“You’re not watching any more and that’s final!” Brian Millar said curtly to his daughter.
Britany Millar unwound her arms from across her chest and flung them into the air, exasperated. “This is so not fair!” she protested. She turned to her other father and pleaded, “Dad, tell him this isn’t fair!”
“Brian, honey, she’s got a point,” David Millar said. “This isn’t just hero worship anymore. This is national news! Real news! And it’s important!”
“And her yellow Intercontinental Belt test earlier this morning that she missed because she was glued to the Feeds? That wasn’t important?” Brian asked testily. “And her sleep schedule? And her health? She’s already missed a day of classes because of this, and now her entire weekend has to be consumed by it?”
A tone sounded. “Miss Britany? Sirs? The ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale is beginning…”
Britany Millar looked pleadingly at Brian, a fresh pool of tears welled up in her eyes, ready to spill over at any second. “Dad…please…”
Brian looked at David. His eyes were also pleading. “This is history, Brian,” David said. “How would you like missing out on it?”
Brian took a deep breath. He had to admit, it was killing him at that very moment to not be glued to the screen watching the beginning of what had to be the most important historical event in his life. “Fine,” Brian said, “But just this once—”
The clatter of shoes on tile echoed throughout the kitchen as Britany darted past her fathers and into the living room. “Main screen, J.A.Q.i!” she shouted. “Now!”
The full-wall screen in the living room flickered and the United America’s “Next Top Soldier” logo appeared in mid-zoom, flying toward the viewer from a star-filled backdrop. The title logo slid down the screen to just above the ever-present NewsFeed crawl, which was required by law to stay on every single Feed display during times of national crisis. The deep-blue background speckled with white stars faded away to show two men, both in their late thirties, their perfectly manicured hair both the same faux shade of chocolate brown. Robert Roberts, WarFeed’s color commentator, and Bob Smith, play-by-play announcer, smiled into the camera as they waited patiently for the United America’s Next Top Soldier theme music to finish its trumpeting crescendo.
“It’s an electric morning here at the Terminus Citadel!” Bob Smith said as the music faded into the background. “This prison-made-foreign active duty training facility couldn’t possibly be a more fitting location for what is sure to be the event of the century. I’m Bob Smith…”
“…And I’m Robert Roberts — and let me tell you, Bob, I. Am. EXCITED.” Robert pumped his fist emphatically with each word.
“I think we all are, Robert!” Bob agreed. “This is possibly the most important moment in our lifetimes — maybe in our entire nation’s history! Marlowe ‘MK’ Kana, the three-time ‘Next Top Soldier’ winner and hall-of-famer who has come out of retirement just for this match, versus Sergeant Sabrina ‘Senche’ Corta, a young and rising star in the MilSec ranks.”
“Major,” Robert corrected. “We have just learned that Corta is now an officer!”
“Interesting time for a promotion!” Bob mused.
“Or the perfect time,” Robert replied. “Given Marlowe’s rank when she was arrested, this makes them both majors — and sets the stage for a major showdown!”
“And what a showdown it will be!” Bob observed. “There is some baaaad blood between these two. Let’s get right to the introductions!!”
Both announcers turned and smiled into the camera as trumpets once again blared the intro music. Seconds went by as Bob and Robert continued staring into the camera, plastic grins stretched across their faces. Eventually, the music faded. “Well, it looks like we’re having some trouble in the control booth,” Robert said nervously. “With the short notice, there’s been a lot of hasty scrambling to get — what’s that?” He asked, putting his finger to his ear. “We have it? Okay, folks, here we go! Once again, let’s set the stage!”
The trumpets began playing again. Bob and Robert disappeared from view. Filling the screen was a United American State flag blowing majestically in the breeze, followed by footage of a now-famous black panther from the Indianapolis Zoo, ceremonially named Sabrina by Imagen to help bolster their new star’s presence across the country. The background faded to black and the panther morphed into a human figure; Sabrina Corta filled the screen.
“Service. Dedication. Honor. These are the tenets of the United American State Army. And who better to represent them on the field of battle than rising star Major Sabrina ‘Senche’ Corta–”
“J.A.Q.i, fast forward!” Britany ordered.
A dim tone sounded. “I can’t, Miss Britany. This is a live event.”
“Mute it, then!” she barked. “I don’t want to hear about this lying bitch!”
The audio from WarFeed was silenced just as Brian, now seated beside his daughter on the couch, reprimanded her sternly. “We don’t talk that way in this house.”
“Well, she is!” Britany insisted.
Brian looked to David for some backup. David shrugged. “I have to agree. Corta lied.”
Britany smiled and widened her eyes innocently at Brian. Brian shot David a look . Then he considered the moment.
“Well, yeah…she kinda is a lying bitch, isn’t she?” Brian admitted with a grin. “Okay, fine.. Just this once.”
The three turned to look at the screen. In unison, they shouted…
“Bitch!” Omar Rodriguez said to his best friend John via their shared chat channel.
“I’m not a bitch!” John snapped back. “The odds are terrible! I’m not betting!”
“Then admit that you know MK is going to win!”
“Not a chance!” John insisted. “Odds or no, you’re insane if you think Marlowe wins this!”
“Dude, look at it!” Omar replied through a mouthful of partially chewed Imagen CheezRanch Triangles. “MK is pissed, Corta sucks…it’s Marlowe all the way! In fact, I bet it’s over in–” A tone sounded, interrupting him. “Ahh, shit man, hold on.”
“Gabby again?” John asked, rolling his eyes. “Just block her ass, man. End this shit.”
“Just…hold on, okay?” Omar said. “J.A.Q.i, switch to Gabby.”
“Hey!” Gabby said perkily the second the chat connected. “I know you’re about to watch ‘Next Top Soldier’ and all but I had to call real fast and tell you how much I love you!”
“Gabby,” Omar said with a sigh. “It’s over. I broke up with you hours ago. You’ve got to stop calling.”
“But…this is a mistake!” Gabby replied, holding back tears. “Who else is going to call you and let you know they love you every morning? Huh? Who else?”
“Goodbye, Gabby,” Omar said, terminating the call. The chat window closed, and John’s face came back into view. “J.A.Q.i, block Gabby,” Omar added.
“Finally!” John said, overhearing Omar’s order. “It’s about time you got rid of her for good, man. And just in time to see your hero’s entrance!”
Omar shifted his focus from John’s window to WarFeed. A smiling Bob Smith and a grinning Robert Roberts were mid-sentence, introducing the competitors.
“Marlowe Kana and her squad are standing in the center of the Terminus Citadel courtyard,” Bob Smith said. “These two new faces Marlowe has with her are unknown quantities. No one knows anything about former Private First Class Robert Jacobs and former Sergeant Mila “Angel” Pavil, except that they were part of this enigmatic crew that broke Marlowe out of the prison transport last night. But what is known is just how dominant Marlowe Kana has always been in the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale, regardless of who is by her side. Isn’t that right, Robert?”
“Indeed, Bob,” Robert replied, “The contest is five years old, and she’s been Champion for three of them, opting to retire in 2095, thus vacating the title. But she’s back, and if she wins tonight, a fourth belt is hers!”
“And what an interesting place for the finale to take place, isn’t that right, Robert?” Bob asked.
“It sure is, Bob,” Robert Roberts replied. “I suppose with her father being released here, it makes sense. At least he gets to sit ringside to watch his daughter fight for his honor!”
“These guys suck,” Omar said to his friend John, a half-chewed CheezRanch Triangle falling from his mouth. He picked it off his shirt and stuffed the soggy morsel back into his gaping maw.
“Yeah, I miss Joe and Joseph,” John said in agreement. “They were funny. These guys are just too… announcer-y.”
“Shh!” Omar shushed. “They’re showing the battleground!”
“The Terminus Citadel courtyard is convenient in more than one way as a battleground,” Bob was saying. “Most of the fixtures for a Finals Battleground are already here — no need for set construction. We have towers for the Snipers, and fenced off areas that can serve as the Hitter’s Bullpen — and speaking of Hitters, here she is now!” Bob announced as Marlowe and Corta approached a floating drone in the dead center of the courtyard. Major Sabrina Corta is making her entrance, and look at that — she’s got Alexis ‘Hax’ Curtis and…is that Mad Dog?!”
“He’s hardly recognizable!” Robert Roberts crowed. “He’s got a full body replacement!”
“Should make him a great hitter!” Bob said. “And with both finalists and their squads approaching the referee drone, the pre-fight ceremonies are about to begin! Both contestants approach the announcement drone for introductions and–HOLY MOLY!”
The camera shook trying to keep up with the speed of Marlowe’s fist as she slammed it square into Corta’s chestplate. The newly minted major went airborne, flying ass-first into the iron gate guarding the main entrance doorway of the Terminus Citadel.
“Oooooh and Marlowe strikes first!” Bob Smith announced. “It’s always been in the rules that the finals start the second both competitors step foot on the field, but never before has anyone broken the unspoken rule of striking before the handshake! This is quite the statement from Marlowe Kana — she came to play, and she came to win!”
“SEE!” Omar Rodriguez yelled triumphantly at John. “I told you Marlowe’s got this!”
“Completely unsportsmanlike!” A gym member unknown to Glen cried out.
Glen Russel knew that manspreading on a piece of equipment while there were others waiting was a violation of gym etiquette, but no one was actually asking if he was done. The entire gym had their eyes glued to the screens hanging from the ceilings in front of the CardioBar.
Glen wasn’t in a hurry to continue his workout anyway. His arms were still sore from the hundred pushups he had to do the night before, after foolishly betting that Henry “Mad Dog” Cain would be able to take Marlowe Kana in. It was surprising, then, for him to see Mad Dog on the field of battle with Corta, especially after seeing the footage of his broken body being carried to the hospital. Glen remembered his own long path to recovery after losing his leg…months of agonizing frustration as his body had to learn to control the neural interfaces for his augmented leg. How one man could take that much damage and survive was surprising; how he could possibly get back on the field so quickly was nothing short of miraculous.
Watching as Mad Dog strutted into the courtyard with Corta had been immeasurably inspiring to Glen. But watching Hax and Angel suddenly realizing that the games had started and they needed to get to their battlestations tout suite…well, that had made everyone in the gym laugh.
Hax and Angel both sprinted to equidistant watchtowers along the outer wall of the Terminus Citadel. Mad Dog and Jacobs trotted to the makeshift “Hitters Boxes” that were constructed in lieu of the standard plexiglass enclosures where the squad members waited for the appropriate time to assist.
“Well, since we’re already started, I guess we’ll go through the rules quickly!” Bob Smith chirped up. “It’s been a few years since we’ve had these rules, so as a reminder for the citizens watching, unlike the solo rules the last two years, in three-on-three Champion Rules matches, each contestant has two Squad Assists they can use: the Sniper and the Hitter.”
“That’s right, Bob,” Robert said. “Now, Snipers only have one tranquilizer round each, and they can only fire on the minute; that is, at 59 seconds, they can take aim, but they can only fire once that clock rolls over to the double-zeros.”
“Indeed, Robert,” Bob said, taking over. “So their decision on when to fire is critical — do they take their shot early on, and risk having a fresh and rested soldier dodge their fire, or wait until the contestant is worn down, but risk letting the opposing sniper take the more helpful, early shot? It’s a critical decision, to be sure.”
“It’s never happened in ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard a shot at the first minute, Bob!” Robert said. “Especially if Hax chooses to use the technovirus that he used earlier against Marlowe Kana.”
“No doubt it was super effective, Robert,” Bob said. “It would be advantageous to infect her early on, but that also ruins any chance of a rescue shot later if he misses!”
“We’re at twenty seconds and no sign of Corta,” Robert said. “We may not even get the chance for Snipers or Hitters to come into play, Bob!”
“See?” The new gym-goer barked, tearing everyone’s gaze away from the gym’s screens. “This is why auggies can’t be trusted!”
“Aren’t you rooting for Corta?” Glen asked the new guy.
“Well, yeah. Duh,” he answered.
“Corta’s augmented. So are Mad Dog and Hax.”
“Well, they’re different!” The new gym member insisted. “They’re patriots. They didn’t cheat.”
“Corta was literally caught lying about attacking Marlowe first not two hours ago by Amanda Stokes,” Glen retorted. “How does that make her a patri–whoa!” Glen ducked the sudden punch thrown by the guy and tumbled off of the gym equipment he was sitting on.
“Gentlemen!” a burly bodybuilder said, stepping between them. “Let’s just chill and watch the fight? All right?”
“Yeah, fine,” the new member said. “I don’t want to talk to this fucking auggie anymore, anyway!”
The bodybuilder extended his hand and helped Glen to his feet. “Don’t listen to him,” he said. “Tensions are high.”
“Yeah, I’ll say,” Glen said, rubbing his bottom.
“What a night!” Bob called out on-screen. “Not even thirty seconds in, and it’s already an incredible, incredible night!”
“What’s so incredible? What did I miss?!” Angela Tuffner asked her husband Matt as she emerged from the bedroom. “Oh my God, MK is back on UATS? And she’s fighting Corta!? Dammit, why didn’t you wake me?!”
“You were exhausted. You needed sleep,” Matthew replied.
“I didn’t need twelve hours of sleep!” Angela insisted.
“Yes you did,” he replied. “But hey — I did make you this.” He slid a tumbler full of coffee her way.
Angela smiled. Ten years of marriage, and he was still as thoughtful as he was from the beginning. “Scooch,” she said, squeezing next to him on the couch. “What happened?”
“Marlowe knocked Corta through the gate like thirty seconds ago,” Matthew replied as the fight clock on-screen ticked over to 0:31. “If she’s not back in twenty-nine seconds, the fight is over.”
“Wow, one-second knockout?” Angela asked, taking a sip from her coffee.
“I kinda hope it happens!” Matthew said. “What a crazy couple days it’s been…Marlowe breaks out of prison, proves her own innocence, then comes back to ‘Next Top Soldier’ and wins her fourth title in one second?”
“Well, I kinda hope it doesn’t!” Angela said. “I wanna see a fight! Corta better get back in there!”
“We are fifty seconds in,” Robert was stating on-screen. “Only ten seconds left for Corta to get back into play, or she’ll be disqual–Wait, there she is!”
The camera drone zoomed in on the destroyed gateway of the Terminus Citadel to show Major Sabrina Corta stomping her way through the wreckage and out of the building. “She’s in play!” Bob Smith announced, “No disqualification! But will we hear Sniper fire this first minute?”
“It’s never happened before,” Robert Roberts noted, “As Snipers are usually backup–”
A loud CRACK! pierced the audio of the Feed, interrupting Robert.
“Sniper fire on the first minute!” Bob shouted. “I can’t believe it! A first! Who’s down? Who fired?” The camera drone zoomed out to show Corta still approaching Marlowe, who stood ready to face her. “Neither contestant is down, but someone fired — wait! Look there!”
One of the Feeds zoomed in on the tower on Corta’s side of the courtyard to find a slumped and snoozing Hax, leaning over the edge of the tower, his rifle teetering precariously on the edge of the wall, an inch away from a fifty-foot fall.
“Holy moly!” Robert shouted. “Angel has taken out Hax!”
“Oh my god!” Angela said, spilling her coffee as she jumped up in shock. Glancing over at her husband, she noticed that most of her spilled coffee had landed in his lap. “Oh no, oh Matt…I am so sorry!”
“Screw it! It’ll wash out,” Matthew replied, wincing slightly. “This is history!”
“I don’t care how historic this is,” Matthew Swift’s father hollered from the J.A.Q.i -piloted limousine. “You’re in a lot of trouble!”
“I mean, the subs?” Matthew’s mother asked in frank dismay. “Matthew, really!”
Matthew sighed and kept his focus on the screen in the center of the limo. “Are you two seriously not watching this?” Matthew asked. “I’ll still be in trouble when I get home. But this is happening now! Real history, right in front of us!”
“Great!” His father barked. “You watch history while we watch your future slipping away!”
“I wasn’t even charged!” Matthew replied. “This won’t impact a thing!”
“But what about the precedent it sets?” His mother asked. “You want us to not care if you go cavorting with drug dealers and prostitutes and God knows what else is down there?”
“I want you to trust me when I tell you, I was just — Holy shit!” Matthew yelled. “Corta’s got Marlowe in a headlock!”
His parents scowled, yet Matthew noticed they couldn’t help but glance over at the screen themselves.
“Corta has Marlowe around the head, and is slamming her fist right into her face!” Bob was saying on-screen.
“Marlowe’s in trouble!” Robert added. “She’s got Corta around the waist — she’s going for a suplex! Corta has let go of her head and is grabbing at Marlowe’s hands…and she’s free! Corta has broken free!”
Marlowe and Corta stumble a few steps away from one another. Marlowe’s nose dripped blood and her eye was swollen; Corta’s lip was split and gushing blood. Corta flashed a bloody grin at Marlowe. Marlowe wiped her nose with her hand and looked at the blood on her fingertips. She smeared it across her chest, leaving a crimson stripe across her white tank top. She pointed at Corta and then dramatically gave her a thumbs-down.
“The guts these two soldiers are displaying…it’s unbelievable!” Bob shouted. “This is one hell of a fight!”
“Look at MK, Bob!” Robert crowed. “A dozen blows to the face, busted nose, swollen eye, and she’s not even phased!”
“And we’re nearing the two-minute mark, in which those mighty, mighty Hitters are allowed to assist for thirty seconds!” Bob said.
“Well, Bob, I’m just now hearing from the booth that Mad Dog’s brain has been wired into that new body! In fact, it’s the only part of his anatomy that’s actually his own! And from the looks of it, it seems that in his state after surgery, he’s quite unstable!”
“Very dangerous strategy, using him like this!” Bob noted. “But, completely within the rules!”
“We know how hard Mad Dog can hit, Bob,” Robert said. “But this person on Marlowe’s side — he’s a relatively unknown entity. All we know is that he was part of the gang that broke Marlowe out last night.”
A window appeared on the screen, showing a frozen frame from the drone footage of the prison break the night before with Jacobs grinning and flipping off the camera. “That’s former Private First Class Robert Jacobs,” Bob said. “He does look scrappy, doesn’t he, Robert?”
“He sure does,” Robert agreed. “But how can he possibly take on a now fully augmented Mad Dog?”
“And there’s the buzzer for the two-minute mark!” Bob called as the doors to the Hitters’ Boxes opened and Mad Dog and Jacobs rushed the field. “Look at this newcomer go! Cain seems to be headed for Marlowe and Corta. Jacobs doesn’t seem to be even remotely worried as he’s sprinting headlong right toward Cain!”
“Well, judging by the events of last night, he has to know that Mad Dog’s only desire is to crush Marlowe Kana,” Robert noted. “He’s got revenge on his mind, and a brand new shiny body with which to exact it!”
“But how on earth will Jacobs handle all that titanium and steel?” Bob asked.
Jacobs leaped off his feet as he neared Mad Dog, who was mid-stride, heading toward the middle of the field where Corta and Marlowe were circling each other. Jacobs extended his arms and attempted to wrap them around Cain in a furious, open-field tackle. However, Cain, in his new, fully robotic body, barely stumbled as Jacobs slammed shoulder-first into him. Jacobs slid down Mad Dog’s leg and collapsed on the field, dizzy from the impact.
“…Not very well at all, Bob,” Robert stated. “Cain just stood up to Jacobs’ tackle like a brick wall!”
“Well, Jacobs is not giving up!” Robert said. “He’s back on his feet…he’s rushing toward Cain! He’s got his fist cocked…hooo boy! That had to hurt!”
On-screen, Jacobs’s face crumpled and his teeth were bared in pain as he grabbed his now-mangled right hand. “It doesn’t look like Marlowe’s Hitter is doing much good hitting, as Cain is undeterred and making his way over to Marlowe!” Bob said with a chuckle.
Jacobs shook his head and narrowed his eyes. He got up and sprinted after Cain. “Look at that,” Robert called. “He’s jumped on Cain’s back!”
“But it hasn’t slowed him down at all as he’s just reached Marlowe!!” Bob reported. “Cain is rearing back, preparing to strike…and Jacobs has just grabbed Mad Dog’s arm and is hanging from it like a monkey!”
Cain attempted to punch toward Marlowe, but the swinging weight that was Jacobs’ body kept his fist from connecting. Marlowe leaped nimbly out of the way, then darted to the other side of Mad Dog and Jacobs, forcing Cain to turn to face her.
“His movements seem slow and clunky,” Bob said.
“One has to wonder just how much of Mad Dog’s brain is in that body,” Roberts added. “He seems to be on autopilot!”
The fight clock struck two minutes and twenty seconds. A loud buzzer sounded in the distance.
“Well, he missed his one shot, thanks to Jacobs,” Bob answered. “We are nearing the two minute and thirty-second mark, and the buzzer has just sounded for the Hitters to clear the field.”
“Jacobs has dropped from Mad Dog’s arm, and is running as fast as he can back to his box,” Robert said. “Now Mad Dog is headed back and…wait, he’s stopped. He’s turning around…he’s headed back to Marlowe Kana!”
“It seems Mad Dog is refusing to leave the field!” Bob yelled. “Corta is yelling at him to leave… If he isn’t off the field in seven seconds, Corta is disqualified!”
“Corta is furious! She’s screaming at him to…wait, what’s this? Corta is leaping into the air and…OH MY GOD! Sabrina Corta has just attacked her own Hitter! She has kicked Mad Dog back into the Hitter’s Box!”
Just then, a tone sounded. “Sir, Ma’am, Matthew,” J.A.Q.i announced calmly. “We have arrived at your condo–”
“Quiet!” Matthew’s mother yelled.
Both Matthew’s and his father’s heads shot up as they looked at the mother in complete surprise. She scowled disapprovingly, then returned her attention to the screen just in time to see Marlowe wrapping her arms around Corta’s waist.
“Marlowe’s got Corta from behind!” Bob screamed. “She’s going again for the…SUPLEX! YES! She nails it! She’s just slammed Corta head-over-heels into the turf! Surely that has to have–NO! Corta’s up! My word! She’s not even phased!”
“Man, what a fight!” Matthew’s father cheered from the back seat of the limo. His tone changed and became more dour as he suddenly remembered why he was in the back of his family limo hovering outside of his condominium in downtown Atlanta having just picked up his son from the MilSec-turned-UASA precinct. “…Don’t think that this fight has gotten you out of trouble,” he said grimly to his son, furrowing his eyebrows.
“I know,” Matthew replied, his smile sliding off his face as he returned his attention to the fight.
“And we’re now at three minutes. With Angel having taken her shot and Hax down as a result, there’ll be no assistance for either side,” Bob was saying on-screen.
“That’s right, Bob,” Robert said, “And Jacobs and Mad Dog still have a minute left before they can assist again.”
“It looks like they’ll get that chance, and possibly a few more, Robert!” Bob said cheerfully. “This fight shows no signs of stopping! Look, Marlowe is picking Corta up for a bodyslam! She has Corta overhead…wow! Corta has wriggled free! She’s behind MK, and has her around the waist…Is it a suplex? Wait, no, she’s just taken Marlowe down with a forward sweep!”
“Corta is going for the back mount…she’s pushing Marlowe’s face into the grass! She’s rearing back, going for the knockout…Marlowe is standing up! Corta is holding on for dear life, wrapping her arms around Marlowe’s neck!”
“Corta is choking Marlowe out!” Bob yelled. “Marlowe is slumping! But the question is, is this a fake-out?”
“It’s definitely a fake-out,” Matthew’s mother murmured.
Matthew and his father looked over at his mother again.
“She did that in season two,” she explained with a slight smile, eyes never leaving the screen.
“I don’t know,” Regina Todd said as she took another sip of coffee from the booth she shared with her brother Reginald, her friend Tad, and their server friend Marc Winter. “She looks like she’s going out.”
“Nah,” Marc Winter said. “MK is faking it. Corta should know that.”
“How do you know?” Reginald asked. “Her eyes are rolling back. She’s blacking out.”
“I’m a student of history,” Marc replied. “I’ve seen every single one of Marlowe’s fights and missions. I’ve seen her play opossum before.”
“…What’s a opossum?” Tad asked.
“It’s an opossum,” Marc replied with a chuckle. “They used to be, like, really big rats. They ate garbage and dog food off people’s porches.”
“Wait, people really used to have dogs?” Tad asked. “I thought that was just an urban legend.”
“…And what’s a rat?” Regina asked.
“…Watch the fight,” Marc said, taking a sip from his own coffee cup.
“…We are coming up on the four-minute mark, Bob,” Robert announced. “But with both snipers down, it’ll be up to the Hitters to provide any assistance– wait, what’s this?”
“I can’t believe it, Robert!” Bob yelled. “Hax is back! Look at that, he’s rising to his feet!”
“Yes, Bob! In a finals where the unexpected has become the norm, Hax has emerged from the tranquilized haze imposed by the opposing Sniper’s dart and is now reaching for his rifle!”
“It looks like it’s time for the Imagen CheezRanch Triangle TRIGGERCAM!” Bob cheered, as a yellow-and-white dotted triangle with the Imagen logo scrawled on top in faux-cursive appeared in the corner of the screen showing Feed footage from directly down the barrel of Hax’s rifle.
“And there’s the shot!” Robert said. The TRIGGERCAM Feed footage shook as Hax pulled the trigger on his rifle. Just as he did, the doors to the Hitters’ Boxes on either side of the courtyard swung open. Marlowe knew that time was short. She posted her leg and wrapped her arms around Corta, attempting to roll her on top and into the path of the nanovirus dart. Corta’s one arm flailed, trying to keep Marlowe from rolling her over, but it was useless. Marlowe twisted Corta over easily, but not quickly enough. The TRIGGERCAM! feed closed in on Marlowe’s shoulder.
Just then, a blur streaked across the TRIGGERCAM! feed. The dart made impact and the screen went black. The Feed switched back to the aerial drone’s camera, which showed Corta on top of Marlowe and just as Jacobs landed heavily in the grass beside them in the courtyard, a dart protruding from his shoulder.
“I did NOT see that coming!!!” Robert Roberts shrieked. “Jacobs has leapt nearly ten yards from the Hitter’s Box and intercepted Hax’s dart! My word! Yet another first in a ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale that is destined for the history books!”
“But that takes him out of play and leaves Marlowe alone against Corta and Cain — And here comes Mad Dog!” Bob shouted. “He’s just approached Marlowe’s side of the field! Corta is releasing Marlowe and giving him an opening! He’s sure to crush— wait a minute, he’s stopped! What’s he doing?”
“He’s just…standing there!” Robert Roberts observed as Mad Dog’s forward movement ceased and his body began shaking erratically.
“He’s very jittery, Robert,” Bob added. “He seems to be unsure of what to do!”
“He’s raising his fist!” Robert announced. “He’s rearing back…Corta has stepped away, and Marlowe is scrambling to get out of the way! He’s swinging — oh my! He just grabbed his own fist and intercepted himself! He’s…he’s spinning!”
“What on earth is going on!?” Bob cried. “Mad Dog just intercepted his own punch and is pirouetting around like a ballet dancer! This is just…I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Corta’s beside herself!” Robert observed. “She’s ordering Cain to smash Marlowe, who is now on her feet and circling! Why isn’t Mad Dog striking? Wait, Bob!” Robert interrupted himself, “I’m just now hearing this from the booth, and oh my lord, citizens of the United American State, I cannot believe this but someone is hacking Mad Dog!”
“That’s right, someone has taken control of Henry ‘Mad Dog’ Cain!” Bob explained. “It just keeps getting crazier here at the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale! Marlowe is rushing Corta in the confusion and has taken her down! She’s got the mount…Mad Dog is raising his left fist this time…haha, I cannot believe this! He just intercepted his own punch again! There he goes, spinning around! Who is doing… Wait, look at the Feed, Robert!”
One of the drones covering the fight suddenly zoomed in on Jen and Nines from just outside the front gate of the courtyard. Nines was staring into her Pod screen and Jen was waving her hands in the air, tapping commands on an invisible interface as she fired off script after script. Both of their faces were blurred from view for the audience at home, both having figured out the IdentServer hack by finally teaming up (and with a little help from Austin). Nines tapped Jen’s arm and showed her the Pod in her hand. Both Jen and Nines looked up at the drone broadcasting them. Jen waved at the camera; Nines flipped her middle finger at the audience watching.
“Well, isn’t that a fine how-do-you-do, Robert!” Bob said. “Nice way to say hello to the entire nation! We can’t see their faces, but we can certainly see that middle finger from Marlowe’s hacking team!”
“Yet another first in ‘Next Top Soldier’ history!” Robert observed. “We’re being told that, despite this being highly unorthodox, there is no rule preventing this!”
“In fact, the rules specifically say that hacking is a valid tactic against augmented soldiers!” Bob added. “We saw it last night when Hax controlled Marlowe, and now again in these finals!
“I guess all’s fair in love and war, Bob!” Robert opined.
“Except pointing a gun at grafitti artists,” Tad muttered from his side of the table at the Waffle House.
“You’re gonna have to get used to that,” Marc Winter commented as he sipped again from his cup of coffee.
“Why’s that?” Regina asked, seated next to her brother Reginald. “You know Marlowe’s gonna win… Then it all goes back to normal, right?”
“Ain’t nothing normal about any of this,” Marc replied. “MK’s court martial, the suppressed evidence, the jailbreak… Now we have an emergency ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale, where one of the contestants is pretty much a full robot being remote controlled, and the Subs are nothing but ashes… I have a feeling, ain’t nothing going to ever be the same.”
“Is this how it was before…you know, the war?” Reginald asked Marc.
Marc shifted in his seat. He cleared his throat and gestured his coffee mug toward the monitor on the wall across from their table. “Watch the fight,” he said curtly.
Ama Afua sat in the United American State Army precinct’s uncomfortable plastic chair in her martial arts gi, her brand-new yellow Intercontinental Champion belt laid across her lap. Her father and mother sat subdued on either side of her, pointedly not making eye contact with the rabble-rousing Mr. Wallace. Sensei Coach Steve sat at the desk of the private assigned to take his statement as to why his American Martial Arts studio had to deploy the L.L.A.P.D. system. It was standard procedure whenever the parent determent systems were used. And it happened nearly every week. The Afuas, the Wallaces, and Sensei Coach Steve were all pretty used to being at the precinct at this point.
This time, however, no one was giving a statement. No one was fighting. No processing was taking place. Ama’s legs had stopped swinging as they dangled from the chair. The private’s pen had long since fallen from his hand. Ama’s mother Angela had dropped the ice pack she held to her eye, and her father Victor had stopped re-wrapping his wrist bandage. Sensei Coach Steve and the private were both staring at the screen – a half-written statement lay in front of them on the desk.
“That’s BULLSHIT!” Wallace suddenly barked from across the waiting room. “MK is cheating!”
The room immediately sounded like someone was letting all of the air out of it, as a chorus of “SHHHHs!” erupted.
“Well, she is!” Wallace insisted. “Look–”
“Shut up!” the duty sergeant ordered.
Mr. Wallace started to snap back at the soldier, but then remembered he was in handcuffs. He sullenly returned his attention back to the screens situated around the precinct, just in time to watch as Mad Dog began jerking and twitching.
“Henry ‘Mad Dog’ Cain seems to be completely unable to control himself,” Roberts was announcing. “He keeps raising his right fist to punch, but then pulls it down with his own left hand!”
“In what is undoubtedly the most incredible ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale we’ve ever seen, this is truly a unique event,” Bob Smith hooted. “We have remote control of an augmented soldier passing between opposing teams! This is just something, isn’t it, Robert? And what’s this…it looks like Mad Dog’s about to strike! His fist is raised — but who is he going to attack? Who’s got control of his body?”
Mad Dog stood with his fist reared back as Marlowe and Corta both tussled on the ground, struggling to stand. With a loud yell, he swung his fist forward and around, and struck himself squarely in the face.
“Oh my God!” Wallace yelled in the precinct. “That’s illegal! That’s so illeg–”
A blue arc of electricity flew from a terminal in the ceiling, shocking Wallace. “Enough,” the sergeant said, removing his finger from a button embedded on his desk.
“Mad Dog has just knocked himself out!” Roberts announced. “He’s falling…oh my God, he’s fallen on Major Corta! He’s pinned her leg! She’s stuck!”
“That is a terrible angle for her leg to be in!” Bob Smith observed with unholy glee. “Mad Dog’s body has landed sideways on Corta’s knee and she is screaming in bloody agony! I don’t know how she’s going to get free!”
“Well, if Cain’s not off the field in seven seconds, it won’t matter!” Robert said. “Marlowe has only a few seconds to strike the final blow before Mad Dog’s presence on the field disqualifies Corta, and leaves the championship in limbo!”
“And if that happens, Bob, it’s unclear if Marlowe will still be pardoned!” Robert added. “A disqualification for Corta is NOT a victory for Marlowe, as she well knows! All the chips are on the table — and HERE SHE COMES! MK is on her feet and stumbling toward her trapped opponent, she’s going to end this…wait!”
Everybody in the precinct watched in awe as Marlowe stopped just in front of the Mad Dog and Corta sandwich. She reached down and wrapped her hands around Cain’s augmented left ankle.
“What is this!” Roberts shrieked. “She’s grabbing Mad Dog by the leg! She’s spinning him — Bob, she’s ejecting Mad Dog!”
Marlowe spun around and around, swinging Mad Dog’s metallic body in a wide arc before letting go and sending him sailing over the outside wall of the Terminus Citadel.
“I can’t believe it!” Roberts yelled. “MK isn’t going for the easy kill — she’s just thrown Mad Dog out of the ring!” A window appeared with the feed from a camera drone following Mad Dog’s trajectory over the wall before he collided with the ground outside the Citadel.
“She doesn’t want an asterisk on this victory, Robert,” Bob opined. “She wants the nation to know that, if she wins, it’ll be fair and square!”
“She’s stepping back,” Robert said. “I think she’s setting up for…yes! It’s her signature move! Corta’s rising on her good leg…Marlowe is running…she’s in the air! Her fist is back! Bob, It’s an MK Ultra!”
Marlowe’s fist connected with Corta’s chest, sending her off her feet once again and flying across the Terminus Citadel courtyard. Corta’s limp body bounced off of the turf once, then twice, and then a third time. The viewers in the precinct waiting room, and across the entire nation, joined Bob and Robert as they held their collective breaths while watching Corta skid face-down across the grass, finally coming to a halt near the wall on the east side of the courtyard.
“My GOD!” Bob Smith shrieked. “What a thunderous blow! No one has ever gotten up from an MK Ultra! Corta is out, folks! Corta is…wait, no…she’s stirring! She’s trying to get up!”
“I don’t know how on earth she survived that punch,” Roberts said, stunned. “And I can’t believe she’s trying to get up!”
“And look at Marlowe Kana’s face,” Bob observed. “She’s as shocked as we are! She was certain that was it. She looks completely spent as she heads toward Corta to finish the job!”
“She’s taking her time with it, Bob,” Roberts observed. “She’s exhausted, but my word, look at the swagger as she walks over to Corta.”
“MK is just incredible,” Bob noted. “After escaping prison, evading capture, taking out Mad Dog, Hax, and over a hundred soldiers, and then fighting a highly trained and newly augmented Sabrina Corta, she still has the pure grit to march across this field and get the job done. That’s sheer will on display, right there.”
“That’s the march of a true warrior, Bob.”
“A soon to be four-time champion, Robert.”
“But wait! Corta’s rising to her knees!” Robert yelled. “She’s not going to stay down!”
“These two soldiers are just incredible,” Bob observed. “This is the greatest display of heart I’ve ever seen on the battlefield. Sabrina Corta: fighting for her place alongside the champions of history. Marlowe Kana: fighting for her freedom. The stakes are high, and the word ‘quit’ isn’t in either of their vocabularies and…OH MY GOD, Corta is up! Sabrina Corta has just stood up after an MK Ultra!”
“Corta is up!” Robert said. “Marlowe is picking up her pace! Corta is turning…she’s facing Marlowe! Oh my God, Corta is running now! This is it! Sabrina Corta is running to meet Marlowe Kana in the center of the field!”
Sweat and dirt and blood streaked across Marlowe’s face as the wind sheared down. Corta ran as fast as her injured leg permitted to confront Marlowe. Both soldiers clenched their jaws and narrowed their eyes. Exhausted, bloodied, and nearly beaten, they hurtled toward each other to end the fight and show the entire nation who was truly the superior soldier.
Suddenly, the footage on-screen wobbled. Marlowe and Corta both stopped dead in their tracks.
“What just–” Robert Roberts said before the audio to the feed was cut.
The suddenly silent footage showed Marlowe and her crew looking confusedly at the sky. Corta pointed at something just beyond the camera drone’s field of vision. On-screen, her figure became blocky and pixelated. Streaks of distortion turned everyone on screen into blobs of orange and blue and purple and pink, cutting their figures into squares and rectangles. A slight crackle and a light pop sounded from the precinct’s speakers before the screen went completely black.