It was barely past midnight when Marlowe stumbled up to a doorway in a subterranean portion of Atlanta that could only be loosely considered a neighborhood. There simply wasn’t a way to describe the shelters built in and around a conjoined series of damp tunnels that once were used to carry sewage. Before the atmosphere generators and the evaporators, before the biowaste separators and in-house composting, these tunnels had carried wastewater. But that was many years ago, in a time when waste being carried away by the single most precious resource on the planet wasn’t considered a waste in and of itself.
Now, the sewers of Atlanta had become the Subs — subterranean dwellings and businesses for people who didn’t want to bother with the surface society above. It started as a third attempt to resurrect Underground Atlanta as a tourist destination, but it quickly became a modern day red-light district. And as more people moved down and set up shop, it expanded into the old tunnels and unused sewers that spanned old downtown. The laws in the Subs were made and enforced by the people who chose to be there. So long as whatever troubles arose in the Subs stayed in the Subs, MilSec (and the populace it protected) turned a blind eye to anything that went on.
This fact had always been very convenient for Marlowe, given her need for both back-channel information and AMP. And she could use a huge dose of both right about now.
With what little energy she had left after ditching the car in an Imagen Foods parking lot and surreptitiously hoofing it nearly two miles into the city, she rose her fist and banged on the door in front of her. And again. And again.
Marlowe lifted her head and stared up into the lens of a camera pointed down from the top of the doorway. “Come on, Jen…” she said weakly.
Finally, a rattle was heard, then the sliding of metal against metal. The door slowly creaked open. Marlowe pushed her way through it.
“Come in, won’t you?” Jen asked sarcastically as Marlowe passed by.
Marlowe stumbled over to a couch made from old shipping pallets and bundles of blankets, where she then collapsed. Several of the wooden slats beneath her body groaned in disapproval. One snapped clean through in outright rebellion.
The drastically oversized sweatshirt Jen wore swayed around her like a bell as she shoved the heavy steel door shut. She felt a slight rush of air against the shorn sides of her scalp as it closed. Flinging her hand out, she slapped the switch that locked the top and bottom deadbolts in place. A hollow CLANG echoed through the room, bouncing off of the musty concrete walls of the old sewer maintenance room that Jen had turned into her home.
“Jesus, Marlowe,” Jen said in exasperation, pushing a few strands of her coppery hair out of her eyes. “What the hell happened? What are you doing here? How the hell did you even escape? And who the hell were those people who broke you out?!”
“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Marlowe said. She sighed, and closed her eyes. “That’s a lie…I’m not okay, Jen.”
“No shit,” Jen replied. “I guess that makes me not okay by association.”
Marlowe shot a look at Jen that was both incredulous and disapproving. “I wasn’t followed,” Marlowe replied. “You know I’m better than that.”
“Yeah, well, in your state, I’m not really ready to trust that,” Jen replied. She reached out and slapped another button near the door. The lights dimmed inside and several pre-programmed scripts began running background processes to search any and all Feeds for any sign that Marlowe had been spotted. And more importantly, that she hadn’t been followed. After a few anxious seconds, nothing appeared in the alert box on the screen on her desk, nor on the heads-up display in her contacts.
Jen breathed a small sigh of relief. “Nice bracelets, by the way,” she said. “They totally suit you.”
“Well, I was so envious of the ones you seem to like wearing so much,” Marlowe snapped back. “I thought I’d get some for myself. Do you like–”
“–You can’t stay here,” Jen interjected desperately. She closed her eyes and hoped that had sounded the way she’d rehearsed a few hundred times in her head the past few weeks after witnessing Marlowe’s steady downfall. However, the poker face she’d practiced for nearly all of her twenty-three years couldn’t hide her pain. Maybe from other people, but not from Marlowe.
“I don’t want to stay here,” Marlowe replied after a moment. “I’m not looking to disrupt your new little domestic situation. In fact, I’ll go as soon as I get some food and some AMP.”
“AMP? What makes you think I still have that crap?”
“Because you got busted selling it a few months ago, right before my life went to shit,” Marlowe retorted. “And you were released because the evidence suddenly went missing. Who do you think misplaced it?”
Jen clenched her teeth. “I got off because my lawyer–”
“–Is an imbecile who you’re sleeping with,” Marlowe interjected. “All he did was push some papers around. I made sure there weren’t that many to push. I’ve never not had your back.”
“Well I’m sure helping me had some benefits for you as well,” Jen replied. “All that AMP that mysteriously disappeared was put to good use, I hope.”
“Sure,” Marlowe said, rolling her head back and closing her eyes. “Saving the world, being the hero…all that shit.”
“And trying to kill one of the ‘Next Top Soldier’ contestants, and breaking out of prison…” Jen replied.
Marlowe sat up with a surge of fury. “How dare you!”
“What, you’re automatically innocent because ‘I’m supposed to know you better than that?” Jen said. “All I know about you these days is you got all famous and disappeared!”
“Fuck fame!” Marlowe snapped. “You think I care what a bunch of Feed junkies think? You think I give a rat’s ass about whatever ‘fame’ I’ve gotten from a bunch of people who would just as happily watch me die as see me kill people, lift weights, or shop for groceries all day?”
“You certainly don’t shy away from it, miss three-time Top Soldier…”
Marlowe rolled her eyes. “Whatever,” she said, slumping on the makeshift couch. “Look, I can’t help it if ‘war’ is everyone’s favorite show! I’m MilSec. I have to broadcast twenty-four seven. It’s the law. People watched me as I did my damn job. I kill terrorists and–”
“–keep this country safe, yeah, I know,” Jen finished. “I read the bio on the back of the packaging for your action figures.”
“…Fuck you,” Marlowe said with a huff.
“I really like the shopping one best,” she said, driving the knife in a little deeper. “Looks so realistic.”
“I don’t have any say in what Imagen uses my likeness for, okay?”
“No say on your own action figures, no say on product placement, no say on broadcasting on the Feeds…man, you’re such a victim of the Imagen industrial complex!”
“Hey, at least I know who I am! What’s your name now? ‘Jen Kujaku?’ Dad’s silly nickname for us is your new super-secret identity? Does your lawyer fuckbuddy even know who you really are?”
“HA!” Jen chortled. “You know who you are?!? You just said you have no say in how you live your life or how everyone sees you!”
“…Just shut up and get me some food, okay?” Marlowe said.
“I bet you didn’t have a say in trying to murder your competition either –”
“–Enough!” Marlowe yelled, leaping to her feet. “You know what? Fine. You don’t want to help me, I’ll figure it out on my own. I’m out of–”
“–Jen?” A man’s voice said from the hallway. “Is everything okay?”
Marlowe and Jen both turned their heads to face a fit, balding middle-aged man clad only in his undershorts, who had appeared from the darkness of the hallway. “Wha…holy shit!” the man said as he looked at Marlowe. He turned toward Jen. “What the fuck is your sister doing here?!?”
“Michael–” Jen began to explain.
“–Adopted sister,” Marlowe interjected. “And don’t worry, I’m not staying.”
“You’re goddamn right you’re not,” Michael replied. “Jen, you’re on probation! What the hell are you thinking? She can’t be here! This is aiding and abetting a known traitor!”
“I’m not aiding or abetting,” Jen said. “She just…showed up. I had to let her in.”
“You had to let her in?” Michael exclaimed. “You have all these fancy locks and surveillance equipment, and you had to let her in?”
“Michael…” Jen replied.
“I’m calling MilSec,” Michael stated, turning to march back to the bedroom.
“Do that and I’ll have your other other testicle,” Marlowe said as she sat back down.
Michael stopped dead in his tracks. “How…how do you…”
“Hoverskate accident when you were thirteen,” Marlowe replied. “You had surgery. It’s all on record. Well, sealed record. But hey, being me has its advantages.”
Michael stammered. Jen attempted to cover her smirk. Marlowe continued. “I’m the United American State’s best soldier for a reason, Michael,” Marlowe said in a mocking, nasal tone. “I’m very thorough. I do my research. Especially on the lawyers who represent my sister. And double especially on the ones who she decides to let inside her.”
“Hey!” Jen yelled.
“Just saying,” Marlowe said innocently.
“…This is bullshit,” Michael snapped. He took a step toward the doorway.
In a fraction of a second, Marlowe shot up from the makeshift couch and seized a steak knife that had been left on a plate on the table in front of her. She grasped it by the hilt, flipped it one hundred and eighty degrees into the air, and caught it by the tip. With a slight flick of her wrist, she flung the knife toward Michael, pinning the left leg of his boxer shorts to the door frame, mere inches from his remaining testicle.
Jen rushed over to him. “Are you okay?” She asked, stifling a laugh.
“This is funny to you?!?” Michael asked.
“I mean…yeah? A little?” Jen replied.
“She could have cut off my…you know!” Michael exclaimed.
“It wasn’t an accident. I chose not to,” Marlowe said from behind them.
“Look, I’m going to get her what she needs, and then she’s going to go, okay?” Jen said to reassure Michael.
“Jen, if you get caught…if they find her here…you’re done. They’ll execute you. And I’ll be disbarred. If I’m lucky!”
Jen placed her hands on Michael’s shoulders. “That’s why we’ll make sure they won’t, okay?”
“I’ll be out of your hair in no time,” Marlowe replied. “Both the top hairs and the ones I just shaved.”
Michael looked past Jen at Marlowe. He scowled. He returned his glance to Jen. “This is bad, Jen,” he said.
“I know,” Jen replied. “But she’s my sister.”
Michael closed his eyes and shook his head. “She is going to get us both killed.”
“Michael…trust me,” Jen said.
He gritted his teeth and then sighed. “You have ten minutes,” he said to Marlowe over Jen’s shoulder. He turned to exit the room.
“Uh, no,” Marlowe said. “You’re staying right here.”
Michael began to retort. Marlowe reached for the fork from the same plate the knife had previously rested on. Michael quickly shut his mouth and took a seat in the makeshift chair near the couch.
“Leave him alone,” Jen said. “I’ll go get your shit, but then you need to go.”
Marlowe lifted her hand and lazily waved Jen off. She turned and disappeared down the hallway.
Marlowe stretched her arms over her head, then interlaced her fingers and rested her palms on the back of her skull as she sighed. Michael sat with his hands in his lap, visibly uncomfortable.
The screen on Jen’s desk continued the nearly endless recapping of the events that had transpired in the past twenty-four hours. Everything from the footage of Marlowe attacking Sergeant Corta in the locker rooms of their barracks, to Marlowe’s guilty verdict at the trial, to the sentencing hearing, to the prison break and the subsequent sniping of the camera drones by the soldiers who had sprung her — everything was being covered and analyzed in frenzied, minute detail. Various recap blurbs crawled across the bottom of the screen while the NewsFeed anchors bantered with assorted experts in fields from legal, to MilSec domestic operations, to psychology.
Marlowe was glad the audio was muted. She never could stand her own press. Still, she couldn’t help but keep one eye on the footage. Suddenly, NewsFeed cycled through something Marlowe wasn’t familiar with: a recap of the announcements by President Cook regarding “Next Top Soldier” and the return of Sergeant Corta. And the fact that capturing Marlowe was now the sole determination for victory.
Marlowe sat up straight. The entire nation may have been glued to their screens for the better part of three months, but she was watching all of this for the first time. Seeing Corta standing beside President Cook alive and well was genuinely intriguing.
“JAQi, turn up the volume,” she said aloud.
There was no response.
“JAQi…” Marlowe grimaced. “Ah, fuck, I keep forgetting…” she said, shutting her eyes.
“They flashed your Pod, right? When you were arrested and processed?” Michael asked.
Marlowe looked over toward Michael. She was too exhausted at this point to be a smartass. She simply nodded.
“Huh… The Prisoner Operating System has GPS. How did they not track you during the escape?”
“They can’t,” Marlowe answered. “I performed a little…self-surgery when I was inside.” She tilted her head and pointed to a small scar behind her left ear, just above her jawbone. “No Pod, no POS.”
“Christ!” Michael said, wincing. “That couldn’t have felt good.”
Marlowe answered by raising her eyebrows and shrugging. With a sigh, she laid her head back and closed her eyes once more.
“Well, it wouldn’t work here anyway,” Michael replied. “Jen keeps things dark. No JAQi here. No outside connections. All closed feeds and proxied connections.”
“Yeah, I forgot about that, too,” Marlowe replied. “It’s…been a while.”
“So I understand.” Michael replied. “You two used to be close, right?”
Marlowe sighed as she leaned forward and looked at Michael. “Look, she likes you. I’m happy for you both. And I get that you get off on taking charity cases and playing the role of savior. But I don’t need a therapist. I don’t need you to save me. I just need to get my shit and figure out how to clear my name.”
“I may not be a therapist,” Michael said, leaning forward, “but I’m a damn good lawyer. Let me help you. I will–”
“–You’ll what? Get the MilSec tribunal to overturn a guilty verdict for treason? For a soldier who was seen on the national NewsFeed being sprung from a prison transport by domestic terrorists?”
“Yes!” he replied. “You’ll turn state’s evidence. Testify against the MilSec soldiers who illegally kidnapped you and name the terrorists who assisted them. Tell the tribunal you had nothing to do with–”
“–That didn’t work at my first trial,” Marlowe interjected. “They still found me guilty of treason, despite conclusive evidence that I acted in self defense against Corta and her little clique. They suppressed the footage. I doubt they even covered that on NewsFeed, did they?”
Michael looked at her, puzzled. “No?”
“Yeah, well…fat chance they’d believe me now,” Marlowe said. “Or even care if they did.”
“The way I see it, you really don’t have any other choice,” Michael replied.
“Sure I do,” Marlowe said. “I can clear my name. Or die trying.”
“And get us killed in the process…” Michael muttered.
“I’ll be gone long before anyone even thinks to look for me here…if they even know to look here,” Marlowe answered. “I just need–”
Jen emerged from the hallway clutching a green duffel bag.
“–That,” Marlowe continued.
Jen tossed the bag into Marlowe’s lap. Marlowe unzipped it and let out a massive sigh of relief. In it was several stacks of perfectly legal Battery energy bars, along with a dozen or so exceedingly illegal inhalers loaded with AMP.
Michael’s jaw dropped. “Is that AMP?” Michael asked Jen.
“Yup,” Marlowe answered for her. She immediately ripped open the packaging on a Battery bar and began devouring it.
“Jennifer! How could you?!?” Michael asked.
Jen ducked her head and sighed.
“Your girlfriend’s a drug dealer,” Marlowe said while chewing on the last bit of the extremely calorie-dense energy bar. “And a card shark, and a thief, and a really good hacker. But yes, among those other things, she deals drugs. And these are drugs…well, not this,” she said, a crumb falling from her mouth as she waved half a Battery bar at him.
Michael narrowed his eyes, clearly unamused.
“But these…” Marlowe grabbed an AMP inhaler, placed it in her mouth, pressed the blue button on the top, and took a deep breath. After a moment, she exhaled. She shivered and shook from head to toe. “Oh, yeah…THESE are drugs. Good ones, too. I mean, real grade-A stuff. Better than your average street shit.”
Michael sat in his seat, stunned and hurt. Marlowe began unwrapping a second Battery bar. “Huh,” she said, noticing the wrapper. “They took my picture off the package.”
“Of course they did,” Jen said. “They’re not going to let a criminal represent their product. And you should slow down. You’re going to puke.”
“Fine, at least I’ll puke actual food,” Marlowe replied. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve eaten anything other than vitamin supplements and water?”
“Three months, five days, and a few hours,” Jen replied.
“…Sure. Something like that.”
“Well, even your science experiment of a body can’t absorb that much nutrition that quickly,” Jen said.
“Okay, well, if I waste it, I waste it,” Marlowe replied. “It’s not like you care. You wanted me out of here. I’m out of here.”
Marlowe stood to leave. Her head spun and she immediately fell back on the makeshift couch. This time it couldn’t hold her immense weight. The entire structure collapsed beneath her.
“Shit…Marlowe…” Jen said, exasperated. She went over to help Marlowe up.
“I’m fine…” Marlowe said, pushing Jen’s hands away.
“Clearly. Take my damn hand.”
Marlowe reached out and grabbed Jen’s hand. Jen groaned as she strained to hoist Marlowe up. Woozily, she leaned on Jen, who guided her to the empty seat next to the collapsed couch.
“You think I did it, don’t you?” Marlowe asked.
“I think you’re in a world of trouble,” Jen replied softly. “And I think your options are pretty limited. In fact, I think you’re severely fucked.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Marlowe stated. “I am telling you right here and right now, I am innocent. I was attacked first and was defending myself. I want to hear you say you believe me.”
Jen placed her face in her palms.
“Jen!” Marlowe barked.
Jen sighed. She lifted her head and looked at Marlowe. “Look, you say you didn’t do it, and I believe you,” she said. “You say there’s evidence that proves you’re innocent, and I believe you. But Marlowe…it doesn’t matter what I believe! You were found guilty of treason. You were sentenced to life in prison. You escaped and are now considered a traitor and a fugitive.”
Marlowe looked up at Jen, who could detect a note of vulnerability somewhere in her eyes.
“You’re literally the most recognizable face in the nation. Short of getting a complete face replacement, I don’t think you have any options left. Let us help you. I know some MilSec people, guys who buy from me. They’ll listen to you.”
“We can fight this,” Michael said, emerging from the kitchen holding a bottle of scotch in one hand and a small box of cigars in the other.
Marlowe did a double-take. She hadn’t noticed that Michael had left the room, much less that she had been sitting in the seat he had vacated.
“I have a plan…if you’ll hear me out,” he said, offering Marlowe the bottle and the box.
Marlowe considered him for a moment. His existence on this planet was appalling to her. He embodied everything she hated about the society she spent her adult life protecting. The product of wealth and entitlement, the scumbag lawyer before her skated through life on the mistakes of others. And now he was slumming with Jen, spending his nights playing tourist in the Subs amongst the people he spent his days milking credits from, defending them against minor charges that usually had no merit to begin with and were easily dismissable.
But then again, he had scotch, cigars, and a plan — three things she’d not had in months. She reached out and took his offerings.
“First, I want to know what happened,” Michael said, taking a seat on the edge of the table, barely missing the plate with the fork. “Tell me everything. I’ll believe you. I can help you.”
Marlowe popped the cork on the bottle and took a long swig. She let out a massive sigh. It didn’t matter that it was cheap synthetic stuff, or that Scotland no longer existed. It said “Scotch” on the bottle and right then, it was the best thing she’d ever tasted.
“Well,” she said, cracking the lid on the box of extremely rare, vintage Cuestas cigars and removing a stogie. “You already know the back half of it…the footage of me tossing Corta around the barracks and nearly killing her. All that.”
She removed the cigar from the wrapper, placed it to her nose and inhaled deeply. It was real. How this two-bit lawyer came across a box of Cuestas didn’t matter to her, nor did the fact that it was a little stale. At that moment, it was pure heaven. She used the guillotine cutter she found in the box and lopped off a small sliver from the head of the cigar.
“What you don’t know is that she attacked me first.”
“So you said in your testimony,” Michael replied. “But there’s no evidence. And believe me, Jen tried to find it.”
“I called in every favor I had,” Jen said. “Scraped every Feed, chased down every lead. There’s absolutely nothing out there that backs up your story.”
“Yes there is,” Marlowe replied as she placed the cigar in her mouth. She pulled a match from a box and struck it. Even the sulfur smell of the matchstick igniting brought a smile to her face. “It was suppressed. But it does exist.”
She placed the match to the foot of the cigar and inhaled deeply, puffing continuously to get it to ignite. Cherry-red embers glowed at the foot of the cigar. Marlowe took a deep drag, held the smoke in her mouth, and exhaled. She would have shed a tear, if her ocular implants hadn’t made that impossible.
“Where?” Michael asked, snapping Marlowe back to the present moment.
“It was some private,” Marlowe replied. “His Feed was broadcasting. It picked up Corta’s ambush in the shower.”
Suddenly, the security script that Jen was running sounded a loud DING, followed by another.
Jen snapped to attention. “Fuck,” she said under her breath as she leapt toward the terminal on her desk. Marlowe followed suit with Michael close behind.
Two windows on the desktop screen showed footage that matched the search script’s parameters. One was displaying a MilSecFeed from Sergeant Henry Cain, with statistics that showed nearly ten million citizens were watching it live. The other was the exact same feed, simulcast on NewsFeed, indicating that nearly three-fourths of the nation was tuned in.
“Breaking News: ‘Next Top Soldier’ contestant Henry “Mad Dog” Cain, tracking Marlowe Kana: Live.” read the crawl under the NewsFeed footage.
“Well, look at that,” Marlowe said grimly. “It’s your neighborhood’s front door.” She whipped around to face Michael and grabbed him by the throat. “Your dipshit hack lawyer boyfriend gave them the address when he went to get my scotch.”
Michael raised his hands and began pleading. “I didn’t! I swear…I wouldn’t…” he croaked.
“Never trust a lawyer bearing gifts,” Marlowe snarled. “Especially alcoholic ones.”
“Let him go, Marlowe!” Jen begged. “He didn’t do anything…just…please…”
Marlowe stared directly into Michael’s fear-filled eyes. With a slight smirk, she released his throat and pushed him, sending him flying backwards into the table in front of the collapsed couch. He fell backwards and landed in the debris.
Marlowe walked over toward him. She reached down. He flinched. She grabbed a slat from the broken furniture and began swinging it around testing its heft, considering its use as a weapon. “You’re lucky I love my sister,” Marlowe said. “I should have just killed you in the first place. My fault for being lazy. And tired. And hungry.”
“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!” Jen screamed. She bolted for the hallway in an attempt to flee.
Marlowe caught Jen by the arm. “No chance in hell,” Marlowe said. “We have to handle them. If we run now, they’ll be on us like a hunter drone. And so will the hunter drones.”
Jen looked into Marlowe’s eyes. They were bloodshot and quivering — effects from the AMP Marlowe had whiffed.
“They’re not supposed to…shit, we’re fucked!” Jen yelled.
Marlowe gritted her teeth. “No,” she said with authority. “I can handle this wannabe ‘Top Soldier’ and his little squad.”
“Well, run out there and go get them!” Jen yelled. “Go! Get out of here!”
“You know how stupid that is,” Marlowe replied as she began scanning the room for weapons. “I can’t fight them in the tunnels. I’ll be flanked and have to fight from both sides. Better to stand our ground here.”
Jen sighed. She raised her hands and her eyes glowed slightly as she moved her fingers, typing in the air, pinning the Feeds to her HUD and setting new scripts to trigger if any others began broadcasting. If she was going to wait this thing out, she needed to know exactly what was happening as it happened.
“I swear, I didn’t do it!” Michael pleaded.
“Yeah, fine, whatever,” Marlowe said. She checked the footage on the screen and saw that Cain and his squad had arrived. “It doesn’t matter now. They’re here.”