Marlowe was trying her best to pace the floor of the EV plant’s frustratingly tiny workshop. Space was already at a premium with all the tools, equipment, and furniture littered around the room, and having eleven warm bodies standing around didn’t help. Still, there was just enough runway for Marlowe to indulge her aimless, frustrated movement. And given the nature of the NewsFeed footage that everyone had watched on the trip back from Amanda’s apartment, she had reason to be very frustrated indeed.
She took three steps toward where Seraph, Austin, Nines, Jen, and William stood, lined up along the back wall of the workshop. She then spun on her heel and caught a glimpse of Sully sitting near the doorway to the bedroom where William slept. She walked three more steps to where Angel, Poet, and Jacobs hunkered by the door. She spun again, avoiding eye contact with The Judge, who was surlily leaning against William’s workbench.
“You said full operational command, remember?” Marlowe snapped at The Judge, continuing to awkwardly pace the floor three steps at a time.
“As I said in the Jumper on the way back here, this isn’t an operation! This is a trap!” The Judge said emphatically, abandoning his typical aloofness.
“It’s only a trap if you don’t know about it!” Marlowe cried, pounding her fist. “I am NOT going to let them execute my father!”
“You’d rather they kill you instead?”
“Pssssh!” Marlowe said with a sneer. “Three-on-Three Championship Rules – I’ve done it three times before, I can do it again!”
“You are playing into his hand,” The Judge replied. “The footage worked! Cook’s scrambling! He can’t win legitimacy without you by his side or behind bars – and he can’t have either if you don’t go when he says, where he says. We are winning here!”
“What exactly are we winning?” Marlowe barked as she stood fast and faced the Judge. “He still has my dad! We’re still going to be hunted if we don’t go! We’re still going to be shot on sight, if they can get their guns to work… Hell, he even blamed us for that! He forgets to nationalize the ‘arms’ in our armed services and now, the nation thinks we’re terrorists. We are fucked! We need to–wait, you know what? I’m tired of this shit. I’m going alone.”
“Unacceptable,” The Judge replied. “That’s suicide.”
“It’s all my father has!” Marlowe yelled. “I am going to get him, with or without your help! And if your little team won’t move out of the way, they’ll be coming with me anyway…at least, parts of them will!”
“Me!” Jacobs piped up, raising his hand and taking a step forward from the door.
“NO!” The Judge ordered.
“Okay, guess I’m not…” Jacobs muttered.
“No one is!” The Judge ordered. “There are other forces in play right now making preparations. I have everything under control. We need to–”
“–Your plans suck,” Marlowe interrupted, getting up in the Judge’s face. “You act like you have this all under control, strategized to the nth degree…you don’t. We did this your way and now, we’re doing it my way.” She lowered her finger and took a step back. Addressing the room, she added “This isn’t a discussion. You can join me or you can fight me and I’ll take you down along with the United American State Army, President Cook, whatever’s left of Imagen, and anything else that stands in my goddamn way.”
Marlowe turned and marched with righteous fury toward the door. Angel and Poet both took a step to the side.
“Stop her!” The Judge ordered.
Jacobs, ever the loyalist, stood and braced himself in front of the door. Marlowe ducked her shoulder and plowed into him, the way she had torn through defensive linemen back in her United American State Football playing days. Jacobs left his feet and flew backwards as Marlowe took the door off of the hinges with his back.
Jacobs’s arms and legs flew every which way as he rode the door down the gravel walkway. Marlowe marched past him and took off toward the gate.
Jen tapped Nines on the shoulder. “Let’s go,” she muttered. Nines grabbed her Pod and followed Jen to the door.
“What, you’re going to run with her all the way to the Terminus Citadel?” The Judge asked sarcastically.
“…Better than sitting around here with a bunch of fake revolutionaries,” Jen said over her shoulder as she reached the doorway. She paused for a moment, and then turned and faced The Judge. “You know what I don’t get?” She asked, her hand on her hip.
“A lot of things,” The Judge said with the corner of his mouth turned up.
Jen ignored him. “You went through all that trouble to bust her out of prison and get her on your side… All that talk, all that effort… And you’re just going to let her march herself alone to the one place she can actually do us all a lot of good?”
“It’s not part of the plan,” The Judge answered.
“What plan?!” Jen snapped. “Cook just undid everything we’ve worked for! Your entire plan was undone by a one-minute speech on NewsFeed! There is no plan! There’s only Marlowe, us, my father, and an invitation by the President himself to free all of us! And you’re just going to sit there smirking, as if you saw any of this coming?”
“There’s a better way!” The Judge said, slamming his fist on the workshop table.
“What is it?” Jen asked. “Do you know? Right here, right now — do you know what to do next?”
The Judge struggled for words.
“That’s what I thought,” Jen said, turning to leave. She was briefly blocked by Jacobs, who was rotating the soreness out of his shoulder and rubbing the spot on his chest where Marlowe’s shoulder had rammed into him. The two made eye contact. “Move,” Jen insisted.
Jacobs looked up at the Judge, who waved dismissively toward them. Jacobs stood to one side and let Jen pass. Nines fell in behind her, eyes glued to the Pod in her left hand, while she raised her right hand high, waving her middle finger around to everyone in the room.
“Damn it!” The Judge barked, stomping his boot into the wooden floor of the EV plant’s work shed. He huffed through his nostrils and seethed.
William took a few steps toward the door and then paused and faced The Judge. “Her father is a hero,” he said, “And so is she. We can do more good with her than without her.”
The Judge slid his eyes toward William. He took a deep breath. The scowl left his face as he regained his composure. “I guess you’re going with her, too, then?” He asked as he leaned back against the workshop table and folded his arms over his chest.
“Nope,” William said as he reached the doorway. “I’m gonna get this door fixed. We still need a place to work, don’t we?”
The Judge surveyed the room. Every eye was sullen and glued to The Judge, waiting to hear what the plan was going to be.
“Goddammit,” The Judge said with a sigh, realizing there was only one real play. “Poet, go get Marlowe. Angel, get her attention.”
“Yes, sir!” They both barked in unison. Poet led Angel out of the doorway and double-timed it to catch up to Marlowe. Angel turned and faced Marlowe’s direction, raising her biohacked sniper rifle to her shoulder and peering down the scope. She found Marlowe in her crosshairs just as she was approaching the gate. A muffled report whistled from the barrel of the rifle as a round whipped its way toward Marlowe’s feet. It caught the ground between her legs mid-stride.
Marlowe froze. She whipped her head around to find Angel lowering her rifle in the distance and Poet jogging up to meet her, arms waving over his head, signaling her to stop. Between the two, she saw Jen and Nines staring in disbelief at the scene unfolding before them.
She raised her hands to her mouth and yelled, “What now?!?” She waited patiently as Poet closed the distance as quickly as he could, reaching Marlowe only after a full-on sprint.
Out of breath and doubled over from his all-out effort, he huffed and said, “We… we’re going… with you…”
“Oh, thank God,” Marlowe said as her body slumped in relief. “Come on,” she said, slapping Poet on the shoulder as she began trotting back to the shed. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Poet grimaced and groaned as he sucked for air from between his legs. Out of breath, he began trotting back to the shed behind Marlowe.
“What’s going on?” Jen asked as they approached.
“He says we’re all going to the Citadel,” Marlowe said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder at Poet. “Not sure what happened after I left, but whatever it was–”
“Wow,” Jen said. “It worked.”
“What worked?” Marlowe asked.
“Calling that Judge guy on his shit,” Nines said without breaking her gaze from her Pod. “I’m cutting a video of it now… But look at this! His face…” She held up the Pod and showed a clip of Jen reading The Judge the riot act. Jen, Poet, Angel, William, Sully…all of their faces showed up. But the Judge’s face was a blurry mash, as was Austin’s when it briefly appeared in the clip. “How the hell does he do that?!”
“His facial recognition is scrambled at the server level? And look, Austin’s too!” Jen pointed out. “Jesus… I want that!”
“Me too!” Nines chirped in agreement. “That’s so fucking cool!”
“Maybe that Austin guy did it?” Jen asked.
“Yeah,” Nines said, “He’s not as much of a noob as you are.”
“…Says the girl who doesn’t know how to do it either,” Jen jibed. Nines sneered, and then went back to studying her Pod.
“Maybe you should just ask him?” Marlowe suggested as she started toward the door.
“No way!” Jen and Nines both said in unison.
Marlowe froze and looked back at them. They quickly glanced at each other. “A real hacker figures shit out on her own,” Jen remarked.
“I bet I get it first!” Nines insisted as she tapped away at her Pod.
“Already on it,” Jen insisted, flicking the air and sorting through scripts.
“…Good to see you two getting along,” Marlowe said with a laugh as she made her way to the doorway that William was repairing. “Need a hand?” She asked him as she walked up.
“I got it,” William said. “Broke at the frame, see? Hinges are still attached. A few screws and nails and it’ll be back to keeping the draft out.”
“Maybe some rebar? Or titanium?” Marlowe added with a smile.
“Wouldn’t help,” William replied. “I don’t think there’s much out there that’s truly Marlowe-proof.”
“Technically, I broke the door down,” Jacobs said as he emerged outside through the doorway, followed by The Judge. “Nice takedown, by the way,” he added.
“Don’t ever get in my way again,” Marlowe warned him, her smile souring. “And I assume you’ll be my Hitter in the finals?”
“…Really?!?” Jacobs said, his excitement causing his voice to squeak.
“Oh God,” Marlowe said, rolling her eyes, “I already regret that decision…” She turned her attention to Angel, who was examining the scope on her rifle. “And you?” Marlowe asked. “Want to be my Sniper?”
“I’d be honored,” Angel replied quietly. “And it’s not like anyone else here could do it.”
Marlowe smirked and nodded knowingly. “And you, mister moustache…what’s the deal? Why the change of heart?”
“You are right. I did promise you full operational control,” The Judge said in reply. “I need Austin here, but the rest of the team is yours.”
Sully hobbled toward the doorway with Seraph under his right arm and Austin under his left. The Judge and Poet took over helping Sully as he crossed the threshold on his one good leg. Everyone back together, the team stood outside of the EV plant’s shed and looked at Marlowe.
“Well, now that we’re all here,” The Judge noted. “We have 12 hours until the ‘Next Top Soldier’ finale. What’s the plan?”
Jen saw the look of disapproval on Marlowe’s face as she raised her hand. “Don’t even,” Jen said defiantly. “He’s my dad, too.”
“And I’m not staying here with Judge Creepy McCreeper and that weird hacker noob, and those two boring old men,” Nines added.
“Hey!” Sully said. “I’m not boring!”
“We are old, though,” William said with a chuckle. “But you really should show some respect–”
“–Whatever,” Nines said. “Besides, someone needs to cover your Feed side of things, just in case they try to screw you again. And footage from inside the Jumper will make me riiiiiich!”
Marlowe knew that Jen and Nines both had a point. And both had their uses.
Moreover, she didn’t have the time or energy to fight them. “It’s settled then,” she said. “We dust off at eighteen-hundred. I suggest you all get some rest…and food? Do we have any food?”
“No one can show their faces,” The Judge said. “And having anything delivered would be too risky.”
“I can raid the vending machines at the plant,” William said. “They have some decent Imagen InstaMeals in there. Some noodles, a really good mini pizza–”
“–Good, great, go do that,” Marlowe said as she walked through the door leading to the bed William kept in the back room. “I’m crashing. Someone make sure I’m up by seventeen-thirty.”
The team took Marlowe’s cue, and everyone took up stations to prepare for the evening’s festivities. William handed his powered drill to Poet and gave him a short rundown of what needed to be done to get the door back on its frame before heading to the main plant to deprive the vending machines of any sustenance he could find. Angel and Jacobs took up security posts; Angel double-timing it to the hilltop she had once perched on while Jacobs found a secluded spot near the gate and stayed low and alert. The Judge and Austin retreated to the makeshift computer lab in the back corner of the shed, while Seraph headed to the Jumper to make sure it was flight ready. Jen and Nines were busy surfing the Net for any and all information they could find on server-level face recognition defeats, and Sully took a seat just outside the door that Poet was now working on, pulled out a cigarette, and took the first drag he’d had in almost a day.
Marlowe laid face-up in William’s bed. She finally felt fully like herself for the first time in months. There were less than ten hours before dust-off on the first major operation she’d commanded since before she left foreign service. This was no show; this was war. And she settled into her wartime training with ease. Her mind didn’t want to be clear, but she was able to keep it from wandering too far from focusing on the fight ahead of her for the most part. She took a deep breath in through her nostrils. She held it for ten seconds, and then exhaled through her mouth. Again, she inhaled. She held the breath. She slowly exhaled. And again, and again. The mindful focus on her breathing forced her system to let go of any extraneous panic, overriding the impulse with the primal need to keep oxygen flowing.
Breathe in…one…two…three… on up to ten, she counted in her mind. And again.
“Marlowe?” a voice said somewhere in the distance.
“Marlowe…” The voice said again, much closer and louder. It sounded like her sister. “It’s time,” the voice continued.
Marlowe blinked several times. “What time is it?”
“Five-thirty,” Jen answered.
“…Jesus, that was fast,” Marlowe said while sitting up and turning. She placed her feet on the floor, stood upright, and marched past Jen, patting her on the shoulder.
“Game time,” Marlowe announced as she entered the main room of the shed. “Let’s go.”
Seraph turned a quarter in the pilot’s seat of the Jumper and looked back at the team in the cabin. “Ready for takeoff, ma’am,” she said to Marlowe.
Marlowe looked up at her. The pilot she’d only just met had a disposition that she would know from anywhere. This woman had served at some point. She looked to Seraph’s sister Angel, sitting beside her in the co-pilot’s chair. Angel nodded at Marlowe, professional as ever. Jacobs’ eyes were wide and his head was tilted forward like an excited puppy’s. Poet’s elbows were on his knees, chin resting on his thumbs as his fingers were clasped in front of his face in repose. Jen’s leg bounced nervously as she flicked the air and scanned for alerts on her HUD, while Nines’ face was buried in the handheld Pod she’d clearly claimed as her own.
A calm washed over Marlowe. She sat up straight, resting her hands on her legs. The scowl that she’d worn for months fell from her face. Her eyes became steel. “Whether you’re joining me on the battlefield tonight or not — as of this moment, we are a team,” she said in a commanding tone. “None of us have served together in any capacity, and some of us haven’t served at all. But in the past twenty-four hours, everyone on this craft has proven their mettle and has my trust. I am honored you are joining me on this mission.”
Nines looked up from her Pod. Jen’s focus shifted from the readouts on her HUD to Marlowe. Jacobs and Poet both cracked slight smiles. Angel nodded, and Seraph sat silent, ready to fly.
“But if we are going to survive what’s about to come, I am going to need your trust,” Marlowe said. “We are flying into hostile territory and we are doing so blindly. This is not my first rodeo. And I don’t care if this is your first time or your fiftieth. We take nothing for granted, and what I say, goes. I am no longer a major, but I am in command. I need every one of you to tell me you will do exactly what I tell you, without question, from this point forward.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jacobs said first, sitting up straight and snapping a smart salute.
“Absolutely,” Poet answered.
“Yes, ma’am,” Seraph and Angel in unison.
Marlowe looked at Jen and Nines. “Yeah,” Jen said, ducking her eyes.
“Jen?” Marlowe said. “You don’t have to go.”
Jen‘s face shot up. “I’m going!” Jen said, her eyes defiant.
“Then I need you to say it.”
“…Yes, ma’am,” Jen said quietly.
Marlowe turned her attention to Nines, who was recording the speech. Marlowe grimaced and furrowed her brow. Nines smiled and belted out an enthusiastic, “Yes, ma’am, Marlowe, ma’am!” the bow atop her head bobbing as she nodded her head with every syllable.
Marlowe smiled. “Last chance,” she said, addressing everyone. “Anyone want out?”
The only thing that could be heard was the humming of the Jumper’s magnetic drive and the whirring of the turbine engines.
Marlowe raised her hand up and signaled to Seraph.
“Aye, ma’am,” Seraph replied as the engines whirred loudly. The Jumper lifted into the air, skirted the tree line, and bolted through the late evening sky toward Terminus Citadel.
Marlowe surveyed the team as they all sat silent in their seats. Jen was staring at the floor, her legs bouncing and shaking nervously.
Marlowe reached over and tapped Jen on the shoulder. Jen shot her head up, gasping in shock.
“You okay?” Marlowe asked, already knowing the answer.
“This is all my fault!” Jen whispered, a tear falling from her eyes. “I shouldn’t have called MilSec. None of this would be happening if I hadn’t told them how to find you. I put our father in prison and forced you to see Amanda and I am so, so sorry Marlowe–”
“–Cut it out,” Marlowe insisted gently. Jen’s lip quivered as she looked back at the floor.
Despite being in game-time mode, Marlowe knew she couldn’t just leave things like this. For the last day, she had kept at bay thoughts about the fates of her Alzheimer’s-stricken father, her sister… about her reunion with the woman who had broken her heart and ruined her life. As they flew over the still burning Subs, her thoughts glanced over the death of Jen’s boyfriend Michael and the dozens of Subs dwellers simply due to her proximity to them, not to mention the hundred soldiers by her own hand. One day, she’d have to face up to everything she’d done. That moment wasn’t now; but in the midst of fatigue and starvation and withdrawal from AMP, Marlowe was barely winning the battle over her own mind. And she knew her sister was having far worse luck in that fight.
“Jen, look at me,” Marlowe ordered.
Jen reluctantly looked at her sister, but refused to make eye contact.
“Imagen and Cook did this,” Marlowe said. “They withheld the footage. They falsely convicted me. They made me some trophy for a game. They killed Michael and imprisoned our father, all to get at me. This was them, okay? Not you.”
Jen shifted her eyes to meet Marlowe’s. Tears streaked down, splattering gently onto her clothes.
“…And I’m going to make them pay,” she added.
Jen smiled a very slight smile and it broke Marlowe’s heart. It was the same smile when Marlowe had stood up for her in school, and the same smile when she was in court and the evidence that would have put her away for life for dealing drugs suddenly went missing.
Jen nudged the green canvas go-bag at her feet toward Marlowe. “You’re going to need this, I think,” she said.
“…Thanks,” Marlowe said, reaching down to grab the bag. She rifled through it and grabbed a few Battery bars and an AMP inhaler. As before, she tore into the nutritional supplement bars and devoured them in a single gulp. She chased them down with a full inhale of AMP, shuddering and growling through her teeth.
“You going to take some with you?” Jen asked as she wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her shirt.
“Can’t,” Marlowe said as she exhaled, shivering. “Instant disqualification if I bring it on the field. Besides, we may need it for later.”
Jen lowered her eyes again. Marlowe put her hand on her sister’s shoulder and got her attention. “There will be a later, Jen,” Marlowe insisted softly. “Trust me.”
“Approaching Terminus Citadel now, ma’am,” Seraph stated. “And it looks like we’re being escorted in.”
“Well, that’s a damn sight better than being shot down,” Marlowe said. She shook her head back and forth, loosening her neck. She cracked her knuckles, then pulled one elbow over her chest, followed by the other. “Here we go,” she said, resolutely.
“Hell, yeah!” Jacobs shouted, sitting up and slapping his legs in excitement. “I’ve always wanted to be on ‘Next Top Soldier’! Let’s do this!”
“…Can you do that again?” Nines asked, pointing the Pod at Jacobs. “I missed it.”
It took Jacobs three tries before Nines got a take to her satisfaction. And not a moment too soon as their Jumper descended and landed just outside the gates of the courtyard of Terminus Citadel, the makeshift battlefield for what was promising to be a “Next Top Soldier” finale for the ages.
“Brow,” Dr. Ben Rossler whispered from behind his sweat-soaked surgical mask.
A MediDrone extended an appendage and blew a jet of sterile air on the surgeon’s forehead as he delicately attached the final lead connecting a brand new Powerhouse-class left leg augmentation to the newly installed neural gateway embedded in Henry “Mad Dog” Cain’s spine. The operation was creeping into its third hour, which was longer than either the doctor or his staff had slept since racing to save Cain’s life earlier in the evening. But the watchers of MedFeed knew that sleep deprivation was hardly a problem for Dr. Rossler. His staff was comprised of eleven of the best surgeons in the world (and one personal assistant), and he was an echelon well above them. Which is why no one – not the one hundred thousand citizens watching the surgery live, nor the doctor’s staff, nor the President himself – had any doubt that Dr. Rossler could bring Mad Dog back to the field of battle.
Dr. Rossler, however, was secretly marveling at the progress he was able to make in the time allotted. Not because of how difficult the procedure was – he knew how good he was. And not because of the lack of sleep or the hairpin timeline that would have been impossible for any other surgeon. It was the fact that he could get any of it done with Amanda Stokes’ voice blaring from all around as he dutifully followed the President’s orders and performed one of the most important operations of his career.
“And she was quite serious about the threat, too,” Stokes was relaying on-screen to the audience of “AM/BEAT,” the early morning NewsFeed show hosted by Pat Daniels. “She swore she’d kill me and everyone else around me if I didn’t broadcast this footage.”
“Amanda,” Pat Daniels said solemnly. “We all know you’re traumatized – you’ve not had any sleep since your show ended its broadcast a few hours ago. Heck, one could argue that you haven’t slept much in months. As your partner in the continuing coverage of the Marlowe Kana trial, I can attest to that!” He chuckled in the smarmily professional way only news anchors could achieve. Amanda smiled in response as Pat continued, “and you’ve just suffered through a scary confrontation. On behalf of all our viewers, thank you so much for staying up and joining us as a guest.”
“It’s my honor and my job,” Amanda replied with a sickly smile.
Pat nodded. “But the million-credit question is: Do you believe that Marlowe Kana is telling the truth and that this footage is real?”
Amanda took a deep breath. “I think in my current state, I can’t really say,” she answered.
“We wish you wouldn’t,” Dr. Rossler muttered as he pulled on a spool of nanofiber wiring and fed it into an arterial conduit in Mad Dog’s torso.
Amanda was continuing her on-screen speech. “I’m still in shock and afraid for my life after Marlowe Kana broke into my apartment and trashed it – you see this? See the table over there? She pointed to her left, and the camera drone turned to show the table that Marlowe had smashed during her visit. “That could have been me! She could have done that to me!”
“But, Amanda, certainly you have to have an opinion on her innocence or guilt, after seeing this, frankly, shocking footage of Sergeant Corta ambushing MK in the locker room.” The footage began playing again in a corner window just above Pat’s head. “I mean, this negates the entire treason charge right here. If this footage is real and not a holo-dupe, it means that–”
“–I can’t say,” Amanda interrupted. “The citizens of the United American State will have to decide for themselves. And we all can honestly say that these last twenty-four hours have been some of the darkest in our nation’s history. Marlowe Kana, found guilty of treason, of all things? And a jailbreak that results in the Atlanta Subs being torched and razed? Not to mention the nationalization of MilSec and an apparent schism between our President and the corporation his family founded, which employs us all and keeps us safe. Tensions are clearly high, and the unbelievable is now commonplace. So I wouldn’t blame our viewers if they feel it is possible this footage is a holo-dupe. But ask yourself…when did Marlowe Kana get time to commission a holo-dupe? She’s been behind bars since the incident, until just now – and if someone could create one in just a day that looks this accurate…”
“Ugh, God, make up your mind,” Dr. Rossler blurted out. “First she hates Marlowe, now she defends Marlowe…which is it?I”
“Focus, sir,” Dr. Vessey, Rossler’s lead assistant, urged calmly.
Amanda took a deep breath, and then looked directly into the lens. “But if we’re really thinking about it…” She paused and took another deep breath for effect. “It would seem that the only entity with the resources to pull something like that off would be Imagen Corporation…”
“What would they gain?” Pat asked.
“It’s a good question, isn’t it?” Amanda said mysteriously.
“Well, viewers at home – in fact, the entire country – would love to know: Is this footage real? Or is it an elaborate farce perpetrated by Imagen corporation?”
“The people at home are the ones who have to decide, Pat,” Amanda replied. “My judgement is honestly clouded, due to adrenaline and the fact that I’m sleep deprived.”
“You’re sleep deprived?” Dr. Rossler muttered under his breath as he attached another neural lead to the base controller of Mad Dog’s new legs. “Why is this even on? J.A.Q.i, please put on some jazz.”
“I cannot,” J.A.Q.i replied. “NewsFeed has been pinned on all displays, unclosable.”
“Well, can you please mute it?” he begged J.A.Q.i.
“Mute is not possible, but I have lowered the volume as low as I can,” J.A.Q.i replied politely. “I hope that it helps.”
Rossler grumbled. “Scalpel,” he barked.
Vessey, placed one delicately in his hand. “Focus,” she reminded him again sharply.
Dr. Rossler blinked deliberately. He inhaled deeply from his nostrils and exhaled through the damp surgical mask. This is why he paid Dr. Vessey enough to ensure she’d never leave. She knew how to navigate the fine line between respect and responsibility. It, however, still stung to have to be reminded that a human life hung in the balance between his skill and his predisposition of finding NewsFeed presenters distasteful. But he appreciated the candor. “Thank you, doctor,” he replied equably.
“Of course, doc–oh my…” Vessey gasped. Doctor Rossler looked up at his lead assistant to find her eyes glued to the wall full of screens just beyond the glass wall of the surgical center.
“Here with us now is Alan Davis, Chairman of the Board for Imagen Corporation,” Pat Daniels said as the screen split from two faces to three. “Now, Chairman, clearly these have been some of the most interesting hours of your career and, frankly, in our nation’s history. What, exactly, is your take on Cook nationalizing MilSec and turning it into the United American State Army? And his order just a few moments ago for General Kana’s execution?”
“I will be issuing a full statement on the MilSec nationalization, and many other issues, in due time,” Chairman Davis replied gravely. “There is a lot to be decided, and the Board and all trustees will be considering our options and preparing our response. But one thing that has been decided, and the reason I am streaming to you live this morning, is to announce that the Board has unanimously voted for an immediate and unconditional pardon of Major Marlowe Kana, as well as her father, General Ashish Kana.”
Pat Daniels and Amanda Stokes both gasped on-air, while Dr. Rossler, Dr. Vessey, ten other surgeons and assistants, and the twenty million citizens glued to the Feeds all gasped as well in near unison.
Alan Davis continued. “An Imagen judicial tribunal has been formed and the paperwork is being signed as I speak. To General Kana, I want to apologize for the false imprisonment and public display last evening, and to Major Marlowe Kana, I would personally like to extend a very heartfelt apology and a full reinstatement into MilSec, with back pay and a direct promotion to general.”
“But, sir,” Pat Daniel said, “There is no MilSec–”
“That is all,” Alan Davis said as his Feed went black.
“Well, what a stunning development!” Pat Daniels brayed. “I can’t believe it…MK has been pardoned!” The text crawl underneath on the screen immediately changed to repeat the news alert in all capital letters.
A tone sounded. “Doctor,” J.A.Q.i stated, “NewsFeed has just been marked closable. Would you like me to–”
“Shit yes, close it!” Dr. Rossler said with relief.
“I think this little project just got deprioritized,” Dr. Vessy opined. “You should take a break and let us take over.”
“Well, he’s sitting here wide open and half his body is augmented…I might as well finish the job,” Dr. Rossler replied wearily.
Rossler returned his focus to the task at hand and completed the connections to Mad Dog’s augmented right leg. One more leg, another arm, and some spinal repair to go. He would get it done, of course – and with a few hours to spare. The attention given him by a nation severely desensitized by technological advancement was not unearned. While he had been working to repair Sergeant Sabrina Corta, medical tech breakthroughs came to him daily. His simulations seemed to run at nearly twenty times their operational speed. In fact, the simulation deciphering the architecture of Marlowe Kana’s nanofiber-augmented muscular system had been running for years. Then somehow, the moment he needed it to save Corta, it had found a solution to the one problem vexing Dr. Rossler: how to power nanofiber augmentations internally versus adding the augmentations to existing body parts. With that problem solved, reverse-engineering simulations based on the samples taken from Marlowe in prison took mere minutes. And now, thanks to these massive advancements, procedures to enhance the human body were limited only by the availability of the nanofiber muscle tissue, which took months to grow.
As a scientist, he couldn’t help but question the timing, intent, and coincidence of such monumental technological and medical breakthroughs occurring in such a small amount of time. He couldn’t help but wonder just how, exactly, a simulation that had been running for years could suddenly crack the mystery of Marlowe Kana’s metal muscles…and just in the nick of time.
As a pragmatist, he knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The mention of Rossler’s name was never more than a few words away from Corta’s during the press coverage of her rehabilitation. When she was able to walk again, he was hailed as a miracle worker. Citizens across the nation called him a hero when Corta’s personal Feed came back to the Net, streaming her workouts and combat training. And the word “Rossler” had echoed through the cacophony in the arena earlier that day at the emergency CookTalk, in which Cook announced Corta’s surprise return to United America’s Next Top Soldier. And he was more than pleased to accept the credit. It was, after all, his own simulation that had solved the puzzle. It was his hands that connected leads to neurocircuits and connected the nanomuscle tissue. His name now rang out across the entire nation.
A tone sounded. “Sir,” J.A.Q.i announced, “It seems you have missed the fact that your name was just mentioned on NewsFeed.”
“By whom?” Rossler asked.
“President Cook,” J.A.Q.i replied.
“Shit…reopen NewsFeed. Turn the volume back up,” Dr. Rossler ordered. “Replay from beginning of mention.”
“…Not anymore, they’re not,” President Cook was saying through a camera drone Feed from the Oval Office. “I am pleased to announce that Dr. Ben Rossler, the man who brought Corta back, is actively working on Mad Dog and Hax as we speak. The prognosis is good, and they will both be back in action by this evening.”
“Wait, BOTH!?!” Rossler barked through his mask, his concentration finally fully snapped. In his panic, his hand jerked slightly, nicking the femoral artery in Mad Dog’s right leg.
“Ah, shit…seal that,” he commanded to a medical drone. It immediately shot out a cauterizing laser and sealed the wound. “J.A.Q.i, restart the Feed from the moment we turned it off.”
Cook’s Feed blinked out and the screen returned to Pat Daniels and Amanda Stokes staring into the camera as the the text crawl below them displayed in all caps “MARLOWE KANA – INNOCENT!”
“Well, she is not innocent,” Amanda was saying. “She has killed over a hundred soldiers, and she made terroristic threats to me in my own apartment! She is responsible for the razing of the Subs! She incited a terrorist organization to rise up in Atlanta and break her out of prison! She–”
“–Just a second, Amanda,” Pat interrupted, “Well, I just can’t believe this. President of the United American State, Stephen Cook, is joining us now. Hello, Mr. President!”
“Greetings, Pat. Hello, Amanda,” President Cook said. “I was just watching, and I had to stream in to say that Amanda, you are one hundred percent right.”
“…I am?” Amanda asked, bewildered. “Wait… Yes, of course I am…”
“Yes, you are,” President Cook agreed. “And to that end, Marlowe Kana has to be held accountable. She has to be held accountable for the hundreds of soldiers she slaughtered this evening after someone on her team hacked all of their weapons and left them defenseless!”
“Is that what happened?” Pat Daniel asked. “Because I’ve been told that–”
“That is indeed what happened, and it was unbecoming of a United American State Soldier.”
“Well, she was never a UASA soldier, sir,” Pat stated. “It didn’t exist until a few hours ago–”
Cook ignored him. “More than that, she committed outright murder. She damaged and destroyed national property. She caused a disturbance and incited terrorism. All of the things Amanda Stokes just listed out. And the fact that she and her accomplices saw fit to fight us rather than work with us toward justice is a crime we cannot forgive. It’s the crime of terrorism. So to that end, I am announcing here and now that Marlowe Kana is still wanted by the United American State Army, as are all of her accomplices.”
“I agree!” Amanda Stokes chimed in..
“But, sir,” Pat Daniels asked. “Imagen is still in charge of the courts. She was just pardoned.”
“She was pardoned by a corporation’s Board of Directors, in a court this administration and its Army does not recognize” President Cook responded. “The fact that Alan Davis and the rest of the Board decided to dismiss a felon they no longer have the resources to apprehend changes nothing. As the Commander in Chief of the United American State Army, I am now also the Executive Producer for “America’s Next Top Soldier.” It is my decision that Marlowe Kana is still the final challenge for the show, and that she and her accomplices are still terrorists. They must all still face justice. No one has provided any evidence that clears her father of the charge of orchestrating Marlowe’s prison breakout, so he will remain in Terminus Citadel.”
A smile suddenly crawled across the President’s face. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “If Marlowe is brave enough to come to Terminus Citadel and participate in the final round of ‘Next Top Soldier’ tonight, I’ll release her father and drop all charges against him. And if she can beat Corta and her squad by Champion Rules – the old three-on-three squad setup, with the competitor striking the final blow – I will grant her a full, legally binding pardon. Hell, her and all of her friends!”
“Three-on-three Championship Rules?” Pat Daniels asked. “But Corta has been solo all year! No one has strategized for three-on-three since, well…since before Marlowe retired! She doesn’t even have a squad. Who will serve with her?”
President Cook grinned boyishly, his trademark tell that there was something special coming. “Well, I was going to make it a surprise but, hey, why not make it an event! Corta will be joined by her former competitors, Henry “Mad Dog” Cain and Alexis “Hax” Curtis!”
“But sir, Mad Dog and Hax are both out of commission!”
“Not anymore they’re not,” President Cook answered. “I am pleased to announce that Dr. Ben Rossler, the man who brought Corta back–”
“Enough,” Dr. Rossler said. J.A.Q.i terminated the playback. Rossler looked into Dr. Vessey’s eyes as she peered at him in dismay over her surgical mask.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said to his team. “Let’s get back to it.”
Angel, Seraph, Poet, and Austin waited in the Jumper while Marlowe, Nines, Jen, and the Judge took the rooftop stairway down a floor to Amanda’s penthouse apartment complex. Not a word was said as they entered the hallway and approached a door marked 45-1. The Judge knocked smartly on the door several times.
The moment that the door opened, Marlowe caught a hint of Amanda’s perfume in the air. A thousand moth-like memories danced around the fire of her thoughts. She wanted to bolt down the hallway and out of the building and run as fast and as far as she could to somewhere…anywhere.
But she couldn’t leave. The stakes were too high.
She stood fast as The Judge led the way into Amanda’s apartment…Amanda’s apartment. She mentally spat at the thought. Amanda would never have been approved for that space without Marlowe. In fact, Amanda hadn’t contributed a single credit for the place until several months after Marlowe left…the night everything went south. After that night, Marlowe couldn’t stand the thought of staying there, yet couldn’t bring herself to have Amanda evicted either. Despite Amanda’s affair, she just couldn’t force herself to be that vindictive.
How fucking stupid I was, she thought as Jen walked in behind The Judge. This woman has made an entire career out of making me into a heel on NewsFeed. Never mind everything I did for her, or everything I didn’t do to her that I could have! She shook her head, steeling herself. She inhaled in a deep breath and took a step forward, colliding directly with Nines, who was standing halfway in the doorway.
“Watch out!” Nines barked. “What the hell?”
“…Sorry,” Marlowe said. She looked at Nines, who looked back at her in irritation. “…Going in?” Marlowe asked slowly.
“Personal space, man…” Nines muttered, suddenly seeming all of fifteen years old. She stepped forward through the doorway, then sauntered over by Jen who was busy surveying the apartment.
Marlowe blinked and shook her head, annoyed. But upon glimpsing Amanda sitting expectantly in her living room, all thoughts of Nines and her teenage angst left, and Marlowe’s mind became a roaring blank.
Marlowe walked past The Judge, Jen, Nines, and Amanda with her eyes glued to the runner rug. She pulled out one of the dining chairs she had picked out with Amanda three years prior and plopped herself into it.
The air sat thick with tension for almost thirty seconds. The Judge cleared his throat once. Everyone looked his way to see what he was going to say. He shrugged. “Sorry…throat’s dry.”
Amanda forced a nervous chuckle. Another awkward tension threatened to take up residence when Jen finally broke the silence.
“Nice shirt,” she said, pulling her own shirt down to resemble Amanda’s extremely low-cut blouse. “Ratings low?”
“Not anymore, thanks to your sister,” Amanda said coolly. “They’re at an all-time high.”
“Well, I’m sure viewers are thoroughly entertained,” Jen snapped.
Amanda smirked. “At least I’m not dressed like the world’s most ridiculous chessboard. What’s with the masks?”
“Necessity,” Jen said. “We don’t want to wear this stuff, but we have to. Just like we don’t want to be here, but we have to–Nines, put that down!”
The solid chink of glass-on-glass echoed throughout the room as Nines clumsily lowered a small porcelain statue of a dog back to its place on an end table. “I’m bored,” she complained as she plopped down on the RealLeather couch that dominated the room. “This sucks.”
“Necessary evil,” Jen said. “Sit still and let the adults talk, okay, sweetheart?”
“Eat a dick,” Nines huffed. She pulled out the Pod that Marlowe had given her and buried her face in it. The Judge chuckled and took a seat next to her. Nines glared in his direction. She scooted herself closer to the armrest and returned to hacking the planet.
“Yeahhhhh…so…” Amanda drawled, dragging her words out for maximum effect. “When are you going to get around to telling me why you’re here?”
Jen looked over at the Judge, who was smirking.
“…You going to tell her?” Jen asked.
He softly closed his eyes and shrugged, and then nodded toward Jen, insisting that she do the honors.
“Welllll, okay then,” Jen said with a heavy sigh, “You know why we’re here, I’m sure. Or else we wouldn’t be here.”
“I want to hear you say it,” Amanda said with a satisfied smirk on her face. “I want you to ask for my help.”
“And I want to watch the light leave your eyes while I choke you to death,” Jen retorted. “And yet, here I sit, behaving myself and doing what’s necessary to deal with the situation at hand. I was assured by mister ‘The Judge’ here that you’d cooperate.”
“I’ll cooperate, but I want you to ask.”
Jen ground her molars and glared at Amanda, whose smirk deepened. She then looked at the Judge, whose own smirk she thought couldn’t have possibly deepened, somehow had.
“What the fuck, dude?!” Jen shouted at him. “I didn’t sign up for this!”
“And yet, here you are,” the Judge replied, still grinning wickedly.
“Motherfucker…” Jen shook her head, took another deep breath in through her nostrils, and finally asked through clenched teeth, “Will you help us?”
“Why won’t Marlowe ask me?” Amanda asked. She glanced over toward the dining room area where Marlowe sat, head dramatically turned away. “She’s the one who needs the help. She should ask. Hell, I’d even settle for a simple ‘hello’ at this point.”
“I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to watch the playback of your own show this morning, but she’s had a pretty busy day.”
“No need to remind me,” Amanda said. “Hell of a show she’s put on.”
“Might even keep you on NewsFeed for another month,” Jen snapped. “Oh wait, you’re fucking your producer. You don’t need things like story or content, do you?”
Amanda’s smirk faded. She looked over at The Judge. “You really expect me to take this?” She asked.
The Judge appeared to be struggling not to laugh.
“Look,” Jen said, trying to pull the quickly unraveling moment back together. “Marlowe’s really tired. We all are. It’s been a long day, as you know. And the sooner we can get things rolling and get this over with, the better.”
“What are you, her interpreter?”
“I’m her sister!” Jen barked, losing the little composure she’d regained. “And you’re the bitch who keeps dragging her name through the mud and, oh you know…ruined her life. So you’ll have to understand that she may not have much to say to you.”
“I’d argue that the attempted murder and subsequent jailbreak has done far more to ruin her life than any ex-girlfriend could,” Amanda said. “And I’m not dragging her name through the mud. It’s the job. It’s all performance. You know that and she knows that. I’ve tried to apologize, but how can I? She won’t accept my pings. She obviously has me blocked.”
“Deservedly so,” Jen answered. “It’s for the best. Trust me, you don’t want to hear anything she’d have to say. It’s all pretty unflattering.”
“Ooh! I do!” Nines chirped, her gaze lifting from the Pod screen.
Jen glared at Nines. Nines looked down and quickly resumed her activities on the Pod.
“Well, the same could be said about the things she told me about you,” Amanda jibed, bringing Jen’s focus back to her. “Unflattering would be the mildest way to describe it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Jen replied. “I’ve done some dumb shit, and will probably do even more. But we’re sisters. We get to hate each other. It’s in the contract. You, however? You’re just some low-rent stripper who fucked her way to the middle.”
“What’s wrong with stripping?” Nines asked, re-engaged.
“Goddammit, Nines! Stay out of this!” Jen snapped.
“It’s a noble profession!” Nines yelled.
“Quite!” Amanda agreed, bestowing on Jen a triumphant glare.
Jen was momentarily taken aback. “Wait, you’re going to count her opinion as vindication?” She asked Amanda. “She’s twelve!”
“Fifteen!” Nines corrected. “And that doesn’t mean I’m not right!”
“Who cares?!?” Jen shouted.
“I do,” Amanda said. “Let the kid speak.”
“I’m not a kid, you bitch,” Nines replied. “And stripping is a noble profession.”
Amanda smirked. “Cute kid. I like her.”
“Well, I hate you!” Nines barked as she raised her eyes and locked them on Amanda. “Your show is the lowest-rated piece of shit ever broadcast on any Feed, ever, in history. And deservedly so, because it’s shit. It’s really shitty shit. My worst-performing automated scripts make better-edited story footage than your entire production team. You used Marlowe to get a show you don’t deserve and and everyone knows it. You’re terrible and I hate your stupid face.”
Amanda was taken aback. She turned to Jen. “Who’s the brat?” she asked.
“She’s got the evidence I told you about,” The Judge said, finally speaking up.
“NOW you choose to talk?” Jen said incredulously.
“It wasn’t my turn before,” The Judge said. “Now it is. Amanda, may we please have the password to your NetNode?”
“Don’t need it,” Nines said without looking up, tapping away on the Pod. “I guessed it on the third try. Pro tip, Amanda. Zeroes instead of the letter ‘o’ in Marlowe? Not really secure.”
“Well, goody,” Jen said with mock glee. “The sooner we find that footage, the sooner we get the hell out of here.”
“Sorry my apartment isn’t up to your lavish standards, Subbie,” Amanda sneered.
“I like the Subs. They’re honest and I earn my place there,” Jen retorted
“You don’t think I earned this?” Amanda said.
“Sure,” Jen sneered, “You earned it by fucking your way here! You fucked Marlowe to get famous, and then fucked her again when you cheated on her with your producer to get the slot on NewsFeed, and then–”
There was a sudden crash as Marlowe’s fist went clear through the dining room table. Splintered wood clattered against the linoleum and chair legs screeched against the floor as Marlowe stood. “ENOUGH!” she screamed.
Everyone’s attention snapped toward Marlowe. Nines raised her Pod and snapped a quick photo of Marlowe standing amongst the shattered wreckage of fine dining fixtures.
“Nines,” Marlowe groaned. “Erase that.”
“Nope.” Nines replied without looking up.
Marlowe sighed. “Look, this sucks, okay?” she said as she stalked toward the kitchenette. “No one in this apartment wants to be here right now. Least of all me, for at least two very huge, equally depressing reasons. But we are here. We have a mission.” She opened the door to a cabinet, scanned the contents, and closed it before opening another.
“Top right, next to the sink,” Amanda said without looking up.
Marlowe froze as if lightning had zapped through her body. Her cheeks smoldered and fire burned the tips of her ears. Of all the things she’d imagined Amanda saying to her if they ever met again, “Top right, next to the sink” wasn’t even in the top ten thousand. This was the first time Amanda had spoken to her in over a year and a half. She wanted to kill her. She wanted to grab her and hold her in her arms and not let her go. She wanted to throw her through the wall. She wanted to disappear through the floor. More than anything, she wanted to suddenly wake up and realize that the last nineteen months of her life had been a very terrible dream, wipe the cold sweat from her brow, roll over, and go back to sleep where better dreams awaited.
Breathing slowly, she managed to regain her composure. She opened the aforementioned cabinet, retrieved a glass, and put it under the water dispenser. A quick jet of water shot into the glass.
“…Thank you,” Marlowe said to Amanda.
“…You’re welcome,” Amanda replied reluctantly. “Look, Marlowe, I am really–”
“AT ANY RATE,” Marlowe interrupted. “Nines is locating footage that proves I didn’t attack Corta first and was actually acting out of self-defense.” She took a gulp of water from the glass and wiped her mouth, then walked around the corner of the kitchen into the living room.
Amanda opened her mouth to say something, but appeared dumbfounded.
Marlowe continued. “Mister moustache over there assured me that you are willing to leak this footage and help clear my name and get my father out of prison. Is that the deal?”
“Well, I promised I’d air the footage, but–”
“Is that the goddamn deal or not!?” Marlowe asked.
Silence. Then “…Yes,” The Judge finally answered for Amanda. “Everything I promised will be–”
“I want to hear her say it!” Marlowe barked, pointing at Amanda. “Yes or no!”
Amanda stared at Marlowe for a few seconds. She nodded.
“Fucking say it,” Marlowe demanded.
“Yes,” Amanda squeaked.
“Good enough for me,” Marlowe said, setting the empty glass down, before striding for the door. “I’m done here. If you need me, I’ll be in the Jumper. Let me know when Nines finds the footage.”
“Wait. Marlowe!” Amanda called out.
Marlowe willed herself not to stop, but her body betrayed her. She froze just short of the hallway leading toward the door.
“I…I’m sorry. Truly,” Amanda said earnestly. She let out a deep sigh. “I’ve had years to think this over, and I just…I know I didn’t treat you fairly–”
“–Fairly?” Jen snapped. “Fairly is a pipe dream compared to what you’ve done! You’ve made her life a living hell!”
“Jen, I got this,” Marlowe said half-heartedly.
“Marlowe, just tonight she called you a menace on the air at least five times!”
“Twelve,” Nines said, still focused on the Pod.
Everyone turned to look at Nines. “My scripts automatically highlight keywords and hashtags,” Nines explained. “They make supercuts of Amanda saying stupid things. It’s an endless supply of credits. I just posted tonight’s video. I didn’t just sit here and count them or anything. I’m not a psycho. Quit looking at me.”
The room was silent for a moment. Marlowe turned and began marching down the hallway toward the door.
“Wait!” Amanda said, standing up and rushing toward Marlowe. “I want to make this up to you!” She darted past Marlowe and cut her off in the middle of the hallway. “That’s why I agreed when the Judge approached me! I see it as a chance to make everything up to you. I really do. I just…I have a career and a persona I have to maintain! You understand, right? It’s just for engagement! Viewers respond to it! Like…like what your little friend just said. It’s about keywords and hashtags! You understand that, right? And so I have to do things like call you a menace! It’s for work! I need you to understand that. I need you to know that I am truly, truly sorry. You meant the world to me and I made a huge mistake.”
Marlowe looked up and locked eyes with Amanda. Amanda tried to to look away, and almost did, but stopped herself from breaking eye contact. She took a step toward Marlowe.
“You believe me, right?” she asked, reaching out and taking Marlowe’s hands.
Jen sighed loudly, clearly disgusted. The Judge was studying Marlowe and Amanda with fascination. Amanda leaned in toward Marlowe with pleading eyes. Marlowe could taste metal. She wanted both to kiss and kill Amanda. Her teeth unclenched. Her lips parted. She began to speak.
“Found it!” Nines yelled, breaking the tension.
Everyone flinched. They turned toward Nines. “Yep,” she said, flipping the Pod around so Marlowe could see it. “You were right. She ambushed you.”
“…I know I was right,” Marlowe said, dropping Amanda’s hands. “I was there.” She pushed past Amanda and walked toward the door.
“Where are you going?” The Judge asked. “We just found what we–”
“–Getting some air,” Marlowe answered. “You guys have a lot of work to do. I need a minute. Amanda, unlock the door.”
“Wait, we still–”
“I’m going through that door in three seconds,” Marlowe stated grimly. “It’s your choice as to how much cleaning up you want to do when I leave.”
“I don’t want you to leave!” Amanda yelled. “I want to work this out! I want us to be okay!”
“Okay?!” Marlowe snapped, spinning to face Amanda. “Look around you! This used to be my life! That sofa…those chairs…that table I just smashed! We picked those together. We made this place what it is. And you went and ruined it ALL!” Marlowe’s eyes narrowed and her tone became dour. “But you’re okay, aren’t you? You still get to live in this reality. Hell, you even moved the glasses to the cabinet you fought me over! Meanwhile, I still have to live in a reality I don’t understand, and I understand it less and less as the days go by. I fight my way through it blind, while you get paid to critique me as I do it in spite of — or rather, because of how well you know me. Now open the goddamn door.”
Amanda stared at the floor. She inhaled deeply. “J.A.Q.i, open the door,” she ordered. A tone sounded, and the latches binding the door to the frame retracted.
Marlowe turned and grabbed the doorknob. She held it fast. “Do you remember our song?” Marlowe asked over her shoulder.
“‘Beautiful Her,’” Amanda said immediately without looking up from the floor.
“When you hear that song, does all the air leave your lungs and you double over in pain as tears and snot drip all over the floor? Or is that just me?”
Amanda blinked a few times. She began to answer, but it was a little too late.
“Thought so,” Marlowe said as she opened the door, passed through it, and gently closed it behind her.
“You told me she’d be receptive,” Amanda said to The Judge after a moment’s stunned silence from the group.
“That was receptive,” Jen interjected. “You’re not dead or nursing a black eye. Consider that an agreement.”
The Judge nodded. “You don’t need her to like you. You just need her to be on board. And I have to agree with Jen. The fact that the only thing broken in here is a table is, I think, getting off light.”
Amanda shook her head and walked over to the couch. She fell into it as if knocked off her feet by the emotional strain. “I’m not doing this,” Amanda said numbly.
Jen snarled. “Bitch, you’re airing that footage, or so help me–”
“–May I remind you of the very considerable leverage I have on you?” The Judge added with some menace. “Society may not care about your gender reassignment and Marlowe’s very understanding. Your producer boyfriend, however…your ratings don’t go up if you don’t have a show.”
Amanda glared at The Judge. “Of course. You don’t have to remind me,” she snarled. “I’m very aware.”
Jen’s jaw dropped. “Wait…your producer doesn’t know? But I thought everyone knew…”
“Just because Marlowe told her sister doesn’t mean the world is privy to every aspect of our lives,” Amanda said. “It’s my business.”
“Then you’ll abandon this little pity party and fulfill your end of our agreement?” The Judge said.
Amanda nodded reluctantly.
“Great. Nines, get–” Amanda began.
“Aw, not you, too!” Nines snapped. “My name is Regina!”
“Why does everyone call you Nines then?”
“She’s MKFan_9999,” Jen said as she stood to leave. “You figure it out. In fact, you three figure all the rest of this out. I don’t need to be here for that. I’m going to get some air with Marlowe.” She looked at Amanda and gestured toward the doorway. “Do you mind?”
“Gladly,” Amanda replied. “J.A.Q.i, open the door.”
Jen left and the door locked behind her. Nines scooted over to Amanda on the couch to show her the footage. “You have an editing setup here?” Nines asked. “If not, I can do it all on this.”
“…So you’re the FeedLeech making all those Marlowe videos?” Amanda asked. “Wow…I thought you were a man.”
“Looks like we both have identity issues,” Nines said. “We doing this or what?”
The Judge leaned back in his seat and smiled.
Jen pushed the manual lever on the doorway leading to the roof. She saw the Jumper just in front of her and Marlowe leaning on a railing looking out to the city just beyond. Jen breathed in deeply and approached the Jumper.
“Do I even wanna know what happened?” Poet asked from the gunner’s chair.
Jen shrugged. “We got the footage and it’s going live,” she said. “All it cost was that moment right there.” She nodded toward the cockpit. Through the front windscreen, Poet saw Marlowe leaning against the railing that separated the rooftop from a thirty-eight story drop down to Peachtree Street.
“Good luck,” Poet said with a rueful smile. Jen nodded, then left and joined Marlowe. Marlowe kept her gaze on the morning sky over the city. Without saying a word, Jen handed over a lighter and a cigar she had pulled from the go-bag they’d brought from Jen’s apartment.
“Thanks,” Marlowe said and took the items without looking. She placed the cap of the cigar between her front teeth and bit into the tobacco wrapper, ripping a thin layer from the very tip of the cigar.
“Not even slightly,” Marlowe answered.
“You wanna talk about it?” Jen asked.
Marlowe took a deep drag from her cigar. She chambered the smoke in her mouth for a moment, savoring the flavors. She pursed her lips. A steady chimney-like smoke plume poured from it. “I hate her. You know I hate her. I hated being in the room with her. I hated asking for a favor from her. She sucks so, so much, to say the very least, and I know you hate her, too,” Marlowe said. “But leave the noble profession of stripping out of it.”
Jen laughed, caught off guard but relieved to see her sister not completely destroyed. “It’s depraved, using your tits for money,” she said with a smile.
“Isn’t that your favorite tactic in poker?” Marlowe asked. “Wearing some low-cut thing and leaning forward so the green gamblers can get an eyeful?”
“Hey, that’s poker,” Jen answered, reaching out and gesturing toward Marlowe’s cigar. Marlowe shrugged and handed it to her. “All’s fair in cards and crusades,” Jen continued. “What can I say? People don’t think straight when they’re horny. But at least there’s honor in how I do it.”
Jen held up the cigar and examined the lit end. She contemplated its glowing red embers, rolling the stick in her fingertips. “One’s a game,” she said calmly. “The other is a way of life.”
“Poker is how you pay your rent,” Marlowe stated. “You literally live off gambling.”
“But I don’t live off tips from showing my tits.”
Marlowe chuckled. Her gaze left the city skyline as she finally found the wherewithal to look at her sister. “You’re seriously fucking broken, you know that?”
“Says the augmented super soldier wearing forty pounds of steel around her wrists and ankles after breaking out of prison for attempted murder,” Jen said, bringing the cigar to her lips for a puff. She took a dramatic drag, and immediately began coughing violently. A stream of smoke poured from her mouth and nose as she doubled over, gagging.
“You’re not supposed to inhale!” Marlowe said through her laughter. She patted her sister gently on the back and helped her stand. “Deep breaths…there you go…”
“Why the hell…do you like…those things?” Jen gasped, fighting for air.
“Refined tastes, I suppose – wait, where’d it go?”
Jen coughed while pointing over the railing of the apartment building.
“Shit,” Marlowe said as her shoulders slumped forward and her head sagged. “Waste of a good Cuesta.”
Marlowe and Jen both jumped as the stairway access door slammed open. “We have to go!” The Judge barked as he rushed through the door, Nines following closely behind.
“What happened?” Marlowe yelled as she jogged toward the Jumper. Jen trotted along behind her.
“You didn’t see the NewsFeed alert?” The Judge asked. “Wait, no, of course you didn’t. Jen? You didn’t get an alert?”
“None,” Jen croaked.
“Poet?” The Judge asked as he climbed into the vehicle. “Alerts?”
“Nothing on NewsFeed or any of the main CitizenFeeds,” Poet replied, reaching out a hand to help Jen in.
“Good, it’s not out there yet,” The Judge said. “We can still beat it. Seraph, spool up and take off!” Seraph saluted from the cockpit and began flipping switches on the console before her.
“Beat what?” Marlowe asked as she helped Nines into the Jumper, and then climbed in behind her.
“Amanda just got the tip on a private wire feed. Cook just ordered your father’s execution.”
Marlowe and Jen both fell silent as the MagLev engines on the Jumper whined and whirred. The Jumper dusted off and cleared the railing of the rooftop by less than an inch, before descending in near-freefall to below radar level, and shooting off into the distance.
Marlowe felt a light breeze drag lazily across her exposed arms. Regulations stated that she wasn’t supposed to roll up her sleeves while in uniform, but it was such a lovely day, she just couldn’t help herself. She also couldn’t help but notice how much she’d been smiling lately. Things like light breezes, and rain storms, and even the new heat cycle meant to more closely emulate what summer had really felt like before the war…little things that she had never cared about before suddenly delighted her.
Marlowe still didn’t really understand how Imagen had the ability to create things like breezes. A young Enviroscience Division officer had tried explaining it to her once during a NewsFeed roundtable discussing the latest public beta of the Environmental Atmospheric Operating System. She had cut him off famously: “When your office is the scorched glass sands of the Gaslands, things like breezes are luxuries.” The clip had immediately gone viral.
Breezes, partly cloudy skies, and the new thunder and lightning cycles…despite her hardscrabble history, she had to admit: eaOS 11 was by far the best update Imagen had ever released.
Marlowe inhaled deeply and held it, doing her best to freeze this moment of time in her mind. The smell of wood on fire in a brick oven enhanced the smell of pepperoni and melted cheese and perfectly charred crust. Her stomach rumbled. She was starving. True, it was rare that she wasn’t ever not hungry. But right then, the wine was amplifying her body’s craving for both food and the touch of her love’s hand. She satisfied the second by reaching out and delicately resting her hand on top of Amanda’s. Marlowe locked eyes with her as she pulled Amanda’s hand toward her and kissed it lightly. Essence of cucumber blended with honey as Amanda’s fragrant body cream filled her nostrils. It was as intoxicating as the wine. More so, even.
A blue bubble appeared in the lower-right panel of the HUD in Marlowe’s augmented eyes. It contained a comment from an anonymous viewer, reading, “BORING!” Marlowe chuckled. Her attention shifted to the ticker displaying her bank’s credits balance, pinned in the lower left of her eye screens. It showed a brand-new deposit.
“Someone thinks we’re boring enough that they paid the hundred-credit comment fee to tell us,” Marlowe said to Amanda with a laugh.
Amanda smiled. “You know you’re famous when you can charge for comments on your Feed and people actually pay to tell you it’s boring,” she said. She stared into the lens of the MilSec-issued body camera on Marlowe’s chest and chirped, “Thanks for buying dinner!”
“What can I say?” Marlowe asked as she reached for her wine glass. “Even my boredom is profitable!”
“Cheers to that!” Amanda said, raising her glass to Marlowe. A bright TINK! rang out as they tapped rims.
Wine was the one vice Marlowe still allowed herself – and even then, only one glass with dinner. Viewing everything through a fog of scotch and cigar smoke tended to dull the shine of everyday life, making it hard to notice the little glints of brilliance that were the simple things. Since she’d met Amanda, however, she’d traded booze and smoke for being high on life. She’d retired from “Next Top Soldier” as a three-time champion, withdrew from foreign service, opting instead for local duty in Atlanta. According to FeedMeter, the viewership of her Feed had fallen below twenty million for the first time since she’d started streaming as an enlisted private (but was still higher than the number-two feed, NewsFeed, by nearly double). Hashtags like #MarlowesBoring, #MKingMeSleep, and #AmandaKilledMarlowe dominated NewsFeed tickers.
She didn’t care.
The love of one woman had more than replaced the attention of forty million United American State citizens. Not that they all hated her – far from it. Her ratings proved that she still had half the country as a fan base. But there was no denying that her ratings had declined over the past year. The lack of engagement threw the nation’s leadership into a tizzy. Imagen was actively test-marketing new potential star soldiers, casting marginally famous faces for “Next Top Soldier” and attempting to find new ways to boost the WarFeed ratings with live-streams of special invasions. The Antarctica special had come close to Marlowe’s lowest ratings, but that had only resulted in the discovery of a few camps of natives and some rusted wreckage from when the International Space Station had crashed back to Earth. Even President Cook had taken to discussing Marlowe’s sagging numbers during his weekly CookTalks, suggesting not so subtly that he may have to ask her to surrender her “Next Top Soldier” medals for violating the “Honor Code of serving the United American State” by “failing her duties to her fans, the citizens.” He’d even hinted that he might force her back into foreign duty to get her ratings back up.
They were empty threats, of course. No non-felon could be forced to serve outside of the United American State borders, and even the President wouldn’t violate The Constitution 2.0. And no one could accuse the second-most decorated soldier in MilSec history of dereliction of duty just for going out to dinner.
Her relationship with Amanda had changed her, and she couldn’t deny that it was for the better. She might be boring the nation, annoying the Imagen Board of Directors, and even pissing off the President, but it just didn’t matter to Marlowe. Love will do that to you. And for the first time in her life, Marlowe Kana was happy.
“Your margherita pie, madams,” J.A.Q.i said as a red-checkered service drone with an Antico Pizza logo hovered its way over to their table. Three legs emerged from the bottom of the bot as it slowly lowered itself to the table.
“Oh man, that smells sooooo good,” Marlowe said as she reached for a slice.
“Careful!” Amanda warned. “You’re gonna burn your tongue again!”
“It’s not THAT hotttfffffaaaaahhh! OW!” Marlowe yelped, pulling a triangle of pizza from her mouth, tendrils of cheese dangling.
“Are you okay?” Amanda asked with a chuckle as she dipped the edge of a cloth napkin into her water glass and handed it to Marlowe.
“Yeah,” Marlowe replied as she dabbed her burnt tongue with the damp cloth. “Thanks.”
“I hope there’s no lasting damage,” Amanda added demurely. “I’m going to need you to use that later.”
Marlowe smirked from behind the napkin. Amanda returned the smile from behind her wine glass. The two held each other’s eyes for that kind of eternity that only lasts a moment.
“What is it?” Amanda finally asked from behind her wine glass
“Nothing, just…” Marlowe replied, ducking her eyes and dropping the napkin on the table. She reached out both of her hands and beckoned Amanda to extend hers. Their fingertips interlaced over the middle of the table. “I’m happy,” Marlowe said.
“Me, too,” Amanda replied. She whispered it again. And again. “Me too… Me too… Me too…”
Amanda’s voice began to echo as she repeated the phrase. Marlowe narrowed her eyes. The entire world around her began to glow, as if someone had turned the brightness up well past the maximum setting in her HUD. The world blurred and turned bright red. Tendrils of dark red snaked around her field of vision like roots from a tree. They moved left, and then right, and then back to center. A small slit of light split the horizon. Light flooded in and the world turned a bright blue-white as she realized she could hear the characteristic whirr of Jumper rotors.
“She’s awake,” she heard Austin’s voice say from her left.
“Don’t move, Marlowe,” The Judge’s voice said from her right.
“Stay very, very still,” Jen added from directly in front of her.
“What’s happening?” Marlowe asked groggily.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” The Judge asked.
“That your moustache is cheesy,” Marlowe said. “And that I hate you.”
The Judge laughed. “Well, she’s still herself,” he said. “That counts for something. Good work, Austin.”
“Thank you, sir,” Austin responded. “Just a few more seconds, and…there. I’m out. I’ll pull the plug.”
“What plug?” Marlowe asked. “Wait…did you…”
“Please, Marlowe, stay calm,” Jen urged desperately.
Marlowe slowly reached her left hand up to the scarred area just behind her left ear. She felt a wire dangling from the spot where she’d yanked her Pod out while in prison, removing in very dramatic fashion the device that had once connected her to J.A.Q.i before it was overwritten with PrisonOS. She traced the wire forward and felt it connecting to the back of a portable terminal in front of Austin.
“Motherfucker!” she yelled in fury. Austin’s eyes bulged from their sockets as Marlowe seized him by the neck.
“NO!” Jen yelled, grabbing Marlowe’s arm.
“He jack-hacked me!” Marlowe seethed.
“URK,” Austin squeaked.
“We didn’t have a choice!” Jen insisted. “You were completely out. We had to move fast!”
Still clutching Austin’s throat, Marlowe locked eyes with Jen. “We? You mean you allowed this?!?” She asked her sister, mouth agape in disbelief.
“You were bugged!” Jen said, doubling her effort to pull Marlowe’s arm back. “Hax’s virus…not only did it override your muscular control, it turned your entire system into an antenna! Every single near-field communication beacon pinged off of you! That’s how MilSec found us!”
“They’re the Army now,” Nines corrected from nearby.
“Shut up!” Jen snapped as she whipped her head around.
“Stop being wrong and I will!” Nines retorted.
“Your sister and Nines both watched the entire time,” the Judge calmly told Marlowe. “You were not violated in any way. In fact, if you let Austin go, he has some good news for you.”
“HUKKKK,” Austin gurgled in response.
Jen looked back at her sister. “Please,” she begged Marlowe. “Let him go.”
Marlowe gritted her teeth and released her grip. Austin choked and gasped for air.
“So dramatic,” the Judge said. “Why can’t you just accept help from people? We are on your side, Marlowe.”
“You’re on your own side,” Marlowe replied as she turned to face the Judge. “You made that clear. And no one — NO ONE — violates me like that. You agreed.”
“I said nothing installed,” the Judge replied. “Nothing was installed. Austin simply stripped the bug, and he repaired your targeting system while he was at it.”
Marlowe blinked. She stared at the Judge’s face and realized that it was covered in a very light green mesh. A rangefinder in the bottom right of her field of vision indicated that his head was swaying between twenty-five and twenty-six inches away from her face.
“You don’t…need J.A.Q.i…for telemetry,” Austin croaked as he gingerly rubbed his throat. “They just attach it for logs and data mining.”
“Your on-board system is restored,” the Judge said. “Be thankful.”
“…Thanks,” Marlowe grumbled. “But all things considered, I’d rather you’d just discussed all of this with me first and asked for my consent.”
“We’re at war,” the Judge replied. “You’re a weapon. We upgraded you while removing a threat to our survival. You of all people must understand that.”
Marlowe sat up and rubbed her temples, blinking a few times. She looked up toward the cockpit of the Jumper and saw Poet in the gunner’s seat, with Angel in the co-pilot seat and Angel’s younger doppleganger from the EV plant flying in the pilot’s chair. Nines was squatting between the two pilots, taking in the view as the team approached the brightening Atlanta skyline. She glanced left at Austin, and then right at her sister. Everything she observed was wrapped in thin, tactical mesh, with sensitive areas of each human body glowing a faint red. Distances for each highlighted object popped up in a table in the bottom-right of her view.
She shook her head. “I feel violated,” she said.
“You’re going to feel a lot worse than that in a second,” Jen said with a sigh. “You’re not going to like where we’re headed.”
Marlowe’s face went flat. “And where is that?” she asked.
“Amanda’s,” Jen answered quietly.
“NO.” Marlowe said. “I’m out. This is ridiculous.”
“It’s our only play,” The Judge replied. “We’ve got to find that footage and—”
“Then find it!” Marlowe snapped. “Go to a library! Or an Imagen Coffee hotspot! Hell, you have three hackers on board, why can’t we just bust in and take it from any of a thousand other places?”
“We can do that, but what then?” The Judge replied. “We have to get it out to the public, and fast.”
Marlowe’s eyes widened and she gestured dramatically at Nines. “We have MKFan_9999 RIGHT HERE!” she yelled.
“We need NewsFeed,” Jen mumbled, head lowered in shame. “We need Amanda.”
Marlowe stared holes into the top of Jen’s head, silently insisting that she look up and face her. Jen felt her unspoken demand and complied.
“How could you?” Marlowe asked. “You tried to turn me in, and you know what? I can forgive that. You just let me get jack-hacked, and I can even forgive that. But dragging me—in my sleep—to Amanda’s?”
“Get over it,” The Judge said. “We’re going. Put this on.” He reached out and proffered Marlowe a Dazzle-camouflaged bandanna they were all wearing.
“Why the costumes?”
“It disrupts facial recognition. It works, trust me.”
“Poet told me. But I’m pretty sure it won’t help. Me, at least.”
“Why?” Nines asked as she reluctantly tied the bandanna around her face.
“My weight, my density…there aren’t many four-hundred-pound women under six feet tall running around with metal muscles.”
“We’re coming in from the roof,” The Judge said. “Floor sensors will be minimal.”
“That puts us on radar!” Marlowe said. “We’ll be shot down before we even get to the building.”
“Seraph is a very gifted pilot,” The Judge said indicating Angel’s sister.
“Gifted or not, no one can outfly the air-defense matrix,” Marlowe insisted.
“She doesn’t have to,” The Judge replied. “All she has to do is fly like a Zifty.”
“…A food taxi?” Marlowe asked.
“Yep,” the Judge replied. “We’ve hacked the Jumper’s registry so that we identify as a ZiftyDelivery. It won’t pass a visual, but it’ll keep the automated defenses from firing.”
Marlowe scowled. Reluctantly, she reached out and grabbed the bandanna. She sighed as she tied it around her neck, ready to pull it up over her face.
“You don’t have to face her,” Jen offered, placing her hand on Marlowe’s shoulder. “I’ll go in. You can wait on the roof.”
“She can,” The Judge said, his smirk returning. “But she won’t.”
Marlowe’s eyes shot up, brimming with anger. She wanted to tell The Judge that he was wrong. She wanted to throw him from the Jumper. She wanted to go back to sleep. She wanted to go back in time.
She lowered her gaze back to the deck of the transport. She couldn’t deny that he was right.
Everyone on board the Jumper found themselves in the midst of an awkward silence. Seraph kept the hovering vehicle safely in the drone lanes of Atlanta’s airspace, obeying the speed limit while flying and cornering in exact lines. Marlowe found herself secretly hoping that the registry hack would fail and the automated turrets atop every building would open fire and send the Jumper streaking from the sky into the side of Amanda’s building, killing only the evil ex-girlfriend who had crushed Marlowe’s heart into a billion irreparable pieces. She couldn’t help but imagine a sharp-eyed soldier spotting the Jumper and shooting a grappling hook to its strut and boarding, engaging her in a fight, betraying their cover and forcing them to flee. She even thought about grabbing an emergency jump chute from the bay and leaping from the craft and disappearing into the charred remains of the Subs until she could amass enough scavenged supplies to flee across the Mississippi River into the deadlands of the American west, living as a nomad and surviving on her wits and the occasional lucky catch of a mutated cat–
“–We’re here,” Seraph announced from the pilot’s seat.
Marlowe’s stomach swirled. All of her mental capacity focused on trying not to vomit what little remained of the Battery bars she’d had the night before.
The sound of splintering wood was the high note in the chorus of chaos as a colossal, armored Secret Service soldier crashed through the door of the Presidential bedroom. The sudden explosion of noise caused President Cook to jerk violently, shoving deeper in the shard of glass that he was attempting to extract from the sole of his left foot.
“FUCK!” Cook shrieked.
“Perimeter sweep!” The soldier barked. Three other soldiers barged in and began checking the room through the sights of their rifles. “Are you okay, sir?” The first soldier queried as he approached Cook.
“What the fuck does it look like?!?” Cook slurred. “No, I’m not okay! I have glass buried in my foot and I’m bleeding and what on earth are you DOING in here!?! And why do you have rifles? They don’t even work! Haven’t you seen NewsFeed?”
“We heard a commotion, sir,” the soldier answered as he stood within a hair’s breadth of the President. “We thought your safety was compromised.”
“What…get away from me!” The President shouted, drunkenly attempting to shove the soldier aside. Physics being what they were, Cook instead only succeeded in flailing backward toward the bed. He instinctively slammed his feet to the ground to regain balance and the glass embedded in his foot penetrated even deeper.
“Fuck! Christ!” Cook shouted. “NOW look what you did!”
“J.A.Q.i, medical team!” The soldier barked.
“No!” Cook countered. “J.A.Q.i, don’t send anyone, I’ll be fine…”
The Secret Service leader grimly surveyed the wreckage littering Cook’s bedroom. Most obvious was the glowing rainbow sputtering behind a spiderweb of glass that was once the wall-sized screen. The distinct red bar of a NewsFeed Breaking News tag could barely be made out in the upper-right corner. Broken pieces of a chair that had held many former Presidents’ posteriors as they worked at the Resolute Desk (once the centerpiece in the original Oval Office in Washington D.C. – now a writing desk in the President’s bedroom in Indianapolis) lay in splinters and chunks underneath the screen, as did the remnants of several shattered whiskey tumblers. A drink cart sat overturned in the corner of the room, chunks of whiskey-soaked crystal lay in a soggy pool on the carpet. The audio from NewsFeed was staticky and faint as Amanda Stokes recounted once again the highlights of Marlowe Kana’s single-handed defeat of over one hundred United American State Army Soldiers — an event she’d since dubbed “The Massacre At Maple Lane.”
This soldier had seen his share of violent wreckage in his various tours over the years…but this was by far the best story he’d never be able to tell anyone.
“Room’s clear, sir!” One of the secret service soldiers barked.
“Stand down. Assume guard,” the leader ordered. The soldiers lowered their rifles. Two of them assumed posts at the doorway and the third maintained watch over the main window.
“Sir,” the leader said as he returned his attention to Cook. “It seems you’ve been consuming alcohol and that you are bleeding profusely. You need medical attention.”
“It seems you didn’t get the memo that I am the fucking PRESIDENT of the United American State, and I need you to leave me the FUCK alone!” Cook screamed.
“I must insist, sir,” the leader answered. Before Cook could further protest further, two of the staff doctors arrived with a Medi-Drone. They immediately took up positions next to the President.
“Oh, God,” Cook said frantically. “I don’t need this! I don’t need you! Get out! Get out NOW — OUCH!” He slapped his right arm as a needle slid free from his skin. “What the hell did you shoot me with!?!”
“Sobering agent and blood-clotting agent, sir,” one of the doctors said calmly as she dropped the needle on the MediDrone’s tray without even looking at Cook’s direction. A hatch opened atop the Medi-drone as the doctor reached toward it. She grabbed a pair of forceps while the other doctor lifted and held Cook’s foot.
Cook tried to struggle, but found he couldn’t jerk his leg away from the doctors or even wiggle his toes. “What the…I can’t move!”
“There was a nerve agent as well, sir,” the doctor holding his foot said. “So we can work.”
“That’s assault!” Cook yelled. “You just assaulted the President!”
The doctor with the forceps extracted the glass shard from the President’s foot and placed it on a tray held by the Medi-Drone. She dropped the bloody forceps on the tray next to the glass and grabbed a small bottle with saline and began irrigating the wound.
“Soldier, arrest these people!” Cook ordered. “I want them…I…” Cook stopped mid-sentence. He’d suddenly realized that not only was he completely sober, but that he had clearly been acting like an ass for the better part of the last half hour.
“Clean,” the doctor irrigating the wound said to the other holding Cook’s foot, who held up a small spray bottle and coated the wound with a liquid suture. The cut closed itself immediately.
Cook watched as the doctor who had extracted the glass pricked him with another needle. A numb rush swept over his body. For a fraction of a second, he could feel every single nerve ending dancing and tingling. Feeling returned to his limbs. His head cleared.
“Wow,” the President said as a wave of euphoria washed over him. “Well…good work. I seem to be…better now. Thank you.”
“It’s our job, sir,” the doctor at his feet said as he lowered Cook’s leg. He began scanning the President’s body and checking vitals while the other doctor held her fingers to Cook’s neck.
“Really, I’m okay now,” The President demurred. “I just…I really need some sleep.”
Just then, a line of cleaning drones wheeled their way into the Presidential bedroom and dutifully began clearing up the mess. One vacuumed up chunks of broken glass; another dragged splintered and cracked (and priceless) antique wood fragments out of the room. Three of the bots began scrubbing the blood from the carpet.
“Out, okay?” The President asked quietly, a headache starting to throb at his temples. “All of you out. This can all be done tomorrow.”
“The drones need to clean and the doctors need to be certain you’re okay, sir,” the leader of the secret service team said over the din of clanking cleaner drones. “Once they’ve cleared you and the drones have made the room safe, we will be on our way.”
A tone sounded throughout the room. “Sir,” J.A.Q.i announced, “Chairman Davis for you.”
“Fuck him,” Cook said quietly. “Hang up.”
“Sir, as you know, I’m an Imagen system,” J.A.Q.i replied. “He’s the Chairman of the Board and has overridden disconnects. I can’t.”
Cook sighed. He sat up straight and cleared his throat. “Everyone out. Now.”
The soldiers didn’t move. The doctors continued monitoring his vital signs.
Cook stood. “OUT!” he barked, pointing to the door. “Or you’re fired!”
The soldiers and doctors exchanged glances. Reluctantly, they all filed out the door.
“Drones out, too!” Cook commanded. The robots stopped their cleaning and began rolling toward the door. Cook walked over and punted one, nearly breaking his toe in the process. He pushed the door closed, but due to the severe manner in which it had been opened, it didn’t quite close all the way.
“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Cook said aloud. Another tone sounded.
“Stephen!” Davis barked immediately, his words seeming to stab directly into Cook’s throbbing skull. “Tell me this was part of your plan! Tell me you intended to steal my entire security force only to render them inert, feeding them to that wolf of a woman in front of the entire nation! Tell me how our own citizens are now emboldened to graffiti a MilSec station! Tell me how open revolt and a super-powered terrorist contribute to your ridiculous plot to return the United American State to some kind of former glory! Unless that glory, of course, results in a THIRD Civil War, you…you imbecile!”
“Engagement, Alan,” Cook answered coolly as he returned to his bed. “It’s always about engagement. Trust me, it’s all part of the plan.”
“Oh, there was certainly engagement!” Davis scoffed. “Marlowe Kana just engaged several squads of soldiers in front of an audience of forty million people — to a bloody end! The Subs in Atlanta are still smoldering, and now, our citizens are taking to defacing National property!”
“They’ve always done that,” Cook interjected. “It’s art.”
“It’s embarrassing is what it is!” Davis yelled. “And yes, it’s all great footage, if that was your goal, but now the entire nation knows that our guns don’t work! Which is also your fault! Yes, sir, the citizens of the United American State will be engaged for weeks with this…this…”
“It was a calculated move,” Cook interjected, wincing as he rubbed the newly formed scar on his foot.
“You calculated this?!?” Davis yelled. “You hijacked our entire nation’s security and military division and didn’t update the code on the biometric weapons lockout system on purpose?!? It was a calculated move to render over a hundred thousand soldiers both domestic and in the Gaslands absolutely defenseless? That was on PURPOSE?”
“Of course,” Cook bluffed. “Everything will be explained in due time–“
“-NOW is the time, Stephen! Explain yourself!”
“Goddammit, Alan!” Cook snapped. “You haven’t seen the bigger picture like I have! You’ll understand soon enough. For now, I’m exhausted. I need some sleep. Goodnight, Alan.” He waved his hand in the air and the call was placed on hold. He may have the connection locked, he thought, but that doesn’t mean I have to hear him…
Cook stewed. He could kick himself for such a minor oversight, if it weren’t for the fact that he’d re-open up the wound on his foot that had just been sutured. He gritted his teeth and shook his head. The weapons lockout was a major setback. And he needed a major comeback. One that would make it appear as if forgetting to update the weapons systems during the transition from MilSec to UASA was on purpose.
J.A.Q.i,” Cook said aloud.
“Yes, Mister President?”
“Ping Doctor Rossler.”
“His status is set to Do Not Disturb—“
“GET ME THE GODDAMN DOCTOR!” The President barked.
A tone sounded. And then another. And then a third. There was no response.
“Turn on every light and screen in his home. And activate the alarm system,” Cook said.
“Mr. President, I don’t—”
“–National emergency. Do it.”
After a few seconds, a groggy Dr. Rossler answered the pings sent by the President. “What the hell…who is this?” he asked blearily.
“It’s the President of the United American State,” Cook answered from his bed.
“Uh…yes, sir!” Rossler said, suddenly sounding much more awake. “It’s an honor to speak with you, sir! I’m sorry, I’m still waking—“
“Cain,” the President interrupted. “What is his status?”
“Well, sir, he’s in critical, but stable condition,” Rossler replied. “His healing trajectory puts him in the acceptable range. He’s no Corta, but despite that, I do think we can work with him, sir.”
“Well, there’re skin grafts, and the implant procedure, and then rehab.He suffered major spinal damage, so he’s going to have to learn how to walk again. But I think—“
“How long, doctor?” the President asked.
“Twelve months…maybe eighteen.”
“You have four hours,” Cook stated.
“Four HOURS?!?” Doctor Rossler said in shock.. “I… I can’t…”
“I suggest you get started. Right now. Call whomever you need. Bring them in. You get that man battle ready, and you do it today. Now.”
“But, sir!” Rossler demurred. “Project Phoenix is a three-month procedure on its own! You saw it with Corta — and she was nowhere near as badly injured as Cain—”
“Then skip Project Phoenix,” Cook snapped. “Wire his brain to a tank and cover it in spikes if you have to. I need that man up and on the battlefield by tonight!”
“That’ll be all, Doctor,” President Cook said as he gestured in the air, terminating the call.
A tone sounded.
“Yes, sir?” Major Sabrina Corta answered.
“Are you ready?” The President asked.
“Absolutely, sir,” Corta replied. “Just give the order.”
“It’s given,” Cook replied. “I’m sending something else that should help.”
“But I can handle her on my own,” Corta argued.
“I have no doubt,” Cook answered. “You’re getting it anyway.”
“…Yes sir,” Corta responded and the connection dropped.
Cook sat at the edge of his bed and contemplated his reality. He raised his injured foot to his knee and examined it. What was once a gaping wound was now just a large scab just to the right of his plantar ligament. He examined his bedroom. The floors were spotless, save for a small red stain that the drones weren’t able to tackle. Missing was the chair that was once next to his writing desk, a lamp, the glasses and trays and decanter from the drink cart (which was once again upright), and a clear view of the NewsFeed still glowing through a cracked and spiderwebbed screen.
“J.A.Q.i, turn everything off. And no calls for at least two hours.”
“Yes, sir,” J.A.Q.i replied as the lights dimmed.
“And I am going to need some AMP when I wake up. I’ve got a long day ahead of me.”
“Yes, sir,” J.A.Q.i said. A final tone sounded, barely audible over the rustling of the sheets as Cook slid himself into bed.
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.
Matthew wasn’t supposed to be here. He had never even been to the Subs before. He had simply wanted to look around… He hadn’t even done anything illegal! He wasn’t going to buy any drugs or play any card games or try to obtain an illegally hacked firearm. He had just wanted to peek in, you know? He had been in the neighborhood and his other friends had ditched him, and he figured, rather than I-Lyft back home at such an early hour, why not see what all the fuss was about.
Matthew was not what anyone would ever call a troublemaker. He was a good boy raised by two wonderful parents, who had adopted him when he was four. They spared no expense, opting out of the guaranteed living wage to work shifts at their selected Imagen posts to afford to send him to the Imagen Accelerated Training Academy. He aced his classes his first year, and was on track to graduate with honors. After that, he was guaranteed a glittering career with Imagen’s Media and Entertainment Division. He even had an internship locked down with “Stokes the Fire” (His father was a friend of a friend of one of the producers). He attended Non-Deity-Specific Religious Service every Sunday. He was not a troublemaker. He was a good boy.
And this arrest would ruin everything. Everything.
“Hey,” Matthew called nervously through the ventilation holes in the plexiglass wall separating him and a half dozen prisoners from the station guards a few feet away. “I can’t be here… I really have to get out of here…”
“Yeah, you and hundreds of other prisoners,” the MilSec guard answered as he pointed at all of the cells around him. “No one’s supposed to be here.”
“And yet, here you are,” the second guard seated next to the first said in a bored tone.
“No seriously,” Matthew said, “I really can’t– OWWWW!” He shrieked as a band of electricity arced from a metal post in the center of the cell to the collar around his neck, which was chained to his wrists.
“Relax,” the first guard said, “Your parents have been notified and are on the way.”
“Just sleep it off like the rest of the Subbies,” the second said, her eyes never moving from the screen in front of her. “It goes easier that way.”
“But I’m not a Subbie!” Matthew pleaded. “There’s been a mista–OWWWWWW!”
Another arc of electricity leapt from the ControlPole to Matthew’s collar and he collapsed in a heap. After a few stunned moments, he scooted back into the corner of the holding cell and tucked his head into his arms. His heart was racing from panic. Panic from being electrocuted by MilSec soldiers. Shock from being held in a cell with common criminals. Shock from being in the Subs on a night where a raid had taken place, and from even being in the Subs, period.
He could hear his father in his mind. “How could you, Matthew?? You are such a disappointment!” He’d surely say. “You’re grounded! We are yanking you out of the Advanced Training Academy! You’re a failure!” Of the top ten absolute worst things Matthew could imagine ever happening to him, the first eight in some form or fashion revolved around his father’s disappointment. From his perspective, the events of the evening brought about eight-tenths of the world crashing down around him.
“Cassie,” the second guard said over the loudspeaker, a note of concern in her voice, “Can you talk to the kid?”
“What do you want me to say, Janice?!?” A female voice said from behind Matthew. “He’s not my kid!”
“I dunno… Just calm him down, maybe?” Janice asked. “Before Jim here shocks his brains out.”
Cassie sighed heavily. “Hey, kid,” she barked at Matthew, “You want some advice?”
He was rocking in fear, afraid to turn around.
“You, kid… Yeah you,” she repeated. “Turn around.”
Matthew weighed the consequences. If he turned around, he’d be forced into a conversation with an unsavory woman who dwelled in the underground tunnels of Atlanta. But if he didn’t, he figured, it was a safe bet that he’d be murdered, then cannibalized, and the soldiers would laugh at his bloody dripping corpse while his father urinated upon it as the ultimate sign of disappointment.
He opted to turn around.
“Just get some sleep,” Cassie said with a nearly toothless smile. “This is nothing. They process you, your parents post bail, you get yelled at a little… Trust me, one day, you’ll be laughing about this whole night, telling your rich buddies about the old Subbie lady who gave you the best advice you ever got while you were doing hard time in the drunk tank!”
“Uh… Lady?” Matthew said, “You don’t know me, or my parents, but I can assure you… My life just ended.”
“No clue who you are,” the lady responded. “But trust me… This is nothing.”
“Well, I’m Matthew Sw–”
“Don’t care,” the lady said. “Rather not know, honestly. We Subs natives have a rule… Never get to know the tourists.”
Matthew was irritated by the older woman’s nonchalance. No one had ever not cared about who he was, or had ever shown him such sheer disrespect. And he most certainly didn’t come from money. His parents had worked hard to get him into the upper echelons of educated society. They had both sacrificed up to eight hours of their daily lives to make sure he had everything he wanted. He wouldn’t just sit here and listen to some toothless Subbie tell him who he was!
“Listen, bitch!” He barked, a little too loudly.
“Watch what you say, punk!” An extremely large bearded man with scruffy black hair roared. His name, according to the patch on the chest of his navy blue mechanic’s shirt, was “Mel.” It was the only other thing Matthew noticed besides the waffle pattern on the bottom of his boot, right before it landed between his eyes.
Matthew reeled, flying ass over teacups onto a ragged and filthy prisoner seated in the center of the cell.
“Watch out, asshole!” The guy yelled as Matthew collided with him. “I’ll fucking kill you!”
Matthew immediately scrambled away from him. He was terrified. The panic was starting to win. He was going to die, he was sure of it. He was dead. This was it. Life was over. The end.
“It’s okay, Randy,” Cassie, the haggard woman, said to the filthy man who Matthew had landed on. “He’s scared. He has no idea what’s going on, and Mel just rocked his shit. Let’s not kill him… yet.”
Matthew began hyperventilating. They all knew each other. They even knew the guards. He was a goner.
“Kid!” Cassie shouted. “Breathe!”
Matthew didn’t want to breathe. Matthew wanted to die. He just didn’t want to be murdered by Subbies in a piss-scented drunk tank, was all. Which added to his overall panic. Which, of course, made him hyperventilate even more.
Electricity arced from the ControlPole in the middle of the cell to Matthew’s collar once more. The shock was enough to center him.
“I’m okay,” Matthew said between breaths, “I’m okay.”
“Look at me, kid,” Cassie said with a soft chuckle.
“Did they find drugs on you?” She asked. “AMP?”
Matthew shook his head.
“Golden Frau? Sunbrown? Stanker?”
Matthew shook his head again.
“Pork Gala? Hacker Gala? Zuby Glong, Zeelcher, Weed? Hell, even Aspirin?? Anything?!?”
Matthew repeatedly shook his head no..
“Well, that’s 90% of it… You doing any dirt when they scooped you up?” Cassie asked. “Fuck any whores? Play any cards?”
Matthew began to nod yes, remembering the pretty girl he had chatted up in the bar who had said she would sleep with him for credits. But he remembered, that they had never actually settled on a price before MilSec showed up and hit everyone in the bar with a KillJoy shock grenade. He shook his head no again.
“So, you were just in the Subs, checking things out, and things went south, right?”
Matthew’s eyes widened as he shook his head yes.
“You’re fine, kid,” Mel’s thunderous voice said from the right of Cassie as they both chuckled. “Just chill your ass out.”
“Shhhh,” Mel said, holding his finger to his lips. “Nothing you don’t say can be used against you.”
Matthew took his advice and wiped a tear from his eye.
“It’s ok, kid,” Mel said. “You’re an idiot. We’ve all been idiots before.”
“Unlucky is more like it,” Cassie said. “I ain’t never done nothing wrong. Just a victim of poor timing and bad circumstance.”
“Seems to be going around,” Mel agreed. “MilSec don’t care about the Subs… Until they do, and then we all go down for doing what we do everyday. Who’d think that Marlowe Kana would end up in the Subs of all places?”
“Fucking MK,” Cassie said. “MilSec burned our goddamn house up, and for what? Some snotty aug celebrity murderer who probably wasn’t even there!”
Mel put his arm around Cassie, comforting her.
Matthew stared at them both for a moment, before finally asking, “MK…?”
“Yeah?” Cassie asked. “What about her?”
“She… She was down there?” He asked. “When I was? Really?”
“Probably not,” Cassie answered. “But MilSec thinks she was. So they show up to a red light district and suddenly enforce the laws. And why? Because some gussied up auggie with a rap sheet and a grudge MIGHT be down there? The mere suspicion of some celebrity murderer being down there was enough for MilSec to BURN MY GODDAMN HOUSE DOWN– OWWWWW!” She yelped as an arc of electricity from the ControlPole shocked her.
“You know I love you Cassie,” The first guard, Jim, said from the central control booth. “But we can’t have you inciting violence, you know. Let’s keep it calm.”
“Fucking MilSec,” Cassie said under her breath, “Can you believe this shit?”
“Yeah,” Matthew said, feeling like he was having a moment with his cellmates, “Fucking pigs…”
“You probably don’t wanna say things like that,” Mel said. “They can hear you.”
“But you said–”
“–About MilSec, sure,” Mel interrupted. “But Jim and Janice? They’re being nice, which is why they’re not pigs… So don’t say things like that.”
Matthew looked over at the control booth. Both of the guards waved.
Cassie and Mel both laughed knowingly, having been through the ringer plenty of times before. Matthew clammed up, and wrapped his arms around his knees and returned to rocking back and forth. He scanned the room to take his mind off of the absolute hellscape his life had just become. He gazed at Mal and Cassie, clearly hardened criminals with whom he’d just joined the ranks. He looked at the dirty young man laying on his back in the middle of the cell, completely unfazed by his current surroundings. He considered the prisoners in the cells around him, and realized… He’d just become that which his family hated most. He was a common criminal. He was a pariah. Life no longer had meaning. Wrong place, wrong time? Not good enough for his family. He was now one of the filthy scum that dwelled in the Subs. He would be excommunicated from his family, forced to sit in the kitchen during dinners… If he wasn’t forced to move out altogether. Maybe it was a good thing he was getting along with Cassie and Mel and the guy lying in his own piss on the floor. He was going to be their new roommate in the Subs when they eventually got rebuilt. He would have to scrape for his food. He’d have to learn how to fight… Oh God, He wished he’d died in the raid, in a hail of gunfire, maybe mistaken for MK or one of her sympathizers. Maybe it wasn’t too late to commit suicide. He wished–
“Hey… HEY! Jim! Can you turn that up?” Mel asked, pointing to the large wall screen in front of the guards. “The Feed… Turn it up.”
Ordinarily the MilSec soldiers would have sent another ControlPole shock command to the holding cell, but after seeing the headline splashed across the Feed screen, all thoughts of corporal punishment fled their minds.
“Holy shit,” Jim whispered as he nudged Janice, whose jaw had dropped when she saw the headline. “JAQi, turn up the volume,” she said.
“…Dear viewers, we are taking a break from our regular segments on ‘Stokes the Fire,’” Amanda Stokes read solemnly to her audience, “because just moments ago, President Cook has announced that MilSec is now answering to him directly. Here’s the… Do we have the Feed? Yeah? Ok, play that — here’s the Feed of the announcement.” The screen flickered a moment and cut to a Feed of President Cook addressing the nation from his office.
“Citizens of the United American State,” President Cook said stone-faced into the camera, “You trusted me with representing you in decisions that control the fate of this great nation. And as I have proven to you time and time again, that that trust is well-placed. It is with great pleasure that I announce that as of midnight, I have made an agreement with Imagen Corporation’s Board of Executives, and with Chairman Alan Davis personally, that MilSec now answers to the Chief Executive Officer of the United American State. To put it simply, I have nationalized the Imagen Military and Security Division, and effective immediately, created the new United American State Army.”
The banners that hung all around the prison cells and behind the guard station suddenly flickered as the IMSD logos were replaced with a new all-black star-over-bars logo representing the UASA. The terminals in front of the guards were also immediately updated with the new initials, and the Net-connected identification cards that hung around each of the guards’ necks were swiftly updated with an over-the-air patch to display the new United American State logo.
The entire station was silent.
“The United American State is our nation,” President Cook continued onscreen. “Our citizens are those who protect and serve it, both here and abroad. Whether they are keeping us safe at home, or serving their nation in the Gaslands fighting the terrorists who mean to do us harm… Their service is our service. They belong to us, because they are us. To show our support, the common silver badges of the Imagen Military & Security Division are being upgraded to eighteen-karat solid gold United American State Army badges. They are being forged as I speak, and the first batch will ship out to all officers on Monday, followed by enlisted shortly after. Good night, and remain ever vigilant.”
Silence hung in the air. Even Amanda Stokes was speechless as the Feed returned to her frozen, aghast face.
“…I guess we’re in the Army now,” Jim said numbly to Janice.
Jen was irritated. She was sitting crammed in the back seat of a MagLev-run maintenance truck behind Poet, who had commandeered the rugged vehicle from the EV plant. In the spacious front passenger seat was Marlowe. It was nearly three in the morning, and Jen and Marlowe were sorely sleep-deprived. Marlowe had AMP to keep her awake and alert, but Jen was only being pulled from the borderlands of unconsciousness by the sound of Marlowe’s very loud and incessant chewing.
“You know we are in a hurry, right?” Jen broke the silence testily.
“We’re making good time,” Marlowe answered through her chewing. “Thankfully, this thing doesn’t have wheels, so the snow’s not an issue.”
“You know what I mean!” Jen said. “And you know that we are wanted felons! And that you’re wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and big metal handcuffs and that you’re a celebrity, and that we could have been spotted by dozens of people and Jesus fucking Christ Marlowe! What the hell were you thinking?”
“I needed this,” Marlowe replied, holding up a massive, overstuffed burrito. She reached into her pocket and pulled out one of at least a dozen packets of Imagen Zesty Fire Taco Sauces, ripped it open with her teeth, and dumped most of the entire packet onto the end of the burrito before taking another huge bite.
“Ugh,” Jen said, disgusted. “Did you leave any sauce packets for the rest of the customers?”
“A few,” Marlowe said through her chewing.
“How can you eat that shit?”
“Like this,” Marlowe said, pointing to her open mouth.
“You’re so gross,” Jen said. “And you put us all at huge risk!”
“The store was empty, and the clerk was wearing a t-shirt with my face on it saying ‘Free Marlowe.’ I figured he wouldn’t turn us in.”
“And if he was streaming?” Jen asked.
“That’s what you’re here for,” Marlowe said, taking another bite from her burrito.
“I’m here to clear our father’s name, not hack into convenience store Feeds so you can get a tasty snack!”
Jen punched the back of Poet’s seat. “Don’t encourage her!” She said, smacking the headrest for good measure. “This isn’t funny!”
Marlowe was uncomfortable in her own ways. She was hungry, she was tired, she was beginning to go through withdrawals from the AMP again, and she was being driven to, by all accounts, an obsessed fan’s house to discuss his insane collection of Marlowe Kana Feed recordings. But the worst of it was that she hadn’t stopped thinking about Amanda since The Judge had brought her up back at the EV plant. In fact, she hadn’t really stopped thinking about her since they had broken up over a year ago. It was nearly an unforgivable betrayal, she felt, that Jen would side with The Judge on using Amanda to help them. So the burrito was helping with the hunger pangs, but irritating her sister with it was helping with the rest.
“Yeah, Poet, knock it off!” Marlowe said with a wad of burrito in her mouth. “This isn’t a joke. This burrito was mission critical!” She began laughing. This made Poet laugh as well, which made Marlowe laugh even harder.
“Ha, ha,” Jen said flatly. “I fail to see how a burrito helps us achieve our goals here.”
“I needed real food!” Marlowe said. “I just got out of prison after three months of solitary confinement, and all I’ve had to eat the past 24 hours is Battery Bars and AMP — oh shit, where’s my AMP?”
Jen held up the satchel containing the supplies she’d gifted to Marlowe back at the Subs and shook it. The muffled clacking of inhalers full of performance-enhancing drugs relieved Marlowe immeasurably.
“See? I’ve got everything I need for a successful mission now,” Marlowe said. “I’ve got my entry specialist,” she said, waving her burrito toward Poet, “and my hacker sister,” she continued, gesturing toward Jen. A small morsel flew from the top of the burrito and hit Jen in the cheek, leaving a dollop of greasy residue. “And I’ve got real food, finally!”
Jen wiped her face and grimly flicked the food bit off her lap. “That is hardly real food.”
“You vegetarians have no right to tell me what is and is not real food.”
“Marlowe, that’s an Imagen QuikGo Instant Burrito,” Jen stated. “The so-called beef in it is grown in a lab, as are the supposed beans. The tortilla is recycled corn husk. There’s literally no food in your food.”
“Poet, pull over,” Marlowe said. “I’m going to murder my sister and dump her body in a trash can.”
“I can’t advise that, ma’am,” Poet said, still chuckling. “I think we are going to need her, given who we’re about to visit.”
Marlowe turned in her seat and looked at her sister. “You’re lucky we need you,” she said, squirting another packet of taco sauce on the burrito and taking a very deliberate bite.
Jen rolled her eyes, sighed, and stared out the window, watching houses stream past though the iridescent transparent background of her HUD’s map screen . “Next left,” she directed dispassionately.
The trio rolled past the target address at moderate speed and pulled alongside the curb three houses down.
“What do you see?” Marlowe asked Jen as she wiped her mouth with the tail of her undershirt.
“Same schema we saw on that guy Austin’s setup, only…hmm,” Jen replied, having hacked into the service node for the neighborhood the moment it came into range. She scanned traffic in and around the area. “This is new. He’s got the connections all tunneled and then fractioned out through the other houses in the neighborhood. Maybe he detected Austin’s snooping when he was — WHOA!”
“What?” Marlowe said, whipping her head around to see Jen transfixed on a point in space.
“He’s good…” Jen said, her fingers a flurry as they swiped and typed in the air. “Oh man, he’s really good.”
“Is this some shit I need to understand before going up to the door, or just some hacker wanking stuff?” Marlowe asked wryly.
“Total hacker wanking stuff,” Jen replied.
“Oooo, share!” Poet said.
Marlowe gave him a sideways glance.
He shrugged. “What, a brother can’t learn some new shit?” He asked coolly.
Marlowe rolled her eyes, sighed, and opened the passenger-side door.
“Wait, where are you going?” Jen asked.
“To do what we came here to do,” Marlowe answered, lightly closing the door behind her. “You just said, whatever you’re seeing isn’t mission critical, so I’m off. Poet, you’re on overwatch, but I doubt there’ll be any trouble. Jen, do whatever you do from here. Teach Poet some new shit or whatever.”
“Bullshit!” Jen said, leaping between the two front seats and opening the passenger door.
“Stay here!” Marlowe ordered, half-heartedly attempting to push the door closed.
“I gotta meet this guy,” Jen said. “And you need me.”
“For what?” Marlowe asked. “You can monitor network shit from here.”
“Marlowe, he completely reconfigured the network in the thirty minutes it took to get here. If this guy is this good, someone needs to be able to talk the talk. If he doesn’t want to give up the footage, someone’s going to have to dig for it.”
“I’ll find some duct tape and a wrench and get it from him that way,” Marlowe said, nudging the door and pushing Jen back into the truck. “That usually beats any kind of encryption…literally.”
“Look,” Jen said, “At the very least, you’re going to need someone to call bullshit when he swears he doesn’t have what you’re asking for.”
Marlowe sighed and let the door swing open. She began walking up the street at a brisk pace.
“I’ll break it all down when we get back,” Jen said to Poet as she exited the car.
“Take this,” he said, pulling the bandanna from his neck emblazoned with the Dazzle face-recognition-defeating camouflage he wore and tossing it through the open window to Jen. “That’s not for her, it’s for you,” he added. “Your face isn’t out there yet. Keep it that way.”
“Thanks,” Jen said, and then trotted off to catch up with Marlowe.
“What the hell are you wearing?” Marlowe asked as Jen jogged up alongside her.
“Camo,” Jen answered, pulling the bandanna over her mouth. “We’re some covert elite team now, right? Gotta look the part.”
Marlowe smiled. “Poet’s camo, huh?” she asked in a knowing tone.
“…Shut up. What are you, five?” Jen replied.
“Jen and Poet, sitting in a tree…” Marlowe sang.
Jen smacked her sister on the shoulder. “I hate you,” she snapped.
“Mutual,” Marlowe replied. She nodded toward the house to their left. “This is it.”
The pair turned up the driveway and approached the door at 1337 Maple Lane. Marlowe peeked through the windows, checking the left, and then the right. The only thing she could make out was a small figure sitting hunched over a terminal at a desk in the far left corner of the room just beyond the foyer.
“Anything?” Marlowe asked Jen.
“Nothing coming up on the network…wait.” Jen looked through the window beside the door. Through her HUD, she saw bright red squares hovering over various pieces of furniture, which indicated that these items were appearing in another Feed elsewhere on the net. A small screen appeared in the bottom left of her display and began cycling through Feeds, until one matched up.
“What?” Marlowe asked impatiently.
“This place…it’s being streamed. From the inside. Just got a bunch of matches in my HUD.”
“It’s a random Anon,” Jen replied. “But it’s got over a hundred thousand viewers right now. This guy runs the most popular leeched Feed on the Net, maybe he’s got a CitizenFeed of his home life? Or…”
“Ring the bell,” Marlowe instructed.
Jen scowled. “How do we know it’s not boobytrapped? You ring it.”
Marlowe scowled back. Staring directly into her sister’s eyes, and with great purpose and very intentionally, she extended her index finger and pressed the button at the right side of the door. A chime sounded inside.
No one died.
Marlowe widened her eyes at her sister, flapped her arms, and made squawking noises. Jen replied with her middle finger extended.
A buzz sounded from an intercom speaker mounted above them. “It’s unlocked. Come on in,” a man’s voice said.
Jen and Marlowe looked at each other. Come in? Jen mouthed to her sister, perplexed.
“Uh…no?” Marlowe responded. “I don’t want to come in, Mister Cervantes. I just want to chat for a moment.”
“I know who you are,” the voice said. “And I know why you’re here. Come in and we can chat about the Feeds I’ve recorded of you. You and your friend in the weird mask.”
Marlowe and Jen both began looking around. Jen pointed to the security camera situated on the far right corner of the house. Marlowe waved at the camera.
“So, you can see us. How about we see you, and then we come in?”
A different buzzing noise sounded. The door popped slightly open.
“Well, this totally isn’t a trap,” Marlowe remarked idly.
“What gave it away?” Jen asked, “The creepy voice on the intercom or the creepy figure sitting there who won’t answer the door?”
Marlowe noticed signs of forced entry as she pushed the door open. She peeked cautiously into the entryway. The person sitting at the terminal was wearing an oversized hoodie and appeared to be tied to the chair, struggling frantically.
“…Annnnd there’s our bait,” Marlowe said. “This is definitely a trap. Someone knew we were coming. Anything official on the Feeds? MilSec? NewsFeed?”
“Nothing,” Jen replied. “No other Feed is showing this location or anywhere within a mile of it either, except the one Anon streaming from the living room.”
“Yeah, this stinks,” Jen agreed.
Marlowe held an AMP inhaler to her mouth and took a deep breath from it. “Here goes nothing,” she said as she cautiously pushed the door open. “Stay here.”
She crept inside the doorway. Jen followed behind, ignoring the order. Marlowe waved her back. Jen ignored her again. Marlowe shook her head in disgust, and lightly stepped through the entryway into the living room toward the small figure in front of the terminal struggling to get free. The Feed that Jen’s HUD picked up showed Marlowe entering the room, followed by herself. She scanned the room for the source, but saw nothing visible.
“Hey,” Marlowe said quietly. The figure froze, and then struggled even harder as she screamed through the gag in her mouth.
Marlowe looked at Jen, and then nodded at the bound figure in the hoodie.
Jen’s eyes widened as she shook her head. She pointed at Marlowe, then pointed at the bound person. “You go check it out!” She whispered.
Marlowe gritted her teeth and pointed sternly. “Go!” She hissed aloud. “I’ve got to watch our backs.” Jen sighed and reluctantly followed her sister’s order.
Marlowe surveyed the area. She determined that the stairwell represented the first and best vantage point for an ambush, and approached it cautiously. Jen tiptoed toward the bound figure, equally cautiously.
Marlowe peered around the banister and up the stairs. Jen reached up and pulled away the hoodie, and to her dismay discovered that it was a very young girl. Her mouth was bound with tape, her eyes swollen, red, and teary. A blue bow sat crookedly in her hair. The little girl was terrified. Jen pulled the tape from her mouth.
“TRAP!” she yelled, as soon as the tape was pulled from her lips. “It’s…it’s a…”
“Yeah, we know,” Marlowe said quietly.
“Hax…kitchen…cloak…he’s got…he’s…” the girl gasped before she heaved and vomited the contents of her stomach everywhere.
Marlowe’s attention was momentarily diverted by the young girl’s puking, but in that second, she heard a faint whistle from across the room, and felt a slight prick in the side of her neck. She reached up and felt a syringe dart sticking out from it.
“Okay, Hax,” she yelled, pulling the dart from her neck and stepping toward the doorway that led to the kitchen. “I know it’s you. I know you’re in thermoptic camo and using all sorts of high-tech bullshit. And you should know that tranquilizers don’t work on me.” No sooner did those words leave her mouth thann she suddenly felt her legs give way. She collapsed in a heap a few steps away from the stairs.
Jen watched frozen in horror as Marlowe’s arm lifted from the floor by itself, extended past her head, and as her body was slowly dragged across the room by an invisible assailant.
“What the hell?” Marlowe said groggily as she felt herself being dragged across the floor. “What did you hit me with, you sneaky fuck?”
Hax, completely invisible to the naked eye, chuckled between grunts as he dragged Marlowe inch by inch through the living room.
“He’s on the network,” the girl said. “He broke my firewalls! Quick, get me loose!”
Jen ignored her and rushed toward Marlowe. She reeled as she felt something slam across her face, sending her to the floor. She shook her head and spat blood, regaining her senses only to see Marlowe’s body once more being dragged across the floor, slowly but surely.
“Jen, this isn’t drugs,” Marlowe confirmed as she slid across the floor. “I don’t know how, but I can’t move my body!”
“There’s network and near-field jamming all over! Look at the terminal. He’s controlling her somehow!” the girl said. “Get me out of this tape, I can fix it!”
“What the hell?” Marlowe said. “A nanovirus? Those actually exist?!?”
“That’s got to be it!” the girl yelped. “He’s on my network! I can help!”
“Someone do something!” Marlowe said as she slid across the floor, dragged by an invisible Hax who had clearly underestimated how much she weighed.
Jen couldn’t see any other way to help her sister, unless being beaten to a pulp again counted. She rushed to the young girl’s side and began fighting with the tape that bound her wrists to the armrests of the chair.
“There’s scissors in the drawer! Quick!” the girl said.
Jen turned and pulled out the top left drawer of the desk. She began rummaging around.
“Middle drawer! Middle!”
Jen slammed the top drawer shut and moved down the stack of drawers.
“No, not THAT middle, the middle of the desk!” the girl ordered.
Jen groaned. She pushed aside the chair containing the bound girl and yanked at the drawer in the center of the desk. The contents went flying everywhere. A pair of scissors landed with a clank on the floor and slid under the chair that the girl was bound to. She dropped the drawer and scrambled for the scissors. Clasping them tightly, she began ripping at the tape on the girl’s right arm, tearing it open and pulling it off.
Urgently, she began to attack the tape on her left arm, when the girl cried “I’m good! Just push me to the keyboard!”
Jen did as she asked. The girl slapped a few keys. A window appeared on the screen with network traffic connectivity listed in a traceroute. She targeted a connection she suspected was Hax. She was right. A few keystrokes later, he was booted from the network.
Marlowe immediately yanked her arm back while Hax’s invisible hands were still grasped on. She pulled him to the ground and laced her legs around what she felt was one of his arms, yanking back against his elbow in an attempt to break it. But the angle wasn’t quite right.Hax yelped loudly.
“Scissors!” Marlowe barked. “NOW!”
Jen rushed toward Marlowe and tried to hand her the scissors.
“Not me, HIM!” Marlowe said. “Stab him!”
Jen hesitated, but knew it had to be done. With a deep breath, she held the scissors high over her head, and then stabbed down as hard as she could into what she hoped was the direction of Hax’s body.
Before the scissors could land, Marlowe’s body went limp once more. A loud rustling clatter could be heard as Hax rolled across the floor, narrowly escaping Jen’s attack. The scissors stabbed into the hardwood floor near Marlowe’s arm.
Footsteps were heard as Hax retreated to the kitchen. Everyone waited breathlessly, but no door or window opened.
“He’s still here,” Marlowe gasped after a few moments. “He’s going to fight.”
“Of course I am,” Hax said suddenly from behind Jen. She felt something wrap around her neck like an anaconda. The lights began to dim. Her world slipped away.
The young girl clacked away furiously on the keyboard with her free hand. “He’s back on the net! He’s trying to change the access key! God…he’s fast!”
“Stop him!” Marlowe yelled.
“I’m TRY — GOT IT!” the girl hollered.
Life returned to Marlowe’s muscles. She rolled forward to her feet, turned a half circle, and leapt with all her might toward her sister. Her shoulder landed on something hard just above Jen’s head. Hax went flying back, and Marlowe latched onto whatever part of him she could. She reached into her pocket and grabbed a fistful of Imagen Zesty Fire Taco Sauce packets. As fiercely as she could, she slapped the packets onto what she hoped was Hax’s chest. The sauce packets exploded beneath the force of her hand, coating him in a reddish-brown goo.
“Hide from THAT, motherfucker!” Marlowe screamed, just before she felt a metal knee joint collide with her head. The power from his augmented leg sent her flying off him.
A splatter of taco sauce began floating across the room as Hax ran toward Marlowe. Marlowe rose to her knees, tucked her feet under her once more, and sprung at him, wrapping her arms around his waist and tackling them both into the far wall.
“Didn’t count on the taco sauce countermeasure, did you?” Marlowe snarled as she began to choke him.
The hot sauce apparition rose for a moment and jerked wildly. Marlowe fell limp once again.
“Shit!” the girl screamed. He’s back on!”
“Let me on the network!” Jen said breathlessly as she poked at the air to bring up the network access panel in her HUD.
“No way!” the girl said.
“We don’t have time for territory here!” Jen demanded. “Let me on!”
The girl bit her lip. It wasn’t Jen she was worried about — it was the hundreds of her competitors on the Net that her system would be exposed to. But she considered living through this ordeal to be a precursor to dealing with any ramifications, and any help was welcomed. She entered a few keystrokes into her terminal. The firewall went down completely. Jen joined the network. “Which one’s his?”
“Dot 499!” the girl answered. Jen started a script that flooded Hax’s IP address with an unmanageable amount of ping traffic. Hax dropped from the network.
The taco sauce apparition jerked again, and suddenly Jen’s attack was blocked. “FUCK!” Jen cursed. She began tapping at the air again. After a few moments, she found the bridge connecting Hax to the software that was controlling Marlowe via the virus he injected into her neck. She began furiously attacking the bridge.
“Can’t port block a controller bridge!” Jen announced.
“Clever,” Hax snarled. He stopped his network counterattack on Jen and instead, turned his attention to Jen’s physical person. Jen watched a blob of taco sauce rush toward her. Panicked, she covered her face with her arms, ducked, and shrieked.
She braced for an impact that didn’t come. Parting her arms, she watched as the taco sauce blob flew across the room, hurled by an enraged Marlowe. No sooner did Hax land than Marlowe was upon him, slamming down on anything her fists could find.
“Mother fucker!” She yelled, slamming her wrist cuffs into Hax’s body pummeling him with all her might. Her fingers curled under something. She ripped upward as hard as she could, separating a chunk of Hax’s armor from his arm. She placed her left hand on his right upper forearm and pulled upward on his wrist with her right, breaking his arm in half. He screamed violently. She repeated this process with his left arm. Piece by piece, she tore strips of his thermocamouflauged armor and tossed them around the room, leaving only the veil over his face.
She grabbed the sides of the invisible blob that she assumed was his head, latching onto his ears. Over and over again, she slammed Hax’s invisible head into the floor, leaving dents and spatters of blood across the hardwood. With every thud of his skull, she yelled the word “motherfucker!”
*Thud* “MOTHERFUCKER!” *THUD* “MOTHER” *THUD* “FUCKER!”
Finally, she peeled off the blood-soaked veil to reveal Hax’s badly beaten and broken face.
“Die!” She yelled, clenching her hands together over her head and hurtling a double-ax-handle punch into his face. She rose her hands again, preparing for another blow. She felt a hand on her arm.
It was Jen. “Don’t,” she said quietly.
“I’m not letting him walk out of here!” Marlowe yelled. “He…he…”
“It’s over,” Jen said.
Marlowe was panting. “He hurt you,” she finally said.
“He’s no longer a threat,” Jen pleaded. “But MilSec has to know he’s here by now, and we’ve got to go.”
Marlowe slowly stood. She turned to the young girl taped to the chair. “Where’s your dad?” She asked.
“Dead,” she replied simply.
“Hax killed him?!?”
“No. Heart attack,” she answered. “Six years ago.”
Marlowe shook her head. She squinted at the girl. “You’re Nines?”
“MKFan_9999,” Marlowe replied. “Nines. For short.”
“Oh,” she answered. “Yeah. My real name’s Regina.”
“Wait,” Jen said with her jaw open. “So you’re the one running all those sockpuppets scraping the Feeds? A little girl, running half the FeedLeeches on the Net?”
Regina nodded. “More like seven-eighths,” she confirmed.
“Shit…and you set up this network?”
Regina nodded again.
“Wow…” Jen said. “Damn, kid, I’m impressed!”
“I’m flattered,” Regina replied. “Can you let me out of this chair now?”
Jen blushed. She grabbed up the scissors and began hacking away at the tape on the girl’s left arm.
“You seemed to know your shit,” Regina said, nodding toward Jen. “Who are you?”
“Jen,” she answered. “You probably know me as FeralJenrit.”
“Wait, you are FeralJenrit?” Regina asked in amazement. “Wow. You cost me nearly a million credits when you shut down my PokerBot network. You’re a bitch. I kinda hate you.”
Marlowe let out a sudden belly laugh.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Jen replied. “Marlowe, we’re in the presence of hacker royalty.”
Regina grinned brightly.
“Tell me about it later,” Marlowe said, walking over to help free the girl. “Listen, we need access to every single Feed you have that has me in it.”
“That’s at least ten terabytes,” Regina answered, yanking her right leg free from the unraveled nest of tape. “Is there anything specific you can tell me?”
“There’s a Feed from a private who was in the locker room the day I was attacked,” Marlowe said, pulling off a piece of loose tape from Regina’s sweatshirt as Jen cut her other leg free. “It shows me being attacked first.”
“Can’t say I’ve seen it,” Regina replied. “But then again, I don’t watch it all…or any of it, really. Frankly, I don’t like you very much.”
“Feeling’s getting close to mutual,” Marlowe said. “Can you give me the data?”
“Only if I get to come with you,” Regina said.
“Forget it,” Marlowe replied flatly. “We’re on the run, and you’ll very likely get killed.”
“I’m an orphan who’s been stealing her dead father’s identity to run a multi-million credit Feed scraping operation…among other things,” Regina said matter-of-factly. “And thanks to that pen camera on the mantle, everyone now knows who I am and where I live.”
“That’s where it was,” Jen said as she walked over to the mantle. She picked up the pen, dropped it on the floor, and stomped on it with the heel of her boot.
“If I stay here, I get dumped in an Imagen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, where I’m going to get raped, beat up, and likely killed anyway,” Regina continued. “At least with you, I can skip most of that stuff.”
“Jesus,” Marlowe said. “You know what? Fuck it. We have two old men, one of whom is missing a leg, a bunch of cultist soldiers, a fucking wannabe slam poet running the show…what’s the harm in adding a damn twelve-year-old hacker to the mix? Nines, you’re in.”
“Great,” Jen said, rolling her eyes.
“Fifteen,” Regina said.
“You prefer I call you fifteen?” Marlowe answered, confused.
“No, I’m fifteen years old. And again, my name is Regina.”
“Got it, Nines,” Marlowe said. “Now can you please go get me that footage so we can get the hell out of here before MilSec shows up?”
“It’s remote,” Regina said. “We can get it from the road. Nothing but dumb terminals here.”
“Smart,” Jen said.
“Duh,” Nines replied. “It’s not smart, it’s common sense, you newb.”
“Says the kid who didn’t think to just DoS Hax’s connection to the near-field virus he embedded in Marlowe?” Jen replied. “You can run Feed and poker and ransom scams, but you’re no hacker.”
“And you’re a bitch,” Regina answered.
“Fight in the car,” Marlowe interjected, lifting Regina out of the chair she was in and placing her on the floor. She gave her a light push toward the door.
“I’m going! Jeez!” Regina replied.
Jen fell in behind Regina and Marlowe took up the rear. The three headed to the door. “Wait,” Marlowe said. She walked back over to Hax and felt around his waist and down to his legs. She ripped off chunks of the camouflage armor to reveal his biomechanical left leg. She placed her foot on the metal hip joint at Hax’s waist and twisted and pulled. With a grunt, she yanked, ripping the appendage from his body.
“For Sully,” she said, holding the leg up for Jen. “I told you I wasn’t letting Hax walk out of here.”
“I think you probably ruined it,” Regina said.
“Shut up, Nines,” Jen said, nudging her toward the door.
Marlowe carried the prosthetic leg up the street, followed by Jen and Regina. Poet greeted them as they entered the car. “Welcome back…wait, who’s the kid?” He asked, bewildered. He sniffed the air. “And is that…taco sauce?”
“Shut up and drive,” Marlowe replied.
She was a sweetheart in person. But behind a keyboard, she was Machiavellian.
Some might call her small. Others might even say mousy. As she sat behind the twelve-monitor grid of screens comprising her terminal setup in her upstairs office, she resembled a tiny orchestra conductor, in control of the entire nation’s FeedNet. She was petite, with thin, arrow-straight brown hair that stopped at her shoulders. As she clicked away furiously, she continually pushed up the sleeves of her father’s oversized navy blue Imagen Corporation hoodie which she had defaced, crossing out the “COR” and writing “BORE” above it. It made her laugh.
Her once-white, now-dingy-orange-from-RealCheez-powder-colored sweatpants was folded over the waistband multiple times and cinched tight. Incongruously, in her hair, she wore a bright blue bow studded with shiny white gemstones. It was one of a set of eight, each in a different color. They were a gift from her father after a business trip to Oz, handmade and “authentic” to the indigenous people there, or so he had said. She had no idea what the indigenous people of Oz wore, or if it was genuinely hand-made, and she didn’t care. She wore one every day, in or out of the house. They made her feel pretty. And feeling like a pretty girl who was straight up pwning pretty much the entire FeedNet of the United American State…well, that thought appealed to her quite a bit.
She sat back and surveyed her “kingdom.” She was running ransomware scams on users’ pods, locking them down and demanding credits. Simultaneously, several AI-driven bots were scraping Feeds of every soldier in MilSec with a dedicated Feed watch count of over ten thousand to make automated “Best Of” and tribute videos. The system would then find relevant ads matching keywords and images from the automatically created Feeds and run them with the videos they published. This automated process attributed to a third of her revenue stream. All of this ran without any input from her, so she was free to focus her attention on her favorite part of her daily routine: making trouble for her competition.
She smiled with glee. One of her scripts found a Citizen’s Feed that had happened to pick up audio of one of her most prominent competitors, Yano Milopolis. Yano was discussing how he thought that relationships between adults and underage kids were perfectly fine. Given that Yano was mostly watched by the more conservative citizens of the nation who would likely frown upon the fact that their favorite Feed star was a pederast, she knew that this clip would be worth a fortune.
She filtered the audio, pulled it through a high-pass, and then attached it to a Feed she found of Yano speaking to someone on the street. She then edited the sound quality so that it could theoretically be believed that the audio came from that camera. Of course, it was a hot mic — the audio could have come from anywhere. But people were lemmings and believed what they saw, and it was easy enough for her to build fake credibility.
Not that credibility was ultimately mandatory in this modern media market’s “Hot Take” economy. As long as it was entertaining and easy to reshare, anything could pass as news if she decided it was.
She could have just as easily released the audio alongside the video without editing, or even just released the audio alone. It would do the trick and cause enough trouble for Yano. But the extra effort was art. It was her personal passion. She didn’t want to just cause him trouble and invite questions about his dubious relationships with minors. She wanted to bypass the trial of public opinion and get as quickly as possible to the execution. And that meant she needed to tell the public what their opinion was supposed to be. And that was: “this douchebag diddles kids.”
She put the final touches on the edited FeedClip, then prepared to release it into “the wild” via one of her several bot-driven CitizenFeeds, built and scripted to look like real-time running commentary of the day’s events posted by a bored, unengaged, underlabored citizen. The bot’s text-to-speech engine was custom-tailored to sound as natural as an uneducated mid-twenties Citizen would, with frequent but consistent mispronunciations of middle-tier vocabulary and unnecessary stressing of certain words and phrases, occasionally sprinkling the word “fuck” or some derivation of it into every single sentence.
Finally, the clip was ready. It looked and sounded completely legit. With the push of a button, Yano Milopolis’s life would be over. It would be the most discussed story on NewsFeed, right after all of the hubbub about Marlowe Kana. Oh, to make the national NewsFeed alongside the biggest story in history…the thought made her smile. It wasn’t even about the money. It was the principle. The undercroft of the Feed economy was hers. She had built it herself — every trick, every tactic, every tool, she had fashioned herself or had discovered in the archives and modified. She was the Queen Troll under the digital bridge. And no one — not Yano Milopolis, or any other competitor, or even Marlowe Kana herself — was going to take her place.
Boy, would the world shit itself if they found out who she really was. She operated under many aliases, all of which had achieved some measure of infamy on various Top Ten Most Wanted, Hated, Reviled or Revered lists across the Feeds.
She sent the ransom letter to Yano’s Feed, using a forged Imagen Bulletin key signature to allow her to pin it to his HUD and ping him every minute until he read it. She smiled with glee as she glanced over at a different display — credits had been deposited in yet another disposable account, from which she would funnel the money. Her new ransomware was working. She unlocked the target’s HUD embedded in his contact lenses and allowed him to actually see again, giving him a break from the blinding and disorienting flicker that could only be described as the visual equivalent of a tornado siren. All of Imagen’s efforts to patch the vulnerabilities were laudable, but she had a list of zero-day exploits no one knew about that spanned several printed pages. Basically, she could modify her app quicker than they could stop her.
She pressed a few keys and let her victim finally get some peace and a little shut-eye.
In another display, she monitored the view count of the twenty-two separate persona broadcasts she had set up. None of them were real people. All were using Ident-keys from people who had died while on a thrilling safari to the Gaslands, or while in the Subs entertaining narcotics-fueled prurient interests — or as they called it, “doing dirt.” As far as Imagen’s network monitors knew, these citizens were still alive and well and broadcasting fan-made videos of celebrities.
One of them — the most watched of all her personas, with twenty-one million viewers — was her own father, Thomas Cervantes.
It was the persona that kept the mortgage paid and the groceries delivered. It was the one she gave the most love, a tribute to his legacy. It was the one through which she broadcast her Marlowe Kana Feed remixes, by far the most popular subject. The “MKFan_9999” persona earned her hundreds of thousands of credits a month. It was the lead horse in a stable that was beyond rich in attention. The follower counts on the other twenty-one sock-puppet Feeds tallied in the millions each. Between them all, she had fifty million followers, nine million more than there were actual citizens in the United American State. The fact that her father had died with her mother in a freak hovertrain accident years ago was a minor inconvenience. Because he had worked from home, she was able to keep his persona alive and deposit the credits that came in every two weeks like clockwork. His job was easily replaced by scripts, as were the jobs of the dozens of other people she’d assumed the identities and accounts of when they had died. Her father had been a huge fan of Marlowe’s when he was alive, and she felt that using his persona to run her most profitable FeedLeech operation was singularly appropriate.
She was about to check the ad revenue stats for all of her Feed accounts when a tone sounded from the monitor at the bottom-right of her massive multi-screen workstation. She looked over at the security feed of her front door. A man wearing a cap obscuring his face was at the door, tapping his foot. He was dressed in a red and black jumpsuit and was holding a pizza box.
“Fuck,” Regina said. “A goddamn pizza? At two in the morning?? Who the FUCK doxxed me?” She pressed a few keys at the same time and an automated script began running, tracing all incoming requests to her network, searching for whoever had dared to bring her virtual war into the real world. She knew that she wouldn’t be exposed. As far as anyone with any access to her network could ever tell, her dead father was the persona behind the curtain. And that was behind another digital curtain, which sat behind yet another curtain, and so forth and so on.
She smacked a button mounted above her desk on a row of shelving holding several more terminals.
“Who is it?” She asked through the microphone. The intercom repeated her question in a gravelly man’s voice thanks to the custom voice print alteration software she had written.
“Imagen Pizza,” the man replied, though she, of course, knew the answer.
“I didn’t order a pizza,” she said.
“Says here you did,” the man replied, gesturing the boxes upward to indicate the receipt on top. “Thirteen-thirty-seven Maple Street, right?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t order any pizza,” she insisted.
“Look, dude,” the guy in the jumpsuit said, “I gotta drop these pies here or my creds get docked. It’s paid for already. Just take them? Please?”
“Leave them on the step,” she said.
“Come on, you know I can’t without a print.” He complained, referring to the delivery service monitoring system that kept delivery people from running off with the pizzas or other food deliveries, or toiletries, or sex toys…anything and everything one could get delivered directly to their home from Imagen Prime. So it was a requirement that the customer’s fingerprint be inputted upon receipt of an order.
Regina sighed. This was some sort of signal sent by her net competition, she was sure of it. But she didn’t need yet another enemy; she was managing enough of them as it was. And she sure as hell didn’t need some poor pizza guy filing a report on why this particular address was refusing acceptance of a paid-for delivery. Reports led to calls. Calls led to downtime, and downtime led to the loss of territory and profits. And she had to admit, she was kind of hungry.
“What kind of pies?” She asked.
“Pepperoni, extra cheese,” the delivery guy replied.
“Damn, that does sound good…” Regina muttered. “Okay, my daughter is coming down.”
She opened the door of her office, descended the stairs, and approached the front door. The moment her hand touched the doorknob, a shrill alert suddenly sounded from both the terminal in the front room of the house, and every single terminal from her office upstairs. It was the alarm that signaled that her location, in some form or fashion, was being streamed by another Feed.
“Shit!” She yelled, backing away frantically from the door.
She had barely cleared the path before the front door swung open violently. The man in the red jumpsuit burst through the threshold and rushed her, placing his hand over her mouth before she could scream. He pressed her against the back of a chaise lounge that sat in the middle of the living room.
He looked directly into her eyes and whispered, “Shhhhhh.”
Fear shook her from head to toe. Tears welled up in her eyes. She knew who this man was — Lieutenant Alexis “Hax” Curtis, one of the contenders in United America’s “Next Top Soldier.” And he was on the hunt for Marlowe Kana.
Hax was fat by MilSec standards. But his fans know his real strength was in hacking and stealth. And his foes knew that that strength was rivaled by precious few. And just because he carried a few extra pounds didn’t mean he was out of shape. He worked out daily. He kept his cardio up. He just really, really liked Imagen CheezyRanch Triangle Crunchies. But his prosthetic legs could more than carry the extra weight, just as easily as they could kick in the quadruple-locked solid steel door on a small home in suburban Atlanta, where a certain notorious FeedLeech lived.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he whispered. “Someone is coming that I do want to hurt, though. She’s a very bad person, and I need you to be a good person while I take care of her. Can you do that?”
She knew this man from “Next Top Soldier,” a show she despised but had to watch, due to how profitable the videos her FeedLeech operation was made because of them. And she loathed him. He was by far the most vile and disgusting contestant in the show’s history. He played dirty. He rarely bathed. He picked his scabs and spit on the street in public. He blew snot rockets on his enemies after defeating them. He was disgusting in every sense of the word. And right now, he had her pinned against her father’s sofa and she’d never been more terrified in her life.
She desperately wanted to shake her head no — no, she’s not going to be a good person — and knee him in the balls and run to her panic room and trigger the explosives she had planted around the house. But the fear…it gripped her. She couldn’t move. Even if she could, it would have done no good. The same IED that had taken his legs in the Gaslands had famously taken his testicles as well.
He pulled a gun from the waistband of his red Imagen Pizza delivery jumpsuit and held it to her temple. ” Nod yes so I don’t have to ruin this beautiful carpet your parents have.”
She nodded yes furiously.
“Good. This will be over soon, and if you play nice, you will be a hero to the entire nation. They can see you right now. Nod for them, so they know you’re one of the good guys.”
She did as he asked.
“Good girl. Now, I am going to let you up, and when I do, I want you to walk over to that beautiful pre-war desk in the corner and sit at it very, very quietly. You don’t have to do anything else. Just sit. Can you do that? Nod yes.”
Every part of her body shook.
The man cocked his head and blinked. “Ruined carpet, then?”
She whimpered slightly. She shook her head no, and then began shaking her head yes.
“Good. Now go.”
As she trembled her way over to the desk, Hax removed the hidden camera pen embedded in the front pocket of his jumpsuit and placed it on a mantle across the room. The wide-angle lens captured the entire room for an audience that was beginning to tune in by the tens of thousands per second.
He stripped out of the red jumpsuit, revealing lightweight armor that covered his entire body. Pulling a thin veil of fabric over his head from the collar of the armor, he flashed a crooked smile for the camera.
“And just like that…” he whispered, and his beefy hand rose and he snapped his fingers before switching on his thermoptic camouflage and vanished completely into thin air.
“…He was gone.”