Tropic of Kansas

The United States of America is no more. Broken into warring territories, its center has become a wasteland DMZ known as “the Tropic of Kansas.” Though this gaping geographic hole has no clear boundaries, everyone knows it’s out there—that once-bountiful part of the heartland, broken by greed and exploitation, where neglect now breeds unrest. Two travelers appear in this arid American wilderness: Sig, the fugitive orphan of political dissidents, and his foster sister Tania, a government investigator whose search for Sig leads her into her own past—and towards an unexpected future.

Sig promised those he loves that he would make it to the revolutionary redoubt of occupied New Orleans. But first he must survive the wild edgelands of a barren mid-America policed by citizen militias and autonomous drones, where one wrong move can mean capture… or death. One step behind, undercover in the underground, is Tania. Her infiltration of clandestine networks made of old technology and new politics soon transforms her into the hunted one, and gives her a shot at being the agent of real change—if she is willing to give up the explosive government secrets she has sworn to protect.

As brother and sister traverse these vast and dangerous badlands, their paths will eventually intersect on the front lines of a revolution whose fuse they are about to light.

Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas is available July 11th from Harper Voyager.

 

 

1

Looking at the bright blue sky from the backseat of the armored truck, which was more like a cell than a seat, Sig could almost believe it was a warm day. But the shackles around his ankles were still cold from the walk out to the vehicle, and when Sig put his head up against the bars to test for faults, he could feel the ice trying to get to him. And winter was just getting started.

“What day is it?” asked Sig.

“Deportation day,” said the big constable who had muscled him out of lockup thirty minutes earlier. When he talked the red maple leaf tattoo on the side of his thick neck moved, like a lazy bat.

“Friday,” said the Sergeant, who was driving. “December 1. The day you get to go back where you came from.”

The thought conjured different images in Sig’s head than his jailers might have imagined.

“Back to cuckoo country,” laughed the constable. “Lucky you. Say hi to the TV tyrant for me.”

The Mounties had nicknames for Sig, like Animal and Dog Boy, but they never called him any of those to his face. They didn’t know his real name. When they trapped him stealing tools and food from a trailer at the Loonhaunt Lake work camp a month earlier, he had no ID, no name he would give them, and they couldn’t find him in their computers. They still tagged him, accurately, as another American illegal immigrant or smuggler, and processed him as a John Doe criminal repatriation. They did not know that he had been up here the better part of seven years, living in the edgelands.

The memory of that day he ran tried to get out, like a critter in a trap, but he kept it down there in its cage. And wished he had stayed farther north.

He pulled his wrists against the cuffs again, but he couldn’t get any leverage the way they had him strapped in.

Then the truck braked hard, and the restraints hit back.

The constable laughed.

They opened the door, pulled him out of the cage, and uncuffed him there on the road. Beyond the barriers was the international bridge stretching over the Rainy River to the place he had escaped.

“Walk on over there and you’ll be in the USA, kid,” said the sergeant. “Thank you for visiting Canada. Don’t come back.”

Sig stretched, feeling the blood move back into his hands and feet. He looked back at the Canadian border fortifications. A thirty-foot-high fence ran along the riverbank. Machine guns pointed down from the towers that loomed over the barren killing zone on the other side. He could see two figures watching him through gun scopes from the nearest tower, waiting for an opportunity to ensure he would never return.

Sig looked in the other direction. A military transport idled in the middle of the bridge on six fat tires, occupants hidden behind tinted windows and black armor. Behind them was an even higher fence shielding what passed for tall buildings in International Falls. The fence was decorated with big pictograms of death: by gunfire, explosives, and electricity. The wayfinding sign was closer to the bridge.

UNITED STATES BORDERZONE

Minnesota State Line 3.4 Miles

Sig looked down at the churning river. No ice yet.

He shifted, trying to remember how far it was before the river dumped into the lake.

“Step over the bridge, prisoner,” said a machine voice. It looked like the transport was talking. Maybe it was. He’d heard stories. Red and white flashing lights went on across the top of the black windshield. You could see the gun barrels and camera eyes embedded in the grill.

“Go on home to robotland, kid,” said the sergeant. “They watch from above too, you know.”

Sig looked up at the sky. He heard a chopper but saw only low-flying geese, working their way south. He thought about the idea of home. It was one he had pretty much forgotten, or at least given up on. Now it just felt like the open door to a cage.

He steeled himself and walked toward the transport. Five armed guards emerged from the vehicle to greet him in black tactical gear. The one carrying the shackles had a smile painted on his face mask.

 


2

The Pilgrim Center was an old shopping plaza by the freeway that had been turned into a detention camp. It was full.

The whole town of International Falls had been evacuated and turned into a paramilitary control zone. Sig saw two tanks, four helicopters, and lots of soldiers and militarized police through the gun slits of the transport. Even the flag looked different—the blue part had turned almost black.

No one in the camp looked like a pilgrim. Instead they wore yellow jumpsuits. There were plenty of local boys in the mix, the sort of rowdies who’d have a good chance of getting locked up even in normal times. The others were immigrants, refugees, and guest workers. Hmong, Honduran, North Korean, Bolivian, Liberian. They had been rounded up from all over the region. Some got caught trying to sneak out, only to be accused of sneaking in.

They interrogated Sig for several hours each day. Most days the interrogator was a suit named Connors. He asked Sig a hundred variations on the same questions.

Where did you come from?

North.

Where specifically?

All over.

What were you doing up there?

Traveling. Hunting. Working. Walking.

What did you do with your papers?

Never had any.

How old are you?

Old enough.

Are you a smuggler?

No.

Where were you during the Thanksgiving attacks?

What attacks.

Where were you during the Washington bombings last month?

I don’t know. In the woods.

Tell me about your friends. Where were they?

What friends.

Tell us your name. Your true name.

They took his picture, a bunch of times, naked and with his clothes on. They had a weird machine that took close-up shots of his eyes. They took his fingerprints, asked him about his scars, and took samples of his skin, blood, and hair. He still wouldn’t give them his name. They said they would find him in their databases anyway. He worried they would match him to records in their computers of the things he’d done before he fled.

They made fun of his hair.

 


3

The improvised prison was small. A one-story mall that might once have housed twenty stores. The camp included a section of parking lot cordoned off with a ten-foot hurricane fence topped with razor wire. They parked military vehicles and fortification materials on the other side, coming and going all the time.

They rolled in buses with more detainees every day. A couple of times they brought a prisoner in on a helicopter that landed right outside the gate. Those prisoners were hooded and shackled, with big headphones on. They kept them in another section.

At night you could hear helicopters and faraway trains. Some nights there was gunfire. Most nights there were screams.

Every room in the camp had a picture of the same fortysomething white guy. Mostly he was just sitting there in a suit, looking serious. Sometimes he was younger, smiling, wearing a flight suit, holding a gun, playing with kids and dogs. In the room where they ate there was a big poster on the wall that showed him talking to a bunch of people standing in what looked like a football stadium. There was a slogan across the bottom in big letters.

Accountability = Responsibility + Consequences

One of the other detainees told Sig the guy on the poster was the President.

They just tried to kill him, Samir explained. He whispered because he didn’t want them to hear him talking about it. Said people got into the White House with a bomb. Sig asked what people. Samir just held up his hands and shrugged.

Samir was the guy who had the cot next to Sig. He was from Mali. Their cot was in a pen with an old sign over it. “Wonderbooks.” There were holes in the walls and floors where once there had been store shelving. One of the guys that slept back there, a middle-aged white guy named Del, said they were closing all the bookstores on purpose. Samir said it was because no one read books anymore. Sig wasn’t sure what the difference was.

The women detainees were in a different section, where there used to be a dollar store. Sometimes they could see the women when they were out in the yard.

One day a lady showed up at Sig’s interrogation. Blonde in a suit. She said she was an investigator from the Twin Cities. Why do you look so nervous all the sudden, said Connors. They asked him about what happened back then. About other people who were with him. Sig didn’t say anything.

Looks like you get to go to Detroit, said Connors.

Sig did not know what that meant, but it scared him anyway, from the way the guy said it, and from the not knowing. He tried not to show it.

That afternoon Sig found a tiny figure of a man in a business suit stuck in a crack in the floor. His suit was bright blue, and he had a hat and a briefcase. Del said there used to be a shop in the mall that made imaginary landscapes for model trains to travel through, and maybe this guy missed his train.

Del and Samir and the others talked whenever they could about what was going on. They talked about the attacks. They talked outside, they talked in whispers, they swapped theories at night after one of the guys figured out how to muffle the surveillance mic with a pillow they took turns holding up there. They talked about how there were stories of underground cells from here to the Gulf of Mexico trying to fight the government. How the government blamed the Canadians for harboring “foreign fighters,” by which they meant Americans who’d fled or been deported. They told Sig how the elections were probably rigged, and the President didn’t even have a real opponent the last time. Some of the guys said they thought the attacks were faked to create public support for a crackdown. For a new war to fight right here in the Motherland. To put more people back to work. Del said he had trouble believing the President would have his guys blow off his own arm to manipulate public opinion. Beto said no way, I bet he would have blown off more than that to make sure he killed that lady that used to be Vice President since she was his biggest enemy.

One of the guys admitted that he really was a part of the resistance. Fred said that lady’s name was Maxine Price and he’d been in New Orleans when she led the people to take over the city. He said he joined the fight and shot three federal troopers and it felt good.

Sig asked the others what it meant when the interrogator told him he was going to Detroit. They got quiet. Then they told him about the work camps. They sounded different from what he had seen in Canada. Old factories where they made prisoners work without pay, building machines for war and extraction.

On his fourth day in the camp, Sig made a knife. It wasn’t a knife at first. It was a piece of rebar he noticed in the same crack in the floor where he found the little man. He managed to dig out and break off a sliver a little longer than his finger, and get a better edge working it against a good rock he found in one of the old concrete planters in the yard. Just having it made him feel more confident when the guards pushed him around.

The seventh day in the camp, as the other detainees loitered in the common areas after dinner, Sig escaped.

He got the idea watching squirrels. The squirrels loved it behind the tall fences, which kept out their competition. Sig saw one jump from a tree outside the fence onto the roof, grab some acorns that had fallen from another nearby tree, and then jump back using the fence as a relay.

Del went with him. Samir said he didn’t want to die yet.

They waited until the guards were busy after dinner. Samir took watch. They leaned Sig’s cot up against the wall and pushed through the section of cheap ceiling Sig had cut out the night before. They carried their blankets around their shoulders. Del could barely fit when they got up in the crawl space. Sig didn’t wait. They followed the ductwork on their hands and knees to the roof access and broke out into the open air. Sig half-expected to get shot right then, but the guards in the tower were watching a prisoner delivery.

He could see the black trucks driving by on the high road behind the mall.

They tossed their blankets so they would drape over the razor wire where the fence came close to the back of the building. Del’s throw was good, but Sig’s went too far, over the fence. Too bad, said Del. Sig backed up, got a running start, and jumped anyway.

The razored barbs felt like sharpened velcro, grabbing onto his prison jumpsuit in bunches, poking through into his forearm and hand.

Del didn’t even make it to the fence.

Shit.

“You go!” said Del, curled up on the ground, groaning.

The sound of Sig’s body hitting the chain link like a big monkey got the guards’ attention, but by the time bullets came they hit torn fragments of his paper jumpsuit that stayed stuck when he leapt from his momentary perch.

The tree branch Sig landed on broke under his weight, and he hit the frozen ground hard. But he got up okay. Nothing broken. His blanket was right there, so he grabbed it.

He looked through the fence. Del was up on his knees, hands behind his head, hollering at the guards not to shoot as they came around the corner and from the roof.

Sig ran. He heard the gunfire behind him, but didn’t hear Del.

They came after Sig fast, but he had already disappeared into the landscaping that ran along the side road. He heard them off in the distance as he crawled through a vacant subdivision of knee-high grass, broken doors, and gardens gone wild. He evaded capture that night moving through cover, the way a field mouse escapes a hawk.

He was glad it took them half an hour to get out the dogs.

He used torn chunks of his prison jumpsuit to bandage his wounds. They were little bleeders, but he would be okay. Then he cut a hole in the middle of the blanket to turn it into a poncho. He thought about where he could get new clothes, if he made it through the night.

Later, as he huddled in a portable toilet behind a convenience store just south of the borderzone, he wondered if what that Mountie said was true. That they had robots in the sky that could see you in the dark, tag you and track you, and kill without you ever knowing they were there. Sig thought maybe if he got cold enough, their heat cameras couldn’t find him.

Excerpted from Tropic of Kansas © 2017 by Christopher Brown.

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