Ignite, page 21
“Well, would you lead off with ‘we can’t win’ if you were recruiting people for your revolution? No, of course not. It’s too discouraging. Mitch might be the only one of us who’s fanatic enough to keep going for victory over the OCSD. Let me ask you this: are you willing to keep fighting even if you can’t win in the end?”
“Yeah. I am.”
“Then you’re one of the cursed. There’ll be plenty of days when you’ll want to throw in the towel.”
He shrugged as if it didn’t really matter.
“What do you want, Tommy? What do you want from your life? Beyond the next fifteen minutes. Beyond the next few months.”
“To do what I can to make a difference, even if we can’t win.”
Atari nodded and offered another fist bump. “The extent to which you resist is the extent to which you are free.”
Sunday, December 10, 2034
Eduardo pulled the truck up to the Baileys’ garage. Lara got out and keyed in the entry code, and he guided the truck inside. The trip from BG-098 had been uneventful, but now he felt a twinge of mixed guilt and embarrassment. He’d been in this backyard before, when Wes had tapped him to spy on Tommy and Careen. He’d trusted Wes then, because he’d thought he had no choice. Now it seemed more prudent to follow Lara’s lead.
They crossed the backyard to the kitchen door. As Eduardo drew near, he could see the door was splintered near the lock. Someone had kicked it in and then pulled it closed again. Lara looked at it and nodded slowly. “I see no one bothered to look for the spare key.”
“Let me go first. Wait here.” Eduardo pulled a can of pepper spray and the bug sweeper Mitch had lent him out of his jacket pocket and eased the door open.
Lara stood on the threshold, craning her neck to see past the kitchen, but Jaycee waited shyly at the bottom of the porch steps and clutched her rifle, duffel bag slung over her shoulder.
Some minutes later, Eduardo appeared at the door. “The front door’s been broken in, too. I can nail it shut for now and rig a way to lock this one if you want to stay here.”
“Let’s see how bad it is before we decide.” Inside, Lara set down the bag Mitch had given them and righted an overturned chair as she surveyed the wreck of her kitchen. Jaycee laid her things on the kitchen table and gazed out the big bank of windows that overlooked the backyard before she inspected the rich wood of the cabinets. Some of the doors sagged on broken hinges, and broken dishes and glassware crunched underfoot. She touched the shiny countertop.
“I bet your house looked like something out of a magazine.”
“I suppose so, but right now I’d trade it for the diner’s fully stocked kitchen. These MREs your dad sent will last for a while, but I’m going to miss having fresh food.”
“I wish you were my mom.”
“Oh, that’s awfully sweet of you, honey.” She hugged the girl. “I wish I’d had a daughter like you.”
“Will you help me find her? My real mom?”
Lara released her. “Well … uh, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
They both jumped at a crash in the hallway, and Eduardo came back into the kitchen, trying to avoid the debris scattered on the floor. “The house was fine when we were here the night of the explosion. The QM must have trashed it when they came looking for Tommy, but it doesn’t look like they’ve got it under surveillance now. As long as we keep a low profile, we should be able to come and go from here.”
Jaycee took a few hesitant steps down the hall.
“Make yourself at home,” Lara said. “Just stay inside, okay?”
The girl disappeared into the living room. Soon Lara heard the plink of piano keys. She peeked around the corner and smiled as Jaycee pressed randomly, delighted by the sounds that emanated from the scarred instrument. She settled onto the bench, her rust-colored hair spilling over her shoulders, and walked her fingers up from the lowest notes.
Eduardo was waiting when Lara came back into the kitchen. “Unless my apartment’s been completely trashed, I think we should sleep there.”
She nodded. “Do you want to check it out?”
“Sure. It’s not far. I’ll walk over. Walking attracts less attention than a car with BG plates.” He headed out the back.
As soon as he was out of sight, Lara hurried down the hall to Tom’s office and closed the door. She pressed a nearly imperceptible indentation in the wainscoting, and a spring-loaded panel opened to reveal a safe. She turned the dial and reached inside for her laptop. Now she could truly get back to work. She plugged it in, logged on, accessed a government website, and ran a data search. Results popped up without delay. Looks like no one bothered to revoke my clearance after we disappeared last summer. Her fingers flew over the keys, as she downloaded the resulting files, to be examined more closely later.
The piano noises had stopped. She slid the laptop back into its hiding place and returned to the living room, but Jaycee wasn’t there. Unexpected tears welled up as she climbed the stairs, and she chided herself for getting emotional over the feel of the familiar treads beneath her feet and the smooth bannister in her hand. Their home had been happy and full of love, but over time, the secrets had crowded closer, pressing at the safe haven she’d created for her family.
She stepped over the personal items strewn on the hallway floor and paused in Tommy’s doorway. Jaycee, wearing one of Tommy’s sweatshirts, lay curled up on his bed with her rifle beside her, fast asleep.
My family is growing. Lara folded her arms. If I help find her mother, Mitch will never forgive me.
The scuffling of footsteps broke the silence. The familiar creak of the screen door on the front porch spurred Lara to action. She pulled the bedroom door closed and darted down the stairs.
In the front hall, she grabbed Tommy’s baseball bat and crept to the window, chancing a look through the blinds.
Tom arrived back in OP-439 tired, disappointed, and still a little angry.
The Resistance had changed. Either that or it had never been what he’d believed it to be. Initiating violence—especially against innocent bystanders—had never been part of the plan.
Things are so much more dangerous now than when I began this fight. Mitch was out of control.
He wished he’d been able to bring Madalyn around to his way of thinking. That could have diffused Mitch’s plan for revolution.
The black town car turned the last corner and pulled up in front of his home. He took in the peeling paint, unkempt landscaping, and shattered front door. Their home had been a safe place. Lara had never asked him not to be who he was; her only caveat was that Tommy be sheltered from any knowledge of or involvement in the Resistance. Through his actions, he’d destroyed that bulwark against the realities of the outside world.
It would have been better if Tommy had come home with him and left the more experienced members of the team to extract Careen. He’d be crushed if Careen didn’t want to return to the Resistance. Part of him sympathized with his son and found it hard to believe she’d prefer to ally with the OCSD. He wasn’t as heartless as Tommy believed—about Careen or about Lara.
Tom crossed the wide front porch and tried the door, which was shut tight. Then he remembered he didn’t have his keys, and headed around back through the overgrown hedges. Perhaps a spare was still hidden near the back porch.
That door hung on broken hinges, the frame splintered. It dragged against the floor, pulverizing tiny shards of glass and pottery as he pushed it open and stepped into the ruins of his home.
As he surveyed the wreck of the kitchen, his first thought was for his wife. Lara had put so much care and effort into their home, and now it was trashed beyond recognition. The destruction went far beyond material possessions like dishes and furniture. He’d sacrificed his job and his family for what he’d believed was a way to advance a just and noble cause.
But all this destruct
He nudged a broken vase with his foot.
“Tom?” The familiar voice meant he really was home. Lara stood in the doorway to the dining room, clutching Tommy’s baseball bat. “Where’s Tommy? Mitch said he was with you.”
He crunched through the debris to embrace her, bat and all. “I didn’t know if you were here yet.”
She twisted out of his arms. “Well?”
“Tommy? He said to tell you he’s fine, and he’ll see you soon.”
“What kind of an answer is that? Where is he?”
“At a Resistance safe house in the capital. He’s bound and determined to rescue Careen. What could I do?”
Tuesday, December 12, 2034
Careen inhaled deep breaths of the biting cold winter air, glad to be outside for the first time since she’d gone to OP-439 in search of Tommy and Wes. How long had it been? She had no idea, but this was definitely wintry weather.
High heels clicking on the pavement, she followed Madalyn exactly twenty-seven steps from a rear door of the PeopleCam building to the backseat of an oversized SUV with tinted windows. Their security guard escorts sat in front.
She looked eagerly out the window during the short drive. All too soon, the SUV entered a subterranean parking garage. As she stepped out of the vehicle, Careen was treated to another blast of icy air and felt the thrill of goose bumps on her stocking-clad legs. She touched her fingers to her tousled hair as the guards hurried her inside. Her Link’s light flashed, visible just inside her coat cuff.
Careen had been sent back to her room immediately after the strange-looking man had put the red bracelet on her wrist, with no explanation as to why it was there. The light that flashed in time with her pulse was distracting, and it was awfully tight, but she couldn’t find a way to loosen it or take it off. Like everything else, she’d get used to it.
Two hotel security guards met them at the door and led the way up the stairs and into an opulent ballroom decorated with brightly colored balloons and wide cloth streamers, like a circus-themed children’s party. A banner hung on the wall: Forever Linked for a Happy Future.
A group of elementary-school-aged children stood in rows beneath the banner, smiling and showing their flashing Links as a photographer captured the moment for posterity. Careen, completely absorbed in watching the children, scarcely noticed where she was until the guard tugged on her arm to urge her up a set of metal stairs onto a raised platform with a podium. She took a seat in one of the chairs set behind the podium, facing the parents, grandparents, and older siblings of the Linked children. She dropped her own gaze to her hands, folded in her lap.
The photographer finished, and Madalyn stepped up to the podium.
“You may return to your parents.”
The children broke out of the orderly rows, the younger ones bobbing through the crowd in search of familiar faces.
As Madalyn began her welcome speech, Careen scanned the crowd through the fringe of her long bangs. The adults in the audience were silent and still; every one of them held their children in a protective cocoon. No one fidgeted, not even the littlest Link recipients. The moment was too solemn. She turned her full attention to what Madalyn was saying.
“From today forward, these children, and soon all American children, will never know neglect or hunger. The Cerberean Link system is designed to safeguard them and attend to their needs.
“If a child is sick with a fever, the Link will respond, and the appropriate authority will be notified immediately. If a child is lost, the GPS feature of the Link will assure they are quickly and easily found.”
This bracelet thing can locate lost children? Careen clutched her own left wrist. No wonder they all look so serious. It’s an honor to be chosen. She flashed to the memory of being trapped with her dying father in the rubble of another bomb blast, nearly ten years before. If I’d been wearing one, they might have found us in time to save my dad.
“No child will ever be denied access to food, health care, or other resources to which they are entitled. The Cerberean Link will train them to function independently of their parents, be responsible for themselves, and be part of the unbroken chain of our society.”
Madalyn pulled back her sleeve to display the red band that encircled her own wrist, and raised her arm so it was visible to the crowd.
“Personal accountability makes responsible citizens. The Link assures if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” She turned to Careen and beckoned her forward.
Madalyn had been in the room the only other time Careen had spoken to a large group of people. That had been at OCSD headquarters, just moments before Lowell Stratford’s death. This time she wanted Madalyn to be pleased with what she had to say. Her feet carried her obediently across the platform. She took a deep breath, glanced down at her Link, and then lifted her chin.
“I was nine years old when my father was killed in a terrorist attack. As I grew up, there were many times no one noticed when I was sick or hungry. It’s very difficult for a child to thrive without consistency in their life. Everyone needs someone to count on. The Link is a miracle.”
Someone spoke from deep in the crowd. “What kind of terrorist attack killed your father?”
“It was a … bombing.”
Madalyn nudged her out of the way and spoke into the microphone. “Careen has been granted an opportunity to lead by example and make amends for her own mistakes.”
The photographer hurried to stand in front of the podium. “A few more photos, children. This time with the young lady.” Careen descended the platform and the children grouped around her, some of the older girls jostling to stand next to her.
One of them whispered, “Your hair is pretty. But I liked it better when it was pink.”
“Me, too,” she whispered back.
“All right everyone! Show your Links!” Lights winked on every wrist. “Now a silly one!” The children struck poses and made faces, and some of the adults in the crowd smiled. Careen saw a man with short brown hair and glasses elbowing his way past the families, his gaze fixed on her. She shrank back, but the children pressed around her, cutting off any avenue of escape. He was only a few yards away when a huge boom rocked the floor. She staggered against the screaming children, and they went down like closely packed dominoes.
Tommy was the only one in the audience at the Inaugural Link Ceremony who wasn’t part of a family group. He’d realized it almost at once, and now he hovered close to one that had grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, hoping he could blend in and avoid scrutiny. He was dressed like the other men, in wool pants and a shirt and tie. He pushed his glasses up. This disguise was good. A few minutes ago he’d seen his reflection in a mirror out in the hall and at first hadn’t recognized himself.
From the moment Careen entered the room, he’d barely torn his eyes away, convinced he could read her heart and her intentions if he concentrated hard enough. She looked older in a business suit and heels. But it wasn’t just the clothes that made her seem different—it was her demeanor.
She’d always been interested in what was going on around her. Sometimes it was downright annoying. This time, she’d taken a seat on the platform behind Madalyn, folded her hands in her lap, and kept her eyes cast down.
Look at me. He willed her to feel his presence. I’m here. He took a step closer to the podium, and when she glanced up their eyes met. His pulse quickened. She recognized him. She knew. Then she dropped her eyes again, so she wouldn’t give anything away.
It was the moment right before the snap. He knew what to do. If he ran the play properly, she’d be sharing his room at the safe house tonight. Okay, focus. First things first.
All the parents stood sil
He was so keyed up that he hadn’t been paying attention to anything that was said. Then Careen stepped up to the podium and he willed his heart to quiet down so he could hear her voice.
She said someone to count on. She saw me. She knows I’m here. Wait—what? The Link is a miracle? She can’t believe that. It’s what Madalyn wants to hear. He tried to catch Atari’s eye to get his reaction, but he was too busy fiddling with the camera to notice.
Tommy moved into position while Atari assembled the children for photos with Careen.
“Now a silly one!” Atari pushed the detonator on the camera right on cue, and even though he knew it was coming, the explosion made Tommy cower. Everything began to happen in slow motion. Careen wobbled and fell into the mass of screaming children. The security guards ran to secure the exits as the parents surged forward.
He shoved his way through the traffic jam and spotted Careen huddled on the ground, arms sheltering the closest children. Many hands reached into the pile to pull the Linked to safety. Just as his fingers brushed her sleeve, he took a block in the back and sprawled on the carpet. Before he could get to his feet, a security guard had stepped in and rushed her away.
Back at Command Central, Atari and Tommy watched the People-Cam coverage of the Inaugural Link Ceremony. Atari slurped the milk in his cereal bowl. Tommy wasn’t hungry.
“I was sure she knew it was me. I don’t understand. Has she totally drunk the Kool-Aid? Could she really believe what she said?”
“It’s easy to get all starry-eyed about the upside of the Cerberean Link.”
“Why did you pick such a crazy name?”