Thursday, November 16, 2034
Tommy Bailey kept watch out the rear window of the mail truck. They weren’t being followed—not yet, anyway. Beside him, Careen Catecher clutched her phone, brow furrowed, as she read aloud from PeopleNet’s news feed.
“Roadblocks are in place on all highways leading out of the capital quadrant. The OCSD’s foremost concern is apprehending the terrorists responsible for Director Stratford’s death.”
When Careen’s picture appeared on the screen, she looked up at Tommy through her pink-streaked bangs, her dark eyes huge in her pale face.
He called to Eduardo Rodriguez, their ex-mailman-turned-getaway-driver. “Can you get us off the main road?”
“Not gonna happen.” Eduardo glanced back at them. “There’s a roadblock just ahead. No place to go but under those mailbags. Better hurry. Hide her good.”
Eduardo eased off the accelerator as Tommy and Careen shifted the bulky canvas bags aside. She curled into the hollow, but as Tommy started to cover her, she grabbed his arm. “What about you?”
“As soon as you let me finish, I’m digging another hiding spot for myself.”
He piled the bags over her, making sure she was well concealed, and then worked his lanky frame deep into the mound of bags between her and the side door. As he shifted the last one into place, enveloping himself in darkness, he heard Eduardo mutter, “Here we go.”
Tommy’s fingers inched forward until they brushed against Careen’s, and he breathed a silent prayer that they’d get past the marshals undetected. She gripped his hand as the truck came to a stop, and he heard Eduardo open the window.
“Buenos tardes, Señor Marshal.”
“Hands on the wheel where we can see them. We’re checking all outgoing vehicles. There’s murderers and terrorists on the loose.”
“Ai, sí, I hear about that on the radio. No malvados here señor—just US mail.” Tommy thought Eduardo was laying the accent on a little thick, but maybe he hoped a language barrier would make the marshals less likely to question him. They sat in silence for so long that Tommy began to wonder what was happening. Careen was sure to be recognized if she were discovered—her picture had been all over the media, and the neon pink streaks in her dark hair were hard to miss. Tommy wasn’t sure if anyone remembered what Careen had said when she’d interrupted the press conference, or if people were simply more interested in the drama of a live, televised death and the five-million-dollar reward offered for information leading to her capture.
The side door opened with a squeak; he felt something prod the bags around him, and endured a sharp jab to the tender, recently healed wound on his leg without reacting, but he was sure to be discovered. How fast could he reach for the gun in the back of his waistband? The marshal’s nightstick slid inquiringly along his leg and paused for a long, agonizing moment when it touched the edge of his shoe.
Tommy sprang up and hit his head on the ceiling just as Eduardo stepped on the gas. The marshal yelped in surprise and reeled back from the door, which slammed with a bang as they crashed through the wooden barricade. Eduardo yanked the steering wheel to the right, and Tommy fell hard against the wall of the truck. Through the back window he could see marshals scrambling into Jeeps and patrol cars.
He crawled over to unearth Careen and helped her up.
“What happened?” She peeked out the back window and turned to him in dismay.
He rubbed his head where he’d smacked it on the ceiling. “At least they didn’t see you.”
“But someone will! These pink highlights…what was I thinking? I wish you could shave me bald right this minute so no one would recognize me.”
She covered her head with her arms and sank down onto the mailbags.
Tommy glanced out the back again, and this time he saw headlights. Lots of them. Game on, he thought grimly. He’d claim credit for some of the chaos they’d left in their wake, but neither he nor Careen had anything to do with Lowell Stratford’s murder.
The truck struck a pothole and a mailbag popped open, littering Careen with little white boxes. She swept them away impatiently, but Tommy opened one, removed the amber bottle, and held it up in the dim light.
The Counteractive System of Defense drug had been touted by the anti-terrorism experts at the OCSD as an antidote to airborne toxins. CSD was the best—and the worst—thing that had ever happened to him. Without the terror threat, he and Careen never would’ve met. But that's where the good part ended.
He’d believed the terrorist attack was real and had put his trust in the OCSD’s claim that three drops of the antidote daily would protect him from the toxins looming above him in the atmosphere.
His first dose had lulled him into a false sense of security and stripped him of all motivation. He didn’t realize how much it was hampering his recovery from injuries he’d sustained in a car accident until he started doing his morning workouts before taking his dose. It was still a drag to deal with the hallucinations and malaise that went with CSD, but it was better than being poisoned.
He remembered the day he’d met Careen, and the relief on her face when he’d split the last dose in his bottle with her. Later, that relief turned to fear and worry that half a dose wouldn’t be enough to protect them until they could get more.
The OCSD had deceived and terrorized nearly four hundred million people with their lies. Well, almost everyone fell for it, anyhow. What was it his dad used to say? Some quote about being able to fool some of the people all the time, but not being able to fool all of the people all of the time. Tommy guessed it was true. Later he’d learned that CSD was actually LSD mixed with another drug called scopolamine, which made people easy to manipulate and caused amnesia, so they couldn’t remember what they’d done. He still didn’t understand how the OCSD intended to end terrorism with LSD.
Trina Jacobs, a research doctor at the OCSD, told him the drug’s final phase would have stripped everyone who took it of their last shred of free will. Though Trina was pretty sure she’d sabotaged the production run of Phase Three, she didn’t know for sure what was in the current batch. The only way to know for sure was to open one and take a swig. No thanks. I’ll pass.
Eduardo kept the gas pedal pressed to the floor, heedless of the potholes and cracks in the road. He was intent on opening up as much distance as possible between them and the quadrant marshals while he scanned the horizon for someplace to hide. Ahead, on the opposite side of the freeway, huge, stadium-worthy banks of lights illuminated a sprawling warehouse. He’d noticed the place when they drove into the capital early that morning. After their harrowing mission, he understood that the real enemy was the OCSD, the anti-terrorism agency charged with protecting everyone, and he was ashamed of himself for being so frightened and gullible. It was time to get tough.
He kept the truck on the far left side of the roadway until the last possible second, then wrenched the steering wheel to the right and skidded across three lanes and down an exit ramp without once touching the brake. Most of their pursuers reacted too slowly and missed the exit. Eduardo made a hard left at the bottom of the ramp, cut under the overpass and onto an access road headed toward the warehouse. He glanced back and saw with satisfaction that only a few cars were still in pursuit. Maybe he could lose them once he got inside. He slowed down enough to appear inconspicuous as he merged into a line of identical trucks entering the US Post Office distribution center.
“Returning to the mother ship, Eduardo?” Tommy said as they passed the sign at the gate.
“Yeah. Now we blend in, but we still gotta ditch this truck. They probably scanned the license plate at the roadblock.” Eduardo had been fired from his job as a postal carrier but he knew that on Thursday nights the new CSD shipments were sorted, loaded, and sent out for delivery the next day. He pulled into the reserve lot, and noticed his hands were shaking as he cut the engine and lights.
Careen whispered, “What do we do now?”
“You need a place to hide while I get us a different truck.” Eduardo grabbed the uniform jacket off the passenger seat and attempted to slip it on, but it was so small that he couldn’t get both arms into the sleeves. He settled for carrying it, folded over his arm so the postal service logo showed.
Eduardo, Tommy, and Careen crouched low and hurried between the rows of vehicles until they reached the edge of the parking lot. The untended landscaping offered excellent cover, and Eduardo glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching, then shooed them into the underbrush. As soon as they were out of sight, he headed for the distribution center.
Careen shivered as she and Tommy pushed their way through the overgrown shrubbery. Her fear of the dark seemed silly compared to the things that threatened her now. She missed a step on the uneven ground, slipped, and sank ankle deep into a chilly puddle. Tommy took her arm and steadied her as she pulled her foot free. When they came to a chain-link fence and could go no farther, they hid beneath a tree in shadows so deep that only the familiar sound of Tommy’s breathing told her he was still beside her. An hour ago, she’d been flirting and making out with him in the back of the mail truck, giddy that they’d escaped from the OCSD, still not quite believing she’d been brave enough to call Lowell Stratford a liar on live television. Now she was wanted in connection with his murder. If she could wash away her infamous spray-painted highlights, she might have a chance to escape arrest. No one in the capital knew her name except Wes Carraway, the young quadrant marshal who was a double agent for the Resistance. She didn’t think he’d turn her in for the reward.
Tommy’s arms enfolded her, and as she snuggled gratefully against his warm chest, she wondered what Tommy would do if he knew Carraway had urged her to leave him behind during their disorganized escape from the OCSD.
Careen fished around inside her pocket for her phone, which held the documents Tommy had taken from Stratford’s files. She was dying to read them, but couldn’t risk anyone seeing the glow from the screen.
Her thoughts were torn away from the documents as flashing lights cut through the underbrush. She heard voices in the parking lot nearby. A shot rang out, and she sank into a crouch, pulling Tommy with her. If they were discovered, they’d be arrested—or worse—before she could even try to prove her innocence.
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