Four hours before prom, Peter unveiled his latest invention. “Check it out.” He spread his arms and looked down at his body. It was coated in sleek, circuit-laced mesh, kind of like a high-tech scuba-suit. “What do you think?”
Eun smiled. “You look like a superhero.”
“Fuck yes!” He punched the air and hooted with joy.
Kora gave him an approving once-over. “It looks pretty awesome. What about us?’
Peter reached under his bed and produced a matching pair of future-cool battle-suits. He tossed them to his friends. The girls held them out, letting them unravel and dangle above the floor.
“You stored cutting-edge tech beneath your bed?” Eun raised an eyebrow.
“You should feel honored.” He grinned. “They’re drenched in genius-level sperm.”
“Gross,” Eun muttered.
Kora went in the bathroom. A minute later she came out in her suit, marveling at her diode-coated limbs.
Eun headed off to change. When she came back, Peter asked, “How do they feel?”
Eun did some rudimentary range of motion tests. “Wow,” she 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. She shadowboxed, then stretched her arms directly overhead. “Comfort and support, no bunching or tugging.”
“It’s a discontinued DARPA project,” Peter explained. “They ended up shelving it. If you’re shelling out a hundred million plus, it makes more sense to spend it on aircraft than a James Bond super-suit.”
“A hundred million?” Eun blanched.
“And some change.”
“Is that a lot?” 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.”
“Put on your dresses—I wanna see how they look over your suits.”
Eun and Kora unzipped their garment bags. Soon they were clad in gorgeous, rich-sheened 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 hands, then at Peter. “They don’t cover our arms or shoulders. You can still see my suit.”
“Ah.” He folded his hands behind his back. “Not a problem. Whisper, ‘light-speed ninja’ under your breath.”
The girls did so. Their suits faded, then vanished altogether.
“Whoa…” Kora studied her bare shoulders. “What if we have to—”
“Take off your dresses and fight in your suits?” A light puff of air blew through his nose—not quite a laugh, but almost. “I’ve got you covered. But first, there’s a pair of quick-release straps right by your hips. Go ahead and feel ’em out. Careful,” he warned. “Don’t pull ’em—just hold ’em.”
Kora and Eun found the flaps. They held them loosely between their thumbs and forefingers.
“Yep,” Peter confirmed. “When it’s go-time, give ’em a yank. The dresses’ll come right off.”
“And the battle-suits?” Eun pressed. “Will they stay transparent?”
“Tempting,” Peter chuckled, “But I know full well you’d kick my ass if I tried to prank you like that. No, they’re keyed to your neurokinetics—doff your dress, and the suit 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—”
“A sci-fi monster who could turn invisible,” Peter said. “Sorry—should’ve remembered you weren’t from around here. You’ve gotten so good with our lingo and dialect that it’s easy to forget.”
“Thanks,” Kora said. “This Predator, though…” A faint smile. “He sounds pretty cool.”
“Eighties icon,” Peter affirmed. “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. “Always thought I’d skip prom.” His eyes turned distant.
“Never thought I’d look forward to going.”
For the big night, Bitefighter turned into a sleek-ass car. While the others came in cheesy 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.
The gull-wing doors folded up, and the three teen heroes emerged as one. Peter snapped both 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 approached, but Peter waved him away. “Nah, son. You ain’t touchin’ 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. “Look kid: I know your parents are rich out the ass, but that doesn’t mean I won’t tow your—”
“Bitefighter!” Peter looked over his shoulder. “Vamoose!”
The Bite Mobile revved, then trundled slowly out from the Ritz’s loading zone. The valet stared disbelievingly. “Is that a self-driving car? Didn’t know it could find its own parking…”
“Not your concern.” Peter reached in his pocket and pulled out a roll of crisp hundos. He grabbed the man’s hand and slapped the money into it. “This is, though.”
“Uh…” The valet stared at the giant wad of money. Everything it symbolized—freedom, addiction, opportunity, ruin—flashed through his eyes in less than a second. He stuffed the money into his jacket. “Th…thank you.”
Peter clapped him on the shoulder. “Do something good with it. Thank me afterwards.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked away, humming the LOTR score that played in the background when the One Ring entranced its prey. Mid-step, he crooked his arms out. Eun and Kora grasped his elbows.
“Not bad, Peter.” Eun cocked her head. “The student becomes the teacher.”
“A natural progression,” Peter replied. “And I’m not a ‘teacher,’ per se. I speak the truth as best I can and leave it at that. Hey—” He swiveled his head, looking briefly at both his friends. “That’s not important—not tonight. This is the biggest night of our teenage lives, and we look like extras in a James Bond gala scene. We’re supposed to have fun, goddammit.”
Kora looked around. “Everyone else brought a date….I asked Leona, but her parents are homophobes; they’d shit a duck if they saw us together. You called this ‘going stag,’ right?”
“Wouldn’t say that,” Peter chuckled. “I’m walking in with the hottest ladies in all of Atherton.”
“I’m not really a ‘lady,’ ” Kora countered. “I’m kind of both at this point. Maybe I should be the one in the middle.”
“I think it’s perfect as is,” Eun said. “When the three of us met, Peter was unbalanced. 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 studied the fresh-faced prom-goers. “Brainwashed by Hallmark into craving trinkets, living muted lives, and donning invisible chains made from debt.”
“And us?” Kora asked.
He gave her a smile, authentic and pure. “Kora, our friendship is way more precious. You, me, Eun…our strength comes from something greater. Something noble and undeniable.”
Eun said, “Which puts us in a position to—”
“—help the others.” He nodded pointedly at the other students. “Absolutely.”
Eun beamed at him. “Just making sure you knew your role.”
Peter cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Let’s get this party STAAAR-ted!”
Holly was now a shambling mess. A haunted machine, pushing through an uncaring desert. She remembered it was called the Shattered Territories, but everything else was starting to fade. She’d been a cheerleader, a king, a victim…
Her memories nagged at 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. All that mattered was a full belly and safety from monsters. Her sanity wasn’t one of her concerns.
At least not at first.
As she slept (early on, she’d learned to cast a protective dome around her slumbering form) she would giggle maniacally. She’d laugh herself awake, feeling black despair constricting her soul.
A deep blight had taken root in her psyche. If she tried to excise it, she might cut too much out; 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, tortured by hints 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.