If habits die hard, training is damn near immortal. And Marlowe’s training engaged the moment they arrived at the EV plant. As soon as Poet turned onto the long gravel access road, she went to work assessing the situation.
“Slow down,” she ordered. “This is gravel. Keep the noise to a minimum. And kill the damn headlights.”
Poet complied, and the vehicle slowly wound down the dark driveway through a dense grove of “beautifying” artificial pine trees that obscured the plant from street-level view. They approached a locked gate in the middle of a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire, spanning nearly half a mile in either direction. The glow of what was left of the moon, combined with a single pole-mounted omnidirectional light, illuminated the area around the gate. A sign on the chain link entryway warned that the barrier was electrified, and that the current was sufficiently strong to turn a small stick figure man on the left side of the sign into a pile of ashes on the right. Billowing clouds of steam rose from stacks that towered above the operations complex in the distance. About a hundred yards from the gate was a small concrete shed.
Poet brought the vehicle to a full stop. Before anyone could say anything, he hopped out of the vehicle and approached the gate. Poet’s entire childhood had been spent finding ways around old security systems in the Subs to “liberate” old items to sell for credits. And the older he got, the more silent and speedier he became. The group watched as he fumbled with the padlock holding the entrance fixed, waiting with bated breath for him to become a hunk of cooked meat. He pushed the gate open and returned to the vehicle.
“The sign said the fence was electrified,” Jacobs said. “How’d you know it wasn’t?”
“The fence is hot, but the gate can’t be electrified,” He replied as he entered the driver’s side door. “Too risky for the utility vehicles. And besides, it’s free-standing. Doesn’t actually connect to the fence.”
“Huh,” Jacobs said. “Been here before, I take it?”
Poet replied with a shrug and a smile. He put the car in drive and pulled it through the gateway, immediately turned right, and drove across a small patch of concrete to the tree line where several rusty out-of-service utility vehicles were parked. He pulled alongside the farthest one from the gate, parked the car, and killed the engine.
“Okay, here we go,” Marlowe barked. “The plant itself is covered in surveillance, but that utility shed on the east side looks promising. We don’t have coms, so we’re going to have to rely on signals. Everyone good with that?”
“I don’t need coms…I’ve got this,” Angel said, patting the scope of her rifle.
“Outstanding,” said Marlowe. “Find high ground and provide overwatch. Poet, I’m guessing from your work on the gate that you’re pretty handy with locks.”
“One of my many specialties,” he answered.
“Great. Once we get the all-clear, you’ll find us a way in. Jacobs, you’re on perimeter.”
“What the…” Jacobs said in disbelief. “Who the hell put you in charge?”
“You did,” Marlowe said, cocking her head and narrowing her eyes, “When you broke me out of the prison transport.”
“I’ve got tactical command on this op!” Jacobs argued.
“You made a house directly tied to you our safehouse,” Marlowe replied. “You suck. I’m taking over.”
“How are you going to lead us?” He asked. “You’re in shackles! You can’t even walk without our help!”
“Well, that disqualifies me from doing the perimeter sweep, doesn’t it? I guess that makes it your job.” She nodded her head sideways as she said, “Get to it.”
Jacobs gritted his teeth. He was beginning to understand the old adage of why you should never meet your heroes. “Fine,” he said, “But I’m not doing this because you’re in charge. I’m doing it because it’s the smart thing to do.”
“Of course,” Marlowe said dismissively. “Now go do it.”
Jacobs was so angry he missed the handle trying to open the car door. He was more successful on the second attempt, opening the door with a huff and slamming it shut behind him in aggravation.
“Christ…has that boy ever heard of covert ops?” Marlowe asked the group.
Poet chuckled. Angel simply opened her door, slid out of it, and stayed low as she began her search for high ground.
“Our turn,” Marlowe said to Poet. “Let’s find cover.”
Poet nodded, and then exited, moving to the rear to help Marlowe from the car. Together they moved to an outcropping of trees a few yards ahead of the vehicle.
“Okay, so what the hell is all this?” Marlowe whispered to Poet as they laid low. “Who are you people?” She looked Poet up and down, and followed up with, “And what the hell are you wearing?”
Poet chuckled. “This?” he asked, tugging at the material on his sleeve, which was patterned in strange squares that slightly resembled faces. “I made it myself. I call it V-Dazzle. It’s a digi-camo that tricks cameras into thinking there’s a thousand faces…screws with facial recognition.”
“Huh…” Marlowe said, taking a closer look. “Looks like a bunch of square smileys.”
“Yep,” Poet replied, “And it works, too. For now, anyway. And as for who we are and what we’re about, The Judge will be able to explain it better than me. But basically, we’re a group of patriots who believe that the United American State has lost its path. We are individuals who believe in sovereign citizenship. Hence the name, Sovereign.”
“Sovereign citizenship?” Marlowe asked. “What the fuck does that mean?”
“We don’t answer to Imagen, or their puppet-president Cook,” Poet said. “We want to grow our own food…make our own products. Run our own lives. We want to return America to its core principles, the way the Founding Fathers intended.”
“Huh…” Marlowe said. “What’s it got to do with me? I’m a soldier, not a farmer. How the hell am I supposed to help you grow your own food?”
“You’re a celebrity. You’re highly respected by tens of millions of people. With you, they will listen to us. They will hear our message.”
“So you want to use me as some figurehead for your idealistic bullshit movement? No fucking thanks. I’d rather be in prison.”
“No, that’s not…” Poet said. He sighed. “Look, I’m not any good at this. The Judge will explain it better when we rendezvous with him. I think it might resonate with you.”
Before Marlowe could retort, Jacobs approached from behind them. He crouched down and gave a hearty thumbs up. “All clear,” he said.
“Fine, let’s move. Poet, you get us in that shed. Follow the tree line and loop back; approach from the South. Jacobs, cover him.”
Poet adopted a low stance and sprinted to the utility shed with Jacobs watching from the tree line and Angel keeping an eye out from on high. While the evaporation plant itself was modern in every sense, the stand-alone utility building was decidedly low-tech.
There had been a tremendous investment by Imagen Corporation to modernize utilities in the United American State to accommodate for the conditions of the time. Potable water, atmosphere generation, and power required significant technological investment and security. However, the buildings that held wrenches, hammers, spanners, and screwdrivers required only concrete walls and steel doors, safeguarded by old manual deadbolts and padlocks. After all, terrorists rarely attacked tool sheds, and there wasn’t much of a market for hand-held tools in a society that didn’t need them.
It took Poet longer to run to the door than to pick the two padlocks and deadbolt that secured it. The smell of ozone and old wood and shaved metal seeped from the cracked-open door as he slowly pulled it open. He slipped inside and performed a quick but thorough scouting of the small building’s interior. Satisfied that it was secured, he hung his head out of the door and gave the signal to move in.
Jacobs helped Marlowe to her feet. He placed his hand on her shoulder and crouched down.
“What are you doing?!?” Marlowe asked as he leaned into her.
“It’s going to be way faster if I carry you,” he replied. “Hold still.”
“You won’t make it twenty yards,” she protested, trying her best to resist being carried. It was no use. He laid her across his shoulders and strained as he attempted to stand.
“Wow, how much do you weigh?!?” He gasped as he finally struggled out of his squat.
“Don’t you know it’s impolite to ask a lady that question?”
“Is it impolite to ask what this lady has been eating? Because it feels like you’ve got two hundred pounds of lead in your belly.”
“Metal muscles aren’t light,” said Marlowe. “And these shackles don’t help much, either. Put me down. We’re walking.”
“Not a chance,” He replied. “We’ve got a hundred yards of open terrain to cover, and you’re slow. Trust me, I got this.”
Jacobs began jogging as quickly as he could, which wasn’t very fast at all. But his ego drove him step by step across the open field to the utility house. Marlowe would have been impressed if she wasn’t so exasperated by the situation. She didn’t like feeling helpless, and she liked actually being helpless even less. Still, with her head and feet bobbing across his shoulders with each stride they took, she couldn’t help but laugh to herself. Thinking back to her professional football days, this was without question the slowest she’d ever covered the length of a football field.
Nearly a minute later, they reached the building. “Okay, what have we got?” Marlowe asked as soon as she and Jacobs entered the doorway.
“Three rooms, all clear,” Poet responded. “No windows, no cameras, so we’re blind. There are tools and equipment, and a cot in one of the back rooms. Someone sleeps here.”
“Great,” Marlowe said. “Not optimal…but it’s what we got. We’ll need to keep our eyes open. I’d prefer some camera coverage, but we can manage for now. Jacobs…”
“Huh?” He said through his gasps and wheezes.
“…Put me down?”
“Oh…yeah, sorry…” He responded, lowering her gently and placing her on her feet.
“What’s our tool situation?” She asked. “Anything we can use to get these damn shackles off?”
Poet scanned the room. “There’s a lot here, but I’m not sure how much of it is useful…hammers, vice grips, a shovel. Maybe we can whack them off with this?” He said, holding up a huge pipe wrench.
“Pretty sure none of that is useful,” Marlowe said.
“Look there,” Jacobs said through his panting. “In the corner. Looks like a torch…maybe we can cut through the cuffs?”
Jacobs shuffled over to the torch and lifted the nozzle, examining it. He twisted the regulator knob and looked puzzled as nothing happened. Poet came over and tapped on the tanks holding the oxygen and acetylene.
“Ah, yeah that’s right,” Jacobs said. As he reached out to open the valve on one of the tanks, he was interrupted by a noise outside.
He lifted his fist, signaling to the other soldiers to hold their positions and remain silent. The sound of tires on gravel grew louder.
Poet ducked behind the edge of the workbench. Jacobs grabbed Marlowe and shuffled her to the left side of the door to obscure her. He then took cover on the opposite side. The engine stopped running. A small clicking sound could be heard, followed by the creak of a rusty door. It slammed shut with a thud.
Boots crunched on gravel, getting louder as someone approached. Jacobs caught sight of a hammer on the workbench just beside him. He grabbed it and wielded it just above his head.
“What the…” A man’s voice grunted from the other side of the door.
Silence. Then the sound of whispering.
The doorknob twisted. The door swung open. A silhouette spilled across the floor from the lights outside. No one entered.
“He’s secured,” Angel called in from the doorway. “We’re coming in.”
Jacobs lowered his hammer halfway and Poet rose from behind the workbench as an elderly man walked through the door with his hands up; the muzzle of a long-barrel rifle was being pushed into the back of his head. Angel followed behind.
“He’s alone,” she said. “No one else in the vicinity.”
“Who are you?” Marlowe demanded as she shuffled forward from behind the door.
“I would ask you the same thing,” the man replied. “Except, I know who you are. Been watching you for years. Question is, what the hell are you doing in my tool shed?”
“If you know who I am, then you know why we’re here,” she replied. “Now, who are you?”
“William Rudd,” he said, extending his hand. “Pleasure.”
Angel pushed the barrel of her rifle against the back of William’s head as Jacobs and Poet both tensed.
“Stand down!” Marlowe ordered. The squad reluctantly complied.
“Nice to meet you, William,” Marlowe said, attempting to keep the situation calm. She extended her shackled hands as far as they would go, which wasn’t far at all. “We’re fugitives from the law, and we’re going to have to commandeer your tool house here.”
William lowered his hand to hers and shook it. “Well, if you’re gonna shoot me, I’d ask that you do it outside. I like to keep a tidy workshop.”
“Let’s not let it come to that. But we are going to have to secure you.”
Marlowe nodded to Jacobs, who grabbed William and pushed him toward a chair. “Sit,” he demanded.
“You don’t gotta push, son,” he answered as he took a seat. ”I know how to sit in a chair, and I don’t like being shot all that much.”
Poet threw a roll of duct tape to Jacobs, who used it to bind William’s wrists and ankles. He looped a few bands of tape around his torso to the back of the chair, and grabbed a small rag on a desk beside them to gag the old man.
“Aww man, not my snot rag,” William said just before Jacobs stuffed it in his mouth.
Angel held her rifle on the old man as Jacobs went back to work trying to get the torch lit. Marlowe sighed, lamenting the fact that all of her training and life experience had come down to a moment where her freedom and survival depended on stuffing a poor old man’s snot back into his mouth.
Jacobs opened the valve on one tank as far as it would go. A pungent aroma filled the air as acetylene gas hissed from the nozzle of the torch. Poet grabbed the flint striker from the side of the tanks and sparked it a few times, secretly delighting in the shimmering sparkles that poured from the sides. He handed it to Jacobs, who began trying to light the potent gas hissing from the nozzle.
“Come on, Jacobs,” Poet said. “Can’t you figure out a simple torch?”
“I’m not a damn engineer!” He snapped. “You’re so smart, you do it!”
A muffled noise came from behind the rag tied around William’s mouth. The squad looked over at the elderly maintenance man who was trying to communicate something. Marlowe nodded at Poet, who walked over to him and pulled the rag from his mouth.
“Mixture’s too rich,” the old man said.
“They call it an oxy-acetylene torch for a reason, son. There’s two tanks there. You can’t just throw gas out and expect it to catch. You gotta bring the O2 up a bit.”
Jacobs reached over and opened the green tank’s valve. He struck the flint on the igniter. The torch began to roar as a bright yellow and red flame poured forth.
“There ya go,” William said. “Now, tighten the valve on the nozzle until a tight blue flame…that’s it!”
Jacobs grinned boyishly. He waved Marlowe over. As she shuffled toward him, William asked, “You don’t intend to use that to cut them shackles off, do you?”
“Yeah, I am,” Jacobs retorted. “Now why don’t you shut up and let me work?”
“You didn’t even know how to light the damn thing. I’m pretty sure you don’t wanna be using it on a person like that.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Won’t matter how careful you are, you’re gonna hurt the lady.”
“Enough,” Jacobs said. “Poet, gag him again.”
“Hold on,” Marlowe said as Poet began to place the rag back in William’s mouth. “What’s the issue?”
“Whelp, them shackles are made of forged steel, looks like,” he said. “Steel conducts heat. And they’re wrapped around your arms, which are made of flesh. Flesh melts…after it burns.”
The room was silent except for the sound of the torch burning, as the team considered the implications of William’s comments. He decided their silence meant that they weren’t quite grasping the situation, so he clarified. “You might get them bracelets off, but you’ll probably take her hands and feet with ’em.”
“Well, shit!” Jacobs shouted.
“Yeah, I’m not a fan of that idea,” Marlowe said. “Is there anything else in this building we could use?”
“My saws are back at the job site,” William said. “But if you give me an awl, a hammer, and about half a minute, I could sort you out.”
“What good is banging on steel shackles with a hammer?” Jacobs asked.
“That’s why I mentioned the awl, son,” William said. “Wouldn’t take but a few good whacks to bust out the pins holding the hinges between each set of them cuffs together.”
“Huh…that could work,” Marlowe said. “Jacobs?”
“On it,” Jacobs said. He walked over to the workbench and considered the vast array of tools, scratching his head and biting his bottom lip.
“You don’t know what an awl is, do you, boy?” William asked with a chuckle.
Jacobs whipped his head around, shouting, “Shut up, old man!”
“Have it your way…” William said with a shrug. “Good luck with your search.”
Jacobs turned back to the bench and began picking up just about anything that looked to him like it could be an awl. He picked up several screwdrivers, one of which he brought to Marlowe to see if it was the same circumference as the pin that held the left shackle to the right. With a groan, he threw the overlarge tool to the ground and returned to his search.
“This is going to take forever,” Marlowe said. She looked at Poet and nodded toward William. “Free him.”
“I can find it!” Jacobs said from over his shoulder, tossing tools hither and yon.
“Let it go,” Marlowe said as Poet cut away the tape holding William to the chair. “He’s going to help us. Aren’t you, William?”
“Well, it’s that or sit with my own snot in my mouth,” he replied. “Neither option tastes very good, but I reckon helping you is a damn sight better than having my workshop torn apart.”
“We greatly appreciate it,” Marlowe said as the last of William’s binds were cut away. The old man stood and rubbed his chafed wrists, and made his way over to the workbench. He pulled open a drawer on the left and produced a long, thin, pointed piece of forged steel with a bulb-shaped handle at the end.
“Why didn’t you just tell me it was in the drawer?” Jacobs asked with a snarl.
“You done did enough damage to my things,” William said. “And I just reorganized that drawer.”
“Alright, let’s get this over with,” Marlowe said. “Angel, cover him.”
Angel lifted the barrel of her rifle and trained it on the man’s head.
“I don’t know why you gotta keep a gun on me,” William remarked to Marlowe.
“We don’t like taking chances,” she answered.
“I mean, if it makes you feel better, go on ahead–”
“–It does,” she interjected. “Are you going to help me or not?”
William shook his head, sighed, and waved her over to where he stood. “Put your hands right here on this vise,” he ordered as she approached.
With a loud CLANG, she placed her bound wrists on top of the gigantic iron bench vise. William twirled the handle on the vise’s tension screw until the jaws opened fully. The top and bottom edges of the massive cuffs just barely slid into the opening between the jaws.
“Tight fit,” he said. “But I think it’s gonna work. Now, lift up just a teeny bit…that’s it. Don’t want you to get pinched up in this here thing.”
“How considerate,” Marlowe said drily as William twisted the vise closed as tight as it would fit against the cuffs. He pushed Marlowe’s shoulder and leaned her over as far as she could go. Reaching over her outstretched arms, he placed the tip of the awl against the small binding bolt holding the cuffs together.
“This ain’t gonna give us much room to work,” he said, “So don’t be wigglin’ around or nothing. I don’t wanna hit you.”
“Just get it done,” she answered.
He grabbed a small sledgehammer from where it hung on the pegboard in front of the bench. He slowly traced the arc of where the hammer needed to swing, exhibiting the awkwardness of the angle. Suddenly, he reared back and swung wide, striking the base of the awl with a solid PING. And then another. And another.
PING after PING, the awl sunk deeper and deeper into the slot of the hinges as the bolt began to slide out, and then a loud KA-CHINK echoed through the workshop. The bolt bounced onto the workbench, and the chain holding the wrist cuffs to the ankle shackles clattered to the floor.
Marlowe heaved a heavy sigh of relief as William extracted the awl from the bolt hole. With a few twists of the vise, her wrists came free.
“THANK YOU!” Marlowe bellowed as she swung her arms around, gloriously stretching out her tight shoulders. The momentum of the heavy cuffs carried her arms forward, and then back, pulling the kinks from her muscles.
“Okay, now the hard part,” William said. He wagged his finger back and forth between Poet and Jacobs. “You big, strong boys are gonna have to hold her up so I can get at them ankle cuffs.”
“What,” Angel said. “You don’t think a girl can do it?”
“Not while holding that there gun at my head,” William said without so much as a blink.
“Good point,” she replied.
“Careful,” Jacobs said to Poet. “She’s a lot heavier than she looks.”
“Well, yeah,” Poet said, “Her entire muscular system is augmented. That’s not light.”
“See? He gets it,” Marlowe said with a smirk.
“Shut up,” Jacobs said, flinging Marlowe’s right arm over his shoulder. Poet grabbed her left arm and positioned himself under her armpit. Together, the men hoisted Marlowe into the air. She lifted both of her legs as high as she could to reach the anvil. With a little assistance from William, her ankles landed with the same loud CLANG.
The veteran engineer followed the same procedure he had performed on her wrists, and in short order, the pin was jettisoned and the cuffs were separated. William freed Marlowe’s ankles from the vise, and Jacobs and Poet lowered her back to the ground.
Marlowe bent over and stretched her back and legs, breathing a heavy sigh of relief. She was free, albeit still cuffed on each appendage by nearly ten pounds each of banded steel. As she massaged her arms and legs, she reflected that out of everything she’d ever accomplished: Youngest NFL MVP, multiple “Next Top Soldier” wins, MilSec Hall Of Fame inductee…no other moment from her twenty-nine years of life could compare. This was undoubtedly the best feeling she’d ever experienced.
She stood straight, rolled her shoulders a few times, and sighed. She unzipped the prison jumpsuit and pulled each of her arms out of the sleeves; the cuffs on each wrist barely sliding through the baggy fabric. She tied the sleeves around her waist and straightened the tank top she was wearing. A welcome chill ran through her as the frigid winter air cooled her exposed arms.
“Okay,” she said with authority. “If we’re going to hold up here, we need eyes outside. MilSec is likely going to scour every inch of Atlanta and this place will be on their radar sooner rather than later, so we need to see them coming. There’s a proximity sensor and rear-view camera on the vehicle we came in, correct?”
“Yeah,” Poet said. “I think I get where you’re going with this.”
“Good,” she replied. “Get busy scouring this place for anything we can use to rig up a makeshift surveillance system. Jacobs, you get that torch prepped, we’re going to need it. Angel, secure William in the back room. And be nice about it, he’s a good man.”
“Wouldn’t I be more useful on overwatch?” Angel asked.
“You’re on overwatch of our prisoner, who represents a far greater risk than an enemy we can hear coming. And we’re short on time, don’t waste any of it questioning my orders, got me? Now all of you — move. Let’s go!”
They all nodded and set about their tasks. Marlowe grabbed the car keys from the workbench where Poet left them and exited the building, softly closing the heavy steel door behind her. She scanned the grounds and found the opened padlocks that Poet had picked. She placed them in each of the latch hooks and locked them with a satisfying click.
Confused voices rang out as the team inside began banging on the door. Marlowe casually strolled over to the maintenance truck that William had driven up in, reached inside, and put the vehicle in neutral. It was far more difficult than it should have been for her to get it rolling, but eventually she was able to push the truck up so that the front bumper rested against the door. She kicked a small mound of gravel into a heap behind the front left tire, then reached in and pulled up the emergency brake, fixing the truck in place in front of the building.
With a smile and a light toss-and-catch of the car keys, she began jogging to the car she was brought in.
Marlowe felt the weight of the magnetically locked cuffs that wrapped around her wrists and ankles. She felt the heft of the cable that connected the restraints and kept her from standing completely straight. She felt the strain of every single muscle fiber in her body, both natural and augmented as they sagged, heavy from malnutrition and fatigue. She felt her head throb with every weak heartbeat. Her eyes pulsed as the capillaries expanded and contracted.
She could smell propellant and gunpowder on the soldiers who rode along with her in the truck — scents that she remembered during her tours overseas in the Gaslands, fighting the many terrorist organizations that threatened the United American State’s way of life. Smells that could only come from black market weaponry used by deserters who had turned against the organization she spent her adult life serving, to rescue her from a prison sentence for a crime they believe she didn’t commit. As a loyal MilSec soldier, she should despise them. But on that same token, they were the reason she was in a civilian vehicle and not sitting in a jail cell in the Citadel. Why they were helping her, she didn’t know. Maybe they were terrorists, or maybe they were just an overzealous faction of her fan club. Marlowe surmised that when you’re surrounded by strangers with guns, confined in binds and completely malnourished, there was very little difference between a rescue and a kidnapping.
But at least her ass was no longer numb.
Her thoughts began to drift as she contemplated the events of the past few months. It seemed to her that the chaos of her current circumstances was a natural progression of her entire screwball life. Even from a young age, it felt to her like every single shortcoming of hers had been on public display. As an “illegal child” — a child of a non-native Citizen — adopted by a revered MilSec General and his celebrity actress wife, Marlowe faced immediate and overwhelming fame and was put on every gossip-related NewsFeed from babyhood onwards. And of course, it ensured that her childhood became a highly rated Feed show.
Her early draft by the UAFL at age fourteen made her a celebrity in her own right, until she was banned from the league in the middle of her third year for “undisclosed augmentations” — which had come as a shock to her, since she’d always presumed her uncanny speed and strength were simply the gifts of talent and genetics. No one had ever thought to test her for nanofiber muscular augmentations, because no one knew that they even existed.
If it wasn’t for the full-body scan she was subjected to on the return trip home from an exhibition game at the island resort in Oz, they probably never would have. A measure typically used to detect terrorists and their smuggled weapons ended up nearly bankrupting the League after allegations of Marlowe’s augmentations being purposely covered up for ratings ran rife.
To discover she was an Aug through a SportFeed press release was crippling, and not knowing how or why she acquired them made life downright debilitating. Depression and a suicide attempt kept her out of the public eye until she was eighteen, when she was finally able to enlist in MilSec,one of only a few hundred non-criminals to willingly serve, which itself was NewsFeed worthy. It was one of her father’s better ideas. Her subsequent success as a soldier made all of the misery worth it, despite the fact that it kept her in the public eye. For ten years, her Feed grew from a few thousand casually curious Citizens who were curious if the General’s kid could live up to his legacy, to nearly half the nation who felt she had far surpassed it. Multiple wins on Next Top Soldier and then becoming the first active-service soldier to be inducted into the MilSec Hall of Fame justified her wretched path to the top. Fame irritated her, but rubbing her success in the face of her detractors somehow made it all worth it.
Then the “incident” occurred.
Thanks to an inept lawyer, a court-martial, missing evidence, and a tribunal that seemed utterly dismissive of what the most decorated and respected soldier in MilSec history had to say for herself, that high had come crashing down around her, as if it was fated. And now she found herself in a car with traitors, on the run from the service she’d spent the last ten years of her life working for — a life that was now ruined.
However, she had to admit, the break from the chaos of watching her entire life erode around her — yet again — was nice. And despite the insanity of the past day of being carted around her hometown of Atlanta in shackles by various groups in various vehicles, and the weeks of courtroom visits, teams of lawyers, and the months of solitary confinement in the Citadel military prison…she was actually enjoying this moment. Chaos was her normal state. She wasn’t locked in a box. She was still alive. And, for better or for worse, at least things were interesting again.
A chirp from Jacobs’s FeedMeter echoed through the vehicle.
“Holy… ten million…” Jacobs said from the front passenger seat. “Half of the Nation is watching us!”
“Oh for fucks’ sake, blondie…” The driver said from behind the strangely camouflaged bandanna pulled over his mouth. He shook his head, and his long, dreadlocked ponytail shifted. “Quit obsessing over that shit. And besides, ten million is only a quarter of the nation, you idiot.”
“Whatever,” Jacobs answered. “Can you believe it? I’m…I mean, WE are famous!”
“No, we are not famous, and you aren’t either,” said the other MilSec soldier-turned-traitor, who was sitting next to Marlowe in the back seat. Her chin-length auburn hair spilled out from under her helmet as she lifted it from her head. She nodded toward Marlowe. “She’s the famous one. We’re just along for the ride. Don’t get it twisted.”
“Yeah, yeah, Angel,” Jacobs answered, “Ten million people are watching us right now!”
The driver of the vehicle suddenly reached over and placed his hand on Jacobs’s camera, twisted it off the harness and ripped it from his chest.
“Dude! What the fuck, Poet?!” Jacobs yelled.
“This isn’t about your goddamn FeedMeter rank, man!” Poet said as he rolled the window down and tossed out the camera. It clattered and clanged as it bounced along the road. “You’re not even supposed to be broadcasting right now. People are supposed to find us organically.”
“But we have to get the message out,” Jacobs said.
“Now’s not the time,” Angel shouted from the backseat.
“Oh, like it’s your call?” Jacobs said. “You outranked me in MilSec, Corporal, but in this operation–”
“–In this operation, we follow the plan,” Angel interjected. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“I came up with the damn plan!” Jacobs snapped. “I know what we are doing! It’s my plan!”
“Sure,” Poet said from the driver’s seat. “This was one hundred percent ‘Operation: Jacobs’s Idea,’ wasn’t it? Oh wait, except for the escape that I planned, or the overwatch that Angel provided, or the heavy artillery that Pariah chucked at the transport, or –”
“Whatever!” Jacobs said. “You specialists do your specialist crap, I get it. That’s your job. Mine was to make it all happen.”
“Just because you volunteered to be in the transport with the target doesn’t make you the leader,” Angel said as she removed her tactical gloves and stretched her fingers.
“The ‘target’?” Jacobs asked. “You mean MK? The woman sitting right next to you? Who wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for me? Is that the ‘target’ you meant?”
“Dude, you shot your Sergeant,” Poet said. “Big deal.”
“Yeah, it WAS a big deal!” Jacobs yelled. “I didn’t see any of you raising your hands to ride in the belly of that beast!”
“You’re MilSec Police!” Angel replied. “Who the hell else could have had access?”
“That’s right, I had the access, and I pulled her out!” Jacobs said, pointing at himself and pounding his chest with his index finger. “I did this! Me!”
Jacobs looked at Poet, and then turned around in his seat to glare at Angel. He waited for a reply from either of his teammates. Neither offered one, apart from exasperated sighs.
“That’s what I thought!” Jacobs said. “Go on, say it…tell me which of us got Marlowe out!”
“The Judge did,” Angel said. “This is his operation. He put this together. Know your place.”
The mention of The Judge froze Jacobs in his tracks. He took a breath and sat back in his seat. After a moment of sullen contemplation, he muttered “Well, we’re still famous.”
“Shut up, Jacobs,” Poet said as he slowed for a stop signal. Realizing that he was breaking approximately thirty separate laws simply by driving the vehicle he was in, carrying the people that were in it, he abruptly changed his mind and slammed the throttle lever forward, flying through the red light.
“What the fuck did you just say to me?”
Poet pulled his mask from his face. “I said shut up,” he repeated, looking over at Jacobs. “Need me to say it again? Okay fine: Shut up. Shut up, shut up. Shut. Up.”
Jacobs stared at Poet for a moment, before finally saying, “Fuck you.”
“Witty,” Poet replied, returning his eyes to the road.
“Get a haircut, you reggae fuck.”
“You wanna try cutting my dreads?” Poet said. “Be my guest.”
“I could, you know,” Jacobs said with a slight smile.
“Better men than you have tried. Even blonde ones.”
“Oooooh, look at you! Mister ‘Tough Guy From The Subs’ pulling the super hard job of driving the getaway vehicle…”
Angel shook her head and rolled her eyes as she sunk into the back seat. Poet and Jacobs continued to bicker as the car rolled through the streets from Terminus Citadel through Five Points, into the neighborhoods of Old Atlanta.
Marlowe sat in frank disbelief — not just because this group seemed incapable of collectively tying a shoe without picking a fight with one another, but also for the simple reason that she was even in the same vehicle as them. She had at least thirty questions flying through her brain. Who the hell were these people? What did they want with her? How did they pull off this elaborate rescue? But only question bubbled up from her lips.
“Does anyone have any food?”
The vehicle fell silent. Jacobs turned around in his seat. Angel jolted out of her reverie. Poet looked at Marlowe in the rear view mirror. It seemed to hit them all at that moment: they actually had the most famous — and dangerous — person in the nation sitting cuffed in their vehicle.
“Well?” Marlowe demanded, snapping them out of their starstruck trance.
“Um… yeah,” Angel said, reaching into a pouch on the front of her vest. She pulled out a Battery bar and offered it to Marlowe.
Marlowe narrowed her eyes at Angel. She lifted her eyebrows and widened her eyes, as if to say Really? Angel looked confused. Marlowe extended her cuffed wrists as far as they would go toward Angel, which wasn’t very far. She fluttered her fingers, then turned her palms upward. How, idiot?
“Oh right,” Angel said, embarrassed. She peeled back the packaging on the nutrient-rich bar and started gingerly toward Marlowe’s face with it.
“That part I can do myself,” Marlowe said. “Just…put it in my hand.”
Angel complied. Marlowe leaned forward and began devouring the bar in her cuffed hands.
“Think that’ll be enough for you to bust out of your binds?” Jacobs asked.
“Hardly,” Marlowe said with a mouth full of half-gnawed food bar. She chewed as quickly as possible, swallowing a little prematurely. She coughed, choking. Jacobs flung himself into the back seat, poised to save his hero. Marlowe shot him a look that caused him to swiftly slink back to the front.
“I’m fine,” she said through her coughs. “I just haven’t had…well, anything to eat in months. And to answer your question, no. These shackles…never seen anything like them before. Considering I can’t even stand up straight, even at full strength, I don’t know if I could manage enough leverage. I hope you guys have something in mind, because my hands are literally tied.”
Jacobs composed himself. “Yeah, they’re magnetically coded. I have the unlock codes from Terminus Citadel. Poet’s got an emulator at the safehouse. We can clone the release key once we get there.”
“And where is this safehouse?” Marlowe asked.
“Atlanta Beach. Like, literally on the beach, in Jonesboro,” Jacobs said, a smile of pride creeping across his face. “My aunt’s old house. She left it to me when she died. It’s pretty sweet, actually! Infinity pool with its own distillation evaporator, and a full bar, too! I know how much you like scotch, and I even got you some of your favorite cigars–”
“You’re kidding, right?” Marlowe asked as she leaned down to eat the last bit of food from her fist.
“Nope,” Jacobs replied. “Only the best for you, MK!”
“It’s dead,” Marlowe stated.
“Your safehouse. It’s dead.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re using a property that was in your family’s name as a safehouse?” Marlowe asked. “After your Feed was watched by over ten million citizens? Your face — all your faces — are probably pinned in every MilSec soldier’s HUD, unclosable. Everything about you is in their briefing. Family history, property you own, places you visit…nothing connected to you is safe.”
Angel looked at Jacobs. Jacobs looked at Poet.
“Don’t look at me, mister mastermind!” Poet said. “The safehouse was your responsibility.”
“It’s solid!” He insisted. “The whole place is dark. I have a faraday cage and thermal insulation built into the walls. Power runs off a generator in a lead-lined, underground bunker. It’s completely invisible! I rigged it myself. No one can scan us.”
Marlowe scoffed. “So you have a house you inherited from your aunt, and you went and rigged it up to look like a gigantic black hole on a thermal scan? And that makes it safe?”
“What the hell does that mean?” Jacobs asked.
“It’s a huge black spot in a sea of yellow and red. You might as well hang a sign out front that says ‘Super Secret Safehouse’ — but that doesn’t matter. They don’t need to scan for it. It was your aunt’s, right? As in she willed it to you?”
“Well yeah, but I transferred it to –”
“Doesn’t matter. Your name’s on the paper trail. It’s dead. Better find somewhere else.”
The vehicle was silent once again.
“Goddammit, Jacobs!” Angel yelled. She punched the headrest of the seat in front of her. “I told you!”
“JAQi,” Poet said “Show me the feed from Location Alpha.”
“Seriously?” Marlowe said with a chuckle. “Location Alpha…good fucking God, this is amazing — wait a minute! You had to be blocked after being on NewsFeed. They have your face and your biometrics…how are you able to use JAQi with a blacklisted Pod?”
“It’s rooted,” Angel said, referring to the method of hacking equipment by completely overwriting its core operating system. “Poet’s got a black market flash for his Pod. We will get one too, once we get clear of all this.”
“And you two?” Marlowe asked, looking at Angel and Jacobs. “They’re not tracking your Pods?”
“Jammed,” Poet said, pointing to a small box wired into the dash of the car. “No data out, only in. Yours is, too.”
“She doesn’t need Pod-jamming though, do you, MK?” Jacobs said with a wink.
“I noticed the scar,” Jacobs answered, pointing to an area on his own face just behind his jawbone. “And see? I told you, we thought of everything!”
A square patch of the vehicle’s windscreen darkened, flickered, then displayed the Feed requested by Poet. It showed a normal looking house in a normal looking neighborhood.
“Switch to thermal,” Poet said.
The screen changed from a video Feed to a temperature-based scan. Figures and objects in every house glowed in hues from red to yellow to orange, all radiating some sort of heat in every house except one, which was pitch black.
“See?” Jacobs said. “We’re clear!”
“…Except for that mass of green two doors down on the left,” Marlowe said, nodding toward the display. “The one that’s three times larger than it should be.”
“That’s just thermal radiation from that house,” Jacobs replied.
“It’s moving,” Marlowe said as she sunk back into her seat. “Houses don’t move. That’s reflected heat.”
“Aw, fuck,” Poet said with a groan. “They’re using thermoptics.”
Jacobs studied the screen. To the average eye, it wouldn’t register. But Marlowe and apparently Poet had seen this sort of thing before: experimental camouflage that turned the wearer invisible to the naked eye and even blocked body heat…to a point.
“Thought of everything, huh?” Marlowe asked.
“Shit!” Jacobs said, punching the dashboard in frustration. “We’ve been compromised…JAQi, notify Team Raven and tell them to divert to… oh shit. Where are we going to go?”
“We’ll have to go straight to HQ,” Angel said.
“And where’s that?” Marlowe asked.
“The capital!?!” Marlowe said with a laugh. “This just gets better and better!”
“Not gonna happen,” Poet stated. “This vehicle is pre-war. We’ve got maybe four hours’ range, max. We’d need to stop and recharge at least twice.”
“I have to hand it to you, Private First Class,” Marlowe said, “You certainly masterminded one hell of a clusterfuck.”
“Hey, we busted you out of a highly secured prison transport!” Jacobs responded. “We saved your ass! The least you could do is be thankful!”
“Thankful?” Marlowe asked. “All you’ve done is ensure that the entire country now believes without a doubt that I’m a traitor! And you put huge targets on your own heads! Hell, you were going to broadcast our entire trip to this supposed safehouse, and for what? Some FeedMeter rank?”
“Well, yeah,” Jacobs replied. “It’s part of the plan–”
“WHAT plan?!?” Marlowe yelled.
“The Judge’s plan,” Angel said from beside her.
“Who the hell is The Judge?” Marlowe asked. Before anyone could answer, she continued ranting. “It doesn’t even matter. When — not if, but WHEN — we get caught, you can install FeedMeter to measure the Feed views for your execution! I’m sure you’ll break your ten million viewer record! You won’t even need me. You’ll ACTUALLY be famous on your own!”
Jacobs slunk into his seat. He folded his arms over his chest and pouted. Angel leaned her head against the window and sighed. Marlowe shook her head and laughed.
“Well, let’s not get caught, then,” Poet said. “I have an idea.”
“Great! An idea! That’ll save us,” Marlowe said. “And what do you have in mind? Drive us to the Super Bowl and put me in as quarterback? I’m sure the nation would love seeing me suit up again! I can see the headlines now: ‘Aug Cheater and Traitor Marlowe Kana: Super Bowl MVP!’ Let’s just remind everyone why they should hate me even more.”
“The EV plant,” Poet replied.
Marlowe was about to reflexively retort, but caught herself. She thought for a moment. “Huh…” She said as her tension subsided. She nodded. “Yeah, that’s actually a good idea. Damn, at least one of you thinks like a soldier.”
“He’s not even a soldier,” Jacobs said. “And why the hell would we go to the water treatment facilities?”
“The evaporators throw out huge radio interference from the turbines, and the heat from the steam engines would mask thermal,” Poet explained. “No one could scan for us.”
“What he said,” Marlowe said. “And if he’s not a soldier, what is he?”
“I’m just a street rat from the Subs who has become a believer in the Sovereign,” Poet answered.
Marlowe’s eyes narrowed. “The Sovereign?” she asked.
“Let’s just say we’re a group who believes your story,” Jacobs replied.
Angel looked over at Marlowe and nodded. Poet gave a thumbs up from behind the wheel.
“Fuck me,” Marlowe said, shaking her head. “I am being rescued by my fan club.”
Like a dysfunctional family on the road trip to hell, Marlowe, Poet, Jacobs, and Angel made the rest of the journey southeast to the water evaporation facilities in disgruntled silence. Jacobs stewed silently in embarrassment. Angel was carefully watching every car, drone, and pedestrian for signs that the group’s cover may have been blown. Poet was focused on driving as normally as possible. And Marlowe? She was just plain tired.
She was just drifting off when a loud rumble emanated from under the vehicle — the sound of wheels on gravel. They had arrived.
A checkerboard of various Feeds spanned across the wall-sized screens surrounding President Cook’s desk.
“Does This Prove MK Is A Traitor?” The caption on one Feed asked, as pundits eagerly discussed the attack on the transport.
“More Than Guilty!” another caption blared. The footage of explosions rocking and toppling the transport truck played in slow motion.
“Terrorist Plot To Kill MK?!?” Asked another, as an uncredentialed “terrorism expert” discussed the situation via live chat with a young boy who was hosting a CitizenFeed from his bedroom.
Dozens of other Feeds had dozens of other takes on the trial, the prison break, Marlowe’s supposed attack on Sergeant Corta, and even the fashion of the non-MilSec citizens who had ambushed the parade of armored vehicles. One Feed featured a fashion expert enthusing that the guerillas’ strange-looking, black-and-white-speckled camouflage fatigues, along with the makeup and masks they wore, would be the hot, must-have look for spring.
Despite three of the four walls of his office being covered with footage from dozens of Feed streams, President Cook’s steely blue eyes were fixed on a small screen at the center of his desk.
“No, go back one frame,” he said as he ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper black hair. JAQi complied, rewinding the video on the screen by a frame. It was a recording of the NewsFeed drone footage. On the screen, the left hand of the solder exiting the prison transport with Marlowe moved slightly farther from his face, his middle finger extended toward the drone overhead.
“This one is perfect,” Cook said. “Grab it.” The screen flashed white for a fraction of a second as JAQi captured the image.
“The soldier in the image is Private First Class Robert Jacobs,” JAQi said, its receptive voice filling the room. “Shall I fetch his dossier?”
“Nah, leave the profiling and investigations up to MilSec Command,” the President said as he flattened the hairs he had distractedly ruffled. “Just get this image out there, along with the others in this group whose faces you can see. National alert, every screen, unclosable. And I want to know why some of these peoples’ faces are blocked. ”
“Absolutely, sir,” JAQi said.
“Play it again.”
President Cook watched, for the eleventh time, as the prison transport was ambushed by pre-war vehicles. He managed not to flinch as he watched a large cargo truck slam head-on into the MilSec convoy’s lead vehicle, stopping it dead in its tracks. Rockets fired from shoulder-mounted launchers flew from off-screen into the maglev drive of the heavily armored prison transport. The resulting explosion of the levitating propulsion engine scorched the road, flipped the behemoth up and tipped it on its side. The turncoat MilSec soldiers from the rear escort exited and opened fire on the soldiers attempting to exit the two disabled vehicles.
Half a dozen armed personnel, clad in parts and pieces of stolen or homemade armor, appeared from off-screen in all directions — their faces frustratingly blocked out and pixelated on the camera. Teaming up with the MilSec traitors, they joined the attack, using rockets, homemade chemical explosives and biometrically hacked railguns to annihilate what remained of the MilSec guard. Marlowe and Jacobs were helped out of the back of the prisoner transport. The groups split up and entered their getaway vehicles. A soldier lifted his rifle and opened fire on the drone recording the events from above. The screen flickered in rainbow colors for a fraction of a second before going dark.
The President looked up from the screen on his desk. He surveyed the array of Feeds before him and smiled. He rotated his chair to his left and addressed the wall-sized grid of faces watching him; each member of the Board of Directors of Imagen Corporation was grimly awaiting his reply.
“Well, Steven?” Chairman Alvin Davis asked. “You cannot tell us in good faith that you saw this coming.”
“This?” President Cook replied. “No. I didn’t see this coming. This is so much better than what we planned.”
“What you planned,” the Chairman countered. “This thing you’ve concocted is coming off the rails.”
“No, this plan WE all signed off on, that WE are enacting… This plan is going far better than WE could have possibly imagined. It’s a huge success.”
“How the hell do you call this a success!?”
“Look at the ratings!” Cook said, gesturing toward a grid of statistics on one of the Feed displays. “Off the charts, across the board…the entire nation — forty million citizens — all of them, engaged as never before! Don’t you see the potential here?”
“All I see is a gigantic shitshow!” Chairman Davis replied, his face as red as his necktie. “You’ve got a multi-million credit MilSec asset — our biggest ratings gainer, mind you — running rogue with some splinter group of whoever the hell those people are, doing whatever the hell they plan to do with her…dead soldiers, destroyed vehicles, pandemonium across every Feed…a nation completely folding in on itself! That’s what I see!”
Cook sighed. He rubbed his temples. “You know what I see?” His muffled voice asked from behind his hand.
“Why don’t you enlighten us,” Davis said drily.
The President removed his hand from his face, clenched it into a fist, and slammed it on his desk. “I see an old man doing business the old way!” He barked. “Lazy and myopic…no understanding of what drives people! Of what drives engagement! I see a group of suits who have grown complacent, who can’t see the bigger picture.”
“Watch yourself,” Davis warned. “Your pedigree betrays you. Yes, the office of the Presidency cannot govern Imagen Corporation operations, and vice-versa. Your father saw to that. He was a wise man. He understood the benefits of divisions of power. And when he was the Chairman of Imagen, he oversaw the greatest rebuilding and revitalization of a country that this world has ever seen. And although you won the popular vote, you are still beholden to the agreements struck between the new constitutional council and this company.”
“I won it over you, I might remind you,” Cook retorted.
“Yes, as we decided,” Davis replied without hesitation.
Cook sighed and rolled his eyes.
Davis continued, “Your father did not intend for his rogue egomaniac of a son, drunk on his own power, to run rampant and undo all the work he completed when Imagen had provisional control over the nation. He intended for the office of the first President of the United American State and the Board of Imagen Corporation to work together to continue his goal of Reformation. He was a man of great vision. You, however…you weren’t even alive the last time this country had a president! You are your father’s son, yes. But you’re absolutely not your father.”
“You’re right,” Cook said. “I am not my father. I am the President of the United American State, goddammit!”
President Cook slammed his fist on his desk, stopping Davis cold. He stood up from his chair, defiantly facing the Board. “I am the first President this nation has had in 54 years, since before the war!” He barked. “The people trust in me, just as they trusted in my father when he was in your position, ‘Chairman’ Davis!” The emphasis on Chairman caused Davis to grit his teeth.
Cook continued, “He recognized the need for a leader that doesn’t belong to a corporation that employs the people of this nation. And the people want someone who represents them, and not the interests of the company that produces everything they have and use. They need a man that is of the people and for the people, elected by the people — and goddammit, that’s what I am!
“Steven, if you’ll just –”
“–And if the engagement metrics on the Feeds from tonight and from the past three months are any indication, I am doing the job granted me by the people of this great nation! Now, if you’ll excuse me, ladies and gentlemen of the Board, I need to address the Citizens — my employers — about the events that have just unfolded.”
“Steven!” Chairman Davis said, just before his Feed was cut off along with the rest of the Board members’.
President Steve Cook sighed heavily as the lights brightened and the wall screens faded to white. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose. He counted to ten, and then slowly exhaled through his mouth. Centered and calm, he approached the doorway of his studio. It slid open as he walked toward it.
“Marcus,” he said, addressing his assistant who sat just outside the studio.
“I need you to personally create a FeedRelease announcing an emergency CookTalk. Make it public…general admission based on the Citizen Lottery System. Doors open at nine p.m., I’ll begin speaking at nine-thirty. Make the slogan something like…‘Back To The Top.’ and make sure the word ‘Top’ is underlined. Three times. The fans will love deciphering that.”
“Yes, sir,” Marcus said. He gestured his hands upward and began typing on a light array that appeared before him. “That’s a very short turnaround… Do you need me to page the writing staff?”
“No, I’ve got this one. Any vital messages?” President Cook asked as he made his way briskly toward the exit.
“Well, Chairman Davis called back the second you hung up on him, but I’m sure you expected that.”
Cook nodded. “Anything else?”
Marcus scanned his other screen. “A few Anons claim to have information on Marlowe’s whereabouts…none appear credible. One just says ‘Post your Ballsack.’ And the dancing cat GIF you liked is back again.”
Cook rubbed his chin pensively. “Reblog the cat. Ignore the rest.”
“Yes, sir,” Marcus answered as the President left to address the nation.
Marlowe’s ass was numb.
She had been perched for the last hour on a cold metal bench bolted directly onto the side of a cold metal transport truck. And naturally, she was seated directly over the back wheel well, where the vibrations of the road were magnified. Her wrists and ankles were bound together with large, magnetically sealed cuffs constructed specially for abnormally strong, augmented super-soldiers. Both sets of cuffs were chained to the other in such a way that Marlowe was unable sit up straight or even stretch her sore, weakened muscles. The fact that the orange prisoner’s jumpsuit she was wearing did very little to insulate her rear from the frigid metal in the back of the unheated transport didn’t help matters.
Add in the fact that she hadn’t eaten anything beyond vitamin supplements and water in the last three months, and it meant that Marlowe’s numb ass, while annoying, was really just the beginning of her problems.
They could have held the trial anywhere. It would have made sense to do it in Indianapolis, at the Capitol building in MilSec Tribunal High Court. But the powers that be wanted to make a point. So they had trucked nearly the entire judicial operation to Atlanta for her trial. It made for great entertainment on the Feeds. There was nothing more poetic than parading Marlowe around her hometown in a prison transport. All of this was designed to make Marlowe as miserable as possible while entertaining the masses, and it most certainly worked. So she was already uncomfortable when the young and desperately over-eager blonde guard seated to her left opened his mouth.
“I, uh…I watch your Feed,” he said.
She didn’t look at him. She didn’t even look up. She stared at the grated flooring, hoping that counting the squares would somehow make him disappear.
“I’ve been watching it for years,” he continued. “I wish I was old enough to have seen it during your football days–”
“Jacobs,” the Sergeant seated across from them barked.
“What?” He replied. “It’s not like we’ll ever get this chance again, Sarge.”
Sergeant Morris rolled his eyes. “You’re a MilSec soldier. Contain yourself.”
Jacobs did not contain himself. He couldn’t. He was tied with at least 20 million other people for the title of “World’s Biggest MK Fan”. More than half of the United American State’s 40 million citizens ranked her Feed positively, and nearly all of them saw her face at least once a day on Feeds, product packaging, service announcements, MilSec recruitment posters… And here he was, sitting shoulder to shoulder with her. He wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to talk with her.
“I just… I have a question? If I may?” Jacobs asked.
Marlowe sighed heavily. She raised her head from between her shackled hands and turned to look at Jacobs. He couldn’t have been older than nineteen, which was the only reason she decided to tolerate his puppy-like eagerness.
Jacobs nearly choked. “…Wow. Just…okay, so, I don’t really know why you tried to kill Sergeant Corta. I mean, I didn’t really watch her Feed ever, but I know a lot of people watched her…but I don’t really believe that you were jealous of her. Her ratings aren’t that good. She’s not even half as famous as you.”
Marlowe very slowly and deliberately blinked at Jacobs.
“I mean, I just…I guess you had your reasons? That’s not really important, honestly. Not to me. Not as a soldier, I mean.”
“…Is there a question somewhere in there, Private?” Marlowe asked.
“…Yes, I just…well, I mean, how did you end up here?”
“I was found guilty of treason against the United American State,” she responded. “That tends to land you in the back of a prison transport with a talkative Private.”
“It’s, uh…Private First Class,” Jacobs said nervously. “And, I mean… I get that, but…”
Suddenly, a loud chirping sound echoed through the back of the transport.
“Oh wow!” Jacobs crowed. “I just hit 25,000 viewers on my Feed!”
Marlowe and Sergeant Morris both rolled their eyes simultaneously.
“You installed FeedMeter on your Pod?” Morris asked the young Private. “You know that’s against regs.”
“Well, I didn’t…” Jacobs stammered. “It’s just that, when I found out I pulled this detail, I just had to know what it would do to my FeedRank, just being in here. You know…with MK.”
Another ding. “Wow! Fifty thousand!” Jacobs exclaimed.
“Great,” Marlowe said, “Now fifty thousand idiots know you’re a terrible soldier who violates regulations.”
Jacobs laughed nervously again. “Well, no…they can’t hear us. Mic’s muted. ’Prisoner’s rights’ and all that…”
“Fine,” Marlowe said, “But I’m sure they can hear this.” She extended her bound hands as far as she could toward Private Jacob’s vest camera and flipped up her middle fingers.
Sergeant Morris chuckled. He had always liked MK. But he was MilSec first, as he had been for nearly twenty years. He knew the job, and that it was best not to let emotions (or follower counts) get in the way.
Private Jacobs blushed, embarrassed by looking like an idiot in front of his hero. With a slight creak in his voice, he said “So, uh, I was wondering…”
Marlowe sighed. “What now, Private?”
“It’s Private First Class,” Jacobs again corrected.
Marlowe narrowed her eyes.
Jacobs ducked his head sheepishly, cleared his throat, and asked “I just wanted to know, you know…how did you get captured? I mean, I’ve watched your Feed since before I joined MilSec. Hell, you’re the reason I joined in the first place! I even used to wear the scar in school!” He lifted his finger to his right eye. “You can even see where the ink stained my—”
“—Okay, enough, Jacobs,” Sergeant Morris said.
Jacobs continued, “With your augs…I mean, I’ve seen you take out ten, even fifteen enemy combatants before! And it’s just the two of us back here. You could probably—”
“Secure that line of questioning, Private!” Sergeant Morris commanded.
“And then what would I do?” Marlowe asked.
Morris and Jacobs looked over at Marlowe. “Ma’am?” Jacobs queried.
“I haven’t eaten real food in months. I barely have the energy to suffer your inane bullshit right now, much less break out of here. And even if I did, I’d be dead before I left the transport. I’m strong. I’m not bulletproof. So, even though I would love to pop these cuffs and bolt, I can’t. And even if I could–”
Jacobs’s FeedMeter chirped, interrupting Marlowe. “Holy…one hundred thousand!” Jacobs said.
“…Right,” Marlowe said with a sigh. “And then there’s that. I would have to kill two MilSec soldiers with one hundred thousand people watching, after swearing for three months that I’m not a traitor. And what would that prove? That I’m totally innocent? That I am definitely not a traitor who would murder her own? That everything I’ve sworn to uphold and protect with my life was a lie?”
She shifted in her seat as much as she was able. The chain that bound her wrists to her ankles jangled. “Whatever… It’s all bullshit. The trial…this parade through Atlanta…and especially this conversation.”
The transport fell silent. Sergeant Morris cleared his throat. Jacobs tapped his fingers on his leg. Marlowe placed her face back into her palms. The transport hummed as it carried its cargo of one prisoner and two chastened guards.
A distinctly different series of beeps sounded from Jacobs’s wrist.
Marlowe sighed loudly. “And what was that? Did you hit the the million viewer mark or something?” she asked.
Jacobs checked his watch. He looked up and grinned at Marlowe. “Nope. It’s time to go.”
Marlowe’s eyes widened as Jacobs suddenly leaped up from his seat and across the truck. His forearm landed across the throat of Sergeant Morris, and his body pinned the Sergeant’s rifle against his chest. With one swift movement, Jacobs pulled his sidearm from its holster, placed it against the temple of his commanding officer, and pulled the trigger.
The slim railgun hummed. A metal slug flew from the tip of the weapon. A red mist erupted from the former head of Sergeant Morris.
The transport suddenly lurched, as something hard and explosive slammed into the side of it with a deafening BOOM! Before it could balance out, another explosion hit just inches from where the first landed, followed by a third. The force of the barrage tipped the transport onto its side. Marlowe’s back and head slammed against the side of the vehicle. Jacobs crash-landed on his back beside her.
Another explosion erupted outside, and then another. The sound of metal ripping through metal could be heard all around as the lead and follow transport vehicles were picked apart. The barking of orders and screams of death echoed everywhere.
Marlowe struggled up to her knees. She lifted her head to see Jacobs lying upside down, ass in the air, his knees on either side of his head. He was grinning ear to ear. His FeedMeter chirped again in triplicate.
“Now THAT was the million follower mark!” he exclaimed. He rolled to his side and rose to one knee. “You ok?” He asked Marlowe.
She looked at him wide-eyed; her mouth hanging open. “Uh…”
“What? What’s wrong?” Jacobs asked, checking her over. “Did you get hit? Are you bleeding?”
“I, uh…I’m fine,” Marlowe replied. “What the fuck is–”
There was a vigorous clanging at the rear of the transport. Loud beeping could be heard.
“Stand back and brace yourself,” Jacobs told Marlowe as he positioned himself between her and the doors. He had no weapon — his rifle and sidearm were now useless. A biometrics lockout was activated the second he murdered Sergeant Morris. If this wasn’t who he thought it was, he was going to have to fight them with his bare hands.
A blast shook the truck. The right-side door, now facing the bottom, fell open and hit the ground with a loud CLANG. A group of dark-clothed legs and boots could be seen from the opening. Then, the other door was raised up.
“All good in here?” A voice queried.
Jacobs smiled. “Right as rain,” he said, as he walked toward the rear doors and climbed out of the back of the truck. He turned and beckoned Marlowe to exit. “Come on,” he said.
“Fuck you!” she replied.
Jacobs’s mouth dropped. “But…we’re rescuing you!”
“I have no idea who you are or what you want with me,” she snapped. “Why the hell would I go with you?”
“Well,” Jacobs responded, “You were on your way to prison for a crime you didn’t commit, and now you’re not, thanks to us. Unless you still want to end up there?”
Marlowe weighed her options. It didn’t take long; she didn’t have any. Reluctantly, she stood and waddled toward the back of the truck. She was helped out on her left by a uniformed female MilSec soldier who had apparently defected. On her right, she noticed a man clad in an unfamiliar pattern of pixelated camouflage, with chest armor that looked like it was made in a garage, and elbow and knee pads purchased from an Imagen Sporting Goods shop.
They helped Marlowe into the back seat of a pre-war vehicle that still miraculously rolled on tires and staggeringly enough, seemed to be powered by an electrical motor. The mercenary took the driver’s seat while the MilSec defector joined Marlowe in the back. Jacobs finished a conversation with another squad of four soldiers, half guerrilla and half MilSec defectors. He pointed into the sky. One of the guerrillas raised a rifle and opened fire on several drones that hovered above. They laughed as pieces of metal and glass and circuitry rained down around them.
Jacobs hopped into the front passenger seat of Marlowe’s vehicle, and they sped off.
“This can’t be happening!”
She tore through her family’s modest two-story home, skidding when her socked feet reached the kitchen floor tile. The lights rose as she crossed the threshold. Displaying the agility of her hero Marlowe Kana, she nimbly dodged the corner of the kitchen island and barely slowing, extended her hand and reached for the door handle to the greenhouse. Cool, fresh air greeted her shorn scalp as she flung the door wide.
“Dads!” she yelled.
Brian and David Millar both looked up, jarred from the peaceful zen of tending to their plants. Before either could ask what was going on, Britany blurted out. “It’s MK! It happened! She’s… You gotta come see!”
Brian looked at David and shrugged. “I guess we should…”
“Of course,” David said. “It’s important to her.”
“Well, it’s important, period,” Brian replied. “But especially to her.”
The fathers carefully laid their gardening implements on the table and walked toward the door, removing their gloves and masks. Britany had already fled back inside, finding it physically painful to be away from the screen. As Brian and David entered, they were taken aback by the massive red bar flashing across the screen on the living room wall as it blared the word “GUILTY!” Above the text was a pair of side-by-side photos of the most famous person in the nation: Marlowe Kana.
The left-hand photo displayed a half-body shot of a healthy, muscular woman in full MilSec dress uniform, campaign ribbons and medals adorning nearly the entire top half of her jacket. She had short white hair, carefully groomed and parted in a manner befitting a by-the-books MilSec soldier. Despite the massive scar across her cheek under her right eye, there was a light and a life in her eyes that complimented her slight smile. Her expression spoke volumes. It seemed to say that, while she took her duties seriously and performed them with the gravity of a committed and dedicated soldier, she had, in fact, a truly all-encompassing love for her work. A fact that all of her 20+ million fans knew from watching her Feed, despite her seemingly constant annoyance at the fame it brought her.
The right-hand photo showed the same woman, her hair shaved to stubble and her uniform replaced with a bright orange prison jumpsuit. The smile was gone, as was the light in her eyes. They seemed dead and hollow. Her cheekbones were pronounced and her face was gaunt from malnourishment.
The NewsFeed crawl below the photos detailed that just moments ago, at 7:02 p.m., “Next Top Soldier” Hall-of-Famer, Major Marlowe Kana, had been found guilty of attempted murder, conduct unbecoming a MilSec soldier, and treason against the United American State.
Despite having seen many hyperbolic developments on the NewsFeed in their days, both David and Brian couldn’t help but gasp. The national hero — everyone’s favorite Next Top Soldier for the past ten years and the General’s daughter — guilty of treason? It seemed impossible to believe. But there it was, writ large on the wall-sized screen, with every talking head on the NewsFeed animatedly discussing this latest development in the saga that had gripped the nation for the last three months.
“Oh dear,” Brian said just as David blurted out “Oh shit.” Brian smacked his husband on the arm.
Through the haze of her dismay, Britany heard her father cursing. She didn’t bother to remind him to put a credit in the curse jar. Self-improvement seemed trivial in the face of such earth-shattering news.
The street light streaming through the window wall glinted off of Britany Millar’s tears. She looked up at her fathers. Together, they went to her and comforted her. They ached to explain that even heroes can screw up and that everyone must be beholden to the law. But they couldn’t find the words. They didn’t need to. The entire nation had flooded the Feeds with their responses.
“…That’s right, Tom,” Amanda Stokes, correspondent for NewsFeed, was saying on the screen. “The nation overwhelmingly believed that Marlowe was guilty all along, with #IKnewIt in first place with 12 million tags.”
“You called it from the beginning, Amanda,” Tom Wallace replied, “For weeks, we’ve been watching #IKnewIt trend upward, as the evidence proving Marlowe’s innocence never turned up. So that is no surprise. But MK still has her fans, as we can see by the second place response #MarloweIsInnocent, followed by #PrayForMarlowe, #FuckMilSec, and #ShavedHeadSolidarity…”
The screen suddenly went silent as Britany extended her hand and circled her index finger counter-clockwise; a gesture-based command relayed to the screen via the embedded Pod that wrapped around the base of her skull, which muted the Feed. In a voice strangled with pain, she summoned the omnipresent AI assistant, JAQi.
“Yes, Britany?” JAQi replied flatly, seemingly from nowhere and everywhere at once.
“Post to my Feed that I’ll never, ever believe that MK is guilty, and anyone who does is immediately banned from my list!”
“Yes, Britany,” JAQi replied. A tone signaled that the job had been done.
“And also that I’m NOT growing my hair back just because she lost! Not ever!”
“Yes, Britany,” JAQi responded. Another tone signaled.
“–Britany, honey…” her father Brian interjected soothingly.
“No!” she snapped. “This isn’t…I’m NOT apologizing for supporting MK!”
“Honey,” David chimed in, “We know…”
“It’s a setup!” she yelled. “It has to be! Marlowe would never…she didn’t do this! It’s the terrorists! It’s got to be! They’re setting her up!”
“It’s a really complicated–” Brian began to say, before David cut him off.
“You’re right, honey,” David consoled. “This is a tragedy. You have a right to be upset.” He turned to his husband and looked him in the eyes. “We all do.”
On the screen, aerial footage flickered of Marlowe being led into a large secure transport vehicle, while the crawl continued to repeatedly trumpet her guilty verdict. Brian Millar hugged his daughter closer, and placed his free arm around his partner’s shoulder. Nothing would ever be the same: if they couldn’t put their trust in Marlowe Kana, then in whom could they?
Together, the family began to cry.