Marlowe’s ass was numb.
She had been perched for the last hour on a cold metal bench bolted directly onto the side of a cold metal transport truck. And naturally, she was seated directly over the back wheel well, where the vibrations of the road were magnified. Her wrists and ankles were bound together with large, magnetically sealed cuffs constructed specially for abnormally strong, augmented super-soldiers. Both sets of cuffs were chained to the other in such a way that Marlowe was unable sit up straight or even stretch her sore, weakened muscles. The fact that the orange prisoner’s jumpsuit she was wearing did very little to insulate her rear from the frigid metal in the back of the unheated transport didn’t help matters.
Add in the fact that she hadn’t eaten anything beyond vitamin supplements and water in the last three months, and it meant that Marlowe’s numb ass, while annoying, was really just the beginning of her problems.
They could have held the trial anywhere. It would have made sense to do it in Indianapolis, at the Capitol building in MilSec Tribunal High Court. But the powers that be wanted to make a point. So they had trucked nearly the entire judicial operation to Atlanta for her trial. It made for great entertainment on the Feeds. There was nothing more poetic than parading Marlowe around her hometown in a prison transport. All of this was designed to make Marlowe as miserable as possible while entertaining the masses, and it most certainly worked. So she was already uncomfortable when the young and desperately over-eager blonde guard seated to her left opened his mouth.
“I, uh…I watch your Feed,” he said.
She didn’t look at him. She didn’t even look up. She stared at the grated flooring, hoping that counting the squares would somehow make him disappear.
“I’ve been watching it for years,” he continued. “I wish I was old enough to have seen it during your football days–”
“Jacobs,” the Sergeant seated across from them barked.
“What?” He replied. “It’s not like we’ll ever get this chance again, Sarge.”
Sergeant Morris rolled his eyes. “You’re a MilSec soldier. Contain yourself.”
Jacobs did not contain himself. He couldn’t. He was tied with at least 20 million other people for the title of “World’s Biggest MK Fan”. More than half of the United American State’s 40 million citizens ranked her Feed positively, and nearly all of them saw her face at least once a day on Feeds, product packaging, service announcements, MilSec recruitment posters… And here he was, sitting shoulder to shoulder with her. He wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to talk with her.
“I just… I have a question? If I may?” Jacobs asked.
Marlowe sighed heavily. She raised her head from between her shackled hands and turned to look at Jacobs. He couldn’t have been older than nineteen, which was the only reason she decided to tolerate his puppy-like eagerness.
Jacobs nearly choked. “…Wow. Just…okay, so, I don’t really know why you tried to kill Sergeant Corta. I mean, I didn’t really watch her Feed ever, but I know a lot of people watched her…but I don’t really believe that you were jealous of her. Her ratings aren’t that good. She’s not even half as famous as you.”
Marlowe very slowly and deliberately blinked at Jacobs.
“I mean, I just…I guess you had your reasons? That’s not really important, honestly. Not to me. Not as a soldier, I mean.”
“…Is there a question somewhere in there, Private?” Marlowe asked.
“…Yes, I just…well, I mean, how did you end up here?”
“I was found guilty of treason against the United American State,” she responded. “That tends to land you in the back of a prison transport with a talkative Private.”
“It’s, uh…Private First Class,” Jacobs said nervously. “And, I mean… I get that, but…”
Suddenly, a loud chirping sound echoed through the back of the transport.
“Oh wow!” Jacobs crowed. “I just hit 25,000 viewers on my Feed!”
Marlowe and Sergeant Morris both rolled their eyes simultaneously.
“You installed FeedMeter on your Pod?” Morris asked the young Private. “You know that’s against regs.”
“Well, I didn’t…” Jacobs stammered. “It’s just that, when I found out I pulled this detail, I just had to know what it would do to my FeedRank, just being in here. You know…with MK.”
Another ding. “Wow! Fifty thousand!” Jacobs exclaimed.
“Great,” Marlowe said, “Now fifty thousand idiots know you’re a terrible soldier who violates regulations.”
Jacobs laughed nervously again. “Well, no…they can’t hear us. Mic’s muted. ’Prisoner’s rights’ and all that…”
“Fine,” Marlowe said, “But I’m sure they can hear this.” She extended her bound hands as far as she could toward Private Jacob’s vest camera and flipped up her middle fingers.
Sergeant Morris chuckled. He had always liked MK. But he was MilSec first, as he had been for nearly twenty years. He knew the job, and that it was best not to let emotions (or follower counts) get in the way.
Private Jacobs blushed, embarrassed by looking like an idiot in front of his hero. With a slight creak in his voice, he said “So, uh, I was wondering…”
Marlowe sighed. “What now, Private?”
“It’s Private First Class,” Jacobs again corrected.
Marlowe narrowed her eyes.
Jacobs ducked his head sheepishly, cleared his throat, and asked “I just wanted to know, you know…how did you get captured? I mean, I’ve watched your Feed since before I joined MilSec. Hell, you’re the reason I joined in the first place! I even used to wear the scar in school!” He lifted his finger to his right eye. “You can even see where the ink stained my—”
“—Okay, enough, Jacobs,” Sergeant Morris said.
Jacobs continued, “With your augs…I mean, I’ve seen you take out ten, even fifteen enemy combatants before! And it’s just the two of us back here. You could probably—”
“Secure that line of questioning, Private!” Sergeant Morris commanded.
“And then what would I do?” Marlowe asked.
Morris and Jacobs looked over at Marlowe. “Ma’am?” Jacobs queried.
“I haven’t eaten real food in months. I barely have the energy to suffer your inane bullshit right now, much less break out of here. And even if I did, I’d be dead before I left the transport. I’m strong. I’m not bulletproof. So, even though I would love to pop these cuffs and bolt, I can’t. And even if I could–”
Jacobs’s FeedMeter chirped, interrupting Marlowe. “Holy…one hundred thousand!” Jacobs said.
“…Right,” Marlowe said with a sigh. “And then there’s that. I would have to kill two MilSec soldiers with one hundred thousand people watching, after swearing for three months that I’m not a traitor. And what would that prove? That I’m totally innocent? That I am definitely not a traitor who would murder her own? That everything I’ve sworn to uphold and protect with my life was a lie?”
She shifted in her seat as much as she was able. The chain that bound her wrists to her ankles jangled. “Whatever… It’s all bullshit. The trial…this parade through Atlanta…and especially this conversation.”
The transport fell silent. Sergeant Morris cleared his throat. Jacobs tapped his fingers on his leg. Marlowe placed her face back into her palms. The transport hummed as it carried its cargo of one prisoner and two chastened guards.
A distinctly different series of beeps sounded from Jacobs’s wrist.
Marlowe sighed loudly. “And what was that? Did you hit the the million viewer mark or something?” she asked.
Jacobs checked his watch. He looked up and grinned at Marlowe. “Nope. It’s time to go.”
Marlowe’s eyes widened as Jacobs suddenly leaped up from his seat and across the truck. His forearm landed across the throat of Sergeant Morris, and his body pinned the Sergeant’s rifle against his chest. With one swift movement, Jacobs pulled his sidearm from its holster, placed it against the temple of his commanding officer, and pulled the trigger.
The slim railgun hummed. A metal slug flew from the tip of the weapon. A red mist erupted from the former head of Sergeant Morris.
The transport suddenly lurched, as something hard and explosive slammed into the side of it with a deafening BOOM! Before it could balance out, another explosion hit just inches from where the first landed, followed by a third. The force of the barrage tipped the transport onto its side. Marlowe’s back and head slammed against the side of the vehicle. Jacobs crash-landed on his back beside her.
Another explosion erupted outside, and then another. The sound of metal ripping through metal could be heard all around as the lead and follow transport vehicles were picked apart. The barking of orders and screams of death echoed everywhere.
Marlowe struggled up to her knees. She lifted her head to see Jacobs lying upside down, ass in the air, his knees on either side of his head. He was grinning ear to ear. His FeedMeter chirped again in triplicate.
“Now THAT was the million follower mark!” he exclaimed. He rolled to his side and rose to one knee. “You ok?” He asked Marlowe.
She looked at him wide-eyed; her mouth hanging open. “Uh…”
“What? What’s wrong?” Jacobs asked, checking her over. “Did you get hit? Are you bleeding?”
“I, uh…I’m fine,” Marlowe replied. “What the fuck is–”
There was a vigorous clanging at the rear of the transport. Loud beeping could be heard.
“Stand back and brace yourself,” Jacobs told Marlowe as he positioned himself between her and the doors. He had no weapon — his rifle and sidearm were now useless. A biometrics lockout was activated the second he murdered Sergeant Morris. If this wasn’t who he thought it was, he was going to have to fight them with his bare hands.
A blast shook the truck. The right-side door, now facing the bottom, fell open and hit the ground with a loud CLANG. A group of dark-clothed legs and boots could be seen from the opening. Then, the other door was raised up.
“All good in here?” A voice queried.
Jacobs smiled. “Right as rain,” he said, as he walked toward the rear doors and climbed out of the back of the truck. He turned and beckoned Marlowe to exit. “Come on,” he said.
“Fuck you!” she replied.
Jacobs’s mouth dropped. “But…we’re rescuing you!”
“I have no idea who you are or what you want with me,” she snapped. “Why the hell would I go with you?”
“Well,” Jacobs responded, “You were on your way to prison for a crime you didn’t commit, and now you’re not, thanks to us. Unless you still want to end up there?”
Marlowe weighed her options. It didn’t take long; she didn’t have any. Reluctantly, she stood and waddled toward the back of the truck. She was helped out on her left by a uniformed female MilSec soldier who had apparently defected. On her right, she noticed a man clad in an unfamiliar pattern of pixelated camouflage, with chest armor that looked like it was made in a garage, and elbow and knee pads purchased from an Imagen Sporting Goods shop.
They helped Marlowe into the back seat of a pre-war vehicle that still miraculously rolled on tires and staggeringly enough, seemed to be powered by an electrical motor. The mercenary took the driver’s seat while the MilSec defector joined Marlowe in the back. Jacobs finished a conversation with another squad of four soldiers, half guerrilla and half MilSec defectors. He pointed into the sky. One of the guerrillas raised a rifle and opened fire on several drones that hovered above. They laughed as pieces of metal and glass and circuitry rained down around them.
Jacobs hopped into the front passenger seat of Marlowe’s vehicle, and they sped off.