Americana

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The Pitch

Twenty years after the Second American Civil War, East and West remain divided. Natural disasters and extreme weather have ravaged both sides and many of the outlying communities maintain a tenuous independence, their alliances shifting as resources grow increasingly scare. In the eastern Republic, conservative values rule a capitalist class system whose economy has become built on prolonging the cold war. California and the other progressive western states declared their independence, establishing a fledgling federation that is still struggling to find its place on the world stage.

When an escaped Republican soldier crash-lands behind Federation lines, she reveals that she is carrying a message for the Governor from the son that she was forced to leave behind. His younger sister, Virginia, had been only an infant when her family fled the war, but her brother was taken from them and the effect on her parents has cast a shadow over her entire life. The message is her chance to make things right, to finally see something of the wider world, and to save her brother from the traitor’s sentence that he has been serving in her parents’ stead. She sets off on an adventure across the fractured country – from the rural Northwest to the crowded co-ops of California, past the last bastion of Las Vegas and through the new Wild West of the Disputed Lands, sheltering with the rebuilt cities of the Gulf Coast, and navigating up the Mississippi river to the new capitol that was built after the flooding of Washington D.C. Along the way, she amasses a merry band of misfits – the soldier escaping gender persecution, an old pothead with ties to the revolution, and a devil-may-care cowboy looking for revenge. Meanwhile, her brother, Mason, works to bridge the divide from within the Republic, or at least to prevent his employer from unleashing a weapon that will “end the war for good.” His is an inner battle of conflicting identities, pitting the person who he became in order to survive against the better man that he hopes he can still become. With his first child on the way and a suspicious detective on his tail, he is forced to weigh the safety of both his old family and his new against preventing the further destruction of an already fractured nation.


 

Prologue

The money men were touring the Western Front. It made sense, he supposed. Wars were expensive, even one that had slipped into an icy stalemate over a decade ago. Lieutenant Robbins hadn’t been old enough to enlist back when there had been actual fighting, when the rebellious western states had declared their independence from the Loyalists of the east. Despite the revolt of the self-proclaimed Federalists, the New Republic of America still claimed dominion from “sea to shining sea.” In truth, everything west of the Mississippi River was suspect. The major cities of the mid-west had been contested and many had sustained heavy damage during the initial fighting. Some still paid their taxes and sent their soldiers east to replenish the ranks of the NRA forces, but many of the smaller communities had simply gone dark, carving out their own tribes and fiefdoms in the Disputed Lands. Or so he had heard. Personally, Robbins had never been beyond Chicago.

He was stationed at an old air force base outside the city proper, one that mostly catered to officials and businessmen up from St. Louis. That was the capitol now, though it hadn’t been when he was a child. Rising tides had changed the coastlines, driving the populations of the great eastern cities inland, flooding the towers of New York and the monuments of Washington D.C. They had fared better than the South, at least, where storms had wiped entire cities off the map. Robbins was one of the lucky ones. He reminded himself of this fact every day, a mantra muttered during the lonely hours of his watch.

He’d drawn the night shift again, volunteered for it, really. His wife was pregnant with their third child, a victory for himself and for the Republic. Still, he couldn’t help but think of the cost. They struggled enough as a family of four and the medical bills were already mounting. When it was born, the initial Buy-In – food, medicine, and a down payment for the child’s future education – would them even further into debt. It was standard practice, the cost of procreation, of life for all those under the Republic’s protection. He had heard that western rebels, upon capture, were assigned a similar debt to cover the cost of their incarceration and rehabilitation, as well as the standard yearly Buy-In for all their years of absence. Better that Robbins give his child what meager head start he could, hence another night shift.

The base was quiet, his only company the old, crackling radio that sat in the window of his security booth. It was warm, the September air still holding fast to summer. There were three helicopters on the tarmac, prepped and ready, but sunrise was still hours away, their important passengers still snug in their beds.

“Hey, Robbins.”

Some security. He hadn’t heard the woman approach until she tapped on the glass of his booth, fixing him with a friendly, drunken smile.

“Casey. What brings you out here?”

Nora Casey was a big woman, broad and dark and Amazonian. Though “woman,” in his mind, was a generous term. Her hair was cropped short, the dark uniform of her private military company accenting the thickness of her limbs while somehow hiding every curve. Even worse, she carried herself as a man, with a pistol on her hip and confident tread of a trained soldier. It was a wonder she hadn’t been taken in for gender rehabilitation, but the private security firms governed themselves with more autonomy than the conscripted forces. They got away with more, the lucky bastards.

She was an officer, Robbins reminded himself, head of security for this latest delegation of financiers. He managed a belated salute. The woman laughed, leaning against his booth as she took another pull from her bottle. It was wrapped in a crumpled paper bag. A master of stealth, this one.

“Night’s watch, huh? How’d you draw the short stick again?”

He shrugged. “I go where they tell me.”

For a moment her expression sobered. “As do we all.” Then she raised her bottle, the crooked grin returning. “Good man.”

She was offering it to him, he realized. The PMCs probably got better liquor rations, too. But Robbins shook his head.

“I’m on duty. Aren’t you?”

She laughed, stumbling against the booth. “Anyone else around?”

Each entrance to the base had its guard. More would be inside the main hanger, but at this hour, Robbins was effectively alone. His eyes strayed to the fence in the distance, to the darkness stretching away to the west. Sometimes, in these lonely hours, he imagined what it would be like – to simply start walking, to set out into the darkness and see what really lay beyond the front. It was a death sentence, even if you could somehow avoid capture. The Disputed Lands were a ruin. It was said that there was no safe harbor until Salt Lake City, which had declared itself a theocratic city-state and remained stubbornly neutral during the fighting. The thought was a fool’s notion, a way to while away the hours when worrying about family and duty and debt became too much. Still, it shamed him.

Casey was watching him. After a moment, Robbins sagged and shook his head.

“What’s eating you?”

If the drunk wanted to be friendly, so be it. “Wife’s pregnant again. Doc’s put her on bedrest, no work until the baby’s born.”

“You worried about her, or her paycheck?”

He scowled. “You got kids?”

“The blessing has eluded me.” The words were proscribed, proper, but her smile did nothing to hide her relief. He wondered if she was barren, if building all those muscles had done something to her womanly parts. Again, she offered him the bottle. “We should drink to your wife’s health, to the health of the child.”

This time he took it, staring doubtfully down at the crumpled bag. “Your man, the one you arrived with. The young one. He’s that Wall Street wunderkind isn’t he?” The original “Wall Street” was under water, but the Republic had wasted no time in reestablishing its hub of trading and finance in the new capitol.

“He’s my boss.” Casey smiled. “And, yes, something like that.”

“He’s kind of a big deal.” Robbins didn’t know where he was going with this, not exactly. Something nagged at him, something more than the drunk interrupting his daydream. It was too quiet by far.

She was watching him, he realized. She also wasn’t leaning against the booth anymore. In fact, her posture was taught, alert…

“You going to drink that, or can I have it back?” She nodded to the bottle. This time, though, the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

Robbins drew his sidearm a moment too late, dropping the bottle. Casey already had her gun leveled at his eyes, the big pistol unwavering in her practiced, sober grip. She even managed to snatch up the bottle before it went crashing to the ground.

She shook her head. “The others were so easy. Too easy. If you’d played along, you’d be taking a nice little nap right now.”

“The drink. You poisoned them?”

“I gave them deniability. They’ll wake up with a headache, nothing more. I wanted to do this the nice way.”

Robbins struggled to still the shaking of his hands. By her expression, he had already lost this standoff. “Do what?”

“I have a message to deliver.”

“What message?”

“It’s not for you.” For the first time, he saw doubt in her expression. Her eyes raked over the helicopters, already prepped and ready for their passengers. “I have miles yet to go.”

Robbins gaped. “You’re not… you can’t… what about your boss?”

“I flew us here, didn’t I?” She seemed to be talking to herself, steeling herself. “I can do this.”

He had one job. And yet the woman had fooled him. Robbins shot a glance at his radio, but if Casey was to be believed, backup wouldn’t be coming.

When she turned back to him, her eyes were hard, resolved, but her smile was sympathetic. “Come on, Robbins.” Again, she held out the bottle, looking pointedly between it and her gun. “Think of the children.”

“Bitch,” he spat.

Without batting an eye, Casey pulled the hammer back. “Please, don’t tempt me.”

Robbins held out bravely, for all of thirty seconds. Holstering his sidearm, he slowly raised his hands. Apparently satisfied, Casey holstered her own weapon and handed him the bottle. “Drink up, Pops. Say you never saw me. It’ll all be all right.”

He accepted the brown paper bag with a dubious expression. “Will it? When is anything ever all right?”

“Maybe someday.” She smiled at that. “Trust me, I’m doing what I can.”

Whatever that meant, he never found out. Robbins took a long pull from the bottle, marveling at the surprisingly pleasant taste. Those PMC bastards really did get away with everything.

By the time the hijacked helicopter took off, Lieutenant Robbins was slumped snoring in his chair.

 

Chapter One

Virginia took the long way up the mountain. The Listening Post was a mile outside of town, perched on the highest point in the valley, its array of antennae and satellite dishes lost in the morning clouds. The road narrowed as it climbed past the outlying homesteads, hugging the hillside in switchback curves. But Virginia knew the route well, the thick treaded tires of her mountain bike spraying up gravel as she leaned into the next turn. Usually the climb was all about momentum, but today she had a stop to make.

She banked onto an even narrower driveway, the bike lurching sharply downward as it found the ruts in the path. Trees crowded close. Like many of the homes out here, the cabin was hidden well back from the road, its cluster of sheds and outbuildings and animal pens forming a humble oasis of rustic privacy. Here some of the trees had been cut away, allowing for a breathtaking view of the foggy valley below.

Virginia leaned her bike against a fencepost. “Dot?”

Dot was old, older even than Virginia’s parents. She kept to herself mostly, but could always be found at the weekly farmer’s market in town, with jellied preserves and herbal remedies for sale. She also had the largest collection of books that Virginia had ever seen. She was here to return one of them this morning, a weathered old paperback on the burning of the Library of Alexandria. She could simply leave it inside, but it was unlike the old woman to be gone so early.

Pushing aside the door, Virginia stepped into the cabin. “Hey, Dot? I brought your book back.”

From deeper inside the house came a thud and a muffled curse.

“Dot?” Virginia dropped her voice to a whisper. Slowly, she pulled her pocket knife from her boot.

It came thundering around the corner, a lumbering shadow that hit the wall and lurched down the hallway toward her. As it barreled past, it shoved her aside, knocking framed family portraits from the wall. Virginia barely had time to register a faded sweatshirt and a hunting cap pulled low over the man’s face as he leapt from the porch and ran for the driveway.

He didn’t make it far. His body jerked as if electrified and he toppled face first into the mud, spitting curses.

“Hey, Dot.”

Virginia smiled as the old woman stepped out from behind the house, the taser in her hand trailing wires. She looked to the man spluttering in the dirt. “Oh, hush. It’s on the lowest setting. I’ve had worse myself.”

“Bitch,” the man spat. Virginia recognized him now – Ernie, one of the local toughs. He’d graduated a few years before she had and had a habit of making trouble for anyone smaller than he was.

Dot certainly was smaller than Ernie – and well into her sixties – but she walked with a confidence that belied her years, retracting the wires of her taser with practiced ease. Her long salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back into a loose knot and she was dressed, as always, for work, in dark cargo pants, an oversized sweater, and sturdy boots.

“Hello, there, Virginia dear.” With a smile for the girl, Dot strode across the yard and retrieved a package from Ernie’s sweatshirt, clucking her tongue as he flinched away. “We’ve talked about this, young man. Once the batch is cured, you’ll have a chance to buy it, the same as everyone else.”

Virginia groaned. “Damn, Ern. Stealing from an old lady? Let her garden in peace.” At a withering look from the woman in question, she hastily continued. “Plus, everyone knows Dot will kick your ass.”

Mollified, the older woman turned her back on the would-be thief and nodded toward the cabin. “Coffee?”

“Maybe a quick cup.” With a smile, Virginia followed her onto the porch and back inside. “I’m headed to work. Just wanted to bring back your book.”

She gestured with the paperback and Dee took it absently, turning it over in her hands as she led the way to the kitchen. “The Library of Alexandria. A sad story.”

“Like the Internet.” Virginia leaned against the counter, in her old accustomed spot. Once, all the knowledge of the world had been only a few keystrokes away. But that had been before the War. Before the Wipe. Virginia had been only a baby when the old government had locked it down, restricting public access in areas that were deemed “rogue states.” Dot would certainly remember what it had been like, but she made no reaction as she busied herself with the coffee pot.

But the silence wasn’t uncomfortable. Virginia had always found the old woman’s home relaxing, fascinating with its rooms upon rooms of old books and treasures. She had first come here with her mother, accompanying her on some business of the governor’s office. In those early days, she had had the time to visit with constituents, stressing the importance of local cooperation in establishing the new Federation of western states. Nearly two decades later, she rarely left her offices in the capitol. But Virginia still made a habit of visiting Dot, of offering her help around the house. Not that she particularly needed it. Dot grew her own produce, chopped her own firewood and – as Ernie and so many others knew – always had the best weed.

The package that she’d pulled from his sweatshirt and thrown onto the kitchen counter was a bit muddy, a bag of fresh green buds still sealed and unharmed. With a laugh, Virginia gave it an experimental poke.

“Don’t you start, girl.” She spoke without turning around. “It’s not ready yet.

Virginia grinned sheepishly at her back. “Yes, ma’am.”

The old woman served the coffee, hot and steaming, in a mismatched pair of mugs. Then she leaned against the counter beside her guest.

“Are you going into town tomorrow?” Virginia had only been making conversation, but Dot looked at her sideways and snorted.

“And why would I be doing that?”

“It’s Independence Day. Twenty years.”

The older woman took a drink from her mug and shook her head. “Seems long to you, maybe. Twenty years is not so much for someone like me. Not much at all.” She sighed. “I suppose your mother will want you in the capitol.”

Virginia nodded. “She does. But I’m still not sure I’m going. I doubt she’d notice, one way or the other.”

“Don’t you be so sure, child. Your mother knows how lucky she is, trust me.”

The younger woman winced. Dot rarely talked about her family, but Virginia knew that they’d been lost in the war. Dot had lost everything. Virginia’s own family had been lucky. They’d lost only her older brother, Mason, who had been only six years old when his school had gone into lockdown. Her parents were almost as reluctant to talk about it as Dot, but they had never tried to hide the truth from their daughter. They had no choice, they’d said. There had been rioters, soldiers and armed citizens exchanging fire in the streets. Virginia had been a babe in arms, jostled and crying as desperate parents crowded the gates of the school. Her father’s leg had been broken in the melee and, in the end, they had been forced to leave her brother behind. They’d done it to save her. That realization had come years ago and had haunted her ever since. Her mother, now an architect of the new Federation government, called it the hardest choice she’d ever had to make.

Virginia swirled her cup, staring down at the liquid inside. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Not my business.” Dot shrugged. “Tell someone your age what to do and they’re sure to do the opposite. Will you be wanting another book? It gets lonely up at the Post.”

“Maybe something a little more fun this time? Or at least less sad.”

The old woman gave her a tired smile. “No more histories, then. Connie Forrester brought me a bundle of pulp romances in trade last week.” At Virginia’s sour face, she laughed. “No, I thought not. Something with bold adventurers and a wizard or two?”

“That’ll work.” She followed Dot as she puttered through the living room, deftly plucking a few volumes from the shelves and stacks that spilled across the floor. When the old woman pressed the books into Virginia’s hands, her grip was strong and sure.

“Go on, now. That boy won’t be happy if you’re late again.”

John, who worked the night shift at the Listening Post, was in his thirties, but she supposed everyone looked like a kid to Dot. The classification wasn’t entirely undeserved, though. Another few minutes, and Virginia was sure to get an earful of complaints.

“Thanks again, Dot.” She raised the stack of books in a clumsy salute and nodded back toward the kitchen. “And, hey, let me know when the harvest is ready.”

The old woman’s lips pulled back in a grin. “Careful, girl. Won’t take me long to reload my lightning rod.” Her laughter followed Virginia outside as she piled the books in the basket and walked her bicycle back up the drive.

By the time she reached the Listening Post, she was late, but only by a few minutes. She swiped her access badge at the gate surrounding the antennae and receivers, and again at the door to the monitoring station. It was a narrow building, three stories tall and accessible by a ramp of metal stairs. The exterior was unadorned concrete, with windows on only the highest level, where the building jutted out from the hillside to overlook the valley below.

Strangely, she found John still at his terminal. He glanced up as she entered and made a point of looking at the clock. This time, though, he seemed surprised at the hour.

“What’s up?” Virginia set down her bag and moved to look over his shoulder.

“You didn’t hear?” He was grinning, she realized. “We got a hit last night.”

“A what?” She pulled up a chair and slid closer to the screen.

During the war, communication had become compromised. Information leaks, disruption of service attacks – both sides had waged war in the electronic sphere before a single shot was fired. And then, in the thick of it, had come a massive data wipe that reduced both sides to chaos. The rest of the world had pushed ahead, rebuilding the infrastructure that had once connected every corner of the globe. Within the eastern Republic, it was said that public access was still severely limited, while the Federation had deemed public access to be too much of a risk. The Listening Post had access to the secure network used by government officials and the western militias, but their primary function was tuning the dishes outside to monitor enemy radio signals. After the wipe, aged technologies had enjoyed a resurgence in common use. Virginia herself wore a pager on her belt, though there were only a handful of people who had the number.

John’s eyes gleamed. He was almost giddy. “Air base outside of Chicago. Someone stole a helicopter.”

“One of ours?” It was not unheard of for the citizen militias of the border to harry Eastern troops. Two summers ago they had caught a band of Republican agents setting fires, hoping to exploit the drought to sew chaos in the mountains. Virginia had never heard of a mission so far behind enemy lines, though.

He shook his head. “One of theirs. Last report had them headed this way.”

“The NRA bastards didn’t shoot it down?”

“Not that we’ve heard. Or at least there hasn’t been an update on official channels. No one’s picked up a distress call, either.”

“Anything else?”

John finally stood and began gathering his things. His smirk was wicked. “Email from your mom. I guess the Governor can use secure channels however she wants, huh?”

“Guess so.” Virginia winced. She took his place at the computer terminal and pulled up her inbox. Just as Dot had predicted, her mother was looking for confirmation that Virginia would be coming to tomorrow’s Independence Day celebration. “Hey, John. You working tomorrow?”

“Why? So you can offer to take my shift? No such luck, Princess.” With an offhanded wave, he turned and disappeared through the door.

Virginia took her time settling in. She made herself another coffee, swept John’s crumbs and crumpled snack wrappers into the garbage bin, and pulled a breakfast bar from her bag. There was a reason she had volunteered for this post, a reason that she made her home in a small but clean trailer on the edge of nowhere. Her father, at least, understood. Before the War, he’d been an investment banker, stressed and always sick, plagued by depression and self-medicating with a bottle of whatever was handy. He’d gotten out just in time, as he was fond of saying, despite the injury to his leg that never quite healed. Now he was much happier, slimmer and healthier, spending most of his time in the carpenter’s workshop that he’d built behind the Governor’s mansion. A trip into Salem would give her a chance to visit with him, at least. They could keep each other company while Mom was off saving the world, just like they always had.

Molly Carter meant well. She hadn’t set out to lead a revolution or build a country. When the dust settled, she said she simply felt an obligation. They needed every person with a sensible head on their shoulders. She never could resist helping people and, once she’d started, there was always something else that needed doing. She might not say it enough, Virginia was proud of her.

For her own part, Virginia had always believed that she was born too late. She should have been there, could have seen the world at its peak, before everything had gone bad. Maybe it was a touch of what her mother felt, the desire to be a part of things, the certainty that you could contribute. But Virginia had never figured out how. She was good with technology, though, and had an ear for languages, having taught herself Spanish, Russian, and Chinese using books borrowed from Dot and the capitol’s library. It seemed a useful skill, especially once her mother had gotten her a job in the Listening Post network.

It also gave her the opportunity to peer behind the curtain of the eastern front, or at least to supplement her daydreams with messages picked up over the airwaves. Much of it was meaningless – shipping data and personnel movements amongst the labor force, sanitized state-run media reports and the scripted “reality” programs that offered nightly distraction. It wasn’t much, but it was something, some small taste of life on the other side. She knew that they had it worse in the East, that a large percentage of the poor were incarcerated, that most people would never rise beyond their assigned job functions, and yet Virginia had always been fascinated.

Settling her headphones over her ears, she propped her feet on the desk and flipped through one of Dot’s books. Outside, the fog was dissipating, receding before the sunrise. John had been right. A scan of the channels revealed no word of the missing helicopter. It might be the most exciting message that they’d intercepted in months, but the NRA had likely shot it down over the Disputed Lands, one more runaway fool who disappeared into the desert.

With a sigh, Virginia composed a short reply to her mother with her apologies – no sense in making up another lame excuse – and a request to give her father a hug. Then she settled in to her borrowed books, idly wondering if it was too early to unwrap the sandwich that she had brought for lunch. Virginia was almost through the first act – following the hero as he gathered his party and ventured forth – when the alarm began to ring.

Dropping the book, she slid her chair over to a desk against the far wall. They had plenty of equipment here, could monitor plenty of channels with simple algorithms that would identify certain keywords and frequencies. But this alarm was coming from an old radio, gathering dust even amongst the other refurbished machines.

She had studied languages, coding, encryption, but as she listened to the repeating pulses, Virginia laughed. Morse code. Digging in a desk drawer, she found a battered old guide, one that translated the alphabet into simple series of dots and dashes. Really, she didn’t need it. The pattern was one that soldiers had known for decades.

Three dots, three dashes, three dots. S.O.S. What followed was a series of coordinates.

It couldn’t be. She stood slowly, her eyes fixed on the window. A few miles away, in the hills beyond the mountain, a plume of smoke rose from the trees.


 

Chapter Two

Forest Rangers arrived first on the scene. Virginia had done her part in putting out the alert, but the trees obscured the view from her window. Technically, the Listening Post was meant to be monitored at all times, but it was one in a network of six, stretching across the Cascades. The station also had an old, gas-powered pickup truck for use in emergencies. She could be there and back in fifteen minutes with a full report for the network.

Her mind made up, she locked the station and took the stairs two at a time. The truck was parked beside the gate, rusted and cobwebbed, the door still bearing an outline of the forestry service logo that had been painted over. In the cities, most vehicles had been converted to consume a variety of alternative fuels, but in remote areas gasoline still ruled. It started on the second try and Virginia eased it out onto the gravel road, rattling her way back down the mountain, past Dot’s and toward source of the smoke.

The sun had burned the fog from the valley floor, the wisps of white retreating to higher peaks, stark against the deep green of the forests. Before the War, logging had been the area’s chief industry and decades later it was still largely unchanged. A truck of unfinished timber blew past as she reached the narrow highway, heading for the pass that would carry the wood east to Bend. Virginia squinted. The plume of smoke seemed thicker now, though whether it was her approach or a sign that it had spread, she couldn’t say.

If she was first on the scene, what could she actually do? The dry season was still a few months away, but fire was always a risk in the forest. And the message had said “S.O.S.” Virginia had basic first aid training, but that would be next to useless if anyone was seriously injured.

Fortunately, the next turn in the road brought flashing lights into view. A pair of SUVs were parked on the narrow shoulder and she could see a ranger scaling the embankment down to the river below. Virginia pulled up behind them and left the truck for a better look.

“Hold it right there.” An old ranger stepped from behind one of the vehicles and held up a warning hand. When he saw her face, though, he broke into a grin. “Hey there, Vee. What’re you doing out here?”

The man was a friend of her mother’s. Virginia was fairly certain she’d asked him to watch out for her when Virginia had moved into the area. “Hey, Eddie.” She sidled closer to the guardrail, craning her neck for a better look. “Saw the smoke from the Post. I called it in.”

He nodded and cast a glance behind him. “I’m not supposed to let ya on the scene, but, well… look.”

Virginia stepped closer, peering over the edge. A steep hill of roots and mud led down to a rocky river, flowing beside the road. In the middle of it, a helicopter was awkwardly perched on the rocks, crashed on its side but mercifully isolated from the underbrush. Two of the other rangers had already affected a rescue and were helping a battered, dark-skinned woman to the shore. Virginia caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar uniform before a blanket was draped around the woman’s shoulders.

The youngest of the officers – Craig, she thought his name was – looked up at them. “Hey, Chief. You’d better get down here.”

With a sigh, he gave Virginia a helpless look. “Don’t suppose you’d be willing to help an old man down the rocks, there?”

“Sure, Ed.”

The old ranger hoisted himself over the guardrail and Virginia followed, keeping a steadying leg braced on the other side as she helped him down the embankment. Once the others had him, she skidded her way down and landed with a leap.

The strange woman shot her a half-smile from where she huddled on the shore.

Craig was less friendly. He nodded at Virginia. “What’s she doing here?”

“Vee called it in.”

“So?”

The older man silenced him with a look. “You had something to show me?”

Craig bent, and rather roughly pulled back a corner of the woman’s blanket. He gestured to the patch on her breast. “(*ACRONYM). That’s a (*DERISIVE SLANG FOR EAST) security firm. The same one that we caught starting fires near the border last year.”

The woman stared up at him, straight-backed and unafraid. “I had nothing to do with that.”

“Where’s the rest of your crew?”

“Just me.”

“Surveillance, huh?” Craig squatted to look her in the eye, a thin-lipped smile on his face. There were plenty like him, frustrated boys full of anger who lamented the fact that the War had cooled before they’d been old enough to fight. He nodded to the helicopter. “Too bad you broke their toy. Bet that’s gonna set you back, huh? Indentured for life.”

Most citizens in the east were in debt, charged for everything from food to education to medicine. When they reached a certain age, their debt would then be purchased by an employer, who would continue to charge them for necessities in exchange for a lifetime of labor. Work hard enough and you could eventually buy yourself out, they claimed. But supposedly it rarely happened. Craig wasn’t wrong, but he was being unnecessarily cruel.

“Leave her alone.” Virginia stepped forward, but Eddie lay a warning hand on her arm. He’d been maddeningly quiet while Craig taunted the prisoner. Now, he only shook his head.

“Vee, hush. Horton, stand yourself up.” He stared down at the prisoner, his expression worried. “Don’t talk to her. Or in front of her. Read her her rights and then hold your tongue.”

“Eddie…”

“Virginia, I need you to get in your truck and go.”

At that, the woman’s head jerked up. “Virginia?” She squinted, a slow smile spreading across her face. “Virginia Carter?”

Eddie put himself protectively between them. “Horton. Cuffs.”

Craig hurried to comply, calling the third officer to assist him in pulling the woman to her feet. They twisted her arms behind her, but she barely seemed to notice. Still, she stared at Virginia.

Eddie turned to look at her. “Vee? You know this girl?”

The woman took a step toward her, but Craig jerked her back. She stiffened against him, sliding in the mud, but she raised her head defiantly toward Virginia. “My breast pocket. Look.”

“Don’t,” the old ranger warned.

But the woman’s eyes were only for Virginia. “No trick. I’m not gonna hurt you.” She nodded to a zippered pocket on the front of her vest. “I was sent here. With a message.”

Whoever she was, she was surrounded, bound and on her knees, a NRA soldier deep behind enemy lines. And yet she didn’t flinch away when Virginia crouched and took the folded page from her pocket.

Straightening, Virginia unfolded it. It was a printed photo, black and white and wearing at the creases. The woman did look like her, but she stood on a busy street, outlined against the light and traffic of a time before the War. Virginia looked from the photo to the pilot and back again. “You’re looking for Molly Carter?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Like I said. A message.”

“From who?”

The woman tilted her head, studying her. “That’s for your… mother? Aunt? Molly Carter, elected Governor of this area a few years back.” Taking in Virginia’s muddied jeans and oversized sweatshirt, she grinned. “Either you Libs have really let yourselves go, or that ain’t you.”

Craig twisted her arm again. This time, the pilot winced. “Brutality too, huh? Maybe things over here have changed.”

“Get her out of the mud.” Virginia’s gave took in the rangers as well as the onlookers that had gathered. She tried to imagine how her mother would handle the situation. “This woman is… an envoy. She’s injured. My mo— the Governor should at least get to hear her message.”

There were nods in the crowd. The younger officers did pull the woman to her feet, but that was all the influence Virginia had. “Fair enough, but this is a police matter,” the old man said. “Go on home, all of you. You too, Vee.”

“Vee.” A smile played at the pilot’s lips. “Virginia. You’re the sister.”

“What?”

The officers still had her by the arms, and were her back to their truck. Virginia hurried to keep up, but they bundled the woman into the backseat and slammed the door shut.

“I need to talk to her!”

The old Ranger gave her a sympathetic smile. “Can’t do that. We’ll get her cleaned up, take her to lock-up in the capitol. Your momma can decide what to do with her from there.”

“I just need a minute.”

“Rules are rules, kid. And enforcing ‘em is my job.” He shook his head. “You’re visiting your folks for the holiday, though, right? Take it up with her when you see her tomorrow.” With that, he climbed into the driver’s seat.

Virginia stepped back to watch them go, locking eyes with the pilot through the back window. She’d come with a message for Virginia’s mother. And she’d stolen a helicopter from a NRA military base to do it. “The sister,” she’d called her.

Virginia’s breath caught. All those years, the regret, the loss, the guilt that she could never quite shake... Her brother was alive.

 

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