They had barely made it to the end of the street before Marlowe was ready to stab her own eardrums out. Or stab everyone in the car. Anything to find some peace. As it was, the only weapons she had available to her were the two metal cuffs still fastened around her wrists. She pondered bludgeoning everyone in the car with them, but suspected it would be too much work. She thought wistfully about bashing her own head in. If I died now, would Imagen let my father go on a technicality? Probably not, ratings for his execution would be too high and far too tempting…
“You’re the fucking noob, you NOOB!” Nines hollered at Jen from the back seat.
“The noob who saved your ass!” Jen retorted, red-faced, as she twisted around from the front passenger seat.
“Noob! Hahaha!” Poet cackled as he braked for a stop sign at the end of the road. “That word’s funny!”
Marlowe lifted her head slightly from the window she was leaning against, and then let it fall back to the glass with a solid thunk.
Nines kicked the back of Jen’s seat. “I only had one hand free!” she yelled. “He taped me up and was going to kill me!”
Jen rolled her eyes. “Nines, why can’t you just admit you needed our help?”
“Uhhh, because I didn’t?” Nines replied, rolling her eyes. “And that’s not my name. Quit calling me that.”
Jen closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Exasperation poured from her nostrils. “Marlowe,” Jen snapped, turning to face her sister. “Do we really need this little brat?”
“Yes,” Marlowe said without opening her eyes.
“See??” Nines was triumphant. “You need me! But I don’t need you!” Her head bobbed side to side in time with the words she lobbed at Jen.
Marlowe’s eyes shot open. She jerked herself upright so quickly the van rattled. “ENOUGH!” She thundered.
Everyone fell silent.
“Jen, you’re an adult,” Marlowe stated. “Stop acting like a child.”
Jen’s mouth gaped open. “Me? But she–”
“See?” Marlowe said, “That right there. Stop that.”
Jen glared at Marlowe, incredulous with disbelief. She turned in her seat and folded her arms over her chest, staring out the window sullenly.
“Now who’s the brat?” Nines sneered mockingly.
“Nines?” Marlowe whispered as she whipped around to face her. “SHUT. UP.”
Nines glared at Marlowe with furrowed brows. She huffed, crossed her own arms over her chest, and stared out the back passenger window as defiantly as Jen.
Marlowe sighed. “We haven’t even made it out of the neighborhood yet and you two are ready to kill each other. Which, by the way, I am totally in favor of, if it shuts you both up. But can we wait to do it after, you know, the small task of getting Nine’s footage off her servers and freeing our father from prison? Please?”
There was no reply, save from a snicker from Poet in the driver’s seat.
“I’ll take that as a yes from both of you,” Marlowe said. “Poet…why are we stopped?”
“You were talking,” he replied through his stifled laughter. “And plus, there’s a stop sign…”
“Fucking drive, man!” Marlowe said, slapping the headrest of his seat. “We’re on the clock!”
Poet hit the accelerator. MagLev engines hummed as the maintenance truck borrowed from the EV plant surged forward. They had hardly passed the welcome sign at the front of the Maple Lanes Subdivision when Nines suddenly sat up in shock.
“SHIT!” she exclaimed, breaking her icy facade. “My countermeasures!”
“What about them?” Marlowe asked.
“I need to go back! I need to wipe everything!”
“Oh my god, you don’t have a kill switch?” Jen asked disdainfully, referring to the default safety trigger that required input from the owner at regular, predetermined intervals. If the owner wasn’t able to provide that input, the system would self-destruct, assuming that the owner was dead or captured.
“SUCH a fucking noob!” Jen chortled.
Poet snorted. “Noob!”
“Of course I have a killswitch, you bitch!” Nines snapped at Jen. “It’s just…you know…not set up yet!”
Jen cackled, stomping her feet on the floorboard of the truck and slapping her legs in glee.
“Shut UP!” Nines barked.
“Can you trigger the self-destruct remotely?” Marlowe interjected.
“Well, yeah,” Nines answered, “But how? I’m not augmented, and we left before I could grab my stuff. No one besides your dumb sister is connected, and I’m not trusting her with anything of mine–”
“Here, will this work?” Marlowe asked, tossing to Nines the handheld Pod that the Judge had given her to replace the Pod she’d cut out of her own skull while in prison.
Nines studied the device for a second. “This thing’s old,” she said as she swiped the screen, tapped it a few times, and inputted some text. She nodded her head. “Yeah, this will work,” she said, tapping away on the screen.
“Okay,” Marlowe said. “The unlock key is–WHOA!”
Before Marlowe could complete the sentence, a massive flash of light erupted in the pre-dawn sky in the distance, followed by a monstrous THOOOOOM! Poet slammed the brakes and the MagLev truck skidded to a halt in the middle of the snowy road. Marlowe, Jen, Nines, and Poet all turned to look out the window. A black plume of smoke billowed orange and red over the spot where Nines’ house used to be.
“JESUS!” Jen yelled. “Overkill much?!?”
“I, uh…wanted to be sure,” Nines stammered.
“How much freaking explosive did you use?!” Jen asked.
“Uhh…all of it?” Nines answered ruefully.
“Oh my god!” Jen cackled as Nines shrunk back in her seat, pouting.
“Poet, GO!” Marlowe commanded. Poet slammed the throttle stick forward and the truck hummed forward. “Jen? Alerts?”
“Nothing yet,” Jen answered, her eyes glowing from the heads-up display in her contacts.
“Well, keep watch. That explosion is definitely going to bring MilSec running.”
“You mean the Army,” Jen said, her eyes glowing as she scanned the Feeds, catching up on headlines while looking for alerts about the explosion.
“The what?” Marlowe and Poet asked simultaneously.
“President Cook nationalized MilSec,” Jen said as she flicked the air. “Happened a few minutes ago. It’s now the United American State Army.”
“Well, that’s fucking stupid,” Marlowe said. “Why the hell would he do that?”
“Looks like Cook is taking a stand against Imagen,” Jen replied. “Hey, maybe that means MilSec doesn’t care about us anymore!”
“Doubtful,” Marlowe answered.
“Jesus,” Jen said, flicking her finger upward as she scanned story after story. “I’ve never seen the Feeds so active in my life! It’s not even dawn and there’s over twenty million people watching. They’re still discussing dad and how he supposedly committed treason, and of course you’re the number-one topic on just about every top-ten list. Footage from Hax’s little camera is being leaked and replayed almost everywhere. You don’t even want to know what Amanda’s been saying about you.”
“You’re right. I don’t,” Marlowe said, closing her eyes and resting her head against the window. “In fact, I don’t want to hear anything at all right now. I need a nap. Poet, how long until we get back to the EV plant?”
“Thirty minutes or so,” he answered.
“Good,” Marlowe replied, laying her head against the window and closing her eyes. “Don’t wake me for any reason.”
A few seconds of silence was all it took for the dull hum of the MagLev engines to gently mirror the thrum of Marlowe’s heartbeat. She took a deep breath in through her nostrils, thankful for even the small amount of peace.
“Uh…Marlowe,” Poet said quietly.
Marlowe studiously ignored him. She shifted in her seat slightly and adjusted the angle of her neck to prevent the crick she could feel forming. Her back slid slightly down the vinyl seat.
“Marlowe!” Jen barked.
“WHAT” Marlowe roared, her eyes still rebelliously shut.
Marlowe didn’t want to look. And yet, she didn’t need to. She’d been on enough airborne missions in her career to instinctively know the sound of a Jumper engine, and she suspected she had heard one approaching before she’d even closed her eyes. She gritted her teeth in frustration. She heard Nines gasp and Jen yelp in fear.
Suddenly, Poet shouted, “Hold on!” The aluminum throttle shaft clacked against the metal console as he slammed it forward. The MagLev bellowed and Marlowe felt her body jerk as the truck lurched forward.
She sighed heavily as the darkness behind her eyelids gave way to a red-orange glow. With a deep sigh, she opened her eyes. A focused spotlight shone through the windows of the truck. A United American State Army Jumper was strafing the sky above them, joined by another on the left, and a third behind them.
“Stop the vehicle!” a voice over a loudspeaker ordered.
“Way to go, Nines!” Jen yelled.
“This isn’t my fault!” Nines retorted.
“They were already on the way,” Marlowe said. “Had to be. Poet, find a tunnel!”
“This is the burbs!” Poet said in exasperation as they barrelled down the road.
“Then drive into the forest!” Marlowe ordered.
“What?!” Poet said. “In this huge thing? No!”
“You want us to get caught?”
“You want to drive?!” Poet yelled over his shoulder.
“OH, SHIT!” Jen yelled.
Poet whipped his head forward to see far off in the distance flashing blue lights and the silhouette of dozens of troops arrayed in a firing line across the road in front of them.
“Speed up!” Marlowe ordered. “Go through them!”
“Wanna get out and push?!?” Poet snapped back. “We’re at max!”
The truck barreled toward the garrison as the three Jumpers matched pace with them.
“Stop! NOW!” The voice on the loudspeaker commanded.
“Don’t stop!” Marlowe ordered.
Spotlight drones hovering over the garrison activated in the distance, illuminating the full complement of force that had been sent to deal with Marlowe and her accomplices. Two rows of mobile barricades shielded nearly a hundred soldiers, half kneeling, half standing, all with rifles trained on the truck. Behind them were more soldiers, ducking behind hovering service cars with the new United American State Army logo emblazoned on the digital paint panels. Three massive troop transport trucks hunkered behind the cars.
Two men in powered ExoArmor marched through the gaps in the barricades. They took up stations in front of the riflemen and their barricades, preparing to stop the truck from breaching the roadblock. Mechanized weapons platforms unfolded from their backs and arced over their shoulders, each sporting a GI-9 .50 antipersonnel cannon on their left shoulders, and a BuzzyBee mini-missile swarm launcher on their right. One soldier pounded his oversized robotic fist into his oversized robotic palm. The other extended his arm, encased in a gigantic robotic appendage, and flicked the joystick control in his hand. The palm of the ExoArmor opened, turned upside down, and waved the truck forward, practically begging for them to get through.
“…Okay, on second thought, stop.” Marlowe said grimly as the truck got to within two hundred yards of the battalion.
“What!?” Poet, Jen, and Nines all gasped at once.
“We’ll never break through all that! Not at this speed!” Marlowe exclaimed. “And even if we could, that Jumper in front of us is seconds away from stuffing a strut through our windshield and reversing its engines! Brakes! NOW!”
Poet gritted his teeth as the garrison in the distance came closer and closer. He pulled the throttle lever back to full stop. The truck lurched and halted with a little over a football field’s distance between them and the troops. The three Jumpers in pursuit hovered in place with spotlights trained on the truck, joined shortly by a fourth which took up a position directly in front.
“Hands out of the windows! NOW!” The voice over the loudspeaker commanded.
“Ah shit…” Jen muttered.
“Yeah, we’re fucked,” Poet added.
Marlowe sighed. “Nines,” she said quickly as she reached down and grabbed the go-bag at her feet. “Climb in the front seat next to Jen, and get low–”
“–no way!” Nines sneered.
Marlowe’s head shot up and her eyes locked with Nines’. The look on Marlowe’s face promptly convinced Nines to comply. She clambered between the two front seats and nestled herself into the passenger seat with Jen, who slid over as far as she could toward the door.
“Find that footage right now,” Marlowe ordered. “Jen, help however you can. Poet, when I give the signal, you go full reverse, then haul ass someplace safe. If you have to go through a Jumper, do it, but they’ll be focused on me.”
“Wait, what’s the signal?” he asked.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” Marlowe answered as she placed an AMP inhaler between her lips. She depressed the button and inhaled deeply, taking another full dose of the quadruple-strength drugs Jen had provided. She shivered.
“Hands out the window or we open fire!” The loudspeaker barked.
“Do it,” Marlowe ordered to Jen and Poet. “Just you two. Nines, stay low.”
Poet reached forward to the console and pushed two buttons, lowering the driver and passenger-side windows. Slowly, Jen and Poet both stuck their hands out of the window.
Marlowe rolled down her window and placed both of her hands out as well.
“Marlowe Kana!” The loudspeaker voice barked. “Out of the car – just you. No one else!”
Marlowe looked at her sister and flashed a crooked smile. “Get our dad out, whatever it takes,” she said.
“Marlowe,” Jen whispered, voice quivering with fear. “What are you going to do?”
“Turn myself in,” she answered as she pulled the lever on the rear passenger door. It swung open. Slowly, Marlowe stepped out.
“Close the door behind you!” The loudspeaker voice commanded. Marlowe gently closed the door, bringing it just shy of latching.
Ropes spilled from either side of the Jumper behind the truck. Heads peeked out, ensuring the area was safe. Four United American State soldiers rappelled out of the Jumper, two from each side, while one remained in a sniper’s position up in the hovering transport, rifle trained on Marlowe. The soldiers touched down and immediately moved into formation, approaching Marlowe with extreme caution.
“Hands on the vehicle!” The lead soldier ordered as the team slowly approached. “Do it!”
Marlowe, hands raised over her head, turned and faced the door. She slowly lowered her right hand, resting it on the top of the door and slyly wrapped her fingers around the top of the frame. As she lowered her left hand, she gently pulled the door slightly open. As her left hand touched the door, she slid it quickly along the open edge and yanked the door open, spinning herself behind it for cover. With a grunt, she pressed her body into the door, folding it against the frame until the hinges sheared and tore loose with a grinding SHRIEK! Marlowe fixed her hands around the armrest and the door like a shield. She pressed forward and began sprinting toward the soldiers.
“FIRE!” The lead soldier screamed.
Fingers pulled triggers. The sound of a dozen empty trigger clicks echoed all around, followed by another dozen. None of the trademark whizzing of Imagen railgun magnets spooling could be heard; no reports echoed as slugs should have left the muzzle of a barrel. The only thing they could hear was the crunching of Marlowe’s footsteps through the snow.
“Oh, shit,” the lead soldier whispered. He watched down the sights of his defunct rifle as Marlowe ducked her head behind the door, her eyes disappearing beneath the window. She lunged forward, ramming full-force into the the soldiers, sending each one flying like bowling pins in a perfect strike. Instinctively, Marlowe raised the door directly over her head to shield from the sniper’s shot, which to her amazement, never came.
She looked up through the window of the door to see a confused sniper smashing her palm into the receiver of her malfunctioning weapon. Not one to question good fortune on the battlefield, Marlowe reared back and flung the door like a discus toward the Jumper. The sniper looked up from her broken rifle in time to see the car door collide with the right wing, tearing through the MagLev engine mounted underneath. A shower of sparks and spindles of lightning erupted from the engine, electrocuting the sniper and sending her crashing down on top of two soldiers who were just getting to their feet.
The Jumper lurched as the pilot attempted to adjust for the loss of the engine. He overcorrected, sending the Jumper yawing violently over in mid-air. Marlowe crouched, then leapt into a backwards somersault, narrowly escaping the Jumper as its remaining MagLev engine slammed into the ground less than a meter from where she had been standing. The other soldiers were immediately crushed in the wreckage.
Without losing a moment, Marlowe ran back to the wreckage, grabbing a soldier’s useless rifle along the way. She shoved the butt end of the weapon into the wobbling air intake spindle of the remaining engine of the Jumper, bringing it to an abrupt halt. She seized the blades of the turbine and yanked back as hard as she could, pulling it clean off the spindle. Ignoring the searing heat, she turned and flung the fan like a frisbee. It whipped through the air past the EV plant truck and sailed into the first of the two ExoArmored soldiers who were sprinting her way full speed.
The rotor struck the facemask of the left-hand soldier’s helmet and tore through it like a sawblade, sending a showering mist of blood into the air and his body tumbling head-over-heels backward. The other soldier turned to look in frank horror. As he glanced swiftly back toward the truck, he was more horrified to see how quickly Marlowe had suddenly covered the distance between them.
He had no time to react as Marlowe left her feet and somersaulted over him. She grabbed the impact bars extending up and over the shoulders of the soldier’s ExoArmor, and as she brought herself around to land, pulled the soldier off his feet and over her head. With every ounce of power in her body, she flung him forward and heaved the metal-clad body thirty yards through the air before he crashed down onto the snow-covered roadway. His arms and legs flailed as he skidded the rest of the distance toward the garrison, scraping to a stop just as his head gently tapped the barricade.
The soldier sat up groggily, thankful to somehow be alive. But before he could complete the thought, he felt Marlowe’s left foot land on the frontispiece of his ExoArmor, and her right foot stomp directly on top of his helmet. Marlowe launched off of his helmet and over the barricades, where she landed directly in the center of a crush of soldiers all rushing forward in the mad hope of being the one to collar Marlowe Kana.
“Goddammit, FIRE!” A captain bellowed over the loudspeaker behind layers of barricades, soldiers, trucks, and tanks as Marlowe tore into the soldiers. The empty clicks of triggers sang like crickets all around. Marlowe grabbed a rifle from one of the circle of soldiers around her, drew back, and and clubbed its former owner on the back of the skull. He doubled over. She leapt up, stepped on his head, and launched herself off his back onto the top of one of the tanks directly behind the line of riflemen. The soldiers, finally convinced their guns were useless, dropped them and swarmed over to the tank where Marlowe stood perched on the end of the barrel. They all stood and watched in awe as she stared down at them.
“This doesn’t have to happen,” she said to the crowd of mesmerized soldiers. “Let us go and I’ll spare your lives.”
“Take her DOWN!” The captain screamed over the loudspeaker.
A roar erupted as the soldiers began yelling and climbing up the tank.
“Well, I tried,” Marlowe said with a shrug. She sprang from the tip of the tank’s gun like a diver, flipped through the air, and came crashing down on top of the group of soldiers, fist on knee. The soldier she landed on spat blood onto the inside of his faceplate as several of his internal organs ruptured.
Marlowe stood and spun with her fist out, clipping a soldier in the helmet with her metal cuff. With another spin, she flung her foot out and nailed another soldier in the sternum with a perfectly placed kick, stopping him in his tracks. She whipped her leg up and around and caught the solder around the neck, then flung him to the ground, snapping his spine. A dozen more soldiers swarmed her, all piling on top of her at once. They grabbed her arms and her legs, attempting to subdue her. She smashed the two soldiers holding her arms together helmet-to-helmet, knocking them out. Two more took their place. She slammed one on the helmet with the cuff around her wrist, and the other she seized by the throat. She began spinning, using the limp soldier’s boots as a flail as she cleared a circle around her. Letting go of the sweeper, Marlowe sent him flying head-first through the windshield of one of the troop transports.
A Jumper approached and hovered just over her head. Soldiers leapt from either side of it, landing directly in front of her. She crouched, then sprung directly up, latching onto the strut of the Jumper. The pilot tried shaking her off with frantic, jerky movements. She climbed aboard and seized him by the hair, slamming his face into the console. Grabbing the pilot’s joystick and throttle, she shot the Jumper straight up. With a twist of the controls, she pitched the Jumper forward until it was pointed nearly straight down. She leapt out just before it crashed on the tank she was perched on earlier, taking out a dozen soldiers in the fiery explosion.
Marlowe landed, rolled forward, and then made a beeline for the corner of the intersection the garrison was blockading. She was relieved to see that she was right – an antique stop sign was still sitting there. Normally, she despised the kitschy callbacks to the so-called simpler times before the war, but this time, she was thankful for the nostalgia. She seized the post and plucked it from the ground, wielding the giant octagonal sign like Death’s scythe.
“Goddammit!” The captain barked over the loudspeaker. “Killjoys! Now!”
“Sir!” One of the soldiers could still be heard over the live mic. “Didn’t you read the brief? They don’t–”
“–Don’t question me, private!” the captain demanded. “Do it!”
Drones flew from the back of one of the United American State tanks and swarmed around Marlowe. High-voltage electrical shocks lanced from the drones’ terminals, attempting to tase her into submission.
Marlowe’s body flexed. Power surged through her. The pain was incredible, but did nothing to incapacitate her. Instead, a bellow erupted from her lungs as she swung the stop sign like a bat, connecting with the drones and sending them flying. One crashed through the windshield of a garrison truck. Electric shocks danced around the hovering transport, sending it lurching forward in a fury. It crashed into a throng of soldiers rushing toward Marlowe, mowing them down.
Marlowe leapt into the air with the stop sign, both hands clutching it like an axe. With immense fury, she brought it down on one of the soldiers, cleaving him down the middle. She swung the sign in an arc, blood spattering on the other soldiers as it slammed into another, slicing his armor through and leaving his guts spilling onto the road.
“Retreat!” One of the soldiers yelled. The others didn’t question. They turned as one and began running away.
“What are you doing!?” The captain screamed. “You have orders! GET her!”
Marlowe turned toward the captain’s vehicle. She sprinted forward, the concrete plug at the base of the stop sign in front of her like a jouster’s lance. The captain’s eyes widened. He ducked just as the post crashed through the driver’s-side window of his door.
Marlowe ripped the door off its hinge and sent it, along with the stop sign, flying behind her into two more soldiers she didn’t even realize were there. She yanked the captain out of his car by his boot. Clawing desperately at the seats, he emerged from the vehicle, and felt himself being whirled around as Marlowe spun him in a dizzying circle. She released, and the captain flew through the air into a Jumper that was attempting to join the fight. It didn’t succeed. Instead, the Jumper merged with the captain’s body, and the bloody amalgam crashed into the remaining tank, exploding in a brilliant, blue-orange electrical fireball.
Further chaos erupted as soldiers attempted to escape, while others wrestled with the prospect of imminent death. Several others had delusions of eternal WarFeed glory, imagining that they would be the hero who took down Marlowe. They formed a line and approached Marlowe, who turned to face them. She took a few steps forward and grabbed the stop sign still hanging from the captain’s car door. She held the door up with her left arm as a shield, and wielded the stop sign like a mace in her right.
The soldiers froze. There was no entry in the field operations manual about door-and-stop-sign-wielding augmented supersoldiers.
“Run, idiots!” One of the soldiers screamed as he broke rank and began sprinting down the road. Another took out a Pod, turned his back to Marlowe, and snapped a quick selfie – the photo captured the moment the stop sign connected with his helmet. The other soldiers tried to subdue Marlowe, but were cut down as she rammed the door into their heads and sliced them to pieces with her makeshift gladiatorial weapon.
Over ninety soldiers lay dead, burned and sliced and in parts and pieces, as cars and tanks and Jumpers burned around Marlowe. The remaining Jumper landed a few dozen yards away, and boarded the remaining soldiers who were smart enough to flee. Packed to the gills, it began to lift off. Marlowe thought briefly about letting them go.
She heaved the door at the Jumper, catching the tail stabilizer and sending it spinning as it lifted up. It tipped and crashed spectacularly, killing everyone inside.
The snow glowed orange and red and blue around Marlowe as fires burned and electrical showers erupted. What soldiers weren’t hacked to pieces or burned alive rolled in agony in a litany of broken bones, spines, and spirits. She stood holding the blood-drenched stop sign with her back arched and face toward the sky, heaving from exhaustion. Unclenching her fists, she let the makeshift weapon fall with a muffled thud into the streets, the classic red of the American stop sign blending with the blood-drenched snow. She leaned forward and put her hands on her knees as she gasped for air. She looked up at the truck as it slowly approached. She caught a glimpse of Poet’s gaping mouth and Jen’s widened eyes. For the first time in months, she smiled in genuine happiness.
”Truck door’s still back there,” she said through her panting, pointing toward the smoldering wreckage of the first Jumper she felled. “I don’t think it’s gonna go back on, though.”
“Probably not,” Poet said numbly from the window.
“You okay?” Jen asked across Poet from the passenger seat.
“Never better,” Marlowe replied. “Why are you still here?”
“You cut off our escape route,” Poet answered, pointing to the wreckage. “Besides, Nines wanted to get footage of–”
“–OH MY GOD, THAT WAS EPIC!” Nines screamed as she poked her head up from between Jen and Poet. “Look! I got some great footage!” She held the Pod’s screen up for Marlowe to see.
“Delete it,” Marlowe commanded briskly as she entered the truck and took a seat in the back.
“Too late!” Nines said as a small DING! chirped from the Pod’s speaker. “Already up to twenty-thousand views!”
Marlowe sighed. “Jen. Why didn’t you stop her?”
“What am I, her nanny? Besides, she won’t listen to me.”
“Because you’re dumb,” Nines said.
“You’re going to get us killed,” Marlowe said.
“I’m going to make us RICH!” Nines answered. “On-the-scene footage of Marlowe Kana destroying over a hundred soldiers? And it’s not from a soldier’s bodycam? Do you know how valuable this is?”
“Not nearly as valuable as the footage that clears my name,” Marlowe said, leaning her head back against the headrest. “Why don’t you have that yet? And Poet, why are we not hauling ass to the EV plant?”
“Orders,” Poet responded. “The Judge just radioed. He’s inbound.”
“Oh, goody,” Marlowe replied. “We’ll just wait here while he comes to tour the damage. Hopefully the soldiers’ guns still don’t work when reinforcements arrive. And speaking of that. Anyone know why their rifles malfunctioned?”
“…Orders?” Poet said quizzically. “Maybe they were told not to shoot?”
“Definitely not,” Marlowe replied. “They were yanking triggers as hard as they could. Their weapons…somehow they malfunctioned.” Marlowe looked at Jen. “Did you…”
Jen shook her head. “Way above my level,” she answered as she glanced back at her sister. The two exchanged a look. Together, they both turned to face Nines.
“What?” Nines asked. “You think I hacked their weapons via a stupid handheld Pod connected to PublicNet? Come on…that kind of shit only happens in movies. OOH! Speaking of movies, check out this video I cut together while you were walking back to the truck!”
Nines held the Pod up toward Marlowe. Scenes from various soldiers’ body cameras flashed in quick succession, each one showing Marlowe smashing a fist, foot, or dislodged portion of a vehicle into them. Cut after cut of Marlowe’s face, fists, and feet flickered on the screen. “I scraped soldier Feeds while they were fighting you. Genius, right?” Another FeedMeter DING! sounded.
Marlowe shut her eyes and sighed as she shrunk back into her seat.
Nines looked crestfallen. “I know, you hate your own videos, but come on…I did this in less than a minute! I thought you’d be impressed!”
Marlowe groaned. She closed her eyes and rolled her head toward Nines. Her mouth gaped open and she began snoring.
“She’s shutting down,” Jen said. “Don’t take it personally.”
Reading the sadness that fell over Nines’ face, Jen softened. “Look, I’m sure she would, if she was able to. She’s completely drained. She can run on Battery bars, adrenaline, and AMP for only so long.” Jen chuckled as she added, “besides, I thought you didn’t like her. At least, that’s what you said at your place.” She winked and flashed a sarcastic smile at Nines.
Nines’ lip quivered. A tear rolled down her cheek. Suddenly, she flushed and her eyes narrowed. “I don’t!” Nines shouted at Jen. “I don’t like her! And I don’t like you! Either of you! And I don’t like this stupid truck. I don’t like anything, okay?! Leave me alone!”
Jen looked at Poet, who shrugged. Trying to make peace, she tapped the air a few times and pulled up Nine’s video on the MKFan_9999 channel. “Huh…this really is a good video, Nines. Good work.”
“Fuck you, noob,” Nines said, arms folded over her chest as she stared out the window.
Poet couldn’t help but laugh.
A tone sounded in the cabin of the truck. “Go ahead,” Poet answered.
“We’re inbound,” the Judge announced. “Please tell Marlowe not to throw a car door at us.”
Poet looked in the rearview mirror to find Marlowe flopped across the back seat, mouth open, snoring.
“That doesn’t seem to be a risk,” Poet responded.
Matthew wasn’t supposed to be here. He had never even been to the Subs before. He had simply wanted to look around… He hadn’t even done anything illegal! He wasn’t going to buy any drugs or play any card games or try to obtain an illegally hacked firearm. He had just wanted to peek in, you know? He had been in the neighborhood and his other friends had ditched him, and he figured, rather than I-Lyft back home at such an early hour, why not see what all the fuss was about.
Matthew was not what anyone would ever call a troublemaker. He was a good boy raised by two wonderful parents, who had adopted him when he was four. They spared no expense, opting out of the guaranteed living wage to work shifts at their selected Imagen posts to afford to send him to the Imagen Accelerated Training Academy. He aced his classes his first year, and was on track to graduate with honors. After that, he was guaranteed a glittering career with Imagen’s Media and Entertainment Division. He even had an internship locked down with “Stokes the Fire” (His father was a friend of a friend of one of the producers). He attended Non-Deity-Specific Religious Service every Sunday. He was not a troublemaker. He was a good boy.
And this arrest would ruin everything. Everything.
“Hey,” Matthew called nervously through the ventilation holes in the plexiglass wall separating him and a half dozen prisoners from the station guards a few feet away. “I can’t be here… I really have to get out of here…”
“Yeah, you and hundreds of other prisoners,” the MilSec guard answered as he pointed at all of the cells around him. “No one’s supposed to be here.”
“And yet, here you are,” the second guard seated next to the first said in a bored tone.
“No seriously,” Matthew said, “I really can’t– OWWWW!” He shrieked as a band of electricity arced from a metal post in the center of the cell to the collar around his neck, which was chained to his wrists.
“Relax,” the first guard said, “Your parents have been notified and are on the way.”
“Just sleep it off like the rest of the Subbies,” the second said, her eyes never moving from the screen in front of her. “It goes easier that way.”
“But I’m not a Subbie!” Matthew pleaded. “There’s been a mista–OWWWWWW!”
Another arc of electricity leapt from the ControlPole to Matthew’s collar and he collapsed in a heap. After a few stunned moments, he scooted back into the corner of the holding cell and tucked his head into his arms. His heart was racing from panic. Panic from being electrocuted by MilSec soldiers. Shock from being held in a cell with common criminals. Shock from being in the Subs on a night where a raid had taken place, and from even being in the Subs, period.
He could hear his father in his mind. “How could you, Matthew?? You are such a disappointment!” He’d surely say. “You’re grounded! We are yanking you out of the Advanced Training Academy! You’re a failure!” Of the top ten absolute worst things Matthew could imagine ever happening to him, the first eight in some form or fashion revolved around his father’s disappointment. From his perspective, the events of the evening brought about eight-tenths of the world crashing down around him.
“Cassie,” the second guard said over the loudspeaker, a note of concern in her voice, “Can you talk to the kid?”
“What do you want me to say, Janice?!?” A female voice said from behind Matthew. “He’s not my kid!”
“I dunno… Just calm him down, maybe?” Janice asked. “Before Jim here shocks his brains out.”
Cassie sighed heavily. “Hey, kid,” she barked at Matthew, “You want some advice?”
He was rocking in fear, afraid to turn around.
“You, kid… Yeah you,” she repeated. “Turn around.”
Matthew weighed the consequences. If he turned around, he’d be forced into a conversation with an unsavory woman who dwelled in the underground tunnels of Atlanta. But if he didn’t, he figured, it was a safe bet that he’d be murdered, then cannibalized, and the soldiers would laugh at his bloody dripping corpse while his father urinated upon it as the ultimate sign of disappointment.
He opted to turn around.
“Just get some sleep,” Cassie said with a nearly toothless smile. “This is nothing. They process you, your parents post bail, you get yelled at a little… Trust me, one day, you’ll be laughing about this whole night, telling your rich buddies about the old Subbie lady who gave you the best advice you ever got while you were doing hard time in the drunk tank!”
“Uh… Lady?” Matthew said, “You don’t know me, or my parents, but I can assure you… My life just ended.”
“No clue who you are,” the lady responded. “But trust me… This is nothing.”
“Well, I’m Matthew Sw–”
“Don’t care,” the lady said. “Rather not know, honestly. We Subs natives have a rule… Never get to know the tourists.”
Matthew was irritated by the older woman’s nonchalance. No one had ever not cared about who he was, or had ever shown him such sheer disrespect. And he most certainly didn’t come from money. His parents had worked hard to get him into the upper echelons of educated society. They had both sacrificed up to eight hours of their daily lives to make sure he had everything he wanted. He wouldn’t just sit here and listen to some toothless Subbie tell him who he was!
“Listen, bitch!” He barked, a little too loudly.
“Watch what you say, punk!” An extremely large bearded man with scruffy black hair roared. His name, according to the patch on the chest of his navy blue mechanic’s shirt, was “Mel.” It was the only other thing Matthew noticed besides the waffle pattern on the bottom of his boot, right before it landed between his eyes.
Matthew reeled, flying ass over teacups onto a ragged and filthy prisoner seated in the center of the cell.
“Watch out, asshole!” The guy yelled as Matthew collided with him. “I’ll fucking kill you!”
Matthew immediately scrambled away from him. He was terrified. The panic was starting to win. He was going to die, he was sure of it. He was dead. This was it. Life was over. The end.
“It’s okay, Randy,” Cassie, the haggard woman, said to the filthy man who Matthew had landed on. “He’s scared. He has no idea what’s going on, and Mel just rocked his shit. Let’s not kill him… yet.”
Matthew began hyperventilating. They all knew each other. They even knew the guards. He was a goner.
“Kid!” Cassie shouted. “Breathe!”
Matthew didn’t want to breathe. Matthew wanted to die. He just didn’t want to be murdered by Subbies in a piss-scented drunk tank, was all. Which added to his overall panic. Which, of course, made him hyperventilate even more.
Electricity arced from the ControlPole in the middle of the cell to Matthew’s collar once more. The shock was enough to center him.
“I’m okay,” Matthew said between breaths, “I’m okay.”
“Look at me, kid,” Cassie said with a soft chuckle.
“Did they find drugs on you?” She asked. “AMP?”
Matthew shook his head.
“Golden Frau? Sunbrown? Stanker?”
Matthew shook his head again.
“Pork Gala? Hacker Gala? Zuby Glong, Zeelcher, Weed? Hell, even Aspirin?? Anything?!?”
Matthew repeatedly shook his head no..
“Well, that’s 90% of it… You doing any dirt when they scooped you up?” Cassie asked. “Fuck any whores? Play any cards?”
Matthew began to nod yes, remembering the pretty girl he had chatted up in the bar who had said she would sleep with him for credits. But he remembered, that they had never actually settled on a price before MilSec showed up and hit everyone in the bar with a KillJoy shock grenade. He shook his head no again.
“So, you were just in the Subs, checking things out, and things went south, right?”
Matthew’s eyes widened as he shook his head yes.
“You’re fine, kid,” Mel’s thunderous voice said from the right of Cassie as they both chuckled. “Just chill your ass out.”
“Shhhh,” Mel said, holding his finger to his lips. “Nothing you don’t say can be used against you.”
Matthew took his advice and wiped a tear from his eye.
“It’s ok, kid,” Mel said. “You’re an idiot. We’ve all been idiots before.”
“Unlucky is more like it,” Cassie said. “I ain’t never done nothing wrong. Just a victim of poor timing and bad circumstance.”
“Seems to be going around,” Mel agreed. “MilSec don’t care about the Subs… Until they do, and then we all go down for doing what we do everyday. Who’d think that Marlowe Kana would end up in the Subs of all places?”
“Fucking MK,” Cassie said. “MilSec burned our goddamn house up, and for what? Some snotty aug celebrity murderer who probably wasn’t even there!”
Mel put his arm around Cassie, comforting her.
Matthew stared at them both for a moment, before finally asking, “MK…?”
“Yeah?” Cassie asked. “What about her?”
“She… She was down there?” He asked. “When I was? Really?”
“Probably not,” Cassie answered. “But MilSec thinks she was. So they show up to a red light district and suddenly enforce the laws. And why? Because some gussied up auggie with a rap sheet and a grudge MIGHT be down there? The mere suspicion of some celebrity murderer being down there was enough for MilSec to BURN MY GODDAMN HOUSE DOWN– OWWWWW!” She yelped as an arc of electricity from the ControlPole shocked her.
“You know I love you Cassie,” The first guard, Jim, said from the central control booth. “But we can’t have you inciting violence, you know. Let’s keep it calm.”
“Fucking MilSec,” Cassie said under her breath, “Can you believe this shit?”
“Yeah,” Matthew said, feeling like he was having a moment with his cellmates, “Fucking pigs…”
“You probably don’t wanna say things like that,” Mel said. “They can hear you.”
“But you said–”
“–About MilSec, sure,” Mel interrupted. “But Jim and Janice? They’re being nice, which is why they’re not pigs… So don’t say things like that.”
Matthew looked over at the control booth. Both of the guards waved.
Cassie and Mel both laughed knowingly, having been through the ringer plenty of times before. Matthew clammed up, and wrapped his arms around his knees and returned to rocking back and forth. He scanned the room to take his mind off of the absolute hellscape his life had just become. He gazed at Mal and Cassie, clearly hardened criminals with whom he’d just joined the ranks. He looked at the dirty young man laying on his back in the middle of the cell, completely unfazed by his current surroundings. He considered the prisoners in the cells around him, and realized… He’d just become that which his family hated most. He was a common criminal. He was a pariah. Life no longer had meaning. Wrong place, wrong time? Not good enough for his family. He was now one of the filthy scum that dwelled in the Subs. He would be excommunicated from his family, forced to sit in the kitchen during dinners… If he wasn’t forced to move out altogether. Maybe it was a good thing he was getting along with Cassie and Mel and the guy lying in his own piss on the floor. He was going to be their new roommate in the Subs when they eventually got rebuilt. He would have to scrape for his food. He’d have to learn how to fight… Oh God, He wished he’d died in the raid, in a hail of gunfire, maybe mistaken for MK or one of her sympathizers. Maybe it wasn’t too late to commit suicide. He wished–
“Hey… HEY! Jim! Can you turn that up?” Mel asked, pointing to the large wall screen in front of the guards. “The Feed… Turn it up.”
Ordinarily the MilSec soldiers would have sent another ControlPole shock command to the holding cell, but after seeing the headline splashed across the Feed screen, all thoughts of corporal punishment fled their minds.
“Holy shit,” Jim whispered as he nudged Janice, whose jaw had dropped when she saw the headline. “JAQi, turn up the volume,” she said.
“…Dear viewers, we are taking a break from our regular segments on ‘Stokes the Fire,’” Amanda Stokes read solemnly to her audience, “because just moments ago, President Cook has announced that MilSec is now answering to him directly. Here’s the… Do we have the Feed? Yeah? Ok, play that — here’s the Feed of the announcement.” The screen flickered a moment and cut to a Feed of President Cook addressing the nation from his office.
“Citizens of the United American State,” President Cook said stone-faced into the camera, “You trusted me with representing you in decisions that control the fate of this great nation. And as I have proven to you time and time again, that that trust is well-placed. It is with great pleasure that I announce that as of midnight, I have made an agreement with Imagen Corporation’s Board of Executives, and with Chairman Alan Davis personally, that MilSec now answers to the Chief Executive Officer of the United American State. To put it simply, I have nationalized the Imagen Military and Security Division, and effective immediately, created the new United American State Army.”
The banners that hung all around the prison cells and behind the guard station suddenly flickered as the IMSD logos were replaced with a new all-black star-over-bars logo representing the UASA. The terminals in front of the guards were also immediately updated with the new initials, and the Net-connected identification cards that hung around each of the guards’ necks were swiftly updated with an over-the-air patch to display the new United American State logo.
The entire station was silent.
“The United American State is our nation,” President Cook continued onscreen. “Our citizens are those who protect and serve it, both here and abroad. Whether they are keeping us safe at home, or serving their nation in the Gaslands fighting the terrorists who mean to do us harm… Their service is our service. They belong to us, because they are us. To show our support, the common silver badges of the Imagen Military & Security Division are being upgraded to eighteen-karat solid gold United American State Army badges. They are being forged as I speak, and the first batch will ship out to all officers on Monday, followed by enlisted shortly after. Good night, and remain ever vigilant.”
Silence hung in the air. Even Amanda Stokes was speechless as the Feed returned to her frozen, aghast face.
“…I guess we’re in the Army now,” Jim said numbly to Janice.
Jen was irritated. She was sitting crammed in the back seat of a MagLev-run maintenance truck behind Poet, who had commandeered the rugged vehicle from the EV plant. In the spacious front passenger seat was Marlowe. It was nearly three in the morning, and Jen and Marlowe were sorely sleep-deprived. Marlowe had AMP to keep her awake and alert, but Jen was only being pulled from the borderlands of unconsciousness by the sound of Marlowe’s very loud and incessant chewing.
“You know we are in a hurry, right?” Jen broke the silence testily.
“We’re making good time,” Marlowe answered through her chewing. “Thankfully, this thing doesn’t have wheels, so the snow’s not an issue.”
“You know what I mean!” Jen said. “And you know that we are wanted felons! And that you’re wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and big metal handcuffs and that you’re a celebrity, and that we could have been spotted by dozens of people and Jesus fucking Christ Marlowe! What the hell were you thinking?”
“I needed this,” Marlowe replied, holding up a massive, overstuffed burrito. She reached into her pocket and pulled out one of at least a dozen packets of Imagen Zesty Fire Taco Sauces, ripped it open with her teeth, and dumped most of the entire packet onto the end of the burrito before taking another huge bite.
“Ugh,” Jen said, disgusted. “Did you leave any sauce packets for the rest of the customers?”
“A few,” Marlowe said through her chewing.
“How can you eat that shit?”
“Like this,” Marlowe said, pointing to her open mouth.
“You’re so gross,” Jen said. “And you put us all at huge risk!”
“The store was empty, and the clerk was wearing a t-shirt with my face on it saying ‘Free Marlowe.’ I figured he wouldn’t turn us in.”
“And if he was streaming?” Jen asked.
“That’s what you’re here for,” Marlowe said, taking another bite from her burrito.
“I’m here to clear our father’s name, not hack into convenience store Feeds so you can get a tasty snack!”
Jen punched the back of Poet’s seat. “Don’t encourage her!” She said, smacking the headrest for good measure. “This isn’t funny!”
Marlowe was uncomfortable in her own ways. She was hungry, she was tired, she was beginning to go through withdrawals from the AMP again, and she was being driven to, by all accounts, an obsessed fan’s house to discuss his insane collection of Marlowe Kana Feed recordings. But the worst of it was that she hadn’t stopped thinking about Amanda since The Judge had brought her up back at the EV plant. In fact, she hadn’t really stopped thinking about her since they had broken up over a year ago. It was nearly an unforgivable betrayal, she felt, that Jen would side with The Judge on using Amanda to help them. So the burrito was helping with the hunger pangs, but irritating her sister with it was helping with the rest.
“Yeah, Poet, knock it off!” Marlowe said with a wad of burrito in her mouth. “This isn’t a joke. This burrito was mission critical!” She began laughing. This made Poet laugh as well, which made Marlowe laugh even harder.
“Ha, ha,” Jen said flatly. “I fail to see how a burrito helps us achieve our goals here.”
“I needed real food!” Marlowe said. “I just got out of prison after three months of solitary confinement, and all I’ve had to eat the past 24 hours is Battery Bars and AMP — oh shit, where’s my AMP?”
Jen held up the satchel containing the supplies she’d gifted to Marlowe back at the Subs and shook it. The muffled clacking of inhalers full of performance-enhancing drugs relieved Marlowe immeasurably.
“See? I’ve got everything I need for a successful mission now,” Marlowe said. “I’ve got my entry specialist,” she said, waving her burrito toward Poet, “and my hacker sister,” she continued, gesturing toward Jen. A small morsel flew from the top of the burrito and hit Jen in the cheek, leaving a dollop of greasy residue. “And I’ve got real food, finally!”
Jen wiped her face and grimly flicked the food bit off her lap. “That is hardly real food.”
“You vegetarians have no right to tell me what is and is not real food.”
“Marlowe, that’s an Imagen QuikGo Instant Burrito,” Jen stated. “The so-called beef in it is grown in a lab, as are the supposed beans. The tortilla is recycled corn husk. There’s literally no food in your food.”
“Poet, pull over,” Marlowe said. “I’m going to murder my sister and dump her body in a trash can.”
“I can’t advise that, ma’am,” Poet said, still chuckling. “I think we are going to need her, given who we’re about to visit.”
Marlowe turned in her seat and looked at her sister. “You’re lucky we need you,” she said, squirting another packet of taco sauce on the burrito and taking a very deliberate bite.
Jen rolled her eyes, sighed, and stared out the window, watching houses stream past though the iridescent transparent background of her HUD’s map screen . “Next left,” she directed dispassionately.
The trio rolled past the target address at moderate speed and pulled alongside the curb three houses down.
“What do you see?” Marlowe asked Jen as she wiped her mouth with the tail of her undershirt.
“Same schema we saw on that guy Austin’s setup, only…hmm,” Jen replied, having hacked into the service node for the neighborhood the moment it came into range. She scanned traffic in and around the area. “This is new. He’s got the connections all tunneled and then fractioned out through the other houses in the neighborhood. Maybe he detected Austin’s snooping when he was — WHOA!”
“What?” Marlowe said, whipping her head around to see Jen transfixed on a point in space.
“He’s good…” Jen said, her fingers a flurry as they swiped and typed in the air. “Oh man, he’s really good.”
“Is this some shit I need to understand before going up to the door, or just some hacker wanking stuff?” Marlowe asked wryly.
“Total hacker wanking stuff,” Jen replied.
“Oooo, share!” Poet said.
Marlowe gave him a sideways glance.
He shrugged. “What, a brother can’t learn some new shit?” He asked coolly.
Marlowe rolled her eyes, sighed, and opened the passenger-side door.
“Wait, where are you going?” Jen asked.
“To do what we came here to do,” Marlowe answered, lightly closing the door behind her. “You just said, whatever you’re seeing isn’t mission critical, so I’m off. Poet, you’re on overwatch, but I doubt there’ll be any trouble. Jen, do whatever you do from here. Teach Poet some new shit or whatever.”
“Bullshit!” Jen said, leaping between the two front seats and opening the passenger door.
“Stay here!” Marlowe ordered, half-heartedly attempting to push the door closed.
“I gotta meet this guy,” Jen said. “And you need me.”
“For what?” Marlowe asked. “You can monitor network shit from here.”
“Marlowe, he completely reconfigured the network in the thirty minutes it took to get here. If this guy is this good, someone needs to be able to talk the talk. If he doesn’t want to give up the footage, someone’s going to have to dig for it.”
“I’ll find some duct tape and a wrench and get it from him that way,” Marlowe said, nudging the door and pushing Jen back into the truck. “That usually beats any kind of encryption…literally.”
“Look,” Jen said, “At the very least, you’re going to need someone to call bullshit when he swears he doesn’t have what you’re asking for.”
Marlowe sighed and let the door swing open. She began walking up the street at a brisk pace.
“I’ll break it all down when we get back,” Jen said to Poet as she exited the car.
“Take this,” he said, pulling the bandanna from his neck emblazoned with the Dazzle face-recognition-defeating camouflage he wore and tossing it through the open window to Jen. “That’s not for her, it’s for you,” he added. “Your face isn’t out there yet. Keep it that way.”
“Thanks,” Jen said, and then trotted off to catch up with Marlowe.
“What the hell are you wearing?” Marlowe asked as Jen jogged up alongside her.
“Camo,” Jen answered, pulling the bandanna over her mouth. “We’re some covert elite team now, right? Gotta look the part.”
Marlowe smiled. “Poet’s camo, huh?” she asked in a knowing tone.
“…Shut up. What are you, five?” Jen replied.
“Jen and Poet, sitting in a tree…” Marlowe sang.
Jen smacked her sister on the shoulder. “I hate you,” she snapped.
“Mutual,” Marlowe replied. She nodded toward the house to their left. “This is it.”
The pair turned up the driveway and approached the door at 1337 Maple Lane. Marlowe peeked through the windows, checking the left, and then the right. The only thing she could make out was a small figure sitting hunched over a terminal at a desk in the far left corner of the room just beyond the foyer.
“Anything?” Marlowe asked Jen.
“Nothing coming up on the network…wait.” Jen looked through the window beside the door. Through her HUD, she saw bright red squares hovering over various pieces of furniture, which indicated that these items were appearing in another Feed elsewhere on the net. A small screen appeared in the bottom left of her display and began cycling through Feeds, until one matched up.
“What?” Marlowe asked impatiently.
“This place…it’s being streamed. From the inside. Just got a bunch of matches in my HUD.”
“It’s a random Anon,” Jen replied. “But it’s got over a hundred thousand viewers right now. This guy runs the most popular leeched Feed on the Net, maybe he’s got a CitizenFeed of his home life? Or…”
“Ring the bell,” Marlowe instructed.
Jen scowled. “How do we know it’s not boobytrapped? You ring it.”
Marlowe scowled back. Staring directly into her sister’s eyes, and with great purpose and very intentionally, she extended her index finger and pressed the button at the right side of the door. A chime sounded inside.
No one died.
Marlowe widened her eyes at her sister, flapped her arms, and made squawking noises. Jen replied with her middle finger extended.
A buzz sounded from an intercom speaker mounted above them. “It’s unlocked. Come on in,” a man’s voice said.
Jen and Marlowe looked at each other. Come in? Jen mouthed to her sister, perplexed.
“Uh…no?” Marlowe responded. “I don’t want to come in, Mister Cervantes. I just want to chat for a moment.”
“I know who you are,” the voice said. “And I know why you’re here. Come in and we can chat about the Feeds I’ve recorded of you. You and your friend in the weird mask.”
Marlowe and Jen both began looking around. Jen pointed to the security camera situated on the far right corner of the house. Marlowe waved at the camera.
“So, you can see us. How about we see you, and then we come in?”
A different buzzing noise sounded. The door popped slightly open.
“Well, this totally isn’t a trap,” Marlowe remarked idly.
“What gave it away?” Jen asked, “The creepy voice on the intercom or the creepy figure sitting there who won’t answer the door?”
Marlowe noticed signs of forced entry as she pushed the door open. She peeked cautiously into the entryway. The person sitting at the terminal was wearing an oversized hoodie and appeared to be tied to the chair, struggling frantically.
“…Annnnd there’s our bait,” Marlowe said. “This is definitely a trap. Someone knew we were coming. Anything official on the Feeds? MilSec? NewsFeed?”
“Nothing,” Jen replied. “No other Feed is showing this location or anywhere within a mile of it either, except the one Anon streaming from the living room.”
“Yeah, this stinks,” Jen agreed.
Marlowe held an AMP inhaler to her mouth and took a deep breath from it. “Here goes nothing,” she said as she cautiously pushed the door open. “Stay here.”
She crept inside the doorway. Jen followed behind, ignoring the order. Marlowe waved her back. Jen ignored her again. Marlowe shook her head in disgust, and lightly stepped through the entryway into the living room toward the small figure in front of the terminal struggling to get free. The Feed that Jen’s HUD picked up showed Marlowe entering the room, followed by herself. She scanned the room for the source, but saw nothing visible.
“Hey,” Marlowe said quietly. The figure froze, and then struggled even harder as she screamed through the gag in her mouth.
Marlowe looked at Jen, and then nodded at the bound figure in the hoodie.
Jen’s eyes widened as she shook her head. She pointed at Marlowe, then pointed at the bound person. “You go check it out!” She whispered.
Marlowe gritted her teeth and pointed sternly. “Go!” She hissed aloud. “I’ve got to watch our backs.” Jen sighed and reluctantly followed her sister’s order.
Marlowe surveyed the area. She determined that the stairwell represented the first and best vantage point for an ambush, and approached it cautiously. Jen tiptoed toward the bound figure, equally cautiously.
Marlowe peered around the banister and up the stairs. Jen reached up and pulled away the hoodie, and to her dismay discovered that it was a very young girl. Her mouth was bound with tape, her eyes swollen, red, and teary. A blue bow sat crookedly in her hair. The little girl was terrified. Jen pulled the tape from her mouth.
“TRAP!” she yelled, as soon as the tape was pulled from her lips. “It’s…it’s a…”
“Yeah, we know,” Marlowe said quietly.
“Hax…kitchen…cloak…he’s got…he’s…” the girl gasped before she heaved and vomited the contents of her stomach everywhere.
Marlowe’s attention was momentarily diverted by the young girl’s puking, but in that second, she heard a faint whistle from across the room, and felt a slight prick in the side of her neck. She reached up and felt a syringe dart sticking out from it.
“Okay, Hax,” she yelled, pulling the dart from her neck and stepping toward the doorway that led to the kitchen. “I know it’s you. I know you’re in thermoptic camo and using all sorts of high-tech bullshit. And you should know that tranquilizers don’t work on me.” No sooner did those words leave her mouth thann she suddenly felt her legs give way. She collapsed in a heap a few steps away from the stairs.
Jen watched frozen in horror as Marlowe’s arm lifted from the floor by itself, extended past her head, and as her body was slowly dragged across the room by an invisible assailant.
“What the hell?” Marlowe said groggily as she felt herself being dragged across the floor. “What did you hit me with, you sneaky fuck?”
Hax, completely invisible to the naked eye, chuckled between grunts as he dragged Marlowe inch by inch through the living room.
“He’s on the network,” the girl said. “He broke my firewalls! Quick, get me loose!”
Jen ignored her and rushed toward Marlowe. She reeled as she felt something slam across her face, sending her to the floor. She shook her head and spat blood, regaining her senses only to see Marlowe’s body once more being dragged across the floor, slowly but surely.
“Jen, this isn’t drugs,” Marlowe confirmed as she slid across the floor. “I don’t know how, but I can’t move my body!”
“There’s network and near-field jamming all over! Look at the terminal. He’s controlling her somehow!” the girl said. “Get me out of this tape, I can fix it!”
“What the hell?” Marlowe said. “A nanovirus? Those actually exist?!?”
“That’s got to be it!” the girl yelped. “He’s on my network! I can help!”
“Someone do something!” Marlowe said as she slid across the floor, dragged by an invisible Hax who had clearly underestimated how much she weighed.
Jen couldn’t see any other way to help her sister, unless being beaten to a pulp again counted. She rushed to the young girl’s side and began fighting with the tape that bound her wrists to the armrests of the chair.
“There’s scissors in the drawer! Quick!” the girl said.
Jen turned and pulled out the top left drawer of the desk. She began rummaging around.
“Middle drawer! Middle!”
Jen slammed the top drawer shut and moved down the stack of drawers.
“No, not THAT middle, the middle of the desk!” the girl ordered.
Jen groaned. She pushed aside the chair containing the bound girl and yanked at the drawer in the center of the desk. The contents went flying everywhere. A pair of scissors landed with a clank on the floor and slid under the chair that the girl was bound to. She dropped the drawer and scrambled for the scissors. Clasping them tightly, she began ripping at the tape on the girl’s right arm, tearing it open and pulling it off.
Urgently, she began to attack the tape on her left arm, when the girl cried “I’m good! Just push me to the keyboard!”
Jen did as she asked. The girl slapped a few keys. A window appeared on the screen with network traffic connectivity listed in a traceroute. She targeted a connection she suspected was Hax. She was right. A few keystrokes later, he was booted from the network.
Marlowe immediately yanked her arm back while Hax’s invisible hands were still grasped on. She pulled him to the ground and laced her legs around what she felt was one of his arms, yanking back against his elbow in an attempt to break it. But the angle wasn’t quite right.Hax yelped loudly.
“Scissors!” Marlowe barked. “NOW!”
Jen rushed toward Marlowe and tried to hand her the scissors.
“Not me, HIM!” Marlowe said. “Stab him!”
Jen hesitated, but knew it had to be done. With a deep breath, she held the scissors high over her head, and then stabbed down as hard as she could into what she hoped was the direction of Hax’s body.
Before the scissors could land, Marlowe’s body went limp once more. A loud rustling clatter could be heard as Hax rolled across the floor, narrowly escaping Jen’s attack. The scissors stabbed into the hardwood floor near Marlowe’s arm.
Footsteps were heard as Hax retreated to the kitchen. Everyone waited breathlessly, but no door or window opened.
“He’s still here,” Marlowe gasped after a few moments. “He’s going to fight.”
“Of course I am,” Hax said suddenly from behind Jen. She felt something wrap around her neck like an anaconda. The lights began to dim. Her world slipped away.
The young girl clacked away furiously on the keyboard with her free hand. “He’s back on the net! He’s trying to change the access key! God…he’s fast!”
“Stop him!” Marlowe yelled.
“I’m TRY — GOT IT!” the girl hollered.
Life returned to Marlowe’s muscles. She rolled forward to her feet, turned a half circle, and leapt with all her might toward her sister. Her shoulder landed on something hard just above Jen’s head. Hax went flying back, and Marlowe latched onto whatever part of him she could. She reached into her pocket and grabbed a fistful of Imagen Zesty Fire Taco Sauce packets. As fiercely as she could, she slapped the packets onto what she hoped was Hax’s chest. The sauce packets exploded beneath the force of her hand, coating him in a reddish-brown goo.
“Hide from THAT, motherfucker!” Marlowe screamed, just before she felt a metal knee joint collide with her head. The power from his augmented leg sent her flying off him.
A splatter of taco sauce began floating across the room as Hax ran toward Marlowe. Marlowe rose to her knees, tucked her feet under her once more, and sprung at him, wrapping her arms around his waist and tackling them both into the far wall.
“Didn’t count on the taco sauce countermeasure, did you?” Marlowe snarled as she began to choke him.
The hot sauce apparition rose for a moment and jerked wildly. Marlowe fell limp once again.
“Shit!” the girl screamed. He’s back on!”
“Let me on the network!” Jen said breathlessly as she poked at the air to bring up the network access panel in her HUD.
“No way!” the girl said.
“We don’t have time for territory here!” Jen demanded. “Let me on!”
The girl bit her lip. It wasn’t Jen she was worried about — it was the hundreds of her competitors on the Net that her system would be exposed to. But she considered living through this ordeal to be a precursor to dealing with any ramifications, and any help was welcomed. She entered a few keystrokes into her terminal. The firewall went down completely. Jen joined the network. “Which one’s his?”
“Dot 499!” the girl answered. Jen started a script that flooded Hax’s IP address with an unmanageable amount of ping traffic. Hax dropped from the network.
The taco sauce apparition jerked again, and suddenly Jen’s attack was blocked. “FUCK!” Jen cursed. She began tapping at the air again. After a few moments, she found the bridge connecting Hax to the software that was controlling Marlowe via the virus he injected into her neck. She began furiously attacking the bridge.
“Can’t port block a controller bridge!” Jen announced.
“Clever,” Hax snarled. He stopped his network counterattack on Jen and instead, turned his attention to Jen’s physical person. Jen watched a blob of taco sauce rush toward her. Panicked, she covered her face with her arms, ducked, and shrieked.
She braced for an impact that didn’t come. Parting her arms, she watched as the taco sauce blob flew across the room, hurled by an enraged Marlowe. No sooner did Hax land than Marlowe was upon him, slamming down on anything her fists could find.
“Mother fucker!” She yelled, slamming her wrist cuffs into Hax’s body pummeling him with all her might. Her fingers curled under something. She ripped upward as hard as she could, separating a chunk of Hax’s armor from his arm. She placed her left hand on his right upper forearm and pulled upward on his wrist with her right, breaking his arm in half. He screamed violently. She repeated this process with his left arm. Piece by piece, she tore strips of his thermocamouflauged armor and tossed them around the room, leaving only the veil over his face.
She grabbed the sides of the invisible blob that she assumed was his head, latching onto his ears. Over and over again, she slammed Hax’s invisible head into the floor, leaving dents and spatters of blood across the hardwood. With every thud of his skull, she yelled the word “motherfucker!”
*Thud* “MOTHERFUCKER!” *THUD* “MOTHER” *THUD* “FUCKER!”
Finally, she peeled off the blood-soaked veil to reveal Hax’s badly beaten and broken face.
“Die!” She yelled, clenching her hands together over her head and hurtling a double-ax-handle punch into his face. She rose her hands again, preparing for another blow. She felt a hand on her arm.
It was Jen. “Don’t,” she said quietly.
“I’m not letting him walk out of here!” Marlowe yelled. “He…he…”
“It’s over,” Jen said.
Marlowe was panting. “He hurt you,” she finally said.
“He’s no longer a threat,” Jen pleaded. “But MilSec has to know he’s here by now, and we’ve got to go.”
Marlowe slowly stood. She turned to the young girl taped to the chair. “Where’s your dad?” She asked.
“Dead,” she replied simply.
“Hax killed him?!?”
“No. Heart attack,” she answered. “Six years ago.”
Marlowe shook her head. She squinted at the girl. “You’re Nines?”
“MKFan_9999,” Marlowe replied. “Nines. For short.”
“Oh,” she answered. “Yeah. My real name’s Regina.”
“Wait,” Jen said with her jaw open. “So you’re the one running all those sockpuppets scraping the Feeds? A little girl, running half the FeedLeeches on the Net?”
Regina nodded. “More like seven-eighths,” she confirmed.
“Shit…and you set up this network?”
Regina nodded again.
“Wow…” Jen said. “Damn, kid, I’m impressed!”
“I’m flattered,” Regina replied. “Can you let me out of this chair now?”
Jen blushed. She grabbed up the scissors and began hacking away at the tape on the girl’s left arm.
“You seemed to know your shit,” Regina said, nodding toward Jen. “Who are you?”
“Jen,” she answered. “You probably know me as FeralJenrit.”
“Wait, you are FeralJenrit?” Regina asked in amazement. “Wow. You cost me nearly a million credits when you shut down my PokerBot network. You’re a bitch. I kinda hate you.”
Marlowe let out a sudden belly laugh.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Jen replied. “Marlowe, we’re in the presence of hacker royalty.”
Regina grinned brightly.
“Tell me about it later,” Marlowe said, walking over to help free the girl. “Listen, we need access to every single Feed you have that has me in it.”
“That’s at least ten terabytes,” Regina answered, yanking her right leg free from the unraveled nest of tape. “Is there anything specific you can tell me?”
“There’s a Feed from a private who was in the locker room the day I was attacked,” Marlowe said, pulling off a piece of loose tape from Regina’s sweatshirt as Jen cut her other leg free. “It shows me being attacked first.”
“Can’t say I’ve seen it,” Regina replied. “But then again, I don’t watch it all…or any of it, really. Frankly, I don’t like you very much.”
“Feeling’s getting close to mutual,” Marlowe said. “Can you give me the data?”
“Only if I get to come with you,” Regina said.
“Forget it,” Marlowe replied flatly. “We’re on the run, and you’ll very likely get killed.”
“I’m an orphan who’s been stealing her dead father’s identity to run a multi-million credit Feed scraping operation…among other things,” Regina said matter-of-factly. “And thanks to that pen camera on the mantle, everyone now knows who I am and where I live.”
“That’s where it was,” Jen said as she walked over to the mantle. She picked up the pen, dropped it on the floor, and stomped on it with the heel of her boot.
“If I stay here, I get dumped in an Imagen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, where I’m going to get raped, beat up, and likely killed anyway,” Regina continued. “At least with you, I can skip most of that stuff.”
“Jesus,” Marlowe said. “You know what? Fuck it. We have two old men, one of whom is missing a leg, a bunch of cultist soldiers, a fucking wannabe slam poet running the show…what’s the harm in adding a damn twelve-year-old hacker to the mix? Nines, you’re in.”
“Great,” Jen said, rolling her eyes.
“Fifteen,” Regina said.
“You prefer I call you fifteen?” Marlowe answered, confused.
“No, I’m fifteen years old. And again, my name is Regina.”
“Got it, Nines,” Marlowe said. “Now can you please go get me that footage so we can get the hell out of here before MilSec shows up?”
“It’s remote,” Regina said. “We can get it from the road. Nothing but dumb terminals here.”
“Smart,” Jen said.
“Duh,” Nines replied. “It’s not smart, it’s common sense, you newb.”
“Says the kid who didn’t think to just DoS Hax’s connection to the near-field virus he embedded in Marlowe?” Jen replied. “You can run Feed and poker and ransom scams, but you’re no hacker.”
“And you’re a bitch,” Regina answered.
“Fight in the car,” Marlowe interjected, lifting Regina out of the chair she was in and placing her on the floor. She gave her a light push toward the door.
“I’m going! Jeez!” Regina replied.
Jen fell in behind Regina and Marlowe took up the rear. The three headed to the door. “Wait,” Marlowe said. She walked back over to Hax and felt around his waist and down to his legs. She ripped off chunks of the camouflage armor to reveal his biomechanical left leg. She placed her foot on the metal hip joint at Hax’s waist and twisted and pulled. With a grunt, she yanked, ripping the appendage from his body.
“For Sully,” she said, holding the leg up for Jen. “I told you I wasn’t letting Hax walk out of here.”
“I think you probably ruined it,” Regina said.
“Shut up, Nines,” Jen said, nudging her toward the door.
Marlowe carried the prosthetic leg up the street, followed by Jen and Regina. Poet greeted them as they entered the car. “Welcome back…wait, who’s the kid?” He asked, bewildered. He sniffed the air. “And is that…taco sauce?”
“Shut up and drive,” Marlowe replied.
She was a sweetheart in person. But behind a keyboard, she was Machiavellian.
Some might call her small. Others might even say mousy. As she sat behind the twelve-monitor grid of screens comprising her terminal setup in her upstairs office, she resembled a tiny orchestra conductor, in control of the entire nation’s FeedNet. She was petite, with thin, arrow-straight brown hair that stopped at her shoulders. As she clicked away furiously, she continually pushed up the sleeves of her father’s oversized navy blue Imagen Corporation hoodie which she had defaced, crossing out the “COR” and writing “BORE” above it. It made her laugh.
Her once-white, now-dingy-orange-from-RealCheez-powder-colored sweatpants was folded over the waistband multiple times and cinched tight. Incongruously, in her hair, she wore a bright blue bow studded with shiny white gemstones. It was one of a set of eight, each in a different color. They were a gift from her father after a business trip to Oz, handmade and “authentic” to the indigenous people there, or so he had said. She had no idea what the indigenous people of Oz wore, or if it was genuinely hand-made, and she didn’t care. She wore one every day, in or out of the house. They made her feel pretty. And feeling like a pretty girl who was straight up pwning pretty much the entire FeedNet of the United American State…well, that thought appealed to her quite a bit.
She sat back and surveyed her “kingdom.” She was running ransomware scams on users’ pods, locking them down and demanding credits. Simultaneously, several AI-driven bots were scraping Feeds of every soldier in MilSec with a dedicated Feed watch count of over ten thousand to make automated “Best Of” and tribute videos. The system would then find relevant ads matching keywords and images from the automatically created Feeds and run them with the videos they published. This automated process attributed to a third of her revenue stream. All of this ran without any input from her, so she was free to focus her attention on her favorite part of her daily routine: making trouble for her competition.
She smiled with glee. One of her scripts found a Citizen’s Feed that had happened to pick up audio of one of her most prominent competitors, Yano Milopolis. Yano was discussing how he thought that relationships between adults and underage kids were perfectly fine. Given that Yano was mostly watched by the more conservative citizens of the nation who would likely frown upon the fact that their favorite Feed star was a pederast, she knew that this clip would be worth a fortune.
She filtered the audio, pulled it through a high-pass, and then attached it to a Feed she found of Yano speaking to someone on the street. She then edited the sound quality so that it could theoretically be believed that the audio came from that camera. Of course, it was a hot mic — the audio could have come from anywhere. But people were lemmings and believed what they saw, and it was easy enough for her to build fake credibility.
Not that credibility was ultimately mandatory in this modern media market’s “Hot Take” economy. As long as it was entertaining and easy to reshare, anything could pass as news if she decided it was.
She could have just as easily released the audio alongside the video without editing, or even just released the audio alone. It would do the trick and cause enough trouble for Yano. But the extra effort was art. It was her personal passion. She didn’t want to just cause him trouble and invite questions about his dubious relationships with minors. She wanted to bypass the trial of public opinion and get as quickly as possible to the execution. And that meant she needed to tell the public what their opinion was supposed to be. And that was: “this douchebag diddles kids.”
She put the final touches on the edited FeedClip, then prepared to release it into “the wild” via one of her several bot-driven CitizenFeeds, built and scripted to look like real-time running commentary of the day’s events posted by a bored, unengaged, underlabored citizen. The bot’s text-to-speech engine was custom-tailored to sound as natural as an uneducated mid-twenties Citizen would, with frequent but consistent mispronunciations of middle-tier vocabulary and unnecessary stressing of certain words and phrases, occasionally sprinkling the word “fuck” or some derivation of it into every single sentence.
Finally, the clip was ready. It looked and sounded completely legit. With the push of a button, Yano Milopolis’s life would be over. It would be the most discussed story on NewsFeed, right after all of the hubbub about Marlowe Kana. Oh, to make the national NewsFeed alongside the biggest story in history…the thought made her smile. It wasn’t even about the money. It was the principle. The undercroft of the Feed economy was hers. She had built it herself — every trick, every tactic, every tool, she had fashioned herself or had discovered in the archives and modified. She was the Queen Troll under the digital bridge. And no one — not Yano Milopolis, or any other competitor, or even Marlowe Kana herself — was going to take her place.
Boy, would the world shit itself if they found out who she really was. She operated under many aliases, all of which had achieved some measure of infamy on various Top Ten Most Wanted, Hated, Reviled or Revered lists across the Feeds.
She sent the ransom letter to Yano’s Feed, using a forged Imagen Bulletin key signature to allow her to pin it to his HUD and ping him every minute until he read it. She smiled with glee as she glanced over at a different display — credits had been deposited in yet another disposable account, from which she would funnel the money. Her new ransomware was working. She unlocked the target’s HUD embedded in his contact lenses and allowed him to actually see again, giving him a break from the blinding and disorienting flicker that could only be described as the visual equivalent of a tornado siren. All of Imagen’s efforts to patch the vulnerabilities were laudable, but she had a list of zero-day exploits no one knew about that spanned several printed pages. Basically, she could modify her app quicker than they could stop her.
She pressed a few keys and let her victim finally get some peace and a little shut-eye.
In another display, she monitored the view count of the twenty-two separate persona broadcasts she had set up. None of them were real people. All were using Ident-keys from people who had died while on a thrilling safari to the Gaslands, or while in the Subs entertaining narcotics-fueled prurient interests — or as they called it, “doing dirt.” As far as Imagen’s network monitors knew, these citizens were still alive and well and broadcasting fan-made videos of celebrities.
One of them — the most watched of all her personas, with twenty-one million viewers — was her own father, Thomas Cervantes.
It was the persona that kept the mortgage paid and the groceries delivered. It was the one she gave the most love, a tribute to his legacy. It was the one through which she broadcast her Marlowe Kana Feed remixes, by far the most popular subject. The “MKFan_9999” persona earned her hundreds of thousands of credits a month. It was the lead horse in a stable that was beyond rich in attention. The follower counts on the other twenty-one sock-puppet Feeds tallied in the millions each. Between them all, she had fifty million followers, nine million more than there were actual citizens in the United American State. The fact that her father had died with her mother in a freak hovertrain accident years ago was a minor inconvenience. Because he had worked from home, she was able to keep his persona alive and deposit the credits that came in every two weeks like clockwork. His job was easily replaced by scripts, as were the jobs of the dozens of other people she’d assumed the identities and accounts of when they had died. Her father had been a huge fan of Marlowe’s when he was alive, and she felt that using his persona to run her most profitable FeedLeech operation was singularly appropriate.
She was about to check the ad revenue stats for all of her Feed accounts when a tone sounded from the monitor at the bottom-right of her massive multi-screen workstation. She looked over at the security feed of her front door. A man wearing a cap obscuring his face was at the door, tapping his foot. He was dressed in a red and black jumpsuit and was holding a pizza box.
“Fuck,” Regina said. “A goddamn pizza? At two in the morning?? Who the FUCK doxxed me?” She pressed a few keys at the same time and an automated script began running, tracing all incoming requests to her network, searching for whoever had dared to bring her virtual war into the real world. She knew that she wouldn’t be exposed. As far as anyone with any access to her network could ever tell, her dead father was the persona behind the curtain. And that was behind another digital curtain, which sat behind yet another curtain, and so forth and so on.
She smacked a button mounted above her desk on a row of shelving holding several more terminals.
“Who is it?” She asked through the microphone. The intercom repeated her question in a gravelly man’s voice thanks to the custom voice print alteration software she had written.
“Imagen Pizza,” the man replied, though she, of course, knew the answer.
“I didn’t order a pizza,” she said.
“Says here you did,” the man replied, gesturing the boxes upward to indicate the receipt on top. “Thirteen-thirty-seven Maple Street, right?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t order any pizza,” she insisted.
“Look, dude,” the guy in the jumpsuit said, “I gotta drop these pies here or my creds get docked. It’s paid for already. Just take them? Please?”
“Leave them on the step,” she said.
“Come on, you know I can’t without a print.” He complained, referring to the delivery service monitoring system that kept delivery people from running off with the pizzas or other food deliveries, or toiletries, or sex toys…anything and everything one could get delivered directly to their home from Imagen Prime. So it was a requirement that the customer’s fingerprint be inputted upon receipt of an order.
Regina sighed. This was some sort of signal sent by her net competition, she was sure of it. But she didn’t need yet another enemy; she was managing enough of them as it was. And she sure as hell didn’t need some poor pizza guy filing a report on why this particular address was refusing acceptance of a paid-for delivery. Reports led to calls. Calls led to downtime, and downtime led to the loss of territory and profits. And she had to admit, she was kind of hungry.
“What kind of pies?” She asked.
“Pepperoni, extra cheese,” the delivery guy replied.
“Damn, that does sound good…” Regina muttered. “Okay, my daughter is coming down.”
She opened the door of her office, descended the stairs, and approached the front door. The moment her hand touched the doorknob, a shrill alert suddenly sounded from both the terminal in the front room of the house, and every single terminal from her office upstairs. It was the alarm that signaled that her location, in some form or fashion, was being streamed by another Feed.
“Shit!” She yelled, backing away frantically from the door.
She had barely cleared the path before the front door swung open violently. The man in the red jumpsuit burst through the threshold and rushed her, placing his hand over her mouth before she could scream. He pressed her against the back of a chaise lounge that sat in the middle of the living room.
He looked directly into her eyes and whispered, “Shhhhhh.”
Fear shook her from head to toe. Tears welled up in her eyes. She knew who this man was — Lieutenant Alexis “Hax” Curtis, one of the contenders in United America’s “Next Top Soldier.” And he was on the hunt for Marlowe Kana.
Hax was fat by MilSec standards. But his fans know his real strength was in hacking and stealth. And his foes knew that that strength was rivaled by precious few. And just because he carried a few extra pounds didn’t mean he was out of shape. He worked out daily. He kept his cardio up. He just really, really liked Imagen CheezyRanch Triangle Crunchies. But his prosthetic legs could more than carry the extra weight, just as easily as they could kick in the quadruple-locked solid steel door on a small home in suburban Atlanta, where a certain notorious FeedLeech lived.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he whispered. “Someone is coming that I do want to hurt, though. She’s a very bad person, and I need you to be a good person while I take care of her. Can you do that?”
She knew this man from “Next Top Soldier,” a show she despised but had to watch, due to how profitable the videos her FeedLeech operation was made because of them. And she loathed him. He was by far the most vile and disgusting contestant in the show’s history. He played dirty. He rarely bathed. He picked his scabs and spit on the street in public. He blew snot rockets on his enemies after defeating them. He was disgusting in every sense of the word. And right now, he had her pinned against her father’s sofa and she’d never been more terrified in her life.
She desperately wanted to shake her head no — no, she’s not going to be a good person — and knee him in the balls and run to her panic room and trigger the explosives she had planted around the house. But the fear…it gripped her. She couldn’t move. Even if she could, it would have done no good. The same IED that had taken his legs in the Gaslands had famously taken his testicles as well.
He pulled a gun from the waistband of his red Imagen Pizza delivery jumpsuit and held it to her temple. ” Nod yes so I don’t have to ruin this beautiful carpet your parents have.”
She nodded yes furiously.
“Good. This will be over soon, and if you play nice, you will be a hero to the entire nation. They can see you right now. Nod for them, so they know you’re one of the good guys.”
She did as he asked.
“Good girl. Now, I am going to let you up, and when I do, I want you to walk over to that beautiful pre-war desk in the corner and sit at it very, very quietly. You don’t have to do anything else. Just sit. Can you do that? Nod yes.”
Every part of her body shook.
The man cocked his head and blinked. “Ruined carpet, then?”
She whimpered slightly. She shook her head no, and then began shaking her head yes.
“Good. Now go.”
As she trembled her way over to the desk, Hax removed the hidden camera pen embedded in the front pocket of his jumpsuit and placed it on a mantle across the room. The wide-angle lens captured the entire room for an audience that was beginning to tune in by the tens of thousands per second.
He stripped out of the red jumpsuit, revealing lightweight armor that covered his entire body. Pulling a thin veil of fabric over his head from the collar of the armor, he flashed a crooked smile for the camera.
“And just like that…” he whispered, and his beefy hand rose and he snapped his fingers before switching on his thermoptic camouflage and vanished completely into thin air.
“…He was gone.”
It was almost two in the morning, and Angela Tufner had just returned home from working the late Emergency Room shift at Grady-Usher-CeeLo Memorial Hospital. It had been an unusually horrible night at work. Burn victims, head wounds…so many critical care patients all from the Subs post-raid. She was supposed to have signed off at midnight. Eventually, her nurse manager had forced her to leave at one a.m., as the law stipulated that no Imagen worker could work more than twenty-four hours in a single shift. Angela kicked off her shoes, dragged herself into bed, and pulled the blankets over herself, deciding to catch up on NewsFeed before sinking into some much needed sleep.
Not wanting to wake her husband Matt with voice commands to JAQi, she waved her hand upwards in the air like a conductor readying her orchestra. The wall screen slowly dissolved the fireplace projection that had helped lull Matt to sleep, and transitioned to a live NewsFeed of Amanda Stokes, NewsFeed correspondent and host of her own show, “Stokes the Fire,” deep in mid-diatribe.
Angela rolled her eyes. She really didn’t have the energy to listen to “Stokes The Fire,” not to mention bear witness to Amanda’s perpetual smirk. But she also didn’t have the energy to change the Feed or to ask JAQi to summarize the day’s events. She’d be asleep in under five minutes, anyway, so why not just tune in to the worst show on the major Feeds, hosted by a woman who had used Marlowe Kana and slept her way to celebrity. At the very least, she’d feel a bit better about herself, knowing she wasn’t a desperate ratings-monger like Amanda Stokes.
“She’s a national disgrace!” Amanda Stokes ranted, continuing from a speech that Angela was thankful to have missed part of. Amanda’s long, jet-black hair took on a life of its own as she gesticulated wildly, her steel-blue eyes piercing the soul of every viewer, even through the lens of the camera.
“And even after being found guilty of treason — of TREASON, people!” Amanda frothed. “We still show her face on every Feed and on posters in every store, alongside candy bars and hoverbikes and anything else considered to be cool, and we tell the people of this great nation — especially the CHILDREN of this great nation — that it’s okay to be a criminal as long as you’re famous! Murder people, you know? Beat them up! As long as MilSec and Imagen say you’re a hero, it must be okay! Am I right? MK does it, so it’s okay! What kind of example does this set for our children? Why do we still allow her to troll along in our Feeds and help generate a narrative that — you know what? Bobby, roll the commercial. Do we have the…we do? Okay great, roll it. Roll the commercial. Let’s show the nation exactly what I’m talking about.”
The screen froze on the first frame of a Battery Bars commercial. Marlowe Kana’s scarred but beautifully made-up face was still, eyes squinted and lips barely pursed, preparing to deliver the first line of script for the high-energy supplement, the wrapper of which also adorned her face.
“Play it,” Amanda said through the audio in the background. “Can you get it to play?”
Another voice in the distance mumbled something that sounded like, “I’m trying.”
“Well try hard– ah, there it goes. It’s going. People, listen.”
The audio of Amanda’s tirade blended with the first lines of Marlowe’s commercial, which the entire nation knew by heart at this point.
“Whether I’m in the Gaslands fighting terrorists, or in the gym helping to keep our energy grid efficient, nothing fuels me like a good Battery.”
Marlowe winked at the camera. A disingenuous almost sickly smile wreathed her face.
“Look at that smart-assed grin,” Amanda taunted on screen. “As insincere as she is. And I should know…” From her bed, Angela rolled her eyes and mouthed the words along with Amanda. “I used to date her.”
“Ugh!” Angela involuntarily groaned aloud. The volume of the Feed automatically lowered in response to her voice.
“Huh, what?” Matt mumbled, waking mid-snore.
“Nothing, honey,” she replied, patting him on the hip. “Just the NewsFeed.”
“Ugh…” Matt said, smacking his dry lips. “Just turn it off.”
“I will,” she said. “I’m just so sick of all of this…the trial, the incessant coverage, and especially this witch.”
“Mhmm,” Matt said, rolling over and pulling the covers over his eyes. “I know. You’ve said.”
“…What’s that supposed to mean?” Angela asked angrily.
“…Nothing,” Angela replied. She hadn’t meant to go on the offensive. Frankly, she knew she shouldn’t be indulging this Feed, but it was the only thing on at this hour that wasn’t a commercial masquerading as entertainment, WarFeeds that weren’t anywhere near as entertaining as Marlowe’s, CitizenFeeds reviewing the hottest new Imagen Games releases, or people hitting themselves (or others) in the genitals for ratings.
After a short period of silence, the volume raised on the Feed again.
“…STILL giving her airtime!” Amanda continued from what Angela could easily imagine was yet more ranting and railing against Marlowe Kana. “This lady — no, let me rephrase, because she’s no lady, let me tell you. This woman…she attempts to murder a fellow officer, Sergeant Corta, because why? She’s jealous of the ratings Corta was getting on ‘Next Top Soldier,’ that’s why! That’s a fact! And she was found guilty of treason against the United American State. That is also a fact. She had to be working with the terrorists all along! She HAD to be! Staging battles for viewer count. That’s a true fact, verified by the traitors and terrorists who just sprung her from prison! She colluded with them all along, and has for years! YEARS, I tell you! Because that’s how this works, people. It’s all a hoax carefully crafted by Marlowe Kana to keep YOU watching. And we know this from the evidence! It’s all there.”
“You know what evidence isn’t there, dear viewers? Do YOU, Bobby?” She asked her producer off-camera.
A distant voice could be heard responding, “no.”
“Well, I do,” Amanda said, a sharklike grin spreading across her face as she looked directly into the lens of the camera. “I do indeed.” She paused for a moment and glared at the camera. The intent was to build suspense. The result was that she was feeding the meme trolls who captioned her image with silly phrases yet another headshot to work with.
“The evidence of Marlowe’s innocence isn’t there,” Amanda answered. “This much discussed but never received Feed that Marlowe’s defense was supposed to provide that shows Corta attacked first? Where is it? MK’s narrative that she was merely defending herself? There’s no proof, people! None. It’s just her word against all of MilSec’s. And as you saw in that Battery commercial, her word comes with a sly grin, a wink, and a nod to her fans and zero sincerity.”
“And we — all of us, the viewers, NewsFeed, SportsFeed, WarFeeds, every single one of us — we are all still playing her game, because why? Viewer count.” Amanda paused again, letting her point resonate with her audience. When she was sufficiently convinced that it had, she began again. “Here’s the evidence, plucked from right here, from my own show.”
The screen split to show a line chart of “Stokes The Fire’s” ratings over the past eight months. “See, from the beginning of this show’s existence, our viewer count was low…20,000 viewers on average. It’s the midnight to four a.m. slot. The nation is either asleep or working. Not many people are going to watch, I admit that. But I have my loyal fans, and to you, I say that I love you, and I do this for YOU. Not THESE new folks,” she said, pointing at a huge uptick in viewership around the time that Marlowe’s alleged crime took place.
“These Johnny-and-Jill-Come-Latelys…yes, you! You’re watching this right now and you only started when MK’s name was dropped! You bandwagon jumpers…you’re here for the Marlowe Kana show, not MY show! This show is now in the one hundred thousand viewer per night range, and why? Well, I’d love to tell you it’s because of my charming personality. But we all know the truth. It’s because suddenly, my Feed has become the ‘All-Marlowe, All-The-Time Show.’ And you know what? I’m sick to death of it!”
Amanda seethed for the camera for a moment, exhibiting well-rehearsed disdain. She then looked away dramatically, took a cleansing breath, exhaled, and looked into the camera again.
“But how do YOU feel about it? I’d love to know, dear viewers. Bobby, do we have anyone on the line? Yeah? Okay, put it through. Go ahead, viewer.”
“Uh…yeah, hi,” the caller said. “My name is Omar Rodriguez, calling from Atlanta.”
“Ah, a local!” Amanda said with a smile. “Hi, Omar. What’s stoking your fire this morning?”
“Well, first, I have to say, I’m one of your newer viewers. I only really watched tonight because, you know…the trial and all. And Corta’s back, and I wanted to see what you’d say about that. I missed the NewsFeed today while I was at my shift at the Imagen Prime Distribution Center cafeteria, and I’ve not really been able to sleep so –”
“Do you have a question, Omar? Or even a point?” Amanda asked snidely.
“Uh…well yeah. So why do you talk about MK so much if you hate her?”
“Because, unfortunately, Marlowe Kana is the news of the day, Omar,” Amanda said.
“Well, yeah, sure, but your point is that she’s over-exposed and given too much air time, right?”
“Well of course,” Amanda said. “But MK is news, so I have to cover her.”
“Well wouldn’t you say that you benefit from it?”
“No. Why would I say that?”
“Your chart, you know? I mean, look at it. Your ratings went up like, you know…a lot.”
“Well of course they did,” Amanda said. “People want to know what’s going on with this story.”
“But doesn’t that mean you’re contributing to–”
“–No!” Amanda barked. “I am NOT contributing! I am covering the news of the day, and providing my personal analysis of it.”
“But it’s always about Marlowe–”
“Listen, newbie,” She interrupted, pointing sternly into the lens of the camera. “I had a personal and very close relationship with Marlowe Kana. I know the woman better than anyone. I have a unique and very important viewpoint on her, her personality, her motives. And the citizens of this great nation need this information. So I do my job, sir. I provide the people with that which they need.”
“Get it?” Amanda said, abruptly completing his sentence. “I know you don’t. That’s why I’m here behind the camera and you’re there, tuning in as a Johnny-Come-Lately, a hanger-on. Not even a real fan of mine. Just rubbernecking this trainwreck our society has generated by their incessant coverage and over-exposure of the criminal Marlowe Kana.”
“But you’re doing it yourself,” Omar said.
“How DARE you!” Amanda yelled. “How DARE you dismiss the personal pain and grief I had to go through with her? How DARE you callously pave over the bravery I exhibit night after night, talking about this woman who has destroyed my life, and so many other peoples’ lives, with her megalomaniacal insanity? How DARE you–”
The audio muted and the screen began to fade as JAQi’s sleep detection kicked in. Slowly, the glow from the Feed of a lit fireplace shone once more from the wall screen. Matt was snoring again, but nothing could wake Angela from the deep slumber she had slipped into.
Jen shuffled her way up alongside Marlowe and Sully, huffing and puffing with each step. Carefully, the three made their way up the gravel path through the thick cover of synthetic trees, to the very gate Marlowe had approached earlier with the rogue squad. Slowly, Marlowe helped Sully off of her back and held him steady on his remaining leg.
“You really think they’re still here?” Jen asked.
“Pretty sure,” Marlowe said, holding Sully secure around the waist while investigating the gate lock that still hung, unshackled, where Poet had left it. Sliding it out, she lifted up the u-hook latch. The gate creaked as it opened.
“What makes you say that?”
Marlowe pointed at a small, six-passenger aerial vehicle covered by a tarp near the woods, just beyond the fence. “That poorly concealed Jumper at the tree line, for one.”
“Is that what they brought you here in?” Sully asked.
“I wish,” Marlowe answered. “If I had that thing when I escaped, I’d be across the Mississippi by now. I think it’s theirs, or at least Sovereign’s. It’s not MilSec, as near as I can tell. And the truck I left against the door is gone. So either they’re being held as bait by MilSec or they have reinforcements. Gonna bet the latter, given the lack of blood everywhere. That Jacobs kid…he’s a scrappy one.”
“Okay, so, what’s the plan?” Jen asked.
“Well, if we’re not stopped beforehand, we’re going to walk up to the door of that shed there,” Marlowe answered, pointing it out. “And when we get there, we’re going to knock on it. And if they’re there, we’ll say hi. Hopefully, they’ve made coffee.”
“That’s certainly, uh…direct,” Jen said. “You’re not taking cover and surveying the area and all that sneaky reconnaissance soldier shit? You’re just going to walk up and say hi?”
“Nope,” Marlowe said, pushing the gate open, “We all are.”
“Wait,” Jen said, taking a few steps back. “You’re taking us with you? Shouldn’t we hide and wait to make sure it’s all clear or something?”
“Nah,” Marlowe said, casually scanning the area. “If they patrol the area and find you, you’re dead. Besides, they already know we’re here.”
“How do you know?”
“I just saw the light glint off of Angel’s scope…up there, about three hundred yards out.” Marlowe waved hello in the direction of the hill. A muffled report whispered in the distance a second before a wad of earth erupted from the ground at Marlowe’s feet.
“Whoa!” Jen yelled as she leapt back. Marlowe laughed and gave a thumbs-up in the direction of the shooter.
Sully scoffed. “Typical MilSec kids. Must be nice to have ammo enough to waste on saying hello.”
“She’s good, I’ll give her that,” Marlowe said.
“Good?!?” Jen exclaimed. “She just shot at us!”
“No, she shot at that spot on the ground,” Marlowe said, pointing at the divot Angel had left at their feet. “If she shot at us, we’d be a lot bloodier.”
“How do you know she didn’t just miss?”
“Because she’s using her long-range scope.”
Sully chuckled. “Damn, you notice everything, huh?”
“It’s my job,” Marlowe said. “Well…used to be.”
“Okay, wait a fucking minute,” Jen said, waving her hands, “I’m not a soldier, I know. And this might be obvious as hell to you two, but what the hell does the type of scope have to do with her saying hi with a fucking bullet?!?”
“It’s not the one that she was equipped with when the group sprung me from the transport, and she didn’t need a long range from that distance. She swapped scopes, knowing that the long-range isn’t coated and it would reflect light.”
“Uh, okay?” Jen said.
“…She changed scopes so I’d spot her,” Marlowe simplified.
“You guys are fucking crazy,” Jen said, shaking her head.
“No doubt,” Marlowe said. “Now, let’s go say hi to the rest of them.”
Marlowe pulled Sully in toward her hip and the pair began hobbling toward the shed. Jen sighed and muttered under her breath, “fuck this gung-ho bullshit.”
Reluctantly, she limped along behind them.
The door of the shed swung open as the trio approached. Standing in the doorway was a tall, thin man clad in a black turtleneck sweater and black pants with a silver belt buckle. He had long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a thin black mustache and goatee, all of which had the appearance of being dyed. Just behind him stood Poet and Jacobs, both pointing the barrel of their rifles at Marlowe, Sully, and Jen.
“Welcome,” the man in black said. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“I’ll bet,” Marlowe said as she approached the door. “Sully and Jen, wait out here.”
“Don’t be silly,” the man in black said. “If they’re friends of yours, they’re our invited guests.”
Marlowe considered the situation. The last thing she wanted was for Sully and Jen to be trapped in a building full of people with the motivation to hold them hostage. Poet, she deduced, wouldn’t have the stomach for outright murder. But with even the slightest notion of a wrong move, she was certain that Jacobs would put bullets through both of their skulls.
However, standing out in the open at an EV plant while MilSec was hunting them was not the best place or time to negotiate. Reluctantly, Marlowe nodded and helped Sully inside. Jen followed behind, and the door slammed shut.
As Jen helped Marlowe guide Sully to a chair, Marlowe surveyed her surroundings. At old man William’s workbench was a young man with a shaved head wearing glasses. He was using a portable laptop terminal, hunched over the keyboard, chopping furiously away at the keys. Beside him stood a woman who looked a lot like a younger version of Angel. Same straight red hair, same freckles, same professional demeanor. Marlowe figured them for sisters. They both wore jumpsuits with the same Dazzle camouflage that Poet had on, but neither was clad in any of the makeshift body armor.
The man in black strolled casually over to the young hacker at the terminal. Poet and Jacobs took up positions to his right, Jacobs keeping his rifle on Marlowe, while Poet casually covered Sully and Jen, who had sunk thankfully into William’s sturdy wooden chairs. Marlowe faced the room full of people with her back to the shed door, ready to effect an exit at a moment’s notice,provided she could outrun Angel’s scope.
“We haven’t formally met,” the man in black said, extending his right hand.
“Well,” Marlowe said, “Considering your outfit, you’re either a poet, or a vintage country and western cover artist.”
The man in black laughed. “Ah, ridicule. Quite the first move from you, considering your position.” His hand still hung in mid-air, waiting for Marlowe to shake it.
“Hey, you made the first move when you dressed like that,” Marlowe replied glibly without breaking eye contact.
The man in black proffered a wry smile as he withdrew his hand. “You can call me The Poet if you prefer. Or the Country Singer. Titles don’t matter to me. ”
“Well I’m sure as hell not calling you ‘The Judge.’ That is who you are, isn’t it? Or who these guys say you are. I’ll just call you The Jackass…since ‘Poet’ is already taken.”
Poet snorted. Jacobs nudged him with the butt of his rifle.
The Judge laughed. “Have it your way,” he said, turning toward the workbench. He grabbed a cup and reached for a long metal cylinder that was perched on the edge of the table. “Coffee?” He asked, placing the cup under the spigot.
“…That’s what’s in there?” Marlowe asked. “I thought it was William’s degreasing fluid.”
“It certainly could be, given how strong he makes it,” the Judge said, handing Marlowe the cup. He looked around him in quiet contemplation. “This place…it’s so strangely perfect as a base of operations. All of these wonderful makeshift tools and items, like a coffee maker built from an old gas can and a built-in torch, or that wonderful homemade pneumatic hammer. They used these to kill cows for slaughter…of course, back when there were cows.”
“So William made this?” Marlowe asked, gesturing the cup of coffee toward The Judge before taking a sip.
The Judge nodded. “You thought we murdered him, I’m sure.”
“So you’re not barbarians.”
“Of course not. We are in the business of liberating people, not murdering them.”
“Tell that to Sergeant Morris,” Marlowe said, glancing at Jacobs while taking a sip from the coffee cup.
“MilSec are not ‘people,’ MK,” the Judge said, recapturing her attention. “They are enemy combatants. They chose their lot. They knew the risks that their job entails.”
“Well, if they didn’t know they could get shot in the head by overzealous privates under the orders of country-singing political zealots, they sure as hell do now.”
“It’s Private First Class,” Jacobs corrected.
“Not now, blondie,” Marlowe said without even looking in Jacobs’s direction. “Look, you fucking waste of a porn moustache…start talking, and don’t stop until I understand just what the hell you want with me.”
The Judge chuckled. “To the point, as ever,” he said. “Well, I’ll keep it brief. Poet said he explained our cause to you, and I know you’re not one for a sales pitch. I want your support. And in exchange, I will give you mine. Simple as that.”
“What, you want to use my face to market a competing brand of Battery bars?” Marlowe asked sarcastically. “Fine. I accept credits and ammo, and I prefer the latter.”
“What I want you to help support is far more important than an energy bar,” the Judge said. “We want freedom for the United American State.”
“We have freedom,” Marlowe retorted. “Well, the citizens do. I doubt anyone in this room is going to walk free after all the shit we’ve all pulled in the last six hours.”
“Exactly my point. You came back for our help, and we want to give it to you. I am sure you spotted the Jumper outside. We can be back in Indianapolis in three hours. Come with us back to our headquarters, and we can plan the safe extraction of your father.”
“Not a chance,” Marlowe said defiantly. “My father’s in Atlanta, so I’m in Atlanta until he’s safe.”
“It’s safer and much easier at our command center,” the Judge insisted.
“Fine,” Marlowe said, “Have one of the boys there put a bullet in my head and you can carry my corpse back to Indy. Otherwise, I’m going to have to politely decline.”
The Judge smiled the first smile that didn’t seem rehearsed. He turned to the man hunched over the portable terminal. “Austin, how long before we risk detection?” he asked.
“Well, the interference from this EV plant will keep satellite recon at bay, and I’ve been able to compromise fully half of the connected devices on the Net. I’m using them as distributed computing platforms, and I’ve set up a redirect of net surveillance so drones shouldn’t be drifting this way. And if anyone approaches, we’ll have them on traffic cams minutes before they get here. It’s not the command center, but I can make it work.”
“How long?” The Judge asked again curtly.
“Probably days, considering how dysfunctional MilSec OpSec seems to be. A few hours, at the minimum. ”
“Fantastic work, son,” the Judge said. “It’s far more dangerous, but if the Major insists on staying here, we stay here.”
Poet cackled. “Told you we’d stay here!” He crowed, pointing in Jacob’s face as Jacobs ruefully handed over a one hundred credit chit.
“The Major?” Marlowe asked. “Fuck off with your pandering. I’m not ‘The Major.’ I’m not a character in some comic book or cartoon that you can appropriate for your own use. I’m not even a major anymore. I didn’t insist we stay here, I said that I am staying here. I don’t know what the hell you want or why I should even work with you. I’m here for them,” she said gesturing toward Poet and Jacobs, “so you’re free to go wherever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want. I’m here for muscle. Leave me out of your cause.”
The Judge simpered and Marlowe wanted to retch. “I understand your reticence,” he said, “And I don’t think you’re some anime character. No, of course you’re not. You’re a real-life hero. A symbol to millions. You’re far more powerful than some character out of a comic. You’re a character out of our real lives.”
“Get to the point.”
“Yes, well…that is the point,” the Judge said. “You’re a symbol. The people of this nation…they know you. They believe in you. They trust you.”
“They believe in entertainment,” Marlowe answered. “And I entertain them, that’s for sure. But as far as trust? From what I was able to glean from the bit of NewsFeed I saw, they all believe I’m guilty. And your stunt didn’t really help that.”
“Our ‘stunt’ broke you out and made you free.”
“As free as any girl with two guys pointing guns at her head can be,” Marlowe replied.
The Judge nodded toward Poet and Jacobs, who lowered their rifles at roughly the same time. The second their barrels dipped below Marlowe’s hip level, she rushed past the Judge. She leapt upon Poet and pinned his weapon to his chest, much as Jacobs had done to Sergeant Morris back in the prison transport. She twisted and positioned Poet between herself and Jacobs. With as much effort as she could muster, she shoved Poet backwards into Jacobs, sending them both spilling into Austin.
Marlowe maneuvered to grab Poet’s rifle. Just as she had her hands around it, she heard Jen yell, “GUN!”
Marlowe whipped her head around to find the barrel of a Glock 97 pointed right between her eyes. She followed the line of the gun barrel to the hand that held it, which was attached to an arm clad in a black and red checkered shirt.
“I hate to do this to you, MK,” William Rudd said from behind her. “I like you. I don’t want to kill you.”
Marlowe slowly straightened up, dropped Poet’s rifle, and raised her hands.
“Enough,” the Judge said. “Everyone, weapons down.”
“But…” William stammered.
William lowered his antique Glock 97, one of maybe a dozen that had apparently escaped being destroyed when ballistic firearms became outlawed. Marlowe considered beating the man and taking his gun, but that could remain an option for later. At that moment, she really wanted to hear what was making William side with The Judge.
Jacobs, Poet, and Austin stood and dusted themselves off. Jacobs scowled at Marlowe.
“Well I’ll be god-damned!” Sully said from his chair.
Marlowe looked over at him as he struggled to stand. “William Rudd!” Sully exclaimed. “As sure as I’m standing here, it’s William goddamn Rudd!”
“…Sully?!?” William said. “What the hell!” The men embraced, clearly glad to see one another.
“Old friends?” Marlowe asked.
“This man saved my life,” Sully said. “I owe him everything.”
“You paid a leg for it,” William replied. “I think the tab is clear! Man…what are you doing here??”
“Helping Marlowe!” Sully replied.
“Me too,” William said. “Well, I hope to, anyway…if she’d stop being a goddamn fool and just listen to this man.”
Marlowe shrugged. She turned to the Judge. “Okay, well, consider me interested. You have my attention now,” she said.
“We’re on the same side,” The Judge said. “We need each other.”
“I can’t agree.”
“No?” The Judge asked. “Fancy yourself a maverick, do you? A lone wolf type? You, the poor little famous super soldier against the world?”
“No. I just have no idea what side you’re on. Or what the sides even are.”
“I’m on your side,” he assured her.
“You don’t even know what side I’m on.”
“The side of truth. The side of justice. The side of right being done.”
“And what is the truth, as you see it, mister Judge?”
“Just Judge. No need for the mister.”
Jen and Marlowe both rolled their eyes.
“I know you find me distasteful,” he said.
“What gave it away?” Marlowe asked. “Is it the complete lack of respect I’ve paid you since we’ve met, or…well, there’s nothing else, really. I don’t like you. I don’t respect you. And I don’t really want anything to do with you.”
“You don’t have to respect me,” the Judge replied. “But I know you respect the truth. You ask me what the truth is? The truth is that this nation and our freedom in it is an illusion. It’s all a show. I know you respect freedom. You fought for it with MilSec. But that wasn’t real. I’m asking you…do you want to fight for real freedom? With us?”
“Real freedom?” Marlowe asked? “What the hell do you see as real freedom? We are free to choose where we work. We are free to choose what we do with our lives. We are free to choose what we eat, what we watch, who we listen to…we are free.”
“Freedom to choose between Imagen Pizza and Imagen Tacos and Imagen Sushi for dinner isn’t freedom,” The Judge barked. “Freedom to choose from hundreds of Imagen Feeds for entertainment…freedom to choose between President Cook and President Davis, when both served on the board of Imagen…freedom to indulge in alcohol and narcotics and gambling in the Subs, so long as MilSec doesn’t feel like burning the place to the ground? How is any of that real freedom?”
Marlowe was quiet for a moment. The Judge continued. “Freedom is not an inheritance, the way Imagen was for Cook. Real freedom is our challenge. It is our calling. It is our duty. It requires effort and sacrifice, and if you turn your back on it, it will not get better, it will get worse. We are told that the United American State is the land of the free…the last true civilization on the planet. Fifty years after taking up arms against one another, we finally have a constitution and a president again and that means it’ll all be okay, right? Except these things don’t work by default. Constitutions and elections mean nothing if the people don’t make them mean something. It is not enough to believe. You must stand and fight.”
“…Uh huh,” Marlowe said dismissively. “Sounds great. You practice that spiel in front of a mirror?”
“I practice it every day of my life,” The Judge answered. “It is core to my being. It is everything I believe in, and everything these men and women believe in. If you saw our society from a perspective that wasn’t through a Feed built by a corrupt corporation, you might see that.”
“I’ve seen plenty,” Marlowe retorted. “I’ve seen entire countries on fire. I’ve seen skies so filled with smoke the sun can’t peek through. I’ve seen mothers eating their babies to survive. I’ve seen more death than you’ve seen life.”
“And we’ve seen it all with you,” the Judge replied. “Through the lens of your camera, twenty-four-seven, every day of the year, for…how many years now?”
“Not my fault that WarFeed is the most popular show on the Net,” Marlowe said.
“Of course it’s not. People are morbid and bored. They’re safe. War is nothing more than a fantasy to them. There are precious few who actually remember what it was like to be at war — two of them sit in this very room with us. Ask them if they think we’re truly free.”
“Eh, we’re safe,” William said. “To a lot of people, it’s the same thing. But we’re not free. Not really.”
“Exactly!” The Judge replied exuberantly. “We live in a world where technologies have accelerated to the point that more humans have it embedded in their bodies than not. The terminally injured can walk again. People can watch Feeds through screens embedded in their eyes and hack the net from the Pods embedded in their skulls. Why not also use these technologies to improve the world? We could use them to put an end to the eternal fires in the Gaslands. We could make the entire world habitable again. But instead, these technologies are optimized to help corporations better manipulate human behavior.”
The Judge took a sip from his own coffee cup, mildly surprised that Marlowe had yet to interject. He continued. “The citizens are being fed Feeds of soldiers deployed in the Gaslands and even here at home. They see that they are being kept safe from an ugly world. I see daily, hourly, even minute by minute reminders of what happens if you don’t trust Imagen and their thugs implicitly.”
“What’s there to trust?!?” Marlowe asked. “We do our jobs!”
“They certainly did one on you, didn’t they?” The Judge asked.
Marlowe fumed. She had no response to that.
“Imagen is the enemy,” The Judge said.
“Not of the people!” Marlowe insisted. “Everyone’s got food! Everyone’s safe! Everyone’s got a job if they want it, and if they don’t, they don’t starve or sit in the rain. They have places to go! They get to be people! Forty million human beings, sitting under massive domes that generate fresh oxygen and rain and now even snow…all citizens with full bellies and a smile on their face! What, you want them to be free to be miserable?!?”
“Yes, yes! Now you get it!” The Judge cried. “Misery comes part and parcel with real freedom! The well-fed rarely question where their food comes from! The safe never think to ask for more, for risk of losing safety! They’re afraid, Marlowe! Fear is unproductive, fear is paralyzing. The path to hell is paved with fear. The question I would ask is: what reality do you want? One where everyone is so afraid to lose what they have that they just blindly accept it? Or one where they’re empowered to choose?”
“Choose between what, hunger or being fed? Between homelessness and safety? Between war and peace?”
“No one wants to choose between those things, you delusional ass,” Marlowe replied, dismayed. “Everyone wants food, water, shelter, and clean air. They’re the four basic tenets of life. Without those, you die. And choosing to die is stupid. No one wants to choose that. ‘Hmm… Should I starve or eat today? I dunno…’ No one asks that question! And they shouldn’t! It’s called sanity.”
“I think it’s the most insane thing I’ve ever heard.”
Marlowe was caught off-guard by the Judge’s response and let loose a deep belly laugh.
“You laugh all you like. We are bringing change to this nation. We are freeing the minds and hearts of those who have become automated to Imagen’s bidding.”
“And I’m sure you have ads running during your Feed full of inspirational speeches too, huh?”
“But of course! We need revenue to operate. What better way than using Imagen’s own credits against them!”
“Which means they know about you. Which means they allow you to exist. Which means you can’t be making all that much progress.”
The Judge laughed. “We got you out of the prison transport, didn’t we?”
Marlowe couldn’t argue with that. “Well then, how come I’ve never heard of you?”
“Because we operate under the radar. Until today, of course. That was our grand announcement. Our little coming out party, if you will. And we chose you for the occasion because, despite your obstinence, we believe that in time you’ll see what we’re fighting for and join us. You will take up the cause because it’s the right thing to do by every United American citizen. You spent your life protecting this nation from the threat of foreign terrorists. You’ve operated out there in the gaslands and beyond. You’ve seen what they do. You’ve seen how they live. What if I told you, Imagen was responsible?”
“For the eternal fires that burn in the Middle East?” Marlowe asked. “ISIS did that fifty years ago. They set fire to their own oil reserves.”
“Did they?” The Judge asked.
“Yes, they did,” Marlowe responded plainly. “Everyone knows that. Hell, first-year students know that.”
The Judge smirked.
“What…what is that?” Marlowe said, waving her fingers toward the Judge’s face. “That little smart-ass knowing smirk? You have some knowledge that I don’t?”
“Do I?” The judge asked, widening his smirk.
“Oh God,” Marlowe said, rolling her eyes again. “Great, you’re that fucking guy.”
“Oh GOD,” Marlowe groaned in exasperation. “Just…you know what? You and your little offshoot paramilitary operation here…you may have guns and some low-rent soldiers…well, except Angel, she seems legit. A little unprepared…she could cover her scope better. But, she did choose to follow you, so I question her mental health. Anyway–”
“What about me?” Jacobs interrupted.
Marlowe raised an eyebrow, summarily dismissing him. She returned her attention to the Judge. “You might have some resources I need, but this…” she said, waving her hand in a circle around his face. “This shit you’re spewing? And that smirk? And this goddamn moustache? This is just too much.”
“You can’t deny that you need my help.”
“No, I need THEIR help,” she said, again gesturing toward Poet and Jacobs. “Your help can go fuck itself.”
“Their help is my help.”
“Is it really?” She asked. “Jacobs? You wanna work with me or with this jagoff?”
“I uh…” Jacobs stammered. “Um…both of you?”
“Now, now,” The Judge said. “No need to put it to a decision. Listen. I will give you resources, untraceable access to JAQi, connections and support from my operatives. You run your own show. They do what you say. You don’t have to even do what I say, should you choose. But I’m sure you will come to find that what I have to say is worth hearing, and probably worth doing. At any rate, time is winding down and your father is in prison. We need to act.”
Marlowe considered The Judge and his prissy little mustache. “Fine,” she said. “Nothing gets implanted in me, period. You want to give me access to JAQi, it’s handheld. And if you double-cross me, I’ll use the very last ounce of AMP I have to jack myself up to the point of making sure there’s not a single recognizable sliver of your corpse remaining. They’ll have to slurp what’s left of you up with a straw.”
“Well that’s certainly very dramatic,” The Judge answered calmly, “But I’m fine with it. No implants and no double-crossing. That’s easy enough. So, now that you have your team and some resources, what’s your plan?”
“We’re going to break into Terminus Citadel and free my father.”
The entire room went silent, save for the clacking of Austin’s fingers on his keyboard.
“That’s suicide!” Jen gasped.
“You’re insane!” Poet seconded.
“I fucking love it!” Jacobs said, raising his hand to give Poet a high-five. Poet favored him with a glare in return.
“That’s a really, really bad plan,” The Judge opined, “Unless you’re just trying to find a particularly imaginative way of turning yourself into the authorities. You may get in, but you absolutely will not get out.”
“We’ll blast our way out!” Jacobs said.
The Judge coughed. “I think there’s a better way. Any luck, Austin?”
“Yes sir, I found him,” Austin said, face still buried in his tiny terminal. “And he’s here…in Atlanta.”
“Well now, that’s certainly fortuitous! Excellent work,” the Judge said as he strolled over to the young man. “Major, I’d like to show you something that might change your mind…or, at the very least, lighten your mood.”
“Stop calling me Major. And I don’t need to see the screen. Just tell me.”
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the CitizenFeed of MKFan_9999?”
Marlowe sighed. “Yes,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “He puts music to footage that he steals from my Feed and earns credits from the ads, like a hundred other leeches. It’s an old racket. Big fucking deal.”
“Not just your Feed,” the Judge said. “Dozens of others, too. Any Feed that captures footage of you.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen. So what, you found a fan of mine. In my own hometown. Wow, that must have taken considerable effort.”
The Judge’s smirk returned, as did Marlowe’s disgust. “This isn’t just any fan. Come look.”
Marlowe rolled her eyes and huffed dramatically as she walked toward Austin.
“This is ridiculous,” Austin said in frank amazement as she approached. “There’s three — wait, no, there’s FOUR barriers on this one node!” He said, a note of awe hanging in his voice.
“So the leech has a firewall,” Marlowe said. “I’m sure all those ad leeches hate each other and try to hack each other and shit, right, Jen?”
“Four barriers?” Jen said as she walked up beside Marlowe. “Who the hell has the resources for that?”
“Either someone really rich, or someone really, really talented at rerouting MilSec hardware,” Austin said. “Either way, this isn’t just some Feed leech. Look.”
Jen’s jaw dropped.
Marlowe shrugged. “What am I looking at?”
“Marlowe…this is literally every single user that has used a Feed of yours, or one featuring you, all relayed through multiple channels to one single node.”
Marlowe shook her head. “Wait…you mean…”
“Hundreds of leeches have actually been just one really, really smart Feed leech.”
Marlowe raised her arm to scratch her head, and nearly took the skin off of her cheekbone with the steel cuff bound around her wrist. She huffed, and then proceeded to scratch her head anyway. “I don’t get it.”
“This isn’t a Feed leech,” Austin said. “Well, it is, but it’s not just a Feed leech.”
“This person, whoever they are, has invented, then co-opted, an entire economy in trading on your Feed,” The Judge stepped in and explained. “And what’s more, they’ve created an illusion of competition with about three hundred sock puppets, convincing users to choose sides and promote their favorite.”
“It’s…genius…” Jen said. “Damn. I’m going to have to steal that.”
“The footage you mentioned…you said it was suppressed at trial?” the Judge asked.
“Not suppressed. Missing. Gone,” Marlowe answered. “Never even introduced as evidence. They deleted it.”
“I think we can find it, and I think this hacker and his massive network of Feed leeching is the key.
Jen looked over at Marlowe and shrugged. “It’s worth a shot,” she said.
“Great,” Marlowe said, “So you find the footage. Then what? Leak it? They’ll just claim it’s fake at this point. I’m sure they’ll have some digital forensics expert on the payroll who will ‘prove’ it’s a holo dupe.”
“Leave that part to us,” The Judge said. “We have our ways.”
“I’m not leaving anything to anyone,” Marlowe said. “You rescued me, and that’s great and all, but all it’s done so far is get my handicapped father tossed in prison in front of an audience of tens of millions. You want my involvement, you’re going to have to trust me as much as you’re asking me to trust you.”
The Judge thought about the situation for a moment. “All right, that’s fair,” he answered. “Full disclosure. We have an extensive network of operatives just waiting for the moment to serve the cause. We have more people inside MilSec, from enlisted to officers. We have lawyers. We have judges. If we can get the footage that exonerates you, we can leak it to the citizens who are part of our group with their own CitizenFeeds. And it can be validated by our source inside NewsFeed.”
Marlowe’s interested was suddenly piqued. “Wait, NewsFeed?” She asked. “Who? Who’s your NewsFeed source?”
The Judge smiled, knowing exactly who she was asking about. “Someone you know very well.”
“Oh, shit,” Jen said. “Not Amanda…”
“She’s a conniving, selfish, lying, back-stabbing, two-faced, lying piece of SHIT!” Marlowe raged.
“You said ‘lying’ twice,” Jacobs offered.
“I know!” Marlowe snapped at him. She looked back at the Judge. “Whatever you think she is to your movement, trust me, she’s just–”
“–Using us?” Judge said. “I know. But she can be useful.”
“She can go get fucked!” Marlowe said. “And so can you, if you bring her into this!”
“You asked for honesty,” The Judge said. “I could have lied and left her out, but I gave you the truth. I trusted you with this information. Now I ask that you trust us.”
“Marlowe, ” Jen said, “I really, really hate to say this…but we need her.”
Marlowe’s jaw dropped as her head spun to face Jen. “What the hell?” she asked.
“I know,” Jen answered quietly. “You know that the only person on earth who hates that waste of human skin more than you is me. But they’re right. If that footage is out there, she’s going to be the only voice anyone would listen to.”
“And we have leverage with her,” The Judge said. “Considerable leverage. Like I said, you can trust us.”
Marlowe was stunned. “Jen?” She asked. “You’re going to actually consider this?”
“It’s better than walking into the Terminus Citadel!”
“Not really,” Jacobs said from behind them. This time, it was Poet’s turn to jab him with the butt of his rifle.
“I…I just can’t…” Marlowe stammered in disbelief. After a moment, she snapped out of it in a fury. “Fine!” She yelled at Jen. “First, You called MilSec on me. And now, you wanna tag up with this low-rent, cowboy revolutionary wannabe? And use my ex-girlfriend who, if I may remind you, drove me to suicide, against me?!? You know what? You go right ahead! But not me. No. Fucking. Way. I’m out.” She began marching toward the door.
“They wheeled your sick father — a war hero — out in front of an audience, in full dress uniform, as he was drooling,” The Judge said. “They said he had broken the law and betrayed his country. General Kana…a traitor. Imagine that…”
Marlowe froze. She bit her bottom lip.
“That’s unforgivable,” the Judge added.
Marlowe turned to face him. The entire group was looking at her. Jen had tears in her eyes. William and Sully stood together nodding, supporting the Judge. Austin and the young woman who looked like Angel both stood silently with curious expressions on their faces. Jacobs and Poet looked nervously hopeful.
“That man is a hero. And so are his daughters,” the Judge said pointedly.
Marlowe rolled her eyes and huffed. She stared at the Judge through the narrowed slits of her eyelids. She inhaled through her nostrils and held her breath, considering the ceiling. She looked over at Sully and William. Then at her sister. Then at the soldiers and volunteers who had all decided to jump into this ridiculous mission.
Marlowe noisily exhaled her breath through her nostrils. With a voice that shook the walls, she acquiesced.
“Fine. Let’s go find my real fan club.”
Sully’s antiquated truck shook from the various symptoms of Marlowe’s withdrawal. The vibrations from her violent shivering were already bad enough, but the force with which she scratched her entire body was actually causing Sully’s truck to sway back and forth as they sped through the midnight snow. AMP was notorious for two things: making the user a highly efficient kinetic machine, and then making them a useless heap of quivering flesh that itched so badly that there was nothing to do but scratch between shivers.
Sully was annoyed. His singular pride and joy — the factory original, pre-war Ram 1500 he’d painstakingly rebuilt — was was being shaken to pieces by an augmented super-soldier-cum-felon. But annoyance was something he could handle. As it was, the constant swaying from Marlowe’s intense scratching was also forcing him to make perpetual corrections to his steering while skidding around on the snow that President Cook had called down from the heavens. Sully had never even seen snow before, much less attempted to drive a wheeled vehicle upon it. He glanced at the clock on the dash which read “12:56.” Doing the math in his head, he grimly figured that the five miles they’d shakily covered since leaving his bookshop had taken nearly as long as if they’d walked.
But he didn’t feel right complaining. He didn’t really know Marlowe beyond what he’d seen on the Feeds. And to tell the truth, she was more than a little intimidating. The size of her was misleading; she was physically dense, super strong, famously lethal and short-tempered. Plus, he had volunteered to come — and he wasn’t one to gripe about things that needed doing. Jen, however, wasn’t intimidated by Marlowe in the slightest.
“God, just take another hit, will you?” She finally yelled from between Sully and Marlowe.
“No,” Marlowe answered equably as she scratched.
“And why not?” Jen demanded.
“I’m trying to stay clean.”
“Sudden onset morality, huh?” Jen asked. “Is that some new side effect?”
“Shut up,” Marlowe muttered as she dug her fingernails into her flesh.
“Well, whatever you gotta do to quit shaking this old truck, you need to do it,” Sully insisted. “We still got a few miles to go to get to the EV plant to meet your friends, and driving is hard enough as it is with this white shit falling from the sky.”
“Hell of a time to toss out a new weather pattern,” Jen remarked drily.
“It’s actually the perfect — OUCH — time,” Marlowe said, snagging a healthy chunk of her skin under her fingernails. “People are probably going nuts watching the Feeds. What better time to let them know who’s in charge of everything, including the weather — OUCH! SHIT!”
“Quit scratching.” Jen said calmly, placing her hands over Marlowe’s to freeze them in place.
“I can’t help it!” Marlowe moaned.
“Yes you can.” Jen insisted, struggling to keep Marlowe still. “Just take a quarter dose. It’ll take the edge off.”
“No!” Marlowe snapped, violently jerking her hands away from Jen.
The unintended force of Marlowe’s movement shifted the weight of the pre-war truck and the tires slipped precariously over the icy roads. Sully immediately slammed on the brakes and attempted to steer the truck out of the skid. If he were driving a MagLev, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But given that he’d never before driven a wheeled vehicle on snow, he had no idea that it would only cause the truck to go into a tailspin. He wrestled frantically with the wheel.
“SHIT!” he cursed, finally bringing his prized possession to a sliding horizontal stop in the middle of the road.
“You okay?” Jen asked Sully.
“…Yeah,” Sully said, catching his breath. “But you two have got to knock this shit off! You’re going to get us killed!”
Marlowe immediately went back to digging her claws into her flesh.
“Okay, look,” Jen said, turning to face Marlowe. “You’re a fucking junkie. You know how this works. You slammed two full pods back-to-back and you’re crashing. You need to come down light.”
“I’ll be fine,” Marlowe said through clenched teeth as she clawed yet another stripe into her forearm.
“Clearly,” Sully grumbled from behind the wheel.
“Just…shut up and drive, barman,” Marlowe ordered.
“Not until you knock that shit off!” he answered.
“Here,” Jen said, handing Marlowe an AMP inhaler from the bag at her feet.
“Jen, please, no,” Marlowe said. “I can’t.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because there’s only seven left, and we’ve got a lot of fighting left if we’re going to free dad!”
“It’s AMP, Marlowe! You can get cases of the shit on literally any corner in any settlement!
“You can, maybe,” Marlowe replied. “I can’t be seen scoring!”
“And why the fuck not?” Jen said. “Everyone knows you use it! Besides, you’re the most wanted felon in the nation. You’re charged with treason and attempted murder! Who the hell is going to care about you buying some AMP?”
“You don’t understand,” Marlowe said. “Guilty or — OW! — innocent, I still have a reputation to maintain.”
Jen scoffed. “Such a goddamn celebrity. I don’t even know you anymore.”
“Like you ever did!” Marlowe snapped.
Jen’s eyes widened and her voice shook.”How dare you??”
“What, you want to pretend you were my best friend all along?” Marlowe said, now using the edge of the metal cuffs fastened around her wrists to scratch. “You never accepted me. You always resented me!”
“So why come to MY house when you needed help? Why kill MY boyfriend, and blow up MY shit –”
“Hey, you blew up your own shit,” Marlowe snapped. “And you killed… what’s his name? Matt? Michael? Whatever. You killed him when you tipped off MilSec!”
“I WAS TRYING TO SAVE YOU!”
“You CAN’T save me!”
A loud thud echoed through the cab of the truck as Sully slammed his hands on the steering wheel. “LADIES!” he roared from the driver’s seat.
Jen and Marlowe both fell silent.
“I don’t know if you remember or not, but YOU,” he barked, pointing to Marlowe, “are being hunted by thousands of MilSec soldiers and drones. And YOU,” he then pointed at Jen, “are gonna be executed for being an accomplice! And I am, too!”
The sisters seethed quietly. Sully waited for a retort. To his surprise, there wasn’t one.
“Every second you waste bickering gets us all closer to dead,” he continued. “I don’t wanna die, and I’m sure you don’t either. And not to mention, your crippled father’s been publically humiliated and is stuck in the Citadel as an accomplice to this whole mess. Probably in your old cell!”
“FINE,” Marlowe snarled, snatching the inhaler from Jen’s hand. She placed the pod to her lips and inhaled the entire dose defiantly. Within seconds, her convulsions stopped.
“That’s more like it.” Sully said, pushing the start button on the electric motor and putting the truck into gear. The wheels skidded on the snow momentarily before the truck jerked back into motion.
Marlowe leaned back. “Yeah…that is better,” she admitted as her breathing normalized.
“Jesus, you didn’t have to suck it all down,” Jen said.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Marlowe said. “But now there’s only six left.”
“Don’t worry,” Sully said, “I’ll make more when we get someplace safe.”
“Wait, you can make AMP?” Marlowe asked.
“Who do you think I get it from?” Jen asked. “Sully makes all kinds of shit.”
“Hey, I’m just a humble bar and bookstore owner,” Sully said with a chuckle.
Jen laughed. “And chemist… and weaponsmith…”
“Shush now, girl!” Sully said. “Don’t be givin’ away all my secrets!”
Frayed nerves calmed and the trio fell silent as they sped on along the tree-lined roadway leading from the residential areas of Atlanta ten miles west to the Chatahoochee River where the EV plant was situated. Marlowe knew that the output from the plant supplied over 90 percent of the city, and the electromagnetic and heat radiation combined made it the perfect place to hide from satellite scans. And with any luck, the rogue operatives that had broken Marlowe out of the prison transport would still be there.
Sully, meanwhile, was navigating the fine line between hurrying and trying not to careen out of control down a snow-covered embankment. Jen was staring at the dashboard, trying to forget that her boyfriend was dead, her home was in ashes, and that her sister was the reason behind all of it. All of the charm of silence wore off quickly for Marlowe, whose AMP-enhanced body began to tremor with nervous anticipation. Her leg began jiggling. She fidgeted with the air vents on the dash in front of her. She rolled down the window. She rolled up the window.
“Okay, I’m not sure which was worse, the shaking or all this monkeying around with my truck,” Sully said drily.
“Knock it off, Marlowe,” Jen added.
“I’m sorry, I’m just…fuck,” Marlowe said, gripping the legs of her pants, trying to reach for calm.
“I told you, a quarter dose would have done the job,” Jen reminded Marlowe.
“Hey, don’t lecture me,” Marlowe snapped. “I did what you said!”
“And then some!”
Marlowe took a deep breath. “Sorry,” she said, trying to slow her words. “I’m just…”
“We get it,” Sully said, sighing. “You’re AMP’ed. Just…try to sit still, okay?”
“You know something I don’t get?” Jen asked. “Why are we going to the EV plant anyway?”
“God,” Marlowe said between gritted teeth, “This whole thing is going to fail if I have to keep explaining everything twice.”
“Calm down,” Jen insisted. “I get it, you think we need their help. It’s just that–”
“–You think we don’t,” Marlowe interjected. “You already said.”
“Look, it’s our father. We can handle this.”
“Storming the Citadel is not a two-person job,” Marlowe retorted.
“Three!” Sully chirped.
“…Fine, three,” Marlowe said wearily. “Hell, It’s not even a six…err, I mean, seven-person job. But we need the help.”
“You really think breaking into a prison is the best idea?” Jen said.
“Nope.” Marlowe replied. “But it’s our dad, and we’re on a tight clock. This is what we’ve got. So we’re going with it.”
An uncomfortable silence fell. The plan to break into a heavily fortified MilSec prison began to weigh on them. While they’d not discussed it amongst themselves, each had their own reasons for feeling like they had nothing left to lose, and all three blamed MilSec and wanted revenge. The gall of MilSec, parading General Kana before the Feeds in his wheelchair, clothed in his full MilSec dress uniform, as they brought him to the Citadel…the image was seared in Jen’s mind. After losing her home, her boyfriend, and her sister’s trust, she couldn’t stand to lose her father as well. Marlowe hadn’t seen the Feed, but she didn’t need to. She knew the Citadel intimately, and the mere idea of her elderly and nearly helpless father being locked away for no reason was enough to make her want to run head-first through every wall and crush anyone who got in her way. And Sully…well, Sully just loved adventure. But he had his own reasons for wanting to help the sisters free their father.
“There goes that shaking again…” Sully said, breaking the silence.
Marlowe stopped jouncing her leg. “Sorry,” she said. “Hey, um…can you put on NewsFeed, or some music, or SportsFeed or something?”
“Not much to listen to,” Sully replied. “No JAQi in here.”
“Fucking hell,” Marlowe muttered, shaking her head while obsessively smoothing out the legs of her pants, “This thing’s not only slow, it’s primitive.”
“Her quirks are part of her charm,” Sully said with a forced chuckle. “Just like you.” Under his breath, he added, “I imagine, anyway…”
“Well, fuck you, too!” Marlowe barked, “You two wanted to come along for this little exercise! Feel free to dump me on the side of the road. We’re close enough, I can make it without you.”
“Hey, he was joking!” Jen said. “Stop being an asshole!”
“No, really,” Marlowe said, agitated. “This sucks. I can do this alone. Why did I let you talk me into this?”
“Uh, I think reality talked you into this,” Jen said. “How the hell else were we going to get out of the Subs to meet your friends? It’s not like we have a choice!”
“Maybe you don’t,” Marlowe snapped as she began yanking on the door handle.
“Marlowe! Stop!” Jen yelled.
“Look, I can do this on my own,” Marlowe said, fumbling with the antiquated door’s lock mechanism. “I didn’t mean to pull you into this. Just let me out and keep driving. Get yourselves to safety.”
“STOP!” Jen demanded, reaching over her sister and grabbing her hands.
“Get OFF me!” Marlowe yelled, shoving her sister back over onto Sully. Sully jerked the wheel and the truck lurched hard to the left. Panicking, he spun the wheel back right, sending the truck into a full broadside skid. The wheels spun violently, then caught traction, sending the truck off the road and down a slight hill. The right front bumper clipped a pseudo-pine tree, and the truck spun and tumbled, rolling over several times until they came to a crunching halt at the bottom of the hill.
Steam rose from the smashed radiator as snowflakes danced in the headlights of the totaled truck. Marlowe, momentarily dazed, jerked herself awake. She immediately turned to face Jen, who was crying with panic.
“Are you okay?!?” she asked her shaken sister.
Jen nodded and squeaked out through her panicked breathing a tiny “yeah…”
“FUCK!” Marlowe screamed. She slammed the metal cuff on her right wrist into the passenger side window, shattering it. She climbed out of the window, gripped the door by the window frame, and yanked as hard as she could. The door separated from the truck and she flung it aside.
She helped her sister out of the vehicle, and then reached in for Sully, who was bleeding from his head.
“Leave me,” he said. “Save yourselves.”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Marlowe replied. “I can’t leave you here to die. You have to make my AMP.”
Sully laughed painfully as Marlowe pulled him from the truck and carried him a few yards into the woods. Trudging back through the snow, she surveyed the console of the vehicle, looking for a way to turn off the lights. Nothing looked familiar, so she fell back to what she knew and smashed the headlights with the cuffs around her wrists.
Grabbing the satchel with her provisions, she returned to find Jen tending to Sully’s leg, which was bent nearly ninety degrees at the thigh.
“Oh, shit.” Marlowe said, seeing the twisted and malformed leg.
“It looks worse than it is,” Sully replied. He reached down and yanked on his leg, separating it from the stump just below his hip. The prosthetic slid loose from the pant leg and he surveyed it critically. “Ain’t supposed to bend that way, I don’t think,” he said with a laugh as he twisted the damaged appendage.
“Oh, thank heavens!” Marlowe exclaimed with a loud sigh, relieved that she hadn’t just, in fact, severed a man’s leg along with destroying his prized antique truck. “Well, hold on to it. I know someone who might be able to fix it.”
“Well, this is just fantastic!” Jen said through panicked tears. “Let me guess. We get to run more!”
“Yup,” Marlowe said, her soldier instincts taking over. She bent over and grabbed Sully by the arm, hoisting him over her shoulders into a fireman’s carry.
“Oh, come on, not again…” Jen said, already out of breath.
For the next thirty minutes, the trio traipsed through the woods in uncomfortable silence. Suddenly, Sully exclaimed in bemusement, “Well, I’ll be damned!”
“What?” Marlowe asked. She ducked to avoid a tree branch. Sully, who was draped across her shoulders, got thwapped in the face.
“Ow!” He griped as pseudo-pine needles raked across his face.
“Sorry,” Marlowe said.
“It’s okay,” Sully said. “I can take a few scratches.”
“What made you so excited a moment ago?”
“It’s just impressive,” he remarked. “We really are going faster on foot than we were in the truck!” His head bobbed in time with Marlowe’s jogging. His bent prosthetic leg dangled along Marlowe’s side as he clutched it in his hands. Occasionally the boot at the end would connect with her rear end. She could think of no better metaphor for motivation to keep going than to have the disconnected leg of the man who was helping her literally kicking her in the ass.
“Yeah, well, we’d go even faster if someone was in better shape,” Marlowe said over her shoulder, as Jen struggled to keep pace behind them.
Jen would have responded but her already labored breathing was far too taxed. She did have the energy, however, to raise her right hand and extend her middle finger.
“Better save that up for later,” Sully said, glimpsing Jen’s gesture.
“Maybe you should use that leg to kick her in the butt, huh?” Marlowe said. “Would you believe she was a track star when we were in middle school?”
“Really?” Sully said. “Wow. Never would’ve figured!”
“Well… my parents went and…adopted…a genetic freak!” Jen said, struggling to speak between breaths. “I hated sports…ever since…”
“Not my fault I was the better athlete,” Marlowe answered as she jogged. “Blame science.”
“Speaking of science,” Sully tactfully interrupted. “I had no idea my AMP formula was this effective! Couldn’t ever test it on nobody…it’d probably kill ’em!”
“It’s the only stuff I use,” Marlowe said. “Tried a bunch over the years. Not even the MilSec stuff is that good. How’d you learn to make it that strong? You a chemist?”
“Not on purpose,” Sully replied. “I kinda just fell into it. My wife had cancer. Marijuana helped, but Imagen healthcare wouldn’t approve a prescription for the really good stuff, so I started growing it. She couldn’t smoke it, so I made tinctures and edibles, and when she died, I started selling the remainders off to cover the bills my pension couldn’t. Word spread, and I moved on to AMP. Then Jen came in with a special request for some quadruple-strength stuff. Hell, I always thought she was just cutting up what I gave her and reselling it! I didn’t mind. Girl’s gotta make her credits. Had no idea who the real customer was! Or that you two were even sisters! Jen Kujaku is actually Jen Kana…who’da thunk it?”
“I guess…we’re all learning about each other…” Jen huffed from behind them. “I didn’t know…you had a prost…a pro…a fake leg.”
“Lost it in the war,” Sully said, a pine sprig brushing across his cheek.
“Which side were you fighting for?” Marlowe asked.
“Whelp, I don’t have rope marks around my neck or a prisoner number tattooed on my forehead. So that should tell you,” Sully said.
“Wow…an actual military veteran,” Marlowe said with a note of reverence. “No wonder you hate MilSec.”
“Man, ever since they took over…I’ll tell ya, no discipline. Fucking corporate soldiers. Not a real Marine among ya…no offense.”
“None taken,” Marlowe said. “My dad was a military marine, before he moved over to MilSec. He had the same critique.”
“Yup. It’s the only reason I like ya!” Sully laughed.
“Did you know him?”
“Not personally,” Sully replied. “We were both privates when the war started, from what I’ve read. I didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat. I took shrapnel to the leg during the D.C. Siege. He stuck it out and rolled into MilSec when they took over the cops and the corps. Went on to be a celebrity General. Meanwhile, I run a bar that sells drugs and hosts poker games in the Subs. Ran, that is,” he amended.
The reminder that the Subs had been effectively razed silenced the trio as they continued jogging through the snowy woods. Things were quiet but for the rhythmic sound of footfall through the dead leaves and brush. Sully reflected on the events of his life that had brought him to this moment, being carried on the shoulders of a woman a foot shorter, yet somehow a hundred pounds heavier than he was, through a snow-covered forest. He never thought he’d see snow in his lifetime. Now, he was moving faster through it than he ever could have on his own, and on the shoulders of a super soldier no less. He had to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“It’s all good, though,” He said, breaking several minutes of silent tension.
“What is?” Marlowe asked.
“Everything,” Sully said. “That’s how life works. Fate put us here for a reason. I mean, fate took my leg, but the medical stipend bought me my bar and the bookstore. Paid for all the parts on my Ram, too!”
“Yeah…about that,” Marlowe said through measured breaths. “I’m…I’m sorry about–”
“–The truck?” Sully interjected. “Kiddo, that thing was gone the second I used it to smuggle two fugitives from the law. What, you think they’d hold it for me for after the trial? If they don’t execute me, that is.”
“Huh…you got a point,” Marlowe replied.
“Better wrapped around a tree than in some piece of shit MilSec scumbag’s garage after auction,” he said, adding, “…no offense.”
“None taken,” Marlowe answered again.
“Mark…mark this day…in your calendar, Sully,” Jen said between gasps for breath, “Marlowe Kana just apologized…for something…”
“Hey, when it’s my fault, I own it,” Marlowe said.
“To everyone else…maybe…” Jen said. “Never…with me…”
“Save it,” Marlowe said as she slowed her jogging to a walk. “We’re here.”
“Oh, thank God,” Jen gasped.
The pre-war, antique leather chair groaned as President Stephen Cook leaned back. It was certainly a comfortable chair, despite being over one hundred years old. And at nearly twenty thousand credits per chair, it was expected to be. The Imagen Executive Lounge, the most exclusive club in the capital city of Indianapolis, had fifty of them.
Only two of the chairs held occupants, however, and President Cook wished he was anywhere else than sitting across from Alan Davis, Chairman of the Imagen Board of Executives.
Cook examined the crystal tumbler perched in his hand. He gently swirled an exceptionally rare pour of Woodford Reserve Four Grain Bourbon straight from the Imagen Board of Executives’ private stocks. He studied the glass’s reflection of the flames from the stone fireplace behind him. They danced and glinted around the amber of the drink in less of a playful manner and in more of a ceremonious rite. It was as if they were paying tribute to the bourbon’s ability to survive a civil war, decades of looting and rioting, and the re-establishment of a country whose ideals had long given way to the more immediate concerns of safety and comfort.
“It’s astounding, isn’t it,” President Cook said. “That this glass contains such a rich history. Its contents survived so many atrocities and hardships as this country ripped itself apart. And through sheer perseverance, it’s here to be enjoyed by those who are working to keep alive the legacy of what it represents. But to the uneducated and ignorant, it’s simply a glass of old booze.”
“Profound,” Chairman Davis replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. “But yet again, you’re avoiding the question.”
“I was merely admiring the beverage you so graciously provided, Alan,” The President said.
“You’ve had it before when you were on the Board. This flattery is unnecessary, as I fail to see what it has to do with the clandestine stunt you pulled this evening.”
“Clandestine?” Cook replied. “You mean in the way that someone takes an action that affects them personally without explicit permission? Like how you overrode my vehicle’s JAQi access and forced it to bring me here to your little club?”
“We needed to talk,” Davis replied. “You weren’t answering our pings.”
“It’s well past midnight and I’ve had a full day,” Cook replied. “I wanted to go home and get some sleep.”
“I think that sleep can wait a while,” Davis answered. “You have a lot to answer for.”
“Do I, now?” Cook asked. “Because if I’m not mistaken, I am the duly elected President of the United American State, and as such, I answer only to the citizens of our nation.”
“Cut the shit, Stephen,” Davis said with disdain as he leaned forward and placed his glass on the solid oak table that sat between them. “The terrorists, the jail break…none of this was ever part of the plan.”
“It most certainly was,” Cook said, taking a defiant sip from his glass.
“You never bothered to tell us about it!” Davis thundered. The room echoed his outburst.
Cook smiled. “I did, Alan. You just didn’t bother to listen. None of you did.”
“JAQi,” Davis said into the air politely, “Please play back any mention of terrorists breaking Marlowe Kana out of prison or intercepting prison transports, from the minutes of our meetings over the last, oh… year or so.”
A tone sounded. “No records found,” JAQi said aloud.
President Cook rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t being literal, Alan.”
“Well, Stephen, I think it would behoove you to be quite literal and very explicit, starting right now. Exactly how long have you known about these traitors?” Davis asked.
“The real question is, why didn’t you know about them?” Cook fired back.
“…Excuse me?” Chairman Davis asked.
“They’re quite useful, this little sovereign citizenship group,” Cook said. “A little cadre of crazies who stumbled upon some old libertarian writings…my people have been on them for a little over a year.”
“Your people? YOUR people?!?” Davis asked. “Imagen runs MilSec! Your people are our people!”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Cook snapped. “I am the President of the only civilized society left on the planet. It is my duty to represent the populace and to protect all forty-one million, six hundred thirty thousand of them, give or take. And to that end, I have my own resources and have built my own channels. You don’t get to a position like this without your own level of support in place — a fact you know quite well, don’t you, Alan?”
The reference to Davis’s attempted coup to take over the position of Chairman of the Board from Cook’s father a decade before was the last of a thousand cuts to Alan Davis’s patience. “You’re a pompous son of a bitch, aren’t you?” he snarled, all traces of cordiality gone.
“And the real Alan Davis comes out,” Cook said, smirking. “Yes, I am. Is this some secret about me to which you’re only now privy? I feel like I’ve been the same man my whole life.”
“Yes, you have. An under-qualified ass, carried by the legacy of forebears who were ten times the men you will ever be.”
Cook shook his head. “Well this is truly a sad moment. I take it our friendship is over then?”
“It’s a safe assumption,” Davis said. “And I think you’ll find that it’s a friendship you’ll begin to regret not having fairly soon, if not already.”
“Ah yes, because ‘Imagen Drives The Nation,’ right?” Cook replied, referring to the corporation’s much-vaunted slogan, “And they can override your vehicle and take you to clandestine meetings with old men full of pointless threats.”
“I don’t make threats, Stephen,” Alan Davis stated. “I think you know that. You’re completely off the reservation here and you need to wake up to the fact that you’re walking the thinnest of lines.”
“Am I, now?” President Cook said, crossing his legs. “Tell me. What have I done that’s so wrong?”
“You’ve withheld vital intelligence that there is a terrorist organization operating in the United American State. Not only that, you’ve colluded with them to kidnap the nation’s biggest celebrity and one of our most decorated soldiers!”
“I never colluded with them,” the President replied. “They think it’s their idea.”
“We’ve been attacked by terrorists and lost a vital asset!” Davis barked.
“–And Feed engagement was huge.”
Davis ignored him, continuing, “Not to mention that fact that she was framed for an attempted murder and treason–”
“–And again, engagement was huge,” Cook repeated.
“Yes, but to what end?”
“What other end is there?” Cook asked. “Engagement is the only thing that matters.”
Davis ground his teeth. Sharply, he asked, “and how has engagement been since you publicly embarrassed MK’s father, the disabled war hero suffering from Parkinson’s disease? How has the nation reacted to your framing of General Kana?”
The question was meant to induce guilt. It failed. “Huge, of course,” Cook responded immediately. “Always huge. Anything with MK attached is always huge.”
“Exactly!” Davis answered. “She’s a ratings magnet on her own. Why bother with all this insanity? What we had with her was working! Why attack her? And for heaven’s sake, why did you go after the General?”
“Because people were growing exhausted with her always winning. She’s a character in a social narrative with no arc. She always wins. Always. When she committed treason and attempted to murder a fellow soldier, it made people sit up and pay attention.”
“Listen to yourself!” Davis said. “You sound like you believe that she was guilty! You know as well as I do that she was defending herself.”
“There’s no evidence of that.”
“No, there was no admissible evidence,” Davis retorted. “Semantics, Stephen. We both know that’s not true.”
“And what is truth, but the story of those who survived the test?”
“Oh, fuck you, Stephen!” Davis snapped. “Don’t you dare throw your father’s words around as if they’re pertinent to this conversation! You’ve clearly lost control of this situation and are falling back on rhetoric to cover your own ass.” He picked up his glass and swirled the golden liquid inside it. “I speak for the entire board when I tell you that we regret ever allowing you to move forward with this ridiculous farce of a plan.”
“You only regret it because you can’t see the endgame, as usual,” Cook retorted.
“And what, exactly, is that endgame, Stephen?” Davis asked. “Do you even know?”
The President slowly closed his eyes and sighed. He reached for his glass and took a sip from it.
“…You don’t, do you!” Davis said with a chuckle. “This is all out of your control! You’re feinting!”
“I know perfectly well what I’m doing,” Cook answered. He leaned forward and locked eyes with Chairman Davis. “The people are glued to the Feeds in a way they haven’t been in over twenty years. Twenty years, Alan! This isn’t just entertainment, it’s NEWS. Things are happening — real events with real consequences!” He took a deep breath for effect and then continued. “We have them — all of them. For the first time in decades, the entire nation is engaged. They are active participants in the United American State and the events that comprise its existence! For the past thirty years, I’ve run an impeccable campaign of managing the citizens of this nation. You have got to trust me here!”
Chairman Davis studied the man before him. Their histories ran deep. He’d seen risks taken by Cook and rewards reaped from him that the Board never truly anticipated. But he’d also seen an equal number of colossal failures that had barely been covered up.
“Stephen, the people are upset.” He said calmly, attempting to reason with him. “Their entire way of life is at risk. Terrorists have organized under our noses. They sow the seeds of anarchy! And you’re letting them!”
“Oh, come on, Alan,” President Cook said. “You know as well as I do that the people value their way of life — the one that my father, and his father before him gave to them — far more than anything else. And you’re right, it is at risk. But not because of some ragtag militia group, which is easily controlled. It’s because the people themselves have lost their way. It is they who put their own way of life at risk by giving up on their ideals! You know deep in your heart that I am right. My father would agree.”
“With all due respect to your father, whom I will remind you was my best friend of thirty years,” Chairman Davis responded. “I don’t think that he would find any truth in the idea that the United American State gave up on its ideals.”
The first-ever President of the United American State and the first publicly elected official in over fifty years studied his glass again. He raised it to his lips and took a small sip of one of the rarest liquids on the planet. He sighed heavily as he lifted himself from the confines of comfort and placed his elbows on his knees. Leaning in toward the Chairman who sat across from him, he whispered, “best friends don’t betray each other to advance their political or corporate agendas, Alan.”
“Still holding that grudge?” Davis smirked. “Your father forgave me. He saw the greater good. He knew his place.”
“If you really believe that, then you must not have really known the man as well as you thought.”
Chairman Davis scoffed. “If he heard you right now; if he’d seen what you’ve done…he would be so disappointed in you.”
President Cook paused for a moment, took another deep breath, and then finally smiled. “This has been pleasant, as always, Alan,” he said as he rose from his chair.
“Sit down, Stephen,” Chairman Davis instructed. “We haven’t finished yet.”
President Cook held up his glass and toasted to the Chairman. He downed the remainder of his beverage in one gulp. “I am,” he said, placing the glass on the table and turning to leave.
“Stephen!” Chairman Davis protested.
“Oh,” The President said from over his shoulder. “If you ever hijack a vehicle I am in again, I’ll have you arrested for kidnapping, terroristic threats, and treason.” He retrieved his jacket from the maître d’.
“The ratings will be amazing,” he added.
“Have me WHAT?” Davis yelled, slamming his glass on the table in front of him. “You pompous ass! How! Who will arrest me?!?”
In lieu of a reply, the President headed toward the exit.
“MilSec is an Imagen division!” Alan Davis yelled. “That’s what the ‘I’ in ‘IMSD’ stands for! They answer to me! You understand? ME!”
The wooden soles of President Cook’s shoes echoed through the lounge as he made his way to the door of the Executive Club. The door opened for him and he exited unceremoniously.
Chairman Davis sunk back into his chair. He lifted his glass to his mouth and dourly gulped down the rest of his drink.
“…Ball is at the 27, it’s fourth and a short one,” SportsFeed announcer Pat Daniel trumpeted. “Four seconds left on the clock…it’s do or die for the Atlanta Phoenix. If they don’t convert, their three-year New Super Bowl streak is over and the Indianapolis Capitols win their first ever UAFL title!”
The video on the screen in Dr. Ben Rossler’s vehicle suddenly froze. “We have arrived at Grady-Usher-CeeLo Memorial Medical Center, doctor,” JAQi announced calmly. “Would you like—”
“Dang it, JAQi,” Dr. Rossler complained. “You know not to interrupt when I’m watching the game!”
“Yes, sir,” JAQi replied. “But your patient is inbound via airlift in forty-four seconds. You were paged with urgent priority, and you’ve replayed this particular game seventeen times since its original air date last week.”
Doctor Rossler was quiet for a moment. “Fine, I guess you have a point,” he muttered. “But quickly, just replay the touchdown.”
A tone sounded and the footage restarted. “TOUCHDOWN!!!!” Pat Daniel yelled hysterically as Atlanta Phoenix’s star receiver, Brian St. Jacques, caught the hail mary pass thrown by Sean Roma, the retiring quarterback. The two players chest-bumped each other in the end zone as the crowd went wild. “The Atlanta Phoenix are officially a dynasty! United American Football League New Super Bowl Champions for a fourth consecutive year!”
“YES!” Dr. Rossler cheered, pumping his fist in the air and nearly hitting the roof of the car. “Never gets old!”
“Your patient, Doctor,” JAQi announced.
“Yeah, yeah, okay! I’m on it!”
Dr. Rossler eased his six-foot-four, three hundred-pound frame out of the rear exit of the painfully small automated U-Lyft Taxi. He was immediately greeted by his ten-person surgical team, along with his personal assistant Devin. As he marched toward the entrance to the hospital, his entourage hurried to match his pace.
“Patient has suffered third-degree burns across ninety-five percent of his body,” Devin briefed. “Eyes, sinuses, lungs…all charred and likely unsalvageable. The blast he endured also concussed his brain and pulverized his legs and his one remaining biological arm. Central nervous system seems to be intact, however, a full-scale recreation of all nervous function across the body will likely–”
“–Gum?” Dr. Rossler asked without breaking stride.
“No thanks, sir,” Devin said, not shifting his focus from the charts in the heads-up display in his contact lenses.
“No. Do you have my gum?” Dr. Rossler asked.
Devin shook his head, and then looked past the charts in his eyes at the expectant doctor. “Uh…no, sir?” Devin replied warily as they continued into the express elevator.
“Here you are, sir,” Dr. Karen Vessey, one of Rossler’s surgical staff said as she handed him a pack of sugar-free Imagen Mint Splash gum.
The doors to the elevator closed and the lift began rocketing up sixty-six floors to the landing pad on the roof.
“Thank you, Doctor Vessey,” Doctor Rossler said sharply while staring down at Devin. “Despite being a ten-year veteran of my staff and a highly regarded surgeon, and also NOT my personal assistant, it is awfully kind of you to remember my gum.”
“Don’t mention it, sir,” Dr. Vessey replied.
“Devin,” Rossler said, not breaking his gaze.
“I have the patient’s vitals in my HUD as we speak, and I had the charts sent to me via JAQi before I got out of bed. In fact, what’s in the charts was so fascinating, it’s the only reason I even got out of bed at this hour. I already know what’s in the chart. Unless Mr. Henry Cain — or do I call him Mad Dog? Or Mr. Dog? — I never know with these celebrity soldiers and their damn nicknames…anyway, unless our patient dies before the transport lands, I already know how I intend to proceed.”
“Uh…yes, sir?” Devin replied as the elevator signaled that they had just passed the twentieth floor.
“You answered a transfer request from the front desk to be promoted to my personal assistant, did you not?”
“And in that request, did it mention, even once, that you should brief me on the charts?”
“Right. But there were other job functions in the request, most of which you have performed impeccably since you started last week. But there was one thing, specifically, that I asked for in that order. It was in bold font, underlined, and highlighted. What was it that I specifically stated that you should have for me at all times?”
“Uh…Imagen Mint Splash gum, sir,” Devin replied.
“Right,” Dr. Rossler said briskly as the elevator passed the fortieth floor. “Imagen Mint Splash gum. You even asked when we first met if that was just a joke I put in the transfer post to see if you read the whole thing, didn’t you?”
“And I was impressed because you had.”
Devin was silent. The elevator reached the sixty-sixth floor.
“Papers filed, office kept tidy, and Imagen Mint Splash gum in pocket at all times. Understood?” Dr. Rossler queried as the elevator doors opened to the overwhelming noise of a twenty-ton MagLev mengine straining to lower the medical heli-transport onto the landing pad.
“YES, SIR!” Devin yelled over the din as the team exited the lift.
The eleven members of the nation’s most advanced biological reconstruction team (and one personal assistant) fought to plug their ears from the engine noise, and to shield their eyes from the lights illuminating the landing pad in the midnight darkness as they hurried toward the medical transport. The back bay door lowered. A hovering gurney with the badly burned husk of a “Next Top Soldier” contestant was gently pushed out of the transport by medics on either side. The two parties met halfway between the transport and the elevator doors, and the surgical team swarmed the gurney and reversed course back toward the elevator.
“JAQi, full scan,” Dr. Rossler yelled while marching forward. His HUD switched to MRI mode and began surveying all that was left of Henry “Mad Dog” Cain.
“I can work with this,” Rossler said to no one in particular as the transport dusted off and flew back toward the Subs to retrieve more victims. “JAQi, mark that the patient is alive on arrival and note the time.”
“Twelve forty-four a.m.,” JAQi responded.
“Let’s get to work!” Dr. Rossler barked as he marched back to the lift. His team followed him, guiding the gurney into the bay doors of the massive Critical Response Unit of Grady-Usher-CeeLo Memorial Medical Center, deep in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
“Marlowe,” Jen huffed. The sound of her shoes splashing in the putrid water gradually became less repetitive. She slowed from a run, to a jog, and then to a complete stop. Doubled over, she begged her heart to stop its hammering inside her chest.
“What are you doing?!? Come on!” Marlowe commanded from over her shoulder. “We’ve got to go!”
“I need… minute…” Jen gasped.
Marlowe stopped about ten yards away from Jen and turned around. “We don’t have a minute!”
“I need one anyway…”
Marlowe stalked back toward her. Furiously, she slung the green duffel bag around to her front and dug through it. “Here,” she said as she offered Jen a dose of AMP.
“You know I can’t use that,” she said.
“Now’s not the time for your Twelve Steps garbage,” Marlowe said, stepping closer and waving the AMP in Jen’s face.
Jen slapped the inhaler away. “Those are formulated for you, stupid!” She snapped. “I don’t feel like dying today, thank you!”
Marlowe took a step back. Despite the severity of the situation, she knew she was pushing a button that shouldn’t be pushed. She sighed as she placed the AMP back in the bag.
“Well, bad news,” she said, “You’re probably going to get executed when they find us, so you’re gonna die regardless.”
Suddenly, Marlowe screamed and slammed her fist into the concrete wall of the ancient drainage tunnel, chipping away at a long-forgotten gang’s graffiti.
“Fuck me,” she whispered, licking blood from her knuckles. “I never should have dragged you into this.”
Jen stood and leaned against the tunnel wall. Her breathing was stabilizing. “You had no choice,” she said. “I’m your sister, Marlowe. I get it.”
“Adopted sister, remember?”
Jen scowled. “Enough with that shit.”
“Considering recent events, it might be good to start saying it again. Deny any connection to me.”
“Stop it. We’re not twelve years old, and this isn’t school. Besides, this isn’t your fault.”
“Yeah,” Marlowe said, “I was starting to feel bad about sending your idiot boyfriend out there to face those goons, but you’re right. He’s the one to blame for this.”
Jen looked up at Marlowe, eyes watery, a scowl stamped across her face.
“Don’t look at me like that! I didn’t think they’d kill him!” Marlowe snapped. “I thought the worst they’d do is throw a collar on him and put him on trial.”
“Maybe use him as some sort of lesson for anyone considering helping me,” she continued. “Well, I guess they did do that, didn’t they…”
“I called it in,” Jen said.
Marlowe’s eyes grew wide. “You WHAT?!?”
“I’m sorry!” Jen pleaded. “I thought it was the only way to save you!”
Marlowe scowled. “You thought the only way to save a fugitive on the run for treason was to call in two squads of MilSec soldiers and a cybernetically enhanced ‘Next Top Soldier contestant?”
“Well, no… But yes?” Jen said. She stepped toward Marlowe. “He’s a Private who visits the Subs and loves cards and AMP. I dump money to in poker games to guarantee favors! I was calling one in… I thought he’d cover for us and help you out! I didn’t know he would call in the calvary! I am so sorry! I didn’t think–”
“You’re right! You didn’t think!” Marlowe yelled, taking two steps backward. “You just…reacted! Like you always do! You didn’t think some plucky Private would see brand new stripes on his arm as a reward for bringing me in! You didn’t think they’d be monitoring the coms! You didn’t think at all! Hell, I saw the reward they have on me… I doubt you’d mind coming across an easy million credits”
“Fuck you, Marlowe!” Jen screamed. “I’d NEVER sell you out!”
“You literally just did!” Marlowe said. “You are always thinking of yourself first!”
“Oh, look who’s fucking talking!” Jen said. “We’ve just run nearly a mile through who-know’s-what’s been sitting in this tunnel for who-knows-how-long because YOU–”
Jen suddenly froze. Her eyes took on a slight glow. “Oh shit!” She exclaimed. She raised her hands and began gesturing, cycling through a series of alerts that had just appeared on her HUD.
“What?” Marlowe asked urgently.
“We’re near the end of the tunnel…I just reconnected to the Net,” Jen said, reading each alert. “It’s dad!”
“What?!? Is he ok?”
Jen tapped the air with her index finger. “He’s in custody…they arrested him!” She flicked upward with her finger. She gasped. Her eyes dimmed slightly as she looked at Marlowe. “They’re saying he orchestrated your escape, using his connections in MilSec. They’re charging him with treason!”
Jen gestured in the air, flicking her hands up and tapping the air as she navigated. “They’re saying he was complicit in helping the traitors who sprung you…oh god, they’re calling an emergency trial in front of the tribunal! Nine AM tomorrow!”
“They can’t…he can’t even walk or feed himself! How the hell would he have orchestrated anything– SHIT! Jen! Get down!” Marlowe yelled, pointing at a drone that had just buzzed in from the far end of the tunnel.
Jen wasn’t one for taking orders, but she knew that if Marlowe said “Get down” it was better to just do it and find out why later. She hit the deck as Marlowe picked up the chunk of rock she had chipped from the tunnel wall during her tantrum. Without her Pod, the targeting systems linking her eyes to her muscle fibers were useless. But necessity is the mother of invention, and anything can fly in a straight line if thrown hard enough. She reared back and chucked the rock with all her might, pegging the drone’s left propeller. It buzzed and lurched to its side, crashed into the wall, and fell to the floor of the tunnel.
“Nice shot!” Jen remarked as she lifted herself from the muck.
“Pure luck,” Marlowe said.
“Was it one of MilSec’s? Do you think it saw us?”
“Probably. And probably. Doesn’t matter…someone somewhere is going to wonder why it went dark, and they’re going to follow the cookie crumbs through that opening to their wrecked drone. We need another way out.”
“We passed another access port a few yards back,” Jen suggested.
“You know where it goes?”
“No clue. I didn’t go knocking on every hatch when I found this spot. Could be a bug-out tunnel like I had. Could be covered in rubble. There’s only one way to find out.”
“Fuck it,” Marlowe resigned. “Anything’s better than standing around here waiting to get caught. Let’s go.”
The sisters backtracked about fifty yards and took a right into a connecting tunnel that led to a ladder. Marlowe held up a finger. Jen froze. She ascended the ladder and pulled on the handle to the latch for the door. It wouldn’t budge — locked from the other side.
Undeterred, Marlowe simply pushed harder. The rung of the ladder she was standing on bent as the hatch began to give way. She wondered for a moment which would give first — the ladder or the hatch. After a few seconds of intense pressure, the hatch decided it had enough. A loud PLINK sounded from above as the padlock that held the latch shut gave way and broke off.
Marlowe eased her way up and peeked through the small crack of the hatch. A soft glow emanated from a desk against the wall from the hatchway; a standalone screen was displaying security camera footage. Marlowe examined the screen and saw no one in view. The fourth panel in the bottom right showed the Feed from a camera just outside the building they were in. The footage displayed two MilSec soldiers in the process of questioning a resident of the Subs, two others setting fire to a shop across the street, and a few soldiers intermittently walking by.
She returned to the hatchway and waved Jen forward. Once her sister had scrambled up, Marlowe pointed to the screen and asked, “Can you tell where we are from that?”
Jen examined the Feeds from the cameras. “We’re Krog-side,” she observed. “Near the old market. I’m betting we’re in Dirty Mike’s shop. Bunch of knockoff counterfeit shit and weak drugs…total tourist trap. Nothing here we can really use, unless it’s something heavy that you can bash these MilSec guys over the head with.”
“I’m certain those aren’t the only troops down here. We’d get slaughtered. There’s probably a full garrison at each of the entrances and exits…”
“The ones they know about, sure,” Jen said with a smirk.
Marlowe raised her eyebrows questioningly.
“We roaches know how to scatter when the lights go up,” Jen answered. “If you can get us past these guys out front, I can get us out of here.”
“Well, let’s start looking for some heavy counterfeit crap I can use as a bat, I guess.”
Jen approached the door to the office. Marlowe snapped her fingers twice, causing Jen to freeze and look back at her sister. Marlowe pointed to the screen displaying the security camera footage. The bottom-right corner showed two MilSec soldiers approaching the doorway to the shop. One shoved the butt of his rail rifle through the glass of the front door. The alarm rang out. The soldier cleared away the glass of the doorway and stepped through, followed by his partner.
Marlowe quickly scanned the area for anything useful. An ink pen, several markers, a clipboard…nothing. She felt under the desk and searched the drawers for a hidden weapon. She found nothing.
Then, Jen spotted something resting in the corner by the door. She picked it up. It was a samurai-style sword in a scabbard. She handed it to Marlowe, who drew it and examined the blade. She grabbed the handle with one hand and the blunt end of the blade with another, bending it to test its tensile strength. It bent into a crescent moon shape with little effort.
Jen shrugged. Marlowe gritted her teeth and shook her head.
Shouting could be heard in the distance. Marlowe and Jen rushed to the screen to see what was going on. Both soldiers, now inside the building, turned to see what the disturbance was. On the exterior camera’s panel, several civilians were seen bum-rushing a MilSec soldier. The soldier was quickly overwhelmed. One of the soldiers in the building pointed to the other, and then pointed outside. The other soldier complied with the order and went to help the soldier outside, leaving the other to investigate the building.
Marlowe smiled. She signaled to Jen stay put, and made her way to the door of the office. Gingerly, she twisted the handle. The door cracked open. She slid out and very quietly shut the door behind her. She crouched behind some shelves at the back of the store. Taking note of her surroundings, she spotted a counterfeit action figure of herself. A fleeting glint of anger arose when she saw it, but she realized numbly that all her assets were frozen months ago. Even if the counterfeiters did pay her likeness royalties, as a felon, she’d never get to receive them.
She grabbed one of the fake plastic versions of herself off the display and tossed it to the far end of the shop. It landed with a clatter and the MilSec soldier investigating the shop flinched. He raised his rifle and pointed the mounted flashlight in the direction of the disturbance. Slowly, he crept along the aisle until he reached the end, turning the corner to the back of the store.
Suddenly, he felt a hand across his mouth and another around his chest, covering the camera mounted to his vest.
“Quiet now, Corporal,” Marlowe whispered in his ear. “You know who I am?”
The soldier’s eyes widened. Sweat glistened on his brow. He nodded.
“I don’t want to kill you. If I did, you’d be dead. Do you believe me?” She asked. He nodded again.
“Good. Yank your battery and request permission to return for field repair, and I’ll keep it that way. Deal?”
The corporal nodded once more. He reached for a pouch on his hip, flipped the cover open, and pulled on a wire until it snapped. The power to his field systems died.
Marlowe slowly removed her hand from the corporal’s mouth and wrapped it around his chin, preparing to snap his neck at the first sign of non-compliance.
“Sarge, I got a problem,” the corporal said.
Marlowe pressed her fingers into the skin under his jaw.
“Onboard just took a shit. Everything’s gone dark,” he continued. “I’m on backups. I gotta see the Chief and get it sorted.”
Marlowe immediately put her hand back over his mouth. A very faint buzzing could be heard from the earpiece in his helmet.
“Granted?” Marlowe asked. He nodded in reply.
Marlowe yanked the camera from his chest with her right hand and tossed it. She then placed her free arm over his head while moving her left from his mouth to around his neck into a chokehold. The corporal passed out almost immediately.
Marlowe dragged the soldier back to Jen in the office. “I’ve got the dumbest plan ever,” she said. “But it’s all we got. Help me get him undressed.”
Moments later, Marlowe was dressed in the soldier’s gear, while he was clad in nothing but undershorts, a piece of tape covering his mouth, and packing twine wrapped around his wrists and ankles. The clothing hung loose on Marlowe, as the corporal was at least half again her size.
“This is actually a good thing,” Jen said. “It’ll cover those cuffs on your wrists and ankles, at least.”
“I look like a cartoon,” Marlowe said, holding her arms out to demonstrate how loosely the clothing hung on her frame.
“We can fix that,” Jen answered. She began rifling through the drawer on the desk, finding a few binder clips and some tape. As quickly as she could, she performed makeshift hemming and binding on the uniform, pulling it as tight as she could.
“Nice work,” Marlowe said as she examined her provisional outfit. “This isn’t going to hold up to any sort of inspection, and heaven help me if we have to fight…but with the body armor on top and some luck, it should pass.” She donned the armor that lay in a pile on the floor, clamping each piece into place, and then picked up the soldier’s biometrically coded rifle. It was useless to her as a firearm, but perfectly suitable for a prop. She slung the green duffle bag over her shoulder, dropped the visor on the helmet, and guided Jen at gunpoint out the door.
The Subs were in total disarray. All around, people lay dead or bound with cuffs, their illicit shops and makeshift homes ransacked. Teams of MilSec soldiers carried boxes of contraband out of the burning hovels while others guided groups of prisoners to transports. It was disproportionate and heavy-handed; quite possibly the largest domestic display of force MilSec had performed since the war. Marlowe shook her head. This is horrific, and it’s all my fault, she thought wearily.
Jen led Marlowe away from the chaos toward a dead-end of head shops, strip clubs, and bars. Marlowe felt sick. Dead ends were not a place that anyone with any training would willingly go in enemy-occupied territory. But this was Jen’s hood. She trusted her sister enough to abandon her training and follow her into the unknown.
A MilSec sergeant appeared from the doorway of a shop and headed toward them. Marlowe pressed the rifle into Jen’s back, indicating that they should just keep walking. The sergeant waved at Marlowe, who nodded.
“What have you got here, Corporal?” The sergeant asked as he approached.
Before Marlowe could answer, Jen spat on the sergeant and yelled “Get bent, pig!”
Both surprised and pleased by her sister’s improvisation, Marlowe followed her lead. She whipped the rifle around and slammed the butt of it between Jen’s shoulder blades, sending her face-first to the ground. “Enough!” she yelled at Jen, who replied by raising to her knees and spitting on Marlowe’s pant leg.
Marlowe looked to the sergeant, who was smirking. She pointed to her battery pack and showed him the torn wires. “Snagged while bagging this dirtbag,” she said, hoping that her voice was muffled and disguised enough by the helmet mask. “Gonna drop her off and see the Chief.”
“Heh, fucking Subbies,” the Sergeant joked. “I’ll secure her. You go get your gear fixed.”
“I’ve got this, sir,” Marlowe said. “This one caused me some trouble. I’ve got some… extra interrogating I need to do.” She kicked Jen in the ribs for added effect.
The Sergeant chuckled. “Well then. Carry on, Corporal,” he said with a wink.
“Yes, sir! Gladly, sir!” She answered. She kicked Jen again. “On your feet!” She ordered.
Jen looked up at Marlowe in disgust. Slowly she rose to her feet. The two resumed walking.
“Did you really have to kick me that hard?” Jen muttered over her shoulder.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Marlowe replied.
“On our left,” Jen said. “Sully’s Bar. We need to get in there.”
Jen led Marlowe to a shop in the back left corner of the dead-end. The half-burnt out sign read “Sully’s.”
“Get on your knees facing the doorway, and keep your hands behind your head,” Marlowe said. Jen complied.
Marlowe took the bag from her shoulder and placed it beside Jen, and began rummaging through it, keeping the rifle trained on her as she did. Two MilSec soldiers passed. One nodded toward Marlowe. She nodded back.
The soldiers continued a few yards past the sisters, and then froze. They suddenly sprinted toward the shop from which Marlowe and Jen had just escaped.
“Looks like someone found our handiwork,” Marlowe remarked. Jen crawled forward into the doorway and made her way to the back, behind the bar. Marlowe grabbed the duffel bag and followed close behind.
“What’s in here?” Marlowe said as she ducked behind the bar with Jen.
“A way out,” Jen replied. She ran her fingers under the lip of the bar, then under the first layers of shelves. “Aha!”
She pressed a button. There was a light click, and a panel in the baseboards of the wall beside them opened. Jen crawled through, followed by Marlowe. They found themselves in a tight tunnel with a ladder leading upward.
“This will put us in a bookstore at street level,” Jen said as she grabbed the ladder. “No one ever shops there. Sully’s own insurance plan.”
“How’d you know about this?” Marlowe asked.
“I’ve had to use it before. Poker game. You know how it goes.”
“Someone caught you cheating, huh?”
“Everyone cheats down here,” Jen said. “Except, of course, off-duty MilSec guys who wander into the Subs for a wild weekend.”
“And Sully saved your ass?” Marlowe asked. “He must really like you.”
“Sully likes being cut in for thirty percent. Oh, and tits. He really likes tits.”
Jen reached the hatch. Marlowe watched as Jen pushed lightly, testing it. It lifted with no resistance. She pushed her head up against the hatch and scanned the area. It seemed clear. She opened it fully and began to ascend. Suddenly, she shrieked as she was yanked up and out of the tunnel.
“JEN!” Marlowe yelled, clambering up the ladder as fast as she could. She leapt out of the hatch to find Jen in the arms of a burly and bald grey-bearded man who clutched a massive wrench in one of the hands also holding Jen. The two were laughing, until the man caught sight of Marlowe, clad head to toe in MilSec armor.
“MilSec! Run, Jen!” The man yelled as he lunged toward Marlowe, brandishing the pipe wrench. Marlowe caught him by the sleeve of his right arm, put her free hand around his throat, and spun him into the wall behind them.
“Marlowe!” Jen begged. “That’s Sully!”
Marlowe cocked her head. She released Sully and took a step back.
Sully coughed as he rubbed his throat and regained his bearings. “Did — cough — Did I hear that right?” He asked. “Marlowe? As in MK?”
Jen positioned herself between the two. “It’s okay,” she said to Marlowe. “You can trust him. I promise.”
Marlowe took off the MilSec helmet and dropped it to the floor. Sully’s face was the very picture of shock. “Sully, meet my sister, Marlowe. Marlowe, this is Sully.”
Marlowe smirked and tossed a half-wave, half-salute toward Sully, and then began removing the overlarge MilSec armor.
“I can’t believe it…” Sully said, Marlowe Kana is your sister…?”
“Adopted,” Marlowe said. Jen hit her on the shoulder.
“Well shit!” Sully said with a laugh. “I’m a huge fan! I hate MilSec, but you…you I always loved! But…how’d you end up here?”
“Long story for another time,” Marlowe said, pulling her orange-jumpsuit-clad legs from the bottom portion of armor. “We’ve got to get out of here. You have a vehicle? Preferably pre-war?”
“Yeah, at my place. A bike and a truck,” he replied. He swelled with pride as he added “Restored ’em myself!”
“Where’s your place?” Jen asked.
“Other side of the Krog Street Bridge, in Peoplestown.”
“Shit,” Marlowe said. “I’m sure they’ve set up a perimeter. You see any MilSec on the streets?”
“Not really,” Sully said. “But I’ve been here since they started torching places in the Subs…waitin’ in case one of them poked their knobby heads up through the hatch there so I could knock it off!”
“Well, if they’re not up here yet, they will be soon. Think you could go get the bike for us?” Marlowe asked.
“Nope,” Sully answered. “But I can get the truck.”
“Something wrong with the bike?” Jen asked.
“Yeah, it won’t hold three people,” he replied calmly.
“No fucking way,” Marlowe said. “We can’t afford to have you come–”
“My truck, my rules,” Sully said. “Or feel free to walk.”
Marlowe sighed. “Fine, whatever,” she said. “Just be quick about it.”
“Hot damn!” Sully said, beaming. “Okay, hunker down here, I’ll be back in a jiff!” He made his way out of the back office and through the back door to the shop. The rumbling of a custom motorcycle could be heard through the walls.
“Wait, the motorcycle’s already here?!? That son of a…” Marlowe said, grinding her teeth. Before she could make her way toward the door, the bike growled its way out of the back lot of the bookstore and off into the distance.
“That’s Sully,” Jen said with a chuckle. “Trust me, he’s solid.”
“He’s extra weight, and we need to travel light.”
“He’s useful, and we need the help.”
“We’re about to go get some help,” Marlowe said, putting her back against the wall and sliding down it until she landed gingerly on her rear. “If they’re still there, that is.”
Marlowe pulled a Battery bar from the duffel bag and unwrapped it. “My fan club,” she remarked casually as she took a huge bite.