Matthew wasn’t supposed to be here. He had never even been to the Subs before. He had simply wanted to look around… He hadn’t even done anything illegal! He wasn’t going to buy any drugs or play any card games or try to obtain an illegally hacked firearm. He had just wanted to peek in, you know? He had been in the neighborhood and his other friends had ditched him, and he figured, rather than I-Lyft back home at such an early hour, why not see what all the fuss was about.
Matthew was not what anyone would ever call a troublemaker. He was a good boy raised by two wonderful parents, who had adopted him when he was four. They spared no expense, opting out of the guaranteed living wage to work shifts at their selected Imagen posts to afford to send him to the Imagen Accelerated Training Academy. He aced his classes his first year, and was on track to graduate with honors. After that, he was guaranteed a glittering career with Imagen’s Media and Entertainment Division. He even had an internship locked down with “Stokes the Fire” (His father was a friend of a friend of one of the producers). He attended Non-Deity-Specific Religious Service every Sunday. He was not a troublemaker. He was a good boy.
And this arrest would ruin everything. Everything.
“Hey,” Matthew called nervously through the ventilation holes in the plexiglass wall separating him and a half dozen prisoners from the station guards a few feet away. “I can’t be here… I really have to get out of here…”
“Yeah, you and hundreds of other prisoners,” the MilSec guard answered as he pointed at all of the cells around him. “No one’s supposed to be here.”
“And yet, here you are,” the second guard seated next to the first said in a bored tone.
“No seriously,” Matthew said, “I really can’t– OWWWW!” He shrieked as a band of electricity arced from a metal post in the center of the cell to the collar around his neck, which was chained to his wrists.
“Relax,” the first guard said, “Your parents have been notified and are on the way.”
“Just sleep it off like the rest of the Subbies,” the second said, her eyes never moving from the screen in front of her. “It goes easier that way.”
“But I’m not a Subbie!” Matthew pleaded. “There’s been a mista–OWWWWWW!”
Another arc of electricity leapt from the ControlPole to Matthew’s collar and he collapsed in a heap. After a few stunned moments, he scooted back into the corner of the holding cell and tucked his head into his arms. His heart was racing from panic. Panic from being electrocuted by MilSec soldiers. Shock from being held in a cell with common criminals. Shock from being in the Subs on a night where a raid had taken place, and from even being in the Subs, period.
He could hear his father in his mind. “How could you, Matthew?? You are such a disappointment!” He’d surely say. “You’re grounded! We are yanking you out of the Advanced Training Academy! You’re a failure!” Of the top ten absolute worst things Matthew could imagine ever happening to him, the first eight in some form or fashion revolved around his father’s disappointment. From his perspective, the events of the evening brought about eight-tenths of the world crashing down around him.
“Cassie,” the second guard said over the loudspeaker, a note of concern in her voice, “Can you talk to the kid?”
“What do you want me to say, Janice?!?” A female voice said from behind Matthew. “He’s not my kid!”
“I dunno… Just calm him down, maybe?” Janice asked. “Before Jim here shocks his brains out.”
Cassie sighed heavily. “Hey, kid,” she barked at Matthew, “You want some advice?”
He was rocking in fear, afraid to turn around.
“You, kid… Yeah you,” she repeated. “Turn around.”
Matthew weighed the consequences. If he turned around, he’d be forced into a conversation with an unsavory woman who dwelled in the underground tunnels of Atlanta. But if he didn’t, he figured, it was a safe bet that he’d be murdered, then cannibalized, and the soldiers would laugh at his bloody dripping corpse while his father urinated upon it as the ultimate sign of disappointment.
He opted to turn around.
“Just get some sleep,” Cassie said with a nearly toothless smile. “This is nothing. They process you, your parents post bail, you get yelled at a little… Trust me, one day, you’ll be laughing about this whole night, telling your rich buddies about the old Subbie lady who gave you the best advice you ever got while you were doing hard time in the drunk tank!”
“Uh… Lady?” Matthew said, “You don’t know me, or my parents, but I can assure you… My life just ended.”
“No clue who you are,” the lady responded. “But trust me… This is nothing.”
“Well, I’m Matthew Sw–”
“Don’t care,” the lady said. “Rather not know, honestly. We Subs natives have a rule… Never get to know the tourists.”
Matthew was irritated by the older woman’s nonchalance. No one had ever not cared about who he was, or had ever shown him such sheer disrespect. And he most certainly didn’t come from money. His parents had worked hard to get him into the upper echelons of educated society. They had both sacrificed up to eight hours of their daily lives to make sure he had everything he wanted. He wouldn’t just sit here and listen to some toothless Subbie tell him who he was!
“Listen, bitch!” He barked, a little too loudly.
“Watch what you say, punk!” An extremely large bearded man with scruffy black hair roared. His name, according to the patch on the chest of his navy blue mechanic’s shirt, was “Mel.” It was the only other thing Matthew noticed besides the waffle pattern on the bottom of his boot, right before it landed between his eyes.
Matthew reeled, flying ass over teacups onto a ragged and filthy prisoner seated in the center of the cell.
“Watch out, asshole!” The guy yelled as Matthew collided with him. “I’ll fucking kill you!”
Matthew immediately scrambled away from him. He was terrified. The panic was starting to win. He was going to die, he was sure of it. He was dead. This was it. Life was over. The end.
“It’s okay, Randy,” Cassie, the haggard woman, said to the filthy man who Matthew had landed on. “He’s scared. He has no idea what’s going on, and Mel just rocked his shit. Let’s not kill him… yet.”
Matthew began hyperventilating. They all knew each other. They even knew the guards. He was a goner.
“Kid!” Cassie shouted. “Breathe!”
Matthew didn’t want to breathe. Matthew wanted to die. He just didn’t want to be murdered by Subbies in a piss-scented drunk tank, was all. Which added to his overall panic. Which, of course, made him hyperventilate even more.
Electricity arced from the ControlPole in the middle of the cell to Matthew’s collar once more. The shock was enough to center him.
“I’m okay,” Matthew said between breaths, “I’m okay.”
“Look at me, kid,” Cassie said with a soft chuckle.
“Did they find drugs on you?” She asked. “AMP?”
Matthew shook his head.
“Golden Frau? Sunbrown? Stanker?”
Matthew shook his head again.
“Pork Gala? Hacker Gala? Zuby Glong, Zeelcher, Weed? Hell, even Aspirin?? Anything?!?”
Matthew repeatedly shook his head no..
“Well, that’s 90% of it… You doing any dirt when they scooped you up?” Cassie asked. “Fuck any whores? Play any cards?”
Matthew began to nod yes, remembering the pretty girl he had chatted up in the bar who had said she would sleep with him for credits. But he remembered, that they had never actually settled on a price before MilSec showed up and hit everyone in the bar with a KillJoy shock grenade. He shook his head no again.
“So, you were just in the Subs, checking things out, and things went south, right?”
Matthew’s eyes widened as he shook his head yes.
“You’re fine, kid,” Mel’s thunderous voice said from the right of Cassie as they both chuckled. “Just chill your ass out.”
“Shhhh,” Mel said, holding his finger to his lips. “Nothing you don’t say can be used against you.”
Matthew took his advice and wiped a tear from his eye.
“It’s ok, kid,” Mel said. “You’re an idiot. We’ve all been idiots before.”
“Unlucky is more like it,” Cassie said. “I ain’t never done nothing wrong. Just a victim of poor timing and bad circumstance.”
“Seems to be going around,” Mel agreed. “MilSec don’t care about the Subs… Until they do, and then we all go down for doing what we do everyday. Who’d think that Marlowe Kana would end up in the Subs of all places?”
“Fucking MK,” Cassie said. “MilSec burned our goddamn house up, and for what? Some snotty aug celebrity murderer who probably wasn’t even there!”
Mel put his arm around Cassie, comforting her.
Matthew stared at them both for a moment, before finally asking, “MK…?”
“Yeah?” Cassie asked. “What about her?”
“She… She was down there?” He asked. “When I was? Really?”
“Probably not,” Cassie answered. “But MilSec thinks she was. So they show up to a red light district and suddenly enforce the laws. And why? Because some gussied up auggie with a rap sheet and a grudge MIGHT be down there? The mere suspicion of some celebrity murderer being down there was enough for MilSec to BURN MY GODDAMN HOUSE DOWN– OWWWWW!” She yelped as an arc of electricity from the ControlPole shocked her.
“You know I love you Cassie,” The first guard, Jim, said from the central control booth. “But we can’t have you inciting violence, you know. Let’s keep it calm.”
“Fucking MilSec,” Cassie said under her breath, “Can you believe this shit?”
“Yeah,” Matthew said, feeling like he was having a moment with his cellmates, “Fucking pigs…”
“You probably don’t wanna say things like that,” Mel said. “They can hear you.”
“But you said–”
“–About MilSec, sure,” Mel interrupted. “But Jim and Janice? They’re being nice, which is why they’re not pigs… So don’t say things like that.”
Matthew looked over at the control booth. Both of the guards waved.
Cassie and Mel both laughed knowingly, having been through the ringer plenty of times before. Matthew clammed up, and wrapped his arms around his knees and returned to rocking back and forth. He scanned the room to take his mind off of the absolute hellscape his life had just become. He gazed at Mal and Cassie, clearly hardened criminals with whom he’d just joined the ranks. He looked at the dirty young man laying on his back in the middle of the cell, completely unfazed by his current surroundings. He considered the prisoners in the cells around him, and realized… He’d just become that which his family hated most. He was a common criminal. He was a pariah. Life no longer had meaning. Wrong place, wrong time? Not good enough for his family. He was now one of the filthy scum that dwelled in the Subs. He would be excommunicated from his family, forced to sit in the kitchen during dinners… If he wasn’t forced to move out altogether. Maybe it was a good thing he was getting along with Cassie and Mel and the guy lying in his own piss on the floor. He was going to be their new roommate in the Subs when they eventually got rebuilt. He would have to scrape for his food. He’d have to learn how to fight… Oh God, He wished he’d died in the raid, in a hail of gunfire, maybe mistaken for MK or one of her sympathizers. Maybe it wasn’t too late to commit suicide. He wished–
“Hey… HEY! Jim! Can you turn that up?” Mel asked, pointing to the large wall screen in front of the guards. “The Feed… Turn it up.”
Ordinarily the MilSec soldiers would have sent another ControlPole shock command to the holding cell, but after seeing the headline splashed across the Feed screen, all thoughts of corporal punishment fled their minds.
“Holy shit,” Jim whispered as he nudged Janice, whose jaw had dropped when she saw the headline. “JAQi, turn up the volume,” she said.
“…Dear viewers, we are taking a break from our regular segments on ‘Stokes the Fire,’” Amanda Stokes read solemnly to her audience, “because just moments ago, President Cook has announced that MilSec is now answering to him directly. Here’s the… Do we have the Feed? Yeah? Ok, play that — here’s the Feed of the announcement.” The screen flickered a moment and cut to a Feed of President Cook addressing the nation from his office.
“Citizens of the United American State,” President Cook said stone-faced into the camera, “You trusted me with representing you in decisions that control the fate of this great nation. And as I have proven to you time and time again, that that trust is well-placed. It is with great pleasure that I announce that as of midnight, I have made an agreement with Imagen Corporation’s Board of Executives, and with Chairman Alan Davis personally, that MilSec now answers to the Chief Executive Officer of the United American State. To put it simply, I have nationalized the Imagen Military and Security Division, and effective immediately, created the new United American State Army.”
The banners that hung all around the prison cells and behind the guard station suddenly flickered as the IMSD logos were replaced with a new all-black star-over-bars logo representing the UASA. The terminals in front of the guards were also immediately updated with the new initials, and the Net-connected identification cards that hung around each of the guards’ necks were swiftly updated with an over-the-air patch to display the new United American State logo.
The entire station was silent.
“The United American State is our nation,” President Cook continued onscreen. “Our citizens are those who protect and serve it, both here and abroad. Whether they are keeping us safe at home, or serving their nation in the Gaslands fighting the terrorists who mean to do us harm… Their service is our service. They belong to us, because they are us. To show our support, the common silver badges of the Imagen Military & Security Division are being upgraded to eighteen-karat solid gold United American State Army badges. They are being forged as I speak, and the first batch will ship out to all officers on Monday, followed by enlisted shortly after. Good night, and remain ever vigilant.”
Silence hung in the air. Even Amanda Stokes was speechless as the Feed returned to her frozen, aghast face.
“…I guess we’re in the Army now,” Jim said numbly to Janice.