February 27, 2096 5:58 PM
Seriously, fuck this place.
This camp is supposed to be a home. A home for the refugees displaced by the bombing at Terminus. But with all the guards we’ve had to put in place, and the rules, and the rationing… It’s become more of a prison than a refugee camp. This is disloyal, I know, but I think the Judge bit off more than he can chew. We were supposed to be starting a revolution, not playing nursemaids to people who need far more than we can provide. I mean, I’m glad we’re trying to do something good… But are we really the ones who should be doing this job?
This place is a fucking hellhole. I can’t breathe the air longer than ten minutes without gagging. There’s not enough clean water. Everyone’s skin is burnt and blistered and their wounds are getting infected. The Thoughts and Prayers™—I appreciate the effort, but we have more dehydrated food than we know what to do with, yet no clean water to cook it.
Christ, the sunburns… Dr. Rossler said it used to happen all the time before the climate changed and the environment generators went online. It was just normal. How the hell did people live like that? He and his team are doing their best, just like we are doing our best. But that’s my point—our best sucks. It just doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe the Judge and Hank Collins should get Amanda to stop asking for those Thoughts and Prayers™ food kits and start actually telling people what we need.
And the fucking bandits… the Judge is insane, using the former Terminus Citadel prisoners as security! They may have been in training for foreign service, but that only makes them more dangerous! I broke some dude’s arm yesterday as he tried to raid the munitions tent. I’m glad I got to him before he actually made it in, or William and Sully would have added another body on the pyres. And that smell doesn’t need any more fuel. There are some good prisoners, yeah… Angel and, as much as I hate to admit it, Jacobs have a handle on them. Thank God there’s some humanity left in the prisoners Or maybe they’re just terrified of Angel. Either way, I don’t care. So long as they stand between us and the bandits, I’m good.
I know the Judge is right—I know we need all the help we can get. But that’s my point. We shouldn’t be taking their help because we shouldn’t be doing this, period! Let Imagen back in to fix the goddamn EV generators, or Cook’s army in to secure the place… I believe in the movement, I really do. I want a Sovereign citizenry. I want out from under corporate control. But there are limits. I’m at mine.
If it weren’t for Jen…
The sound of a hand slapping the canvas flap of his tent sent a jolt through Poet. Startled, he quickly closed his journal. “Come in,” he said. He smiled the moment he saw Jen’s head poke through the flaps of his tent.
“Good, you’re up already,” she said.
“Already?” Poet said with a rueful chuckle. “I never went to sleep.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Jen said, stepping into his tent. “Wish I had known, I could have joined you and we could have not slept together.”
An awkward grin spread across Poet’s face. “That sounds… Fun?”
Jen’s eyes narrowed and her arms folded over her chest. “You know what I meant,” she huffed. “Anyway… have you seen Nines?”
“Sure, lots of times,” Poet said. “Curly hair, about five feet tall…” He held his hand out at slightly over the height of his own head. He adjusted it up an inch for good measure.
Jen unfolded her arms and stooped to pick up a wayward boot lying in the middle of Poet’s tent. She lobbed it at him. He caught it and laughed.
“I’m serious right now!” Jen exclaimed. “I can’t find her. Have you seen her recently?”
Poet’s dreadlocks swung as he shook his head. “Not since yesterday… But I’ve not really been looking. Have you checked the comms tent—” He caught himself just a tad too late.
Jen’s eyes narrowed again.
“Or, you know… Other places?” He added lamely.
“Why would Nines be in the comms tent?” she asked, eyeing Poet beadily.
Poet shrugged and shifted his eyes. “Uh… Just a thought,” he stammered.
“You know something I don’t?”
“I mean… I promised I wouldn’t tell…”
“Come on, Poet!” Jen said. “This is serious! She’s just a kid, and you know there are dangerous assholes around who… You know…”
“Wait, did that happen!?” Poet bristled, his tone turned serious and his posture straightened.
“Not that I’ve heard,” Jen said and Poet relaxed slightly. “But MilSec people are kinda gross to begin with. The Foreign Service prisoner volunteers… Marlowe had some stories about them that made me want to kill them all.”
“Not the nicest folks, I know,” Poet said, relaxing slightly and returning to pulling loose the laces on his boot. “But Jacobs and Angel seem to have everyone on lock. I wouldn’t worry too much.”
“They’re stealing food and trying to break into the munitions tent,” Jen said wearily. “I feel like it’s just a matter of time before… Well, I just want to keep an eye on her, you know?”
Poet shook his head. “Look, you don’t need to worry about Nines, okay?” he said. “I know where she is, and I promised I wouldn’t tell you or the Judge. She’s safe.”
“What?!” Jen said, her fists balling in frustration. “You have to tell me!”
“I already did!” Poet said, sliding his journal from his lap and placing his right foot on his left knee.
Jen thought back for a moment. “Oh man, I’m gonna kill her.” She spun furiously and lifted the tent flap to leave.
“Jen, wait!” Poet yelled. “Just… Hold on a second!”
Jen froze and looked back over her shoulder. A swirl of dust and dead grass flew into the tent. “Why?” She asked.
“Come on back in a moment,” Poet said with a sigh. “You’re letting all the dirt in.”
Jen scowled. She took a step back and let the tent flap fall, then turned around with her arms once again folded over her chest.
“Just—Let the kid have some fun, okay? She’s been through a lot!”
“We’ve ALL been through a lot!” Jen barked. “And she didn’t have the replacement Pod that the Judge gave her an hour before she started shit with every troll on the net! She cannot be trusted!”
“She’s blowing off steam,” Poet said, poking his foot into the opened mouth of his boot. “So she stirs up some assholes who buy Cook’s bullshit that we’re terrorists… What’s the big deal?”
“What’s the big…” Jen’s ground her teeth and her face turned red. “Did you forget the shitstorm she started two weeks ago?!”
“She was just being—”
“A fucking troll!” Jen interjected. “And there’s no way to control her!”
“Why can’t you watch her?” Poet asked.
“Oh, what, between running this entire camp while the Judge is off pulling whatever strings behind the scenes to keep what little credits we have flowing? What, do I get to sleep zero hours a night now?”
“What about Austin?”
“He’s too fucking busy! We’re all too fucking busy to babysit a brat with self-control issues, okay?! Can’t you just write a script or something that alerts you when she—”
“Oh, just shut up,” Jen said, waving her hand at him dismissively as she turned to leave the tent.
Poet chuckled. “She’s really that good, huh?” He asked, freezing Jen in her tracks.
Jen bit her bottom lip. She turned back toward Poet and nodded sullenly. “The only solution is to keep her off the damn Net,” Jen said. “And it sucks, because she is that good. But we can’t afford to have some master troll out there riling up people who are already bored and stupid and ready to cut us off instead of help us! And God forbid she actually goads one of those idiot #UnitedAmericansUnited morons into doing something for real.”
“Look, you’re not wrong,” Poet said, pulling the laces tight on his boot. “She’s a brat. We all know she’s a brat. But those #UnitedAmericansUnited guys fucking suck, and they deserve a little pwnage now and then.”
Jen’s scowl turned into a bemused half-frown. Her eyebrows narrowed. Her lip curled as she repeated, “Pwnage?”
“…Did I use it wrong?”
“No, it’s accurate,” Jen said. “But, like, super dated. In fact, the only hacker I’ve ever heard use it seriously is her… Is she teaching you her Feed tricks?” Jen said.
“Her and Austin, yeah,” Poet said. “It’s fun.”
“So what, you’re starting fights with the #UAU people now?”
“No!” Poet said, wrapping one bootlace over the other and drawing it tight. “Just… You know. Opposition research.”
Jen stared at the ground to hide the smile that crept across her face. She forced the corners of her mouth back to an insincere scowl. She looked directly at Poet. “‘Hearts and Minds,’ remember?” She asked, quoting the Judge’s oft-repeated phrase around the camp. “Without support from the Citizens, we won’t be able to keep this place running. Imagen refuses to help, and Cook is already calling us terrorists… Without public support, innocent people will die.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Poet said as he tied his boot lace. “I’d love to put those guys’ hearts and minds under this boot…” He slid his foot from his knee and stomped his boot on the ground for effect.
Jen smirked. “I better go get Nines before she shovels any more shit onto fans. You mind getting the rest of the camp going?”
“Man, I just don’t get these people,” Poet said, sliding to the edge of his cot. “We’re all supposed to be in this together, and they can’t get their own asses up? I mean… How can they even sleep?”
“It’s… I don’t know,” Jen said, her shoulders slumping. “It’s getting harder and harder to motivate people. It’s, like, surviving isn’t enough. They’re starting to give up after what, two weeks?”
With a tired grunt, Poet tried to heave himself off of the cot. Jen chuckled. She extended her hand toward him. Still clutching his journal, he extended his free hand and grasped hers.
“Thanks,” he said, slightly embarrassed. “I fucking hate that cot. Hell, I fucking hate this whole camp. It’s not at all what we signed up for.”
Jen snorted. “I never signed up in the first place,” she said.
“Fair point,” Poet said with a grin. He folded his journal along the well-worn crease that had formed down the middle and tucked it into the back pocket of his fatigues. “I guess I’ll do my sworn duty as a Sovereign citizen to tell everyone they’re free to do what they’ve been told to do…”
Jen chuckled. Together, they moved toward the exit of Poet’s tent. Poet froze as Jen lifted the flap. “I, uh… I need a minute,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” Jen asked over her shoulder. She followed Poet’s finger as he pointed down at his feet, one of which was still without a boot.
Jen laughed heartily. “Oh, man… Yeah, you either need to wake up or get more sleep!” She laughed as she turned to exit the tent.
“How about both?” Poet replied, once more taking a seat on the cot.
“Meet me in Comms after you check in with everyone,” Jen said over her shoulder as she lifted the tent flap. “I’m gonna go see how much damage Nines has done. Oh, and uh… Another favor? Could you check on my dad for me?”
“Of course,” Poet said.
“I mean, I’m sure he’s… You know. Rossler would have sent word if…”
“…You could just go see him yourself,” Poet replied. “Not to put my nose where it doesn’t belong, but it might do you some good.”
“Thanks, but Marlowe was always better with, you know… That whole situation,” she answered, referring to her father’s reduced physical state. Her eyes dropped and she reflexively held the tent flap closer to her body. “I just never got used to seeing him… Like…”
“It’s all good,” Poet said. “I get you.”
Jen nodded with a reluctant smile. She tossed a light wave in his direction. The tent flaps fell shut as she left.
Poet pulled on his other boot and took a deep breath. He attempted to push himself off the cot and stand, but physics simply didn’t want to cooperate. He fell back to the cot. He couldn’t help but laugh at himself. Jen was gone, he could just roll off and stand up, he supposed. The thought made him smile wider. He leaned to one side and pulled his folded journal from his pocket.
…I know who I DO have faith in. And I can’t tell her. Not the way I want to. Not now.
“Well how the fuck would I know where to find a Mayan statue?!”
Stefan Douglas’ voice shrilled over the percussion of his RealLeather loafers as he stomped down the antique Italian marble floors. The icy slush his shoes had picked up from the snow-covered streets squished along with the whirring of cleaning drones that trailed happily behind, slurping and sucking up each dissipating footprint. It was an ensemble performance of entitled frustration conducted by Stefan Douglas as he marched down the hallway of the 43rd floor of the Circle City Square Premium Condominiums, the most luxurious floor of the most luxurious building in the United American State’s capital city of Indianapolis.
Stefan’s pale complexion glowed an agitated rose in the wan light, his laugh lines creasing in frustration as he barked at his assistant on the cracked screen of his handheld Pod. A rare thing indeed: a person of Stefan’s status not having an implanted Pod and screen-enhanced eyes. It was an anachronistic quirk he found endeared his clients to him. The cost of constantly repairing the screen was negligible compared to the social capital the affectation generated.
“And why are you asking ME, anyway?!” He continued. “That’s what I pay you for, James! I don’t even fucking know who the hell Maya is, much less why someone made statues of—Oh, they were a whole race of people?! Well, la-dee-fucking DAH!” He held the Pod out from in front of his face and wagged his hands like a drunken orchestra conductor. His impeccably blonde-dyed hair (with a fashionable touch of gray still showing) flew agitatedly around his head.
A movement caught Stefan’s eye. Nerves zinged through him as he looked past the screen of his Pod.
His relief was palpable when he saw it was just the young couple who had recently moved in. They were all smiles as they ventured out to sample yet another high-end restaurant in their new high-end neighborhood. Stefan reflexively dropped the Pod to his side, softened his eyes, relaxed his brow, and stretched his mouth into a wide grin. They waved and smiled back.
The second they passed, he hunched over, clutched his gut, and caught his breath. “Thank God!” He said aloud. He held the Pod in front of his face once again as he continued tracking moist shoe prints down the hallway. “What’s that, James? Well no, I don’t know who the Mayans were. And you know what? I don’t care! I don’t study art, I SELL it! And you broker it! And if you don’t find us a Mayan statue before tomorrow night’s gala, so help me CHRIST, I’ll—”
“— Mr. Douglas!” A timid voice rang out from down the hall.
Stefan froze in place. Slowly and dramatically, he looked up from his Pod to see a petite, kind-faced, white-haired woman waving at him from just outside the doorway to unit 4341, across from his own condo unit. She clutched the front of her overcoat as she trotted his way. “I’ve been trying to reach you all week! Can we please speak a moment?” She trilled.
His heart leapt into his throat. His stomach churned and his mind raced as he calculated his path of quickest exit. He thought about turning and running back to the elevator, but the young couple had surely already taken it down. The windows at either end of the hall on the 43rd floor of the Circle City Square Premium Condominiums were sealed and security-monitored, and he didn’t carry any weapons, so both suicide and murder were off the table. He could rush past her and hide in his condo, but the only thing keeping this woman from sinking his hard-won VerifiedCitizen™ score of 9 (the highest that a “citizen of high standing in United American society” could achieve without being on the board of Imagen Corporation or being the President himself) was the fact that he had this little old lady convinced that they were the dearest of friends. He knew he had to face Mrs. Reynolds. He had to hold her at bay just one more day. The deal that would allow him to refund her (and save his ass) hung in the balance.
The week before, Stefan had stumbled onto the deal of a lifetime. He had been at some small society party. The host was a very valued customer of his, and he had felt obligated to attend. It went exactly how these sorts of things always went. He showed up late. He greeted the host with ecstatically fake kisses and feigned interest in wherever the marble flooring had been sourced, and snatched up two glasses of champagne from the first server to cross his path. He had downed one and placed the empty glass back on the tray, then sashayed through the soiree with enough style to be seen, but not so much flair as to be noticed. Things were expectedly dull, until he’d overheard a young gentleman discussing some antiques he’d recently bought at auction.
It turned out, this guy (you know the type… not quite young, but not quite old; average build, average height, average weight, average face) had been dragged by a date to some kind of open auction. He hadn’t known much about it. He just knew that Imagen’s Development Expeditionary Division, the force they sent westward to stake out new expansion cities for the United American State, typically sold antiques and art at these things, and he figured he might find a nice piece or two for his apartment… And you know, maybe then get laid. The other person in the conversation, a blowhard named Ambrose, had given a hearty laugh at that bit. He, too, used art auctions to get laid, or so he claimed. Stefan knew that Ambrose was in fact asexual. After all, Ambrose was one of Stefan’s closest friends… Or rather, was, before Ambrose had attempted to steal a deal of Stefan’s a few months prior. He had failed spectacularly and Stefan made millions as a result. The bitterness of the failed attempt had left Ambrose somewhat sour.
“I know how that goes!” Ambrose had said with a chortle. His eyes shot wide open when he noticed Stefan glide into the conversation.
“Same here!” Stefan joined in glibly. “Those auctions… Terrible art, but tasty trim, you know what I’m saying?” He had gently elbowed the average-looking man, who smiled and nodded and stuck out his hand in greeting.
“Nathan Sterling,” he said.
“Stefan Douglas,” Stefan replied as he grasped his new friend’s hand. He glanced at Ambrose, who returned a brief but noticeably defeated look. With Stefan around, there would be no art deals for him that evening.
Nathan had went on to explain that he, completely transfixed by the beguiling beauty of his date, had raised his BidBracelet randomly on some lot or another, not paying any attention until it was time to settle up at the end of the evening. He was shocked to find out that he’d won, for an insanely low sum, the entirety of the furnishings from the private residence of the former governor of the former state of Missouri. The price? A mere ten million credits.
Ambrose had sniffed. “Well, I can easily cover that, if you’re interested in parting with—”
“Thirty million,” Stefan countered. “Now.” He whipped out his cracked Pod and tapped on the screen earnestly.
Stefan had continued by charmingly suggesting that fate had brought them together, as he wasn’t even supposed to have attended the party that night but something told him he should come. And this was that something. And nothing—and no one—would stand in the way of this karmic blessing.
“Ha!” Ambrose said, landing a too-stiff slap on Stefan’s shoulder. “I know better than to go toe to toe with Stefan Douglas! I’ll bid you both adieu for now!” Ambrose bowed out, walked behind Sterling, and waited for Stefan to look up. The moment he did, he mouthed the words, “Now we’re even!”
Stefan raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips while shaking his head, in a gesture very clearly stating that no, they were still a long way from even. He then very quickly softened his countenance and looked back at Sterling, who had just produced his own handheld Pod.
“No implants?” Stefan said, bemused.
“Nah,” Sterling replied. “I guess I prefer to do things the old-fashioned way as well.”
“I know exactly what you mean!” He had exclaimed, shaking his own cracked handheld Pod for effect, before holding it up in front of Sterling and scanning his face. He tapped on the Pay Now button on his ImagenPay app and the transaction was complete.
They agreed to meet the next afternoon at three o’clock, at a storage unit on the outskirts of Indianapolis. After a bit more small talk, Stefan politely excused himself to the toilet, and immediately started sending pings to every collector of Pre-Second-Civil-War antiquities on his connections list. With relationships spanning a decade or more, it was no time at all before he had covered his thirty million with deposits from ten of his most loyal clients.
The champagne’s effect was nothing compared to the swirling, drunken state Stefan’s euphoria had left him in as he had stared out of the window of the iLyft back home. In less than three hours, he’d generated over one hundred million credits in revenue and satisfied the appetites of ten of his best clients. And he had done so while edging out Ambrose, which added a tasty cherry on top of this delectable deal.
The next day, he’d travelled to the storage unit. He scanned his retinas at the door and spoke the passphrase given to him by Sterling: “Dolphin.” The dull hum of the laser grid in front of the door ceased. The security clamps released. A slight hiss echoed in the hallway as the door slid opened. A rush of musty air hit his nostrils as he stared into a dark and empty room. In the very center of the floor was a small card. His heart raced as he approached. He bent down and looked at the card, which read:
So Long And Thanks For All The Credits.
Stefan had winced in pain with every refund he had been forced to process. He told nine of the ten clients who had made a deal with him on the Missouri governor’s lot that the furniture, art, and other antiquities they put deposits on were damaged in transport. And given their—ahem, sterling relationship, he simply couldn’t, in good faith, saddle them with these tarnished goods. He did some quick accounting: having been grifted for thirty million, and having refunded twenty-seven million, he was now out fifty-seven million credits in less than twenty-four hours. Despite having nothing at all to do with it, he blamed Ambrose.
He had just enough left in his personal savings to either refund Mrs. Reynolds, or to acquire (with some luck) a Mayan statue to sell to a customer who was visiting Indianapolis specifically to attend a gala that was taking place the next week. The decision was a no-brainer. If he could just hold off his neighbor’s queries about a refund and make that statue sale, he’d be back in the black and would be able to afford Mrs. Reynold’s refund as well. The only thing standing between him and that was Mrs. Reynolds herself, who was at that moment hobbling toward him as quickly as her stubby octogenarian legs would allow.
With his options for escape, suicide, and murder unfortunately not feasible, he did the only thing he felt he could do.
“…James, ping me back on the other line in exactly thirty seconds,” he whispered. He ended the call and sighed heavily. A smile stretched across his face. “Oh, well, hi there, Mrs. Reynolds!” He said through gritted teeth. “I have been meaning to get back to you, but I have been just so busy—and look at you! Positively radiant! And that coat is just darling!”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Douglas,” Mrs. Reynolds said, patting her bouffant hair. “Listen, we need to discuss this situation with the Missouri governor’s armchair. You and I… Well, we have a very strong relationship, and you’ve never let me down. I trust you implicitly, Mister Douglas! But you see, it’s been over a week since I left my deposit and—”
“It’s… It’s the Tragedy at Terminus,” Stefan said, his grin fading as he held his hand to his heart. “With the nation under curfew until yesterday, everything has been locked down! It’s impossible to get anything transported to my warehouse—”
“—Now, Mister Douglas,” Mrs. Reynolds interrupted, her polite demeanor abruptly vanishing. “Deborah Massey—you know, our mutual friend from the gallery downtown? Well, she told me just yesterday that you refunded her transaction a week ago.”
“She… Did…” Stefan said, chewing his bottom lip. “Well, of course she did!” He said, perking up. “Her piece, oh it’s a travesty… It was ruined in transit! A leg broke off the table, and splintered everywhere. It’s such a shame to see such a beautiful piece—”
“—But how could you know?” Mrs. Reynolds asked shrewdly. “You just said you didn’t receive the shipment.”
“Well, I… I, uh…” Stefan clutched at his Pod with both hands, twisting it nervously. Suddenly, it began to buzz, startling him so much that he dropped it. “Gracious!” He exclaimed as he bent over to pick it up. “Well, look at this! My goodness, it’s… It’s President Cook!” He said, showing Mrs. Reynolds the screen of his Pod which displayed, through an old crack and a new, the name and photo of the first President of the United American State. “I have to take this—Oh, HI, Mister President!”
Mrs. Reynolds’ mouth hung open. Stefan didn’t bother to interpret her expression; he turned and fled as quickly as he could.
His unit’s front door slid open as he approached. He turned and held the Pod away from his face as he whisper-shouted to Mrs. Reynolds. “I’ll ping you right after this call!” He then ducked into his condo. The door slid closed behind him.
Stefan huffed a massive sigh of relief. “Well THAT was close!” he said to James once safely inside. “What the hell took you so long!? I said exactly thirty seconds! That had to have been a full minute or more!”
“—Welcome home, Stefan,” JAQi stated calmly from everywhere at once.
“Well I don’t CARE who you were—WHAT!?! You sourced a Mayan?!” Relief flooded throughout his body. “Well that was fast! Thank the LORD! All is forgiven! I love you, I love you, I LOVE you!” He tapped the End Call button on his Pod and tap-danced across the foyer into the living room, the last bits of mud and snow splashing behind him.
Despite the current turmoil across the United American State, the newfangled snow from the environmental systems had kept drifting down. #Snow was still trending in the top ten topics nationally, and even after two straight weeks, people seemed to love it. Stefan, however, wasreally over it.
“JAQi! Come on…” He groaned. “Clean this crap up, dammit!” he dropped his RealLeather satchel on the engraved luggage stand just outside the doorway to his bedroom.
A tone sounded. “Right away,” JAQi responded.
Entering his spacious bedroom, Stefan did not even spare a glance toward the massive bank of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the United American State capitol building and, just beside it, the Imagen Corporation headquarters. He stumbled dramatically toward the foot of his bed and turned around.
“My GOD!” He exclaimed as he flopped onto the bed, arms outspread and bounced twice. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, attempting to hold it for ten seconds, as his therapist had suggested. He made it to four before he became bored and blubbered out an exhalation.
“Any new messages?” He said aloud without opening his eyes.
A tone sounded. “No new messages in the past hour,” JAQi replied. “You still have seven thousand four hundred eighty-four unread messages in your—”
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled, his eyes fluttering open again. With a groan, he sat back up.“Any important updates?”
A tone sounded. “There are five hundred thirty five thousand, six hundred updates in the last hour across the seven thousand fifty-four Feeds you have subscribed—”
“Ugh…” he groaned. “Filter hot takes, opinion feeds, or anything that isn’t actual news,” Stefan commanded.
A tone sounded. “Shall I filter thinkpieces as well?” JAQi asked.
“Dear Lord, yes.”
A tone sounded. “You now have two NewsFeed updates.”
“Are either of those about Marlowe Kana?”
“No,” JAQi stated. “Her whereabouts are still unknown. Are you interested in hearing opinions from CitizenFeeds about her—”
“CHRIST, no,” he groaned, sitting up. “Just… play live NewsFeed.”
A tone sounded throughout the room. The brilliant twinkling lights of the tallest buildings in the nation faded as the massive bank of windows turned black, then glowed white before displaying a multitude of high-priority, pinned, and unclosable alerts on either side of each screen. A crawl appeared at the bottom and the latest headlines scrolled across at a fevered pace. Just above the crawl was a title card reading “Amanda Stokes, Host of ‘Stokes The Fires’ – the most-watched Feed in the United American State.” And just above that was the face of a raven-haired, crimson-lipped, red-cheeked ball of fury.
“You mean to tell me,” Amanda Stokes was saying through clenched teeth. “That you regard the fine and wonderful people of my hometown of Atlanta to be terrorists?”
Her face disappeared from the screen and was replaced with that of the spokesperson for President Cook, Candice Kennedy-Kane. Her blonde, pin-straight hair was parted sharply down the middle and her theatrically made up face glowed eerily in the bright lights. Holding a ruminative, slightly bored expression on her face, Kennedy-Kane paused before finally saying, “I did not, in any way, say that, Amanda.”
“You certainly suggested it!” Amanda spat as the two frames slid to rest next to each other, backed by a a muted red, white, and blue background with fifteen stars swirling in a circle.
Candice Kennedy-Kane sighed. A large, plastic smile suddenly appeared on her face. “You know, Amanda, I appreciate your passion,” she drawled. “The President and I are both huge fans. He told me himself.”
“Flattery won’t get you off the hook, ma’am,” Amanda snapped. “I need you to be clear, for my millions of dear viewers across the nation: does the President of the United American State think that the citizens of Atlanta are terrorists?”
“Absolutely not,” Candice said unequivocally. “Atlanta is a fine and wonderful city, and home to many of the nation’s most patriotic heroes. President Cook would never suggest—”
“You said in your NewsFeed briefing this morning—and I am quoting here—‘the United American State has officially designated the Sovereign camp at Terminus Citadel a ‘pre-terrorist encampment,’” Amanda stated. “And in fact, President Cook said the same at his CookTalk this afternoon! I have the footage—Bobby, we have the footage, right?” She said, looking past the camera lens.
“Yes,” Bobby said faintly from off-camera.
Kennedy-Kane scoffed. “You don’t need to—”
“Play it,” Amanda demanded.
The screen switched to an image of President Cook frozen, mid-gesture, on the stage of a CookTalk earlier that afternoon. Several seconds passed as the footage sat still on the screen.
“Jesus, Bobby!” Amanda barked. “Play the damn—”
“I’m working on it!” Bobby complained from off-screen as Kennedy-Kane reiterated, “Do we really need—”
“It’s my show, madam!” Amanda shrilled. Meanwhile, Stefan Douglas continued to sit on the edge of his bed, staring at the still image of an open-mouthed, half-pointing Cook.
He chuckled. “God, what a shitshow…” Placing his right foot on his left knee, he removed his shoe. “OHHHH, that’s heaven,” he breathed as he wiggled his toes and let the RealLeather loafer fall to the hardwood floor below. Suddenly, the footage began to play.
“And it’s a well-known fact,” President Cook said to the audience of over thirty thousand citizens at his sixteenth CookTalk in sixteen days. “That conditions like these are what breed contempt and dissension in a populace.” He paced across the stage and pointed over his shoulder at the gigantic screen behind him. “As you can see, our encounters with terrorists have fallen to nearly zero the last ten years, largely due to my personal oversight of MilSec deployments both before and after my taking office as the first United American State President. And I do not intend to allow the threat to return, especially on our own soil, by our own former Citizens!” A thunderous applause rose and was suddenly silenced as the footage paused.
The screen flickered slightly and a furious Amanda Stokes reappeared on the left side of the screen with and an incredulous Kennedy-Kane on the right.
“Well now, this is all terribly out of context,” Kennedy-Kane replied with a bright, toothy smile.
“He just called the people of Atlanta ‘former Citizens’ and insisted they are turning into terrorists!” Amanda said flatly.
“The President absolutely, one hundred percent believes that the Sovereign are a terrorist organization, yes. That much I think we can all agree on.”
“They rescued Marlowe Kana,” Amanda said. “The love of my life…” She choked up slightly, then regained her composure. “The President framed her, but the Sovereign saved her. And they’ve done so much to help the displaced citizens of Atlanta since the Tragedy at Terminus—”
“—Marlowe Kana was a traitor!” Kennedy-Kane snapped. “And the Sovereign are simply attempting to recruit the desperate, hungry, and vulnerable into their cause!”
“They are providing relief to those who need it,” Amanda insisted. “And Marlowe was most certainly no traitor!”
“Just sixteen days ago, you said she was!” Kane insisted.
“Just sixteen days ago, the evidence that your boss framed her was broadcast across the nation—by me, personally!” Amanda riposted. “She was pardoned by—”
“—by a Corporate board chairman,” Kennedy-Kane interjected. “NOT the President of this nation!” She took a breath and calmed herself. “And your situational support of Marlowe Kana notwithstanding, we—the President and I—know that you have been an avid supporter of the #PrayForATL movement, and for that, we would like to extend our personal thanks. It is a lovely testament to your patriotism that you would want to send as many Thoughts and Prayers™ to the displaced citizens of our nation.”
“They need the help!” Amanda insisted. “They have no power, no running water, no food, no… No anything, except burnt-out homes and the new MilSec standing guard at any point they can re-enter the habitable zone! And I certainly don’t see the President or his new army helping!”
“The help has been offered by our office,” Kennedy-Kane said. “And, as you know from your insistence on playing the communiques from that Hank Collins Sovereign figure, they have been rebuffed time and again.”
“You have demanded that they surrender and call themselves terrorists before sending aid!” Amanda barked. “You are holding the entire city of Atlanta hostage! And now, the President is insinuating that they are no longer Citizens? And insinuating that they—”
“The ball is in their court,” Kennedy-Kane said with a bright smile, her long black eyelashes fluttering innocently.
Amanda silently steamed. Clearing her throat, she changed gears. “And what is with the sudden endorsement by President Cook of the #UnitedAmericansUnited movement?”
Kennedy-Kane shrugged. “It was hardly an endorsement,” she said calmly. “The President said that he thinks it’s admirable that our Citizens are taking pride in their country as a nation, and as an individual entity, instead of simply feeling like they’re part of a country that’s essentially employed by a single corporation from birth.”
“It’s disgusting!” Amanda barked. “He’s snubbing the very company his family started, and the entity that keeps this nation fed, the air breathable, and people employed!”
“Except the poor people of Atlanta, it seems,” Kenny-Kane said. “They seem to have left that poor city and its poor people to suffer as you just said yourself. You know, the city you claim to love so much? One wonders why exactly you don’t take Alan Davis or the rest of the board of Imagen Corporation to task the way you have the President…”
Amanda fumed. “But you… But he… You literally just…” She fell silent, and then fumed some more. Kennedy-Kane simply smiled.
Stefan Douglas glanced to the right of the screen to check the omnipresent bar graph showing the trending hashtags for the nation. It suddenly shifted, and #UnitedAmericansUnited jumped up past #PrayForATL to second place, just beneath #FreeMarlowe, the number one trending tag for sixteen days straight.
“Look,” Kennedy-Kane said, her smile fading and her voice taking on an impassioned tone. “Atlanta was bombed sixteen days ago by the Sovereign terrorists—”
“—They did no such thing!” Amanda demanded. “There is no evidence that—”
“—They interrupted the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale,” Kennedy-Kane continued. “Just to keep our national hero, Sabrina Corta, from beating Marlowe Kana during the most watched Feed in history! They killed three highly decorated MilSec soldiers and their own little hero, just to—”
“—Wait a minute!” Amanda snapped. “Are you confirming, here and now, that you know that Marlowe Kana – the love of my life and a national hero—is in fact, dead?!”
Kennedy-Kane paused. “Well, I would assume—”
“Ma’am, you are the spokesperson for the President of the United American State. And you have said time and again on this very program that neither you nor the President deal in assumptions!”
“—Well, of course we—”
“—If anyone would know with absolute certainty the current state of the single-most famous person in United American State history, you would—and I do believe you just told us all that she is deceased!”
“So you officially announce that she’s alive then?” Amanda’s questioning glare could have cut glass.
Stefan’s jaw was hanging open as he held his other shoe in his hands, waiting for the answer. Just then, a tone sounded throughout the condo.
“Sir,” JAQi said, “An alert has just—”
“Not now!” Stefan shouted, just as Candice Kennedy-Kane stood from her chair. “This interview is over,” she announced and walked briskly off. Her Feed momentarily showed a scrambled rainbow of blocks and then turned black.
“Sir, your VerifiedCitizen score has dropped to 8,” JAQi stated.
Stefan’s other shoe dropped. “WHAT!?!” He shrieked.
“A new review has been left for you by your neighbor, Mrs. Reynolds,” JAQi said. “One star. With her high standing, it has sunk your score a full point.”
“Read it aloud!” Stefan shrieked.
A tone sounded. The voice of Mrs. Reynolds rang through the apartment. “I’ve tried so hard not to do this, but he’s left me no choice. He avoids my calls. He avoids me in the hallway. I have never received my item, and he refuses to refund my credits, and for that I must—”
“Oh my God!” Stefan yelped, interrupting the review. “Ping her! Now!”
A tone sounded. “You have been blocked by Mrs. Reynolds, sir,” JAQi said.
Stefan stood and took a step. He froze. He suddenly remembered the case of another art collector, Harry Brownstein, who had approached a dealer after a poor rating. By coming within ten feet of a bad rater before the required twenty-four hour cooling off period, he had been sent to prison for a week. Stefan couldn’t go to prison for a week. He had to be at the gala the next night. Which also meant, he needed to find a way to raise his VC score immediately, or be barred at the door.
His thoughts raced. Given the limited operations of almost every organization since the Tragedy at Terminus, the options were few. Almost any place he could quickly volunteer, from stores to Little League games to elderly assistance, was barred to volunteers until after the nation-wide alert status switched from red back to orange.
Just then, he looked over at the muted screen where Amanda Stokes was passionately addressing her audience. A light bulb flicked on in his head. The banner on the screen read “Send Thoughts And Prayers™ to the Citizens of Atlanta Today!”
“Ping Amanda Stokes!” he called out.
A tone sounded. He watched the NewsFeed screen as Amanda paused mid-rant, and then a surprised look appeared on her face. She began addressing her audience in amazement.
“Unmute!” Stefan ordered.
“It seems that we have a VerifiedCitizen™ pinging us now! Mister Stefan Douglas… Hello? Are you there?” Amanda queried, addressing the sudden emptiness of Stefan’s bedroom.
“Yeah, I’m here!” Stefan called from just out of the frame, smoothing down the front of his wrinkled shirt.
“Well, you’re live on ‘Stokes The Fires’ and we can’t see you!” Amanda said. “As I’m sure you’re aware, we have a no-anonymity policy on this—”
“—I’m here!!!!” He said, entering the frame of the screen. He quickly ran his fingers through his hair and pulled his collar away from his neck.
“Excellent,” she replied. “And you’re ready to send Thoughts and Prayers™ to Atlanta?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Stefan said. “I am eager to help! That’s me, a helper!”
“Well, you certainly have an impressive profile!” Amanda said. “And it says here you’re a VC level… Oh my! Level 8! We’ve had Verifieds call in and help, but I don’t think we’ve had anyone call in to send Thoughts and Prayers™ with a score over 6, have we, Bobby?”
“5 is our highest VC score so far,” Bobby said from off-camera.
“Wow… So, Mr. Douglas, sir…” She clasped her hands in front of her and held them close to her face, squinting her eyes in earnest. “Thank so, so much for Stoking the Fires with us tonight and sending your Thoughts and Prayers™ to those in need! How many are you sending?”
“How many will get my score up to 9!?” He asked.
“Uh… Well um… I haven’t…” Amanda chuckled uncomfortably. “Uh, Bobby? What’s the math on that?”
“One second,” Bobby said from behind the camera. Muttering could be heard between Bobby and several of his production assistants. “Uh… With the multipliers and given his already high status, he’d have to donate… Five hundred twenty-two thousand, four hundred eighty-one credits’ worth.”
“DONE!” Stefan said. “Doing it riiiiiight now…. Sent!” He said, his face full of glee.
A tone sounded through his condo. “Your VerifiedCitizen score is now 9,”
“…How VERY generous, Mr. Douglas!” Amanda said, frankly astonished. “That is… Well, that is the most patriotic thing I’ve witnessed yet!”
“Yeah, bye!” He said unceremoniously and waved his hand in the air, dropping the call. “Mute the Feed,” he ordered and then fell back onto his bed, breathing deeply.
“Send a message to Royce Alabaster,” Stefan commanded. “Tell him that another buyer has offered me forty million on the Mayan, and if he wants it tomorrow at the gala, he needs to send me a thirty percent deposit tonight. And tell him I love him dearly.”
A tone sounded throughout the room. Stefan closed his eyes and clenched his fists in victory as a wide smile crept across his face.
Stephen Cook’s sixteenth CookTalk in sixteen days was complete, and once again, it was a phenomenal ratings success. His points resonated as intended, and his unwavering delivery was eloquent despite his extreme exhaustion following the EMP blast at Terminus Citadel and the subsequent wholesale destruction of Atlanta.
To honor his successful speech, Cook was currently indulging in yet another post-CookTalk coital celebration. Sensual soft jazz from the previous century cooed softly throughout the dimly lit room as a digital replication of a warm fire crackled on the massive wall screen across from his bed.
Suddenly, a harsh, buzzing crackle echoed throughout the room. The fire on the screen separated into rectangles of varying colors, stuttering and breaking apart as the signal was hijacked once more by the guerilla Sovereign group, who had been responsible for the commandeering of the national Feed satellites for the last few weeks.
“I am Hank Collins, the voice of the Sovereign,” the familiar voice rang out through the speakers in the Presidential bedroom of the New White House.
“Oh, God DAMN it,” President Cook shouted from underneath the silken sheets of his bed and between the legs of one of his lovers. “JAQi! Mute!”
A tone sounded. “My apologies, sir, this Feed has been locked and marked unmute-able and—”
“We have emancipated ourselves from the corporate prison of Imagen Corporation’s societal control, and we come to you with news from the resistance in Terminus Citadel,” Hank Collins continued loudly from the screen. His gaunt face and salt and pepper hair were dotted with the digital glitter of distortion, and his voice skipped and stuttered slightly from the constant band-hopping and node-jumping of the pirated signal, originating from yet another new source.
“MARCUS!” Cook screamed as he slithered downwards and emerged from under the sheets, standing fully nude at the foot of the bed. His lovers, Dominique and Edward Moore, stuck ruffled heads out from under the sheets.
A small window popped up on the wall screen and Marcus’ nervous face appeared. He looked at the President for a split second before averting his eyes in embarrassment and mild disgust as he caught a glimpse of his boss’ fully naked body.
“FUCKING FIX THIS!” President Cook screamed.
“I’m working on— there!” Marcus said, tapping a button on a tablet Pod off-screen. Hank Collins disappeared from the screen and the lilting notes of light jazz once again filled the room.
“Why haven’t you found these assholes yet?!” Cook demanded. “I put you directly in charge of—”
“They keep finding new ways in,” Marcus said, averting his eyes from the screen as President Cook stood furiously with his hands on his bare hips.
“I am growing tired of these interruptions,” Cook insisted. “As much as I hate to, I’m authorizing you to reach out to Chairman Davis if you have to. Certainly he knows something about this.”
“Yes… Yes, sir,” Marcus said, tapping the screen and terminating the call as quickly as he could.
President Cook seethed for a moment. He looked over at the bed, where his two confused but still very aroused bedmates awaited. He shook his head and sighed.
“Okay, then, where were we?” He said briskly before marching back to bed and falling between his lovers.