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 a sleek, circuit-laced mesh that resembled a high-tech scuba-suit. “What do you think?”
Eun’s mouth twitched into a hint of a smile. “You look like…you look like a superhero, Peter.”
“Fuck yes!” He punched the air and hooted with joy.
Kora put her hands on her hips and gave him a once-over. Her eyes glinted with pleasure. “It does look awesome. You have some 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. Eun and Kora 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.”
“Gross,” Eun muttered.
Kora was already walking to the bathroom, battle-suit bundled under her arm. A minute later, she was wearing the ensemble, turning her arms up and marveling at the glimmering light flashing across her.
“Whoa,” she whispered. “Bad. Ass.”
Eun headed off to change. She came back, spread her arms, and spun around. Kora nodded approvingly. Peter’s grin, already wide, now stretched from ear to ear.
“Fucking awesome,” he said. “How do they feel?”
Eun and Kora raised their arms overhead, then tried a few high kicks and some range of motion tests.
“Wow,” Eun remarked. She was puzzled—the battle-suit let her move a hell of a lot smoother than she’d ever expected. It was a skin-tight ensemble, but it wasn’t pulling or catching in the slightest. “This feels amazing.”
“Agree.” Kora kick-flipped into an aerial twist, landing in a single-kneed crouch. She got to her feet, shadowboxed, then put her hands on her hips. “Provides comfort and support exactly when it’s needed, but doesn’t bunch up or tug at the wrong moment. How the hell did you—”
“It’s a DARPA project,” Peter said. “They were developing a low-key combat uniform for guys above tier one, who’re sometimes called ‘singletons.’ They shelved it due to the 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 said.
“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. “Yes. Let’s.”
“You guys got your dresses? Let’s see how they fit over your battle-suits.”
Eun and Kora took their garment bags into separate bathrooms. Kora went to the one adjacent to Peter’s bedroom, Eun went downstairs into the one in the living room. A short while later they came back up, 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. People will see the battle-suit.”
“Ah.” He folded his hands behind his back. “Not a problem. “Just whisper, ‘light-speed ninja’ under your breath.”
Kora and Eun whispered the phrase. 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 waist and fished around with their fingers.
“Careful,” Peter warned. “Don’t pull ’em—just hold them.”
Kora and Eun found the flaps. They pinched them loosely between their thumbs and pointer fingers.
“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—they’ll auto-shift into an opaque state when you doff your dresses.”
“So we won’t be naked,” Kora clarified.
Peter nodded. “They’ll also camouflage you. 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.”
“I take it as a compliment.” Kora flashed a smile. “This Predator, though…” A faint smile played across her lips. “He sounds badass.”
“Icon of the eighties,” 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.”
“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 was in cheesy-ass limos—Peter, Kora, and Eun arrived in jaw-dropping style. As they pulled up to the Ritz at 600 Stockton, 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 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 motha’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 craned his head back toward the car. “Vamoose!”
The Bite Mobile’s engine revved three times, then trundled away 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 valet was momentarily at a loss for words. He 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. “Thank…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 Lord of the Rings theme that played in the background whenever the Ring entranced its prey.
Eun and Kora hurried up beside him. He crooked both arms out. Eun and Kora slipped their arms between his elbows and fell in step.
“Not bad, Peter.” Eun cocked her head and threw him a respectful glance. “The student becomes the teacher.”
“A natural progression,” Peter replied smugly. “And I wouldn’t call myself a teacher. 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. To top it off, we’re at a high school dance that symbolizes our coming of age, and we look like extras in a James Bond gala. Guys; we’re supposed to have fun, goddammit.”
Kora looked around. “Everyone else brought a date with them. You called this ‘going stag,’ right?”
“Wouldn’t say that,” Peter chuckled. “I’ve got two beautiful ladies hanging off my arms.”
“I’m not really a ‘lady,’ ” Kora countered. “I’m kind of both at this point. Maybe I should be 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.”
“And in so doing, he helped us find ours.”
“We’re light years beyond these unevolved simians.” Peter took in the fresh-faced prom-goers. “Raised 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 turned to her and smiled, authentic and pure. “Kora, the friendship between us is way more precious. You, me and Eun. Our strength comes from something purer. Something authentic.”
Eun interjected with, “Which puts us in a position to—”
“—help them.” He nodded knowingly. “Absolutely. And that’s exactly what we’re doing tonight.”
“Just making sure you knew.” Eun beamed at him. She looked stunning.
Peter cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Let’s get this party STAAAR-ted!”
Holly had been reduced to a shambling machine—a spare, ropy figure pushing ceaselessly across a phantasmagoric wasteland. She remembered it was called the Shattered Territories, but everything else was starting to fade. She’d once been a cheerleader, a king, a victim, a deceiver…
Her memories had become flitting shadows, nagging at the edges of her fraying mind. Who she was was falling away. What she was was coming to the fore: a half-crazed animal, plodding through an expanse of unforgiving terrain, 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 been much of 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 body) she would giggle maniacally in her dreams. She’d look down at her ridiculous body—the liver-spotted flesh and gnarled limbs—and erupt into guffaws. She’d bolt up in bed, still giggling, and feel a black despair envelop her soul.
Because nothing about her predicament was the least bit funny.
She hadn’t paid it much mind. But a deep blight was growing in her soul, like a spot of mold that kept expanding, coating its host organism in rot and decay, spreading and attacking every piece of surrounding tissue. If she tried to excise it, she might cut out too much. There might not be anything left after she was done. Or maybe there would be, and it would leave her a pale shadow of her former self. A doddering simpleton who was constantly tormented by inklings of what could have been, of what had come before.
There was irony there. It was doubly ironic that Holly didn’t grasp it.
And so she slogged. And she killed. And she avoided looking at her blank, lifeless eyes, staring up at her from the decapitated heads of the face-stealers’ carcasses.
Eventually, she saw it: a bright dot of light on the wind-whipped horizon.