Ignite, p.10

Ignite, page 10

 

Ignite
 


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  “Well, keep looking. How long before the Link is ready to go?”

  “It’s ready now.”

  “Well, for Pete’s sake, you’re gonna need to stall! It’s too soon for Madalyn to find out it’s a dud.”

  “Oh, it’s not a dud. The Cerberean Link works. It really works. I’m beyond brilliant, if you want to know the truth.”

  “What the hell, Atari! It wasn’t supposed to work!”

  “How am I supposed to cultivate my reputation as one of the world’s greatest criminal masterminds if my gadgets don’t work? I have to consider my future. I might want contracts with other desperate, inept world leaders after we topple the OCSD.”

  Mitch disconnected the call and fumed as he shoved the shelf in front of his office door. Atari had agreed to the plan. This was no time to change things. He stomped back into the diner, where the smell of bleach was overpowering. He was going to have to mop the floor again before he called the QM back out. He turned on the television and went into the back for a fresh bucket of soapy water.

  Splat. He worked the mop across the floor. The water in the bucket grew cloudy the first time he dunked the mop. He wrung it out, and as he looked up, he swore at the sight of Careen’s picture on the television screen. He dropped the mop and turned up the volume.

  “We come to you live with breaking news. The suspect being held in connection with the university bombing is none other than Resistance leader Careen Catecher.”

  “She’s certainly racking up the criminal charges, isn’t she?”

  “I should say so. But reports from the OCSD confirm that she has agreed to turn state’s evidence against members of the Resistance in exchange for immunity from her own crimes.”

  Chapter 24

  8:50 PM

  En route to Quadrant DC-005

  “Hey, you all right?” Danni had turned up the heat in the truck, but Tommy was still shivering. “Reach behind you. There’s a blanket on the floor.” She pulled off her black knit cap. “Put this on. And get the bottle out of the glove box.”

  Tommy dragged the wool blanket over his lap and put on the hat but hesitated before opening the glove box. “What kind of bottle?”

  “Relax. It’s not CSD this time. It’s whiskey. Just do it.”

  He obeyed and raised the bottle to his lips. The first swallow burned on the way down. He took another, then a third.

  She glanced sideways. “That’s enough for now.”

  He capped the bottle. Her cultivated air of boredom was gone, and she spoke in a way that was as close to gentle as he figured she’d ever get. “Wanna talk about it?”

  “Not really. My dad insisted we should evacuate to the bunker. Mitch wouldn’t come with us. When we were about halfway there, Dad decided to go back and turn himself in, because it was the best way to protect the rest of us. I didn’t think he should go without backup, so I followed him. The QM took him away, and I was going to follow in the truck, but one of them—the one who was there when you came in—must’ve been suspicious and doubled back.”

  “Why did you kill him?”

  Did she have to put it that way? “I just told you.”

  “No. Say it. Tell me why you shot him.”

  “He was going to turn us all in—including the marshals who are Mitch’s friends. He was going to hunt down my mom, Trina, everyone. I couldn’t let him do that. When you came in, you startled him. He might’ve shot you.”

  She nodded. “Shooting people is never the recommended first course of action. But it happens on occasion. You protected everyone.”

  “Maybe I could’ve—”

  “No. Try not to dwell on it or wonder what-if. It’ll make you crazy.”

  Tommy took another drink.

  “Why are you in the Resistance?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “You’d better know. And you’d better have a damn good reason or you don’t belong with us. This isn’t a game.”

  He considered it for a moment before he spoke. “Last July, the OCSD’s thugs ran our car off the road. When I woke up in the hospital, the doctors told me my parents were dead. But it was a lie—they’d been kidnapped to keep my dad from going public with the fact that the OCSD was staging terror attacks so they could justify passing more Restrictions.

  “When Wes told me the Resistance had found my parents and they were still alive, I went along on the rescue, but I had no idea what I was getting into. I just wanted my parents back. Then, a few hours later, Careen was accused of Stratford’s murder, and it became about protecting her, too.”

  “What about Wes’s brilliant plan to blow up the university?”

  “That plan was simple enough. I was supposed to flush out the security guard and then pull the fire alarm to signal Wes, but somehow the alarm went off before I was ready. I guess Wes thought that was the all-clear and lit the fuse. I barely got out before the place blew up, and I never saw him again. Now I need to get Careen and my dad back safely.”

  Danni chuckled. “Your reasons never involve more than two or three people.”

  “So? Does that mean I should forget about helping them?”

  “You wouldn’t be in this mess at all if it weren’t for them.”

  His anger flared. “No, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for you. I only went along with Wes’s plan because …” He stopped and turned his face to the window.

  “That’s a valuable and costly lesson.”

  He was starting to wish she’d just shut up. “What?”

  “I said you learned a valuable and costly lesson. Not the lesson I was planning to teach you, but oh well.” She grinned, flirting for a minute, but it didn’t make him feel any better. “Your loss. Maybe next time you’ll think twice before you do something dangerous and stupid to keep your girlfriend from finding out you cheated on her with me.”

  “Nothing against you, Danni, but I don’t plan to cheat on Careen with anyone.”

  She turned to him, and again he caught a glimpse behind her carefully built facade. “This isn’t a game to me. I was raised to do this job. I make sure people have food and other necessities. It’s dangerous, but I’m not afraid. I can handle it. I’m realistic about what I can change and what I can’t. I don’t know why you’d risk your neck to rescue your dad or Careen. Your dad’s going to do what he wants, regardless, and as for Careen, she was pretty easy to manipulate. You can’t trust her. She’s not worth it.”

  “Who manipulated her?”

  “Mitch. Duh. He was using her and her videos as a diversion, a decoy. He was glad when she attracted so much attention because it threw Madalyn Davies off the trail of what he’s really up to. I bet it’ll be easy for the OCSD to make Careen do or say whatever they want.”

  “If Careen’s cooperating with them, it’s to try and save herself.”

  “Exactly. Someone who can’t stick to their convictions isn’t someone worth saving.”

  Tommy took another swig from the bottle. “I wish I could make sure my dad doesn’t end up a prisoner at the OCSD again. And I don’t care what any of you say about Careen. I want to help her. Hell, I love her. I also want to help change things so the OCSD doesn’t have so much power over everyone. But I don’t know how I’m going to do any of it.” He tipped the bottle up and took one more gulp. “And I can’t believe I just told you I love her. I want to tell her that I love her—not you.”

  Danni took the bottle and stowed it under her seat. “Yeah. How about you get some sleep, okay? You can start on your list when you get to the capital.”

  10:30 PM

  Quadrant BG-098

  “Oh Lord, Mitch! What happened?” Paul McComas scratched his head and gave Mitch a sidelong glance.

  “Your guess is as good as mine. I just found him in here.” Mitch nudged the frosty corpse with his boot. They leaned in closer.

  “Looks like someone shot him.”

  “Yep. Sure does.”

  “They wrapped him in plastic. Who d
o you think did it?”

  “Couldn’t tell ya.”

  “Mitch, even though you called this in, I gotta take you down to the station. Check for powder residue. Prove it wasn’t you. You understand.”

  “Yeah. I get it.”

  “Where’s the rest of his squad?”

  “They’re taking Tom Bailey to the capital. Apparently this guy decided to double back for something.”

  “And you’ve got no idea—”

  “Nope. You know we never lock our doors around here. I was out in the barn. Didn’t hear a thing.”

  “Where’s Jaycee? She hear anything?”

  “Nah. She was with me. I sent her over to the boardinghouse. She doesn’t need to see this. She’s pretty upset as it is. I’ll just leave her a note.” He scribbled something on the back of an order ticket.

  Chapter 25

  10:55 PM

  Quadrant MV-287

  Tommy jerked back to consciousness and looked around. He must’ve fallen asleep. They’d stopped at a gas station. There were no other buildings in sight.

  “Where are we?”

  “Somewhere in the MV quadrants. We’re still hours away. “

  “In that case, I’ll be back in a minute.”

  He stumbled on his way out of the truck and staggered sideways, ricocheting off the gas pump before he righted himself. So this is what too much whiskey on an empty stomach feels like. It was different from CSD but no better. The cold air helped clear his head, and he walked a fairly straight line around the side of the cinderblock gas station. The restroom door was locked, so he relieved himself against the rear of the building, and even though it was childish, he smiled as the steam rose. He was nearly done when he heard the truck’s engine roar. Danni pulled around the back of the building and slammed on the brakes in a swirl of gravel. He zipped up in a hurry. Danni jumped out, and he joined her at the corner of the building to peer over her shoulder.

  She whispered, “Hear that?”

  He held his breath, and as he listened the rumble of approaching vehicles grew louder.

  “I saw an awful lot of headlights.”

  The cold air, so bracing at first, was creeping in through his layers of clothes. He shoved his hands in his sweatshirt pocket and hunched his shoulders.

  Oversized armored vehicles lumbered into sight and streamed past the gas station. Danni pushed him farther behind her and hovered in the shadows at the corner of the building, keeping watch with one eye.

  “It’s a QM convoy. Armored vehicles mean riot patrol. They must be bringing them in as reinforcements for some local post.”

  Tommy’s heart thudded in his guts and his chest. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the cinderblock wall, listening to them rumble by. As the minutes passed, the monotonous droning lulled him into a more relaxed state; that is, until Danni gasped and grabbed his arm. His heart jump-started and began to pound again.

  “Some of them are turning in here.” She flattened herself against the wall beside him.

  Doors slammed. Voices rose. Footsteps crunched in the gravel. Someone lifted the nozzle off the gas pump.

  Three or four sets of footsteps grew closer. Danni’s grip on his arm tightened. There was no place else to hide. She turned her head toward the approaching footsteps and Tommy couldn’t help it—he looked, too.

  But the footsteps stopped, and a few seconds later he heard the metal-on-metal of utility belts being unbuckled and then the familiar splash against the side of the building. One of the men mumbled something he couldn’t make out, and the others laughed.

  “So then I said, ’If you have nothing to hide, you’ve got no reason to clam up.’ He started talking, but he wouldn’t shut up about probable cause and his rights as a citizen and a bunch of other shit.” There was another burst of raucous laughter.

  “Hope you set him straight.”

  “Yeah, you gotta nip that in the bud.”

  “He’s probably still yelling about his rights, but where he’s going, no one’s listening.”

  “Can’t wait to put down those rebels up in OP-439. They’re infecting the rest of the country.”

  “All in a day’s work, right?”

  Tommy and Danni both exhaled slowly as they listened to the men’s footsteps grow fainter.

  He strained to hear, imagining the scene as the marshals got back in the vehicles. Engines roared to life with menacing growls. Danni held up a hand in warning, and they waited until the sounds had faded away before she crept around the side of the building.

  When she returned, she motioned for him to get in the truck. When she turned the key in the ignition, he worried the convoy of marshals would hear them a quarter mile away. He was glad they were going in the opposite direction. They traveled several miles into the mountains before he spoke. Even then, his voice sounded too loud.

  “Do you think they were serious about going to OP-439?” At this rate, there was bound to be nothing left of his home quadrant.

  Danni nodded. “For a bunch of spoiled rich kids, they’re pretty well organized. They’ve tapped into the former black market network to help get food to people who need it. They basically launched the CXD network, and that Restriction-Free Zone thing was inspired. They only thing wrong with them is they’re so pro-Careen. They’re devoted to her because she did, like, a month or two of classes at the university. Woo-hoo. Big deal. She’s not even from there.”

  “I think it makes sense that they’re ticked and reacting—with or without Careen in the equation. OP had the worst food riot of all in 441, and then there was the university bombing in 439, practically next door, a week later.”

  “Yeah, maybe.”

  “The Resistance is responsible for that. We pushed those people to riot.”

  Danni shrugged. “There’s unrest everywhere. But you won’t have to worry about that for long.”

  “You never said exactly where we’re going.”

  She grinned but didn’t take her eyes off the road. “I could tell you, but then I’d have to—”

  “Seriously? Fine. Never mind. Want me to drive for a while?”

  “No. I got it.”

  Chapter 26

  11:45 PM

  Quadrant BG-098

  “Where’s Tommy? Why hasn’t he come back?” Jaycee paced the bunker’s main room. “How long have we been in here, anyway?”

  Trina shrugged. “It’s late. Maybe they decided to wait till morning to come back for us.”

  Jaycee doubted Tommy would stay at the diner with her dad unless he had no alternative. More likely, he’d cut her out of her own plan and gone to the capital alone. She had to get out of there and find out. “What if something happened? They could be hurt with no one to help them. I don’t care what time it is. I’m going back.”

  A babble of protest arose, but she shushed it. “I’m the only one who can go without attracting attention. I live here. I’ll come back for you when it’s safe.”

  Lara looked like she wanted to forbid it, but instead she pulled Jaycee into a hug and then walked her to the door. “If the marshals are still there, you turn around, but don’t come back here unless you can do it without being followed. Promise?”

  Jaycee nodded and slipped out into the night.

  Snow flurries swirled around her, and she blew out her breath in frozen puffs. The air smelled fresh, especially after being cooped up in the underground bunker. She held her rifle in the crook of her arm as she climbed uphill through the underbrush. She wasn’t afraid. She knew how to take care of herself. It was change that frightened her; what frightened her most was that she longed for it so much.

  Just before she reached the top of the ridge, she heard the crunch of footsteps in the fallen leaves and stopped, alert and wary. She parted two pine branches, and a startled doe broke into a gallop. She breathed a sigh of relief and watched until it was out of sight.

  The trail was mostly downhill this time, and she moved faster alone. By the time she reached the flat ro
ck near the boathouse, she no longer noticed the cold, and she’d unzipped her jacket long before she emerged from the woods behind the barn. She slipped in the diner’s back door and wrinkled her nose at the unexpected smell of bleach. There was a note on the counter, weighed down with a set of keys.

  Jaycee—I went down to the station with Paul. One of the marshals got shot, and they need my help with the investigation. Be back as soon as I can. Dad

  Wait—what? He never goes to town. Never. There was no sign of Tommy or Mr. Bailey, and of course her dad hadn’t mentioned them in the note. She dashed upstairs and cried out in dismay. Her clothes, stuffed animals, and books had been dumped on the floor, the quilts and sheets pulled off the beds. The other two bedrooms looked much the same.

  She dashed over to the boardinghouse, where every room in the place had been ransacked. It was going to take forever to straighten up the mess, but it could wait.

  She ran back to the diner and snatched the keys off the counter. She didn’t need anyone’s help to put her plan into action; she’d been driving since she could reach the pedals. Soon she was guiding the truck down the mountain road. All she had to do was find her way to the capital, locate the OCSD building, gain access, and rescue Careen.

  After a few moments’ reflection, her enthusiasm for her sketchy plan began to fizzle. The truck’s gas tank was half empty. She hadn’t thought to fill the tank with the ethanol Mitch kept stored in the barn, and she lacked a debit card to buy more. She was out way after curfew without a travel pass. And she didn’t even know for sure that Careen was at the OCSD.

  When she came off the mountain, she paused at the crossroads. Turn right, and she’d soon be on the highway; instead, she sighed and turned the wheel to the left.

  The redbrick quadrant marshal station was the only building with its lights on in the deserted town square. She parked on the street and headed up the wide concrete stairs.

  She’d never been inside the station before, and, with a vague sense that she shouldn’t be there, she tiptoed down the checkered marble hall, wondering where to find her father.

 
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