Ignite, page 2
The next phase of the drug increased people’s suggestibility and blocked their memory. People blindly followed government-issued messages ordering them to spend money, which the government believed would stimulate the sluggish economy. Teens and younger adults obediently reported for nightly combat training and remembered nothing the next day.
Phase Three was supposed to complete the people’s transformation into malleable soldiers and civil servants who were devoid of free will. Lowell Stratford, who had been the OCSD director at the time, desired a strong and fearless military force that could crush any threat—be it from without or within.
It should have worked—but spies and saboteurs, part of a resistance group, had infiltrated the OCSD. They’d ruined the batch of Phase Three and somehow deleted all record of the formula.
During a live press conference, Stratford had toasted the success of his program with what should have been sugar water—but instead dropped dead on camera. Someone had tampered with his vial and substituted poison.
Trina Jacobs, a doctor who’d been on the research team, and Careen Catecher, a college student who was part of the Resistance, were accused of his murder, and were now fugitives from justice.
Without the new batch of CSD, the people all detoxed and became clearheaded just as the Resistance mounted a smear campaign of propaganda videos, most of which featured pretty, young Careen Catecher. The Resistance’s interference threatened to ruin the public’s confidence in the OCSD’s ability to manage the country’s security issues.
Let them eat cake, indeed. None of this is my fault. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, whispered a tiny voice inside her. She dismissed the pang of conscience. It’s more Lowell’s fault than mine. When he died, I was left behind to take the blame.
Maybe no one believed CSD was necessary to protect against chemical weapons anymore, but she had hoped people would crave the comfort of the low-grade high. Compliance was the key to getting things back under control, and people on CSD were remarkably compliant.
She countered the Resistance’s messages by dangling free Transitional CSD and the promise of blissful oblivion in front of the confused and frightened people.
Transitional CSD became a top priority, but one week ago, on the day of the first delivery, nearly every postal carrier took the stronger dose and was incapacitated by the side effects. She’d forgotten that postal workers had all been on the placebo dose before.
Madalyn had done the only thing she could do. She’d ordered the Essential Services Department to delay food deliveries and help distribute the CSD. Her decision caused a ripple effect that left about one-sixth of the population without their weekly allotment of food. Instead of waiting for Essential Services to sort out the problem, people had panicked, hijacking trucks bearing food and breaking into each other’s homes to steal from one another.
Essential Services struggled to get back on track, while black market providers swooped in like vultures and took advantage of the situation. Madalyn suspected the illegally traded food was either stolen from authorized government networks, or substandard. Unsafe.
The president, heedless of her warnings, had rescinded the Restriction that protected the Essential Services monopoly, and black market dealers became legitimate food providers overnight. They had absolutely no licensing, and worse yet, they were selling food that should have been reserved for distribution by Essential Services.
On the television, Madalyn’s image had been replaced with amateur video of the explosion in OP-439.
Thursday, November 30, 2034
Fifteen-year-old Jaycee Carraway peeked out the diner’s front window and watched as her father walked four quadrant marshals out to their Jeep. He lifted his hand in a brief wave, but as soon as they pulled out of the parking lot, his shoulders slumped, revealing just how much the news of the disastrous bombing mission in OP-439 weighed upon him.
His brother Wes had been killed in the explosion. Things were bad, but at least the marshals hadn’t discovered the Resistance members hiding in the boardinghouse about a hundred yards from where they’d just eaten breakfast. Mitch shuffled toward the barn, and Jaycee sighed and squared her thin shoulders before she set to work lugging stacks of dirty dishes to the sink and scrubbing at sticky dribbles of syrup on the counter. She was so intent on what she was doing that she jumped when the bell on the diner’s door jingled. Two marshals stepped inside. The young one, sandy-haired and freckled, looked fresh out of cadet school. He stood up straight, his glance flickering uncomfortably between her face and the faded linoleum floor. The other, gray-haired, obviously a veteran of years in law enforcement, seemed to sag inside his uniform, spilling over his belt in a way that made his belly look much broader than his shoulders.
“I thought you all had left. Need some coffee to go?”
“Josephine Cecilia Carraway?”
Jaycee, confused, was slow to react to her given name. “Umm, yeah?”
The young marshal spoke as though he’d memorized what he had to say. “I’m Quadrant Marshal Seamus Owens. We’re here about your uncle, Wesley Jefferson Carraway. Badge number 52068010.”
Jaycee knew she had to act surprised, even though she’d known about Wes’s death for hours. She pulled her face into what she hoped was an appropriate expression.
“We regret to inform you that Quadrant Marshal Carraway was wounded in the line of duty last night. He was transported to a hospital, where every effort was made to save him, but his injuries were too severe, and they lost him.” He bit his lip. “I mean, he died.”
She’d never been much of a crier, but as Seamus Owens struggled through his speech, her chin began to tremble, and she didn’t have to force the tears that coursed down her cheeks.
“He named you next of kin. We need to know if you want his body brought here for burial. You’ll receive the rest of his pay and his death benefit, too. There’ll be papers to sign. Stuff like that.”
“Yes. He should be buried here.” The finality of it all washed over her and she began to sob in earnest.
“I’m real sorry for your loss. I’m sure your uncle was a great man.” The distress in the boy’s voice was genuine; he was watching her in a way that made her wish her face wasn’t all red and blotchy beneath her freckles. She dabbed at her nose with the cuff of her hoodie and sniffled.
The older marshal regarded her with sympathy. “Are you all right? Do you need us to call someone to stay with you?”
Jaycee shook her head. Seamus looked back at her as he followed his partner out the door. She’d always assumed that someday she’d inherit the family diner, that she’d be stuck behind the counter forever. She couldn’t change the fact that Wes was dead, or that her father’s grief had made him gruffer and more remote than usual. But maybe things could change for her. She wiped her tears and blew her nose on her apron.
Madalyn looked at the girl on the video monitor as she spoke on the phone. “Are you sure it’s her? I mean, absolutely sure?”
“Yes, Madam Director. We checked her DNA against the database of samples collected on Distribution Day.”
“And how serious are her injuries?”
“Surprisingly, nothing major. She has cuts and abrasions from flying debris and a possible concussion. No internal injuries, though. Looks like she was sheltered from the full impact of the blast.”
“Is she stable enough to be moved?”
“Yes. She’s been combative, though. It would be best to keep her sedated.”
Madalyn nodded. “Have her transferred here immediately.”
She disconnected the call and turned to Art Severson, who lounged in one of the wing chairs facing her desk. “I can’t wait to tell the world that Careen Catecher is finally in custody—and that she was responsible for that bombing. I was right all along about her being a criminal!”
“Madam Director, might I advise you to proceed with caution?”
“Wouldn’t it be better to wait before you make any kind of announcement? Criminal or no, she seems to wield a certain amount of influence with the public. No sense in making her a martyr to the Resistance’s cause.”
She crossed her arms and glared at him, but he dismissed her frown with a wave of his hand.
“You have to admit that ridiculous pink hair thing went viral. I suggest you avoid any announcements that will cause teenagers with pink highlights to start setting off bombs all over the country.”
Madalyn took a deep breath as if to prepare for battle. She stared at Careen’s image on the monitor. “Yes. You’re right. For some reason I cannot fathom, she’s more influential than I am. That has to end.”
“Either eliminate her or turn her to your side; doesn’t really matter which.”
“Trust me, she’s not seeing the light of day until she’s no longer fit to lead a rebellion. I’m going to break her. That’ll end her influence, once and for all.”
If Careen was in OCSD custody, Dr. Trina Jacobs was now Public Enemy Number One. The assembled members of the Resistance had kept an all-night vigil at the boardinghouse in BG-098 waiting for news of Wes and Tommy’s mission. The blackout shades kept the thin winter sunlight outside, and it still seemed like night to Trina as they remained in front of the television, hoping for some information about Careen’s condition.
She never could have predicted her life would take this course.
It had all started when she accepted a medical research position at the OCSD the previous September and was assigned the top-secret task of developing an antidote that would render any kind of airborne poisons ineffectual.
The Counteractive System of Defense drug, developed by her boss, Dr. Lowell Stratford, was really nothing more than a hallucinogen mixed with scopolamine, so instead of a nation of cowering, frightened victims, he’d have a nation of complacent, suggestible victims. Trina had vehemently opposed the whole plan and had ended up sedated with a heavy dose of the antidote and locked away in the OCSD building so she couldn’t interfere. Luckily, Kevin McGraw, another employee, had rescued her. Kevin was working with the Resistance, and together they’d sabotaged the production of the third and final phase of the drug.
One of her early batches of potential antidotes had been deadly; someone had stolen it from the lab and used it to poison Lowell Stratford. Trina was accused of the murder, and she and Kevin had made a hasty escape to Resistance headquarters in the remote mountains of Quadrant BG-098, where they now worked to destroy their former employer’s grip on the people.
Early yesterday, Kevin had headed back to the capital to infiltrate the OCSD. He was her closest friend and confidant; she didn’t think she’d be able to sleep until she knew he was all right.
When she’d first met Mitch Carraway, the Resistance leader, she’d thought he was just some overzealous hillbilly playing war games. She’d accidentally overheard him on the phone, making plans to buy the CSD formulas from Madalyn, and called him out for making deals with the enemy. Once he’d shared more about his plan and the scope of his clandestine network of spies and freedom fighters, her respect for him had grown.
David Honerlaw and Grace Hughes, the retired political science professors who’d also been rescued from OCSD custody, were dozing in armchairs. Eduardo Rodriguez, the newest arrival, sat awkwardly on the sofa; he didn’t know anyone but Tommy, who had disappeared upstairs as soon as he got back. Lara Bailey, Tommy’s mother, had her arm around Jaycee, who had recently come in from the diner and curled up beside her on the sofa.
Danni Carraway, Mitch’s cousin and the Resistance’s connection for black market food and weapons, had supplied the blocks of C-4 Wes and Tommy had used to destroy the student center. Danni had never spent any time ingratiating herself with the group, and now she sat in a sagging recliner in a far corner of the room. No one had any words of sympathy for her, and her shame was a chip on her shoulder.
They all watched the television in silence. “Acts of defiance have become commonplace across the country. Citizens have refused to abide by the established curfews and are ignoring the Restriction that forbids congregating in public. In the aftermath of the university bombing, videos of parties and gatherings are pouring in from quadrants all over the nation. The symbol CXD, which appears both in graffiti and on the persons involved in acts of disobedience, seems to be inspired by the most recent communiqué from Careen Catecher, spokesperson for the Resistance.
“In other news, the OCSD has released updated information regarding last night’s terrorist attack in OP-439. The unidentified young woman pulled from the rubble is in critical condition. The identity of the quadrant marshal killed at the scene is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
“We’ll be taking you back to OP-439 shortly for continuing live coverage of the tragedy there.”
Trina turned away from the television. “Oh, Lordy. If Careen’s really still unconscious, she’s got serious injuries. Are they giving her proper medical attention? Surely they wouldn’t withhold treatment even if they think she—”
Danni spoke up. “If she dies before she regains consciousness, we don’t have to worry about her spilling all our secrets.”
Jaycee jumped off the sofa. “Shut up! She’s not going to die.” She burst into tears and ran out of the room, Lara close behind.
David waited until Jaycee was out of earshot. “Wes and Tommy created the wrong kind of distraction. It allowed the OCSD to discredit the Resistance and blame the bombing on Careen. She was our most effective link to the public. I’m not sure it’s even worth it to proceed with our original plan, now that her fate and future are uncertain.”
Grace had lost her take-charge attitude. “I’m so upset about what’s happened to the children that I can’t even think. What should we do?”
Danni stood up. “In case anyone cares, I’m headed out to spread the gospel of Careen and make sure hungry people have something to eat.” She swept out of the room.
“We’re going to have to take a different tack to advance our work.” David lowered his voice. “I suspect Mitch has something cooking on the side. Anyone know what?”
Trina shifted her weight but said nothing.
A greasy-haired janitor bobbed his head to the music that pulsed through his earphones as he wheeled a vacuum cleaner into the OCSD lobby. He plugged it in, and it snored like a slumbering beast as he pushed it back and forth in a slow, hypnotic motion. Anyone who was watching would assume he was some mindless drone, doing his job on autopilot. His half-closed eyes belied the fact that he was fully aware of the bald man in torn, muddy clothing who came in through the visitor’s entrance, signed in, and crossed the lobby to the elevators.
As the janitor guided the vacuum across the spotless carpet, he rubbed his nose with the back of his free hand and spoke into a tiny transmitter on his watchband. “He’s here.”
Alone in her office at last, Madalyn broke into a happy dance. Finally, finally something was going her way. With Careen in custody, she could push Hoyt Garrick to focus all his efforts on apprehending Trina Jacobs. Once she had a chance to interrogate the girl, it wouldn’t take much to round up the members of the Resistance.
Careen was sedated and en route, expected to arrive at the nearby naval hospital by midafternoon. Madalyn sank into her leather chair and spun around, as excited as a child anticipating a birthday party with lots of gifts.
She put both hands on her desktop to halt her rotation. The last person on earth she expected to see stood in the doorway. She straightened her skirt as she moved out from behind the desk. “Kevin? Where in the world did you come from?”
He looked awful—scratched and bruised, in torn and mu
He drew back in alarm as she advanced upon him. “What about Trina? Where is she?”
“She’s gone crazy. She kidnapped me and dumped me in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been trying to get back here for a week. I was on foot until I managed to steal a car yesterday.”
She sighed and put on a look of concern. “You poor thing. Come sit down.”
She returned behind the desk and he sank wearily into one of the wing chairs. She folded her hands on the glossy, varnished surface, trying to control her eagerness and keep her voice calm. “What happened to Trina? Do you have any information on her whereabouts?”
“I have no idea where she went after she let me go.”
Then I don’t have time to deal with this now. She smiled benignly. “Do you want some coffee?” She pushed the button on her desk to summon security.
“Thank you. I’m so tired. So glad to finally be safe.”
It was awkward waiting, and Madalyn jabbed the button again. Someone please come get him out of my office. I have more important things to think about.
Nicole opened the door for two guards, who pulled Kevin to his feet and patted him down. One swept him with a metal detector, which beeped as it moved past his shirt pocket.
The guard pulled out a roll of candy. “What the—? These wands are pretty sensitive. It must be reacting to the foil wrapper.”
Madalyn’s eyebrows went up. “Candy? Where did you get candy? It’s not on the approved foods list.”
Kevin looked crestfallen. “You have no idea how long I’ve been saving that.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to confiscate it. Sorry.” She dropped it in her desk drawer, and he sighed.