‘Are you wearing clean underwear?’ the statue asked.
‘Hey, lady,’ Leo said, ‘that’s getting personal.’
‘You should always wear clean underwear to the doctor’s office,’ chided Hygeia. ‘I’m afraid you are a health hazard. You will have to be sanitized before we can proceed.’
The golden snake uncurled and dropped from her arm. It reared its head and hissed, flashing sabre-like fangs.
‘Uh, you know,’ Jason said, ‘getting sanitized by large snakes isn’t covered by our medical plan. Darn it.’
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter,’ Hygeia assured him. ‘Sanitizing is a community service. It’s complimentary!’
The snake lunged.
Leo had had a lot of practice dodging mechanical monsters, which was good, because the golden serpent was fast. Leo leaped to one side and the snake missed his head by an inch. He rolled and came up, hands blazing. As the snake attacked, Leo blasted it in the eyes, causing it to veer left and smash into the bench.
Piper and Jason went to work on Hygeia. They slashed through the statue’s knees, felling her like an alabaster Christmas tree. Her head hit a bench. Her chalice splashed steaming acid all over the floor. Jason and Piper moved in for the kill, but, before they could strike, Hygeia’s legs popped back on like they were magnetic. The goddess rose, still smiling.
‘Unacceptable,’ she said. ‘The doctor will not see you until you are properly sanitized.’
She sloshed her cup towards Piper, who jumped out of the way as more acid splashed across the nearest benches, dissolving the stone in a hissing cloud of steam.
The snake, meanwhile, recovered its senses. Its melted metal eyes somehow repaired themselves. Its face popped back into shape like a dent-resistant car hood.
It struck at Leo, who ducked and tried to grapple its neck, but it was like trying to grab sandpaper going sixty miles an hour. The serpent shot past, its rough metal skin leaving Leo’s hands scraped and bleeding.
The momentary contact did give Leo some insight, however. The snake was a machine. He sensed its inner workings and, if the statue of Hygeia operated on a similar schematic, Leo might have a chance …
Across the room, Jason soared into the air and lopped the goddess’s head off.
Sadly, the head flew right back into place.
‘Unacceptable,’ Hygeia said calmly. ‘Decapitation is not a healthy lifestyle choice.’
‘Jason, get over here!’ Leo yelled. ‘Piper, buy us some time!’
Piper glanced over, like Easier said than done.
‘Hygeia!’ she yelled. ‘I have insurance!’
That got the statue’s attention. Even the golden snake turned towards her, as if insurance was some sort of tasty rodent.
‘Insurance?’ the statue said eagerly. ‘Who is your provider?’
‘Um … Blue Lightning,’ Piper said. ‘I have the card right here. Just a second.’
She made a big show of patting down her pockets. The snake slithered over to watch.
Jason ran to Leo’s side, gasping. ‘What’s the plan?’
‘We can’t destroy these things,’ Leo said. ‘They’re designed for self-healing. They’re immune to pretty much every kind of damage.’
‘Great,’ Jason said. ‘So … ?’
‘You remember Chiron’s old gaming system?’ Leo asked.
Jason’s eyes widened. ‘Leo … this isn’t Mario Party Six.’
‘Same principle, though.’
Leo grinned. ‘I’ll need you and Piper to run interference. I’ll reprogram the snake, then Big Bertha.’
Leo and Jason ran for the snake.
Hygeia was assailing Piper with health-care questions. ‘Is Blue Lightning an HMO? What is your deductible? Who is your primary care deity?’
As Piper ad-libbed answers, Leo jumped on the serpent’s back. This time he knew what he was looking for, and for a moment the serpent didn’t even seem to notice him. Leo prised open a service panel near the snake’s head. He held on with his legs, trying to ignore the pain and sticky blood on his hands as he redid the serpent’s wiring.
Jason stood by, ready to attack, but the snake seemed transfixed by Piper’s problems with Blue Lightning’s coverage.
‘Then the advice nurse said I had to call a service centre,’ Piper reported. ‘And the medications weren’t covered by my plan! And –’
The snake lurched as Leo connected the last two wires. Leo jumped off and the golden serpent began shaking uncontrollably.
Hygeia whirled to face them. ‘What have you done? My snake requires medical assistance!’
‘Does it have insurance?’ Piper asked.
‘WHAT?’ The statue turned back to her, and Leo jumped. Jason summoned a gust of wind, which boosted Leo onto the statue’s shoulders like a little kid at a parade. He popped open the back of the statue’s head as she staggered around, sloshing acid.
‘Get off!’ she yelled. ‘This is not hygienic!’
‘Hey!’ Jason yelled, flying circles around her. ‘I have a question about my deductibles!’
‘What?’ the statue cried.
‘Hygeia!’ Piper shouted. ‘I need an invoice submitted to Medicare!’
Leo found the statue’s regulator chip. He clicked a few dials and pulled some wires, trying to pretend that Hygeia was just one large, dangerous Nintendo game system.
He reconnected her circuits and Hygeia began to spin, hollering and flailing her arms. Leo jumped away, barely avoiding an acid bath.
He and his friends backed up while Hygeia and her snake underwent a violent religious experience.
‘What did you do?’ Piper demanded.
‘Idiot mode,’ Leo said.
‘Back at camp,’ Jason explained, ‘Chiron had thi
s ancient gaming system in the rec room. Leo and I used to play it sometimes. You’d compete against, like, computer-controlled opponents, coms –’
‘– and they had three difficulty options,’ Leo said. ‘Easy, medium and hard.’
‘I’ve played video games before,’ Piper said. ‘So what did you do?’
‘Well … I got bored with those settings.’ Leo shrugged. ‘So I invented a fourth difficulty level: idiot mode. It makes the coms so stupid it’s funny. They always choose exactly the wrong thing to do.’
Piper stared at the statue and snake, both of which were writhing and starting to smoke. ‘Are you sure you set them to idiot mode?’
‘We’ll know in a minute.’
‘What if you set them to extreme difficulty?’
‘Then we’ll know that, too.’
The snake stopped shuddering. It coiled up and looked around as if bewildered.
Hygeia froze. A puff of smoke drifted from her right ear. She looked down at Leo. ‘You must die! Hello! You must die!’
She raised her cup and poured acid over her face. Then she turned and marched face-first into the nearest wall. The snake reared up and slammed its head repeatedly into the floor.
‘Okay,’ Jason said. ‘I think we have achieved idiot mode.’
‘Hello! Die!’ Hygeia backed away from the wall and face-slammed it again.
‘Let’s go.’ Leo ran for the metal door next to the dais. He grabbed the handle. It was still locked, but Leo sensed the mechanisms inside – wires running up the frame, connected to …
He stared at the two blinking signs above the door.
‘Jason,’ he said, ‘give me a boost.’
Another gust of wind levitated him upward. Leo went to work with his pliers, reprogramming the signs until the top one flashed:
THE DOCTOR IS:
IN DA HOUSE.
The bottom sign changed to read:
ALL DA LADIES LUV LEO!