“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—they were surrounded by spiraling chains of symbols and designs—were dancing from the brain to the surface of the transparent ball. Nordic runes, Buddhist mandalas, Greek symbols…they were 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. The mess of symbols disappeared, allowing him to limit his assessment to the purely physical.
“Hey—guys.” He leaned forward, studying the circle of candles ringing the six-foot pentagram beneath the containment sphere. “Check it out.” He pointed at a grimoire—one of seven that were arranged on the pentagram. “The Necronomicon. It’s not even a real book. Lovecraft invented it so he could use it in 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 appraised the grimoire. “When I was at the Forge, we had to take classes on 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’s just how it is. 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 personally experienced something doesn’t mean it’s not ‘real.’ ”
“How can 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 life is an illusion. Why are you disputing it?”
“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 with surprise. The first one sounded like the purr of a muscle car, the second like the roar of a 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 and blurted, “Guys, maybe we should—”
Before we could finish, the glaring locus shot toward them—SHOOOOOM!—like a real-life hadouken. Kora yelled, “GUARD YOURSELF!” Eun shouted, “WATCH OUT!”
The sparkling discharge stopped a few feet away, hanging in the air, then morphed into a glowing slat of cool blue light. Waves of incandescence rolled across it, and its innards filled with a busy scramble of fluxing characters. It looked like Matrix code, only it was three dimensional, and a helluva lot cooler.
“Whoa,” Peter whispered. “It’s like something out of Tony Stark’s workshop…only 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.
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 the panel, keeping her hand connected to its center.
“You’re attached to it!” Peter shouted. “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 doubt and suspicion. “If you grow a chest-burster, I will take you out. Nothing personal—just saying.”
“You’re welcome to try, meat.”
“Look.” Eun pointed at the construct. On either side of the emergent strand, symbols had begun to bubble and roil. “I think…” Eun looked at the characters, then at Peter. “I think we should touch them. All three of us.”
“What?” He shook his head. Violently. “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.
“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 became aware of the piercing irony; he’d spent his entire life trying to break through society’s membranes, but now, when he was faced with the possibility of 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.” Eun strolled up to it without hesitation.
He gritted his teeth and kept going, 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.
“Ready?” Eun asked.
“Ready.” A slight quaver ran through his voice.
The three reached out for the glowing slat. As they did so, roiling characters leapt toward their fingers and engulfed their hands. Light crawled up their extended forearms, sketching 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 on 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 flashed across it, then—
“Whoa.” Peter’s vision was 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—each comprised of symbol-formed tentacles—snaked up their legs and torsos, whirling around their heads and arms. It felt like harmonious music was rushing through them, flooding their bodies with anticipatory delight. The light built and peaked, then jumped off their bodies, ensconcing the three of them in a blazing hurricane.
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, which was drawing him forward 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 traced a long, golden oval. Once it had formed, the threads began sketching out a network of right-angled lines within its edges.
Kora, barbarian valley girl, was now standing on a psychic surfboard.
She lowered into a crouch, riding 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 her board, and launched into a 720 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 pressure beneath his feet. He looked down and watched as a board materialized, 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. Kora streaked under her in a long, sinuous slalom, and threw a devilish grin over her shoulder.
[Race you.] she projected to Peter.
Peter grinned back and crouched low on his board, slicing across a stream of imagination. Quick-winking data slipped past his face, ruffling his hair and caressing his cheeks.
The three teens 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, at the end of the tunnel, 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 in 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 and looked around. [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 heavily 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 smooth alabaster 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—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. A few more seconds of inaudible garble, and the holo disappeared.
Peter said, [Do you think that—]
Before he could finish, a pair of slow-flashing words—OPEN and CLOSE—materialized above the table. They were gyrating languildy, 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 feels off.]
[What do you mean?] Kora asked. [What, specifically?]
[I don’t know…] Eun chewed her lower lip. [Something.]
Kora shook her head. [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 her hand.
[What?] She raised an eyebrow, mildly irritated.
[It’s just…just that…]
Kora looked stern. [Eun, if we don’t restore balance, then things are gonna keep getting worse.]
[I know that!] Eun snapped. She closed her eyes. Took a breath. Opened them again. [But we should 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—]
[Enough.] Kora declared. And before Eun could protest, the barbarian princess 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 soup, interspersed with a patchwork of red and green blotches.
Above the table, holographic imagery blazed into existence, flickering through a confusing jumble of scenes: Indashi warriors assaulting a mountain range, Holly astride a war-raptor, grinning broadly as she observed the carnage.
[She’s in my body!] Kora raged. [That BITCH!]
Before she could do or say anything more, the construct lit 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 closest to the impact, tumbled back from the violent discharge. Eun and Peter turned away, shielding their faces with raised forearms. After a subsequent wave of pressure faded and died, they looked at the ruins of the table 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!!] Eun pointed at the sky, at a cloud of black-and-purple static. Tentacles began to grow from its center, slithering toward the three teenagers.
The Timekeeper looked up, then swung his arm skyward in a slashing backhand. A flock of mechanical eagles—all rendered in glowing wireframe—erupted from his gesture and flew toward the cloud, their eyes glimmering with spark-fire light. When they touched the tentacles, they exploded in spectacular bursts, sending waves of color rippling outward.
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 sprinted toward Peter and Eun, 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 alabaster platform. As they plunged downward at breakneck speed, a terrible roar shook the aether, turning everything hazy 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, flying away into a whirl of dreamscape.
[KORA!] Peter screamed. [ WE NEED TO GET UP THERE AND HELP THE TIMEKE—]
Eun’s eyes widened with fear. [KORA! IT’S CATCHING UP!]
[Hang on.] Kora hissed.
She roared out a melodic syllable that lit her chest with star-core glimmer. The luminous flash racewd up her throat and through her mouth, lighting her cheeks and transforming her eyes into blazing supernovas. It 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. A few inches from their palms, rainbow motes materialized in the air. They began to draw inward toward their skin, and—
—shot outward in a corona of energy, 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.