Ignite, p.16

Ignite, page 16

 

Ignite
 


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  Madalyn activated the microphone and spoke as though giving orders to someone else, so Careen would assume she’d overheard by accident.

  “… begin again immediately. Have her taken—” She cut the microphone and punched a number on her phone.

  “Security? Take her back up to her room. Someone from hair and makeup will meet you there.”

  Kevin silently promised Careen he’d help her escape, no matter the cost, and with or without Mitch’s assistance. She wouldn’t be here, in this battered and broken state, if he’d been brave enough to follow her into the student center.

  6:35 PM

  Careen had been standing in the light for so long that she believed she was dead to any embarrassment; her earlier worry about how she’d ended up in those expensive pajamas in the first place had been silly and prudish. But the moment she was given permission, she covered herself with her arms and dropped to the floor, dressing as quickly as she could.

  Madalyn’s voice came over the speaker, then cut off abruptly, but Careen had heard enough. Oh, God, they’re going to question me again. She drew a sobbing breath and began to shake violently from the feel of the cold fabric against her skin and the surging adrenaline response. Neither flight nor fight was an option.

  The now-familiar guard appeared in the circle of light, expression unreadable. He slipped the hood over her head and took her by the arm. She could learn to believe her body no longer belonged to her and tell herself it didn’t matter what she ate, what she wore, or who shamed and humiliated her. Her heart was the only part of her that still protested. Stumbled. Rebelled.

  They came to a halt sooner than she expected. It had been the first time since her arrival here—wherever here was—that she hadn’t tried to figure out where she was being taken.

  The guard removed the hood, and she was surprised to find herself back in her own room. It was spotless. The bed was made, the lamp righted. She curled her toes in the thick carpet. A slight dampness was the only evidence that she hadn’t dreamed the whole fire alarm thing.

  The guard held the door open to admit a woman dressed in a plain black top and pants, her blonde hair pulled into a severe ponytail. She carried a large fishing tackle box into the suite. The guard pulled the door closed behind him.

  The woman set the box down on the table with a thump and moved closer, peering at Careen’s face, and she trembled at the thought of the interrogations starting all over again. The woman’s hand snapped out, quick as a snake striking, and caught her by the chin.

  She tossed her head and tried to turn away, but the woman held her in a tight grip. “What’s in the box?” The shaky whisper communicated Careen’s fear, and she regretted speaking at all.

  “Has no one been attending to the cut on your cheek? You’re going to have a scar.” She clicked her tongue regretfully. “I’ll do what I can, but I’m not a miracle worker.”

  She turned Careen loose and opened the tackle box. It was full of makeup. Careen let out an involuntary whimper of relief.

  “What color will you be wearing?”

  “For what? Who are you?”

  “There are only two and a half hours until your call. I’m Fawn. I’ll be doing your hair and makeup. No offense, but it’s a big job.

  It’ll take a while to cover up your bruises, and we have to get rid of those highlights, too. Get in the shower and I’ll choose an outfit.”

  Careen hesitated. Was this some kind of joke? “You’re serious?”

  “Of course. Now move it.”

  7:55 PM

  Fawn hurried Careen onto a soundstage with five minutes to spare, and a man wearing a headset told her to sit at a familiar-looking desk. The lights powered up and realization dawned. I’m at PeopleCam. I’ve been at PeopleCam all along. It’s like some crazy make-believe game. Except it’s not a game.

  There was no security guard in sight, and none of the stage crew treated her like a prisoner who might bolt at any second. She wished she could get up the nerve to try, but she was caught in the spotlight again. There was nowhere to run.

  She picked nervously at the cuff of her sweater. Orange was not a color she usually chose for herself. Fawn had insisted, saying it was stunning with her dark hair, which was now glossy and radiant after a quick color job, a deep condition, and Fawn’s skillful styling. But the sweater reminded Careen of the CSD antidote. She’d have preferred to wear pink.

  The floor manager called for quiet and then addressed Careen. “Ready?”

  “What am I supposed to say?”

  He pointed to a small screen beneath the camera lens. “Your script’s been loaded in here. Just read from the prompter, all right? Good. In three … two …” He pointed at her.

  “I’m Careen Catecher. I was responsible for the university bombing and … the death of quadrant marshal Wesley Carraway. Though I can’t undo what I’ve done, I feel compelled to atone for my mistakes, so I am offering my assistance to the OCSD.”

  Tears sprang up in her eyes. “I am no longer part of the Resistance or CXD. I urge you to avoid participating in unlawful activities of any kind, even acts of civil disobedience that seem as though they hurt no one. Lawbreakers will be punished. Even though I’m helping the OCSD, I am not guaranteed immunity.”

  She took a deep breath and plunged into the final lines. “I am a criminal, not a hero. I didn’t understand that the things I did on behalf of the Resistance would have such far-reaching consequences. I wish I had done nothing wrong. Then I’d have nothing to fear.”

  When the taping was over, the guard was there to escort her back to her room, but this time she was allowed to see where she was going. She breathed more easily now that she understood cooperation would buy her privileges.

  Once she was alone her room, she waited for over a minute, ear pressed to the door, before she tried the knob. It was locked, but she wasn’t disappointed. Not really. Freedom and trust had to be earned bit by bit.

  She had little interest in the dinner tray that waited on the table but forced down a few bites before she crawled into bed. She turned out the lamp on the nightstand and fell almost immediately into a deep and restorative sleep.

  Chapter 39

  7:59 PM

  Quadrant OP-439

  After Victor Martel’s surprise announcement that evening, people all over the country took to the streets to celebrate, and all available marshals were dispatched to keep the revelers from becoming too unruly. Henry Nelson had been assigned to the square in front of the old courthouse near the university campus. Rule breaking was no longer confined to those infernal Restriction-Free Zones. People set up food stalls right on the square. He’d heard on his walkie-talkie that a market was in full swing in front of the ES food distribution warehouse in OP-441. He couldn’t get over how brash the citizens had become.

  PeopleCam had announced a live address from Careen Catecher would be broadcast at eight p.m.. As the designated hour approached, a crowd gathered beneath the huge television screen mounted to the wall above the news ticker.

  At first Henry had kept his eyes on the crowd as they watched the video, on guard for any troublemakers. But then he started paying attention to what Careen was saying, and his anger flared.

  “Hang on. So all this time they’ve been blaming her for Stratford’s murder and the university bombing, and now all of a sudden she’s on television working as a spokesmodel for the OCSD? What kind of justice is that?”

  He got a few sideways glances. No one was willing to take the bait and argue with a quadrant marshal, but he would’ve welcomed a fight. This whole situation was ticking him off more and more. The OCSD had just handed a de facto pardon to Wes’s murderer.

  The gathered crowd watched her speech in silence. When it was over, someone began to boo, and others in the crowd joined in. The news ticker below the screen ran the text of her speech, and the crowd’s ranks swelled as other passersby stopped to see what all the fuss was about.

  It wasn’t just teenagers and college
students wearing the CXD symbol anymore. Plenty of adults were there, too, raising their Sharpie-scrawled fists and booing as lustily as if they’d just watched an ill-advised attempt at a squeeze play or a critical missed field goal. The crowd had grown so large he couldn’t fix position on any other marshals. He decided not to act and held his position, fearing the crowd would turn from vocal to violent.

  The walkie-talkie at his belt crackled to life. “Need backup at the former student center on campus. Group of protesters numbering around three hundred. Repeat. Send backup immediately.”

  9:07 PM

  Quadrant DC-001

  Mitch’s voice boomed in Kevin’s ear. “Where’ve you been? I was about to send Atari in to find you. I thought Madalyn got wise during the meeting at the White House and had you carted off to the secure ward.”

  “I’m fine. I can do the job on my own. I’ll use the transmitter for emergencies. Then I won’t, um, rely on you too much.” I gotta make sure I don’t tick him off so he’ll help me. But I can’t have him in my ear all the time. He’d drive me nuts. “I’m sorry. I should have checked in with you before. We’ve got a huge problem. Madalyn’s furious that the QM hasn’t succeeded in rounding up the Resistance, and she’s taking it out on Careen.”

  “Well, what do you want me to do? Turn everyone in?”

  “God, no! I want you to help me get Careen out. She’s being tortured worse than anything Stratford did to the Baileys or David and Grace. She looks like hell. You should see the bruises.” Kevin paced. “I don’t know if I can handle this.”

  “You gotta be less squeamish.”

  Yeah, so I’ve heard. “Did you see Careen’s announcement at eight?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Madalyn’s not going to stop until she destroys Careen. We need an extraction plan before it’s too late.”

  9:00 AM

  Friday, December 8, 2034

  PeopleCam Studios

  Quadrant DC-001

  Pete Sheridan led off the morning news over video footage of people carrying signs that read OCSD=LIES and FREE CAREEN.

  “Yesterday’s message from Careen Catecher sparked outrage nationwide. Seems like we’ve barely settled the unrest over the food shortages, and now protesters are back in front of public buildings, blocking access and refusing to disperse in direct violation of the Restrictions.”

  Sheila Roth slapped the news desk with the palm of her hand. “It just shocks me, Pete. I know we’re not supposed to share our own opinions when we report the news, but I can’t keep quiet any longer. Why do people sympathize with Careen Catecher? It seems to me she’s been given a great deal more consideration than she deserves. Why, just think about all the bad things that have happened since she and Trina Jacobs murdered Lowell Stratford, and now, instead of blaming her—”

  Pete cut her off. “People numbering in the tens of thousands have taken to the streets in quadrants all over the country. You can see footage here of the Quadrant Marshal Special Forces moving in to occupy troubled quadrant IN-654. Hundreds were arrested as marshals worked to quell the violence and re-establish order.”

  Restoring order looked like a military invasion with scores of marshals in gas masks and riot gear moving in ahead of tanks and armored vehicles. The broadcast cut away to commercial just as the marshals released tear gas into the crowd.

  12:45 PM

  Quadrant DC-001

  Careen was finishing lunch when Fawn arrived to do her hair and makeup. She was dressed in a fuchsia blouse and black jeans and boots, but Fawn shook her head. “No pink.”

  “Why?”

  “You really have to ask?”

  “Oh. Yeah. I guess not.”

  Fawn retrieved more choices from the closet. “Here. Blue? Yellow?”

  Blue as the lake. Blue like Tommy’s eyes. “Yellow, please.”

  All too soon, it was time to take her place in the studio. She read from the teleprompter with just enough energy to avoid comment from Madalyn. “The Resistance’s attempts to undermine the authority of the OCSD came to a head when I interrupted a press conference last month. The Resistance ordered me to distract the witnesses in the room while Trina Jacobs poisoned then-OCSD Director Lowell Stratford. Dr. Stratford’s death caused people to fear taking the antidote that was meant to keep them safe.”

  Careen’s mind whirled as she read from the teleprompter. Seriously? She’s still clinging to this when everyone knows the terrorist attack was a setup? We never needed to take that … . Oh hell, it wasn’t even an antidote. She took a calming breath and went on.

  “The Resistance’s propaganda videos were overly simplistic and poorly researched, because we knew it would take no more than a rallying point to get people’s attention.”

  Anger fueled a tiny flame of rebellion in her heart. She forced herself to keep reading. “The Resistance is directly responsible for the food shortage and everything bad that’s happened since then. As I explained to the quadrant marshals while I was in custody, I didn’t realize just how much my actions would affect others.

  “How could a bunch of outlaws know more about what’s good for our country than the experts at the OCSD? If you listened to me before, I hope you’ll listen to me now, because I’m telling you the truth for the first time.”

  2:00 PM

  “Could we take the stairs? I’d really love to stretch my legs.”

  Though Careen had just been granted the privilege of using the regular elevator, she felt like pushing for more.

  The guard remained expressionless as he opened the stairwell door. He’s never said a word to me. He’s never treated me like a person.

  “I haven’t seen daylight in I don’t know how long. Could we please go down to the lobby? And maybe I could look out a window before I go back to my room?”

  She kept up a determined pace as they descended, and he let her keep going until they emerged on the ground level. The guard closed his fingers around her upper arm once they were in the hall. One whole wall was window, and Careen stared out at the sunlight that glittered on the surrounding buildings. A courtyard with trees, now bare, ran along the outside of the building. Benches lined the brick walkway. Maybe by spring she’d be allowed to sit outside. She drew closer to the window and pressed her nose to the glass, moving on reluctantly when the guard tugged at her arm.

  They rounded a corner into the main lobby, and she looked eagerly toward the glass entrance doors, where a throng of people obstructed her view of the street. They were blocking the entrance. Guards stood between them and the doors. Careen stopped to stare. She’d never seen a real protest, even though she’d encouraged them in her Resistance videos. She made eye contact with a woman at the front of the crowd. The woman’s mouth flew open as she pointed toward Careen, and everyone began to push against the guards.

  She stood, uncomprehending, gaping at the advancing mob. Garbled shouts erupted in her guard’s earpiece, and though she couldn’t tell what was being said, the tone was clear. The guard broke into a run, dragging her with him. Heavy pounding and a muffled roar echoed in the cavernous lobby and doubled in volume as the wave of people exploded through the doors.

  Careen looked over her shoulder; someone at the front of the group pointed at her, and they surged forward, shouting her name.

  The guard caught her at the waist, dragged her around a corner, and shoved her onto the service elevator. She sprawled on the floor as he seized the doors and slammed them shut, pushing the hasp into place.

  As they rumbled upward, she scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. “What’s happening?”

  “They know you’re here.”

  Again she heard the faint voice barking orders in his earpiece.

  As soon as the elevator slowed, he muscled open the doors and dragged her out before it came to a stop. He ran with her down a side hallway and up a half-flight of stairs. This wasn’t her floor—hers was carpeted.

  At the end of the hall, he pushed her through a plain wooden door and slamm
ed it shut, leaving her alone in the dark. She was so stunned that it took a moment before she began to panic. She seized the doorknob and twisted it, even though no doorknob had yielded for her since she’d arrived. Sobbing, she groped around the perimeter for a light switch but found none. The room was so small she could touch opposite walls without straightening her elbows.

  She pressed her palms against the cinderblock and squeezed her eyes shut, breathing slowly to calm her racing heart. Once composed, she opened her eyes, steeling herself to face the isolation for however long she might need to. A narrow strip of light showed through the gap at the bottom of the door, illuminating the toes of her boots. She dropped to the floor, pressed her face against the cold cement, and breathed in the light.

  Chapter 40

  9:48 AM

  Saturday, December 9, 2034

  Quadrant DC-005

  Tommy balanced his plate in one hand and his book in the other as he came out of the kitchen into what had once been an employee dining room so large that he could’ve eaten at a different table every day for a month. He returned to the kitchen for his glass of orange juice and was on his way back to the table when the elevator door in the foyer slid open, and a man in an OCSD security uniform stepped out. What the hell? I thought this place was supposed to be secret. How did he get in here? The guard removed his cap and ran his hand over his brown buzz-cut and then surveyed the room, hands on hips. Tommy ducked back to avoid being seen and banged his elbow on the refrigerator. Juice spattered in a wide arc as his glass shattered against the tile floor.

 
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