It was almost two in the morning, and Angela Tufner had just returned home from working the late Emergency Room shift at Grady-Usher-CeeLo Memorial Hospital. It had been an unusually horrible night at work. Burn victims, head wounds…so many critical care patients all from the Subs post-raid. She was supposed to have signed off at midnight. Eventually, her nurse manager had forced her to leave at one a.m., as the law stipulated that no Imagen worker could work more than twenty-four hours in a single shift. Angela kicked off her shoes, dragged herself into bed, and pulled the blankets over herself, deciding to catch up on NewsFeed before sinking into some much needed sleep.
Not wanting to wake her husband Matt with voice commands to JAQi, she waved her hand upwards in the air like a conductor readying her orchestra. The wall screen slowly dissolved the fireplace projection that had helped lull Matt to sleep, and transitioned to a live NewsFeed of Amanda Stokes, NewsFeed correspondent and host of her own show, “Stokes the Fire,” deep in mid-diatribe.
Angela rolled her eyes. She really didn’t have the energy to listen to “Stokes The Fire,” not to mention bear witness to Amanda’s perpetual smirk. But she also didn’t have the energy to change the Feed or to ask JAQi to summarize the day’s events. She’d be asleep in under five minutes, anyway, so why not just tune in to the worst show on the major Feeds, hosted by a woman who had used Marlowe Kana and slept her way to celebrity. At the very least, she’d feel a bit better about herself, knowing she wasn’t a desperate ratings-monger like Amanda Stokes.
“She’s a national disgrace!” Amanda Stokes ranted, continuing from a speech that Angela was thankful to have missed part of. Amanda’s long, jet-black hair took on a life of its own as she gesticulated wildly, her steel-blue eyes piercing the soul of every viewer, even through the lens of the camera.
“And even after being found guilty of treason — of TREASON, people!” Amanda frothed. “We still show her face on every Feed and on posters in every store, alongside candy bars and hoverbikes and anything else considered to be cool, and we tell the people of this great nation — especially the CHILDREN of this great nation — that it’s okay to be a criminal as long as you’re famous! Murder people, you know? Beat them up! As long as MilSec and Imagen say you’re a hero, it must be okay! Am I right? MK does it, so it’s okay! What kind of example does this set for our children? Why do we still allow her to troll along in our Feeds and help generate a narrative that — you know what? Bobby, roll the commercial. Do we have the…we do? Okay great, roll it. Roll the commercial. Let’s show the nation exactly what I’m talking about.”
The screen froze on the first frame of a Battery Bars commercial. Marlowe Kana’s scarred but beautifully made-up face was still, eyes squinted and lips barely pursed, preparing to deliver the first line of script for the high-energy supplement, the wrapper of which also adorned her face.
“Play it,” Amanda said through the audio in the background. “Can you get it to play?”
Another voice in the distance mumbled something that sounded like, “I’m trying.”
“Well try hard– ah, there it goes. It’s going. People, listen.”
The audio of Amanda’s tirade blended with the first lines of Marlowe’s commercial, which the entire nation knew by heart at this point.
“Whether I’m in the Gaslands fighting terrorists, or in the gym helping to keep our energy grid efficient, nothing fuels me like a good Battery.”
Marlowe winked at the camera. A disingenuous almost sickly smile wreathed her face.
“Look at that smart-assed grin,” Amanda taunted on screen. “As insincere as she is. And I should know…” From her bed, Angela rolled her eyes and mouthed the words along with Amanda. “I used to date her.”
“Ugh!” Angela involuntarily groaned aloud. The volume of the Feed automatically lowered in response to her voice.
“Huh, what?” Matt mumbled, waking mid-snore.
“Nothing, honey,” she replied, patting him on the hip. “Just the NewsFeed.”
“Ugh…” Matt said, smacking his dry lips. “Just turn it off.”
“I will,” she said. “I’m just so sick of all of this…the trial, the incessant coverage, and especially this witch.”
“Mhmm,” Matt said, rolling over and pulling the covers over his eyes. “I know. You’ve said.”
“…What’s that supposed to mean?” Angela asked angrily.
“…Nothing,” Angela replied. She hadn’t meant to go on the offensive. Frankly, she knew she shouldn’t be indulging this Feed, but it was the only thing on at this hour that wasn’t a commercial masquerading as entertainment, WarFeeds that weren’t anywhere near as entertaining as Marlowe’s, CitizenFeeds reviewing the hottest new Imagen Games releases, or people hitting themselves (or others) in the genitals for ratings.
After a short period of silence, the volume raised on the Feed again.
“…STILL giving her airtime!” Amanda continued from what Angela could easily imagine was yet more ranting and railing against Marlowe Kana. “This lady — no, let me rephrase, because she’s no lady, let me tell you. This woman…she attempts to murder a fellow officer, Sergeant Corta, because why? She’s jealous of the ratings Corta was getting on ‘Next Top Soldier,’ that’s why! That’s a fact! And she was found guilty of treason against the United American State. That is also a fact. She had to be working with the terrorists all along! She HAD to be! Staging battles for viewer count. That’s a true fact, verified by the traitors and terrorists who just sprung her from prison! She colluded with them all along, and has for years! YEARS, I tell you! Because that’s how this works, people. It’s all a hoax carefully crafted by Marlowe Kana to keep YOU watching. And we know this from the evidence! It’s all there.”
“You know what evidence isn’t there, dear viewers? Do YOU, Bobby?” She asked her producer off-camera.
A distant voice could be heard responding, “no.”
“Well, I do,” Amanda said, a sharklike grin spreading across her face as she looked directly into the lens of the camera. “I do indeed.” She paused for a moment and glared at the camera. The intent was to build suspense. The result was that she was feeding the meme trolls who captioned her image with silly phrases yet another headshot to work with.
“The evidence of Marlowe’s innocence isn’t there,” Amanda answered. “This much discussed but never received Feed that Marlowe’s defense was supposed to provide that shows Corta attacked first? Where is it? MK’s narrative that she was merely defending herself? There’s no proof, people! None. It’s just her word against all of MilSec’s. And as you saw in that Battery commercial, her word comes with a sly grin, a wink, and a nod to her fans and zero sincerity.”
“And we — all of us, the viewers, NewsFeed, SportsFeed, WarFeeds, every single one of us — we are all still playing her game, because why? Viewer count.” Amanda paused again, letting her point resonate with her audience. When she was sufficiently convinced that it had, she began again. “Here’s the evidence, plucked from right here, from my own show.”
The screen split to show a line chart of “Stokes The Fire’s” ratings over the past eight months. “See, from the beginning of this show’s existence, our viewer count was low…20,000 viewers on average. It’s the midnight to four a.m. slot. The nation is either asleep or working. Not many people are going to watch, I admit that. But I have my loyal fans, and to you, I say that I love you, and I do this for YOU. Not THESE new folks,” she said, pointing at a huge uptick in viewership around the time that Marlowe’s alleged crime took place.
“These Johnny-and-Jill-Come-Latelys…yes, you! You’re watching this right now and you only started when MK’s name was dropped! You bandwagon jumpers…you’re here for the Marlowe Kana show, not MY show! This show is now in the one hundred thousand viewer per night range, and why? Well, I’d love to tell you it’s because of my charming personality. But we all know the truth. It’s because suddenly, my Feed has become the ‘All-Marlowe, All-The-Time Show.’ And you know what? I’m sick to death of it!”
Amanda seethed for the camera for a moment, exhibiting well-rehearsed disdain. She then looked away dramatically, took a cleansing breath, exhaled, and looked into the camera again.
“But how do YOU feel about it? I’d love to know, dear viewers. Bobby, do we have anyone on the line? Yeah? Okay, put it through. Go ahead, viewer.”
“Uh…yeah, hi,” the caller said. “My name is Omar Rodriguez, calling from Atlanta.”
“Ah, a local!” Amanda said with a smile. “Hi, Omar. What’s stoking your fire this morning?”
“Well, first, I have to say, I’m one of your newer viewers. I only really watched tonight because, you know…the trial and all. And Corta’s back, and I wanted to see what you’d say about that. I missed the NewsFeed today while I was at my shift at the Imagen Prime Distribution Center cafeteria, and I’ve not really been able to sleep so –”
“Do you have a question, Omar? Or even a point?” Amanda asked snidely.
“Uh…well yeah. So why do you talk about MK so much if you hate her?”
“Because, unfortunately, Marlowe Kana is the news of the day, Omar,” Amanda said.
“Well, yeah, sure, but your point is that she’s over-exposed and given too much air time, right?”
“Well of course,” Amanda said. “But MK is news, so I have to cover her.”
“Well wouldn’t you say that you benefit from it?”
“No. Why would I say that?”
“Your chart, you know? I mean, look at it. Your ratings went up like, you know…a lot.”
“Well of course they did,” Amanda said. “People want to know what’s going on with this story.”
“But doesn’t that mean you’re contributing to–”
“–No!” Amanda barked. “I am NOT contributing! I am covering the news of the day, and providing my personal analysis of it.”
“But it’s always about Marlowe–”
“Listen, newbie,” She interrupted, pointing sternly into the lens of the camera. “I had a personal and very close relationship with Marlowe Kana. I know the woman better than anyone. I have a unique and very important viewpoint on her, her personality, her motives. And the citizens of this great nation need this information. So I do my job, sir. I provide the people with that which they need.”
“Get it?” Amanda said, abruptly completing his sentence. “I know you don’t. That’s why I’m here behind the camera and you’re there, tuning in as a Johnny-Come-Lately, a hanger-on. Not even a real fan of mine. Just rubbernecking this trainwreck our society has generated by their incessant coverage and over-exposure of the criminal Marlowe Kana.”
“But you’re doing it yourself,” Omar said.
“How DARE you!” Amanda yelled. “How DARE you dismiss the personal pain and grief I had to go through with her? How DARE you callously pave over the bravery I exhibit night after night, talking about this woman who has destroyed my life, and so many other peoples’ lives, with her megalomaniacal insanity? How DARE you–”
The audio muted and the screen began to fade as JAQi’s sleep detection kicked in. Slowly, the glow from the Feed of a lit fireplace shone once more from the wall screen. Matt was snoring again, but nothing could wake Angela from the deep slumber she had slipped into.