Marlowe was trying her best to pace the floor of the EV plant’s frustratingly tiny workshop. Space was already at a premium with all the tools, equipment, and furniture littered around the room, and having eleven warm bodies standing around didn’t help. Still, there was just enough runway for Marlowe to indulge her aimless, frustrated movement. And given the nature of the NewsFeed footage that everyone had watched on the trip back from Amanda’s apartment, she had reason to be very frustrated indeed.
She took three steps toward where Seraph, Austin, Nines, Jen, and William stood, lined up along the back wall of the workshop. She then spun on her heel and caught a glimpse of Sully sitting near the doorway to the bedroom where William slept. She walked three more steps to where Angel, Poet, and Jacobs hunkered by the door. She spun again, avoiding eye contact with The Judge, who was surlily leaning against William’s workbench.
“You said full operational command, remember?” Marlowe snapped at The Judge, continuing to awkwardly pace the floor three steps at a time.
“As I said in the Jumper on the way back here, this isn’t an operation! This is a trap!” The Judge said emphatically, abandoning his typical aloofness.
“It’s only a trap if you don’t know about it!” Marlowe cried, pounding her fist. “I am NOT going to let them execute my father!”
“You’d rather they kill you instead?”
“Pssssh!” Marlowe said with a sneer. “Three-on-Three Championship Rules – I’ve done it three times before, I can do it again!”
“You are playing into his hand,” The Judge replied. “The footage worked! Cook’s scrambling! He can’t win legitimacy without you by his side or behind bars – and he can’t have either if you don’t go when he says, where he says. We are winning here!”
“What exactly are we winning?” Marlowe barked as she stood fast and faced the Judge. “He still has my dad! We’re still going to be hunted if we don’t go! We’re still going to be shot on sight, if they can get their guns to work… Hell, he even blamed us for that! He forgets to nationalize the ‘arms’ in our armed services and now, the nation thinks we’re terrorists. We are fucked! We need to–wait, you know what? I’m tired of this shit. I’m going alone.”
“Unacceptable,” The Judge replied. “That’s suicide.”
“It’s all my father has!” Marlowe yelled. “I am going to get him, with or without your help! And if your little team won’t move out of the way, they’ll be coming with me anyway…at least, parts of them will!”
“Me!” Jacobs piped up, raising his hand and taking a step forward from the door.
“NO!” The Judge ordered.
“Okay, guess I’m not…” Jacobs muttered.
“No one is!” The Judge ordered. “There are other forces in play right now making preparations. I have everything under control. We need to–”
“–Your plans suck,” Marlowe interrupted, getting up in the Judge’s face. “You act like you have this all under control, strategized to the nth degree…you don’t. We did this your way and now, we’re doing it my way.” She lowered her finger and took a step back. Addressing the room, she added “This isn’t a discussion. You can join me or you can fight me and I’ll take you down along with the United American State Army, President Cook, whatever’s left of Imagen, and anything else that stands in my goddamn way.”
Marlowe turned and marched with righteous fury toward the door. Angel and Poet both took a step to the side.
“Stop her!” The Judge ordered.
Jacobs, ever the loyalist, stood and braced himself in front of the door. Marlowe ducked her shoulder and plowed into him, the way she had torn through defensive linemen back in her United American State Football playing days. Jacobs left his feet and flew backwards as Marlowe took the door off of the hinges with his back.
Jacobs’s arms and legs flew every which way as he rode the door down the gravel walkway. Marlowe marched past him and took off toward the gate.
Jen tapped Nines on the shoulder. “Let’s go,” she muttered. Nines grabbed her Pod and followed Jen to the door.
“What, you’re going to run with her all the way to the Terminus Citadel?” The Judge asked sarcastically.
“…Better than sitting around here with a bunch of fake revolutionaries,” Jen said over her shoulder as she reached the doorway. She paused for a moment, and then turned and faced The Judge. “You know what I don’t get?” She asked, her hand on her hip.
“A lot of things,” The Judge said with the corner of his mouth turned up.
Jen ignored him. “You went through all that trouble to bust her out of prison and get her on your side… All that talk, all that effort… And you’re just going to let her march herself alone to the one place she can actually do us all a lot of good?”
“It’s not part of the plan,” The Judge answered.
“What plan?!” Jen snapped. “Cook just undid everything we’ve worked for! Your entire plan was undone by a one-minute speech on NewsFeed! There is no plan! There’s only Marlowe, us, my father, and an invitation by the President himself to free all of us! And you’re just going to sit there smirking, as if you saw any of this coming?”
“There’s a better way!” The Judge said, slamming his fist on the workshop table.
“What is it?” Jen asked. “Do you know? Right here, right now — do you know what to do next?”
The Judge struggled for words.
“That’s what I thought,” Jen said, turning to leave. She was briefly blocked by Jacobs, who was rotating the soreness out of his shoulder and rubbing the spot on his chest where Marlowe’s shoulder had rammed into him. The two made eye contact. “Move,” Jen insisted.
Jacobs looked up at the Judge, who waved dismissively toward them. Jacobs stood to one side and let Jen pass. Nines fell in behind her, eyes glued to the Pod in her left hand, while she raised her right hand high, waving her middle finger around to everyone in the room.
“Damn it!” The Judge barked, stomping his boot into the wooden floor of the EV plant’s work shed. He huffed through his nostrils and seethed.
William took a few steps toward the door and then paused and faced The Judge. “Her father is a hero,” he said, “And so is she. We can do more good with her than without her.”
The Judge slid his eyes toward William. He took a deep breath. The scowl left his face as he regained his composure. “I guess you’re going with her, too, then?” He asked as he leaned back against the workshop table and folded his arms over his chest.
“Nope,” William said as he reached the doorway. “I’m gonna get this door fixed. We still need a place to work, don’t we?”
The Judge surveyed the room. Every eye was sullen and glued to The Judge, waiting to hear what the plan was going to be.
“Goddammit,” The Judge said with a sigh, realizing there was only one real play. “Poet, go get Marlowe. Angel, get her attention.”
“Yes, sir!” They both barked in unison. Poet led Angel out of the doorway and double-timed it to catch up to Marlowe. Angel turned and faced Marlowe’s direction, raising her biohacked sniper rifle to her shoulder and peering down the scope. She found Marlowe in her crosshairs just as she was approaching the gate. A muffled report whistled from the barrel of the rifle as a round whipped its way toward Marlowe’s feet. It caught the ground between her legs mid-stride.
Marlowe froze. She whipped her head around to find Angel lowering her rifle in the distance and Poet jogging up to meet her, arms waving over his head, signaling her to stop. Between the two, she saw Jen and Nines staring in disbelief at the scene unfolding before them.
She raised her hands to her mouth and yelled, “What now?!?” She waited patiently as Poet closed the distance as quickly as he could, reaching Marlowe only after a full-on sprint.
Out of breath and doubled over from his all-out effort, he huffed and said, “We… we’re going… with you…”
“Oh, thank God,” Marlowe said as her body slumped in relief. “Come on,” she said, slapping Poet on the shoulder as she began trotting back to the shed. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Poet grimaced and groaned as he sucked for air from between his legs. Out of breath, he began trotting back to the shed behind Marlowe.
“What’s going on?” Jen asked as they approached.
“He says we’re all going to the Citadel,” Marlowe said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder at Poet. “Not sure what happened after I left, but whatever it was–”
“Wow,” Jen said. “It worked.”
“What worked?” Marlowe asked.
“Calling that Judge guy on his shit,” Nines said without breaking her gaze from her Pod. “I’m cutting a video of it now… But look at this! His face…” She held up the Pod and showed a clip of Jen reading The Judge the riot act. Jen, Poet, Angel, William, Sully…all of their faces showed up. But the Judge’s face was a blurry mash, as was Austin’s when it briefly appeared in the clip. “How the hell does he do that?!”
“His facial recognition is scrambled at the server level? And look, Austin’s too!” Jen pointed out. “Jesus… I want that!”
“Me too!” Nines chirped in agreement. “That’s so fucking cool!”
“Maybe that Austin guy did it?” Jen asked.
“Yeah,” Nines said, “He’s not as much of a noob as you are.”
“…Says the girl who doesn’t know how to do it either,” Jen jibed. Nines sneered, and then went back to studying her Pod.
“Maybe you should just ask him?” Marlowe suggested as she started toward the door.
“No way!” Jen and Nines both said in unison.
Marlowe froze and looked back at them. They quickly glanced at each other. “A real hacker figures shit out on her own,” Jen remarked.
“I bet I get it first!” Nines insisted as she tapped away at her Pod.
“Already on it,” Jen insisted, flicking the air and sorting through scripts.
“…Good to see you two getting along,” Marlowe said with a laugh as she made her way to the doorway that William was repairing. “Need a hand?” She asked him as she walked up.
“I got it,” William said. “Broke at the frame, see? Hinges are still attached. A few screws and nails and it’ll be back to keeping the draft out.”
“Maybe some rebar? Or titanium?” Marlowe added with a smile.
“Wouldn’t help,” William replied. “I don’t think there’s much out there that’s truly Marlowe-proof.”
“Technically, I broke the door down,” Jacobs said as he emerged outside through the doorway, followed by The Judge. “Nice takedown, by the way,” he added.
“Don’t ever get in my way again,” Marlowe warned him, her smile souring. “And I assume you’ll be my Hitter in the finals?”
“…Really?!?” Jacobs said, his excitement causing his voice to squeak.
“Oh God,” Marlowe said, rolling her eyes, “I already regret that decision…” She turned her attention to Angel, who was examining the scope on her rifle. “And you?” Marlowe asked. “Want to be my Sniper?”
“I’d be honored,” Angel replied quietly. “And it’s not like anyone else here could do it.”
Marlowe smirked and nodded knowingly. “And you, mister moustache…what’s the deal? Why the change of heart?”
“You are right. I did promise you full operational control,” The Judge said in reply. “I need Austin here, but the rest of the team is yours.”
Sully hobbled toward the doorway with Seraph under his right arm and Austin under his left. The Judge and Poet took over helping Sully as he crossed the threshold on his one good leg. Everyone back together, the team stood outside of the EV plant’s shed and looked at Marlowe.
“Well, now that we’re all here,” The Judge noted. “We have 12 hours until the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale. What’s the plan?”
Jen saw the look of disapproval on Marlowe’s face as she raised her hand. “Don’t even,” Jen said defiantly. “He’s my dad, too.”
“And I’m not staying here with Judge Creepy McCreeper and that weird hacker noob, and those two boring old men,” Nines added.
“Hey!” Sully said. “I’m not boring!”
“We are old, though,” William said with a chuckle. “But you really should show some respect–”
“–Whatever,” Nines said. “Besides, someone needs to cover your Feed side of things, just in case they try to screw you again. And footage from inside the Jumper will make me riiiiiich!”
Marlowe knew that Jen and Nines both had a point. And both had their uses.
Moreover, she didn’t have the time or energy to fight them. “It’s settled then,” she said. “We dust off at eighteen-hundred. I suggest you all get some rest…and food? Do we have any food?”
“No one can show their faces,” The Judge said. “And having anything delivered would be too risky.”
“I can raid the vending machines at the plant,” William said. “They have some decent Imagen InstaMeals in there. Some noodles, a really good mini pizza–”
“–Good, great, go do that,” Marlowe said as she walked through the door leading to the bed William kept in the back room. “I’m crashing. Someone make sure I’m up by seventeen-thirty.”
The team took Marlowe’s cue, and everyone took up stations to prepare for the evening’s festivities. William handed his powered drill to Poet and gave him a short rundown of what needed to be done to get the door back on its frame before heading to the main plant to deprive the vending machines of any sustenance he could find. Angel and Jacobs took up security posts; Angel double-timing it to the hilltop she had once perched on while Jacobs found a secluded spot near the gate and stayed low and alert. The Judge and Austin retreated to the makeshift computer lab in the back corner of the shed, while Seraph headed to the Jumper to make sure it was flight ready. Jen and Nines were busy surfing the Net for any and all information they could find on server-level face recognition defeats, and Sully took a seat just outside the door that Poet was now working on, pulled out a cigarette, and took the first drag he’d had in almost a day.
Marlowe laid face-up in William’s bed. She finally felt fully like herself for the first time in months. There were less than ten hours before dust-off on the first major operation she’d commanded since before she left foreign service. This was no show; this was war. And she settled into her wartime training with ease. Her mind didn’t want to be clear, but she was able to keep it from wandering too far from focusing on the fight ahead of her for the most part. She took a deep breath in through her nostrils. She held it for ten seconds, and then exhaled through her mouth. Again, she inhaled. She held the breath. She slowly exhaled. And again, and again. The mindful focus on her breathing forced her system to let go of any extraneous panic, overriding the impulse with the primal need to keep oxygen flowing.
Breathe in…one…two…three… on up to ten, she counted in her mind. And again.
“Marlowe?” a voice said somewhere in the distance.
“Marlowe…” The voice said again, much closer and louder. It sounded like her sister. “It’s time,” the voice continued.
Marlowe blinked several times. “What time is it?”
“Five-thirty,” Jen answered.
“…Jesus, that was fast,” Marlowe said while sitting up and turning. She placed her feet on the floor, stood upright, and marched past Jen, patting her on the shoulder.
“Game time,” Marlowe announced as she entered the main room of the shed. “Let’s go.”
Seraph turned a quarter in the pilot’s seat of the Jumper and looked back at the team in the cabin. “Ready for takeoff, ma’am,” she said to Marlowe.
Marlowe looked up at her. The pilot she’d only just met had a disposition that she would know from anywhere. This woman had served at some point. She looked to Seraph’s sister Angel, sitting beside her in the co-pilot’s chair. Angel nodded at Marlowe, professional as ever. Jacobs’ eyes were wide and his head was tilted forward like an excited puppy’s. Poet’s elbows were on his knees, chin resting on his thumbs as his fingers were clasped in front of his face in repose. Jen’s leg bounced nervously as she flicked the air and scanned for alerts on her HUD, while Nines’ face was buried in the handheld Pod she’d clearly claimed as her own.
A calm washed over Marlowe. She sat up straight, resting her hands on her legs. The scowl that she’d worn for months fell from her face. Her eyes became steel. “Whether you’re joining me on the battlefield tonight or not — as of this moment, we are a team,” she said in a commanding tone. “None of us have served together in any capacity, and some of us haven’t served at all. But in the past twenty-four hours, everyone on this craft has proven their mettle and has my trust. I am honored you are joining me on this mission.”
Nines looked up from her Pod. Jen’s focus shifted from the readouts on her HUD to Marlowe. Jacobs and Poet both cracked slight smiles. Angel nodded, and Seraph sat silent, ready to fly.
“But if we are going to survive what’s about to come, I am going to need your trust,” Marlowe said. “We are flying into hostile territory and we are doing so blindly. This is not my first rodeo. And I don’t care if this is your first time or your fiftieth. We take nothing for granted, and what I say, goes. I am no longer a major, but I am in command. I need every one of you to tell me you will do exactly what I tell you, without question, from this point forward.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jacobs said first, sitting up straight and snapping a smart salute.
“Absolutely,” Poet answered.
“Yes, ma’am,” Seraph and Angel in unison.
Marlowe looked at Jen and Nines. “Yeah,” Jen said, ducking her eyes.
“Jen?” Marlowe said. “You don’t have to go.”
Jen‘s face shot up. “I’m going!” Jen said, her eyes defiant.
“Then I need you to say it.”
“…Yes, ma’am,” Jen said quietly.
Marlowe turned her attention to Nines, who was recording the speech. Marlowe grimaced and furrowed her brow. Nines smiled and belted out an enthusiastic, “Yes, ma’am, Marlowe, ma’am!” the bow atop her head bobbing as she nodded her head with every syllable.
Marlowe smiled. “Last chance,” she said, addressing everyone. “Anyone want out?”
The only thing that could be heard was the humming of the Jumper’s magnetic drive and the whirring of the turbine engines.
Marlowe raised her hand up and signaled to Seraph.
“Aye, ma’am,” Seraph replied as the engines whirred loudly. The Jumper lifted into the air, skirted the tree line, and bolted through the late evening sky toward Terminus Citadel.
Marlowe surveyed the team as they all sat silent in their seats. Jen was staring at the floor, her legs bouncing and shaking nervously.
Marlowe reached over and tapped Jen on the shoulder. Jen shot her head up, gasping in shock.
“You okay?” Marlowe asked, already knowing the answer.
“This is all my fault!” Jen whispered, a tear falling from her eyes. “I shouldn’t have called MilSec. None of this would be happening if I hadn’t told them how to find you. I put our father in prison and forced you to see Amanda and I am so, so sorry Marlowe–”
“–Cut it out,” Marlowe insisted gently. Jen’s lip quivered as she looked back at the floor.
Despite being in game-time mode, Marlowe knew she couldn’t just leave things like this. For the last day, she had kept at bay thoughts about the fates of her Alzheimer’s-stricken father, her sister… about her reunion with the woman who had broken her heart and ruined her life. As they flew over the still burning Subs, her thoughts glanced over the death of Jen’s boyfriend Michael and the dozens of Subs dwellers simply due to her proximity to them, not to mention the hundred soldiers by her own hand. One day, she’d have to face up to everything she’d done. That moment wasn’t now; but in the midst of fatigue and starvation and withdrawal from AMP, Marlowe was barely winning the battle over her own mind. And she knew her sister was having far worse luck in that fight.
“Jen, look at me,” Marlowe ordered.
Jen reluctantly looked at her sister, but refused to make eye contact.
“Imagen and Cook did this,” Marlowe said. “They withheld the footage. They falsely convicted me. They made me some trophy for a game. They killed Michael and imprisoned our father, all to get at me. This was them, okay? Not you.”
Jen shifted her eyes to meet Marlowe’s. Tears streaked down, splattering gently onto her clothes.
“…And I’m going to make them pay,” she added.
Jen smiled a very slight smile and it broke Marlowe’s heart. It was the same smile when Marlowe had stood up for her in school, and the same smile when she was in court and the evidence that would have put her away for life for dealing drugs suddenly went missing.
Jen nudged the green canvas go-bag at her feet toward Marlowe. “You’re going to need this, I think,” she said.
“…Thanks,” Marlowe said, reaching down to grab the bag. She rifled through it and grabbed a few Battery bars and an AMP inhaler. As before, she tore into the nutritional supplement bars and devoured them in a single gulp. She chased them down with a full inhale of AMP, shuddering and growling through her teeth.
“You going to take some with you?” Jen asked as she wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her shirt.
“Can’t,” Marlowe said as she exhaled, shivering. “Instant disqualification if I bring it on the field. Besides, we may need it for later.”
Jen lowered her eyes again. Marlowe put her hand on her sister’s shoulder and got her attention. “There will be a later, Jen,” Marlowe insisted softly. “Trust me.”
“Approaching Terminus Citadel now, ma’am,” Seraph stated. “And it looks like we’re being escorted in.”
“Well, that’s a damn sight better than being shot down,” Marlowe said. She shook her head back and forth, loosening her neck. She cracked her knuckles, then pulled one elbow over her chest, followed by the other. “Here we go,” she said, resolutely.
“Hell, yeah!” Jacobs shouted, sitting up and slapping his legs in excitement. “I’ve always wanted to be on ‘Next Top Soldier’! Let’s do this!”
“…Can you do that again?” Nines asked, pointing the Pod at Jacobs. “I missed it.”
It took Jacobs three tries before Nines got a take to her satisfaction. And not a moment too soon as their Jumper descended and landed just outside the gates of the courtyard of Terminus Citadel, the makeshift battlefield for what was promising to be a “Next Top Soldier” finale for the ages.