Marlowe felt a light breeze drag lazily across her exposed arms. Regulations stated that she wasn’t supposed to roll up her sleeves while in uniform, but it was such a lovely day, she just couldn’t help herself. She also couldn’t help but notice how much she’d been smiling lately. Things like light breezes, and rain storms, and even the new heat cycle meant to more closely emulate what summer had really felt like before the war…little things that she had never cared about before suddenly delighted her.
Marlowe still didn’t really understand how Imagen had the ability to create things like breezes. A young Enviroscience Division officer had tried explaining it to her once during a NewsFeed roundtable discussing the latest public beta of the Environmental Atmospheric Operating System. She had cut him off famously: “When your office is the scorched glass sands of the Gaslands, things like breezes are luxuries.” The clip had immediately gone viral.
Breezes, partly cloudy skies, and the new thunder and lightning cycles…despite her hardscrabble history, she had to admit: eaOS 11 was by far the best update Imagen had ever released.
Marlowe inhaled deeply and held it, doing her best to freeze this moment of time in her mind. The smell of wood on fire in a brick oven enhanced the smell of pepperoni and melted cheese and perfectly charred crust. Her stomach rumbled. She was starving. True, it was rare that she wasn’t ever not hungry. But right then, the wine was amplifying her body’s craving for both food and the touch of her love’s hand. She satisfied the second by reaching out and delicately resting her hand on top of Amanda’s. Marlowe locked eyes with her as she pulled Amanda’s hand toward her and kissed it lightly. Essence of cucumber blended with honey as Amanda’s fragrant body cream filled her nostrils. It was as intoxicating as the wine. More so, even.
A blue bubble appeared in the lower-right panel of the HUD in Marlowe’s augmented eyes. It contained a comment from an anonymous viewer, reading, “BORING!” Marlowe chuckled. Her attention shifted to the ticker displaying her bank’s credits balance, pinned in the lower left of her eye screens. It showed a brand-new deposit.
“Someone thinks we’re boring enough that they paid the hundred-credit comment fee to tell us,” Marlowe said to Amanda with a laugh.
Amanda smiled. “You know you’re famous when you can charge for comments on your Feed and people actually pay to tell you it’s boring,” she said. She stared into the lens of the MilSec-issued body camera on Marlowe’s chest and chirped, “Thanks for buying dinner!”
“What can I say?” Marlowe asked as she reached for her wine glass. “Even my boredom is profitable!”
“Cheers to that!” Amanda said, raising her glass to Marlowe. A bright TINK! rang out as they tapped rims.
Wine was the one vice Marlowe still allowed herself – and even then, only one glass with dinner. Viewing everything through a fog of scotch and cigar smoke tended to dull the shine of everyday life, making it hard to notice the little glints of brilliance that were the simple things. Since she’d met Amanda, however, she’d traded booze and smoke for being high on life. She’d retired from “Next Top Soldier” as a three-time champion, withdrew from foreign service, opting instead for local duty in Atlanta. According to FeedMeter, the viewership of her Feed had fallen below twenty million for the first time since she’d started streaming as an enlisted private (but was still higher than the number-two feed, NewsFeed, by nearly double). Hashtags like #MarlowesBoring, #MKingMeSleep, and #AmandaKilledMarlowe dominated NewsFeed tickers.
She didn’t care.
The love of one woman had more than replaced the attention of forty million United American State citizens. Not that they all hated her – far from it. Her ratings proved that she still had half the country as a fan base. But there was no denying that her ratings had declined over the past year. The lack of engagement threw the nation’s leadership into a tizzy. Imagen was actively test-marketing new potential star soldiers, casting marginally famous faces for “Next Top Soldier” and attempting to find new ways to boost the WarFeed ratings with live-streams of special invasions. The Antarctica special had come close to Marlowe’s lowest ratings, but that had only resulted in the discovery of a few camps of natives and some rusted wreckage from when the International Space Station had crashed back to Earth. Even President Cook had taken to discussing Marlowe’s sagging numbers during his weekly CookTalks, suggesting not so subtly that he may have to ask her to surrender her “Next Top Soldier” medals for violating the “Honor Code of serving the United American State” by “failing her duties to her fans, the citizens.” He’d even hinted that he might force her back into foreign duty to get her ratings back up.
They were empty threats, of course. No non-felon could be forced to serve outside of the United American State borders, and even the President wouldn’t violate The Constitution 2.0. And no one could accuse the second-most decorated soldier in MilSec history of dereliction of duty just for going out to dinner.
Her relationship with Amanda had changed her, and she couldn’t deny that it was for the better. She might be boring the nation, annoying the Imagen Board of Directors, and even pissing off the President, but it just didn’t matter to Marlowe. Love will do that to you. And for the first time in her life, Marlowe Kana was happy.
“Your margherita pie, madams,” J.A.Q.i said as a red-checkered service drone with an Antico Pizza logo hovered its way over to their table. Three legs emerged from the bottom of the bot as it slowly lowered itself to the table.
“Oh man, that smells sooooo good,” Marlowe said as she reached for a slice.
“Careful!” Amanda warned. “You’re gonna burn your tongue again!”
“It’s not THAT hotttfffffaaaaahhh! OW!” Marlowe yelped, pulling a triangle of pizza from her mouth, tendrils of cheese dangling.
“Are you okay?” Amanda asked with a chuckle as she dipped the edge of a cloth napkin into her water glass and handed it to Marlowe.
“Yeah,” Marlowe replied as she dabbed her burnt tongue with the damp cloth. “Thanks.”
“I hope there’s no lasting damage,” Amanda added demurely. “I’m going to need you to use that later.”
Marlowe smirked from behind the napkin. Amanda returned the smile from behind her wine glass. The two held each other’s eyes for that kind of eternity that only lasts a moment.
“What is it?” Amanda finally asked from behind her wine glass
“Nothing, just…” Marlowe replied, ducking her eyes and dropping the napkin on the table. She reached out both of her hands and beckoned Amanda to extend hers. Their fingertips interlaced over the middle of the table. “I’m happy,” Marlowe said.
“Me, too,” Amanda replied. She whispered it again. And again. “Me too… Me too… Me too…”
Amanda’s voice began to echo as she repeated the phrase. Marlowe narrowed her eyes. The entire world around her began to glow, as if someone had turned the brightness up well past the maximum setting in her HUD. The world blurred and turned bright red. Tendrils of dark red snaked around her field of vision like roots from a tree. They moved left, and then right, and then back to center. A small slit of light split the horizon. Light flooded in and the world turned a bright blue-white as she realized she could hear the characteristic whirr of Jumper rotors.
“She’s awake,” she heard Austin’s voice say from her left.
“Don’t move, Marlowe,” The Judge’s voice said from her right.
“Stay very, very still,” Jen added from directly in front of her.
“What’s happening?” Marlowe asked groggily.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” The Judge asked.
“That your moustache is cheesy,” Marlowe said. “And that I hate you.”
The Judge laughed. “Well, she’s still herself,” he said. “That counts for something. Good work, Austin.”
“Thank you, sir,” Austin responded. “Just a few more seconds, and…there. I’m out. I’ll pull the plug.”
“What plug?” Marlowe asked. “Wait…did you…”
“Please, Marlowe, stay calm,” Jen urged desperately.
Marlowe slowly reached her left hand up to the scarred area just behind her left ear. She felt a wire dangling from the spot where she’d yanked her Pod out while in prison, removing in very dramatic fashion the device that had once connected her to J.A.Q.i before it was overwritten with PrisonOS. She traced the wire forward and felt it connecting to the back of a portable terminal in front of Austin.
“Motherfucker!” she yelled in fury. Austin’s eyes bulged from their sockets as Marlowe seized him by the neck.
“NO!” Jen yelled, grabbing Marlowe’s arm.
“He jack-hacked me!” Marlowe seethed.
“URK,” Austin squeaked.
“We didn’t have a choice!” Jen insisted. “You were completely out. We had to move fast!”
Still clutching Austin’s throat, Marlowe locked eyes with Jen. “We? You mean you allowed this?!?” She asked her sister, mouth agape in disbelief.
“You were bugged!” Jen said, doubling her effort to pull Marlowe’s arm back. “Hax’s virus…not only did it override your muscular control, it turned your entire system into an antenna! Every single near-field communication beacon pinged off of you! That’s how MilSec found us!”
“They’re the Army now,” Nines corrected from nearby.
“Shut up!” Jen snapped as she whipped her head around.
“Stop being wrong and I will!” Nines retorted.
“Your sister and Nines both watched the entire time,” the Judge calmly told Marlowe. “You were not violated in any way. In fact, if you let Austin go, he has some good news for you.”
“HUKKKK,” Austin gurgled in response.
Jen looked back at her sister. “Please,” she begged Marlowe. “Let him go.”
Marlowe gritted her teeth and released her grip. Austin choked and gasped for air.
“So dramatic,” the Judge said. “Why can’t you just accept help from people? We are on your side, Marlowe.”
“You’re on your own side,” Marlowe replied as she turned to face the Judge. “You made that clear. And no one — NO ONE — violates me like that. You agreed.”
“I said nothing installed,” the Judge replied. “Nothing was installed. Austin simply stripped the bug, and he repaired your targeting system while he was at it.”
Marlowe blinked. She stared at the Judge’s face and realized that it was covered in a very light green mesh. A rangefinder in the bottom right of her field of vision indicated that his head was swaying between twenty-five and twenty-six inches away from her face.
“You don’t…need J.A.Q.i…for telemetry,” Austin croaked as he gingerly rubbed his throat. “They just attach it for logs and data mining.”
“Your on-board system is restored,” the Judge said. “Be thankful.”
“…Thanks,” Marlowe grumbled. “But all things considered, I’d rather you’d just discussed all of this with me first and asked for my consent.”
“We’re at war,” the Judge replied. “You’re a weapon. We upgraded you while removing a threat to our survival. You of all people must understand that.”
Marlowe sat up and rubbed her temples, blinking a few times. She looked up toward the cockpit of the Jumper and saw Poet in the gunner’s seat, with Angel in the co-pilot seat and Angel’s younger doppleganger from the EV plant flying in the pilot’s chair. Nines was squatting between the two pilots, taking in the view as the team approached the brightening Atlanta skyline. She glanced left at Austin, and then right at her sister. Everything she observed was wrapped in thin, tactical mesh, with sensitive areas of each human body glowing a faint red. Distances for each highlighted object popped up in a table in the bottom-right of her view.
She shook her head. “I feel violated,” she said.
“You’re going to feel a lot worse than that in a second,” Jen said with a sigh. “You’re not going to like where we’re headed.”
Marlowe’s face went flat. “And where is that?” she asked.
“Amanda’s,” Jen answered quietly.
“NO.” Marlowe said. “I’m out. This is ridiculous.”
“It’s our only play,” The Judge replied. “We’ve got to find that footage and—”
“Then find it!” Marlowe snapped. “Go to a library! Or an Imagen Coffee hotspot! Hell, you have three hackers on board, why can’t we just bust in and take it from any of a thousand other places?”
“We can do that, but what then?” The Judge replied. “We have to get it out to the public, and fast.”
Marlowe’s eyes widened and she gestured dramatically at Nines. “We have MKFan_9999 RIGHT HERE!” she yelled.
“We need NewsFeed,” Jen mumbled, head lowered in shame. “We need Amanda.”
Marlowe stared holes into the top of Jen’s head, silently insisting that she look up and face her. Jen felt her unspoken demand and complied.
“How could you?” Marlowe asked. “You tried to turn me in, and you know what? I can forgive that. You just let me get jack-hacked, and I can even forgive that. But dragging me—in my sleep—to Amanda’s?”
“Get over it,” The Judge said. “We’re going. Put this on.” He reached out and proffered Marlowe a Dazzle-camouflaged bandanna they were all wearing.
“Why the costumes?”
“It disrupts facial recognition. It works, trust me.”
“Poet told me. But I’m pretty sure it won’t help. Me, at least.”
“Why?” Nines asked as she reluctantly tied the bandanna around her face.
“My weight, my density…there aren’t many four-hundred-pound women under six feet tall running around with metal muscles.”
“We’re coming in from the roof,” The Judge said. “Floor sensors will be minimal.”
“That puts us on radar!” Marlowe said. “We’ll be shot down before we even get to the building.”
“Seraph is a very gifted pilot,” The Judge said indicating Angel’s sister.
“Gifted or not, no one can outfly the air-defense matrix,” Marlowe insisted.
“She doesn’t have to,” The Judge replied. “All she has to do is fly like a Zifty.”
“…A food taxi?” Marlowe asked.
“Yep,” the Judge replied. “We’ve hacked the Jumper’s registry so that we identify as a ZiftyDelivery. It won’t pass a visual, but it’ll keep the automated defenses from firing.”
Marlowe scowled. Reluctantly, she reached out and grabbed the bandanna. She sighed as she tied it around her neck, ready to pull it up over her face.
“You don’t have to face her,” Jen offered, placing her hand on Marlowe’s shoulder. “I’ll go in. You can wait on the roof.”
“She can,” The Judge said, his smirk returning. “But she won’t.”
Marlowe’s eyes shot up, brimming with anger. She wanted to tell The Judge that he was wrong. She wanted to throw him from the Jumper. She wanted to go back to sleep. She wanted to go back in time.
She lowered her gaze back to the deck of the transport. She couldn’t deny that he was right.
Everyone on board the Jumper found themselves in the midst of an awkward silence. Seraph kept the hovering vehicle safely in the drone lanes of Atlanta’s airspace, obeying the speed limit while flying and cornering in exact lines. Marlowe found herself secretly hoping that the registry hack would fail and the automated turrets atop every building would open fire and send the Jumper streaking from the sky into the side of Amanda’s building, killing only the evil ex-girlfriend who had crushed Marlowe’s heart into a billion irreparable pieces. She couldn’t help but imagine a sharp-eyed soldier spotting the Jumper and shooting a grappling hook to its strut and boarding, engaging her in a fight, betraying their cover and forcing them to flee. She even thought about grabbing an emergency jump chute from the bay and leaping from the craft and disappearing into the charred remains of the Subs until she could amass enough scavenged supplies to flee across the Mississippi River into the deadlands of the American west, living as a nomad and surviving on her wits and the occasional lucky catch of a mutated cat–
“–We’re here,” Seraph announced from the pilot’s seat.
Marlowe’s stomach swirled. All of her mental capacity focused on trying not to vomit what little remained of the Battery bars she’d had the night before.