[Trigger Warning for both consensual and non-consensual sexual violence.]
* * *
Naturally, Nick was slouched at his desk when Serena made it to work at seven. Six of his fourteen deskscreens were aglow, three clips running on the main wallscreen. He'd already gone through a cup of tea and two focus pills, and his eyes looked bruised with exhaustion, but his beautifully-creased clothes and perfect blond hair still made her feel disheveled in comparison. Another bruise was half-hidden by his immaculate collar.
"You asshole," Serena said cheerfully. "You claimed to be so heartbroken after the last boy! Tell me everything."
Nick grinned. "We'll talk at lunch." Savitri, the new law student intern, leapt to fetch Serena coffee. Folding her jacket over the back of her chair, Serena smiled up at the corner lens and waved to her constituents. A second later — the longest delay she dared program into the office webcam — the lens's perspective wallscreen reflected her image waving back. Her desk loaded new messages while she settled in, counted out the day's prescription, then counted it carefully again.
Serena took her coffee black to avoid tripping the ever-present nausea; Savitri set the mug on her desk just as the main wallscreen chimed. "Alert. High-response clip. Requested keywords: quote Serena Goldman unquote and quote Ben Knight unquote. Uploaded three minutes ago." The three clips already on display paused, neatly scaled down into a bottom corner. The wall resolved into a shadowed room, a military cot, a much-younger Serena naked on her knees.
"Beg, bitch," ordered a man's deep voice. A famous voice. His hand cracked across Serena's recorded face. In her office, Serena realized she'd come to her feet — watched her image turn, attempt to shield herself. Cry out.
Taking a single glance at her, Nick snapped, "Voice access. Recluse this room!" Three lenses irised shut, their perspectives went black and the floor-to-ceiling eastern window polarized smoky. Onscreen, Serena fought. Pleaded. A growl: "Beg for mercy," — and she said it, then broke down and wept. He crouched in front of her, bringing his face into the camera's view for the first time; one hand captured her chin, brought her face around so he could kiss her.
She trembled, sobbed. Relaxed into his arms.
The video ended.
Serena discovered she still had pills in her hand; she washed them down mechanically and swiped at her own humiliated tears. Ben. White Knight! You impossible, selfish ... allowing those videos to get online .... Savitri, pale with shock, said huskily, "I'm so sorry that happened to you, Serena." Tried to take her arm. Shaking her head at the intern's misunderstanding, Serena looked at Nick for relief.
He'd already dimmed half his screens, was busy at the keyboard. Thank God for you, Nick. "Okay," he said. "Okay. I think we can safely leave the webcam on recluse for an hour or two, given that you've sustained, uh, intensely personal trauma."
Serena took a steadying breath. Nodded. "Nice to have such a solid excuse," she said; her voice came out surprisingly normal.
Nick tapped a few more commands, then threw himself back in his seat, frowning. "Okay. We could claim that it's fake."
She half-considered it. "Think anyone would buy it?"
Gnawing his lip, he regretfully shook his head. "Some college kid would dissect it immediately .... We could say ... we could say you weren't into it. That Ben pressured you; it wasn't really your thing."
The fury was sudden, unexpected, and welcome; Serena caught at it with relief. "I am not a victim, Nick!"
Holding up both hands defensively, Nick sighed. "I know, Serena, but the alternative —"
"Is admitting to the voters I enjoyed that little scene? I'm aware of that."
"So ...." Savitri, almost forgotten, took a half-step forward. "You consented to that."
"In fact," Serena said, "I asked him to do it," and turned away. "I won't be dishonest about this, Nick."
"Come on, you wouldn't have to be dishonest. Just play up Ben's role."
"No. What else?"
He looked down at his central screen. "Well. The clip was uploaded by Celeb Hunter Robin. Description: 'Straight from the horse's mouth. Got Knight drunk and out it came.'" For once Nick forbore to comment on Serena's ex — good thing, she thought, because I'd've had to punch him. Arm or no arm. "Already two thousand views. High-Fame viewers include ... Christ, I don't even want to read that list. Serena, whatever possessed you to tape those escapades?"
"Oh yeah, like you've got any right to lecture me on my indiscretions."
"Maybe not, but I'm not hoping to be leader of the free world someday!"
"Neither was I! I was 21, Nick! And a patched soldier! They called us barely human — remember? Who knew I'd ever be a candidate for anything?"
With obvious hesitation, Savitri cleared her throat. Counting to ten, Serena glanced at her; the intern had taken a seat between the two desks and was nervously smoothing her skirt. "Are there any more video clips?" Savitri asked.
"Ben has them. I don't," Serena said shortly, but she gave Savitri mental points for aplomb. Knew she was a keeper.
"You didn't keep copies?" exclaimed Nick.
"He's the vain one!"
"It's just," said Savitri, "I was wondering, um, if there are any videos of. Gentler sex. Maybe him going down on you?"
"Great idea," Nick said instantly. "We could even sweeten the clips with a soft focus or candlelight effect. Ideally we convince Celeb Hunter Robin to post those, too."
"We also have to convince Ben," Serena pointed out.
"For you," Nick said, "it'll be easy."
Serena looked away. "Maybe. — Okay, what are we doing right now? We should construct an interim response ASAP."
"I'm thinking Savitri can take it," Nick said.
Savitri squawked "Me?" as Serena nodded approvingly. Flustered, nearly appalled, Savitri looked up at Serena like a penitent. Behind her, Nick gave Serena the time-for-a-pep-talk-from-Fearless-Leader raised eyebrow; Serena responded with an infinitesimal nod, the two-steps-ahead-of-you.
Eyes on Savitri's, Serena half-sat on her desk's corner and bestowed her most down-to-earth smile. Nick busied himself typing. "Yeah, Savitri, you're young, but I've been impressed by your work around here. You've given me great tips — remember the incident with the police commissioner? I wouldn't have gotten that in time if you hadn't highlighted it for me; the tags were super tricky. And Nick told me just yesterday how happy he is with the filtering you did on the website clips. Not to mention, I'm impressed with how you're keeping your head right now, even though you probably have little exposure to BDSM or alternative sex in general. Right?"
"Um," said Savitri. "Right. I mean, there's a group on campus for sexual freedom."
"Yeah, I've heard there's a kink group at every university now ...." Serena quelled a grin as Nick flicked her an ironic, why-weren't-we-born-later half-smile. "Now, this incident could be the biggest threat we've seen so far to my reelection. I had such a lead that it's still probably in the bag, but I'm gonna hand out major responsibilities while Nick and I work on tracking central coverage and press conferences. Plus I have to keep governing, since that is, you know, my job."
Savitri laughed. "Okay, okay. Of course I'm here for you! You had me from your first immigration speech. I'm just scared I'll let you down. I know I sound childish —"
"Don't worry," Serena assured, and Nick said briskly, "Great then. Savitri, I've uploaded new voice filters and sorting algorithms to your account. We'll want a preliminary clip to run inside the hour, but after that you will update it throughout the day. I recommend that you start with material from the war, plus something showing Goldman and Knight in their honeymoon phase —" Serena didn't wince — "otherwise, use your judgment. Our message is that the mayor is a massive badass, let's use the word warrior, and that her broad perspective and strength of character will get her through this awful violation of her privacy. Emphasize warrior, violation and privacy." Catching Serena's look, he gave a defeated sigh. "Okay. Don't emphasize violation. But do emphasize warrior and privacy. — For your collaborators, definitely tap Richard Waxman; he's been promoting Serena for years, and he's got a light touch for sexual politics. Fame 3, too — right on that sweet edge where his assistance will help, but not well-known enough that anyone's paying him ... nor should he be too arrogant to take instruction."
"One hour. Got it." Savitri was out the door in seconds.
Taking stock, Serena found that she still felt trembly inside, but ruthlessly tamped it down. Nick must know how she was feeling; he didn't move towards her, just raised his eyebrows. "Ready for battle, Captain?"
"You know I hate that," Serena grumbled, but she nodded. "Load up the main screen, Counselor."
"And you know I hate that," said Nick. Grinning, he hit four keys and they turned together towards the wall.
* * *
The main screen chimed, flashed: "Priority call incoming. Ben Knight's home in San Francisco. Fame 8."
"Voice access. Accept," Serena said immediately from where she and Nick stood by the window. Nick threw her a warning glance, then dashed across the room. Grabbing Savitri's arm, he pulled her behind his desk and out of the wallscreen's frame.
As the image sprang clear, Serena saw that the colors were filtered to Ben's default: vivid, larger-than-life. He was standing in the expansive living room, white shirt open at the neck and obviously-just-thrown-on. She imagined his sharp morning scent without wanting to — could practically smell him through the screen. Black hair, charmingly rumpled. Large eyes, charmingly hangdog. Teen girls across America had wished they were Serena for years. Unfairly, unwillingly, she could still see why. Damn you, Ben.
The rage she'd suppressed forty minutes earlier slammed into her.
"Way to ruin my career, Ben!"
"I'm sorry, Serena. I'm so sorry."
Ben's movements never seemed studied, not even on film. Not even when using tactics they'd discussed; not even when performing gestures she recognized. Now he tilted his head, looked at her through his lashes — she couldn't stand it. "A paparazzo," she snarled. "Really, Ben?"
"It was a bad night," he said desperately, "I couldn't stop thinking of .... I was drinking it off, I don't know how this guy got past me, I swear he wasn't in any of the paparazzi filters. He didn't show any warning signs. I said I was sorry."
"Nice halt in your speech there," she said coldly. "Very seductive. Did you script it yourself?"
The chiseled jaw tightened. "This isn't easy for me either. My agent's been on my case all morning, and my sister just called to say she's ashamed and I'm the most deviant fucking thing she's ever met!"
"It's what you deserve for being such an idiot!" Serena realized she was addressing a blank wall and rounded on Nick. "I never should have given you override access!"
"You'll thank me later. Count to ten. You need Ben."
"No I don't, that's why I divorced him."
"And I am certainly the last person to argue with that decision. But right now, you need Ben to give us the oral sex videos. Also, to bribe Celeb Hunter Robin to post them."
Serena gritted her teeth.
Nick gave her a moment, then reconnected her.
* * *
"I don't know, Serena," Ben said again.
"It'll help your image too, Ben," she insisted.
"Let me ask my —"
"No! No. We do not have time to waste with your agent's vacillations. Promise me you'll call this Robin person the minute we disconnect." He was wavering; Serena put steel behind her words. "You owe me, Ben."
"All right! All right. Fine." In the pause, they gazed at each other. Something shifted behind Ben's eyes. "So. Are we still on for dinner next week?"
Carefully, she didn't look at Nick. "Yeah. Call me when you hit town."
"It'll be great to see you. — Serena, I really am sorry. Anyway. You're too good at your job for this to get you down. — And Nick is a big help, I'm sure." He was unable to quite keep the edge from his tone.
"Yes, he is," said Serena, biting back a sigh. Damn it, Ben. Still? Nick's submissive. And gay. Well, mostly gay. Anyway, we only hooked up once and it didn't work. Of all the people to feel threatened by ....
"Well. Give him my best." Even this small concession seemed torn from him; her ex-husband glanced away from her, ran a hand through his hair, blew out his breath. "Later."
"Dinner, huh?" Nick inquired archly as soon as the wall blanked.
"There's still some bits to work out with the divorce agreement," Serena said. She watched Nick's face cycle through responses such as, So he has to fly in from California just to talk to you? and, Isn't that what lawyers are for? I should know, I used to be one. She was grateful that he didn't vocalize any of them.
"What next?" he said instead.
* * *
"Governor Riley," Serena said warmly. "So good to speak with you again." In the corner, a headphone'd Nick focused on his touchscreen like a predator.
Every inch of the room onscreen indicated olde-worlde establishment: overstuffed chairs; unpolarized windows with curtains; pretentious leather-spined paper books all over the walls. The solidly-built man behind the overlarge desk nodded. "What can I do for you, Mayor?"
Serena gave it to him straight — it's what I'm good at. "I'd like your endorsement." Nick stroked one finger down a blue slider, tapped twice. She suspected he was firming her voice; the suspicion was confirmed as her own words sounded through her earbuds, half a second later.
"Ah. I thought you might call." Riley steepled his fingers — haven't seen that gesture before, she thought. Practicing our fatherly image, are we, Governor? "Let me be honest. You've got great perspective and it's been good to have your support opposing this universal surveillance nonsense — the so-called 'Neighborhood Safety Act.' But you must be aware that I've been promoting myself as a family man."
"Exactly. That's why you can help me so well against Barnhart."
He looked at her over his glasses. "I'm up for re-election myself."
"Governor Riley." Leaning forward, she discreetly used her left arm to haul her bad arm upon the desk; elbows bent, she interlaced her fingers demurely. "I know you never campaigned for queer liberation." Nick's hands flickered in the sea-colored glow of his screens. "I can see why sexual freedom wouldn't seem pressing. You and your husband are established. Respected." Her target was watching warily, but he hadn't interrupted. "So maybe queer history isn't a big deal for you. But the S&M Old Guard was at Stonewall, last century." Casually, she called a Stonewall Riots re-enactment photo of leathermen onto one side of their shared screen. "It's okay if you don't feel like you owe us for that. It's been a long time and, you know, I haven't been a poster girl for sexual freedom myself. Straight people are bad at this. I own that. — But I'm just asking you, Governor, to imagine what would have happened if you'd been in office forty years ago. You would have been forced to campaign in the closet, hold office with a big secret. Then imagine if someone exposed you. An ex! Imagine an ex had exposed your sexuality to America. And think about what would have happened to you."
Do I hear a faint echo to my words? She reprimanded herself — Nick would never overdo it like that.
Riley was shaking his head ruefully. "You've always been too good with those supposedly off-the-cuff speeches, Serena," and Nick gave her a thumbs-up from the corner: we win. Restraining the urge to laugh out her tension, Serena sat back. "But I guess I knew that when I took your call. Listen, you make a good point, but give me time to consider it."
"I understand, Governor. Thank you." Their smiling goodbyes were slick and professional, but she recognized genuine liking behind his mask.
Disconnecting from the media system, Nick stretched. "Clip array time?"
"It's time," Serena confirmed.
* * *
Several interns and most of the staff clustered between Serena and Nick as they cleared their deskscreens. "Voice access," Serena said, as soon as they had space to work. "News array: keywords quote Serena Goldman unquote bracket politician close bracket and quote Ben Knight unquote bracket film star close bracket or scandal or sex and related words or BDSM and related words or vote and related words. Include material tagged with content from handle Celeb Hunter Robin, posted at 7:08 AM today." At the top of the wall, a cloud of several dozen terms swiftly opened, centered on her name and sized by prevalence: Ben Knight was, naturally, biggest. Below that, clips sorted themselves by relevance, audience demographics, number of viewers, and creator's Fame score. Written feedback scrolled down the side.
Most people weren't giving opinions yet — waiting to see what statement Serena would issue first — but there was a list of famous watchers. Governor Riley had added himself, publicly acknowledging his interest; Serena grinned at the sight. Right beside his icon hung one for the Sexual Freedom Foundation's Maxine Worth. Mistress Maxine, resplendent in fuchsia lips and short iron-grey hair, had chosen an avatar in which she tossed her head and giggled. As Serena hovered on her profile, Worth's tags piled up at the bottom: sexuality, alternative sexuality, sexual ethics, consent culture, gender studies, feminism, sex-positive, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, swing, polyamory, asexual, kink, BDSM, bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadomasochism, pornography, sex work, decriminalizing sex work .... Her current status was a cheerful pun about being "tied up at the moment," at which Nick rolled his eyes and said, "Really?"
Barnhart was also on the list, of course. Though Serena's opponent had not yet explicitly referred to Ben's video, her current icon showed her playing up the white-picket-fence heterosexual marriage and angelic children. Even more than usual. Serena nearly clenched her fist against the stab of irritation. Have you ever taken a risk in your life, Barnhart? And if you're such a great mom, then why am I the one who advocates increasing the education budget? She tried to set the feeling aside as unworthy, but the other woman's fatuous smirk grated on her nerves.
As they waded into the commentary, the police commissioner came up, red-faced. "... finally know why Mayor Goldman so adamantly opposes the Neighborhood Safety Act. She had something to hide! If the Act had passed last year, her sexual habits would've long since leaked out ..." Nick and Serena exchanged glances, skipped onward without bothering to save.
"My opinions on certain types of pornography are well-known," declared a professor at some university's Department of Male Studies. He glared at the camera, and Serena half-expected him to wag his finger. "My sympathies to Serena Goldman, but let's not lose sight of poor Ben Knight's experience. Men's weaponized sexuality is a porn-fueled societal expectation that he probably felt pressured into acting ...."
An anti-porn feminist speaker was in the same quote batch, saying angrily, "Did Knight air it as some sick retribution for Goldman's escape from his abuse? I wouldn't put it past him! And I can't believe the host site is keeping the video public. It's just horrible that such material could ever be aired without the victim's consent! Period!" Biting her lip, Serena transferred the quotation to her desk.
"I have always said that we don't know the exact effect of the patches," gravely intoned some barely-legit medical commentator. "If this is indeed evidence of so-called 'alternative' sexuality, then perhaps it constitutes more evidence that Knight's — or even Goldman's —" he coughed gently, "systems should be reevaluated." Serena's chest tightened, cheeks burned. His rating is so high! And with the old "barely human" argument? So quickly they forget ....
But a fortysomething father of two was next. "... don't feel I can judge their private lives. And even if I could, who doesn't recall the heroism of Goldman and Knight?" Earnestly nodding, the man split his screen with footage from the war. "They've proven themselves. Surely that trumps their sexual tastes."
"I was a child when Goldman fought," affirmed a young woman, "but I'll always vote for her. Because she's a hero."
Two college students did a takeoff on that one, laughing like hyenas. "I'll always vote for her," mimicked one. "Because she's fucking hot."
"Voice access. Catch," said Nick, and the boy's leer froze. "I wonder if we can use this," he mused.
"Yeah, we should put out a calendar," Serena said sarcastically.
"Every little bit helps, Serena."
"I am not marketing myself on sex appeal!"
Nick threw up his hands dramatically. "Okay, okay. Though I can't believe you still think voters choose based on policy. Of all things!" The interns snickered; Serena had to smile. "I think we're done here," he continued. "Is there anyone else you want to call before we get on the press conference? I'm thinking the key is to play down the BDSM thing. Better yet, don't even mention BDSM. Let's just say that this incident is your business. People obviously care more about your awesome military history. Thank God."
Thoughtfully, Serena flipped through the clips she'd kept. Paused. "It's just horrible that such material could ever be aired without the victim's consent!" She stopped again, replayed it. "— without the victim's consent!"
Replay. "— victim —!" The interns looked expectant; Nick looked nervous.
In the keyword cloud, abuse stood out rather large.
Nick said, "Serena —"
"Voice access," Serena said. "Contact Maxine Worth. Alternate handle: Mistress Maxine."
* * *
"Wow! Serena Goldman!" Round-faced Mistress Maxine clapped her hands. "I am so starstruck, you have no idea!" Fashionable rhinestones glinted on her nails and in the frames of spectacular retro eyeglasses. Her This Is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt looked faded, but Serena thought it might just be chic. "How can I help you?" Maxine asked.
"You've seen the video," said Serena.
"Of course, of course."
"Well, what do you think?"
Worth's eyebrows arched and lips pursed. "Honestly? It's pretty transgressive. In our campaigns, we at the SFF prefer to show gentler images. The mild side. Clean-cut all-American types tying each other up with silk scarves and tickling. Or spanking; people don't seem to mind that so much." She giggled. "My secondary girlfriend calls spanking the 'poor man's S&M.' — But at least you guys weren't doing anything extreme, like blood play. Just imagine! Heavens, if you'd been messing with scalpels, you'd be in a world of hurt right now." More giggling; an overt wink. "And not in a fun way."
Out-of-frame, Nick made an exaggerated retching motion. I dunno, Nick, Serena found herself thinking, I kinda like her.
"So what are you gonna say at the press conference?" Worth asked. "We have a media team I can dispatch to help, if you want. Though honestly you probably have a better one."
"I'm not sure yet," Serena hedged.
"Are you gonna own it?"
She barely hesitated. "Yes." Nick buried his head in his hands.
"Great," Worth said approvingly. "We'll back you, of course. I'll put the word out. If nothing else, the SFF can raise funds for your campaign. I'll also forward contacts for other sex-positive organizations — feminist groups — free speech groups — and I'll enable you to send them my sig when you call. They'll back you, too."
"Thanks. Got any speechwriting advice?"
"I've always disliked the idea behind 'sexual orientations,'" Worth said reflectively. Her hands swept up to frame her words in expansive air quotes. "It's politically powerful, but fundamentally flawed. 'Poor little me! I just can't help being queer! Or a domme! Whatever!' It's not a great model for sexuality, you know? Sure, it's true that lots of us feel our desires are innate. I've had the 'you mean, you tied up your Barbie dolls as a child too?' conversation many times. But the question of whether we choose our sexual preferences, versus whether they're built-in, shouldn't even matter. Sexual acts shouldn't matter at all. Only consent should. And yet, like I say, this 'orientation' idea has so much power ...."
Does she really have to giggle so much? A headache was slipping into Serena's consciousness. Maybe I get Nick's perspective on her after all. Or maybe I just forgot to take my 10AM meds ....
"I'm talking too much theory, aren't I?" Maxine Worth fluttered her hands. "Your eyes are glazing over. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that I don't think describing sexuality in terms of orientations is the best way forward, long-term. But in your case? I think it's in your interest to describe it that way."
"I mean," Serena said slowly, "I guess that's how I've always thought of it ... as an orientation. I didn't really decide to be into BDSM. I just, um, am."
"Well, then." Worth's teeth, Serena thought, shone like rhinestones. "Go ahead and tell the voters that."
* * *
In the end, they hosted the press conference in virtual. They also built in a full twenty-second delay. It was pushing the envelope — no one would quite trust Serena's sincerity — but Nick estimated that the shock would buy this much latitude. Surely no one would insist that she be seen in public, unmodulated, after such an invasion of her space. Especially in the context of the highly-publicized divorce, which everyone and their brother knew was "very hard on both Goldman and Knight." Anyway, those who'd really judge her badly had already written her off based on the video itself.
That was what Serena was telling herself as she materialized in front of her lectern. It was placed in front of a replica of the war memorial in Washington, and sized just right so that she wasn't dwarfed. Behind that spread her city's main thoroughfare, sharpened and brightened just enough to remind viewers how stylish it was, without dominating the scene. Savitri! Great job on the setting! she subvocalized, and meant it.
Massed before Serena were campaign staff and other loyalists; past them, the audience's avatars. Again, Governor Riley had chosen to observe publicly, body shaded politics-blue and Fame 5 glowing discreetly over his breast pocket. Mistress Maxine was Fame 4, highlighted paler blue; on the whole, the crowd edged towards blue, though there was a surprising amount of riotous arts-red. Ben's fans, Serena realized.
Ben himself wasn't there. At least, not apparently.
It's not too late to lay this at your ex-husband's door, came Nick's voice in her ear: warm, worried, resigned. He knew she wouldn't do it. Serena didn't answer directly, merely subvocalized, I'm ready. Raising her arms to the lectern, she nearly shivered at the casual use of both of them. No compensating, no surreptitiously moving her right with her left; all her gestures were so easy in virtual. Pushing through an internal sigh, she reminded herself — for the millionth time — that it could have been worse. At least I'm alive. At least becoming disabled helped establish me as a hero.
"Thank you all for coming today," she began. "I'm sure there are a lot of questions, so we have to restrict them to Fame 4 or higher, USA region only; Fame 2 for my constituents." Smiling, she held her hands out flat in the air, as if forestalling an objection. "Sorry, folks. We'll open it up if the questions run out before I'm too exhausted to make sense anymore. But it's been kind of a long day for me already, so I can't make any promises." Serena always emphasized small weaknesses, when she could. Better than seeming too tough. It's a hard line to walk, humanity and heroism. It occurred to her that in some ways, she played the victim after all.
Serena waited through the twenty seconds, listened to Nick's lightning edits to her words and tone, observed a sizable percentage of the avatars grin at her self-evident understatement. Not too tough a crowd. Good.
Summoning her notes to the lectern, she plunged in. "It's been ages since I fielded questions about my personal life. I remember that when I was on the front, people looked for any fact that could be used against us soldiers." Serena threw back her shoulders to emphasize the medals pinned to her jacket; Nick and Savitri had spent nearly fifteen minutes polishing the virtual representation of her Purple Heart. They had even added the faintest perceptible glow. "Those of us with patches, especially — we were torn apart in the media. People said such ugly things about us. Inhuman, they said, and they tried to find ways to prove it. Until I led our contingent to victory. Until we won the war for America."
And I lost the use of my arm. And ninety percent of us died. Memories wrenched at her. It was cheap, easy, for them to allow us humanity when we came home. With so few of us left — so many of us drowning in trauma .... They had nothing to fear from the wreckage of their experiment. Stunned from the battlefield, she and Ben and the others were almost too numb to grasp the sudden cornucopia of opportunities. Allowed to hold any job. To have kids. To run for office. Who would ever have thought?
"My constituents know that I've stuck to the values that got me through the war. You all know I'm honest, faithful. That I do what must be done. I am dedicated to improving our lives in all ways — large and small. You know I've kept my campaign promises: thanks to my Reading Mentors initiative in schools, seventeen percent more children passed their exams this year." Take that, Perfect Mother Barnhart.
"Are you going to forget my record because of the irrelevant video posted this morning?
"I can't pretend I wasn't hurt when that video went up. I've gotten used to seeing my private life all over the net, but that ... was too much." I can do better than that. She reconsidered her script. The ellipsis is artistic, but it's a little whiny. Swiftly, she subvocalized: Nick, delete last clause.
"... but that was like a stab in the gut," she continued instead. "I cried this morning. And to be honest, I don't want to talk about that video. It's private. — But there's one thing I have to say."
From the feedback in her ears, she noted that Nick had filtered a trace of tears into what she'd said seventeen seconds earlier. Well, I don't know if I wanted to come across as weepy .... Too late now.
Serena leaned forward, grasped both sides of the lectern, took a breath to center herself. "Ben Knight and I had a rocky road together, but he did not abuse me," she said clearly. "Ever. My ex-husband and I divorced due to a disagreement about children." And location. And career. Oh, Ben. Fiercely, she quelled the pang. "Everything that took place in that video was consensual." Don't hesitate. Just say it ....
Just say it.
"I am a submissive masochist. I did not choose to be this way, but I am. I have been one throughout my entire life. Since the first day I wrapped thoughts around my sexuality. It is my sexual orientation." She paused to let that sink in. "And I will no more apologize for it than I would if I were homosexual."
There. Serena waited again, listened, watched her statement sweep across the audience. Avatars tended to display less than actual bodies would — another disadvantage of holding the conference in virtual — but the reaction was nonetheless unmistakable. Many disappeared immediately, presumably racing to be first posting commentary on what she'd said. Some cheered; others shouted in anger or incredulity, the sound selectively muted by Savitri's settings.
Nick, she instructed, I'm about to shut my eyes; don't let my avatar shut hers. She gave herself a moment of merciful darkness behind closed lids before straightening her back, spreading her palms before the crowd.
"Remember, everyone, Fame 4-plus and USA only. 2-plus for locals."
After that, the questions were easy.
* * *
It was past three in the morning when they finished at the office. Savitri and the quiet girl were still collecting clips, but most of her people had accepted Serena's insistence and gone home at eleven. Takeout containers and empty focus pill bottles littered all surfaces; some perched precariously on corners. Nick had forced her to eat several carbohydrate-laden meals, saying, "I don't give a damn about your crazy bioware side effect nausea ... bullshit! Whatever!"
Wearily, Serena picked a few containers up, tossing them into the disposal while Nick reviewed his messages one final time. She had removed her shoes at dinnertime; now she started hunting around the floor for them. They'd unreclused the webcams hours before, but she was past caring whether the watching voters would judge her for kicking off her heels. At least it'll make me seem human —
"You guys want to crash at my place?" she asked. "I live only a few blocks from here. And I'll buy you all breakfast tomorrow."
"I call the guest bed," Nick said instantly.
"Call incoming," chimed the wallscreen. Forcing epithets back from her lips, Serena accepted before it even announced the caller. This better be quick.
"Mayor Goldman," said Governor Riley. He was in shirtsleeves, sitting in a well-appointed kitchen. "I guess I'm not surprised you're still at work."
"No rest for the wicked," said Serena; then she scolded herself for being too casual, modified her light tone. "What can I do for you?"
"I was just planning to leave you a message assuring that I'll endorse you." Riley grinned. "I thought it'd be nice for you to find it when you came into the office tomorrow. But maybe this way it'll help you sleep."
"I can certainly use the help," she said fervently. "Thanks, Governor."
Riley waved a hand, "My pleasure," and cut the link.
"Small victories," said Nick, but he did look relieved. "Your shoes are over here, Serena."
"Ah, Nick, what would I do without you?"
"Curl up and die, I suspect."
All four were too tired to make conversation while locking up. Their walk through the gently warm night was quiet. The district wasn't one for nightlife; even the flatscreens set into the sidewalks were off. "I'd say that in only a few weeks, we'll be leaving the office by nine," Nick predicted as Serena punched in the code for the wrought-iron gate to her courtyard.
Serena shook her head. "I don't deserve you guys."
"No one deserves anything," Nick said philosophically. "But you shouldn't thank us until we win."
"Which we will," Savitri added. The quiet girl smiled.
I must be more tired than I figured, Serena thought, pricked by unexpected tears. She wished she could come up with something better than "Thank you," but Nick's nod told her it was enough.
* * *
Before she'd become famous, Serena considered celebrities in sunglasses a silly cliché. As if a person would really become unrecognizable! she recalled thinking. But sunglasses turned out to be quite effective, especially combined with a hat and a splash of bright lipstick.
Back from the office by nine, as Nick had foreseen. Friday night. She'd been invited to a low-key party by old friends; had declined, cited exhaustion, but found herself prowling room to room as if electricity ran under her skin. It became abruptly obvious that she could not stay at home. Over a week after, Ben's visit echoed through her blood like strong wine.
Still ravenous for his mouth as he was walking out the door. Lacing his fingers in her hair, Ben had pulled her head back hard; touched his lips — just barely — to hers. She couldn't help moaning. But, "Still divorced?" he'd murmured against her mouth, and she'd gone cold. He felt the rejection in her, instantly let go. Nodded sadly when she said, "Yes."
She could not stay at home. Her usual haunts held no appeal. At first, she intended only to take a long walk through the city, but then she thought of a little hotel bar she hadn't visited in a while; allowed her steps to meander in that direction. The crowd flowed as she neared popular nightclubs, ebbed as she passed them. This is exactly the kind of situation where Nick wants me to have a security detail, she knew. Yet she couldn't make herself nervous. It's a big city, but it's mine.
The bar's flatscreen sign didn't blaze or blare, which Serena found comforting. Tilting her hat low, she drifted through the door.
"Who do we think we're kidding?" Ben had asked. "Separated, but meeting every chance we get? The only ones we're lying to is ourselves. And think what it would do for your popularity if we remarried." He lay sated among the sheets like a sculpted god. "Fearless Serena. White Knight. Together again. You know they'd go wild for it, darlin'."
Brushing her hair by the window, Serena said only: "They would, wouldn't they."
Her metabolic bioware granted Dionysian tolerance, though she'd pay heavily the next day. The patch itself lent a kind of fuzziness to her perspective every time she abused it, and on top of that, it didn't prevent hangovers. Worst of all possible worlds, she'd always joked with the other soldiers. Fortunately the bartender knew her here, discreetly tripled the liquor in her drinks.
Pain wasn't softened by the metabolic patch, nor endorphin response. Others complained about that all the time, during the war. While she and Ben just smiled secretly at each other. — And Ben knew the patch's idiosyncrasies, had developed unique tactics for maximizing the duration his marks lasted. He was patched for strength and speed, and she was patched for neither; she healed everything in hours, but he could always fight her down.
"Shame I can't mark you for weeks, darlin'," he'd growled in her ear while she gasped underneath him. "But you'll at least remember me one day from now."
Choosing a dim and unoccupied corner, Serena hid behind a second drink and tried not to think of Ben pinning her down, Ben striking her face, Ben bruising her shoulders darkly with his teeth. Ben making her kneel and cracking a whip at her ear .... No. I'm not thinking about him. Mocking her resolve, her mind refocused on images of needles, razors. Mistress Maxine had mentioned scalpels. Blood was one of her closest-held desires; had Maxine guessed?
Serena couldn't repress an erotic shudder, half-wished she'd headed out to a dungeon tonight — maybe the Dark Alley, where she first made friends with Nick three years before. Maybe if I call him now he'll come out with me .... She'd comforted him through a horrible breakup only two months before, and he was still in his promiscuous post-heartbreak phase, so he'd be a good companion.
Yet unease crept along her nerves beside the desire. What she craved now seemed dissociated from the deep-rooted masochism that brought her closest to her lovers. More like a blank, bottomless agony.
"Avoid BDSM when you're actually unhappy," one kinky mentor had lectured in her early twenties. Serena thought the woman was pompous, but she listened anyway. "Or at least, avoid it unless you're sure — certain sure — that your partner knows you well, and that it'll make you feel better. Like sex itself, it has potential to be a celebration or a wound. Make S&M about sexuality, about intimacy, even about catharsis. Don't make it about brutalizing yourself."
"I love you," Ben had said, sun catching artistically in his beautiful eyes as he paused on her doorstep. She had sighed.
"Always constructing a goddamn movie moment," she observed, but couldn't make herself sound sharp. Just resigned. "You know I love you too.— Now go home."
She had another triple rum and coke.
"Mind if I sit down?"
The man was classically blond, blue-eyed. He'd already half-pulled out the seat across from her, clearly expecting her assent. "Please say I can," he said, when she didn't speak. "I don't know anyone in this city and I love your hat."
Does he recognize me? The telltale flare wasn't evident in his face. "All right," Serena said.
Settling in, he sipped from a frosty pink confection. "Did you know that mosquitoes have forty-seven teeth?"
"No," said Serena. "Did you know that surprising and politically irrelevant factoids, when used to start a conversation, result in getting laid 47% of the time?" Her ears caught up with her words; am I drunk? This is a stranger in a bar! He'll misinterpret me — I better take it back.
Laughing, he stuck out his hand. "Barrett."
She didn't touch him. "Serena. And don't take my previous statement to mean I want to sleep with you."
"Shame. — What are the chances with politically relevant factoids?"
"Much lower. Let's not go there."
* * *
An hour into the conversation, she took the chance of removing her sunglasses; still no flare. It had been so long since Serena associated with someone who didn't recognize her. She warmed to him only for that. Three hours in, they'd decamped to the hotel pool without remembering towels; forty-five minutes after that, she accompanied him back to his room to dry her hair.
Maybe I'll sleep with him after all, she thought — drunk enough that the question seemed remote, abstract, philosophical. She had jumped around the shallow end in her underclothes, which weren't by any stretch sexy, but weren't bad either. Wet, they chafed uncomfortably beneath her linen office dress. Standing in the door of his bathroom, Barrett watched her scrub moisture from her hair one-handedly.
She leaned over, hair falling forward over her face so she could reach the back, and felt his hand on her neck. Ben, jolted through her — the searing memory of his touch — from this position, her husband would force her to her knees —
This wasn't Ben. And suddenly she knew she didn't want Barrett; suddenly, Serena just wished she'd stayed home, read a book, gone to bed early. "It's been nice, my friend," she said, "but I've got things to do tomorrow morning," and tried to stand.
He wasn't letting her up.
In a flash of panic, she tried to sweep his legs with her good arm, but she was at a bad angle and out of practice and the alcohol slowed everything — Barrett had her face-down on the floor in a moment, she hit her head on the toilet on the way down, he was holding her in place with only one arm but shifted to a lock seconds later, and for the first time in years Serena wished she'd been patched for strength, wished she'd gone beyond the three-patch legal maximum, no matter the low life expectancy —
"When were you planning to mention the whole being-Serena-Goldman thing?" Barrett's voice was low, mildly rough around the edges.
"What, was it the arm that gave it away?" she grated. "Let me up."
"Come on, do you think anyone in the nation doesn't know your face? I spotted you from across the bar, when you fanned yourself with your hat." Excitement was beginning to thread though his tone; he ground his hips against her back. She could feel his erection, his breath on her neck. "Figured you might like me more if you thought I wasn't just another fanboy, though. And I was right!"
"Barrett." Desperately, she tried to iron out her voice. "I don't want this. Let me up. Now."
"Did you know the rooms in this hall are soundproof?" He said it almost gently. "Amazing, the services you can get at hotels nowadays," and his nails dragged deep across her back. Serena cried out. "I can do whatever I want with you right now," he whispered. "You should never have given me your clothes to carry. You don't even have your wristphone. — God, you heal so fast! It's like a movie. I won't even leave any evidence, will I!"
With a titanic effort, she tried to buck him off, but he wrestled her down and laughed.
* * *
After he came, he relaxed. It took Serena a moment to realize it; she struggled again, and he finally rolled off. With a harsh implosion of breath, she scrambled to the door and glared at him where he reclined on the floor, pants around his knees, half-smiling. I'm so out of shape — maybe I could still take him — her eyes flicked to the counter. I'm probably not strong enough to strangle him with a bath towel —
— and anyway, if I kill him, then America will round up patched veterans and exterminate us like rats. Serena forced herself not to attempt murder. Hissed: "I'll see you in court, motherfucker."
"You're seriously going to cry rape? Give me a fucking break. The hallway lenses caught you on the way here, making eyes at me and laughing at all my jokes. And, damn, after that video?" Barrett raised an eloquent eyebrow. "No court in the land will convict me. And imagine what it'll do to your campaign to try. I think you'll reconsider in the morning, darlin'." He tasted the word. "That's what your husband calls you, isn't it? I remember that from the second video." Smirking, he corrected himself. "Ex-husband. Sorry."
Strangely, it was that — more than anything — she hated him for contaminating, later. That endearment. It was years before she'd let someone call her that again.
* * *
Hailing a taxi outside the hotel, Serena went straight to the police, insisted on having the evidence taken immediately — if she waited even an hour or two, the metabolic patch would vanish her bruises. And she knew that if she let herself pause, she'd mull over his argument.
After that video? No court in the land will convict me. And imagine what it'll do to your campaign to try ....
She wondered what Nick would say if she called him; had a sick suspicion that he'd convince her not to report the crime. Everyone knows that most rape cases are acquittals — she stopped thinking about it.
At the police station, Serena submitted to the intrusive tests and answered the questions steadily, eyes straight ahead. Refused the gentle offer of a counselor. Naturally, she had to provide a reference for the military bioware expert in Washington; the consultant would evaluate photos of her half-healed contusions and attest that they were less than an hour old.
Tipsiness faded into headache. The station blurred into a cold-edged nightmare of sterile rooms, staring officers who couldn't hide their shock and awe.
At the most generous estimate, Serena figured news of this case would get out by ten in the morning. Victim privacy was out the window; she was too famous for that, and the video scandal was too recent. When she arrived home, she put her alerts on silent and polarized the windows against wan morning light; showered, scrubbed every inch. Went to sleep without eating, or crying, or thinking at all.
Upon waking, she went back to sleep. Did it again. And again.
* * *
Generally, Serena avoided sweet dishes, or heavy ones, or anything with dairy; her refrigerator held little beyond white wine and a few vegetables. When she finally rose, she served herself a glassful, plus an orange for breakfast.
I think you'll reconsider in the morning. Serena finished the glass, poured a new one.
Two in the afternoon. The message light was flashing red. After carefully blanking the part of the wallscreen that displayed alerts, she settled onto the living room couch and streamed some movies. It seemed like she'd seen every film from the last ten years with Ben; to prevent herself thinking of him, she restricted herself to oldies from the 1900s.
Dinner was raw green peppers, carrots and unflavored powerbars — a frequent favorite. Ben had always been the gourmet, not she, and there was no way those things could make her throw up. She took the whole day's prescription at dinner rather than properly spacing it out, unable to care about the potential for her modified body to go haywire. Went to sleep at nine, without checking her accounts or alerts once.
* * *
Midway through Sunday afternoon, she ran out of wine and switched to vodka. During a pause between movies, she glanced over her log without any real interest: several dozen pings from friends, six from her staff. Imagine what it'll do to your campaign —
Two messages from Mistress Maxine, she noted. Seventeen from Ben. None from Nick; he'd doubtless accessed her accounts, tracked her commands and seen that she'd gone invisible.
Lining up ten shots, she drank them in thirty seconds.
* * *
She was half-asleep on the couch when the wall chimed and the current movie minimized itself, answering the call against her instructions. "Voice access," she mumbled, "silent mode. You're supposed to be on silent mode," and hauled herself to a sitting position.
"You should never have given me override access on your accounts," said Nick from the wallscreen.
"I am not home," Serena said wearily. "Not even to you."
"I won't lie to you, Serena." Was that the office in the background? The sun was hanging low in the window behind his desk. "In my lawyer days I learned how bad publicized rape cases can get. Really bad. I don't blame you for going to ground. — But people are depending on you."
Lying back on the couch, she stared up at the ceiling. "Your loyalty is commendable, but even you shouldn't be in the office at —" she checked — "6PM on a Sunday."
"Since when do I not work Sundays? Anyway, I'm not the only one. Three volunteers are here, and all the staff. We made a new campaign clip, and we've been putting out fires across the net. But we need you."
Serena closed her eyes. "Not now, Nick. — I'm going to end this call, okay?"
"They're using your case to build support for the Neighborhood Safety Act."
Before she knew it, she was up and glaring at him. "Hey," Nick said, raising both hands, "don't kill the messenger." He was almost grinning — with relief, Serena realized. He wasn't sure even that would get me up. Remnants of alcohol drained from her consciousness. She felt her sluggish mental gears grind to life.
"Be there in half an hour," she promised.
"Okay. Think up a pep talk on the way."
* * *
There were hacks to send the metabolic patch into overdrive, and Serena drew on them ruthlessly, sobering up and slamming pills for the hangover, devouring nine powerbars in ten minutes. Running the patch so hot meant she'd have a serious fever later, probably vomit; too bad. A long-ago image flashed to mind — muggy night on the front, body worn to razor-edge by ceaseless engagements. Ben's sympathetic hand on hers as she sweated and shuddered and threw up into a shallow pit. At least I've got a cold shower with a drain at the office.
She'd composed a decent pep talk by the time she reached her office building, and drew breath to deliver it as she walked through the front room. Stopped short at the door. A circle of her people stood nervously around Nick and Ben: Nick behind his desk and Ben leaning against hers, both of them eyeing each other like cats. Her chest constricted. She had to put her arm against the doorjamb to steady herself.
"Ben," she said.
"He wasn't here when I called you," Nick said quickly.
"Serena," said her ex-husband; turned his whole body towards her, but kept his arms at his sides, didn't take a step. "I wish I could've come sooner. I was hiring the best legal team I could find for you."
How does he center the room on himself like that? Make everyone into spectators? Everyone was watching wide-eyed, as if she and Ben were characters in a riveting drama. Except Nick, of course, whose gaze was hooded and critical; whose cross-armed stance sang tension like a wire. Thank God for Nick.
"It might be too late to white-knight me out of this one, Ben," she said softly. Your actions already fucked me over enough, she didn't add. His posture was so open, his tone ached with tenderness, it was so clear he wanted to take her in his arms — she had no idea how to feel.
"I know, darlin'," he said, and she actually flinched. Hated herself for it.
"Don't call me that." She couldn't stop herself from lashing the words, couldn't bring herself to explain. Walked to her desk — brushed past him on the way — and focused hard on its surface, sorting through screens so she didn't have to see the hurt stark on his face.
No one moved in the airless silence that followed.
"Please let me help. Serena."
"No. Go home." It required considerable effort to keep her voice flat, but she managed it.
In peripheral vision, she thought she glimpsed him flushing. He would be furious that she'd humiliated him in front of an audience, even if it was just her staff — it was just her staff, right? Nick had surely reclused as soon as Ben showed up, right? She risked a glance at the nearest lens; inevitably, it was closed. If only Nick would accept a raise.
"All right," Ben said eventually. "But I insist on paying your legal fees." He sounded petulant, which made it easier to nod stiffly and ungraciously without looking up; she loathed his pouty moments. It's a good thing he doesn't want kids. He'd be such a narcissistic dad, Serena thought, then felt miserable all over again. That was sour grapes, and she knew it.
"Call me if you need anything," said Ben. "Anything at all, Serena."
Again, she only gave him a nod.
In Ben's wake, the room became breathable again. Nick sent her an uncertain I-know-you-don't-need-my-help-but-do-you-need-my-help? look; she replied with a tight everything-sucks-but-it's-under-control smile. "Voice access," she said. "Unrecluse this room," and launched into the pep talk.
* * *
"How long did the jury deliberate today, again?" asked the quiet intern, who was sitting on Serena's desk in the packed office.
Savitri answered. "They started at eleven and went home at five. Could go on for days."
"Okay," said Nick loudly from his media center. His eyes veritably burned, cheeks seemed hollow, and gestures were jerky with stimulants. Did he eat dinner? He made me eat, but — Serena couldn't remember. "Okay. Ready for our final clip array, everyone?"
Ping, went the main wallscreen. "Good luck tomorrow, Serena," came Governor Riley's voice, accompanied by a picture of an old-style leatherman's cap ... like the ones worn at Stonewall. "Voice access," said Serena, and ponged him with a "thanks" and a hilarious picture of heart-shaped handcuffs Mistress Maxine forwarded earlier. After a second's thought, she modified the "thanks" into "Seriously, thanks for everything; I never expected such great support."
"Will you quit that?" Nick called to her, pitching his voice to carry over the group filling the room — but he was smiling. "When did you and Riley stop relating like professionals? Imagine what the voters would think if those images got out."
"That's what recluse is for. — So are we doing this array or what?" Serena tried to be airy, cheerful, but strain poured into her words nonetheless.
"Voice access," Nick said. The staff, volunteers and interns all went silent. "News array: keywords quote Serena Goldman unquote bracket politician close bracket and rape and related words or BDSM and related words or vote and related words. Include material tagged with the Goldman-Barnhart election taking place tomorrow." Rising, he paced across the floor. The tag cloud developed, emphasizing their search terms as well as scandal, consent, Barrett Parsons and — still? Serena thought — Ben Knight.
They didn't bother with Barnhart's sugary clips, and they gave the watcher list only a cursory glance. It had contained no surprises for days. The first result came from an academic lecture hall; it took a moment for Serena to place the speaker, the same anti-porn feminist who talked about victimhood the day Ben's first video was released. "I can't have much sympathy for Ms. Goldman," the woman sneered. "She did serious harm to women across the country by 'coming out' as 'submissive' — and by the way, I take serious exception to the concept that female masochism could ever be compared to a legitimate sexual orientation, no matter how many stupid erotica books get published. But anyway, now Goldman claims to have direct experience with the consequences women will face for this absurd idea of a 'submissive orientation,' yet she still opposes the Neighborhood Safety Act, which could save thousands of women every year. In fact, the Act would have saved her, assuming her story is true. She is making the world more dangerous for real women because of her perversions. But then," she added with studied nonchalance, "maybe Goldman likes it dangerous. Maybe if there was footage from her little encounter with Mr. Parsons, it would show her begging for more."
Maxine Worth was wearing dangly rhinestone earrings today. "Really, how is a man supposed to know when to stop with a woman like Serena Goldman?" someone was asking. Mistress Maxine looked like she counted to ten before she answered.
"Actually, there's any number of ways that BDSM encounters are negotiated," she said, after a mighty pause. "For instance, almost everyone sets a safeword ahead of time —"
"But some BDSMers don't?" pounced the interlocutor.
"A few BDSMers don't," Maxine said slowly, as if talking to a child. "But if they don't use safewords, then they use another method of getting consent ahead of time. Without consent, it's rape, remember? Is there something difficult about this concept? If Barrett Parsons didn't get her consent ahead of time, then he raped her. It's. That. Simple. There's evidence of a fight, and there's no evidence that Goldman wanted one."
Undaunted, the man persisted: "What if he did get consent ahead of time? How can we tell?"
Mistress Maxine took off her glasses and stared at him. "Well," she said acidly, "I guess we have to decide whether we accept the sworn word of Serena Goldman, public servant and savior of the fucking nation."
"That's not a reasonable legal standard —" said the interviewer; but the clip array switched before he finished. Serena and her office had heard this debate before.
The next high-rated comment came from a rainbow-haired student with tears streaking her face. "It kills me to say this, but Parsons is gonna walk free," she said. "I think he did it — we all know he did it, right? I mean, why the hell would Serena Goldman lie? But she didn't prove it in court. Maybe she can't prove it, and maybe that's the price she pays for coming out of the closet. It scares me, as a kinky girl, but maybe that's the price. And maybe that's also the price we pay for privacy, those of us who oppose the Neighborhood Safety Act." The girl gave an unhappy, shuddering sigh. "Parsons is innocent until proven guilty. I guess that's the way it has to be. But let me tell you, I believe her."
"Stupid bitch should figure out what she wants," opined one voter interviewed outside a bar. "Barnhart's annoying, but at least she doesn't give mixed signals. Not sure who I'll vote for —"
His girlfriend took a different tack: "I mean, it's unclear that a thing can even be raped, right? And how is it possible for a human being to force a veteran to do anything? I saw this clip yesterday where Ben Knight threw a piano across a football field, but you're telling me a normal dude raped Serena Goldman?" The woman took a long drag on her cigarette and scowled. "If you ask me — this whole case is trivializing the horror of real rape against real women."
Nick had come to a halt behind Serena's chair, put his hand on her shoulder. "Voice access," he said. "Stop," but he didn't say anything after that; just squeezed Serena's shoulder.
"God, I don't know if I can watch this," Savitri burst out. "Do we really have to, tonight? Can't we go out drinking or something?"
"We'll want to release a final clip tomorrow morning," Serena said colorlessly.
"I'll come in early," Nick said, so abrupt it was nearly harsh. "You know the awesome bar that serves desserts? Let's go have some tiramisu and get wasted on great wine. Or, in Serena's case, great vodka. All of you. First round's on me."
"On me," Serena corrected, half-ashamed that she felt relieved.
"On whoever gets to the waiter first," Nick said. Everyone laughed, started filing through the door. Serena grabbed Nick's wrist and gave him the grateful what-would-I-do-without-you look. "Curl up and die, remember?" he murmured, and pulled her to her feet.
* * *
The jury didn't even deliberate for an hour the next morning before releasing: Not Guilty. Though she'd expected it, Serena still felt her heart stutter. She thought of the student who'd said: maybe that's the price we pay.
Wordlessly, she accepted the hugs from her team. Immersed herself in creating a final clip for the voters. In obligatory public appearances at three parks, two colleges, a feminist health center, various landmarks, the city center. In coordinating the staff's movements hour by hour on a livemap. In responding to the latest proposed version of the Neighborhood Safety Act. In a million minute tasks.
Later, she was never sure how she got through that day. All memory was sucked into the verdict and, of course, the white-hot flare of 7.23PM. She'd just arrived back at the office when the main wallscreen said: "Alert. High-response clip. Requested keywords: quote Serena Goldman unquote and quote Ben Knight unquote. Currently streaming real-time."
Rather than the beginning, the stream played from now. She needed a moment to make sense of the citizen journalist's shaky camera, of the excited crowd. "There he is," someone cried; a policeman shouted, "Stand aside. Stand aside!" and Ben was escorted through a narrow channel in handcuffs.
"Voice access," Serena said. "Display three most relevant clips," and zoomed in on the first one eight seconds later. The state's legislative branch was credited for the raw footage, originally posted six minutes before. Some observer had already removed and lightning-edited this clip from the webcam outside the courthouse.
Barrett stood atop the white steps, grinning at reporters with aplomb, framing himself against a glamorous sunset. He was answering a vapid question about what he planned to do next. From the corner, she heard Nick choke on his coffee. "Parsons was released in the morning, took the day off to clean up, and went back to the courthouse steps to do his press conference?" Nick said incredulously. "That's some goddamn nerve for that guilty bastard —"
He stopped talking as a black streak came from the left, knocked Barrett down in a vivid spray of blood, and resolved itself into Ben Knight. Holding out his arms for the handcuffs.
Thoughtfully, the clip's editor paused there and replayed the attack in slow motion. Ben's impossible swiftness allowed him to practically fly up the stairs — Serena surprised herself by gasping as her ex-husband set one hand under Barrett's chin, ripped off his head barehanded.
Always with the overdramatic, Ben. You stupid fucking white knight.
"My God," she said aloud. "Now they'll lock up every patched veteran in the country."
"Maybe only the ones patched for strength. And speed," Savitri said uncertainly.
"Serena," Nick said. She couldn't make sense of his tone, and that was enough to make her turn to him sharply. "Look at the side screen."
The voting machines had double- and triple-checked the votes through alternative systems, but the results were already clear, the announcement already made. It was a landslide. Congratulations to Serena Goldman, displayed the automated text above the graphs.
Stunned, nearly unbelieving, Serena read it out loud.
No one said a word.
* * *