peter said. “They have no idea how they do it.”
“Magic,” Kora stated with utter surety.
“Maybe,” Peter allowed. “Which would mean the Insectoid consciousness can short-circuit our causal substrate.” He shook his head again. “We’re way off topic; let’s focus on getting you back in your body.”
“Does ANOS have the tech to pull off the switch?” Eun asked.
“Assume they do. Because our only other choice is to try and get lucky with a dose of the Fuckrising.”
“We require more knowledge,” Kora said. “Without it, I could switch minds with a random being. We could usher an evil force into your realm.”
Peter and Eun exchanged an uneasy glance.
“Well,” Peter said after an uncomfortable pause, “in the absence of direction, trying something’s better than doing nothing, right?”
“Debatable,” Eun said dryly. “What are you thinking?”
Peter dug into his backpack and produced a baggie filled with dried mushrooms. “Couldn’t hurt to expand our perspectives.”
Kora looked skeptical. “Magic herbs?”
“They’re a special strain—engineered by yours truly.” He gave them a shake. “What do you think?”
“This seems haphazard,” Kora said doubtfully. “Any other options?”
Peter shrugged. “We could break into ANOS. This way, though, we’ll gather some intel—it’ll help us decide whether or not we want to risk the break-in.” He shook the baggie again. “They’re associated with long-term benefits, for both body and mind.”
Eun shrugged. “I’m down.”
“Very well.” Kora sighed.
Peter grinned. “That’s the spirit.”
He maowed a handful, then gave them each a heroic dose. Kora grimaced as she chewed a mouthful of crackly, fibrous plants. Eun consumed hers one at a time. While they ate, Peter gave them a brief primer on how to handle a psilocybin mushroom trip.
“You’ll probably feel some buzzy waves. Everyone’s different, so don’t take that as gosp—”
“That is the way of magic,” Kora said. “ ’Tis a fickle mistress. The only way to navigate her breadth is ruthless honesty, or she will tear away delusion with little regard for your personal comfort.”
Peter nodded. “Exactly. Now these are a special kind of shroom—I call ’em zen zaps. Cross-bred from several different species.”
Eun looked alarmed. “What do you mean, ‘special?’ ”
“They connect your psyche with a morphic field of consciousne—”
Alarm gave way to irritation. “English, Peter.”
“They facilitate extradimensional perception, along with telepathy. In order to trigger them, you need an external catalyst.”
Kora furrowed her brow. “And by that you mean…”
He snapped his fingers. “Like this.” Everything shook for a terrifying instant. A second later their sight resolved.
The “real world” was now marked by a dreary hue, as if an existential contrast setting had been turned all the way down to its lowest setting. The color that had infused their everyday surroundings was now contained in a bevy of fractals that drifted and sailed through the air, turning dreamily in a zero-g float. Kora and Eun stared dumbly at them.
[They’re thought-responsive.] Peter projected. Kora and Eun instantly perceived his full meaning. The tone and nuance were immediate and visceral.
[Your magic is powerful, Peter.] Kora’s face showed signs of strain; she was struggling to compose herself. [I have experienced mind-to-mind communication, but not to this degree.]
[Huh.] Eun cocked her head, puzzled. [It almost feels…it almost feels normal.] She shrugged. [Maybe I’m thicker than you two.]
Peter snorted. [Please—you’re the most sensitive person I know.]
[But also tough.] Kora qualified. [Perhaps that has something to do with it.]
Eun shrugged again. [Whatever.] She reached out and touched a fractal. It shone brightly and fluttered away. [Amazing.] she whispered.
[I know, right?] Peter poked a basketball-sized array of geometric angles. It gyred slowly into another fractal, then spun to a stop three feet off the ground.
[How does this help?] Kora asked. [It’s pretty, but—]
[There’s a second layer to it.] Peter beamed. [This is the first one—I call it ‘going Slideways.’] He beckoned to both of them. [Bring it in.]
They shuffled closer and clasped his hands, forming a three-person circle.
[We’re going into Bloom-space. Or just the Bloom, for short. Close your eyes.]
Eun and Kora did as he bade. For a long moment, nothing happened. Fractalized symmetries blossomed across the backs of their eyelids, then they felt Peter—
—and were ripped free of their physical bodies.
The teens were caught in a multidimensional whirl. It made no sense whatsoever—their attentions collapsed inward, only to spiral out as disparate threads of their fragmented selves. Then it switched—now they were caught in a loop of time, threaded into the universe as it expanded into heat death, imploded, then blew out from a point of infinite density into another iteration of unexplored potential. All throughout, they were battered by a complete lack of structure; there was nothing to grasp, nothing to build off of.
[Peter!] Eun screamed. [DO SOMETHING!]
[TRYING!] he yelled.
The existential whirlwind shifted axes, pressing their consciousness into a singular entity and dissolving the boundary of Peter/Kora/Eun. Before they were annihilated, Peter FLEXED, causing them to psychically expand and regain their original sense of self. It was the mental equivalent of catching a short, sweet breath.
Peter clapped, inhaled, and drew his hands apart. Character-laden lines grew between his fingers, glowing and flashing with numinous light. They twisted away, back toward him, then flailed outward, snapping and connecting into a polyhedral dome. Everything inside was peaceful and silent. Everything outside was still caught in a chaotic maelstrom.
Peter wiped his brow with the back of his hand. [It’s never been like that. I mean…sometimes, things get strange. but not like…not like…] His eyes were uncertain and fearful. [I wonder what caused it?]
[Me.] Kora gasped.
[How could you—]
[I am a being in flux.] she projected. [The environment reflects the strife within me. Apparently, you share my predicament.] She nodded at a section of dome directly behind him.
Peter turned and locked eyes with a twisted doppelganger—his snarling face atop a sperm-like tail—gnashing and biting at the psychic barrier. Each strike sent violent flashes rippling across the surface of the dome.
He flinched back. [What the FUCK?]
[I am not alone in my turmoil.] Kora projected.
[Whatever.] Peter replied irritably. [Enough psychobabble.] He rooted his weight and threw his arms back. [TIMEKEEPER!]
The word lit his cheeks with luminous bulges. As his jaw yawed wider, his mouth gave birth to a glowing series of concentric rings. The waves of energy breached the polyhedron, then split apart into glinting tendrils of spiraling light. The chaos outside slowed to a resentful simmer.
[TIMEKEEPER!] Peter roared again. The process repeated. This time, the outer environment stopped altogether, freezing in place like a paused video clip.
A stunningly handsome white guy (he looked like a predatory version of Matt Bomer from White Collar) approached the polyhedron, holding his hands up near his face and adjusting one cuff, then the other. Eun’s heart began to race. Due to the Bloom’s psycho-empathic ecology, Kora and Peter were instantly aware of it. They both threw her a questioning look.
Her face flushed red. [There’s a certain level of hotness you just can’t ignore, okay?]
Peter snickered. [Dude’s a gusher.]
[Gusher?] Kora asked.
[Eun’s panties are dripping with—]
Eun’s foot snapped up, slapping him across the bridge of his nose. Peter squawked and stumbled back.
[Manners.] Eun deadpanned.
The Timekeeper was dressed in an insanely expensive suit—a Desmond Merrion Supreme Bespoke (Eun had a passing interest in all things fashion). This particular suit, if she remembered correctly, cost nearly fifty thousand dollars.
[Peter Lee.] The Timekeeper grinned, showing off a perfect set of pearly whites. [Where’s my tribute?]
[KeeperTime] Peter projected. [TingsGree.]
[Thank you.] The Timekeeper closed his eyes, his features relaxing into momentary bliss. He stared at Peter again. [What do you want?]
[Wait, that’s it?] Eun interjected. [What the hell kind of tribute is that?]
The Timekeeper looked directly at her, causing her to blush a few shades brighter. [Every moment of every day, I impose linearity on Bloom-side phenomena. When someone expresses a contrary sentiment, it’s a welcome change.]
[And Peter does that by talking backward?]
[He also creates compounds that rebalance the forces behind your reality. If it weren’t for him and others like him, then said forces would congeal into a tyranny of order, destroying any semblance of novelty or vicissitude. I’m a self-aware velocity, if you want to be poetic about it.]
[Compounds…you mean psychedelics.] Eun ventured.
The Timekeeper nodded.
[I need your help.] Peter projected.
The Timekeeper crooked an eyebrow. [There are strict limits on how much assistance I’m allowed to provide.]
[I know.] Peter replied. [But this is serious.]
[Your idea of ‘serious’ is vastly different from mine.]
Peter gestured at Kora. [She’s stuck in Holly Dent’s body.] He met the demigod’s eyes. [Interdimensional fuckery could disturb the spin between planes. That disturbance could resonate outward and destabilize reality. Which would make your assignment damn near impossible.]
The Timekeeper smiled. [Did you just tell a Delegate of Order how to do his job?]
[Color me stupid.] Peter retorted. Then his eyes turned speculative. [Completely off-topic, but why do you appear as an Anglo-as-fuck Abercrombie model? That shit is tired, bro.]
[How about this?] The air around his head blurred into a crackly storm of red-and-black lightning. A moment later, the demigod’s features resolved into an equally handsome Asian male. Bladed tattoos trailed up the sides of his neck and wrapped halfway across his shaven scalp. His lips were full and luscious, his eyes amused and knowing.
Eun’s heart, already beating fast, kicked into overdrive.
[HELL yeah!] Peter blurted. [THAT’S what I’m talking abou—]
[Predictable.] The Timekeeper projected. [Which is why I look like this.] His face reverted to its original setting.
[Asshole.] Peter grumbled. [You gonna help us or what?]
[Hold on. Gotta check the substrate.] He spread his fingers and extended his arms, punching them straight out in front of him. He drew his hands apart, leaving a bright semicircle of characters hanging in the air: musical notes, math symbols, sentential calculus. He began tapping away at the holographic dashboard, eyes moving back and forth as he examined an alien mess of data.
Peter’s face shone with envy. [Hey, maybe you could teach me how to—]
[This is a rudimentary piece of perception, Peter. But even so, if I showed it to you in its true form, you’d suffer an aneurysm.]
[Bullshit.] Peter snorted. [I can handle anything from an acosmism to a—]
[Remember who you are, %Ξπ.] The name he’d uttered didn’t convert to the exact characters that swam through Eun and Kora’s consciousness, but it was the closest their minds came to actually translating it. Upon hearing it, Peter stiffened.
[Whatever, dude. You don’t even have a cock.]
[Wow.] The Timekeeper grinned as he continued swiping through his multidimensional touchpad. [Biased against my race and my aetheric classification. Look at you—you’re a next gen Koch brother.]
[FUCK you—I champion the undertrodden!] Peter snapped. [Are you seriously telling me that—]
[You’re as bound by hierarchy as I am? Yep.] The Timekeeper clapped his hands, and the interface frayed into a scatter of lines. [Done. Do you want to bicker, or do you want me to help?]
[Speak.] Peter hissed.
[You were right. We need to put him—] the Timekeeper looked at Kora. [her—] He shook his head, irritated. [You know what I mean. We need to put her and Holly back in their bodies. All part of the Grand Design.]
[‘Grand Design?’] Kora furrowed her brow.
The Timekeeper rolled his eyes, cycled a hand by his head, and projected exasperatedly: [We’re all part of an omnipotent consciousness that voluntarily fragmented itself so that its limited fragments could realize the incomparable joy of rediscovering their own omnipotence.] He blew an annoyed sigh. [Mind blowing and heartwarming all at once, I know. Please—spare me the googly-eyed wonder. Let’s address the problem, shall we?]
Peter cocked his head. [Wait, does that mean we’re—]
The Timekeeper crossed his arms. [We can talk strategy, or you can fuck off back to Earth.]
[Um…okay…] Peter chewed his lip. [So what next?]
[Break into ANOS. They have—]
[GodDAMMIT!] Peter threw his hands up. [That’s exactly what we were trying to fucking AVOID!]
[They’ve got a warp drive.]
Peter straightened, suddenly interested. [Like in Star Trek?]
[No, not like in ‘Star Trek,’ you skin-bound dunce. A true warp drive transcends the electromechanical paradigm. ANOS built theirs around a disembodied brain; it can jumpstart causality on demand.]
[How?] Peter asked, fascinated.
[ANOS has a rough idea of how to move a flesh-based consciousness into an acausal state: they’ve connected the brain to an IV drip which feeds it custom-engineered, hybrid psychedelics. Consequently, it can wrinkle space-time and create a bridge into another dimension. They burned through dozens of prospects before they stumbled onto this one; this is their first viable thought-core.]
[God in a jar.] Peter projected softly. [They’ve trapped God in a jar.]
[That’s all of us, moron. As of now they can open a gate, but they can’t control exactly where it goes. The first time they used it, they bridged your dimension with a thought-responsive aether. They were shitting bricks for five years before they finally figured out how to shut it down. They closed it off during your most recent Christmas, I believe.]
[Last year…the rolling blackouts…] Realization dawned in Peter’s eyes.
The Timekeeper nodded. [Yep.]
[They shorted out the entire West Coast.] Eun murmured. [Amazing.]
Kora looked puzzled, but kept quiet.
The demigod continued. [They funneled the wattage into a hybrid machine—a mix of quantum tech and old-school arcana—and piggybacked it through a skilled psychic. She closed the gate, but couldn’t handle the resulting feedback. This is where I should crack a joke about overcooking something, but nothing comes to mind. Anyways, you can use the brain to bridge our world with hers.] He glanced at Kora. [Cast a spell of translation in front of the brain. That should do it.]
[A spell of translation?] Kora looked suspicious. [A child could do that.]
The Timekeeper shrugged. [I don’t make the rules. I just enforce them.]
[Okay.] Peter emoted. [If that’s all you’ve got, then—]
[It’s not. Does the name ‘Bitefighter’ ring a bell?]
Kora and Peter both stiffened.
[Thought so. He’s an ancient entity who’s been reincarnating since time immemorial. As god and demon, trickster and sage. You know him as your dead dog—] he met Peter’s eyes, then Kora’s. [—and as your velociraptor mount. But now, he’s something else entirely.]
[What?] Eun asked.
Peter’s eyes flickered with disbelief. [The Bite Mobile?]
The Timekeeper nodded again.
[Wait…he’s still alive?] Peter was struggling with the idea that he might be able to reunite with his furry bestie.
The Timekeeper gave him a gentle smile. [He was never really dead. But in the context you’re referencing, yeah—he’s gone. Change is inevitable, Peter.]
Eun put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. [We’ll deal with it.] She looked at Kora and placed a hand on her shoulder as well, connecting the three of them together. Kora cleared her throat. Eun saw a suspicious gleam of moisture in the warrior’s eyes, and gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Kora covered her hand and squeezed back.
[Anything else?] Peter asked. [Warp drive, spell of translation, my unicycle—]
[Mushrooms.] The Timekeeper’s eyes glimmered with amusement. [They’re the key to your salvation. Your world’s as well. Heed their wisdom and emulate their unity.]
[The fuck does that mean?] Peter demanded. [‘Heed their wisdom and emulate their—’]
[Figure it out.] The Timekeeper said. [You’ve overstayed your welcome.]
Peter glanced at Kora and Eun. [If you spend too much time inside the Bloom, you risk causal distortion.] he explained.
[It’s not that bad.] The Timekeeper said. [Eventually I’d de-bifurcate your consciousness, and couple you into my infinite-minded self.]
[Sounds as appealing as a sandpaper rim job.] Peter projected sarcastically. [Get us out of here.]
[As you wish.]
The Timekeeper closed his eyes…
And they opened theirs. They were back in Atherton’s gym.