Empire Games

The year is 2020. It’s seventeen years since the Revolution overthrew the last king of the New British Empire, and the newly-reconstituted North American Commonwealth is developing rapidly, on course to defeat the French and bring democracy to a troubled world. But Miriam Burgeson, commissioner in charge of the shadowy Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence—the paratime espionage agency tasked with catalyzing the Commonwealth’s great leap forward—has a problem. For years, she’s warned everyone: “The Americans are coming.” Now their drones arrive in the middle of a succession crisis.

In another timeline, the U.S. has recruited Miriam’s own estranged daughter to spy across timelines in order to bring down any remaining world-walkers who might threaten national security.

Two nuclear superpowers are set on a collision course. Two increasingly desperate paratime espionage agencies try to find a solution to the first contact problem that doesn’t result in a nuclear holocaust. And two women—a mother and her long-lost daughter—are about to find themselves on opposite sides of the confrontation.

Charles Stross builds a new series with Empire Games, expanding on the world he created in the Family Trade series—available January 17th from Tor Books!

 

 

Chapter 1
Trade Show

SEATTLE, MARCH 2020

Rita awakened to the eerie warble of her phone’s alarm, followed by NPR cutting in with the morning newscast. (Oil hitting a thirty-year low, $25 a barrel: a Republican senator calling for a tax on imports from other time lines, to prevent global warming.) She rolled over on the sofa bed and grabbed for it, suppressing a moan. It was five o’clock in the morning, pitch black but for the faint glow of parking lot floodlights leaking into the motel room. Today was Friday: last day of the trade show. Tomorrow they were due to pack everything up and head home. But today—

Today was their last day on stage demoing HaptoTech’s hardware while their boss, Clive, worked the audience for contacts and (eventually) sales. Last day of mandatory stage makeup and smiles, last day of booth-bunny manners, last day performing their canned routines under the spotlights. Last fucking day. Hoo-rah. The end couldn’t come soon enough for her. HaptoTech sold motion capture gear for the animation industry: kits for digitizing body movements so they could be replayed in cartoons and computer games. Unlike most MoCap rigs, which were suits you wore or pods you strapped on, HaptoTech’s consisted of tiny implants, injected under the performer’s skin. Supposedly this gave more precision and better inputs on musculature. What the brochure didn’t say was that the implants itched.

Rita sat up and stretched, trying not to scratch. Her muscles ached from yesterday’s workout. She’d taken the folding bed in the motel suite’s day room, happy not to arm-wrestle with Deborah and Julie over the twin beds next door. Deborah snored when she slept (and complained when she was awake), and Julie talked too much, oversharing her religion enthusiastically. Rita had agreed to double up with them only because it was that or no contract for the trade show gig, which paid just well enough to make it worthwhile. Clive was a cheapskate, but even a cheapskate paying her by the hour was better than no contract (and no money). But by day 4 of a week of twelve-hour shifts, she was well past second thoughts and into thirds, if not fourths.

She wove her way past the wreckage of last night’s rushed takeout and padded into the bathroom. She’d been too tired to scrub off every last bit of greasepaint the night before: now she made good. By the time she finished fixing the oversight, someone else was banging on the bathroom door with steadily increasing desperation.

Rita opened the door and found herself nose to nose with Julie. “Hey,” Julie squeaked angrily: “gangway!”

Rita sidestepped and the bathroom door slammed behind her. Sharing three to a suite was one thing, but three to a bathroom was something else.

“Sleep well?” Rita asked, trying to keep her tone light. Deb paused her brushing long enough to glare and shake her head, then went back to untangling. Rita turned to the coffeepot: she’d refilled the water jug last night before hitting the sack, a preparation that stood her in good stead this morning.

While the coffeemaker was burbling, she laid out her costume for inspection. There were no catastrophic stains: good. The nanotech fabric treatment might keep it smelling fresh for weeks, but couldn’t work miracles. All it would take was one drunk conference delegate with a glass of red wine to ruin her costume and put her out of a job. “One more day,” she muttered to herself. “Just one more day.” The implants in her right arm itched momentarily, making a muscle twitch.

“Looking forward to getting home?” Julie asked behind her.

Rita tensed. “Yeah,” she admitted. “And to getting these fucking things out.”

“They itch like scabies,” Julie said thoughtlessly, and a moment later: “A kid brought that to the summer camp I was at one year. Didn’t go there again.”

Rita gave in to the impulse to rub furiously at the inside of her left arm, then made herself stop. If she’d known what this gig would come with she wouldn’t have bothered. Clive had worked them like dogs all week; she hadn’t even had time to check Facebook, much less go for a walk and log some geocaches—her hobby. It was wake, eat, work, sleep all the time.

“I think Clive said he closed a five-implant deal with a German games company yesterday. That’s a five-grand commission between us, right? If he gets the export licenses.”

You needed an export license to send any kind of high-tech kit out of Fortress USA these days: it was optimistic to expect to be allowed to sell the implants to Germany. Julie invariably looked on the bright side of things. It probably explained why she’d tried to become an archaeologist, before the bottom fell out of the profession. Not that Rita was in any position to throw stones. She nodded, not wanting to burst Julie’s bubble. Just over twelve hundred bucks would vanish into her student loan account like a bucket of water into a polluted reservoir. She made herself smile: “Let’s go break a leg. Maybe Clive can sell another bunch?”

Through the bathroom door, the sound of a toilet flushing.

“Like, yeah. Whatevs. Wire me up.”

They drank coffee in the predawn gloom, three mid-twenties acting temps sharing a cheap motel suite just off I-5. Then they helped each other into their demo outfits, first strapping on the battery packs and inductive chargers, then testing their implants before pulling on their costumes and taking turns applying their makeup. Finally they were ready to head to the Waterfront trade center. Rita drove, an Indian princess in sari and coronet, her passengers a sixties schoolmarm in beehive and butterfly glasses and a time-traveling Martian debutante in silver boots and shoulder pads.

She didn’t know it yet, but it would be the last normal workday of her career.

* * *

When they hit the queue to the exhibitor entrance, the Indian princess ran into an unexpected obstacle: Homeland Security had decided to come calling.

When they arrived they found a crowd of casual-Friday techies, salesmen, and suited women with conservative hairdos backed up in front of a security checkpoint that hadn’t been there the day before. Rita found herself corralled between crowd control barriers patrolled by local cops and DHS heavies in dull black body armor. A couple of small missile-carrying quadrotor drones buzzed overhead like angry hornets, scattering the seagulls.

“ID checkpoint!” called one of the officers, pacing along the side of the queue, watching through mirrored goggles with professional disinterest: “ID checkpoint! Every body have your ID card and conference badge ready for inspection.”

“Oh shit,” whispered Deborah, clutching her handbag. She began to rummage through it. “Coulda sworn it was in here—”

Failure to present a federal identity card if challenged by a DHS officer was a misdemeanor at best. If it got Deborah barred from the convention center it was going to have consequences for all three of them: Rita knew that she and Julie couldn’t shoulder the workload on their own, and Clive would be pissed if his showgirls didn’t show on the last day. “Chill,” Rita whispered, touching Deborah’s arm reassuringly. Please don’t get us noticed, she prayed. Debs and Julie were white but Rita’s skin, although pale for her costume, was sufficiently Indian-looking to draw more than her fair share of attention from the cops. And she’d heard enough horror stories that the last thing she wanted was to come to the attention of DHS and CBP.

Deborah was shaking as she rummaged through her handbag again. Touch-up kit, emergency tampon, fatphone, data glasses, purse… a sudden gasp. “I found it.”

“Good.” Rita faked another smile as Deborah caught her breath. Panic averted.

“You. Step this way, please.”

For a moment Rita couldn’t believe her ears. She’d been so focused on Deborah that she hadn’t noticed the DHS guy pause on the other side of the barrier. Now he was looking at her. “Me?” she squeaked.

“Yes, you. Step this way.” He didn’t say “please” twice. The DHS might have hired Disney to train their staff in better people-handling skills but he was still a fed, with or without the smiling mask.

The cop directed her to a desk beside the checkpoint, at the front of the queue where a couple more DHS officers were hanging out. Some of them were armed with electric-blue pump-action shotguns: crowd control tasers. Her stomach lurched when she saw them.

“ID card goes here,” said the guy at the desk. He sounded so bored he could have been stoned. She handed the credit card–sized rectangle over and he ran it through the reader. “Okaaay, this is a cheek swab. You’ve done this before, right?” Blue-gloved hands extended a plastic test stick toward her. “Open wide. This won’t take long.”

Rita opened her mouth, let the cop collect a saliva sample and lock it into the tablet on the desk in front of him. “Please sit here.” He pointed at a plastic chair. “This will take a couple of minutes to develop.” Rita gathered the skirts of her sari and sat carefully. No zip-ties, she realized: That’s a good sign. Means it’s just a random check. Nevertheless, they were running a full genome sequence from the sample they’d just taken, comparing it against her record in the national database. Even with the newest nanopore scanners, it would take ten minutes. They couldn’t do it to everyone: they’d be here all day. Why me? she wondered. Well yeah, the usual: skin color. Mom and Dad might be of Eurasian descent, but one of Rita’s birth parents had apparently been Indian.

It had been bad in second grade, right after 9/11, but when the White House was nuked, the post-7/16 paranoia had taken things to the next level. The government had announced that the attack came from a terrifying new direction, hostile forces that inhabited another parallel version of our Earth. So that made any stranger a suspect, as anyone could be a secret “world-walker,” able to slip between universes and visit from a time line whose history had diverged long ago. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’d been the India/Pakistan nuclear war. From which point on, the US had become increasingly difficult for people who looked like her.

The machine on the desk beeped for attention and the DHS officer peered at it. For a moment she thought he was doing a double take; then he smirked. “Okay, you’re good to go. You have a nice day now, Miss Douglas. You can go right in.”

“Thank you,” she managed, heartbeat fluttering for a light-headed moment. The National Identity Database would have reported back, No criminal history. Because Rita was a good girl, and keeping her head down was an ingrained habit. And good girls tried not to get the post-7/16 national security apparatus mad at them, didn’t they? She faked a smile for the cop, then scurried hastily in the direction indicated, into the bowels of the bustling conference center, enormously relieved to be out from under the microscope. Behind her, Debs was staring daggers from the middle of the slowly shuffling line. As if she had anything to worry about…

* * *

HaptoTech was a Cambridge-based biomechanics start-up. Rita was a Boston native in her mid-twenties with a major in history, a minor in acting, an aptitude for interpretative dance, and no union card. This made her a decent fit for demoing HaptoTech’s newest motion capture implants at trade shows targeting the film, TV, and games production industries, although she drew the line at their more adult-themed customers. She needed the money, but not that badly: at least not yet.

It wasn’t a new field—MoCap had been around since the ’90s—but HaptoTech had a new angle: accurate to fractional millimeters, its sub-dermal implants could capture actors’ pulse, respiration, and sweat. All stuff that fed into that difficult skin texture model, making for a more realistic simulation. Rita, Deborah, and Julie spent the day being filmed as they acted out twenty-minute vignettes, with the results animated in real time and projected live onto a big screen. A brace of servers turned their motion capture streams into mythological monsters, animals, and famous dead film stars. Rita’s angle was her arms: she had two of them in real life, but six of them—realistically rendered—in her role on screen as the goddess Parvati, played by the immortal (and long-dead) Bollywood star Madhubala.

By the end of day 1 her script had become almost second nature; now she barely noticed the spectators. They weren’t looking at her, anyway: they were watching the dead goddess on the screen. When they did look at her she made a point of avoiding eye contact. It was hot, boring work, and the implants itched abominably. Food was on the company, a pile of breakfast rolls served beside Folgers coffee. By five o’clock on Friday Rita was burned out. Deborah and Julie were phoning it in too, their smiles fixed, limbs shaky with tiredness. The hourly rate was great, and working for an East Coast start-up as a bluescreen babe was far better than any acting job she could aspire to—not that anyone except an already established star could make money in acting anymore. But it was a career dead end, working on stage for six hours a day was draining, and the prospects for HaptoTech keeping her on did not seem good: so she was already worrying about what she’d do next.

Stepping off stage after her 5 pm. act—trying not to trip on her hem or lose track of the end of her sari—Rita nearly ran into Clive. HaptoTech’s VP of marketing was conventionally handsome in a rugged country-club way, with a five-thousand-dollar smile and an open-collared shirt under his linen suit. He smiled at her affably: “Rita, if you’ve got a moment, please? We need to talk in private.”

“Sure, Clive! Anytime!” Oh shit, she thought. It was the end of the show: the perfect time for layoffs, especially if he was planning on screwing people over. Her heart sinking, she followed him off the stage. Behind their show area there was a small, airless space backing onto a couple of other stands. There were no chairs, but a man and a woman were waiting there. At first she almost thought they were sales leads, but the black suits, cheap haircuts, and government-issue surveillance eye-wear was all wrong. They smelled of—

“Rita Douglas?” asked the woman. She held up a badge, unsmiling: “DHS, Officer Gomez. Come with us, please.”

Rita froze. “A-am I under arrest?” she asked.

“No.” Gomez glanced at her companion. “Your turn.”

He made eye contact with Clive. “You can go now,” he said. “You never saw us and this never happened.”

Clive turned and left without a backward glance. Bastard, Rita thought tiredly. Fair-weather boss. Snitch. Informer. “What is this?” she asked, trying to put on a calm expression. Her stomach lurched.

“We want to ask you some questions,” Gomez said bluntly. Her posture was tense. “Please look at this card and tell me what you see.” She held out a badge wallet toward Rita, then flipped it open.

Rita stared. The cops watched her expectantly: “It’s some kind of knot. Celtic knotwork?” Her brow furrowed. “Why? What’s it meant to be?”

The two DHS agents shared a look. “Told you so,” murmured the man. They both relaxed infinitesimally. He looked at Rita: “As Sonia said, we’d like to ask you some questions. It’s about something you might have witnessed without realizing what was going on.” He smiled, but Rita could tell a fake when she saw one. “You are not under arrest. You are not a suspect in any investigation, although I should warn you that anything you say will be recorded.” He shrugged. “But we’d prefer you to come with us voluntarily. That way we can eliminate you as a material witness from an ongoing investigation and let you go.” Rita, filling in the blanks, caught the implied or else.

“Uh, my rental car’s—” Rita’s head was spinning. “We’re checking out tomorrow morning. Due to fly home.” Flying with HaptoTech implants still embedded was a nightmare at every security checkpoint, and it would take outpatient surgery to get them removed. HaptoTech would pay for it, but in the meantime she’d be stuck with the itching, not to mention Clive’s whining because the damned things were expensive. “I was supposed to give Julie and Deborah a ride—what about them?”

“We’re the government: we can take care of everything.” The male agent grinned at her humorlessly. “You’re in suite 119 at the Motel Six on I-5, right?” Rita nodded. “Give me your rental’s key fob. We’ll sort every.thing out for you.”

“How long is this going to take?” she asked dubiously, handing over the keys.

“Not long; we’ll probably be through with you by Sunday.”

Rita forced herself to conceal her dismay. Gomez added: “If you cooperate fully, we’ll book you a replacement flight home.”

What was that ancient Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times, and may you come to the attention of people in authority. “Okay,” said Rita, trying hard to sound calm. “Whatever you want.” I am a cooperative citizen, sir. Nothing to see here. She paused. “But can I grab something to eat, and some makeup remover pads?”

The female agent nodded. “We can do that,” she said, and Rita felt the words with the force of imaginary handcuffs closing around her wrists. “I promise you won’t regret this, Ms. Douglas.”

She was lying, of course.

* * *

BALTIMORE, NOVEMBER 2019

FEDERAL EMPLOYEE 004910023 CLASSIFIED VOICE TRANSCRIPT

Col. Smith: Okay, so today we’re evaluating the prototype candidate identified by our data trawl. Name’s Douglas, Rita Douglas. Age 25. Which is to say, at least 5 years too old to be part of the DRAGON’S
TEETH world-walker breeding program we uncovered back in the day.

Dr. Scranton: (throat-clearing noise) Messy.

Agent O’Neill: If she isn’t one of the DRAGON’S TEETH children, where did she come from?

Col. Smith: Douglas may not be part of the world-walkers’ project but she’s listed in the database we captured back in ’03. So we ran her DNA profile with forensics against the, the FBI’s Alternate World Terror Suspects Index. And it turns out there’s a three-sigma maternity match with a world-walking terror suspect. We ID’d her mother back in the day but she’s been missing for years, presumably returned to the hostiles’ time line.

Agent O’Neill: How did Douglas slip beneath our radar? The kid, I mean, not the mother—

Dr. Scranton: She didn’t.

Col. Smith: Correct. She was adopted by a childless couple in Massachusetts, eleven days after birth. Very fast. Very well-organized—her maternal grandmother took care of it. We dug the original hospital records up and it turns out her birth mother and father were medical students. She was an, uh, accident.

Agent O’Neill: Medical students? World-walking medical students? What is this, I don’t—

Dr. Scranton: Listen to him.

Agent O’Neill: Okay.

Col. Smith: Douglas carries the recessive trait for moving between time lines—like all of the DRAGON’S TEETH children. The world-walkers used a fertility clinic in Boston to run a rigged artificial insemination program, to breed more children who were also recessives. We figure they were going to approach some of them, as adults, to become host mothers or sperm donors… The point is, the first-generation carriers aren’t able to world-walk themselves. And that goes for Douglas. When the terrorists set up the DRAGON’S TEETH program they already knew about her, hence her name appearing on the database. But she was born years before they set that wagon rolling. Anyway, her birth mother is most definitely one of Them—Miriam Beckstein. In fact, she was one of their ringleaders. There’s an outstanding warrant for her arrest. Charges include mass murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity, violations of the Espionage Act, theft, possession of weapons of mass destruction, and treason. Oh, and narcotics trafficking.

Agent O’Neill: Any outstanding parking tickets? Tax evasion?

Dr. Scranton: I didn’t see any reason to complicate things needlessly.

Col. Smith: So we have this baby, born and adopted out long before her mother showed up on our radar. Back in the nineties, so long before 7/16. This terrorist baby is just a baby, and not her mother’s responsibility anymore. We tracked down the father and it turns out he’s on his third marriage. He’s a successful clinical oncologist in a teaching hospital in the Research Triangle. Naturalized citizen, born in Pakistan, came over with his parents when he was three. He was investigated by DHS in the wake of the Indo-Pak war, but came up clean. More recently we screened him for that same JAUNT BLUE recessive gene trait the world-walkers share, and he’s negative. Whereas the Beckstein woman was most definitely positive, an active world-walker.

Agent O’Neill: So you’re saying she’s an adult recessive carrier. Older than the DRAGON’S TEETH cohort, but still Generation Z? And she’s not some kind of ringer?

Col. Smith: Yup. She’s clean. No criminal record. Two loving middle-class parents, three surviving grandparents, mixed-race adopted kid. She had a really good childhood. Not silver-spoon privileged, but she never went short of evening courses or hobbies or summer camps during vacation. Lots of Girl Scout stuff: I mean, you couldn’t make this up—she’s your all-American straight arrow. They put her through college, then got out of her way when she struck out to make a life for herself, but they’ve always been there when she needs them. She’d be totally normal if she wasn’t a carrier for the JAUNT BLUE capability.

Dr. Scranton: And she has no background with the world-walkers.

Agent O’Neill: Don’t tell me this is new information.

Dr. Scranton: Of course not. We’ve been tracking Rita Douglas since the bad old days. She was just a kid when they nuked the White House. She was on a watch list for eight years—one of my pre decessors thought maybe Beckstein would come for her eventually, but it seems they’re not that kind of family. Or maybe she’s forgotten all about her college accident by now. Or thought she could protect the kid by burying her. Anyway, as a civilian and a recessive carrier, Ms. Douglas was of no use to us. Until now.

Agent O’Neill: What changed?

Dr. Scranton: This is classified: the brainiacs in the lab under the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory finally figured out how to switch on the JAUNT BLUE world-walking trait in carriers. Carriers such as the DRAGON’S TEETH teenagers and our current person of interest. You’re now authenticated and listed for that particu lar code word. We’re going to recruit, motivate, train, and run her as an intelligence asset. A para-time spy. And that’s going to be your job.

Agent O’Neill: Holy crap.

Dr. Scranton: The DRAGON’S TEETH kids are still mostly in their teens. They’re too young for the job we have in mind. It demands a certain maturity. But Rita Douglas is in her mid-twenties and fits the profile like a glove. I mean, she’s so clean it’s eerie—almost as if her family were aiming her at the political track, or a job in national security. Maybe they knew something, or guessed enough to train her to keep her head down instinctively. Either way, she’s almost the perfect candidate for this operation. Almost.

Agent O’Neill: You’re talking about turning her into a world-walking agent. Actually taking the war to the enemy’s time line?

Dr. Scranton: Eventually, yes.

Agent O’Neill: They’re still out there? We have confirmation? You’ve got a fix on them?

Col. Smith: You bet your ass they’re out there. As for their location… that’s a need-to-know matter. Let’s just say, we can’t just barge in and trash the joint this time. Which is why you’re being pulled into this sandbox as of now. We think Ms. Douglas is the right tool for the job. We want you to run Rita. Are you up to the challenge?

Agent O’Neill: That’s a big responsibility you’re putting on me, sir.

Dr. Scranton: Don’t blame me, blame Project Oversight. But yes. They’ve got a high opinion of you after Stockholm. Question is, are you on the team?

Agent O’Neill: I’ll do my best, sir.

Col. Smith: Well, now we need to get your authorizations upgraded. Lifelogger, disable code [REDACTED].

SECURITY LEVEL EXCEEDED

LOG REDACTED

 

Chapter 2
Motivating Rita

SEATTLE, MARCH 2020

Being questioned by the men (and women) in black from the DHS was a lot like being under arrest, minus the handcuffs, and with “please,” “thank you,” and makeup remover pads in return for cooperation. Rita was grudgingly grateful. But, as she kept reminding herself whenever they let her alone, it could be a lot worse. Might soon get a lot worse, if… She shied away from that thought. You didn’t need to be guilty of any.thing to get into trouble with the feds: you just needed them to think that you might have something to feel guilty about.

They left the conference center in a Tesla with blacked-out windows, then drove her for half an hour through the trackless, officezoned industrial yards of Seattle. Their destination was an anonymous warehouse with a loading dock and a windowless door. There was nothing to distinguish it from hundreds of others except for a couple of unobtrusive bird-drones soaring overhead like legless, featherless seagulls with telephoto eyes. Inside, it was furnished with office cubicles and, disturbingly, a shipping container tricked out as a motel room—if motel rooms came without windows and had doors that locked from the outside. Gomez and her sidekick—Rita gathered he was called Jack, but his surname remained elusive—ushered Rita into a room like a compact Holiday Inn, then locked the door. Half an hour later it opened again and a uniformed cop shoved her suitcase inside.

It had been searched and clumsily repacked, but everything was present.

She was gloomily going through her toilet bag when the door opened again. It was Gomez.

“Here’s what you asked for,” she said, holding out a bag at arm’s reach. “Cotton pads, baby oil, the lot. We’re calling out for food in half an hour: do you have any dietary restrictions?”

Rita took the bag and Gomez let go as if stung when their fingers made momentary contact. “I’m easy,” she said quietly, trying to give no sign of discomfort that might put the other woman on the alert. Am I a prisoner? A guest? A witness? What is this, anyway?

“Get yourself cleaned up and make yourself comfortable. We’ll interview you after you’ve eaten, then you can get a night’s sleep and if necessary we’ll continue tomorrow morning.”

Gomez turned to go. “Wait,” said Rita. “Am I free to leave if I want to?” She looked at Gomez imploringly. The fed wasn’t wearing her government-mandated lifelogging specs. If their interactions weren’t being recorded, what did that mean?

Gomez paused. “In theory,” she said slowly, then stopped.

“But… ?”

“I wouldn’t recommend leaving before we’ve had our chat. Be ready in half an hour, Ms. Douglas.”

The door closed with a too-solid click behind her.

This is so fucking weird. Rita shuddered and pulled out her phone. They hadn’t even bothered to take it off her. Instead of her regular carrier it was displaying the red FEDERAL OVERRIDE network ID. So the only phone signal in the building was supplied by a government agency picocell, and if she used it she was waiving her Fourth Amendment rights and explicitly consenting to her communications being searched. (Not that withholding consent meant anything these days: the Fifth Amendment— the right not to incriminate oneself—was a dead letter, too.) Her sense of unreality was almost overpowering as she turned the phone off. This was popularly supposed to prevent its bugging her—unless the feds had gone to the trouble of asking for a warrant to override the power switch. She collected a change of clothes from her bag of supplies, then retreated to the bathroom to remove her makeup and costume and seek comfort in simple routine.

Maybe it was her subcontinental outfit that had triggered Gomez, or maybe she was just a bitch. But off came the sari, choli, and lehenga and on went jeans, bra, and blouse. By the time her half hour was up, Rita was back to resembling her normal all-American self: hair in a ponytail, face scrubbed clean of greasepaint, costume ready to go back in Hapto.Tech’s trade show wardrobe. But ten minutes later she was beginning to go stir-crazy: the lack of social feeds was almost as irritating an itch as her implants. So she turned the phone on again and was sitting cross-legged on the bed, poking frustratedly at a puzzle game, when the agent who had identified himself as Jack pushed the door open. “Ms. Douglas? Please step this way.”

“Sure.” She followed him down the indicated corridor. I’ll pretend I’m happy to be here and you can pretend I’m not under arrest, she imagined herself saying. Let’s get this over with. Whatever it is. The sense of dread rasped away at her shell of false bravado.

They want something. That much was obvious. But they’ve got nothing on me. Her parents and grandfather had raised Rita to be cautious, law-abiding, and risk-averse. She didn’t have a criminal record: not even a parking ticket. If they had anything on her they’d have arrested her right from the get-go—once they had you in the system, they could get a warrant, go on a fishing expedition, and unravel your entire life if you didn’t cooperate. But they clearly didn’t have anything, otherwise why do the low-key approach? Either they were hoping she’d trip up and hand them something or they were going to try to co-opt her some other way, using threats, promises, and lies.

Grandpa Kurt was East German—he had escaped across the Wall during the cold war. His stories about the way the secret police worked you over when they wanted something had scared her half to death when she was a kid. She might have discounted them as she was growing up, the way kids always discounted their elders’ cautionary tales, but some of it had stayed with her. Particularly the way he’d sat, staring at the rolling TV news coverage of the mushroom cloud over D.C. back in 2003, muttering “Reichstag fire” until Mom shushed him, glancing in fright at the landline telephone. She’d been nine at the time, and already old enough to realize everything was wrong that day.

Her fugue state deepened when Jack ushered her into a boringly ordinary meeting room. Gomez was waiting with a plastic carry-out bag full of foil-wrapped burritos: “Qdoba,” she said, pointing. “Help yourself.” There were office chairs clustered around a bleached pine board table. A big bottle of Caffeine-Free Dr Pepper completed the still life. So they’re going to try seduction first, she realized. Of course—the shortest way to an informer’s brain was through her stomach.

Rita sat down, deliberately (and cautiously) mirroring the cops’ body language. She accepted the offered burrito with unfeigned gratitude, then watched while Jack poured three cups of soda and slid one across the table toward her. This didn’t match any of Grandpa’s horror yarns—but these weren’t ordinary secret police, were they? The DHS had a big concrete office block downtown. The DHS went after terror suspects with drones, GPS tracking, network taps, and Hellfire missiles. The DHS did not invite them round for burritos and soda and a fireside chat. If these cops are regular DHS then I’m the tooth fairy, Rita told herself. But they could call on the DHS for backup in the field. That, if anything, made them even more frightening. Whatever they wanted, they wanted it badly enough to be using kid gloves: that was the scariest realization of all.

“I expect you’re wondering what’s going on,” Gomez said neutrally, raising her cup but not drinking from it.

Rita unpeeled the foil from her dinner. “I’m confused,” she said noncommittally, remembering more of Gramps’s advice: The cops don’t have to tell you the truth, they can lie to get you to incriminate yourself. And they can lie by being friendly. “I’m not under arrest, right? Am I under investigation? Should I have a lawyer pres ent?” Not that she could afford an attorney. Or that there was any guarantee they’d let her have one.

“You’re not—” began Gomez, just as Jack interrupted: “Yes.”

Gomez glared at him, but Jack cleared his throat, then looked back at Rita. “You are not under suspicion of any crime, but you are nevertheless under investigation.” He paused. “Clear?”

Rita shook her head, then took a bite from her burrito to buy time and mask her confusion. She was starving: there was nothing like a day of one-woman performances to work up an appetite.

Gomez shot a look to her colleague and snorted. “Let me explain, Ms. Douglas. Rita. Have you ever met your birth parents?”

“Have I—” Rita closed her mouth and tried to chew without biting her suddenly dry tongue. “What?” She shivered, suddenly feeling cold and shaky. What? Gathering resentment began to boil over into indignation. “No!”

“Hey, take it easy,” said Jack. He turned to Gomez. “I told you we should let her chill first before breaking it to her.” He looked back at Rita, crow’s-feet wrinkling the corners of his eyes. “Quickly, before we go into the details: your birth parents—”

“Donors,” said Rita.

“What?”

“DNA donors.” She laid down the partially eaten burrito. Her hands trembled with tension but her movements were slow and deliberate. “They put me up for adoption while I was still in the maternity ward. I have no idea who they are; they never called, and I never saw fit to ask. My real parents are Emily and Franz Douglas, and they raised me and my kid brother. They changed my diapers, nursed me when I was sick, loved me, and put me through school and college. So I’ll thank you not to call those other people my parents, if you don’t mind.”

“Whoa.” Jack leaned away from Rita’s outburst. Gomez focused intently on a point just off to one side of her face. “Okay, I’m sorry. No offense intended. But, uh, we need to talk to you about them. Your, uh.”

“Genetic donors,” Gomez said drily.

“I don’t know anything about them,” said Rita, crossing her arms defensively. “And I don’t want to.” She abruptly realized that her heart was hammering and her palms were moist. Anger or fear or some less nameable emotion made her hunch her shoulders.

“Well, you see, we’ve got a problem right there.” Jack was implacable.

“That’s got to change. Because we got word that they want to know about you.”

 * * *

BALTIMORE, NOVEMBER 2019

FEDERAL EMPLOYEE 004930391 CLASSIFIED VOICE TRANSCRIPT

Col. Smith: Okay, motivational crack. Greg, what do you think? Can she do it? How do we put fire in her belly?

Dr. Scranton: You scanned the backgrounder. She’s just not interested in her birth mother. She’s bedded in with her, her—

Col. Smith: Adoptives.

Dr. Scranton: Right. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Miriam Beck-stein. Or if she does, she resents her.

Agent O’Neill: I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It’s her, um, the adoptives. They were pretty damn good for her, apart from the whole moving to Phoenix thing when she was nicely settled in. It’s a close family. She’s an independent adult but she still likes them. Goes home for Thanksgiving and birthdays. Phones mom and dad every week.

Agent Gomez: You could fridge them, pin it on the world-walkers to motivate her—

Col. Smith: (emphasis) No, we couldn’t. We don’t do that shit anymore. We don’t discuss that shit. We prosecute that shit, ‘pour déncourager les autres.’ It is illegal and off-limits. This isn’t the fucking CIA.

Agent Gomez: Hey! I wasn’t suggesting—

Col. Smith: Damn right you weren’t.

Dr. Scranton: Well, how about you come up with something legal that will motivate her instead? As it is she’s got nothing you can sink your claws into… nothing. I mean, I read her file and I will concede it is eerily clean. In thirty years of intelligence operation oversight work, I’ve never seen anything like it. None of the three-felonies-a-day stuff. No sexting, no unusual Facebook drama, no underage drink or drugs. Even her hobbies are boring: painting, landscape photography, going for long walks with a bit of geocaching to liven them up. It’s like she anticipated coming to our attention from the age of eight! Or as if she was trained by a professional paranoid—the grandfather perhaps. I can tell you right off that blackmail’s not going to work. It’s okay if an informant hates their handler, but a field agent in a foreign state— an illegal—has to love you. If you threaten her adoptive parents she’ll hate you, so that’s out too.

Agent Gomez: You said she doesn’t give a damn about her original parents. How about we make her give a damn, then give her a hand up? So she has to go through us to get them.

Agent O’Neill: Hmm. Like, if we can’t fridge her encumbrances, how about we run a false flag op? Make her think Beckstein wants her dead?

Dr. Scranton: She doesn’t even know who the fuck Miriam Beckstein is. What are you going to do, reel her in and give her a background briefing first?

Agent Gomez: Why don’t we do just that? Crazier shit has worked.

Dr. Scranton: Colonel, how about it? What do you think?

END TRANSCRIPT

 * * *

SEATTLE, MARCH 2020

Jack looked sympathetic but continued implacably: “Back in 1992, two medical students met at Harvard and did what happens when two bright, not terribly worldly students strike sparks. He was a high-flying scholarship boy, the son of first-generation immigrants from Pakistan. She was adopted, like you: her parents were a lapsed Jewish political bookstore owner with a discreet trust fund and his left-wing activist wife. Anyway, our two students moved in together, and one thing led to another and they had a little accident with a burst condom which blew out the third year of her degree. He continued in medicine: she took six months out and transferred sideways, picking up credits in journalism after the adoption. They got hitched six months before he graduated, but separated eight months later and then divorced. It was a patch-it-up marriage, and it didn’t work out.”

Jack stopped reading from his tablet. Why are you telling me this? Rita wanted to scream. I don’t know these people! I don’t want to know them! But her lips felt numb, her tongue frozen. Gomez drained her cup of Dr Pepper and took up the thread.

“The father went on to a career in clinical oncology and moved to North Carolina. He remarried: you have a half-brother and two sisters. The mother—”

“I don’t want to know this!” The pressure valve had blown: Rita’s voice broke as she raised it, ragged and angry.

“Yes you do.” Gomez stared coldly at Rita. “The woman I’m telling you about pursued a career in investigative journalism in Boston for some years before dropping off the radar in 2002. Subsequently she became a person of interest in the ongoing investigation into world-walkers. And yes, they are real. She and her adoptive mother—the father died in 1993—disappeared for good shortly before 7/16, but not before we confirmed that they were both world-walkers.”

“What? The fuck?” The half-eaten burrito in Rita’s stomach seemed suddenly to have turned to lead. “You’re telling me I’m related to time travelers? The ones who nuked the White House?”

Gomez glanced at Jack, who took over: “They’re not time travelers, exactly. And you are not under suspicion of having nuked the White House,” he added, deadpan. “For one thing, you were eight years old. You also have a rock-solid alibi provided by your third-grade teacher, Mrs. Chu.” Rita stared at his hands. It seemed like a safe thing to do. He wore a signet ring, embossed with the initials CTR. She noticed him glance at Gomez. They’re tag-teaming me, she realized sickly. She’d seen enough TV shows and movies to recognize the good cop / bad cop dynamic. Keep the subject off-balance.

Gomez took over after a brief delay: “This is where it gets sticky. Please hand over your phone.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I say so!” Gomez snapped. For a moment Rita saw something unnerving and hateful in the other woman’s eyes, something that gave her unpleasant schoolyard flashbacks. She fumbled to comply.

“We’re going to reflash the firmware,” Jack explained. “You won’t notice anything different, but if you dial 911, we’ll hear you. If you’re calling for fire or ambulance there won’t be any delay. But if you need, uh, help, we’ll be in the loop along with the local police. Again, if it’s routine, we’ll stand back. But if you need us, our department, we’ll be there.”

Rita released her phone with nerveless fingers. They’re going to root it, she realized. No federal override icon: they were turning her phone into a full-time informer. Was there anything incriminating in there? Questionable photos? Sexts? Oddly phrased e-mails or text messages? It probably didn’t matter: they could already grab anything they wanted off the net without her permission. The old-time secret police relied on informers; the modern ones just conscripted your phone. She felt sick to her stomach. “Why are you doing this?” she asked again.

Gomez gave her a tight-lipped stare. “You’re not cleared. So we can’t tell you,” she explained. “It might be a false alarm. So, there might be no reason at all why we’re having this meeting. Or it might be the most important meeting in your life, the one that saves you.”

“What?” Rita’s head spun. “You think—your bosses think—my genetic relatives might suddenly take an interest in me after a quarter of a century of neglect? Why is that?”

“They’re world-walkers,” Jack said as dismissively as he might have written off any other group of terrorists. “Who knows why world-walkers do what they do?”

“But I’m not a world-walker!” Rita quavered. She watched as Gomez pulled the back off her phone, plugged some kind of chip into it, and Vulcan nerve-pinched it into a reboot chime. The half-eaten burrito lay on the table in front of her, cooling. She didn’t feel hungry anymore. She felt nauseous, bloated by a decades-long festering sense of emptiness and injustice. “I’m not a world-walker.”

Jack shrugged again, an I-feel-as-uncomfortable-as-you-do gesture that fell flat. “We’re not saying you are.”

“But your relatives might disagree,” cautioned Gomez. “So remember: 911 is your friend.”

* * *

The not-exactly-cops invited Rita to stay the night. They positively insisted—with a formal politeness that said don’t even think about refusing. They thoroughly creeped her out with their solemn last-meal formality, the inadvertent intimidation of power. She was getting a no-caffeine headache by the time Gomez finished with her phone. They made her bag up her burrito and escorted her back to her room, or cell, or whatever the hell you called it: the motel-grade accommodation with the handle on the outside and no window.

I’m not a world-walker, she repeated to herself as she lay sleeplessly on the narrow bed. I don’t come from another world, I can’t wish myself between universes, and they’re not my family. But sleep came reluctantly, and she was troubled by incoherent dreams tainted by a nameless sense of urgency.
She woke early the next morning. Gomez knocked on the door at six thirty. Her black suit was spotless, as severe as a uniform. Her only sign of individuality was a brooch in the shape of an infinity symbol worn on the lapel. Rita was already showered and dressed. “Your ticket is on your phone,” said the cop. “Jack will run you out to the airport. You’re booked via Minneapolis on Delta.” She looked as if she hadn’t slept—didn’t need sleep, like she was some kind of government terminator robot running on bile, paranoia, and electricity.

“Uh, right. Let me just zip up my bag.”

“Take your time.” Gomez’s tone inverted the meaning of her words.

The agent stood at parade rest, waiting patiently by the door while Rita slung the last of her things into the suitcase. As Rita straightened up, she asked, “Who are you people? Really?”

“If you call the DHS and ask, they’ll tell you we work for them.”

“But—” Rita caught Gomez’s quelling look. “If you say so.”

Gomez relented slightly. “There are lots of operational directorates within DHS. We’re part of a unit that not many people have heard of. You don’t need to know more than that.”

You have to be most afraid of secret police when they take you into their confidence and tell you things, she remembered Grandpa Kurt explaining: it means they want you to believe. But why would they even need that? They had the guns, the dogs, and the secret jails. If they wanted you to do something, they could force you to do it. So they only try to make you believe something if they want you to convince someone else whom they can’t touch. Your future self, or some future acquaintance. They do it and they make a liar of you.

Rita smiled vaguely and nodded. Her forehead throbbed. “Great. I’m ready to go now. Wherever you want me to go?”

Jack drove her out to the airport: “We dropped your rental car off last night. And I processed your ticket myself: you’re good for a checked bag, and you’ve got an hour until boarding.”

“But I—” Rita stared at the e-ticket on her phone. “Hey, this is first class!” A stab of gratitude gave way instantly to suspicion. They’re trying to make me grateful. Why?

“Least we could do,” Jack said. “Have a good flight now.” He seemed less inhuman and unbending, less inclined to hate her on sight, than Gomez. She found herself instinctively mistrusting him, resenting him for stimulating her pathetic sense of gratitude. Good cop / bad cop, she reminded herself. At least Gomez was honest.

Jack dropped Rita beside the baggage drop-off outside the terminal building. Dazed, she handed her suitcase over, then shifted her handbag up her shoulder and walked into the check-in area. Her head was spinning. I need to talk to someone, she realized. She instinctively reached for her phone, then stopped. Wait. More of Gramps’s stories came back to her. Not here, not on my phone.

Security was the usual heaving human zoo, with people being called out for random DNA checks on either side of her and explosive sniffers buzzing around overhead. Miraculously, Rita didn’t attract any unusual attention, despite the itching implants that had triggered the body scanners on the way out. She paid no attention to the cameras that tracked her across the concourse, the Segway-riding robocops, the whole panoply of national security displayed around her. With increasing confidence she walked toward her departure gate, knees weakening with relief at the realization that in another ten hours she’d be home.

The day passed in a blur of airplane seats and security checkpoints.

There was incoming e-mail on her traitor phone: she didn’t dare reply to any of it. There was a Call me when you get in from Clive-the-bastard, the boss who’d sell her out as soon as look at her. An Are you okay? from her roomie Alice, to her surprise. A note about furnace repairs from her landlord. Nothing from her most recent ex. Irrelevant yatter and babble on the social side, pleas for support from her theatrical group’s man ager, marketing junk from bands she’d followed years ago. Normally the knowledge that the feds could snoop on all network traffic didn’t bother her: but having seen her phone rooted right in front of her, she felt frozen, gagged by the knowledge of an intrusive presence. And all because they thought she might be carrying the virus of the paranormal around in her genes.

They think I’ve got world-walker connections? A hysterical laugh tried to bubble up. She took hasty shallow breaths to drive it back down again before someone noticed. World-walkers were shadowy nightmare figures, twenty-first-century reds under the bed. Terrorists who could flicker in and out of reality from other worlds where history had taken a different path, bearing stolen nukes or suitcases full of heroin. The ultimate enemy, the last president but two had declared them. She just about remembered her parents and grandparents gathered around the TV, red-eyed, trying to follow the news on their PCs as well. They killed the president in 2003, back before the government had built working para-time machines to go after them. Not to mention strip-mining fossil fuels from the neighboring uninhabited parallels. Back before they canceled the War on Drugs and replaced it with the Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Before the gig with HaptoTech, Rita had been too busy working to notice how her social life was shrinking and her days were sharpening to a bright workplace focus surrounded by a penumbra of exhaustion. But now, sitting on a plane with nothing else to do, all she could think about was how much of a mess her life was. She didn’t have a job anymore, let alone a career. The outside world had decided to take an unfriendly interest in her, and she felt isolated and fragile, her existence liminal. So—the DHS having bought her a first-class ticket—she drank all the wine the cabin crew would bring her, and did her best to lose herself in the stack of tired romcoms that passed for in-flight entertainment.

At least the old and shabby planes had seatback video: she didn’t know what she’d have done on a modern airliner, with nothing but a power outlet for her phone. She couldn’t have forced herself to watch movies on it knowing its front-facing camera might be watching her right back, analyzing her face for micro-expressions indicative of terrorist sympathies.

Rita passed through the Minneapolis–Saint Paul airport like a ghost and made it to her connecting flight with time to spare. It was late evening by the time she spotted her suitcase on the baggage belt at Logan, dragged it off the line with a grunt of effort, and trundled it out to the exit and thence to the Silver Line, then the Red Line all the way south.

By the time she arrived at the parking lot where she’d warehoused her auto for the past week, she was exhausted. Cumulative sleep deprivation was catching up with her as she fumbled for the key fob. Her car was a ’14 Acura hybrid her father had given her after running it for years, its battery pack halfway dead of old age and beyond her means to replace with a refurb. Hybrids were a dead-end technology anyway, killed when gas dropped below a dollar a gallon: but she loved it for its quiet start and creature comforts. Dragging her suitcase behind her, she hit the unlock button, saw the flash of her headlights reflecting off a concrete pillar, and hit the tailgate latch button.

As she did so she saw a bright blue flash—and felt a sudden breathtaking pain in her belly that doubled her over, retching. She collapsed to the parking lot floor. The pain was savage, as if she’d been clubbed, with additional cramps in her right knee and shoulder. A moment of panic. Footsteps coming toward her, then another stunning burst of pain in her stomach.

“Is she down?” someone asked.

Another voice, from a shadow bending over her: “Yup.” Hands grabbed her and lifted: two strong men frog-marched her to her car as she retched. They pushed her headfirst into the open, emptied-out trunk and she began to struggle, terrified. Kidnappers! There were two of them, both bigger and stronger than she was, and the pain from the taser was dizzying. Resistance was difficult: it was all she could do to get breath into her lungs.

A click. Darkness and pressure. She gasped for air, tried to stretch, and found herself up against the ends of the trunk. It was cold and none too clean, and still smelled faintly of dog. Something dug into her midriff. She brought up her left hand, felt a wire and something sharp sticking into her. She pulled it free, shuddering and hyperventilating in fear.

The car bounced on its suspension twice, then the doors thudded shut. Rita felt the pressure change in her ears. Her abductors seemed to be having a muffled, distant conversation, but she couldn’t make out any distinct words. She tried to roll on her back, banged her sore knee against the trunk lid with a flash of pain, and tried to remember which side the emergency tailgate release toggle was on. It was pitch black inside the trunk. Where was her handbag? They’d taken it: it contained her phone, her purse, and her ID card. Whimpering with fear, she twisted around, trying to untangle herself. The car shuddered and rocked, then began to move backward.

This is what Gomez and Jack were talking about, she realized, dizzy with pain. The implants in her left arm stung at the unaccustomed pressure of lying on metal. Shit. The car jolted, then stopped backing up and began to move forward, turning toward the parking lot exit. How did the DHS know? Words came back to her: They don’t tell us every thing: we might unintentionally give something away when we talk.

She fumbled around the interior of the trunk. She could feel the hole in the side of the trunk lid where the emergency release handle normally hung down: they’d cut it away while she was on the ground. Her eyes watered with frustration as the car angled down the exit ramp, then slowed, bounced over a speed bump, and came to a halt. Noises from outside were muffled, but she heard the whine of a barrier rising. The car began to move again, then turned into the street and accelerated, rolling her toward the rear of the trunk.

“Don’t panic,” she muttered aloud, scared out of her wits. Whoever her kidnappers were, they wanted her alive. If I had my phone I could call the cops, she thought. Then, No, wait. The DHS or whoever they are want me to call them. But they’re not my friends. This is a setup. I’m bait. They’re probably tracking my phone. If her kidnappers were world-walkers, then the feds would be much more interested in catching them than in rescuing her. But if her kidnappers were world-walkers, they’d probably ditched her phone before they left the parking lot.

Icy sweat drenched her, gumming her shirt to the small of her back. What am I supposed to do in this kind of situation? She’d once earned a Girl Scout merit badge for a course that covered surviving kidnapping attempts and hostage taking, among other unusual topics. Observe, orient, act. Her thoughts spun. What if it’s a different kind of setup? World-walkers could just grab me, couldn’t they? I’d wake up in another world. But why would they take my car? What if they’re ordinary carjackers? (But who? And why me?) Got to get out and run away.

She had to change the par ameters on them. Just like they taught in the (How Not to) Die Hard adventure course she’d taken all those years ago.

They’d moved all her normal crap out of the trunk to make room for an unwilling passenger, but did they know about her emergency kit? Gramps had insisted she stash it in the spare wheel well, under the car. pet. Inchworming her way back into the trunk, she freed up enough space to grab the plastic handle in the floor. Predictably, she was lying across the hinge. By raising herself on her shoulder and bracing her feet against the opposite side of the trunk, she managed to lift herself off the panel. It rose, and she fumbled inside. Her fingers barked painfully on metal: the case of a socket set. Seconds passed as she frantically felt around it for the catch, popped it, and groped inside for the milled metal handle of the wheel nut wrench.

Fumbling around in the dark, knife-edged recesses of the swaying car, Rita wedged the end of the wrench between the trunk lid’s catch and the back of the trunk itself, then yanked at the handle as hard as she could, bracing her feet. Metal gave, very slightly: but the lock was made of stern stuff, built to withstand casual thieves. Swearing quietly, she closed her eyes and thought for a moment. What else?

There were other items in the emergency kit, and she thanked Gramps silently for making her add it. Fumbling seconds passed as she navigated the contents of the small padded bag by touch. Finally her fingers closed around her target: the dumb emergency phone. It didn’t do Internet or record video, but it had a standby life measured in months, a built-in flashlight, and GPS. She fired it up and waited for it to get a location fix through the aluminum trunk lid, and saw that open countryside was still a few miles away.

She flipped on the flashlight and shone it around the interior of the trunk. There was a compartment in the carpet-covered side, near her head, and big flat-headed screws held it closed. She vaguely remembered it holding electrical stuff: fuses, maybe. A minute’s fumbling and she retrieved a flat-head screwdriver from the emergency kit. Behind the panel, the light from her phone shone on fuses and a couple of switches. The labels were hard to read in the dim light, but she puzzled them out eventually. BATTERY ISOLATION BREAKER.

The plan came together in a moment. Here goes nothing, she thought, and pulled up the phone’s GPS again. It finally had a fix. The car was heading out of town, making almost thirty miles per hour. But she could see the blue line of a freeway up ahead on the screen, maybe a mile or two down the road. I can’t let them get there, she thought, and shook the phone to call up the keypad. Thumbs on a fat screen dialed 911.

“Help,” she said as soon as she heard a human voice pick up: “I’m being kidnapped. Two perps tased me and shoved me in the trunk of my own car. It’s a silver ’14 Acura hybrid, plates read, uh,” and she rattled off her number. “They’re driving me south through Dorchester toward Route 1.”

“Please hold,” the dispatcher crackled in her ear.

“Can’t,” she said quietly. “I’m bailing.” She hung up, shoved the phone into her jeans pocket—it would have to take its chances—and reached for the battery isolation breaker by touch.

The car, her car, coughed and died. She brought her legs up as the car began to slow, then took the knurled grip of the socket wrench in both hands and waited.

 * * *

BALTIMORE, DECEMBER 2019

FEDERAL EMPLOYEE 004910023 CLASSIFIED VOICE TRANSCRIPT

Col. Smith: I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, but what if she doesn’t respond the way you expect?

Agent Gomez: What? What do you mean?

Col. Smith: You’re playing her like she’s a nice polite young Indian-American woman, deferential to authority, painfully clean and law-abiding. But what if—

Agent Gomez: I’m not wrong—

Col. Smith:—she takes after her mother?

Agent O’Neill: What?

Dr. Scranton: Her birth mother, I assume you mean.

Col. Smith: Yes.

Dr. Scranton: Well, that would be… interesting.

Agent O’Neill: In what way?

Col. Smith: Her mother looked like a nice middle-class tech beat reporter. Right up until she killed a lot of people.

Agent Gomez: But she was a terrorist! Rita has no connection to her. She doesn’t have any training—

Dr. Scranton: How would we know? Deep-cover agents don’t tell their children what they are. Any training is carefully disguised as childhood games. And what about her adoptives? Do you think her birth mother saddled her with a paranoid East German granddad who had run-ins with the Stasi by accident? What about all the Girl Scout wilderness adventure camp stuff they put her through? The self-defense courses?

Col. Smith: It’s almost like Miriam and Iris Beckstein chose her adoptive family to give her that type of upbringing. Perfect for a covert ops agent—or someone who’d keep a low profile because there’s a seven-digit reward for her birth mother’s head, dead or alive.

Dr. Scranton: Until you crank up the pressure there’s no way of knowing what Rita will do: whether she’ll break down in tears or turn into a rabid grizzly bear with a hangover.

Agent O’Neill: Who were the Stasi? What do they have to do with this?

Dr. Scranton: (groans quietly) Youngsters. Forget it.

Col. Smith: Well, back to my point. We’re running this motivation and evaluation scenario on her and we kind of expect her to do the reasonable thing—use the tool we handed her, take the hint we put in her head. And she looks like a nice polite lady who’ll do the right thing. But she’s descended from pirates and monsters, even though they baby-farmed her out to a family who are so squeaky clean it’s like they sleep in a laundromat. I’ve got a funny feeling about this. Better keep your ammo handy.

Agent Gomez: Nothing bad’s going to happen. Trust me, it’s all going to go like clockwork.

Dr. Scranton: Oh, really?

END TRANSCRIPT

Excerpted from Empire Games © Charles Stross, 2016

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