Marlowe felt the weight of the magnetically locked cuffs that wrapped around her wrists and ankles. She felt the heft of the cable that connected the restraints and kept her from standing completely straight. She felt the strain of every single muscle fiber in her body, both natural and augmented as they sagged, heavy from malnutrition and fatigue. She felt her head throb with every weak heartbeat. Her eyes pulsed as the capillaries expanded and contracted.
She could smell propellant and gunpowder on the soldiers who rode along with her in the truck — scents that she remembered during her tours overseas in the Gaslands, fighting the many terrorist organizations that threatened the United American State’s way of life. Smells that could only come from black market weaponry used by deserters who had turned against the organization she spent her adult life serving, to rescue her from a prison sentence for a crime they believe she didn’t commit. As a loyal MilSec soldier, she should despise them. But on that same token, they were the reason she was in a civilian vehicle and not sitting in a jail cell in the Citadel. Why they were helping her, she didn’t know. Maybe they were terrorists, or maybe they were just an overzealous faction of her fan club. Marlowe surmised that when you’re surrounded by strangers with guns, confined in binds and completely malnourished, there was very little difference between a rescue and a kidnapping.
But at least her ass was no longer numb.
Her thoughts began to drift as she contemplated the events of the past few months. It seemed to her that the chaos of her current circumstances was a natural progression of her entire screwball life. Even from a young age, it felt to her like every single shortcoming of hers had been on public display. As an “illegal child” — a child of a non-native Citizen — adopted by a revered MilSec General and his celebrity actress wife, Marlowe faced immediate and overwhelming fame and was put on every gossip-related NewsFeed from babyhood onwards. And of course, it ensured that her childhood became a highly rated Feed show.
Her early draft by the UAFL at age fourteen made her a celebrity in her own right, until she was banned from the league in the middle of her third year for “undisclosed augmentations” — which had come as a shock to her, since she’d always presumed her uncanny speed and strength were simply the gifts of talent and genetics. No one had ever thought to test her for nanofiber muscular augmentations, because no one knew that they even existed.
If it wasn’t for the full-body scan she was subjected to on the return trip home from an exhibition game at the island resort in Oz, they probably never would have. A measure typically used to detect terrorists and their smuggled weapons ended up nearly bankrupting the League after allegations of Marlowe’s augmentations being purposely covered up for ratings ran rife.
To discover she was an Aug through a SportFeed press release was crippling, and not knowing how or why she acquired them made life downright debilitating. Depression and a suicide attempt kept her out of the public eye until she was eighteen, when she was finally able to enlist in MilSec,one of only a few hundred non-criminals to willingly serve, which itself was NewsFeed worthy. It was one of her father’s better ideas. Her subsequent success as a soldier made all of the misery worth it, despite the fact that it kept her in the public eye. For ten years, her Feed grew from a few thousand casually curious Citizens who were curious if the General’s kid could live up to his legacy, to nearly half the nation who felt she had far surpassed it. Multiple wins on Next Top Soldier and then becoming the first active-service soldier to be inducted into the MilSec Hall of Fame justified her wretched path to the top. Fame irritated her, but rubbing her success in the face of her detractors somehow made it all worth it.
Then the “incident” occurred.
Thanks to an inept lawyer, a court-martial, missing evidence, and a tribunal that seemed utterly dismissive of what the most decorated and respected soldier in MilSec history had to say for herself, that high had come crashing down around her, as if it was fated. And now she found herself in a car with traitors, on the run from the service she’d spent the last ten years of her life working for — a life that was now ruined.
However, she had to admit, the break from the chaos of watching her entire life erode around her — yet again — was nice. And despite the insanity of the past day of being carted around her hometown of Atlanta in shackles by various groups in various vehicles, and the weeks of courtroom visits, teams of lawyers, and the months of solitary confinement in the Citadel military prison…she was actually enjoying this moment. Chaos was her normal state. She wasn’t locked in a box. She was still alive. And, for better or for worse, at least things were interesting again.
A chirp from Jacobs’s FeedMeter echoed through the vehicle.
“Holy… ten million…” Jacobs said from the front passenger seat. “Half of the Nation is watching us!”
“Oh for fucks’ sake, blondie…” The driver said from behind the strangely camouflaged bandanna pulled over his mouth. He shook his head, and his long, dreadlocked ponytail shifted. “Quit obsessing over that shit. And besides, ten million is only a quarter of the nation, you idiot.”
“Whatever,” Jacobs answered. “Can you believe it? I’m…I mean, WE are famous!”
“No, we are not famous, and you aren’t either,” said the other MilSec soldier-turned-traitor, who was sitting next to Marlowe in the back seat. Her chin-length auburn hair spilled out from under her helmet as she lifted it from her head. She nodded toward Marlowe. “She’s the famous one. We’re just along for the ride. Don’t get it twisted.”
“Yeah, yeah, Angel,” Jacobs answered, “Ten million people are watching us right now!”
The driver of the vehicle suddenly reached over and placed his hand on Jacobs’s camera, twisted it off the harness and ripped it from his chest.
“Dude! What the fuck, Poet?!” Jacobs yelled.
“This isn’t about your goddamn FeedMeter rank, man!” Poet said as he rolled the window down and tossed out the camera. It clattered and clanged as it bounced along the road. “You’re not even supposed to be broadcasting right now. People are supposed to find us organically.”
“But we have to get the message out,” Jacobs said.
“Now’s not the time,” Angel shouted from the backseat.
“Oh, like it’s your call?” Jacobs said. “You outranked me in MilSec, Corporal, but in this operation–”
“–In this operation, we follow the plan,” Angel interjected. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“I came up with the damn plan!” Jacobs snapped. “I know what we are doing! It’s my plan!”
“Sure,” Poet said from the driver’s seat. “This was one hundred percent ‘Operation: Jacobs’s Idea,’ wasn’t it? Oh wait, except for the escape that I planned, or the overwatch that Angel provided, or the heavy artillery that Pariah chucked at the transport, or –”
“Whatever!” Jacobs said. “You specialists do your specialist crap, I get it. That’s your job. Mine was to make it all happen.”
“Just because you volunteered to be in the transport with the target doesn’t make you the leader,” Angel said as she removed her tactical gloves and stretched her fingers.
“The ‘target’?” Jacobs asked. “You mean MK? The woman sitting right next to you? Who wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for me? Is that the ‘target’ you meant?”
“Dude, you shot your Sergeant,” Poet said. “Big deal.”
“Yeah, it WAS a big deal!” Jacobs yelled. “I didn’t see any of you raising your hands to ride in the belly of that beast!”
“You’re MilSec Police!” Angel replied. “Who the hell else could have had access?”
“That’s right, I had the access, and I pulled her out!” Jacobs said, pointing at himself and pounding his chest with his index finger. “I did this! Me!”
Jacobs looked at Poet, and then turned around in his seat to glare at Angel. He waited for a reply from either of his teammates. Neither offered one, apart from exasperated sighs.
“That’s what I thought!” Jacobs said. “Go on, say it…tell me which of us got Marlowe out!”
“The Judge did,” Angel said. “This is his operation. He put this together. Know your place.”
The mention of The Judge froze Jacobs in his tracks. He took a breath and sat back in his seat. After a moment of sullen contemplation, he muttered “Well, we’re still famous.”
“Shut up, Jacobs,” Poet said as he slowed for a stop signal. Realizing that he was breaking approximately thirty separate laws simply by driving the vehicle he was in, carrying the people that were in it, he abruptly changed his mind and slammed the throttle lever forward, flying through the red light.
“What the fuck did you just say to me?”
Poet pulled his mask from his face. “I said shut up,” he repeated, looking over at Jacobs. “Need me to say it again? Okay fine: Shut up. Shut up, shut up. Shut. Up.”
Jacobs stared at Poet for a moment, before finally saying, “Fuck you.”
“Witty,” Poet replied, returning his eyes to the road.
“Get a haircut, you reggae fuck.”
“You wanna try cutting my dreads?” Poet said. “Be my guest.”
“I could, you know,” Jacobs said with a slight smile.
“Better men than you have tried. Even blonde ones.”
“Oooooh, look at you! Mister ‘Tough Guy From The Subs’ pulling the super hard job of driving the getaway vehicle…”
Angel shook her head and rolled her eyes as she sunk into the back seat. Poet and Jacobs continued to bicker as the car rolled through the streets from Terminus Citadel through Five Points, into the neighborhoods of Old Atlanta.
Marlowe sat in frank disbelief — not just because this group seemed incapable of collectively tying a shoe without picking a fight with one another, but also for the simple reason that she was even in the same vehicle as them. She had at least thirty questions flying through her brain. Who the hell were these people? What did they want with her? How did they pull off this elaborate rescue? But only question bubbled up from her lips.
“Does anyone have any food?”
The vehicle fell silent. Jacobs turned around in his seat. Angel jolted out of her reverie. Poet looked at Marlowe in the rear view mirror. It seemed to hit them all at that moment: they actually had the most famous — and dangerous — person in the nation sitting cuffed in their vehicle.
“Well?” Marlowe demanded, snapping them out of their starstruck trance.
“Um… yeah,” Angel said, reaching into a pouch on the front of her vest. She pulled out a Battery bar and offered it to Marlowe.
Marlowe narrowed her eyes at Angel. She lifted her eyebrows and widened her eyes, as if to say Really? Angel looked confused. Marlowe extended her cuffed wrists as far as they would go toward Angel, which wasn’t very far. She fluttered her fingers, then turned her palms upward. How, idiot?
“Oh right,” Angel said, embarrassed. She peeled back the packaging on the nutrient-rich bar and started gingerly toward Marlowe’s face with it.
“That part I can do myself,” Marlowe said. “Just…put it in my hand.”
Angel complied. Marlowe leaned forward and began devouring the bar in her cuffed hands.
“Think that’ll be enough for you to bust out of your binds?” Jacobs asked.
“Hardly,” Marlowe said with a mouth full of half-gnawed food bar. She chewed as quickly as possible, swallowing a little prematurely. She coughed, choking. Jacobs flung himself into the back seat, poised to save his hero. Marlowe shot him a look that caused him to swiftly slink back to the front.
“I’m fine,” she said through her coughs. “I just haven’t had…well, anything to eat in months. And to answer your question, no. These shackles…never seen anything like them before. Considering I can’t even stand up straight, even at full strength, I don’t know if I could manage enough leverage. I hope you guys have something in mind, because my hands are literally tied.”
Jacobs composed himself. “Yeah, they’re magnetically coded. I have the unlock codes from Terminus Citadel. Poet’s got an emulator at the safehouse. We can clone the release key once we get there.”
“And where is this safehouse?” Marlowe asked.
“Atlanta Beach. Like, literally on the beach, in Jonesboro,” Jacobs said, a smile of pride creeping across his face. “My aunt’s old house. She left it to me when she died. It’s pretty sweet, actually! Infinity pool with its own distillation evaporator, and a full bar, too! I know how much you like scotch, and I even got you some of your favorite cigars–”
“You’re kidding, right?” Marlowe asked as she leaned down to eat the last bit of food from her fist.
“Nope,” Jacobs replied. “Only the best for you, MK!”
“It’s dead,” Marlowe stated.
“Your safehouse. It’s dead.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re using a property that was in your family’s name as a safehouse?” Marlowe asked. “After your Feed was watched by over ten million citizens? Your face — all your faces — are probably pinned in every MilSec soldier’s HUD, unclosable. Everything about you is in their briefing. Family history, property you own, places you visit…nothing connected to you is safe.”
Angel looked at Jacobs. Jacobs looked at Poet.
“Don’t look at me, mister mastermind!” Poet said. “The safehouse was your responsibility.”
“It’s solid!” He insisted. “The whole place is dark. I have a faraday cage and thermal insulation built into the walls. Power runs off a generator in a lead-lined, underground bunker. It’s completely invisible! I rigged it myself. No one can scan us.”
Marlowe scoffed. “So you have a house you inherited from your aunt, and you went and rigged it up to look like a gigantic black hole on a thermal scan? And that makes it safe?”
“What the hell does that mean?” Jacobs asked.
“It’s a huge black spot in a sea of yellow and red. You might as well hang a sign out front that says ‘Super Secret Safehouse’ — but that doesn’t matter. They don’t need to scan for it. It was your aunt’s, right? As in she willed it to you?”
“Well yeah, but I transferred it to –”
“Doesn’t matter. Your name’s on the paper trail. It’s dead. Better find somewhere else.”
The vehicle was silent once again.
“Goddammit, Jacobs!” Angel yelled. She punched the headrest of the seat in front of her. “I told you!”
“JAQi,” Poet said “Show me the feed from Location Alpha.”
“Seriously?” Marlowe said with a chuckle. “Location Alpha…good fucking God, this is amazing — wait a minute! You had to be blocked after being on NewsFeed. They have your face and your biometrics…how are you able to use JAQi with a blacklisted Pod?”
“It’s rooted,” Angel said, referring to the method of hacking equipment by completely overwriting its core operating system. “Poet’s got a black market flash for his Pod. We will get one too, once we get clear of all this.”
“And you two?” Marlowe asked, looking at Angel and Jacobs. “They’re not tracking your Pods?”
“Jammed,” Poet said, pointing to a small box wired into the dash of the car. “No data out, only in. Yours is, too.”
“She doesn’t need Pod-jamming though, do you, MK?” Jacobs said with a wink.
“I noticed the scar,” Jacobs answered, pointing to an area on his own face just behind his jawbone. “And see? I told you, we thought of everything!”
A square patch of the vehicle’s windscreen darkened, flickered, then displayed the Feed requested by Poet. It showed a normal looking house in a normal looking neighborhood.
“Switch to thermal,” Poet said.
The screen changed from a video Feed to a temperature-based scan. Figures and objects in every house glowed in hues from red to yellow to orange, all radiating some sort of heat in every house except one, which was pitch black.
“See?” Jacobs said. “We’re clear!”
“…Except for that mass of green two doors down on the left,” Marlowe said, nodding toward the display. “The one that’s three times larger than it should be.”
“That’s just thermal radiation from that house,” Jacobs replied.
“It’s moving,” Marlowe said as she sunk back into her seat. “Houses don’t move. That’s reflected heat.”
“Aw, fuck,” Poet said with a groan. “They’re using thermoptics.”
Jacobs studied the screen. To the average eye, it wouldn’t register. But Marlowe and apparently Poet had seen this sort of thing before: experimental camouflage that turned the wearer invisible to the naked eye and even blocked body heat…to a point.
“Thought of everything, huh?” Marlowe asked.
“Shit!” Jacobs said, punching the dashboard in frustration. “We’ve been compromised…JAQi, notify Team Raven and tell them to divert to… oh shit. Where are we going to go?”
“We’ll have to go straight to HQ,” Angel said.
“And where’s that?” Marlowe asked.
“The capital!?!” Marlowe said with a laugh. “This just gets better and better!”
“Not gonna happen,” Poet stated. “This vehicle is pre-war. We’ve got maybe four hours’ range, max. We’d need to stop and recharge at least twice.”
“I have to hand it to you, Private First Class,” Marlowe said, “You certainly masterminded one hell of a clusterfuck.”
“Hey, we busted you out of a highly secured prison transport!” Jacobs responded. “We saved your ass! The least you could do is be thankful!”
“Thankful?” Marlowe asked. “All you’ve done is ensure that the entire country now believes without a doubt that I’m a traitor! And you put huge targets on your own heads! Hell, you were going to broadcast our entire trip to this supposed safehouse, and for what? Some FeedMeter rank?”
“Well, yeah,” Jacobs replied. “It’s part of the plan–”
“WHAT plan?!?” Marlowe yelled.
“The Judge’s plan,” Angel said from beside her.
“Who the hell is The Judge?” Marlowe asked. Before anyone could answer, she continued ranting. “It doesn’t even matter. When — not if, but WHEN — we get caught, you can install FeedMeter to measure the Feed views for your execution! I’m sure you’ll break your ten million viewer record! You won’t even need me. You’ll ACTUALLY be famous on your own!”
Jacobs slunk into his seat. He folded his arms over his chest and pouted. Angel leaned her head against the window and sighed. Marlowe shook her head and laughed.
“Well, let’s not get caught, then,” Poet said. “I have an idea.”
“Great! An idea! That’ll save us,” Marlowe said. “And what do you have in mind? Drive us to the Super Bowl and put me in as quarterback? I’m sure the nation would love seeing me suit up again! I can see the headlines now: ‘Aug Cheater and Traitor Marlowe Kana: Super Bowl MVP!’ Let’s just remind everyone why they should hate me even more.”
“The EV plant,” Poet replied.
Marlowe was about to reflexively retort, but caught herself. She thought for a moment. “Huh…” She said as her tension subsided. She nodded. “Yeah, that’s actually a good idea. Damn, at least one of you thinks like a soldier.”
“He’s not even a soldier,” Jacobs said. “And why the hell would we go to the water treatment facilities?”
“The evaporators throw out huge radio interference from the turbines, and the heat from the steam engines would mask thermal,” Poet explained. “No one could scan for us.”
“What he said,” Marlowe said. “And if he’s not a soldier, what is he?”
“I’m just a street rat from the Subs who has become a believer in the Sovereign,” Poet answered.
Marlowe’s eyes narrowed. “The Sovereign?” she asked.
“Let’s just say we’re a group who believes your story,” Jacobs replied.
Angel looked over at Marlowe and nodded. Poet gave a thumbs up from behind the wheel.
“Fuck me,” Marlowe said, shaking her head. “I am being rescued by my fan club.”
Like a dysfunctional family on the road trip to hell, Marlowe, Poet, Jacobs, and Angel made the rest of the journey southeast to the water evaporation facilities in disgruntled silence. Jacobs stewed silently in embarrassment. Angel was carefully watching every car, drone, and pedestrian for signs that the group’s cover may have been blown. Poet was focused on driving as normally as possible. And Marlowe? She was just plain tired.
She was just drifting off when a loud rumble emanated from under the vehicle — the sound of wheels on gravel. They had arrived.