“Brow,” Dr. Ben Rossler whispered from behind his sweat-soaked surgical mask.
A MediDrone extended an appendage and blew a jet of sterile air on the surgeon’s forehead as he delicately attached the final lead connecting a brand new Powerhouse-class left leg augmentation to the newly installed neural gateway embedded in Henry “Mad Dog” Cain’s spine. The operation was creeping into its third hour, which was longer than either the doctor or his staff had slept since racing to save Cain’s life earlier in the evening. But the watchers of MedFeed knew that sleep deprivation was hardly a problem for Dr. Rossler. His staff was comprised of eleven of the best surgeons in the world (and one personal assistant), and he was an echelon well above them. Which is why no one – not the one hundred thousand citizens watching the surgery live, nor the doctor’s staff, nor the President himself – had any doubt that Dr. Rossler could bring Mad Dog back to the field of battle.
Dr. Rossler, however, was secretly marveling at the progress he was able to make in the time allotted. Not because of how difficult the procedure was – he knew how good he was. And not because of the lack of sleep or the hairpin timeline that would have been impossible for any other surgeon. It was the fact that he could get any of it done with Amanda Stokes’ voice blaring from all around as he dutifully followed the President’s orders and performed one of the most important operations of his career.
“And she was quite serious about the threat, too,” Stokes was relaying on-screen to the audience of “AM/BEAT,” the early morning NewsFeed show hosted by Pat Daniels. “She swore she’d kill me and everyone else around me if I didn’t broadcast this footage.”
“Amanda,” Pat Daniels said solemnly. “We all know you’re traumatized – you’ve not had any sleep since your show ended its broadcast a few hours ago. Heck, one could argue that you haven’t slept much in months. As your partner in the continuing coverage of the Marlowe Kana trial, I can attest to that!” He chuckled in the smarmily professional way only news anchors could achieve. Amanda smiled in response as Pat continued, “and you’ve just suffered through a scary confrontation. On behalf of all our viewers, thank you so much for staying up and joining us as a guest.”
“It’s my honor and my job,” Amanda replied with a sickly smile.
Pat nodded. “But the million-credit question is: Do you believe that Marlowe Kana is telling the truth and that this footage is real?”
Amanda took a deep breath. “I think in my current state, I can’t really say,” she answered.
“We wish you wouldn’t,” Dr. Rossler muttered as he pulled on a spool of nanofiber wiring and fed it into an arterial conduit in Mad Dog’s torso.
Amanda was continuing her on-screen speech. “I’m still in shock and afraid for my life after Marlowe Kana broke into my apartment and trashed it – you see this? See the table over there? She pointed to her left, and the camera drone turned to show the table that Marlowe had smashed during her visit. “That could have been me! She could have done that to me!”
“But, Amanda, certainly you have to have an opinion on her innocence or guilt, after seeing this, frankly, shocking footage of Sergeant Corta ambushing MK in the locker room.” The footage began playing again in a corner window just above Pat’s head. “I mean, this negates the entire treason charge right here. If this footage is real and not a holo-dupe, it means that–”
“–I can’t say,” Amanda interrupted. “The citizens of the United American State will have to decide for themselves. And we all can honestly say that these last twenty-four hours have been some of the darkest in our nation’s history. Marlowe Kana, found guilty of treason, of all things? And a jailbreak that results in the Atlanta Subs being torched and razed? Not to mention the nationalization of MilSec and an apparent schism between our President and the corporation his family founded, which employs us all and keeps us safe. Tensions are clearly high, and the unbelievable is now commonplace. So I wouldn’t blame our viewers if they feel it is possible this footage is a holo-dupe. But ask yourself…when did Marlowe Kana get time to commission a holo-dupe? She’s been behind bars since the incident, until just now – and if someone could create one in just a day that looks this accurate…”
“Ugh, God, make up your mind,” Dr. Rossler blurted out. “First she hates Marlowe, now she defends Marlowe…which is it?I”
“Focus, sir,” Dr. Vessey, Rossler’s lead assistant, urged calmly.
Amanda took a deep breath, and then looked directly into the lens. “But if we’re really thinking about it…” She paused and took another deep breath for effect. “It would seem that the only entity with the resources to pull something like that off would be Imagen Corporation…”
“What would they gain?” Pat asked.
“It’s a good question, isn’t it?” Amanda said mysteriously.
“Well, viewers at home – in fact, the entire country – would love to know: Is this footage real? Or is it an elaborate farce perpetrated by Imagen corporation?”
“The people at home are the ones who have to decide, Pat,” Amanda replied. “My judgement is honestly clouded, due to adrenaline and the fact that I’m sleep deprived.”
“You’re sleep deprived?” Dr. Rossler muttered under his breath as he attached another neural lead to the base controller of Mad Dog’s new legs. “Why is this even on? J.A.Q.i, please put on some jazz.”
“I cannot,” J.A.Q.i replied. “NewsFeed has been pinned on all displays, unclosable.”
“Well, can you please mute it?” he begged J.A.Q.i.
“Mute is not possible, but I have lowered the volume as low as I can,” J.A.Q.i replied politely. “I hope that it helps.”
Rossler grumbled. “Scalpel,” he barked.
Vessey, placed one delicately in his hand. “Focus,” she reminded him again sharply.
Dr. Rossler blinked deliberately. He inhaled deeply from his nostrils and exhaled through the damp surgical mask. This is why he paid Dr. Vessey enough to ensure she’d never leave. She knew how to navigate the fine line between respect and responsibility. It, however, still stung to have to be reminded that a human life hung in the balance between his skill and his predisposition of finding NewsFeed presenters distasteful. But he appreciated the candor. “Thank you, doctor,” he replied equably.
“Of course, doc–oh my…” Vessey gasped. Doctor Rossler looked up at his lead assistant to find her eyes glued to the wall full of screens just beyond the glass wall of the surgical center.
“Here with us now is Alan Davis, Chairman of the Board for Imagen Corporation,” Pat Daniels said as the screen split from two faces to three. “Now, Chairman, clearly these have been some of the most interesting hours of your career and, frankly, in our nation’s history. What, exactly, is your take on Cook nationalizing MilSec and turning it into the United American State Army? And his order just a few moments ago for General Kana’s execution?”
“I will be issuing a full statement on the MilSec nationalization, and many other issues, in due time,” Chairman Davis replied gravely. “There is a lot to be decided, and the Board and all trustees will be considering our options and preparing our response. But one thing that has been decided, and the reason I am streaming to you live this morning, is to announce that the Board has unanimously voted for an immediate and unconditional pardon of Major Marlowe Kana, as well as her father, General Ashish Kana.”
Pat Daniels and Amanda Stokes both gasped on-air, while Dr. Rossler, Dr. Vessey, ten other surgeons and assistants, and the twenty million citizens glued to the Feeds all gasped as well in near unison.
Alan Davis continued. “An Imagen judicial tribunal has been formed and the paperwork is being signed as I speak. To General Kana, I want to apologize for the false imprisonment and public display last evening, and to Major Marlowe Kana, I would personally like to extend a very heartfelt apology and a full reinstatement into MilSec, with back pay and a direct promotion to general.”
“But, sir,” Pat Daniel said, “There is no MilSec–”
“That is all,” Alan Davis said as his Feed went black.
“Well, what a stunning development!” Pat Daniels brayed. “I can’t believe it…MK has been pardoned!” The text crawl underneath on the screen immediately changed to repeat the news alert in all capital letters.
A tone sounded. “Doctor,” J.A.Q.i stated, “NewsFeed has just been marked closable. Would you like me to–”
“Shit yes, close it!” Dr. Rossler said with relief.
“I think this little project just got deprioritized,” Dr. Vessy opined. “You should take a break and let us take over.”
“Well, he’s sitting here wide open and half his body is augmented…I might as well finish the job,” Dr. Rossler replied wearily.
Rossler returned his focus to the task at hand and completed the connections to Mad Dog’s augmented right leg. One more leg, another arm, and some spinal repair to go. He would get it done, of course – and with a few hours to spare. The attention given him by a nation severely desensitized by technological advancement was not unearned. While he had been working to repair Sergeant Sabrina Corta, medical tech breakthroughs came to him daily. His simulations seemed to run at nearly twenty times their operational speed. In fact, the simulation deciphering the architecture of Marlowe Kana’s nanofiber-augmented muscular system had been running for years. Then somehow, the moment he needed it to save Corta, it had found a solution to the one problem vexing Dr. Rossler: how to power nanofiber augmentations internally versus adding the augmentations to existing body parts. With that problem solved, reverse-engineering simulations based on the samples taken from Marlowe in prison took mere minutes. And now, thanks to these massive advancements, procedures to enhance the human body were limited only by the availability of the nanofiber muscle tissue, which took months to grow.
As a scientist, he couldn’t help but question the timing, intent, and coincidence of such monumental technological and medical breakthroughs occurring in such a small amount of time. He couldn’t help but wonder just how, exactly, a simulation that had been running for years could suddenly crack the mystery of Marlowe Kana’s metal muscles…and just in the nick of time.
As a pragmatist, he knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The mention of Rossler’s name was never more than a few words away from Corta’s during the press coverage of her rehabilitation. When she was able to walk again, he was hailed as a miracle worker. Citizens across the nation called him a hero when Corta’s personal Feed came back to the Net, streaming her workouts and combat training. And the word “Rossler” had echoed through the cacophony in the arena earlier that day at the emergency CookTalk, in which Cook announced Corta’s surprise return to United America’s Next Top Soldier. And he was more than pleased to accept the credit. It was, after all, his own simulation that had solved the puzzle. It was his hands that connected leads to neurocircuits and connected the nanomuscle tissue. His name now rang out across the entire nation.
A tone sounded. “Sir,” J.A.Q.i announced, “It seems you have missed the fact that your name was just mentioned on NewsFeed.”
“By whom?” Rossler asked.
“President Cook,” J.A.Q.i replied.
“Shit…reopen NewsFeed. Turn the volume back up,” Dr. Rossler ordered. “Replay from beginning of mention.”
“…Not anymore, they’re not,” President Cook was saying through a camera drone Feed from the Oval Office. “I am pleased to announce that Dr. Ben Rossler, the man who brought Corta back, is actively working on Mad Dog and Hax as we speak. The prognosis is good, and they will both be back in action by this evening.”
“Wait, BOTH!?!” Rossler barked through his mask, his concentration finally fully snapped. In his panic, his hand jerked slightly, nicking the femoral artery in Mad Dog’s right leg.
“Ah, shit…seal that,” he commanded to a medical drone. It immediately shot out a cauterizing laser and sealed the wound. “J.A.Q.i, restart the Feed from the moment we turned it off.”
Cook’s Feed blinked out and the screen returned to Pat Daniels and Amanda Stokes staring into the camera as the the text crawl below them displayed in all caps “MARLOWE KANA – INNOCENT!”
“Well, she is not innocent,” Amanda was saying. “She has killed over a hundred soldiers, and she made terroristic threats to me in my own apartment! She is responsible for the razing of the Subs! She incited a terrorist organization to rise up in Atlanta and break her out of prison! She–”
“–Just a second, Amanda,” Pat interrupted, “Well, I just can’t believe this. President of the United American State, Stephen Cook, is joining us now. Hello, Mr. President!”
“Greetings, Pat. Hello, Amanda,” President Cook said. “I was just watching, and I had to stream in to say that Amanda, you are one hundred percent right.”
“…I am?” Amanda asked, bewildered. “Wait… Yes, of course I am…”
“Yes, you are,” President Cook agreed. “And to that end, Marlowe Kana has to be held accountable. She has to be held accountable for the hundreds of soldiers she slaughtered this evening after someone on her team hacked all of their weapons and left them defenseless!”
“Is that what happened?” Pat Daniel asked. “Because I’ve been told that–”
“That is indeed what happened, and it was unbecoming of a United American State Soldier.”
“Well, she was never a UASA soldier, sir,” Pat stated. “It didn’t exist until a few hours ago–”
Cook ignored him. “More than that, she committed outright murder. She damaged and destroyed national property. She caused a disturbance and incited terrorism. All of the things Amanda Stokes just listed out. And the fact that she and her accomplices saw fit to fight us rather than work with us toward justice is a crime we cannot forgive. It’s the crime of terrorism. So to that end, I am announcing here and now that Marlowe Kana is still wanted by the United American State Army, as are all of her accomplices.”
“I agree!” Amanda Stokes chimed in..
“But, sir,” Pat Daniels asked. “Imagen is still in charge of the courts. She was just pardoned.”
“She was pardoned by a corporation’s Board of Directors, in a court this administration and its Army does not recognize” President Cook responded. “The fact that Alan Davis and the rest of the Board decided to dismiss a felon they no longer have the resources to apprehend changes nothing. As the Commander in Chief of the United American State Army, I am now also the Executive Producer for “America’s Next Top Soldier.” It is my decision that Marlowe Kana is still the final challenge for the show, and that she and her accomplices are still terrorists. They must all still face justice. No one has provided any evidence that clears her father of the charge of orchestrating Marlowe’s prison breakout, so he will remain in Terminus Citadel.”
A smile suddenly crawled across the President’s face. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “If Marlowe is brave enough to come to Terminus Citadel and participate in the final round of ‘Next Top Soldier’ tonight, I’ll release her father and drop all charges against him. And if she can beat Corta and her squad by Champion Rules – the old three-on-three squad setup, with the competitor striking the final blow – I will grant her a full, legally binding pardon. Hell, her and all of her friends!”
“Three-on-three Championship Rules?” Pat Daniels asked. “But Corta has been solo all year! No one has strategized for three-on-three since, well…since before Marlowe retired! She doesn’t even have a squad. Who will serve with her?”
President Cook grinned boyishly, his trademark tell that there was something special coming. “Well, I was going to make it a surprise but, hey, why not make it an event! Corta will be joined by her former competitors, Henry “Mad Dog” Cain and Alexis “Hax” Curtis!”
“But sir, Mad Dog and Hax are both out of commission!”
“Not anymore they’re not,” President Cook answered. “I am pleased to announce that Dr. Ben Rossler, the man who brought Corta back–”
“Enough,” Dr. Rossler said. J.A.Q.i terminated the playback. Rossler looked into Dr. Vessey’s eyes as she peered at him in dismay over her surgical mask.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said to his team. “Let’s get back to it.”