Ignite, p.3

Ignite, page 3

 

Ignite
 


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  “I understand. But I’m not sure what to do next. I’m afraid to go home. What if Trina … well, what if she comes after me?”

  So much the better. “There are the guest suites on the third floor. Why don’t you go up and get some rest? You’ll be safe there.”

  She spared him a cursory glance as he followed Nicole out of the room. At the moment, Careen Catecher was her only priority.

  Chapter 5

  9:45 AM

  Quadrant OP-439

  Henry Nelson believed that people needed strongly enforced rules to protect them from each other—and from themselves.

  His family had instilled in him a sense of order and a patriotic love of country. He’d been a member of the Junior Marshals as a teen and had applied to quadrant marshal cadet school on his eighteenth birthday. He’d proudly served Quadrant OP-439 for the past ten years and took his duties seriously. He knew the name and occupation of every adult in the quadrant and where every child went to school. He paid regular visits to elderly residents to make sure they knew they were remembered and protected.

  It was a plum assignment, safeguarding the occupants of a wealthy quadrant. Aside from the rare instance of property crime, little happened in OP-439. When he’d learned a terrorist cell had been operating there, he’d taken it as a personal affront.

  Henry did his job with precision and efficiency. How had these terrorists escaped his notice? He wished he’d discovered and neutralized them before they’d destroyed the university student center.

  Usually he looked forward to hitting the hay at the end of an overnight shift, but on this morning, sleep was the furthest thing from his mind. Back at the marshal station, he changed out of his dirty, smoke-permeated uniform into civilian clothes and then made his way down the hall, glancing over his shoulder before he stepped into the records room and closed the door behind him.

  Wes Carraway had been kind of a cowboy, a rebel. No denying it. Wes had said himself, the first day they’d met, that the instructors at cadet school hadn’t been able to train the troublemaker out of him. Well, looks like trouble found him this time. Even though they hadn’t exactly been friends, he felt the loss of a comrade in arms.

  Quadrant marshals were in more danger than they’d ever been, with those lunatics in the Resistance stirring up trouble. Last night it had ticked him off when that punk behind the barrier said the QM was responsible for setting off the explosion. No way that could be true. At least he could try to make sure the real culprit took the blame for that explosion—and for Wes’s death.

  He logged on to the computer, pulled up last month’s files, and soon found the name he was looking for: Bailey, Thomas Jr., who matched the description given by the security guard.

  Henry had been with Wes at the Bailey house twice in the last month. The first time there’d been a problem with a bottle of CSD that allegedly hadn’t been delivered. Together, he and Wes had followed protocol and forced a dose on Tommy Bailey, who’d resisted; that alone was enough to get him pegged as a dissident. Then, a few days later, they’d gone back to his place to arrest a girl for failing to take part in the mandatory combat training. He scrolled back through the arrest records but found nothing except the report of the undelivered antidote. That’s strange. I fingerprinted and processed Tommy Bailey myself, while Wes processed the girl. He searched the computer for all the reports Wes had filed since he’d been transferred to OP-439, with no luck. Where could that record have gone?

  Nothing came up when he cross-checked under his own name for the statement he’d taken from Art Severson, the witness who’d seen the girl run away from the training exercises and enter the Bailey house. I could’ve sworn I’d filed it properly. This is a fine time for a glitch in the computer system.

  Wes hadn’t mentioned anything about losing his prisoners. But then again, he hadn’t seen much of Wes since the day they’d arrested the pair. Soon after, the OCSD director was killed, and during the CSD riots, everything had seemed to spin out of control. No wonder he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen or talked to Wes. Had Wes been killed by a so-called Resistance member who was really nothing more than a terrorist?

  There was one more angle to check, so he pulled up the file for the pending investigation into the previous night’s bombing. Only a few documents had been uploaded, but he found what he wanted—the artist’s sketch done from the security guard’s description of the perp. It was a perfect likeness of Tommy Bailey.

  11:03 AM

  Quadrant BG-098

  Tommy laughed as Careen led him along the shadowy path to their cabin in the woods. She danced ahead, just out of reach, until he put on a burst of speed to catch up to her on the trail, and her squeal of mock fear heightened his primal need to pursue her. He swept her into his arms, pinning her against the rough bark of the nearest tree, and buried his cold nose in her neck, making her squeal again before he claimed her lips. The fruity smell of her shampoo mingled with the tang of the pine needles that hung like a curtain around them. Her arms slid around his neck, and their kiss produced so much heat that he wouldn’t have noticed if he’d been standing in a foot of snow.

  “We don’t need to go all the way to the cabin. Right here’s good.” He was only half-joking as he ran his hand down her side and along her hip.

  She blew out a frosty breath. “No way! It’s freezing! You’re gonna have to build me a fire first.”

  He tightened his hold on her. “I’m working on it.”

  She squirmed, laughing, caught between him and the tree.

  A yellow flashlight beam spotlighted them in the darkness. “Quadrant Marshals. Freeze!”

  He ducked out of the light, pulling Careen with him, and tried to blink away the after-image burned on his retinas as he groped along the trail. They hadn’t gone far when Careen faltered. Were there more lights in the woods, or were his eyes still playing tricks on him? She clutched his arm, and her whisper seared on his brain. “They’re going to make me tell. I’m so sorry. Don’t let them catch you.”

  He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could do so, she threw an impressive shoulder-check that caught him off balance. He arced through the darkness and off the trail in slow motion, watching the flashlight beams play against the trees above him as the marshals converged on her.

  Tommy’s body jerked as if he’d really hit the ground, and he lay tangled in the blanket, drenched in sweat. He hadn’t had a dream that completely enveloped his senses like that since he quit taking CSD.

  He fumbled in the gloom for the bedside lamp and switched it on. He was in his parents’ room at the boardinghouse. He felt groggy and disoriented, as if he’d only been asleep for a few minutes. The clock said 11:15, but with the blackout shades drawn, he couldn’t tell if it was still morning, or if he’d slept a whole day away.

  A soft tap at the door made him jump.

  “Tommy? May I come in?”

  A lump formed in his throat at the sound of his dad’s voice. “Yeah,” he croaked, and rolled over so he was facing away from the door. He’d cried like a little kid with his mom when he’d arrived back at the boardinghouse early that morning, but he couldn’t break down in front of his dad. He’d ignored Tom’s counsel and insisted on accompanying Wes on the bombing mission; he didn’t feel entitled to any display of weakness. Certainly not tears.

  The door clicked shut, and he felt the other side of the soft, old mattress dip as his dad sat down. He dreaded what his father might say to him so much that he swore there was a vise clamp tightening around his guts. “I should’ve listened to you.”

  When there was no response, he stumbled on. “I don’t know why we thought it was a good idea. Nothing went the way we planned, and I’m the only one who came back.” He took a shuddering breath that was dangerously close to a sob. “Again.”

  His dad cleared his throat. “You know that your mother’s memory spontaneously returned yesterday, and while you were gone, she and I talked over everything that’s happened s
ince the accident. She refused to consider the possibility that she’d lose you now. We’re glad you’ve come back to us.”

  A tear rolled out of the corner of Tommy’s eye. He clenched a fistful of pillow but kept his voice steady. “I’m glad Mom’s back, too.”

  There was a long pause. “Do you need anything?”

  Besides Careen and Wes? Nothing else mattered. “Umm, could I stay here a while longer? I don’t want to go back to my room at the diner. Not yet.”

  “Of course.”

  The mattress shifted again, and Tommy heard the door open.

  “Dad?”

  “Yes?”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “You acted on your convictions. What’s done is done.”

  He heard the door close, and his dad’s footsteps faded down the stairs. The tears he’d held back wouldn’t come, and he lay, eyes stinging, wishing it had been his convictions rather than his cowardice that had led him astray.

  12:10 PM

  Quadrant OP-439

  Nelson waved the sketch of Tommy Bailey at his post commander. “This is big. I mean really big! Should we call the Chief QM in to start an investigation?”

  The post commander hesitated. “It’s gonna look bad that the Resistance has been operating right under our noses and we didn’t know anything about it. This quadrant has had an awful lot of bad publicity lately, what with the riots and the protests and now this bombing. I can’t draw attention to the fact that the Resistance has an active terrorist cell here.” He shook his head and scooped up the file Nelson had brought into the office.

  Frustrated, Nelson jumped to his feet. “They killed Carraway! He was one of your men! You should want to catch those rebels and see them brought to justice!”

  “I’ll handle it.” Apparently the matter was closed.

  “One more thing, sir. I want to attend the funeral.”

  “Remains have already been shipped back to his home quadrant.”

  “Where?”

  “BG-098.”

  He’d never known where Wes was from. “Then I’d like time off and permission to make the trip.”

  “I’ll consider it. It depends on whether the situation here stabilizes.” The post commander ushered him into the hall and closed the door.

  Nelson swore under his breath and stormed out of the station, zipping his jacket against the chill as he headed for the university. He ducked under the crime scene tape surrounding the blast site and ventured into the rubble, crunching through broken glass and other debris. The inside of the building was unrecognizable—metal rebar and wires dangled from the shattered walls, and the comfortable furniture that had occupied the lounge was crushed under the rubble that had rained down from the upper floors.

  Had members of the Resistance lured Wes here and killed him? Was it retribution for arresting Tommy Bailey, or had Wes stumbled onto more of the rebel group’s secrets?

  “Can’t believe this, can you?” Nelson heard more footsteps disturbing the rubble and froze out of sight, listening.

  “It’s crazy. I was here, man—sitting, like, right over there. I’d just gone over to the market when I heard the explosion. If I’d hung around much longer, who knows?”

  “Yeah, close call. And that’s not even the best reason to come to the meeting with me tonight. You know that hot girl from calculus class? She’ll be there, too. So you gotta go. I did some trading at the market and had a major score, so come over about dark, and we’ll have a couple of beers first, ’kay?”

  Once the voices faded and the two young men left the building, Nelson picked his way out through the mess. He hunched his shoulders against the cold and shoved his gloved hands deeper into his pockets as he followed them into a large group of students gathered at the open-air market on the green. The young people were huddled together, mostly in twos and threes. The guys he’d followed joined a pair of girls. He saw one of them slip something into a girl’s hand, and as they moved away, Nelson watched out of the corner of his eye as she unfolded the piece of paper, glanced at it, and passed it to another boy. Helps that I’m invisible to this age group. He kept his eyes trained on the piece of paper until finally someone crumpled it up and tossed it in a trash bin.

  He looked over his shoulder before he retrieved it and pocketed it as he walked away.

  Chapter 6

  2:05 PM

  Quadrant BG-098

  Eduardo stayed hunkered down on the sofa in the boardinghouse and stared at the television, his eyes gritty from lack of sleep. Tommy had been silent most of the drive, unwilling to talk about what had happened. When they’d arrived early that morning, everyone had been eager to know what was happening back in OP-439, but Tommy had disappeared upstairs with his mom, and hadn’t talked to anyone else. Eduardo himself had little information to share. What he’d managed to discern from Kevin left him sick with worry over Careen’s fate. If he thought he could help her, he’d leave for the capital right now.

  Mitch came into the room and paced behind the sofa without acknowledging Eduardo, who eyed him critically. This was the man who had raised Carraway, shaped him and influenced him. He wasn’t sure he could be trusted.

  On television, Jeremy Howard, the young reporter who’d broken the story, looked rumpled and a little dazed as his live coverage approached its sixteenth hour. Eduardo pointed at the television and spoke to no one in particular. “I saw that reporter last night, right after it happened. I can’t believe he’s still there!”

  “Pete, Sheila, the initial investigation into the explosion at the university student center has sparked more questions than answers.

  “Witnesses claim a young man in his late teens or early twenties attacked and disarmed a security guard who was patrolling the building just prior to the explosion. The guard claims his attacker rushed him out of the building with seconds to spare and then disappeared into the crowd.”

  Sheila broke in to the conversation. “Excuse me, Pete, Jeremy. We can now confirm that the dead marshal is twenty-one year-old Wesley Carraway, who was assigned to the post in OP-439 just two months ago.”

  Pete chimed in. “Jeremy, I see a large gathering behind you. Can I assume it’s some kind of vigil for the dead marshal?”

  The reporter looked over his shoulder at hundreds of students sitting cross-legged on the green. “I’ve been told they’re here to honor the victims; I understand someone is about to say a few words.”

  Eduardo recognized the curly haired young man who’d led the chanting at the barrier the night before as he stood up and came forward. He’d traded in his CXD-emblazoned sweatshirt for a button-down shirt and navy blazer and seemed subdued and respectful. The reporter offered him the microphone.

  “I’m Jude Monroe, president of the Interfraternity Council and Communications Chair for the Student Senate. We, representatives of the student body of this university, send our condolences to the family of the marshal who died. But we cannot ignore that this explosion was planned—meant to distract us from the food shortages that continue nationwide and especially to turn our attention from the civilian deaths that occurred during the food riot last week in our neighbor quadrant, OP-441. This tragedy happened on our campus, and it’s our duty as citizens to call attention to the real problem.

  “The marshals at OP-441 were more concerned about having enough food for themselves than about helping the people who were there to claim the food that was rightfully theirs.”

  The hapless Jeremy Howard tried to retrieve his microphone, but several members of the crowd rose to hold him back.

  “Essential Services still hasn’t resumed deliveries here, so no one’s getting any food except through markets like the one over on the green. The president lifted the Restriction, so the QM can’t legally shut it down, but they’re trying to intimidate us and keep us away. Without the market, how are we supposed to eat? This emergency has prompted us to take action. We will occupy this space and declare the university green a Restriction-Free Zone!”

/>   He raised his clenched left fist to show the CXD symbol written on his hand. At his signal, people in the crowd raised banners and signs showing the CXD symbol and everyone began to chant, “Enough for us!”

  The reporter broke free from his captors as Jude shouted over the crowd, “Anyone who wants to trade is welcome here!”

  After a brief tussle, he reclaimed the microphone. “Umm … this is Jeremy Howard reporting live in OP-439. Back to you, Pete.”

  Chapter 7

  3:45 PM

  Quadrant DC-001

  President Christopher Wright looked out his window at the protesters that had gathered on the sidewalk outside the White House gate. Though they were behaving peacefully, he felt a need to circle the wagons. Lifting the Restriction on food sales and distribution had been a bold move, but it wasn’t going to be enough to solve the problem.

  He summoned his personal secretary. “I want an update on the food shortages. Not the update Essential Services gives to reporters; I want the actual facts and statistics, and a breakdown of the death toll. How many died from malnutrition or starvation? How many have been killed fighting over food? And how many perished in the riots at OP-441? Tell them I’m expecting a response within the hour.” The secretary hurried out, closing the door behind her.

  How could he have continued to eat regular meals in the midst of the food shortage? Maybe at one point in his career that wouldn’t have bothered him, but now it certainly did. He’d skated through his presidency, trusting the OCSD to respond to all crises—until now. Since Lowell Stratford’s death, he’d resolved to spend his remaining months in office shaping a respectable legacy. He didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who was in charge during the debacles of November 2034. He wanted to be remembered as the leader who got the country back on track.

 
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