Eun charged, chopping the air with her hands like the T-1000. She grabbed Cole and bucked him forward, hip-tossing the meathead like a five-year old schoolgirl.
Blake’s face twisted with rage. “FUCK HER UP!”
A mass of jocks surged toward Eun. Peter gaped as she locked arms, twisted spines, and wove a horde of simpletons into a tangled mess. She was like a female version of Kwai Chang Caine.
Blake dropped his knife and aggressed her with ham-handed punches. She dodged them easily, flitting from side to side in lightning-quick twitches. She waited for a hook, bobbed it, then pushed him at the exact right moment—when the momentum of his swing squared his body with hers. He bumbled back into another jock.
“PETER!” Eun cinched her biceps around four sets of arms. “SAVE REPTAR!” She twisted her waist, sending a quartet of douchebags rolling across the floor.
Peter ran to the chimp and peered in his eyes. His right pupil was noticeably larger than his left—a clear sign he’d been concussed. “Motherfuckers,” Peter hissed. “Come on, buddy.” He squatted, looped Reptar’s arms over his shoulders, then pushed to his feet and piggybacked the chimp.
Peter walked into the hall and headed toward Reptar’s enclosure. A second later, he felt his friend rummaging in his lower right pocket. From the corner of his eye, he saw the chimp withdraw a baggie of double O negative.
Too late. The chimp gulped a handful of pills—enough LSD to send him into hyperspace astride a rainbow-scaled unicorn. He jumped off Peter’s back, and the teen took a reflexive step back. Reptar grinned and shook his head, as if he’d remembered something completely obvious.
“You okay, buddy?” Peter asked tentatively.
Reptar threw him a cheesy grin along with a double thumbs-up. His pupils were the same size—they’d both evened out. Peter was astonished. The double O negative…somehow, it cured his concussion.
As they continued down the hall, Peter kept a close eye on his simian companion. Other than some bumps and bruises, he seemed fine. Every so often he’d giggle or snicker, like he’d just been told a delicious secret.
They took a left—into the science hallway. Reptar slipped into a darkened classroom.
“Hold on!” Peter hurried to catch up. “That’s not where we’re goi—”
Automated lights clicked on, illuminating rows of desks and a trio of blackboards. Reptar walked past the desks and stared intently at the boards. On the rightmost slate, a mess of data funneled into a giant question mark, ringed by a pair of bold, chalky circles.
Peter wasn’t sure, but he thought he was looking at a solution for dark energy, alongside a lapse of causality within a region of sufficient density…
Reptar grabbed a dusty eraser. He rubbed out the question mark, then the circles.
“Hey!” Peter yelled. “Don’t mess with—”
The chimp clicked chalk across the slate, filling the just-erased space with a complicated scramble of numbers and letters. Once he finished he redrew the circles, bounding his contribution with a pair of thick, strong lines.
Peter examined the math. His eyes widened.
“Reptar,” he whispered. “Did you just unify quantum physics and general rel—”
“ON THE FLOOR! ON THE FUCKING FLOOR!”
Gun-toting robots burst in the room. They looked a lot like the ones from the movie Chappie, only markedly sleeker and more segmented. Peter stepped in front of Reptar and spread his arms, shielding the chimp from certain death.
“He’s not dangerous! He’s not—”
“He’s not a threat!” Peter shouted. “He’s just scared!”
The rightmost robot retracted its shotgun, clacking it onto a magnetic cradle affixed to its spine. It tromped forward and shoved Peter aside. A second drone locked its fingers onto Reptar’s elbow, then turned and faced its mechanized team leader.
“Stand by.” The team leader became unnaturally still. Peter guessed it was receiving orders. A second later, his suspicions were confirmed: “Just got word—put it down.”
“NO!” Peter writhed in the grip of his robotic captor.
“Find a tarp.” the team leader added. “Don’t make a mess.”
“Check.” The drone dragged Reptar towards the door. Before the robot could touch the knob, the door swung inward. The machine-man took a half-step back.
Holly Dent stood tall in the entrance. She assessed the drones with a suspicious gaze.
“Out of the way.” The team leader jerked his rifle to the right. “Now.”
She gave Reptar a measured once-over. “Why have you beaten this hairy half-human?”
One of the drones grabbed her shoulder. Her response was instinctive; her hand went up, over, and gripped its palm. Her other hand rose, ready to brace against the pinkie-side and place her attacker in a painful compliance hold. The robot, however, wasn’t subject to human weakness; it held her in place despite her struggles.
“Boss, this is Holly Dent. Her dad is—”
“I know who she is.” The team leader extended its off-hand, palm out. “Look, kid: we’re trying to get Fido back in his—”
“UNHAND ME!” she roared. “YOU WILL RUE THIS DAY, MACHINE-SPAWN!”
The robot holding her asked, “Why’s she talking like a Lord of the Rings character?”
The team leader shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Take care of the chimp and—”
“RUUUAHHHH!!!” Holly’s eyes crackled red. She punched her thumbs in her captor’s eyes, gouging his optics with her glowing fingers.
The drone fell to its knees, emitting a loud series of buzzy squawks. “Servos offline! I caaAAAAAAANNNnnnn’ttttttttzzzzz…” Then it thudded onto its side, jiggling and twitching in fitful jerks.
Guns snapped up, sighting squarely in on Holly’s face.
“NO!” the team leader shouted. “She’s just a kid! Safe your weapons and—”
Holly’s eyes blazed with energy. She muttered something sibilant, then impaled the nearest drone with a glimmer-lit hand.
“FUCK!” the team leader yelled. “Nonlethal! Take her down!”
The robots charged, their palms glowing with blue lightning. Holly sank to a haunch, kicked out, and collapsed a metal knee with her incandescent sole. She shot up and threw a double crescent kick—outside with the right, inside with the left—and decapitated two commandos with her magically charged feet. She kept spinning; as her torso angled down, her straightened leg whipped around in a vicious wheel-kick, shearing through a robot’s neck.
“Holy SHIT! Sonics and microwaves, right the fuck—”
Before the team leader could say now, Holly blurred forward and ripped apart three more commandos. (Reptar, still in the grip of double O negative, punched the air and hooted encouragingly.) For her coup de grace, the cheerleader leapt and twisted into a 720° spin kick. Her light-limned heel carved a flashing arc into the air before it slashed through the team leader’s head. The decapitated robot banged against a desk, then crumpled to the floor.
Holly loomed over her fallen enemies, the light fading from her hands and feet. After a long pause, Peter approached, his sneakers crunching on broken circuitry.
“Holly? You…you okay?”
She locked eyes with him. “Who is this ‘Holly?’ ”
Peter halted. “Um…what do you mean?”
She looked down, studying her chest with a furrowed brow. “Akanax’s balls,” she muttered. “Why am I wearing a female’s skin?”
Holy shit. Peter suddenly understood. Maybe not the why and how, but the what. Whoever he was looking at wasn’t Holly. He (or she or it) had somehow managed to possess her body.
“Who are you?” he asked roughly. He started forward, intent on shaking the living shit out of her. She stopped him cold with a murderous glare.
“Address me in a civil tone, meatling, lest I rip your tongue from your insolent skull.” Something in her voice went a step beyond bluster; his anger was replaced by stone cold dread.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he stammered.
She knelt down and inspected her kills. “Who would summon demons such as these?” She picked up a head and turned it back and forth. One of its eyes had been knocked out—the socket was lighting with fitful sparks.
“ANOS,” Peter said. “They stopped using real mercenaries and shifted over to—”
“Anus? These machines were spawned from the depths of a rectum?” Her expression turned puzzled. “Hard to believe, but I suppose it’s possible…”
“Not anus—ANOS. Ah-NOHSS. Although you’ve touched on the source of a billion jokes.” Peter chuckled nervously.
She dropped the skull and rose to her feet. “ANOS—that’s the name for their demon overlord?”
“Close enough.” He nodded at Reptar. “Come on—let’s get him back in his cage.”
After guiding Reptar to his enclosure, they raced over to Peter’s house. He fired up his laptop and went to work, using NSA-derived software to hack into Atherton’s security cameras. The chimp hadn’t hurt anyone, but still—wrestling with students wouldn’t paint him in a positive light.
“Gimme a minute,” he muttered. “Gotta wipe the cams.”
The cheerleader gave him a puzzled look. “ ‘Cam?’ Is that a device in your magic scrying machine?”
Peter punched a final command into the keyboard, then turned his chair and studied her closely. Possibilities ran through his mind—retrograde amnesia, subsurface persona, deep-mind hypnosis—but he pushed them aside and asked a single question:
“What’s your name?”
She thinks I’m a wizard. She calls herself something out of World of Warcraft. When she fought those robots, her hands and feet were coated in light.
“Where are you from, Kor’Thank?”
“I was born on Elithia, in the Seventh Age of the Fourth Epoch, in the northeast corner of the Highholder Wilds. I’ve answered your questions, now you answer mine: what do you call this twisted realm?”
Peter couldn’t speak. Five seconds later, he found his tongue.
“Earth. It’s called Earth.”
He cradled his head in his hands.
What the fuck have I done?
Kor’Thank strode through the room, eyeing the empty cans of Axe Body Spray, the scattered stacks of yellowed comic books, the haphazard piles of dirty laundry. Her gaze settled on a tactical tomahawk, half-buried in a mound of clothes. She picked it up and hefted it approvingly.
“A bit small…but well-fashioned. Who is your blacksmith?” He slumped forward and looked at the floor. “How the hell could—”
Kor’Thank spun the tomahawk, dancing it around her a dozen times. She whirled into a tornado kick and landed in a crouch, holding the weapon in coiled guard.
“Whoa!” Peter bolted up from his chair. “Can you show me how to do that?”
She rose to her feet. “The vorpal storm? ’tis a basic movement. Did your warrior-priests not teach it to you?”
He chuckled disbelievingly. “ ‘Warrior-priests?’ I learned some jiu-jitsu off YouTube, but that’s about it. I’m not sure how they do things on your world, but—”
“What is your name, Wizard?”
“Chongha Peter Lee. To be clear, though, I’m not a wizard—I just know my way around uh…around ‘scrying machines.’ We call them computers. My friends call me Peter, by the way.”
“I see.” She examined the tomahawk’s black-steel head.
Peter rubbed the back of his neck. “We can’t call you Kor’Thank, okay? Make sure you answer to Holl—”
“Why not?” she asked irritably.
“It isn’t normal. Not around here, anyway.”
A dismissive scoff. “I am a warrior-king.”
“As a king and a warrior, shouldn’t you understand your enemy and terrain, and navigate them accordingly?”
She wagged the tomahawk at him. “A canny sentiment, Peter of Clan Lee. You’re not a wizard…a strategist, then?”
“A strate—” He shook his head. “Dude, I’m seventeen.”
“When I was seventeen, I had slaughtered over a hundred foes. Your realm is—”
“Cool story,” he blurted. “But as long as you’re here, answer to Holly, ok? Holly Dent.”
Her gaze narrowed. “I think not.”
Peter rubbed his eyes with a thumb and a forefinger. “Look: you’re in Holly’s body, so if anyone asks—”
“They would do well to watch their tongue, lest I rip it from their—”
Peter threw his hands up. “That’s not how it works here! You have to play along to get along!”
“ ‘Play along to—’ ”
“You have to compromise.”
A mistrustful stare. “That word is not to my liking.”
He sighed again. “Look—this isn’t a world where might makes right; you’ve gotta use your brain. Which means don’t shit on our quaint traditions.”
“I will respect your ways,” Kor’Thank replied stiffly. “But I refuse to answer to ‘Holly.’ It sounds deceptive. It sounds…”
“Two-faced?” Peter grinned. “Couldn’t agree more. I used to joke she was Harvey Dent’s sister.”
“Who is this Harvey—”
He cut her off with a wave. “Doesn’t matter. Anyways, let’s think of a name. ‘Kor’Thank’ doesn’t really blend with ‘Marissa’ or ‘Paisley.’ ”
“I care little for your sheep-minded titles,” Kor’Thank grumbled. Her eyes lit with cautious hope. “What about Kora?”
Peter raised a finger—ready to shoot down any crazy-ass suggestions—but then he lowered it and stroked his chin. “Kora. Yeah…yeah, that’ll work.” A slow, cautious nod. “Kora it is.”
“Good. ‘Holly’ sounds evil and tricksy.”
Peter laughed. “Like I said: couldn’t agree more.” His brow wrinkled. “Where is Holly? The real Holly, I mean.”
Kora’s expression turned grim and foreboding.
“The Karnaggi Desert. Or so I believe.”