Ignite, p.15

Ignite, page 15



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  The guard jerked her around a corner and through a doorway. The floor was smooth here. Not tile. Cement.

  The guard removed the hood and retreated, leaving her in the spotlight. She crossed her arms over her chest and clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. Her hair, hanging in wet strands around her face, only emphasized her trembling. She recognized the voice that came from behind her, outside the circle of light. Madalyn.

  “You’ve lied to us again. The members of the Resistance were not at the diner in BG-098.”

  She felt a surge of energy and bit her lip, silently giving thanks that she’d been strong enough to give them time to escape.

  “The QM is proceeding with the planned house-to-house search. When the fugitives are found, we’ll make sure their accommodations and treatment are nowhere near as nice as yours.” There was a long pause. “You look like a drowned rat. Take off those wet things.”

  “What? No.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. She bowed her head and her cheeks flushed hot, despite the cold and the bone-chilling fear.

  “This is an important lesson for you, Careen. Do as you’re told.”

  She pressed her lips together and closed her eyes.

  Madalyn’s voice was harsh. “Your lies are wasting time and resources, and that will not be tolerated. Next time, maybe you’ll think before you lie to me. Now do as you’re told.”

  She gulped and kept her eyes shut tight. Her fingers shook as she felt for the buttons on her pajama top.

  Chapter 37

  4:30 PM

  Quadrant BG-098

  The meeting of the remaining members of the Resistance had gone smoothly. Mitch liked it better without Tom’s tacit disapproval and Tommy’s glowering presence. Plus, he’d saved the best item on the agenda for last. “Madalyn’s prepared to sell me the CSD formulas.” He took a flourishing bow and was disappointed when no one applauded. “You guys know already?”

  “Trina mentioned it.” Grace raised an eyebrow. “Why did Madalyn decide to do that? Does she know who you are?”

  “My contact reported that she’s checked out the fake me, and she knows who she thinks I am. I suspect she’s anxious to complete the transaction and collect the money I promised her.”

  “She’s not content with her director’s salary?” Lara shook her head. “All these scandals would hurt her credibility if anyone was paying attention. She has no qualms about committing treason against her own country.”

  Mitch nodded. “We’ve got her right where we want her. Victor Martel is on the verge of pushing the Essential Services system off the proverbial cliff, and Atari is deep undercover at the OCSD, engineering and preparing for the launch of that new security device thing. It’s based on an idea Stratford had years ago. Atari says the technology is kind of out-of-date, but Madalyn’s in love with the idea, so Atari’s telling her it’s a state-of-the-art solution to individual security.

  “She’s set to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on this program, and Atari’s been directed to make sure it doesn’t work. Two huge, expensive failures right on the heels of the CSD debacle should generate enough public outcry from our newly awakened populace to convince the three legitimate branches of government to correct the OCSD’s overreach.”

  Eduardo spoke up. “When I met with the president, he insisted that Madalyn was doing a good job and had everything under control. Might be hard to convince him to act if he really believes what he said.”

  “Oh, we’ll convince him. It’s time to put together the next part of my plan.” Mitch was ready to rally the troops. “David, Grace, we need a step-by-step on how to disband the OCSD without completely undermining national security and leaving us vulnerable to real terrorists. Can you put together a practical and doable blueprint for how to proceed? Keep it simple. The stuff in your textbooks is too academic. We need easily digestible bits of information—something even politicians can get their heads around and repeat without botching it too much.”

  5:19 PM

  Quadrant DC-001

  “So you’re telling me Essential Services has bottomed out again?”

  Victor Martel watched Madalyn finger-comb her hair and press her fingers to the bags under her eyes, pleased to see the constant strain was wearing her down.

  “Yes, Madam Director, because you insisted we not deliver any food until we can meet the federal nutrition standards for ES meals. We can provide incomplete meals to most of the population, or we can provide approved meals to about a third of the population.”

  “Then people will just have to wait a little longer.”

  Martel was ready to stop his deferential treatment of Madalyn and move on to the next phase of the Resistance’s plan to rebuild the country’s private food distribution networks. “Don’t you think starving people would be grateful for any food—even if you can’t give them balanced meals yet? You’re foolish to insist on following some arbitrary rule.”

  “People aren’t starving.”

  “And it’s a good thing! Lifting the Restriction on nongovernment food vendors may seem chaotic but it’s working.”

  “So what’s your recommendation?”

  “Let private vendors sell food. Give people the option to receive fewer meals through ES. I would go so far as to allow people to cancel their ES service entirely if they wish. We definitely need to offer people the option to keep the money that’s deducted from their monthly pay rather than subscribe to ES.”

  “What? No! We can’t do that. The program’s running at a huge deficit as it is. We need all that money coming in.”

  “It will cost less if ES serves fewer people. It’s possible that some people will want to continue receiving all their meals through Essential Services. From now on, we’re going to let them decide. I’m scheduled to make the announcement on the six o’clock news. ”

  “That’s unacceptable! If we let people drop out of the ES system, how will we monitor what they’re getting to eat? How will we protect them? Ensure their safety?”

  Martel stared at her. “Are you listening to yourself? Do you honestly believe what you’re saying?”

  “Yes.” She sank into her chair. Then she rallied, pointing her finger at him as she spoke. “If you announce that full participation is no longer mandatory, your tenure is over. Over! Do you understand?”

  “I understand. It will be my pleasure to let my television appearance serve as my resignation.”

  Martel was smiling as he left her office.

  6:51 PM

  Quadrant DC-005

  Tommy watched the surveillance camera footage while he waited for Atari to come back, but as time passed, his return seemed less and less likely. He wandered out into the foyer. The vintage video games, with their hulking cabinets and simple graphics, appealed to him more than whatever Atari had been playing the day before. He tried one until he got the hang of it and then moved on to another, and played until dinnertime. Even though he was confined to the safe house, he couldn’t help feeling his time could be better spent. When Atari ambled through on his way back to Command Central, Tommy hurried after him.

  “Danni still sleeping?”

  “No, she’s gone.”

  “Gone? She didn’t say good-bye.”

  “Man, she never does.”

  So much awkward. “Back in BG-098, I had a bunch of books I was going to read, but I had to leave them behind. Thought you might have some of the same ones here.”

  “Books? With words? Really?”

  Jerk. “Yeah. Until just recently, reading and studying was more Careen’s thing. But now that I’ve been in the Resistance for a while, I want the big picture.”

  For once, Atari didn’t make a snarky comment. He pecked at the keyboard, and soon a black-and-white video came up on one of the screens. “Then how about we start with a history lesson. Back in the 1950s, they showed stuff like this to school kids.”

  The opening cartoon featured a turtle in an air-raid helmet. The narrator’s voice sent a c
hill up Tommy’s spine.

  “We all know the atomic bomb is dangerous, and as it may be used against us, we must get ready for it, just as we are ready for many other dangers that are around us all the time. ”

  Atari cringed, wiggling his fingers. “Ooh! I’m so scared. No, I’m not. I’ve seen this one before.”

  On the screen, a classroom full of elementary school children listened, eagerly attentive, as their teacher warned about the impending threat of a nuclear strike.

  “First, you have to know what happens when an atomic bomb explodes. When it comes—and we hope it never comes, but we must get ready—it looks something like this …”

  Tommy flinched at the bright flash of light on the screen.

  “… duck and cover beneath a table or desk.” The children scrambled beneath their school desks.

  “Can you hide from a nuke under a desk?”

  “What do you think?” They watched in silence for a time.

  The narrator’s voice was surprisingly upbeat, considering he was telling little kids they could survive a nuclear attack by covering themselves with newspaper or huddling in a doorway. Was this supposed to be comforting? Empowering? It was having the opposite effect on Tommy, who marveled at the futility of the instructions. “The man helping Tony is a Civil Defense Worker. His job is to help us when there is danger of the atomic bomb. We must obey the Civil Defense Worker …”

  Tommy pointed at the screen, and Atari paused the video. “That’s what they told us—that we needed to take CSD for our protection. They wanted us to obey without thinking too much about it. Has it always been this way?”

  “What do you think?”

  “We didn’t need to take CSD. So how can we believe anything the OCSD tells us?”

  Atari shook his head. “Don’t think in absolutes. Domestic security is a real concern. It’s not a joke.”

  “Neither is lying to everyone about a fake terrorist threat.”

  “Consider the lengths to which people like Stratford and Madalyn will go to gain control. Because when you understand that it’s all about control, you can see that, yes, it’s nothing new.” Atari shut off the video. “You can download and watch anything in our film database on any computer in the building. Start with the ones labeled Propaganda and Dystopia. They’re banned from the government-run networks, so you probably haven’t seen them. You should also check out the library one level up. We have lots of print books.

  “If you’re serious about your education, try to absorb a little of everything—history, politics, economics, sociology, even music, film, and pop culture. The stuff about the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 80s is pretty interesting.”

  Tommy took the stairs up one level to the library, which occupied the entire floor and was the largest collections of print books he’d ever seen. He pulled a few off the shelves—some he recognized from his dad’s home office, others from the stack Careen had been keeping in her room. He wandered over to a computer terminal and pulled up the film database. There were dozens of unfamiliar titles. This would definitely keep him busy. He hoped he wasn’t stuck here long enough to view them all.

  He headed back downstairs with a stack of books and set them on the desk in Command Central. “Atari, why did you get involved in the Resistance?”

  “I wanted to do something to change the world. The real world, I mean. I’d conquered the virtual world when I was younger than you. But when I joined the Resistance, it was like the moment of my real birth—the moment I found my passion.

  “You remember when they shut down our access to the Internet in 2028, right?”

  “Yeah. Sort of. I was like, twelve years old. I wasn’t allowed much screen time when I was a kid, so it really didn’t affect me. We needed PeopleNet for our school research, but I didn’t use it for anything else.”

  “Exactly. Of course, the plan was to keep terrorists from learning anything about us online, so they assembled a team of experts to block the flow of information and create a kind of virtual shield, or dome, over our country that would keep us insulated. Or isolated, if you prefer. But PeopleNet’s startling lack of information keeps any terrorists who may be on American soil from learning much, either.

  “Once the work was done and access to the global information network was cut off, some of the great minds on the team reconsidered what they’d done. They tried to get the OCSD to rescind the Restriction. Most of them aren’t with us anymore.”

  “Seriously? You mean they were killed?”

  “Most were forcibly expatriated—you know, kicked out of the country. But yes, some of them were permanently silenced. Stratford loved the Shield. Thought it was one of the greatest things ever. Until he came up with his plan for Phase Four, that is.”

  “That’s the new, innovative security system that’s so wonderful they won’t tell us what it does?”

  “Yeah.” Atari snorted. “Although it’s not new or innovative; in fact, it’s a blatant recycle, but with a twist. It’s really intent that makes it different—and much more worrisome.”

  It bugged Tommy how much Atari reminded him of Mitch when he said stuff like that.

  “Madalyn’s claiming the Link is the cure for all the world’s ills, but it’s nothing new. Our cellphones have had GPS trackers in them since the early 2000s. We’re tracked everywhere we go, spied on every time we send an email on PeopleNet. But you can turn off a phone, or leave it at home, or lose it, right?”

  “I accidentally left my phone in a marshal’s van. Haven’t seen it in six weeks. Never got a new one.”

  “Exactly my point. The Link’s wonderful innovation is that it’s permanently affixed to our children. They can’t lose it, forget it, or take it off. Its battery runs off their body’s energy.”

  “And you invented it?”

  “I can’t take credit for conceiving it. Stratford forwarded me a list of must-haves, and I merely made it a reality.”

  “But why did you build the Link when you know it’s going to be used for something bad?”

  “Because to deploy a system as large as the Link, I’d get to pierce the Shield and open up the flow of information again. But that’s top secret. Only Stratford knew that, and I’d bet the farm he never mentioned it to Madalyn.

  “Mitch wants the Link to fail. I was supposed to deliver it, deploy it, and watch it crash and burn. Then I’d disappear forever rather than suffer Stratford’s wrath when it didn’t work. But a lot of things changed after Stratford died, and during the food riots, I realized the Link was even more useful as a screen play.” He nudged Tommy with his elbow. “See? I included a football reference for you. I’m trying to help you keep up. Anyhoo, if we can get the OCSD to concentrate on the Link, I can piggyback some other programs I want to get out there. Things we used to have. Things that can really help. But I’ve got to be careful not to let the OCSD realize what I’ve done until people start using the good stuff and no one wants to give it up.”

  “Can’t you do all that and still have the Link not work?”

  “That’s what Mitch keeps asking, but he doesn’t understand. If the Link doesn’t work, at least for a while, someone might notice the leak in the Shield and plug it up again.”

  He settled back in his chair, fingers still for the moment. “The unobstructed flow of information is the key to freedom.”

  Tommy sighed as he settled in and opened a book, glancing up at the surveillance camera monitor every few paragraphs, keeping an eye out for his dad. He’d been at it for a while when a familiar face on one of the monitors made him forget everything he’d just read. He stood up, pointing. “What’s he doing there?”

  “He who?”

  “Art. Art Severson. I mean, I didn’t think he was going to be stuck out at the lake house forever, but how did he end up at the OCSD?”

  Chapter 38

  6:20 PM

  Quadrant DC-001

  Victor Martel had carried out his threat and dealt the Essential Services department a crip
pling blow. Madalyn turned off the television and beat the remote against her desk to vent her anger. Apparently we’re just going to turn everyone loose to manage his or her nutritional needs without help. Will anyone prefer to stay with the program, or will they opt out because of one hitch in the system? If I’ve lost the Essential Services battle, I must make sure the Link is a success.

  She swore and threw the remote across the room. Connecting individuals to their Essential Services accounts had been one of the greatest benefits of the Link. Now that Martel had given everyone permission to drop out of food delivery, Essential Services would have to herd them all back in again once they were Linked.

  Well, she could play Martel’s game. She’d order the public relations campaign for the Link to commence right away. She sent Kevin a message, and less than a minute later, he hurried through her door.

  “What’s up?”

  “Come on. We’re going over to PeopleCam. Now.”

  6:35 PM

  Kevin waited while Madalyn unlocked a control room at People-Cam studios and then followed her inside. On the other side of the glass, Careen stood in the spotlight on an empty soundstage. He averted his eyes.

  Madalyn pressed a switch to open the microphone. “Get dressed.” Careen jumped, startled out of her stupor, and grabbed her shed pajama top.

  “What the … why is she—” He’d always suspected Madalyn was heartless, but it sickened him that she could torture and humiliate Careen, seemingly without a shred of remorse.

  “She’s a liar. I hope she’s learned her lesson and is ready to do as she’s told. We’re going to start recording videos for the Link tonight.”

  “You’re going to use her on camera? With that black eye? Don’t you think it would be better to wait until she’s completely healed?” She looked like someone had been using her as a punching bag.

  “I realize she’s an absolute mess. Makeup can hide some of it, but if she looks a little ragged in her first few appearances, it’s just proof that actions have consequences.” She looked at him sharply. “Don’t you dare feel sorry for that girl. You’re going to have to learn to be less squeamish if you’re going to do your job properly. She does not deserve to feel comfortable.”

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