The day after the fight, Blake sneered at Peter in the hallway, stretching the skin around his eyes and chanting “Me so horny” in a cartoonish accent. Peter stopped and stared; he wasn’t shocked by the racist caricature (par for the course when you were dealing with Blake) but at the jock’s seeming obliviousness to yesterday’s ass-whooping.
“Uh…Blake?” Peter asked cautiously. “You okay?”
Blake snorted. “Why wouldn’t I be, Charlie Chan?”
Peter glanced at Kora and Eun, standing to his right and his left. His expression said it all: Are you seeing this? He turned back to Blake. “Um…I just thought with everything that happened yesterday…”
Blake stuck his index and middle finger under Peter’s nose. “Yesterday I was sticking these phalanges into Cynthia Carver. Want a whiff, you fucking homo?”
Eun grabbed the offending fingers and bent them back toward his shoulder. The jock yelped and contorted his body, arching with the hold to relieve the pressure.
“Manners, Blake.” Eun cranked the lock, earning another yelp. “And your insult doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Think before you speak.” She bore down harder, dropping him to his knees. “Answer the question: do you remember what happened yesterday?”
“Hrrh..AH!” Blake was sweating now. “I was chilling at home, I swear! After school, I played X-box with Chase Horton! Fuck!”
Eun, Peter, and Kora exchanged puzzled looks.
“Please…” Blake’s face turned beet-red. “It fucking…it fucking hurts…”
Eun let go and Blake bent over, clutching his hyperextended fingers with a shaking hand. Heavy, labored breaths issued from his mouth.
“He doesn’t remember,” Kora said, puzzled. “Why would Dissona wipe his memory?”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Blake mewled. “I just told you—I was at home playing X-box!”
“Scram, cunt-sludge.” Eun raised her fist and lurched forward. Blake screeched like a beaten dog and fell back on his butt. He scurried to his feet and ran down the hall.
Peter stared at his retreating back. “Can’t believe he doesn’t remember.”
“Too traumatic?” Kora suggested.
Eun looked down, deep in thought. “What’s the purpose of memory? It’s to learn, isn’t it?”
Peter rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess…”
“So by wiping Blake’s, Dissona keeps him in a static state. She keeps him from learning. From evolving, really.”
“But that would make him less effectivene,” Peter argued. “Why would she hamstring her own servants? They don’t pose a threat. Not to her, anyway.”
“Because it’s personal,” Eun said. “I think—”
“Transcendence.” Kora’s eyes lit up. “Evolution leads to transcendence.”
“Exactly.” Eun nodded. “And if there’s one thing Dissona can’t stand, it’s that.”
“She wants to be on top. To stay where she is.” Peter was nodding too. “She can’t evolve—it would be anathema to her.”
Eun said, “Close but not quite—it’s not that she can’t, it’s that she doesn’t want to. And her fear of change manifests in her minions; they’re mirrors of their mistress.”
Peter stroked his chin. “Makes sense…” His hand dropped away. “So you think Blake will try and fight us again?”
“Absolutely,” she replied. “He can’t learn from past experience, so he’s going to attack us over and over. I wouldn’t be surprised if he said the exact same things, tried the same moves, even.”
“Are we gonna keep leading him back to the Pain Locker?” Kora asked. “That’s where we hold the advantage, right? Since it’s full of weapons.”
“I call them tools,” Eun said. “But yes—we’ll stay with the Locker. The setting won’t change, but our strategy will. Unlike Blake and his cock-magnons, we can learn from each encounter. We’ll diagram their strengths and weaknesses, then refine our knowledge with each iteration.”
“Theorize, experiment, conclude.” Peter shook his head, grinning. “You should have been a scientist, Eun.”
“We’re all scientists, Peter—we all do that.” Eun smiled wryly. “Some of us just choose to ignore the data.”
“Can’t wait to start studying.” Kora cracked her knuckles. “This is right up my alley.”
Eun’s smile turned a notch wryer.
As Holly fled from a murderous pack of horse-sized spiders, she instantiated Senkilo’s Cannon around her wrist.
“Get away from me!” She swiveled back and shot two orbs from the end of her fist. One of the spheres hit the ground to their right, blowing up a funnel of dirt that rattled down around the spider-beasts. The other one landed in their midst, briefly obscuring them with an eruption of sod.
They picked up the pace.
Holly, deep in the grip of nerve-shredding terror, cast Shindalthi’s Cloud. Black smoke poured from her lips, flowing past her head in an ever-expanding stream. She’d crafted it well; the vapor was thick and dark, robust and impenetrable. For dozens of miles in every direction, artificial night swamped the land. The spider-beasts skittered and scampered, filling the air with frustrated screams.
They sound like babies, Holly thought with a shiver. Like crying babies.
She was now ensconced in an opaque miasma, unable to see her own hands. She broke right (it was as good a direction as any) and found herself running up a steep incline. Her hands and feet churned against scree, digging up toughened earth with the tips of her fingers and the toes of her boots. She kept climbing, dozens of yards up the hill, breaking through the ebony murk into—
What the fuck?
—she glimpsed a bewildering slice of sky and sun before she was plunged into another hole. Not as dark as the murk down below, but dim and shadowy all the same.
A cave, she realized. I’m in a cave.
She blew into the center of her palm, funneling her will into a marble of light that materialized in her hand. Her rocky surroundings made themselves apparent; she was standing at the edge of a flat, stone floor. Ten yards in, it gave way to a field of stalagmites.
A cat-sized insect skittered to a halt in front of the stalagmites, regarding her with buggy eyes that rose from its body on a pair of stalks. Its transparent torso—glowing organs pulsed from its see-through carapace—was oval-shaped, divided into segments, and had more legs than Holly could count.
“AAAAHHH!!!” She backpedaled furiously, banging against the wall.
The insect emitted a matching cry. As it turned to run, Holly snatched a dagger from her belt and flung it at the creature in a rising chop. The blade arrowed through the air and buried itself in the insect’s head, quivering like a diving board. Its legs splayed out in a lazy spread. Its torso sank and abruptly relaxed.
Holly stayed pressed against the wall, chest heaving. She wasn’t sure if it was still alive.
Her belly emitted a querulous grumble, and she was suddenly struck by a harsh reality: she was hungry. Ravenous. And whatever she’d killed was going to waste unless she consumed it.
She needed to eat.
She needed to feed.
Holly pushed off the wall and strode forward. By the time she’d pulled her dagger from the cave-dweller’s brainstem, her mouth was watering.
Lobster. Bet it tastes like lobster.
Outside, the fog from her spell began to evaporate. The wasteland sun shone glaringly bright, but Holly didn’t care. The cave protected her from its ruthless light.
She dropped her to knees and began carving apart her kill, tearing ragged chunks from the pale carcass. In a matter of seconds, her lips were coated in blue gore and white viscera. Her loud smacks and beastly grunts made her sound more animal than human.
The cheerleader had found a temporary home.