It was almost two in the morning, and Angela Tufner had just returned home from working the late Emergency Room shift at Grady-Usher-CeeLo Memorial Hospital. It had been an unusually horrible night at work. Burn victims, head wounds…so many critical care patients all from the Subs post-raid. She was supposed to have signed off at midnight. Eventually, her nurse manager had forced her to leave at one a.m., as the law stipulated that no Imagen worker could work more than twenty-four hours in a single shift. Angela kicked off her shoes, dragged herself into bed, and pulled the blankets over herself, deciding to catch up on NewsFeed before sinking into some much needed sleep.
Not wanting to wake her husband Matt with voice commands to JAQi, she waved her hand upwards in the air like a conductor readying her orchestra. The wall screen slowly dissolved the fireplace projection that had helped lull Matt to sleep, and transitioned to a live NewsFeed of Amanda Stokes, NewsFeed correspondent and host of her own show, “Stokes the Fire,” deep in mid-diatribe.
Angela rolled her eyes. She really didn’t have the energy to listen to “Stokes The Fire,” not to mention bear witness to Amanda’s perpetual smirk. But she also didn’t have the energy to change the Feed or to ask JAQi to summarize the day’s events. She’d be asleep in under five minutes, anyway, so why not just tune in to the worst show on the major Feeds, hosted by a woman who had used Marlowe Kana and slept her way to celebrity. At the very least, she’d feel a bit better about herself, knowing she wasn’t a desperate ratings-monger like Amanda Stokes.
“She’s a national disgrace!” Amanda Stokes ranted, continuing from a speech that Angela was thankful to have missed part of. Amanda’s long, jet-black hair took on a life of its own as she gesticulated wildly, her steel-blue eyes piercing the soul of every viewer, even through the lens of the camera.
“And even after being found guilty of treason — of TREASON, people!” Amanda frothed. “We still show her face on every Feed and on posters in every store, alongside candy bars and hoverbikes and anything else considered to be cool, and we tell the people of this great nation — especially the CHILDREN of this great nation — that it’s okay to be a criminal as long as you’re famous! Murder people, you know? Beat them up! As long as MilSec and Imagen say you’re a hero, it must be okay! Am I right? MK does it, so it’s okay! What kind of example does this set for our children? Why do we still allow her to troll along in our Feeds and help generate a narrative that — you know what? Bobby, roll the commercial. Do we have the…we do? Okay great, roll it. Roll the commercial. Let’s show the nation exactly what I’m talking about.”
The screen froze on the first frame of a Battery Bars commercial. Marlowe Kana’s scarred but beautifully made-up face was still, eyes squinted and lips barely pursed, preparing to deliver the first line of script for the high-energy supplement, the wrapper of which also adorned her face.
“Play it,” Amanda said through the audio in the background. “Can you get it to play?”
Another voice in the distance mumbled something that sounded like, “I’m trying.”
“Well try hard– ah, there it goes. It’s going. People, listen.”
The audio of Amanda’s tirade blended with the first lines of Marlowe’s commercial, which the entire nation knew by heart at this point.
“Whether I’m in the Gaslands fighting terrorists, or in the gym helping to keep our energy grid efficient, nothing fuels me like a good Battery.”
Marlowe winked at the camera. A disingenuous almost sickly smile wreathed her face.
“Look at that smart-assed grin,” Amanda taunted on screen. “As insincere as she is. And I should know…” From her bed, Angela rolled her eyes and mouthed the words along with Amanda. “I used to date her.”
“Ugh!” Angela involuntarily groaned aloud. The volume of the Feed automatically lowered in response to her voice.
“Huh, what?” Matt mumbled, waking mid-snore.
“Nothing, honey,” she replied, patting him on the hip. “Just the NewsFeed.”
“Ugh…” Matt said, smacking his dry lips. “Just turn it off.”
“I will,” she said. “I’m just so sick of all of this…the trial, the incessant coverage, and especially this witch.”
“Mhmm,” Matt said, rolling over and pulling the covers over his eyes. “I know. You’ve said.”
“…What’s that supposed to mean?” Angela asked angrily.
“…Nothing,” Angela replied. She hadn’t meant to go on the offensive. Frankly, she knew she shouldn’t be indulging this Feed, but it was the only thing on at this hour that wasn’t a commercial masquerading as entertainment, WarFeeds that weren’t anywhere near as entertaining as Marlowe’s, CitizenFeeds reviewing the hottest new Imagen Games releases, or people hitting themselves (or others) in the genitals for ratings.
After a short period of silence, the volume raised on the Feed again.
“…STILL giving her airtime!” Amanda continued from what Angela could easily imagine was yet more ranting and railing against Marlowe Kana. “This lady — no, let me rephrase, because she’s no lady, let me tell you. This woman…she attempts to murder a fellow officer, Sergeant Corta, because why? She’s jealous of the ratings Corta was getting on ‘Next Top Soldier,’ that’s why! That’s a fact! And she was found guilty of treason against the United American State. That is also a fact. She had to be working with the terrorists all along! She HAD to be! Staging battles for viewer count. That’s a true fact, verified by the traitors and terrorists who just sprung her from prison! She colluded with them all along, and has for years! YEARS, I tell you! Because that’s how this works, people. It’s all a hoax carefully crafted by Marlowe Kana to keep YOU watching. And we know this from the evidence! It’s all there.”
“You know what evidence isn’t there, dear viewers? Do YOU, Bobby?” She asked her producer off-camera.
A distant voice could be heard responding, “no.”
“Well, I do,” Amanda said, a sharklike grin spreading across her face as she looked directly into the lens of the camera. “I do indeed.” She paused for a moment and glared at the camera. The intent was to build suspense. The result was that she was feeding the meme trolls who captioned her image with silly phrases yet another headshot to work with.
“The evidence of Marlowe’s innocence isn’t there,” Amanda answered. “This much discussed but never received Feed that Marlowe’s defense was supposed to provide that shows Corta attacked first? Where is it? MK’s narrative that she was merely defending herself? There’s no proof, people! None. It’s just her word against all of MilSec’s. And as you saw in that Battery commercial, her word comes with a sly grin, a wink, and a nod to her fans and zero sincerity.”
“And we — all of us, the viewers, NewsFeed, SportsFeed, WarFeeds, every single one of us — we are all still playing her game, because why? Viewer count.” Amanda paused again, letting her point resonate with her audience. When she was sufficiently convinced that it had, she began again. “Here’s the evidence, plucked from right here, from my own show.”
The screen split to show a line chart of “Stokes The Fire’s” ratings over the past eight months. “See, from the beginning of this show’s existence, our viewer count was low…20,000 viewers on average. It’s the midnight to four a.m. slot. The nation is either asleep or working. Not many people are going to watch, I admit that. But I have my loyal fans, and to you, I say that I love you, and I do this for YOU. Not THESE new folks,” she said, pointing at a huge uptick in viewership around the time that Marlowe’s alleged crime took place.
“These Johnny-and-Jill-Come-Latelys…yes, you! You’re watching this right now and you only started when MK’s name was dropped! You bandwagon jumpers…you’re here for the Marlowe Kana show, not MY show! This show is now in the one hundred thousand viewer per night range, and why? Well, I’d love to tell you it’s because of my charming personality. But we all know the truth. It’s because suddenly, my Feed has become the ‘All-Marlowe, All-The-Time Show.’ And you know what? I’m sick to death of it!”
Amanda seethed for the camera for a moment, exhibiting well-rehearsed disdain. She then looked away dramatically, took a cleansing breath, exhaled, and looked into the camera again.
“But how do YOU feel about it? I’d love to know, dear viewers. Bobby, do we have anyone on the line? Yeah? Okay, put it through. Go ahead, viewer.”
“Uh…yeah, hi,” the caller said. “My name is Omar Rodriguez, calling from Atlanta.”
“Ah, a local!” Amanda said with a smile. “Hi, Omar. What’s stoking your fire this morning?”
“Well, first, I have to say, I’m one of your newer viewers. I only really watched tonight because, you know…the trial and all. And Corta’s back, and I wanted to see what you’d say about that. I missed the NewsFeed today while I was at my shift at the Imagen Prime Distribution Center cafeteria, and I’ve not really been able to sleep so –”
“Do you have a question, Omar? Or even a point?” Amanda asked snidely.
“Uh…well yeah. So why do you talk about MK so much if you hate her?”
“Because, unfortunately, Marlowe Kana is the news of the day, Omar,” Amanda said.
“Well, yeah, sure, but your point is that she’s over-exposed and given too much air time, right?”
“Well of course,” Amanda said. “But MK is news, so I have to cover her.”
“Well wouldn’t you say that you benefit from it?”
“No. Why would I say that?”
“Your chart, you know? I mean, look at it. Your ratings went up like, you know…a lot.”
“Well of course they did,” Amanda said. “People want to know what’s going on with this story.”
“But doesn’t that mean you’re contributing to–”
“–No!” Amanda barked. “I am NOT contributing! I am covering the news of the day, and providing my personal analysis of it.”
“But it’s always about Marlowe–”
“Listen, newbie,” She interrupted, pointing sternly into the lens of the camera. “I had a personal and very close relationship with Marlowe Kana. I know the woman better than anyone. I have a unique and very important viewpoint on her, her personality, her motives. And the citizens of this great nation need this information. So I do my job, sir. I provide the people with that which they need.”
“Get it?” Amanda said, abruptly completing his sentence. “I know you don’t. That’s why I’m here behind the camera and you’re there, tuning in as a Johnny-Come-Lately, a hanger-on. Not even a real fan of mine. Just rubbernecking this trainwreck our society has generated by their incessant coverage and over-exposure of the criminal Marlowe Kana.”
“But you’re doing it yourself,” Omar said.
“How DARE you!” Amanda yelled. “How DARE you dismiss the personal pain and grief I had to go through with her? How DARE you callously pave over the bravery I exhibit night after night, talking about this woman who has destroyed my life, and so many other peoples’ lives, with her megalomaniacal insanity? How DARE you–”
The audio muted and the screen began to fade as JAQi’s sleep detection kicked in. Slowly, the glow from the Feed of a lit fireplace shone once more from the wall screen. Matt was snoring again, but nothing could wake Angela from the deep slumber she had slipped into.
Jen shuffled her way up alongside Marlowe and Sully, huffing and puffing with each step. Carefully, the three made their way up the gravel path through the thick cover of synthetic trees, to the very gate Marlowe had approached earlier with the rogue squad. Slowly, Marlowe helped Sully off of her back and held him steady on his remaining leg.
“You really think they’re still here?” Jen asked.
“Pretty sure,” Marlowe said, holding Sully secure around the waist while investigating the gate lock that still hung, unshackled, where Poet had left it. Sliding it out, she lifted up the u-hook latch. The gate creaked as it opened.
“What makes you say that?”
Marlowe pointed at a small, six-passenger aerial vehicle covered by a tarp near the woods, just beyond the fence. “That poorly concealed Jumper at the tree line, for one.”
“Is that what they brought you here in?” Sully asked.
“I wish,” Marlowe answered. “If I had that thing when I escaped, I’d be across the Mississippi by now. I think it’s theirs, or at least Sovereign’s. It’s not MilSec, as near as I can tell. And the truck I left against the door is gone. So either they’re being held as bait by MilSec or they have reinforcements. Gonna bet the latter, given the lack of blood everywhere. That Jacobs kid…he’s a scrappy one.”
“Okay, so, what’s the plan?” Jen asked.
“Well, if we’re not stopped beforehand, we’re going to walk up to the door of that shed there,” Marlowe answered, pointing it out. “And when we get there, we’re going to knock on it. And if they’re there, we’ll say hi. Hopefully, they’ve made coffee.”
“That’s certainly, uh…direct,” Jen said. “You’re not taking cover and surveying the area and all that sneaky reconnaissance soldier shit? You’re just going to walk up and say hi?”
“Nope,” Marlowe said, pushing the gate open, “We all are.”
“Wait,” Jen said, taking a few steps back. “You’re taking us with you? Shouldn’t we hide and wait to make sure it’s all clear or something?”
“Nah,” Marlowe said, casually scanning the area. “If they patrol the area and find you, you’re dead. Besides, they already know we’re here.”
“How do you know?”
“I just saw the light glint off of Angel’s scope…up there, about three hundred yards out.” Marlowe waved hello in the direction of the hill. A muffled report whispered in the distance a second before a wad of earth erupted from the ground at Marlowe’s feet.
“Whoa!” Jen yelled as she leapt back. Marlowe laughed and gave a thumbs-up in the direction of the shooter.
Sully scoffed. “Typical MilSec kids. Must be nice to have ammo enough to waste on saying hello.”
“She’s good, I’ll give her that,” Marlowe said.
“Good?!?” Jen exclaimed. “She just shot at us!”
“No, she shot at that spot on the ground,” Marlowe said, pointing at the divot Angel had left at their feet. “If she shot at us, we’d be a lot bloodier.”
“How do you know she didn’t just miss?”
“Because she’s using her long-range scope.”
Sully chuckled. “Damn, you notice everything, huh?”
“It’s my job,” Marlowe said. “Well…used to be.”
“Okay, wait a fucking minute,” Jen said, waving her hands, “I’m not a soldier, I know. And this might be obvious as hell to you two, but what the hell does the type of scope have to do with her saying hi with a fucking bullet?!?”
“It’s not the one that she was equipped with when the group sprung me from the transport, and she didn’t need a long range from that distance. She swapped scopes, knowing that the long-range isn’t coated and it would reflect light.”
“Uh, okay?” Jen said.
“…She changed scopes so I’d spot her,” Marlowe simplified.
“You guys are fucking crazy,” Jen said, shaking her head.
“No doubt,” Marlowe said. “Now, let’s go say hi to the rest of them.”
Marlowe pulled Sully in toward her hip and the pair began hobbling toward the shed. Jen sighed and muttered under her breath, “fuck this gung-ho bullshit.”
Reluctantly, she limped along behind them.
The door of the shed swung open as the trio approached. Standing in the doorway was a tall, thin man clad in a black turtleneck sweater and black pants with a silver belt buckle. He had long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a thin black mustache and goatee, all of which had the appearance of being dyed. Just behind him stood Poet and Jacobs, both pointing the barrel of their rifles at Marlowe, Sully, and Jen.
“Welcome,” the man in black said. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“I’ll bet,” Marlowe said as she approached the door. “Sully and Jen, wait out here.”
“Don’t be silly,” the man in black said. “If they’re friends of yours, they’re our invited guests.”
Marlowe considered the situation. The last thing she wanted was for Sully and Jen to be trapped in a building full of people with the motivation to hold them hostage. Poet, she deduced, wouldn’t have the stomach for outright murder. But with even the slightest notion of a wrong move, she was certain that Jacobs would put bullets through both of their skulls.
However, standing out in the open at an EV plant while MilSec was hunting them was not the best place or time to negotiate. Reluctantly, Marlowe nodded and helped Sully inside. Jen followed behind, and the door slammed shut.
As Jen helped Marlowe guide Sully to a chair, Marlowe surveyed her surroundings. At old man William’s workbench was a young man with a shaved head wearing glasses. He was using a portable laptop terminal, hunched over the keyboard, chopping furiously away at the keys. Beside him stood a woman who looked a lot like a younger version of Angel. Same straight red hair, same freckles, same professional demeanor. Marlowe figured them for sisters. They both wore jumpsuits with the same Dazzle camouflage that Poet had on, but neither was clad in any of the makeshift body armor.
The man in black strolled casually over to the young hacker at the terminal. Poet and Jacobs took up positions to his right, Jacobs keeping his rifle on Marlowe, while Poet casually covered Sully and Jen, who had sunk thankfully into William’s sturdy wooden chairs. Marlowe faced the room full of people with her back to the shed door, ready to effect an exit at a moment’s notice,provided she could outrun Angel’s scope.
“We haven’t formally met,” the man in black said, extending his right hand.
“Well,” Marlowe said, “Considering your outfit, you’re either a poet, or a vintage country and western cover artist.”
The man in black laughed. “Ah, ridicule. Quite the first move from you, considering your position.” His hand still hung in mid-air, waiting for Marlowe to shake it.
“Hey, you made the first move when you dressed like that,” Marlowe replied glibly without breaking eye contact.
The man in black proffered a wry smile as he withdrew his hand. “You can call me The Poet if you prefer. Or the Country Singer. Titles don’t matter to me. ”
“Well I’m sure as hell not calling you ‘The Judge.’ That is who you are, isn’t it? Or who these guys say you are. I’ll just call you The Jackass…since ‘Poet’ is already taken.”
Poet snorted. Jacobs nudged him with the butt of his rifle.
The Judge laughed. “Have it your way,” he said, turning toward the workbench. He grabbed a cup and reached for a long metal cylinder that was perched on the edge of the table. “Coffee?” He asked, placing the cup under the spigot.
“…That’s what’s in there?” Marlowe asked. “I thought it was William’s degreasing fluid.”
“It certainly could be, given how strong he makes it,” the Judge said, handing Marlowe the cup. He looked around him in quiet contemplation. “This place…it’s so strangely perfect as a base of operations. All of these wonderful makeshift tools and items, like a coffee maker built from an old gas can and a built-in torch, or that wonderful homemade pneumatic hammer. They used these to kill cows for slaughter…of course, back when there were cows.”
“So William made this?” Marlowe asked, gesturing the cup of coffee toward The Judge before taking a sip.
The Judge nodded. “You thought we murdered him, I’m sure.”
“So you’re not barbarians.”
“Of course not. We are in the business of liberating people, not murdering them.”
“Tell that to Sergeant Morris,” Marlowe said, glancing at Jacobs while taking a sip from the coffee cup.
“MilSec are not ‘people,’ MK,” the Judge said, recapturing her attention. “They are enemy combatants. They chose their lot. They knew the risks that their job entails.”
“Well, if they didn’t know they could get shot in the head by overzealous privates under the orders of country-singing political zealots, they sure as hell do now.”
“It’s Private First Class,” Jacobs corrected.
“Not now, blondie,” Marlowe said without even looking in Jacobs’s direction. “Look, you fucking waste of a porn moustache…start talking, and don’t stop until I understand just what the hell you want with me.”
The Judge chuckled. “To the point, as ever,” he said. “Well, I’ll keep it brief. Poet said he explained our cause to you, and I know you’re not one for a sales pitch. I want your support. And in exchange, I will give you mine. Simple as that.”
“What, you want to use my face to market a competing brand of Battery bars?” Marlowe asked sarcastically. “Fine. I accept credits and ammo, and I prefer the latter.”
“What I want you to help support is far more important than an energy bar,” the Judge said. “We want freedom for the United American State.”
“We have freedom,” Marlowe retorted. “Well, the citizens do. I doubt anyone in this room is going to walk free after all the shit we’ve all pulled in the last six hours.”
“Exactly my point. You came back for our help, and we want to give it to you. I am sure you spotted the Jumper outside. We can be back in Indianapolis in three hours. Come with us back to our headquarters, and we can plan the safe extraction of your father.”
“Not a chance,” Marlowe said defiantly. “My father’s in Atlanta, so I’m in Atlanta until he’s safe.”
“It’s safer and much easier at our command center,” the Judge insisted.
“Fine,” Marlowe said, “Have one of the boys there put a bullet in my head and you can carry my corpse back to Indy. Otherwise, I’m going to have to politely decline.”
The Judge smiled the first smile that didn’t seem rehearsed. He turned to the man hunched over the portable terminal. “Austin, how long before we risk detection?” he asked.
“Well, the interference from this EV plant will keep satellite recon at bay, and I’ve been able to compromise fully half of the connected devices on the Net. I’m using them as distributed computing platforms, and I’ve set up a redirect of net surveillance so drones shouldn’t be drifting this way. And if anyone approaches, we’ll have them on traffic cams minutes before they get here. It’s not the command center, but I can make it work.”
“How long?” The Judge asked again curtly.
“Probably days, considering how dysfunctional MilSec OpSec seems to be. A few hours, at the minimum. ”
“Fantastic work, son,” the Judge said. “It’s far more dangerous, but if the Major insists on staying here, we stay here.”
Poet cackled. “Told you we’d stay here!” He crowed, pointing in Jacob’s face as Jacobs ruefully handed over a one hundred credit chit.
“The Major?” Marlowe asked. “Fuck off with your pandering. I’m not ‘The Major.’ I’m not a character in some comic book or cartoon that you can appropriate for your own use. I’m not even a major anymore. I didn’t insist we stay here, I said that I am staying here. I don’t know what the hell you want or why I should even work with you. I’m here for them,” she said gesturing toward Poet and Jacobs, “so you’re free to go wherever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want. I’m here for muscle. Leave me out of your cause.”
The Judge simpered and Marlowe wanted to retch. “I understand your reticence,” he said, “And I don’t think you’re some anime character. No, of course you’re not. You’re a real-life hero. A symbol to millions. You’re far more powerful than some character out of a comic. You’re a character out of our real lives.”
“Get to the point.”
“Yes, well…that is the point,” the Judge said. “You’re a symbol. The people of this nation…they know you. They believe in you. They trust you.”
“They believe in entertainment,” Marlowe answered. “And I entertain them, that’s for sure. But as far as trust? From what I was able to glean from the bit of NewsFeed I saw, they all believe I’m guilty. And your stunt didn’t really help that.”
“Our ‘stunt’ broke you out and made you free.”
“As free as any girl with two guys pointing guns at her head can be,” Marlowe replied.
The Judge nodded toward Poet and Jacobs, who lowered their rifles at roughly the same time. The second their barrels dipped below Marlowe’s hip level, she rushed past the Judge. She leapt upon Poet and pinned his weapon to his chest, much as Jacobs had done to Sergeant Morris back in the prison transport. She twisted and positioned Poet between herself and Jacobs. With as much effort as she could muster, she shoved Poet backwards into Jacobs, sending them both spilling into Austin.
Marlowe maneuvered to grab Poet’s rifle. Just as she had her hands around it, she heard Jen yell, “GUN!”
Marlowe whipped her head around to find the barrel of a Glock 97 pointed right between her eyes. She followed the line of the gun barrel to the hand that held it, which was attached to an arm clad in a black and red checkered shirt.
“I hate to do this to you, MK,” William Rudd said from behind her. “I like you. I don’t want to kill you.”
Marlowe slowly straightened up, dropped Poet’s rifle, and raised her hands.
“Enough,” the Judge said. “Everyone, weapons down.”
“But…” William stammered.
William lowered his antique Glock 97, one of maybe a dozen that had apparently escaped being destroyed when ballistic firearms became outlawed. Marlowe considered beating the man and taking his gun, but that could remain an option for later. At that moment, she really wanted to hear what was making William side with The Judge.
Jacobs, Poet, and Austin stood and dusted themselves off. Jacobs scowled at Marlowe.
“Well I’ll be god-damned!” Sully said from his chair.
Marlowe looked over at him as he struggled to stand. “William Rudd!” Sully exclaimed. “As sure as I’m standing here, it’s William goddamn Rudd!”
“…Sully?!?” William said. “What the hell!” The men embraced, clearly glad to see one another.
“Old friends?” Marlowe asked.
“This man saved my life,” Sully said. “I owe him everything.”
“You paid a leg for it,” William replied. “I think the tab is clear! Man…what are you doing here??”
“Helping Marlowe!” Sully replied.
“Me too,” William said. “Well, I hope to, anyway…if she’d stop being a goddamn fool and just listen to this man.”
Marlowe shrugged. She turned to the Judge. “Okay, well, consider me interested. You have my attention now,” she said.
“We’re on the same side,” The Judge said. “We need each other.”
“I can’t agree.”
“No?” The Judge asked. “Fancy yourself a maverick, do you? A lone wolf type? You, the poor little famous super soldier against the world?”
“No. I just have no idea what side you’re on. Or what the sides even are.”
“I’m on your side,” he assured her.
“You don’t even know what side I’m on.”
“The side of truth. The side of justice. The side of right being done.”
“And what is the truth, as you see it, mister Judge?”
“Just Judge. No need for the mister.”
Jen and Marlowe both rolled their eyes.
“I know you find me distasteful,” he said.
“What gave it away?” Marlowe asked. “Is it the complete lack of respect I’ve paid you since we’ve met, or…well, there’s nothing else, really. I don’t like you. I don’t respect you. And I don’t really want anything to do with you.”
“You don’t have to respect me,” the Judge replied. “But I know you respect the truth. You ask me what the truth is? The truth is that this nation and our freedom in it is an illusion. It’s all a show. I know you respect freedom. You fought for it with MilSec. But that wasn’t real. I’m asking you…do you want to fight for real freedom? With us?”
“Real freedom?” Marlowe asked? “What the hell do you see as real freedom? We are free to choose where we work. We are free to choose what we do with our lives. We are free to choose what we eat, what we watch, who we listen to…we are free.”
“Freedom to choose between Imagen Pizza and Imagen Tacos and Imagen Sushi for dinner isn’t freedom,” The Judge barked. “Freedom to choose from hundreds of Imagen Feeds for entertainment…freedom to choose between President Cook and President Davis, when both served on the board of Imagen…freedom to indulge in alcohol and narcotics and gambling in the Subs, so long as MilSec doesn’t feel like burning the place to the ground? How is any of that real freedom?”
Marlowe was quiet for a moment. The Judge continued. “Freedom is not an inheritance, the way Imagen was for Cook. Real freedom is our challenge. It is our calling. It is our duty. It requires effort and sacrifice, and if you turn your back on it, it will not get better, it will get worse. We are told that the United American State is the land of the free…the last true civilization on the planet. Fifty years after taking up arms against one another, we finally have a constitution and a president again and that means it’ll all be okay, right? Except these things don’t work by default. Constitutions and elections mean nothing if the people don’t make them mean something. It is not enough to believe. You must stand and fight.”
“…Uh huh,” Marlowe said dismissively. “Sounds great. You practice that spiel in front of a mirror?”
“I practice it every day of my life,” The Judge answered. “It is core to my being. It is everything I believe in, and everything these men and women believe in. If you saw our society from a perspective that wasn’t through a Feed built by a corrupt corporation, you might see that.”
“I’ve seen plenty,” Marlowe retorted. “I’ve seen entire countries on fire. I’ve seen skies so filled with smoke the sun can’t peek through. I’ve seen mothers eating their babies to survive. I’ve seen more death than you’ve seen life.”
“And we’ve seen it all with you,” the Judge replied. “Through the lens of your camera, twenty-four-seven, every day of the year, for…how many years now?”
“Not my fault that WarFeed is the most popular show on the Net,” Marlowe said.
“Of course it’s not. People are morbid and bored. They’re safe. War is nothing more than a fantasy to them. There are precious few who actually remember what it was like to be at war — two of them sit in this very room with us. Ask them if they think we’re truly free.”
“Eh, we’re safe,” William said. “To a lot of people, it’s the same thing. But we’re not free. Not really.”
“Exactly!” The Judge replied exuberantly. “We live in a world where technologies have accelerated to the point that more humans have it embedded in their bodies than not. The terminally injured can walk again. People can watch Feeds through screens embedded in their eyes and hack the net from the Pods embedded in their skulls. Why not also use these technologies to improve the world? We could use them to put an end to the eternal fires in the Gaslands. We could make the entire world habitable again. But instead, these technologies are optimized to help corporations better manipulate human behavior.”
The Judge took a sip from his own coffee cup, mildly surprised that Marlowe had yet to interject. He continued. “The citizens are being fed Feeds of soldiers deployed in the Gaslands and even here at home. They see that they are being kept safe from an ugly world. I see daily, hourly, even minute by minute reminders of what happens if you don’t trust Imagen and their thugs implicitly.”
“What’s there to trust?!?” Marlowe asked. “We do our jobs!”
“They certainly did one on you, didn’t they?” The Judge asked.
Marlowe fumed. She had no response to that.
“Imagen is the enemy,” The Judge said.
“Not of the people!” Marlowe insisted. “Everyone’s got food! Everyone’s safe! Everyone’s got a job if they want it, and if they don’t, they don’t starve or sit in the rain. They have places to go! They get to be people! Forty million human beings, sitting under massive domes that generate fresh oxygen and rain and now even snow…all citizens with full bellies and a smile on their face! What, you want them to be free to be miserable?!?”
“Yes, yes! Now you get it!” The Judge cried. “Misery comes part and parcel with real freedom! The well-fed rarely question where their food comes from! The safe never think to ask for more, for risk of losing safety! They’re afraid, Marlowe! Fear is unproductive, fear is paralyzing. The path to hell is paved with fear. The question I would ask is: what reality do you want? One where everyone is so afraid to lose what they have that they just blindly accept it? Or one where they’re empowered to choose?”
“Choose between what, hunger or being fed? Between homelessness and safety? Between war and peace?”
“No one wants to choose between those things, you delusional ass,” Marlowe replied, dismayed. “Everyone wants food, water, shelter, and clean air. They’re the four basic tenets of life. Without those, you die. And choosing to die is stupid. No one wants to choose that. ‘Hmm… Should I starve or eat today? I dunno…’ No one asks that question! And they shouldn’t! It’s called sanity.”
“I think it’s the most insane thing I’ve ever heard.”
Marlowe was caught off-guard by the Judge’s response and let loose a deep belly laugh.
“You laugh all you like. We are bringing change to this nation. We are freeing the minds and hearts of those who have become automated to Imagen’s bidding.”
“And I’m sure you have ads running during your Feed full of inspirational speeches too, huh?”
“But of course! We need revenue to operate. What better way than using Imagen’s own credits against them!”
“Which means they know about you. Which means they allow you to exist. Which means you can’t be making all that much progress.”
The Judge laughed. “We got you out of the prison transport, didn’t we?”
Marlowe couldn’t argue with that. “Well then, how come I’ve never heard of you?”
“Because we operate under the radar. Until today, of course. That was our grand announcement. Our little coming out party, if you will. And we chose you for the occasion because, despite your obstinence, we believe that in time you’ll see what we’re fighting for and join us. You will take up the cause because it’s the right thing to do by every United American citizen. You spent your life protecting this nation from the threat of foreign terrorists. You’ve operated out there in the gaslands and beyond. You’ve seen what they do. You’ve seen how they live. What if I told you, Imagen was responsible?”
“For the eternal fires that burn in the Middle East?” Marlowe asked. “ISIS did that fifty years ago. They set fire to their own oil reserves.”
“Did they?” The Judge asked.
“Yes, they did,” Marlowe responded plainly. “Everyone knows that. Hell, first-year students know that.”
The Judge smirked.
“What…what is that?” Marlowe said, waving her fingers toward the Judge’s face. “That little smart-ass knowing smirk? You have some knowledge that I don’t?”
“Do I?” The judge asked, widening his smirk.
“Oh God,” Marlowe said, rolling her eyes again. “Great, you’re that fucking guy.”
“Oh GOD,” Marlowe groaned in exasperation. “Just…you know what? You and your little offshoot paramilitary operation here…you may have guns and some low-rent soldiers…well, except Angel, she seems legit. A little unprepared…she could cover her scope better. But, she did choose to follow you, so I question her mental health. Anyway–”
“What about me?” Jacobs interrupted.
Marlowe raised an eyebrow, summarily dismissing him. She returned her attention to the Judge. “You might have some resources I need, but this…” she said, waving her hand in a circle around his face. “This shit you’re spewing? And that smirk? And this goddamn moustache? This is just too much.”
“You can’t deny that you need my help.”
“No, I need THEIR help,” she said, again gesturing toward Poet and Jacobs. “Your help can go fuck itself.”
“Their help is my help.”
“Is it really?” She asked. “Jacobs? You wanna work with me or with this jagoff?”
“I uh…” Jacobs stammered. “Um…both of you?”
“Now, now,” The Judge said. “No need to put it to a decision. Listen. I will give you resources, untraceable access to JAQi, connections and support from my operatives. You run your own show. They do what you say. You don’t have to even do what I say, should you choose. But I’m sure you will come to find that what I have to say is worth hearing, and probably worth doing. At any rate, time is winding down and your father is in prison. We need to act.”
Marlowe considered The Judge and his prissy little mustache. “Fine,” she said. “Nothing gets implanted in me, period. You want to give me access to JAQi, it’s handheld. And if you double-cross me, I’ll use the very last ounce of AMP I have to jack myself up to the point of making sure there’s not a single recognizable sliver of your corpse remaining. They’ll have to slurp what’s left of you up with a straw.”
“Well that’s certainly very dramatic,” The Judge answered calmly, “But I’m fine with it. No implants and no double-crossing. That’s easy enough. So, now that you have your team and some resources, what’s your plan?”
“We’re going to break into Terminus Citadel and free my father.”
The entire room went silent, save for the clacking of Austin’s fingers on his keyboard.
“That’s suicide!” Jen gasped.
“You’re insane!” Poet seconded.
“I fucking love it!” Jacobs said, raising his hand to give Poet a high-five. Poet favored him with a glare in return.
“That’s a really, really bad plan,” The Judge opined, “Unless you’re just trying to find a particularly imaginative way of turning yourself into the authorities. You may get in, but you absolutely will not get out.”
“We’ll blast our way out!” Jacobs said.
The Judge coughed. “I think there’s a better way. Any luck, Austin?”
“Yes sir, I found him,” Austin said, face still buried in his tiny terminal. “And he’s here…in Atlanta.”
“Well now, that’s certainly fortuitous! Excellent work,” the Judge said as he strolled over to the young man. “Major, I’d like to show you something that might change your mind…or, at the very least, lighten your mood.”
“Stop calling me Major. And I don’t need to see the screen. Just tell me.”
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the CitizenFeed of MKFan_9999?”
Marlowe sighed. “Yes,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “He puts music to footage that he steals from my Feed and earns credits from the ads, like a hundred other leeches. It’s an old racket. Big fucking deal.”
“Not just your Feed,” the Judge said. “Dozens of others, too. Any Feed that captures footage of you.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen. So what, you found a fan of mine. In my own hometown. Wow, that must have taken considerable effort.”
The Judge’s smirk returned, as did Marlowe’s disgust. “This isn’t just any fan. Come look.”
Marlowe rolled her eyes and huffed dramatically as she walked toward Austin.
“This is ridiculous,” Austin said in frank amazement as she approached. “There’s three — wait, no, there’s FOUR barriers on this one node!” He said, a note of awe hanging in his voice.
“So the leech has a firewall,” Marlowe said. “I’m sure all those ad leeches hate each other and try to hack each other and shit, right, Jen?”
“Four barriers?” Jen said as she walked up beside Marlowe. “Who the hell has the resources for that?”
“Either someone really rich, or someone really, really talented at rerouting MilSec hardware,” Austin said. “Either way, this isn’t just some Feed leech. Look.”
Jen’s jaw dropped.
Marlowe shrugged. “What am I looking at?”
“Marlowe…this is literally every single user that has used a Feed of yours, or one featuring you, all relayed through multiple channels to one single node.”
Marlowe shook her head. “Wait…you mean…”
“Hundreds of leeches have actually been just one really, really smart Feed leech.”
Marlowe raised her arm to scratch her head, and nearly took the skin off of her cheekbone with the steel cuff bound around her wrist. She huffed, and then proceeded to scratch her head anyway. “I don’t get it.”
“This isn’t a Feed leech,” Austin said. “Well, it is, but it’s not just a Feed leech.”
“This person, whoever they are, has invented, then co-opted, an entire economy in trading on your Feed,” The Judge stepped in and explained. “And what’s more, they’ve created an illusion of competition with about three hundred sock puppets, convincing users to choose sides and promote their favorite.”
“It’s…genius…” Jen said. “Damn. I’m going to have to steal that.”
“The footage you mentioned…you said it was suppressed at trial?” the Judge asked.
“Not suppressed. Missing. Gone,” Marlowe answered. “Never even introduced as evidence. They deleted it.”
“I think we can find it, and I think this hacker and his massive network of Feed leeching is the key.
Jen looked over at Marlowe and shrugged. “It’s worth a shot,” she said.
“Great,” Marlowe said, “So you find the footage. Then what? Leak it? They’ll just claim it’s fake at this point. I’m sure they’ll have some digital forensics expert on the payroll who will ‘prove’ it’s a holo dupe.”
“Leave that part to us,” The Judge said. “We have our ways.”
“I’m not leaving anything to anyone,” Marlowe said. “You rescued me, and that’s great and all, but all it’s done so far is get my handicapped father tossed in prison in front of an audience of tens of millions. You want my involvement, you’re going to have to trust me as much as you’re asking me to trust you.”
The Judge thought about the situation for a moment. “All right, that’s fair,” he answered. “Full disclosure. We have an extensive network of operatives just waiting for the moment to serve the cause. We have more people inside MilSec, from enlisted to officers. We have lawyers. We have judges. If we can get the footage that exonerates you, we can leak it to the citizens who are part of our group with their own CitizenFeeds. And it can be validated by our source inside NewsFeed.”
Marlowe’s interested was suddenly piqued. “Wait, NewsFeed?” She asked. “Who? Who’s your NewsFeed source?”
The Judge smiled, knowing exactly who she was asking about. “Someone you know very well.”
“Oh, shit,” Jen said. “Not Amanda…”
“She’s a conniving, selfish, lying, back-stabbing, two-faced, lying piece of SHIT!” Marlowe raged.
“You said ‘lying’ twice,” Jacobs offered.
“I know!” Marlowe snapped at him. She looked back at the Judge. “Whatever you think she is to your movement, trust me, she’s just–”
“–Using us?” Judge said. “I know. But she can be useful.”
“She can go get fucked!” Marlowe said. “And so can you, if you bring her into this!”
“You asked for honesty,” The Judge said. “I could have lied and left her out, but I gave you the truth. I trusted you with this information. Now I ask that you trust us.”
“Marlowe, ” Jen said, “I really, really hate to say this…but we need her.”
Marlowe’s jaw dropped as her head spun to face Jen. “What the hell?” she asked.
“I know,” Jen answered quietly. “You know that the only person on earth who hates that waste of human skin more than you is me. But they’re right. If that footage is out there, she’s going to be the only voice anyone would listen to.”
“And we have leverage with her,” The Judge said. “Considerable leverage. Like I said, you can trust us.”
Marlowe was stunned. “Jen?” She asked. “You’re going to actually consider this?”
“It’s better than walking into the Terminus Citadel!”
“Not really,” Jacobs said from behind them. This time, it was Poet’s turn to jab him with the butt of his rifle.
“I…I just can’t…” Marlowe stammered in disbelief. After a moment, she snapped out of it in a fury. “Fine!” She yelled at Jen. “First, You called MilSec on me. And now, you wanna tag up with this low-rent, cowboy revolutionary wannabe? And use my ex-girlfriend who, if I may remind you, drove me to suicide, against me?!? You know what? You go right ahead! But not me. No. Fucking. Way. I’m out.” She began marching toward the door.
“They wheeled your sick father — a war hero — out in front of an audience, in full dress uniform, as he was drooling,” The Judge said. “They said he had broken the law and betrayed his country. General Kana…a traitor. Imagine that…”
Marlowe froze. She bit her bottom lip.
“That’s unforgivable,” the Judge added.
Marlowe turned to face him. The entire group was looking at her. Jen had tears in her eyes. William and Sully stood together nodding, supporting the Judge. Austin and the young woman who looked like Angel both stood silently with curious expressions on their faces. Jacobs and Poet looked nervously hopeful.
“That man is a hero. And so are his daughters,” the Judge said pointedly.
Marlowe rolled her eyes and huffed. She stared at the Judge through the narrowed slits of her eyelids. She inhaled through her nostrils and held her breath, considering the ceiling. She looked over at Sully and William. Then at her sister. Then at the soldiers and volunteers who had all decided to jump into this ridiculous mission.
Marlowe noisily exhaled her breath through her nostrils. With a voice that shook the walls, she acquiesced.
“Fine. Let’s go find my real fan club.”
Sully’s antiquated truck shook from the various symptoms of Marlowe’s withdrawal. The vibrations from her violent shivering were already bad enough, but the force with which she scratched her entire body was actually causing Sully’s truck to sway back and forth as they sped through the midnight snow. AMP was notorious for two things: making the user a highly efficient kinetic machine, and then making them a useless heap of quivering flesh that itched so badly that there was nothing to do but scratch between shivers.
Sully was annoyed. His singular pride and joy — the factory original, pre-war Ram 1500 he’d painstakingly rebuilt — was was being shaken to pieces by an augmented super-soldier-cum-felon. But annoyance was something he could handle. As it was, the constant swaying from Marlowe’s intense scratching was also forcing him to make perpetual corrections to his steering while skidding around on the snow that President Cook had called down from the heavens. Sully had never even seen snow before, much less attempted to drive a wheeled vehicle upon it. He glanced at the clock on the dash which read “12:56.” Doing the math in his head, he grimly figured that the five miles they’d shakily covered since leaving his bookshop had taken nearly as long as if they’d walked.
But he didn’t feel right complaining. He didn’t really know Marlowe beyond what he’d seen on the Feeds. And to tell the truth, she was more than a little intimidating. The size of her was misleading; she was physically dense, super strong, famously lethal and short-tempered. Plus, he had volunteered to come — and he wasn’t one to gripe about things that needed doing. Jen, however, wasn’t intimidated by Marlowe in the slightest.
“God, just take another hit, will you?” She finally yelled from between Sully and Marlowe.
“No,” Marlowe answered equably as she scratched.
“And why not?” Jen demanded.
“I’m trying to stay clean.”
“Sudden onset morality, huh?” Jen asked. “Is that some new side effect?”
“Shut up,” Marlowe muttered as she dug her fingernails into her flesh.
“Well, whatever you gotta do to quit shaking this old truck, you need to do it,” Sully insisted. “We still got a few miles to go to get to the EV plant to meet your friends, and driving is hard enough as it is with this white shit falling from the sky.”
“Hell of a time to toss out a new weather pattern,” Jen remarked drily.
“It’s actually the perfect — OUCH — time,” Marlowe said, snagging a healthy chunk of her skin under her fingernails. “People are probably going nuts watching the Feeds. What better time to let them know who’s in charge of everything, including the weather — OUCH! SHIT!”
“Quit scratching.” Jen said calmly, placing her hands over Marlowe’s to freeze them in place.
“I can’t help it!” Marlowe moaned.
“Yes you can.” Jen insisted, struggling to keep Marlowe still. “Just take a quarter dose. It’ll take the edge off.”
“No!” Marlowe snapped, violently jerking her hands away from Jen.
The unintended force of Marlowe’s movement shifted the weight of the pre-war truck and the tires slipped precariously over the icy roads. Sully immediately slammed on the brakes and attempted to steer the truck out of the skid. If he were driving a MagLev, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But given that he’d never before driven a wheeled vehicle on snow, he had no idea that it would only cause the truck to go into a tailspin. He wrestled frantically with the wheel.
“SHIT!” he cursed, finally bringing his prized possession to a sliding horizontal stop in the middle of the road.
“You okay?” Jen asked Sully.
“…Yeah,” Sully said, catching his breath. “But you two have got to knock this shit off! You’re going to get us killed!”
Marlowe immediately went back to digging her claws into her flesh.
“Okay, look,” Jen said, turning to face Marlowe. “You’re a fucking junkie. You know how this works. You slammed two full pods back-to-back and you’re crashing. You need to come down light.”
“I’ll be fine,” Marlowe said through clenched teeth as she clawed yet another stripe into her forearm.
“Clearly,” Sully grumbled from behind the wheel.
“Just…shut up and drive, barman,” Marlowe ordered.
“Not until you knock that shit off!” he answered.
“Here,” Jen said, handing Marlowe an AMP inhaler from the bag at her feet.
“Jen, please, no,” Marlowe said. “I can’t.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because there’s only seven left, and we’ve got a lot of fighting left if we’re going to free dad!”
“It’s AMP, Marlowe! You can get cases of the shit on literally any corner in any settlement!
“You can, maybe,” Marlowe replied. “I can’t be seen scoring!”
“And why the fuck not?” Jen said. “Everyone knows you use it! Besides, you’re the most wanted felon in the nation. You’re charged with treason and attempted murder! Who the hell is going to care about you buying some AMP?”
“You don’t understand,” Marlowe said. “Guilty or — OW! — innocent, I still have a reputation to maintain.”
Jen scoffed. “Such a goddamn celebrity. I don’t even know you anymore.”
“Like you ever did!” Marlowe snapped.
Jen’s eyes widened and her voice shook.”How dare you??”
“What, you want to pretend you were my best friend all along?” Marlowe said, now using the edge of the metal cuffs fastened around her wrists to scratch. “You never accepted me. You always resented me!”
“So why come to MY house when you needed help? Why kill MY boyfriend, and blow up MY shit –”
“Hey, you blew up your own shit,” Marlowe snapped. “And you killed… what’s his name? Matt? Michael? Whatever. You killed him when you tipped off MilSec!”
“I WAS TRYING TO SAVE YOU!”
“You CAN’T save me!”
A loud thud echoed through the cab of the truck as Sully slammed his hands on the steering wheel. “LADIES!” he roared from the driver’s seat.
Jen and Marlowe both fell silent.
“I don’t know if you remember or not, but YOU,” he barked, pointing to Marlowe, “are being hunted by thousands of MilSec soldiers and drones. And YOU,” he then pointed at Jen, “are gonna be executed for being an accomplice! And I am, too!”
The sisters seethed quietly. Sully waited for a retort. To his surprise, there wasn’t one.
“Every second you waste bickering gets us all closer to dead,” he continued. “I don’t wanna die, and I’m sure you don’t either. And not to mention, your crippled father’s been publically humiliated and is stuck in the Citadel as an accomplice to this whole mess. Probably in your old cell!”
“FINE,” Marlowe snarled, snatching the inhaler from Jen’s hand. She placed the pod to her lips and inhaled the entire dose defiantly. Within seconds, her convulsions stopped.
“That’s more like it.” Sully said, pushing the start button on the electric motor and putting the truck into gear. The wheels skidded on the snow momentarily before the truck jerked back into motion.
Marlowe leaned back. “Yeah…that is better,” she admitted as her breathing normalized.
“Jesus, you didn’t have to suck it all down,” Jen said.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Marlowe said. “But now there’s only six left.”
“Don’t worry,” Sully said, “I’ll make more when we get someplace safe.”
“Wait, you can make AMP?” Marlowe asked.
“Who do you think I get it from?” Jen asked. “Sully makes all kinds of shit.”
“Hey, I’m just a humble bar and bookstore owner,” Sully said with a chuckle.
Jen laughed. “And chemist… and weaponsmith…”
“Shush now, girl!” Sully said. “Don’t be givin’ away all my secrets!”
Frayed nerves calmed and the trio fell silent as they sped on along the tree-lined roadway leading from the residential areas of Atlanta ten miles west to the Chatahoochee River where the EV plant was situated. Marlowe knew that the output from the plant supplied over 90 percent of the city, and the electromagnetic and heat radiation combined made it the perfect place to hide from satellite scans. And with any luck, the rogue operatives that had broken Marlowe out of the prison transport would still be there.
Sully, meanwhile, was navigating the fine line between hurrying and trying not to careen out of control down a snow-covered embankment. Jen was staring at the dashboard, trying to forget that her boyfriend was dead, her home was in ashes, and that her sister was the reason behind all of it. All of the charm of silence wore off quickly for Marlowe, whose AMP-enhanced body began to tremor with nervous anticipation. Her leg began jiggling. She fidgeted with the air vents on the dash in front of her. She rolled down the window. She rolled up the window.
“Okay, I’m not sure which was worse, the shaking or all this monkeying around with my truck,” Sully said drily.
“Knock it off, Marlowe,” Jen added.
“I’m sorry, I’m just…fuck,” Marlowe said, gripping the legs of her pants, trying to reach for calm.
“I told you, a quarter dose would have done the job,” Jen reminded Marlowe.
“Hey, don’t lecture me,” Marlowe snapped. “I did what you said!”
“And then some!”
Marlowe took a deep breath. “Sorry,” she said, trying to slow her words. “I’m just…”
“We get it,” Sully said, sighing. “You’re AMP’ed. Just…try to sit still, okay?”
“You know something I don’t get?” Jen asked. “Why are we going to the EV plant anyway?”
“God,” Marlowe said between gritted teeth, “This whole thing is going to fail if I have to keep explaining everything twice.”
“Calm down,” Jen insisted. “I get it, you think we need their help. It’s just that–”
“–You think we don’t,” Marlowe interjected. “You already said.”
“Look, it’s our father. We can handle this.”
“Storming the Citadel is not a two-person job,” Marlowe retorted.
“Three!” Sully chirped.
“…Fine, three,” Marlowe said wearily. “Hell, It’s not even a six…err, I mean, seven-person job. But we need the help.”
“You really think breaking into a prison is the best idea?” Jen said.
“Nope.” Marlowe replied. “But it’s our dad, and we’re on a tight clock. This is what we’ve got. So we’re going with it.”
An uncomfortable silence fell. The plan to break into a heavily fortified MilSec prison began to weigh on them. While they’d not discussed it amongst themselves, each had their own reasons for feeling like they had nothing left to lose, and all three blamed MilSec and wanted revenge. The gall of MilSec, parading General Kana before the Feeds in his wheelchair, clothed in his full MilSec dress uniform, as they brought him to the Citadel…the image was seared in Jen’s mind. After losing her home, her boyfriend, and her sister’s trust, she couldn’t stand to lose her father as well. Marlowe hadn’t seen the Feed, but she didn’t need to. She knew the Citadel intimately, and the mere idea of her elderly and nearly helpless father being locked away for no reason was enough to make her want to run head-first through every wall and crush anyone who got in her way. And Sully…well, Sully just loved adventure. But he had his own reasons for wanting to help the sisters free their father.
“There goes that shaking again…” Sully said, breaking the silence.
Marlowe stopped jouncing her leg. “Sorry,” she said. “Hey, um…can you put on NewsFeed, or some music, or SportsFeed or something?”
“Not much to listen to,” Sully replied. “No JAQi in here.”
“Fucking hell,” Marlowe muttered, shaking her head while obsessively smoothing out the legs of her pants, “This thing’s not only slow, it’s primitive.”
“Her quirks are part of her charm,” Sully said with a forced chuckle. “Just like you.” Under his breath, he added, “I imagine, anyway…”
“Well, fuck you, too!” Marlowe barked, “You two wanted to come along for this little exercise! Feel free to dump me on the side of the road. We’re close enough, I can make it without you.”
“Hey, he was joking!” Jen said. “Stop being an asshole!”
“No, really,” Marlowe said, agitated. “This sucks. I can do this alone. Why did I let you talk me into this?”
“Uh, I think reality talked you into this,” Jen said. “How the hell else were we going to get out of the Subs to meet your friends? It’s not like we have a choice!”
“Maybe you don’t,” Marlowe snapped as she began yanking on the door handle.
“Marlowe! Stop!” Jen yelled.
“Look, I can do this on my own,” Marlowe said, fumbling with the antiquated door’s lock mechanism. “I didn’t mean to pull you into this. Just let me out and keep driving. Get yourselves to safety.”
“STOP!” Jen demanded, reaching over her sister and grabbing her hands.
“Get OFF me!” Marlowe yelled, shoving her sister back over onto Sully. Sully jerked the wheel and the truck lurched hard to the left. Panicking, he spun the wheel back right, sending the truck into a full broadside skid. The wheels spun violently, then caught traction, sending the truck off the road and down a slight hill. The right front bumper clipped a pseudo-pine tree, and the truck spun and tumbled, rolling over several times until they came to a crunching halt at the bottom of the hill.
Steam rose from the smashed radiator as snowflakes danced in the headlights of the totaled truck. Marlowe, momentarily dazed, jerked herself awake. She immediately turned to face Jen, who was crying with panic.
“Are you okay?!?” she asked her shaken sister.
Jen nodded and squeaked out through her panicked breathing a tiny “yeah…”
“FUCK!” Marlowe screamed. She slammed the metal cuff on her right wrist into the passenger side window, shattering it. She climbed out of the window, gripped the door by the window frame, and yanked as hard as she could. The door separated from the truck and she flung it aside.
She helped her sister out of the vehicle, and then reached in for Sully, who was bleeding from his head.
“Leave me,” he said. “Save yourselves.”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Marlowe replied. “I can’t leave you here to die. You have to make my AMP.”
Sully laughed painfully as Marlowe pulled him from the truck and carried him a few yards into the woods. Trudging back through the snow, she surveyed the console of the vehicle, looking for a way to turn off the lights. Nothing looked familiar, so she fell back to what she knew and smashed the headlights with the cuffs around her wrists.
Grabbing the satchel with her provisions, she returned to find Jen tending to Sully’s leg, which was bent nearly ninety degrees at the thigh.
“Oh, shit.” Marlowe said, seeing the twisted and malformed leg.
“It looks worse than it is,” Sully replied. He reached down and yanked on his leg, separating it from the stump just below his hip. The prosthetic slid loose from the pant leg and he surveyed it critically. “Ain’t supposed to bend that way, I don’t think,” he said with a laugh as he twisted the damaged appendage.
“Oh, thank heavens!” Marlowe exclaimed with a loud sigh, relieved that she hadn’t just, in fact, severed a man’s leg along with destroying his prized antique truck. “Well, hold on to it. I know someone who might be able to fix it.”
“Well, this is just fantastic!” Jen said through panicked tears. “Let me guess. We get to run more!”
“Yup,” Marlowe said, her soldier instincts taking over. She bent over and grabbed Sully by the arm, hoisting him over her shoulders into a fireman’s carry.
“Oh, come on, not again…” Jen said, already out of breath.
For the next thirty minutes, the trio traipsed through the woods in uncomfortable silence. Suddenly, Sully exclaimed in bemusement, “Well, I’ll be damned!”
“What?” Marlowe asked. She ducked to avoid a tree branch. Sully, who was draped across her shoulders, got thwapped in the face.
“Ow!” He griped as pseudo-pine needles raked across his face.
“Sorry,” Marlowe said.
“It’s okay,” Sully said. “I can take a few scratches.”
“What made you so excited a moment ago?”
“It’s just impressive,” he remarked. “We really are going faster on foot than we were in the truck!” His head bobbed in time with Marlowe’s jogging. His bent prosthetic leg dangled along Marlowe’s side as he clutched it in his hands. Occasionally the boot at the end would connect with her rear end. She could think of no better metaphor for motivation to keep going than to have the disconnected leg of the man who was helping her literally kicking her in the ass.
“Yeah, well, we’d go even faster if someone was in better shape,” Marlowe said over her shoulder, as Jen struggled to keep pace behind them.
Jen would have responded but her already labored breathing was far too taxed. She did have the energy, however, to raise her right hand and extend her middle finger.
“Better save that up for later,” Sully said, glimpsing Jen’s gesture.
“Maybe you should use that leg to kick her in the butt, huh?” Marlowe said. “Would you believe she was a track star when we were in middle school?”
“Really?” Sully said. “Wow. Never would’ve figured!”
“Well… my parents went and…adopted…a genetic freak!” Jen said, struggling to speak between breaths. “I hated sports…ever since…”
“Not my fault I was the better athlete,” Marlowe answered as she jogged. “Blame science.”
“Speaking of science,” Sully tactfully interrupted. “I had no idea my AMP formula was this effective! Couldn’t ever test it on nobody…it’d probably kill ’em!”
“It’s the only stuff I use,” Marlowe said. “Tried a bunch over the years. Not even the MilSec stuff is that good. How’d you learn to make it that strong? You a chemist?”
“Not on purpose,” Sully replied. “I kinda just fell into it. My wife had cancer. Marijuana helped, but Imagen healthcare wouldn’t approve a prescription for the really good stuff, so I started growing it. She couldn’t smoke it, so I made tinctures and edibles, and when she died, I started selling the remainders off to cover the bills my pension couldn’t. Word spread, and I moved on to AMP. Then Jen came in with a special request for some quadruple-strength stuff. Hell, I always thought she was just cutting up what I gave her and reselling it! I didn’t mind. Girl’s gotta make her credits. Had no idea who the real customer was! Or that you two were even sisters! Jen Kujaku is actually Jen Kana…who’da thunk it?”
“I guess…we’re all learning about each other…” Jen huffed from behind them. “I didn’t know…you had a prost…a pro…a fake leg.”
“Lost it in the war,” Sully said, a pine sprig brushing across his cheek.
“Which side were you fighting for?” Marlowe asked.
“Whelp, I don’t have rope marks around my neck or a prisoner number tattooed on my forehead. So that should tell you,” Sully said.
“Wow…an actual military veteran,” Marlowe said with a note of reverence. “No wonder you hate MilSec.”
“Man, ever since they took over…I’ll tell ya, no discipline. Fucking corporate soldiers. Not a real Marine among ya…no offense.”
“None taken,” Marlowe said. “My dad was a military marine, before he moved over to MilSec. He had the same critique.”
“Yup. It’s the only reason I like ya!” Sully laughed.
“Did you know him?”
“Not personally,” Sully replied. “We were both privates when the war started, from what I’ve read. I didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat. I took shrapnel to the leg during the D.C. Siege. He stuck it out and rolled into MilSec when they took over the cops and the corps. Went on to be a celebrity General. Meanwhile, I run a bar that sells drugs and hosts poker games in the Subs. Ran, that is,” he amended.
The reminder that the Subs had been effectively razed silenced the trio as they continued jogging through the snowy woods. Things were quiet but for the rhythmic sound of footfall through the dead leaves and brush. Sully reflected on the events of his life that had brought him to this moment, being carried on the shoulders of a woman a foot shorter, yet somehow a hundred pounds heavier than he was, through a snow-covered forest. He never thought he’d see snow in his lifetime. Now, he was moving faster through it than he ever could have on his own, and on the shoulders of a super soldier no less. He had to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“It’s all good, though,” He said, breaking several minutes of silent tension.
“What is?” Marlowe asked.
“Everything,” Sully said. “That’s how life works. Fate put us here for a reason. I mean, fate took my leg, but the medical stipend bought me my bar and the bookstore. Paid for all the parts on my Ram, too!”
“Yeah…about that,” Marlowe said through measured breaths. “I’m…I’m sorry about–”
“–The truck?” Sully interjected. “Kiddo, that thing was gone the second I used it to smuggle two fugitives from the law. What, you think they’d hold it for me for after the trial? If they don’t execute me, that is.”
“Huh…you got a point,” Marlowe replied.
“Better wrapped around a tree than in some piece of shit MilSec scumbag’s garage after auction,” he said, adding, “…no offense.”
“None taken,” Marlowe answered again.
“Mark…mark this day…in your calendar, Sully,” Jen said between gasps for breath, “Marlowe Kana just apologized…for something…”
“Hey, when it’s my fault, I own it,” Marlowe said.
“To everyone else…maybe…” Jen said. “Never…with me…”
“Save it,” Marlowe said as she slowed her jogging to a walk. “We’re here.”
“Oh, thank God,” Jen gasped.
The pre-war, antique leather chair groaned as President Stephen Cook leaned back. It was certainly a comfortable chair, despite being over one hundred years old. And at nearly twenty thousand credits per chair, it was expected to be. The Imagen Executive Lounge, the most exclusive club in the capital city of Indianapolis, had fifty of them.
Only two of the chairs held occupants, however, and President Cook wished he was anywhere else than sitting across from Alan Davis, Chairman of the Imagen Board of Executives.
Cook examined the crystal tumbler perched in his hand. He gently swirled an exceptionally rare pour of Woodford Reserve Four Grain Bourbon straight from the Imagen Board of Executives’ private stocks. He studied the glass’s reflection of the flames from the stone fireplace behind him. They danced and glinted around the amber of the drink in less of a playful manner and in more of a ceremonious rite. It was as if they were paying tribute to the bourbon’s ability to survive a civil war, decades of looting and rioting, and the re-establishment of a country whose ideals had long given way to the more immediate concerns of safety and comfort.
“It’s astounding, isn’t it,” President Cook said. “That this glass contains such a rich history. Its contents survived so many atrocities and hardships as this country ripped itself apart. And through sheer perseverance, it’s here to be enjoyed by those who are working to keep alive the legacy of what it represents. But to the uneducated and ignorant, it’s simply a glass of old booze.”
“Profound,” Chairman Davis replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. “But yet again, you’re avoiding the question.”
“I was merely admiring the beverage you so graciously provided, Alan,” The President said.
“You’ve had it before when you were on the Board. This flattery is unnecessary, as I fail to see what it has to do with the clandestine stunt you pulled this evening.”
“Clandestine?” Cook replied. “You mean in the way that someone takes an action that affects them personally without explicit permission? Like how you overrode my vehicle’s JAQi access and forced it to bring me here to your little club?”
“We needed to talk,” Davis replied. “You weren’t answering our pings.”
“It’s well past midnight and I’ve had a full day,” Cook replied. “I wanted to go home and get some sleep.”
“I think that sleep can wait a while,” Davis answered. “You have a lot to answer for.”
“Do I, now?” Cook asked. “Because if I’m not mistaken, I am the duly elected President of the United American State, and as such, I answer only to the citizens of our nation.”
“Cut the shit, Stephen,” Davis said with disdain as he leaned forward and placed his glass on the solid oak table that sat between them. “The terrorists, the jail break…none of this was ever part of the plan.”
“It most certainly was,” Cook said, taking a defiant sip from his glass.
“You never bothered to tell us about it!” Davis thundered. The room echoed his outburst.
Cook smiled. “I did, Alan. You just didn’t bother to listen. None of you did.”
“JAQi,” Davis said into the air politely, “Please play back any mention of terrorists breaking Marlowe Kana out of prison or intercepting prison transports, from the minutes of our meetings over the last, oh… year or so.”
A tone sounded. “No records found,” JAQi said aloud.
President Cook rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t being literal, Alan.”
“Well, Stephen, I think it would behoove you to be quite literal and very explicit, starting right now. Exactly how long have you known about these traitors?” Davis asked.
“The real question is, why didn’t you know about them?” Cook fired back.
“…Excuse me?” Chairman Davis asked.
“They’re quite useful, this little sovereign citizenship group,” Cook said. “A little cadre of crazies who stumbled upon some old libertarian writings…my people have been on them for a little over a year.”
“Your people? YOUR people?!?” Davis asked. “Imagen runs MilSec! Your people are our people!”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Cook snapped. “I am the President of the only civilized society left on the planet. It is my duty to represent the populace and to protect all forty-one million, six hundred thirty thousand of them, give or take. And to that end, I have my own resources and have built my own channels. You don’t get to a position like this without your own level of support in place — a fact you know quite well, don’t you, Alan?”
The reference to Davis’s attempted coup to take over the position of Chairman of the Board from Cook’s father a decade before was the last of a thousand cuts to Alan Davis’s patience. “You’re a pompous son of a bitch, aren’t you?” he snarled, all traces of cordiality gone.
“And the real Alan Davis comes out,” Cook said, smirking. “Yes, I am. Is this some secret about me to which you’re only now privy? I feel like I’ve been the same man my whole life.”
“Yes, you have. An under-qualified ass, carried by the legacy of forebears who were ten times the men you will ever be.”
Cook shook his head. “Well this is truly a sad moment. I take it our friendship is over then?”
“It’s a safe assumption,” Davis said. “And I think you’ll find that it’s a friendship you’ll begin to regret not having fairly soon, if not already.”
“Ah yes, because ‘Imagen Drives The Nation,’ right?” Cook replied, referring to the corporation’s much-vaunted slogan, “And they can override your vehicle and take you to clandestine meetings with old men full of pointless threats.”
“I don’t make threats, Stephen,” Alan Davis stated. “I think you know that. You’re completely off the reservation here and you need to wake up to the fact that you’re walking the thinnest of lines.”
“Am I, now?” President Cook said, crossing his legs. “Tell me. What have I done that’s so wrong?”
“You’ve withheld vital intelligence that there is a terrorist organization operating in the United American State. Not only that, you’ve colluded with them to kidnap the nation’s biggest celebrity and one of our most decorated soldiers!”
“I never colluded with them,” the President replied. “They think it’s their idea.”
“We’ve been attacked by terrorists and lost a vital asset!” Davis barked.
“–And Feed engagement was huge.”
Davis ignored him, continuing, “Not to mention that fact that she was framed for an attempted murder and treason–”
“–And again, engagement was huge,” Cook repeated.
“Yes, but to what end?”
“What other end is there?” Cook asked. “Engagement is the only thing that matters.”
Davis ground his teeth. Sharply, he asked, “and how has engagement been since you publicly embarrassed MK’s father, the disabled war hero suffering from Parkinson’s disease? How has the nation reacted to your framing of General Kana?”
The question was meant to induce guilt. It failed. “Huge, of course,” Cook responded immediately. “Always huge. Anything with MK attached is always huge.”
“Exactly!” Davis answered. “She’s a ratings magnet on her own. Why bother with all this insanity? What we had with her was working! Why attack her? And for heaven’s sake, why did you go after the General?”
“Because people were growing exhausted with her always winning. She’s a character in a social narrative with no arc. She always wins. Always. When she committed treason and attempted to murder a fellow soldier, it made people sit up and pay attention.”
“Listen to yourself!” Davis said. “You sound like you believe that she was guilty! You know as well as I do that she was defending herself.”
“There’s no evidence of that.”
“No, there was no admissible evidence,” Davis retorted. “Semantics, Stephen. We both know that’s not true.”
“And what is truth, but the story of those who survived the test?”
“Oh, fuck you, Stephen!” Davis snapped. “Don’t you dare throw your father’s words around as if they’re pertinent to this conversation! You’ve clearly lost control of this situation and are falling back on rhetoric to cover your own ass.” He picked up his glass and swirled the golden liquid inside it. “I speak for the entire board when I tell you that we regret ever allowing you to move forward with this ridiculous farce of a plan.”
“You only regret it because you can’t see the endgame, as usual,” Cook retorted.
“And what, exactly, is that endgame, Stephen?” Davis asked. “Do you even know?”
The President slowly closed his eyes and sighed. He reached for his glass and took a sip from it.
“…You don’t, do you!” Davis said with a chuckle. “This is all out of your control! You’re feinting!”
“I know perfectly well what I’m doing,” Cook answered. He leaned forward and locked eyes with Chairman Davis. “The people are glued to the Feeds in a way they haven’t been in over twenty years. Twenty years, Alan! This isn’t just entertainment, it’s NEWS. Things are happening — real events with real consequences!” He took a deep breath for effect and then continued. “We have them — all of them. For the first time in decades, the entire nation is engaged. They are active participants in the United American State and the events that comprise its existence! For the past thirty years, I’ve run an impeccable campaign of managing the citizens of this nation. You have got to trust me here!”
Chairman Davis studied the man before him. Their histories ran deep. He’d seen risks taken by Cook and rewards reaped from him that the Board never truly anticipated. But he’d also seen an equal number of colossal failures that had barely been covered up.
“Stephen, the people are upset.” He said calmly, attempting to reason with him. “Their entire way of life is at risk. Terrorists have organized under our noses. They sow the seeds of anarchy! And you’re letting them!”
“Oh, come on, Alan,” President Cook said. “You know as well as I do that the people value their way of life — the one that my father, and his father before him gave to them — far more than anything else. And you’re right, it is at risk. But not because of some ragtag militia group, which is easily controlled. It’s because the people themselves have lost their way. It is they who put their own way of life at risk by giving up on their ideals! You know deep in your heart that I am right. My father would agree.”
“With all due respect to your father, whom I will remind you was my best friend of thirty years,” Chairman Davis responded. “I don’t think that he would find any truth in the idea that the United American State gave up on its ideals.”
The first-ever President of the United American State and the first publicly elected official in over fifty years studied his glass again. He raised it to his lips and took a small sip of one of the rarest liquids on the planet. He sighed heavily as he lifted himself from the confines of comfort and placed his elbows on his knees. Leaning in toward the Chairman who sat across from him, he whispered, “best friends don’t betray each other to advance their political or corporate agendas, Alan.”
“Still holding that grudge?” Davis smirked. “Your father forgave me. He saw the greater good. He knew his place.”
“If you really believe that, then you must not have really known the man as well as you thought.”
Chairman Davis scoffed. “If he heard you right now; if he’d seen what you’ve done…he would be so disappointed in you.”
President Cook paused for a moment, took another deep breath, and then finally smiled. “This has been pleasant, as always, Alan,” he said as he rose from his chair.
“Sit down, Stephen,” Chairman Davis instructed. “We haven’t finished yet.”
President Cook held up his glass and toasted to the Chairman. He downed the remainder of his beverage in one gulp. “I am,” he said, placing the glass on the table and turning to leave.
“Stephen!” Chairman Davis protested.
“Oh,” The President said from over his shoulder. “If you ever hijack a vehicle I am in again, I’ll have you arrested for kidnapping, terroristic threats, and treason.” He retrieved his jacket from the maître d’.
“The ratings will be amazing,” he added.
“Have me WHAT?” Davis yelled, slamming his glass on the table in front of him. “You pompous ass! How! Who will arrest me?!?”
In lieu of a reply, the President headed toward the exit.
“MilSec is an Imagen division!” Alan Davis yelled. “That’s what the ‘I’ in ‘IMSD’ stands for! They answer to me! You understand? ME!”
The wooden soles of President Cook’s shoes echoed through the lounge as he made his way to the door of the Executive Club. The door opened for him and he exited unceremoniously.
Chairman Davis sunk back into his chair. He lifted his glass to his mouth and dourly gulped down the rest of his drink.
“…Ball is at the 27, it’s fourth and a short one,” SportsFeed announcer Pat Daniel trumpeted. “Four seconds left on the clock…it’s do or die for the Atlanta Phoenix. If they don’t convert, their three-year New Super Bowl streak is over and the Indianapolis Capitols win their first ever UAFL title!”
The video on the screen in Dr. Ben Rossler’s vehicle suddenly froze. “We have arrived at Grady-Usher-CeeLo Memorial Medical Center, doctor,” JAQi announced calmly. “Would you like—”
“Dang it, JAQi,” Dr. Rossler complained. “You know not to interrupt when I’m watching the game!”
“Yes, sir,” JAQi replied. “But your patient is inbound via airlift in forty-four seconds. You were paged with urgent priority, and you’ve replayed this particular game seventeen times since its original air date last week.”
Doctor Rossler was quiet for a moment. “Fine, I guess you have a point,” he muttered. “But quickly, just replay the touchdown.”
A tone sounded and the footage restarted. “TOUCHDOWN!!!!” Pat Daniel yelled hysterically as Atlanta Phoenix’s star receiver, Brian St. Jacques, caught the hail mary pass thrown by Sean Roma, the retiring quarterback. The two players chest-bumped each other in the end zone as the crowd went wild. “The Atlanta Phoenix are officially a dynasty! United American Football League New Super Bowl Champions for a fourth consecutive year!”
“YES!” Dr. Rossler cheered, pumping his fist in the air and nearly hitting the roof of the car. “Never gets old!”
“Your patient, Doctor,” JAQi announced.
“Yeah, yeah, okay! I’m on it!”
Dr. Rossler eased his six-foot-four, three hundred-pound frame out of the rear exit of the painfully small automated U-Lyft Taxi. He was immediately greeted by his ten-person surgical team, along with his personal assistant Devin. As he marched toward the entrance to the hospital, his entourage hurried to match his pace.
“Patient has suffered third-degree burns across ninety-five percent of his body,” Devin briefed. “Eyes, sinuses, lungs…all charred and likely unsalvageable. The blast he endured also concussed his brain and pulverized his legs and his one remaining biological arm. Central nervous system seems to be intact, however, a full-scale recreation of all nervous function across the body will likely–”
“–Gum?” Dr. Rossler asked without breaking stride.
“No thanks, sir,” Devin said, not shifting his focus from the charts in the heads-up display in his contact lenses.
“No. Do you have my gum?” Dr. Rossler asked.
Devin shook his head, and then looked past the charts in his eyes at the expectant doctor. “Uh…no, sir?” Devin replied warily as they continued into the express elevator.
“Here you are, sir,” Dr. Karen Vessey, one of Rossler’s surgical staff said as she handed him a pack of sugar-free Imagen Mint Splash gum.
The doors to the elevator closed and the lift began rocketing up sixty-six floors to the landing pad on the roof.
“Thank you, Doctor Vessey,” Doctor Rossler said sharply while staring down at Devin. “Despite being a ten-year veteran of my staff and a highly regarded surgeon, and also NOT my personal assistant, it is awfully kind of you to remember my gum.”
“Don’t mention it, sir,” Dr. Vessey replied.
“Devin,” Rossler said, not breaking his gaze.
“I have the patient’s vitals in my HUD as we speak, and I had the charts sent to me via JAQi before I got out of bed. In fact, what’s in the charts was so fascinating, it’s the only reason I even got out of bed at this hour. I already know what’s in the chart. Unless Mr. Henry Cain — or do I call him Mad Dog? Or Mr. Dog? — I never know with these celebrity soldiers and their damn nicknames…anyway, unless our patient dies before the transport lands, I already know how I intend to proceed.”
“Uh…yes, sir?” Devin replied as the elevator signaled that they had just passed the twentieth floor.
“You answered a transfer request from the front desk to be promoted to my personal assistant, did you not?”
“And in that request, did it mention, even once, that you should brief me on the charts?”
“Right. But there were other job functions in the request, most of which you have performed impeccably since you started last week. But there was one thing, specifically, that I asked for in that order. It was in bold font, underlined, and highlighted. What was it that I specifically stated that you should have for me at all times?”
“Uh…Imagen Mint Splash gum, sir,” Devin replied.
“Right,” Dr. Rossler said briskly as the elevator passed the fortieth floor. “Imagen Mint Splash gum. You even asked when we first met if that was just a joke I put in the transfer post to see if you read the whole thing, didn’t you?”
“And I was impressed because you had.”
Devin was silent. The elevator reached the sixty-sixth floor.
“Papers filed, office kept tidy, and Imagen Mint Splash gum in pocket at all times. Understood?” Dr. Rossler queried as the elevator doors opened to the overwhelming noise of a twenty-ton MagLev mengine straining to lower the medical heli-transport onto the landing pad.
“YES, SIR!” Devin yelled over the din as the team exited the lift.
The eleven members of the nation’s most advanced biological reconstruction team (and one personal assistant) fought to plug their ears from the engine noise, and to shield their eyes from the lights illuminating the landing pad in the midnight darkness as they hurried toward the medical transport. The back bay door lowered. A hovering gurney with the badly burned husk of a “Next Top Soldier” contestant was gently pushed out of the transport by medics on either side. The two parties met halfway between the transport and the elevator doors, and the surgical team swarmed the gurney and reversed course back toward the elevator.
“JAQi, full scan,” Dr. Rossler yelled while marching forward. His HUD switched to MRI mode and began surveying all that was left of Henry “Mad Dog” Cain.
“I can work with this,” Rossler said to no one in particular as the transport dusted off and flew back toward the Subs to retrieve more victims. “JAQi, mark that the patient is alive on arrival and note the time.”
“Twelve forty-four a.m.,” JAQi responded.
“Let’s get to work!” Dr. Rossler barked as he marched back to the lift. His team followed him, guiding the gurney into the bay doors of the massive Critical Response Unit of Grady-Usher-CeeLo Memorial Medical Center, deep in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
“Marlowe,” Jen huffed. The sound of her shoes splashing in the putrid water gradually became less repetitive. She slowed from a run, to a jog, and then to a complete stop. Doubled over, she begged her heart to stop its hammering inside her chest.
“What are you doing?!? Come on!” Marlowe commanded from over her shoulder. “We’ve got to go!”
“I need… minute…” Jen gasped.
Marlowe stopped about ten yards away from Jen and turned around. “We don’t have a minute!”
“I need one anyway…”
Marlowe stalked back toward her. Furiously, she slung the green duffel bag around to her front and dug through it. “Here,” she said as she offered Jen a dose of AMP.
“You know I can’t use that,” she said.
“Now’s not the time for your Twelve Steps garbage,” Marlowe said, stepping closer and waving the AMP in Jen’s face.
Jen slapped the inhaler away. “Those are formulated for you, stupid!” She snapped. “I don’t feel like dying today, thank you!”
Marlowe took a step back. Despite the severity of the situation, she knew she was pushing a button that shouldn’t be pushed. She sighed as she placed the AMP back in the bag.
“Well, bad news,” she said, “You’re probably going to get executed when they find us, so you’re gonna die regardless.”
Suddenly, Marlowe screamed and slammed her fist into the concrete wall of the ancient drainage tunnel, chipping away at a long-forgotten gang’s graffiti.
“Fuck me,” she whispered, licking blood from her knuckles. “I never should have dragged you into this.”
Jen stood and leaned against the tunnel wall. Her breathing was stabilizing. “You had no choice,” she said. “I’m your sister, Marlowe. I get it.”
“Adopted sister, remember?”
Jen scowled. “Enough with that shit.”
“Considering recent events, it might be good to start saying it again. Deny any connection to me.”
“Stop it. We’re not twelve years old, and this isn’t school. Besides, this isn’t your fault.”
“Yeah,” Marlowe said, “I was starting to feel bad about sending your idiot boyfriend out there to face those goons, but you’re right. He’s the one to blame for this.”
Jen looked up at Marlowe, eyes watery, a scowl stamped across her face.
“Don’t look at me like that! I didn’t think they’d kill him!” Marlowe snapped. “I thought the worst they’d do is throw a collar on him and put him on trial.”
“Maybe use him as some sort of lesson for anyone considering helping me,” she continued. “Well, I guess they did do that, didn’t they…”
“I called it in,” Jen said.
Marlowe’s eyes grew wide. “You WHAT?!?”
“I’m sorry!” Jen pleaded. “I thought it was the only way to save you!”
Marlowe scowled. “You thought the only way to save a fugitive on the run for treason was to call in two squads of MilSec soldiers and a cybernetically enhanced ‘Next Top Soldier contestant?”
“Well, no… But yes?” Jen said. She stepped toward Marlowe. “He’s a Private who visits the Subs and loves cards and AMP. I dump money to in poker games to guarantee favors! I was calling one in… I thought he’d cover for us and help you out! I didn’t know he would call in the calvary! I am so sorry! I didn’t think–”
“You’re right! You didn’t think!” Marlowe yelled, taking two steps backward. “You just…reacted! Like you always do! You didn’t think some plucky Private would see brand new stripes on his arm as a reward for bringing me in! You didn’t think they’d be monitoring the coms! You didn’t think at all! Hell, I saw the reward they have on me… I doubt you’d mind coming across an easy million credits”
“Fuck you, Marlowe!” Jen screamed. “I’d NEVER sell you out!”
“You literally just did!” Marlowe said. “You are always thinking of yourself first!”
“Oh, look who’s fucking talking!” Jen said. “We’ve just run nearly a mile through who-know’s-what’s been sitting in this tunnel for who-knows-how-long because YOU–”
Jen suddenly froze. Her eyes took on a slight glow. “Oh shit!” She exclaimed. She raised her hands and began gesturing, cycling through a series of alerts that had just appeared on her HUD.
“What?” Marlowe asked urgently.
“We’re near the end of the tunnel…I just reconnected to the Net,” Jen said, reading each alert. “It’s dad!”
“What?!? Is he ok?”
Jen tapped the air with her index finger. “He’s in custody…they arrested him!” She flicked upward with her finger. She gasped. Her eyes dimmed slightly as she looked at Marlowe. “They’re saying he orchestrated your escape, using his connections in MilSec. They’re charging him with treason!”
Jen gestured in the air, flicking her hands up and tapping the air as she navigated. “They’re saying he was complicit in helping the traitors who sprung you…oh god, they’re calling an emergency trial in front of the tribunal! Nine AM tomorrow!”
“They can’t…he can’t even walk or feed himself! How the hell would he have orchestrated anything– SHIT! Jen! Get down!” Marlowe yelled, pointing at a drone that had just buzzed in from the far end of the tunnel.
Jen wasn’t one for taking orders, but she knew that if Marlowe said “Get down” it was better to just do it and find out why later. She hit the deck as Marlowe picked up the chunk of rock she had chipped from the tunnel wall during her tantrum. Without her Pod, the targeting systems linking her eyes to her muscle fibers were useless. But necessity is the mother of invention, and anything can fly in a straight line if thrown hard enough. She reared back and chucked the rock with all her might, pegging the drone’s left propeller. It buzzed and lurched to its side, crashed into the wall, and fell to the floor of the tunnel.
“Nice shot!” Jen remarked as she lifted herself from the muck.
“Pure luck,” Marlowe said.
“Was it one of MilSec’s? Do you think it saw us?”
“Probably. And probably. Doesn’t matter…someone somewhere is going to wonder why it went dark, and they’re going to follow the cookie crumbs through that opening to their wrecked drone. We need another way out.”
“We passed another access port a few yards back,” Jen suggested.
“You know where it goes?”
“No clue. I didn’t go knocking on every hatch when I found this spot. Could be a bug-out tunnel like I had. Could be covered in rubble. There’s only one way to find out.”
“Fuck it,” Marlowe resigned. “Anything’s better than standing around here waiting to get caught. Let’s go.”
The sisters backtracked about fifty yards and took a right into a connecting tunnel that led to a ladder. Marlowe held up a finger. Jen froze. She ascended the ladder and pulled on the handle to the latch for the door. It wouldn’t budge — locked from the other side.
Undeterred, Marlowe simply pushed harder. The rung of the ladder she was standing on bent as the hatch began to give way. She wondered for a moment which would give first — the ladder or the hatch. After a few seconds of intense pressure, the hatch decided it had enough. A loud PLINK sounded from above as the padlock that held the latch shut gave way and broke off.
Marlowe eased her way up and peeked through the small crack of the hatch. A soft glow emanated from a desk against the wall from the hatchway; a standalone screen was displaying security camera footage. Marlowe examined the screen and saw no one in view. The fourth panel in the bottom right showed the Feed from a camera just outside the building they were in. The footage displayed two MilSec soldiers in the process of questioning a resident of the Subs, two others setting fire to a shop across the street, and a few soldiers intermittently walking by.
She returned to the hatchway and waved Jen forward. Once her sister had scrambled up, Marlowe pointed to the screen and asked, “Can you tell where we are from that?”
Jen examined the Feeds from the cameras. “We’re Krog-side,” she observed. “Near the old market. I’m betting we’re in Dirty Mike’s shop. Bunch of knockoff counterfeit shit and weak drugs…total tourist trap. Nothing here we can really use, unless it’s something heavy that you can bash these MilSec guys over the head with.”
“I’m certain those aren’t the only troops down here. We’d get slaughtered. There’s probably a full garrison at each of the entrances and exits…”
“The ones they know about, sure,” Jen said with a smirk.
Marlowe raised her eyebrows questioningly.
“We roaches know how to scatter when the lights go up,” Jen answered. “If you can get us past these guys out front, I can get us out of here.”
“Well, let’s start looking for some heavy counterfeit crap I can use as a bat, I guess.”
Jen approached the door to the office. Marlowe snapped her fingers twice, causing Jen to freeze and look back at her sister. Marlowe pointed to the screen displaying the security camera footage. The bottom-right corner showed two MilSec soldiers approaching the doorway to the shop. One shoved the butt of his rail rifle through the glass of the front door. The alarm rang out. The soldier cleared away the glass of the doorway and stepped through, followed by his partner.
Marlowe quickly scanned the area for anything useful. An ink pen, several markers, a clipboard…nothing. She felt under the desk and searched the drawers for a hidden weapon. She found nothing.
Then, Jen spotted something resting in the corner by the door. She picked it up. It was a samurai-style sword in a scabbard. She handed it to Marlowe, who drew it and examined the blade. She grabbed the handle with one hand and the blunt end of the blade with another, bending it to test its tensile strength. It bent into a crescent moon shape with little effort.
Jen shrugged. Marlowe gritted her teeth and shook her head.
Shouting could be heard in the distance. Marlowe and Jen rushed to the screen to see what was going on. Both soldiers, now inside the building, turned to see what the disturbance was. On the exterior camera’s panel, several civilians were seen bum-rushing a MilSec soldier. The soldier was quickly overwhelmed. One of the soldiers in the building pointed to the other, and then pointed outside. The other soldier complied with the order and went to help the soldier outside, leaving the other to investigate the building.
Marlowe smiled. She signaled to Jen stay put, and made her way to the door of the office. Gingerly, she twisted the handle. The door cracked open. She slid out and very quietly shut the door behind her. She crouched behind some shelves at the back of the store. Taking note of her surroundings, she spotted a counterfeit action figure of herself. A fleeting glint of anger arose when she saw it, but she realized numbly that all her assets were frozen months ago. Even if the counterfeiters did pay her likeness royalties, as a felon, she’d never get to receive them.
She grabbed one of the fake plastic versions of herself off the display and tossed it to the far end of the shop. It landed with a clatter and the MilSec soldier investigating the shop flinched. He raised his rifle and pointed the mounted flashlight in the direction of the disturbance. Slowly, he crept along the aisle until he reached the end, turning the corner to the back of the store.
Suddenly, he felt a hand across his mouth and another around his chest, covering the camera mounted to his vest.
“Quiet now, Corporal,” Marlowe whispered in his ear. “You know who I am?”
The soldier’s eyes widened. Sweat glistened on his brow. He nodded.
“I don’t want to kill you. If I did, you’d be dead. Do you believe me?” She asked. He nodded again.
“Good. Yank your battery and request permission to return for field repair, and I’ll keep it that way. Deal?”
The corporal nodded once more. He reached for a pouch on his hip, flipped the cover open, and pulled on a wire until it snapped. The power to his field systems died.
Marlowe slowly removed her hand from the corporal’s mouth and wrapped it around his chin, preparing to snap his neck at the first sign of non-compliance.
“Sarge, I got a problem,” the corporal said.
Marlowe pressed her fingers into the skin under his jaw.
“Onboard just took a shit. Everything’s gone dark,” he continued. “I’m on backups. I gotta see the Chief and get it sorted.”
Marlowe immediately put her hand back over his mouth. A very faint buzzing could be heard from the earpiece in his helmet.
“Granted?” Marlowe asked. He nodded in reply.
Marlowe yanked the camera from his chest with her right hand and tossed it. She then placed her free arm over his head while moving her left from his mouth to around his neck into a chokehold. The corporal passed out almost immediately.
Marlowe dragged the soldier back to Jen in the office. “I’ve got the dumbest plan ever,” she said. “But it’s all we got. Help me get him undressed.”
Moments later, Marlowe was dressed in the soldier’s gear, while he was clad in nothing but undershorts, a piece of tape covering his mouth, and packing twine wrapped around his wrists and ankles. The clothing hung loose on Marlowe, as the corporal was at least half again her size.
“This is actually a good thing,” Jen said. “It’ll cover those cuffs on your wrists and ankles, at least.”
“I look like a cartoon,” Marlowe said, holding her arms out to demonstrate how loosely the clothing hung on her frame.
“We can fix that,” Jen answered. She began rifling through the drawer on the desk, finding a few binder clips and some tape. As quickly as she could, she performed makeshift hemming and binding on the uniform, pulling it as tight as she could.
“Nice work,” Marlowe said as she examined her provisional outfit. “This isn’t going to hold up to any sort of inspection, and heaven help me if we have to fight…but with the body armor on top and some luck, it should pass.” She donned the armor that lay in a pile on the floor, clamping each piece into place, and then picked up the soldier’s biometrically coded rifle. It was useless to her as a firearm, but perfectly suitable for a prop. She slung the green duffle bag over her shoulder, dropped the visor on the helmet, and guided Jen at gunpoint out the door.
The Subs were in total disarray. All around, people lay dead or bound with cuffs, their illicit shops and makeshift homes ransacked. Teams of MilSec soldiers carried boxes of contraband out of the burning hovels while others guided groups of prisoners to transports. It was disproportionate and heavy-handed; quite possibly the largest domestic display of force MilSec had performed since the war. Marlowe shook her head. This is horrific, and it’s all my fault, she thought wearily.
Jen led Marlowe away from the chaos toward a dead-end of head shops, strip clubs, and bars. Marlowe felt sick. Dead ends were not a place that anyone with any training would willingly go in enemy-occupied territory. But this was Jen’s hood. She trusted her sister enough to abandon her training and follow her into the unknown.
A MilSec sergeant appeared from the doorway of a shop and headed toward them. Marlowe pressed the rifle into Jen’s back, indicating that they should just keep walking. The sergeant waved at Marlowe, who nodded.
“What have you got here, Corporal?” The sergeant asked as he approached.
Before Marlowe could answer, Jen spat on the sergeant and yelled “Get bent, pig!”
Both surprised and pleased by her sister’s improvisation, Marlowe followed her lead. She whipped the rifle around and slammed the butt of it between Jen’s shoulder blades, sending her face-first to the ground. “Enough!” she yelled at Jen, who replied by raising to her knees and spitting on Marlowe’s pant leg.
Marlowe looked to the sergeant, who was smirking. She pointed to her battery pack and showed him the torn wires. “Snagged while bagging this dirtbag,” she said, hoping that her voice was muffled and disguised enough by the helmet mask. “Gonna drop her off and see the Chief.”
“Heh, fucking Subbies,” the Sergeant joked. “I’ll secure her. You go get your gear fixed.”
“I’ve got this, sir,” Marlowe said. “This one caused me some trouble. I’ve got some… extra interrogating I need to do.” She kicked Jen in the ribs for added effect.
The Sergeant chuckled. “Well then. Carry on, Corporal,” he said with a wink.
“Yes, sir! Gladly, sir!” She answered. She kicked Jen again. “On your feet!” She ordered.
Jen looked up at Marlowe in disgust. Slowly she rose to her feet. The two resumed walking.
“Did you really have to kick me that hard?” Jen muttered over her shoulder.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Marlowe replied.
“On our left,” Jen said. “Sully’s Bar. We need to get in there.”
Jen led Marlowe to a shop in the back left corner of the dead-end. The half-burnt out sign read “Sully’s.”
“Get on your knees facing the doorway, and keep your hands behind your head,” Marlowe said. Jen complied.
Marlowe took the bag from her shoulder and placed it beside Jen, and began rummaging through it, keeping the rifle trained on her as she did. Two MilSec soldiers passed. One nodded toward Marlowe. She nodded back.
The soldiers continued a few yards past the sisters, and then froze. They suddenly sprinted toward the shop from which Marlowe and Jen had just escaped.
“Looks like someone found our handiwork,” Marlowe remarked. Jen crawled forward into the doorway and made her way to the back, behind the bar. Marlowe grabbed the duffel bag and followed close behind.
“What’s in here?” Marlowe said as she ducked behind the bar with Jen.
“A way out,” Jen replied. She ran her fingers under the lip of the bar, then under the first layers of shelves. “Aha!”
She pressed a button. There was a light click, and a panel in the baseboards of the wall beside them opened. Jen crawled through, followed by Marlowe. They found themselves in a tight tunnel with a ladder leading upward.
“This will put us in a bookstore at street level,” Jen said as she grabbed the ladder. “No one ever shops there. Sully’s own insurance plan.”
“How’d you know about this?” Marlowe asked.
“I’ve had to use it before. Poker game. You know how it goes.”
“Someone caught you cheating, huh?”
“Everyone cheats down here,” Jen said. “Except, of course, off-duty MilSec guys who wander into the Subs for a wild weekend.”
“And Sully saved your ass?” Marlowe asked. “He must really like you.”
“Sully likes being cut in for thirty percent. Oh, and tits. He really likes tits.”
Jen reached the hatch. Marlowe watched as Jen pushed lightly, testing it. It lifted with no resistance. She pushed her head up against the hatch and scanned the area. It seemed clear. She opened it fully and began to ascend. Suddenly, she shrieked as she was yanked up and out of the tunnel.
“JEN!” Marlowe yelled, clambering up the ladder as fast as she could. She leapt out of the hatch to find Jen in the arms of a burly and bald grey-bearded man who clutched a massive wrench in one of the hands also holding Jen. The two were laughing, until the man caught sight of Marlowe, clad head to toe in MilSec armor.
“MilSec! Run, Jen!” The man yelled as he lunged toward Marlowe, brandishing the pipe wrench. Marlowe caught him by the sleeve of his right arm, put her free hand around his throat, and spun him into the wall behind them.
“Marlowe!” Jen begged. “That’s Sully!”
Marlowe cocked her head. She released Sully and took a step back.
Sully coughed as he rubbed his throat and regained his bearings. “Did — cough — Did I hear that right?” He asked. “Marlowe? As in MK?”
Jen positioned herself between the two. “It’s okay,” she said to Marlowe. “You can trust him. I promise.”
Marlowe took off the MilSec helmet and dropped it to the floor. Sully’s face was the very picture of shock. “Sully, meet my sister, Marlowe. Marlowe, this is Sully.”
Marlowe smirked and tossed a half-wave, half-salute toward Sully, and then began removing the overlarge MilSec armor.
“I can’t believe it…” Sully said, Marlowe Kana is your sister…?”
“Adopted,” Marlowe said. Jen hit her on the shoulder.
“Well shit!” Sully said with a laugh. “I’m a huge fan! I hate MilSec, but you…you I always loved! But…how’d you end up here?”
“Long story for another time,” Marlowe said, pulling her orange-jumpsuit-clad legs from the bottom portion of armor. “We’ve got to get out of here. You have a vehicle? Preferably pre-war?”
“Yeah, at my place. A bike and a truck,” he replied. He swelled with pride as he added “Restored ’em myself!”
“Where’s your place?” Jen asked.
“Other side of the Krog Street Bridge, in Peoplestown.”
“Shit,” Marlowe said. “I’m sure they’ve set up a perimeter. You see any MilSec on the streets?”
“Not really,” Sully said. “But I’ve been here since they started torching places in the Subs…waitin’ in case one of them poked their knobby heads up through the hatch there so I could knock it off!”
“Well, if they’re not up here yet, they will be soon. Think you could go get the bike for us?” Marlowe asked.
“Nope,” Sully answered. “But I can get the truck.”
“Something wrong with the bike?” Jen asked.
“Yeah, it won’t hold three people,” he replied calmly.
“No fucking way,” Marlowe said. “We can’t afford to have you come–”
“My truck, my rules,” Sully said. “Or feel free to walk.”
Marlowe sighed. “Fine, whatever,” she said. “Just be quick about it.”
“Hot damn!” Sully said, beaming. “Okay, hunker down here, I’ll be back in a jiff!” He made his way out of the back office and through the back door to the shop. The rumbling of a custom motorcycle could be heard through the walls.
“Wait, the motorcycle’s already here?!? That son of a…” Marlowe said, grinding her teeth. Before she could make her way toward the door, the bike growled its way out of the back lot of the bookstore and off into the distance.
“That’s Sully,” Jen said with a chuckle. “Trust me, he’s solid.”
“He’s extra weight, and we need to travel light.”
“He’s useful, and we need the help.”
“We’re about to go get some help,” Marlowe said, putting her back against the wall and sliding down it until she landed gingerly on her rear. “If they’re still there, that is.”
Marlowe pulled a Battery bar from the duffel bag and unwrapped it. “My fan club,” she remarked casually as she took a huge bite.
Sweat poured from Glen’s brow and soaked his sweatshirt. This was by far the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life: one hundred freaking push-ups in a row. With grim remorse, he recalled how he had been absolutely certain that Cain would win United America’s “Next Top Soldier.” He never thought that he’d have to be the one to make good on the bet. But honor was everything with “The Night Crew” at his gym. And a bet was a bet.
“Come on, Glen!” A voice called out from somewhere in front of him.
“Dude, you got this!” Another said from his left.
“Just a few more, bro,” A third voice urged from his right.
Sweat dripped from his chin. He’d already powered through eighty-four push-ups. He’d never completed that many in a row before. And despite feeling a bit embarrassed that he’d picked the wrong dog in the fight, he was still proud. For one thing, he was contributing to the Grid, and that always felt great. It was one of the main points of pride in staying in shape: being able to contribute your stored kinetic motion to the United American State’s power grid. Doing your part to keep the lights on. But this…this was special.
This was a personal best. And everyone loved a guy who achieved a personal best.
“Glen, don’t give up!” A female voice said from somewhere nearby. Glen knew the voice. It was the voice he was secretly hoping he’d hear. Gwendolyn was there. She was cheering him on.
This was his moment. He couldn’t stop now.
He pressed as hard as he could and brought his body to a plank position. “Eighty-five!” His trainer shouted. “Good job, Glen!”
Glen looked up and glimpsed the screen on the far wall of the gym. Cain’s face was splashed all over it. Just as he’d caught sight of it, a huge red “X” appeared over Cain’s photo.
“I told you, bro,” one of the voices near him said, “Corta’s winning this season!”
“I can’t believe you bet on Cain, Glen!” Another voice crowed.
Glen grimaced, half from frustration that he wasn’t quite able to block out the voices, and half from the unbearable fire that burned in his chest and shoulders and arms. He wanted to stop. He wanted to die. He wanted more than anything to go back in time and take back the bet he’d made earlier.
But then, Gwendolyn’s gym shoes came into view. Attached to them, Gwendolyn’s legs, clad in skin-tight yoga pants. And at the top of those legs, he knew, was Gwendolyn’s perfect ass.
That’s all he needed to see.
“Eighty-six!” His trainer yelled. “Eighty-seven…eighty-eight! YES!”
“Come on, Glen!” Gwendolyn yelled. “You can do it!”
Glen dug deep. Somewhere inside him was the remaining twelve push-ups. Through fire and pain, he found them.
“ONE HUNDRED!” His trainer yelled.
Everyone clapped and cheered as Glen collapsed into a heap on the floor.
“Now that’s respect right there, bro!” a voice from somewhere behind him said.
“Way to go, Glen!” another chimed in.
“Of course he did a hundred push-ups,” a withering voice said, “He’s augmented.”
“Dude, not cool,” the first voice retorted. “That’s super Aug-ist. Besides, it’s just his legs that are augmented.”
“Whatever,” the detractor said. “You never know with these Auggies. They say it’s just their legs, but then they get their hearts and lungs and muscles replaced and come to our gym where natural citizens are contributing to the Grid, and set all kinds of records, and, like…you never know! Just look at that traitor MK.”
“MK was different,” a new voice said as it entered the conversation. “I don’t mean to butt in, but I couldn’t help overhearing. Marlowe technically didn’t break the rules. And besides, she publicly stated that she didn’t know–”
“–Oh, don’t give me that tired old bullshit!” the other voice scoffed. “So what, the rules may have said that you have to declare ‘external augmentations’ but you know as well as I do, they meant ANY augmentations! And she claims that she didn’t know she had Augs until the test was modified to detect internal ones? What, you’re fifteen years old and running faster and jumping higher and hitting harder than anyone else in the entire UAFL? And you’re a girl? And you don’t know you have Augs? Bruh…come on.”
“Oh, wow, now you’re an Aug-ist AND a sexist?” The other voice swiftly upgrading in tone from defensiveness to anger.
“I’m not sexist! I believe anyone can play, as long as they score. But seriously…a teenage girl laying out dudes three times her size like she did? And claiming to be natural? Dude…”
“But MK thought she was natural,” the new voice said. “Everyone did. No one knew. The league couldn’t test for nanofiber then.”
“That’s my point! They should have known based on her being a little girl, you know? Because she sure as hell knew, and she lied, man. Just like your boy here is probably lying about his Augs being only in his legs.”
“You’re an asshole!”
“Hey, folks,” Glen’s trainer piped in, “Just…move on, okay? This is Glen’s moment. Go have this conversation somewhere else.”
“I’m done talking to this Aug-ist shitheel anyway!”
“Fuck you, Aug-lover!”
The argument subsided as they parted ways. Still laying face down in a puddle of his own sweat, Glen could barely hear them over the sound of his own blood pumping through his eardrums. It really didn’t matter what was being said. He was proud of himself. Both for achieving a new personal record, and for looking pretty badass in front of Gwendolyn. A smile crept up from deep inside and made its way onto his face.
A beep sounded from his kinetic storage device. A new personal record — and a massive contribution to the power grid.
“I am SO proud of you, bro!” His trainer said, extending a hand to help him up. Glen rolled to his side, reached up, grasped it and let his trainer pull him to his feet.
“Wow,” Gwendolyn said, smiling at him with perfect pearly white teeth. “That was super impressive.”
“Thanks,” Glen said through huffs and puffs. “It really meant a lot to me, you cheering me on like that.”
What am I doing, thought Glen. He was so tired yet so amped up from his achievement that he’d forgotten for a moment that he was normally too much of a wimp to even exchange words with Gwendolyn. But hey, everyone has to have their moment. And he was clearly in the middle of his. He’d had a crush on Gwendolyn since the day he joined the gym. Maybe today was the perfect day to make his move. Maybe this was the moment he’d be telling their kids about in fifteen years; the moment that he finally had the courage to ask their mother out on a–
“–Gwen, you ready, babe?” A voice said from behind him.
A muscular, tattooed guy sauntered past Glen and wrapped his arms around Gwendolyn.
“Hey baby! Yeah, let’s go!” Gwen said as a smile spread across her face. “I’m so glad you were able to make it to town this weekend. Oh, good job, Glen!” She waved over her shoulder as she left.
“Yeah,” Glen said, waving back. “Thanks.”
“Bro!” Glen’s trainer said as he slapped Glen on the back. “Upload your K’s and let’s hit the showers!”
Glen reluctantly smiled and nodded. He removed his kinetic storage unit from the belt around his waist and connected his unit to the rack. Of course she was already taken. Just my luck.
Glen trudged toward the showers. He glanced up at the Feed on the gym wall to see the reporters blaring on about the latest development in the ongoing saga of Marlowe Kana. Her father, General Ashish Kana, had just been arrested and charged with treason for allegedly aiding in Marlowe’s escape.
“Man,” Glen’s trainer said, “Can you believe this MK shit, bro?”
“It’s certainly a mess,” Glen said, delivering his standard line whenever current events came up at the gym. No one could ever get mad at a reply like that. He wished he’d stuck to that policy earlier instead of making the bet. But he had been feeling ballsy. Just like when he had finally worked up the nerve to speak to Gwendolyn.
That’s what bravery gets you. But then again, I just did a hundred push-ups. That’s something to be proud of.
Smiling the first genuine smile he’d had since his accident, Glen made his way to the showers.
Michael wrung his hands as he paced the room. “Yes…this is our only option,” he announced.
“So you’ve said,” Marlowe replied. “Several times.”
“No!” Jen yelled, clutching Michael’s arm. “This is insane! You can’t go out there, they’ll kill you!”
“They wouldn’t dare,” Michael scoffed. “The entire nation is watching. Besides, I am a highly regarded lawyer, and we have the law on our side.”
“Jen, let him go,” Marlowe said, relighting the cigar she’d let burn out. She turned her attention to Michael. “You invited them here. You wanna go say hi to your soldier buddies? Go say hi, mister ‘highly regarded’ lawyer.”
“I didn’t…” Michael began to argue before he was interrupted by an amplified voice from the other side of the door.
“This is your final warning!” The voice on the loudspeaker blared. Marlowe recognized it as the voice of Henry “Mad Dog” Cain, full of swagger and arrogance. “Come on, MK! Surrender now, and I promise, no one will get hurt.”
Marlowe exhaled a puff of smoke and sneered. “I hope he’s including himself in that statement.”
“Huh?” Jen asked.
“He knows that even though I’m not tip-top, I can still whip his ass,” Marlowe answered. “Remember season two of ‘NTS’? He went against me in a head-to-head. I went to judo-throw him; I grabbed his arm and pulled.” She placed the cigar to her lips and took a long draw, exhaling it through her nose. “The arm went flying, but the rest of him…anyway, that’s why they took out intra-squad trials.”
Jen sighed. “Marlowe, you know that I never watched…whatever. It looks like he got a new arm,” She said, staring at the screen on her desk as she watched Cain’s squad secure their position outside her front door. “A really big and shiny new one.”
“Augs are only as good as the person they’re attached to,” Marlowe remarked calmly. “Even big shiny arms.”
“Look,” Michael said, returning to business. “Article Thirty-Seven guarantees your right to an appeal. We can find that evidence you described. You can tell them how you were kidnapped by those crazy traitors. We can win this. We have the law–”
“–on our side. Yeah,” Marlowe interjected. “You’ve said that a few times, too.”
“Michael…” Jen pleaded.
“Don’t worry Jen,” Marlowe interjected. “You heard the nice guy on the loudspeaker with the huge metal arm. They’re not going to hurt us. He promised.”
“Okay, I’m going out there,” Michael said.
“Go get ’em, tiger,” Marlowe said, drawing from her cigar.
Michael closed his eyes, inhaled deeply through his nostrils, and exhaled through his mouth. “Right…here goes,” he said, reaching reaching up to press the switch by the door. He hesitated a moment before slapping the button. The magnetic seals buzzed as they released. He grabbed the bar securing the door and slid it back, then cracked the door open.
He peeked his head outside only to see half a dozen heavily armored soldiers, all pointing rail guns at him. Cain stood just beyond them, commanding from behind a wall of his men. Michael’s forehead was immediately decorated with half a dozen red targeting dots.
“Hold your fire!” Michael yelled, raising his hands and taking a step outside to face the MilSec squadron. “I represent–”
The door slammed closed behind him. The magnetic seals buzzed.
“MARLOWE!” Jen yelled. “What are you doing?”
“Saving our lives,” she replied. “Move.” Marlowe pushed Jen out of the way and began dragging the desk toward the door.
Outside, Michael was sweating. His arms raised over his head and his voice creaking, he began pleading with the soldiers staring at him down the barrels of their rifles.
“I represent Marlowe Kana,” he said with a cracking voice. “By the authority of the Valor Writ, I hereby evoke Article Thirty-Seven on behalf of my client. She has the right to an appeal before the tribunal–”
“FIRE!” Cain ordered.
Metal slugs whipped through the air and in less than a second, Michael was reduced to a smoking ball of bloody meat.
“Oh wow…well THAT didn’t go well!” Marlowe said with a chuckle. She dragged a bookcase loaded with technical manuals and security books to the other side of the doorway, creating a makeshift tunnel. “Jen, you got your special insurance policy on this place?”
Jen stared blankly at the screen. Michael’s bloody corpse was featured through the lens of Cain’s Feed.
“JEN!” Marlowe yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders.
“..Wha?” Jen replied as she turned to face Marlowe, eyes wide, jaw hanging open.
“This place…it’s wired up, right?” Marlowe asked.
“Uh…yeah,” Jen replied.
“Okay,” Marlowe said, tossing boxes on top of the desk to create cover, “I’ll buy us some time. Go get everything prepped, and when I say so, hit the switch.”
“You… you killed him…”
“No, THEY killed him! They murdered him in cold blood in front of the entire nation, and I’m sure the audience just loved it. Ratings for ‘Next Top Soldier’ are sure to skyrocket. Michael did his country a great service.”
“You cold-hearted bitch!” Jen cried, emerging from her stupor. “How could you just let him go out there and face those monsters?”
“Well I didn’t think they’d actually kill him!” Marlowe retorted as she pulled the chair she had been sitting on alongside the bookcase. “I guess the rules of engagement change when ratings are on the line!”
A loud WHAM echoed from the door. And then another.
Marlowe checked the Feed on the screen. Two soldiers manned a battering ram, while another two stood on either side of the door, preparing to breach. Cain stayed behind the formation of soldiers keeping their sights trained on the doorway.
“That coward,” Marlowe said. “Fancy cybernetic arm and he can’t even knock on the door himself…”
“Michael was trying to help us!” Jen yelled, tears streaming from her eyes. “He was trying to help YOU!”
Another WHAM. And then another.
“Look, now’s not the time for this!” Marlowe snapped. She grabbed the green duffel bag, pulled out one of the AMP inhalers, and then held out the bag toward Jen.
“Blow the place up with me in it, or take this and yell at me when we get out of here. But either way, it’s time for you to go.”
Jen bit her lip and clenched her teeth. With a tearful sigh, she nodded, grabbed the bag, and turned to leave.
“Lock the door and don’t open it!” Marlowe yelled. “Not for anyone, including me!”
Jen retreated down the hallway as the soldiers continued ramming the door in perfect rhythm. Marlowe sighed, emptying her lungs. She placed the inhaler to her mouth and took a second full hit of AMP. After a quick shiver, she stretched her neck and cracked her knuckles.
“Okay, Jen was right,” she said, “I’m definitely going to puke.”
She listened closely as she picked up the hunk of wood from the collapsed couch. Another WHAM. And then another WHAM. And then, before the ram could hit again, she tossed the chunk of couch at the switch by the door. The magnetic seals buzzed, and the door creaked open, just in time for the soldiers to come surging forward, wildly off balance.
Marlowe sprinted toward them, grabbing the head of the battering ram. She locked her feet in place, and with all the power she could muster from her recently fueled up muscles, she pulled the ram forward, yanking the soldiers into the doorframe on either side.
She retreated with the battering ram down the choke point she’d created and took cover. More soldiers filed in in two-by-two cover formation. As they spread out at the end of the furniture tunnel, Marlowe swung the ram like a bat at the soldier nearest her, cracking his helmet and knocking him out cold. She then grabbed the handles of the ram, leapt forward, and demonstrated that the head of a battering ram could punch through the chest cavity of a human being if thrust hard enough.
She reestablished cover behind the other side of the choke point at the doorway. Well-versed in MilSec tactics, she knew what was coming next. She took a very deep breath, ducked her head, closed her eyes, and plugged her ears.
Several flash grenades flew through the doorway and detonated.
Textbook, she thought to herself as more soldiers filed into the house through the tunnel choke point. One of the soldiers turned in her direction with his rifle at the ready. Marlowe grabbed the gun by the barrel and yanked as she took a step to the side, pulling the soldier off his feet and causing him to pull the trigger. The barrel seared her hands, but adrenaline and AMP kept it from registering with her nervous system.
It, however, couldn’t prevent her from smelling her own cooked flesh. The stench, combined with the calorie-dense Battery nutrition bars and the first real cardio exercise she’d had in months all made her astonishingly queasy. As another soldier rounded the corner, she spewed milky white vomit on him.
“Agh!” The solder shrieked before Marlowe swung the rifle by the barrel at his head and knocked him out.
Two more soldiers came from the other side of the room after clearing their assigned corners, only to find themselves staring at a gagging, pissed off Marlowe Kana. They raised their rifles.
“Goddammit! I said no shooting!” Cain yelled as he marched through the doorway. “Who the hell fired that round?”
The two soldiers looked his way, then pointed at the puke-covered soldier at their feet.
Cain retched and said “Well, that smells just lovely.”
“I got more if you want it,” Marlowe said, brandishing the biometrically protected rifle by the barrel like a baseball bat. She couldn’t use it to shoot, but it was far from useless. “Come and get it.”
Two more soldiers filed in behind Cain and raised their rifles at Marlowe. Four red dots adorned her face.
“Good to see you again, MK!” Cain said. “Love the bracelets.”
“Nice to see you too, Cain,” she retorted. “Love the new arm.”
He patted his augmented right arm with his natural hand. “Yeah, I suppose I have you to thank for it. But I’m not mad…I actually love it. But as much as I’m dying to show you how well it works, it’d be better for both of us if you surrender.”
“And make you United America’s Next Top Soldier?” Marlowe retorted. “No way in hell.”
“You are outnumbered and have no place to run,” Cain stated. “The prize is doubled if I bring you in alive, but I won’t hesitate to order my squad to fire.”
“So I saw a few minutes ago,” Marlowe said drily. “Big brave ‘Mad Dog’ Cain…having his squad do all his dirty work. I’m sure everyone watching the Feeds right now is super impressed at how you’re able to tell your squad to shoot an innocent lawyer.”
Another squad of eight soldiers arrived on the scene and entered the doorway.
“Hold your positions!” Cain ordered. “I got this.”
Marlowe smirked. “Ah, so there is some fight in you.”
“You’re about to find out,” Cain replied. He tapped a switch on his right arm and it began to hum with electricity.
“Oh goodie,” Marlowe said, dropping the rifle-turned-club. “I do get to see how that fancy arm works!”
Cain chuckled. He reared back and then swung at Marlowe with all his might. Marlowe took one step to the side. The entire room echoed with a loud CLANG as Cain’s powered fist slammed into the steel partition wall behind her.
Marlowe raised her fist to retaliate. The squad raised their rifles and trained them on her.
“Oh, would you look at this!” Marlowe said. “The Mad Dog needs his little puppies to back him up!”
Cain growled. “Lower your weapons!” he ordered his team.
“But sir…” one of his squad members stammered.
“That’s an order!” Cain demanded.
The squad complied and lowered their weapons again. Cain began to circle Marlowe. He clenched his metallic fist and raised it at her. “You’re mine,” he said.
“You’re pathetic,” she replied with fists raised. She circled to the left, maneuvering Cain between her and the soldiers that stood by, agape at what they knew was going to be a fight for the ages.
“Come on!” Cain yelled, pounding his fist on his chest. “I’ll even let you take the first–”
Marlowe leapt into the air, lunging at Cain. Her right fist cocked fully back, she punched directly into the middle of his chest as she landed. Her overwhelming strength sent Cain flying backwards into his squad.
Cain’s body armor absorbed the force of the blow and dissipated it across his body, keeping her fist from sinking into his chest and ripping out the other side. Cain, however, momentarily lost his breath and balance, and his squad took the brunt of his weight. Like dominoes, they fell and tossed around in all directions.
Cain’s adrenaline kicked in. He rose to his feet and stumbled forward, swinging his powerful augmented fist. The weight of his massive hand hit nothing but air and sent him spinning right back to the ground with the rest of his squad, who were clambering on and around one another trying to get up.
Marlowe was already halfway down the hallway making her getaway. Without breaking her stride, she planted her left foot just above the door handle. The steel door took the the kick, and the deadbolt sheared clean away. The door slammed open so hard, the handle chipped away a sizable divot in the concrete wall.
Jen’s heart skipped a beat and a light shriek escaped her lips as Marlowe burst into the room. She had just pulled back the carpet and opened the hatch to a system of drainage tunnels once meant to handle overflow rainfall…back when rain still fell.
“Gotta go!” Marlowe yelled as she slammed the door shut. She yanked the dresser next to the doorway over on its side as a makeshift barricade.
“Move!” She yelled to Jen, who had just picked up a small device from her bedside table.
Jen nodded. She grabbed the top rung of the ladder and began to descend just as Cain’s powered metal fist punched a hole through the top of the barricaded door.
“GO!” Marlowe barked, placing her foot on Jen’s head and kicking her down the tunnel.
Cain grabbed a side of the hole and began furiously ripping the metal door apart.
Marlowe turned and jumped down the tunnel opening, grabbing the top of the hatch as she fell. It slammed closed behind her.
“Hit it!” She said to Jen, who had just sat up trying to regain her bearings. Jen looked at her empty hand. The remote had fallen a few yards away. She lurched forward and scrambled on her hands and knees toward it.
The hatch opened just as Jen reached the detonator. She glimpsed Cain’s metal fingers lifting up the hatch as she hit the button. The muffled sounds of explosions rumbled above the tunnel. The hatch fell shut. Screaming could be heard as flames danced around Cain’s hand in the cracked opening of the tunnel hatch.
Marlowe reached her hand down toward Jen. Jen took it. Without a word, they fled into the darkness.
It was barely past midnight when Marlowe stumbled up to a doorway in a subterranean portion of Atlanta that could only be loosely considered a neighborhood. There simply wasn’t a way to describe the shelters built in and around a conjoined series of damp tunnels that once were used to carry sewage. Before the atmosphere generators and the evaporators, before the biowaste separators and in-house composting, these tunnels had carried wastewater. But that was many years ago, in a time when waste being carried away by the single most precious resource on the planet wasn’t considered a waste in and of itself.
Now, the sewers of Atlanta had become the Subs — subterranean dwellings and businesses for people who didn’t want to bother with the surface society above. It started as a third attempt to resurrect Underground Atlanta as a tourist destination, but it quickly became a modern day red-light district. And as more people moved down and set up shop, it expanded into the old tunnels and unused sewers that spanned old downtown. The laws in the Subs were made and enforced by the people who chose to be there. So long as whatever troubles arose in the Subs stayed in the Subs, MilSec (and the populace it protected) turned a blind eye to anything that went on.
This fact had always been very convenient for Marlowe, given her need for both back-channel information and AMP. And she could use a huge dose of both right about now.
With what little energy she had left after ditching the car in an Imagen Foods parking lot and surreptitiously hoofing it nearly two miles into the city, she rose her fist and banged on the door in front of her. And again. And again.
Marlowe lifted her head and stared up into the lens of a camera pointed down from the top of the doorway. “Come on, Jen…” she said weakly.
Finally, a rattle was heard, then the sliding of metal against metal. The door slowly creaked open. Marlowe pushed her way through it.
“Come in, won’t you?” Jen asked sarcastically as Marlowe passed by.
Marlowe stumbled over to a couch made from old shipping pallets and bundles of blankets, where she then collapsed. Several of the wooden slats beneath her body groaned in disapproval. One snapped clean through in outright rebellion.
The drastically oversized sweatshirt Jen wore swayed around her like a bell as she shoved the heavy steel door shut. She felt a slight rush of air against the shorn sides of her scalp as it closed. Flinging her hand out, she slapped the switch that locked the top and bottom deadbolts in place. A hollow CLANG echoed through the room, bouncing off of the musty concrete walls of the old sewer maintenance room that Jen had turned into her home.
“Jesus, Marlowe,” Jen said in exasperation, pushing a few strands of her coppery hair out of her eyes. “What the hell happened? What are you doing here? How the hell did you even escape? And who the hell were those people who broke you out?!”
“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Marlowe said. She sighed, and closed her eyes. “That’s a lie…I’m not okay, Jen.”
“No shit,” Jen replied. “I guess that makes me not okay by association.”
Marlowe shot a look at Jen that was both incredulous and disapproving. “I wasn’t followed,” Marlowe replied. “You know I’m better than that.”
“Yeah, well, in your state, I’m not really ready to trust that,” Jen replied. She reached out and slapped another button near the door. The lights dimmed inside and several pre-programmed scripts began running background processes to search any and all Feeds for any sign that Marlowe had been spotted. And more importantly, that she hadn’t been followed. After a few anxious seconds, nothing appeared in the alert box on the screen on her desk, nor on the heads-up display in her contacts.
Jen breathed a small sigh of relief. “Nice bracelets, by the way,” she said. “They totally suit you.”
“Well, I was so envious of the ones you seem to like wearing so much,” Marlowe snapped back. “I thought I’d get some for myself. Do you like–”
“–You can’t stay here,” Jen interjected desperately. She closed her eyes and hoped that had sounded the way she’d rehearsed a few hundred times in her head the past few weeks after witnessing Marlowe’s steady downfall. However, the poker face she’d practiced for nearly all of her twenty-three years couldn’t hide her pain. Maybe from other people, but not from Marlowe.
“I don’t want to stay here,” Marlowe replied after a moment. “I’m not looking to disrupt your new little domestic situation. In fact, I’ll go as soon as I get some food and some AMP.”
“AMP? What makes you think I still have that crap?”
“Because you got busted selling it a few months ago, right before my life went to shit,” Marlowe retorted. “And you were released because the evidence suddenly went missing. Who do you think misplaced it?”
Jen clenched her teeth. “I got off because my lawyer–”
“–Is an imbecile who you’re sleeping with,” Marlowe interjected. “All he did was push some papers around. I made sure there weren’t that many to push. I’ve never not had your back.”
“Well I’m sure helping me had some benefits for you as well,” Jen replied. “All that AMP that mysteriously disappeared was put to good use, I hope.”
“Sure,” Marlowe said, rolling her head back and closing her eyes. “Saving the world, being the hero…all that shit.”
“And trying to kill one of the ‘Next Top Soldier’ contestants, and breaking out of prison…” Jen replied.
Marlowe sat up with a surge of fury. “How dare you!”
“What, you’re automatically innocent because ‘I’m supposed to know you better than that?” Jen said. “All I know about you these days is you got all famous and disappeared!”
“Fuck fame!” Marlowe snapped. “You think I care what a bunch of Feed junkies think? You think I give a rat’s ass about whatever ‘fame’ I’ve gotten from a bunch of people who would just as happily watch me die as see me kill people, lift weights, or shop for groceries all day?”
“You certainly don’t shy away from it, miss three-time Top Soldier…”
Marlowe rolled her eyes. “Whatever,” she said, slumping on the makeshift couch. “Look, I can’t help it if ‘war’ is everyone’s favorite show! I’m MilSec. I have to broadcast twenty-four seven. It’s the law. People watched me as I did my damn job. I kill terrorists and–”
“–keep this country safe, yeah, I know,” Jen finished. “I read the bio on the back of the packaging for your action figures.”
“…Fuck you,” Marlowe said with a huff.
“I really like the shopping one best,” she said, driving the knife in a little deeper. “Looks so realistic.”
“I don’t have any say in what Imagen uses my likeness for, okay?”
“No say on your own action figures, no say on product placement, no say on broadcasting on the Feeds…man, you’re such a victim of the Imagen industrial complex!”
“Hey, at least I know who I am! What’s your name now? ‘Jen Kujaku?’ Dad’s silly nickname for us is your new super-secret identity? Does your lawyer fuckbuddy even know who you really are?”
“HA!” Jen chortled. “You know who you are?!? You just said you have no say in how you live your life or how everyone sees you!”
“…Just shut up and get me some food, okay?” Marlowe said.
“I bet you didn’t have a say in trying to murder your competition either –”
“–Enough!” Marlowe yelled, leaping to her feet. “You know what? Fine. You don’t want to help me, I’ll figure it out on my own. I’m out of–”
“–Jen?” A man’s voice said from the hallway. “Is everything okay?”
Marlowe and Jen both turned their heads to face a fit, balding middle-aged man clad only in his undershorts, who had appeared from the darkness of the hallway. “Wha…holy shit!” the man said as he looked at Marlowe. He turned toward Jen. “What the fuck is your sister doing here?!?”
“Michael–” Jen began to explain.
“–Adopted sister,” Marlowe interjected. “And don’t worry, I’m not staying.”
“You’re goddamn right you’re not,” Michael replied. “Jen, you’re on probation! What the hell are you thinking? She can’t be here! This is aiding and abetting a known traitor!”
“I’m not aiding or abetting,” Jen said. “She just…showed up. I had to let her in.”
“You had to let her in?” Michael exclaimed. “You have all these fancy locks and surveillance equipment, and you had to let her in?”
“Michael…” Jen replied.
“I’m calling MilSec,” Michael stated, turning to march back to the bedroom.
“Do that and I’ll have your other other testicle,” Marlowe said as she sat back down.
Michael stopped dead in his tracks. “How…how do you…”
“Hoverskate accident when you were thirteen,” Marlowe replied. “You had surgery. It’s all on record. Well, sealed record. But hey, being me has its advantages.”
Michael stammered. Jen attempted to cover her smirk. Marlowe continued. “I’m the United American State’s best soldier for a reason, Michael,” Marlowe said in a mocking, nasal tone. “I’m very thorough. I do my research. Especially on the lawyers who represent my sister. And double especially on the ones who she decides to let inside her.”
“Hey!” Jen yelled.
“Just saying,” Marlowe said innocently.
“…This is bullshit,” Michael snapped. He took a step toward the doorway.
In a fraction of a second, Marlowe shot up from the makeshift couch and seized a steak knife that had been left on a plate on the table in front of her. She grasped it by the hilt, flipped it one hundred and eighty degrees into the air, and caught it by the tip. With a slight flick of her wrist, she flung the knife toward Michael, pinning the left leg of his boxer shorts to the door frame, mere inches from his remaining testicle.
Jen rushed over to him. “Are you okay?” She asked, stifling a laugh.
“This is funny to you?!?” Michael asked.
“I mean…yeah? A little?” Jen replied.
“She could have cut off my…you know!” Michael exclaimed.
“It wasn’t an accident. I chose not to,” Marlowe said from behind them.
“Look, I’m going to get her what she needs, and then she’s going to go, okay?” Jen said to reassure Michael.
“Jen, if you get caught…if they find her here…you’re done. They’ll execute you. And I’ll be disbarred. If I’m lucky!”
Jen placed her hands on Michael’s shoulders. “That’s why we’ll make sure they won’t, okay?”
“I’ll be out of your hair in no time,” Marlowe replied. “Both the top hairs and the ones I just shaved.”
Michael looked past Jen at Marlowe. He scowled. He returned his glance to Jen. “This is bad, Jen,” he said.
“I know,” Jen replied. “But she’s my sister.”
Michael closed his eyes and shook his head. “She is going to get us both killed.”
“Michael…trust me,” Jen said.
He gritted his teeth and then sighed. “You have ten minutes,” he said to Marlowe over Jen’s shoulder. He turned to exit the room.
“Uh, no,” Marlowe said. “You’re staying right here.”
Michael began to retort. Marlowe reached for the fork from the same plate the knife had previously rested on. Michael quickly shut his mouth and took a seat in the makeshift chair near the couch.
“Leave him alone,” Jen said. “I’ll go get your shit, but then you need to go.”
Marlowe lifted her hand and lazily waved Jen off. She turned and disappeared down the hallway.
Marlowe stretched her arms over her head, then interlaced her fingers and rested her palms on the back of her skull as she sighed. Michael sat with his hands in his lap, visibly uncomfortable.
The screen on Jen’s desk continued the nearly endless recapping of the events that had transpired in the past twenty-four hours. Everything from the footage of Marlowe attacking Sergeant Corta in the locker rooms of their barracks, to Marlowe’s guilty verdict at the trial, to the sentencing hearing, to the prison break and the subsequent sniping of the camera drones by the soldiers who had sprung her — everything was being covered and analyzed in frenzied, minute detail. Various recap blurbs crawled across the bottom of the screen while the NewsFeed anchors bantered with assorted experts in fields from legal, to MilSec domestic operations, to psychology.
Marlowe was glad the audio was muted. She never could stand her own press. Still, she couldn’t help but keep one eye on the footage. Suddenly, NewsFeed cycled through something Marlowe wasn’t familiar with: a recap of the announcements by President Cook regarding “Next Top Soldier” and the return of Sergeant Corta. And the fact that capturing Marlowe was now the sole determination for victory.
Marlowe sat up straight. The entire nation may have been glued to their screens for the better part of three months, but she was watching all of this for the first time. Seeing Corta standing beside President Cook alive and well was genuinely intriguing.
“JAQi, turn up the volume,” she said aloud.
There was no response.
“JAQi…” Marlowe grimaced. “Ah, fuck, I keep forgetting…” she said, shutting her eyes.
“They flashed your Pod, right? When you were arrested and processed?” Michael asked.
Marlowe looked over toward Michael. She was too exhausted at this point to be a smartass. She simply nodded.
“Huh… The Prisoner Operating System has GPS. How did they not track you during the escape?”
“They can’t,” Marlowe answered. “I performed a little…self-surgery when I was inside.” She tilted her head and pointed to a small scar behind her left ear, just above her jawbone. “No Pod, no POS.”
“Christ!” Michael said, wincing. “That couldn’t have felt good.”
Marlowe answered by raising her eyebrows and shrugging. With a sigh, she laid her head back and closed her eyes once more.
“Well, it wouldn’t work here anyway,” Michael replied. “Jen keeps things dark. No JAQi here. No outside connections. All closed feeds and proxied connections.”
“Yeah, I forgot about that, too,” Marlowe replied. “It’s…been a while.”
“So I understand.” Michael replied. “You two used to be close, right?”
Marlowe sighed as she leaned forward and looked at Michael. “Look, she likes you. I’m happy for you both. And I get that you get off on taking charity cases and playing the role of savior. But I don’t need a therapist. I don’t need you to save me. I just need to get my shit and figure out how to clear my name.”
“I may not be a therapist,” Michael said, leaning forward, “but I’m a damn good lawyer. Let me help you. I will–”
“–You’ll what? Get the MilSec tribunal to overturn a guilty verdict for treason? For a soldier who was seen on the national NewsFeed being sprung from a prison transport by domestic terrorists?”
“Yes!” he replied. “You’ll turn state’s evidence. Testify against the MilSec soldiers who illegally kidnapped you and name the terrorists who assisted them. Tell the tribunal you had nothing to do with–”
“–That didn’t work at my first trial,” Marlowe interjected. “They still found me guilty of treason, despite conclusive evidence that I acted in self defense against Corta and her little clique. They suppressed the footage. I doubt they even covered that on NewsFeed, did they?”
Michael looked at her, puzzled. “No?”
“Yeah, well…fat chance they’d believe me now,” Marlowe said. “Or even care if they did.”
“The way I see it, you really don’t have any other choice,” Michael replied.
“Sure I do,” Marlowe said. “I can clear my name. Or die trying.”
“And get us killed in the process…” Michael muttered.
“I’ll be gone long before anyone even thinks to look for me here…if they even know to look here,” Marlowe answered. “I just need–”
Jen emerged from the hallway clutching a green duffel bag.
“–That,” Marlowe continued.
Jen tossed the bag into Marlowe’s lap. Marlowe unzipped it and let out a massive sigh of relief. In it was several stacks of perfectly legal Battery energy bars, along with a dozen or so exceedingly illegal inhalers loaded with AMP.
Michael’s jaw dropped. “Is that AMP?” Michael asked Jen.
“Yup,” Marlowe answered for her. She immediately ripped open the packaging on a Battery bar and began devouring it.
“Jennifer! How could you?!?” Michael asked.
Jen ducked her head and sighed.
“Your girlfriend’s a drug dealer,” Marlowe said while chewing on the last bit of the extremely calorie-dense energy bar. “And a card shark, and a thief, and a really good hacker. But yes, among those other things, she deals drugs. And these are drugs…well, not this,” she said, a crumb falling from her mouth as she waved half a Battery bar at him.
Michael narrowed his eyes, clearly unamused.
“But these…” Marlowe grabbed an AMP inhaler, placed it in her mouth, pressed the blue button on the top, and took a deep breath. After a moment, she exhaled. She shivered and shook from head to toe. “Oh, yeah…THESE are drugs. Good ones, too. I mean, real grade-A stuff. Better than your average street shit.”
Michael sat in his seat, stunned and hurt. Marlowe began unwrapping a second Battery bar. “Huh,” she said, noticing the wrapper. “They took my picture off the package.”
“Of course they did,” Jen said. “They’re not going to let a criminal represent their product. And you should slow down. You’re going to puke.”
“Fine, at least I’ll puke actual food,” Marlowe replied. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve eaten anything other than vitamin supplements and water?”
“Three months, five days, and a few hours,” Jen replied.
“…Sure. Something like that.”
“Well, even your science experiment of a body can’t absorb that much nutrition that quickly,” Jen said.
“Okay, well, if I waste it, I waste it,” Marlowe replied. “It’s not like you care. You wanted me out of here. I’m out of here.”
Marlowe stood to leave. Her head spun and she immediately fell back on the makeshift couch. This time it couldn’t hold her immense weight. The entire structure collapsed beneath her.
“Shit…Marlowe…” Jen said, exasperated. She went over to help Marlowe up.
“I’m fine…” Marlowe said, pushing Jen’s hands away.
“Clearly. Take my damn hand.”
Marlowe reached out and grabbed Jen’s hand. Jen groaned as she strained to hoist Marlowe up. Woozily, she leaned on Jen, who guided her to the empty seat next to the collapsed couch.
“You think I did it, don’t you?” Marlowe asked.
“I think you’re in a world of trouble,” Jen replied softly. “And I think your options are pretty limited. In fact, I think you’re severely fucked.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Marlowe stated. “I am telling you right here and right now, I am innocent. I was attacked first and was defending myself. I want to hear you say you believe me.”
Jen placed her face in her palms.
“Jen!” Marlowe barked.
Jen sighed. She lifted her head and looked at Marlowe. “Look, you say you didn’t do it, and I believe you,” she said. “You say there’s evidence that proves you’re innocent, and I believe you. But Marlowe…it doesn’t matter what I believe! You were found guilty of treason. You were sentenced to life in prison. You escaped and are now considered a traitor and a fugitive.”
Marlowe looked up at Jen, who could detect a note of vulnerability somewhere in her eyes.
“You’re literally the most recognizable face in the nation. Short of getting a complete face replacement, I don’t think you have any options left. Let us help you. I know some MilSec people, guys who buy from me. They’ll listen to you.”
“We can fight this,” Michael said, emerging from the kitchen holding a bottle of scotch in one hand and a small box of cigars in the other.
Marlowe did a double-take. She hadn’t noticed that Michael had left the room, much less that she had been sitting in the seat he had vacated.
“I have a plan…if you’ll hear me out,” he said, offering Marlowe the bottle and the box.
Marlowe considered him for a moment. His existence on this planet was appalling to her. He embodied everything she hated about the society she spent her adult life protecting. The product of wealth and entitlement, the scumbag lawyer before her skated through life on the mistakes of others. And now he was slumming with Jen, spending his nights playing tourist in the Subs amongst the people he spent his days milking credits from, defending them against minor charges that usually had no merit to begin with and were easily dismissable.
But then again, he had scotch, cigars, and a plan — three things she’d not had in months. She reached out and took his offerings.
“First, I want to know what happened,” Michael said, taking a seat on the edge of the table, barely missing the plate with the fork. “Tell me everything. I’ll believe you. I can help you.”
Marlowe popped the cork on the bottle and took a long swig. She let out a massive sigh. It didn’t matter that it was cheap synthetic stuff, or that Scotland no longer existed. It said “Scotch” on the bottle and right then, it was the best thing she’d ever tasted.
“Well,” she said, cracking the lid on the box of extremely rare, vintage Cuestas cigars and removing a stogie. “You already know the back half of it…the footage of me tossing Corta around the barracks and nearly killing her. All that.”
She removed the cigar from the wrapper, placed it to her nose and inhaled deeply. It was real. How this two-bit lawyer came across a box of Cuestas didn’t matter to her, nor did the fact that it was a little stale. At that moment, it was pure heaven. She used the guillotine cutter she found in the box and lopped off a small sliver from the head of the cigar.
“What you don’t know is that she attacked me first.”
“So you said in your testimony,” Michael replied. “But there’s no evidence. And believe me, Jen tried to find it.”
“I called in every favor I had,” Jen said. “Scraped every Feed, chased down every lead. There’s absolutely nothing out there that backs up your story.”
“Yes there is,” Marlowe replied as she placed the cigar in her mouth. She pulled a match from a box and struck it. Even the sulfur smell of the matchstick igniting brought a smile to her face. “It was suppressed. But it does exist.”
She placed the match to the foot of the cigar and inhaled deeply, puffing continuously to get it to ignite. Cherry-red embers glowed at the foot of the cigar. Marlowe took a deep drag, held the smoke in her mouth, and exhaled. She would have shed a tear, if her ocular implants hadn’t made that impossible.
“Where?” Michael asked, snapping Marlowe back to the present moment.
“It was some private,” Marlowe replied. “His Feed was broadcasting. It picked up Corta’s ambush in the shower.”
Suddenly, the security script that Jen was running sounded a loud DING, followed by another.
Jen snapped to attention. “Fuck,” she said under her breath as she leapt toward the terminal on her desk. Marlowe followed suit with Michael close behind.
Two windows on the desktop screen showed footage that matched the search script’s parameters. One was displaying a MilSecFeed from Sergeant Henry Cain, with statistics that showed nearly ten million citizens were watching it live. The other was the exact same feed, simulcast on NewsFeed, indicating that nearly three-fourths of the nation was tuned in.
“Breaking News: ‘Next Top Soldier’ contestant Henry “Mad Dog” Cain, tracking Marlowe Kana: Live.” read the crawl under the NewsFeed footage.
“Well, look at that,” Marlowe said grimly. “It’s your neighborhood’s front door.” She whipped around to face Michael and grabbed him by the throat. “Your dipshit hack lawyer boyfriend gave them the address when he went to get my scotch.”
Michael raised his hands and began pleading. “I didn’t! I swear…I wouldn’t…” he croaked.
“Never trust a lawyer bearing gifts,” Marlowe snarled. “Especially alcoholic ones.”
“Let him go, Marlowe!” Jen begged. “He didn’t do anything…just…please…”
Marlowe stared directly into Michael’s fear-filled eyes. With a slight smirk, she released his throat and pushed him, sending him flying backwards into the table in front of the collapsed couch. He fell backwards and landed in the debris.
Marlowe walked over toward him. She reached down. He flinched. She grabbed a slat from the broken furniture and began swinging it around testing its heft, considering its use as a weapon. “You’re lucky I love my sister,” Marlowe said. “I should have just killed you in the first place. My fault for being lazy. And tired. And hungry.”
“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!” Jen screamed. She bolted for the hallway in an attempt to flee.
Marlowe caught Jen by the arm. “No chance in hell,” Marlowe said. “We have to handle them. If we run now, they’ll be on us like a hunter drone. And so will the hunter drones.”
Jen looked into Marlowe’s eyes. They were bloodshot and quivering — effects from the AMP Marlowe had whiffed.
“They’re not supposed to…shit, we’re fucked!” Jen yelled.
Marlowe gritted her teeth. “No,” she said with authority. “I can handle this wannabe ‘Top Soldier’ and his little squad.”
“Well, run out there and go get them!” Jen yelled. “Go! Get out of here!”
“You know how stupid that is,” Marlowe replied as she began scanning the room for weapons. “I can’t fight them in the tunnels. I’ll be flanked and have to fight from both sides. Better to stand our ground here.”
Jen sighed. She raised her hands and her eyes glowed slightly as she moved her fingers, typing in the air, pinning the Feeds to her HUD and setting new scripts to trigger if any others began broadcasting. If she was going to wait this thing out, she needed to know exactly what was happening as it happened.
“I swear, I didn’t do it!” Michael pleaded.
“Yeah, fine, whatever,” Marlowe said. She checked the footage on the screen and saw that Cain and his squad had arrived. “It doesn’t matter now. They’re here.”
“Dammit, what do you WANT?!?” Omar yelled. His bark of frustration echoed in the emptiness of his apartment, directed at no one and the whole world at once.
It had been a hard day — the hardest since he had transferred to his new civic service position at the cafeteria. People could be rude when they were hungry, and they could be especially rude when the food they ordered didn’t come out just right. Not that it was Omar’s fault, he was just a server. But he tended to bear the brunt of the customers’ hunger-induced vitriol. He had scored much higher than a food service level on the aptitude test, but only needed a few more credits than Basic Citizen Income provided, and he didn’t particularly enjoy taking classes. Plus, only a crazy person or an Aug would voluntarily join MilSec, especially Foreign Service, which was mostly staffed with felons looking to clear their records. So, even though it had its annoyances, this position was better than trying too hard…and it was certainly a step up from janitorial.
All he wanted to do now was relax, which meant chasing a few drinks with a few more drinks and then jerking off before going to sleep. He’d accomplished the first half of his to-do list, but the second kept being interrupted by pings from his friends across the net. Did the “Do Not Disturb” icon really mean nothing to them? It was mandatory at work, and he’d gotten in the habit of leaving it on during his walk home from the job — partially to decompress and partially out of sheer laziness. His friends knew this, so they ignored the warnings and pinged him anyway. It was annoying. But in all fairness, he was guilty of the same when he really wanted their attention. And at that moment, with his hand wrapped around his rapidly declining boner, Gabby really wanted his attention.
He tucked himself away and answered the call.
“Yes?” He said as she came into view on the stand-alone screen in front of his dilapidated couch.
“Are you okay?” Gabby queried.
“I’m fine, why?”
“Well, I called like five times…”
“I was just getting home from work,” he replied. “I needed a minute…sorry I didn’t answer. What’s up?”
“You get off at nine-thirty…it’s like ten-twenty now. And you’re only, like, three stops away–”
“Gabby, It’s been a hard day, baby,” Omar said with a sigh.
“Are you…do you need to talk?” she asked pensively.
“No, no…just a hard day, okay? What’s going on?”
She looked at him with soft eyes and a face full of concern. “Well, if you need to talk, I’m here…”
“I know, honey,” Omar said with a sigh.
Gabby’s tone brightened forcibly. “Sooooo, have you seen NewsFeed?”
“No? I mean, not since I got home,” he answered. “I know there was some craziness with MK’s trial and all that. Everyone’s been talking about it.”
Just then, another ping appeared from John, his best friend. He’d already pinged three times according to the missed call count, which showed forty-five missed pings. “Hold on, Gabs,” Omar said, flipping over to John’s channel.
“DUDE!” John said. “Please tell me you are watching Cook’s address right now!”
“No, I’m talking with Gabby,” he said.
“You didn’t get the alerts?” John asked. “Wait, I guess not, you’re on DND…dude, you missed it!”
“Corta’s back!” John replied.
“What?!” Omar said. He gestured and turned the connected world back on. He saw that he’d missed a dozen news alerts, and a dozen more messages and call requests from his friends in the fantasy “Top Soldier” league he belonged to.
“Dude, this changes everything!” He exclaimed. “Gimme a minute…I’ll call you back.” He flicked his wrist and the call ended. Gabby reappeared on the screen.
“Hey babe, that was John. He just told me what’s up. I’m gonna catch up and call you back, okay?”
“Uh…okay?” Gabby said. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, I swear…just give me a few?”
“Okay,” she said. “I love–”
Omar ended the call and immediately began checking the notifications that he missed. “JAQi,” he said, “Play the CookTalk.”
“Absolutely,” JAQi responded. “The entire address, or just the highlights?”
“By popularity? Or chronological?”
“Whatever…just play it, okay?”
A tone sounded through the room. President Cook appeared on the screen, standing in the center of a very large stage that was lit by a single spotlight.
“…You’ve all been asking, and the fine people at Imagen Corporation listened,” President Cook said to his audience. Twenty thousand lucky citizens who had won the audience lottery began clapping enthusiastically. Every CookTalk the President gave came with a level of excitement and anticipation unmatched by any other event, save Marlowe Kana’s active duty Feed. And given the events of the day, the nation was a pot nearly boiling over with expectation.
Except for Omar. Omar was tired. He had wanted to come home, jerk off, and go to sleep. But even he had to admit, any time the President said that he or Imagen had listened to the people of the United American State, something amazing was bound to follow.
“We have been working hard on providing you with the best environments possible. Temperate summers. Lovely autumn breezes. Spring showers. And today, I am thrilled to announce a major breakthrough.”
A massive screen lit up behind him. Fading into view was a scene of the capital city of Indianapolis with the capitol building front and center, encircled by administrative buildings. White particles were falling all around and collecting on the rooftops of the buildings.
The audience burst into astonished applause and cheers.
“Huh, that’s pretty cool…” Omar murmured. “I wonder when that starts? And will we get it here in Atlanta?”
JAQi reacted to Omar’s questions. The footage skipped from the raucous audience reaction to President Cook’s listing of cities that would first receive snow. “–Snow will be available in all seventeen major cities in the United American State, and I am pleased to tell you that it will begin falling this evening.”
The room exploded into applause yet again.
“But don’t go outside looking for it just yet!” Cook said with a chuckle. “I have a few more wonderful things to tell you. For instance, not only will we be introducing snow, but we’ve also been able to replicate lightning and thunder. That’s right, this spring, you will be able to witness actual thunderstorms.”
More cheering from the crowd prompted President Cook to smile exuberantly.
“Oooooh, louder rain. Boring,” Omar said. “Skip ahead.”
The footage jumped to the next announcement.
“For the first time since the Reformation, atmosphere generators have gone online west of the Mississippi River. Expansion of residences westward will begin in a few months, and the applications to settle in these new territories will be accepted starting in July. My fellow United Americans, I am pleased to announce the new cities of Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Saint Louis.” Applause filled the room, and a lot of oohing and ahhing could be heard as the plans and projections for the two new cities appeared on the massive screen behind the President. “As some of the more keen-eyed have noticed, we’ve updated the United American State flag with the fourteenth and fifteenth stars. All digital representations have been updated, and the physical cloth flags will begin being mailed to citizens in the coming–”
“Whatever,” Omar said. “It’s not like I can afford to move anytime soon anyway. JAQi, skip to the Corta announcement.”
The footage skipped ahead fifteen minutes. President Cook was gesturing to the right of the stage. Photos of two men in full MilSec dress blues appeared on the massive screen behind him, their names displayed below them: Alexis “Hax” Curtis and Henry “Mad Dog” Cain. A digital banner waved above them bearing the United America’s Next Top Soldier logo. A woman appeared stage-right and strode in the direction of the President, also clad in full MilSec dress uniform. The audience was on their feet, cheering and whistling and clapping. The silhouette of hands and heads partially blocked the view.
“Citizens, I give you Sergeant Sabrina Corta,” Cook said as he took one step to the side and allowed the fully healed Sergeant to take center stage with him. Behind them, the pictures of Cain and Curtis separated, and a third photo appeared between them — that of the Sergeant in full MilSec dress, her name displayed under her photo like the others: Sabrina “Senche” Corta.
The crowd lost its collective mind. Cheering and applause continued to roll despite the awkward looks exchanged between Corta and President Cook. Eventually the commotion subsided enough for the President to begin speaking again.
“Sergeant — or can I call you Sabrina?” He asked.
“Sabrina is fine, sir,” she replied stiffly.
“Well, Sabrina, how are you feeling?”
“I feel like United America’s Next Top Soldier,” she answered.
Every attendee leapt to their feet, and the entire room erupted in even more raucous applause and cheers.
“Ok, JAQi, got it,” Omar said. The din of the cheering audience was silenced as the playback of the footage froze. “Ping John.”
A tone sounded, and John appeared on the screen. “Sup?” He asked.
“Dude…Corta!” Omar yelped.
“I know, right?!”
“Okay, so what are the rules for the fantasy league?” Omar asked. “Does it work like football? Can I just bring her off injured reserve?”
“It happens automatically,” John explained as he bit into an Imagen RealCheez snack chip. “You don’t have to worry about that. Just make sure she’s in the lineup for the next operation and you’re good to go.”
“Okay, got it. What is the next op?”
“Dude, you didn’t watch the address?”
“Just the highlights.”
“The next operation is MK,” John answered. “That’s it. The rules changed. No more contests or head-to-heads. It’s winner takes all. Whoever gets MK wins.”
“Whoa,” Omar said. “Maybe I should go back and watch that then…”
“Nah, it’s just a bunch of bullshit about snow and weather and stuff. They’re pushing an update to JAQi tonight, but who cares. Corta and the new rules for NTS were really the only part that mattered.”
“Cool,” Omar said, “Thanks for the rundown. I gotta ping Gabby real quick.”
“Heh, that’s still a thing?” John asked, lifting the bag of chips to his lips and dumping the dusty remains into his mouth.
“Dude, come on…”
John chewed voraciously through the chip debris. “I don’t get it man,” he said, lips smacking. “But hey, you love her, so whatever…”
“I gotta go,” Omar said.
“Later!” John said, his face blinking from existence on the screen.
“Ping Gabby,” Omar asked of JAQi, who immediately complied.
“Hey,” Gabby responded within a second of the notification appearing on her screen. “What’s up? Everything ok?”
“Yeah,” Omar said. “Caught up on the address. There’s going to be snow? That’s pretty crazy.”
“It’s going to be so beautiful!” She replied. “I’m watching out the window to see it when it starts! You want to come over and watch it with me?”
“Honey,” Omar said, “I’m super tired. Today’s shift nearly killed me. I’m going to crash here in a minute.”
“But…it’s the first ever snow in our lifetimes! In, like, five lifetimes!”
“I know,” Omar said, “But there’ll be more. Right now, I just wanna get some sleep.”
Gabby blinked a few times and shook her head slightly. Her disappointment was clear. “Omar,” she said. “We really need to…I have some things I want to discuss with you…”
“Can we talk about it tomorrow?” Omar said, exasperated. “I’m really not in a place tonight to do anything besides fall into my bed. Hit me up first thing tomorrow, okay? We can talk about whatever’s going on then.”
“I love you,” Omar said rigidly, much in the same way he instructed customers to have a nice day at the cafeteria.
“I…I love you too,” Gabby said reluctantly. Just as she was inhaling to start her next sentence, Omar interjected with a hasty, “good night, sweet dreams!” and dropped the call.
“JAQi,” he said after a short sigh. “Find some porn with actresses that look like Corta.”
A tone sounded. “There are 18,422 videos with actresses that have facial features resembling Sergeant Corta,” JAQi said.
“Well, fire it up!” Omar said, pulling himself back out of his pants and resuming his evening’s plans.