Sully’s antiquated truck shook from the various symptoms of Marlowe’s withdrawal. The vibrations from her violent shivering were already bad enough, but the force with which she scratched her entire body was actually causing Sully’s truck to sway back and forth as they sped through the midnight snow. AMP was notorious for two things: making the user a highly efficient kinetic machine, and then making them a useless heap of quivering flesh that itched so badly that there was nothing to do but scratch between shivers.
Sully was annoyed. His singular pride and joy — the factory original, pre-war Ram 1500 he’d painstakingly rebuilt — was was being shaken to pieces by an augmented super-soldier-cum-felon. But annoyance was something he could handle. As it was, the constant swaying from Marlowe’s intense scratching was also forcing him to make perpetual corrections to his steering while skidding around on the snow that President Cook had called down from the heavens. Sully had never even seen snow before, much less attempted to drive a wheeled vehicle upon it. He glanced at the clock on the dash which read “12:56.” Doing the math in his head, he grimly figured that the five miles they’d shakily covered since leaving his bookshop had taken nearly as long as if they’d walked.
But he didn’t feel right complaining. He didn’t really know Marlowe beyond what he’d seen on the Feeds. And to tell the truth, she was more than a little intimidating. The size of her was misleading; she was physically dense, super strong, famously lethal and short-tempered. Plus, he had volunteered to come — and he wasn’t one to gripe about things that needed doing. Jen, however, wasn’t intimidated by Marlowe in the slightest.
“God, just take another hit, will you?” She finally yelled from between Sully and Marlowe.
“No,” Marlowe answered equably as she scratched.
“And why not?” Jen demanded.
“I’m trying to stay clean.”
“Sudden onset morality, huh?” Jen asked. “Is that some new side effect?”
“Shut up,” Marlowe muttered as she dug her fingernails into her flesh.
“Well, whatever you gotta do to quit shaking this old truck, you need to do it,” Sully insisted. “We still got a few miles to go to get to the EV plant to meet your friends, and driving is hard enough as it is with this white shit falling from the sky.”
“Hell of a time to toss out a new weather pattern,” Jen remarked drily.
“It’s actually the perfect — OUCH — time,” Marlowe said, snagging a healthy chunk of her skin under her fingernails. “People are probably going nuts watching the Feeds. What better time to let them know who’s in charge of everything, including the weather — OUCH! SHIT!”
“Quit scratching.” Jen said calmly, placing her hands over Marlowe’s to freeze them in place.
“I can’t help it!” Marlowe moaned.
“Yes you can.” Jen insisted, struggling to keep Marlowe still. “Just take a quarter dose. It’ll take the edge off.”
“No!” Marlowe snapped, violently jerking her hands away from Jen.
The unintended force of Marlowe’s movement shifted the weight of the pre-war truck and the tires slipped precariously over the icy roads. Sully immediately slammed on the brakes and attempted to steer the truck out of the skid. If he were driving a MagLev, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But given that he’d never before driven a wheeled vehicle on snow, he had no idea that it would only cause the truck to go into a tailspin. He wrestled frantically with the wheel.
“SHIT!” he cursed, finally bringing his prized possession to a sliding horizontal stop in the middle of the road.
“You okay?” Jen asked Sully.
“…Yeah,” Sully said, catching his breath. “But you two have got to knock this shit off! You’re going to get us killed!”
Marlowe immediately went back to digging her claws into her flesh.
“Okay, look,” Jen said, turning to face Marlowe. “You’re a fucking junkie. You know how this works. You slammed two full pods back-to-back and you’re crashing. You need to come down light.”
“I’ll be fine,” Marlowe said through clenched teeth as she clawed yet another stripe into her forearm.
“Clearly,” Sully grumbled from behind the wheel.
“Just…shut up and drive, barman,” Marlowe ordered.
“Not until you knock that shit off!” he answered.
“Here,” Jen said, handing Marlowe an AMP inhaler from the bag at her feet.
“Jen, please, no,” Marlowe said. “I can’t.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because there’s only seven left, and we’ve got a lot of fighting left if we’re going to free dad!”
“It’s AMP, Marlowe! You can get cases of the shit on literally any corner in any settlement!
“You can, maybe,” Marlowe replied. “I can’t be seen scoring!”
“And why the fuck not?” Jen said. “Everyone knows you use it! Besides, you’re the most wanted felon in the nation. You’re charged with treason and attempted murder! Who the hell is going to care about you buying some AMP?”
“You don’t understand,” Marlowe said. “Guilty or — OW! — innocent, I still have a reputation to maintain.”
Jen scoffed. “Such a goddamn celebrity. I don’t even know you anymore.”
“Like you ever did!” Marlowe snapped.
Jen’s eyes widened and her voice shook.”How dare you??”
“What, you want to pretend you were my best friend all along?” Marlowe said, now using the edge of the metal cuffs fastened around her wrists to scratch. “You never accepted me. You always resented me!”
“So why come to MY house when you needed help? Why kill MY boyfriend, and blow up MY shit –”
“Hey, you blew up your own shit,” Marlowe snapped. “And you killed… what’s his name? Matt? Michael? Whatever. You killed him when you tipped off MilSec!”
“I WAS TRYING TO SAVE YOU!”
“You CAN’T save me!”
A loud thud echoed through the cab of the truck as Sully slammed his hands on the steering wheel. “LADIES!” he roared from the driver’s seat.
Jen and Marlowe both fell silent.
“I don’t know if you remember or not, but YOU,” he barked, pointing to Marlowe, “are being hunted by thousands of MilSec soldiers and drones. And YOU,” he then pointed at Jen, “are gonna be executed for being an accomplice! And I am, too!”
The sisters seethed quietly. Sully waited for a retort. To his surprise, there wasn’t one.
“Every second you waste bickering gets us all closer to dead,” he continued. “I don’t wanna die, and I’m sure you don’t either. And not to mention, your crippled father’s been publically humiliated and is stuck in the Citadel as an accomplice to this whole mess. Probably in your old cell!”
“FINE,” Marlowe snarled, snatching the inhaler from Jen’s hand. She placed the pod to her lips and inhaled the entire dose defiantly. Within seconds, her convulsions stopped.
“That’s more like it.” Sully said, pushing the start button on the electric motor and putting the truck into gear. The wheels skidded on the snow momentarily before the truck jerked back into motion.
Marlowe leaned back. “Yeah…that is better,” she admitted as her breathing normalized.
“Jesus, you didn’t have to suck it all down,” Jen said.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Marlowe said. “But now there’s only six left.”
“Don’t worry,” Sully said, “I’ll make more when we get someplace safe.”
“Wait, you can make AMP?” Marlowe asked.
“Who do you think I get it from?” Jen asked. “Sully makes all kinds of shit.”
“Hey, I’m just a humble bar and bookstore owner,” Sully said with a chuckle.
Jen laughed. “And chemist… and weaponsmith…”
“Shush now, girl!” Sully said. “Don’t be givin’ away all my secrets!”
Frayed nerves calmed and the trio fell silent as they sped on along the tree-lined roadway leading from the residential areas of Atlanta ten miles west to the Chatahoochee River where the EV plant was situated. Marlowe knew that the output from the plant supplied over 90 percent of the city, and the electromagnetic and heat radiation combined made it the perfect place to hide from satellite scans. And with any luck, the rogue operatives that had broken Marlowe out of the prison transport would still be there.
Sully, meanwhile, was navigating the fine line between hurrying and trying not to careen out of control down a snow-covered embankment. Jen was staring at the dashboard, trying to forget that her boyfriend was dead, her home was in ashes, and that her sister was the reason behind all of it. All of the charm of silence wore off quickly for Marlowe, whose AMP-enhanced body began to tremor with nervous anticipation. Her leg began jiggling. She fidgeted with the air vents on the dash in front of her. She rolled down the window. She rolled up the window.
“Okay, I’m not sure which was worse, the shaking or all this monkeying around with my truck,” Sully said drily.
“Knock it off, Marlowe,” Jen added.
“I’m sorry, I’m just…fuck,” Marlowe said, gripping the legs of her pants, trying to reach for calm.
“I told you, a quarter dose would have done the job,” Jen reminded Marlowe.
“Hey, don’t lecture me,” Marlowe snapped. “I did what you said!”
“And then some!”
Marlowe took a deep breath. “Sorry,” she said, trying to slow her words. “I’m just…”
“We get it,” Sully said, sighing. “You’re AMP’ed. Just…try to sit still, okay?”
“You know something I don’t get?” Jen asked. “Why are we going to the EV plant anyway?”
“God,” Marlowe said between gritted teeth, “This whole thing is going to fail if I have to keep explaining everything twice.”
“Calm down,” Jen insisted. “I get it, you think we need their help. It’s just that–”
“–You think we don’t,” Marlowe interjected. “You already said.”
“Look, it’s our father. We can handle this.”
“Storming the Citadel is not a two-person job,” Marlowe retorted.
“Three!” Sully chirped.
“…Fine, three,” Marlowe said wearily. “Hell, It’s not even a six…err, I mean, seven-person job. But we need the help.”
“You really think breaking into a prison is the best idea?” Jen said.
“Nope.” Marlowe replied. “But it’s our dad, and we’re on a tight clock. This is what we’ve got. So we’re going with it.”
An uncomfortable silence fell. The plan to break into a heavily fortified MilSec prison began to weigh on them. While they’d not discussed it amongst themselves, each had their own reasons for feeling like they had nothing left to lose, and all three blamed MilSec and wanted revenge. The gall of MilSec, parading General Kana before the Feeds in his wheelchair, clothed in his full MilSec dress uniform, as they brought him to the Citadel…the image was seared in Jen’s mind. After losing her home, her boyfriend, and her sister’s trust, she couldn’t stand to lose her father as well. Marlowe hadn’t seen the Feed, but she didn’t need to. She knew the Citadel intimately, and the mere idea of her elderly and nearly helpless father being locked away for no reason was enough to make her want to run head-first through every wall and crush anyone who got in her way. And Sully…well, Sully just loved adventure. But he had his own reasons for wanting to help the sisters free their father.
“There goes that shaking again…” Sully said, breaking the silence.
Marlowe stopped jouncing her leg. “Sorry,” she said. “Hey, um…can you put on NewsFeed, or some music, or SportsFeed or something?”
“Not much to listen to,” Sully replied. “No JAQi in here.”
“Fucking hell,” Marlowe muttered, shaking her head while obsessively smoothing out the legs of her pants, “This thing’s not only slow, it’s primitive.”
“Her quirks are part of her charm,” Sully said with a forced chuckle. “Just like you.” Under his breath, he added, “I imagine, anyway…”
“Well, fuck you, too!” Marlowe barked, “You two wanted to come along for this little exercise! Feel free to dump me on the side of the road. We’re close enough, I can make it without you.”
“Hey, he was joking!” Jen said. “Stop being an asshole!”
“No, really,” Marlowe said, agitated. “This sucks. I can do this alone. Why did I let you talk me into this?”
“Uh, I think reality talked you into this,” Jen said. “How the hell else were we going to get out of the Subs to meet your friends? It’s not like we have a choice!”
“Maybe you don’t,” Marlowe snapped as she began yanking on the door handle.
“Marlowe! Stop!” Jen yelled.
“Look, I can do this on my own,” Marlowe said, fumbling with the antiquated door’s lock mechanism. “I didn’t mean to pull you into this. Just let me out and keep driving. Get yourselves to safety.”
“STOP!” Jen demanded, reaching over her sister and grabbing her hands.
“Get OFF me!” Marlowe yelled, shoving her sister back over onto Sully. Sully jerked the wheel and the truck lurched hard to the left. Panicking, he spun the wheel back right, sending the truck into a full broadside skid. The wheels spun violently, then caught traction, sending the truck off the road and down a slight hill. The right front bumper clipped a pseudo-pine tree, and the truck spun and tumbled, rolling over several times until they came to a crunching halt at the bottom of the hill.
Steam rose from the smashed radiator as snowflakes danced in the headlights of the totaled truck. Marlowe, momentarily dazed, jerked herself awake. She immediately turned to face Jen, who was crying with panic.
“Are you okay?!?” she asked her shaken sister.
Jen nodded and squeaked out through her panicked breathing a tiny “yeah…”
“FUCK!” Marlowe screamed. She slammed the metal cuff on her right wrist into the passenger side window, shattering it. She climbed out of the window, gripped the door by the window frame, and yanked as hard as she could. The door separated from the truck and she flung it aside.
She helped her sister out of the vehicle, and then reached in for Sully, who was bleeding from his head.
“Leave me,” he said. “Save yourselves.”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Marlowe replied. “I can’t leave you here to die. You have to make my AMP.”
Sully laughed painfully as Marlowe pulled him from the truck and carried him a few yards into the woods. Trudging back through the snow, she surveyed the console of the vehicle, looking for a way to turn off the lights. Nothing looked familiar, so she fell back to what she knew and smashed the headlights with the cuffs around her wrists.
Grabbing the satchel with her provisions, she returned to find Jen tending to Sully’s leg, which was bent nearly ninety degrees at the thigh.
“Oh, shit.” Marlowe said, seeing the twisted and malformed leg.
“It looks worse than it is,” Sully replied. He reached down and yanked on his leg, separating it from the stump just below his hip. The prosthetic slid loose from the pant leg and he surveyed it critically. “Ain’t supposed to bend that way, I don’t think,” he said with a laugh as he twisted the damaged appendage.
“Oh, thank heavens!” Marlowe exclaimed with a loud sigh, relieved that she hadn’t just, in fact, severed a man’s leg along with destroying his prized antique truck. “Well, hold on to it. I know someone who might be able to fix it.”
“Well, this is just fantastic!” Jen said through panicked tears. “Let me guess. We get to run more!”
“Yup,” Marlowe said, her soldier instincts taking over. She bent over and grabbed Sully by the arm, hoisting him over her shoulders into a fireman’s carry.
“Oh, come on, not again…” Jen said, already out of breath.
For the next thirty minutes, the trio traipsed through the woods in uncomfortable silence. Suddenly, Sully exclaimed in bemusement, “Well, I’ll be damned!”
“What?” Marlowe asked. She ducked to avoid a tree branch. Sully, who was draped across her shoulders, got thwapped in the face.
“Ow!” He griped as pseudo-pine needles raked across his face.
“Sorry,” Marlowe said.
“It’s okay,” Sully said. “I can take a few scratches.”
“What made you so excited a moment ago?”
“It’s just impressive,” he remarked. “We really are going faster on foot than we were in the truck!” His head bobbed in time with Marlowe’s jogging. His bent prosthetic leg dangled along Marlowe’s side as he clutched it in his hands. Occasionally the boot at the end would connect with her rear end. She could think of no better metaphor for motivation to keep going than to have the disconnected leg of the man who was helping her literally kicking her in the ass.
“Yeah, well, we’d go even faster if someone was in better shape,” Marlowe said over her shoulder, as Jen struggled to keep pace behind them.
Jen would have responded but her already labored breathing was far too taxed. She did have the energy, however, to raise her right hand and extend her middle finger.
“Better save that up for later,” Sully said, glimpsing Jen’s gesture.
“Maybe you should use that leg to kick her in the butt, huh?” Marlowe said. “Would you believe she was a track star when we were in middle school?”
“Really?” Sully said. “Wow. Never would’ve figured!”
“Well… my parents went and…adopted…a genetic freak!” Jen said, struggling to speak between breaths. “I hated sports…ever since…”
“Not my fault I was the better athlete,” Marlowe answered as she jogged. “Blame science.”
“Speaking of science,” Sully tactfully interrupted. “I had no idea my AMP formula was this effective! Couldn’t ever test it on nobody…it’d probably kill ’em!”
“It’s the only stuff I use,” Marlowe said. “Tried a bunch over the years. Not even the MilSec stuff is that good. How’d you learn to make it that strong? You a chemist?”
“Not on purpose,” Sully replied. “I kinda just fell into it. My wife had cancer. Marijuana helped, but Imagen healthcare wouldn’t approve a prescription for the really good stuff, so I started growing it. She couldn’t smoke it, so I made tinctures and edibles, and when she died, I started selling the remainders off to cover the bills my pension couldn’t. Word spread, and I moved on to AMP. Then Jen came in with a special request for some quadruple-strength stuff. Hell, I always thought she was just cutting up what I gave her and reselling it! I didn’t mind. Girl’s gotta make her credits. Had no idea who the real customer was! Or that you two were even sisters! Jen Kujaku is actually Jen Kana…who’da thunk it?”
“I guess…we’re all learning about each other…” Jen huffed from behind them. “I didn’t know…you had a prost…a pro…a fake leg.”
“Lost it in the war,” Sully said, a pine sprig brushing across his cheek.
“Which side were you fighting for?” Marlowe asked.
“Whelp, I don’t have rope marks around my neck or a prisoner number tattooed on my forehead. So that should tell you,” Sully said.
“Wow…an actual military veteran,” Marlowe said with a note of reverence. “No wonder you hate MilSec.”
“Man, ever since they took over…I’ll tell ya, no discipline. Fucking corporate soldiers. Not a real Marine among ya…no offense.”
“None taken,” Marlowe said. “My dad was a military marine, before he moved over to MilSec. He had the same critique.”
“Yup. It’s the only reason I like ya!” Sully laughed.
“Did you know him?”
“Not personally,” Sully replied. “We were both privates when the war started, from what I’ve read. I didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat. I took shrapnel to the leg during the D.C. Siege. He stuck it out and rolled into MilSec when they took over the cops and the corps. Went on to be a celebrity General. Meanwhile, I run a bar that sells drugs and hosts poker games in the Subs. Ran, that is,” he amended.
The reminder that the Subs had been effectively razed silenced the trio as they continued jogging through the snowy woods. Things were quiet but for the rhythmic sound of footfall through the dead leaves and brush. Sully reflected on the events of his life that had brought him to this moment, being carried on the shoulders of a woman a foot shorter, yet somehow a hundred pounds heavier than he was, through a snow-covered forest. He never thought he’d see snow in his lifetime. Now, he was moving faster through it than he ever could have on his own, and on the shoulders of a super soldier no less. He had to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“It’s all good, though,” He said, breaking several minutes of silent tension.
“What is?” Marlowe asked.
“Everything,” Sully said. “That’s how life works. Fate put us here for a reason. I mean, fate took my leg, but the medical stipend bought me my bar and the bookstore. Paid for all the parts on my Ram, too!”
“Yeah…about that,” Marlowe said through measured breaths. “I’m…I’m sorry about–”
“–The truck?” Sully interjected. “Kiddo, that thing was gone the second I used it to smuggle two fugitives from the law. What, you think they’d hold it for me for after the trial? If they don’t execute me, that is.”
“Huh…you got a point,” Marlowe replied.
“Better wrapped around a tree than in some piece of shit MilSec scumbag’s garage after auction,” he said, adding, “…no offense.”
“None taken,” Marlowe answered again.
“Mark…mark this day…in your calendar, Sully,” Jen said between gasps for breath, “Marlowe Kana just apologized…for something…”
“Hey, when it’s my fault, I own it,” Marlowe said.
“To everyone else…maybe…” Jen said. “Never…with me…”
“Save it,” Marlowe said as she slowed her jogging to a walk. “We’re here.”
“Oh, thank God,” Jen gasped.