Victor Smith-Afua and his wife, Angela Afua, had never been more proud. After weeks of hard work and dedication, their daughter Ama had just completed her first ever signature move and graduated from a Television Champion White Belt to the Intercontinental Championship Yellow Belt at Sensei Coach Steve’s American Martial Arts Academy.
“Go, baby!” Angela called out from the stands amidst the polite clapping of the other parents. Ama, wearing a smile nearly as wide as the belt she had just been awarded, held her new rank proudly above her head. With spotlights illuminating her from above, she stared into the darkness of the crowd toward where her parents were sitting and beamed. She fastened the belt around her waist, the massive medallion looped on the front covering nearly her entire torso. As she marched purposefully over to Sensei Coach Steve and stood before him, she stared at Sensei Coach Steve’s World Championship Black Belt with respectful longing. It had more than triple the number of diamonds, sapphires, and rubies embedded in the AMAA logo on the front, and shone with a mesmerizing luster in the overhead lights that illuminated the Ringjo. One day, she just knew it, she, too, would be a World Championship Black Belt holder.
The student and the sensei bowed to each other respectfully. Sensei Coach Steve then took his position in the center of the Ringjo as Ama took hers beside him. Together, the two bowed to the crowd. They turned and bowed to each other. The audience applauded slightly louder, but only as loud as bored parents waiting early in the morning for their children’s turn in the spotlight possibly could.
Sensei Coach Steve held up to his mouth the ceremonial microphone, also adorned with the AMAA logo. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to introduce the newest Intercontinental Champion Yellow Belt in the American Martial Arts Association, Ama Afua! Ama, is there anything you want to say to the audience?” He leaned over and held the microphone in front of Ama’s face, despite the fact that it was not actually necessary for anyone to hear her already J.A.Q.i-amplified voice.
“I want to thank my mom and my dad,” Ama said. The two answered with cheers and clapping. Victor placed his fingers in his mouth and let loose an ear-piercing whistle of praise. “And I also want to thank my biggest inspiration and my hero, Marlowe Kana.”
The room went silent for a moment. A sprinkling of claps could be heard from the left side of the auditorium from a few of the parents and children who happened to support MK.
Someone on the right side of the bleachers yelled out an emphatic “BOO!” A few grumbles emanated around.
“Hey!” Victor Smith-Afua called out from the stands. “Don’t boo my daughter! Don’t boo a child! That’s just not right!”
“You oughta raise her better!” The boo-er replied from the darkness of the room.
“Who said that?” Victor demanded. “Show yourself!”
“Parents, let’s settle down, please,” Sensei Coach Steve urged nervously.
“I won’t settle down!” Angela Afua stated, standing up next to her husband. “Someone just booed my little girl!”
“And that definitely wasn’t right,” Sensei Coach Steve said from the Ringjo. “But please, let’s all just–”
“–He can’t get away with that!” Victor interrupted in anger.
“Why not?” the boo-er yelled. “You get away with letting your daughter worship a traitor and a coward!” The voice grew closer as the stranger approached Afua’s parents.
“J.A.Q.i, lights!” Sensei Coach Steve ordered.
The house lights rose around the small, hundred-person auditorium, revealing the several dozen parents whose children were testing for their belt upgrades that morning. One of those parents, a tall and thin man whose only hair was a scruffy growth on his pale white face, was standing at the center base of the bleacher array, pointing his finger at the Afuas, who stood confused in the middle of the stands.
“Mister Wallace, will you please take your seat?” Sensei Coach Steve asked sternly. “You know that this is inappropriate!”
“No, I will not!” Mr. Wallace said, turning to face the Ringjo. “You know what’s inappropriate? Auggies! And their snobby attitude, and their support of that traitor Auggie coward, Marlowe Kana! And their damn kids, too!”
“That’s my daughter you’re talking about!” Victor Smith-Afua yelled as he took a step down the stairs to face Mr. Wallace. Angela grabbed him by the arm and held him back.
“And she’s not a traitor!” A mother said from the middle as she stood to face Mr. Wallace. Another mother stood a few rows up and yelled, “And she’s not a coward!”
“You all saw the President’s challenge earlier,” Mr. Wallace snapped back. “Marlowe’s too scared to face Corta! She attacks the woman and then runs from her!” Mr. Wallace spat on the ground and barked, “Pathetic!”
“She’s going to face Corta!” A father yelled from the left side of the bleachers! “She just responded!”
“Bullshit!” Mr. Wallace yelled.
“No, she just did,” a mother from the left added. “She just announced it through MKFan_9999’s Feed! And NewsFeed is re-broadcasting it now! Look!” She pointed to the screens along the far wall of the Ringjo, which were currently displaying footage of a shaky camera attempting to focus on Marlowe’s face.
“J.A.Q.i, volume!” Sensei Coach Steve yelled.
Everyone in the Rinjo fell silent and turned to their right to face the screens. The video from the streamed Feed finally settled and focused in on Marlowe’s face, beleaguered and blood-spattered. Just beneath her was a huge crawl reading, “Breaking News: MK Speaks!”
“Now?” Marlowe said to someone just beyond the camera.
“Not yet,” a young girl’s voice could be heard replying from off-screen. “Just a moment.”
The audience remained reverently silent as they gazed upon the nation’s most famous face. Marlowe stared distantly beyond the lens. She was exhausted, yet seemed energized, her eyes as calm but as stirring and dangerous as a riptide under a cresting wave. Seconds rolled by. “What’s going on?” Marlowe asked past the camera to Nines.
“Just a moment, I’m getting it focused,” Nines said with a snicker.
“You’re streaming,” Jen said in the distance behind Marlowe with a sigh. “She’s fucking with you.”
Nines’ laughter pierced the tense air of the RInjo. Marlowe rolled her eyes, then looked directly into the lens. “People of the United American State,” she said in a voice completely devoid of humor. “You’ve heard a lot about me the past few months. Not everything you’ve heard is true. Some of you believe my story, and some of you don’t. Some of you think that I deserve to go to jail, and some of you don’t. I don’t care. I really, really don’t. Believe me or don’t. But none of you – not one of you hearing this right now – can possibly believe my father had anything to do with any of this.”
The entire audience filling the Ringjo unanimously agreed with nods and a few audible yeses.
“I served Imagen’s Military and Security Division for ten years with distinguished service. I’ve done some very questionable things, yes. And you’ve seen them all. So while I am completely innocent in this case, I can actually see why some of you wouldn’t believe me. But my father served Imagen for twenty years, and his country for over fifty in total, beginning with the Marines before the war. He has never, in his entire career, done anything questionable. He is a hero. And you all know it.”
The audience in the auditorium murmured in agreement. Love or hate Marlowe, they all worshipped General Ashish Kana. The nation had collectively wept the day he retired from MilSec due to his slow deterioration from Alzheimer’s, one of the few diseases that remained incurable. And they had all cheered when Imagen refused his resignation and assigned him to honorary service as a Living Legend, a morale-builder whose continued service contributed to the country’s esprit de corps.
Marlowe took a deep breath during her pause. “Therefore,” she said into the lens, “I am accepting President Cook’s challenge.”
The left side of the auditorium cheered and applauded loudly. The middle section clapped in a seeming daze. The right side booed and jeered.
“You’re WHAT!?!” The Judge’s voice could be heard out of frame, before the palm of his hand covered the lens of the camera. A loud clanging could be heard before the stream ended.
“And there you have it,” Pat Daniels said from behind his desk on-screen. “The official response by Marlowe Kana, leaked by the MKFan_9999 channel just moments ago–”
“Mute, J.A.Q.i!” Sensei Coach Steve said aloud. “Everyone, please! SIlence!” He begged the parents.
The chatter of the crowd quieted, but some parents weren’t done making their point. “See?” The mother from the left responded. “If you had a Pod and HUD lenses, you’d have known that about Marlowe!”
“Well I ain’t that privileged!” Mr. Wallace said.
“Anyone can get them!” The parent on the left responded. “If you can’t afford the premium version, you just get the ad-supported model from Imagen–”
“Who can afford to buy all the crap they advertise?” another parent from the right yelled. “Not us! Only you privileged Auggie pricks can!”
“Watch your mouth, buddy!” a man in the front row said, standing up and facing Mr. Wallace. “Just cause we have Pods don’t make us Auggies!”
“What’s wrong with augmentations?” Someone queried angrily from the left side of the bleachers. “They’re legal! What’s the problem?”
“They’re unnatural!” Mr. Wallace yelled. “Pods, limbs, eyeballs…it’s not natural! None of it! You think that just ‘cause you only have a Pod, that don’t make you augmented? You rich people…you’re all alike!”
“Hank, come on now!” Another parent said from the middle-right of the room. “This ain’t the place to talk politics!”
“It is when she makes it so!” Hank Wallace said, pointing back at Ama in the Ringjo.
“She’s a child, Hank!” another parent said, standing to face him. “This isn’t right!”
“That child has been indoctrinated!” Mr. Wallace said. “Her parents up there…they try to fake like they’re just like us, but they ain’t! They’re just as bad as the rich assholes down there!” He pointed down the bleacher row to the leftmost side. “They separate themselves from us week after week, sitting down there whispering into their Pods and shining their fancy limbs, while we try to tell our kids we’re all equal…well we’re not! Marlowe Kana ain’t equal! She’s been getting away with murder her whole life, only now she’s getting punished for it, and we have little kids saying she’s their hero? That bitch Auggie is a traitor! And so is anyone who supports her!” He pointed back to the Ringjo and added, “Even the kids!”
“You motherfucker!” Angela Afua screamed as she left her husband’s side and flew down the bleacher stairs, crashing into Mr. Wallace and taking him to the floor. Her fist jackhammered into his face. Victor immediately plunged down and joined the three parents trying to pull Angela off of Hank Wallace. Another parent from the right side of the bleachers leapt in to defend Hank, while more parents from the more affluent left side of the bleachers sped in to help break up the fight. Within moments, there were twelve parents fighting with one another in a chaotic, messy brawl.
“Children, in the ring, now!” Sensei Coach Steve ordered. The eleven other children who had tested and won their Intercontinental Championship Yellow Belts all flooded into the ring and joined Ama and Sensei Coach Steve, watching in dazed confusion as their parents fought ringside. Once they were safely inside, Sensei Coach Steve ordered “J.A.Q.i, deploy the L.L.A.P.D.”
“Little League Anti-Parent Defense deployed,” J.A.Q.i announced. The KillJoy taser drones required by every youth sports organization by law flew out of their bays and arrayed themselves around the brawl. Streams of blue lightning flew from prods surrounding the drone. The wrestling parents fell one by one to the ground, writhing in agony as their bodies seized uncontrollably.
“I love that part,” Johnny Wallace said to Ama Afua, who laughed in response.