Ignite, page 17
The guard strode into the kitchen, boots pulverizing the broken glass as though he couldn’t be bothered to avoid it. He gave Tommy an appraising glance and shook his head.
“Wazzup, Butterfingers?” he said as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
Tommy took a closer look. “Atari?”
The guard opened the fridge in search of milk. “Natch. Who else would I be? There’s a broom and dustpan in the pantry.”
Tommy cleaned up the mess and poured himself another glass of juice. He found Atari at his table in the dining room, eating the breakfast Tommy had made for himself.
He sat down and pulled his plate away from Atari’s fork.
“You get a part-time job as a security guard?”
“I prefer to stay in character until I get home.”
“Did you really go to the OCSD like that?”
“Sure. Sometimes I go in as the janitor. You remember him, right? Depends on what intel I’m after. When I’m the janitor, no one looks at me twice. I fade into the woodwork. People talk in front of me like I’m stupid. When I’m a security guard, I can interact with people. Get totally different kinds of info with my two alter egos.”
“So you just come and go from the OCSD whenever you want? What happened to your hair? Is your greasy mop up under a wig?”
“The greasy mop, as you call it, isn’t as greasy as this bacon.” He grabbed the last slice and spoke with his mouth full. “Didn’t you blot this? Paper towels, man.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “When I meet with Madam Director, I am Atari, visionary designer of her new security device. Atari bears no resemblance to any of my other personas.” He pushed back from the table. “Come with me to Wardrobe. Prepare to be amazed.”
Tommy followed him down the hall past his bedroom. Atari opened a door with a flourish and led the way into a huge walk-in closet with a lighted makeup mirror, like those in a theater dressing room. Tommy stared at a shelf of wigs and imagined Atari in everything from dreadlocks to a bald cap.
“Yeah. Please tell me you weren’t impressed by Mitch’s little operation down in the sticks. This is where all the magic happens.”
Atari tossed his ID badge and elevator key onto the dressing table, hung up the uniform jacket and pants, and wriggled out of a padded undershirt that made him appear more muscular and broad-shouldered. He slipped into an Asian-style silk dressing gown, peeled off the brown wig, and pulled his dark hair out of its ponytail. Then he popped out a false bridge with crooked front teeth. “Come down to Command Central with me.”
Tommy followed, but he was already considering the infinite possibilities presented by Wardrobe. In disguise, he could come and go as he pleased. The safe house suddenly seemed less like a prison.
Kevin decided living at the OCSD had its good and bad points. Though his work never seemed to cease, he didn’t need to sneak around to set up the plan to extract Careen.
He brought his tablet into Madalyn’s office and pointed to it with feigned puzzlement. “The videos aren’t working.”
Madalyn’s confusion was genuine. “Not working how?”
“According to the polls, Careen’s approval rating—and yours, unfortunately—is plummeting. People don’t think she’s trustworthy. The only thing her videos seem to do is make people angry.”
She stared at him for a moment before he realized she was waiting for him to present a solution to the problem. He floundered a bit to make it seem authentic. “Umm … why don’t we … ? It’s an old ploy, but it might work.”
“What? Tell me.”
“Do the cute kids and animals thing.”
“I don’t know the cute kids and animals thing.”
“People like cute kids and animals. They associate good feelings with things they like. Maybe if there was a photo opportunity? Careen with some puppies?”
“No, wait—I’ve got it! How about the Inaugural Link ceremony? We’re going to have the group of Linked kids at the press conference, so how about we include Careen? She is the spokesperson for the Link.”
The smile that played across her lips signaled trouble. “Now that you mention it, I think it’s a wonderful idea to include Careen. Have Garrick see to the extra security.”
Kevin consulted his tablet. “Garrick will be out of town. The Link Ceremony is scheduled for the same day as the memorial for the victims of the OP-441 food riots.”
“Those events can’t be on the same day. How will I be in two quadrants at once?”
“I can represent you at OP-441. Assistant directors do that kind of thing, right?”
“I suppose, but it’s pointless to have a memorial now. The food riots are over. The Link is the future of our administration, Kevin—and the future of our country. You take care of the details. I have an appointment waiting.”
“I thought you’d be Asian.”
“I get that all the time.” Atari pushed black-framed glasses up on the bridge of his nose and peered at Madalyn. “I was always a huge fan, you know? As soon as I was eighteen I had my name legally changed.”
“Fan of what?”
“Vintage video games. The Atari Corporation completely defined the electronic entertainment industry in the 1970s.” He sighed and put on a rapturous look. “That was the golden age of arcade video games. Sure, the interactive technology is far superior now, but back in the 80s, a pizza and a handful of quarters to play Pac-Man was, like, the perfect evening.”
“Really? I can’t imagine.” He noticed her shift in her chair.
“Their video game Pong was the start of it all. I mean, I was born almost thirty years after it was released, but I still try to model my own life after the beauty and the simplicity of Pong.”
“Excuse me, but could we stay focused on the Link?”
Atari raked his lank, greasy hair off his forehead and pushed up his glasses again. “Oh, sure. Of course, Madam Director. So glad you asked. When we implement the Cerberean Link program in the capital and surrounding quadrants, we can piggyback on license-plate scanners that are already in operation. Of course we’ll still need to install scanners in every home and place of business, but that can be done piecemeal. The Link could be up and running in a limited capacity within days, but again, the scanners currently in place won’t be a reliable way to track subjects inside buildings.
“When we extend the program to rural quadrants, we can put more scanners on existing communication towers. Of course, we will need to supplement with hundreds of millions of additional sensors to get complete, nationwide coverage. That will take time.”
He flipped open his tablet and opened a file. “This is just a simulation, but imagine how, in times past, rescue parties could comb a remote area for days and still not locate a missing child. That child would be alone and frightened or—worst-case scenario—could even die of exposure before being found. Now, an active Cerberean Link means a missing child’s exact location can be pinpointed within seconds and rescue efforts made much more efficient.”
Madelyn looked pleased. “It will be so much easier to find missing children once we start the program. We’ve been microchipping animals for fifty years. I don’t know why it never caught on to do the same for the most vulnerable members of our society.”
He nodded. “Admirable sentiments, Madam Director. Allow me to demonstrate.”
He pulled a strip of red plastic out of his messenger bag and activated a toggle switch on the inside of the band with a flick of his thumb. “It snaps on like this.” He secured it around her left wrist. “Give it a second to read your pulse and body temperature.”
She made a face. “Is it supposed to be this tight?”
“Yes, it has to be snug so it can learn your body’s rhythms and signals. Basically, it becomes a part of you.”
“Ow!” Madalyn winced and tugged at the
“Oh, I should have told you to expect a tiny bee sting. It takes a one-time blood sample so it can store your DNA code. If the system were online, we would then complete your login process, and your new Link would download your Essential Services information, your debit account, and your health care benefits. Entitled to food? Here’s your proof of your delivery schedule. Once you’re in the Cerberan Link database, all you have to do is …” He gave an affected, beauty-pageant wave. “… as you pass by any scanner and you will be recognized.”
“Everything? It will know everything?”
“The short answer is yes, as I’m sure you know since you read the specifications. Cerberean Link has access to all public records—birth, marital status, arrest record. As long as you’re someplace where the scanners are installed, the GPS can locate you within seconds. It takes a little longer for a satellite to pick up the signal.
“Too hot? Too cold? Use the Link to adjust your inner temperature so you’ll be more comfortable. If you have a heart attack, epileptic seizure, or even a fever, it’ll know. This band has everything you need, even the ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ motion detection feature that automatically summons an ambulance or the police.”
“Okay, great. Now take it off.”
“It’s not possible to remove it. I made a point of saying so in the product specifications. Once it’s snapped into place, the clasp lock is permanent. Otherwise, how can we guarantee people’s cooperation?”
She tugged at the band. “I don’t care. Take. It. Off.”
Got her. He maintained a businesslike attitude. “I didn’t realize you weren’t participating.”
“What makes you think I’d be participating? This is a program designed to hold people accountable for their actions—I mean, to assure that children have access to public services and care. Can’t you get some scissors or wire cutters or something?”
“That’s fine gauge reinforced steel inside the plastic. You can’t cut through it. I’m not exaggerating when I say it would be easier to chop off your hand and slide the Link off the stump.” He lowered his voice. “I actually had to do that during one of the early prototype tests. It was messy, but I can do it again, if you insist. I’m not squeamish.”
Madalyn clutched her wrist with her right hand. “No. Never mind. When will you bring the system online?”
“I’m still coordinating the scanners and cameras. But we could run a test, oh, within a week.”
Stratford had envisioned Phase Four as a program for children. But Madalyn had just realized it could be so much more. She wouldn’t be the only one caught in its snare.
Tom glanced at his watch; most people kept track of the time on their phones these days, and wearing a regular wristwatch, like the one he’d been given by his father, was considered hopelessly old-fashioned. He was glad he hadn’t abandoned the practice. There were no clocks or televisions in his suite of rooms, and he hadn’t had a phone since July. The simple features on his watch, which none of the guards had thought important enough to confiscate, had enabled him to keep track of both time and date during his confinements at the OCSD.
In the absence of a watch, he might have tallied the days by counting his meals. They were feeding him regularly. The privations associated with the food shortage did not touch the OCSD.
Nearly all the allotted time had passed; there was just one more day until David would release the information in the files he’d left behind. Would he be able to sway Madalyn’s convictions before then? He’d bargained on her vanity overruling her common sense. Could she truly be so unconcerned about having her dirty laundry made public?
Once, long ago, she had been eager to listen to him. If he could get her to listen now, he might be able to help her change course before it was too late.
When the security guards came for him, he left Mitch’s hunting jacket lying on the bed. Maybe he’d make a different impression in the white button-down.
When he arrived, Madalyn walked behind her desk and gestured Tom toward the wing chair across from her.
He sat. “How’ve you been?”
“Not busy at all. Shall we continue our discussion from the other day?”
She shrugged. “Why not? Though I don’t see how you can help.”
“You need help. You got caught lying to the entire country; that destroyed your credibility and cost you the trust of the populace. Rebuild that trust by using the OCSD to protect the rights of the people, rather than to hobble and control their every move. The public sentiment is moving toward a revolt against you. The Resistance has the ability to destroy the OCSD.”
“The Resistance? You mean you? Are you that important, Tom?”
“Maddie, I’m not here to threaten you. I’m trying to help you. I don’t want to see you destroyed any more than I want to see our country torn apart. Take steps now to find a middle ground, and you’ll avert disaster. If you give the Resistance a reason to keep pushing against the OCSD, it won’t end well.”
“People rely on the OCSD; they need the Restrictions to feel safe. They might complain, but there’s no way they’d turn on us. Who would feed them and see to their safety?”
“I’m sure Louis the Sixteenth felt the same way, but I think you’re making a mistake by viewing adults as helpless children.”
Madalyn bristled. “You’re wrong. Victor Martel’s decision to destroy Essential Services is going to cause people to panic! They need to know there’s someone strong enough to take care of them.”
“It’s dangerous to build a society in which people rely on the government rather than themselves, and the food shortages should have proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Look beyond the safety and security thing for a moment. People are more successful and tend to live longer when they have more control over their circumstances. Plainly put, people are happier when they get to make decisions for themselves. Bungee jumping, remember?”
“But the OCSD has shouldered the responsibility of stopping people from making bad choices—exactly like bungee jumping. We save people from themselves.” She shuffled a stack of papers on her desk.
He was losing her attention so he raised his voice a bit. “What determines whether someone’s making a bad choice? How can you presume to know, when what’s right for me might not be right for you? Besides, one could argue that bad decisions are made on our behalf all the time. The Restrictions and Essential Services are prime examples. And don’t forget CSD. That was a huge mistake!”
“But it isn’t your fault if someone else makes bad decisions on your behalf. Wouldn’t people prefer to go through life blameless?”
“Then they’re merely victims! And besides, blaming someone else doesn’t make living with the consequences any easier. The younger generations haven’t progressed beyond a level of personal responsibility you’d expect a young teenager to shoulder. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”
Madalyn shook her head. “But if we have another crisis, they’ll panic.”
“Like I said, it’s not a quick fix. For instance, people will need a chance to get used to shopping for their own food. But the changes will take hold, and everything will start to turn around for the better. People under twenty-five are too young to remember life without the Restrictions. But teenagers and young adults are naturally rebellious and independent. You’ll see. It won’t be long before they’ll enjoy having some autonomy.”
“That’s too much change.”
“It’s needed change if you want to avoid trouble. The OCSD’s security measures assume people are incapable of managing their own lives; unfortunately, many people have started to believe it, too. But it’s harmful to take that much responsibility away from individuals. It’s in everyone’s best interest to know what true responsibility feels like.”
She smirked. “You say you favor personal responsibility, yet you say you’re also here to intervene on behalf of Careen. Don’t you
“Careen was never really part of the Resistance.” He had to mask how much he wanted her released. “Kids can be idealistic and read into things. She’s not important enough to bother with.”
Madalyn smiled and nodded. “That’s very interesting.”
Jaycee stood alone beside the open grave, watching her father, Paul McComas, and a detail of QM carry Wes’s casket through the gate of the family cemetery. Three sharpshooters who comprised the honor guard followed behind.
She’d never been to a funeral before. She’d expected to feel the weight of finality and the permanence of death, but it was impossible. Everything she’d thought was permanent was changing.
She was leaving. She wasn’t planning on coming back in a box, either.
She cast her eyes down as the pallbearers positioned the casket on the winch that would soon lower it into the earth.
Mitch took his place beside her as the funeral director read from a tattered hymnal. Every face around the coffin was solemn, but there were no tears.
As the funeral director’s voice droned—“Help us to live as those who are prepared to die …”—she closed her eyes, the phrase playing over and over inside her head until she was startled by the men’s voices blending together in the final Amen.
The honor guard stepped back and raised their rifles with the muzzles pointing over the casket and fired a volley of three shots into the air. Beside her, her father murmured, “Now the battle resumes.”
The pallbearers shook hands with Mitch and nodded to Jaycee as they filed out after the honor guard. Paul paused to place a hand on Mitch’s shoulder for a moment before following them down the hill.
“Josephine?” She whirled around. Seamus Owens, in his dress uniform, approached through the crooked gravestones. “I know my timing stinks, and it’s not really right of me to ask at a funeral, but …” He ducked his head shyly. “Could I see you sometime? I mean, some other time when we’re not going to have to talk about things like funerals. I’m kind of lonely here. You don’t come to town much, and I don’t know when I’ll get another chance to tell you I’d like to get to know you better.”