“Check it out.” Peter spread his arms and spun in place. His body was coated in sleek, circuit-laced mesh, somewhat 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. “Agreed—you look pretty awesome. Got some for us?’
Peter reached under his bed and produced a matching pair of future-cool battle-suits. He handed them off and 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.
Peter grinned. “They’re drenched in genius-level sperm.”
“Gross,” Eun muttered.
Kora went in the bathroom and changed. She came out in her suit, marveling at her diode-coated limbs. “Bad. Ass.” Eun did the same.
“How do they feel?” Peter asked.
Eun performed some basic range of motion tests. “Wow,” she remarked. It was skin-tight, but didn’t pull or catch in the slightest. “Feels amazing.”
Kora kick-flipped into an aerial twist. She shadowboxed, then stretched her arms directly overhead. “Comfy and supportive. Nice job.”
“It’s a discontinued DARPA project,” Peter explained. “They ended up shelving it due to the cost. If you’re shelling out a hundred million plus, it makes more sense to spend it on aircraft.”
“A hundred million?” Eun blanched.
“Is that a lot?” Kora asked. “Are you a merchant?”
“I’m good with my mouth.” Peter’s smile became decidedly smug. “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.” He cycled his hand in a c’mon-c’mon gesture. “I wanna see how they look.”
Eun and Kora unzipped their garment bags. Soon, they were both clad in rich-sheened fabric.
“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. “Our arms are exposed. You can still see the suits.”
“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. “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.
“Yep,” Peter confirmed. “When it’s go-time, give ’em a yank. The dresses will slide right off you.”
“And the suits?” Eun pressed. “Will they stay transparent?”
“Tempting.” Peter chuckled. “But I know full well you’d kick my ass if I pranked you into fighting naked. No, they’re keyed to your neural signatures—doff your dresses, and the suits will auto-shift into opacity. They’re also equipped with kinetic tech, meaning they’ll store and amplify physical force. And, as you can see, they have the capacity for camouflage. Not as good as Predator, but—”
Kora cocked her head. “Who’s Predator?”
“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 dialect and lingo 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.
“Cool. I’ll put on my tux and we’ll head over. Goddamn.” He shook his head. “I always thought I’d skip prom.” His eyes turned distant.
“Never thought I’d look forward to going.”
For the big night, Bitefighter morphed into a badass car. While other students came in cheesy limos, Peter, Kora, and Eun arrived in jaw-dropping style. As they pulled up to the Ritz at 600 Stockton, Atherton’s students stopped and stared.
Gull-wing doors folded up, and the three teen heroes emerged as one. Peter snapped his lapels, drinking in the gapes and murmurs. Kora and Eun looked absolutely stunning. Guys (and some girls) earned 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 off. “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 suck 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—”
Peter called, “Bitefighter! Vamoose!”
The Bite Mobile revved, then trundled slowly out from the Ritz’s loading zone. The valet stared disbelievingly at it. “Is that a self-driving car? Didn’t know it could find its own parking…”
“Not your concern.” Peter reached in his jacket and produced a thick roll of hundred-dollar bills. He grabbed the man’s hand and filled it with money. “This is, though.”
“Uh…” The valet stared at the giant wad of cash. Everything it symbolized—freedom, addiction, opportunity, ruin—flashed through his eyes in less than a second. “Th…thank you.”
Peter clapped him on the shoulder. “Do something good with it.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked away, humming the LOTR music that played whenever 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, glancing briefly at both his friends. “None of that matters—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, dammit.”
Kora looked around. “Everyone else brought a date. I couldn’t ask Leona because her parents are homophobes; they’d shit a duck if they saw us together. You call this ‘going stag,’ right?”
“Wouldn’t say that,” Peter chuckled. “I’m making my entrance with a couple of hotties.”
“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.”
“And in so doing, he helped us find ours. Gotcha.” Kora grinned.
“We’re light years beyond these unevolved simians.” Peter canvassed 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 threw her a smile, authentic and pure. “Kora, our friendship is way more precious than commercialized nonsense. You, me, Eun…our strength comes from something greater.”
Eun said, “Which allows us to—”
“—help the others. Way ahead of you.”
Eun beamed at him. “Just making sure.”
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 hellscape. She remembered it was called the Shattered Territories, but everything else was starting to fade. She’d been a cheerleader, a king, a victim…
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 physical safety. Her sanity wasn’t a pressing concern.
It wasn’t long before that changed.
As she slept (early on, she’d learned how to cast a shield around her slumbering body) she would giggle maniacally. She would laugh herself awake, feeling black despair constricting her soul.
Because nothing about this was the least bit funny.
A deep blight had taken root in her psyche. If she tried to excise it, she might cut too much out, and there would be nothing left of her once she was done.
Or maybe there would be, and it would leave her a shadow of her former self. A doddering simpleton, tortured by hints of what came before.
There was irony there. And it was doubly ironic that Holly couldn’t see it.
And so she slogged and she killed. And she avoided the gaze of her blank, lifeless eyes, staring up from the face-stealers’ corpses.
Eventually she saw it: a dot of light on the wind-whipped horizon.