The Union ambassador is missing.
More than a hundred years after the McClellan-Davis Accords ended the Civil War, tensions are still high between the Union and the Confederacy. But recent trade agreements and personnel exchanges have made both sides hope that good relations can be restored. That is, until the Union ambassador vanishes one night from the embassy in Perdition.
Two agents are sent to investigate his disappearance. Delilah Thorn, a video surveillance analyst with zero field experience, has no idea why she’s been sent on this operation, but her unshakeable faith in the Union convinces her that she must somehow have the right skills for the job. Her new partner, Dane Rook, is a seasoned veteran with a mysterious background—and a whole lot of skepticism about what their assignment entails.
They’ve barely crossed into the Confederacy when the whole mission goes to hell. Separated, trapped in a hostile nation with no weapons or supplies, they slowly learn a terrible secret about the government just across their own border. Their lives depend on separating friend from foe and discovering the limits of their own endurance. Can they figure out not only how to survive, but also how to become agents of change in a brutal society that the world has left behind?
“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.” – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
The tourist obviously hadn’t been through too many checkpoints.
The red badges had set up their tables on the corner of Water and Whitehall, just a block from the war memorials along Minuit Plaza, and stretched rolls of razor wire right out into the street. They’d been there a lot lately. Whether it was because there was some real threat to the tourist area, or a perceived threat to the Citadel that loomed over the smaller buildings in the Battery, Delilah Thorn did not know. It could all be for show. There was nothing wrong with that. It helped to remind people that the city was on alert. It was always on alert. Being on alert was good. Being alert was safe.
Up at the front of the line, a couple of speakers had been planted on tripods to either side of the checkpoint and a recording repeated a greeting that included the words “For your own security” and “Please surrender all…” but most of the message was lost in the background noise of the city’s rush hour. It didn’t matter. Everyone understood the drill: be quiet, open your bags, wait your turn.
That is, everyone but the tourist. Thorn could see the woman was going to be a problem even before she stepped out of line. She kept fidgeting. Kept craning her neck, trying to see past the guards. Kept lifting her wrist to check the time.
And eventually the woman did it. She stepped right out, strode briskly past the older man in front of her, and approached the checkpoint as if she owned it.
Thorn groaned and shook her head. Normally, she would have merely been amused by what came next—the tourist agency the woman had used should have done a better job briefing their client on how to cooperate with Aegis checkpoints—but tensions had been high this week and no one quite knew why. Security was tighter than ever, and that was saying something. Thorn couldn’t afford delays.
The tourist had not taken three steps before one of the guards was moving her way. The hard, metallic clack of his rifle bolt being slapped into place was clearly audible above the scratchy drone of the unintelligible recording. Even the tourist could not miss the meaning of that sound. She stopped, still a dozen feet short of the wire barrier and the agents at the table, both of whom paused their current searches and let their hands hover near the pistols on their belts.
The tourist took a step back. Then looked at the line, as if she were thinking of getting back in. The other people studiously did not look back. The red-badged guard came up at a trot, his rifle held firmly against his shoulder. “Rank and number,” he demanded.
The woman looked at him blankly. “What? I—”
“Rank and number!”
Thorn sighed and stepped out of line. Immediately, the rifle turned her way, but she had already pulled her badge case from the top pocket of her overcoat. She flipped it open now, angling the silver oval with the single slashing black stripe so that both the red badge and the other people waiting in line could see. A man ahead of her started to look angry as she passed him by, but when Thorn looked his way, the man pressed his lips together, lowered his eyes, and let her pass without comment.
“Problem, solider?” she asked pleasantly as she neared the guard and the suddenly frozen woman.
The guard was young, and his flat sided helmet rode so low on his skull that the brim threatened to block his sight. He drew himself up and nodded at Thorn. “Supervisor,” he said. “She stepped out of line.”
Thorn nodded back at him. “Yes, I saw.”
The tourist, whose muddy brown hair was cut in a severe bob that only accentuated her gangly features, stared at Thorn, then at the soldier, then back at Thorn. Her eyes looked up at Thorn’s badge but she clearly didn’t have a clue where this combination of silver and black fell in the complex strata of Union officials. Or, more likely, she didn’t care. Thorn didn’t give a lot of thought to other countries’ security processes, knowing only that they weren’t nearly as thorough as the Union’s. But she knew it was rare for tourists to be familiar with U.S. security institutions and procedures.
“I have a friend inside,” the tourist said before anyone could ask. “And…I have a pass!” She raised her small purse, which caused the rifle to again swing toward her head. Thorn waved the soldier off as the woman fumbled inside the leather bag to produce a thick plastic coin.
Thorn took the little disk from the woman’s fingers and flipped it back and forth in her hand. It was about the size of a quarter, bright yellow, and coded with both the date and the bunched M and P logo that indicated it was good for the public areas of the plaza. It looked genuine, and probably was. The fact that some terrorist groups had managed to counterfeit these wasn’t common knowledge, and the counterfeiting was difficult. There was almost no chance this woman had a bad disk, or had anything untoward in mind.
But almost no chance was not the same as no chance at all. Security was a serious business. Absolutely serious, as her boss liked to say. Safety was what the Union did best.
“Where did you buy this?” asked Thorn, wondering now how late this was going to make her. She had, of course, left her home in time to accommodate at least one or two checkpoints along the way, but she hadn’t planned for this tourist.
“The Intertourist kiosk in Times Square,” said the woman. Producing the pass had apparently restored her confidence. She raised her chin and looked at Thorn down the considerable length of her nose. “Really, is this how you treat visitors to your country? It’s appalling.”
“Visitors are treated with the same respect with which they treat our procedures,” said Thorn smoothly. She handed the disk to the soldier. “Please take this woman to Hanover station and…discuss her itinerary in our city.”
The red badge flipped his hand up in a palm-out salute, then slung his rifle over one shoulder and began to drag the woman by the collar of her wool coat.
“Enjoy your stay in New York,” Thorn called after them. She walked back and resumed her place in line. She could have gone to the front; no one would have confronted a silver badge after she’d helped the reds handle the situation, but she was no line-jumper.
“Please surrender all…” said the recording. The line shuffled forward.
When she reached the wire and the table, the red badge checked Thorn’s badge and identification papers, surveyed the contents of her bag, and patted down the pockets of her long coat.
Safety first. That was the motto of the badges, no matter the color. The United States would protect its citizens to the best of its ability. There was no room for error or cutting corners. Everything was secure, or nothing was.
Past the barrier, Thorn crossed Minuit with only a glance toward the plaza and the brooding marble sepulcher where the marble shape of Weeping Lincoln waited in the shadows. Then it was down one of the many narrow paths that cut across Battery Park to where the Citadel loomed up against the ocean beyond.
Thorn never tired of looking at it, a tall spike of glass and steel that pointed toward the sky. It was taller than anything else in the city; you could see it from almost anywhere in the five boroughs if the atmosphere were smog-free.
The Citadel’s lobby was a huge atrium, five stories tall, all stainless steel and glass. The only color in the Citadel itself came from the huge flag hanging from the ceiling. The thirteen red and white stripes, the blue field sporting one brilliant white star for each of the twenty-nine states. No matter how many times she looked at it, Thorn felt a lump in her throat when she thought of what that flag represented. It was Valley Forge and Antietam. It was the Great War. It was Union.
As she got in line and waited her turn for building security, she glimpsed the clock in the lobby and sighed. Already five minutes late.
Thorn sat down at her desk and logged in to her account. Normally, she’d grab a coffee but she needed to get started on the backlog of video she had to go through since several of her co-workers were either on vacation or had been transferred to other departments. Now she had several jobs to do and only one shift to do them in. Coffee would have to wait a few minutes, but then she’d be free to grab a cup. She could already smell it; her mouth watered in anticipation. Working in the Citadel might not be as luxurious as it looked in the recruiting ads, but the purchasing department did stock excellent coffee in the break rooms.
But first, she needed to cut down what was in her inbox, at least a little, and get some time logged in to the system.
Every day, Thorn watched video of various checkpoints, looking at body language or actual actions to determine if someone required further scrutiny. If she flagged someone, a second set of watchers on the next floor up from hers would take a closer look. Non-Americans often required special surveillance since their body language didn’t always match up to what Thorn and her compatriots were looking for. But then, foreigners were always due more scrutiny in any case.
It was Thorn’s job to try to catch the smaller fish. Con men, grifters, the occasional thief. With only one black stripe on her silver badge, she might rate the title Supervisor, but she was still very low on the chain of command within the Citadel itself. To get two stripes, she’d need to increase her skill set or get phenomenally lucky and flag someone who turned out to be a true national-level threat.
Luck was not something Thorn preferred to count on. For that reason, she’d been studying accents and working to improve her knowledge of lip-reading and body language so that she could pass the test and become Senior Supervisor and have that second black stripe. She was already nearly perfect in New England regional accents and proficient in Midwestern accents. But she hadn’t even started studying the regional differences in the far western states of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas yet.
The next test was only two months away; she hoped she’d be able to study enough in that time to pass. Otherwise, she’d have to wait until next summer when the next series of exams were scheduled.
“Supervisor Thorn,” said a clipped voice from behind her. A Connecticut native for sure.
“Yes?” Thorn turned around to see a tall woman, hair tightly pulled back away from her face, wearing a blue badge edged in gold. One of the Undersecretary’s own personal staff. Thorn sat up straighter, heart pounding. The Undersecretary’s staff wouldn’t care about her one-time lack of punctuality. This had to be about something far more important. “Ma’am?”
“You have an appointment with Director Kavanaugh,” said the woman.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware,” said Thorn, palms sweating. Could she have forgotten such an important meeting? That seemed unlikely, but then, so did the presence of a member of the Undersecretary’s staff at her desk.
“The meeting was just scheduled. I was sent to fetch you.” The disdain in the woman’s voice clearly indicated how she felt about being sent on a mission to fetch a silver badge.
“Oh. Of course. I’m at the Director’s disposal.” Thorn felt like a babbling idiot, but she’d never been summoned to an ad hoc meeting before. She grabbed a notepad.
“You don’t need to bring anything,” said the woman. “This meeting is classified.”
Classified? Another kind of meeting Thorn had never been part of. Now she felt sweat trickling down her back despite the chill in the perfectly air conditioned atmosphere of the Citadel. Secure meetings, sure, because every meeting in the Citadel rated that. But classified was another layer of secrecy altogether.
Thorn nodded and got up, at a loss for words. The man at the desk next to hers gave her a brief sideways glance but then was right back to watching videos on his own monitor. Thorn was headed toward a meeting that would likely make or break her career in video surveillance, and none of her coworkers would want to draw attention to themselves if it turned out to be the latter. Being noticed by the people on the top floor wasn’t always a good thing.
Thorn followed the woman to the elevators and stood as calmly as she could while the woman used a key to access one of the building’s highest levels. Thorn worked on Floor 23; the ride to the top tier of the building was the longest elevator trip of her life.
By the time the doors opened, Thorn’s knees were shaking. She only hoped she could hold herself together for the length of the meeting. What could Director Kavanaugh possibly want to talk to her about? She hadn’t flagged anyone terribly suspicious in months, and the only true criminal she’d ever discovered had turned out to be a runaway husband from Italy who was wanted for lack of child support payments.
Thorn walked on the plush robin’s egg blue carpet, noting how every surface on this level was soft and comforting, from the carpet, to the textured wallpaper and the cloth-covered cubicle walls. A hush lay over the entire floor, even though Thorn could see, over the half-walls of the cubes, the tops of dozens of heads bent over their tasks. She thought about the old adage about being able to hear a pin drop, which she could have done, providing one could find a hard surface to drop the pin onto.
Her escort finally stopped at a dark paneled door and knocked very softly. After only a moment, she opened the door and gestured for Thorn to enter. Thorn walked through briskly—no point in showing any nervousness now—and was disquieted to find herself the only one in the room.
“The Director will be here shortly,” the woman announced in a properly modulated, almost silent voice before closing the door.
Thorn glanced at the long wooden table in the center of the room. It could seat at least twenty and matched the room’s trim and the door. The walls were the same light blue as the carpet. Would there be a meeting in here with twenty people? Just what was Thorn in for?
The door opened and Thorn turned back to see who was joining her. A man sauntered in, clad in dark blue jeans and a denim jacket. His short black hair matched his dark eyes. But what really grabbed Thorn’s attention was his badge.
He wasn’t wearing one.
“How did you get in here?” she asked as the man sat down.
He shrugged. “They’ll let anybody in these days.” His voice was low and oddly-accented, but Thorn was too concerned by his lack of a badge to worry about that at the moment. How could anyone be anywhere near the Undersecretary and his staff, such as Director Kavanaugh—hell, how could anybody be inside the Citadel itself—and not have a badge?
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I’m from Illinois,” he said.
She’d meant what department are you from, but the man had either misunderstood or had decided not to answer her true question. And his answer had been a lie. That accent…she didn’t know what it was, but it was most definitely not any part of Illinois with which she was most familiar from her study materials.
Still, she’d had studied some. Assuming he wasn’t simply lying, Thorn guessed the man was from somewhere Downstate. Somewhere near enough to the Occupied Territories of Kentucky and Tennessee to have tinged his speech.
Thorn relaxed slightly. The Undersecretary of Occupied Territorial Affairs and the directors, like Kavanaugh, who were underneath him would obviously would have agents from the borderlands. That didn’t explain the lack of a badge inside the Citadel, but it gave Thorn some idea of why the man was here. Something had to be up in Tennessee or Kentucky. The big question was, what did it have to do with Thorn?
“Delilah Thorn,” she said.
The man nodded. Thorn waited a few moments for a reply, but the man merely glanced at the view of the New York City skyline beyond the windows of the room.
Thorn gritted her teeth together and refused to ask the man his name, as he so clearly was trying to rile her. Instead, she walked to the window and looked down over the shorter buildings nearby to the spires of Trinity Church and the ordered blocks beyond. Near the old City Hall, some massive and disorderly neo-classical behemoth was being leveled to make space for a series of strong, standardized and efficient steel cubes. Truly, the capital of the United States was an awe-inspiring city.
Thorn had visited Washington D. C. once, on a research trip to examine some notes still residing in the old Library of Congress. She had found the whole place sad. The dome of the old Capitol Building, still incomplete after a hundred and sixty years, was edged with an ugly mix of soot and lichens. So many buildings were cracked and spalled. So many windows boarded or dark.
After the war, when the Union and the Confederacy had gone their separate ways, Washington had still been the capital. But leaving the Union capital there, on the banks of the Potomac, in range of the increasingly powerful artillery installations dug into the hills around Arlington, had seemed foolish. For a few years, while the issue was debated, President McClellan had run the nation from the same Philadelphia halls where the United States had been founded. But in the end, Congress had decided on New York.
Thorn was very glad of the choice. The rows of gleaming new buildings, the long avenues lined with steel. The flags that hung from poles at the beginning, middle, and end of each block until they seemed to form a continuous stream of waving colors. The city was strong and modern and displayed an authentic patriotism that filled any citizen with joy at the sight.
It was hard to understand patriotism sometimes. The emotions, the thoughts, the swelling of pride. The sense of being an important part of something greater than yourself. I am part of the Union. I am the Union.
Thorn raised her chin and looked far to the south. She couldn’t see more than few blocks, of course—the brown fog off the Brooklyn generating plants made sure of that. But she could still imagine that down there, past the Bay and Staten Island, past Philadelphia and Baltimore, was the Eastern Confederacy, which had recently changed its name to The Free States of America, usually now called the FSA. Farther west was the rest of the Confederacy, still sometimes referred to as the West. And beyond that, the Indian Territories, Texas, Mexico, the Mormon state of Deseret, and the Pacific Coast which the Japanese Empire ruled. Thorn wondered sometimes what would have happened if the Union had managed to stay together, if McClellan had lost the 1864 presidential election to Lincoln, and Lincoln had won the war. Perhaps the Union would stretch all the way to the Pacific.
Or perhaps not. It was pointless to wonder.
The door opened. Thorn turned to see a bald man with cinnamon-colored skin and white eyebrows enter the room. He wore the gold badge with two black stripes of a director. Thorn saluted and sat down opposite him. The new man did nothing to acknowledge the director’s presence. Thorn would have kicked him if she’d been close enough.
“Supervisor Thorn, Agent Rook,” said the man with the accent of someone from Harlem. “We have an assignment for you.”
Thorn sat up straighter. “Yes, sir. Is this to be a—”
The director interrupted her. “It’s a field assignment.”
The idea made Thorn lean away. The director could assign her anywhere, of course, but she was a video surveillance officer studying accents and lip-reading in order to progress through the silver levels of the Citadel’s complex ranking structure. She was no field agent.
Thorn started to ask more, but the man—who was apparently Agent Rook—spoke first.
“And the assignment?” he asked.
“You’ll be briefed after this meeting, and will leave for your assignment as soon as possible.”
“Very well,” said Rook.
Thorn was taken aback. She had a date this weekend, and a birthday party for her niece. She had to study for her Senior Supervisor exams. But then, the director would know that. Before he’d walked into this room, he’d known the schedule of her life better than she did. It would have been in the briefing his staff had given him
Nor could she object. Wherever the director sent her, she would have to go, or be demoted, or, possibly, jailed for insubordination. If she wanted to remain silver, or ever hope to get that second black stripe on her badge, she needed to do her job.
She squared her shoulders and tried to look eager, enthusiastic, but serious. The Union had need of her. She owed the Union everything. Of course she would go, and go gladly. What was one birthday party, or one date, or her exams, next to the preservation of the Union?
“Where can I be of service?” she asked.
The director rose and gestured in a southerly direction. “The Western Confederacy. To be more precise, we’re sending you to Perdition, Arkansas.”
The woman with the pulled-back hair opened the door. “If you’ll follow me,” she said in her clipped Connecticut accent.
Thorn followed the aide out of the room, only vaguely aware that Rook fell in step right behind her. Arkansas? A place she’d never been, had never even wanted to go. A place full of people so unlike her, she couldn’t even imagine what meeting one would be like. She’d only seen the movies, the fictional depictions of life in the economically shattered, almost completely rural, Confederacy. Slavery had officially been made illegal there some time ago, but that hadn’t really changed anything in the day-to-day lives of people. Nothing she had ever seen had made it look like a place any sane person would want to go.
“It’s not so bad,” Agent Rook whispered. “The Confederates only hang spies sometimes.”
A chill went down Thorn’s spine.
Rook whispered again. “Those are the lucky ones.”
Thorn waited her turn at the security station while Rook was cycled through. When her turn came, she stepped into the small room while the heavy doors closed at either end and held up her badge in her right hand while a buzzer indicated she was being examined by X-rays.
The hallway beyond was surprisingly busy. Groups hurried past, many of them wearing the green badges of field agents mixed with a handful of silver headquarters staff. She followed Agent Rook and the aide to a small, unmarked door in the middle of a long hallway and stepped inside to find a small, empty conference room where an oval table was surrounded by a quartet of chairs. Rook immediately dragged one of the chairs out and dropped into it with a sigh.
A moment later, a door on the far side of the room opened and a gold badge with one stripe strode to the front of the room. The badge also had the black ticking around the edges to signify a veteran. She was older with white hair cropped close to her skull and wore flats that made no sound on the hard concrete floor.
Thorn straightened and put her hands at her side. “Delilah Thorn, Central Video Ana…”
“Yes,” said the woman, cutting Thorn off. “Thank you for coming.” She did not introduce herself or what department she came from, a clear breach of standard procedure. Instead she waved at the remaining chair on Thorn’s side of the table. “Please,” she said. “Sit.”
Thorn sat. The gold badge did not sit, and still did not introduce herself. Something unusual was happening, that much was certain. Rook took the other chair and waited silently with the air of someone who already thought he knew what the gold badge was going to say. That went along with Thorn’s opinion of him being a pretentious jerk. She wondered why she was being made to be in a meeting with him.
The woman folded her hands at her back and paced slowly along the length of the table.
“We have a delicate situation in the Confederacy,” she said slowly.
“I wouldn’t think we had any kind of situation with the Confederates,” said Rook with a snort. “Backward as shit and poorer than pretty much anywhere else on the planet.”
Thorn ran through what little she knew of the West from school. The East—the FSA, rather—had ditched slavery early on, began trading with Europe in the late 19th century, and had become an industrial powerhouse that, while not one rivaling the United States, at least made it semi-respectable. There had been rumors for years that the FSA and the USA would enter some kind of trade deal or even begin allowing tourists across the border. In fact, the border itself had become relatively porous in recent years, and while that was a problem that rated a bit of extra security money, it had not become the international disaster it would have been thirty or forty years ago.
The West, on the other hand, was completely closed off. They probably still had slavery there; it was that awful a place, from what little Thorn had heard about it. Farming was still mostly by hand, and what little industry there was of poor quality and belonged in another era.
“We have an embassy of sorts there,” said the gold badge.
That caught Thorn’s attention.
Rook’s, too, by his reaction., “An embassy? In Birmingham? I’ve never even heard a whisper of it.”
The gold badge shook her head. “No, not in Birmingham. That would require more cooperation than the Confederacy has been willing to give. It’s near the border town of Perdition, Arkansas. We’re allowed to send a small group of specially-selected personnel there for a few months out of the year.”
“And how long has this been going on?” asked Rook.
Thorn watched the gold badge fidget a bit. The woman didn’t want to answer, but she’d clearly been ordered to. Thorn didn’t understand the reluctance. The woman had her orders; she should obey them without question.
Something wasn’t right here, but Thorn had no way to know what. She kept her eyes on the gold badge and let Rook do the talking. She’d listen and watch and learn what she could.
The woman looked at Rook, then at her hands. She didn’t even glance at Thorn. “Eight years. The first year, we were allowed to keep staff on-site for four weeks. Now we’re up to ten weeks. Usually July through mid-September.”
“Why then?” asked Rook.
The gold badge shrugged. “To torture our people with the heat? Honestly, I can’t think of a better reason, because there’s no electricity or running water to this facility. So opening all the windows and doors to allow in any breeze and wearing as little clothing as the Citadel will allow in a formal embassy setting is the only way to get any relief.”
“You sound familiar with it.”
The woman nodded. “I was part of the third-year crew. There were eight of us. We were allowed to stay for six weeks. During that time, we sent letters to the governors of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and tried to organize some kind of introductory event. But we were rebuffed at every turn. I think the embassy is something Birmingham allows because it’s feeling the pressure of the increased contact between us and the FSA. We’re also talking more with Mexico and Deseret and the Indian Territories. Japan is thinking of opening the border near Missoula, and even of establishing some kind of trade relationship with us.”
Thorn frowned. All this contact with other governments would mean more security risks. The Citadel had its hands full now; if the government continued to expand its reach internationally, who knew what kind of danger its citizens might be in?
But of course the Directors and Secretaries and Undersecretaries of the Citadel would know all that. They must be planning for increased security in the future. They would keep Americans secure. That was their mission. Their only mission.
“It doesn’t make sense for them to allow a few in, and then refuse to meet with them,” said Rook.
“By year four, the local sheriff had come by a few times,” said the gold badge. “I hear he’s been a regular visitor now for a year or two. Him and at least one official from Little Rock. It’s taking longer than it should, but the egg is cracking. We’ll be meeting with Birmingham soon enough, and then who knows what will happen?”
“What do we want to happen?”
Thorn agreed with that question. What in the world could the United States ever want from the Confederacy?
“We want to see the West become more stable,” said the woman. “Despite endemic diseases like malaria and a lack of modern medical care, the population continues to grow. Without room to expand, all those people are going to need to go somewhere. At some point, what is Birmingham going to do? Ship them to the border, push them over, and let them be our problem? Petition the FSA to take them in? See if Britain or Germany will find a place for them in their African colonies? Something’s going to have to give, and it’s in our best interest to figure out what form that might take and either plan for it or against it now.”
That speech comforted Thorn somewhat. The Citadel’s higher-ups were assessing potential future issues, and attempting to deal with them. The Citadel couldn’t always be the most forward-thinking organization, but Thorn had faith that it did the best it could. At least, in this case, it appeared the Citadel’s top brass were working to contain a problem before it grew out of control.
“Fine,” said Rook. “But what does that have to do with me?” He glanced at Thorn somewhat disdainfully, and she bit back a surge of resentment. She might not be a field agent, but her superiors thought she should be here, so Rook had no reason to question her presence. At her angry glare, he amended his statement. “Us. What does it have to do with us?”
“We need security in a place we’re not allowed to send red badges,” said the woman. “You’re a field agent, and Supervisor Thorn is a low-level administrative functionary. Exactly the kind of people we’ve been sending to Perdition for years. Now we need to send more because a delicate situation has arisen. The ranking official at the embassy, Agent Bradley Morgan, is missing.”
The woman shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t have regular contact with the staff. Besides not having running water or electricity, there’s no phone service. Nothing. We have to send messages through the border. We use codes, of course, but written messages aren’t very reliable. The last message we received was two days ago from Morgan’s adjutant, Vivian Lewis. It merely said that Morgan had visited the sheriff in town, which apparently has happened a couple of times this year, and that he hadn’t returned. The sheriff came back to the embassy to talk to him the next day but seemed surprised when Morgan wasn’t there. Agent Lewis wasn’t buying his innocent act, but she’s got no proof of anything except that her boss isn’t there. The sheriff isn’t interested in pursuing the matter except to state that, if Morgan is caught somewhere he shouldn’t be, the entire staff will be expelled from the country.”
“The sheriff surely knows where he is,” said Rook. “That’s the way these things work.”
The woman nodded.
Thorn’s heart thumped against her ribs. She might miss the tests for her second stripe, but this mission might be even better for her career. She’d get actual field experience and do more than just study people via security camera footage.
But the gold badge couldn’t hide her nervousness. She wasn’t telling everything she knew. Thorn usually didn’t find that unsettling; all her superiors kept the secrets they were supposed to. If they weren’t good at it, they’d never have risen to an administrative level of responsibility. But this woman had a gold badge. Those weren’t handed out for nothing. For her to be visibly nervous was troubling.
“You think Morgan’s dead,” said Rook.
The woman finally settled into a chair. “We have no proof of that.”
“I didn’t say you had proof.”
The gold badge hesitated a long time. Finally, she gave the hint of a shrug. “Morgan’s a good agent. He would check in if he could. We’ve recalled most of his staff except Lewis and her assistant Mayfield Porter. They’ll help you set up meetings with the locals. We need to show that the Citadel considers this a serious matter that could have grave consequences.”
Thorn couldn’t help herself. “Consequences?”
The woman smirked. “What do you think the West could do about it if we dumped waste in the Ohio River? The Mississippi? Don’t you think we could blockade their very few port cities? We could starve them out easily enough. They’ll learn not to mess with the Citadel if they don’t cooperate with us now.”
The woman reached under the table and pulled a small envelope out of a drawer. She pushed it toward Thorn. “You leave in three days. We’ve let Birmingham and the embassy staff know of your arrival.” The small woman turned toward Thorn long enough to give a final nod. “Good luck to you, Agent Thorn.” Then she was gone.
Thorn looked at the door as it closed behind the gold badge. “But…how can we learn anything if the sheriff has already given his official response?”
“I think we’ll be talking to more than just the sheriff,” said Rook. “You heard that she thinks Morgan’s likely dead. In that case, this is a murder investigation. We’re the eyes and ears of the Citadel in this.” He gave her a frustrated look. “I usually work alone. Now I’ll be dragging around some low-level Citadel librarian.”
“I’m not a librarian.”
Rook gave a soft laugh. “Okay, sure. See you in three days at Grand Central Station.” His denim-clad form disappeared through the doorway.
Thorn stood silently in the nearly empty room, unsure what to say or do. She noticed a lump in the envelope the woman had left on the table. She picked up the envelope and tilted it so that the lump slid out. A badge slipped onto the hard surface. A dark green badge with a single black stripe.
She was a field agent now.
The mission was top secret, of course. No one could know what she was planning, so Thorn had to go through with her date and the birthday party, despite the fact she couldn’t work up any joy for either. The date was a disaster; she was far too distracted to be charming, and the guy, who bore the improbable name of Strong P. Lafayette—he claimed the P was for Patriot—couldn’t stop talking about himself, including his name, of which he was inordinately proud.
Thorn had already figured it out, as had probably every date this man had ever been on. After all, every Union school child grew up steeped in the lessons learned from the Battle of Gettysburg; thus, it had only taken Thorn a split second to realize her date had been named for General Strong Vincent, one of the heroic Union generals who’d died there. She’d spent dessert dreaming up the excuse that would get her out of this date the moment the check was paid.
Her niece’s birthday party was easier on her patience, but harder on her emotionally. Jenny wanted to hear about all Thorn’s job, which was usually not such a problem. “Aunt Delilah does things to help the Union” usually was enough to put Jenny off. But this time, upon hearing that Thorn needed her sister to watch her apartment, the girl wanted to know why Aunt Delilah had to leave town.
Thorn just smiled and hoped her sister would bring out the birthday cake. Her sister, who knew nothing about what Thorn’s job actually entailed, still realized there was reason for worry. She looked anxious, but hushed Jenny and got the cake.
Jenny was not to be outmatched for either curiosity or drama. She stood in front of her half-dozen fellow elementary school students and shouted, “My Aunt Delilah is a hero at the Citadel!”
The other adults present merely studied their feet, and Thorn’s sister looked as though she might faint, as if red badges were about to come knocking down the door. The Citadel inspired an awe in everyone, though sometimes it seemed to border on a fear that Thorn didn’t understand.
However, she knew she needed to do something.
“That’s right,” she said, to her sister’s consternation. She smiled at the children. “The Citadel keeps us all safe. Now, who can tell me what we should say every day?”
That was an easy one. Every school child was familiar with the ritual.
“The Pledge! The Pledge!” shouted Jenny. Her age-mates also jumped up and down.
“Good,” said Thorn. She nodded to Jenny. “You’re the birthday girl. You lead.”
Jenny swelled with pride and her eyes sparkled. “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”
Everyone in the room joined in, though only the children showed a great deal of enthusiasm.
“…of the United States of America. And to the Union for which it stands, one sovereign nation, forever indivisible. A beacon of security and justice for all.”
The children whooped and descended on the cake. Thorn’s sister had a hard time cutting fast enough to suit them, but at least the small exercise in patriotism distracted Jenny from Thorn’s upcoming time out of town.
When the furor had died down, her sister sidled up to her. “How long will be you be gone?”
Thorn shrugged. “No one’s said. And even if I knew, I couldn’t say.”
“It’s something big, then.”
Yes, the murder of an ambassador counted as something big. It was still secret, though. Thorn forced herself to smile. “The cake is lovely. I hope we can find another one like it for my birthday.”
All in all, she was desperately glad, three days after the meeting at the Citadel, to be standing in front of Grand Central Station. The morning air was besmudged by a hint of brown smog.
Just in front of her was the famous We Remember sculpture depicting a 20-foot tall bald eagle in bronze, balanced on a single feather, in the process of swooping down, talons outstretched, upon its prey. The prey was represented by two large fish sporting scales shaped like rice, for the Eastern Confederacy, and cotton bolls, for the Western Confederacy. Twenty-nine flagpoles surrounded the statue, each sporting the Union flag and, beneath that, one of the state flags, though today, the flags hung limply in the early morning stillness.
The statue was the main draw, not the state flags, because who cared about state flags when the Union was one unit, undivided? But the statue, surrounded as it was by all the flags—that was something to make the heart sing with pride. Thorn never tired of looking at it. Now she wondered when she’d see it again.
The edge of the feathers nearest the ground weren’t weathered like the rest of the statue. No, those spots were bright and shiny, polished by thousands of visitors rubbing their hands on the statue for good luck. Traditionally, bridal couples came here on the day of their wedding, to hope for eternal union between them, just like the eternal union between the states. No bridal couples were here today; the ritual had grown a bit long in the tooth. Thorn wasn’t sure her sister had come here, or her brother-in-law’s sister, either. Some people said it was too far to go just to rub a piece of metal, when you could had your own party to get to after the ceremony.
Maybe they were right. But Thorn had always assumed she’d come here, if the day ever came that she got married.
She turned to see Agent Rook walking up to her. He had a duffel over his shoulder, which looked more practical than the small suitcase she was carrying, and wore denim again, as if this were his usual uniform. His brown eyes seemed to mock her, but she wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like they even knew each other, and she was here on orders, just like he was.
“Coleridge will have the rest of our orders, our tickets, and our border visas,” said Rook.
Thorn wanted to ask who Coleridge was, but she sensed Rook was just jerking her around, showing that he knew more of the upper level people than she did.
“You’ve gone where we’re going before?” she asked instead.
For the first time, he seemed uncomfortable. Thorn wondered why, since she hadn’t mentioned where they were going.
“Not specifically,” he said. “Farther east a bit.”
Well, that could mean a lot of things, but it could well mean he’d been to the FSA. With seaports and at least some industry, the FSA wasn’t nearly as poor as the West. Still, the tales about its cities, lacking appropriate visual surveillance and security on their ports, meant one’s safety could never be guaranteed. Every week, it seemed there was another news story about a murder or mass shooting somewhere in the East. Atlanta, Raleigh, Miami, Charleston. Not places you’d want to go as a Union citizen. Far too dangerous.
“Let’s go,” said Thorn. “Do you know where to find Coleridge?”
“Yes,” said Rook. “Come along to the side entrance. Our Citadel badges will get us in there without problem, and we’ll have access to all floors.”
Thorn followed Rook silently to the west side of the building, where two red badges stood guard. She prepared to hand over her badge, but as soon as they saw the green, they nodded to her and opened the door.
Thorn stepped inside and waited for the inevitable pat down and retinal scan, but Rook pushed on past her. “Come on,” he said. “Elevators are over here. Leave your bag. They’ll be put on the train for us.”
“Wait, we haven’t passed security yet,” she said, but no one approached her, and Rook was getting farther away by the second. She put her suitcase down by his duffel bag and hurried after him. Behind her, she heard the red badges hauling the luggage away.
“You’re used to Citadel level security,” said Rook. “This is the kind of security the director’s staff have to deal with outside the Citadel.”
“None,” said Thorn darkly. “Anyone could have stolen my badge.”
“No,” said Rook. “There are cameras outside, and we’re expected. If a green badge with a black stripe had been presented right now, at that door, and the person didn’t appear to be you, security would have been on them in an instant.”
“And if I’d just had my hair cut?” Thorn asked with some asperity. “There was still no retinal scan equipment at the door.”
“If you’d had your hair cut, they’d have handcuffed you, hauled you off, and then scanned your retina in one of the central security offices.”
Rook took them to a lower level and wended his way through dingy hallways choked with old boxes and files. The entire floor smelled musty. Some of these files must have been decades old.
“Where’s Coleridge?” she asked after the fourth or fifth turn in this dim and cluttered maze.
“Almost there now.” Rook gestured toward a metal door. “You’ll be happy with the security here.”
Rook walked up to the door, punched a code into a keypad, and leaned toward a retinal scan screen. He turned and gestured for Thorn to put her eye to the screen as well.
As soon as she did, a green light came on. The metal door made a dull clanking sound and Rook pulled it open.
The room inside was dimly lit, but glowing screens around the room indicated that plenty of people were here, watching monitors. From near the door, Thorn could not see what was on those monitors, but she assumed that she and Rook had been on someone’s screen during their entire trip here. That did make her feel better.
Rook walked around the monitors; he must have been fairly familiar with this room to navigate it so well in the darkness. He passed through another door. Thorn followed and shut the door behind her.
As soon as the door was shut, light flooded the room. Thorn blinked.
Coleridge sat at a shabby desk with a pile of folders in front of her. Also, a basket. She gestured toward the basket. “Keys, coins. Whatever you’ve got in your pockets, deposit it here and we’ll hold it all for your return.”
Rook pulled out his front jeans pockets, showing clean white lining. “Already divested myself of everything.”
Thorn blushed. Of course she couldn’t take anything with her to the Confederacy. She quickly emptied her pockets.
Coleridge handed each one of them a folder. “We assume any telephone you’ll be granted access to is monitored. Don’t buy anything you don’t have to. We can only get so much cash over the border at one time, and the embassy doesn’t have a great deal in reserve. Tickets are in your folders. Your train leaves in twenty minutes.”
Thorn clutched her folder in a sudden dizzying pall of terror. How could Coleridge, or the director, think she was suited for this mission? Of course, she would do her best, but this was so far outside her experience.
Rook nodded. “We’ll be on the train in ten.” He looked over at Thorn. “Ready?”
What could she say to that? Mutely, she nodded, and, without a backward glance, followed him out of the office, out of the monitor room, back through the rambling corridors, and up the elevator to the train platforms.
Normally, Thorn loved train travel. But at this moment, fear made the locomotive look like a black carriage taking her away to her own funeral. She pushed that thought aside, handed over her ticket, and followed Rook onto the train.