Angel, Seraph, Poet, and Austin waited in the Jumper while Marlowe, Nines, Jen, and the Judge took the rooftop stairway down a floor to Amanda’s penthouse apartment complex. Not a word was said as they entered the hallway and approached a door marked 45-1. The Judge knocked smartly on the door several times.
The moment that the door opened, Marlowe caught a hint of Amanda’s perfume in the air. A thousand moth-like memories danced around the fire of her thoughts. She wanted to bolt down the hallway and out of the building and run as fast and as far as she could to somewhere…anywhere.
But she couldn’t leave. The stakes were too high.
She stood fast as The Judge led the way into Amanda’s apartment…Amanda’s apartment. She mentally spat at the thought. Amanda would never have been approved for that space without Marlowe. In fact, Amanda hadn’t contributed a single credit for the place until several months after Marlowe left…the night everything went south. After that night, Marlowe couldn’t stand the thought of staying there, yet couldn’t bring herself to have Amanda evicted either. Despite Amanda’s affair, she just couldn’t force herself to be that vindictive.
How fucking stupid I was, she thought as Jen walked in behind The Judge. This woman has made an entire career out of making me into a heel on NewsFeed. Never mind everything I did for her, or everything I didn’t do to her that I could have! She shook her head, steeling herself. She inhaled in a deep breath and took a step forward, colliding directly with Nines, who was standing halfway in the doorway.
“Watch out!” Nines barked. “What the hell?”
“…Sorry,” Marlowe said. She looked at Nines, who looked back at her in irritation. “…Going in?” Marlowe asked slowly.
“Personal space, man…” Nines muttered, suddenly seeming all of fifteen years old. She stepped forward through the doorway, then sauntered over by Jen who was busy surveying the apartment.
Marlowe blinked and shook her head, annoyed. But upon glimpsing Amanda sitting expectantly in her living room, all thoughts of Nines and her teenage angst left, and Marlowe’s mind became a roaring blank.
Marlowe walked past The Judge, Jen, Nines, and Amanda with her eyes glued to the runner rug. She pulled out one of the dining chairs she had picked out with Amanda three years prior and plopped herself into it.
The air sat thick with tension for almost thirty seconds. The Judge cleared his throat once. Everyone looked his way to see what he was going to say. He shrugged. “Sorry…throat’s dry.”
Amanda forced a nervous chuckle. Another awkward tension threatened to take up residence when Jen finally broke the silence.
“Nice shirt,” she said, pulling her own shirt down to resemble Amanda’s extremely low-cut blouse. “Ratings low?”
“Not anymore, thanks to your sister,” Amanda said coolly. “They’re at an all-time high.”
“Well, I’m sure viewers are thoroughly entertained,” Jen snapped.
Amanda smirked. “At least I’m not dressed like the world’s most ridiculous chessboard. What’s with the masks?”
“Necessity,” Jen said. “We don’t want to wear this stuff, but we have to. Just like we don’t want to be here, but we have to–Nines, put that down!”
The solid chink of glass-on-glass echoed throughout the room as Nines clumsily lowered a small porcelain statue of a dog back to its place on an end table. “I’m bored,” she complained as she plopped down on the RealLeather couch that dominated the room. “This sucks.”
“Necessary evil,” Jen said. “Sit still and let the adults talk, okay, sweetheart?”
“Eat a dick,” Nines huffed. She pulled out the Pod that Marlowe had given her and buried her face in it. The Judge chuckled and took a seat next to her. Nines glared in his direction. She scooted herself closer to the armrest and returned to hacking the planet.
“Yeahhhhh…so…” Amanda drawled, dragging her words out for maximum effect. “When are you going to get around to telling me why you’re here?”
Jen looked over at the Judge, who was smirking.
“…You going to tell her?” Jen asked.
He softly closed his eyes and shrugged, and then nodded toward Jen, insisting that she do the honors.
“Welllll, okay then,” Jen said with a heavy sigh, “You know why we’re here, I’m sure. Or else we wouldn’t be here.”
“I want to hear you say it,” Amanda said with a satisfied smirk on her face. “I want you to ask for my help.”
“And I want to watch the light leave your eyes while I choke you to death,” Jen retorted. “And yet, here I sit, behaving myself and doing what’s necessary to deal with the situation at hand. I was assured by mister ‘The Judge’ here that you’d cooperate.”
“I’ll cooperate, but I want you to ask.”
Jen ground her molars and glared at Amanda, whose smirk deepened. She then looked at the Judge, whose own smirk she thought couldn’t have possibly deepened, somehow had.
“What the fuck, dude?!” Jen shouted at him. “I didn’t sign up for this!”
“And yet, here you are,” the Judge replied, still grinning wickedly.
“Motherfucker…” Jen shook her head, took another deep breath in through her nostrils, and finally asked through clenched teeth, “Will you help us?”
“Why won’t Marlowe ask me?” Amanda asked. She glanced over toward the dining room area where Marlowe sat, head dramatically turned away. “She’s the one who needs the help. She should ask. Hell, I’d even settle for a simple ‘hello’ at this point.”
“I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to watch the playback of your own show this morning, but she’s had a pretty busy day.”
“No need to remind me,” Amanda said. “Hell of a show she’s put on.”
“Might even keep you on NewsFeed for another month,” Jen snapped. “Oh wait, you’re fucking your producer. You don’t need things like story or content, do you?”
Amanda’s smirk faded. She looked over at The Judge. “You really expect me to take this?” She asked.
The Judge appeared to be struggling not to laugh.
“Look,” Jen said, trying to pull the quickly unraveling moment back together. “Marlowe’s really tired. We all are. It’s been a long day, as you know. And the sooner we can get things rolling and get this over with, the better.”
“What are you, her interpreter?”
“I’m her sister!” Jen barked, losing the little composure she’d regained. “And you’re the bitch who keeps dragging her name through the mud and, oh you know…ruined her life. So you’ll have to understand that she may not have much to say to you.”
“I’d argue that the attempted murder and subsequent jailbreak has done far more to ruin her life than any ex-girlfriend could,” Amanda said. “And I’m not dragging her name through the mud. It’s the job. It’s all performance. You know that and she knows that. I’ve tried to apologize, but how can I? She won’t accept my pings. She obviously has me blocked.”
“Deservedly so,” Jen answered. “It’s for the best. Trust me, you don’t want to hear anything she’d have to say. It’s all pretty unflattering.”
“Ooh! I do!” Nines chirped, her gaze lifting from the Pod screen.
Jen glared at Nines. Nines looked down and quickly resumed her activities on the Pod.
“Well, the same could be said about the things she told me about you,” Amanda jibed, bringing Jen’s focus back to her. “Unflattering would be the mildest way to describe it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Jen replied. “I’ve done some dumb shit, and will probably do even more. But we’re sisters. We get to hate each other. It’s in the contract. You, however? You’re just some low-rent stripper who fucked her way to the middle.”
“What’s wrong with stripping?” Nines asked, re-engaged.
“Goddammit, Nines! Stay out of this!” Jen snapped.
“It’s a noble profession!” Nines yelled.
“Quite!” Amanda agreed, bestowing on Jen a triumphant glare.
Jen was momentarily taken aback. “Wait, you’re going to count her opinion as vindication?” She asked Amanda. “She’s twelve!”
“Fifteen!” Nines corrected. “And that doesn’t mean I’m not right!”
“Who cares?!?” Jen shouted.
“I do,” Amanda said. “Let the kid speak.”
“I’m not a kid, you bitch,” Nines replied. “And stripping is a noble profession.”
Amanda smirked. “Cute kid. I like her.”
“Well, I hate you!” Nines barked as she raised her eyes and locked them on Amanda. “Your show is the lowest-rated piece of shit ever broadcast on any Feed, ever, in history. And deservedly so, because it’s shit. It’s really shitty shit. My worst-performing automated scripts make better-edited story footage than your entire production team. You used Marlowe to get a show you don’t deserve and and everyone knows it. You’re terrible and I hate your stupid face.”
Amanda was taken aback. She turned to Jen. “Who’s the brat?” she asked.
“She’s got the evidence I told you about,” The Judge said, finally speaking up.
“NOW you choose to talk?” Jen said incredulously.
“It wasn’t my turn before,” The Judge said. “Now it is. Amanda, may we please have the password to your NetNode?”
“Don’t need it,” Nines said without looking up, tapping away on the Pod. “I guessed it on the third try. Pro tip, Amanda. Zeroes instead of the letter ‘o’ in Marlowe? Not really secure.”
“Well, goody,” Jen said with mock glee. “The sooner we find that footage, the sooner we get the hell out of here.”
“Sorry my apartment isn’t up to your lavish standards, Subbie,” Amanda sneered.
“I like the Subs. They’re honest and I earn my place there,” Jen retorted
“You don’t think I earned this?” Amanda said.
“Sure,” Jen sneered, “You earned it by fucking your way here! You fucked Marlowe to get famous, and then fucked her again when you cheated on her with your producer to get the slot on NewsFeed, and then–”
There was a sudden crash as Marlowe’s fist went clear through the dining room table. Splintered wood clattered against the linoleum and chair legs screeched against the floor as Marlowe stood. “ENOUGH!” she screamed.
Everyone’s attention snapped toward Marlowe. Nines raised her Pod and snapped a quick photo of Marlowe standing amongst the shattered wreckage of fine dining fixtures.
“Nines,” Marlowe groaned. “Erase that.”
“Nope.” Nines replied without looking up.
Marlowe sighed. “Look, this sucks, okay?” she said as she stalked toward the kitchenette. “No one in this apartment wants to be here right now. Least of all me, for at least two very huge, equally depressing reasons. But we are here. We have a mission.” She opened the door to a cabinet, scanned the contents, and closed it before opening another.
“Top right, next to the sink,” Amanda said without looking up.
Marlowe froze as if lightning had zapped through her body. Her cheeks smoldered and fire burned the tips of her ears. Of all the things she’d imagined Amanda saying to her if they ever met again, “Top right, next to the sink” wasn’t even in the top ten thousand. This was the first time Amanda had spoken to her in over a year and a half. She wanted to kill her. She wanted to grab her and hold her in her arms and not let her go. She wanted to throw her through the wall. She wanted to disappear through the floor. More than anything, she wanted to suddenly wake up and realize that the last nineteen months of her life had been a very terrible dream, wipe the cold sweat from her brow, roll over, and go back to sleep where better dreams awaited.
Breathing slowly, she managed to regain her composure. She opened the aforementioned cabinet, retrieved a glass, and put it under the water dispenser. A quick jet of water shot into the glass.
“…Thank you,” Marlowe said to Amanda.
“…You’re welcome,” Amanda replied reluctantly. “Look, Marlowe, I am really–”
“AT ANY RATE,” Marlowe interrupted. “Nines is locating footage that proves I didn’t attack Corta first and was actually acting out of self-defense.” She took a gulp of water from the glass and wiped her mouth, then walked around the corner of the kitchen into the living room.
Amanda opened her mouth to say something, but appeared dumbfounded.
Marlowe continued. “Mister moustache over there assured me that you are willing to leak this footage and help clear my name and get my father out of prison. Is that the deal?”
“Well, I promised I’d air the footage, but–”
“Is that the goddamn deal or not!?” Marlowe asked.
Silence. Then “…Yes,” The Judge finally answered for Amanda. “Everything I promised will be–”
“I want to hear her say it!” Marlowe barked, pointing at Amanda. “Yes or no!”
Amanda stared at Marlowe for a few seconds. She nodded.
“Fucking say it,” Marlowe demanded.
“Yes,” Amanda squeaked.
“Good enough for me,” Marlowe said, setting the empty glass down, before striding for the door. “I’m done here. If you need me, I’ll be in the Jumper. Let me know when Nines finds the footage.”
“Wait. Marlowe!” Amanda called out.
Marlowe willed herself not to stop, but her body betrayed her. She froze just short of the hallway leading toward the door.
“I…I’m sorry. Truly,” Amanda said earnestly. She let out a deep sigh. “I’ve had years to think this over, and I just…I know I didn’t treat you fairly–”
“–Fairly?” Jen snapped. “Fairly is a pipe dream compared to what you’ve done! You’ve made her life a living hell!”
“Jen, I got this,” Marlowe said half-heartedly.
“Marlowe, just tonight she called you a menace on the air at least five times!”
“Twelve,” Nines said, still focused on the Pod.
Everyone turned to look at Nines. “My scripts automatically highlight keywords and hashtags,” Nines explained. “They make supercuts of Amanda saying stupid things. It’s an endless supply of credits. I just posted tonight’s video. I didn’t just sit here and count them or anything. I’m not a psycho. Quit looking at me.”
The room was silent for a moment. Marlowe turned and began marching down the hallway toward the door.
“Wait!” Amanda said, standing up and rushing toward Marlowe. “I want to make this up to you!” She darted past Marlowe and cut her off in the middle of the hallway. “That’s why I agreed when the Judge approached me! I see it as a chance to make everything up to you. I really do. I just…I have a career and a persona I have to maintain! You understand, right? It’s just for engagement! Viewers respond to it! Like…like what your little friend just said. It’s about keywords and hashtags! You understand that, right? And so I have to do things like call you a menace! It’s for work! I need you to understand that. I need you to know that I am truly, truly sorry. You meant the world to me and I made a huge mistake.”
Marlowe looked up and locked eyes with Amanda. Amanda tried to to look away, and almost did, but stopped herself from breaking eye contact. She took a step toward Marlowe.
“You believe me, right?” she asked, reaching out and taking Marlowe’s hands.
Jen sighed loudly, clearly disgusted. The Judge was studying Marlowe and Amanda with fascination. Amanda leaned in toward Marlowe with pleading eyes. Marlowe could taste metal. She wanted both to kiss and kill Amanda. Her teeth unclenched. Her lips parted. She began to speak.
“Found it!” Nines yelled, breaking the tension.
Everyone flinched. They turned toward Nines. “Yep,” she said, flipping the Pod around so Marlowe could see it. “You were right. She ambushed you.”
“…I know I was right,” Marlowe said, dropping Amanda’s hands. “I was there.” She pushed past Amanda and walked toward the door.
“Where are you going?” The Judge asked. “We just found what we–”
“–Getting some air,” Marlowe answered. “You guys have a lot of work to do. I need a minute. Amanda, unlock the door.”
“Wait, we still–”
“I’m going through that door in three seconds,” Marlowe stated grimly. “It’s your choice as to how much cleaning up you want to do when I leave.”
“I don’t want you to leave!” Amanda yelled. “I want to work this out! I want us to be okay!”
“Okay?!” Marlowe snapped, spinning to face Amanda. “Look around you! This used to be my life! That sofa…those chairs…that table I just smashed! We picked those together. We made this place what it is. And you went and ruined it ALL!” Marlowe’s eyes narrowed and her tone became dour. “But you’re okay, aren’t you? You still get to live in this reality. Hell, you even moved the glasses to the cabinet you fought me over! Meanwhile, I still have to live in a reality I don’t understand, and I understand it less and less as the days go by. I fight my way through it blind, while you get paid to critique me as I do it in spite of — or rather, because of how well you know me. Now open the goddamn door.”
Amanda stared at the floor. She inhaled deeply. “J.A.Q.i, open the door,” she ordered. A tone sounded, and the latches binding the door to the frame retracted.
Marlowe turned and grabbed the doorknob. She held it fast. “Do you remember our song?” Marlowe asked over her shoulder.
“‘Beautiful Her,’” Amanda said immediately without looking up from the floor.
“When you hear that song, does all the air leave your lungs and you double over in pain as tears and snot drip all over the floor? Or is that just me?”
Amanda blinked a few times. She began to answer, but it was a little too late.
“Thought so,” Marlowe said as she opened the door, passed through it, and gently closed it behind her.
“You told me she’d be receptive,” Amanda said to The Judge after a moment’s stunned silence from the group.
“That was receptive,” Jen interjected. “You’re not dead or nursing a black eye. Consider that an agreement.”
The Judge nodded. “You don’t need her to like you. You just need her to be on board. And I have to agree with Jen. The fact that the only thing broken in here is a table is, I think, getting off light.”
Amanda shook her head and walked over to the couch. She fell into it as if knocked off her feet by the emotional strain. “I’m not doing this,” Amanda said numbly.
Jen snarled. “Bitch, you’re airing that footage, or so help me–”
“–May I remind you of the very considerable leverage I have on you?” The Judge added with some menace. “Society may not care about your gender reassignment and Marlowe’s very understanding. Your producer boyfriend, however…your ratings don’t go up if you don’t have a show.”
Amanda glared at The Judge. “Of course. You don’t have to remind me,” she snarled. “I’m very aware.”
Jen’s jaw dropped. “Wait…your producer doesn’t know? But I thought everyone knew…”
“Just because Marlowe told her sister doesn’t mean the world is privy to every aspect of our lives,” Amanda said. “It’s my business.”
“Then you’ll abandon this little pity party and fulfill your end of our agreement?” The Judge said.
Amanda nodded reluctantly.
“Great. Nines, get–” Amanda began.
“Aw, not you, too!” Nines snapped. “My name is Regina!”
“Why does everyone call you Nines then?”
“She’s MKFan_9999,” Jen said as she stood to leave. “You figure it out. In fact, you three figure all the rest of this out. I don’t need to be here for that. I’m going to get some air with Marlowe.” She looked at Amanda and gestured toward the doorway. “Do you mind?”
“Gladly,” Amanda replied. “J.A.Q.i, open the door.”
Jen left and the door locked behind her. Nines scooted over to Amanda on the couch to show her the footage. “You have an editing setup here?” Nines asked. “If not, I can do it all on this.”
“…So you’re the FeedLeech making all those Marlowe videos?” Amanda asked. “Wow…I thought you were a man.”
“Looks like we both have identity issues,” Nines said. “We doing this or what?”
The Judge leaned back in his seat and smiled.
Jen pushed the manual lever on the doorway leading to the roof. She saw the Jumper just in front of her and Marlowe leaning on a railing looking out to the city just beyond. Jen breathed in deeply and approached the Jumper.
“Do I even wanna know what happened?” Poet asked from the gunner’s chair.
Jen shrugged. “We got the footage and it’s going live,” she said. “All it cost was that moment right there.” She nodded toward the cockpit. Through the front windscreen, Poet saw Marlowe leaning against the railing that separated the rooftop from a thirty-eight story drop down to Peachtree Street.
“Good luck,” Poet said with a rueful smile. Jen nodded, then left and joined Marlowe. Marlowe kept her gaze on the morning sky over the city. Without saying a word, Jen handed over a lighter and a cigar she had pulled from the go-bag they’d brought from Jen’s apartment.
“Thanks,” Marlowe said and took the items without looking. She placed the cap of the cigar between her front teeth and bit into the tobacco wrapper, ripping a thin layer from the very tip of the cigar.
“Not even slightly,” Marlowe answered.
“You wanna talk about it?” Jen asked.
Marlowe took a deep drag from her cigar. She chambered the smoke in her mouth for a moment, savoring the flavors. She pursed her lips. A steady chimney-like smoke plume poured from it. “I hate her. You know I hate her. I hated being in the room with her. I hated asking for a favor from her. She sucks so, so much, to say the very least, and I know you hate her, too,” Marlowe said. “But leave the noble profession of stripping out of it.”
Jen laughed, caught off guard but relieved to see her sister not completely destroyed. “It’s depraved, using your tits for money,” she said with a smile.
“Isn’t that your favorite tactic in poker?” Marlowe asked. “Wearing some low-cut thing and leaning forward so the green gamblers can get an eyeful?”
“Hey, that’s poker,” Jen answered, reaching out and gesturing toward Marlowe’s cigar. Marlowe shrugged and handed it to her. “All’s fair in cards and crusades,” Jen continued. “What can I say? People don’t think straight when they’re horny. But at least there’s honor in how I do it.”
Jen held up the cigar and examined the lit end. She contemplated its glowing red embers, rolling the stick in her fingertips. “One’s a game,” she said calmly. “The other is a way of life.”
“Poker is how you pay your rent,” Marlowe stated. “You literally live off gambling.”
“But I don’t live off tips from showing my tits.”
Marlowe chuckled. Her gaze left the city skyline as she finally found the wherewithal to look at her sister. “You’re seriously fucking broken, you know that?”
“Says the augmented super soldier wearing forty pounds of steel around her wrists and ankles after breaking out of prison for attempted murder,” Jen said, bringing the cigar to her lips for a puff. She took a dramatic drag, and immediately began coughing violently. A stream of smoke poured from her mouth and nose as she doubled over, gagging.
“You’re not supposed to inhale!” Marlowe said through her laughter. She patted her sister gently on the back and helped her stand. “Deep breaths…there you go…”
“Why the hell…do you like…those things?” Jen gasped, fighting for air.
“Refined tastes, I suppose – wait, where’d it go?”
Jen coughed while pointing over the railing of the apartment building.
“Shit,” Marlowe said as her shoulders slumped forward and her head sagged. “Waste of a good Cuesta.”
Marlowe and Jen both jumped as the stairway access door slammed open. “We have to go!” The Judge barked as he rushed through the door, Nines following closely behind.
“What happened?” Marlowe yelled as she jogged toward the Jumper. Jen trotted along behind her.
“You didn’t see the NewsFeed alert?” The Judge asked. “Wait, no, of course you didn’t. Jen? You didn’t get an alert?”
“None,” Jen croaked.
“Poet?” The Judge asked as he climbed into the vehicle. “Alerts?”
“Nothing on NewsFeed or any of the main CitizenFeeds,” Poet replied, reaching out a hand to help Jen in.
“Good, it’s not out there yet,” The Judge said. “We can still beat it. Seraph, spool up and take off!” Seraph saluted from the cockpit and began flipping switches on the console before her.
“Beat what?” Marlowe asked as she helped Nines into the Jumper, and then climbed in behind her.
“Amanda just got the tip on a private wire feed. Cook just ordered your father’s execution.”
Marlowe and Jen both fell silent as the MagLev engines on the Jumper whined and whirred. The Jumper dusted off and cleared the railing of the rooftop by less than an inch, before descending in near-freefall to below radar level, and shooting off into the distance.