Shadow State : Chapter 7

Argo // Union Station, Washington (DC)

“Make no little plans,” master builder Daniel H. Burnham had declared as he drew up the plans for Union Station in the first years of the 19th Century. Well, he’d convinced Teddy Roosevelt — or Teddy Roosevelt had convinced him, and Argo could never keep them both straight in her mind — and mobilized thousands of souls to make his little plan a very, very big reality. The main lobby swallowed her up whole as she came in with a blast of hot humid air and strode across the slick tiled floor. The arches — what arches! — gleamed gold and green and pocked with a thousand skylights — over ninety feet overhead, each skylight a blind eye set in an endless matrix of blind eyes. They’d been neglecting and then restoring this building since it was completed in 1908, she knew, but it still stung that one of their first solutions had been to encase the whole building in a slightly stronger building, one that blocked out all actual sunlight.

Once upon a time, this altar to public transportation might have been fit for a king — or even Donald Trump, with his fixation on granite and gold leaf — but now it was well and truly falling into disrepair. The palatial entryway and arched waiting area still bore the marks of aspiration, but there was litter washing up in all the far corners and the detritus of a hundred thousand wayward souls was not something that could be concealed by some carefully placed scaffolding and the bright glitter of kiosks selling preternaturally useless things at massive mark-up prices.

And beyond the lingering glamor of those Burnham-touched spaces there opened still dimmer horizons, more cluttered and disheveled concourses, their high ceilings obscured by shredded banners and their walls hidden behind piles of boxes and tumbled equipment of dubious origin. The rare overhead light flickered and stank of overheating filaments; signs pointed seemingly anywhere but to their actual destination. Argo took her time shambling along to her own platform, eyeing her fellow travelers with circumspection, the eyes of a person who has been caught in one crowd too many, who has missed all but the least meaningful milestones. Everyone was dressed too warmly for the weather, out of habit or perhaps an ill-fated desire to shield themselves from eyes like hers. Or maybe, she realized with a soft shock, because this was a recession and everyone always wore heavier, darker clothing in a recession — a recorded historical fact — out of a synchronicity of weight and foreboding, or a collective desire to hide fraying collars and threadbare blouses from the more fortunate.

They had moved once more, as a nation entire, to a point where a crisp crease and undamaged stockings were a hallmark of security. And if her fellow foot soldiers were any indicator, Argo thought as she examined a hallway full of navy coats, they were going to be living with that reality for some years yet. A woman clicked by in nude heels and manhandling one of those suitcases that could be wheeled along while standing upright, not talking but listening intently to the cell phone pressed to one ear. Her carefully coifed updo was beginning to come apart, long strands hanging limp, and her lipstick must have been applied in darkness or without aid of a mirror. She looked like the inside of Argo’s worst nightmare: frail femininity, at the mercy of everything, including herself. But the woman avoided Argo’s glance and, yanking at the handle on her suitcase, vanished without giving permission to be thought of that way. She was replaced by a young family of four with heavy bags, the woman Argo took to be a mother walking with one hand firmly gripping a small boy’s shoulder. He might have been six or seven, and his large dark eyes gathered up every fragment of light in the hall only to extinguish them in tears. A girl of two or three gazed, poker-faced and untouchable, from her stroller seat. They stopped at a water fountain to shift what needed shifting and re-strap on the boy’s little backpack, but the water fountain wasn’t working and he cried without sound and without stopping until Argo forced herself to turn away and stump the last leg to her platform.

The 29 Capitol Limited squatted unmoving on the tracks, belly-up against the cracked concrete lip of its berth. Here she broke out into what sunlight there was to be had on this hellish afternoon, Tropical Storm Fernand scraping up the Atlantic seaboard, its eyewall just passing along the Georgia coast and its outer cloud banks fingering everything from the Canadian Maritimes to eastern Missouri to the Florida Keys. It was a slow-moving beast of a storm, cranking up less damaging winds but record rainfall, testing all of the flood-diversion infrastructures in the eastern and south-eastern United States — especially the ones built before the turn of the Millennium, when “a one-hundred year flood” still approximated reality. They’d had, on average, four of these per state bordering the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in the last fifteen years — inundations matched only by droughts, particularly in the West.

All this to say, it was rather cloudy in Washington, and Union Station felt like it lay in wait of a really good washing. The train’s engine was awake, and only a couple of passengers lingered on the platform, most of them suits dealing with last-minute crises by phone and out in the open air, where they wouldn’t receive glares or have to sit immobile. Argo had to admire their pluck, damp and grim as it was; summoning up any sense of purpose was hard work, and as they paced the cracked and crumbling concrete they exuded something vital. Something immanent. As if they could still impose a little control over their circumstances if they just … moved around a little, gesturing and speaking into their bluetooth headsets.

Argo had deliberately waited until almost the last minute to show up; she didn’t like waiting, always felt vulnerable to other people’s speculation. And there would be plenty of waiting ahead anyway, about eighteen hours of it on the way to Chicago, and another couple of days’ worth with change on the Texas Eagle as she rode the rails south.

She might have gone truly rogue, hitched a free ride the way some of her old mates still did, hopping freight trains as they slowed around turns or left stations with lax security, but she was a little frightened of the people who did so on a regular basis and besides, she needed to arrive at a predictable time and establish a paper trail for her fake name. A really, really thick paper trail. One that served as incontrovertible proof that Arlene Fisher hadn’t simply manifested from the aether like a ghost — that she wasn’t, in short, a fake identity of brief provenance and cobbled together to serve a single purpose. So Argo gave the suits a wide berth and climbed onto the train, feeling the minuscule shift beneath her feet as the train acclimated to her presence — or was she simply making that up? Desperate to feel some sort of tangible presence in the world, exert some sort of quantifiable force upon its workings? Argo brushed such uncharacteristic philosophical musings aside and mounted the stairs to the upper level, noting that the train was even less full than she’d expected from the reports — and the reports had been dire. One of the few sleeper trains serving one of the busiest transportation corridors in the nation, and it couldn’t even fill half of its seats on a weekday anymore. She wondered, briefly, if the more expensive seats were more or less full than where she’d booked a seat in economy.

Argo — now Arlene — traveled light, but that wasn’t unusual. She tossed her backpack onto the empty seat beside her own and contemplated the strange checkerboard pattern of filled seats further down the carriage. How were the poor people traveling these days, if not by train? Planes were too expensive, and many budget airlines were on the brink of dissolution or actively cutting routes. The trains — when ridden the legal way, anyway — were pricey, too. Argo had forked over almost $500 for her bottom-of-the-barrel registration. Buses, then? She just couldn’t picture it, even though she knew an unprecedented number of people were self-identifying as nomadic or as domestic migrants. Many were displaced climate refugees, either from the floods or the droughts or something else; Argo had been hearing about people forced out of their homes in Oklahoma after their foundations fell to pieces from one too many fracking-fueled earthquakes. One earthquake of a 4-point magnitude wouldn’t hurt many, but a couple hundred might leave your house unsafe.

And the fires. So many fires.

Argo shuddered as she slid into her seat, wondering if there was even a slice of country not made dangerous by climate change. Hoping, too, that she wouldn’t have to run from a fire where she was headed. She simply didn’t know enough about what lay on the far end of the tracks, what hazards might await Arlene Fisher as well as Argo herself. She tried thumbing through the Capitol Limited brochure as a distraction, felt the train thrumming to life around her. Her eyes ran along the list of towns they’d blaze through, their main attractions summarized in a couple of sentences, a brief jot of a paragraph. How sad, she thought, knowing how many of those towns lay at the cusp of an abyss, at the crumbling lip of loss. How many of them had already gone over, lay splayed and hopeless in the gathering dust, watching as the big cities ate up their manufacturing jobs, how import and export tariffs designed to keep jobs in-country actually ended up starving small businesses, medium-sized businesses, and even whole massive industries of their primary markets … and of critical materials.

Depressing as shit. Argo folded the much-thumbed-through and dog-eared leaves of the brochure back together and slid it carefully into the little slot from which it had come — not because she was the careful type, but because Arlene probably should be, and she had to make her performance flawless in order to make good on her promises. On her obligations, her responsibilities. She had to make good on the hard work so many others had worked for, train-hoppers and hackers and revolutionaries of all kinds. She had to make good on their desperation.

They’d been shut down, her little network. They’d been shut down so hard you could have heard the snap-crack as they broke all their laptops to pieces, burned all their files and torched all their hardware, and the pounding on their doors all the while as suits like the ones outside this train lurked outside to take them in — or didn’t lurk but broke down their doors with men in batons, private security or police a wholly useless distinction these days. Privatized violence. They’d gone after a titan, not even aiming to cut him off at the knees but just a quick little surgical cut for research purposes, to open up an infection and see what drained out of the wound. 12 minutes and 43 seconds of access, enough data for an entire phalanx of hactivists, which they were not, but enough for their purposes too and a clean getaway on top of all that — or so they’d thought, even as Bartón’s latest protégé had brought the Feds down on their heads to buy her way out of some other tangle of fucked-up consequences.

Argo’d been lucky, damn lucky and not all that excited about it, knowing she’d left Neech behind with a handful of sand threading through her open fingers, knowing she’d left Neech facing the same titan they’d hoped to bring down somehow and without any of the training she’d need to win. The first Argo had known of the bust was a coded text from Ada Revere, the exact code they’d all hoped never to use, the one which essentially meant the whole museum was burned to the ground — lost beyond recovery — and to leave well enough alone. And when she’d done a remote server check she’d found something worse; the place hadn’t burned, but it was more toxic than the Berkeley Pit, where birds landed in the water and died shortly after. It was a raid, and because of her connection to Bartón the Feds were taking it seriously this time, and they weren’t going to turn a blind eye the same way the local cops had done for the museum.

She’d tried to stay away, and she’d tried to want to stay away, but those were not the same thing. She’d watched as, one by one, the less careful or perhaps the less experienced of her friends went dark, or were taken offline. She tried to remind herself that they were good at what they knew, and that many of them would get away, and many of the rest would walk free eventually, having left no actionable trace of their criminal behavior. But she couldn’t know for sure, and she couldn’t interpret the sudden silence of all chatter from the Feds with any sort of clarity, except to note that they clearly knew they were being overheard, and how, and they were done playing games. So Argo, who’d never taken her work home with her but knew better than to think home was still safe, visited each of her caches in turn and destroyed all that was left, then snuck in to one of the apartment blocks just up the street from her own and watched with a strange sense of detachment as Feds came and went, all of them in plainclothes but Feds nonetheless. She couldn’t risk showing her face in Alexandria again — perhaps ever. With a lurch that didn’t come from the train getting underway, Argo felt the realization take her once more. She could never go back.

Neech had been nowhere to be seen, and without her equipment — now a liability — Argo was powerless to try and contact her at work, to try and gage just how much she’d managed to screw up her girlfriend’s life, professionally or otherwise. So she’d taken the hint, the many many hints that the town was lobbying her way, and she’d beat it north to the cold dead heart — only, it was anything but cold in Washington ahead of Fernand — of the nation, to Union Station with its arched galleries and its dirty corners, and to the Amtrak train slowly making its way out from under the canopies and jutting seams of the decaying platforms. She’d scrounged up a couple of people who owed her favors on the way, gotten what she needed in order to become someone else, someone more like the fictional Arlene, and bought herself a last-minute ticket out of town.

But oh, this wasn’t giving up. This wasn’t anything like giving up, thought Argo, as early raindrops ran in rivulets along the windows. The train was speeding up, but she felt motionless, rootless, the core ripped out of her as she did what she’d always hoped not to have to do: become someone else in order to finish the job. Something fierce and bright and hopeless burned at the center of her, pushing back at the wrenching pain of leaving all she’d ever known, all she’d ever wanted to know. She wouldn’t need her computers where she was going, wouldn’t need to chop out code for hours each night to create a virus, a trojan, a cracked back door. She was become the virus itself. She was going to give them a fever, all right. She was going to leave them bleeding out of the eyes before she was done. She might not be okay afterwards, but who the bloody hell was okay in this world anymore?