“Holy fuck,” Peter breathed.
“Indeed,” Kora murmured.
“I second that,” Eun whispered.
They were staring at a brain suspended in soft blue liquid, contained in something that looked like an oversized plasma ball. Energy bolts—each surrounded by spiraling chains of symbols and designs—were dancing from the wrinkled brain to the surface of the ball. Nordic runes, Buddhist mandalas, Greek symbols…the characters were shifting and morphing, changing in color and size. The disembodied brain was the least interesting part of the whole setup.
Peter flexed his will and downshifted his perception. The mess of symbols disappeared.
“Hey—guys.” He leaned forward, studying the circle of candles ringing the six-foot pentagram beneath the sphere. “Check it out.” He pointed at a grimoire—one of seven 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 standing above it and looking into its center.”
Kora did so, then appraised the grimoire. “When I was at the Forge, we had classes on the Old Ones. No one took them seriously because they hadn’t been seen for several millennia…”
“Hold on—” Peter threw her a disbelieving look. “H.P Lovecraft…he wasn’t writing about real shit, Kora.”
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 a limitless existence. Just because you haven’t personally experienced something doesn’t mean it’s not ‘real.’ ”
“How is Batman 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 unlimited potential, when you can’t detect the limits of existence?”
“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 sounded like the purr of a muscle car, the second like the roar of a tiger, and the third was a piece of vocal artistry—a melodic trill 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 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!” at the same time Eun shouted, “WATCH OUT!”
The sparkling discharge stopped a few feet away, hung in the air…then morphed into a glowing slat of cool blue light. Incandescent waves rolled across it, and its innards filled with a busy scramble of fluxing characters. It resembled Matrix code, only three dimensional and a helluva lot cooler.
“Whoa,” Peter whispered. “It’s like something out of Tony Stark’s workshop…only 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 fingers connected to its center.
“You’re attached to it!” Peter shouted. “Holy shit—what if it impregnates you?” He threw a panicked glance at Eun. “You’ve seen Aliens, right? If we don’t do something soon, then—”
“Peter, would you calm the hell down? We don’t know what it is.”
He regarded Kora with doubt and suspicion. “If you start growing chest-bursters, I will take you out. Nothing personal—just saying.”
Kora smiled dryly. “You’re welcome to try, meat.”
“Look.” Eun pointed, directing their attention back to the construct. On either side of the emergent strand, symbols began to bubble and roil. “I think…” Eun looked at the characters, then at Peter. “I think we should touch it.”
“What?” He shook his head. “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, and suddenly became aware of a piercing irony; he’d spent his entire life trying to break through societal membranes, but now, when confronted with the prospect of touching another dimension, he was goddamn terrified.
“Peter?” Eun prodded.
“Right,” he muttered. “Let’s do this.” He stepped forward. His knees were shaking. So were his hands.
“Come on, Peter.” Eun strolled up to it without hesitation.
He gritted his teeth, forcing himself to take another step. He wanted to snap at her, but he was focused on the brute mechanics of placing one foot before the other.
“Ready?” Eun asked.
“Ready.” A slight quaver ran through his voice.
The three reached for the glowing slat. Light crawled up their extended forearms, sketching fantastic patterns as it twined and wove around their shoulders. Soon, the teens were coated 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 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 through her holographic helmet. “Same.”
Flashing spirals—each comprised of symbol-formed tentacles—snaked up their legs and torsos, then swirled around their heads and arms. It felt like harmonious music was rushing through them, flooding their veins 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; it was drawing him forward with breathtaking speed. Technicolor haze flew past his body, surrounding him in a fog of undulating hues.
[YeeeeeeHAAAAA!!!] Eun screamed delightedly.
Kora brought her knees up, steadying herself (due to the energy rocketing past them, it took a deliberate act of will to keep her thought-form stable) and pushed to her feet. Golden threads materialized beneath her and traced out a golden oval in neat, right-angled sections.
Kora, barbarian valley girl, was now standing on a psychic surfboard.
She lowered to a crouch, riding the aetheric slipstream with the languid ease of a big wave surfer. Eun had formed her own board, only hers was made from soothing blue.
[Fuck!] Peter yelled. [How 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 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…
He felt some pressing up against 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 Eun and Kora’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, grinning devilishly over her shoulder.
[Race you.] she projected to Peter.
Peter grinned back and crouched low on his board, slicing across a pure stream of imagination. Quick-winking data slipped past his face, ruffling his hair and caressing his cheeks. The three teens settled into a 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, the core of white light abruptly lurched inward. A moment later it 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!] the three of them shouted.
And then they were in it.
They 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, bordered by the silvery, webby haze they’d seen from outside. Whirling radiance was visible past 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, vertical lines. For a brief instant, it formed into a crystal-clear picture of the Timekeeper, then broke apart into erratic blips.
[Holly is—] the Timekeeper’s expression conveyed urgency, but his fractured speech was unintelligible. [—she’s still—] BZZRT. [—sync with—] ZZRCH. A few more seconds of inaudible garble, then 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 lazily, tracing the outline 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.
[I don’t know…] Eun chewed her lower lip. [Something.]
Kora shook her head. [Sorry, but ‘something’ isn’t good enough.] 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, things are gonna keep getting worse.]
[I know!] Eun snapped. She closed her eyes and took a breath. Opened them again. [But we should try and figure out what he was saying before—]
[Eun,] Peter projected. [There’s a lot at stake here. We can’t give in to fear.]
She was instantly pissed. [I’m NOT, dumbass! All I’m saying is—]
[Enough.] Kora declared. And before Eun could protest, the barbarian princess laid her hand on the word OPEN.
Their geodesic enclosure began to disintegrate. The lines at the top started fading downward, the haze fading with them. The environment outside turned from harmonized glow 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 Dent astride a war-raptor, grinning sadistically as she drank in the carnage.
[She’s in my body!] Kora raged. [That BITCH!]
The image lit with flare-like brilliance. 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.
When they looked at the table again, they saw the Timekeeper standing amidst its ruins. Not just his image—he was fully embodied. His handsome face was fraught with desperation.
[Get out of here!] he shouted. [NOW!]
[Hold on.] Peter brought his hands up, palms out. [Why don’t we just—]
[THERE’S NO TIME!] the demigod yelled. [GET OUT OF HERE!]
[Guys!!] Eun pointed overhead, at a cloud of black-and-purple static. Tentacles began to grow from its center, slithering toward the three teenagers.
The Timekeeper swung his arm skyward in a slashing backhand. A flock of mechanical eagles—all rendered in glowing wireframe—erupted from his gesture and flew at the cloud, their eyes glinting 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 brief pause they resumed their downward crawl, 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, extending her arms in a double clothesline and—
[WHOOF!] they exclaimed.
—hooked their waists in the crook of her elbows, taking them with her as she leapt off the edge of the alabaster platform. As they plunged downward, 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 a melodic syllable that lit her chest with star-core glimmer. The luminous flash raced 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.
[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 sprang into existence. They drew in toward their hands, and—
—shot outward in a corona of energy, accelerating their descent and blasting their pursuer with concentrated discharge. A titanic howl erupted from above.
Goddamn, Peter thought dazedly as they reached the portal.
Like Iron Man’s repulsor blasts.