I was ready to tear my hair out.
I stared at the blank computer screen, for a while not even turning the computer on. I needed someone to talk to. I needed Suzanne.
But I couldn't talk to Suzanne about my problem. Suzanne was my problem. I'd known all along that she had this streak in her that I didn't relate to at all, but usually I let it pass.
But every now and then she was a "high maintenance" sort of friend and I knew I needed another friend to talk to about her. I cursed myself for not being more outgoing. I turned on the computer in front of me, having noticed that the lab was beginning to fill and someone else might be wondering why I was sitting at a computer without using it.
I couldn't get the image out of my mind. Suzanne knew I was interested in Mark; I'd told her. The way she talked to him, hardly giving him a chance to notice me, and then giving me her little triumphant expression. I wondered why I had anything to do with her.
But most of the time she was a help rather than a hindrance. I wandered what it was about her that brought on that occasional touch of, well, malice, to be honest. I opened my e-mail.
Just a single message. I knew I needed a social life. I opened it and stared. I was so distracted by thoughts of Suzanne that it took me a while to digest what I was looking at, but when I did, I found it was from the Office of the Dean of Students.
My brain took a while to switch gears, to see that it said they needed to see me as soon as possible. I had no idea what this could be about. I'd never had any business with the Dean of Students other than listening to an orientation speech or two. I tried to think of any way this could be something good, but I truly had no clue.
I sat in a small waiting room with a receptionist. Mary, the sign on her desk said. She seemed to have been expecting me and had informed the Dean immediately. I wished Suzanne was sitting next to me, that I hadn't gotten into this business with her. That made me think again about how she had started our trouble. I made myself stop obsessing before I went too crazy.
"The Dean will see you now," said the receptionist. I hadn't seen any communication, phone call or intercom message. I figured she had to have received an instant message or something like that. She indicated the door.
I felt strangely nervous. The receptionist had given no hint what this was about and I hadn't been with it enough to ask her straight out. Perhaps something about the way she was acting made me uneasy. She didn't open the door for me and I found myself wondering whether to knock or simply to open it. I wondered why I get so uptight.
I opened the door just a crack, carefully, and when there was no complaint from within, opened it further. The Dean sat at her desk. "Hello, Alice," she said, smiling. I knew I hadn't done anything to get into trouble but still wondered if this was one of those smiles they give you right before they tell you something you did wrong. "Come in," she added.
Another woman was with her, younger. She could be college aged or in her mid twenties but her style of dress certainly suggested the latter. She smiled at me as well. I'd never seen her before in my life. "This is Hannah Waranch," said the Dean, "from the State Department." The Dean said no more and I wondered whether she thought that would clarify anything for me. "Hannah needs to talk to you about something important and I am sure you'll give her your undivided attention. I'll let you two use the office for a bit." And with that, she stood and left the room, closing the door behind her.
This other woman, "Hannah", looked almost put out, or embarrassed by the situation, but she appeared to regain control of herself and stepped forward, offering to shake my hand. "Hello Alice," she said, giving me another smile. "Why don't we sit here for a moment," she added, indicating a small area in the office set up with a couch and chair. She watched me as I chose where to sit, then she sat in the chair after I had taken the couch.
"No doubt," she began, "you are wondering what this could possibly be about." She looked down, took a deep breath, and sat for a moment, as if she needed to will herself to handle such occasions as much as I did. After a moment, she looked me in the eye again. "How much do you know about your parents?" she asked.
It certainly wasn't what I'd expected. "Well, I don't remember my Dad," I said tentatively. She just gave me a friendly, encouraging look. "My Mom didn't say a whole lot about him but told me he died before I was born. She died when I was ten."
"Sorry to bring up such things," said this Hannah, and she looked truly apologetic, which made me like her. For some reason I mentally compared her to Suzanne for a moment, then pushed away such fanciful notions. I couldn't help but think a friend like this Hannah wouldn't be the trouble Suzanne was. I felt like telling Hannah that it had been a long time since those events and naturally I'd never known my father. "But this involves them," she added. "What do you know of your father's nationality?"
"Uh..." Nothing, actually. American, I'd always assumed. I'd eventually realized I had Mom's family name and it was much later that it had struck me that I didn't even know Dad's name.
"I see," said Hannah. "Well I know this is a rather abrupt way to find out, but your father was born and raised in Konor..." Her voice trailed off as if she were intending to continue but hadn't for some reason. I thought about "Konor." I'd never heard of the place. "It's not a large or well-known place," she added, practically echoing my thoughts. "Nor does it participate in many international agreements and initiatives."
What does one say to that? "OK..." I said, my voice trailing. I supposed I was half "Konorian." I knew I'd read up on the place, and it even occurred to me that having a particular exotic cultural background could be interesting.
She smiled. It wasn't quite forced, it looked like she genuinely wanted to smile but was having a touch of trouble keeping it up. "Now this is extremely important," she said, sounding almost as if she were working herself up to something. "Your father was of a particular class--you might call it a caste--within Konorian society." For a moment she just looked at me. I almost wondered if she were blushing. "It was a lower caste, one dedicated to--service. He, uh, perhaps he didn't care for it and left the country when an opportunity to do so presented itself."
Service? I tried to fathom what she meant. Was he in the military? "This means according to Konorian law, you are a citizen, and naturally are of your father's caste. Furthermore, they are very well aware of your existence." I watched as she swallowed. "It happens," she said, "that the United States very much needs a particular favor of the Konorians just now, and, to put it bluntly, you have become a sticking point."
My brain was practically spinning as I attempted to work out what she might be saying. "You must realize," said Hannah, "that this is extremely important or we wouldn't even be considering it."
I felt a tightness well up in me, that there was something I didn't understand and that it couldn't be good. "I don't think I understand," I said.
She looked sympathetic. In fact, I felt more empathy from her than I ever remembered getting from Suzanne. The fact that I hadn't truly picked Suzanne as a friend, that she'd somehow picked me occurred to me at that moment, for some reason. "You could do us..." she said. "You could do your country a tremendous service."
"Yes?" It was the way she was treating this that was making me more nervous.
"We need you to go back."
Just leave college? And there was some sort of catch in it all, that I could certainly sense. "But..." I wondered exactly what she was saying.
"I know it's a big thing to ask."
"I still don't understand," I admitted.
She looked like she realized she hadn't been quite coherent. "We have something worked out," she said. "I'll explain it. But first you have to listen to me. You'll do that, won't you?"
She wasn't being clear at all. "Sure," I said.
"Good," she said, looking relieved, and stood up. While I sat there still in confusion, she opened the door and the Dean appeared within seconds. I wondered at the Dean, waiting in her own waiting room. I heard low voices between them just before the Dean came back in.
"Excellent," said the Dean looking at me with satisfaction. "I'm glad you see what you need to do."
"I have everything taken care of," said Hannah. "All you need to do is come with me."
The Dean came over and put her hand on my shoulder. "You go with Hannah," she said.
"Washington," said Hannah.
It was disconcerting to say the least. Hannah told me a little about Konor along the way, but I had the feeling she didn't want to tell me anything vital. The two of us were flown in the sort of private jet I'd certainly never been in, then driven, as if I were an important official or something. Around Maryland, to what looked like a military base of some sort, barbed wire, guards and all. And we were treated practically like royalty.
I found myself in a room with Hannah and a woman she had introduced as June. There'd been military guards on duty at doors we passed through and though we were in an ordinary comfortable conference room, I felt even more uneasy as we sat around the table. "We're so grateful you are being cooperative," said June.
The words did nothing to put me at ease. There was something fishy about this whole thing. I tried to recall what I'd agreed to or when, but it was all vague. Hannah reached over and touched my shoulder as if to assure me. "I don't think I understand," I said.
"Well, I told you," said Hannah, "Konor wants you back."
I did remember that, but now it almost seemed like they assumed I'd agreed to go. And what was I doing hundreds of miles away from school? "I've got classes..." I said, my voice trailing off. It seemed kind of silly once I said it.
I saw June's eyes react, as if I were being stupid, but then she and Hannah glanced at each other for just a moment, after which they both looked merely solicitous. "This is vital," said Hannah. "We have it worked out so it'll be fine." Again there was an interplay between them and this time I wondered if it were Hannah who violated some sort of agreement they had. Or something.
"I have to go back to school," I said. My instincts told me to stick with that. Something was definitely wrong.
"Just hear us out," said Hannah. "You promised." But while Hannah seemed friendly, once again I thought I sensed something else in June. Impatience. "OK?"
I said nothing, I couldn't disagree to that. "I'm going with you," said Hannah. "We've arranged credit. I'll get you back." But I was even more confused and they obviously saw that. "We've planned this carefully," she added.
"Please tell me what is going on here," I said.
"You can help your country," said Hannah.
"By doing what?" I said, now knowing I had to show a little assertion to figure out what they were talking about.
"We'll take you there," said Hannah. "Then we'll have the opportunity to buy you back. We have enough..."
"Buy me back?"
"They've agreed," said Hannah. "They've agreed to auction you immediately. We'll have at least three times the going rate for an American girl your age." I simply stared. It occurred to me at that moment that Hannah struck me as so conscientious and so genuinely caring. It was incongruous that she should say such things. "It's what we could get them to agree to," said Hannah.
"Buying girls?" I said.
They both simply sat there for a moment and I realized that I had stymied them with that question. Obviously it addressed the heart of the matter. "It's not like we approve," said June. "You have to understand, this is a very delicate situation. They are extremely particular about their citizens and castes."
"Look, I want to go back to school," I said.
June said, "Believe me, the highest levels are involved in this. You wouldn't believe who was questioning us about exactly how we can do this and get you out of there again. This is more important than you can possibly imagine."
"I need to go back," I said. "To school." I stared at them and somehow realized that they intended to keep trying to convince me however long it took. "I have to go back," I said, and stood. I looked at the door, afraid, but then I made for it. Behind me, I heard them stand.
Outside the door, two military guards stood at attention. The corridor led no where except through another door. One of the guards stood in front of it, blocking my way. I stared at him. It didn't look like he was going to move in a hundred years. "Listen, don't panic," said Hannah, now close by. "We totally understand." She held my shoulder. I felt so trapped. She pulled me, squeezing my shoulder against herself. "Please trust us," she said. I involuntarily looked at June. I didn't like her. "Trust me," said Hannah. "I've researched everything. It's going to go perfectly."
"There's always a risk," said June behind us, sounding something like a teacher pointing out an error. I didn't see, but rather felt Hannah react, probably giving June a dirty look.
"Please trust me," said Hannah in a low voice so only I could hear. "Trust that I'd never do this if it weren't absolutely necessary."
For a moment neither spoke. Then June said, "I have some papers for you to sign," she said. "They're necessary if we are to do this." There was no other noise as she pushed the papers my way and handed me a pen. They both looked at me. I looked at the papers. Long, with pages of whatever. "You need to sign," said June.
"American girls," I said to them later. They looked at me. "You said they sell American girls."
They looked at each other. June spoke. "They have agents in the US, who are on the lookout for men and women who engage in certain activities, and who have convinced themselves that actual slavery is something they truly wish to experience." I just stared. "Believe me, all Konor does is advertise. Those who respond are told exactly what they are signing up for. Nothing is done on American soil without complete consent, and no deception or coercion is involved when these people are getting into it."
I stared at June. Hannah looked uneasy and I could easily understand why.
"This is Kelu," said Hannah. I looked at a woman perhaps my own age, with dark hair and dark eyes. She was very pretty. This was later that same afternoon.
"Hi," said Kelu, extending her hand to shake mine and giving me a smile. Despite her somewhat foreign appearance, she sounded perfectly ordinary. "I've heard what you're going to be doing," she said, looking awed. She certainly was not what I was expecting. She sounded totally American and other than her slightly exotic face, she looked and acted just as American.
They'd told me Immigration & Naturalization had just reported locating a Konorian national at another college and they had just received the news. And they had immediately recruited the Konarian to assist, and here she was already. I looked at this woman from a country that apparently treated slavery as legal. Or rather a particular type of slavery as Hannah had explained, and technically it wasn't quite slavery. But it did mean your person was in the hands of someone, legally, who could buy and sell you, or rights to your service, or something like that. And the service, which she didn't go into very much, seemed to include sexual elements. Nothing Hannah had said about it made me any more comfortable.
We talked. Kelu seemed amazed at Hannah's and June's scheme, but was clearly quite outgoing and Hannah prompted her with questions seemingly aimed at what she thought I'd be curious about. Kelu was at Harvard, a grad student. She'd finished her undergraduate degree in two years, summa cum laude. She played soccer for the women's team, and was on the debating team. She was thinking of going into law but had been taking math and Russian literature, of all things. She was a violinist in a student orchestra.
"They pretty much shielded us kids from it for the most part," she explained about the slavery, "and of course we just grew up assuming it was part of life. Then I was sent abroad to boarding school and have been away from it ever since." And she told me how brave I was. And somehow I sensed the implication, that I awed her.
I definitely got chills when I thought about it, but with meeting Kelu and just talking with Hannah, it seemed almost as if they were trying to keep me from thinking very much. "As I said, money won't be a problem," said Hannah, "and they've agreed that you're to go up for bidding as soon as can be arranged. You'll have to live as a Konorian slave for a day or two, but you'll be out of it in no time, this time for good, and with their official blessing." Kelu said nothing, but simply appeared supportive.
The room they gave Kelu and me was like a hotel room, a double bed for each of us. "I can't do this," I said aloud when we had the lights out and I felt like I had a moment to think.
"I know what you mean," said Kelu. She said no more.
The next morning, I found Hannah waking me. "Today is for training," she said.
As Hannah awaited my response, Kelu walk off, into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. "Training?" I asked.
"As a Konorian slave, you will be expected to behave a certain way," Hannah said. "It'll definitely work out better for you if you know how to conform. We'll work on it." The outer door opened and a woman brought us breakfast. I heard the shower going in the bathroom. Hannah directed the woman to arrange the food on a table, arranging three chairs around it. Somehow I sensed I wasn't going to leave this room for quite a while.
"Well, no time like the present," said Hannah, giving me a smile when we'd finished breakfast. Kelu had carried the conversation over the meal and I noticed that even though Hannah was older, that she wasn't as outgoing as Kelu, who always took the lead. "We're going to have to do some, er, unconventional things," added Hannah. Again, she looked apologetic.
I really needed to call a halt to this whole thing. For moments Hannah said nothing more, simply looked at me, almost confused. "Well," she said, seeming to take a breath to buoy herself, "Konorian slaves don't wear clothes."
"What?" I said.
"What we want to do," she said, "is get you used to the conditions you, er, will have to deal with until--we get you out again."
Maybe I was trembling. In any case, I found Kelu at my side, her arm around me. "We're right here," Kelu said. "We'll get you through this."
"I really have to go back to school," I said, hearing how shaky my own voice was.
Hannah seemed nearly as shaken as me. "Look," she said, "we really appreciate this, and I promise you I have every detail worked out. Every contingency. I'm staking my career on that and... I promise I you will not leave Konor until I have you out again. I personally will see to it."
Kelu smiled, showing encouragement. "You can do it," she said. I wondered a bit at how she seemed to have accepted this. Of course, she grew up with these ideas even if she had no close contact to them. But still. "Let me," she said.