Ignite, p.7

Ignite, page 7



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  “We might not have enough time for him to get rational.”

  “Tread lightly. We’re guests in his home. Let’s try to manage it without creating any discord. We need to trust and help each other right now.”

  “I hope that’s possible. People’s secrets and ambitions have a way of revealing themselves at inconvenient times.”

  She smiled benignly, wondering if Tom was alluding to someone other than Mitch. “How about we worry about all this after we’ve had a cup of coffee?”

  She and Tom were the first to arrive at the diner. Mitch, to her relief, appeared to be in good spirits. He’d made a huge breakfast and set it up buffet-style on the counter.

  Mitch waved the television remote in greeting. “You gotta watch this.” After they’d filled plates, he clicked Play.

  Victor Martel, the director of Essential Services, ascended to the podium in front of the press corps in the ballroom of a capital quadrant hotel. One of the reporters stood up to be recognized.

  “Do you view people buying and selling food on their own as a threat to Essential Services’ system?”

  Martel chuckled. “It’s not so much a threat as it is a nuisance. The burgeoning private market has diverted the food from our regular suppliers to other sellers which, in turn, created shortages that compromise the Essential Services Department’s ability to meet its obligation to the public.”

  Another reporter raised her hand. “So you still expect us to believe Essential Services is our best option? The former black market dealers and barter-friendly markets are still the only thing standing between some people and starvation.”

  “Using barter to deal with this emergency will not work past the short term. It’s not like you can just designate a random thing valuable and use it for trade.”

  The reporter held her ground. “Of course you can. If people recognize and agree to the value of an item, it can be used as currency. If I had an apple, I could buy an apple’s worth of something from anyone who wanted an apple.”

  “I suppose, but apples don’t hold their value in the long term.”

  “I could spend my apple on anything I wanted. Or I could choose to eat it myself. I have a choice. But I can’t choose not to pay for an Essential Services delivery that may or may not come.”

  Another reporter shouted, “Wasn’t the bombing in OP-439 just another way to force people to accept the Essential Services system—even if they’d rather not?”

  “I don’t see how those two events could possibly be related. I have no information about the bombing. Please direct your inquiries to the OCSD’s information office. From what I understand, everything is under control.”

  Several reporters clamored to be recognized.

  “Nothing is under control! There are still food shortages and riots.”

  “People have been picketing in front of the White House, demanding action.”

  “Restriction-Free zones are popping up all over the country. People who prefer markets over ES want a choice.”

  Martel drew himself up to his full height. “Essential Services meal plan subscriptions are mandatory. The full delivery schedule will resume by the end of the week. There will be no more questions.” He abruptly left the room.

  Back in the studio, Pete Sheridan smothered a grin. “A group of protesters had an unmistakable message for Essential Services Director Victor Martel, who literally ended up with egg on his face as he left that press conference in the capital yesterday.”

  The accompanying video showed protesters, their shirts emblazoned with Careen’s CXD symbol, blocking Martel’s path as he exited the hotel. Someone threw an egg, which struck his cheek with a splat, and gooey yellow dribbled onto his suit coat.

  Someone shouted, “We’ll spend this food however we choose!” and the crowd pelted Martel with a barrage of eggs, fruit, and vegetables. He held up his hands to shield his face as he ran for the waiting limousine amid a chorus of “Enough for us! Enough for us!”

  Sheila Roth looked wistful. “Oh my! Don’t they know not to waste food? Especially the eggs. Egg whites make a wonderful facial masque. Quite a luxury these days, though.”

  Lara burst out laughing. “Why do they let that woman ad-lib? One of these days she’s going to say something really stupid.”

  The rest of the adults had arrived and were in various stages of filling their plates. Lara made sure to address Mitch during a quiet moment. “The CXD rebellion is a bona fide grassroots movement, thanks to Careen and Danni. If it keeps on like this, it could soon be bigger than the Resistance. Wouldn’t you say so?”

  Mitch gave her a look that could have been an entreaty to shut up. “There have been a lot of peaceful protests. There’s no such thing as bad press; that’s for sure.”

  She nodded. “They’re using Careen’s symbol. And they seem to be following her suggestions—civil disobedience, nonviolence.”

  Tom cut in, but without as much diplomacy as Lara would have preferred. “Maybe the Resistance’s goals can be accomplished without an all-out war.”

  Mitch shot him a suspicious glance. “Madalyn’s not going to let us win without a war. Here’s the other clip I was saving to show you.” He cued the video.

  Madalyn Davies smirked as she addressed the press corps. “In the two weeks since Lowell Stratford’s death, we have been a nation in transition and in crisis. People have been disoriented and confused without their regular doses of CSD. We have experienced an unprecedented surge in civil unrest because of the incendiary actions of a group of dissidents. Food shortages have gone unresolved for much longer than anticipated, because people panicked rather than trusting in the Essential Services department to manage the situation.

  “We have spent years reducing contact with other nations as a means of protecting our people. But now it is clear we face dangerous enemies inside our borders, too.

  “Tighter security is needed to protect people against future food shortages and terror attacks. This is especially true now that we know terrorists walk among us and will stop at nothing to disrupt our way of life. These homegrown terrorists will make their rebellion sound glamorous. They will try to convince you that the OCSD does not make our nation’s security its top priority. Do not be swayed by their lies.

  “The suspect in the university bombing is awake and undergoing questioning. Know that the OCSD will not rest until it hunts down every last member of the rebel group responsible for this act of terrorism.

  “If you know someone who claims to be sympathetic to the Resistance, it is your duty to report that individual to the quadrant marshals. The OCSD can only maintain the highest level of security when everyone monitors the actions of those around him or her.”

  Trina reached for another slice of toast. “I don’t understand why she’s not bragging about having captured Careen. Do you think they’re really questioning her? What’s the point of withholding her identity?”

  “Most likely they don’t want all those peaceful protesters storming the castle. But it’s not going to matter in the end.” Mitch clicked the remote to return to the live morning broadcast. “Careen isn’t tough enough to last through a real interrogation. She’ll spill the beans, and she’ll get what she deserves. It’s her fault Wes was killed.”

  Eduardo gave him a sharp look. “It’s not fair to blame Carina. It wasn’t her idea to set off the bomb.”

  Lara’s horrified gasp cut off Mitch’s reply. She pointed at the screen. “Oh no! No!” An artist’s sketch of a young man filled the screen. News anchor Pete Sheridan announced:

  “A nationwide manhunt is underway for eighteen-year-old Thomas Bailey, Junior, wanted in connection with the university bombing in OP-439.”

  Chapter 16

  9:35 AM

  Tommy rolled over and wrapped his arms around his pillow. It had been days since he’d wakened feeling refreshed. He yawned and opened his eyes, inhaling the breakfast smells that wafted up from downstairs.

  Jaycee was curled up in Wes
s bed across the room, staring at him. He tugged at his blankets self-consciously. “Jeez! What are you doing here?”

  She snuggled in deeper. “Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I came in to see if you were still awake. You snore.”

  “Do not.” He threw a pillow at her. “Beat it so I can get dressed. I’m starving.”

  She giggled and threw it back before she skipped out of the room. He wasn’t annoyed with her. Not really. It was kind of fun to treat her like the pesky kid sister he’d never had. If she’d slipped into the other bed in the middle of the night, she must be as rattled by what had happened as he was. Maybe more. She was waiting for him in the hall when he finished brushing his teeth, and as they headed downstairs, angry voices rose above the normal buzz of conversation and drowned out the television.

  Jaycee halted and stared up at Tommy. “They’re at it again. Our dads were arguing last night. I heard them while I was making your cheeseburger.”

  “What about?”

  “Mostly how your dad isn’t as important to the Resistance as mine, and everyone here has to depend on my dad to protect them.”

  “Ouch. I’m sure my dad loved that.” Then he heard his mother’s panicked cries, and his dad shouted, “Are you responsible for this?”

  Mitch shouted back. “Hell no!”

  “You liar! You snake! What is this, an eye for an eye? A son for a brother?”

  Tommy ran the rest of the way downstairs, Jaycee at his heels, and burst into the diner just in time to see his dad take a swing at Mitch. Mitch ducked and grabbed Tom by the shirtfront. They grappled, ricocheted off the counter, and knocked over a table across the aisle.

  Everyone else scrambled out of the way.

  “Stop it! Both of you!” Lara cried.

  Mitch hauled Tom off the floor and, still gripping Tom’s shirt with his left hand, delivered two stinging punches to Tom’s face. Tommy launched himself into the fray, tackling Mitch around the middle and breaking Mitch’s hold on his dad. The force spun them around, and as they staggered in the aisle, Mitch’s fists pounded Tommy’s torso.

  Everyone was yelling at once, and Tommy heard David shout, “Someone turn the hose on them!”

  Tommy drove Mitch backward, which threw him off balance, and ended up with enough clearance to land punches to his stomach and solar plexus that left Mitch gasping. Before Mitch could rally, Tom and Trina forced their way between them. Tommy let his dad pull him away but fixed an intimidating gaze on Mitch.

  He muttered, “Dad, are you nuts? What made you think you could take him? He’s got, like, two inches and thirty pounds on you.”

  Tom turned his back to Mitch as he and Tommy continued their progress across the room. “You’re all over the news; you’re wanted in connection with the university bombing.”

  “And you attacked Mitch because … ?”

  “I suspect it was he who turned you in. To even the score.”

  Tommy twisted his arm out of his dad’s grip and started back across the room to where Trina stood with a restraining hand on Mitch’s chest, but Tom stopped him. “Of course he denied it, but I was the one who lost control. It was my fault. Let’s just all take a minute.”

  His mother joined them and laid her hand on Tommy’s arm. He let her lead him to a chair on the far side of the room, where Jaycee appeared with ice wrapped in towels. Tom pressed his to his face; Tommy held his in his hand, not wanting to give Mitch the satisfaction of knowing he needed first aid. After a moment, he tossed the towel on the table and stood up to go. Jaycee edged closer and slipped her chilly hand into his.

  From across the room, Mitch’s gaze took in both of them, and his nostrils flared as he shouted at Tommy. “Oh, hell no! Don’t even think about it.”

  “What?” Tommy was completely at a loss.

  “That!” Mitch pointed an accusing finger. “Lay a hand on her and I’ll finish you.”

  Jaycee dropped Tommy’s hand and shrank away, her face flushed. Tommy’s anger flared.

  “Are you kidding? I wasn’t … I wouldn’t—she’s just a kid!”

  He’d only meant to defend her, but apparently Jaycee took it wrong. She burst into tears and ran upstairs.

  Chapter 17

  10:39 AM

  Quadrant DC-001

  The quadrant marshals’ search of the BG quadrants had yielded nothing. Careen had also failed to yield any more information. The girl had resisted much longer than Madalyn had anticipated. The interrogation team needed to step up their efforts. Extracting the Resistance’s location from Careen was essential if the OCSD were to clean up the pending loose ends and move forward.

  The Cerberean Link would soon be ready, and Madalyn needed to focus all her attention on bringing the program to fruition. This would be her defining act and the real beginning of her tenure as director of the OCSD.

  The idea for the Cerberean Link had first come about when Lowell Stratford was preparing to use CSD to build a civilian army. Conscripting everyone in the eighteen-to-thirty age range would leave most young children unattended. Even stepping up government run day-care programs and extending school days couldn’t ensure the children were adequately cared for while their parents were actively engaged in the fight against terrorism.

  Stratford had hired a developer to create a device that would serve the many functions needed to protect the children. First and foremost, it monitored health and vital signs, so children who were sick would receive prompt treatment. A GPS tracking system was included to make it easy to locate lost children. The system must also be able to access public records, such as Essential Services and health care plans, to make sure no child was denied anything to which they were entitled.

  Soon, the Resistance would be finished, and the Cerberean Link would assure the health and safety of every child in the United States.

  11:18 AM

  “Where is Trina Jacobs?”

  The voice jolted Careen into consciousness. Her tangled hair hung in her face, obscuring her vision, and a bit of drool stuck her cracked lips to the floor as she mumbled, “I don’t know. Please, can I just sleep?”

  The voice was new. Harsh. Male. “No sleep. Where is Trina Jacobs?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Who are the leaders of the Resistance?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “What other attacks is the Resistance planning?”

  “I told you already; I don’t know.”

  “Who was with you when you blew up the student center?”

  “No one.”

  “Get up.”

  “I can’t.”

  The interrogator grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled. Careen whimpered as her neck bent back.

  “You will if I tell you to.” He slid one heavily muscled arm around her waist, and the other hand gripped her throat as he lifted her off the ground, bracing her against his body. Her pulse pounded in her head and her stomach churned as she struggled to breathe, hands still shackled behind her, feet kicking helplessly inches above the floor. His breath was hot against her cheek.

  “You got some fight left in you, girl?” She squeezed her eyes shut. How many strangers had put their hands on her? Her humiliation never blunted; it threatened to crush her spirit each time she was slapped, or worse, groped through the flimsy hospital gown. Oh, God, I wish I had a gun. Tommy was right all along. If I had a gun, I’d shoot whoever I had to and escape.

  The interrogator sniggered and abruptly released his hold; she lost her balance as her feet touched down. His meaty fist closed around her arm and yanked her upright while she gasped for breath.

  “You ready to cooperate?” He slid his hand down her arm; she felt him fumbling between her lower back and her bound wrists, and then her arms fell limply to her sides. She breathed a silent prayer of thanks for the uncomfortable sensation of pins and needles in her hands. There was a long moment when nothing happened.

  “Well?” His voice was close behind her.

  She shook her head, lips
pressed together. Saying nothing is the only way I can protect everyone.

  He jerked her around to face him and imprisoned both her wrists in one hand, pulling her up on tiptoe. The stench of her own fear filled her nostrils. His mouth twisted into a triumphant smile. Then he laughed.

  “Not so sleepy anymore, are you?” He tightened his grip on her wrists to emphasize her helplessness. “You’re going to tell us everything we want to know.”

  Chapter 18

  4:00 PM

  Quadrant BG-098

  Mitch spent most of the day holed up in his office, listening to his scanner for any QM dispatches in the quadrant. It wasn’t prudent to give Tom so much time to turn the rest of the group against him, but he couldn’t exactly say, ‘you’re all expendable and you’re bound to get caught eventually. Good luck and Godspeed.’ He hadn’t turned in the kid; he hadn’t needed to. He’d known Careen would crack. If she’d given up Tommy’s name, she’d surely revealed their location, too.

  He hadn’t wanted to let the outside world into his haven, but it had been an emergency. Living with this many people was changing Jaycee, and he found it exhausting. Still, he supposed he’d better head off a full-scale mutiny. Everyone but the Baileys was in the sitting room at the boardinghouse, and when he entered the room, it felt like he’d walked into an ambush.

  “Mitch!” David’s eyes were huge behind his thick glasses. “The marshals are certain to show up here in the near future, so wouldn’t it be prudent to evacuate?” He struggled up off the sofa and extended a hand to Grace. “We can’t just sit around and wait. I’m not spending my golden years in prison.”

  Grace clasped his hand and rose to stand beside him. “What’s the plan?”

  They were testing him to see if he’d step up and lead. Well, let Tom do the heavy lifting for a while. As he walked back out the door without replying, he heard her reassure the group. He glanced over his shoulder as he strode back to the diner to find Grace and David following him down the path. For a couple that had divorced years ago, they had a close friendship. They were a good team. That kind of relationship was foreign to him.

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