Four hours before the prom, Peter unveiled his latest invention.
“Check it out.” He spread his arms and looked down at himself. His body was coated in sleek, circuit-laced mesh that bore resemblance to a high-tech scuba-suit. “What do you think?”
Eun gave him a faint smile. “You look like a superhero.”
“Fuck yes!” He punched the air and hooted with joy.
Kora put her hands on her hips and gave him an approving once-over. “It looks pretty awesome. You have any for us?’
Peter reached under his bed and pulled out two matching battle-suits. He tossed them to Eun and Kora, who caught them against their chests. The girls held out the suits, letting them unravel and dangle above the floor.
“You kept them under your bed?” Eun asked, eyebrow raised.
“You should be honored.” He grinned. “That’s where I keep my best stuff. My sheets are drenched in genius-level sperm.”
“Gross,” Eun muttered.
Kora walked to the bathroom, battle-suit bundled under her arm. Minutes later she was wearing the ensemble, turning her arms up and marveling at the glimmering light flashing across her.
“Bad. Ass,” she proclaimed.
Eun headed off to change. She came back, spread her arms, and spun around. Peter’s grin, already wide, now stretched from ear to ear.
“Fucking awesome,” he said. “How’s it feel?”
Eun and Kora tried a few high kicks and did some range of motion tests.
“Wow,” Eun remarked. The suit was skin-tight, but didn’t pull or catch in the slightest. “Feels amazing.”
“Agree.” Kora kick-flipped into an aerial twist, landing in a single-kneed crouch. She got to her feet, shadowboxed, then stretched her arms directly overhead. “Comfort and support exactly where it’s needed, but no bunching, no tugging.”
“They’re variations of a discontinued DARPA project,” Peter said. “Originally designed as a low-key combat uniform for guys above tier one. They ended up shelving it due to lack of profit potential.”
“Lack of profit potential?” Kora’s voice was incredulous. “This thing is like a semi-sentient second skin!”
“That’s a pretty accurate description, actually,” Peter said. “But if you’re paying a hundred million plus, it makes a lot more sense to spend it on a military aircraft, not a James Bond super-suit.”
“A hundred million?” Eun was aghast.
“And some change,” Peter added.
“Is that a lot of money?” Kora asked. “Are you a merchant?”
“I’m good with my mouth.” Peter smiled smugly. “Let’s leave it at that.”
“Ick.” Eun made a face. She knew all about his blackmail-generated finances. “Yes. Let’s.”
“You guys got your dresses? Let’s see how they fit over your battle-suits.”
Eun and Kora unzipped their garment bags. Soon they were clad in gorgeous, rich-sheened prom dresses. Kora’s was red, Eun’s was green.
“How do they fit?” Peter asked. He’d sewn them himself; a note of proprietary concern crept into his voice.
“Good, but…” Eun looked down at her arms, then back up at Peter. “They don’t cover our arms or shoulders. My battle-suit’s visible.”
“Ah.” He folded his hands behind his back. “Not a problem. “Just whisper, ‘light-speed ninja’ under your breath.”
The girls did so. Their battle-suits faded into semi-transparency, then vanished altogether.
“Whoa…” Kora looked down at her bare shoulders. “What if we have to—”
“Take off your dresses and switch to the suits?” A light puff of air blew through Peter’s nose—not quite a laugh, but almost. “Got you covered. But first, there’s a hidden pair of quick-release straps right by your hips. Go ahead and feel them out.”
Eun and Kora reached down to their waists and fished around.
“Careful,” Peter warned. “Don’t pull ’em—just hold ’em.”
Kora and Eun found the flaps. They pinched them loosely between their thumbs and forefingers.
“Yep,” Peter confirmed. “When it’s go-time, give ’em a yank and the dresses’ll come right off.”
“And the battle-suits?” Eun raised an eyebrow. “Will they stay see-through?”
“Tempting,” Peter chuckled, “But I know you’d kick my ass if I decided to prank you. No, each one is keyed to your neurokinetics—when you doff your dresses, your suits will auto-shift into an opaque state.”
“So we won’t be naked,” Kora clarified.
Peter nodded. “They’ll also camouflage you in low-light settings. Not like Predator, but—”
Kora cocked her head. “What’s Preda—”
Peter answered before she could finish: “A sci-fi monster who could turn invisible. Sorry—should’ve remembered you weren’t from around here. You’ve gotten so good with our lingo and dialect that it’s hard to remember, sometimes.”
“Thanks.” Kora flashed him a smile. “This Predator, though…” A faint smile played across her lips. “He sounds badass.”
“Eighties icon,” Peter said. “Everything old is new again. You guys ready?”
Kora and Eun both nodded.
“Alright. After I change, we’ll head over. Goddamn.” He shook his head, grinning wryly. “Always thought I’d skip prom.” His eyes turned contemplative.
“Never thought I’d actually look forward to it.”
For the big night, Bitefighter had transformed into a sleek-ass car. While other students were living out the movie cliché—everyone else came in cheesy-ass limos—Peter, Kora, and Eun arrived in jaw-dropping style. As they pulled up to the Ritz at 600 Stockton, Atherton students stopped and stared.
Gull-wing doors folded up, and the three teen heroes emerged from the car. Peter snapped his lapels, drinking in the gapes and murmurs. Kora and Eun looked absolutely stunning. Guys (and some girls) received dirty looks from their prom night dates.
“Yo yo yo!” Peter threw his hands up. “The fuck is up, you half-evolved primates! We ’bout to get cuh-razy up in here!”
A valet walked up, but Peter waved him away. “Nah, son.” He threw the sharply dressed man a disdainful look. “You ain’t laying hands on the muh’fucking Bite Mobile.”
The valet’s lips pressed together. “Sir, your car is parked in the passenger loading zone. Hotel policy states that—”
“Fuck all that!” Peter sneered. “Hotel policy can take a big ol’ suck on my lemon-scented dick!”
The valet rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger and expressed a strained sigh. “Look kid—I just work here, okay? I know your parents are probably rich out the ass, but that doesn’t mean we won’t call the cops if you don’t—”
“Bitefighter!” Peter looked over his shoulder, toward the car. “Vamoose!”
The Bite Mobile’s engine revved three times, then trundled out of the hotel’s loading zone. The valet stared at it with a puzzled expression.
“Is that a self-driving car? Didn’t know it could find its own parking…”
“Not your concern.” Peter reached into his packet and withdrew a thick roll of hundred-dollar bills. He held it up, letting the valet’s widening gaze lock onto it, then grabbed the man’s hand and slapped the money into it. “This is, though.”
“Uh…” The man stared at the giant wad of money in his hand. Everything it represented—freedom, addiction, opportunity, ruin—flashed across his face in the blink of an eye. He stuffed the money into his jacket. “Th…thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” Peter clapped the guy on his shoulder. “Thank me after you’ve done something good with it.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked past the stunned valet, humming the LOTR score that played whenever the One Ring entranced its prey.
Eun and Kora hurried up beside him. He crooked his arms out. The girls held his elbows and fell in step.
“Not bad, Peter.” Eun cocked her head. “The student becomes the teacher.”
“A natural progression,” Peter replied smugly. “And I wouldn’t call myself a ‘teacher,’ per se. I speak the truth as best I can and leave it at that. Hey—” He swiveled his head, catching both his friends in the periphery of his vision. “None of that’s important—not tonight. In a few hours, the world might end, we’re at a high school dance that symbolizes our coming of age, and we also look like extras in a James Bond gala. We’re supposed to have fun, goddammit.”
Kora looked around. “Everyone else brought a date….I would have asked Leona, but her parents are homophobes; they’d shit a duck if they saw her with a chick. You called this ‘going stag,’ right?”
“Wouldn’t say that,” Peter chuckled. “I’ve got two beauties hanging off my arms.”
“I’m not really a ‘lady,’ ” Kora countered. “I’m kind of both at this point. Maybe I should be one in the middle.”
“I think it’s perfect as it is,” Eun said. “When we first met each other, Peter was the least balanced out of all three of us. We taught him how to find his center.”
Kora said, “And in so doing, he helped us find ours. Gotcha.”
“We’re light years beyond these unevolved simians.” Peter gazed at the fresh-faced prom-goers. “These oppressed fuckers have been brainwashed by Hallmark to crave trinkets, live muted lives, and don invisible chains made from debt. The powers that be have played to their lower tendencies, and they’ve taken the bait hook, line and sinker.”
“How are we beyond them?” Kora asked.
He gave her a smile, authentic and pure. “Kora, our friendship is way more precious. You, me and Eun; our strength comes from something greater. Something beyond the limited reach of words—something noble and undeniable.”
Eun interjected with, “Which puts us in a position to—”
“—help the rest of them.” He nodded knowingly. “Absolutely. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna do.”
“Just making sure you knew.” Eun beamed at him.
Peter faced forward and cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Let’s get this party STAAAR-ted!”
Holly had been reduced to a shambling machine—a spare, haunted automaton pushing ceaselessly across a phantasmagoric desert. She remembered it was called the Shattered Territories, but everything else was starting to fade. She’d once been a cheerleader, she’d once been a king, a victim, a deceiver…
Her memories were now flitting shadows, nagging at the edges of her fraying mind. Who she was had fallen away. What she was had come to the fore: a half-crazed animal, hunted by beasts who wore her face. The only things that mattered were a full belly and safety from her enemies. Her sanity hadn’t ranked as a priority, at least not at first.
When she bunkered down to sleep (early on in her tortuous journey, she’d learned to cast a protective dome around her slumbering form) she would giggle maniacally in her dreams. She’d laugh herself awake and bolt up in bed, still giggling, feeling a black despair around her soul.
Because nothing about her predicament was the least bit funny.
A deep blight had taken root in her psyche. If she tried to excise it, she might cut out too much. There might not be anything left of her once she was done. Or maybe there would be, and it would leave her a pale shadow of her former self: a doddering simpleton, tormented by inklings of what had come before.
There was irony there. And it was doubly ironic that Holly couldn’t grasp it.
And so she slogged and she killed. And she avoided the gaze of her blank, lifeless eyes, staring up at her from the face-stealers’ corpses.
Eventually, she saw it: a bright dot of light on the wind-whipped horizon.