Ignite, p.1

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  Tracy Lawson



  © 2016 by Tracy Lawson

  Cover design by EbookLaunch.com

  Back cover image by Jamie Buchsbaum

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publishers, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine, or journal.

  All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  First Print 2016


  DysCovered Publishing


  To my Bexley Theatre Arts family

  faculty, staff, students, and parents

  past, present, and yet to be

  Chapter 1

  9:35 PM

  Wednesday, November 29, 2034

  Quadrant OP-439

  The fire alarm’s wail ceased abruptly, and Careen Catecher’s rapid, shallow breathing fogged up the oxygen mask that covered her face. Velcro straps and a neck brace immobilized her on the rescue backboard as two grim-faced paramedics rushed her gurney through the rubble inside the demolished building. Her whole body began to shake as they emerged into the cold night air. Floodlights positioned above the scene dazzled her eyes, and she had the impression of a large crowd of people pressing forward as the paramedics loaded her into a waiting ambulance. They’re taking me to the hospital. Someone’s going to recognize me. Her teeth chattered, and her eyes darted frantically back and forth. Where’s Tommy? Where’s Wes?

  As soon as the doors closed, she clawed at the straps and struggled to sit up, fighting the hands that sought to soothe her. Her fingernails found skin and drew blood.

  “Hey! Take it easy! I’m trying to help you.”

  A needle jabbed her arm, and within seconds, everything faded to black.


  Quadrant Marshal Henry Nelson clenched his nightstick and resisted the urge to strike out at the crowd that pressed against the barricade. In the few minutes since firefighters summoned paramedics inside the rubble of what had been the university’s student center, curious onlookers gathered until they outnumbered the squad of marshals by at least twenty to one. A large crowd could turn into a violent mob at any provocation, and Nelson felt trapped between two potentially dangerous situations. Smoke still wafted from the wreckage behind him, and debris floated on the chilly breeze. None of the firefighters or members of the investigative team said it out loud, but he knew everyone was thinking the same thing: could it have been some sort of accident, like a gas leak? Or were more bombs set to explode? There had to be some explanation other than terrorism, because terrorism didn’t happen in OP-439.

  The crowd shifted and craned their necks to get a look at the paramedics who emerged from the gaping hole in the building and rushed a gurney toward a waiting ambulance.

  Nelson glanced over his shoulder at the victim—a student? She was dust-covered, bloody, and bandaged, her face obscured behind an oxygen mask. He caught a glimpse of pink highlights in her dark hair, but that did nothing to distinguish her from thousands of other girls who had adopted the trend made popular by one of the leaders of the Resistance. While the paramedics shoved the gurney into the ambulance and prepared to leave, he and another marshal moved the barricade and shouted at the crowd to make way. The ambulance’s siren faded away and an uneasy silence fell over the crowd as another paramedic crew wheeled out their gurney.

  They, in contrast, were in no hurry. Nelson threw a questioning look at one of the paramedics, who subtly shook his head and motioned him over.

  “He’s one of yours. He was gone before we got to him. Looks like internal bleeding from blunt force trauma, and there were some shrapnel wounds.” The paramedic lifted a corner of the blood-spattered sheet, and Nelson nodded slowly. “Dammit, Wes,” he muttered. “You weren’t even on duty today. How the hell did you end up in there?”

  He turned away to compose himself. There was a murmur and a ripple in the crowd, and Nelson whirled around, tensed for some kind of confrontation. Instead, the crowd parted for a campus security guard who staggered drunkenly, bouncing off the onlookers. Nelson let him inside the barricade. The guard paused, his bloodstained face just inches away, and shouted, “You see a kid—blond guy—maybe six-one, with a scar on his chin? He attacked me. Took my service weapon.”

  Nelson took a step back. “No. Are you all right?”

  “What?” The guard stuck a finger in his ear and winced. “Can’t hear a dang thing. I was too close to the blast.”

  Nelson raised his voice. “EMTs just brought out two vics, but neither match that description. I haven’t seen anyone else inside.”

  “That kid might be the perp. It was the darndest thing. He jumped me in the hallway and hustled me out of the building just before it blew.” He looked dazedly at the gun in his hand. “When I came to, it was beside me, in the ivy.” He brandished it as he spoke, and several people at the front of the crowd screamed and ducked out of the way. “He could’ve killed me or left me inside. But he didn’t.”

  Nelson felt around in his pocket for latex gloves. “That could have prints on it! Give it here.” He took the gun by the end of the grip, motioned to a member of the crime scene investigation team, and handed the gun off to her. She bagged it and took the security guard aside. Then he called to the nearest marshal. “We’re going to need backup to secure the market. He could have escaped over there and blended in with the crowd.”

  “Who?” Nelson turned toward the voice and found himself nose-to-nose with a PeopleCam news crew. The camera operator turned on the unit’s floodlight, and Nelson squinted and shielded his eyes against the glare.

  The reporter signaled the camera operator to get some shots of the crowd and drew Nelson a few steps closer to the building.

  “You said the bomber escaped into the market? Have you initiated a manhunt?”

  “No, it’s not clear what happened yet. We haven’t begun to follow up on leads.”

  The reporter headed toward the demolished building, but Nelson grabbed him by the sleeve. “Stay out of there. You’ll contaminate the crime scene.” The reporter shook him off and stalked over to the crowd at the barricade.

  9:40 PM

  Eduardo Rodriguez worked his way toward the front of the crowd. Just minutes before, he’d heard a loud boom, and his apartment had trembled so violently that he’d run outside, thinking it might be an earthquake. He’d spotted the cloud of smoke in the sky and hurried toward it, wondering what new catastrophe had befallen his once-quiet home quadrant, and arrived at the smoldering ruin of the university’s student center in time to watch an ambulance pull away from the scene.

  He caught most of what the security guard said. He was no fan of the QM, but he felt sorry for the marshal who was simultaneously trying to question the guard, keep the crowd under control, and rein in an overeager PeopleCam reporter. The camera operator turned the lens his way, and Eduardo moved behind the guy next to him.

  The reporter pressed the marshal. “Could the explosion be related to the fact that people are right across the street selling food without government licenses?”

  A curly haired young man standing near Eduardo had scrawled the symbol CXD on his sweatshirt with a Sharpie; he snorted and then raised his voice, as though hoping to rile up the crowd. “The OCSD’s not above blowing up a building to scare us away from the market … or better yet, distract us from how badly they handled the food shortage. They don’t seem to care that we have to trade our stuff so we can eat. The meals people paid for have
n’t been delivered because Essential Services can’t get their heads out of their—”

  The reporter held out his microphone, and someone else in the crowd shouted, “Maybe it was the Resistance that blew up the student center!” Eduardo’s pulse quickened, and he scanned the crowd for familiar faces.

  The marshal motioned to the camera operator with a finger across his throat, but instead he zoomed in on the young man in the sweatshirt, who spoke louder, defying anyone to silence him. “No chance! Careen’s latest message said to avoid doing anything violent or destructive. I’m betting it was the QM trying to make sure we know our place. They and the higher-ups in the OCSD have plenty of food while we wait for deliveries that never come. The people who died at OP-441 last week were just trying to get something to eat. You can’t make problems go away by turning off a video camera. You can’t ignore the truth!”

  He raised his right fist in the air. “Enough for us!”

  The crowd picked up the chant. “Enough for us! Enough for us!” The marshals inside the barricade closed ranks. One of the students at the front vaulted over the barrier into the open space, and within seconds, the wave of people surged forward and engulfed the marshals’ inferior numbers. Eduardo, heart pounding, fought to stay on his feet and avoid being swept into the epicenter. Since he’d become involved with the Resistance about a month ago, he’d been in too many tight spots and brawling mobs. He was one of the lucky ones who’d escaped unharmed from that food riot in OP-441 the week before.

  Three patrol cars, sirens blaring, edged their way onto the scene, prompting most of the people at the rear of the crowd to head back to the market on the university green and escape the emerging marshals’ nightsticks.

  Eduardo took advantage of the momentum shift and braced himself against a battered car to let the crowd flow past. It was the same make and model as the one he’d loaned to a friend, but this one was dented and scratched on the side and rear panels, and the trunk was bashed in. He peered at the license plate. ¡Dios mio! Tommy told me he knew how to drive. Even as he shook his head over the damage, he smiled at the thought of seeing Tommy and Careen. After they’d busted through the quadrant marshals’ roadblock and escaped the capital together, he’d lent them his car so they could continue on their search for Tommy’s parents. He threaded his way against the thinning crowd and headed for Tommy’s house, hoping to meet them on the way.

  Fifteen minutes later, he glanced around for signs of trouble as he approached the Baileys’ white clapboard house. A dim light burned on the ground floor, and the television screen flickered behind the drawn blinds. He crossed the unlit front porch and tapped softly on the door.

  There was no response. He tried again.

  “What do you want?”

  He took a step back at the harsh greeting. “Tommy? It’s Eduardo. Let me in.”

  “Eduardo?” The door swung open, and Tommy Bailey stood silhouetted in the light from the living room, clutching a baseball bat. Eduardo stepped over the threshold, and Tommy locked the door behind him. “How did you know we were here?”

  “Saw my car parked in front of the student center. What’s left of it, that is. Looks like you used it in a demolition derby. It’s inside the marshal’s crime scene tape, so I figured you must’ve walked home.”

  Kevin McGraw was there, too. Eduardo hadn’t seen him since they’d infiltrated the OCSD together. Kevin had been a nervous wreck that day, and so had he. Now, Kevin looked tougher, and not just because he was smeared with mud and blood.

  “You need someone to take a look at those cuts. Both of you. Is Carina with you?” He glanced around expectantly, but Tommy dropped the bat on the sofa, shook his head, and disappeared upstairs.

  “¿Qué pasó?”

  “Careen and Wes were in that building when it blew. We couldn’t get close enough to get a look when the EMTs brought them out.”

  Eduardo whistled. “Another one of Carraway’s plans?”

  “Yeah. PeopleCam reported a quadrant marshal was killed in the blast. We’re pretty sure it was him.”

  “¡Dios mio! What can I do to help?”

  Kevin pointed toward the stairs. “Could you?”


  A door at the end of the upstairs hall stood ajar, and Eduardo stuck his head into the room. Tommy sat slump-shouldered on the edge of the rumpled, unmade bed. “Come on, let’s get you bandaged up. Then we need to get out of here.” Tommy followed him into the bathroom. Eduardo rummaged in the medicine cabinet and wet a washcloth at the sink. “Look, there’s one thing I learned since all this started: you have to try and do what you think is right. Sometimes it’s gonna work out; sometimes it won’t.”

  Tommy winced as Eduardo dabbed at the worst cut on his cheek. Eduardo continued, “It was my idea to let those people into the hub at OP-441. I pushed Carraway and the hub director to do the right thing, and I’m partly responsible. I have those people’s blood on my hands.”

  Tommy’s chin trembled, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Eduardo finished applying a gauze bandage and closed the medicine cabinet.

  “But it’s not my fault; do you understand? It’s not my fault any more than what happened tonight is yours. People will get hurt and people will die whether you and I try to do the right thing or not. I’m going to keep trying. So should you. Come on, let’s go.”

  Eduardo hurried downstairs to where Kevin waited in the Baileys’ darkened front hall, Tommy trailing behind. There was no need to whisper, but Eduardo kept his voice low. “Anything else on the news?”

  Kevin shook his head. “Nothing about the explosion, but People-Cam’s showing video of protests all over the country.”

  “What’re they protesting about?”

  “Actually, they called them nonviolent gatherings to raise awareness and help bring an end to the food shortages.”

  “I bet the nonviolent thing won’t last when the QM shows up to disperse the crowds. Hey, speaking of crowds, did you see all the CXD graffiti and stuff? People got it written on their hands and shirts. Know what it means?”

  “No idea.” Kevin looked over at the comfortable sofa in the living room. “We could stay here tonight and make a fresh start in the morning.”

  “No, we should get outta here. I don’t know how long it’ll take the QM to get the whole story out of that security guard. He was kinda loopy, you know? I didn’t realize it at the time, because I didn’t know you were here, but he described Tommy to that marshal. If they get Tommy’s prints off the gun, they’ll come here looking for him.”

  “Yeah. Guess we’d better move.” He extended his hand. “Take it easy.”

  “You, too, amigo.” Eduardo clasped his hand, picked up the keys to the truck, and steered Tommy out the door ahead of him. They and Kevin went their separate ways into the night.

  Chapter 2

  10:00 PM

  Quadrant DC-001

  “Madam Director?”

  Madalyn Davies looked up from the file on her desk and glared at her assistant. What was her name again? Oh, right. Mousy Nicole. The woman clutched the doorframe and cowered, half out of sight, as she delivered the news.

  “There’s been an explosion at the university in OP-439.”

  Madalyn’s livid expression made the timid woman shrink further away. Dammit. That was one of the few quadrants where nothing bad ever happened. Until recently. “Well?”

  “The details are still sketchy, Madam Director. Besides the explosion, umm, there are also riots and protests.”

  “In OP-439?”

  “All over the country.”

  “Turn on my television.”

  Nicole let go of the doorframe and crossed the room to click the television remote that lay on the desk, less than an arm’s reach away from her boss. The television powered up, and Madalyn watched her assistant’s eyes grow wide. Nicole dropped the remote and scurried out before Madalyn could spin around in her chair.

  A photo of Madalyn, photoshopped into a Marie-Antoinette
-style costume, bore the caption “Let Them Eat Cake.”

  How had she become the most hated woman in the country?

  Six weeks ago, she’d been perfectly happy with her position as the assistant director of the Office of Civilian Safety and Defense.

  The OCSD was the most important government agency in the United States, created to oversee all aspects of the nation’s domestic security. Since its inception in 2019, the OCSD had implemented Civilian Restrictions to protect people from dangerous situations. Though limiting access to cars and social media might seem extreme, Restrictions were necessary to curtail the ever-present threat of terrorism.

  In 2024, the Restriction that created the Essential Services Department and banned the sale and distribution of food items by anyone else went into effect. For a time, it faced strong public opposition. But the food supply was vulnerable to attack. People who were afraid to shop for their own food organized, started a petition drive in support of the Restriction, and soon drowned out the dissenters. It was all for the best, and people soon grew accustomed to having food delivered to their doors once a week.

  The Essential Services system had worked without a hitch for ten years, unless you counted the skyrocketing costs.

  The Marie Antoinette meme wasn’t fair. How could she have predicted the events that led to the nationwide food shortage?

  The problems with CSD were completely unrelated. And now they were inexorably snarled. No one would remember anything good about these security programs.

  Six weeks ago, the OCSD had mandated that everyone take the Counteractive System of Defense antidote daily to protect against a chemical weapons threat. The people, used to a never-ending stream of danger, had complied.

  There was no chemical weapons threat. But that was a secret only a few people in the top echelons of the OCSD knew.

  The antidote’s hallucinogenic side effects helped people cope with the stress. Of course, some people—higher-ups in government and those with jobs considered essential—received a placebo formula that allowed them to keep delivering the mail, packaging and delivering food, and manufacturing more of the antidote.

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