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.”