A checkerboard of various Feeds spanned across the wall-sized screens surrounding President Cook’s desk.
“Does This Prove MK Is A Traitor?” The caption on one Feed asked, as pundits eagerly discussed the attack on the transport.
“More Than Guilty!” another caption blared. The footage of explosions rocking and toppling the transport truck played in slow motion.
“Terrorist Plot To Kill MK?!?” Asked another, as an uncredentialed “terrorism expert” discussed the situation via live chat with a young boy who was hosting a CitizenFeed from his bedroom.
Dozens of other Feeds had dozens of other takes on the trial, the prison break, Marlowe’s supposed attack on Sergeant Corta, and even the fashion of the non-MilSec citizens who had ambushed the parade of armored vehicles. One Feed featured a fashion expert enthusing that the guerillas’ strange-looking, black-and-white-speckled camouflage fatigues, along with the makeup and masks they wore, would be the hot, must-have look for spring.
Despite three of the four walls of his office being covered with footage from dozens of Feed streams, President Cook’s steely blue eyes were fixed on a small screen at the center of his desk.
“No, go back one frame,” he said as he ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper black hair. JAQi complied, rewinding the video on the screen by a frame. It was a recording of the NewsFeed drone footage. On the screen, the left hand of the solder exiting the prison transport with Marlowe moved slightly farther from his face, his middle finger extended toward the drone overhead.
“This one is perfect,” Cook said. “Grab it.” The screen flashed white for a fraction of a second as JAQi captured the image.
“The soldier in the image is Private First Class Robert Jacobs,” JAQi said, its receptive voice filling the room. “Shall I fetch his dossier?”
“Nah, leave the profiling and investigations up to MilSec Command,” the President said as he flattened the hairs he had distractedly ruffled. “Just get this image out there, along with the others in this group whose faces you can see. National alert, every screen, unclosable. And I want to know why some of these peoples’ faces are blocked. ”
“Absolutely, sir,” JAQi said.
“Play it again.”
President Cook watched, for the eleventh time, as the prison transport was ambushed by pre-war vehicles. He managed not to flinch as he watched a large cargo truck slam head-on into the MilSec convoy’s lead vehicle, stopping it dead in its tracks. Rockets fired from shoulder-mounted launchers flew from off-screen into the maglev drive of the heavily armored prison transport. The resulting explosion of the levitating propulsion engine scorched the road, flipped the behemoth up and tipped it on its side. The turncoat MilSec soldiers from the rear escort exited and opened fire on the soldiers attempting to exit the two disabled vehicles.
Half a dozen armed personnel, clad in parts and pieces of stolen or homemade armor, appeared from off-screen in all directions — their faces frustratingly blocked out and pixelated on the camera. Teaming up with the MilSec traitors, they joined the attack, using rockets, homemade chemical explosives and biometrically hacked railguns to annihilate what remained of the MilSec guard. Marlowe and Jacobs were helped out of the back of the prisoner transport. The groups split up and entered their getaway vehicles. A soldier lifted his rifle and opened fire on the drone recording the events from above. The screen flickered in rainbow colors for a fraction of a second before going dark.
The President looked up from the screen on his desk. He surveyed the array of Feeds before him and smiled. He rotated his chair to his left and addressed the wall-sized grid of faces watching him; each member of the Board of Directors of Imagen Corporation was grimly awaiting his reply.
“Well, Steven?” Chairman Alvin Davis asked. “You cannot tell us in good faith that you saw this coming.”
“This?” President Cook replied. “No. I didn’t see this coming. This is so much better than what we planned.”
“What you planned,” the Chairman countered. “This thing you’ve concocted is coming off the rails.”
“No, this plan WE all signed off on, that WE are enacting… This plan is going far better than WE could have possibly imagined. It’s a huge success.”
“How the hell do you call this a success!?”
“Look at the ratings!” Cook said, gesturing toward a grid of statistics on one of the Feed displays. “Off the charts, across the board…the entire nation — forty million citizens — all of them, engaged as never before! Don’t you see the potential here?”
“All I see is a gigantic shitshow!” Chairman Davis replied, his face as red as his necktie. “You’ve got a multi-million credit MilSec asset — our biggest ratings gainer, mind you — running rogue with some splinter group of whoever the hell those people are, doing whatever the hell they plan to do with her…dead soldiers, destroyed vehicles, pandemonium across every Feed…a nation completely folding in on itself! That’s what I see!”
Cook sighed. He rubbed his temples. “You know what I see?” His muffled voice asked from behind his hand.
“Why don’t you enlighten us,” Davis said drily.
The President removed his hand from his face, clenched it into a fist, and slammed it on his desk. “I see an old man doing business the old way!” He barked. “Lazy and myopic…no understanding of what drives people! Of what drives engagement! I see a group of suits who have grown complacent, who can’t see the bigger picture.”
“Watch yourself,” Davis warned. “Your pedigree betrays you. Yes, the office of the Presidency cannot govern Imagen Corporation operations, and vice-versa. Your father saw to that. He was a wise man. He understood the benefits of divisions of power. And when he was the Chairman of Imagen, he oversaw the greatest rebuilding and revitalization of a country that this world has ever seen. And although you won the popular vote, you are still beholden to the agreements struck between the new constitutional council and this company.”
“I won it over you, I might remind you,” Cook retorted.
“Yes, as we decided,” Davis replied without hesitation.
Cook sighed and rolled his eyes.
Davis continued, “Your father did not intend for his rogue egomaniac of a son, drunk on his own power, to run rampant and undo all the work he completed when Imagen had provisional control over the nation. He intended for the office of the first President of the United American State and the Board of Imagen Corporation to work together to continue his goal of Reformation. He was a man of great vision. You, however…you weren’t even alive the last time this country had a president! You are your father’s son, yes. But you’re absolutely not your father.”
“You’re right,” Cook said. “I am not my father. I am the President of the United American State, goddammit!”
President Cook slammed his fist on his desk, stopping Davis cold. He stood up from his chair, defiantly facing the Board. “I am the first President this nation has had in 54 years, since before the war!” He barked. “The people trust in me, just as they trusted in my father when he was in your position, ‘Chairman’ Davis!” The emphasis on Chairman caused Davis to grit his teeth.
Cook continued, “He recognized the need for a leader that doesn’t belong to a corporation that employs the people of this nation. And the people want someone who represents them, and not the interests of the company that produces everything they have and use. They need a man that is of the people and for the people, elected by the people — and goddammit, that’s what I am!
“Steven, if you’ll just –”
“–And if the engagement metrics on the Feeds from tonight and from the past three months are any indication, I am doing the job granted me by the people of this great nation! Now, if you’ll excuse me, ladies and gentlemen of the Board, I need to address the Citizens — my employers — about the events that have just unfolded.”
“Steven!” Chairman Davis said, just before his Feed was cut off along with the rest of the Board members’.
President Steve Cook sighed heavily as the lights brightened and the wall screens faded to white. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose. He counted to ten, and then slowly exhaled through his mouth. Centered and calm, he approached the doorway of his studio. It slid open as he walked toward it.
“Marcus,” he said, addressing his assistant who sat just outside the studio.
“I need you to personally create a FeedRelease announcing an emergency CookTalk. Make it public…general admission based on the Citizen Lottery System. Doors open at nine p.m., I’ll begin speaking at nine-thirty. Make the slogan something like…‘Back To The Top.’ and make sure the word ‘Top’ is underlined. Three times. The fans will love deciphering that.”
“Yes, sir,” Marcus said. He gestured his hands upward and began typing on a light array that appeared before him. “That’s a very short turnaround… Do you need me to page the writing staff?”
“No, I’ve got this one. Any vital messages?” President Cook asked as he made his way briskly toward the exit.
“Well, Chairman Davis called back the second you hung up on him, but I’m sure you expected that.”
Cook nodded. “Anything else?”
Marcus scanned his other screen. “A few Anons claim to have information on Marlowe’s whereabouts…none appear credible. One just says ‘Post your Ballsack.’ And the dancing cat GIF you liked is back again.”
Cook rubbed his chin pensively. “Reblog the cat. Ignore the rest.”
“Yes, sir,” Marcus answered as the President left to address the nation.