Marc couldn’t have been any happier in his elected position as Personal Service Professional at the Waffle House on Courtland Street. Sure, human service wasn’t often requested by customers, so he spent most of his nights leaned back against the wall with his high-tops on the counter, watching the Feeds. But on the rare occasion that customers requested that they be served by a living, breathing human being, Marc Winter was ready to go.
He’d been at this position for nearly thirty years — long enough for his hair to go from black, to grey, to gone. His ebon scalp shined almost as brightly as the smile perpetually stamped across his face, which forced the tips of his thick grey moustache to turn up jauntily at the edges. Marc had plenty to smile about. His granddaughter had just been accepted into the Imagen Advanced Training Academy, the exact week his daughter had graduated from the same illustrious institution – the first person in the family to do so, despite her late entry. Neither would have been able to go if not for his years of Superior Grade performance at the Waffle House. Being one of the few living recipients of a pre-MilSec Purple Heart didn’t hurt, nor did his impeccable service record for his enlistment during the Second Civil War. But even wartime heroics against the terrorists and separatists weren’t enough to guarantee entry to such an exclusive educational track at his social level. And that was why he chose to work. S-Grade in a chosen job was a sure ticket to success.
And he didn’t mind the labor. As jobs went, this one was pretty easy, and came with the perk of always being up to date on NewsFeed. But his daddy had raised him right. He never took something for nothing. “Even if every citizen had a right to guaranteed income from Imagen,” his father had lectured, “A real man works for his wage. Get up, get out, and get something.” Even if that something meant sitting on a stool at a counter endlessly smiling at anyone who came in, hoping in vain that they may actually want you to serve them. No matter what, it sure beat living off the Imagen dole.
And that’s why he liked Regina and Reginald Todd and their weird friend Tad. The twins and Tad had been coming into the Waffle House on Courtland and drinking bottomless cups of coffee every weekend for nearly four years. Marc loved those three kids. He knew them to be good kids. Most kids, when they reached the age of thirteen and the curfews and limits on drugs lifted, went crazy for a little while. They’d hit the Subs for booze and pills and got all that wandering out of their system. The Todd twins and Tad, though, just stuck to the classics: sugary syrup on their pecan waffles and good ol’ fashioned black caffeine.
The kids sat at the corner table every Saturday and Sunday from midnight until dawn discussing everything and anything from social issues and history to animation. Occasionally, they would bring in a bag full of dice and some paper with grid lines on it and make maps for their GURPS tabletop role-playing game.
This time, however, they were late. Really late. It was nearly five in the morning when they finally came traipsing in, jittery as hell, with their hoods pulled over their heads. It didn’t take a genius to see that they’d been up to no good.
They didn’t even ask J.A.Q.i to send “Marc the Man” over to get them their coffee. It was fine though, Marc didn’t take offense. It was just an oversight. It’d happened before. The kids came in all hot and heavy in discussion about history or politics or art or WarFeed and got distracted. He didn’t worry about such slights, because he knew they’d want him to serve them even if they forgot to ask. What did have him worried, however, was the fact that he couldn’t get any of the three to look up at him when he sauntered up to their table.
“Kids?” Marc asked softly for the third time. “You okay?”
“We’re fine,” Reggie said, face buried behind his hands. “Coffees.”
“Well, okay,” Marc said slowly. “Three black coffees coming right – oh wait! Looky here! They’re already in front of ya!” He gestured with his tray toward the three steaming mugs he’d placed before them.
Regina looked up from a nest of raven-black hair. Her bright-red face was streaked black with mascara and green with what looked like paint. Her hands were the same shade of green. She looked past her brother who was sitting slumped beside her and managed to lock her ice-blue eyes on Marc. The second she saw the concern in the gentle old man’s face, she broke into heart-wrenching sobs.
“Sweetheart!” Marc said in dismay. “What’s got you shook? All three y’all look like you saw a ghost!”
“The walls…” Tad said from his side of the table with a shudder. “The walls aren’t working! THEY AREN’T WORKING! We almost DIED because the damn WALLS AREN’T WORKING!”
“Cool it!” Reggie barked as he banged the table, startling Tad and causing Regina to plop her face back into the pile of her arms.
“Okay, what the hell is going on?” Marc said. “This ain’t you! This ain’t none of you!”
Reggie was still refusing to look at Marc. He gestured limply at the screen on the wall across from where they sat.
Marc looked over to see NewsFeed coverage of Marlowe’s thorough annihilation of over a hundred United American State Army soldiers. Amanda Stokes was at the helm, viciously condemning the horror Marlowe had just perpetrated and blaming her for starting a “wave of insubordination, depravity, and social violence across Atlanta and across the nation.”
“J.A.Q.i, switch on audio to NewsFeed,” Marc said aloud. The delightful country twang of Waffle House’s background music faded, and the audio from NewsFeed rose.
“Unbelievable is right!” Stokes sneered as her face shrank to a small window in the bottom-left corner of the screen, highlighting the drone footage of Marlowe Kana kicking the helmet off of one soldier’s head and into the groin of another. “This is disgusting! Our soldiers aren’t even shooting at her, and she proceeds to treat them like rag dolls! I can’t believe we are airing this…this…travesty of justice! Bobby, can we cut this? Can we please stop giving airtime to this felon? ”
“No,” a voice was heard saying off-screen.
“No? NO!?!” Amanda barked. “This is MY show! Cut it!”
More mumbling from off-camera and then a muffled, “I can’t. Order from Imagen is for full-spectrum.”
“So this is on every Imagen Feed?!?” Amanda said, incredulous. “You know what, Bobby? You’re right. This is unbelievable! Absolutely abhorrent!” Amanda slammed her fists on her desk. “I can’t DO this anymore!” She shrieked. “MK is a traitor, a felon, a violent criminal… just look at this footage! She just set one of our soldiers on fire! That we nurture the celebrity status she so deeply craves, even after being found guilty of betraying our country…betraying us…is downright disgusting. It’s bad enough that she’s considered news, but to be on every network, smashing up MilSec vehicles and soldiers–”
“–Army,” Bobby interrupted from off-camera.
Amanda’s face contorted. “Even worse!” she snarled. “United American State Army isn’t even an hour into its existence and it’s being torn apart by this criminal!”
Marc looked grimly away from the screen. “You kids are upset about MK?” He asked. “I know, I’m upset, too.I always loved watching her Feeds. You know, she came in here once? She sat right over–”
“–No,” Reggie interrupted, finally looking up at Marc. “That.” He pointed back at the screen.
Marc turned to see NewsFeed correspondent Tom Wallace standing in front of the downtown Atlanta precinct of the newly christened United American State Army. He was gesturing with his non-microphone hand toward a huge swatch of green paint vivid against a white marble wall. “If we can zoom out, Mike?” Tom asked his camera drone operator. “Can you pull it back?”
The camera drone eased back and showed Tom standing next to a gigantic, six-foot high exclamation point. The drone pulled back further, as did the mounted spotlight. The light faded, and the screen went black.
“Just a moment,” Tom Wallace said to the audience. “Mike, a few light drones?”
A moment passed. The screen glared all white as five drones activated their mounted spotlights. The iris of the camera drone adjusted and into view loomed a massive, bright-green graffiti tag that read, “#FREEMARLOWE!”
“HA! THAT’S FANTAS–” Marc quickly caught himself. He leaned into the kids and lowered his voice to a whisper. “That’s fantastic! You kids made the NewsFeed with your art!”
“But the walls don’t WORK!” Tad shouted. He was shaking uncontrollably. “They don’t WORK tonight because of all this craziness with Marlowe, and we almost DIED!”
“He’s right!” Regina cried. “They were going to shoot us! I heard the clicking of their triggers.They would have shot us! They’ve never done that before!”
“I don’t understand.” Marc said. “You guys come in here every night after you tag walls. You’ve hit that place before! Why did they decide to come after you tonight? And shooting?”
“The sanitation drones…the self-cleaning walls…” Reggie said. “They all got all messed up in the switch from Milsec to Army, like the guns.”
“The guns? What guns? And what do you mean ‘messed up?’ What is going on?” Marc asked, watching as NewsFeed switched back to clips of Marlowe’s exploits.
“That’s what Private Mitchell said,” Reggie answered. “He usually just lets us tag, because hey, why not? The scrubbers get the walls before anyone even notices, and he’d rather we get the street cred for being the ones who tag MilSec stuff. But tonight, he…he wasn’t…” Reggie broke down in tears.
“Alone,” Tad whispered. “He wasn’t alone. Entire squad…all of them pissed as hell…”
“They pointed their guns at us!” Regina said tearfully. “They shot at us!”
Marc was dumbfounded. He suddenly remembered what it was like just after the war, when he was their age. Being targeted by rampaging, out-of-control separatists for the crime of simply being a young black teenager from the south. He always thought it was so fortunate that these kids were given the means to act out in safe ways – getting a taste of activism with no real risk. And he knew that their tagging had been getting popular, to the point that he had heard of the Todd And Tad Crew even outside of The Waffle House. They got access to targets that other crews didn’t have the balls to go after, mostly because they were good kids who did good work.
But to face their own mortality this violently had suddenly put the fear of God in them. They were finally witnessing the true price of freedom — those who controlled it were without boundary on how to acquire it from you. Even to the point of shooting at a group of teenagers for doing something no one had cared about the day before, simply because it had been decided to suddenly enforce a law that hadn’t been in place since the early 2000’s.
“J.A.Q.i, private booth,” Marc commanded. A bright blue hexagonal matrix danced and rose around the booth where the teenagers sat.
“Listen up now, ‘cause I want you to hear me,” Marc said in a tone of voice he’d not heard come out of his own mouth in nearly fifty years. “Look up at me. Right now.”
It took a while, but eventually, all three teeangers lifted baleful eyes up at Marc.
“Them soldiers is mad. They don’t have control right now. They look like fools, with the thumping MK gave them and now your tag not being scrubbed. They’re reeling. And they’re going to be reacting. Hard.”
The kids stared up at this kindly old man who had served them coffee for years as the smile creases in his face disappeared and his eyes narrowed. “Authority don’t like it when they see how little they have.”
The kids sat up and took deep breaths. “We almost died,” Regina finally said in horrified wonder.
“Almost,” Marc said with a smile and a wink, his former genial demeanor returning. “You want creamer with that coffee?”
Regina chuckled. Tad cracked a smile. Reggie straightened himself, looked up at Marc, and said, “Marc, you ask me that every night.”
“That I do,” he said with a grin.
“And we always say no,” Reggie continued, an obvious note of relief creeping into his voice.
“That you do,” Reggie said. He turned to leave, but then paused. He glanced at the screen on the wall, which was showing dueling, side-by-side panel footage from MK’s fight with the troops on the left, and a wide shot of the #FREEMARLOWE! tag that the Todd and Tad Crew had plastered on the precinct wall.
He looked back at Regina and Reginald Todd and their weird friend Tad. “You don’t always know it when it happens,” Marc said as he turned to leave. “But sometimes, doing what you do changes the world.”
“How does some graffiti that can’t be washed off change the world?” Tad called after him.
“I don’t really know just yet,” Marc Winters said over his shoulder. “But I have a feeling it’s gonna.”
They had barely made it to the end of the street before Marlowe was ready to stab her own eardrums out. Or stab everyone in the car. Anything to find some peace. As it was, the only weapons she had available to her were the two metal cuffs still fastened around her wrists. She pondered bludgeoning everyone in the car with them, but suspected it would be too much work. She thought wistfully about bashing her own head in. If I died now, would Imagen let my father go on a technicality? Probably not, ratings for his execution would be too high and far too tempting…
“You’re the fucking noob, you NOOB!” Nines hollered at Jen from the back seat.
“The noob who saved your ass!” Jen retorted, red-faced, as she twisted around from the front passenger seat.
“Noob! Hahaha!” Poet cackled as he braked for a stop sign at the end of the road. “That word’s funny!”
Marlowe lifted her head slightly from the window she was leaning against, and then let it fall back to the glass with a solid thunk.
Nines kicked the back of Jen’s seat. “I only had one hand free!” she yelled. “He taped me up and was going to kill me!”
Jen rolled her eyes. “Nines, why can’t you just admit you needed our help?”
“Uhhh, because I didn’t?” Nines replied, rolling her eyes. “And that’s not my name. Quit calling me that.”
Jen closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Exasperation poured from her nostrils. “Marlowe,” Jen snapped, turning to face her sister. “Do we really need this little brat?”
“Yes,” Marlowe said without opening her eyes.
“See??” Nines was triumphant. “You need me! But I don’t need you!” Her head bobbed side to side in time with the words she lobbed at Jen.
Marlowe’s eyes shot open. She jerked herself upright so quickly the van rattled. “ENOUGH!” She thundered.
Everyone fell silent.
“Jen, you’re an adult,” Marlowe stated. “Stop acting like a child.”
Jen’s mouth gaped open. “Me? But she–”
“See?” Marlowe said, “That right there. Stop that.”
Jen glared at Marlowe, incredulous with disbelief. She turned in her seat and folded her arms over her chest, staring out the window sullenly.
“Now who’s the brat?” Nines sneered mockingly.
“Nines?” Marlowe whispered as she whipped around to face her. “SHUT. UP.”
Nines glared at Marlowe with furrowed brows. She huffed, crossed her own arms over her chest, and stared out the back passenger window as defiantly as Jen.
Marlowe sighed. “We haven’t even made it out of the neighborhood yet and you two are ready to kill each other. Which, by the way, I am totally in favor of, if it shuts you both up. But can we wait to do it after, you know, the small task of getting Nine’s footage off her servers and freeing our father from prison? Please?”
There was no reply, save from a snicker from Poet in the driver’s seat.
“I’ll take that as a yes from both of you,” Marlowe said. “Poet…why are we stopped?”
“You were talking,” he replied through his stifled laughter. “And plus, there’s a stop sign…”
“Fucking drive, man!” Marlowe said, slapping the headrest of his seat. “We’re on the clock!”
Poet hit the accelerator. MagLev engines hummed as the maintenance truck borrowed from the EV plant surged forward. They had hardly passed the welcome sign at the front of the Maple Lanes Subdivision when Nines suddenly sat up in shock.
“SHIT!” she exclaimed, breaking her icy facade. “My countermeasures!”
“What about them?” Marlowe asked.
“I need to go back! I need to wipe everything!”
“Oh my god, you don’t have a kill switch?” Jen asked disdainfully, referring to the default safety trigger that required input from the owner at regular, predetermined intervals. If the owner wasn’t able to provide that input, the system would self-destruct, assuming that the owner was dead or captured.
“SUCH a fucking noob!” Jen chortled.
Poet snorted. “Noob!”
“Of course I have a killswitch, you bitch!” Nines snapped at Jen. “It’s just…you know…not set up yet!”
Jen cackled, stomping her feet on the floorboard of the truck and slapping her legs in glee.
“Shut UP!” Nines barked.
“Can you trigger the self-destruct remotely?” Marlowe interjected.
“Well, yeah,” Nines answered, “But how? I’m not augmented, and we left before I could grab my stuff. No one besides your dumb sister is connected, and I’m not trusting her with anything of mine–”
“Here, will this work?” Marlowe asked, tossing to Nines the handheld Pod that the Judge had given her to replace the Pod she’d cut out of her own skull while in prison.
Nines studied the device for a second. “This thing’s old,” she said as she swiped the screen, tapped it a few times, and inputted some text. She nodded her head. “Yeah, this will work,” she said, tapping away on the screen.
“Okay,” Marlowe said. “The unlock key is–WHOA!”
Before Marlowe could complete the sentence, a massive flash of light erupted in the pre-dawn sky in the distance, followed by a monstrous THOOOOOM! Poet slammed the brakes and the MagLev truck skidded to a halt in the middle of the snowy road. Marlowe, Jen, Nines, and Poet all turned to look out the window. A black plume of smoke billowed orange and red over the spot where Nines’ house used to be.
“JESUS!” Jen yelled. “Overkill much?!?”
“I, uh…wanted to be sure,” Nines stammered.
“How much freaking explosive did you use?!” Jen asked.
“Uhh…all of it?” Nines answered ruefully.
“Oh my god!” Jen cackled as Nines shrunk back in her seat, pouting.
“Poet, GO!” Marlowe commanded. Poet slammed the throttle stick forward and the truck hummed forward. “Jen? Alerts?”
“Nothing yet,” Jen answered, her eyes glowing from the heads-up display in her contacts.
“Well, keep watch. That explosion is definitely going to bring MilSec running.”
“You mean the Army,” Jen said, her eyes glowing as she scanned the Feeds, catching up on headlines while looking for alerts about the explosion.
“The what?” Marlowe and Poet asked simultaneously.
“President Cook nationalized MilSec,” Jen said as she flicked the air. “Happened a few minutes ago. It’s now the United American State Army.”
“Well, that’s fucking stupid,” Marlowe said. “Why the hell would he do that?”
“Looks like Cook is taking a stand against Imagen,” Jen replied. “Hey, maybe that means MilSec doesn’t care about us anymore!”
“Doubtful,” Marlowe answered.
“Jesus,” Jen said, flicking her finger upward as she scanned story after story. “I’ve never seen the Feeds so active in my life! It’s not even dawn and there’s over twenty million people watching. They’re still discussing dad and how he supposedly committed treason, and of course you’re the number-one topic on just about every top-ten list. Footage from Hax’s little camera is being leaked and replayed almost everywhere. You don’t even want to know what Amanda’s been saying about you.”
“You’re right. I don’t,” Marlowe said, closing her eyes and resting her head against the window. “In fact, I don’t want to hear anything at all right now. I need a nap. Poet, how long until we get back to the EV plant?”
“Thirty minutes or so,” he answered.
“Good,” Marlowe replied, laying her head against the window and closing her eyes. “Don’t wake me for any reason.”
A few seconds of silence was all it took for the dull hum of the MagLev engines to gently mirror the thrum of Marlowe’s heartbeat. She took a deep breath in through her nostrils, thankful for even the small amount of peace.
“Uh…Marlowe,” Poet said quietly.
Marlowe studiously ignored him. She shifted in her seat slightly and adjusted the angle of her neck to prevent the crick she could feel forming. Her back slid slightly down the vinyl seat.
“Marlowe!” Jen barked.
“WHAT” Marlowe roared, her eyes still rebelliously shut.
Marlowe didn’t want to look. And yet, she didn’t need to. She’d been on enough airborne missions in her career to instinctively know the sound of a Jumper engine, and she suspected she had heard one approaching before she’d even closed her eyes. She gritted her teeth in frustration. She heard Nines gasp and Jen yelp in fear.
Suddenly, Poet shouted, “Hold on!” The aluminum throttle shaft clacked against the metal console as he slammed it forward. The MagLev bellowed and Marlowe felt her body jerk as the truck lurched forward.
She sighed heavily as the darkness behind her eyelids gave way to a red-orange glow. With a deep sigh, she opened her eyes. A focused spotlight shone through the windows of the truck. A United American State Army Jumper was strafing the sky above them, joined by another on the left, and a third behind them.
“Stop the vehicle!” a voice over a loudspeaker ordered.
“Way to go, Nines!” Jen yelled.
“This isn’t my fault!” Nines retorted.
“They were already on the way,” Marlowe said. “Had to be. Poet, find a tunnel!”
“This is the burbs!” Poet said in exasperation as they barrelled down the road.
“Then drive into the forest!” Marlowe ordered.
“What?!” Poet said. “In this huge thing? No!”
“You want us to get caught?”
“You want to drive?!” Poet yelled over his shoulder.
“OH, SHIT!” Jen yelled.
Poet whipped his head forward to see far off in the distance flashing blue lights and the silhouette of dozens of troops arrayed in a firing line across the road in front of them.
“Speed up!” Marlowe ordered. “Go through them!”
“Wanna get out and push?!?” Poet snapped back. “We’re at max!”
The truck barreled toward the garrison as the three Jumpers matched pace with them.
“Stop! NOW!” The voice on the loudspeaker commanded.
“Don’t stop!” Marlowe ordered.
Spotlight drones hovering over the garrison activated in the distance, illuminating the full complement of force that had been sent to deal with Marlowe and her accomplices. Two rows of mobile barricades shielded nearly a hundred soldiers, half kneeling, half standing, all with rifles trained on the truck. Behind them were more soldiers, ducking behind hovering service cars with the new United American State Army logo emblazoned on the digital paint panels. Three massive troop transport trucks hunkered behind the cars.
Two men in powered ExoArmor marched through the gaps in the barricades. They took up stations in front of the riflemen and their barricades, preparing to stop the truck from breaching the roadblock. Mechanized weapons platforms unfolded from their backs and arced over their shoulders, each sporting a GI-9 .50 antipersonnel cannon on their left shoulders, and a BuzzyBee mini-missile swarm launcher on their right. One soldier pounded his oversized robotic fist into his oversized robotic palm. The other extended his arm, encased in a gigantic robotic appendage, and flicked the joystick control in his hand. The palm of the ExoArmor opened, turned upside down, and waved the truck forward, practically begging for them to get through.
“…Okay, on second thought, stop.” Marlowe said grimly as the truck got to within two hundred yards of the battalion.
“What!?” Poet, Jen, and Nines all gasped at once.
“We’ll never break through all that! Not at this speed!” Marlowe exclaimed. “And even if we could, that Jumper in front of us is seconds away from stuffing a strut through our windshield and reversing its engines! Brakes! NOW!”
Poet gritted his teeth as the garrison in the distance came closer and closer. He pulled the throttle lever back to full stop. The truck lurched and halted with a little over a football field’s distance between them and the troops. The three Jumpers in pursuit hovered in place with spotlights trained on the truck, joined shortly by a fourth which took up a position directly in front.
“Hands out of the windows! NOW!” The voice over the loudspeaker commanded.
“Ah shit…” Jen muttered.
“Yeah, we’re fucked,” Poet added.
Marlowe sighed. “Nines,” she said quickly as she reached down and grabbed the go-bag at her feet. “Climb in the front seat next to Jen, and get low–”
“–no way!” Nines sneered.
Marlowe’s head shot up and her eyes locked with Nines’. The look on Marlowe’s face promptly convinced Nines to comply. She clambered between the two front seats and nestled herself into the passenger seat with Jen, who slid over as far as she could toward the door.
“Find that footage right now,” Marlowe ordered. “Jen, help however you can. Poet, when I give the signal, you go full reverse, then haul ass someplace safe. If you have to go through a Jumper, do it, but they’ll be focused on me.”
“Wait, what’s the signal?” he asked.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” Marlowe answered as she placed an AMP inhaler between her lips. She depressed the button and inhaled deeply, taking another full dose of the quadruple-strength drugs Jen had provided. She shivered.
“Hands out the window or we open fire!” The loudspeaker barked.
“Do it,” Marlowe ordered to Jen and Poet. “Just you two. Nines, stay low.”
Poet reached forward to the console and pushed two buttons, lowering the driver and passenger-side windows. Slowly, Jen and Poet both stuck their hands out of the window.
Marlowe rolled down her window and placed both of her hands out as well.
“Marlowe Kana!” The loudspeaker voice barked. “Out of the car – just you. No one else!”
Marlowe looked at her sister and flashed a crooked smile. “Get our dad out, whatever it takes,” she said.
“Marlowe,” Jen whispered, voice quivering with fear. “What are you going to do?”
“Turn myself in,” she answered as she pulled the lever on the rear passenger door. It swung open. Slowly, Marlowe stepped out.
“Close the door behind you!” The loudspeaker voice commanded. Marlowe gently closed the door, bringing it just shy of latching.
Ropes spilled from either side of the Jumper behind the truck. Heads peeked out, ensuring the area was safe. Four United American State soldiers rappelled out of the Jumper, two from each side, while one remained in a sniper’s position up in the hovering transport, rifle trained on Marlowe. The soldiers touched down and immediately moved into formation, approaching Marlowe with extreme caution.
“Hands on the vehicle!” The lead soldier ordered as the team slowly approached. “Do it!”
Marlowe, hands raised over her head, turned and faced the door. She slowly lowered her right hand, resting it on the top of the door and slyly wrapped her fingers around the top of the frame. As she lowered her left hand, she gently pulled the door slightly open. As her left hand touched the door, she slid it quickly along the open edge and yanked the door open, spinning herself behind it for cover. With a grunt, she pressed her body into the door, folding it against the frame until the hinges sheared and tore loose with a grinding SHRIEK! Marlowe fixed her hands around the armrest and the door like a shield. She pressed forward and began sprinting toward the soldiers.
“FIRE!” The lead soldier screamed.
Fingers pulled triggers. The sound of a dozen empty trigger clicks echoed all around, followed by another dozen. None of the trademark whizzing of Imagen railgun magnets spooling could be heard; no reports echoed as slugs should have left the muzzle of a barrel. The only thing they could hear was the crunching of Marlowe’s footsteps through the snow.
“Oh, shit,” the lead soldier whispered. He watched down the sights of his defunct rifle as Marlowe ducked her head behind the door, her eyes disappearing beneath the window. She lunged forward, ramming full-force into the the soldiers, sending each one flying like bowling pins in a perfect strike. Instinctively, Marlowe raised the door directly over her head to shield from the sniper’s shot, which to her amazement, never came.
She looked up through the window of the door to see a confused sniper smashing her palm into the receiver of her malfunctioning weapon. Not one to question good fortune on the battlefield, Marlowe reared back and flung the door like a discus toward the Jumper. The sniper looked up from her broken rifle in time to see the car door collide with the right wing, tearing through the MagLev engine mounted underneath. A shower of sparks and spindles of lightning erupted from the engine, electrocuting the sniper and sending her crashing down on top of two soldiers who were just getting to their feet.
The Jumper lurched as the pilot attempted to adjust for the loss of the engine. He overcorrected, sending the Jumper yawing violently over in mid-air. Marlowe crouched, then leapt into a backwards somersault, narrowly escaping the Jumper as its remaining MagLev engine slammed into the ground less than a meter from where she had been standing. The other soldiers were immediately crushed in the wreckage.
Without losing a moment, Marlowe ran back to the wreckage, grabbing a soldier’s useless rifle along the way. She shoved the butt end of the weapon into the wobbling air intake spindle of the remaining engine of the Jumper, bringing it to an abrupt halt. She seized the blades of the turbine and yanked back as hard as she could, pulling it clean off the spindle. Ignoring the searing heat, she turned and flung the fan like a frisbee. It whipped through the air past the EV plant truck and sailed into the first of the two ExoArmored soldiers who were sprinting her way full speed.
The rotor struck the facemask of the left-hand soldier’s helmet and tore through it like a sawblade, sending a showering mist of blood into the air and his body tumbling head-over-heels backward. The other soldier turned to look in frank horror. As he glanced swiftly back toward the truck, he was more horrified to see how quickly Marlowe had suddenly covered the distance between them.
He had no time to react as Marlowe left her feet and somersaulted over him. She grabbed the impact bars extending up and over the shoulders of the soldier’s ExoArmor, and as she brought herself around to land, pulled the soldier off his feet and over her head. With every ounce of power in her body, she flung him forward and heaved the metal-clad body thirty yards through the air before he crashed down onto the snow-covered roadway. His arms and legs flailed as he skidded the rest of the distance toward the garrison, scraping to a stop just as his head gently tapped the barricade.
The soldier sat up groggily, thankful to somehow be alive. But before he could complete the thought, he felt Marlowe’s left foot land on the frontispiece of his ExoArmor, and her right foot stomp directly on top of his helmet. Marlowe launched off of his helmet and over the barricades, where she landed directly in the center of a crush of soldiers all rushing forward in the mad hope of being the one to collar Marlowe Kana.
“Goddammit, FIRE!” A captain bellowed over the loudspeaker behind layers of barricades, soldiers, trucks, and tanks as Marlowe tore into the soldiers. The empty clicks of triggers sang like crickets all around. Marlowe grabbed a rifle from one of the circle of soldiers around her, drew back, and and clubbed its former owner on the back of the skull. He doubled over. She leapt up, stepped on his head, and launched herself off his back onto the top of one of the tanks directly behind the line of riflemen. The soldiers, finally convinced their guns were useless, dropped them and swarmed over to the tank where Marlowe stood perched on the end of the barrel. They all stood and watched in awe as she stared down at them.
“This doesn’t have to happen,” she said to the crowd of mesmerized soldiers. “Let us go and I’ll spare your lives.”
“Take her DOWN!” The captain screamed over the loudspeaker.
A roar erupted as the soldiers began yelling and climbing up the tank.
“Well, I tried,” Marlowe said with a shrug. She sprang from the tip of the tank’s gun like a diver, flipped through the air, and came crashing down on top of the group of soldiers, fist on knee. The soldier she landed on spat blood onto the inside of his faceplate as several of his internal organs ruptured.
Marlowe stood and spun with her fist out, clipping a soldier in the helmet with her metal cuff. With another spin, she flung her foot out and nailed another soldier in the sternum with a perfectly placed kick, stopping him in his tracks. She whipped her leg up and around and caught the solder around the neck, then flung him to the ground, snapping his spine. A dozen more soldiers swarmed her, all piling on top of her at once. They grabbed her arms and her legs, attempting to subdue her. She smashed the two soldiers holding her arms together helmet-to-helmet, knocking them out. Two more took their place. She slammed one on the helmet with the cuff around her wrist, and the other she seized by the throat. She began spinning, using the limp soldier’s boots as a flail as she cleared a circle around her. Letting go of the sweeper, Marlowe sent him flying head-first through the windshield of one of the troop transports.
A Jumper approached and hovered just over her head. Soldiers leapt from either side of it, landing directly in front of her. She crouched, then sprung directly up, latching onto the strut of the Jumper. The pilot tried shaking her off with frantic, jerky movements. She climbed aboard and seized him by the hair, slamming his face into the console. Grabbing the pilot’s joystick and throttle, she shot the Jumper straight up. With a twist of the controls, she pitched the Jumper forward until it was pointed nearly straight down. She leapt out just before it crashed on the tank she was perched on earlier, taking out a dozen soldiers in the fiery explosion.
Marlowe landed, rolled forward, and then made a beeline for the corner of the intersection the garrison was blockading. She was relieved to see that she was right – an antique stop sign was still sitting there. Normally, she despised the kitschy callbacks to the so-called simpler times before the war, but this time, she was thankful for the nostalgia. She seized the post and plucked it from the ground, wielding the giant octagonal sign like Death’s scythe.
“Goddammit!” The captain barked over the loudspeaker. “Killjoys! Now!”
“Sir!” One of the soldiers could still be heard over the live mic. “Didn’t you read the brief? They don’t–”
“–Don’t question me, private!” the captain demanded. “Do it!”
Drones flew from the back of one of the United American State tanks and swarmed around Marlowe. High-voltage electrical shocks lanced from the drones’ terminals, attempting to tase her into submission.
Marlowe’s body flexed. Power surged through her. The pain was incredible, but did nothing to incapacitate her. Instead, a bellow erupted from her lungs as she swung the stop sign like a bat, connecting with the drones and sending them flying. One crashed through the windshield of a garrison truck. Electric shocks danced around the hovering transport, sending it lurching forward in a fury. It crashed into a throng of soldiers rushing toward Marlowe, mowing them down.
Marlowe leapt into the air with the stop sign, both hands clutching it like an axe. With immense fury, she brought it down on one of the soldiers, cleaving him down the middle. She swung the sign in an arc, blood spattering on the other soldiers as it slammed into another, slicing his armor through and leaving his guts spilling onto the road.
“Retreat!” One of the soldiers yelled. The others didn’t question. They turned as one and began running away.
“What are you doing!?” The captain screamed. “You have orders! GET her!”
Marlowe turned toward the captain’s vehicle. She sprinted forward, the concrete plug at the base of the stop sign in front of her like a jouster’s lance. The captain’s eyes widened. He ducked just as the post crashed through the driver’s-side window of his door.
Marlowe ripped the door off its hinge and sent it, along with the stop sign, flying behind her into two more soldiers she didn’t even realize were there. She yanked the captain out of his car by his boot. Clawing desperately at the seats, he emerged from the vehicle, and felt himself being whirled around as Marlowe spun him in a dizzying circle. She released, and the captain flew through the air into a Jumper that was attempting to join the fight. It didn’t succeed. Instead, the Jumper merged with the captain’s body, and the bloody amalgam crashed into the remaining tank, exploding in a brilliant, blue-orange electrical fireball.
Further chaos erupted as soldiers attempted to escape, while others wrestled with the prospect of imminent death. Several others had delusions of eternal WarFeed glory, imagining that they would be the hero who took down Marlowe. They formed a line and approached Marlowe, who turned to face them. She took a few steps forward and grabbed the stop sign still hanging from the captain’s car door. She held the door up with her left arm as a shield, and wielded the stop sign like a mace in her right.
The soldiers froze. There was no entry in the field operations manual about door-and-stop-sign-wielding augmented supersoldiers.
“Run, idiots!” One of the soldiers screamed as he broke rank and began sprinting down the road. Another took out a Pod, turned his back to Marlowe, and snapped a quick selfie – the photo captured the moment the stop sign connected with his helmet. The other soldiers tried to subdue Marlowe, but were cut down as she rammed the door into their heads and sliced them to pieces with her makeshift gladiatorial weapon.
Over ninety soldiers lay dead, burned and sliced and in parts and pieces, as cars and tanks and Jumpers burned around Marlowe. The remaining Jumper landed a few dozen yards away, and boarded the remaining soldiers who were smart enough to flee. Packed to the gills, it began to lift off. Marlowe thought briefly about letting them go.
She heaved the door at the Jumper, catching the tail stabilizer and sending it spinning as it lifted up. It tipped and crashed spectacularly, killing everyone inside.
The snow glowed orange and red and blue around Marlowe as fires burned and electrical showers erupted. What soldiers weren’t hacked to pieces or burned alive rolled in agony in a litany of broken bones, spines, and spirits. She stood holding the blood-drenched stop sign with her back arched and face toward the sky, heaving from exhaustion. Unclenching her fists, she let the makeshift weapon fall with a muffled thud into the streets, the classic red of the American stop sign blending with the blood-drenched snow. She leaned forward and put her hands on her knees as she gasped for air. She looked up at the truck as it slowly approached. She caught a glimpse of Poet’s gaping mouth and Jen’s widened eyes. For the first time in months, she smiled in genuine happiness.
”Truck door’s still back there,” she said through her panting, pointing toward the smoldering wreckage of the first Jumper she felled. “I don’t think it’s gonna go back on, though.”
“Probably not,” Poet said numbly from the window.
“You okay?” Jen asked across Poet from the passenger seat.
“Never better,” Marlowe replied. “Why are you still here?”
“You cut off our escape route,” Poet answered, pointing to the wreckage. “Besides, Nines wanted to get footage of–”
“–OH MY GOD, THAT WAS EPIC!” Nines screamed as she poked her head up from between Jen and Poet. “Look! I got some great footage!” She held the Pod’s screen up for Marlowe to see.
“Delete it,” Marlowe commanded briskly as she entered the truck and took a seat in the back.
“Too late!” Nines said as a small DING! chirped from the Pod’s speaker. “Already up to twenty-thousand views!”
Marlowe sighed. “Jen. Why didn’t you stop her?”
“What am I, her nanny? Besides, she won’t listen to me.”
“Because you’re dumb,” Nines said.
“You’re going to get us killed,” Marlowe said.
“I’m going to make us RICH!” Nines answered. “On-the-scene footage of Marlowe Kana destroying over a hundred soldiers? And it’s not from a soldier’s bodycam? Do you know how valuable this is?”
“Not nearly as valuable as the footage that clears my name,” Marlowe said, leaning her head back against the headrest. “Why don’t you have that yet? And Poet, why are we not hauling ass to the EV plant?”
“Orders,” Poet responded. “The Judge just radioed. He’s inbound.”
“Oh, goody,” Marlowe replied. “We’ll just wait here while he comes to tour the damage. Hopefully the soldiers’ guns still don’t work when reinforcements arrive. And speaking of that. Anyone know why their rifles malfunctioned?”
“…Orders?” Poet said quizzically. “Maybe they were told not to shoot?”
“Definitely not,” Marlowe replied. “They were yanking triggers as hard as they could. Their weapons…somehow they malfunctioned.” Marlowe looked at Jen. “Did you…”
Jen shook her head. “Way above my level,” she answered as she glanced back at her sister. The two exchanged a look. Together, they both turned to face Nines.
“What?” Nines asked. “You think I hacked their weapons via a stupid handheld Pod connected to PublicNet? Come on…that kind of shit only happens in movies. OOH! Speaking of movies, check out this video I cut together while you were walking back to the truck!”
Nines held the Pod up toward Marlowe. Scenes from various soldiers’ body cameras flashed in quick succession, each one showing Marlowe smashing a fist, foot, or dislodged portion of a vehicle into them. Cut after cut of Marlowe’s face, fists, and feet flickered on the screen. “I scraped soldier Feeds while they were fighting you. Genius, right?” Another FeedMeter DING! sounded.
Marlowe shut her eyes and sighed as she shrunk back into her seat.
Nines looked crestfallen. “I know, you hate your own videos, but come on…I did this in less than a minute! I thought you’d be impressed!”
Marlowe groaned. She closed her eyes and rolled her head toward Nines. Her mouth gaped open and she began snoring.
“She’s shutting down,” Jen said. “Don’t take it personally.”
Reading the sadness that fell over Nines’ face, Jen softened. “Look, I’m sure she would, if she was able to. She’s completely drained. She can run on Battery bars, adrenaline, and AMP for only so long.” Jen chuckled as she added, “besides, I thought you didn’t like her. At least, that’s what you said at your place.” She winked and flashed a sarcastic smile at Nines.
Nines’ lip quivered. A tear rolled down her cheek. Suddenly, she flushed and her eyes narrowed. “I don’t!” Nines shouted at Jen. “I don’t like her! And I don’t like you! Either of you! And I don’t like this stupid truck. I don’t like anything, okay?! Leave me alone!”
Jen looked at Poet, who shrugged. Trying to make peace, she tapped the air a few times and pulled up Nine’s video on the MKFan_9999 channel. “Huh…this really is a good video, Nines. Good work.”
“Fuck you, noob,” Nines said, arms folded over her chest as she stared out the window.
Poet couldn’t help but laugh.
A tone sounded in the cabin of the truck. “Go ahead,” Poet answered.
“We’re inbound,” the Judge announced. “Please tell Marlowe not to throw a car door at us.”
Poet looked in the rearview mirror to find Marlowe flopped across the back seat, mouth open, snoring.
“That doesn’t seem to be a risk,” Poet responded.