They were back in the lab.
They tumbled out the door and started running. The monster from the Bloom followed hot on their heels.
Eun blurted, “What the FUCK is that th—”
“I DON’T KNOW!” Peter screamed. [TIMEKEEPER!]
[I’m a little BUSY right now, Peter!] The demigod’s voice boomed through their minds. [Why did you open the gate??? Holly isn’t ready! Both parties have to be at an equivalent stage in their psychic development before—]
[What the FUCK!] Peter yelled. Eun grabbed his sleeve and yanked him into a left turn. [We couldn’t hear you, you cryptic-ass douche!]
[Eun was trying to stop you! Why’d you jump the gun when she was—]
[The fault is mine.] Kora projected as they raced down a corridor. [If I hadn’t—]
[Later!] Eun snapped. [We need to focus on getting the hell out of here!]
They took a right and almost ran into a pair of guards. Hands shot to holstered pistols.
“Hey!” one of them shouted. “You’re not allowed to—”
“RUN!” Peter slashed the air with his arm. “FUCKING RUN!”
The guards looked past the teens, zeroing in on the slobbering horror that was crashing down the hallway. To their credit they didn’t freeze—they flicked their guns up and started firing. The hallway filled with bone-quaking laughter.
Peter glanced over his shoulder and screamed, “RUN!” but it was too late. The guards were enveloped by a grainy black mist; brimming with fangs, pincers, and slick-suckered tentacles. Their frantic yells turned to panicked screams. Bones cracked with resounding snaps, and their piercing death knell became animalistic; they barely sounded human.
“Fuck!” Peter’s heart was beating a million miles a minute. “FUCK!” He almost took a wrong turn—almost went right—but Kora pulled him back.
“Straight ahead!” she yelled. “You’re going the wrong—”
“Both of you are wrong!” Eun screamed, pulling the two of them into a left-hand turn.
They pounded ahead for a dozen yards, then Kora threw her shoulder into a double-door entrance. The teens piled through, churning past the cells they’d first encountered when they’d infiltrated the gloomy facility. The haze-monster followed, ripping at their minds with hissing skitters and growling burps.
“Oh my God!” Peter shouted. All around them, the things in the cells were pounding on their doors. “OH MY GOD!” The doors began clicking open; somehow, the haze-monster had freed ANOS’s detainees. It was killing (eating?) some of them—a few of the battle-snarls turned into grating squeals—but others were rejoicing, adding their gibbering laughter to their liberator’s guffaws.
The teens burst into the trash room, pitching backward as the haze-monster hooked swiftly around to the exit, blocking their way out. At the same time, it surrounded John Sabo—he looked up from his phone with a vacant stare that turned to terror—in its miasmic tendrils.
Peter, Eun, and Kora watched, horrified, as the clueless guard levitated five feet up, arms extended out to either side. Long, jagged slits appeared across his button-down long sleeve; it fell off his body in loose, baggy flaps. His lips were quivering and jumping, brimming with pinkish-red foam that spilled down his chin and onto his collar. The skin on his torso began to split, forming into a large red X, as if a giant talon had cut from his left shoulder to his right hip, then vice versa.
The invisible talon hooked the bottom flap of skin, and—skkrrRRIIP—yanked it down.
Eun clapped both hands over her mouth, stifling a scream as gore slopped out from Sabo’s middle. It landed on the floor with a sickening plop.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “Oh my God.”
Peter stared disbelievingly at the gurgling piece of meat that had once been John Sabo. The assortment of organs speckled across the haze-monster—bug eyes and pincers and slick, millipede-like carapaces—were splitting open. Each one was bursting and cracking, ejecting viscous streams of oily ichor. At the same time, pustulent bubbles emerged from the mist. They were popping open and giving birth to new organs.
And then it projected words in their minds—like a gritted knife scraping over bumpy cement.
[Delicious mortals succulent morsels pieces of meat oh so sweet come to me come to me I have cunts with teeth and thorn-ringed cocks I want you to see so come to me come to me]
Eun clutched her belly and bent over, vomiting forcefully onto the deck. Tears trickled from Peter’s eyes and his lips worked in a soundless whisper, trying to express how much fear—nearly sublime in its paralytic intensity—was coursing through his being. There was nothing he could do, nothing he could—
“You need to back the hell off.” Kora raised her right fist and gripped her wrist with her left hand. Twisting blades of color formed up and down her arm, weaving together into a fantastic piece of ordnance. It was the same gun she’d used before, but this time it looked extra heavy: twice the circuitry, twice the whup-ass.
The haze-thing’s laughter clawed at their minds. [You think you can kil me with your paltry magics?]
Kora opened her mouth to reply, but alien screams erupted behind them.
The three teens looked toward their source. A trench-coated man was dispatching the cells’ previous inhabitants who were trying to enter the trash hangar—shadow-creatures, bug-folk, and boil-coated lizard-people—with a bright staff made of searing orange light. He was clad in a disconnected network of gleaming armor plates, and his skin appeared to be liquid sunfire. Each time his staff made contact, it would blast a creature into pixelated fragments.
He sank into a wide-legged stance and killed the last one—a seven-foot wolf-man that had pitch-black eye sockets—with a one-two combo, then spun around and pointed his weapon directly at the haze-monster.
[Let them go, Dissona.] the Timekeeper ordered.
Dissona’s answer was a livid howl—a pure expression of hate and frustration that distorted the air into a nauseating shimmer. Peter, Eun and Kora dropped to their knees and barfed on the deck. Fresh blood sprang from their ears and eyes, and bubbling rashes exploded across their skin. The Timekeeper’s armor flickered and dimmed—like a stubborn flame in a strong wind—but he stayed right where he was, pointing his weapon at Dissona.
“Ulk…ULK…” Peter tried to ask if his friends were okay, but his throat was spasming. Each swallow felt like a giant rock was forcing its way down his esophagus.
The Timekeeper swung his arm at them in a sweeping backhand, releasing a twist of radiance from the center of his palm. Five purple streaks zipped toward the teenagers in zig-zag patterns, cutting a circle above their heads and releasing a drift of fat, glowing snowflakes. When the flakes alit on the teens, they dissolved into long, flashing pulses that ran across their bodies.
The boils and pain disappeared. Their skin went from clammy and pale to healthy and vibrant. Their rheumy eyes turned clear and sharp.
The Timekeeper ran past them and attacked Dissona, smashing pincers and eyeballs with one-two slaps from either end of his fantastical staff. His feet and head worked in perfect rhythm—stepping, ducking, slipping—as he attacked, deflected, and evaded. With each strike, a fire-breather whoosh of funneled combustion leapt out from the impact.
“GO! SHE’S TOO MUCH FOR YOU!” The Timkeeper leapt into an aerial twist, flashing his staff around his body, ensconcing himself in a whirl of arcane flame, then landed on the floor in an anime-style crouch: one knee down, the other one up. A barbed tentacle slashed out at him, forcing him to roll backward and surge to his feet.
“COME ON!” Eun grabbed the backs of Kora and Peter’s shirts, pulling them toward the hangar’s exit. One of Dissona’s fragments spilled across the ceiling and blocked their way forward.
[Ah ah AH!] The connective black haze formed into a malevolent smile—two foggy eyes and a giant, wispy grin. [The party’s just getting—]
“FINISHED!” Kora blasted away with her magical arm-cannon. Three rounds—glowing blue orbs that expanded to the size of basketballs as they shot from the muzzle—hit in rapid succession, eliciting goopy splashes from Dissona’s shroud-woven body. The monster responded with nerve-shredding laughter.
[Keep going!] she thundered. [I’ll cut you apart you with my favorite rapes, my best tortures, and play tic-tac-toe with your eviscerated psyches. AHAHAHA!!!]
“What do we do?” Peter looked wildly at Kora. “WHAT DO WE DO?”
Her eyes ticked back and forth across the chitin and intestines, the tentacles and fascia. Her mouth worked several times, trying to find an answer.
Dissona projected a toothy smile into the teenagers’ minds. [Pain Lord got your tongue? Not a problem; I’ll rip them from your mouths soon enou—]
“Not so fast!” The Timekeeper roared. He whirled his staff in figure eights, weaving a pair of flame-lined rings to either side of him. Within each ring, blue-green circles began to flash in rapid time. The circles became increasingly bright, lighting Dissona with muted reflections.
“Leave them be, Dissona!” The Timekeeper cred. “As a sworn ally of the Enochian Order, as a designate agent of the Celestine Paladin, I command you to LEAVE THEM BE!”
He whirled his staff above his head, and the two glowing circles flew like errant sawblades toward Dissona, crashing into her and forming a network of hot-glowing diodes across her breadth.
The Pain Lord howled again. Dozens of trash bins buckled inward, spewing rotting debris from their crumpled tops.
Mother of FUCK, Peter thought. This is WAY beyond Stranger Things. This is—
The Timekeeper glared at him. [YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE! SHE’S NOT FINISHED!]
The three teens swung back toward the door. A piece of Dissona was still in front of it, but her body had weakened; there was less grossness crawling through and around it, courtesy of the magic circuitry the Timekeeper had grafted into her body.
Kora fired three more rounds. This time, the glowing orbs tore apart the fabric of Dissona’s being, rendering it into taloned slashes of dissipating black. Peter leapt for the door, but just as he was about to grab the handle, a decaying set of mandibles materialized in front of it and snapped at his hand. He snatched his fingers back and pedaled his feet, falling on his rump and scooting sideways on the heels of his palms.
“Timekeeper!” Eun shouted, throwing a wild look over her shoulder. “We can’t get through!”
The demigod didn’t respond; he was standing erect, hands clawed and raised before him. Five strands of laser-thin light ran off his fingertips. They split off into another five, another five, another five…the strands divided into countless lines, connecting him to each piece of circuitry he’d stamped onto Dissona. Immense strain played across his face as he moved his fingers in small, tense tics.
[Can’t…hold her…she’s…too damn…STRONG…]
The circuits across Dissona began blowing out, erupting with sparks and crumbling into ash. Every time one of them blew, its connective line would flicker and vanish.
“Fuck!” Peter yelled. “WHAT DO WE DO???”
Eun looked around, trying to find something that—
The roar of an engine sounded from outside the compound. An instant later, the Bite Mobile (now a motorcycle, Peter noted with dim amazement) burst into the trash room, punching through Dissona in a scatter of black-weave tendrils.
The three teens dove out of the way as it came barreling in. It braked sharply a few yards behind them, swinging its back end out in a screeching semicircle.
“What the—” Peter began.
He fell silent as it began to transform. Plates and cylinders emerged from its frame, snapping and clacking, running outward at different angles. On its lower half, a quartet of radiant, cyclic blurs formed into four badass wheels. It began to expand, twitching outward in sharp, lurching clunks. Reflective glare slid up its windshield and across the passenger-side windows, narrowing into a sparkling twinkle before it disappeared.
Peter, Eun and Kora found themselves staring at a sleek, low-built automobile. Its gull-wing doors folded straight up—like a Delorean, not a Lotus—revealing an interior filled with black leather seats. Peter’s techno-boner rose to full mast—Tron, Iron Man, and the Batmobile could take a big ol’ suck on this thing’s girthy-ass cylinders.
A melodic voice spoke to them through the interior speaker system:
Peter tried to protest. “The Timekeeper—”
“GO!” the demigod roared.
Eun and Kora grabbed Peter’s sleeves. “COME ON!”
Peter hopped in the driver seat, Eun in the passenger’s, and Kora in the back. The gull-wing doors lowered smoothly down, ensconcing them in a serene, tranquil world lit by cool holographics. Atop the dashboard, a six-inch tall, three-dimensional hologram of Bitefighter gave them a wide grin and a double thumbs-up. He reached behind him and pulled out his whiteboard.
You Ready? it read.
A trio of flexi-sectioned seatbelts telescoped from their left shoulders to their right hips, resonating with three crisp clicks as they buckled into place.
Bitefighter bent over, scribbled on his whiteboard, then held it up again.
Hang on to Something!
VRRRRMMM!!!! The three teens reached out and braced against the dashboard (the back of Peter’s seat, in Kora’s case) as the Bite Mobile leapt forward, cutting a sharp left around one of Dissona’s spider-coated tentacles.
Peter yelled, “Holy FUCKGOBBLE!” as a rain of arachnids jumped off the tendril and landed with grotesque thumps on the Bite Mobile’s windshield. Each one was the size of a grapefruit, and mother of shitballs—their eyes were visible. They had mouths on their bellies that looked like puckered assholes surrounded by fangs.
The spiders tapped at the glass with taloned forelegs, squealing and hissing. As the car spun into a quick 360, Bitefighter faced the windshield and raised his right hand. He mimed guns with his hands and approximated pistol-fire. Each time he fired a “shot,” a glowing blue outline materialized on the windshield and solidified into a six-inch humanoid: a robo-cowboy or a mecha-samurai. As the nose of the car crashed through Dissona’s fog-body and out into the parking lot, Bitefighter’s army of tiny warriors began slicing and shooting with light-limned techno-katanas and laser-blasting six-shooters. Short, guttural cries rang from the samurai, while the cowboys shouted old-fashioned epithets like “Come and get some, ya dirty varmints!” in their miniaturized voices. The spiders responded with gnashing snarls and spine-chilling shrieks.
“Fuck fuck FUCK!” Peter chanted, gripping the dashboard as the car took a hard right into the mostly empty lot. From the corner of his eye, he saw one of Dissona’s tentacles snake out from the trash hangar and arrow toward them. The Bite Mobile jerked the other way, the three of them hurtled to the side, stopped short by their sci-fi seatbelts. The tentacle smashed into the road, sending a spout of concrete flying skyward. Broken debris descended on the car, rattling down in nerve-jarring clacks.
The Bite Mobile swerved out onto the main road leading away from ANOS. “We good?” Peter turned around in his seat. “Shit!” He swiveled around—he was supposed to be steering—when Eun laid a hand on his shoulder.
“We’re good. Look.” She nodded at the wheel. It was moving all by itself.
“Oh fuck,” he breathed, his eyes drooping in relief. He covered his heart with his right hand, feeling its thunderous beat in his palm, his chest, his ears. “Oh fuck fuck fuck.”
“We’re good,” Eun repeated. She pointed at the windshield. “See?” The miniature warriors had killed all the spiders. The samurais sheathed their swords and bowed at the teen; the cowboys holstered their guns and tipped their hats. They all disappeared in a twinkling flash.
“The Timekeeper!” Peter swung back around. “We have to help him! We have to—”
“He just sacrificed himself so we could get away!” Eun snapped.
“We’re not strong enough. Not yet.” Kora laid a calming hand on Peter’s arm. “Don’t worry—we’ll get our chance.”
“No!” Peter blurted. “I already failed with Holly! I can’t…I can’t…”
“Peter.” Kora held his gaze with a level stare. “We’ll get our chance.”
“Dammit!” Peter cocked his fist at the dashboard. Eun caught the punch before he could throw it.
“This isn’t a regular car.” She nodded at Bitefighter’s hologram. The six-inch figure had raised its arms and crouched down: please don’t hurt me.
“I…I…” Peter lowered his arm. He clenched his fists and squinched his eyes shut. “FUCK!”
“Maybe there’s a way to see if he’s okay,” Kora offered. Eun’s eyes lit with understanding.
“What are you talking about?” Peter hissed.
“The Bloom.” When he gave her an uncomprehending stare, her expression flashed with irritation. “The Bloom, Peter! Go Bloom-side and see how he’s doing!”
Kora threw her a doubtful look. “Could be dangerous.”
“We have to try,” Peter said adamantly. “Just me, though. There’s no reason for you two to risk—”
Eun rolled her eyes. “Spare me the action hero bullshit. Maybe we can help by supplying grounding—like a psychic anchor. Is that even possible?”
They were now on Interstate 101, rushing by the rolling hills of South San Francisco. Peter didn’t notice; he was too focused on Eun’s question.
“Yeah…I mean, I think so…”
Kora leaned forward, poking her head into the space between the driver and passenger seat. “Would we have to visualize something, or—”
“Yeah…yeah…” Peter scratched his temple. “If we instantiate a premise…shore it up with a conjunctive scaffold…okay.” He met their eyes. “Think I’ve got it. You guys still Slideways?”
Eun and Kora both nodded.
“Visualize a Triforce. You know what that is? Legend of Zelda?”
They shook their heads.
“Like three triangles, joined at the tips. They form a larger triangle with an inverted, triangle-shaped void right in the center.” He popped the glovebox and rummaged through it. “If there’s a pen and paper in here, maybe I can draw it for you…
Bitefighter knelt and started sketching on his whiteboard. When he was done, he rose to his feet and held it up. Drawn on its surface was a crude approximation of the video game artifact.
Peter shut the glovebox. “That’s it. All right—you guys ready?”
Kora and Eun nodded again.
“Okay.” He took a deep breath. “It’s not that hard—just an adult version of make-believe. Think back to when you were little—when you used to pretend you were an animal, a Space Marine, an astronaut…” He threw an uncertain glance at Kora. “Or a whatever. Use your imagination. I’ll go first.”
His eyes fell halfway closed, and he formed a triangle in front of his chest with his thumbs and forefingers. The gesture wasn’t something he’d consciously intended. When it came to psychogenics, instinct and feeling had a much bigger influence than they did in the “real world.” Kora and Eun followed suit. Their eyes fell halfway shut, and they replicated Peter’s mudra with their thumb and forefingers.
“Concentrate,” Peter whispered. “Concentrate.”
A hazy outline formed in front of his hands. At first it was just a wavy set of lines, then it took on color and substance.
“Whoa.” Eun gaped at the ruby-red wedge floating in front of Peter.
“Concentrate.” Peter stared at his construct with half-lidded eyes, a bead of sweat trickling off his forehead and down his cheek.
“Mine’s almost ready,” Kora said calmly, belying the electric excitement that was building in the car. An ephemeral triangle was crackling and twitching in front of her hands. Hers was blue instead of red.
“Think I’m good,” Eun whispered. Her gaze was locked on the glowing green triangle that was now thrumming before her conjoined fingers.
Bitefighter chirped—it sounded like a cross between a caw and a squeal—and three pairs of eyes slid toward him. The cartoonish entity had joined his four-fingered hands, mimicking their gestures. His triangle was solid black, but it was stunningly vibrant.
Carefully, oh so carefully—it was the mental equivalent of walking on eggshells—Peter directed his attention onto his triangle, letting his perception slip a notch more Slideways. Without planning to, he began humming the opening theme from Legend of Zelda. A second later, Eun joined in. Kora’s eyes narrowed a bit further, then she added her voice to theirs. Bitefighter joined them, adding his tinny warble to the main chorus.
As the music reached its triumphant climax, the car’s stereo kicked into gear, booming out the theme with orchestral force. The triangles flew from their hands and spontaneously assembled. Blue on the left, green on the right, red on top, and Bitefighter’s black one—his was the only piece that was pointing downward—in the middle.
Kora, Eun, and Bitefighter all stared at Peter, their eyes ablaze with their respective colors.
[We’ve got you.] they projected simultaneously.
He was ripped free of his physical body.