February 27, 2096 5:58 PM
Seriously, fuck this place.
This camp is supposed to be a home. A home for the refugees displaced by the bombing at Terminus. But with all the guards we’ve had to put in place, and the rules, and the rationing… It’s become more of a prison than a refugee camp. This is disloyal, I know, but I think the Judge bit off more than he can chew. We were supposed to be starting a revolution, not playing nursemaids to people who need far more than we can provide. I mean, I’m glad we’re trying to do something good… But are we really the ones who should be doing this job?
This place is a fucking hellhole. I can’t breathe the air longer than ten minutes without gagging. There’s not enough clean water. Everyone’s skin is burnt and blistered and their wounds are getting infected. The Thoughts and Prayers™—I appreciate the effort, but we have more dehydrated food than we know what to do with, yet no clean water to cook it.
Christ, the sunburns… Dr. Rossler said it used to happen all the time before the climate changed and the environment generators went online. It was just normal. How the hell did people live like that? He and his team are doing their best, just like we are doing our best. But that’s my point—our best sucks. It just doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe the Judge and Hank Collins should get Amanda to stop asking for those Thoughts and Prayers™ food kits and start actually telling people what we need.
And the fucking bandits… the Judge is insane, using the former Terminus Citadel prisoners as security! They may have been in training for foreign service, but that only makes them more dangerous! I broke some dude’s arm yesterday as he tried to raid the munitions tent. I’m glad I got to him before he actually made it in, or William and Sully would have added another body on the pyres. And that smell doesn’t need any more fuel. There are some good prisoners, yeah… Angel and, as much as I hate to admit it, Jacobs have a handle on them. Thank God there’s some humanity left in the prisoners Or maybe they’re just terrified of Angel. Either way, I don’t care. So long as they stand between us and the bandits, I’m good.
I know the Judge is right—I know we need all the help we can get. But that’s my point. We shouldn’t be taking their help because we shouldn’t be doing this, period! Let Imagen back in to fix the goddamn EV generators, or Cook’s army in to secure the place… I believe in the movement, I really do. I want a Sovereign citizenry. I want out from under corporate control. But there are limits. I’m at mine.
If it weren’t for Jen…
The sound of a hand slapping the canvas flap of his tent sent a jolt through Poet. Startled, he quickly closed his journal. “Come in,” he said. He smiled the moment he saw Jen’s head poke through the flaps of his tent.
“Good, you’re up already,” she said.
“Already?” Poet said with a rueful chuckle. “I never went to sleep.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Jen said, stepping into his tent. “Wish I had known, I could have joined you and we could have not slept together.”
An awkward grin spread across Poet’s face. “That sounds… Fun?”
Jen’s eyes narrowed and her arms folded over her chest. “You know what I meant,” she huffed. “Anyway… have you seen Nines?”
“Sure, lots of times,” Poet said. “Curly hair, about five feet tall…” He held his hand out at slightly over the height of his own head. He adjusted it up an inch for good measure.
Jen unfolded her arms and stooped to pick up a wayward boot lying in the middle of Poet’s tent. She lobbed it at him. He caught it and laughed.
“I’m serious right now!” Jen exclaimed. “I can’t find her. Have you seen her recently?”
Poet’s dreadlocks swung as he shook his head. “Not since yesterday… But I’ve not really been looking. Have you checked the comms tent—” He caught himself just a tad too late.
Jen’s eyes narrowed again.
“Or, you know… Other places?” He added lamely.
“Why would Nines be in the comms tent?” she asked, eyeing Poet beadily.
Poet shrugged and shifted his eyes. “Uh… Just a thought,” he stammered.
“You know something I don’t?”
“I mean… I promised I wouldn’t tell…”
“Come on, Poet!” Jen said. “This is serious! She’s just a kid, and you know there are dangerous assholes around who… You know…”
“Wait, did that happen!?” Poet bristled, his tone turned serious and his posture straightened.
“Not that I’ve heard,” Jen said and Poet relaxed slightly. “But MilSec people are kinda gross to begin with. The Foreign Service prisoner volunteers… Marlowe had some stories about them that made me want to kill them all.”
“Not the nicest folks, I know,” Poet said, relaxing slightly and returning to pulling loose the laces on his boot. “But Jacobs and Angel seem to have everyone on lock. I wouldn’t worry too much.”
“They’re stealing food and trying to break into the munitions tent,” Jen said wearily. “I feel like it’s just a matter of time before… Well, I just want to keep an eye on her, you know?”
Poet shook his head. “Look, you don’t need to worry about Nines, okay?” he said. “I know where she is, and I promised I wouldn’t tell you or the Judge. She’s safe.”
“What?!” Jen said, her fists balling in frustration. “You have to tell me!”
“I already did!” Poet said, sliding his journal from his lap and placing his right foot on his left knee.
Jen thought back for a moment. “Oh man, I’m gonna kill her.” She spun furiously and lifted the tent flap to leave.
“Jen, wait!” Poet yelled. “Just… Hold on a second!”
Jen froze and looked back over her shoulder. A swirl of dust and dead grass flew into the tent. “Why?” She asked.
“Come on back in a moment,” Poet said with a sigh. “You’re letting all the dirt in.”
Jen scowled. She took a step back and let the tent flap fall, then turned around with her arms once again folded over her chest.
“Just—Let the kid have some fun, okay? She’s been through a lot!”
“We’ve ALL been through a lot!” Jen barked. “And she didn’t have the replacement Pod that the Judge gave her an hour before she started shit with every troll on the net! She cannot be trusted!”
“She’s blowing off steam,” Poet said, poking his foot into the opened mouth of his boot. “So she stirs up some assholes who buy Cook’s bullshit that we’re terrorists… What’s the big deal?”
“What’s the big…” Jen’s ground her teeth and her face turned red. “Did you forget the shitstorm she started two weeks ago?!”
“She was just being—”
“A fucking troll!” Jen interjected. “And there’s no way to control her!”
“Why can’t you watch her?” Poet asked.
“Oh, what, between running this entire camp while the Judge is off pulling whatever strings behind the scenes to keep what little credits we have flowing? What, do I get to sleep zero hours a night now?”
“What about Austin?”
“He’s too fucking busy! We’re all too fucking busy to babysit a brat with self-control issues, okay?! Can’t you just write a script or something that alerts you when she—”
“Oh, just shut up,” Jen said, waving her hand at him dismissively as she turned to leave the tent.
Poet chuckled. “She’s really that good, huh?” He asked, freezing Jen in her tracks.
Jen bit her bottom lip. She turned back toward Poet and nodded sullenly. “The only solution is to keep her off the damn Net,” Jen said. “And it sucks, because she is that good. But we can’t afford to have some master troll out there riling up people who are already bored and stupid and ready to cut us off instead of help us! And God forbid she actually goads one of those idiot #UnitedAmericansUnited morons into doing something for real.”
“Look, you’re not wrong,” Poet said, pulling the laces tight on his boot. “She’s a brat. We all know she’s a brat. But those #UnitedAmericansUnited guys fucking suck, and they deserve a little pwnage now and then.”
Jen’s scowl turned into a bemused half-frown. Her eyebrows narrowed. Her lip curled as she repeated, “Pwnage?”
“…Did I use it wrong?”
“No, it’s accurate,” Jen said. “But, like, super dated. In fact, the only hacker I’ve ever heard use it seriously is her… Is she teaching you her Feed tricks?” Jen said.
“Her and Austin, yeah,” Poet said. “It’s fun.”
“So what, you’re starting fights with the #UAU people now?”
“No!” Poet said, wrapping one bootlace over the other and drawing it tight. “Just… You know. Opposition research.”
Jen stared at the ground to hide the smile that crept across her face. She forced the corners of her mouth back to an insincere scowl. She looked directly at Poet. “‘Hearts and Minds,’ remember?” She asked, quoting the Judge’s oft-repeated phrase around the camp. “Without support from the Citizens, we won’t be able to keep this place running. Imagen refuses to help, and Cook is already calling us terrorists… Without public support, innocent people will die.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Poet said as he tied his boot lace. “I’d love to put those guys’ hearts and minds under this boot…” He slid his foot from his knee and stomped his boot on the ground for effect.
Jen smirked. “I better go get Nines before she shovels any more shit onto fans. You mind getting the rest of the camp going?”
“Man, I just don’t get these people,” Poet said, sliding to the edge of his cot. “We’re all supposed to be in this together, and they can’t get their own asses up? I mean… How can they even sleep?”
“It’s… I don’t know,” Jen said, her shoulders slumping. “It’s getting harder and harder to motivate people. It’s, like, surviving isn’t enough. They’re starting to give up after what, two weeks?”
With a tired grunt, Poet tried to heave himself off of the cot. Jen chuckled. She extended her hand toward him. Still clutching his journal, he extended his free hand and grasped hers.
“Thanks,” he said, slightly embarrassed. “I fucking hate that cot. Hell, I fucking hate this whole camp. It’s not at all what we signed up for.”
Jen snorted. “I never signed up in the first place,” she said.
“Fair point,” Poet said with a grin. He folded his journal along the well-worn crease that had formed down the middle and tucked it into the back pocket of his fatigues. “I guess I’ll do my sworn duty as a Sovereign citizen to tell everyone they’re free to do what they’ve been told to do…”
Jen chuckled. Together, they moved toward the exit of Poet’s tent. Poet froze as Jen lifted the flap. “I, uh… I need a minute,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” Jen asked over her shoulder. She followed Poet’s finger as he pointed down at his feet, one of which was still without a boot.
Jen laughed heartily. “Oh, man… Yeah, you either need to wake up or get more sleep!” She laughed as she turned to exit the tent.
“How about both?” Poet replied, once more taking a seat on the cot.
“Meet me in Comms after you check in with everyone,” Jen said over her shoulder as she lifted the tent flap. “I’m gonna go see how much damage Nines has done. Oh, and uh… Another favor? Could you check on my dad for me?”
“Of course,” Poet said.
“I mean, I’m sure he’s… You know. Rossler would have sent word if…”
“…You could just go see him yourself,” Poet replied. “Not to put my nose where it doesn’t belong, but it might do you some good.”
“Thanks, but Marlowe was always better with, you know… That whole situation,” she answered, referring to her father’s reduced physical state. Her eyes dropped and she reflexively held the tent flap closer to her body. “I just never got used to seeing him… Like…”
“It’s all good,” Poet said. “I get you.”
Jen nodded with a reluctant smile. She tossed a light wave in his direction. The tent flaps fell shut as she left.
Poet pulled on his other boot and took a deep breath. He attempted to push himself off the cot and stand, but physics simply didn’t want to cooperate. He fell back to the cot. He couldn’t help but laugh at himself. Jen was gone, he could just roll off and stand up, he supposed. The thought made him smile wider. He leaned to one side and pulled his folded journal from his pocket.
…I know who I DO have faith in. And I can’t tell her. Not the way I want to. Not now.
“Well how the fuck would I know where to find a Mayan statue?!”
Stefan Douglas’ voice shrilled over the percussion of his RealLeather loafers as he stomped down the antique Italian marble floors. The icy slush his shoes had picked up from the snow-covered streets squished along with the whirring of cleaning drones that trailed happily behind, slurping and sucking up each dissipating footprint. It was an ensemble performance of entitled frustration conducted by Stefan Douglas as he marched down the hallway of the 43rd floor of the Circle City Square Premium Condominiums, the most luxurious floor of the most luxurious building in the United American State’s capital city of Indianapolis.
Stefan’s pale complexion glowed an agitated rose in the wan light, his laugh lines creasing in frustration as he barked at his assistant on the cracked screen of his handheld Pod. A rare thing indeed: a person of Stefan’s status not having an implanted Pod and screen-enhanced eyes. It was an anachronistic quirk he found endeared his clients to him. The cost of constantly repairing the screen was negligible compared to the social capital the affectation generated.
“And why are you asking ME, anyway?!” He continued. “That’s what I pay you for, James! I don’t even fucking know who the hell Maya is, much less why someone made statues of—Oh, they were a whole race of people?! Well, la-dee-fucking DAH!” He held the Pod out from in front of his face and wagged his hands like a drunken orchestra conductor. His impeccably blonde-dyed hair (with a fashionable touch of gray still showing) flew agitatedly around his head.
A movement caught Stefan’s eye. Nerves zinged through him as he looked past the screen of his Pod.
His relief was palpable when he saw it was just the young couple who had recently moved in. They were all smiles as they ventured out to sample yet another high-end restaurant in their new high-end neighborhood. Stefan reflexively dropped the Pod to his side, softened his eyes, relaxed his brow, and stretched his mouth into a wide grin. They waved and smiled back.
The second they passed, he hunched over, clutched his gut, and caught his breath. “Thank God!” He said aloud. He held the Pod in front of his face once again as he continued tracking moist shoe prints down the hallway. “What’s that, James? Well no, I don’t know who the Mayans were. And you know what? I don’t care! I don’t study art, I SELL it! And you broker it! And if you don’t find us a Mayan statue before tomorrow night’s gala, so help me CHRIST, I’ll—”
“— Mr. Douglas!” A timid voice rang out from down the hall.
Stefan froze in place. Slowly and dramatically, he looked up from his Pod to see a petite, kind-faced, white-haired woman waving at him from just outside the doorway to unit 4341, across from his own condo unit. She clutched the front of her overcoat as she trotted his way. “I’ve been trying to reach you all week! Can we please speak a moment?” She trilled.
His heart leapt into his throat. His stomach churned and his mind raced as he calculated his path of quickest exit. He thought about turning and running back to the elevator, but the young couple had surely already taken it down. The windows at either end of the hall on the 43rd floor of the Circle City Square Premium Condominiums were sealed and security-monitored, and he didn’t carry any weapons, so both suicide and murder were off the table. He could rush past her and hide in his condo, but the only thing keeping this woman from sinking his hard-won VerifiedCitizen™ score of 9 (the highest that a “citizen of high standing in United American society” could achieve without being on the board of Imagen Corporation or being the President himself) was the fact that he had this little old lady convinced that they were the dearest of friends. He knew he had to face Mrs. Reynolds. He had to hold her at bay just one more day. The deal that would allow him to refund her (and save his ass) hung in the balance.
The week before, Stefan had stumbled onto the deal of a lifetime. He had been at some small society party. The host was a very valued customer of his, and he had felt obligated to attend. It went exactly how these sorts of things always went. He showed up late. He greeted the host with ecstatically fake kisses and feigned interest in wherever the marble flooring had been sourced, and snatched up two glasses of champagne from the first server to cross his path. He had downed one and placed the empty glass back on the tray, then sashayed through the soiree with enough style to be seen, but not so much flair as to be noticed. Things were expectedly dull, until he’d overheard a young gentleman discussing some antiques he’d recently bought at auction.
It turned out, this guy (you know the type… not quite young, but not quite old; average build, average height, average weight, average face) had been dragged by a date to some kind of open auction. He hadn’t known much about it. He just knew that Imagen’s Development Expeditionary Division, the force they sent westward to stake out new expansion cities for the United American State, typically sold antiques and art at these things, and he figured he might find a nice piece or two for his apartment… And you know, maybe then get laid. The other person in the conversation, a blowhard named Ambrose, had given a hearty laugh at that bit. He, too, used art auctions to get laid, or so he claimed. Stefan knew that Ambrose was in fact asexual. After all, Ambrose was one of Stefan’s closest friends… Or rather, was, before Ambrose had attempted to steal a deal of Stefan’s a few months prior. He had failed spectacularly and Stefan made millions as a result. The bitterness of the failed attempt had left Ambrose somewhat sour.
“I know how that goes!” Ambrose had said with a chortle. His eyes shot wide open when he noticed Stefan glide into the conversation.
“Same here!” Stefan joined in glibly. “Those auctions… Terrible art, but tasty trim, you know what I’m saying?” He had gently elbowed the average-looking man, who smiled and nodded and stuck out his hand in greeting.
“Nathan Sterling,” he said.
“Stefan Douglas,” Stefan replied as he grasped his new friend’s hand. He glanced at Ambrose, who returned a brief but noticeably defeated look. With Stefan around, there would be no art deals for him that evening.
Nathan had went on to explain that he, completely transfixed by the beguiling beauty of his date, had raised his BidBracelet randomly on some lot or another, not paying any attention until it was time to settle up at the end of the evening. He was shocked to find out that he’d won, for an insanely low sum, the entirety of the furnishings from the private residence of the former governor of the former state of Missouri. The price? A mere ten million credits.
Ambrose had sniffed. “Well, I can easily cover that, if you’re interested in parting with—”
“Thirty million,” Stefan countered. “Now.” He whipped out his cracked Pod and tapped on the screen earnestly.
Stefan had continued by charmingly suggesting that fate had brought them together, as he wasn’t even supposed to have attended the party that night but something told him he should come. And this was that something. And nothing—and no one—would stand in the way of this karmic blessing.
“Ha!” Ambrose said, landing a too-stiff slap on Stefan’s shoulder. “I know better than to go toe to toe with Stefan Douglas! I’ll bid you both adieu for now!” Ambrose bowed out, walked behind Sterling, and waited for Stefan to look up. The moment he did, he mouthed the words, “Now we’re even!”
Stefan raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips while shaking his head, in a gesture very clearly stating that no, they were still a long way from even. He then very quickly softened his countenance and looked back at Sterling, who had just produced his own handheld Pod.
“No implants?” Stefan said, bemused.
“Nah,” Sterling replied. “I guess I prefer to do things the old-fashioned way as well.”
“I know exactly what you mean!” He had exclaimed, shaking his own cracked handheld Pod for effect, before holding it up in front of Sterling and scanning his face. He tapped on the Pay Now button on his ImagenPay app and the transaction was complete.
They agreed to meet the next afternoon at three o’clock, at a storage unit on the outskirts of Indianapolis. After a bit more small talk, Stefan politely excused himself to the toilet, and immediately started sending pings to every collector of Pre-Second-Civil-War antiquities on his connections list. With relationships spanning a decade or more, it was no time at all before he had covered his thirty million with deposits from ten of his most loyal clients.
The champagne’s effect was nothing compared to the swirling, drunken state Stefan’s euphoria had left him in as he had stared out of the window of the iLyft back home. In less than three hours, he’d generated over one hundred million credits in revenue and satisfied the appetites of ten of his best clients. And he had done so while edging out Ambrose, which added a tasty cherry on top of this delectable deal.
The next day, he’d travelled to the storage unit. He scanned his retinas at the door and spoke the passphrase given to him by Sterling: “Dolphin.” The dull hum of the laser grid in front of the door ceased. The security clamps released. A slight hiss echoed in the hallway as the door slid opened. A rush of musty air hit his nostrils as he stared into a dark and empty room. In the very center of the floor was a small card. His heart raced as he approached. He bent down and looked at the card, which read:
So Long And Thanks For All The Credits.
Stefan had winced in pain with every refund he had been forced to process. He told nine of the ten clients who had made a deal with him on the Missouri governor’s lot that the furniture, art, and other antiquities they put deposits on were damaged in transport. And given their—ahem, sterling relationship, he simply couldn’t, in good faith, saddle them with these tarnished goods. He did some quick accounting: having been grifted for thirty million, and having refunded twenty-seven million, he was now out fifty-seven million credits in less than twenty-four hours. Despite having nothing at all to do with it, he blamed Ambrose.
He had just enough left in his personal savings to either refund Mrs. Reynolds, or to acquire (with some luck) a Mayan statue to sell to a customer who was visiting Indianapolis specifically to attend a gala that was taking place the next week. The decision was a no-brainer. If he could just hold off his neighbor’s queries about a refund and make that statue sale, he’d be back in the black and would be able to afford Mrs. Reynold’s refund as well. The only thing standing between him and that was Mrs. Reynolds herself, who was at that moment hobbling toward him as quickly as her stubby octogenarian legs would allow.
With his options for escape, suicide, and murder unfortunately not feasible, he did the only thing he felt he could do.
“…James, ping me back on the other line in exactly thirty seconds,” he whispered. He ended the call and sighed heavily. A smile stretched across his face. “Oh, well, hi there, Mrs. Reynolds!” He said through gritted teeth. “I have been meaning to get back to you, but I have been just so busy—and look at you! Positively radiant! And that coat is just darling!”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Douglas,” Mrs. Reynolds said, patting her bouffant hair. “Listen, we need to discuss this situation with the Missouri governor’s armchair. You and I… Well, we have a very strong relationship, and you’ve never let me down. I trust you implicitly, Mister Douglas! But you see, it’s been over a week since I left my deposit and—”
“It’s… It’s the Tragedy at Terminus,” Stefan said, his grin fading as he held his hand to his heart. “With the nation under curfew until yesterday, everything has been locked down! It’s impossible to get anything transported to my warehouse—”
“—Now, Mister Douglas,” Mrs. Reynolds interrupted, her polite demeanor abruptly vanishing. “Deborah Massey—you know, our mutual friend from the gallery downtown? Well, she told me just yesterday that you refunded her transaction a week ago.”
“She… Did…” Stefan said, chewing his bottom lip. “Well, of course she did!” He said, perking up. “Her piece, oh it’s a travesty… It was ruined in transit! A leg broke off the table, and splintered everywhere. It’s such a shame to see such a beautiful piece—”
“—But how could you know?” Mrs. Reynolds asked shrewdly. “You just said you didn’t receive the shipment.”
“Well, I… I, uh…” Stefan clutched at his Pod with both hands, twisting it nervously. Suddenly, it began to buzz, startling him so much that he dropped it. “Gracious!” He exclaimed as he bent over to pick it up. “Well, look at this! My goodness, it’s… It’s President Cook!” He said, showing Mrs. Reynolds the screen of his Pod which displayed, through an old crack and a new, the name and photo of the first President of the United American State. “I have to take this—Oh, HI, Mister President!”
Mrs. Reynolds’ mouth hung open. Stefan didn’t bother to interpret her expression; he turned and fled as quickly as he could.
His unit’s front door slid open as he approached. He turned and held the Pod away from his face as he whisper-shouted to Mrs. Reynolds. “I’ll ping you right after this call!” He then ducked into his condo. The door slid closed behind him.
Stefan huffed a massive sigh of relief. “Well THAT was close!” he said to James once safely inside. “What the hell took you so long!? I said exactly thirty seconds! That had to have been a full minute or more!”
“—Welcome home, Stefan,” JAQi stated calmly from everywhere at once.
“Well I don’t CARE who you were—WHAT!?! You sourced a Mayan?!” Relief flooded throughout his body. “Well that was fast! Thank the LORD! All is forgiven! I love you, I love you, I LOVE you!” He tapped the End Call button on his Pod and tap-danced across the foyer into the living room, the last bits of mud and snow splashing behind him.
Despite the current turmoil across the United American State, the newfangled snow from the environmental systems had kept drifting down. #Snow was still trending in the top ten topics nationally, and even after two straight weeks, people seemed to love it. Stefan, however, wasreally over it.
“JAQi! Come on…” He groaned. “Clean this crap up, dammit!” he dropped his RealLeather satchel on the engraved luggage stand just outside the doorway to his bedroom.
A tone sounded. “Right away,” JAQi responded.
Entering his spacious bedroom, Stefan did not even spare a glance toward the massive bank of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the United American State capitol building and, just beside it, the Imagen Corporation headquarters. He stumbled dramatically toward the foot of his bed and turned around.
“My GOD!” He exclaimed as he flopped onto the bed, arms outspread and bounced twice. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, attempting to hold it for ten seconds, as his therapist had suggested. He made it to four before he became bored and blubbered out an exhalation.
“Any new messages?” He said aloud without opening his eyes.
A tone sounded. “No new messages in the past hour,” JAQi replied. “You still have seven thousand four hundred eighty-four unread messages in your—”
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled, his eyes fluttering open again. With a groan, he sat back up.“Any important updates?”
A tone sounded. “There are five hundred thirty five thousand, six hundred updates in the last hour across the seven thousand fifty-four Feeds you have subscribed—”
“Ugh…” he groaned. “Filter hot takes, opinion feeds, or anything that isn’t actual news,” Stefan commanded.
A tone sounded. “Shall I filter thinkpieces as well?” JAQi asked.
“Dear Lord, yes.”
A tone sounded. “You now have two NewsFeed updates.”
“Are either of those about Marlowe Kana?”
“No,” JAQi stated. “Her whereabouts are still unknown. Are you interested in hearing opinions from CitizenFeeds about her—”
“CHRIST, no,” he groaned, sitting up. “Just… play live NewsFeed.”
A tone sounded throughout the room. The brilliant twinkling lights of the tallest buildings in the nation faded as the massive bank of windows turned black, then glowed white before displaying a multitude of high-priority, pinned, and unclosable alerts on either side of each screen. A crawl appeared at the bottom and the latest headlines scrolled across at a fevered pace. Just above the crawl was a title card reading “Amanda Stokes, Host of ‘Stokes The Fires’ – the most-watched Feed in the United American State.” And just above that was the face of a raven-haired, crimson-lipped, red-cheeked ball of fury.
“You mean to tell me,” Amanda Stokes was saying through clenched teeth. “That you regard the fine and wonderful people of my hometown of Atlanta to be terrorists?”
Her face disappeared from the screen and was replaced with that of the spokesperson for President Cook, Candice Kennedy-Kane. Her blonde, pin-straight hair was parted sharply down the middle and her theatrically made up face glowed eerily in the bright lights. Holding a ruminative, slightly bored expression on her face, Kennedy-Kane paused before finally saying, “I did not, in any way, say that, Amanda.”
“You certainly suggested it!” Amanda spat as the two frames slid to rest next to each other, backed by a a muted red, white, and blue background with fifteen stars swirling in a circle.
Candice Kennedy-Kane sighed. A large, plastic smile suddenly appeared on her face. “You know, Amanda, I appreciate your passion,” she drawled. “The President and I are both huge fans. He told me himself.”
“Flattery won’t get you off the hook, ma’am,” Amanda snapped. “I need you to be clear, for my millions of dear viewers across the nation: does the President of the United American State think that the citizens of Atlanta are terrorists?”
“Absolutely not,” Candice said unequivocally. “Atlanta is a fine and wonderful city, and home to many of the nation’s most patriotic heroes. President Cook would never suggest—”
“You said in your NewsFeed briefing this morning—and I am quoting here—‘the United American State has officially designated the Sovereign camp at Terminus Citadel a ‘pre-terrorist encampment,’” Amanda stated. “And in fact, President Cook said the same at his CookTalk this afternoon! I have the footage—Bobby, we have the footage, right?” She said, looking past the camera lens.
“Yes,” Bobby said faintly from off-camera.
Kennedy-Kane scoffed. “You don’t need to—”
“Play it,” Amanda demanded.
The screen switched to an image of President Cook frozen, mid-gesture, on the stage of a CookTalk earlier that afternoon. Several seconds passed as the footage sat still on the screen.
“Jesus, Bobby!” Amanda barked. “Play the damn—”
“I’m working on it!” Bobby complained from off-screen as Kennedy-Kane reiterated, “Do we really need—”
“It’s my show, madam!” Amanda shrilled. Meanwhile, Stefan Douglas continued to sit on the edge of his bed, staring at the still image of an open-mouthed, half-pointing Cook.
He chuckled. “God, what a shitshow…” Placing his right foot on his left knee, he removed his shoe. “OHHHH, that’s heaven,” he breathed as he wiggled his toes and let the RealLeather loafer fall to the hardwood floor below. Suddenly, the footage began to play.
“And it’s a well-known fact,” President Cook said to the audience of over thirty thousand citizens at his sixteenth CookTalk in sixteen days. “That conditions like these are what breed contempt and dissension in a populace.” He paced across the stage and pointed over his shoulder at the gigantic screen behind him. “As you can see, our encounters with terrorists have fallen to nearly zero the last ten years, largely due to my personal oversight of MilSec deployments both before and after my taking office as the first United American State President. And I do not intend to allow the threat to return, especially on our own soil, by our own former Citizens!” A thunderous applause rose and was suddenly silenced as the footage paused.
The screen flickered slightly and a furious Amanda Stokes reappeared on the left side of the screen with and an incredulous Kennedy-Kane on the right.
“Well now, this is all terribly out of context,” Kennedy-Kane replied with a bright, toothy smile.
“He just called the people of Atlanta ‘former Citizens’ and insisted they are turning into terrorists!” Amanda said flatly.
“The President absolutely, one hundred percent believes that the Sovereign are a terrorist organization, yes. That much I think we can all agree on.”
“They rescued Marlowe Kana,” Amanda said. “The love of my life…” She choked up slightly, then regained her composure. “The President framed her, but the Sovereign saved her. And they’ve done so much to help the displaced citizens of Atlanta since the Tragedy at Terminus—”
“—Marlowe Kana was a traitor!” Kennedy-Kane snapped. “And the Sovereign are simply attempting to recruit the desperate, hungry, and vulnerable into their cause!”
“They are providing relief to those who need it,” Amanda insisted. “And Marlowe was most certainly no traitor!”
“Just sixteen days ago, you said she was!” Kane insisted.
“Just sixteen days ago, the evidence that your boss framed her was broadcast across the nation—by me, personally!” Amanda riposted. “She was pardoned by—”
“—by a Corporate board chairman,” Kennedy-Kane interjected. “NOT the President of this nation!” She took a breath and calmed herself. “And your situational support of Marlowe Kana notwithstanding, we—the President and I—know that you have been an avid supporter of the #PrayForATL movement, and for that, we would like to extend our personal thanks. It is a lovely testament to your patriotism that you would want to send as many Thoughts and Prayers™ to the displaced citizens of our nation.”
“They need the help!” Amanda insisted. “They have no power, no running water, no food, no… No anything, except burnt-out homes and the new MilSec standing guard at any point they can re-enter the habitable zone! And I certainly don’t see the President or his new army helping!”
“The help has been offered by our office,” Kennedy-Kane said. “And, as you know from your insistence on playing the communiques from that Hank Collins Sovereign figure, they have been rebuffed time and again.”
“You have demanded that they surrender and call themselves terrorists before sending aid!” Amanda barked. “You are holding the entire city of Atlanta hostage! And now, the President is insinuating that they are no longer Citizens? And insinuating that they—”
“The ball is in their court,” Kennedy-Kane said with a bright smile, her long black eyelashes fluttering innocently.
Amanda silently steamed. Clearing her throat, she changed gears. “And what is with the sudden endorsement by President Cook of the #UnitedAmericansUnited movement?”
Kennedy-Kane shrugged. “It was hardly an endorsement,” she said calmly. “The President said that he thinks it’s admirable that our Citizens are taking pride in their country as a nation, and as an individual entity, instead of simply feeling like they’re part of a country that’s essentially employed by a single corporation from birth.”
“It’s disgusting!” Amanda barked. “He’s snubbing the very company his family started, and the entity that keeps this nation fed, the air breathable, and people employed!”
“Except the poor people of Atlanta, it seems,” Kenny-Kane said. “They seem to have left that poor city and its poor people to suffer as you just said yourself. You know, the city you claim to love so much? One wonders why exactly you don’t take Alan Davis or the rest of the board of Imagen Corporation to task the way you have the President…”
Amanda fumed. “But you… But he… You literally just…” She fell silent, and then fumed some more. Kennedy-Kane simply smiled.
Stefan Douglas glanced to the right of the screen to check the omnipresent bar graph showing the trending hashtags for the nation. It suddenly shifted, and #UnitedAmericansUnited jumped up past #PrayForATL to second place, just beneath #FreeMarlowe, the number one trending tag for sixteen days straight.
“Look,” Kennedy-Kane said, her smile fading and her voice taking on an impassioned tone. “Atlanta was bombed sixteen days ago by the Sovereign terrorists—”
“—They did no such thing!” Amanda demanded. “There is no evidence that—”
“—They interrupted the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale,” Kennedy-Kane continued. “Just to keep our national hero, Sabrina Corta, from beating Marlowe Kana during the most watched Feed in history! They killed three highly decorated MilSec soldiers and their own little hero, just to—”
“—Wait a minute!” Amanda snapped. “Are you confirming, here and now, that you know that Marlowe Kana – the love of my life and a national hero—is in fact, dead?!”
Kennedy-Kane paused. “Well, I would assume—”
“Ma’am, you are the spokesperson for the President of the United American State. And you have said time and again on this very program that neither you nor the President deal in assumptions!”
“—Well, of course we—”
“—If anyone would know with absolute certainty the current state of the single-most famous person in United American State history, you would—and I do believe you just told us all that she is deceased!”
“So you officially announce that she’s alive then?” Amanda’s questioning glare could have cut glass.
Stefan’s jaw was hanging open as he held his other shoe in his hands, waiting for the answer. Just then, a tone sounded throughout the condo.
“Sir,” JAQi said, “An alert has just—”
“Not now!” Stefan shouted, just as Candice Kennedy-Kane stood from her chair. “This interview is over,” she announced and walked briskly off. Her Feed momentarily showed a scrambled rainbow of blocks and then turned black.
“Sir, your VerifiedCitizen score has dropped to 8,” JAQi stated.
Stefan’s other shoe dropped. “WHAT!?!” He shrieked.
“A new review has been left for you by your neighbor, Mrs. Reynolds,” JAQi said. “One star. With her high standing, it has sunk your score a full point.”
“Read it aloud!” Stefan shrieked.
A tone sounded. The voice of Mrs. Reynolds rang through the apartment. “I’ve tried so hard not to do this, but he’s left me no choice. He avoids my calls. He avoids me in the hallway. I have never received my item, and he refuses to refund my credits, and for that I must—”
“Oh my God!” Stefan yelped, interrupting the review. “Ping her! Now!”
A tone sounded. “You have been blocked by Mrs. Reynolds, sir,” JAQi said.
Stefan stood and took a step. He froze. He suddenly remembered the case of another art collector, Harry Brownstein, who had approached a dealer after a poor rating. By coming within ten feet of a bad rater before the required twenty-four hour cooling off period, he had been sent to prison for a week. Stefan couldn’t go to prison for a week. He had to be at the gala the next night. Which also meant, he needed to find a way to raise his VC score immediately, or be barred at the door.
His thoughts raced. Given the limited operations of almost every organization since the Tragedy at Terminus, the options were few. Almost any place he could quickly volunteer, from stores to Little League games to elderly assistance, was barred to volunteers until after the nation-wide alert status switched from red back to orange.
Just then, he looked over at the muted screen where Amanda Stokes was passionately addressing her audience. A light bulb flicked on in his head. The banner on the screen read “Send Thoughts And Prayers™ to the Citizens of Atlanta Today!”
“Ping Amanda Stokes!” he called out.
A tone sounded. He watched the NewsFeed screen as Amanda paused mid-rant, and then a surprised look appeared on her face. She began addressing her audience in amazement.
“Unmute!” Stefan ordered.
“It seems that we have a VerifiedCitizen™ pinging us now! Mister Stefan Douglas… Hello? Are you there?” Amanda queried, addressing the sudden emptiness of Stefan’s bedroom.
“Yeah, I’m here!” Stefan called from just out of the frame, smoothing down the front of his wrinkled shirt.
“Well, you’re live on ‘Stokes The Fires’ and we can’t see you!” Amanda said. “As I’m sure you’re aware, we have a no-anonymity policy on this—”
“—I’m here!!!!” He said, entering the frame of the screen. He quickly ran his fingers through his hair and pulled his collar away from his neck.
“Excellent,” she replied. “And you’re ready to send Thoughts and Prayers™ to Atlanta?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Stefan said. “I am eager to help! That’s me, a helper!”
“Well, you certainly have an impressive profile!” Amanda said. “And it says here you’re a VC level… Oh my! Level 8! We’ve had Verifieds call in and help, but I don’t think we’ve had anyone call in to send Thoughts and Prayers™ with a score over 6, have we, Bobby?”
“5 is our highest VC score so far,” Bobby said from off-camera.
“Wow… So, Mr. Douglas, sir…” She clasped her hands in front of her and held them close to her face, squinting her eyes in earnest. “Thank so, so much for Stoking the Fires with us tonight and sending your Thoughts and Prayers™ to those in need! How many are you sending?”
“How many will get my score up to 9!?” He asked.
“Uh… Well um… I haven’t…” Amanda chuckled uncomfortably. “Uh, Bobby? What’s the math on that?”
“One second,” Bobby said from behind the camera. Muttering could be heard between Bobby and several of his production assistants. “Uh… With the multipliers and given his already high status, he’d have to donate… Five hundred twenty-two thousand, four hundred eighty-one credits’ worth.”
“DONE!” Stefan said. “Doing it riiiiiight now…. Sent!” He said, his face full of glee.
A tone sounded through his condo. “Your VerifiedCitizen score is now 9,”
“…How VERY generous, Mr. Douglas!” Amanda said, frankly astonished. “That is… Well, that is the most patriotic thing I’ve witnessed yet!”
“Yeah, bye!” He said unceremoniously and waved his hand in the air, dropping the call. “Mute the Feed,” he ordered and then fell back onto his bed, breathing deeply.
“Send a message to Royce Alabaster,” Stefan commanded. “Tell him that another buyer has offered me forty million on the Mayan, and if he wants it tomorrow at the gala, he needs to send me a thirty percent deposit tonight. And tell him I love him dearly.”
A tone sounded throughout the room. Stefan closed his eyes and clenched his fists in victory as a wide smile crept across his face.
Stephen Cook’s sixteenth CookTalk in sixteen days was complete, and once again, it was a phenomenal ratings success. His points resonated as intended, and his unwavering delivery was eloquent despite his extreme exhaustion following the EMP blast at Terminus Citadel and the subsequent wholesale destruction of Atlanta.
To honor his successful speech, Cook was currently indulging in yet another post-CookTalk coital celebration. Sensual soft jazz from the previous century cooed softly throughout the dimly lit room as a digital replication of a warm fire crackled on the massive wall screen across from his bed.
Suddenly, a harsh, buzzing crackle echoed throughout the room. The fire on the screen separated into rectangles of varying colors, stuttering and breaking apart as the signal was hijacked once more by the guerilla Sovereign group, who had been responsible for the commandeering of the national Feed satellites for the last few weeks.
“I am Hank Collins, the voice of the Sovereign,” the familiar voice rang out through the speakers in the Presidential bedroom of the New White House.
“Oh, God DAMN it,” President Cook shouted from underneath the silken sheets of his bed and between the legs of one of his lovers. “JAQi! Mute!”
A tone sounded. “My apologies, sir, this Feed has been locked and marked unmute-able and—”
“We have emancipated ourselves from the corporate prison of Imagen Corporation’s societal control, and we come to you with news from the resistance in Terminus Citadel,” Hank Collins continued loudly from the screen. His gaunt face and salt and pepper hair were dotted with the digital glitter of distortion, and his voice skipped and stuttered slightly from the constant band-hopping and node-jumping of the pirated signal, originating from yet another new source.
“MARCUS!” Cook screamed as he slithered downwards and emerged from under the sheets, standing fully nude at the foot of the bed. His lovers, Dominique and Edward Moore, stuck ruffled heads out from under the sheets.
A small window popped up on the wall screen and Marcus’ nervous face appeared. He looked at the President for a split second before averting his eyes in embarrassment and mild disgust as he caught a glimpse of his boss’ fully naked body.
“FUCKING FIX THIS!” President Cook screamed.
“I’m working on— there!” Marcus said, tapping a button on a tablet Pod off-screen. Hank Collins disappeared from the screen and the lilting notes of light jazz once again filled the room.
“Why haven’t you found these assholes yet?!” Cook demanded. “I put you directly in charge of—”
“They keep finding new ways in,” Marcus said, averting his eyes from the screen as President Cook stood furiously with his hands on his bare hips.
“I am growing tired of these interruptions,” Cook insisted. “As much as I hate to, I’m authorizing you to reach out to Chairman Davis if you have to. Certainly he knows something about this.”
“Yes… Yes, sir,” Marcus said, tapping the screen and terminating the call as quickly as he could.
President Cook seethed for a moment. He looked over at the bed, where his two confused but still very aroused bedmates awaited. He shook his head and sighed.
“Okay, then, where were we?” He said briskly before marching back to bed and falling between his lovers.
Marlowe felt herself waking. There was no dream from which she woke, and no noise woke her. One moment she wasn’t, and the next, she was. Awareness simply happened.
“Is she awake?” a voice that came from everywhere asked. Marlowe instinctively scanned around. She was in a kind of glass tank. She couldn’t see anything. All around her was darkness. The voice was coming from a woman behind the glass.
“She is?” The voice queried. “Good. Hello, Marlowe. I’m Dr. Patel. You are in my lab. We are on Oz. You’re safe.”
Marlowe’s eyes tried to focus through the liquid in the tank. She tried to scream. A few bubbles skirted past the tube in her throat, floating from out of her mouth and up to the surface of the tank. She tried to struggle. Her legs wouldn’t cooperate. She couldn’t lift her arms. She couldn’t even rotate her head in any direction. The only thing in her body that responded was her heart, which began pounding violently.
“Sedation. Now,” Marlowe could barely hear Dr. Patel give the order. Slowly, her panic subsided. “Judging from the sudden spike in your heart rate,” the doctor’s voice said once again, “I’m sure you’re quite confused. Maybe even scared. There really is no need to be. Once again, I assure you, you are safe. Conserve your energy. You’re in terrible shape, and there’s a lot of work to do.”
Marlowe felt her heart rate dropping. She couldn’t feel her body, and yet she sensed tension leaving her jaw and cheeks.
“Good!” Dr. Patel said. “Now, we are going to lower the shield around the tank so you can see what’s going on. The light isn’t necessarily bright, but you may want to close your eyes just in case.”
Marlowe refused to comply. A crack of light formed around the top of the tank and grew into a band, which widened as the shield protecting the hydrostatic tank lowered. The water distorted the objects before Marlowe, but she could just make them out — a few screens on walls, a few pieces of machinery near the tank, and a team of people in white lab coats standing behind a woman who was clearly Dr. Patel. She had a shock of white hair, with bangs that just reached the edges of her thin eyebrows. The smile lines in her face were so etched in, Marlowe could make them out from behind a thousand gallons of water in a low-lit room. The tablet-sized device she held at her waistline was almost as wide as her thin torso, and she stood several inches taller than the rest of her staff.
“There was an EMP blast at the Terminus Citadel,” Dr. Patel said in lieu of formal introductions. “Your eyes, neural interface, and entire muscular system were all disabled and severely damaged. We’ve replaced your eyes and the interface, but your muscles…well, we’ve been working for six days to rebuild them and still have quite a long while to go.”
Marlowe couldn’t focus. A thousand questions flew through her mind like buckshot fired from a cannon, and she couldn’t get her head around any of them.
The omnidirectional voice of Dr. Patel echoed through her skull once again. “You’re going to be in here a while, I’m afraid,” she stated. “The team discussed it and, while it wasn’t unanimous, we have decided not to keep you sleeping for the duration. We have screens positioned so that you can be kept abreast of everything going on, both at home and abroad.”
Marlowe could physically feel her mind strain as she tried to concentrate, this time focusing on the screens. Through the distortion of the liquid in the tank, she could see NewsFeed’s Pat Daniels on a screen. There was another screen which was simply streaming a logo of a red clenched fist on a solid black background. There were other screens with logos and faces she didn’t recognize, with crawls and titles in languages she couldn’t read.
“Some of these Feeds will answer some of your questions,” Dr. Patel said, her tone lifting up in sympathy, “but I’m sure that they’ll probably leave you with far more. Don’t worry, we will have plenty of time to talk once the initial phases of rebuilding your muscles are finished and you’re out of the tank. In the meantime, try to relax.”
Despite the sedative, Marlowe’s heart rate began to rise again. She had so many questions, and the only thing worse than not having the answers to them was not being able to ask them at all. Dr. Patel watched as Marlowe’s pulse quickened.
“I understand that, despite your impressive history, this must be very scary,” the Doctor said reassuringly. “You are in good hands. Many of the members of this team were on the original project that created you from babyhood. They know you better than you know yourself. Well, your systems, anyway.”
Marlowe’s eyes widened.
“Surprised?” The doctor asked. “Surely you’ve wondered…you’ve had to have at some point. Well, let me go ahead and assuage you of any doubt — no, you are not synthetic. You’re only augmented. And quite human.”
Marlowe’s eyes relaxed slightly over relief that her worst fear was unfounded. But immediately, her mind raced back to all of the doubts — that this team was a fraud, that she was being lied to, that this was an experiment to test her. She looked over again at Dr. Patel with worry in her eyes.
“I assure you, you’re in good hands,” the doctor assured her. “This team is the best in the world, and they will be working around the clock to get your body working again. I wouldn’t trust just anybody with my daughter.”
Marlowe’s eyebrows furrowed. The first real thought formed in her mind: Was that some kind of metaphor?
A tone sounded on Dr. Patel’s tablet. She raised it up and studied it. “No, Marlowe, it wasn’t a metaphor,” the doctor responded to Marlowe’s unspoken question. “I am your biological mother.”
Marlowe’s heart rate spiked. She tried to thrash, to smash her way out of the tank and kill this monster who would dare lie to her so egregiously. A few small bubbles rose from the tube in her mouth and percolated to the top of the tank.
“Sedative!” Dr. Patel ordered. “Now!”
Marlowe’s eyelids grew heavy. Her mind couldn’t form words, and her thoughts slowed. Still, anger burned deep in her. She felt it glowing from the very core of her being
“We will talk, Marlowe,” the doctor said, “I promise. For now, get some rest.” Distantly, Marlowe heard Dr. Patel order the shield around the tank raised. Light began to diminish. The wide bar of light became narrower, until the last sliver of it slid through a crack at the top of the tank, finally disappearing, leaving Marlowe completely in the dark.
“No luck, sir!” Cook’s aide shouted from the doorway of the Situation Room in the underground bunker of the New White House. “Everything within the Atlanta city limits is dark. I can’t reach Mayor Benjamin.”
“Goddammit, Marcus,” Cook replied, “I don’t care if someone has to fly there personally, you find Andre and you get him on my private line as soon as possible!”
“Yes, sir!” Marcus said as he exited the room and shut the door.
Cook turned back to Generals Baker and Heinsman, who were seated at the table in order to his left. “Where are we at?” Cook asked.
“Zero visibility,” General Baker reported. “No cameras, biometrics, monitors…Fulton and Dekalb atmosphere generators are still dark.”
“Do we know yet if they’re truly offline or if it’s just a coms interruption?”
“Undetermined, sir. They are priority one and two once reinforcements arrive.”
“Where are we on that?”
“A full battalion is prepping now, sir,” General Heinsman responded.
“Deploying in thirty,” General Baker added.
“Make it two battalions and get them out the door in fifteen minutes.”
“But, sir,” General Baker responded. “That will almost certainly compromise the local operations of other cities in the nat—”
“Two battalions in Atlanta within the hour, or it’s your asses!” President Cook snapped. He turned to his right, where the Director of WarFeed Broadcasting sat. “Jim, cameras?”
“I’ve got two hundred camera drones diverting from Chattanooga now, and another four hundred en route from Nashville and Memphis, sir,” Jim replied. “I can double that number by noon.”
“See?” Cook said as he looked back at the generals. “This is the kind of response I am looking for! Great work, Jim.” His attention moved further down the table. “Candice?”
“No one has claimed responsibility for the EMP yet, sir,” The Strategic Office Chief answered. “Gaslanders resurfacing is always a safe bet, but early intel suggests that it’s the group who sprung Marlowe Kana yesterday.”
“Issue a release to NewsFeed. Tell them it was a fault in eaOS 12.2 and we are issuing an emergency update as we speak. We can’t scare the public with terror threats this time around.”
“Already done, sir,” the Chief replied.
“Excellent,” Cook replied. Michael?”
“Literally putting the dots on the i’s of your speech right now, sir,” the Director of Public Relations replied.
“Has anyone reached Davis?” Cook asked.
“No, sir,” Pam Daly, the newly appointed Ambassador to Imagen Corporation replied.
“Find a way,” Cook said. “I already know the answer, but I have to ask again. Is there ANY response from ANY beacon, node, drone, vehicle, or person inside the Atlanta city limits?” Cook queried the room.
“Damn,” Cook said, lowering himself into his seat. “Engagement was the highest it’s ever been in history…”
“The numbers were staggering, sir,” General Heinsman replied. “A few hundred thousand short of every single citizen in the nation. Your engagement strategy worked, sir.”
“Yes, until it didn’t!” Cook snapped. “Who could have possibly…” He slammed the table in front of him with his fist and yelled “Davis!” Everyone in the room flinched.
“Generals,” Cook ordered, “I want you to begin working up a strategy for a hostile takeover of the Imagen Corporation’s headquarters.”
General Baker and General Heinsman both gasped. “Sir…”
“Commander-In-Chief, remember?” Cook replied nastily.
“Sir, we have satellite visual coming from Atlanta,” the Director of Citizen Welfare announced. “It’s…it’s red, sir.”
“What?” Cook asked. “Like, the footage is colored red?”
“No sir,” The director replied. “The entire city’s power grid is down. The situation is red, sir.”
Cook studied the screen. The satellite’s camera was zooming in, bringing the city closer and closer into view. An overlay of the nation’s power grid showed a web of red over the perimeter of Atlanta, indicating entire carrier lines were offline.
“Jesus,” General Baker said. “That means–”
“–no atmospheric generators,” General Heinsman answered in shock. “This is bad, sir.”
“We can deal with that later,” President Cook insisted. “I need plans for the Imagen Headquarters invasion drawn up and in front of me immediately! Alan Davis will pay for this!”
“Sir!” The Director of Citizen Welfare said again. “We’ve got a CitizenFeed with drone footage of Atlanta!”
“J.A.Q.i, main screen!” Cook ordered. A tone sounded, and the footage from a drone belonging to a user named ~StuntDronez~ appeared. Waves of heat were rising from the asphalt as the drone hovered around, showing citizens on the streets waving and fanning themselves with their tablet Pods, hats, and anything else they could find. Sweat was flying as two citizens fought with what little energy they could muster as they quibbled over an umbrella. The drone’s on-screen display reported the temperature at a hundred and seventeen degrees Fahrenheit.
“My God,” General Baker said, stunned.
“Sir, we need to mobilize every available medical and technical unit to Atlanta, immediately!”
“J.A.Q.i! Commandeer that drone, right now!” Cook ordered. “Get it to Terminus Citadel! I want eyes on the Next Top Soldiers, and I want it NOW! Find Marlowe Kana!”
“Sir, the first priority is the safety of the people!” The Director of Citizen Welfare said grimly.
“I’m the goddamn president and I am ordering you to get that drone to Terminus Citadel!” Cook barked. “And where are the plans for Imagen Headquarters?” Silence was Cook’s only answer as the screen showed a drone buzzing past fighting and dying citizens, making its way through the city to Terminus Citadel.
“Sir…” Marcus, the President’s aide, said from behind him as he peeked in from the doorway, “There’s something you need to see…a new CitizenFeed that just started broadcasting—”
“Not the time for cat GIFs, Marcus!” Cook snapped.
“It’s not that, it’s…well, just look. J.A.Q.i, main screen.”
“Approval, Mr. President?” J.A.Q.i asked.
Cook thought for a moment, sighed, then said,“Yes, J.A.Q.i. Approved.”
The screen flickered, then showed a muscular man with short, graying black hair. A kaleidoscope of tattoos poured from the sleeves of his black t-shirt, which was emblazoned with a red fist logo.
“I am Hank Collins, and I am the voice of The Sovereign. You will be hearing from us,” the man on the screen said, before it went black.
“Dammit, Marcus!” President Cook barked, “How many times do I have to tell you to rewind these things before you show them to me?”
Marcus gasped. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “Let me start it from the beginning…there.”
The man’s face on the screen jumped and bobbed manically as his mouth flashed opened and closed, the scrubber on the video’s timeline sliding back to the beginning. Suddenly, everything froze. Hank Collins stared directly into the lens of the camera, a scowl stamped on his face for a second, then two, then three…
“Play the damn thing!” Cook yelled.
“It’s playing!” Marcus replied. “He’s just…starting really slow, sir.”
“Dramatic, much?” President Cook muttered.
Hank Collins took a deep breath on the screen, then began: “My name is Hank Collins, and I am the voice of The Sovereign. As many of you just saw, the unfair battle that Marlowe Kana was forced to fight was interrupted, much like how her life was interrupted when Imagen falsely imprisoned her…like how General Kana’s freedom was interrupted when he was arrested for a false charge…just how like your life, and my life, and the lives of every United American State Citizen has been interrupted by imprisonment thanks to Imagen’s over-corporatized society.
“Your entire life, you’ve been lied to. You have been told that you have choices: work and advance your family, or don’t work and Imagen will take care of you. Go to school and advance yourself, or don’t go to school and Imagen will take care of you. You’ve been given choices of which flavor of drink you want to drink, or food you want to eat, or what color you want your hair to be, or what type of clothing you want to wear. All of it made by Imagen. All of it controlled by one corporation. A corporation started by our so-called president’s great-great-great grandfather. A corporation that controls our weather and our entertainment and our time, none of it truly ever free. A corporation that we now depend on to eat, to work, and to live. A corporation that tells us that great and necessary wars are going on outside of our borders to keep ‘terrorists’ in line and keep us safe.
“There is no war. There is only control. And we, The Sovereign, are done being controlled.”
“Tonight, we announce ourselves. Tonight, we tell you that there is real choice coming. A choice for your future. A choice to be truly free. I am Hank Collins, and I am the voice of The Sovereign. You will be hearing from us.”
The video faded to black.
The personnel in the Situation Room wasted no time scrambling into action. “Sir,” General Baker said, “I have began running searches and harvesting intel on this Sovereign group. We should have preliminary intel back within—”
“—I know who it is,” President Cook said flatly, staring down at the table while rubbing the graying temples of his head. “Run intel for Andrew Garfield, age fifty-nine, also probably known as The Judge. It’s a stupid name, I know. You won’t find anything, but try anyway.”
“…Who is Andrew Garfield, sir?” General Heinsman asked.
Cook looked up and faced an expectant room full of his administration’s greatest minds, all of whom had eyes locked on their President.
“Someone I used to know,” Cook stated.
The deafening silence in the room was eventually interrupted by a tone ringing. “Sir,” J.A.Q.i announced. “The drone has arrived at Terminus Citadel.”
All eyes turned to the screen as the drone surveyed the area. The courtyard was flooded with prisoners who were tearing out of the front gates, spreading out in all directions as they fled. The facility’s lights were dark and the once-electrified fencing was failing to keep the prisoners from climbing up and over. There was no sign of Marlowe or her squad.
“Sir,” General Baker spoke up urgently. “There are nearly ten thousand felons with some degree of advance warfare training pouring into a city with no electricity, no weapons, and no soldiers,” she said. “I have to insist that you–”
“–FINE,” Cook rolled his eyes as he waved his hand at the General. “Send aid and tech services to Atlanta. And one of the United American State Army battalions.”
“Right away, sir!” General Baker replied.
“But only the one!” Cook insisted. “The other one is headed to Indianapolis. To Imagen.”
The entire waiting room of the United American State Army 12th precinct gasped in unison, then erupted in a roar of outrage, echoing the reaction of everyone else in the nation at that moment. The yellow Intercontinental Championship belt that Ama Afua had earned that morning clattered to the floor as she shot out of her chair to her feet. “What the fuck!” She yelled.
“Ama!” Her mother snapped in shock.
“Young lady!” Her father yelled. “That is…wha? What’s going on?”
The lights and screens in the station flickered briefly, and then suddenly blinked off. The sound of air circulating through vents ceased. Red lights clicked on and illuminated the room with an eerie, crimson glow. Within seconds, the room grew noticeably warmer.
“Sarge?” The private asked nervously.
“Radio HQ. Find out what’s going on,” the sergeant responded.
“No radios, sir,” the private responded.
“What’s going on, officer?” Victor Smith-Afua asked.
“Yeah, and what the hell happened to MK and Corta?!?” Wallace added.
“I have no idea, and I have no idea. But I need you all to stay seated and calm,” the sergeant boomed authoritatively to the room. “I’m sure this is a temporary situation, and everything is under control.”
“You’re sure?” Angela Afua asked.
“It is, ma’am,” the sergeant reassured her. “Now, please just stay seated and quiet.”
“Listen, officer,” Angela snapped back. “I have been beaten, yelled at, taken into custody for defending my baby, and now everything is dark and it’s getting hot, and you want to tell me you’re sure everything’s fine?”
“Yeah, what the hell!” Wallace yelled as he stood from his seat. “Your guns don’t even work, and you got your asses kicked by Marlowe Kana earlier! How can you tell us you have anything under–”
“Sir!” the sergeant yelled as he stomped toward Wallace, “Sit down, now!” The soldier pulled a collapsed baton from a pouch on his belt. He whipped it forward, expanding it. Rearing back, he swung the baton at Wallace’s ribs. Wallace collapsed in a gasping heap.
“Hey!” One of the other people in the waiting room of the station yelled in horror. “You can’t do that!” There’s rules!”
“Detail!” The sergeant ordered as he pointed at the person who had yelled. Two privates approached the man and grabbed him by the throat and around the waist. More soldiers approached from hallways and doorways, swarming in like ants from a disturbed nest.
“Secure every one of these people,” the sergeant ordered.
The officers approached the citizens seated and standing in the room. Cuffs snapped across wrists. One soldier approached the Afua family.
“Don’t you touch my baby!” Angela Afua snarled, wrapping her arms around her daughter.
“Ma’am, we won’t hurt the girl,” the officer insisted as he reached for Ama. “Please let her go and hold out your wrists–”
“You son of a bitch!” Victor Afua yelled as he swung at the officer’s face, clocking him square in the jaw. Another citizen stood and grabbed the chair he had been sitting in, brandishing it in front of him like a shield. Citizens faced off against officers as the suffocating heat rose in the precinct, much as it was across the city of Atlanta.
The Courtland Street Waffle House location in Atlanta held the record for most consecutive days open since the ceasefire had been declared during the Second Civil War: Fifty-one years, one hundred and twenty-four-day record. And Marc Winter was about to break it. He vigorously waved a paper Waffle House menu in front of him, trying to evaporate the sweat that rolled in beads down his face. Walking over to the door, he pulled down the metal shutters that kept it secure in the unlikely event that a Waffle House should ever have to close.
But after the third AutoCycle trash compactor machine had been yanked from the post it was anchored to outside and thrown at the windows in front of his store, Marc decided that this event, unlikely as it may have been, was worth breaking the record.
“Kids, stay down,” Marc ordered as he reached for another window shutter.
Reginald and Regina Todd, and their weird friend Tad did as he ordered.
“Oh my god!” Matthew Swift’s father gasped as he looked out of the window of his stalled, formerly hovering limousine. “How are we going to get inside our home?”
“Well, I’m sure not going out there!” Matthew said. “In this heat, we’ll die!”
Just then, a rock flew from the sidewalk across the street from them, smashing through the back window of the vehicle. The limousine began rocking back and forth on the fulcrum of the rounded maglev engine underneath.
“Dad!” Matthew yelled in terror, watching as his father was dragged through the smashed back window. His mother shrieked as the window on her side shattered, and she was yanked by her hair through the opening. The seat Matthew was sitting on became damp with his own urine as terror washed over him.
Matt and Angela Tuffner walked outside into their sun-scorched front yard. The snow had melted and the streets were steaming as heatwaves radiated across the neighborhood. Immediately, they rushed back inside and closed the door, not wanting any of the comparatively cooler air to escape.
“Oh, god,” Angela said desperately to Matt, “I bet the hospital is a disaster!”
“…Ang, you can’t!” Matt said in equal parts fear and anger.
“It’s my job!” she replied. “I have to get there!”
Matt shook his head. He didn’t want his wife to go; he was terrified that she would suffer burns from the increasingly toxic, boiling air or perhaps even be killed. But he also knew that keeping Angela from helping others, especially during an emergency would absolutely be a non-option. He sighed. “We can take the bikes,” Matt said.
“You’re coming?” Angela asked in surprised delight.
“Well, the Playstation 12 is dead, so I’ve got nothing else to do…” He gave her the smile that had made her fall in love with him ten years before.
Glen Russel ducked as a five-pound weight plate sailed over his head and crashed into the screen on the wall behind him.
“C’mon, man. Be reasonable!” Glen yelled.
“Screw you!” the angry gymrat hollered back. “I don’t owe you those pushups, auggie!”
“You do!” Glen demanded. “Mad Dog didn’t lose!” Before he could hurl the weight in his hand, he felt a cable from a shoulder-pull machine wrap around his neck and yank back tightly.
Omar Rodriguez was lying on the floor of his apartment in a pool of his own sweat. The heat was oppressive, but more so was the stench of the months of unwashed clothes in his hamper permeating the air. It was also, in fact, rivaled by the odor of the two garbage bags lying near his front door, waiting for the day he decided to actually throw them into the Autocycle bin at the end of his hall…or fix the one in his own apartment.
“I gotta get out of here,” he said aloud, as if to motivate himself off the floor. He rolled to his belly and crawled to the door. Ever so slowly, he rose to his feet, finding even standing to be excruciating in the over-one-hundred-degree heat. He opened the door to his apartment.
The smell of the garbage rotting in the Autocycle machine at the end of the hall punched him in the face and he reflexively slammed his apartment door shut.
“Fucking automated super,” he cursed. Nothing ever works around here… That’s what I get for staying in Imagen housing.
Brittany Millar lay sobbing in her father Brian’s lap. “But I have to know!” she repeated for the fifth time.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Brian Millar said to his daughter. “There’s no network. No J.A.Q.i. I can’t ping anyone and nothing is online.”
“But I don’t understand!” Brittany said. “How do we have power but no one else does?!”
“We have our own power, sweetie,” David explained again to his daughter. “We’re not attached to the grid–”
Just then, a knock sounded from the door. “Open up!” A loud voice boomed. “We know you got power!”
“Let us in!” Another voice yelled. “Or we’ll break down the door!”
David stood and aimed at the door the antique pre-war shotgun his father had given him.
“Careful!” Brian said. “We don’t even know if the ammo works!”
Brian aimed the firearm at the door.
A loud THUD! came from the door, followed by another. And then a third THUD, with a loud CRASH, followed by a deafening BOOM!
“It works,” Brian said grimly to his husband as one man fell in a pool of his own blood, and two others took off running through the night.
The workshop-turned-headquarters for The Sovereign was suddenly eerily silent – a stark contrast to the din that Sully and William were valiantly trying to ignore just a moment earlier. The audio and video of several dozen Feeds covering Marlowe’s fight against Corta at the Terminus Citadel had suddenly ceased. The silence was spectacularly eerie. And Sully didn’t like eerie.
“What the hell just happened?” Sully asked, laying down his playing cards.
“I have no idea,” Austin responded from his hacker terminal. Everything just…died.”
“What did you do??” Sully demanded.
“Well, I didn’t do that!” Austin answered. “It’s a complete outage! All nodes within a half mile of the Terminus Citadel are black! Pods, home nodes, relays…even drone repeaters. All dead. It’s like an EMP just went off and fried everything… ”
“Well if you didn’t, who did?”
They both looked over at The Judge, who was leaning against William’s workbench. He had his perennial smirk stamped across his face. “J.A.Q.i, raise Hank Collins,” The Judge ordered through his hacked Pod.
A tone sounded in The Judge’s ear and a small video screen appeared in his heads-up display.
“It’s time,” he ordered.
“On it now,” Hank replied calmly.
“That was you?” William asked The Judge warily from across the room.
The Judge smiled wide. “It’s time for us to make ourselves known,” he said. “What better way than this?”
Sully and William exchanged looks. Both shrugged.
“Think this is part of his plan?” Sully whispered to William from behind his card hand.
“If it isn’t, it is now,” William replied. “Eights?”
“Go fish,” Sully responded, as William reached out to take a card.
“You’re not watching any more and that’s final!” Brian Millar said curtly to his daughter.
Britany Millar unwound her arms from across her chest and flung them into the air, exasperated. “This is so not fair!” she protested. She turned to her other father and pleaded, “Dad, tell him this isn’t fair!”
“Brian, honey, she’s got a point,” David Millar said. “This isn’t just hero worship anymore. This is national news! Real news! And it’s important!”
“And her yellow Intercontinental Belt test earlier this morning that she missed because she was glued to the Feeds? That wasn’t important?” Brian asked testily. “And her sleep schedule? And her health? She’s already missed a day of classes because of this, and now her entire weekend has to be consumed by it?”
A tone sounded. “Miss Britany? Sirs? The ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale is beginning…”
Britany Millar looked pleadingly at Brian, a fresh pool of tears welled up in her eyes, ready to spill over at any second. “Dad…please…”
Brian looked at David. His eyes were also pleading. “This is history, Brian,” David said. “How would you like missing out on it?”
Brian took a deep breath. He had to admit, it was killing him at that very moment to not be glued to the screen watching the beginning of what had to be the most important historical event in his life. “Fine,” Brian said, “But just this once—”
The clatter of shoes on tile echoed throughout the kitchen as Britany darted past her fathers and into the living room. “Main screen, J.A.Q.i!” she shouted. “Now!”
The full-wall screen in the living room flickered and the United America’s “Next Top Soldier” logo appeared in mid-zoom, flying toward the viewer from a star-filled backdrop. The title logo slid down the screen to just above the ever-present NewsFeed crawl, which was required by law to stay on every single Feed display during times of national crisis. The deep-blue background speckled with white stars faded away to show two men, both in their late thirties, their perfectly manicured hair both the same faux shade of chocolate brown. Robert Roberts, WarFeed’s color commentator, and Bob Smith, play-by-play announcer, smiled into the camera as they waited patiently for the United America’s Next Top Soldier theme music to finish its trumpeting crescendo.
“It’s an electric morning here at the Terminus Citadel!” Bob Smith said as the music faded into the background. “This prison-made-foreign active duty training facility couldn’t possibly be a more fitting location for what is sure to be the event of the century. I’m Bob Smith…”
“…And I’m Robert Roberts — and let me tell you, Bob, I. Am. EXCITED.” Robert pumped his fist emphatically with each word.
“I think we all are, Robert!” Bob agreed. “This is possibly the most important moment in our lifetimes — maybe in our entire nation’s history! Marlowe ‘MK’ Kana, the three-time ‘Next Top Soldier’ winner and hall-of-famer who has come out of retirement just for this match, versus Sergeant Sabrina ‘Senche’ Corta, a young and rising star in the MilSec ranks.”
“Major,” Robert corrected. “We have just learned that Corta is now an officer!”
“Interesting time for a promotion!” Bob mused.
“Or the perfect time,” Robert replied. “Given Marlowe’s rank when she was arrested, this makes them both majors — and sets the stage for a major showdown!”
“And what a showdown it will be!” Bob observed. “There is some baaaad blood between these two. Let’s get right to the introductions!!”
Both announcers turned and smiled into the camera as trumpets once again blared the intro music. Seconds went by as Bob and Robert continued staring into the camera, plastic grins stretched across their faces. Eventually, the music faded. “Well, it looks like we’re having some trouble in the control booth,” Robert said nervously. “With the short notice, there’s been a lot of hasty scrambling to get — what’s that?” He asked, putting his finger to his ear. “We have it? Okay, folks, here we go! Once again, let’s set the stage!”
The trumpets began playing again. Bob and Robert disappeared from view. Filling the screen was a United American State flag blowing majestically in the breeze, followed by footage of a now-famous black panther from the Indianapolis Zoo, ceremonially named Sabrina by Imagen to help bolster their new star’s presence across the country. The background faded to black and the panther morphed into a human figure; Sabrina Corta filled the screen.
“Service. Dedication. Honor. These are the tenets of the United American State Army. And who better to represent them on the field of battle than rising star Major Sabrina ‘Senche’ Corta–”
“J.A.Q.i, fast forward!” Britany ordered.
A dim tone sounded. “I can’t, Miss Britany. This is a live event.”
“Mute it, then!” she barked. “I don’t want to hear about this lying bitch!”
The audio from WarFeed was silenced just as Brian, now seated beside his daughter on the couch, reprimanded her sternly. “We don’t talk that way in this house.”
“Well, she is!” Britany insisted.
Brian looked to David for some backup. David shrugged. “I have to agree. Corta lied.”
Britany smiled and widened her eyes innocently at Brian. Brian shot David a look . Then he considered the moment.
“Well, yeah…she kinda is a lying bitch, isn’t she?” Brian admitted with a grin. “Okay, fine.. Just this once.”
The three turned to look at the screen. In unison, they shouted…
“Bitch!” Omar Rodriguez said to his best friend John via their shared chat channel.
“I’m not a bitch!” John snapped back. “The odds are terrible! I’m not betting!”
“Then admit that you know MK is going to win!”
“Not a chance!” John insisted. “Odds or no, you’re insane if you think Marlowe wins this!”
“Dude, look at it!” Omar replied through a mouthful of partially chewed Imagen CheezRanch Triangles. “MK is pissed, Corta sucks…it’s Marlowe all the way! In fact, I bet it’s over in–” A tone sounded, interrupting him. “Ahh, shit man, hold on.”
“Gabby again?” John asked, rolling his eyes. “Just block her ass, man. End this shit.”
“Just…hold on, okay?” Omar said. “J.A.Q.i, switch to Gabby.”
“Hey!” Gabby said perkily the second the chat connected. “I know you’re about to watch ‘Next Top Soldier’ and all but I had to call real fast and tell you how much I love you!”
“Gabby,” Omar said with a sigh. “It’s over. I broke up with you hours ago. You’ve got to stop calling.”
“But…this is a mistake!” Gabby replied, holding back tears. “Who else is going to call you and let you know they love you every morning? Huh? Who else?”
“Goodbye, Gabby,” Omar said, terminating the call. The chat window closed, and John’s face came back into view. “J.A.Q.i, block Gabby,” Omar added.
“Finally!” John said, overhearing Omar’s order. “It’s about time you got rid of her for good, man. And just in time to see your hero’s entrance!”
Omar shifted his focus from John’s window to WarFeed. A smiling Bob Smith and a grinning Robert Roberts were mid-sentence, introducing the competitors.
“Marlowe Kana and her squad are standing in the center of the Terminus Citadel courtyard,” Bob Smith said. “These two new faces Marlowe has with her are unknown quantities. No one knows anything about former Private First Class Robert Jacobs and former Sergeant Mila “Angel” Pavil, except that they were part of this enigmatic crew that broke Marlowe out of the prison transport last night. But what is known is just how dominant Marlowe Kana has always been in the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale, regardless of who is by her side. Isn’t that right, Robert?”
“Indeed, Bob,” Robert replied, “The contest is five years old, and she’s been Champion for three of them, opting to retire in 2095, thus vacating the title. But she’s back, and if she wins tonight, a fourth belt is hers!”
“And what an interesting place for the finale to take place, isn’t that right, Robert?” Bob asked.
“It sure is, Bob,” Robert Roberts replied. “I suppose with her father being released here, it makes sense. At least he gets to sit ringside to watch his daughter fight for his honor!”
“These guys suck,” Omar said to his friend John, a half-chewed CheezRanch Triangle falling from his mouth. He picked it off his shirt and stuffed the soggy morsel back into his gaping maw.
“Yeah, I miss Joe and Joseph,” John said in agreement. “They were funny. These guys are just too… announcer-y.”
“Shh!” Omar shushed. “They’re showing the battleground!”
“The Terminus Citadel courtyard is convenient in more than one way as a battleground,” Bob was saying. “Most of the fixtures for a Finals Battleground are already here — no need for set construction. We have towers for the Snipers, and fenced off areas that can serve as the Hitter’s Bullpen — and speaking of Hitters, here she is now!” Bob announced as Marlowe and Corta approached a floating drone in the dead center of the courtyard. Major Sabrina Corta is making her entrance, and look at that — she’s got Alexis ‘Hax’ Curtis and…is that Mad Dog?!”
“He’s hardly recognizable!” Robert Roberts crowed. “He’s got a full body replacement!”
“Should make him a great hitter!” Bob said. “And with both finalists and their squads approaching the referee drone, the pre-fight ceremonies are about to begin! Both contestants approach the announcement drone for introductions and–HOLY MOLY!”
The camera shook trying to keep up with the speed of Marlowe’s fist as she slammed it square into Corta’s chestplate. The newly minted major went airborne, flying ass-first into the iron gate guarding the main entrance doorway of the Terminus Citadel.
“Oooooh and Marlowe strikes first!” Bob Smith announced. “It’s always been in the rules that the finals start the second both competitors step foot on the field, but never before has anyone broken the unspoken rule of striking before the handshake! This is quite the statement from Marlowe Kana — she came to play, and she came to win!”
“SEE!” Omar Rodriguez yelled triumphantly at John. “I told you Marlowe’s got this!”
“Completely unsportsmanlike!” A gym member unknown to Glen cried out.
Glen Russel knew that manspreading on a piece of equipment while there were others waiting was a violation of gym etiquette, but no one was actually asking if he was done. The entire gym had their eyes glued to the screens hanging from the ceilings in front of the CardioBar.
Glen wasn’t in a hurry to continue his workout anyway. His arms were still sore from the hundred pushups he had to do the night before, after foolishly betting that Henry “Mad Dog” Cain would be able to take Marlowe Kana in. It was surprising, then, for him to see Mad Dog on the field of battle with Corta, especially after seeing the footage of his broken body being carried to the hospital. Glen remembered his own long path to recovery after losing his leg…months of agonizing frustration as his body had to learn to control the neural interfaces for his augmented leg. How one man could take that much damage and survive was surprising; how he could possibly get back on the field so quickly was nothing short of miraculous.
Watching as Mad Dog strutted into the courtyard with Corta had been immeasurably inspiring to Glen. But watching Hax and Angel suddenly realizing that the games had started and they needed to get to their battlestations tout suite…well, that had made everyone in the gym laugh.
Hax and Angel both sprinted to equidistant watchtowers along the outer wall of the Terminus Citadel. Mad Dog and Jacobs trotted to the makeshift “Hitters Boxes” that were constructed in lieu of the standard plexiglass enclosures where the squad members waited for the appropriate time to assist.
“Well, since we’re already started, I guess we’ll go through the rules quickly!” Bob Smith chirped up. “It’s been a few years since we’ve had these rules, so as a reminder for the citizens watching, unlike the solo rules the last two years, in three-on-three Champion Rules matches, each contestant has two Squad Assists they can use: the Sniper and the Hitter.”
“That’s right, Bob,” Robert said. “Now, Snipers only have one tranquilizer round each, and they can only fire on the minute; that is, at 59 seconds, they can take aim, but they can only fire once that clock rolls over to the double-zeros.”
“Indeed, Robert,” Bob said, taking over. “So their decision on when to fire is critical — do they take their shot early on, and risk having a fresh and rested soldier dodge their fire, or wait until the contestant is worn down, but risk letting the opposing sniper take the more helpful, early shot? It’s a critical decision, to be sure.”
“It’s never happened in ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard a shot at the first minute, Bob!” Robert said. “Especially if Hax chooses to use the technovirus that he used earlier against Marlowe Kana.”
“No doubt it was super effective, Robert,” Bob said. “It would be advantageous to infect her early on, but that also ruins any chance of a rescue shot later if he misses!”
“We’re at twenty seconds and no sign of Corta,” Robert said. “We may not even get the chance for Snipers or Hitters to come into play, Bob!”
“See?” The new gym-goer barked, tearing everyone’s gaze away from the gym’s screens. “This is why auggies can’t be trusted!”
“Aren’t you rooting for Corta?” Glen asked the new guy.
“Well, yeah. Duh,” he answered.
“Corta’s augmented. So are Mad Dog and Hax.”
“Well, they’re different!” The new gym member insisted. “They’re patriots. They didn’t cheat.”
“Corta was literally caught lying about attacking Marlowe first not two hours ago by Amanda Stokes,” Glen retorted. “How does that make her a patri–whoa!” Glen ducked the sudden punch thrown by the guy and tumbled off of the gym equipment he was sitting on.
“Gentlemen!” a burly bodybuilder said, stepping between them. “Let’s just chill and watch the fight? All right?”
“Yeah, fine,” the new member said. “I don’t want to talk to this fucking auggie anymore, anyway!”
The bodybuilder extended his hand and helped Glen to his feet. “Don’t listen to him,” he said. “Tensions are high.”
“Yeah, I’ll say,” Glen said, rubbing his bottom.
“What a night!” Bob called out on-screen. “Not even thirty seconds in, and it’s already an incredible, incredible night!”
“What’s so incredible? What did I miss?!” Angela Tuffner asked her husband Matt as she emerged from the bedroom. “Oh my God, MK is back on UATS? And she’s fighting Corta!? Dammit, why didn’t you wake me?!”
“You were exhausted. You needed sleep,” Matthew replied.
“I didn’t need twelve hours of sleep!” Angela insisted.
“Yes you did,” he replied. “But hey — I did make you this.” He slid a tumbler full of coffee her way.
Angela smiled. Ten years of marriage, and he was still as thoughtful as he was from the beginning. “Scooch,” she said, squeezing next to him on the couch. “What happened?”
“Marlowe knocked Corta through the gate like thirty seconds ago,” Matthew replied as the fight clock on-screen ticked over to 0:31. “If she’s not back in twenty-nine seconds, the fight is over.”
“Wow, one-second knockout?” Angela asked, taking a sip from her coffee.
“I kinda hope it happens!” Matthew said. “What a crazy couple days it’s been…Marlowe breaks out of prison, proves her own innocence, then comes back to ‘Next Top Soldier’ and wins her fourth title in one second?”
“Well, I kinda hope it doesn’t!” Angela said. “I wanna see a fight! Corta better get back in there!”
“We are fifty seconds in,” Robert was stating on-screen. “Only ten seconds left for Corta to get back into play, or she’ll be disqual–Wait, there she is!”
The camera drone zoomed in on the destroyed gateway of the Terminus Citadel to show Major Sabrina Corta stomping her way through the wreckage and out of the building. “She’s in play!” Bob Smith announced, “No disqualification! But will we hear Sniper fire this first minute?”
“It’s never happened before,” Robert Roberts noted, “As Snipers are usually backup–”
A loud CRACK! pierced the audio of the Feed, interrupting Robert.
“Sniper fire on the first minute!” Bob shouted. “I can’t believe it! A first! Who’s down? Who fired?” The camera drone zoomed out to show Corta still approaching Marlowe, who stood ready to face her. “Neither contestant is down, but someone fired — wait! Look there!”
One of the Feeds zoomed in on the tower on Corta’s side of the courtyard to find a slumped and snoozing Hax, leaning over the edge of the tower, his rifle teetering precariously on the edge of the wall, an inch away from a fifty-foot fall.
“Holy moly!” Robert shouted. “Angel has taken out Hax!”
“Oh my god!” Angela said, spilling her coffee as she jumped up in shock. Glancing over at her husband, she noticed that most of her spilled coffee had landed in his lap. “Oh no, oh Matt…I am so sorry!”
“Screw it! It’ll wash out,” Matthew replied, wincing slightly. “This is history!”
“I don’t care how historic this is,” Matthew Swift’s father hollered from the J.A.Q.i -piloted limousine. “You’re in a lot of trouble!”
“I mean, the subs?” Matthew’s mother asked in frank dismay. “Matthew, really!”
Matthew sighed and kept his focus on the screen in the center of the limo. “Are you two seriously not watching this?” Matthew asked. “I’ll still be in trouble when I get home. But this is happening now! Real history, right in front of us!”
“Great!” His father barked. “You watch history while we watch your future slipping away!”
“I wasn’t even charged!” Matthew replied. “This won’t impact a thing!”
“But what about the precedent it sets?” His mother asked. “You want us to not care if you go cavorting with drug dealers and prostitutes and God knows what else is down there?”
“I want you to trust me when I tell you, I was just — Holy shit!” Matthew yelled. “Corta’s got Marlowe in a headlock!”
His parents scowled, yet Matthew noticed they couldn’t help but glance over at the screen themselves.
“Corta has Marlowe around the head, and is slamming her fist right into her face!” Bob was saying on-screen.
“Marlowe’s in trouble!” Robert added. “She’s got Corta around the waist — she’s going for a suplex! Corta has let go of her head and is grabbing at Marlowe’s hands…and she’s free! Corta has broken free!”
Marlowe and Corta stumble a few steps away from one another. Marlowe’s nose dripped blood and her eye was swollen; Corta’s lip was split and gushing blood. Corta flashed a bloody grin at Marlowe. Marlowe wiped her nose with her hand and looked at the blood on her fingertips. She smeared it across her chest, leaving a crimson stripe across her white tank top. She pointed at Corta and then dramatically gave her a thumbs-down.
“The guts these two soldiers are displaying…it’s unbelievable!” Bob shouted. “This is one hell of a fight!”
“Look at MK, Bob!” Robert crowed. “A dozen blows to the face, busted nose, swollen eye, and she’s not even phased!”
“And we’re nearing the two-minute mark, in which those mighty, mighty Hitters are allowed to assist for thirty seconds!” Bob said.
“Well, Bob, I’m just now hearing from the booth that Mad Dog’s brain has been wired into that new body! In fact, it’s the only part of his anatomy that’s actually his own! And from the looks of it, it seems that in his state after surgery, he’s quite unstable!”
“Very dangerous strategy, using him like this!” Bob noted. “But, completely within the rules!”
“We know how hard Mad Dog can hit, Bob,” Robert said. “But this person on Marlowe’s side — he’s a relatively unknown entity. All we know is that he was part of the gang that broke Marlowe out last night.”
A window appeared on the screen, showing a frozen frame from the drone footage of the prison break the night before with Jacobs grinning and flipping off the camera. “That’s former Private First Class Robert Jacobs,” Bob said. “He does look scrappy, doesn’t he, Robert?”
“He sure does,” Robert agreed. “But how can he possibly take on a now fully augmented Mad Dog?”
“And there’s the buzzer for the two-minute mark!” Bob called as the doors to the Hitters’ Boxes opened and Mad Dog and Jacobs rushed the field. “Look at this newcomer go! Cain seems to be headed for Marlowe and Corta. Jacobs doesn’t seem to be even remotely worried as he’s sprinting headlong right toward Cain!”
“Well, judging by the events of last night, he has to know that Mad Dog’s only desire is to crush Marlowe Kana,” Robert noted. “He’s got revenge on his mind, and a brand new shiny body with which to exact it!”
“But how on earth will Jacobs handle all that titanium and steel?” Bob asked.
Jacobs leaped off his feet as he neared Mad Dog, who was mid-stride, heading toward the middle of the field where Corta and Marlowe were circling each other. Jacobs extended his arms and attempted to wrap them around Cain in a furious, open-field tackle. However, Cain, in his new, fully robotic body, barely stumbled as Jacobs slammed shoulder-first into him. Jacobs slid down Mad Dog’s leg and collapsed on the field, dizzy from the impact.
“…Not very well at all, Bob,” Robert stated. “Cain just stood up to Jacobs’ tackle like a brick wall!”
“Well, Jacobs is not giving up!” Robert said. “He’s back on his feet…he’s rushing toward Cain! He’s got his fist cocked…hooo boy! That had to hurt!”
On-screen, Jacobs’s face crumpled and his teeth were bared in pain as he grabbed his now-mangled right hand. “It doesn’t look like Marlowe’s Hitter is doing much good hitting, as Cain is undeterred and making his way over to Marlowe!” Bob said with a chuckle.
Jacobs shook his head and narrowed his eyes. He got up and sprinted after Cain. “Look at that,” Robert called. “He’s jumped on Cain’s back!”
“But it hasn’t slowed him down at all as he’s just reached Marlowe!!” Bob reported. “Cain is rearing back, preparing to strike…and Jacobs has just grabbed Mad Dog’s arm and is hanging from it like a monkey!”
Cain attempted to punch toward Marlowe, but the swinging weight that was Jacobs’ body kept his fist from connecting. Marlowe leaped nimbly out of the way, then darted to the other side of Mad Dog and Jacobs, forcing Cain to turn to face her.
“His movements seem slow and clunky,” Bob said.
“One has to wonder just how much of Mad Dog’s brain is in that body,” Roberts added. “He seems to be on autopilot!”
The fight clock struck two minutes and twenty seconds. A loud buzzer sounded in the distance.
“Well, he missed his one shot, thanks to Jacobs,” Bob answered. “We are nearing the two minute and thirty-second mark, and the buzzer has just sounded for the Hitters to clear the field.”
“Jacobs has dropped from Mad Dog’s arm, and is running as fast as he can back to his box,” Robert said. “Now Mad Dog is headed back and…wait, he’s stopped. He’s turning around…he’s headed back to Marlowe Kana!”
“It seems Mad Dog is refusing to leave the field!” Bob yelled. “Corta is yelling at him to leave… If he isn’t off the field in seven seconds, Corta is disqualified!”
“Corta is furious! She’s screaming at him to…wait, what’s this? Corta is leaping into the air and…OH MY GOD! Sabrina Corta has just attacked her own Hitter! She has kicked Mad Dog back into the Hitter’s Box!”
Just then, a tone sounded. “Sir, Ma’am, Matthew,” J.A.Q.i announced calmly. “We have arrived at your condo–”
“Quiet!” Matthew’s mother yelled.
Both Matthew’s and his father’s heads shot up as they looked at the mother in complete surprise. She scowled disapprovingly, then returned her attention to the screen just in time to see Marlowe wrapping her arms around Corta’s waist.
“Marlowe’s got Corta from behind!” Bob screamed. “She’s going again for the…SUPLEX! YES! She nails it! She’s just slammed Corta head-over-heels into the turf! Surely that has to have–NO! Corta’s up! My word! She’s not even phased!”
“Man, what a fight!” Matthew’s father cheered from the back seat of the limo. His tone changed and became more dour as he suddenly remembered why he was in the back of his family limo hovering outside of his condominium in downtown Atlanta having just picked up his son from the MilSec-turned-UASA precinct. “…Don’t think that this fight has gotten you out of trouble,” he said grimly to his son, furrowing his eyebrows.
“I know,” Matthew replied, his smile sliding off his face as he returned his attention to the fight.
“And we’re now at three minutes. With Angel having taken her shot and Hax down as a result, there’ll be no assistance for either side,” Bob was saying on-screen.
“That’s right, Bob,” Robert said, “And Jacobs and Mad Dog still have a minute left before they can assist again.”
“It looks like they’ll get that chance, and possibly a few more, Robert!” Bob said cheerfully. “This fight shows no signs of stopping! Look, Marlowe is picking Corta up for a bodyslam! She has Corta overhead…wow! Corta has wriggled free! She’s behind MK, and has her around the waist…Is it a suplex? Wait, no, she’s just taken Marlowe down with a forward sweep!”
“Corta is going for the back mount…she’s pushing Marlowe’s face into the grass! She’s rearing back, going for the knockout…Marlowe is standing up! Corta is holding on for dear life, wrapping her arms around Marlowe’s neck!”
“Corta is choking Marlowe out!” Bob yelled. “Marlowe is slumping! But the question is, is this a fake-out?”
“It’s definitely a fake-out,” Matthew’s mother murmured.
Matthew and his father looked over at his mother again.
“She did that in season two,” she explained with a slight smile, eyes never leaving the screen.
“I don’t know,” Regina Todd said as she took another sip of coffee from the booth she shared with her brother Reginald, her friend Tad, and their server friend Marc Winter. “She looks like she’s going out.”
“Nah,” Marc Winter said. “MK is faking it. Corta should know that.”
“How do you know?” Reginald asked. “Her eyes are rolling back. She’s blacking out.”
“I’m a student of history,” Marc replied. “I’ve seen every single one of Marlowe’s fights and missions. I’ve seen her play opossum before.”
“…What’s a opossum?” Tad asked.
“It’s an opossum,” Marc replied with a chuckle. “They used to be, like, really big rats. They ate garbage and dog food off people’s porches.”
“Wait, people really used to have dogs?” Tad asked. “I thought that was just an urban legend.”
“…And what’s a rat?” Regina asked.
“…Watch the fight,” Marc said, taking a sip from his own coffee cup.
“…We are coming up on the four-minute mark, Bob,” Robert announced. “But with both snipers down, it’ll be up to the Hitters to provide any assistance– wait, what’s this?”
“I can’t believe it, Robert!” Bob yelled. “Hax is back! Look at that, he’s rising to his feet!”
“Yes, Bob! In a finals where the unexpected has become the norm, Hax has emerged from the tranquilized haze imposed by the opposing Sniper’s dart and is now reaching for his rifle!”
“It looks like it’s time for the Imagen CheezRanch Triangle TRIGGERCAM!” Bob cheered, as a yellow-and-white dotted triangle with the Imagen logo scrawled on top in faux-cursive appeared in the corner of the screen showing Feed footage from directly down the barrel of Hax’s rifle.
“And there’s the shot!” Robert said. The TRIGGERCAM Feed footage shook as Hax pulled the trigger on his rifle. Just as he did, the doors to the Hitters’ Boxes on either side of the courtyard swung open. Marlowe knew that time was short. She posted her leg and wrapped her arms around Corta, attempting to roll her on top and into the path of the nanovirus dart. Corta’s one arm flailed, trying to keep Marlowe from rolling her over, but it was useless. Marlowe twisted Corta over easily, but not quickly enough. The TRIGGERCAM! feed closed in on Marlowe’s shoulder.
Just then, a blur streaked across the TRIGGERCAM! feed. The dart made impact and the screen went black. The Feed switched back to the aerial drone’s camera, which showed Corta on top of Marlowe and just as Jacobs landed heavily in the grass beside them in the courtyard, a dart protruding from his shoulder.
“I did NOT see that coming!!!” Robert Roberts shrieked. “Jacobs has leapt nearly ten yards from the Hitter’s Box and intercepted Hax’s dart! My word! Yet another first in a ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale that is destined for the history books!”
“But that takes him out of play and leaves Marlowe alone against Corta and Cain — And here comes Mad Dog!” Bob shouted. “He’s just approached Marlowe’s side of the field! Corta is releasing Marlowe and giving him an opening! He’s sure to crush— wait a minute, he’s stopped! What’s he doing?”
“He’s just…standing there!” Robert Roberts observed as Mad Dog’s forward movement ceased and his body began shaking erratically.
“He’s very jittery, Robert,” Bob added. “He seems to be unsure of what to do!”
“He’s raising his fist!” Robert announced. “He’s rearing back…Corta has stepped away, and Marlowe is scrambling to get out of the way! He’s swinging — oh my! He just grabbed his own fist and intercepted himself! He’s…he’s spinning!”
“What on earth is going on!?” Bob cried. “Mad Dog just intercepted his own punch and is pirouetting around like a ballet dancer! This is just…I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Corta’s beside herself!” Robert observed. “She’s ordering Cain to smash Marlowe, who is now on her feet and circling! Why isn’t Mad Dog striking? Wait, Bob!” Robert interrupted himself, “I’m just now hearing this from the booth, and oh my lord, citizens of the United American State, I cannot believe this but someone is hacking Mad Dog!”
“That’s right, someone has taken control of Henry ‘Mad Dog’ Cain!” Bob explained. “It just keeps getting crazier here at the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale! Marlowe is rushing Corta in the confusion and has taken her down! She’s got the mount…Mad Dog is raising his left fist this time…haha, I cannot believe this! He just intercepted his own punch again! There he goes, spinning around! Who is doing… Wait, look at the Feed, Robert!”
One of the drones covering the fight suddenly zoomed in on Jen and Nines from just outside the front gate of the courtyard. Nines was staring into her Pod screen and Jen was waving her hands in the air, tapping commands on an invisible interface as she fired off script after script. Both of their faces were blurred from view for the audience at home, both having figured out the IdentServer hack by finally teaming up (and with a little help from Austin). Nines tapped Jen’s arm and showed her the Pod in her hand. Both Jen and Nines looked up at the drone broadcasting them. Jen waved at the camera; Nines flipped her middle finger at the audience watching.
“Well, isn’t that a fine how-do-you-do, Robert!” Bob said. “Nice way to say hello to the entire nation! We can’t see their faces, but we can certainly see that middle finger from Marlowe’s hacking team!”
“Yet another first in ‘Next Top Soldier’ history!” Robert observed. “We’re being told that, despite this being highly unorthodox, there is no rule preventing this!”
“In fact, the rules specifically say that hacking is a valid tactic against augmented soldiers!” Bob added. “We saw it last night when Hax controlled Marlowe, and now again in these finals!
“I guess all’s fair in love and war, Bob!” Robert opined.
“Except pointing a gun at grafitti artists,” Tad muttered from his side of the table at the Waffle House.
“You’re gonna have to get used to that,” Marc Winter commented as he sipped again from his cup of coffee.
“Why’s that?” Regina asked, seated next to her brother Reginald. “You know Marlowe’s gonna win… Then it all goes back to normal, right?”
“Ain’t nothing normal about any of this,” Marc replied. “MK’s court martial, the suppressed evidence, the jailbreak… Now we have an emergency ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale, where one of the contestants is pretty much a full robot being remote controlled, and the Subs are nothing but ashes… I have a feeling, ain’t nothing going to ever be the same.”
“Is this how it was before…you know, the war?” Reginald asked Marc.
Marc shifted in his seat. He cleared his throat and gestured his coffee mug toward the monitor on the wall across from their table. “Watch the fight,” he said curtly.
Ama Afua sat in the United American State Army precinct’s uncomfortable plastic chair in her martial arts gi, her brand-new yellow Intercontinental Champion belt laid across her lap. Her father and mother sat subdued on either side of her, pointedly not making eye contact with the rabble-rousing Mr. Wallace. Sensei Coach Steve sat at the desk of the private assigned to take his statement as to why his American Martial Arts studio had to deploy the L.L.A.P.D. system. It was standard procedure whenever the parent determent systems were used. And it happened nearly every week. The Afuas, the Wallaces, and Sensei Coach Steve were all pretty used to being at the precinct at this point.
This time, however, no one was giving a statement. No one was fighting. No processing was taking place. Ama’s legs had stopped swinging as they dangled from the chair. The private’s pen had long since fallen from his hand. Ama’s mother Angela had dropped the ice pack she held to her eye, and her father Victor had stopped re-wrapping his wrist bandage. Sensei Coach Steve and the private were both staring at the screen – a half-written statement lay in front of them on the desk.
“That’s BULLSHIT!” Wallace suddenly barked from across the waiting room. “MK is cheating!”
The room immediately sounded like someone was letting all of the air out of it, as a chorus of “SHHHHs!” erupted.
“Well, she is!” Wallace insisted. “Look–”
“Shut up!” the duty sergeant ordered.
Mr. Wallace started to snap back at the soldier, but then remembered he was in handcuffs. He sullenly returned his attention back to the screens situated around the precinct, just in time to watch as Mad Dog began jerking and twitching.
“Henry ‘Mad Dog’ Cain seems to be completely unable to control himself,” Roberts was announcing. “He keeps raising his right fist to punch, but then pulls it down with his own left hand!”
“In what is undoubtedly the most incredible ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale we’ve ever seen, this is truly a unique event,” Bob Smith hooted. “We have remote control of an augmented soldier passing between opposing teams! This is just something, isn’t it, Robert? And what’s this…it looks like Mad Dog’s about to strike! His fist is raised — but who is he going to attack? Who’s got control of his body?”
Mad Dog stood with his fist reared back as Marlowe and Corta both tussled on the ground, struggling to stand. With a loud yell, he swung his fist forward and around, and struck himself squarely in the face.
“Oh my God!” Wallace yelled in the precinct. “That’s illegal! That’s so illeg–”
A blue arc of electricity flew from a terminal in the ceiling, shocking Wallace. “Enough,” the sergeant said, removing his finger from a button embedded on his desk.
“Mad Dog has just knocked himself out!” Roberts announced. “He’s falling…oh my God, he’s fallen on Major Corta! He’s pinned her leg! She’s stuck!”
“That is a terrible angle for her leg to be in!” Bob Smith observed with unholy glee. “Mad Dog’s body has landed sideways on Corta’s knee and she is screaming in bloody agony! I don’t know how she’s going to get free!”
“Well, if Cain’s not off the field in seven seconds, it won’t matter!” Robert said. “Marlowe has only a few seconds to strike the final blow before Mad Dog’s presence on the field disqualifies Corta, and leaves the championship in limbo!”
“And if that happens, Bob, it’s unclear if Marlowe will still be pardoned!” Robert added. “A disqualification for Corta is NOT a victory for Marlowe, as she well knows! All the chips are on the table — and HERE SHE COMES! MK is on her feet and stumbling toward her trapped opponent, she’s going to end this…wait!”
Everybody in the precinct watched in awe as Marlowe stopped just in front of the Mad Dog and Corta sandwich. She reached down and wrapped her hands around Cain’s augmented left ankle.
“What is this!” Roberts shrieked. “She’s grabbing Mad Dog by the leg! She’s spinning him — Bob, she’s ejecting Mad Dog!”
Marlowe spun around and around, swinging Mad Dog’s metallic body in a wide arc before letting go and sending him sailing over the outside wall of the Terminus Citadel.
“I can’t believe it!” Roberts yelled. “MK isn’t going for the easy kill — she’s just thrown Mad Dog out of the ring!” A window appeared with the feed from a camera drone following Mad Dog’s trajectory over the wall before he collided with the ground outside the Citadel.
“She doesn’t want an asterisk on this victory, Robert,” Bob opined. “She wants the nation to know that, if she wins, it’ll be fair and square!”
“She’s stepping back,” Robert said. “I think she’s setting up for…yes! It’s her signature move! Corta’s rising on her good leg…Marlowe is running…she’s in the air! Her fist is back! Bob, It’s an MK Ultra!”
Marlowe’s fist connected with Corta’s chest, sending her off her feet once again and flying across the Terminus Citadel courtyard. Corta’s limp body bounced off of the turf once, then twice, and then a third time. The viewers in the precinct waiting room, and across the entire nation, joined Bob and Robert as they held their collective breaths while watching Corta skid face-down across the grass, finally coming to a halt near the wall on the east side of the courtyard.
“My GOD!” Bob Smith shrieked. “What a thunderous blow! No one has ever gotten up from an MK Ultra! Corta is out, folks! Corta is…wait, no…she’s stirring! She’s trying to get up!”
“I don’t know how on earth she survived that punch,” Roberts said, stunned. “And I can’t believe she’s trying to get up!”
“And look at Marlowe Kana’s face,” Bob observed. “She’s as shocked as we are! She was certain that was it. She looks completely spent as she heads toward Corta to finish the job!”
“She’s taking her time with it, Bob,” Roberts observed. “She’s exhausted, but my word, look at the swagger as she walks over to Corta.”
“MK is just incredible,” Bob noted. “After escaping prison, evading capture, taking out Mad Dog, Hax, and over a hundred soldiers, and then fighting a highly trained and newly augmented Sabrina Corta, she still has the pure grit to march across this field and get the job done. That’s sheer will on display, right there.”
“That’s the march of a true warrior, Bob.”
“A soon to be four-time champion, Robert.”
“But wait! Corta’s rising to her knees!” Robert yelled. “She’s not going to stay down!”
“These two soldiers are just incredible,” Bob observed. “This is the greatest display of heart I’ve ever seen on the battlefield. Sabrina Corta: fighting for her place alongside the champions of history. Marlowe Kana: fighting for her freedom. The stakes are high, and the word ‘quit’ isn’t in either of their vocabularies and…OH MY GOD, Corta is up! Sabrina Corta has just stood up after an MK Ultra!”
“Corta is up!” Robert said. “Marlowe is picking up her pace! Corta is turning…she’s facing Marlowe! Oh my God, Corta is running now! This is it! Sabrina Corta is running to meet Marlowe Kana in the center of the field!”
Sweat and dirt and blood streaked across Marlowe’s face as the wind sheared down. Corta ran as fast as her injured leg permitted to confront Marlowe. Both soldiers clenched their jaws and narrowed their eyes. Exhausted, bloodied, and nearly beaten, they hurtled toward each other to end the fight and show the entire nation who was truly the superior soldier.
Suddenly, the footage on-screen wobbled. Marlowe and Corta both stopped dead in their tracks.
“What just–” Robert Roberts said before the audio to the feed was cut.
The suddenly silent footage showed Marlowe and her crew looking confusedly at the sky. Corta pointed at something just beyond the camera drone’s field of vision. On-screen, her figure became blocky and pixelated. Streaks of distortion turned everyone on screen into blobs of orange and blue and purple and pink, cutting their figures into squares and rectangles. A slight crackle and a light pop sounded from the precinct’s speakers before the screen went completely black.
Victor Smith-Afua and his wife, Angela Afua, had never been more proud. After weeks of hard work and dedication, their daughter Ama had just completed her first ever signature move and graduated from a Television Champion White Belt to the Intercontinental Championship Yellow Belt at Sensei Coach Steve’s American Martial Arts Academy.
“Go, baby!” Angela called out from the stands amidst the polite clapping of the other parents. Ama, wearing a smile nearly as wide as the belt she had just been awarded, held her new rank proudly above her head. With spotlights illuminating her from above, she stared into the darkness of the crowd toward where her parents were sitting and beamed. She fastened the belt around her waist, the massive medallion looped on the front covering nearly her entire torso. As she marched purposefully over to Sensei Coach Steve and stood before him, she stared at Sensei Coach Steve’s World Championship Black Belt with respectful longing. It had more than triple the number of diamonds, sapphires, and rubies embedded in the AMAA logo on the front, and shone with a mesmerizing luster in the overhead lights that illuminated the Ringjo. One day, she just knew it, she, too, would be a World Championship Black Belt holder.
The student and the sensei bowed to each other respectfully. Sensei Coach Steve then took his position in the center of the Ringjo as Ama took hers beside him. Together, the two bowed to the crowd. They turned and bowed to each other. The audience applauded slightly louder, but only as loud as bored parents waiting early in the morning for their children’s turn in the spotlight possibly could.
Sensei Coach Steve held up to his mouth the ceremonial microphone, also adorned with the AMAA logo. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to introduce the newest Intercontinental Champion Yellow Belt in the American Martial Arts Association, Ama Afua! Ama, is there anything you want to say to the audience?” He leaned over and held the microphone in front of Ama’s face, despite the fact that it was not actually necessary for anyone to hear her already J.A.Q.i-amplified voice.
“I want to thank my mom and my dad,” Ama said. The two answered with cheers and clapping. Victor placed his fingers in his mouth and let loose an ear-piercing whistle of praise. “And I also want to thank my biggest inspiration and my hero, Marlowe Kana.”
The room went silent for a moment. A sprinkling of claps could be heard from the left side of the auditorium from a few of the parents and children who happened to support MK.
Someone on the right side of the bleachers yelled out an emphatic “BOO!” A few grumbles emanated around.
“Hey!” Victor Smith-Afua called out from the stands. “Don’t boo my daughter! Don’t boo a child! That’s just not right!”
“You oughta raise her better!” The boo-er replied from the darkness of the room.
“Who said that?” Victor demanded. “Show yourself!”
“Parents, let’s settle down, please,” Sensei Coach Steve urged nervously.
“I won’t settle down!” Angela Afua stated, standing up next to her husband. “Someone just booed my little girl!”
“And that definitely wasn’t right,” Sensei Coach Steve said from the Ringjo. “But please, let’s all just–”
“–He can’t get away with that!” Victor interrupted in anger.
“Why not?” the boo-er yelled. “You get away with letting your daughter worship a traitor and a coward!” The voice grew closer as the stranger approached Afua’s parents.
“J.A.Q.i, lights!” Sensei Coach Steve ordered.
The house lights rose around the small, hundred-person auditorium, revealing the several dozen parents whose children were testing for their belt upgrades that morning. One of those parents, a tall and thin man whose only hair was a scruffy growth on his pale white face, was standing at the center base of the bleacher array, pointing his finger at the Afuas, who stood confused in the middle of the stands.
“Mister Wallace, will you please take your seat?” Sensei Coach Steve asked sternly. “You know that this is inappropriate!”
“No, I will not!” Mr. Wallace said, turning to face the Ringjo. “You know what’s inappropriate? Auggies! And their snobby attitude, and their support of that traitor Auggie coward, Marlowe Kana! And their damn kids, too!”
“That’s my daughter you’re talking about!” Victor Smith-Afua yelled as he took a step down the stairs to face Mr. Wallace. Angela grabbed him by the arm and held him back.
“And she’s not a traitor!” A mother said from the middle as she stood to face Mr. Wallace. Another mother stood a few rows up and yelled, “And she’s not a coward!”
“You all saw the President’s challenge earlier,” Mr. Wallace snapped back. “Marlowe’s too scared to face Corta! She attacks the woman and then runs from her!” Mr. Wallace spat on the ground and barked, “Pathetic!”
“She’s going to face Corta!” A father yelled from the left side of the bleachers! “She just responded!”
“Bullshit!” Mr. Wallace yelled.
“No, she just did,” a mother from the left added. “She just announced it through MKFan_9999’s Feed! And NewsFeed is re-broadcasting it now! Look!” She pointed to the screens along the far wall of the Ringjo, which were currently displaying footage of a shaky camera attempting to focus on Marlowe’s face.
“J.A.Q.i, volume!” Sensei Coach Steve yelled.
Everyone in the Rinjo fell silent and turned to their right to face the screens. The video from the streamed Feed finally settled and focused in on Marlowe’s face, beleaguered and blood-spattered. Just beneath her was a huge crawl reading, “Breaking News: MK Speaks!”
“Now?” Marlowe said to someone just beyond the camera.
“Not yet,” a young girl’s voice could be heard replying from off-screen. “Just a moment.”
The audience remained reverently silent as they gazed upon the nation’s most famous face. Marlowe stared distantly beyond the lens. She was exhausted, yet seemed energized, her eyes as calm but as stirring and dangerous as a riptide under a cresting wave. Seconds rolled by. “What’s going on?” Marlowe asked past the camera to Nines.
“Just a moment, I’m getting it focused,” Nines said with a snicker.
“You’re streaming,” Jen said in the distance behind Marlowe with a sigh. “She’s fucking with you.”
Nines’ laughter pierced the tense air of the RInjo. Marlowe rolled her eyes, then looked directly into the lens. “People of the United American State,” she said in a voice completely devoid of humor. “You’ve heard a lot about me the past few months. Not everything you’ve heard is true. Some of you believe my story, and some of you don’t. Some of you think that I deserve to go to jail, and some of you don’t. I don’t care. I really, really don’t. Believe me or don’t. But none of you – not one of you hearing this right now – can possibly believe my father had anything to do with any of this.”
The entire audience filling the Ringjo unanimously agreed with nods and a few audible yeses.
“I served Imagen’s Military and Security Division for ten years with distinguished service. I’ve done some very questionable things, yes. And you’ve seen them all. So while I am completely innocent in this case, I can actually see why some of you wouldn’t believe me. But my father served Imagen for twenty years, and his country for over fifty in total, beginning with the Marines before the war. He has never, in his entire career, done anything questionable. He is a hero. And you all know it.”
The audience in the auditorium murmured in agreement. Love or hate Marlowe, they all worshipped General Ashish Kana. The nation had collectively wept the day he retired from MilSec due to his slow deterioration from Alzheimer’s, one of the few diseases that remained incurable. And they had all cheered when Imagen refused his resignation and assigned him to honorary service as a Living Legend, a morale-builder whose continued service contributed to the country’s esprit de corps.
Marlowe took a deep breath during her pause. “Therefore,” she said into the lens, “I am accepting President Cook’s challenge.”
The left side of the auditorium cheered and applauded loudly. The middle section clapped in a seeming daze. The right side booed and jeered.
“You’re WHAT!?!” The Judge’s voice could be heard out of frame, before the palm of his hand covered the lens of the camera. A loud clanging could be heard before the stream ended.
“And there you have it,” Pat Daniels said from behind his desk on-screen. “The official response by Marlowe Kana, leaked by the MKFan_9999 channel just moments ago–”
“Mute, J.A.Q.i!” Sensei Coach Steve said aloud. “Everyone, please! SIlence!” He begged the parents.
The chatter of the crowd quieted, but some parents weren’t done making their point. “See?” The mother from the left responded. “If you had a Pod and HUD lenses, you’d have known that about Marlowe!”
“Well I ain’t that privileged!” Mr. Wallace said.
“Anyone can get them!” The parent on the left responded. “If you can’t afford the premium version, you just get the ad-supported model from Imagen–”
“Who can afford to buy all the crap they advertise?” another parent from the right yelled. “Not us! Only you privileged Auggie pricks can!”
“Watch your mouth, buddy!” a man in the front row said, standing up and facing Mr. Wallace. “Just cause we have Pods don’t make us Auggies!”
“What’s wrong with augmentations?” Someone queried angrily from the left side of the bleachers. “They’re legal! What’s the problem?”
“They’re unnatural!” Mr. Wallace yelled. “Pods, limbs, eyeballs…it’s not natural! None of it! You think that just ‘cause you only have a Pod, that don’t make you augmented? You rich people…you’re all alike!”
“Hank, come on now!” Another parent said from the middle-right of the room. “This ain’t the place to talk politics!”
“It is when she makes it so!” Hank Wallace said, pointing back at Ama in the Ringjo.
“She’s a child, Hank!” another parent said, standing to face him. “This isn’t right!”
“That child has been indoctrinated!” Mr. Wallace said. “Her parents up there…they try to fake like they’re just like us, but they ain’t! They’re just as bad as the rich assholes down there!” He pointed down the bleacher row to the leftmost side. “They separate themselves from us week after week, sitting down there whispering into their Pods and shining their fancy limbs, while we try to tell our kids we’re all equal…well we’re not! Marlowe Kana ain’t equal! She’s been getting away with murder her whole life, only now she’s getting punished for it, and we have little kids saying she’s their hero? That bitch Auggie is a traitor! And so is anyone who supports her!” He pointed back to the Ringjo and added, “Even the kids!”
“You motherfucker!” Angela Afua screamed as she left her husband’s side and flew down the bleacher stairs, crashing into Mr. Wallace and taking him to the floor. Her fist jackhammered into his face. Victor immediately plunged down and joined the three parents trying to pull Angela off of Hank Wallace. Another parent from the right side of the bleachers leapt in to defend Hank, while more parents from the more affluent left side of the bleachers sped in to help break up the fight. Within moments, there were twelve parents fighting with one another in a chaotic, messy brawl.
“Children, in the ring, now!” Sensei Coach Steve ordered. The eleven other children who had tested and won their Intercontinental Championship Yellow Belts all flooded into the ring and joined Ama and Sensei Coach Steve, watching in dazed confusion as their parents fought ringside. Once they were safely inside, Sensei Coach Steve ordered “J.A.Q.i, deploy the L.L.A.P.D.”
“Little League Anti-Parent Defense deployed,” J.A.Q.i announced. The KillJoy taser drones required by every youth sports organization by law flew out of their bays and arrayed themselves around the brawl. Streams of blue lightning flew from prods surrounding the drone. The wrestling parents fell one by one to the ground, writhing in agony as their bodies seized uncontrollably.
“I love that part,” Johnny Wallace said to Ama Afua, who laughed in response.
Marlowe was trying her best to pace the floor of the EV plant’s frustratingly tiny workshop. Space was already at a premium with all the tools, equipment, and furniture littered around the room, and having eleven warm bodies standing around didn’t help. Still, there was just enough runway for Marlowe to indulge her aimless, frustrated movement. And given the nature of the NewsFeed footage that everyone had watched on the trip back from Amanda’s apartment, she had reason to be very frustrated indeed.
She took three steps toward where Seraph, Austin, Nines, Jen, and William stood, lined up along the back wall of the workshop. She then spun on her heel and caught a glimpse of Sully sitting near the doorway to the bedroom where William slept. She walked three more steps to where Angel, Poet, and Jacobs hunkered by the door. She spun again, avoiding eye contact with The Judge, who was surlily leaning against William’s workbench.
“You said full operational command, remember?” Marlowe snapped at The Judge, continuing to awkwardly pace the floor three steps at a time.
“As I said in the Jumper on the way back here, this isn’t an operation! This is a trap!” The Judge said emphatically, abandoning his typical aloofness.
“It’s only a trap if you don’t know about it!” Marlowe cried, pounding her fist. “I am NOT going to let them execute my father!”
“You’d rather they kill you instead?”
“Pssssh!” Marlowe said with a sneer. “Three-on-Three Championship Rules – I’ve done it three times before, I can do it again!”
“You are playing into his hand,” The Judge replied. “The footage worked! Cook’s scrambling! He can’t win legitimacy without you by his side or behind bars – and he can’t have either if you don’t go when he says, where he says. We are winning here!”
“What exactly are we winning?” Marlowe barked as she stood fast and faced the Judge. “He still has my dad! We’re still going to be hunted if we don’t go! We’re still going to be shot on sight, if they can get their guns to work… Hell, he even blamed us for that! He forgets to nationalize the ‘arms’ in our armed services and now, the nation thinks we’re terrorists. We are fucked! We need to–wait, you know what? I’m tired of this shit. I’m going alone.”
“Unacceptable,” The Judge replied. “That’s suicide.”
“It’s all my father has!” Marlowe yelled. “I am going to get him, with or without your help! And if your little team won’t move out of the way, they’ll be coming with me anyway…at least, parts of them will!”
“Me!” Jacobs piped up, raising his hand and taking a step forward from the door.
“NO!” The Judge ordered.
“Okay, guess I’m not…” Jacobs muttered.
“No one is!” The Judge ordered. “There are other forces in play right now making preparations. I have everything under control. We need to–”
“–Your plans suck,” Marlowe interrupted, getting up in the Judge’s face. “You act like you have this all under control, strategized to the nth degree…you don’t. We did this your way and now, we’re doing it my way.” She lowered her finger and took a step back. Addressing the room, she added “This isn’t a discussion. You can join me or you can fight me and I’ll take you down along with the United American State Army, President Cook, whatever’s left of Imagen, and anything else that stands in my goddamn way.”
Marlowe turned and marched with righteous fury toward the door. Angel and Poet both took a step to the side.
“Stop her!” The Judge ordered.
Jacobs, ever the loyalist, stood and braced himself in front of the door. Marlowe ducked her shoulder and plowed into him, the way she had torn through defensive linemen back in her United American State Football playing days. Jacobs left his feet and flew backwards as Marlowe took the door off of the hinges with his back.
Jacobs’s arms and legs flew every which way as he rode the door down the gravel walkway. Marlowe marched past him and took off toward the gate.
Jen tapped Nines on the shoulder. “Let’s go,” she muttered. Nines grabbed her Pod and followed Jen to the door.
“What, you’re going to run with her all the way to the Terminus Citadel?” The Judge asked sarcastically.
“…Better than sitting around here with a bunch of fake revolutionaries,” Jen said over her shoulder as she reached the doorway. She paused for a moment, and then turned and faced The Judge. “You know what I don’t get?” She asked, her hand on her hip.
“A lot of things,” The Judge said with the corner of his mouth turned up.
Jen ignored him. “You went through all that trouble to bust her out of prison and get her on your side… All that talk, all that effort… And you’re just going to let her march herself alone to the one place she can actually do us all a lot of good?”
“It’s not part of the plan,” The Judge answered.
“What plan?!” Jen snapped. “Cook just undid everything we’ve worked for! Your entire plan was undone by a one-minute speech on NewsFeed! There is no plan! There’s only Marlowe, us, my father, and an invitation by the President himself to free all of us! And you’re just going to sit there smirking, as if you saw any of this coming?”
“There’s a better way!” The Judge said, slamming his fist on the workshop table.
“What is it?” Jen asked. “Do you know? Right here, right now — do you know what to do next?”
The Judge struggled for words.
“That’s what I thought,” Jen said, turning to leave. She was briefly blocked by Jacobs, who was rotating the soreness out of his shoulder and rubbing the spot on his chest where Marlowe’s shoulder had rammed into him. The two made eye contact. “Move,” Jen insisted.
Jacobs looked up at the Judge, who waved dismissively toward them. Jacobs stood to one side and let Jen pass. Nines fell in behind her, eyes glued to the Pod in her left hand, while she raised her right hand high, waving her middle finger around to everyone in the room.
“Damn it!” The Judge barked, stomping his boot into the wooden floor of the EV plant’s work shed. He huffed through his nostrils and seethed.
William took a few steps toward the door and then paused and faced The Judge. “Her father is a hero,” he said, “And so is she. We can do more good with her than without her.”
The Judge slid his eyes toward William. He took a deep breath. The scowl left his face as he regained his composure. “I guess you’re going with her, too, then?” He asked as he leaned back against the workshop table and folded his arms over his chest.
“Nope,” William said as he reached the doorway. “I’m gonna get this door fixed. We still need a place to work, don’t we?”
The Judge surveyed the room. Every eye was sullen and glued to The Judge, waiting to hear what the plan was going to be.
“Goddammit,” The Judge said with a sigh, realizing there was only one real play. “Poet, go get Marlowe. Angel, get her attention.”
“Yes, sir!” They both barked in unison. Poet led Angel out of the doorway and double-timed it to catch up to Marlowe. Angel turned and faced Marlowe’s direction, raising her biohacked sniper rifle to her shoulder and peering down the scope. She found Marlowe in her crosshairs just as she was approaching the gate. A muffled report whistled from the barrel of the rifle as a round whipped its way toward Marlowe’s feet. It caught the ground between her legs mid-stride.
Marlowe froze. She whipped her head around to find Angel lowering her rifle in the distance and Poet jogging up to meet her, arms waving over his head, signaling her to stop. Between the two, she saw Jen and Nines staring in disbelief at the scene unfolding before them.
She raised her hands to her mouth and yelled, “What now?!?” She waited patiently as Poet closed the distance as quickly as he could, reaching Marlowe only after a full-on sprint.
Out of breath and doubled over from his all-out effort, he huffed and said, “We… we’re going… with you…”
“Oh, thank God,” Marlowe said as her body slumped in relief. “Come on,” she said, slapping Poet on the shoulder as she began trotting back to the shed. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Poet grimaced and groaned as he sucked for air from between his legs. Out of breath, he began trotting back to the shed behind Marlowe.
“What’s going on?” Jen asked as they approached.
“He says we’re all going to the Citadel,” Marlowe said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder at Poet. “Not sure what happened after I left, but whatever it was–”
“Wow,” Jen said. “It worked.”
“What worked?” Marlowe asked.
“Calling that Judge guy on his shit,” Nines said without breaking her gaze from her Pod. “I’m cutting a video of it now… But look at this! His face…” She held up the Pod and showed a clip of Jen reading The Judge the riot act. Jen, Poet, Angel, William, Sully…all of their faces showed up. But the Judge’s face was a blurry mash, as was Austin’s when it briefly appeared in the clip. “How the hell does he do that?!”
“His facial recognition is scrambled at the server level? And look, Austin’s too!” Jen pointed out. “Jesus… I want that!”
“Me too!” Nines chirped in agreement. “That’s so fucking cool!”
“Maybe that Austin guy did it?” Jen asked.
“Yeah,” Nines said, “He’s not as much of a noob as you are.”
“…Says the girl who doesn’t know how to do it either,” Jen jibed. Nines sneered, and then went back to studying her Pod.
“Maybe you should just ask him?” Marlowe suggested as she started toward the door.
“No way!” Jen and Nines both said in unison.
Marlowe froze and looked back at them. They quickly glanced at each other. “A real hacker figures shit out on her own,” Jen remarked.
“I bet I get it first!” Nines insisted as she tapped away at her Pod.
“Already on it,” Jen insisted, flicking the air and sorting through scripts.
“…Good to see you two getting along,” Marlowe said with a laugh as she made her way to the doorway that William was repairing. “Need a hand?” She asked him as she walked up.
“I got it,” William said. “Broke at the frame, see? Hinges are still attached. A few screws and nails and it’ll be back to keeping the draft out.”
“Maybe some rebar? Or titanium?” Marlowe added with a smile.
“Wouldn’t help,” William replied. “I don’t think there’s much out there that’s truly Marlowe-proof.”
“Technically, I broke the door down,” Jacobs said as he emerged outside through the doorway, followed by The Judge. “Nice takedown, by the way,” he added.
“Don’t ever get in my way again,” Marlowe warned him, her smile souring. “And I assume you’ll be my Hitter in the finals?”
“…Really?!?” Jacobs said, his excitement causing his voice to squeak.
“Oh God,” Marlowe said, rolling her eyes, “I already regret that decision…” She turned her attention to Angel, who was examining the scope on her rifle. “And you?” Marlowe asked. “Want to be my Sniper?”
“I’d be honored,” Angel replied quietly. “And it’s not like anyone else here could do it.”
Marlowe smirked and nodded knowingly. “And you, mister moustache…what’s the deal? Why the change of heart?”
“You are right. I did promise you full operational control,” The Judge said in reply. “I need Austin here, but the rest of the team is yours.”
Sully hobbled toward the doorway with Seraph under his right arm and Austin under his left. The Judge and Poet took over helping Sully as he crossed the threshold on his one good leg. Everyone back together, the team stood outside of the EV plant’s shed and looked at Marlowe.
“Well, now that we’re all here,” The Judge noted. “We have 12 hours until the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale. What’s the plan?”
Jen saw the look of disapproval on Marlowe’s face as she raised her hand. “Don’t even,” Jen said defiantly. “He’s my dad, too.”
“And I’m not staying here with Judge Creepy McCreeper and that weird hacker noob, and those two boring old men,” Nines added.
“Hey!” Sully said. “I’m not boring!”
“We are old, though,” William said with a chuckle. “But you really should show some respect–”
“–Whatever,” Nines said. “Besides, someone needs to cover your Feed side of things, just in case they try to screw you again. And footage from inside the Jumper will make me riiiiiich!”
Marlowe knew that Jen and Nines both had a point. And both had their uses.
Moreover, she didn’t have the time or energy to fight them. “It’s settled then,” she said. “We dust off at eighteen-hundred. I suggest you all get some rest…and food? Do we have any food?”
“No one can show their faces,” The Judge said. “And having anything delivered would be too risky.”
“I can raid the vending machines at the plant,” William said. “They have some decent Imagen InstaMeals in there. Some noodles, a really good mini pizza–”
“–Good, great, go do that,” Marlowe said as she walked through the door leading to the bed William kept in the back room. “I’m crashing. Someone make sure I’m up by seventeen-thirty.”
The team took Marlowe’s cue, and everyone took up stations to prepare for the evening’s festivities. William handed his powered drill to Poet and gave him a short rundown of what needed to be done to get the door back on its frame before heading to the main plant to deprive the vending machines of any sustenance he could find. Angel and Jacobs took up security posts; Angel double-timing it to the hilltop she had once perched on while Jacobs found a secluded spot near the gate and stayed low and alert. The Judge and Austin retreated to the makeshift computer lab in the back corner of the shed, while Seraph headed to the Jumper to make sure it was flight ready. Jen and Nines were busy surfing the Net for any and all information they could find on server-level face recognition defeats, and Sully took a seat just outside the door that Poet was now working on, pulled out a cigarette, and took the first drag he’d had in almost a day.
Marlowe laid face-up in William’s bed. She finally felt fully like herself for the first time in months. There were less than ten hours before dust-off on the first major operation she’d commanded since before she left foreign service. This was no show; this was war. And she settled into her wartime training with ease. Her mind didn’t want to be clear, but she was able to keep it from wandering too far from focusing on the fight ahead of her for the most part. She took a deep breath in through her nostrils. She held it for ten seconds, and then exhaled through her mouth. Again, she inhaled. She held the breath. She slowly exhaled. And again, and again. The mindful focus on her breathing forced her system to let go of any extraneous panic, overriding the impulse with the primal need to keep oxygen flowing.
Breathe in…one…two…three… on up to ten, she counted in her mind. And again.
“Marlowe?” a voice said somewhere in the distance.
“Marlowe…” The voice said again, much closer and louder. It sounded like her sister. “It’s time,” the voice continued.
Marlowe blinked several times. “What time is it?”
“Five-thirty,” Jen answered.
“…Jesus, that was fast,” Marlowe said while sitting up and turning. She placed her feet on the floor, stood upright, and marched past Jen, patting her on the shoulder.
“Game time,” Marlowe announced as she entered the main room of the shed. “Let’s go.”
Seraph turned a quarter in the pilot’s seat of the Jumper and looked back at the team in the cabin. “Ready for takeoff, ma’am,” she said to Marlowe.
Marlowe looked up at her. The pilot she’d only just met had a disposition that she would know from anywhere. This woman had served at some point. She looked to Seraph’s sister Angel, sitting beside her in the co-pilot’s chair. Angel nodded at Marlowe, professional as ever. Jacobs’ eyes were wide and his head was tilted forward like an excited puppy’s. Poet’s elbows were on his knees, chin resting on his thumbs as his fingers were clasped in front of his face in repose. Jen’s leg bounced nervously as she flicked the air and scanned for alerts on her HUD, while Nines’ face was buried in the handheld Pod she’d clearly claimed as her own.
A calm washed over Marlowe. She sat up straight, resting her hands on her legs. The scowl that she’d worn for months fell from her face. Her eyes became steel. “Whether you’re joining me on the battlefield tonight or not — as of this moment, we are a team,” she said in a commanding tone. “None of us have served together in any capacity, and some of us haven’t served at all. But in the past twenty-four hours, everyone on this craft has proven their mettle and has my trust. I am honored you are joining me on this mission.”
Nines looked up from her Pod. Jen’s focus shifted from the readouts on her HUD to Marlowe. Jacobs and Poet both cracked slight smiles. Angel nodded, and Seraph sat silent, ready to fly.
“But if we are going to survive what’s about to come, I am going to need your trust,” Marlowe said. “We are flying into hostile territory and we are doing so blindly. This is not my first rodeo. And I don’t care if this is your first time or your fiftieth. We take nothing for granted, and what I say, goes. I am no longer a major, but I am in command. I need every one of you to tell me you will do exactly what I tell you, without question, from this point forward.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jacobs said first, sitting up straight and snapping a smart salute.
“Absolutely,” Poet answered.
“Yes, ma’am,” Seraph and Angel in unison.
Marlowe looked at Jen and Nines. “Yeah,” Jen said, ducking her eyes.
“Jen?” Marlowe said. “You don’t have to go.”
Jen‘s face shot up. “I’m going!” Jen said, her eyes defiant.
“Then I need you to say it.”
“…Yes, ma’am,” Jen said quietly.
Marlowe turned her attention to Nines, who was recording the speech. Marlowe grimaced and furrowed her brow. Nines smiled and belted out an enthusiastic, “Yes, ma’am, Marlowe, ma’am!” the bow atop her head bobbing as she nodded her head with every syllable.
Marlowe smiled. “Last chance,” she said, addressing everyone. “Anyone want out?”
The only thing that could be heard was the humming of the Jumper’s magnetic drive and the whirring of the turbine engines.
Marlowe raised her hand up and signaled to Seraph.
“Aye, ma’am,” Seraph replied as the engines whirred loudly. The Jumper lifted into the air, skirted the tree line, and bolted through the late evening sky toward Terminus Citadel.
Marlowe surveyed the team as they all sat silent in their seats. Jen was staring at the floor, her legs bouncing and shaking nervously.
Marlowe reached over and tapped Jen on the shoulder. Jen shot her head up, gasping in shock.
“You okay?” Marlowe asked, already knowing the answer.
“This is all my fault!” Jen whispered, a tear falling from her eyes. “I shouldn’t have called MilSec. None of this would be happening if I hadn’t told them how to find you. I put our father in prison and forced you to see Amanda and I am so, so sorry Marlowe–”
“–Cut it out,” Marlowe insisted gently. Jen’s lip quivered as she looked back at the floor.
Despite being in game-time mode, Marlowe knew she couldn’t just leave things like this. For the last day, she had kept at bay thoughts about the fates of her Alzheimer’s-stricken father, her sister… about her reunion with the woman who had broken her heart and ruined her life. As they flew over the still burning Subs, her thoughts glanced over the death of Jen’s boyfriend Michael and the dozens of Subs dwellers simply due to her proximity to them, not to mention the hundred soldiers by her own hand. One day, she’d have to face up to everything she’d done. That moment wasn’t now; but in the midst of fatigue and starvation and withdrawal from AMP, Marlowe was barely winning the battle over her own mind. And she knew her sister was having far worse luck in that fight.
“Jen, look at me,” Marlowe ordered.
Jen reluctantly looked at her sister, but refused to make eye contact.
“Imagen and Cook did this,” Marlowe said. “They withheld the footage. They falsely convicted me. They made me some trophy for a game. They killed Michael and imprisoned our father, all to get at me. This was them, okay? Not you.”
Jen shifted her eyes to meet Marlowe’s. Tears streaked down, splattering gently onto her clothes.
“…And I’m going to make them pay,” she added.
Jen smiled a very slight smile and it broke Marlowe’s heart. It was the same smile when Marlowe had stood up for her in school, and the same smile when she was in court and the evidence that would have put her away for life for dealing drugs suddenly went missing.
Jen nudged the green canvas go-bag at her feet toward Marlowe. “You’re going to need this, I think,” she said.
“…Thanks,” Marlowe said, reaching down to grab the bag. She rifled through it and grabbed a few Battery bars and an AMP inhaler. As before, she tore into the nutritional supplement bars and devoured them in a single gulp. She chased them down with a full inhale of AMP, shuddering and growling through her teeth.
“You going to take some with you?” Jen asked as she wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her shirt.
“Can’t,” Marlowe said as she exhaled, shivering. “Instant disqualification if I bring it on the field. Besides, we may need it for later.”
Jen lowered her eyes again. Marlowe put her hand on her sister’s shoulder and got her attention. “There will be a later, Jen,” Marlowe insisted softly. “Trust me.”
“Approaching Terminus Citadel now, ma’am,” Seraph stated. “And it looks like we’re being escorted in.”
“Well, that’s a damn sight better than being shot down,” Marlowe said. She shook her head back and forth, loosening her neck. She cracked her knuckles, then pulled one elbow over her chest, followed by the other. “Here we go,” she said, resolutely.
“Hell, yeah!” Jacobs shouted, sitting up and slapping his legs in excitement. “I’ve always wanted to be on ‘Next Top Soldier’! Let’s do this!”
“…Can you do that again?” Nines asked, pointing the Pod at Jacobs. “I missed it.”
It took Jacobs three tries before Nines got a take to her satisfaction. And not a moment too soon as their Jumper descended and landed just outside the gates of the courtyard of Terminus Citadel, the makeshift battlefield for what was promising to be a “Next Top Soldier” finale for the ages.
“Brow,” Dr. Ben Rossler whispered from behind his sweat-soaked surgical mask.
A MediDrone extended an appendage and blew a jet of sterile air on the surgeon’s forehead as he delicately attached the final lead connecting a brand new Powerhouse-class left leg augmentation to the newly installed neural gateway embedded in Henry “Mad Dog” Cain’s spine. The operation was creeping into its third hour, which was longer than either the doctor or his staff had slept since racing to save Cain’s life earlier in the evening. But the watchers of MedFeed knew that sleep deprivation was hardly a problem for Dr. Rossler. His staff was comprised of eleven of the best surgeons in the world (and one personal assistant), and he was an echelon well above them. Which is why no one – not the one hundred thousand citizens watching the surgery live, nor the doctor’s staff, nor the President himself – had any doubt that Dr. Rossler could bring Mad Dog back to the field of battle.
Dr. Rossler, however, was secretly marveling at the progress he was able to make in the time allotted. Not because of how difficult the procedure was – he knew how good he was. And not because of the lack of sleep or the hairpin timeline that would have been impossible for any other surgeon. It was the fact that he could get any of it done with Amanda Stokes’ voice blaring from all around as he dutifully followed the President’s orders and performed one of the most important operations of his career.
“And she was quite serious about the threat, too,” Stokes was relaying on-screen to the audience of “AM/BEAT,” the early morning NewsFeed show hosted by Pat Daniels. “She swore she’d kill me and everyone else around me if I didn’t broadcast this footage.”
“Amanda,” Pat Daniels said solemnly. “We all know you’re traumatized – you’ve not had any sleep since your show ended its broadcast a few hours ago. Heck, one could argue that you haven’t slept much in months. As your partner in the continuing coverage of the Marlowe Kana trial, I can attest to that!” He chuckled in the smarmily professional way only news anchors could achieve. Amanda smiled in response as Pat continued, “and you’ve just suffered through a scary confrontation. On behalf of all our viewers, thank you so much for staying up and joining us as a guest.”
“It’s my honor and my job,” Amanda replied with a sickly smile.
Pat nodded. “But the million-credit question is: Do you believe that Marlowe Kana is telling the truth and that this footage is real?”
Amanda took a deep breath. “I think in my current state, I can’t really say,” she answered.
“We wish you wouldn’t,” Dr. Rossler muttered as he pulled on a spool of nanofiber wiring and fed it into an arterial conduit in Mad Dog’s torso.
Amanda was continuing her on-screen speech. “I’m still in shock and afraid for my life after Marlowe Kana broke into my apartment and trashed it – you see this? See the table over there? She pointed to her left, and the camera drone turned to show the table that Marlowe had smashed during her visit. “That could have been me! She could have done that to me!”
“But, Amanda, certainly you have to have an opinion on her innocence or guilt, after seeing this, frankly, shocking footage of Sergeant Corta ambushing MK in the locker room.” The footage began playing again in a corner window just above Pat’s head. “I mean, this negates the entire treason charge right here. If this footage is real and not a holo-dupe, it means that–”
“–I can’t say,” Amanda interrupted. “The citizens of the United American State will have to decide for themselves. And we all can honestly say that these last twenty-four hours have been some of the darkest in our nation’s history. Marlowe Kana, found guilty of treason, of all things? And a jailbreak that results in the Atlanta Subs being torched and razed? Not to mention the nationalization of MilSec and an apparent schism between our President and the corporation his family founded, which employs us all and keeps us safe. Tensions are clearly high, and the unbelievable is now commonplace. So I wouldn’t blame our viewers if they feel it is possible this footage is a holo-dupe. But ask yourself…when did Marlowe Kana get time to commission a holo-dupe? She’s been behind bars since the incident, until just now – and if someone could create one in just a day that looks this accurate…”
“Ugh, God, make up your mind,” Dr. Rossler blurted out. “First she hates Marlowe, now she defends Marlowe…which is it?I”
“Focus, sir,” Dr. Vessey, Rossler’s lead assistant, urged calmly.
Amanda took a deep breath, and then looked directly into the lens. “But if we’re really thinking about it…” She paused and took another deep breath for effect. “It would seem that the only entity with the resources to pull something like that off would be Imagen Corporation…”
“What would they gain?” Pat asked.
“It’s a good question, isn’t it?” Amanda said mysteriously.
“Well, viewers at home – in fact, the entire country – would love to know: Is this footage real? Or is it an elaborate farce perpetrated by Imagen corporation?”
“The people at home are the ones who have to decide, Pat,” Amanda replied. “My judgement is honestly clouded, due to adrenaline and the fact that I’m sleep deprived.”
“You’re sleep deprived?” Dr. Rossler muttered under his breath as he attached another neural lead to the base controller of Mad Dog’s new legs. “Why is this even on? J.A.Q.i, please put on some jazz.”
“I cannot,” J.A.Q.i replied. “NewsFeed has been pinned on all displays, unclosable.”
“Well, can you please mute it?” he begged J.A.Q.i.
“Mute is not possible, but I have lowered the volume as low as I can,” J.A.Q.i replied politely. “I hope that it helps.”
Rossler grumbled. “Scalpel,” he barked.
Vessey, placed one delicately in his hand. “Focus,” she reminded him again sharply.
Dr. Rossler blinked deliberately. He inhaled deeply from his nostrils and exhaled through the damp surgical mask. This is why he paid Dr. Vessey enough to ensure she’d never leave. She knew how to navigate the fine line between respect and responsibility. It, however, still stung to have to be reminded that a human life hung in the balance between his skill and his predisposition of finding NewsFeed presenters distasteful. But he appreciated the candor. “Thank you, doctor,” he replied equably.
“Of course, doc–oh my…” Vessey gasped. Doctor Rossler looked up at his lead assistant to find her eyes glued to the wall full of screens just beyond the glass wall of the surgical center.
“Here with us now is Alan Davis, Chairman of the Board for Imagen Corporation,” Pat Daniels said as the screen split from two faces to three. “Now, Chairman, clearly these have been some of the most interesting hours of your career and, frankly, in our nation’s history. What, exactly, is your take on Cook nationalizing MilSec and turning it into the United American State Army? And his order just a few moments ago for General Kana’s execution?”
“I will be issuing a full statement on the MilSec nationalization, and many other issues, in due time,” Chairman Davis replied gravely. “There is a lot to be decided, and the Board and all trustees will be considering our options and preparing our response. But one thing that has been decided, and the reason I am streaming to you live this morning, is to announce that the Board has unanimously voted for an immediate and unconditional pardon of Major Marlowe Kana, as well as her father, General Ashish Kana.”
Pat Daniels and Amanda Stokes both gasped on-air, while Dr. Rossler, Dr. Vessey, ten other surgeons and assistants, and the twenty million citizens glued to the Feeds all gasped as well in near unison.
Alan Davis continued. “An Imagen judicial tribunal has been formed and the paperwork is being signed as I speak. To General Kana, I want to apologize for the false imprisonment and public display last evening, and to Major Marlowe Kana, I would personally like to extend a very heartfelt apology and a full reinstatement into MilSec, with back pay and a direct promotion to general.”
“But, sir,” Pat Daniel said, “There is no MilSec–”
“That is all,” Alan Davis said as his Feed went black.
“Well, what a stunning development!” Pat Daniels brayed. “I can’t believe it…MK has been pardoned!” The text crawl underneath on the screen immediately changed to repeat the news alert in all capital letters.
A tone sounded. “Doctor,” J.A.Q.i stated, “NewsFeed has just been marked closable. Would you like me to–”
“Shit yes, close it!” Dr. Rossler said with relief.
“I think this little project just got deprioritized,” Dr. Vessy opined. “You should take a break and let us take over.”
“Well, he’s sitting here wide open and half his body is augmented…I might as well finish the job,” Dr. Rossler replied wearily.
Rossler returned his focus to the task at hand and completed the connections to Mad Dog’s augmented right leg. One more leg, another arm, and some spinal repair to go. He would get it done, of course – and with a few hours to spare. The attention given him by a nation severely desensitized by technological advancement was not unearned. While he had been working to repair Sergeant Sabrina Corta, medical tech breakthroughs came to him daily. His simulations seemed to run at nearly twenty times their operational speed. In fact, the simulation deciphering the architecture of Marlowe Kana’s nanofiber-augmented muscular system had been running for years. Then somehow, the moment he needed it to save Corta, it had found a solution to the one problem vexing Dr. Rossler: how to power nanofiber augmentations internally versus adding the augmentations to existing body parts. With that problem solved, reverse-engineering simulations based on the samples taken from Marlowe in prison took mere minutes. And now, thanks to these massive advancements, procedures to enhance the human body were limited only by the availability of the nanofiber muscle tissue, which took months to grow.
As a scientist, he couldn’t help but question the timing, intent, and coincidence of such monumental technological and medical breakthroughs occurring in such a small amount of time. He couldn’t help but wonder just how, exactly, a simulation that had been running for years could suddenly crack the mystery of Marlowe Kana’s metal muscles…and just in the nick of time.
As a pragmatist, he knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The mention of Rossler’s name was never more than a few words away from Corta’s during the press coverage of her rehabilitation. When she was able to walk again, he was hailed as a miracle worker. Citizens across the nation called him a hero when Corta’s personal Feed came back to the Net, streaming her workouts and combat training. And the word “Rossler” had echoed through the cacophony in the arena earlier that day at the emergency CookTalk, in which Cook announced Corta’s surprise return to United America’s Next Top Soldier. And he was more than pleased to accept the credit. It was, after all, his own simulation that had solved the puzzle. It was his hands that connected leads to neurocircuits and connected the nanomuscle tissue. His name now rang out across the entire nation.
A tone sounded. “Sir,” J.A.Q.i announced, “It seems you have missed the fact that your name was just mentioned on NewsFeed.”
“By whom?” Rossler asked.
“President Cook,” J.A.Q.i replied.
“Shit…reopen NewsFeed. Turn the volume back up,” Dr. Rossler ordered. “Replay from beginning of mention.”
“…Not anymore, they’re not,” President Cook was saying through a camera drone Feed from the Oval Office. “I am pleased to announce that Dr. Ben Rossler, the man who brought Corta back, is actively working on Mad Dog and Hax as we speak. The prognosis is good, and they will both be back in action by this evening.”
“Wait, BOTH!?!” Rossler barked through his mask, his concentration finally fully snapped. In his panic, his hand jerked slightly, nicking the femoral artery in Mad Dog’s right leg.
“Ah, shit…seal that,” he commanded to a medical drone. It immediately shot out a cauterizing laser and sealed the wound. “J.A.Q.i, restart the Feed from the moment we turned it off.”
Cook’s Feed blinked out and the screen returned to Pat Daniels and Amanda Stokes staring into the camera as the the text crawl below them displayed in all caps “MARLOWE KANA – INNOCENT!”
“Well, she is not innocent,” Amanda was saying. “She has killed over a hundred soldiers, and she made terroristic threats to me in my own apartment! She is responsible for the razing of the Subs! She incited a terrorist organization to rise up in Atlanta and break her out of prison! She–”
“–Just a second, Amanda,” Pat interrupted, “Well, I just can’t believe this. President of the United American State, Stephen Cook, is joining us now. Hello, Mr. President!”
“Greetings, Pat. Hello, Amanda,” President Cook said. “I was just watching, and I had to stream in to say that Amanda, you are one hundred percent right.”
“…I am?” Amanda asked, bewildered. “Wait… Yes, of course I am…”
“Yes, you are,” President Cook agreed. “And to that end, Marlowe Kana has to be held accountable. She has to be held accountable for the hundreds of soldiers she slaughtered this evening after someone on her team hacked all of their weapons and left them defenseless!”
“Is that what happened?” Pat Daniel asked. “Because I’ve been told that–”
“That is indeed what happened, and it was unbecoming of a United American State Soldier.”
“Well, she was never a UASA soldier, sir,” Pat stated. “It didn’t exist until a few hours ago–”
Cook ignored him. “More than that, she committed outright murder. She damaged and destroyed national property. She caused a disturbance and incited terrorism. All of the things Amanda Stokes just listed out. And the fact that she and her accomplices saw fit to fight us rather than work with us toward justice is a crime we cannot forgive. It’s the crime of terrorism. So to that end, I am announcing here and now that Marlowe Kana is still wanted by the United American State Army, as are all of her accomplices.”
“I agree!” Amanda Stokes chimed in..
“But, sir,” Pat Daniels asked. “Imagen is still in charge of the courts. She was just pardoned.”
“She was pardoned by a corporation’s Board of Directors, in a court this administration and its Army does not recognize” President Cook responded. “The fact that Alan Davis and the rest of the Board decided to dismiss a felon they no longer have the resources to apprehend changes nothing. As the Commander in Chief of the United American State Army, I am now also the Executive Producer for “America’s Next Top Soldier.” It is my decision that Marlowe Kana is still the final challenge for the show, and that she and her accomplices are still terrorists. They must all still face justice. No one has provided any evidence that clears her father of the charge of orchestrating Marlowe’s prison breakout, so he will remain in Terminus Citadel.”
A smile suddenly crawled across the President’s face. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “If Marlowe is brave enough to come to Terminus Citadel and participate in the final round of ‘Next Top Soldier’ tonight, I’ll release her father and drop all charges against him. And if she can beat Corta and her squad by Champion Rules – the old three-on-three squad setup, with the competitor striking the final blow – I will grant her a full, legally binding pardon. Hell, her and all of her friends!”
“Three-on-three Championship Rules?” Pat Daniels asked. “But Corta has been solo all year! No one has strategized for three-on-three since, well…since before Marlowe retired! She doesn’t even have a squad. Who will serve with her?”
President Cook grinned boyishly, his trademark tell that there was something special coming. “Well, I was going to make it a surprise but, hey, why not make it an event! Corta will be joined by her former competitors, Henry “Mad Dog” Cain and Alexis “Hax” Curtis!”
“But sir, Mad Dog and Hax are both out of commission!”
“Not anymore they’re not,” President Cook answered. “I am pleased to announce that Dr. Ben Rossler, the man who brought Corta back–”
“Enough,” Dr. Rossler said. J.A.Q.i terminated the playback. Rossler looked into Dr. Vessey’s eyes as she peered at him in dismay over her surgical mask.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said to his team. “Let’s get back to it.”